House of Commons
Tuesday 17 March 2020
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
Foreign and Commonwealth Office
The Secretary of State was asked—
The Prime Minister spoke to his G7 counterparts yesterday about the international effort to take a global and effective response in tackling covid-19.
In the light of the rapidly developing coronavirus pandemic, will my right hon. Friend update the House on how the Government, and specifically the Foreign Office, are providing support to British nationals who are currently in other countries?
We are working with £241 million of aid funding and investing £65 million in research to support vulnerable countries’ capacity to tackle this. The Foreign Office is regularly reviewing our travel advice, and consular staff are working with British nationals right across the world to give them the support and advice that they need. I will be making a further statement after oral questions.
What discussions is my right hon. Friend having with his counterparts in countries such as the United States, Australia and Israel, which are working actively on a vaccine for covid-19, so that we can share information from our research and develop a vaccine more quickly together?
I thank my hon. Friend for that question —I know how expert she is in this field. We are, of course, emphasising the importance of vaccine research and encouraging the scientific community to co-ordinate. In particular, we want to prioritise collaboration on vaccine research, including with financing and co-ordination through the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations fund.
SARS—severe acute respiratory syndrome—swine flu and now coronavirus are all thought to have emanated from unsanitary wet butcheries in east Asia and China. What can my right hon. Friend do to co-ordinate an effort—perhaps after all this is over— to prevent any such disease from ever starting in such places again?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right that addressing the root causes of covid-19 and similar potential pandemics will require close co-operation with the international community, including China and other south-east-Asian partners. With that in mind, we welcome the Chinese Government’s decision on 24 February to make permanent the temporary ban on the trade and consumption of live wild animals.
Many constituents are finding that unless Government travel advice advises against travel to a specific country or area, insurance companies do not pay out. Australia currently requires a two-week self-isolation period, but we are still not advising people not to travel there. What discussions is my right hon. Friend having with the insurance industry to make sure that constituents are covered in such situations?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The situation is moving very rapidly—to give him a sense of that, I should say that the Foreign Office made more than 200 changes to our travel advice over the last weekend alone. We have also published a checklist to help British travellers to think through the challenges of international travel and the questions they should ask about it. We are in contact with the airlines for the insurance reasons that my hon. Friend explained. As I mentioned, I will make a further statement after oral questions.
Over the coming weeks and months, as more and more airlines, travel operators and insurance firms go bust, more and more British nationals will find themselves stranded abroad without accommodation or flight options. Will the Secretary of State reassure us that the Foreign Office is gearing up for that challenge and will be there to provide whatever support is required?
The hon. Lady is absolutely right. On the one hand, we do not want to take precipitate measures, but on the other we do want to take measures to prevent more and more UK nationals—particularly vulnerable ones—from being stranded overseas. It is a difficult risk-balancing exercise, and I will say more about that in the oral statement to follow.
Happy St Patrick’s day, Mr Speaker.
The lack of global co-ordination in tackling the covid-19 outbreak has been truly shocking, but is that any wonder, given that last week, according to the German Government, the so-called leader of the free world offered CureVac “large sums of money” to make sure that the vaccine it is developing would be available only for those from the United States? Does the Foreign Secretary agree that Donald Trump’s response to this outbreak has been nothing but a disgrace?
I certainly agree with the right hon. Lady that we need a co-ordinated international response, and we need to get better internationally at that—the Prime Minister made that point during yesterday’s G7 conversation. I do not think that just bashing the Americans or the President of the US is a substitute for the sensible, practical measures that we need to take to bring British nationals, and also our European partners, home on the repatriation flights that we have organised, to deal with research and the vaccine mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Dr Johnson), and to increase the resilience and capacity of those vulnerable countries that are trying to deal with an even greater challenge. We are addressing all those issues. The Foreign Office is working with the Department for International Development, the Department of Health and Social Care, and the Ministry of Defence, and we are talking to all our partners right around the world.
The truth is that Donald Trump’s lack of international leadership has been quite extraordinary. He started by calling the outbreaks a hoax, comparing coronavirus to winter flu and dismissing health advice, but he now calls it the “foreign virus”, blaming Europe for its spread and today blaming China, and says that he takes no responsibility at all. Does the Secretary of State agree that it is shameful that such behaviour is what we have come to expect from the current American President, even at this time of global crisis?
I have to say to the right hon. Lady that I think we have done quite a good job in this House of trying to adopt a bipartisan approach. Whether domestically or internationally, finger-pointing just does not help in any shape or form. We are going to work with all our partners—the US, the Europeans, those in South America and those in Asia, as I have already mentioned—to try to forge the most effective response. That is what all our constituents expect and deserve.
Aman Nasir and Laura Bartley, two of my constituents, are among 100 Brits trapped in Lima, Peru. They say that they cannot get through to our embassy in that country, so how are the Government ensuring that all Brits trapped elsewhere can access embassies and missions that are resourced to answer their queries and to get them home as soon as possible?
We understand the concern of any constituent who finds themselves in a vulnerable position and also, of course, that of MPs who are trying to do their best. We have beefed up the support we are providing. There is a parliamentary hotline for MPs, and I will make sure that Ministers give the hon. Gentleman all the details so that he can provide the most support and up-to-date advice to his constituents.
I very much welcome my right hon. Friend’s response today, but does he remember from the Ebola crisis only a few years ago the woeful and very slow approach of the World Health Organisation? Does he not feel that we are seeing a similar response from the WHO today? Can he assure me that he is working with international partners to ensure that there is a proper, co-ordinated response despite the WHO, and that that will be the foundation for building a new international co-operative response?
I thank my hon. Friend, the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee. We are doing our level best as the UK to forge the strongest consensus possible. We have a total aid envelope of £241 million of funding. We are providing up to £150 million of that to the International Monetary Fund, £10 million to the WHO, £5 million to the Red Cross and £5 million to UNICEF. It is important that we work as collaboratively as possible with all our international partners—the WHO, but also those working in the voluntary sector, who often have particularly good expertise and access on the ground where it is needed most.
We welcome the ceasefire in Idlib agreed by Turkey and Russia on 5 March, and we call on all parties to respect it and make it permanent.
First, may I wish you, Mr Speaker, and all right hon. and hon. Members a happy St Patrick’s day from everyone in Northern Ireland?
The crisis in Syria means that Lebanon is in the middle of an economic crisis, and its infrastructure was already straining to support an influx of more than 1 million Syrian refugees, who now make up 20% of the country’s population. Those refugees are also facing coronavirus. What steps is the Minister taking to ensure that Syrian refugees, particularly those from more vulnerable groups, are adequately supported?
I thank the hon. Gentleman. Let me say at the outset that I totally agree with him about the need to stem the flow of refugees. He mentions Lebanon; of course, Turkey has also taken 4 million refugees. The first thing to say is that we must hold the Syrian regime and the Russian Government to account for the brutality of the fighting, which is causing the refugee flows. We must do everything within our power to firm up the ceasefire and make it nationwide, and then also, of course, provide humanitarian support. The Department for International Development announced £89 million in new aid for Idlib this month. On 11 March, the RAF delivered 37 tonnes of UK aid. I was recently in Turkey talking with the Foreign Minister and President Erdoğan about the measures that we need to take to bring that terrible conflict to an end.
Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict
The preventing sexual violence in conflict initiative remains a top Government priority. The UK is recognised as a global leader on the issue. We have committed over £46 million across 29 countries since 2012 and deployed the UK PSVI team of experts over 90 times. We are currently reassessing potential dates for the PSVI international conference in the light of developments on coronavirus, but we are committed to progressing conference ambitions of strengthening justice for survivors and holding the perpetrators of these horrific crimes to account.
I thank the Minister for his response. In 2019, 14 million women were subject to gender-based violence. We know that this figure rises during conflicts and crises. Will the ministerial team work with international groups and make representations at the UN later this year—presuming that the conference goes ahead—on preventing sexual violence in conflict and ensuring that we keep a firm eye on gender-based violence?
I thank my hon. Friend for his question. I know that he takes a keen interest in this area, given his previous work for Lord Hague, the former Foreign Secretary.
This is a big year for gender equality, as it includes the 25th anniversary of the Beijing declaration and platform for action, and the 20th anniversary of UN Security Council resolution 1325 on women, peace and security. The UK is proud to be a global leader in efforts to eradicate gender-based violence, and this year we will launch a new £67.5 million multi-country programme to prevent gender-based violence. We have expressed a strong interest in leading the Generation Equality action coalition on ending gender-based violence, and we will announce plans for the proposed UN General Assembly summit in due course.
The aforementioned Lord Hague—the architect of the preventing sexual violence initiative—recently said that if the UK was not prepared to take effective action in this area,
“it would be better to let another country take the lead”.
Does the Minister agree, or will he listen to Lord Hague and give this vital initiative the funding and political leadership it deserves?
We are wholly committed as a nation to ensuring that all efforts to tackle conflict-related sexual violence are survivor-centred, in line with UN Security Council resolution 2467, and that this policy and practice avoids the re-traumatisation of survivors.
Some appalling incidents of gender-based violence occurred during the Sri Lankan civil war. Will the Foreign Office do everything in its power to persuade the Sri Lankan Government to live up to the commitments they made in sponsoring resolution 30/1 in the UN Human Rights Council?
We certainly will. My right hon. Friend raises an important point. We are in regular contact and will ensure that, through our network and all channels, we discuss this with our Sri Lankan friends.
Saudi Arabia: Human Rights
I travelled to Riyadh on 4 March to 5 March and met senior Saudis, including His Majesty King Salman and the Foreign Minister, Prince Faisal. We discussed a whole range of bilateral issues, and I raised human rights, including detained women’s rights defenders.
I am pleased to hear that the Foreign Secretary raised with the Saudi Arabian Government the women’s human rights defenders. Did he mention Loujain al-Hathloul, who is facing an unfair trial, arbitrary detention, and sexual abuse and mistreatment in custody for carrying out lawful and peaceful campaigning activities? If her case goes to trial, will the British Government observe that trial, and did the Foreign Secretary call for her release?
I pay tribute to the hon. Lady for her championing of this very important issue. I raised a whole range of cases before the Saudi courts in relation to women’s rights defenders, and also the fact that, having lifted the ban on women driving and taken other measures, that was particularly anomalous. Her concerns have been raised, and we will continue to raise those issues with the Saudi Government.
I appreciate that my question is not about what is currently uppermost in people’s minds, but human rights abuses continue to be committed, even while covid-19 is spreading. What active steps are the Government taking to help to secure the unconditional release of human rights activists?
I thank the hon. Lady for her question. I was not quite clear whether she was talking specifically about Saudi Arabia, but we raise these issues. Obviously the Government and the jurisdictions are very sensitive about their cases, but we raise these issues because that is what international law requires. We have made the points that she and the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Dame Diana Johnson) have raised, and we will continue to do so.
There has been an incremental and modest improvement in Saudi Arabia’s human rights situation. In the World Bank’s “Women, Business and the Law 2020” report, Saudi Arabia was ranked as the most improved economy for women’s economic opportunities. We want to encourage that positivity, and also, where there are abuses of human rights—whether in relation to the Khashoggi case, Raif Badawi, which was another case I raised, or the women’s rights defenders—to make sure that that is a part of our bilateral relations. We will keep raising these important issues.
This week will mark five years since the start of the war in Yemen. That war has seen the Saudi Government bomb Yemeni civilians in their thousands and starve them in their millions, with callous indifference and complete impunity. After five years, when will the Secretary of State finally bring forward a resolution demanding a full independent UN-led investigation of these appalling war crimes?
We are focused on bringing that terrible conflict—I agree with the hon. Gentleman about that—to an end. We want pressure to be put on the Houthis, and also a positive dynamic. Probably the single biggest issue that I raised with my Saudi counterparts was an end to the conflict in Yemen, which will require all the relevant actors to come together. There is a political dialogue through the UN. We want confidence-building measures that will lead to a proper political dialogue, and to get that issue and the conflict resolved. There is a window of opportunity in 2020 to achieve that, and we will be working very hard with all the relevant actors to secure it.
While we are trying to get somewhere on war crimes in Yemen, may I ask the Secretary of State about another imminent anniversary? It is 18 months since Jamal Khashoggi was murdered in Istanbul. At the time we were promised, from the Government Dispatch Box, a credible investigation to find out who ordered his murder, with serious consequences to follow as a result. Almost a year and a half on, can the Secretary of State explain why we are still waiting?
I think that the hon. Gentleman will know that there is a certain limit to what we can actually force Saudi Arabia to do. There has been a trial. There have been criticisms and concerns about that, but some have been held to account. We continue to raise the issue. I raised it when I was in Riyadh on 4 and 5 March. We do not shy away from it or, most importantly, from getting the reassurance—as well as the accountability that he wishes—that something like this will never happen again.
I warmly endorse the sentiments of the question asked by the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Dame Diana Johnson), and I do think the United Kingdom could do more to promote human rights in Saudi Arabia. I am conscious that we also need to deal with the interlocutors we are dealt. On that point, I would be grateful for the FCO’s assessment of the stability of the regime in Riyadh, given very worrying reports of arrests and incarcerations of key members of it. Was that part of the discussions when the Foreign Secretary was last in the capital?
The hon. Gentleman is right to raise human rights issues. I have explained all the issues—from Raif Badawi to the women’s rights defenders and Khashoggi—which we will always raise with our Saudi interlocutors. Equally, they are an important partner with us for all sorts of reasons, but particularly in relation to forging peace and trying to secure peace in Yemen. The regime looks entirely stable to me but, of course, given everything else that is going on with coronavirus and with oil production, there is tremendous economic pressure on the whole region. We want to try to reduce that pressure and, particularly on Yemen, to work with all partners in the region to end that terrible conflict.
I am grateful for the answer, and I was struck by the Foreign Secretary’s earlier point that we can only force the Saudis to do so much. However, we could stop selling them guns, tanks and bombs, and we could actually put some ethics into our foreign policy and prioritise the rights of the people in Yemen and the children who are currently suffering so badly as a result of the conflict. I am struck that the Saudis are indeed a partner in that war in terms of promoting the peace, but they are also a partner in that war full stop. I think that the UK could be rather more muscular in our discussions regarding that point.
The hon. Gentleman will of course know about the efforts—in particular with the UN envoy, Martin Griffiths—to bring an end to that conflict, and we have been tireless in supporting, pursuing and supplementing them. Of course a lot of the diplomacy will go on behind the scenes.
The hon. Gentleman mentions arms exports. We have one of the most robust arms export control regimes in the world. We have carefully considered the implications of the Court of Appeal’s judgment, for example, and we will make sure that we are always compliant. However, the reality is that our focus has been on, as the hon. Gentleman mentioned, raising human rights issues when necessary, and also on trying to bring all the parties, including the Houthi rebels, to the table to have a proper political dialogue that can end the conflict in the interests of all the people in Yemen.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that only through constructive dialogue with Saudi Arabia can we hasten progress on issues of human rights and the ongoing conflict in Yemen?
My hon. Friend is right, and we are listened to more because we engage and try to exert positive influence. Equally, however, we will not be shy or retiring in raising those issues. We raised them in the Human Rights Council statement in March 2019, and in other UN forums. As I said, when I was in Riyadh recently, we raised those issues bilaterally with all senior interlocutors.
What is the Government’s latest assessment of the role of Saudi Arabia in promoting radical Islamist doctrines beyond its borders?
I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend’s expertise in this area. We have raised that issue. There has been a step change and a reduction in the Government promoting that kind of extremism, and we want to ensure that other private sector or charitable bodies are also compliant. We have raised those issues, and I will continue to do so.
The UK is committed to the promotion and protection of human rights worldwide. We are one of the longest standing members of the Human Rights Council, and we are committed to maintaining that record when we stand for re-election this year. The UK’s autonomous global human rights Magnitsky-style sanctions regime is due to come into force in the coming months. That will allow us to impose sanctions in response to serious human rights violations or abuses around the world.
Since June 2019, when the UK became co-chair of the Equal Rights Coalition to defend LGBT communities around the world, no additional Commonwealth countries have joined. Even now, there are no Commonwealth members from Africa, Asia or the Caribbean. What can the Minister do to improve that dire situation?
We must tackle all human rights issues through multilateral organisations wherever possible. The UK Government will continue to make that case through our networks and ministerial team, and the hon. Gentleman raises a serious point.
University professor Chan Kin-man said about the 2014 Umbrella protest in Hong Kong:
“The reason we had this protest is that China did not honour a promise to Hong Kong to let it have democracy.”
He now faces seven years in jail for leading that protest. Will the Government stand up for him, or was Chris Patten right to describe their policy towards China as simply “craven”?
I met the Chinese ambassador in the past 10 days, and raised the issue of Hong Kong. We remain concerned about the political situation in Hong Kong, and believe that the underlying causes of the protests have not been addressed. We welcome the peaceful manner in which so many Hong Kong people have expressed their views, and we will continue to call for a robust, credible, and independent investigation into the events in Hong Kong between June 2019 and last January.
