House of Commons
Monday 6 July 2020
The House met at half-past Two o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Virtual participation in proceedings commenced (Order, 4 June).
[NB: [V] denotes a Member participating virtually.]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
Veterans’ Welfare: Covid-19
The Veterans Welfare Service has continued to provide full support to veterans throughout the covid-19 pandemic.
Last week I spoke to Forces in the Community, a charity in Broxtowe that supports veterans re-entering civilian life. We agreed that one of the hardest adjustments is finding a rewarding job, and all too often veterans fall at the first application stage because they do not have the “traditional” experience that employers are looking for. The Government have delivered on their manifesto pledge to harness the talent of veterans, guaranteeing an interview if they are applying for a role in the civil service, but we should aim bigger and better. Will my hon. Friend agree to meet me to discuss a pilot veteran confident employer scheme to be rolled out nationwide, so that more veterans’ skills are recognised and harnessed, and they are given the boost they need to thrive as civilians?
I thank my hon. and gallant Friend for his question, and I commend him on his maiden speech, in which he talked about these issues. I am very clear, and the Department is very clear, that the single biggest factor that can improve the life chances of veterans in this country is having a job. We have more veterans going into employment than ever before, but I would be delighted to meet him and hear about his specific efforts in Broxtowe.
I would be delighted to look at that. We have secured specific funding during this challenging time—£6 million out of the Treasury, which has gone to over 100 armed forces charities dealing with the unique challenges of this crisis. I am determined that we will realise this Government’s vision to make this the best country in the world to be a veteran. I would be delighted to meet my hon. Friend and find out what more we can do.
I want to start by wishing the Minister and his wife a huge congratulations on the birth of their daughter, Audrey.
The Government’s ambition is to make the UK the best country in the world to be a veteran, and the Opposition obviously share that ambition, but for 10 and a half weeks, the telephone service of the Veterans UK helpline was closed. The Minister will no doubt say that there was an email service, but his own figures show that that email service saw an overall reduction of over 10,000 contacts on average per month between April and June this year compared with last year, proving that veterans were not emailing instead. What assessment has he made of the impact of the closure of the telephone service on those people who would normally have called the helpline?
I thank the hon. Member for her kind comments about my daughter. She is right—the telephone service was briefly suspended while Veterans UK, like every other organisation in the country, tried to reconfigure its services, to ensure that we met the demand out there. We have helped over 13,000 veterans since 23 March. Per month, we make 470,000 pension and compensation scheme payments. I am still unaware—as I was six weeks ago, when I spoke from the Dispatch Box—of a single veteran whose urgent need has not been responded to, but if she is aware of any, I would be more than happy to meet her and find out what we can do better.
Veterans: Vexatious Claims
We rightly expect the highest standards of our service personnel. We also owe them justice and fairness. On 18 March 2020, I introduced the Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Bill to tackle vexatious claims and end the cycle of reinvestigations against our armed forces personnel and veterans.
I associate myself with the good wishes to the Minister and his wife. In my constituency, Workington, there is an active veterans hub, members of which I met earlier this year. What support can the Department provide for our veterans as they leave the forces to find alternative employment in Workington and other areas across Britain?
I would be delighted to meet my hon. Friend to talk about the options available in his area. More money and more opportunities than ever before are going into veterans employment. As I said earlier, it is the single biggest factor that improves the life chances of any veteran and their family. I am always looking to do more, and I am happy to meet my hon. Friend to go through what is available in his area.
A veteran with an exemplary record from his two tours in Afghanistan recently confided in me his concerns—and, more worryingly, those of soldiers he served with who come from towns in my constituency such as Arnold and Carlton—about being prosecuted as a result of vexatious claims in the future. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is our duty to ensure that we end the unfair trials of people who have served their country?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. This has been one of my driving missions since I entered Parliament. I am delighted to be part of the first Government to have really taken on a very difficult issue, carefully walking down the path of making sure that we can always prosecute those who break the law—uniform is no hiding place for those who do—but that the days of lawyers rewriting history in order to line their own pockets and run amok in lawfare come to an end.
Any action the Minister takes is likely to require a derogation from the European convention on human rights. Given that the ECHR is part of the apparatus of the Council of Europe, will he meet members of the parliamentary delegation to the Assembly, such as myself, so that we can help?
I would be delighted to meet my hon. Friend. I have said time and again that this is a difficult issue and one that requires all of us to work together, both within parties and across parties. The House is united in the view that people who serve and who have done nothing wrong should not spend the rest of their lives fearing prosecution. I would be delighted to work with my hon. Friend to discover what more we can do to make sure that measure is brought forward.
The Government are the custodians of the armed forces covenant, which Labour has always been proud to support. The covenant rightly declares:
“Those who serve in the Armed Forces…those who have served in the past, and their families, should face no disadvantage compared to other citizens in the provision of public and commercial services”,
so why are the Government now legislating to disadvantage our own armed forces personnel who serve overseas by blocking any injury or negligence claim against the Ministry of Defence if troops miss a hard six-year deadline?
With the greatest respect, I think the right hon. Gentleman has misunderstood the Bill. Veterans and service personnel will still be able to bring claims against the MOD, even if more than six years have elapsed. The time starts when the condition is diagnosed or when it is first reported. I reiterate that the Bill is a difficult piece of legislation that will need help from all parts of the House to pass. It is worth reading and understanding it, so that we can find a way to make sure the injustice ends.
Of course, I have read the legislation, and the word “diagnosis” does not appear in it. The Minister is right about baseless and repeated claims; we want to stop those as well, but in part the Bill does more to protect the MOD than it does to protect British soldiers. The Bill may well breach our armed forces covenant; it certainly will deny those who serve our country overseas the same employer liability rights as everyone else enjoys at home. Why should those who put their lives on the line for Britain overseas have less access to compensation than the UK civilians they defend?
I ask the right hon. Gentleman to reflect briefly on whether I would advocate a piece of legislation that would do that. The Bill does not do that. It is clear that we are bringing in various conditions to stop our service personnel and veterans repeatedly having to give evidence in relation to historical incidents or to respond to allegations. It has been a long time in the making; the injustice has gone on for many years. What he is saying is simply not in the Bill. I would be more than happy to meet him and Members from all parts of the House to discuss what is in the Bill. We need to work together to get the Bill over the line.
Armed Forces: Overall Size
Since 2015 we have introduced many measures to respond to a difficult armed forces recruitment and retention climate. These include financial incentives, flexible service, the recruitment partnership project, the future accommodation model, and improved childcare. We saw improved recruitment figures of 31% from 2018-19. The size of the armed forces should always be dictated by the threat, UK global ambition, and modern technology.
The Army’s strength, though, is still woefully short of the Government’s target. Those wanting to join our Army were faced with Capita’s bureaucratic processes, which could take up to 52 months. So will the Secretary of State tell us what is the average length of time taken to get through the Army recruitment processes now?
The hon. Gentleman makes some valid points. However, due to the extra effort we have put into the Army recruiting process, the Army has now in fact hit its recruitment target, and was on target to do so even before covid broke, to have depots full and to deliver an armed forces at the right strength, growing the armed forces, not shrinking them.
Can the Secretary of State categorically deny reports that No. 10 wishes to slash the size of the Army from 74,000 to 55,000 personnel? If he cannot do that, will he at least confirm to this House that he personally opposes any plan to reduce the size of the armed forces?
I can confirm that there is no plan to slash the size of the armed forces. The reports in The Sunday Times were completely erroneous, as was made clear to the journalist at the time. Our armed forces should always be defined by the threat we face as a nation, the capabilities we have, and Britain’s global ambition. That is why, in the integrated review, we will deal with those processes rather than start the debate about numbers.
Will the Secretary of State bring forward the integrated review? He is aware of the importance of this in confirming our capabilities, but also in terms of existing emerging threats, not least, Britain’s ambitions and place in the world. We are witnessing a seismic shift in power from the east to the west. Is it not time for us to recalibrate our foreign policy in order to recognise this changing threat, and the fact that China is rewriting the international global rules?
I feel my right hon. Friend’s sense of urgency about getting this review done. He will also know that SDSR after SDSR, under Governments of both colours, often failed because they were never in step with the spending plans of the Government, and we ended up with SDSRs that were over-ambitious and underfunded. It is really important that the integrated review reports at the same time as the comprehensive spending review, which is due in the autumn. We must also learn the lessons from the recent covid outbreak, which shows how important resilience is, and feed that into the review to make sure that it is as up to date as possible.
I would like to start by commending our excellent armed forces for their exemplary service to the public during the covid-19 period.
Over the past decade, this Government have severely cut the size of our armed forces. We have had three very good questions from my hon. Friends the Members for Blaenau Gwent (Nick Smith) and for Bradford South (Judith Cummins), and from the Chair of the Defence Committee, the right hon. Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood), yet the Secretary of State has refused to answer the real question, which is this: will he increase the recruitment and retention of armed forces personnel—yes or no?
