House of Commons
Wednesday 22 July 2020
The House met at half-past Eleven 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
Women and Equalities
The Minister for Women and Equalities was asked—
Covid-19: BAME Communities
We are concerned that covid-19 is disproportionately impacting ethnic minority communities, which is why the Government have put in place measures to reduce the spread of the virus, especially for people who may be at higher risk. In addition to a raft of specific targeted interventions, I am working with the Race Disparity Unit and the Department of Health and Social Care to act on the findings of the Public Health England review into disparities in risks and outcomes of covid-19. That work will enable us to take appropriate, evidence-based action to address the highlighted disparities.
The Government are doing all they can to address racial disparities across all sectors. The hon. Gentleman may be aware of the commission that the Prime Minister has set up, with the commissioners announced last week, which will look at continued disparities across the board, including in the workplace.
My hon. Friend is completely right. It is important to remember that the PHE review findings did not take into account comorbidities or other factors such as occupations. I agree with her that it is imperative for us to understand the key drivers of these disparities, the relationships between the risk factors and what we can do to close the gap in the evidence that the review highlighted.
The recommendations in the Marmot review and the Marmot review 10 years on would be a good place to start when addressing health inequalities impacting BAME communities. Is 10 years enough time to consider the recommendations of the original review, and how long will it be before we see the recommendations of either implemented?
I had a meeting with Professor Marmot just last month, and we discussed the recommendations of his review. If my right hon. Friend has seen the report, she will know that many of the recommendations are at a very high level. For instance, the first recommendation says that we should give every child the best start in life. I am sure that that was something she took forward when she was a Minister. This Government believe that it is important, and it is reflected in all our policies across education and communities.
Transgender People: Discrimination
We are committed to tackling discrimination against transgender people. We have invested £4 million for schools to tackle anti-LGBT bullying, and we have addressed homophobic hate crime in the hate crime action plan.
Successive Conservative Equalities Ministers have repeatedly stalled on publishing the results of the Gender Recognition Act 2004 consultation. Leaked reports of a potential roll-back on trans rights have understandably caused alarm. With hate crimes against trans people up nearly 40% on last year, does the Secretary of State agree that her quibbling on this issue is fanning the flames of populist hate towards an already marginalised group?
As the Prime Minister said, we will respond to the consultation over the summer. Let me be absolutely clear: we will not be rolling back the rights of transgender people. It is important that transgender people are able to live their lives as they wish, without fear, and we will make sure that that is the case.
In July 2018, the Government announced that they were seeking views on how best to reform the Gender Recognition Act 2004 in a consultation that closed in October 2018. Nearly two years later, the Government have still not published their response. Trans rights are human rights, and updating the GRA will help to improve the lives of trans people. Today the House will rise, and the Minister has previously stated that the Government would publish their response. When will she finally publish the Government’s response and their plans for reform?
Hate Crimes: South and East Asian Communities
We have heard these concerns from the police and charities, and we are working with them to ensure that police forces are reassuring affected communities and encouraging reporting of hate crimes during the pandemic. The Government are clear that there is no place for hate crime in modern Britain. These crimes destabilise our communities and there are no excuses for them.
A petition recently created by Viv Yau has nearly 3,000 signatures already. It calls on the UK Government and media outlets to stop using stock imagery of south-east and east Asian people when talking about covid-19. The disproportionate use of images of Chinese, south-east and east Asian people in masks during the pandemic perpetuates the notion that all of us carry the virus, and it plays a significant role in the recent trebling of racist attacks, stereotyping and abuse. Will the Minister commit to working with Government and public bodies on the use of these images, and meet me to discuss the increase in hate crime during the pandemic?
The perpetrators of hate crimes targeting south and east Asian communities, and others, in relation to covid-19 are being punished. We know from the Crown Prosecution Service that it has prosecuted a number of cases involving racist abuse on the basis of perceived Chinese ethnicity. But of course the Government are always willing to work with interested parties to ensure that we are stopping hate crime, and I would happy to meet the hon. Lady to do that.
Covid-19: Women Born in the 1950s
The Government have introduced significant measures to help mitigate the financial impact of covid-19. We are committed to providing financial support for people when they need it throughout their lives, including when they are near to or reach retirement. The welfare system will continue to support men and women who are unable to work, on a low income, or under state pension age.
Research by think-tank the Women’s Budget Group shows that women are at greater risk from the economic crisis caused by the covid-19 pandemic. The current crisis is pushing more and more women, including those born in the 1950s, into poverty. What practical steps will the Minister take to relieve the impact on 1950s-born women, who are already disadvantaged by the rise in the state pension age—and may I, Mr Speaker, declare an interest as a 1950s-born woman?
The Government recognise the importance of supporting adults to effectively plan for the future. We do recognise that this is a challenging time for everyone, and we aim to support older workers, including women who may be out of work because of covid-19. Through the summer Budget, the Chancellor announced a number of initiatives that will support all claimants, including older women. The hon. Lady will be aware that there is a live Court of Appeal case as of yesterday, and I cannot comment further on this live litigation.