I was interested to hear what the Minister said about multilateral institutions, because the European convention on human rights was the brainchild of Winston Churchill. It was drawn up by British lawyers, and the UK was the first country to ratify it in 1951. Instead of being proud of that achievement, why do the Government now want to stand alone with Belarus, Europe’s last remaining dictatorship, in refusing to support the convention?
We continue to work with regional organisations, including the European Union, the OSCE, the Council of Europe, and the Commonwealth, to strengthen their democracy work. Most recently we have offered support for election monitoring in North Macedonia and Serbia, and we are supportive of the work that human rights defenders do across the world by promoting and protecting democratic values as well as human rights.
Arctic Ocean Trade Routes
Climate change is the greatest threat facing the Arctic, and it is driving other changes there too. The reduction in summer sea ice cover in the Arctic has the potential to increase international shipping activity in the Arctic; however, hostile conditions and the lack of infrastructure will make commercial operations difficult for a considerable time. The UK cross-Government Arctic network met in January and discussed issues related to shipping and environmental protection in the Arctic ocean.
There are huge economic advantages, particularly for the far east, in these lanes opening up, but that will come at huge environmental cost. Will the Minister explain what discussions have been had through the United Nations about how we ensure the protection and preservation of such an important pristine natural environment?
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. It is vital that the world comes together to take renewed action to limit global warming to 1.5°. There are 70-plus UK institutions engaged in Arctic research. The UK’s research station at Svalbard in Norway celebrates its 30th anniversary in 2020. We are doing a huge amount of work in this area.
Human Rights: Sanctions Regime
As the Foreign Secretary has said on previous occasions, we will establish an autonomous UK global human rights Magnitsky sanctions regime shortly. That will reinforce our role as a global leader in the promotion and protection of human rights. We will do that through secondary legislation under the Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Act 2018. That sanctions regime will allow us to impose sanctions in response to serious human rights violations or abuses anywhere in the world.
Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the benefits of leaving the European Union is that our new sanctions regime will allow us to go faster and further in holding the worst human rights abusers to account?
The sanctions Act allows the UK to implement our own sanctions regimes, and we intend to use those powers in line with UK interests and values to reinforce the UK’s role as a force for good. We will continue to co-operate with international partners on sanctions, including on human rights, because sanctions are most effective when delivered collectively.
The Foreign Secretary was one of the loudest in clamouring for these Magnitsky sanctions to be brought forward, yet they have been on the statute book for two years and we still do not have the statutory instruments. One Minister has said we will have them “in the coming months”; another has said we will have them “soon”. If the Foreign Secretary were sitting on the Back Benches, he would be saying, “Do them now!”
And we absolutely are. We are working really hard; the hon. Gentleman just needs to wait a little longer. [Interruption.] If the right hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry) will allow me to speak, I will reinforce my answer. The hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) just needs to wait a little longer. The regime will be coming forward. We are taking the time to get it right, which is absolutely the right thing to do. Just wait a little longer.
When we bring forward the Magnitsky regime, will we also bring forward sanctions against individuals who profit through corruption and human rights abuses?
It is important that we recognise that the sanctions regime is intended to target not individual countries but those who commit serious human rights violations. As I said, we are working really hard to ensure that what comes forward is right; just wait a little longer and we will see that come forward. It is no good speculating in advance about who may be designated, because that may reduce the impact of sanctions.
Nigeria: Persecution of Christians
The UK condemns all attacks by terrorist groups in north-east Nigeria, including those against Christians, but communities of all faiths have suffered; in fact, the majority of victims are Muslims. The Prime Minister discussed our concerns and UK support with President Buhari in January. My hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham and Rainham (Rehman Chishti), the Prime Minister’s excellent special envoy for freedom of religion or belief, who is in his place, also discussed the violence recently with President Buhari’s chief of staff and has had a number of other meetings, including briefing the full ministerial team last week.
I thank the Minister for his response. Given that recommendation 2 of the Truro review states that the UK should:
“Articulate an aspiration to be the global leader in championing FoRB”—
freedom of religion or belief—and that the UK Government have committed to all its recommendations, what more does the Minister think the Government can do to assert pressure on the Nigerian Government? Will he also be considering the claims of asylum seekers from the Nigerian community?
As the hon. Lady says, we accept in full the Truro recommendations. I am meeting the Prime Minister’s envoy again to discuss progress—I think we are about halfway through. The point I gently make is that the situation is quite complicated. Religious belief is central to the identity of many in Nigeria, but the underlying drivers of conflict go beyond to ethnic rivalries, criminal banditry, competition over land and water, and the settled community and the nomadic Fulani community. There is a lot of complexity to work through, but I will continue to do that with the Prime Minister’s envoy. I am more than happy to work with the all-party group on Nigeria, of which I was once secretary, as well as the hon. Lady and other interested parties.
I thank the Minister for that answer. On the question posed earlier about the United Kingdom being a leader and champion on freedom of religion or belief, will the Minister clarify that the UK, not just bilaterally but through other forums such as the International Religious Freedom Alliance and the International Contact Group in Geneva last week, has raised the issue of Nigeria? As the Prime Minister’s envoy, I can say that the UK is taking forward with ministerial colleagues the issue of Nigeria at every level. Recommendations 12 and 13 of the Truro review, as well as recommendation 2, cover the work we do on Nigeria with non-governmental organisations, both in the UK and with our counterparts around the world.
My hon. Friend demonstrates his excellence in this area and makes the very valid point that it is about not just bilateral activity, but multilateral activity and the leadership role we have, particularly now as the chair of the Commonwealth and in handing over the baton in Kigali to the Rwandans. We will continue to raise these issues, which we do not see in isolation. These are thematic issues that we raise consistently, both bilaterally and multilaterally.
During the recent discussions, did the Nigerian authorities hold out any hope or prospect that Christian groups and other faith-based groups can look forward to the immediate prospect of a cessation of violence, and some safety and security for the future?
All parties are looking for a greater degree of safety and security, particularly in the north-east. It is a complicated situation that does keep coming back. As one suppresses some problems, others come out. We are working very closely with our Nigerian and international partners in the north-east and across the whole of Nigeria. Nigeria is one of our biggest partners on these and a number of other issues. I will raise them with our high commissioner again. I met our high commissioner last week and will continue to work on these issues, and I look forward to going back to Nigeria to visit friends and colleagues.
Climate change is one of the most urgent and pressing international challenges we face today and no country alone can solve this problem. As COP presidents, in partnership with Italy, we are driving forward the historic agreement secured in Paris. The year 2020 is crucial for international co-operation on climate, which is why this is a cross-Government priority. The Prime Minister and other Ministers are working hard to make COP26 a success.
Does my hon. Friend agree that central to delivering a successful COP is the UK playing a leadership role in the international community and pushing our global friends to more ambitious climate targets?
Absolutely. This is something the Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary and all my colleagues on the Front Bench take very seriously. We use every opportunity to raise this issue in bilateral meetings and in relation to business. It is vital that the world comes together and takes renewed action to limit global warming to 1.5°. We urge every country to come forward in 2020 with ambitious new nationally determined contributions that will help us to meet the commitments set out under the 2015 Paris agreement.
Department for International Development contributions to the international climate fund between 2011 and 2017 were matched almost pound for pound by Department for International Trade funding for fossil fuel projects. Is it not the Secretary of State’s job to ensure that the UK engages consistently with international partners? What steps is he taking to make that happen?
The Government have a good record in that field. As I said, the Foreign Secretary, the Prime Minister and all our Ministers are taking huge steps to encourage the world to come together to take renewed action and to use COP26 to deliver the climate change agenda.
Our consistent top-table ranking in numerous soft power indices makes the UK’s strengths clear, from our diplomatic network to cultural institutions and leading scientific research. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office enhances the UK’s soft power overseas by investing in international future leaders through the Chevening and Marshall scholarship programmes, supporting the BBC World Service in its biggest expansion in 70 years and, this year, showcasing our creativity alongside the British Council as part of the UK-Japan season of culture, as well as taking a leading role on climate ahead of COP26. Through our actions, we continue to have a positive influence in the world.
I recently visited Union Papertech in my constituency with Britain’s high commissioner to Pakistan to see how its innovations in paper technology are leading the way in booming consumer and green economies in the subcontinent. Does the Minister agree that some of global Britain’s best advocates and ambassadors open our markets for our values as well as our products?
My hon. Friend is spot on. I agree that British innovation is a key soft power asset. We recognise the importance of innovation and technology for global Britain, which is why the Prime Minister has committed to the UK being a global science superpower by increasing investment in R&D. My hon. Friend’s example of the high commissioner’s visit to Heywood and Middleton shows that our diplomats are committed to supporting innovative British products, as they do throughout our global network.
Does the Minister agree that our cultural exports are a major contributor to our soft power, in particular our film and television industry, which is prominent in south Wales? Will he do all he can to support it?
My hon. Friend is right to raise that issue. I have had the pleasure of visiting studios in Wales. I agree that our creative industries are at the forefront of the innovation I have mentioned. They put the UK’s skills and expertise on a global stage, about which we can all be proud. People who work in those areas, including in Bridgend, are an asset to our influence around the world.
The British Council is an important institution. My constituent, who remains its employee, is still in Evin prison in Iran. What assessment has the Foreign and Commonwealth Office made of this morning’s announcement that some prisoners have been released? Is Aras Amiri, or indeed Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, among them?
My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary raised that issue with his Iranian counterpart yesterday. We are deeply concerned about both the individuals the hon. Lady mentions. We are liaising constantly with the Iranian authorities whenever possible and keeping in touch with family members to ensure that they are let out as soon as possible.
In what way is continuing to disregard the advisory opinion of the International Court of Justice and the resolution of the UN General Assembly on the future sovereignty of the Chagos Islands a diligent exercise of the UK’s soft power?
We are confident in our position on the issue the hon. Gentleman mentions. We are more than happy to talk to him following the session so we can discuss it further one to one.
Violence in Delhi
The events in Delhi in February were very concerning, and the British high commission in New Delhi is monitoring the situation closely. The death of one protester is one too many. India’s strength, like that of the UK, is in its diversity. We trust the Indian Government to address the concerns of people of all religions. Where we have concerns, we raise them directly with the Indian Government. Most recently, my colleague Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon raised concerns about the impact of recent judicial and legislative measures on minorities with a senior official from India’s Ministry of External Affairs on 25 February.
The violent riots that took place in Delhi have resulted in 1,638 arrests, 14 damaged mosques and 10 damaged Hindu temples, and more than 50 Hindus and Muslims have been killed. After 330 community meetings, however, places of worship are being repaired and business is being restored. Can my hon. Friend confirm that business is returning to normal in India, with peaceful protests allowed but not violent ones?
I know that my hon. Friend takes a keen interest in this issue. We welcome the fact that there have been no new reports of rioting since February, although we are sure that tensions remain. Now, as ever, we support Prime Minister Modi’s call for peace and harmony. India’s strength, like that of the UK, is in its diversity, and we trust that the Indian Government will address the concerns of people of all religions.
Sri Lanka: Human Rights
On 25 February the Minister for South Asia and the Commonwealth, my noble Friend Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon, met the Sri Lankan Foreign Minister in Geneva to express the UK’s serious concerns about the new Sri Lankan Government’s announcement that they no longer support UNHRC resolution 31 and subsequent resolutions. Lord Ahmad urged the Foreign Minister to reconsider.
Human Rights Watch has this month chronicled Sri Lankan security agencies stepping up surveillance, harassment and threats against human rights activists and journalists. Great as it is that Lord Ahmad is raising concerns, as his ministerial colleague has just set out, is it not about time that Britain got a little more robust with the Sri Lankan authorities?
The hon. Gentleman is right to raise this matter. In a statement on 27 February we raised our serious concerns about those reports of surveillance and harassment of human rights defenders. We have raised those concerns directly at senior level with the Government in Colombo, and I can assure him that we will continue to urge the Sir Lankan Government to fulfil commitments made in the resolution; to deliver truth, accountability and meaningful reconciliation; and above all, to ensure the protection of human rights for everyone in Sri Lanka.
In February I visited Australia, Japan, Malaysia and Singapore, and this month I have visited Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Oman. Both regions are of growing importance as we deliver on our vision of global Britain. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s immediate priority, of course, is to do everything we can to ensure that our citizens are safe, at home and abroad, as part of our international response to covid-19.
My constituent Stephen Lewis has been incarcerated in France for several months without charge or trial, and the judge is citing Brexit as one of the reasons why he will not be released. Will my right hon. Friend help me and Stephen’s family in our efforts to secure his release as soon as possible?
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for his efforts to represent his constituent. He will know that FCO staff in Bordeaux have been following the case closely and have spoken to his constituent’s lawyer. The examining magistrate is currently reviewing the case. We cannot provide more than consular support because, as my hon. Friend will know, we cannot intervene politically in individual judicial proceedings, but we will follow the case very carefully.
I am not sure that that sole measure would release the change in behaviour that we need in Tehran, but I accept the hon. Gentleman’s diagnosis of the problem. We have seen it in relation to the issue of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, and in relation to its destabilising activities in the middle east, from Iraq through Syria to Yemen. As other Members have mentioned, we have also seen it in relation to dual nationals. When I spoke to the Iranian Foreign Minister yesterday, I made very clear that on all these fronts we will continue to hold Iran to account, and that if it wants to improve the situation both for the Government and, most importantly, for the people of Iran, the Iranian Government must take steps to build confidence and return to compliance with international law.
As my hon. Friend will know, Iran is already subject to a wide range of sanctions. She rightly raised the issue of systemic non-compliance with the JCPOA, and I have been working on that with my French and German counterparts. We triggered the dispute resolution mechanism, we will hold Iran to account, and, above all, we will make sure that it can never acquire a nuclear weapon. I made all those points very clearly to Foreign Minister Zarif yesterday.
I thank the hon. Lady for her interest in Gambia. We were very optimistic about it when it rejoined the Commonwealth. I have visited the country outside my ministerial roles, and I look forward to talking to our high commissioner within the week. I will raise these issues again and will update the hon. Lady, but we expect all Commonwealth members to uphold the best of standards.
I know that my hon. Friend has been working very hard, because I have been in contact with him over the weekend on behalf of his constituents who have been affected by the outbreak. I can assure him that our consular staff in London and worldwide are working around the clock to ensure that British nationals affected by the epidemic, including those in hospital, quarantine or isolation, are safe and have access to healthcare whenever necessary. As Members know, in some cases that has included repatriation, although it remains a last resort.
David Miliband and David Cameron demonstrated the importance of leadership from the top in the context of human rights in Sri Lanka. In that spirit, would the Foreign Secretary be prepared to meet me, and other members of the all-party parliamentary group for Tamils, on a cross-party basis to discuss the leadership that we now need from him in the light of the events and developments at the United Nations Human Rights Council?
We are extremely concerned about the issues in Sri Lanka, to which I referred earlier in response to the question asked by the hon. Member for Harrow West (Gareth Thomas). As the Minister responsible for that region, I should be more than happy to meet the hon. Gentleman to discuss those issues further.
We are opening two new embassies in Niger and Chad. Last month I attended meetings of the G5 and the Sahel Alliance, where I was able to reassure the five countries of the Sahel and the French Foreign Minister of our support for the security and military efforts in the region, including the deployment of UK troops in Mali. I was also able to raise the issue of 12 years of quality girls’ education, which, in the long term, helps both prosperity and security.
We all have constituents who are stranded overseas because of the lack of flights. I have five nurses who are stuck in the Philippines, and the consular advice from the embassy has been for them to get on a flight as quickly as possible. First, there are no flights back to the United Kingdom. Secondly, there is no way for them to get to the airport. What help is the Foreign Office giving UK nationals across the world who are stuck despite being advised to get home?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to raise the issue that his constituents face in the Philippines. Travel advice is changing hourly—we have made over 100 changes in the past 24 hours. I would urge him to wait for the Foreign Secretary’s statement on the issue, which will come after this session.
I thank my hon. Friend, who will have to wait only a short while to get an answer to that very question.
Last month saw the second anniversary of the capture of Leah Sharibu, a young Nigerian schoolgirl. Can the Government tell us, and provide an update, what representations they are making to the Nigerian Government to secure Leah’s release from captivity?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising the case. I have reviewed a number of these cases as historical cases. Unfortunately, kidnapping is all too common. Various Ministers have met families and representatives, but I am more than happy to take up that specific case, discuss it with him today and take it forward in the normal way.
My hon. Friend is right to raise this issue. The UK and Ireland are in regular contact at the highest levels to discuss our respective responses to covid-19, and we will continue to work closely together. On Saturday, at a meeting of the North South Ministerial Council in Armagh, the First Minister, the Deputy First Minister and Northern Ireland’s Minister for Health met the Taoiseach, the Irish Health Minister and the Irish chief medical officer to discuss the issue. The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland is also in regular contact with his counterpart. Obviously, health is devolved in Northern Ireland, but my hon. Friend can rest assured that we are in regular contact with our Irish friends.