Personnel Stationed Abroad: Covid-19
I thank the Minister for his response. Will he further outline whether any personnel have had to return home due to covid-19 issues? If there is a facility to get our troops home as needed, are they hospitalised according to their regimental location, or are they hospitalised all together?
I am not aware of any individual circumstances in which someone has been recovered back to the UK as a consequence of having tested positive. The symptoms would determine whether they required hospitalisation. Medical facilities in all theatres of operation and on all ships are appropriate to deal with covid as it would normally stand. If an instance had been more serious, we would of course have looked at the need to recover the individual.
Our troops have rightly continued their duties overseas for the duration of the pandemic, keeping our citizens safe and helping to maintain international peace. However, there are concerns that in countries such as Iraq, where some British troops are stationed and there has been a surge in covid-19 cases over the past 24 hours, the worst may be yet to come. With that in mind, what contingency plans have the Government put in place to safeguard our troops operating in areas prone to further covid-19 outbreaks and their families?
The theatre commander can make a judgment about the degree to which the risk of exposure to a population with a large amount of covid within it is worth the operational needs. That is a decision for the operational commander. In theatre, all sorts of force-protection measures are available, ranging from personal protective equipment to the choice not to continue with operational duties if they are deemed to be too risky.
Overseas Territories: Covid-19 Support
The Ministry of Defence deployed a military medical team to the Falkland Islands; delivered supplies and logistical support to Gibraltar; provided planning advice to the Cayman Islands; and provided a security-assistance team to the Turks and Caicos Islands. As ever, the MOD will of course continue to support our overseas territories whenever required.
My hon. Friend asks an excellent question. Her Majesty’s Government aim to build resilient overseas territories with good governance, diversified economies and prosperous communities that are all able to deal with and recover better from crises. For example, the Ministry of Defence is delivering maritime-security capacity building in the Caribbean and supporting the Cayman Islands and the Turks and Caicos Islands to establish new reserve defence regiments.
Armed Forces: Tackling Covid-19
At the peak of our covid covert response, some 20,000 troops were at readiness, and more than 4,000 of them were deployed at any one time at peak. Cumulatively, over the course of the pandemic more than 14,000 military and civilian personnel in the Ministry of Defence have been involved in the Government’s response to the pandemic.
Our armed forces have been invaluable in delivering for the whole nation during the pandemic, but for the second year running they have not received their pay award on time. Will the Minister put things right and say precisely when our forces can expect to receive their pay rise?
I join the hon. Lady in praising the response of our armed forces to the covid pandemic; they have been absolutely extraordinary. Armed forces pay is a matter for the Armed Forces Pay Review Body. I will find out exactly what its recommendations are and when they are due to be implemented and write to the hon. Lady.
Veterans: Covid-19 Support
The full range of veterans’ support services, including the Veterans UK helpline and welfare service, have continued to be provided throughout covid-19 pandemic.
I declare an interest as a Royal Air Force veteran and as honorary president of the Royal Air Forces Association in Huddersfield. Will the Minister please update the House on the phase 2 roll-out of the ID card for military veterans? Having spoken to fellow veterans, they tell me that having this ID card will give them real confidence in trying to access support services, including NHS services.
I pay tribute to my hon. and gallant Friend for pursuing this issue. A new veterans ID card was launched in February 2019. Service leavers are currently getting that veterans railcard. There are challenges around future proofing and safeguarding against fraudulent use, which means that the process of rolling out phase 2 to existing veterans is taking longer than I had hoped, but I hope to have some progress for him by the end of the year.
We know that many veterans will have been affected during this coronavirus crisis. The older veterans, perhaps those from world war two, might have to shield, while the younger ones may have a range of mental health problems, including post-traumatic stress disorder, and this current crisis will no doubt put additional pressure on them. What support is being given to those younger veterans, or indeed to older veterans with mental health problems, to make sure that they do not come out of this situation worse than they went in?
I am acutely aware that the covid pandemic has placed extra and unique challenges on our veteran community, particularly those who have had to isolate and who find isolation difficult at the best of times. We have put more money in—£6 million from the Treasury has gone to 100 different armed forces charities, both large and small across the country. We are working hard with our NHS colleagues to ensure that we are providing services through the transition and liaison service and the complex treatment service. The numbers there are looking good, and I am confident that we have had a good professional service throughout this time.
I know the Minister will agree that the armed forces have gone above and beyond throughout the course of the pandemic, particularly those charities that have been providing specific support to veterans. However, concerningly, one in every 10 charities believes that it will have to close in the next 10 months. Will the Minister explain what work he has been doing with the Ministry of Defence and with the Treasury to ensure that, if these charities do have to close, the support will still be there for veterans?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to focus on the output from these charities and what that care looks like from the veterans’ point of view. My determining concern is that, where these services are, regrettably, unable to continue, that service is still provided and that veterans can access them across the country. I have worked hard with officials in the Treasury to get money into the sector. There is no doubt that the veterans’ charity and care sectors are going through an accelerated process of reform as a result of covid-19, but I am determined to take the opportunities from that, making sure that we fulfil the Government’s ambition to make this the best country in the world in which to be an armed forces veteran.
I have not formally launched the veterans’ gateway app at the moment. We are going through a process of working with users and so on to make it more user-friendly. That is an ambition of mine: to put veterans’ care in the palm of every single veteran in this country. We will have a formal launch and I would be delighted if the hon. Gentleman came with me to that launch. We can then look at the figures together and perhaps work on getting the app into more people’s pockets as we go.[Official Report, 13 July 2020, Vol. 678, c. 7MC.]
The Minister said that the veterans’ gateway app will put veterans’ care in the palm of every veteran in the country. Will he tell us what estimate his Department has made of the number of veterans who do not have a smartphone and what his Department is doing to reach them?
It is a completely fair point that many of our veterans are of an age group who will not be digitally able to access this app. The app was never designed to be something that is all encompassing. It is simply another measure in the suite of options that we are offering to veterans in this country to make sure that this is the best country in the world in which to be an armed forces veteran. There is a whole host of other ways of looking after our veterans, such as breakfast clubs that we all get involved in. When this app does come out, I will be looking at ways to make it even more user-friendly, particularly to our older veterans, to whom we owe such a great debt.[Official Report, 13 July 2020, Vol. 678, c. 8MC.]
Overseas Personnel: Covid-19 Support
My hon. Friend gives me the opportunity to recognise that away from our response to covid in the UK, the armed forces have also been serving in many locations overseas, going about their normal duties. In my earlier answer to the shadow Minister, I spoke about the force protection measures we make available to theatre commanders, but it is important to recognise before the House that some of the operational requirements we place on our armed forces are so immediate that sometimes no mitigation is available, and they accept that risk on behalf of our nation. We are all very grateful to them for doing so.
On 10 June, I received a letter from the Minister for Defence People and Veterans in response to the cancellation of the overseas loan service allowance, which has significantly financially disadvantaged service personnel operating overseas. The letter also stated that the local overseas allowance would not be reduced from its normal rate. Sadly, it appears that this is no longer the case and that the LOA will now be paid at a reduced, residual rate. Since repatriation, any payments on the OLSA and LOA have been deemed as overpayments and are now being clawed back from service personnel. As people are the military’s greatest asset, can I please ask what will be done about this?
Covid-19: Tackling Disinformation
The MOD is supporting the Government’s campaign against covid-19 disinformation by providing specialist personnel in advisory roles. This work is led by the Cabinet Office and the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. The Government are also working closely with social media platforms and academia to tackle this issue, and the Government’s focus remains on promoting factual public health advice and countering inaccurate content.
Disinformation by active promoting of falsehoods poses a significant threat, but so too does disinformation by omission. The National Security Council’s report on Russian interference in UK politics has been ready for publication since October 2019. To have trust and confidence in our democracy, the people of the United Kingdom need openness and transparency, so if the Government have nothing to hide, why do they continue to refuse to release this report?
As these are Defence questions, I am somewhat outside my portfolio in answering in this question, but the Secretary of State, who sits in the Cabinet, tells me that the security committee is not yet formed, which is why the report has not yet been published.
In many cases, disinformation about covid-19 can travel faster than the virus itself and pose just as great a risk to our security. Does the Minister agree with me and the majority of the public surveyed by the Open Knowledge Foundation that the Government need to urgently impose compulsory action on social media sites to clamp down on the spread of such misinformation?
US Deployment: Germany
I met with my NATO counterparts, including Secretary Esper, on 17 and 18 June to discuss the alliance’s enduring role in European security.
I am glad that the Secretary of State has been making representations to the US about the importance of not cutting conventional forces in Europe, but can we make such representations if we ourselves have any intention to do what is reported in the press—namely to inflict swingeing cuts on the Army and to revisit the argument we won two years ago about the Royal Marines’ amphibious capabilities? Does he accept that, although we have 21st century threats to meet, that is additional to, not a substitute for, the conventional preparedness we need to maintain?