I have four constituents stuck in Vietnam after discovering that they were on flights with somebody who had coronavirus. Two of my constituents are young women who are stuck in an overcrowded hostel, which is filthy and has limited running water. They are fit and healthy, but they might not be for much longer. What support are the Government providing in terms of Government-sponsored flights home? Will the Minister meet with me to discuss these cases and how we can help those women get home, please?
The hon. Lady is absolutely right to raise this issue. I know of the particular problem. I have spoken to other hon. Members about constituents who are probably in the same accommodation. I spoke this morning with the Vietnamese ambassador, with a request that the British nationals are moved urgently into hygienic conditions, so we are working on that and I will have an answer from the ambassador. Rest assured, we are doing our best to improve the treatment for those individuals.
Although the immediate focus of our interests in south-east Asia rightly has to be the safety of British citizens and how we can get them back home, which no doubt will emerge shortly in the statement, I know that the Secretary of State shares my huge enthusiasm for the potential in south-east Asia for greater trade, investment and, indeed, much wider partnerships. Will he say today whether the idea of having an Association of Southeast Asian Nations investment forum, which would be as good and possibly even better than the Africa investment forum, is one that he supports?
I thank my hon. Friend, who is playing to all my prejudices with his question. We are absolutely committed to ratification of CPTPP, the comprehensive and progressive agreement for trans-Pacific partnership. We are also committed to joining ASEAN formally with dialogue partner status. In the context of that, he raises an interesting idea. It is obviously difficult to host conferences at the moment, but that is certainly something we should keep under review.
On Saturday morning, I was advising constituents, on the basis of Foreign and Commonwealth Office advice, that they had until midnight to leave Poland. Later that day, Jet2 advised them that their flights for the following two days would be going ahead and leaving Poland. Will the Minister therefore tell me why the advice was incomplete and what they are to do if any travel insurance claim they make is now invalid?
I am more than happy to speak to the hon. Gentleman after these questions. The travel advice remains in place, and I know that the Foreign Secretary will be updating the House more broadly.
Two of my constituents are currently aboard the MS Marina, en route to Miami. The cruise liner was refused entry at the ports of Lima and Panama yesterday, and will reach Miami by tomorrow afternoon, but they are concerned that they may be refused entry to the USA when they reach their destination. Both have underlying health problems and are, understandably, worried. What discussions has the Department had with counterparts in the USA about the repatriation of some of our constituents who are in this position?
My hon. Friend is another example of a Member who treats constituency casework with great seriousness and she is right to raise it here, alongside others. Foreign Office staff are working flat out, as are my colleagues and I, to tackle this. We are aware of a number of cruise liners in the region, and I will ensure that she has the right information. I am more than happy to talk to her after these questions.
As the Prime Minister has said, the coronavirus pandemic
“is the worst public health crisis for a generation”.
It is unsettling for families up and down the country, in all of our constituencies, so we need a united effort to tackle covid-19 effectively and come through this challenge, as I am confident we can and will. Following on from, and consistent with, the domestic measures announced by the Prime Minister yesterday, and based on the fast- changing international circumstances, today I am announcing changes to Foreign and Commonwealth Office travel advice. UK travellers abroad now face wide- spread international border restrictions, and lockdowns in various countries. The FCO always considers the safety and security of British nationals, so, with immediate effect, I have taken the decision to advise British nationals against non-essential travel globally, for an initial period of 30 days, and, of course, subject to ongoing review.
I should emphasise that this decision has been taken based on the domestic measures introduced here in the UK, alongside the changes to border and a range of other restrictions that are now being taken by countries right around the world. The speed and range of those measures across other countries is unprecedented, and some of those decisions are being made without notice. In some cases, even in countries or particular areas where there have not yet been any reported cases of covid-19, local authorities are none the less imposing restrictions on movement, and, again, doing so with little or sometimes no notice whatsoever. In the light of those circumstances, we want to reduce the risk of leaving vulnerable British tourists and visitors stranded overseas. We will, of course, keep this advice under review and amend it as soon as the situation responsibly allows.
The Government are, of course, keenly aware that international freight services, such as shipping and haulage, are vital for ensuring the continuity of the supply of essential food, goods and material to the UK. So we regard that kind of travel as essential, and we will work with industry to issue detailed advice that maintains the flow of goods, while protecting the wellbeing of staff working on those routes. The Department for Transport will be leading that work with the freight sector, with the objective of minimising disruption to those routes as far as is possible. At the same time, FCO consular teams are working around the clock to provide the best and most up-to-date information that we can possibly provide to UK nationals. By way of context, let me say that in the past week alone we made more than 430 changes to FCO travel advice, and we will continue to keep it under close and constant review.
We are providing support to British nationals who have been impacted by coronavirus while travelling. During the initial outbreak, or containment phase, we arranged the repatriation of more than 200 vulnerable British nationals from China between 31 January and 9 February. We took that particular action to support British nationals and control the return of those possibly exposed to covid-19 at the earliest point in the crisis, when it appeared that the virus might be—might be—contained in China.
In other cases, such as that of the British nationals affected by a covid-19 infection in a hotel in Tenerife, we worked with travel companies and airlines to ensure that those concerned were safely brought home. We also changed our travel advice to advise people over 70, or with underlying health conditions, against travelling on cruises, to protect those most at risk from coronavirus. We have arranged repatriation from cruise ships, including most recently the 131 UK nationals who returned from the Grand Princess, which was docked in California. They arrived home last Wednesday.
Also on the issue of cruises, we have been working intensively with the Cuban authorities and Fred. Olsen Cruise Lines to ensure that all British nationals are able to return quickly and safely to the UK. That is of course in relation to the Braemar cruise liner. We are doing all we can to ensure that they return to the UK on flights from José Martí international airport in Havana within the next 48 hours. I spoke to the Cuban Foreign Minister twice over the weekend, and we are very grateful to the Cuban Government for swiftly enabling this operation and for their close co-operation to make sure that it could be successful.
As well as those repatriations, UK consular teams are working with those who are affected by difficult quarantine conditions; by the closure of tourist resorts in, for example, Europe and North Africa; or, indeed, when new regulations are introduced in countries where UK nationals are visiting. We will do everything in our power to get those British nationals affected the care, support and practical advice that they need.
We also need to be clear about our capacity to repatriate people from abroad, given the scale of the numbers. We have taken action where necessary, but no one should be under any illusions: it is costly and complicated to co-ordinate, so Government-supported repatriations have been undertaken only in exceptional circumstances. Ultimately, the primary responsibility for managing outbreaks of covid-19 and quarantine measures must rest with the country in which the outbreak has occurred. FCO teams around the world are working urgently to ensure that Governments have sensible plans to enable the return of British and other travellers, and, crucially, to keep borders open for a sufficient period to enable returns to take place on commercial flights, wherever that is possible.
Following today’s change in travel advice, British nationals who decide that they still need to travel abroad should do so fully aware of the increased risks of doing so. That obviously includes the risk that they may not be able to get home if travel restrictions are subsequently put in place that they had not anticipated. So, we urge anyone still considering travel to be realistic about the level of disruption they are willing and able to endure, and to make decisions in the light of the unprecedented conditions that we face.
Today’s travel guidance follows the domestic measures announced yesterday. It forms part of our national effort to meet the international challenge presented by coronavirus —a challenge that we will rise to as a Government and as a country. I commend this statement to the House.
I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of his statement. We hear what he says on freight, but could he give us any guidance on what is “essential travel” when it comes to people? Does it include people coming home? This is a time of immense concern for tens of thousands of British nationals stranded abroad; they are not just dealing with the stress of trying to get accurate information and make their way home, but doing so facing the ever-present fear of infection.
I was contacted yesterday by Tom, one of the 65 British nationals in Cusco, Peru, which has announced a 15-day state of emergency, with its borders closed and the army enforcing a quarantine. Tom’s flight to Britain today has been cancelled and his calls to our embassy in Lima have not been answered. Why is that? Because the embassy itself has decided to close down for 15 days, just when its services were needed most. The Secretary of State said in his statement that our
“consular teams are working around the clock to provide the best…information available to UK nationals”;
well, I am afraid that that simply is not the case in Tom’s experience. He says:
“We have received no advice or assistance…we are all extremely concerned at being stranded here.”
Across the world, there are tens of thousands of British nationals in the same position as Thomas, and all have the same message for the British Government: “Help bring us home”. As far as they are concerned, their travel is essential and it is no use telling them to rely on advice from the Governments in the countries from which they are travelling when, inevitably, they will be the least of those countries’ concerns. Nor is it any use telling them to rely on the instructions of their travel operators, which, all too often in recent weeks, have been at odds with the official FCO travel advice and are driven by the fear of insurance claims and bankruptcy, not by the needs of our citizens.
The Government cannot keep passing the buck to others, especially when it comes to repatriation. Yes, it is difficult, and yes, it is expensive, but that is the nature of the crisis that we face. In his response, can the Secretary of State directly address Tom and his compatriots in Peru and all the other British nationals around the world currently in the same position, and tell them what he is doing to help bring them home?
Will the Secretary of State reassure us today that the Foreign Office will learn the lessons from this fiasco by asking itself some very basic questions? First, why were there no clear protocols in place for evacuation and repatriation in the event of an outbreak such as this? If those protocols were in place, why were they not followed? Secondly, why has official travel advice from the FCO been so slow to match what is happening on the ground? This weekend, we had tour operators going door to door in French ski resorts, telling British families to leave immediately, while the Foreign Office website said that there were no restrictions on travel. Thirdly and most basically, as Tom’s case in Peru illustrates, will the Foreign Secretary determine why the levels of consular support have been so out of step with the levels of global demand?
When the dust settles on this crisis, as we all hope it eventually will, we will reflect on what has been a chronic failure of global leadership and co-ordination in which our own Government has sadly been a part. Instead of every country working together to agree best practice and apply common standards on testing, tracking, travel restrictions, quarantines, self-isolation and social distancing, we have instead seen a global free- for-all, with every country going it alone. Instead of the international community coming together to pool its experience and work together to develop a vaccine and a cure, we have again seen individual companies and countries working in silos. We have also seen a shameful attempt by Donald Trump to buy the German company that is in the lead when it comes to discovering a vaccine, not just to steal the glory of the vaccine for himself, but to hoard it for the Americans alone. The challenges posed by the coronavirus are fearful enough for the world without our leaders compounding them through their incompetence or their inaction. That is exactly what we have seen when it comes to this Government’s approach to repatriation, but it is part of a pattern that goes far beyond that one issue and far beyond our one country.
Will the Secretary of State undertake today that, as well as fixing the immediate issues that we face with the coronavirus, not least around repatriations, Britain will lead the way in ensuring that these outbreaks will be better managed in future?
I thank the right hon. Lady for her response, at least in relation to recognising the scale of the challenge. She asked a number of questions, and I will give her as much of a substantive response as I can. She asked what essential and non-essential travel means. Ultimately, the Foreign Office gives travel advice, but the decision on whether to travel remains an individual one. Travellers may have urgent or particularly exceptional business—family, commercial or otherwise—and circumstances may differ, but what we are doing is strongly advising against global travel. That is, in part, a reflection of the domestic measures that were announced yesterday around social distancing. We also want to limit the number of people, particularly vulnerable people, who find themselves in the plight of not being able to get home because of some of the issues that she has raised.
The right hon. Lady mentioned the team in the Philippines—
It was Peru.
In Peru, yes. That team is working as best it can under very difficult conditions. I am very happy to take a look at the case to which she has referred. We have a whole range of practical advice for hon. Members to give to their constituents. Our FCO travel advice is available online. Hon. Members and their constituents can sign up to receive email updates, so they get it in real time. My officials also run a specific hotline for hon. Members to contact. I have also shared details with hon. Members in a “Dear colleague” letter, which will go out shortly today. We are doing everything that we can to give hon. Members on both sides of the House the practical information that they need in what is a fast-moving and fluid situation.
The right hon. Lady asked what we were doing more generally in relation to helping people to get back home. The first thing to say is to avoid travel if you might find yourself in a situation, either because of current or future measures, in which you are unable to get back home. We are liaising with the tour operators and the airlines to make sure that even when restrictions are in place there is a window of opportunity to get out with commercial flights. We do not have precise numbers, but given the volume of British nationals who are abroad—not necessarily permanently or living abroad, but travelling abroad—to expect that the Government can repatriate them all is unrealistic. What we do is make sure that we are in a position to protect the most vulnerable.
The right hon. Lady asked why our consular teams were stretched. She ought to have a look at the scale of the international challenge that this country and everyone are facing with covid-19. Teams across Government, including consular teams in the Foreign Office, are doing an exceptional job in very difficult circumstances. She is right to point to different measures that have been taken around the world. The UK approach is to follow the best scientific advice that we have, and to take measures, both domestically and internationally, in line with trying to reduce the peak of coronavirus in the UK and the number of infections, and making sure that we maximise the capacity of the NHS to deal with that. Finally, the right hon. Lady did her usual routine of sniping at the US President. That is no substitute for a serious question on the substance, let alone a serious policy answer.
As the honorary president of the British International Freight Association, I thank the Foreign Secretary for his words about the freight forwarders and their job in keeping goods moving in and out of the country. May I raise two issues with him briefly? First, will he encourage the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and tour operators and airlines to have easily accessibly websites so that tourists who may be stuck in the Dominican Republic and elsewhere can get information on what is likely to happen to them? Finally, there are some countries where people have to apply for a business visa to go to a business meeting—it costs up to £600 for India—so if they suddenly decide they are not issuing visas, will he encourage high commissioners and Governments to make it possible to transfer that to a future arrangement, rather than just take the money and forget about it?
I thank my hon. Friend, who makes a number of important points. We are liaising with tour operators, insurance companies and, of course, airlines, and we will convey the message that he proposed about making sure that their advice is as transparent as possible. That needs to be done in real time, and I shall certainly consider further the flexibility that he suggested in relation to visas.
Now is a time in which we should be seen to work together and, indeed, work together. I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of the statement. Now is the time for us to eschew party political point scoring.
We on these Benches support the changes, and we support the statement. I should also like to record our appreciation of and solidarity with the hard-working FCO staff worldwide, who are doing a very tough job in very tough times. They themselves have families and, indeed, some of them have respiratory conditions. We give them our support.
We support the statement as far as it goes, but I urge the Foreign Secretary—perhaps this is a discussion that he needs to have with the Chancellor, and I am conscious that there is a statement later about that—to go further. His statement did not deal with the point about insurance at all. For Scots and Brits abroad who are stuck and want to get back, and are looking to find a way to do so, the biggest practical help that we can offer right now is to speak to insurance companies, because their insurance is uppermost in their mind. Colleagues will be aware of the statement this morning from Sir Charles Bean of the Office for Budget Responsibility:
“You need the state to be there as the insurer of last resort against what is effectively an act of God. The state surely has a role. Big early action is surely better than half-hearted action that is late.”
We could not agree more. The Chancellor is making a statement later, but insurance is the biggest priority for our nationals who are overseas and want to get back. I urge the Secretary of State to have a full discussion with the Chancellor on that point. The state needs to step in to get our people home.
I particularly welcome the bipartisan tone that the hon. Gentleman has taken. I thank him for welcoming the statement and particularly for recognising and paying tribute to the consular staff and wider FCO teams who, in very difficult circumstances—not least given the advice that we in Government have given—are doing a tremendous job.
The hon. Gentleman asked about insurance companies. Obviously, they take their lead, at least to some degree, from the travel advice changes. One of the important things for the FCO to do is to give clear and decisive travel advice. That is one of the benefits of the statement that we have made today.
I certainly take on board the hon. Gentleman’s comments about working with the Secretary of State for Transport and the Chancellor to make sure that we provide support to the airline sector, which is not only important for jobs—we also need it to help get UK nationals home. For the reasons I gave in my statement, we want to allow them to do that through normal commercial means.
This crisis is causing us to tear apart many aspects of the global system that we have grown used to in the past 20 or 30 years. The threat that it could pose to future scientific co-operation and future defence against not only pandemics such as this, but the poverty that has blighted so much of the world over recent generations, is enormous.
Will the Foreign Secretary assure me that, as he is planning with his Foreign Office partners and staff to rescue and save so many people around the world, he is also looking to co-operate with others to make sure that the international community works together to build a proper future, based on a shared and prosperous globe?
I thank my hon. Friend the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee. He is absolutely right about the consular measures that we are taking to support UK nationals who feel vulnerable or stranded overseas. I also agree with him about the need for an international approach to pandemics such as this; we have not seen anything like this before. That is why we are providing support to build up the capacity in some of the most vulnerable countries. We are doing that with a total envelope of up to £241 million of aid funding and we are working through the World Health Organisation, the Red Cross, UNICEF and other organisations.
More generally, the Prime Minister spoke to his counterparts in the G7 yesterday. They agreed on the importance of a stronger co-ordinated international approach, and that will include everything from economic measures to research and development to make sure that there is the collaboration that will prevent further pandemics from happening.
Our consular staff are doing an amazing job and many of them around the world are volunteers—they are not paid for their work. I hope that the Foreign Secretary will pass on our gratitude on behalf of all our constituents.
May I tease out the issue of people returning home? As I understand the Foreign Secretary’s advice, it is that if somebody is thinking about travelling abroad now, they should bear in mind that they may not be able to get back. But at the same time he is saying that people should not necessarily come back now. That seems to be inconsistent.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for what he said about consular staff; we will pass that on. It does matter that we have cross-party support for the essential work that all our public services are doing.
The hon. Gentleman asked about travel advice. Obviously, we are advising against all but essential travel globally. It is up to individuals to make the individual judgment calls, which will depend on their personal circumstances and on the availability of commercial flights. In the last resort, we have been able to provide repatriation flights, but that is getting more difficult. We will continue to provide support and advice, but ultimately some of those judgment calls will remain a decision for the individual.
I would like to follow up what the Secretary of State was saying about ferries and the Department for Transport in relation to the UK. I have two questions. Will the Government please relax competition law today to allow discussion between the three cross-Solent ferry operators to build a resilience plan? They will be in breach of the law if they do not, and lives could depend on this if our ferry services fall over.
Secondly, will the Government support today the Maritime and Coastguard Agency to allow people to sit in cars during ferry journeys in the UK, to protect at-risk groups and for social distancing purposes?
As ever, my hon. Friend raises important and excellent practical points. They are mainly for the Secretary of State for Transport, but I reassure him that the Secretary of State is talking to the ferry operators as well as the airliners and working together to make sure that we get not just the clearest but the most practical advice, so that our constituents and people travelling to or from the UK can make the decisions that they need to make.
To help the House, I should say that I am expecting to run this until around 2 o’clock.
The Foreign Secretary is absolutely right: repatriation is a complex and costly business. But that is surely exactly why it should not just be left to individuals and why there must be a leading role for Government.
Like many MPs, I have had representations this morning from constituents. Some of mine are on holiday in Morocco and now find themselves stranded. The ambassador’s Twitter account is telling them just to go to the airport with their passports and tickets and see what they can fix up when they get there. We realise that the consular services are under stress, but surely at this moment they have to have every possible resource to provide the best possible information for our constituents.
I totally agree with the right hon. Gentleman. We are providing the very best support, care and advice. When it comes to repatriations, at the outset we secured 200, I think, who came back from China. We are also working to secure the return of people on the Braemar cruise ship via Havana; it has been the most intense diplomacy I have had with my Cuban opposite number—and hugely welcome, because the Cuban Government have been very co-operative. We will do everything we can.
The situation is very fluid. The decisions being made on the ground in countries such as the one that the right hon. Gentleman mentioned often happen rapidly. The challenge for airlines, the FCO and the consular advice and support that we provide is to make sure that we can respond—not just as quickly as possible, but as effectively as possible.
We talk about the different approach being taken by different countries, but the UK has to focus on what is right for our country at the right time. Uniquely, we are using behavioural science; many are not doing so. We need the right response for our culture and the way our people behave—not one transported from another country.
My hon. Friend makes a really important point. I take the point, raised in the Chamber, that we need to try to get better and more effective international co-ordination. That is what the Prime Minister was pressing for when he spoke to his opposite numbers in the G7 by phone and what I have been pressing for at the Foreign Office. At the same time, in the last analysis we will take the right measures. Every country is a bit different depending on where it is on the curve. Crucially, we will take the right and most effective decisions at the right time. That is why we have changed our travel advice today and why the Prime Minister announced new measures yesterday.
The Foreign Secretary rightly said that the Government do not want British nationals to be stranded overseas, but has referred to the practical difficulties of getting them all home. What are the exceptional circumstances in which the Government would be prepared to act to bring British nationals home? That will help inform decisions that individuals make about any travel plans they have.
Constituents reading the FCO travel advice ought to take it on its own terms, not on the basis of any potential, last-resort contingency measures that may be taken down the line. Obviously, we are very mindful of the vulnerability of all our constituents, such as those on the Braemar cruise ship, which has struggled to find a place to dock so that we can repatriate the substantial number of UK nationals back to the UK.
The decision will have to be taken on an individual basis by all our constituents and people up and down the country. What we do is provide the clearest guidance. Unless there is a very good reason—an essential reason—to travel, we are saying, “Don’t take the risk now, because you are at a heightened risk of being stranded in the future.”
The Iranian Foreign Minister has been issuing plaintive appeals on social media for medical supplies to assist in his sanctions-hit country. Setting aside Javad Zarif’s accompanying rant against America, what does my right hon. Friend think can be done to assist the people of Iran at this difficult time, particularly around sanctions, the joint comprehensive plan of action and the International Military Services debt?
I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend for his excellent tenure as Minister. I thoroughly enjoyed working with him and of course he is an expert in this field. Let us be very clear about it: ultimate responsibility for the predicament that Iran faces lies with the Government in Iran and the decisions and choices they have made. We have supported Iran in relation to coronavirus with aid funding because we recognise that this is an exceptional time and an exceptional period, but, fundamentally, beyond the humanitarian assistance and other aid funding that we would provide in those circumstances, the decisions that Iran takes will be the ones that will get it out of the hole or cul-de-sac that it is in. In particular, right now, as I made clear to the Foreign Minister on the phone yesterday, we expect UK dual nationals in detention in Iran to be released as soon as possible, not least given the heightened risk from covid-19 in those prisons.
I thank the Foreign Secretary for updating the House on coronavirus and people overseas. I have constituents in Morocco as well and one family are with a four-month-old baby. Are there any plans to bring people back from Morocco? Would such exceptional circumstances contribute to any of the decisions that the Government will make?
Anyone in those circumstances will feel anxious and distressed. We will certainly see if we can provide as much support as possible, consular and otherwise, to the hon. Lady’s constituents. If she would like to contact me afterwards, or any of the ministerial team, we will take up that case directly. More generally, it will always depend on the restrictions being imposed, partly by the Governments themselves, including in Morocco, and on the availability of commercial airlines coming out.
What we want to do and what I have been working with the Transport Secretary to achieve is to give clear advice to our constituents as consumers of travel services, but also to make sure that we are leaving the window open for commercial airlines to operate, because that is the surest means of getting people back from difficult or vulnerable positions. That is the only way we are going to be able to achieve it, so we need to keep those commercial lines operating.
My right hon. Friend and all the team are working so hard, as are our consular services, but unfortunately we are hearing about certain embassies being shut. The embassy in Kiev is shut and it is £1.80 a minute to phone the FCO hotline and there is a 58-minute delay. Is there anything else that my hon. Friends can do to help my constituent who is stuck in Kiev?
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for her work at the FCO, where she was a doughty Foreign Minister. There is a whole range of practical details about how we can support our constituents who find themselves in difficult positions. I can certainly ask the Minister covering the wider European neighbourhood to see what further can be done in her case. There is travel advice online and a specific hotline for parliamentarians. I do not know whether she has had a chance to access that yet. If any further support can be given, I am very happy to ensure that I and the ministerial team provide it.
I add my thanks to the FCO staff, who are working under really difficult circumstances. Can the Foreign Secretary advise my constituents, Tony and Jill Low, who are currently stuck in Cyprus? Their flights are cancelled and their hotel room needs vacating. Their insurance is about to expire and the insurance company is only offering to pay retrospective costs when they return to the UK.
We will look at all of these cases and, in particular, where there is a groundswell of UK nationals and constituents being stranded. As I have already informed the House, we are trying to make sure that the reasons why those flights are not running in and out can be addressed. Domestic measures have been announced, and the EU announced measures yesterday that exempt the United Kingdom, so that is welcome. We will continue to work with those local authorities, but also with the airlines to make sure that there are as many flights as possible to relieve constituents such as those of the hon. Lady.
May I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the calm way he is dealing with a historic situation? May I raise a point about insurance that was also raised by those on the SNP Benches? Headteachers across the land have organised trips along with parents, who put in a lot of money. A school in my constituency has spent £140,000 getting children out skiing. The insurance companies are referring them to the travel companies, and the travel companies are saying that there is no chance of getting the money back unless the FCO specifically restricts travel to that location. Could my right hon. Friend clarify to all schools across the land, not just those in my constituency, what the situation is and what chance they have of getting their money back?
I thank my hon. Friend for the way in which he has raised his question. The insurance industry makes its decisions in a commercial way, and obviously we and the Transport Secretary are liaising very closely with it, but certainly the call has been made to the Foreign Office to give as clear advice as possible. So we are advising, not least with the Easter holidays coming up, against all but essential travel globally. We are not going to make decisions for individual people, families or schools, but it seems to me that those are the kinds of trips that would now have to be looked at, and we would expect the insurance and the airline industries to follow, based on that very clear advice that we have now given.
The Foreign Secretary mentioned that the Government have been consulting with the G7, but they have not been consulting with European Governments through the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control. May I ask: apart from ideological reasons, why not? It is very concerned that the focus here has been on behavioural science and not on epidemiology.
The hon. Lady asks a perfectly reasonable question. May I reassure her that we are taking the best scientific advice that we have got in the UK? The circumstances in different countries will change. Part of that is about the timing and the peak within which coronavirus hits an individual country. She talked about co-operation with EU partners. I am consistently on the phone talking to all our European partners about all these issues, whether that is the multilateral drive to tackle coronavirus with support for vulnerable countries, research and development, or the particular logistical issues with getting constituents home. The diplomacy with our European friends has never been more intense.
My constituent Jamie Harris is stranded on MS Ocean Endeavour off the coast of Argentina. She is travelling independently, so has no recourse to a tour operator and flights from Argentina to Europe have been stopped. Will my right hon. Friend consider working with flight companies such as British Airways—there are many others—to look at ways that we can bring constituents home when there simply is no other alternative for them?
My right hon. Friend makes a good point. For those in South America more generally, there has been a range of concerns in different countries. Fundamentally, we want to encourage, as I have explained, commercial operators to keep running because that is the way of easily repatriating people at scale. But of course we will look and liaise with the airline operators—the Transport Secretary is already doing that—to make sure that, where there are gaps, we can always provide as much support as possible for vulnerable or stranded constituents.
My constituent Sarah Goodman is stuck in Morocco. She travelled with friends just on Saturday and is now subject to a ban. I have also heard from students on years abroad who are stranded. Can the Secretary of State work on his website to update British nationals who find themselves stranded abroad? Can there be a global strategy because there must be people from abroad stuck in our own country who would like to return home?
The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. Another Member has raised the issue of Morocco. The Africa Minister will look at those cases and I am sure will be happy, able and willing to look at the case that the right hon. Gentleman raises. He makes a good point about communication. We are constantly looking to ensure, through the helpline and the online advice, that people can get advice in real time. Constituents and Members can sign up to receive email updates so that they get them all. They can also follow on Twitter and Facebook. There is an inherent challenge, which is the pace at which some of these changes are being made, but we are doing everything we can to ensure that we give updated FCO advice in real time.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his statement. Have there been any discussions with the oil and gas sector or individual oil and gas companies, given the huge number of British nationals and their families—many of whom come from north-east Scotland—working and living overseas?
My hon. Friend rightly raises the issue of employees in that sector. We are engaging closely with the big employers around the world. Those individuals are in—I say this carefully—in a relatively more comfortable position than others who are travelling for a short period or temporarily, so the priority has been the most vulnerable or those who might find themselves at risk of being stranded. That is why we have given this advice today, but my hon. Friend is right, and we are engaging with substantial employers overseas to see how we can work together to provide the best support for our constituents.
I pay tribute to FCO staff, including the one who took my call at midnight last night to deal with my constituent’s son, who is trapped in Guatemala City, where the British embassy appears to be closed and no commercial flights are operating. I urge the Foreign Secretary to change one thing that came out of that call. The FCO does not appear to be taking details of British citizens who are trapped abroad, including whether they have any special needs, medical needs or conditions. Without that information, we will not be able to triage for emergency repatriation flights, emergency assistance and so on. Will he ensure that the FCO starts taking that information, to build up a database, so that we know exactly how many British citizens are trapped and where, and what their conditions are?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his warm words about the FCO’s efforts and the practical advice he has given us; we will certainly take that back. One point I will mention is that we are not talking about tens of thousands—we are talking about hundreds of thousands abroad. We need to work up as granular a picture of the vulnerabilities as possible, but we also—this is a contributing factor to the change in the travel advice—need to give a clear message, given the scale of the challenge and the unprecedented nature of covid-19, that people need to be realistic about what we can do.
Following the Foreign Secretary’s comments about Iran, does he know whether Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe is among the political prisoners whom Iran has released today? Does not the ability of a highly dangerous disease to spread through a prison highlight the immorality of detaining people who are wholly innocent?
My right hon. Friend did an incredible job as Foreign Secretary, in particular in pressing for the release of not just Nazanin, but all our dual nationals suffering in Tehran. I spoke to the Iranian Foreign Minister yesterday. I have made it clear, not least as Iran considers releasing prisoners on a pretty large scale, that there is no excuse for not releasing all the UK dual nationals on furlough. We are waiting for confirmation regarding individual cases, and I want to be careful and to wait until I have confirmation, but I assure my right hon. Friend that this is a high priority for the Government. As I said, I raised it with Foreign Minister Zarif yesterday.
I compliment the Foreign Secretary on making it clear that essential travel includes the freight services that will keep our supermarkets stocked with food. While I recognise that the Department for Transport will be dealing with this, can he reassure those who undertake long-haul freight travel through Europe to get our food supplies to us that they will not be stranded?
I thank the hon. Lady for the way in which she asked her question and for complimenting the FCO consular advice. She is right—I talked about this with the Transport Secretary and the Prime Minister this morning—about the importance of not only keeping freight flowing, but ensuring that we safeguard the workers who are doing that. I want to give some reassurance in relation to the recommendations announced by the President of the European Commission yesterday, which will be considered by the European Council today, in relation to the 30-day travel ban for all but essential travel: medical staff and transporters of goods would be exempt, as well as UK nationals.
My constituent, Kate Jackson, is currently aboard the Silversea cruise liner that has been refused entry to a number of ports. It is now headed to Darwin, Australia, where it is expected to be able to dock, but there are no available flights back to the UK. Will my right hon. Friend do all that he can to repatriate Kate Jackson and her fellow British citizens?
I am aware of that case and we are working actively on it. As with all the cruise ships, the challenge has been to find a place for them to dock and then, not least given the international component of these cruise ships, to get international commercial flights home. We are very much focused on it, and I hope to be able to say more about that particular cruise ship shortly.
The last thing that our country and economy need on top of coronavirus is the further shock of a hard or no-deal Brexit at the end of this year. Will the Foreign Secretary and his EU colleagues urgently agree an extension to the current Brexit transition period so that the Government and business can focus 100% on the emergency in front of us?
If anything, this shows—not least in our collaboration with the Cuban Government which, at the level of intensity it has shown in recent days, does not happen very often with our close European partners—the case for intensive diplomacy to get this deal done, move on and take the relationship to the next step.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his statement. Can he give reassurances to my constituent, Tracy Wood, who contacted me last night regarding her son? He is a Manchester University placement student, currently in Panama. There are no flights in and out of Panama. He is running out of money, and the embassy has advised him to travel via another country. He simply does not know where to go, because he does not know which border will close next. Could the Foreign Secretary provide Mrs Wood with reassurance?
It is very difficult in those circumstances, particularly travelling to less accessible places. We will work closely with all the airliners and our network of embassies to provide support and advice as soon as possible. I am happy to look at that specific case, and if my right hon. Friend gives me the details, we will take that forward with the ministerial team.
Three of my constituents from Bargoed are stranded in Krakow, and because Poland has closed its international borders, they do not know how long they will be in that country. Will the Secretary of State put together a comprehensive database of all British citizens who are affected in that way and ensure that basic communication is sent to all those individuals in the not-too-distant future?
We already have a means of doing that: people can sign up for real-time updates, and hon. Members can do that. I appreciate the difficult situation in Poland. As I have said, we are working with all our European colleagues to ensure that UK nationals or other nationals who are here can get home when they need to.
I praise the Foreign Secretary for his statesmanlike approach, and I thank the SNP spokesman, the hon. Member for Stirling (Alyn Smith), for his constructive approach. It is good to see Opposition politicians rising to the occasion, just as our constituents want us to during this crisis.
I have constituents stranded in Morocco and Vietnam. Can we ensure that helplines in consulates and embassies are manned 24 hours a day to help our constituents? I also have constituents who are in a motorhome in Portugal and looking to get home. Can we ensure that provisions are made for crossing borders for those wanting to come home?