My right hon. Friend has been in this House long enough to know that he should not believe everything he reads in the newspapers, especially around the time of an integrated review. We in the United Kingdom believe that, as the motto of Sandhurst says, we serve to lead. We lead by contributing and giving, which we have done over the history of NATO. We are the biggest contributor to NATO in Europe. We are the provider of NATO’s nuclear defence in Europe, and we will continue to be a main leader in NATO. That is how we believe we will see off the threats we face from the likes of Russia.
Armoured tracked vehicles remain at the core of Defence’s high-intensity war-fighting capability, and ongoing demand is evidenced in the Army’s investment in new fully digitised tracked Ajax vehicles.
Cook Defence Systems in Stanhope in my constituency makes the tracks for all the Army’s fighting vehicles and increasingly for fighting vehicles overseas. Will the Minister join me on a visit to Cook Defence Systems to see what export opportunities could be achieved in addition to its work with the British Army?
I am grateful for that invitation. I am speaking to north-east defence companies on a call next week. Our ability to make physical visits to companies has clearly been restrained by covid, but as soon as my diary allows, I would be delighted to visit Cook Defence Systems in person.
Official Development Assistance
Back in April, the International Development Secretary commented that there should be regular reviews at ministerial level of what different Departments were doing with their official development assistance. In the light of the upcoming merger between the Department for International Development and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, will the Minister set out what conversations he has had with the Foreign Secretary about ensuring that any official development assistance programming from his or other Departments is transparent and subject to scrutiny?
The hon. Lady is exactly right. Development and security sit hand in hand and, as such, knowing that a review is ongoing, we are looking at exactly where development activity is essential to the security function that our armed forces are seeking to provide overseas. We will be making the case for that spending to remain unchanged.
Defence Industrial Strategy
The Government are currently conducting work on the UK’s defence and security industrial strategy to identify the steps we should take to ensure a competitive, innovative and world-class industrial base. I will use this opportunity to ensure that, as well as delivering the best capabilities to the UK armed forces, we are driving investment, employment and prosperity across the whole of the United Kingdom.
I am very pleased to hear my right hon. Friend’s commitment to the defence industry in that answer. Investment by Defence in innovation often stimulates dual-use commercial opportunities. The Prime Minister is clear that he wants the UK to be a science superpower, so will the defence industrial strategy make the case that a great place to start would be to double Defence investment in innovation?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right to highlight the fact that defence procurement and innovation should be linked and should link into prosperity and alternatives, using that technology to enhance prosperity across the United Kingdom. During the financial year 2018-19, Defence invested £1.65 billion in research and development, which included £580 million spent on cutting-edge science and technology. Without trying to pre-empt the integrated review, it is absolutely clear that at the heart of it will be not only innovation but a recognition that prosperity is what our taxpayers, at local and UK level, should expect for their money.
The Ministry of Defence has rigorous ongoing processes to test and develop our capabilities and force structure to ensure that they are robust against current and future threats. During the integrated review, the Department is focused on reassessing our plans to ensure that we are delivering the right capability to keep the country safe now and in the decades to come.
The UK has some of the most elite and specialist armed forces in the world. Bearing in mind that we cannot compete with the number of boots on the ground of, say, China or Russia, what steps is my right hon. Friend taking to ensure that our armed forces are properly funded, that the very best people are recruited and that the very best training, skills and equipment are maintained?
We have the funds and plans in place to ensure that our armed forces are playing to their strengths. We are investing in the likes of the future combat air system technology initiative, in nuclear submarines and in cyber-technology to ensure that we are fighting the battle for tomorrow.
The work on the review of our foreign policy and national security—the largest of its kind—has been paused during this pandemic. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that when it resumes, he will continue to ensure that we frame our thinking around threat at every stage of the review?
My hon. Friend is right—but the review was slowed down, not entirely paused, during the covid pandemic. We did continue to work on it in the Ministry of Defence. Last week I gathered the chiefs of all the services and the head of defence intelligence together to hear about the threat and the doctrine of our adversaries, and about how the chiefs are going to deliver a solution to that threat. That is my starting point for the integrated review. It is not the budget or the bureaucracy; it is the starting point for meeting the threat and the demand on our forces, and for ensuring that we give the men and women of the armed forces the best equipment and capability that they deserve.
May I send the best wishes of the Scottish National party to the Veterans Minister on the birth of his new child?
Will the Secretary of State outline what assessment the MOD has made of the threat picture in the Arctic, the high north and the Greenland-Iceland-UK gap, and what capability will be needed to meet those future threats?
I fear that I have only a few seconds in which to answer that. I am very happy to meet the hon. Member to explore the last part of his question because it is significant and we are working on a strategy to reveal just how we are going to meet those threats. He is absolutely right that a number of nations including Russia —indeed, even China—are very keen on what they are going to do in the Arctic. The danger is that the environment is damaged and that we end up against traditional geographical rivalries that could tip conflict in that direction.
The Secretary of State is absolutely right. Let me be clear: I want him to get the review and the capability right, but I am concerned, following what I think might have been the Tower of London away day that he and other defence officials went on, that there is going to be a pivot to the eastern Pacific, which is again going to leave us weaker in an area closer to home where the threat picture is growing, and where bad actors and the activity of bad actors are certainly increasing. Can he assure us that we will not be spread so thinly as to be sent far abroad while we leave our own defences closer to home wanting?
The hon. Member asks a logical and proper question. I can assure him that we will not abandon one threat to meet another. We work incredibly hard with our Scandinavian and Nordic colleagues—some in NATO, some not—through the joint expeditionary force. We regularly plan, and NATO itself acts, in that area. Only recently a US and UK naval flotilla went into the Barents sea—the first time for many years—to ensure that we dealt with the growing threat from that side of the Russian flank.
Defence Science and Technology: Covid-19
Defence Science and Technology is drawing on its unique range of specialist skills to support the covid response, including assistance on testing laboratories, statistical analysis, modelling support, decontamination trials, and experiments to understand how the virus survives in the atmosphere and on different surfaces.
Covid is certainly just one of many emerging threats that we have faced and will yet face as a nation, including other possible pandemics and unconventional warfare such as cyber-attacks. Can the Minister assure me that, in order ensure that we can continue to rise to whatever challenges the future may yet hold, Defence Science and Technology will have the investment and support that it needs to remain the envy of the world?
The Defence Science and Technology Laboratory—through covid, through its response to the outrageous attack in Salisbury and in countless other ways—has shown its value to the country, and that is also recognised by our international partners. I assure my hon. Friend that we will continue to invest to meet the threats of the future.
EU Future Relationship Planning
We want a relationship with the EU that is based on friendly co-operation between sovereign equals and is centred on free trade. We are developing plans to ensure that the critical work of defence continues regardless of the outcome of the negotiations.
The whole ministerial team talks to our counterparts across Europe regularly in the context not just of Brexit, but of our bilateral and multilateral co-operations through a whole series of organisations and fora. That work will continue whatever the outcome of the Brexit negotiations, because our military partnerships with friends and colleagues across Europe are vital to the security of this nation.
Northern Ireland: Vexatious Claims
This Government are committed to ending vexatious claims as quickly as possible. I am working closely with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland towards this objective. As set out in the written ministerial statement laid on 18 March, he has committed to bringing forward legacy legislation that will deliver for victims and ensure that Northern Ireland veterans are treated as fairly as those who served overseas. We will engage with colleagues from across the House as part of this process.
I rise as someone who has done seven tours in Northern Ireland and as a member of the Northern Ireland Veterans Association. The Prime Minister, on 23 July last year in the 1922 Committee, promised me that this matter would be a top priority for the Government. This promise was repeated in the Conservative manifesto, so I ask my right hon. Friend: when will our veterans from Northern Ireland be treated properly?
My hon. Friend, like me, has been a long campaigner on this—in fact, I went on my first Northern Ireland veterans campaign for just as much in 1998. I have fought for a very long time for veterans of Northern Ireland. As he will be aware, the Northern Ireland Office and the Northern Ireland Secretary of State are the lead in this. We have fed into the process. We are already committed to taking steps to protect our veterans. At the same time, my hon. Friend may not have missed this, but unfortunately, covid came along—a pandemic that no one predicted last year—and that has somehow certainly changed everything we are doing. It does not mean to say that the policy work has not been going on. We will deliver a policy that will get justice for veterans in Northern Ireland.
Since the 2015 strategic defence and security review, the world has changed. Our adversaries have invested more in their armed forces and have constantly been updating their doctrines. The threats to our interests and way of life are real and we therefore owe it to the men and women of our armed forces to ensure that we have a modern, capable and effective defence, able to tackle the threats wherever they present themselves. Only a fool starts the debate with numbers rather than threat. History is littered with generals and Governments who kept fighting the last war rather than preparing for the next one. This Government are committed to growing defence spending and we will use that money to ensure that we have a 21st-century capability, a modern workforce and a defence that matches our global ambition.