I agree with my hon. Friend about the importance of having, within the confines of a democratic institution such as this, a constructive approach, because that will make the process more effective. We will look carefully at all the issues that he raised. He mentioned Vietnam as one of the difficult areas. As Ministers have made clear, we are aware of a number of British nationals in quarantine—some in hotels; some in other quarantine facilities. We are in close contact with the Vietnamese authorities. We are providing assistance to all those affected, and we hope to see them moved to improved and better facilities as soon as possible. That is just one illustration, in pretty challenging conditions, of where we are working hard to ensure that his constituents and many others get the care, advice and support they need.
After listening to contributions from Members on both sides of the House, it is very clear that citizens are stuck in many and varied countries far across the world. What plans does the Secretary of State have to work with European partners specifically to bring people in far-flung places back as part of a partnership approach?
The hon. Member makes an excellent point; we do need to work in partnership. We did that in relation to the flights from Wuhan at the outset of the crisis, if I can put it that way, and we have done it in relation to the Braemar cruise ship. In fact, my instinctive reflex, and the instinctive reaction of this Government, wherever UK nationals are stranded and we have more airline capacity to get them home, is to make sure that the nationals of our European and Five Eyes partners can get on them as well. We have good collaborative arrangements—it has been a two-way relationship—and all that will continue.
I am most grateful to the Foreign Secretary for his very comprehensive and thorough statement. I appreciate that this might be an issue for other Departments, but will he clarify the position regarding private planes—whether commercial or leisure—flying in to local airfields?
I think that that is probably one for the Department for Transport. I was not clear whether my hon. Friend was asking about the use of private planes for repatriation, or about whether the restrictions are being extended to them. In any event, I probably ought to pass that on to the experts—the Department for Transport.
The Foreign Secretary is stating quite openly that the Government will not bring everyone home, so how is he working with operators such as TUI to ensure that they act responsibly and do not leave people stranded abroad without communications, like my constituent Michelle Choi in Morocco?
It is not so much that we will not; it is just a pure question of capacity, given the potential range of hundreds of thousands of UK nationals travelling temporarily abroad. We will liaise very closely with the country—I think the hon. Gentleman was raising the issue of Morocco—and look carefully at what more can be done. The Africa Minister is nodding earnestly, and I know we will take that up. We are also, of course—the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to nail this point—trying to work with airlines to make sure, as these travel restrictions come into place, that there is a window in which the commercial airlines can come in and get as many as possible of the people who want to come out and back to the UK.
I agree with the Foreign Secretary that we cannot repatriate everybody; it is just physically impossible. Following on from the very good question asked by the right hon. Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn) about exceptional circumstances, may I ask about those who are most vulnerable? Given that we have been told by our own Prime Minister that we are at war with an invisible enemy—the covid-19 virus—what discussions has the Foreign Secretary had with the Ministry of Defence about deploying the Royal Air Force and the Royal Navy, and even about using bases around the world as staging posts if need be, when the international airlines further restrict flights, to repatriate the most vulnerable—not everybody, but the most vulnerable?
Obviously I have engaged very closely with the Defence Secretary on this, but something like that would be a last resort. We do not rule anything out at this stage, but our focus—I think this is the point that the hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Neil Coyle) and others have made—has been on making sure that we are working very closely with not just the international airlines, but other countries. This is happening with some of the cruise shops we are dealing with from which we have not yet repatriated, because we can work together as an international team to try to get UK nationals back. That partnership will definitely involve Governments around the world, and also airlines around the world.
One of my female constituents is currently stuck in Istanbul. All flights from the UK to Turkey have been cancelled till mid-April. The airline, Pegasus, is not being helpful, and she has been told that she has only a 25% chance of getting home. The Secretary of State’s hotline has advised that she keeps in touch with the airline but, as I have said, it is not being helpful—nor has the consular support in Istanbul—and she does not have any insurance. What support can the Government give her?
I thank the hon. Lady. It is very distressing, and as MPs we obviously want to do everything we can. I am very happy to look at that case, and I will ask the Minister for Europe to take a close look. We will, of course, continue to liaise with the Turkish authorities and with as many as possible of the airlines that go to Istanbul, or indeed to Ankara, to try to make sure that people do not find themselves in that vulnerable position.
A constituent of mine has been in touch about his grandparents, Alan and Beatrice. Beatrice is 86 and Alan is 89, and they are trapped on board the Silver Shadow cruise ship, which is quarantined off Recife in Brazil. May I appeal to the Foreign Secretary for his help to get Alan and Beatrice home?
We have been following the course of the Silver Shadow very carefully. I can tell my right hon. Friend that there are 300 passengers on board, of whom about 120 are British nationals—that goes to my earlier point about the need for an international team effort. Royal Caribbean, the parent company of the ship, has indicated that it will offer at least three charter flights to get passengers home—one to the UK, one to the US and one to Canada, and possibly also one to Australia. That gives my right hon. Friend a sense of not just the challenge we face, but how we are straining every sinew to deal with constituents such as her own.
I would like to add my voice to those thanking FCO workers, who I am sure are working around the clock. I am sure that they are wanting to get home, but they are staying to help others. I have been listening very carefully to what the Secretary of State has been saying about repatriation, and I understand his arguments about the airlines, but we have to accept that the reason why the airlines are not running flights is that they cannot afford to, and they are worried about coming out of this at the other end. Would he consider providing a subsidy for the airlines to enable them to run these flights, particularly from areas where flights have been cancelled or shut down completely?
The hon. Lady raises a really important point. On the one hand, we do want commercial airlines to fly, but they are clearly under severe financial pressure, given the domestic restrictions being placed on them, and indeed other Governments, including our own, changing their travel advice. We will work with the airlines to see what support we can provide, and our priority continues to be to make sure that commercial flights can access as many areas as possible to get people back in the kind of scale and volume that is necessary to address the challenge we face.
It is good to know that we now have clarity on global travel over the next 30 days. To put constituents’ minds at rest, can my right hon. Friend confirm that travel agents and airlines should be issuing refunds to those cancelling travel arrangements over the next 30 days, not particularly the insurance companies?
I will not give legal advice or commercial advice to either the operators or the insurers, but I can tell my hon. Friend that the Transport Secretary has engaged very closely with all the different sectors to make sure that we protect the consumers—passengers—who find themselves at risk. Indeed, the Transport Secretary is nodding earnestly on that very point.
Quite rightly, hon. Members have mentioned the case of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe in Iran, but may I ask the Foreign Office not to lose sight of people such as Luke Symons, my constituent, who is held captive by the Houthis in Yemen at this time? Can any pressure be brought through the channel of discussions with the Iranian authorities? I welcome the new Middle East Minister to his post, and I hope that he will get into the detail of this case, as his predecessor did.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. Just to be clear, when we speak to any of our Iranian interlocutors, we raise every case of dual nationals—or, indeed, the British Council employee—who have been detained. Of course, that applies consistently across the board, and I know the Middle East Minister will be very happy to meet the hon. Gentleman to discuss the specific case. I will always be willing to raise it, and to try to secure the release of all our nationals and dual nationals in such terrible conditions across the world.
I have two separate cases of constituents stranded in Peru, one of whom is a young woman travelling on her own. I understand the stress that our consular service is under at the moment, but those people cannot get through to the embassy, nor to the emergency hotline. Will my right hon. Friend look at their cases urgently and do all that he can to get them home?
I thank my hon. Friend, and of course we will look at those cases. In areas where we do not have a large or substantial consular presence, we are obviously going to have to innovate and still provide practical advice and consular support as best we can. I know that the relevant Minister will be very happy to meet her and take forward those cases, and I am very happy to raise them with my interlocutors.
What discussions is the Foreign Secretary having with the Home Secretary about foreign nationals in this country who find themselves in a similar situation? I have a constituent who is self-isolating in line with the guidance, yet she is being told that her visa will be over-stayed and that she needs to leave the country. What thought are the Government giving to these kinds of situations, especially if, when such people get to the end of their quarantine, there are no flights home?
Of course, we have foreign nationals here who are in very similar positions to the ones that UK nationals themselves are in around the world. We will of course look at those cases as sympathetically and constructively as possible. We know what it is like, from all the cases that we have coming through to the FCO and through to our consular services. I have already raised this issue with the Home Office and the Home Secretary, but we will reaffirm it based on what the hon. Gentleman said today.
The Foreign Secretary spoke earlier about hundreds of thousands of UK nationals abroad, many of whom are travelling home, which might be taking longer than they expected. Can the Foreign Office be clear about any reciprocal medical arrangements in place in those areas? Many of those cases are UK citizens living in EU states, with which we were formerly partnered. Given that this morning the Chief Medical Officer said that this situation might last for 18 months, will the Foreign Secretary ask former EU partners to consider an elongation of our current reciprocal arrangements?
I thank my hon. Friend for the dual way in which he asked an excellent question, and also managed subtly to leverage in the whole question of Brexit phase 2 negotiations. He will know that reciprocal arrangements are in place until the end of the transition period, and any continuation beyond that is for the negotiators to consider. We will always ensure that we provide as much support as possible for UK nationals on the continent, as well as for EU nationals here.
Many constituents have contacted me about the differing approaches in other countries, not least to the issue of testing. I appreciate that different countries are at different stages of the outbreak, but can the Foreign Secretary reassure me that expertise and experience from all round the world will be fed into our approach on a daily basis?
The hon. Gentleman is right to note that different countries are acting in different ways, and as he says, some of that is because they are at different stages of the peak and trough of dealing with coronavirus. Based on my attendance at Cobra meetings, I reassure him that not only are we following the best UK scientific evidence available, but that that in itself taps into the widest possible research base, and the widest range of experts, regarding how to effectively stop the spread of the disease.
Members of the House, and journalists outside it, are perfectly at liberty to ask what lessons we have learned from our European partners, but it is worth reminding the House that the Chief Medical Officer who is leading the response to this crisis is a professor of epidemiology. He is literally the right man in the right job at the right time. The Foreign Secretary updated the House on his conversations with our European partners, but will he also update it on his conversations with other international partners such as the US, and other global institutions?
My hon. Friend is right to pay tribute to Professor Whitty, and along with Sir Patrick Vallance we have some of the finest expert evidence in the world coming to us. On the broader point, yes, we are talking to our European partners, and UK nationals are in European countries—particularly Spain and France, but also other countries—in large numbers. I reassure my hon. Friend that I am talking to my opposite numbers around the world, from central America to Asia-Pacific and North America, both Canada and the United States, and we will continue to do that.
Those of us who represent large numbers of EU citizens are hearing concerning accounts of what is happening in their home countries. There are towns in northern Italy, of a similar size to many of our constituencies, that have seen thousands of cases of the virus, and hundreds of deaths. I assume the Foreign Secretary is getting similar responses from our embassies around the world. Are those being used to inform the UK response, even if it involves a worst-case scenario?
The hon. Gentleman is right to say that we must learn from and try to understand more about covid-19 and what its impact will be in the UK, based on the experience that we are seeing in real time across the world, and that is being fed in via scientists and the Department of Health and Social Care. We are ensuring that we have practical advice at the end of that pipeline, which is why we have taken the decision on travel advice today.
Will the Secretary of State please reassure the House that appropriate medical support is readily available for British Government and military personnel overseas, and that specialist medical evacuation will be available for them in extremis?
We take very seriously the security and protection of all UK personnel in the Foreign Office, the Ministry of Defence, and the Department for International Development, both in the UK and across the network. We will do everything we can to ensure that they are able do the heroic job that they are doing right now in safe and secure conditions.
This measure is entirely commensurate with the situation we face, and I support it. However, as the Member of Parliament for Glasgow airport, and the thousands of jobs that it supports, may I ask what assessment the Government have made of the impact of covid-19 measures on the industry, by which I mean airlines, airports, baggage handlers and so on—the list could go on? What will the Government do to support that industry?
The Government are very conscious of the challenge facing the airline industry and its related sectors, and the Foreign Office must ensure that it takes what I think the hon. Gentleman described as a commensurate policy approach, given the knock-on effects that that will have. As well as speaking with the Prime Minister, I talk regularly, as I did this morning, with the Secretary of State for Transport, and he liaises directly with airports and airlines. We are ensuring that we take the most proportionate approach possible. Ultimately, we must ensure that we protect UK nationals based abroad, but also that we protect the industry that will help them get home.
I echo the compliments from across the House for UK consular staff overseas. I recognise that they have limited resources, but will my right hon. Friend consider whether there is any scope for them to offer at least a basic service at weekends?
I reassure my hon. Friend that Foreign Office staff are working round the clock and around weekends, but in some of those countries there is an issue about their own personal safety. We are giving advice here. It is important that Ministers and officials follow that advice, but we must also look after and protect their safety. Notwithstanding that, there is certainly not a nine-to-five or Monday-to-Friday approach—far from it. This is round the clock and right through the weekend, and we are straining every sinew to ensure that constituents, however far flung the place in which they find themselves, are getting the most support, the clearest guidance, and the best practical help that we can provide.
To follow the question from my right hon. Friend the Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw), may I press the Foreign Secretary on the talks on the future relationship with the European Union? Those incredibly complex and multi-faceted talks are absorbing a tremendous amount of Government time and attention. Rather than trying to fight a war on two fronts, and stretching Government bandwidth to breaking point, surely the time is coming to request an extension to the transition period. It is better to do that than to put ideology ahead of the health and safety of the British people.
I am sure the hon. Gentleman would never put his ideological desire to stay in the EU ahead of the practical diplomacy that we face in the months ahead. I understand why he has asked that question. As far as I am aware, negotiations can still proceed, given all the logistical arrangements we have in place. We are confident that we can get this done, and I do not think that delaying Brexit negotiations would give anyone on either side of the channel the certainty they need.
I echo the concerns of other colleagues about the situation for British nationals in Peru, where I have a constituent with a serious underlying health condition who is stranded. As we have heard, not only is the British embassy apparently closed, but the phone number that people have been told to use to obtain information is apparently not being answered. In addition to information about how they can be assisted to leave the country, people need assistance and information while they remain there, including on access to health care. Will the Foreign Secretary take a careful look at the situation in Peru?
I thank the hon. Lady for the constructive and detailed way in which she raised the case of her constituent, and I am happy to look at such cases. The Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Wendy Morton) has already indicated that she will take up some of the other cases in Peru, and we will do everything we can to provide that support and advice, and to provide those who need to return with the means to do so.
I have written to the right hon. Gentleman about my constituent, Eddie, who is 19 and stranded in Morocco, and I hope he will intervene to bring him, and others, home. Travel is also vital for the nation’s supplies, and 45% of the food that Britain eats comes from overseas and is imported. Will the Government do two things? First, will they make a statement, very soon, to say how they will protect those supply lines to give the nation confidence in its food supplies? Secondly, will they do everything they can to back Britain’s farmers so that they can increase production to keep us all well fed?
I will of course look at the case of the hon. Gentleman’s constituent very carefully—a number of other Moroccan cases have been raised—and get back to him with as clear a steer as possible. He is right to raise all those issues about supply chains; again, that was one of the issues I discussed with the Transport Secretary. The hon. Gentleman will have heard that the changes I announced to the travel advice will not apply to freight. We are very mindful in everything we do about keeping supply chains open, and we will continue to look at that. He also makes an important point about food supply and, frankly, the opportunities for UK-based suppliers to rise to meet some of the demand as supply is curtailed as a result of covid-19.
I have written to the Secretary of State regarding a constituent stranded in Austria. I am told that there is a lack of testing kits and there are issues with travelling back. There is already chaos with repatriation, even before the majority of countries move into emergency lockdown phases or close their tourist venues. Can the Secretary of State confirm that the Foreign Office has all the resources it needs to provide extra consular support, and that it is very likely that UK nationals will be caught up in these fast-moving situations?
We will of course look very carefully at any case. The hon. Gentleman has written to me all about constituents in Austria. There is no doubt that the Foreign Office, as with the rest of the Government—most obviously the NHS—will come under pressure. The key thing is that we have the means and the agility to prioritise, to ensure that dealing with covid-19 is the top priority as we go through this challenge. I am very clear that the Foreign Office will do everything we can to protect our constituents—UK nationals abroad—and ensure that we work with our international partners to rise to this challenge, get through it and then move on, so we can get back to some semblance of normality.
I thank the Secretary of State for his commitment and for his and his staff’s sterling efforts on our behalf. We are encouraged by what he has said today. On the island of Ireland, both north and south, people travel to attend churches—people from Northern Ireland travel southwards, for example—in order to preach and participate in meetings. Can the Secretary of State give us some direction about what should happen? People across Northern Ireland wish to know whether they should attend their churches, or whether their churches should be suspended or closed. What should we do? I believe that the people of this great nation, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, should pray to their God for help at this time. This is a time for prayer. Will the Secretary of State join me and others in supporting that call?