Absolutely. If I think back to the days when I was at Sandhurst, in defence, there were really three domains: air, sea and land. Cyber is very much a real and new domain that we must not only defend in, but master. That is why in 2016, the Government committed £1.9 billion to the national cyber-security strategy. That includes investment in offensive cyber, which I hope we can announce more details of later in the year.
May I join the Secretary of State in paying full tribute to the military’s essential and continuing role in helping the country through this covid crisis? In the same spirit, he talked earlier of the lessons from covid for the integrated review. He is uniquely placed as the Defence Secretary and a former Security Minister to turn adversary into advantage, so will he use this period to consult widely in the armed forces and with the public, industry and experts, just as Labour did, on the challenges to creating a 21st-century armed forces? That is the way to banish any suspicion that this integrated review is driven from Downing Street, not by the MOD, or driven by financial pressures, not the best interests of Britain’s defence, security and leading place in the world.
First, I can give the right hon. Gentleman the assurance that this is not driven by financial pressures; it is driven first and foremost by threat. As a former Security Minister, which he rightly referenced, I believe threat should define what we do and how we meet it. That is why, as I said, we gathered the chiefs together last week. It was not a financial discussion and, contrary to what was reported, it was not a numbers discussion, either. It was a discussion about how we meet the threat and deliver our future armed forces to match that, taking into account cyber and many other areas. The Government are determined to continue to do that. We stand by our pledge to increase defence spending in real terms, and we will use that money, spending it wisely to ensure we meet those very threats.
It is unfair that those soldiers, sailors, airmen and women required to live in Scotland should be made to pay more in income tax than military personnel living elsewhere. As we promised last year in our Scottish manifesto, we will announce soon how we will continue to mitigate the effects of higher Scottish income taxes on more than 7,000 of our service personnel in Scotland.
An impact assessment will have been published with the Bill when it was brought to the House. We are hoping to get the Bill to Second Reading sooner rather than later, so the hon. Lady can see all those details and impact assessments. As my hon. Friend the Veterans Minister said, it is not the case that people will be prevented from seeking damages, through either tort—for damages against the MOD, rather than other people—or other processes. Obviously, from diagnosis is one of the key dates.
First, on the Intelligence and Security Committee, which is the Committee that would publish the report, I gave evidence for that report as Security Minister, and, in fact I have read the report. My right hon. Friend should not hold his breath for the great sensation he thinks it will be. However, as he has said and everyone else has noted, when the ISC is formed, it will be the body that will release the report. I think we are getting to a place where the Committee will come together, and then everyone can read it at leisure.
The right hon. Member often campaigns for shipbuilding in the UK and he has heard my answers. First, I am keen that it gets under way as soon as possible; indeed, I have asked officials to bring it forward from the proposed date. The plus side is that such ships are not highly complex, so once the competition happens and it is placed, I do not think it will take long to build them. I therefore do not anticipate a capability gap at all. He is right that British shipbuilding and British yards produce some of the best ships in the world and we should support them as best as we can and ensure our navy gets some great British-made kit.
My hon. Friend is right to champion the activities of the armed forces cadets and Air Force cadets in Clwyd South. It is amazing to hear what they have done to support their community during the coronavirus crisis, but also the cadets in his constituency and across the country have done an amazing job, through the commitment of their adult volunteers, to keep virtual training going throughout the pandemic, which has been hugely valuable to young people across the country.
Only today, the permanent secretary and other officials attended the Public Accounts Committee to answer some of those questions, no doubt in detail. The point to be made is that the MOD spends £41 billion overall, and we make sure, where we can, that that is spent not only on the men and women of our armed forces, but on industry and equipment capability, such as, in Glasgow, buying two warships—both the Type 31 up at Rosyth and, indeed, the Type 26—which I never seem to hear the SNP ever really welcome.
The Government will never forget the bravery of all former servicemen and women who served their country, and it is imperative that we do not forget the sacrifices that were made so that we can enjoy the freedoms we have today. The Ministry of Defence position is that memorials and statues that honour those who gave their lives should be protected.
My hon. Friend the Minister for Defence People and Veterans has some nappy duties he has had to return to, so I will reply on his behalf. I know the hon. Gentleman, who campaigns hard on this, especially given his own personal experience, has already met my colleague. The Minister for Defence People and Veterans has asked that the MOD-sponsored independent medical expert group continue to look into it and report on progress and issues relating to these types of injury. I am certain that he will want to meet the hon. Gentleman further to discuss the matter.
Forgive me, but 2015 was the last time we set the numbers for the armed forces. What we will do is make sure we give those men and women the best equipment, the best kit, the best leadership and the best purpose for why they are there to defend this nation. That is what we do, and we do it to make sure we meet the threat, not just to start the conversation about numbers, which I know the hon. Lady will be desperate to do.
Our work to support the armed forces community through the covenant and the employer recognition scheme continues with our partners at a local level across the UK. As set out in the Queen’s Speech, we will further incorporate the armed forces covenant into law to help prevent any disadvantage faced due to the unique nature of service life.
Just to reassure my hon. Friend, we have 169 sites of special scientific interest in the defence estate, and we care very deeply about that and our role as a good champion of conservation. My hon. Friend is assiduous on behalf of the jobs in his constituency, and defence jobs in particular. I fully appreciate his concerns on coastal erosion, but I am happy to reassure him that it is not currently considered a risk to submarine movements, although I am grateful for his ongoing interest.
Global Human Rights Sanctions Regime
Mr Speaker, with permission, I would like to make a statement on the global human rights sanctions regulations. As we forge a dynamic new vision for a truly global Britain, this Government are absolutely committed to the United Kingdom becoming an even stronger force for good in the world: on climate change, as we host COP26; as we champion 12 years of education for every girl in the world, no matter how poor their background; and on human rights, where we will defend media freedoms and protect freedom of religious belief; and, with the measures we are enacting and announcing today, hold to account the perpetrators of the worst human rights abuses.
I first raised this issue in a 2012 Backbench Business debate. It was a cross-party issue then, as I hope it will be now. I recall co-sponsoring it with the former Foreign Secretary, David Miliband. I also would like to pay tribute to Members from across the House, particularly my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis), who sponsored that debate, and the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), who joined me in that initial debate and who has been chivvying me along ever since, normally from a sedentary position.
The idea of taking targeted action against human rights violators has received further cross-party backing since then, from hon. Members in all parts of the House, including five former Foreign Secretaries and the current Chair of the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs. In 2019, it was in the Conservative party’s manifesto as a clear commitment.
Today I am proud that under this Prime Minister and this Government, we make good on that pledge, bringing into force the United Kingdom’s first autonomous human rights sanctions regime, which gives us the power to impose sanctions on those involved in the very worst human rights abuses right around the world. These sanctions are a forensic tool, which allows us to target perpetrators without punishing the wider people of a country that may be affected. The regulations will enable us to impose travel bans and asset freezes against those involved in serious human rights violations. We are talking about, first, the right to life, where it is threatened by assassinations and extra-judicial killing; secondly, the right not to be subjected to torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment; and, thirdly, the right to be free from slavery, servitude or forced or compulsory labour. The powers enable us to target a wider network of perpetrators, including those who facilitate, incite, promote or support these crimes. This extends beyond state officials to non-state actors as well. So if you’re a kleptocrat or an organised criminal, you will not be able to launder your blood money in this country. Today this Government and this House send a very clear message, on behalf of the British people: those with blood on their hands, the thugs of despots, the henchmen of dictators, will not be free to waltz into this country, to buy up property on the Kings Road, do their Christmas shopping in Knightsbridge or siphon dirty money through British banks or other financial institutions.
The regulations are just the latest next step forward in the long struggle against impunity for the worst human rights violations. We have deliberately focused on the worst crimes, so we have the clearest basis, to make sure we can operate the new system as effectively as we possibly can. That said, we will continue to explore expanding this regime to include other human rights, and I can tell the House that we are already considering how a corruption regime could be added to the armoury of legal weapons we have. In particular, hon. Members will be interested to know that I am looking at the UN convention against corruption, and practice already under way under the frameworks in jurisdictions such as the United States and Canada.
Today we have also published a policy note, which sets out how we will consider designations under these regulations, for maximum transparency. As the House would expect, the legislation will ensure that due process will be followed in relation to those designations, reflecting the process rights contained in the Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Act 2018. In practice, those people designated will be able to request that a Minister review the decision. They will be able to challenge the decision in the court. And, just as a matter of due diligence, the Government will review all designations at least once every three years.
In addition to introducing this new legal regime, today we are proceeding directly to make the first designations under the regulations. We are imposing sanctions on individuals involved in some of the most notorious human rights violations in recent years. The first designations will cover those individuals involved in the torture and murder of Sergei Magnitsky, the lawyer who disclosed the biggest known tax fraud in Russian history. The designations will also include those responsible for the brutal murder of the writer and journalist Jamal Khashoggi, and those who perpetrated the systematic and brutal violence against the Rohingya population in Myanmar. They will also include two organisations bearing responsibility for the enslavement, torture and murder that takes place in North Korea’s wretched gulags, in which it is estimated that hundreds of thousands of prisoners have perished over the past 50 years. With those first designations, the Government—and, I hope, the House and the country—make it crystal clear to those who abuse their power to inflict unimaginable suffering that we will not look the other way. You cannot set foot in this country and we will seize your blood-drenched ill-gotten gains if you try.
In practice, targeted sanctions are most effective when they are done through co-ordinated collective action, so we will be working closely with our Five Eyes partners, including in particular the US and Canada, which already have Magnitsky-style sanctions legislation, and Australia, which is considering similar legislation. We will also strongly support efforts to bring an EU human rights sanctions regime into effect and we stand ready to co-ordinate with our European partners on future measures. In fact, I discussed that in Berlin recently with our E3 partners.
Mr Speaker, with your permission I would like to end by paying tribute to the man who inspired these sanctions, Sergei Magnitsky, a young Russian tax lawyer. Between 2007 and 2008, Magnitsky exposed the theft of $230 million committed by tax officials in Russia’s own interior ministry. While others left Russia, understandably fearing for their lives, Magnitsky stayed on to take a stand for the rule of law and to strike a blow against the breath-taking corruption that plagues Russia. That courage cost him his life. He was arrested in 2008 on trumped-up charges of tax evasion and, in a particularly Kafkaesque twist, the very tax investigators that Magnitsky had exposed were the ones who turned up to arrest him. The Public Oversight Commission, a Moscow-based non-governmental organisation, found that while in detention Magnitsky was subjected to physical and psychological abuse amounting to torture. Over the course of his time in prison he developed abdominal pain and acute bladder inflammation, but prison officers cruelly withheld the medical treatment he needed. Eventually, he was transferred to another facility ostensibly to receive medical care. Instead, he was handcuffed and beaten to death by riot police with truncheons. He died on 16 November 2009, aged 37.
The House will recall that the European Court of Human Rights found Russia had violated its most basic human rights, from the treatment of Magnitsky in prison to the lack of an effective investigation. None of those involved have ever been brought to justice. Perversely, some have been promoted or even decorated with medals. In fact, the only person ever prosecuted for this appalling crime was Sergei Magnitsky himself after his death; Russian’s first ever posthumous trial.
I pay tribute to Bill Browder, who employed Sergei Magnitsky and has campaigned for justice ever since his death. I hope that today we in this House show our solidarity with the family that Sergei Magnitsky left behind: his wife Natalia and his son Nikita. I can tell the House that they will be watching from my office in the Foreign Office as we speak. Amidst their enduring loss, they can be proud of Sergei’s courage, which inspires us to hold up a torch on behalf of all those who perished or suffered at the hands of those we designate today and to keep the flame of freedom alive for those brave souls still suffering in the very darkest corners of the world. I commend this statement to the House.
May I start by strongly welcoming this statement and the advance sight of it? It has been, as Bill Browder rightly said, a long and difficult journey to persuade the Government to take this step. I know that it has been personally frustrating for the Foreign Secretary to be repeatedly challenged by me over recent weeks about the delays when he has spent the last eight years as its champion. For too long the UK has been a haven for those who use corruption, torture and murder to further their own ends. Today, I hope, sends a strong message that the UK is not their home and that their dirty money is not welcome here.
I pay tribute, too, to Sergei Magnitsky and his family, who have waited far too long for this day. Magnitsky worked for a British company, and it is right that, today, in his honour, we start to clean up the global corruption that he exposed and that cost him his life. I also put on record our support for ensuring that some of those responsible for his murder are the first to face consequences. The time for action against Russian Government officials who oppress LGBT people, Muslims and other minorities and who use chemical weapons on the streets of the UK is long overdue. This is a profound act of solidarity with the Russian people over those who have made their lives a misery for far too long.
I welcome, too, the Foreign Secretary’s action against those involved in the appalling murder of Jamal Khashoggi. I gently say to him that, although today is not the day for sparring across the Dispatch Box, it would be welcome if it marked the start of a more consistent approach from the Government towards Saudi Arabia, and in particular the arms sales from this country that are being used to harm innocent civilians in Yemen.
Similarly, we are grateful to the Foreign Secretary for including the Rohingya in Myanmar in today’s announcement. I hope that he will use his new remit to consider why the UK investment arm, CDC, continues to invest in those who are complicit in silencing people who speak out against human rights abuses in Myanmar.
I welcome the inclusion of trafficking in the measures; the former Member for Bishop Auckland would be delighted to see that, as the Government have previously resisted it. I express serious concern, however, that the Foreign Secretary has not yet been able to persuade his colleagues of the need to include corruption in scope. Corruption and human rights abuses go hand in hand and that must be urgently resolved. The former Prime Minister, David Cameron, expressed regret that he had not acted on the issue earlier:
“I soon realised…the advantages of working together—with other countries—under a common heading…You get extra clout from coming together across the world and saying with one voice to those who are responsible for unacceptable acts: ‘We are united’”
The Foreign Secretary mentioned the USA and Canada and our desire to stand closely with them. They have included corruption in scope and the UK must follow suit.
Can the Foreign Secretary confirm that the measures apply to UK overseas territories and Crown dependencies? We must not create a back door that allows the laundering of blood money in the United Kingdom.
Will all names be published, including those subject to visa bans? I am sorry to do this to the Foreign Secretary, but I refer him to his earlier words. As he put it:
“If we are dealing with people who are complicit in torture and there is enough evidence to substantiate and justify a visa ban, what possible countervailing reason can there be, whether it is to change their behaviour or otherwise, for not making their name public? Would not making their name public deter others?”—[Official Report, 2 April 2014; Vol. 578, c. 300-301WH.]
He also tabled an amendment to the Criminal Finances Act 2017 seeking a public register of people who are subject to such orders, and he rightly set out in that amendment to ensure that third parties could refer to the list. We agree with him. There must be a clear mechanism for civil society to refer in line with the criteria. Can he give us an assurance that that will be forthcoming?
Similarly, will the Foreign Secretary reflect on arrangements in the United States that provide a congressional trigger and allow our Select Committee Chairs to make referrals to the list as well? I can see that the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee is nodding; I would expect him to agree with that suggestion. I hope that the Foreign Secretary will agree too.
Finally, as the Foreign Secretary has long championed, we must have transparency in the process. There has been serious concern about the influence of big money on politics. It is essential that there is independent oversight of the list to ensure that nobody can buy their way out of British justice. Will he commit to parliamentary scrutiny of the list and the way that decisions are taken? I know that he will face resistance from colleagues, but we will strongly support him in that endeavour.
Today is a day that we stand up against corruption and dirty money and for our values with the full support of this House. There can be no ambiguity and no double standards. The UK must lead the way at home and abroad.
I thank the hon. Lady for her full-throated support. Although it is always a pleasure to spar with her, it is also worth reflecting on those occasions when the House can stand in unison and support such measures. I know that the family of Sergei Magnitsky will hugely appreciate her personal solidarity at what will be a difficult time, after an incredible and ongoing march for justice. I also agree with the wider support that she expressed for the designations.
Let me try to address her queries and concerns. On corruption, work is under way. We are committed to that. There are different definitions of corruption, which has been one of the challenges at international level, but I agree with the point that corruption and human rights abuses are often interlinked. Indeed, in the case of Sergei Magnitsky, what is astonishing is that we have one of the most egregious corruption cases, coupled with an appalling human rights abuse. I reassure the hon. Lady that that work is under way.
The hon. Lady asked about the overseas territories and Crown dependencies, to which the legislation will be extended. The designations will be published online, so her plea for transparency is, I believe, fully met. Finally, whether in relation to Select Committees, scrutiny of the process or the designations, we would welcome a full and rigorous engagement and scrutiny of all that process. I will not, of course, tell Select Committees or the House how to organise their business, but we welcome that and engage with it.
I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend. We have been waiting for a while for excellent foreign policy suggestions, but we have had three in the past three weeks—one on British national overseas passports last week, and now this on the Magnitsky sanctions. This is another fantastic policy change by Her Majesty’s Government, and something that the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) and the Foreign Affairs Committee have been clear on for a number of years. Indeed, I know that the hon. Gentleman will have read our “Moscow’s Gold” report of May 2018, in which this was one of the many recommendations. This builds on his earlier work as a human rights lawyer at the Foreign Office, and I pay tribute to him twice over.
There has been a remarkable silence on human rights violations in China. As yet, there is no announcement on any sanctions against those who are either exploiting or abusing the Uyghur minority in Xinjiang, or repressing democracy activists in Hong Kong. I wonder whether that is merely because this is the first stage of sanctions and the Foreign Office has not quite yet caught up with it, or whether it is a policy change. I also pay tribute to the few words the Foreign Secretary said about co-operation with others. As he knows, sanctions work best when they work with others. Working with our European and CANZUK friends is an important aspect of that.