I totally understand the point the hon. Gentleman makes. The obvious thing is to keep following the Government’s medical advice and, in relation to devolved matters, the advice given by the Northern Ireland Executive. I can also give him reassurance in relation to the latest announcement by the Irish Government that all persons entering Ireland from overseas will be asked to self-quarantine for 14 days. That will not apply to Northern Ireland, by virtue of the land border. The Irish believe that, as a result of the land border, they can maintain social distancing. I hope that that gives his constituents and, indeed, the people of Northern Ireland a measure of reassurance.
I appreciate that the Foreign Secretary may have to raise this issue with colleagues, but people are naturally drawing comparisons between actions in this country—the advice against going to pubs, restaurants and places of entertainment, for example—with the position in France and other countries, where such visits are banned completely. Does he appreciate that that causes confusion for people, and that businesses in this country are more likely to be at risk of failure because of the less rigorous position we are taking?
I understand the point the hon. Gentleman raises. It is a fair question, but we have taken that position, first, because we are following the scientific advice that applies to the UK, and secondly, because covid-19 is affecting different countries at different paces and some of them are at a different place on the curve in terms of the spread of coronavirus. We will make the right decisions at the right time, in the best interests of people in this country, including our businesses, and we will do so based on the scientific advice, which carefully takes into account the different approaches and the different pace at which countries are trying to deal with coronavirus in Europe and across the world.
Although I am hugely appreciative of the pressure that consular staff are under, for everybody who has a loved one—particularly a vulnerable loved one—trapped in this situation, it is the end of the world. I have a constituent on the Silver Spirit cruise ship outside Darwin who is 78 years old and in extremely poor health. We are told that there are issues with the financial viability of the cruise line and the safety of supplies. I have a constituent in Peru who has multiple problems and whose mother is desperate. I had a case in from Morocco this morning; they are coming in every few hours. Can the Minister help with those cases, and can he assure us that capacity is being reviewed so we can urgently upscale it, at least for the coming weeks?
I reassure the hon. Lady that, in both the cases she referred to, we are actively looking at the solutions we can provide for UK nationals. She is right to raise the issue of scalable support. I am making sure that all the resource available will be focused on coronavirus in the weeks ahead, so of course there is an element of scalability. We have the resilience to get through this crisis, and I am confident that we will.
Another case of people stuck in Morocco was raised with me today—that of a family with three young children. I understand they were due to fly back on 24 March, but flights have been suspended. May I have clarity on when they can come home to Glasgow? They are stockpiling food and just do not know when they will be able to get back. What advice can the Secretary of State offer?
The Africa Minister has already made it clear that he will follow up on all those cases, so we will certainly look at the case of the hon. Lady’s constituents. I am writing to all hon. Members with practical advice about how they can stay up to date by following the real-time advice. We will continue to give the hon. Lady and all other hon. Members as much advice as swiftly as possible to provide for the safety but also the return of their constituents.
Many constituents up and down the country are doing the right and inevitable thing and cancelling Easter holidays, but far too many are doing the hokey-cokey between travel agents, the FCO advice and insurance companies. What more can the Secretary of State do to give people a nudge in the right direction?
I think the clarity of the advice we have given today will provide the nudge, to use the hon. Gentleman’s expression. The most important thing we can do for our constituents, the airline industry and, indeed, the insurers is to give clear advice. We have done that. We advise against all but essential global travel, and I am confident that the airline industry and the insurers will take the responsible approach in response.
I agree with the advice that non-essential passenger travel should be halted. The Foreign Secretary said that air freight channels should remain. The thing about air freight is that so much of it goes on passenger-carrying planes, so the empty seats have to be paid for by either the industry or the Government. What work have the Government done to identify critical routes, critical airlines and the support packages required to keep freight channels and the airlines going?
I can assure the hon. Gentleman that I have discussed that issue with the Transport Secretary, who is in conversation with the airlines. The hon. Gentleman is right that there is not a clear division between freight and passenger travel; they often go on the same aircraft. We are very conscious of that, and we will work with the industry to ensure that we can chart as sustainable a path ahead as possible, but we have to take—
Time is critical.
Of course time is critical. We are in daily touch with all the relevant interlocutors, including the airlines and airports, but it is important that we take this measure now, not least given some of the comments that have been made in the House about travel arrangements over the Easter period.
Like many of my constituents, I have a family member stuck abroad—in my case, an older aunt stuck in the US. I certainly look forward to her healthy return, along with that of the rest of my constituents’ family members, once a global strategy is in place. My right hon. Friend the Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry) was right to highlight the global leadership and global response that is required. In that regard, is not one of the lessons we must learn from covid-19 the need for a joint mechanism to guide co-ordinated global efforts on the development, testing and roll-out of potential cures and vaccines, potentially with the establishment of a dedicated body responsible for that work? Will the Foreign Secretary undertake to look into that proposal?
I thank the hon. Lady for the emphasis she puts on international co-ordination. There are multilateral efforts to make sure we deal with everything from research and development of vaccines to capacity building for the most vulnerable countries. I am certainly happy to look at the details of any proposals if she wants to write to me. The challenge has been with different approaches, driven partly by different assessments of the risk, but also the pace at which coronavirus has spread and geography.
The Secretary of State mentioned the Irish Government’s announcement of a mandatory 14-day self-quarantine period. The Australian Prime Minister recently announced the same thing for passengers arriving in Australia from abroad. Is that an option the UK Government are actively considering?
That is, ultimately, the responsibility of the Home Secretary. What I can say to the hon. Lady is that, given the changes we are making to travel advice, it would not seem to be necessary and nor does the scientific advice we are getting suggest that that is a measure we should take at this time.
I thank the Foreign Secretary. Thank you very much.
Company Transparency (Carbon in Supply Chains)
Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)
I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to require companies to prepare an annual statement on carbon in their supply chains; and for connected purposes.
It may seem odd that, on a day when we are focusing on an immediate crisis facing the world, covid-19, we should also look at other issues facing the world, but there is no doubt that climate change is an immediate crisis. It will still be here when the immediate crisis we face over covid-19 is more manageable and under control, so it is right that we should not stop looking at global matters at a time when we have an immediate health emergency. I think that hon. Members would agree that this is probably the most significant long-term threat to our health, wealth and happiness, and that, like covid-19, it is an issue that affects the whole world.
Climate change, like covid-19, is an issue that requires global action. It cannot be tackled by any one country taking unilateral measures. It requires global leadership, which we in the UK have a duty to provide. We have done so already. We are the first developed country to legislate to be net zero by 2050 and I am extremely proud to have been a part of the Government who brought in that legislation. We are taking other significant measures at home, which are welcome. I also welcome the opportunity provided by hosting COP26 in the UK this autumn. This is a real opportunity to showcase the measures we are bringing in at home and to demonstrate our global leadership. At a point when the world has seen what a global pandemic can do, it is also an opportunity for the UK to shine. I want to put on record my thanks to former Member Claire Perry-O’Neill, who spotted the opportunity to make sure that COP26 would be brought to this country. My only regret, as the former Northern Ireland Secretary, is that I was not able to secure it for Belfast—or indeed Stoke-on-Trent. They were my two first choices.
We can always do more. When the UK is responsible for less than 1% of global emissions, and China responsible for 25% of global emissions, it is important to consider the actions we can take in the UK to ensure global action. The action we take here will come to nothing if it is not replicated globally or if businesses try to get around our rules by moving production overseas, using third-party suppliers who are not as clean and green as our industries. I particularly want to reflect on energy-intensive industries such as ceramics—I declare my interest as a north Staffordshire MP—where more and more ceramics production takes place overseas to deal with such issues as the energy trading scheme and other matters. It is quite right that we have measures in place to ensure our industries are as clean as possible, but we cannot allow business to move overseas, affecting our highly skilled and excellent businesses in the UK, just to get around carbon emissions.
I considered what it was possible for us to do and looked back to something I had done previously as a Minister, which was in the Modern Slavery Act 2015. As co-chair of the all-party group on human trafficking and modern slavery, I look at that issue on a regular basis. As with climate change, modern slavery and human trafficking is a global issue, and it can only be tackled globally. As a Minister, I was incredibly proud to take the Modern Slavery Act 2015 through Parliament. I thank my fellow Ministers who took it through with me: my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May), and Lord Bates and Baroness Garden in the other place. It was a world-leading Act, introducing new measures that had never been seen before in a developed country.
There were, however, challenges. One was how to deal with extraterritoriality—not least trying to say extraterritoriality when I had a horrible cold—and we looked at what we could do to ensure that businesses did not just offshore and outsource modern slavery. One measure championed by former Members Frank Field and Fiona Mactaggart, as well as by my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller), Baroness Butler-Sloss, Lord Randall and our very old friend Anthony Steen, was the transparency of supply chains. Many others also campaigned on this matter, but they were the real leaders. We wanted to shine a light on supply chains. We wanted visibility on what businesses were doing to identify and eradicate human trafficking and modern slavery in supply chains. Businesses wanted that, too. Businesses wanted legalisation, because ethical, well-behaved businesses wanted to cross the line together. They wanted the Government to help them to make sure that when they took the right steps to eradicate modern slavery in their supply chains others would do the same.
Section 54 of the 2015 Act is a light-touch regulation under which businesses have to declare on their website every year the steps they are taking to identify and eliminate human trafficking and modern slavery in their global supply chains. They can say, and be completely in line with the law, that they are taking no steps to identify human trafficking and modern slavery in their supply chains. It is entirely legal for them to do that, but I think the public will see that and they will want action to be taken. The all-party group wants to look more at how that provision is working in practice. I think we should look at how we can replicate it elsewhere.
An important part of the provision is that it elevates the issue to board level. A director has to sign off the statement, so members of the board have to look at the action that is being taken. By giving the public that information and letting them see what action businesses are taking, they can make informed and educated decisions about whether they want to work with those businesses. I propose that we adopt a similar approach to carbon emissions. It is really important that we ensure businesses take seriously the level of carbon emissions in their supply chains. I was contacted yesterday by my former college, Imperial College London, which is doing an awful lot of work on how to identify and decarbonise supply chains. We know that this work is going on, and we know that businesses and others are interested in it.
I say to the Government that this is an opportunity to show global Britain at its best. It is an opportunity to show us on the world stage taking steps above and beyond those taken by other countries. It would ensure that we say to the businesses that want to operate and sell to consumers in this country that they have to act ethically with regard to carbon emissions. I urge the Government to seize the initiative, so that by the time of COP26 we have taken steps that are extraterritorial and can make a real difference. If we do that and show that leadership, we can make a real difference.
I commend the Bill to the House.
Question put and agreed to.
That Alex Norris, Mr Laurence Robertson, Mark Garnier, David Mundell, Mark Logan, Mike Kane, Mr Alistair Carmichael, Christine Jardine, Dame Diana Johnson, Mrs Maria Miller, Darren Jones and Karen Bradley present the Bill.
Karen Bradley accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 15 May, and to be printed (Bill 113).
Ways and Means
Income tax (charge)
Debate resumed (Order, 12 March).
Question again proposed,
That income tax is charged for the tax year 2020-21.
And it is declared that it is expedient in the public interest that this Resolution should have statutory effect under the provisions of the Provisional Collection of Taxes Act 1968.
I inform the House that Mr Speaker has not selected the amendment in the name of the Leader of the Opposition.
Last week’s Budget was a blueprint for a more connected, more prosperous and more equal Britain—a nation where we deliver on our promises, where investors want to do business and where stable employment, decent housing, reliable transport, excellent healthcare and education, and the same opportunities extend to everyone in society, no matter where they live. Today’s Budget debate comes against a background of a global health emergency, however, so we must come together as a country to face the unprecedented threat posed by the coronavirus outbreak.
I pay tribute to and thank my opposite number, the hon. Member for Middlesbrough (Andy McDonald), for his truly constructive support through this crisis. For several years, the country has looked on the House and its behaviour and seen it divided, in particular over the vexed issue of Brexit, so the way that this matter is being approached by the official Opposition and others is truly welcome. People will look at the House and see that, when it comes to rising to the occasion, we can to work together in the country’s interests.
This crisis requires radical action and support for our incredible health service, for businesses, for the self-employed, and, of course, for the elderly, sick and vulnerable members of our society. We made a start on that last week in the Budget where the Chancellor set out a £12 billion package of measures designed to counteract the immediate impact of the virus.
I will not give way yet; I want to make some progress.
That package was part of a wider £30 billion stimulus to offset the economic impacts. However, we understand that this is effectively a war. The enemy is a virus, but we must none the less approach it in the same way as a war.
Again, I want to make a bit of progress, because I am aware that many hon. Members want to speak in the debate.
We have been clear about how we will fight the war. The first principle is to follow scientific advice at every step. It is all too easy to be distracted by the demands of round-the-clock media coverage, by the clamour on social media or by means and measures that sound good at the time, but are not based on irrefutable scientific logic. We will continue to base our decisions on what the experts believe is in the best interests of this country.
I wholly support following the evidence and scientific advice, but the Government’s advice yesterday to avoid pubs and restaurants has caused a genuine outcry across the whole hospitality industry, because people are terrified that their businesses will be closing forever in two to three weeks’ time. They cannot manage their overheads, they desperately need support and they cannot even claim for insurance because the Government will not formally close them. Why will the Government not make that decision now?
The hon. Member speaks for the concerns of many across the House and across the country. I do not think there can be any denying it, because that is the severity of the enemy in this war. I reassure him, and many other hon. Members who plan to make interventions, by saying that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer will say more on that later today.
At no point will we stop listening to the advice or reacting to events, because as the progress of the virus changes, so will the response. The nature of this crisis and the circumstances are changing all the time, so our response will evolve to meet the threat until the virus poses no threat to the country or to our citizens.
The Secretary of State will know that other countries have pledged to support every business so that it does not go bankrupt during the worst period of coronavirus infection, that they are supporting laid-off workers to the tune of 75% of their income, and that serious support is being given to the self-employed, many of whom will now not have any work. When will the Government take similar measures in this country?
As I said in pre-empting the hon. Gentleman’s intervention, the Chancellor will say more about all that shortly. I recognise the concerns raised by the hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members.
My own sector, transport, is massively affected, so we are working to support the whole industry under these extreme circumstances. We are looking at a range of options to help the rail, aviation and bus sectors. We have already taken action to prevent the empty ghost flights that were flying because of the 80/20 rule, which meant that they had to make pointless journeys even if they did not have anybody on board. I took action by writing to Airport Coordination Limited, the slots co-ordinator in this country, and the European Commission on a couple of occasions. They have provided relief, which means that we no longer have to have those flights in the skies, but it will not lead to airlines necessarily losing their slots.
Clearly we all await the Chancellor’s announcement tonight with interest. I hope that it surpasses the response to the 2008 financial crisis. Regrettably, we need a fiscal response and a level of Government intervention on that scale. We do not want to see that, but it is what we need for people’s lives and for strategic industries.
Specifically on transport, the Secretary of State talks about support for airlines and the rail and bus industries. Does he accept that we may have to put some of those into national ownership, even if for a temporary period? Will he consider relaxing the rules on bail-outs for municipal bus companies and others? In Cardiff, Cardiff Bus will really struggle. We need the rules to be relaxed so that we can give it the right support, so it can survive and pay its workers.
The hon. Gentleman is right to say that the principle should be that, as far as we can make it work, people—individuals and companies—are in the same position when we come out of this situation. I feel that we will be in a somewhat changed world and changed environment on the other side of it, but good organisations should not be going bust. It will be hugely challenging. We will require a lot of different responses and mechanisms to get there, including, on occasion, organisations being run by the public sector, which we have already seen in the case of trains for a completely different reason.
Turning to trains, it makes no sense for us to run empty trains. As fewer people will be travelling following last night’s advice and guidance from the Government and the Prime Minister, timetables may be altered in the short to medium term to ensure that we do not effectively run ghost trains. We are also determined to ensure that companies are left in as strong a position as possible so that they can continue to operate afterwards. Despite the immensely challenging situation in which we find ourselves, we will work in partnership with the transport industry to keep essential services running for the public and for those who need to get to work, who have essential business and who will therefore still be travelling.
On the proposal to reduce the number of trains, buses and tubes that are running, given that so many of them are so crowded at the moment, would it not make sense to keep many more of them running so that those essential workers who still have to get to work have more space?
The right hon. Lady makes an excellent point, as ever. The reality is that, because of social distancing, it might well be desirable to have more space between people so that they can keep some distance. Yes, that absolutely needs to be taken into account as we consider the timetabling.
We will get through this crisis together as a nation. Working in this great national effort, we will ensure that we come through on the other side and provide hope for all our citizens. The Budget shows that we are serious about the pledges we have made and about the trust that the electorate put in us only three months ago. We intend to deliver on those infrastructure pledges.