I also pay tribute to two other people who have done incredibly well: Oliver Bullough and Luke Harding are two writers who have brought huge amounts of attention to the problems in the UK system, and I thank them for their work.
I thank my hon. Friend, and pay tribute to the work that he and the Foreign Affairs Committee have done. I thought he mentioned three foreign policy triumphs, but I felt a bit short-changed because he missed one out. [Interruption] There is plenty of time yet. I thank him for his warm words. We fully respect and engage with scrutiny from that Committee, but it is also good when we can work together and produce results, and today’s regulations are an example of that. He asked about China, and recently the Human Rights Council led a statement with 27 countries on the human rights situation in Xinjiang, as well as in Hong Kong. Of course, as with China and many other countries, people will wish to come up with further suggestions going forward, and we will consider those carefully, based on the evidence. If my hon. Friend will forgive me, I will not pre-empt what the next wave of designations will be, but I assure him that we are already working on them.
I also thank the Foreign Secretary for advance sight of his statement. He is entitled to a quiet moment of personal satisfaction today, and it would be remiss not to recognise his role in getting the House and Government to this point. The SNP certainly supports those measures. We would like to see more of them. We called for them repeatedly for a number of years. I have to say, however, that I was surprised to read about them in the Financial Times before we heard about them today. That is something that we should all consider about how announcements are made.
I will pick up on two aspects of the statement, particularly on international co-operation. It is vital that the measures, welcome as they are, are co-ordinated across other countries—obviously with the European Union and the Five Eyes partners. I would also like a statement from the Foreign Secretary on how they will interact with British overseas territories. There is already a vast array of loopholes to tax transparency and other mechanisms of accountability. This is a welcome step, but how will it work with the other territories where we have some influence?
The Foreign Secretary said in his statement that dictators will not be able to launder their blood money in this country. Who would not be able to support that? Progress on the ground, however, suggests that we have an awful lot still to do. I refer him and the House to the Open Democracy report published last month that said that
“400,000 British companies do not, will not or cannot say who controls them”,
and, from its own research, Britain has long operated
“as a global hub for financial crime”.
We have a long way to go to build on today’s announcements. Scotland is not immune to that. Scottish limited companies have been abusing money laundering. We all need to work on this together. I would be grateful for some statements about how the British overseas territories will interact with the measures and, indeed, on the wider financial transparency reform that we need in order to clean up the UK’s jurisdiction.
I thank the hon. Member for his support for the measures and the designations, and for his kind words. He is right about international co-ordination; the measures will be most effective if we can conjure a groundswell of co-ordinated action, even if we want to be free to assign the designations as and when we see fit based on the evidence. Co-operation with the Five Eyes countries, both those that have existing Magnitsky mechanisms in place and those that are working on it, like Australia, is important. Certain EU member states already have them, particularly in the Baltics, I think, but there is no EU-wide human rights regime. Certainly, if it wishes to consider that, that will be an area for strong ongoing co-operation, notwithstanding our departure from the EU.
The hon. Member asked particularly about the OTs. As I thought I made clear, we will ensure that the measure extends the regulations, and indeed the designations, to all the overseas territories and, of course, the Crown dependencies.
I unreservedly congratulate my right hon. Friend. As my hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat) and others have said, he has personally been an advocate of this for some considerable time, so he will have the right to satisfaction on that. I also commend him for naming all those to do with the Magnitsky case and in Saudi Arabia.
Following the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling, I again raise the issue of China, because this is where big business will start to lean on the Government quite hard. Last week started with an exposé from the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China regarding the involvement of Chinese officials and Government in the Uyghur suppression, sterilisation and forced encampment, and it ended with their involvement in the stripping away of the rights and freedoms of the people in Hong Kong, all the way up to the top.
I do not expect my right hon. Friend to answer specifically, but I ask him a simple question. Given the announcement in the papers today, many in Hong Kong have said that it should go to whatever highest level the evidence takes it. Would he be prepared, therefore, to follow through with the measures no matter who the individuals are, no matter how high they go, and even if it meant starting with Carrie Lam, whose family, I understand, have the privilege of British passports?
I thank my right hon. Friend. He is absolutely right that, with these regulations and this legislation, there will of course be a whole range of suggestions and proposals from inside this House, from civil society and from non-governmental organisations about potential names. We will, of course, want to ensure that we proceed in a rigorous way. We want it to be based on evidence, but the advantage that we have is that the measures—this is one of the reasons I have always been a fan, champion and supporter of them—allow us to continue to engage bilaterally with countries that, frankly, we need to, while having targeted sanctions, the visa bans and the asset freezes, on the individuals who may be responsible. Where the evidence shows that that is the case, we have the mechanism to deliver that.
I too thank the Foreign Secretary for advance sight of his statement and congratulate him on what I think will be seen in years to come as a watershed moment in the development of human rights law. He is absolutely right to focus on the most clamant cases that he has listed in early designations today, but I hope that frees up time and resource within the Foreign Office to turn attention towards China, and particularly to those in Hong Kong, for whom sanctions of this sort would appear to be the logical next step.
The Foreign Secretary rightly outlines and refers to the role of the courts in due process and ensuring that proper safeguards are put in place. There is another element, which is the role of this House in that regard. Others have referred to the Select Committees. The one Select Committee we are missing at the moment is the Intelligence and Security Committee. Does he agree that the announcement he has made today, which has been so widely well-received around the House, demands the early constitution of the ISC?
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his support. These measures are important. I am not going to start, without proper appraisal and assessment of the evidence, handing out future designations. What I can tell him is that one of the delays or bits that took time was making sure we have a proper mechanism so that, as he rightly says, we go into a sort of steady state and can assess judiciously and carefully any future candidates for designations, if I may put it like that. He asked about the ISC. We want to see the ISC up and running as soon as possible. Once it is duly constituted, it will have a role in issues such as this.
Many of us on the Back and Front Benches, especially my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary, have been working for some time on the Magnitsky measures, and I congratulate him on this important announcement today. I just ask two questions. First, may we please see strong transparency and openness in how these measures are brought to bear? Secondly, and in particular, does he agree that Parliament should have real input into how the measures are put into effect?
I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend for all the work he has done in this area and in promoting human rights in international relations, particularly in his time as International Development Secretary. There is clearly an important role for the legislature, not only in debates and scrutiny in this House, but in the Select Committees. Select Committees, individuals, NGOs and external actors can provide information and evidence, as well as suggestions about how we take these matters forward. We have also, to give maximum transparency to the House today, published a policy note to explain how we will go about it and in particular how the designation process will look at the worst crimes and those who bear the greatest responsibility for those human rights violations.
I am absolutely delighted. Well done. That is not least because human rights in the end are a seamless garment. Uyghur Muslims, gay Chechnyans, Russian journalists, Colombian campesinos and the Rohingya all have human rights. Corruption nearly always goes hand in fisted glove with human rights abuse and nearly always the first step is the repression of democracy—the preventing of people from enjoying their freedom of assembly and their freedom of speech. That is why I strongly urge the Foreign Secretary to look at another clause that would include the repression of democracy and the rights of assembly and of freedom of speech, and therefore look very carefully at whether Carrie Lam should not be on the list.
I thank the hon. Gentleman and also pay tribute to him. These measures would not have come about without the tenacity and advocacy he has consistently put into this area over many years and on a cross-party basis. As I said, this is a first step, and we will consider how we can proceed, but I make no apology for wanting to make the first step a sure-footed one. Just for clarity, the most serious human rights abuses that we have chosen often are used precisely to suppress peaceful protest or freedom of speech. Magnitsky himself was a whistleblower who was tortured for blowing the lid on the biggest tax fraud that we know of in Russian history. I take the hon. Gentleman’s wider points. We will look to progress, develop, fine-tune and enhance this regime as we proceed.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his excellent statement, which adds serious substance to underpin the values, particularly in respect of human rights, that global Britain will champion around the world. Does Ramzan Kadyrov appear on this list? Has my right hon. Friend seen “Welcome to Chechnya: The Gay Purge”? If he has not, I commend it to him. I also commend the incredible courage of the people who documented what happened in Chechnya’s gay purge, so that formal legal action can begin at some point, whether in the European Court of Human Rights or elsewhere. Clearly, there is a case for sanctions on Ramzan Kadyrov, and on President Putin, who gives Kadyrov impunity for his actions. This is a jurisdiction that does not criminalise homosexuality, but there are 72 around the world that do, including 34 in the Commonwealth. I sincerely hope that this issue will be a leading part of the work carried out on human rights.
I thank my hon. Friend, who will be able to see the list and check individual names for himself. There are 25 individuals under the Magnitsky designation, 20 under the Khashoggi one, and two under Myanmar, and two organisations in relation to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. As I said, in the interest of maximum transparency, they will be published. I take his point and commend him for the full-hearted and full-throated way he has championed human rights in this House.
I strongly support the measures and personally congratulate my right hon. Friend on pioneering them. May I echo the words of many right hon. and hon. Members that it will be good to see representatives of the Chinese regime included, whether it is because of Tibet, the Uyghurs or Hong Kong, where we learn today that, free speech by protest having been suppressed, libraries and bookshops are now being purged? All three of the criteria apply in those cases. Will he look closely at my Tibet (Reciprocal Access) Bill, which I shall be re-presenting straight after this statement? It would ensure access by UK officials to investigate human rights abuses in places like Tibet, and if access were denied, there would be repercussions for Chinese officials based on legislation that had unanimous support in Congress. That would be another tool to confront serial abusers of human rights.
I thank my hon. Friend for his support and his generous remarks. We will of course look carefully at any further proposals he might wish to make to strengthen the measure. I will not pre-empt or prejudge further designations down the track, but we are already working on the potential next wave and will proceed based on evidence.
I, too, warmly welcome the Foreign Secretary’s statement. I assume that when he talks about the powers applying around the world, it means they will be open to individuals from any country, not just those on the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s list of countries of concern. On corruption, he says he wants to extend the regime. He will be aware that, over a decade ago, the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002 was used to seize the assets of three former Nigerian state governors. It would be helpful if he told the House what further powers he is considering to bring corruption within the scope of the arrangements that he has just announced.
I pay tribute to the right hon. Gentleman for all his work on human rights in the international sphere, both in the Select Committee and previously as a Minister. We have the asset-freezing powers in place; the additional element that makes the Magnitsky model is the visa bans. We will look throughout at ways to fine-tune and strengthen the measures. With corruption, the legal definition is an issue. We want to get it right and to avoid all sorts of people bringing litigation against the Government regarding people on the list; we do not want to mis-step in that regard. Also, we want to make sure we have a firm basis for the regime, so that we are not judicially reviewed, so we have started with the clearest and most serious human rights violations. We want to proceed based on evidence and I am certainly open to further consideration of evidence and information, which we will assess independently, from Members in all parts of the House, and to suggestions of other ways to strengthen the regime.
I also warmly welcome the statement. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that we will implement the new regime without fear or favour; that if necessary we will go after individuals from ally states; and that we will target the decision makers who order human rights abuses and atrocities, and not just the little men who execute them?
It is for precisely that reason that we set out a policy note that gives, I hope, my hon. Friend and hon. Members across the House reassurance about how we are going about this. Obviously, our approach will need to be evidence-based and evidence-driven, but if she takes a look at that policy note, once it is published, it will give her the reassurance she needs.
Despite the humanitarian situation, the UK has traded almost £5 billion to Saudi Arabia since the war began, which eclipses the aid it has given to Yemen. The Foreign Secretary has just said he wants things to be evidence-based. The UK Government have to be willing, therefore, to stand up to countries they see as allies, and there must be consequences where UN-confirmed systemic human rights violations and murders have been committed. Does the Foreign Secretary agree and will he give that effect in the UK’s sanctions regime?
I agree with the hon. Lady, and that is precisely the reason for the designations we have made today. If she looks at them, she will see that we have not ducked the issue. We need to be evidence-based; we cannot do it on a whim and it must be able to withstand legal scrutiny, but she will see from the designations, including the ones we will do in the future, that this regime will be applied without fear or favour.
I warmly welcome this statement. At a time when it seems that every dawn brings notice of fresh human rights horrors, it is good to see the Government taking such decisive action. Will my right hon. Friend reassure those of us who see Britain as a force for good in the world that this is just the first step in a review that will see him and the Government take whatever action we can to hold to account those who commit these dreadful human rights abuses?
The Magnitsky regime is the third of three pillars. We have been pioneering a campaign—I pay tribute to my predecessor in this role, my right hon. Friend the Member for South West Surrey (Jeremy Hunt)—with the Canadians to champion media freedom, by protecting individual journalists and strengthening the legal codes in more vulnerable countries around the world. Our media freedom campaign continues apace. We are also supporting freedom of religious belief and plan to co-host the international conference next year. These Magnitsky sanctions are, if you like, the third pillar. They will provide direct accountability through visa bans and asset freezes for those who commit these appalling abuses.
I wholeheartedly welcome the Foreign Secretary’s long-overdue introduction of the global human rights sanctions regime, but does he not concede that the delay in publication of the Russia report and the lack of constitution of the Intelligence and Security Committee seriously undermines the Government’s credibility in the eyes of our allies? The Russia report has been gathering dust on the Prime Minister’s desk since last year. In order to ensure sufficient scrutiny of this error-prone Government, right hon. and hon. Members have been demanding for months that the ISC be finally formed. What has the Prime Minister got to hide?
The ISC of course does incredibly important work and will be up and running as soon as is practicable, but it needs to constitute itself. It is correct that there is a Government role in that, but there is also a parliamentary one. We look forward to and will embrace its role once it is up and running.
I warmly welcome my right hon. Friend’s announcement. Does he agree that this will act as a deterrent to those who wish to commit the most horrific human rights abuses around the world while attempting to live a life of luxury in this country on the back of dirty money?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We are sending a message that people cannot do things that in the past some have got away with. We hope that, particularly in concert with likeminded countries, we can start to have a deterrent effect and also embarrass those countries from whom these individuals come. It is through that co-ordinated action, backed by hard measures such as asset freezes and visa bans, that we can make a difference.
I too welcome today’s statement. Israeli annexations are a violation of international law and jeopardise any chance of a two-state solution. I would like to believe that a two-state solution is not a lost cause, but that is only possible if we speak up. I urge the Government to take action and condemn violations such as the recent bulldozing of a historic Muslim cemetery in Jaffa. Does the Foreign Secretary agree that such contempt for international law warrants sanctions? If not, could he please explain his reasoning?
We certainly oppose not just the settlement building but other violations of international humanitarian law. The hon. Gentleman may have seen the letter that the Prime Minister recently published in the Israeli press, which made it clear that we are not giving up on a two-state solution. We oppose annexation and we want both parties to come to the table and negotiate a lasting settlement.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary on his truly important statement. If employed wisely, it promises to be a great force for good in the world. As he knows, hundreds of thousands of Uighurs, other Muslims and Christians continue to be imprisoned in inhuman Chinese camps, which are a revolting violation of the universal rights held sacred by freedom-loving people everywhere, namely the freedom to live, work and worship as desired.
In 2019, 23 countries, including the UK, US and Japan, signed a letter addressed to the UN Human Rights Council and the UN General Assembly Third Committee urging communist China to close its camps. It saddens me that, as we condemn slavery and other beastly historical crimes, horrific exploitative labour continues—
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for the passionate way in which made his case. I reassure him that, if he looks at the statement that the UK led on with 27 other countries on the Human Rights Council, we have condemned the human rights abuses that he refers to against the Uighurs and in relation to Hong Kong. That is the first time the issue has been on the agenda at the Human Rights Council. We will continue to keep up that work and shine a light on what, I agree, are appalling human rights abuses.
I agree with everything the Foreign Secretary has said today—he will not be surprised to hear that—but in the interests of transparency, will he look at the possibility of amending the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Act 2014, not to curtail commercial lobbying, but so that there is some sort of register and we know who is hiring lobbying firms? The vast majority of those people are perfectly respectable, law-abiding and, in most cases, open, but some are not. We need to know who is doing it.
I know that considerable work is being done on both sides of the House on that issue. We want maximum financial transparency. If the hon. Gentleman wishes to write to me, I will certainly take a look at that in the context of all the other work that we are doing on corruption in the next strengthening of the Magnitsky regime.
I very much welcome the establishment of the sanctions tools, which will allow Britain to take a far more robust position when dealing with breaches of human rights. I join other hon. Members in congratulating my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary. As a human rights lawyer, he was well placed to see this through. He will be aware that sanctions are designed to be targeted and focused on individuals, and to change and challenge behaviour. I join my fellow Chair, the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, to ask for an announcement on China, not just on tactical issues to do with human rights, but on the wider foreign policy stance, given China’s trajectory.
I thank my right hon. Friend the Chair of the Defence Committee. We have taken these measures. He has heard what we have said on Hong Kong. He will know that Huawei is going through the review in the context of US trade sanctions. The integrated review is coming forward, which will be completed by the autumn. That is the right opportunity, in parallel with the comprehensive spending review, to make sure that we have the right strategy and the resources to back it up.
Can the Foreign Secretary assure the House that the application of the sanctions regime will be transparently even-handed and will not be blind to human rights abuses carried out by or in the name of our so-called allies and friends such as Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Israel or India, or indeed countries with which we are seeking to secure a post-Brexit trade deal?