The Department for Transport has already been working hard to deliver on those pledges. For example, in recent weeks we have taken decisive action to improve journeys for millions of Northern rail commuters by putting the franchise into the operator of last resort. We have announced plans to extend discounted train travel to more than 830,000 veterans. The Minister of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Chris Heaton-Harris), has kickstarted work on reversing the Beeching cuts, which have so blighted the nation in decades past and prevented people from being interconnected. In January we announced the preferred route for the east-west rail link that will connect Oxford and Cambridge, which will increase access to jobs and make it easier and cheaper to travel, creating a region that has been dubbed the UK’s silicon valley. We are not only making journeys more efficient and easier; we are also making them cleaner. We are consulting on bringing forward the end of fossil fuel cars and vans to 2035, or earlier if practical. We are taking enormous steps forward.
The Chancellor has delivered a Budget that includes some of the most ambitious infrastructure programmes seen since the 1950s. It will help to level up this country. Infrastructure that is unreliable, overcrowded and no longer fit for purpose acts as a drag anchor on our entire economy. When it is efficient and gets people where they need to be, it can turn around the fortunes of our towns and cities. With interest rates at an historic low, now is the time to get Britain building.
As my right hon. Friend knows, I am pressing for a better deal for the Isle of Wight. What are the criteria for the levelling up agenda? The Island is part of the wealthy south-east, but our economy has more in common with the north, or indeed with parts of east Devon and Cornwall, so what does levelling up look like for us? Is it part of the funding settlement or is it infrastructure projects?
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. As many Members across the House will know, people often think that just because a constituency is in a certain part of the country—the south-east in his case—it must be enormously prosperous. Many of us represent enormously deprived communities, perhaps just an individual ward, within an otherwise prosperous area, so it is very important that the criteria for levelling up take that all into account. That is why the Green Book is being rewritten as a result of last week’s Budget. We look forward to hearing more about that in due course.
With interest rates at an historic low, it is time to get Britain building. That is why the Chancellor set out plans to inject £640 billion by 2024-25 into roads, railways, hospitals, broadband, housing and research, to modernise the fabric of our country, turbo-charge our economy—perhaps to electrically charge our economy —and get every single region of the UK growing, not matter where it is.
Strategic investment in infrastructure is very welcome, but another Budget measure that the Chancellor announced was the removal of the red diesel rebate for the construction industry, which means the cost of diesel for construction will double. That is predicted in the Red Book to bring in £5 billion over two years. How much of that £640 billion investment will be written off by paying costs for diesel?
The hon. Gentleman, who has questioned me passionately many times about greening the economy, will appreciate that red diesel contributes tremendously to the problems he often cites. There will be a consultation, so he will have an opportunity to put his concerns on the record, as he has done partially today.
The Government will provide more details on our investment priorities when we publish our national infrastructure strategy in the spring and the comprehensive spending review later this year. That will include taking forward Northern Powerhouse Rail, having already committed to the section between Manchester and Leeds, and reversing many of the Beeching cuts, as I have mentioned. I am grateful to Members across the House for bringing forward an extraordinary number of potential Beeching reversals, which the Minister of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry, is now in the process of assessing, working with colleagues across the House. We are also delivering High Speed 2, to transform rail connections between our major cities while releasing capacity on our existing railways, particularly for freight.
We will present an integrated rail plan for the north and for the midlands, examining how HS2 and Northern Powerhouse Rail can best work together, along with wider investment in transport across the regions. We have the largest ever investment in English strategic roads. We have £27 billion to tackle congestion and increase capacity. We have £2.5 billion to fill potholes and ensure that more do not develop. We have £5 billion for the roll-out of broadband, particularly in rural areas, to ensure that our four nations are fully linked together. We have record funding of £5.2 billion for flood defences—we have seen recently how important it is to have that cash going in. We have £4.2 billion for urban transport through long-term settlements with eight mayoral combined authorities. We have £22 billion for science, innovation and technology by 2024-25, to help us develop new products and services to sell around the world.
Of course, we also have a massive housing programme. We have made significant progress towards building more affordable, high-quality homes in recent years— far more than when I was Housing Minister—and the housing supply is now at its highest level for 32 years, which is quite an achievement. However, we still have a long way to go. The Budget mentioned remedying some of that shortfall, first by extending the affordable homes programme with a multi-year £12 billion settlement, and secondly by helping local authorities to invest while such low interest rates are available.
I very much welcome the investment that my right hon. Friend has announced. However, if we do not get our businesses through the crisis of the next few months, much of that investment will not bear fruit as it should. He has quite rightly said that he wants businesses to be in the same place in the future that they are in today, but lots of the income they will lose over the next few months will never come back. Does he agree that we must put in place a package of financial support based on grants, not merely business loans?
I do not want to pre-empt what the Chancellor might say later, but I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making that point. I will repeat what I said at the beginning of my speech and then wrap up my remarks, to allow other Members to contribute. The situation is clearly approaching what we would otherwise, in different times, thing of as a war that this country needs to fight. As in a war, we need to deploy every possible weapon, and of course that will involve a variety of financial and other tools to do precisely that. Nothing must be off our radar when we consider the possible responses.
Levelling up will not be achieved through a single fiscal event such as the Budget, but it will be part of an integrated plan over the next five years, and I have mentioned already some of the other fiscal events. One of the most powerful agents for change will be the infrastructure programme that I have outlined today to get Britain building. The process will be triggered by an historic investment, through the national infrastructure strategy, the spending review and an autumn Budget later this year. We know that there are big challenges ahead—the most immediate, as hon. Members across the House have said, is dealing with the coronavirus outbreak.
This Budget is designed to build a strong foundation to make us fairer and more equal as a country, where we harness the potential of every region, and where people’s ambitions can be achieved. But we also recognise that we are doing so in the immediate short term against the backdrop of tackling what is perhaps the greatest health emergency that the country has seen since the Spanish flu. I know that we can do this as a country. I know that we can do this by showing the same spirit that this House has demonstrated in the past few weeks; by working together, finding the right solutions and getting the job done. That is our vision, and that is what we will deliver.
Order. Before I call the shadow Secretary of State, let me say that it will be obvious to the House that a great many people wish to speak this afternoon. We have a lot of time for this important debate, and I am hoping to manage it without a formal time limit because that makes for better debates. We will manage it if everyone behaves with courtesy and speaks for between seven and eight minutes, which is quite a long time. At least, it is quite a long time for everyone who is listening. [Laughter.] So if Members speak for about seven to eight minutes we will manage without a time limit, but if that does not happen I shall have to impose one.
Clearly these are extraordinary times, and everything that we say and do is said and done through the prism of the response to the coronavirus emergency. I thank the Secretary of State for his kind remarks, and also for his courtesy and candour in keeping me briefed as these events unfold. I hope that that conversation continues, and I recommit myself and my party to working with the Government to counter this national and international emergency. I send my sincere sympathies to those who have lost loved ones, and my sincerest thanks to our NHS and public service workers for their incredible work to date and what they will do in the future in response to what is the greatest peacetime challenge to face our country for more than 100 years.
While these are indeed abnormal times, I will endeavour to turn my attention and that of the House to a time when our focus will hopefully return to other matters which we would normally address. Before I do so, however, may I raise with the Secretary of State some points that have arisen overnight and in recent times? As my right hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband) rightly said yesterday, it is no fault of the Chancellor, but his Budget is clearly out of date, and, sadly, a major reappraisal is already necessary. Accordingly, I very much welcome the news that he is to make a statement to the House later today about the additional measures that he intends to take.
Yesterday, at a press conference, the Prime Minister advised people to avoid pubs, restaurants and theatres, but despite that advice, which will result in many businesses being unable to operate and will cause job losses or loss of income, there was no sufficient accompanying support. Will the Secretary of State implore the Prime Minister, and others, to ensure that the right support is made available? I trust that, in addition, the Government will ensure that insurers do not plead force majeure and avoid their liabilities.
The Government are also asking people to self-isolate, but are not providing the financial assistance that those people need. It is not only unfair to ask people to enact social distancing and to self-isolate if necessary without giving them adequate support; it is dangerous and counterproductive, because it risks discouraging people from taking necessary action. In France, after the announcement of similar but more stringent measures, the French Government announced that electricity, gas and rental bills would be suspended. Why has the United Kingdom not announced similar measures?
It is being reported that private train companies are already requesting bail-outs or renegotiations of their contracts. Social distancing will hit fares revenue hard, making franchises unprofitable for some train operating companies, and with demand for travel down, there may be a temptation to run services at a different frequency from what is specified in the franchise agreements. However, along with my right hon. Friend the Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper), I ask the Secretary of State to consider the possibility that contagion will be reduced by the presence of fewer passengers with the same level of service. No doubt the medical officers and others will advise.
My hon. Friend is making some important and constructive points. I do not know whether he is aware that the First Minister of Wales has just sent a letter to the Chancellor, in which he makes clear that we will have to intervene in an unprecedented way. Does my hon. Friend approve of the measures that he has suggested, such as tax holidays, loan guarantees to help productive capacity, underwriting the wages of employees who are affected, and, if necessary, the temporary nationalisation of key transport infrastructure?
Those are indeed the sorts of responses that we hope to see emerge from the Government Dispatch Box later today. I entirely agree with the approach taken by the Welsh Government.
As I was saying—and my hon. Friend has echoed my view—the state should not bail out the private train companies. Indeed, the fact that those companies are already wanting to be bailed out demonstrates why it is irresponsible for public services to be run in the private sector. Rather than offering a bailout, the Government should offer to take back the keys and return the services to public ownership.
The aviation sector has been hit incredibly hard by the outbreak of coronavirus. We have already seen the collapse of Flybe with 2,000 job losses, not to mention the impact that that will have on jobs at regional airports and across the supply chain. Of course, many thousands of UK citizens are still overseas and will want to return, so the Secretary of State has my full support for his efforts to sustain services to facilitate such repatriation.
Indeed, it is not only a question of passengers: many vital goods and medicines are transported in the belly holds of aircraft. Can the Secretary of State tell us what specific measures are being taken to ensure that those supplies are maintained?
Clearly many people are going to extraordinary lengths to assist their neighbours and their communities, and I know that businesses will bend over backwards to help their loyal workforces at this time. That being so, will the Secretary of State send a message to major employers asking them to do what they can to sustain their employees’ incomes, and will he give an assurance that workers will also be supported by the underwriting of the majority of their wages by the Government should temporary cessations of trading be necessary?
Does my hon. Friend agree that those with the broadest shoulders should bear the biggest burden in seeing our country through this crisis? If so, does he think it right that Richard Branson, the billionaire boss of Virgin, is asking his workers to take eight weeks’ unpaid leave?
My hon. Friend must have read my speech in advance. I was about to ask the Secretary of State to prevail on the very same Richard Branson to look to his own considerable reserves, built on the wealth created by his Virgin airline workforce, and withdraw his proposal that they should suffer eight weeks of unpaid leave. I note that he is asking for a Government bailout, but I trust that the Government may expect him to use his own considerable resources before that happens—perhaps when he is down to his last billion. He might be able to live without two months of income, but his workers cannot.
The Secretary of State’s decision—made in lockstep with the European Union—to end ghost flights involving empty aircraft flying simply to retain slots is clearly right, but can he advise us of the consequences for airline staff and ground crew and the support that they will receive, given that their risk of losing their jobs has undoubtedly increased significantly?
In that context, as my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition told the Prime Minister yesterday, the Government must now make commitments to extending full sick pay and lost earnings protection to all workers from day one, including insecure, low-paid and self-employed workers, during self-isolation and illness; raising statutory sick pay in line with amounts in other European countries; introducing rent and mortgage payment deferment options, and banning evictions of tenants affected by the outbreak; removing the requirement for people to present themselves for universal credit, suspending sanctions, and reducing the waiting time for the first payment from five weeks; and supporting local authorities working with food banks in the purchase and distribution of food stocks.
The road haulage industry is founded on an army of small businesses, and if they are to be sustained, it is essential for the cross-channel freight routes to be maintained. What assurance can the Secretary of State give in that regard? Northern Ireland should also have special consideration, given that it is of course dependent on goods coming from Great Britain—as, indeed, is the Republic of Ireland. What steps are being taken to ensure continuity of supply across the English channel and the Irish sea?
Over the past few days, it has been self-evident that the Government must commit themselves more fully to communicating truthfully and effectively with the public about the developments of the virus and their response to it. It should not be the case that we have Ministers giving anonymous briefings to select members of the press about facts known to the Government. Ministers must acknowledge that this poor communication has increased public concerns, and I reiterate what my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition requested of the Prime Minister when they met yesterday evening: I ask that the Government provide much greater transparency in their approach to tackling the outbreak. We must follow the advice of the World Health Organisation and see an increase in testing, along with provision of vital equipment such as ventilators and acute beds.
Sadly, because of this Government’s decade of crippling austerity, we have seen a slashing of over 17,000 NHS hospital beds since 2010, which has led to the disgrace of a private healthcare firm charging the NHS £300 a bed for coronavirus patients. Indeed, the outbreak of the coronavirus has illuminated what has been done to public services in this country over the last 10 years, and I fear that in the coming weeks it will become clear that the situation created by years of underfunding will become unsustainable.
The Budget announced last week showed that the austerity project has failed, even on the Conservative party’s own terms. We now know, once and for all, that austerity was never an economic necessity, but a political choice—a political choice that has left millions of working people across this country paying the price for the recklessness of the financial services industry, when it crashed the economy in 2008.
Today’s debate is focused on the “levelling up” of the economy, but far from levelling up, the Government have presided over huge inequalities on regional investment. In 2018-19, transport spending per head in the north-east, north-west, and Yorkshire and the Humber was £486, £412 and £276 respectively. In comparison, London received £903 per head in the same year. The OECD recently argued that
“addressing the regional productivity divide—between high-productivity areas like London and Southern England and low-productivity regions in the North—can be a key channel for fostering long-term growth and sharing prosperity across the country”,
recommending regionally focused investment in transportation as part of an industrial strategy to boost productivity. But this Budget fails to include such policies.
At the general election, Labour pledged to close gaps in regional transport investment by delivering projects including Crossrail for the north and HS2 to Scotland, and upgrading the rail network in the south-west, as well as providing transformational levels of investment for local public and sustainable transport. This Budget fails to even reverse Conservative cuts to the rail network, leaving in place the cuts to electrification in the south-west, the north and the midlands.
The Government have repeatedly talked up their commitment to Northern Powerhouse Rail, but they have not committed to the full £39 billion project, as Labour has done. Instead, they will commit money only to improvements between Manchester and Leeds. Critically, there is no commitment to resolve bottlenecks such as the Castlefield corridor, or indeed any of the selected flyover and electrification programmes described in the excellent Channel 4 “Dispatches” programme last night. I can see the commitment to the infrastructure works in my own constituency at Middlesbrough station, which are critical to the running of the entire northern network, but sadly, I have no grounds to believe that the necessary funds will be made available until 2023 at the very earliest.
Similarly, the Government are promising to reverse the Beeching cuts, yet have only made £500 million available, which is small beer in real terms and would be lucky to open a very small section of track.
I note the Government’s interest in buses. I have been banging on about buses for years, and it was good to see the BBC devote attention to buses in another documentary last night, but can I gently try to persuade the Secretary of State to look carefully at Labour’s proposals to bring back and expand routes, increase ridership, decarbonise the fleet and provide free travel for all under the age of 25 within a re-regulated bus network that is wholly integrated with other modes? Were he to do that, he would come to the inevitable conclusion that the only way to achieve all that was within a public transport system that was genuinely public in ownership and control.
When the coronavirus crisis is eventually over—we all hope and pray that will be sooner rather than later—we will still face the climate crisis, and sadly, this Budget does little to address it. Greenpeace commented that
“the Chancellor has completely missed the opportunity to address the climate emergency... he’s driving in the opposite direction.”
Friends of the Earth agreed, saying:
“This Budget contains a massive road-building programme which completely destroys any pretence of UK government leadership ahead of this year’s crucial climate summit.
Funding for cleaner cars, EV charging, action on plastics and more trees are just a few green sprinklings on a truly awful budget.”
The UK is way off track to meet its own climate change targets and is further still from meeting its commitments under the Paris climate agreement. This failure is being driven by a rising trend in emissions caused largely by increased traffic growth, which has left transport as the UK’s single largest source of greenhouse gas emissions and the worst-performing sector when it comes to reducing carbon emissions. This failure is the result of deliberate Government policy encouraging traffic growth through an ever-expanding multibillion-pound programme of road building.
This Budget is destined to make the problem worse by pledging over £27 billion for new road building, which will increase car use, worsen congestion and increase air pollution and climate emissions, with little benefit for the economy and at the expense of concreting over large areas of the country. A huge part of the problem is that public transport fares have risen at more than twice the rate of wages since 2010 while fuel duty has remained frozen, meaning the cost of public transport has risen above the cost of motoring, discouraging more sustainable transport and worsening congestion and pollution. Yet the fuel duty freeze continues and there are no measures to reduce the cost of public transport, compounding the failure of recent years.
The contrast between what will be spent on new road building alone and what is pledged for cycling and walking and for public transport illustrates the Government’s priorities, with the investment in roads five times that in sustainable transport. The funding for local transport that the Government announced with significant fanfare simply will not cut it. Labour pledged £6.5 billion over the same period to reverse more than 3,000 bus route cuts in England and to invest in new services. It could cost around £3 billion to reverse the cuts made to bus services alone, yet the £5 billion pledged in the Budget is meant to fund bus services, build new cycle lanes and purchase around 4,000 zero-emission buses. This fund has been over-promised and will not deliver the investment in local transport needed to address the climate crisis and support local economies.
On electric vehicles, it is good that the Chancellor decided to continue the grants. It would have been highly damaging for the plug-in car grant to be scrapped, as subsidies for EVs are required until the up-front cost of EVs reaches price parity with internal combustion engine vehicles. But it should be pointed out that the grants had previously been cut from £5,000 to £3,500—a move condemned by industry. If the UK is to reduce transport emissions in line with climate targets, the cuts to grants should be reversed. By contrast, Labour had pledged to introduce 2.5 million interest-free loans, worth an additional £1,500, for the purchase of EVs so as to allow low-income households, those living in rural areas, and independent contractors and small and medium-sized enterprises to save on new electric cars.
Again, the £500 million investment in EV charging infrastructure is better than nothing, but £400 million of this fund is a reannouncement from the 2017 autumn Budget. This money should have already been invested and should have been supplemented by a further announcement in this Budget so as to provide an adequate charging network. By contrast, to jump-start the transition to electric cars and tackle the climate emergency, Labour pledged to invest £3.6 billion in a mammoth expansion of the UK’s EV charging network. A rapid roll-out of charging stations would eliminate concerns over driving range and lack of electric car charging infrastructure by providing enough electrical charge points for 21.5 million electric cars—65% of the UK’s fleet—by 2030.
On the greatest crisis facing humanity, the climate crisis, this Budget is going in the wrong direction. On the most immediate crisis facing us, the coronavirus, the Budget fails to provide the country and its workers with the safety and security they require. On the Budget’s central promise to level up the country, it is an abject failure, failing to reverse the austerity cuts of the past decade and to invest in infrastructure across the country. The coronavirus pandemic is a dreadful and most immediate crisis, but one day it will be behind us. When we are past this, the same problems of social and regional inequalities and the climate crisis will still be there. I worry that, on the evidence of this Budget, the Government do not have the vision or the ambition to tackle them. When we are through this, we should take the opportunity to reset our economy, so that it works for our people, as it always should.
It gives me great pleasure to call Gagan Mohindra to make his maiden speech.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for allowing me the opportunity to make my maiden speech as the Member of Parliament for South West Hertfordshire, and it is a real pleasure to have you in the Chair during it. I know I am among the last of my intake to address this House. I have had the pleasure of listening to many moving and memorable speeches from my friends over the last few months. I am not ashamed to say that I get goosebumps in this place; as I sit on these green Benches, I feel the weight of history and the legacy of my political heroes all about me. But I hope that, like Trigger’s broom, I will prove to be a worthy replacement for my forebears, whether I am the head or the handle! And I do not intend to ever take the trust of my constituents to represent them in this place for granted. The weight of our responsibility as public servants weighs on us all more now than ever. But everything has its place, and in my maiden speech. I know you want to hear about the best constituency in our country and I intend not to disappoint.
However, I would like to start by paying tribute to my predecessor, the right hon. David Gauke. During his 14 and a half years of public service, David was a dedicated Member of Parliament, and he was highly respected by his constituents and colleagues alike. He was fiercely intelligent and famously cool under pressure. However, during the 2019 general election, the public got to know another side of David: his wicked sense of humour, which was already well known to his friends in this House. As I fought the election, I found I had to overcome the appeal of not one Gauke, but two, as Gauke senior, Jim, went viral in David’s videos. David ran one of the most engaging campaigns to be found during the general election, and I commend his enthusiasm and passion. Despite the difficult circumstances of his fighting against his former party, it was a civilised battle and I thank him for that.
As to David’s political career, he was a heavyweight of the Conservative Government over the last decade. He held many senior roles, including Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Secretary of State for Work and Pensions and, finally, Secretary of State for Justice. As I have said before, in different times we may well have been colleagues, and I would have been proud to work alongside him. I thank David for his commitment to the residents of South West Hertfordshire, and wish him, Rachel and the rest of his family well in their future endeavours.
Moving on to my stunning constituency, South West Hertfordshire is shaped rather like a couture boot. Picture, if you will, scenic Tring on the thigh, bustling Berkhamsted—Berko to the locals—sitting on the knee, the pretty trio of Flaunden, Bovingdon and Chipperfield making up the calf, striking Sarratt sitting behind the shin and charming Chorleywood on the ankle. Vibrant Rickmansworth, or Ricky, where I live, sits on the heel, and the military base of Northwood headquarters sits on the toe. That is to name but a few of the collection of magnificent communities that make up my constituency, each unique and beautiful in its own way. The arresting natural and man-made beauty of my constituency, top to bottom, is certainly best experienced on foot!
My constituency offers an embarrassment of riches, from its historical market towns, such as Tring, to the Chiltern hills, which are rightly classed as areas of outstanding natural beauty. Further south lies the Colne Valley Regional Park, which is known as the first taste of countryside west of London and comprises some 60 lakes, among woodland, canals and farmland. You can pass many a peaceful afternoon walking here, or visiting the famous aquadrome, where you can water-ski, canoe or sail to your heart’s content.
Behind the thriving Berkhamsted High Street are found the ruins of Berkhamsted castle. It was in Berkhamsted that William the Conqueror received the surrender of the Crown of England in 1066. The castle was then built to assert control over the key supply route through the Chiltern hills from London to the midlands. It is a constituency heaped with history, some of which cannot be retold, like the activities of Northwood HQ. I would like to take this opportunity to thank our armed services for continuing to keep us safe.
The visual beauty of my constituency is only outdone by the warmth and good nature of my constituents. Nowhere in the country better represents the open-minded, tolerant, progressive nature of the United Kingdom than South West Hertfordshire, and I am so grateful that I have been so warmly welcomed. Of course, there are also a number of local concerns and issues to which I will devote my energies. For our commuters, the issues of unreliable rail and underground transport are a repeated source of frustration. There is a lack of access to affordable housing, a concern that has to be balanced against the desire to protect the green belt and character of the area. There are pockets of poverty in a mostly affluent area, resulting in associated social issues, including crime. Of course, we also have many excellent schools in my constituency, including Merchant Taylors’ School and Berkhamsted School, but we need to ensure that good education is accessible for all, not only the affluent.
In the interests of my constituents and the rest of the country, I proudly stand with my Government, who are dedicated to levelling up. This is not only about the north; it is about everyone who is not born with advantage having access to excellent education, public services and visible role models, so that their aspirations and ambitions are not stunted by circumstance. As we know in our hearts, talent does not discriminate and I, like many in my Government, am committed to ensuring that opportunity does not, either. I welcomed the measures announced by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor specifically targeted at levelling up our country, including public sector relocations and more transport capital investment outside London. I welcome the breaking of the old, tired assumptions of what it means to be a modem Conservative and whom we represent. I stand here, proud to be a British Asian and to inhabit the most diverse Parliament we have ever had. But diversity encompasses all manner of considerations, not just diversity of ethnicity or of gender, although I welcome both and am delighted that 34% of this place is now occupied by women—I look forward to that number being higher.
When we speak of diversity and inclusiveness, we must mean engaging the widest diversity of perspective, formed by bringing together individuals with all manner of differences, including those of upbringing and background. It is about destigmatising all forms of physical and mental health issues, and that starts with us in this House. I am dyslexic, so I understand the frustrations posed by learning difficulties, but I must acknowledge that I have also had the benefit of many advantages. I understand that, like many of us in this place, I have been blessed with the good fortune to have self-belief and ambition nurtured in me, both in the home and in the wider environment, from my earliest days. Many in our society are not afforded this most essential of luxuries, and the impact, compounded of course, by other inequalities, is far-reaching. I am passionate about our commitments, as a Government, to do our part to ensure that aspiration and self-belief are not luxury items. That, to me, is the true meaning of levelling up. I look forward to seeing more and more faces in this House who represent our great country in all its guises.
I have a final brief word on the situation in which we find ourselves, responding to the outbreak of coronavirus across the globe. I am encouraged to already bear witness to many open-hearted and civic-minded examples of individuals coming together to help the more vulnerable and needy in our society during a testing time. I also commend the careful response of Government, based on scientific evidence, and the Budget measures announced last week—and those possibly to be announced later today—designed to protect vulnerable individuals and small businesses, who will most need our assistance to navigate the coming months. Of course, I, alongside my colleagues, will be continuously monitoring how to best assist in our national efforts. Working alongside my constituents, every arm of the Government, and people from every walk of life and every corner of the United Kingdom, we will do what we have always done—we will overcome adversity together. It is the greatest honour to serve my country in a time of need. Like those in my position, here in this place, I will do everything I can. Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for indulging me during this debate.
I congratulate the hon. Member for South West Hertfordshire (Mr Mohindra) on his tremendous maiden speech—although it is a good few months since we were both elected, so where have you been, man? You should have been in this Chamber a long time ago. Some of us have obviously been shying away from our duties.
Let me turn to more serious matters. It is important for me to place on record my sincere gratitude to each and every member of our health and social care service at this time. The work that they do the best of times cannot be overstated, but in this unique circumstance we must all commend them. I know from first-hand experience—from my friends and direct close family who work in the care of others—that they do their work selflessly and with pride. I want them to know that we on these Benches are proud of their work.
It is less than a week since the Chancellor came to the Dispatch Box and gave his first Budget, but the reality is that the landscape in the United Kingdom is now much different. It seems almost inconsequential to be debating many of the finer details of the Budget given the ramifications of the ongoing coronavirus situation across these isles, particularly when we bear in mind the fact that the Office for Budget Responsibility estimates did not take into account the initial Government expending in relation to dealing with the coronavirus, let alone what I expect to see come forward later today, but we can and must debate the Budget in full, because we still have the opportunity to encourage the Government to do so much more.
On the topic of doing so much more, let me turn to an item—we heard about it from the hon. Member for Middlesbrough (Andy McDonald), too—on which the Government must act: statutory sick pay. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford) stated last week, statutory sick pay is currently £94.25. It pales into insignificance in comparison to what is on offer in other European countries and world partners. In fact, I am a little frustrated at the fact that, almost a week since the Budget was announced, we are still debating whether statutory sick pay needs to be increased. I was appalled by some of the comments I saw online from the Conservative hon. Member for Mid Derbyshire (Mrs Latham), who, in response to concerns expressed by individuals about the £94.25 figure, stated that they should “Get a life”. Such comments are deeply unbecoming of any Member at this moment in time, and I expect a much better tone from the Government later today.
If the Government are and continue to be unwilling to increase the level of statutory sick pay, there is an alternative, which is to follow the suggestion of that bastion of socialism in the United States of America, Mitt Romney, and look into the introduction of a universal basic income. He wants each and every adult in the United States to be given the equivalent of in excess of £200 each and every week while this crisis is ongoing. Conservative Members might not agree with me in this regard, but hopefully they will agree with one of their own. If it is good enough for the United States of America, why is it not good enough for the United Kingdom?
If the answer is no to statutory sick pay and no to universal basic income, why not look across the channel at the measures that have been put in place in France by President Macron in relation to the suspension of gas, electricity, water and rent bills? Or why not look further afield to New Zealand, where we have seen the doubling of the winter energy payment? If we are going to be asking individuals, particularly elderly and vulnerable individuals, to spend a prolonged time in their homes in isolation, that is going to cost them, and many of them cannot afford to pay the price. We have to be willing—we should be willing—to support them. That is particularly the case in my part of the world, the north-east of Scotland, where it is currently still Baltic. We cannot ask people to stay in their houses without offering them adequate support. In 2008, the UK Government bailed out the banks; my plea to the current UK Government is for them to bail out the public on this occasion. It is their moral duty to do so.
The public sphere extends beyond individual citizens; it encapsulates businesses, too. We have heard from Members from all parties about how we have all been inundated with concerns from businesses relating to the Prime Minister’s words yesterday advising individuals not to visit many of the hospitality venues on offer throughout this United Kingdom. The reality is that words need to be met with action. We need the Government to come forward today with real, clear action, and for them to state that those businesses have to be closed, so that companies and individuals can access the insurance that they require.
We may even need to go further than that. As it stands, the business rates relief that is on offer simply will not cut it. As we have heard from other Members—indeed, my hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Alyn Smith) mentioned it in a contribution earlier today—we need to look seriously at the possibility of the Government becoming the insurer of last resort to protect all businesses throughout this United Kingdom, to ensure that no business fails on our watch, either at this time or in the current months.
There is, of course, an opportunity for the Government to go one step further. The hon. Member for Middlesbrough said that, when it comes to multibillion-pound bail-outs, many of which have been proposed by those in the private sector in recent days, we should in all seriousness be looking at not necessarily bailing companies out but taking back the keys. That would not only give short-term protection but provide a long-term benefit for this country. There is so much that can be done for the business community, and the Government need to think seriously in that regard.
I am conscious of the time, so I want to finish by talking about the north-east of Scotland. We are not just facing the coronavirus outbreak; we are also facing the harsh reality that at 9 o’clock this morning the price of Brent crude oil was below $30 a barrel. That is completely unsustainable for the industry. In the Chancellor’s Budget last week, there was not a peep in relation to oil and gas—not a single mention—despite the fact that the price has been plummeting for a number of weeks. There is a double whammy there and that industry in the north-east of Scotland needs to be protected.
When the Government make their statement later today, we need and must see protections put in place for the public, and we need and must see protections put in place for businesses. We must all come together to ensure that the future prosperity of everyone on these islands is protected.
I rise to support my right hon. Friend the Chancellor’s Budget. We are facing an unprecedented and very difficult situation, but we are better able to deal with it because of how the Conservative party—including in our earlier coalition with the Liberal Democrats—has managed the economy. We need to give credit to George Osborne and Philip Hammond. Philip has taken a lot of criticism because of his views on Europe, but he was a fiscally conservative Chancellor. The fact that, even with the ONS adjustments, the budget deficit will be under 2% this year gives us at least some room for manoeuvre to deal with what is going to be very difficult crisis.
I welcome the increase in investment in the Chancellor’s Budget. I have always felt that we ought to be a bit more French about big projects, because around some of those big projects, private enterprise can grow. Sometimes railways, ports and airports are necessary for an economy to grow. I also welcome the investment in roads—apparently buses as well as cars travel on roads. One of the quickest ways to get an boost to the economy is to take the road network and to add value to it. We have invested billions in roads—in bypasses, extensions and so on. In some areas, resurfacing can make our roads a bit quieter. Those are quite useful things for the Government to be doing, and they will provide a quicker hit than HS2 and other projects, which are far more long term.
In speaking in this debate, I am particularly pleased to follow my hon. Friend the Member for South West Hertfordshire (Mr Mohindra), who made a wonderful start in addressing this Chamber. He said that he was dyslexic. There are at least two Tory Cabinet Ministers who have been dyslexic, so he should take that as a sign of hope for his future career after his fine start.
I have been in this Chamber a while, and can say that there have been a number of occasions when one has been debating a subject with the full knowledge that, at 7 o’clock in the evening, somebody else will make a statement that will totally change the terms of the debate. I welcome the fact that the Chancellor will be here at 7 o’clock, and I think that we all expect other measures to be announced.
Most economic downturns happen steadily and gradually over a number of quarters. Businesses can manage the change, but what has happened recently—sometimes overnight—is that the business model has been destroyed. What we need to do, certainly for the next three months, is keep all those businesses in a situation from which they can recover and prosper. That will require a lot of money and a lot of creative effort, but I am sure that the Government are up to it. I look forward to hearing what the Chancellor is going to say at 7 pm.
As I have said, we are in a much better position because of some of the things that we have done in the past. We had a big debate over austerity in 2010, and, you know what, we won it and we won the general election. We had a debate in 2015, and, you know what, we won it. We had a debate in 2017, and we just about won it, and we had a debate in 2019 and we won it again. I am perfectly content for the Labour party to argue with us on these terms, because it is 4-0 so far and, from what I can see, it will certainly be 5-0 if Labour does not accept that the British people understand that, sometimes, the books have to be balanced.
I hope that we use the economic scope that we have to provide the firepower to get the businesses through the next two or three months. I am confident that the Government are doing the right thing in terms of what is a very difficult wicket. I am confident that the fundamentals of our economy are sound, but what we must not do is let good sound businesses be knocked down because of a short-term difficulty.