I congratulate the Foreign Secretary on his personal commitment to human rights, which is becoming a hallmark of his tenure and is extremely welcome. If we are to have an international order that promotes not just our economic interests but our democratic values, there have to be consequences for people who violence those principles, which is why this statement matters. Will the Foreign Secretary look at whether the process for deciding who gets designated should become an independent process, as we have with compliance with the consolidated criteria for arms exports? That could be a way to disentangle the decision from the complexities of diplomatic relations, which we have to have even with nefarious states.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his question and pay tribute to him for all the work that he did at the Foreign Office to promote human rights, particularly in respect of the media freedom campaign, which we continue to champion. He makes an interesting point. I have not seen another jurisdiction that has done it as autonomously as he suggests but, as I said, we want to take sure-footed steps and will look at ways in which we can strengthen the regime, including making it more resilient, in the weeks and months ahead.
I thank the Foreign Secretary for his statement and commend the strong stand that we are taking on human rights. This is clearly a Secretary of State who get things done. He referred in his statement to holding up a torch and the “flame of freedom”; we must question any sanctions policy that does not target the Chinese officials responsible for the mistreatment of the Uighurs in Xinjiang, where more than a million are in concentration camps. In addition, an independent tribunal in Xinjiang concluded that forced organ harvesting is undoubtedly taking place with the knowledge and support of the Chinese Communist party. Will the Secretary of State join his US counterparts and act against human rights abusers in China?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his remarks. We certainly want to make sure that we can work with allies. We are already talking to our Five Eyes partners and I hope to have another a call with them shortly. We will certainly look at the suggestions that the hon. Gentleman has made. We need our approach to be evidence based. Sometimes, in the most authoritarian countries, evidence is difficult to come by, almost by definition, but I hope he will see from the designations that we make today that when we have the evidence and the crimes are clear, we are willing to act.
I warmly welcome the Foreign Secretary’s statement and the commitment that he shows to the rule of law being just as important in international affairs as it is in domestic matters. I also welcome his reference to continued co-operation and alignment with our European partners, which is particularly important when it comes to enforcement. Will he therefore ensure that as we come to the end of the transition period, we make it a priority to maintain the same levels of access to policing and judicial co-operation as we have currently and, indeed, seek to expand that to other non-EU members, so that we do not have any gap in the ability to enforce these important and welcome sanctions?
My hon. Friend was very deft in getting the EU issue into his question. I reassure him that, at E3 level and more broadly, we want to co-ordinate with our European partners, friends and allies. The Magnitsky sanctions are a good illustration of how we can reinforce and strengthen co-operation in the years ahead. Law enforcement vehicles for co-operation are certainly important. We want to see what the right approach is under the future relationship, but I know the work that my hon. Friend has done and have no doubt about the value that such co-operation can add.
I wholeheartedly welcome the statement and the measures that the Foreign Secretary has announced today. Given its expertise in gathering intelligence and evidence of human rights abuses and corruption, will the Foreign Secretary be proactively canvassing civil society, both in the UK and globally, in drawing up the lists? May I press him further on the points raised by other hon. Members in relation to Hong Kong? Will he seriously consider opening the door to naming in any future designation the perpetrators of abuses under the new national security law?
We will certainly work with all our international partners to accumulate the evidence. The hon. Gentleman asked about civil society and non-governmental organisations; yes, we absolutely will work with them. Indeed, sometimes the primary evidence comes through open-source reporting, so that relationship is very important. As I have said to the House already, we will look at strengthening the regime as we go forward. I am not going to second-guess subsequent designations in relation to China or any other country, not least because of the importance, as has already been highlighted, of making sure that we have a rigorous and judicious process leading up to designation.
I believe they do demonstrate that. It is early days. We wanted to make sure that we took firm, clear steps, as the worst thing in the world is to trip up over this sort of thing; it gives precisely the wrong people succour. We also recognise that there will be scope for strengthening the regime even further. This, therefore, is the point of departure in terms of this sanctions regime, and we will look very carefully at it with the benefit of the House’s scrutiny in the months ahead.
I welcome the sanctions and I want them to be as effective as possible not only as a punishment, but as a deterrent. Will the Secretary of State just outline what provisions there will be in secondary legislation to ensure that not only the perpetrators are punished, but their agents and nominees, including family members and associates, who have benefited from these crimes?
I thank the hon. Lady for her support. We will have a further debate before recess on the terms of the regulations. I think she will see that it is not just the direct perpetrators who can be captured, but those supporting and in other ways contributing to the human rights abuse. I hope that that will reassure her, but, as I have said, we will be looking to further strengthen the regime—for example, in relation to corruption—in the months ahead.
I begin by paying tribute to Sergei Magnitsky. I think that, if Sergei and many others like him pay the ultimate price, they at least hope, in their final moments, that it will make a difference. I am sure that we can all agree that that is exactly what Sergei has achieved. Will my right hon. Friend outline to the House which other countries, some of which he has already mentioned, have similar regimes and how we plan to work with them on best practice and co-operate to make the most of our independent action in this regard?
I thank my hon. Friend. I agree with what he said about Magnitsky. He was an incredibly courageous man. I think of him as the Solzhenitsyn of his age. To make these sanctions effective, to deter action and to hold people to account, we do need to work closely with our partners. We are one of the first major countries, certainly in Europe, to draw up this regime and start implementing it. There are some other countries doing so, but the EU as a whole has not adopted it yet. I can tell him that the US obviously has a mechanism in place, as do the Canadians, and the Australian Parliament is also considering it. We are talking with the full range of international partners, and indeed others, because we think that this provides a strong and resilient model for raising human rights and not allowing them to be swept under the carpet, while still engaging in the diplomacy that is required and all the other things that serve the British national interest.
I welcome the Foreign Secretary’s statement today, but why is the Commonwealth Development Corporation continuing to invest millions of pounds in a company called Frontiir, a telecommunications and internet company that has been obeying what the Myanmar Government have been telling it, which is to suppress the transmission of evidence of human rights abuses and atrocities being committed against the Rohingya?
I thank the hon. Lady for her question. I hope that she will be reassured to see that the designations include those in relation to human rights abuses against the Rohingya. I do not know about the specific case that she is referring to, but if she would like to write to me, I am very willing to take a look at it.
May I too welcome the global human rights sanctions regime as proposed by the Foreign Secretary? Will he outline to the House whether this sanctions regime ensures that the UK continues to uphold the necessity of freedom of religion and belief around the world?
I thank my hon. Friend for his question. The regime focuses on the most serious human rights abuses—those against the right to life, the prohibition against torture, and the prohibition against slave labour and forced labour—but of course many of those abuses can be directed at journalists and those practising their religion, and if he looks at the designations that we have made today, he will find that that is true even in relation to the first wave.
May I add my voice to the congratulations to the Foreign Secretary? This has been a personal crusade of his and this is a great moment not just for him, but for the Government and the country as well. May I press him to go a bit further and a bit faster, perhaps, on the points that he has made about fighting corruption and extending these measures to include corruption? He will understand that while many human rights abusers are indeed corrupt, there are many people who are corrupt but who are not necessarily human rights abusers, and therefore we may be able to get people only on corruption charges. Strengthening that element is vital if we are to be able to get people designated on corruption by Christmas.
I thank my hon. Friend and pay tribute to the work he has done not only on human rights but on transparency and anti-corruption. As I said, we will look at this. Work is already under way on the corruption element. I look forward to his contribution as we develop these proposals.
I welcome the designation of those from Saudi Arabia responsible for the death of Jamal Khashoggi. I also welcome the fact that in the notes that the Foreign Secretary has provided, there is clear indication that non-state actors who have acquired a significant degree of control, authority and organisation over people in an area will also be held to account. As the Foreign Secretary knows, for the past few years my constituent Luke Symons has been held by the Houthis in Sana’a in Yemen, in a severe breach of his human rights. Will the Foreign Secretary commit to doing all that he can to secure his release and make sure that my constituent and his family can leave Yemen and travel to the United Kingdom?
I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman’s advocacy and tireless campaigning on behalf of his constituent. Of course we want to secure his release from the Houthis. The hon. Gentleman rather smartly wove in the non-state actor element of these regimes. That is important, because this is not just about perpetrators who come from arms of the state: there are a lot of other people out there, whether from militia, armed groups, various organisations or organised crime, who are aiding and abetting and supporting these human rights abuses, and we need to target all of them.
I particularly welcome the reference to the hundreds of thousands of people who perished in the gulags of North Korea—a country about which we learn very little from television reports or social media posts. In his statement, the Foreign Secretary mentions organisations rather than individuals in respect of North Korea. What are we going to do to publicise the names of the individuals responsible for these heinous crimes, in North Korea and globally?
Part of the problem in North Korea, as we discussed earlier, is the clandestine nature of the decision-making process. However, my hon. Friend is right that we would certainly now be able and willing to proceed to name and designate any individuals. The two organisations that we are designating are bureau 27 of the Ministry of State Security, which oversees the political prison camps, and the Ministry of Public Security’s correctional bureau, which oversees the ordinary prison camps—both ghastly in their own right.