Covid-19: Protection of Young Workers
We have supported people to make a claim for universal credit if they have lost their jobs. We are strengthening our youth offer for 18 to 24-year-olds. This includes introducing a tailored 13-week programme, new youth hubs, and DWP specialist youth employability work coaches. Meanwhile, young people can be referred to apprenticeships or work-related training at any stage.
I thank the Minister for that answer. However, Glasgow South West constituent Caitlyn Lee, who has worked for the Blythswood Square hotel for five years, will receive only £580 in redundancy pay, which barely covers one month’s rent, because, under statutory redundancy pay law, young workers under the age of 22 are entitled to half a week’s pay whereas workers over 40 get one and a half weeks’ pay. Will the Government address this discrimination, and what will they do to mitigate the mass redundancies of young workers so that they are not disadvantaged any further?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising this issue. Young people can be at a particular disadvantage, perhaps due to their limited work experience, and they might potentially have a lower skills level. I am concerned to hear about this issue. Our jobcentres are already talking to claimants about the support they can give to young people and signposting them to places that can support them into employment, such as the National Careers Service, in giving advice on how they can look for further work. We have also announced our new kick-start scheme for Great Britain—a £2 billion fund to support young people at risk of long-term unemployment.
My fantastic god-daughter, Toniann, is 17. During lockdown, instead of studying, or even watching boxsets, she became a key worker and helped to keep the economy going. For that, she was paid £4.55 per hour. Does the Minister think that Toniann and other people her age are worth any more than that, and if so, will she stand up for the young people of these islands and urge the Chancellor to make it compulsory for employers using the kick-start scheme to top up this frankly insulting and free—to them—wage?
I am passionate about supporting our young people to get the opportunities they need, and for this, the kick-start programme is vital. My officials are engaging with the devolved authorities about how we can make the eligibility criteria attractive and wide-ranging. We are looking at the detail and will set it out so that everyone can understand how to get involved and get these opportunities at the start of August.
The Domestic Abuse Bill still does not include critical measures to protect migrant women and girls, which is a necessity for compliance with the Istanbul convention. How do the Government intend to protect vulnerable women regardless of their ethnicity, sexual orientation or immigration status if they continue to fail to ratify the convention?
The hon. Lady knows that we already protect the rights of victims of domestic abuse and other survivors through a range of measures, not just those in the Domestic Abuse Bill, but I am delighted that she raises the Bill, which is a groundbreaking piece of legislation. Alongside it, we will this year launch a pilot project to understand and measure the need of migrant women who have no recourse to public funds, because the Government are clear that they must be treated as victims first and foremost.
Socio-economic Inequality: Equality Hub
The Prime Minister has set out his vision to level up and spread opportunity across the country, and the Equality Hub will play an important part in realising that vision by rigorously analysing where the real inequality in Britain is today. It will focus in particular on areas such as geography and social background.
Rural poverty is easy to overlook in picturesque areas that other people associate with holidays and a slower pace of life, but it is every bit as hard and destructive for those affected. Can my right hon. Friend advise the House on what action the Government are taking to address rural deprivation?
My hon. Friend makes a good point. We want everybody across the country to benefit from our levelling-up agenda of investing more in transport infrastructure and dealing with educational inequality. We recognise that deprived rural areas can face additional barriers to opportunity. The Equality Hub will analyse the data and look at where that inequality of opportunity is, so that Departments can take measures to address them.
We want to make sure that no part of our country feels forgotten about, particularly towns and cities in the north and the midlands, such as my hon. Friend’s constituency. I can assure him that we will do everything we can to look at the roots of that geographical inequality and to make sure his constituents have the best opportunities in life.
Racial Injustices: Race Disparity Unit
The Government are committed to tackling racial disparities and levelling up the country, which is why the Race Disparity Unit continues to work across Departments and their agencies to identify and address adverse variances in outcomes across education, healthcare, criminal justice and the economy. It is also why the Prime Minister announced the new Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities, the terms of reference and membership of which were announced last week.
The Baroness McGregor-Smith review in 2017 found that the economy could be boosted by £24 billion if BAME disparities were eradicated. I am sure the Minister would agree that that boost would be really helpful to the economy right now. Will she tell me explicitly what the Government and her Department are doing directly to tackle structural racism in the workplace?
The hon. Lady references Baroness McGregor-Smith’s review, which was an industry-led review with recommendations that were mostly for the private sector to consider. Following that review, we ran a consultation on ethnicity pay reporting and received more than 300 detailed responses, which we are currently analysing. This is one of the things that the commission will look into: it will look at a broad range of issues and some of the findings will help to address the issues that the hon. Lady has just raised.
Low-income Families: Equity of Opportunity
The Government are committed to helping individuals from low-income families to progress at work and to a system to increase their incomes and level up opportunities. The aforementioned baroness, Ruby McGregor-Smith, is leading our DWP in-work progression commission, which is identifying challenges that individuals might face and finding practical solutions to help them to overcome the barriers faced across all communities.
Most likely to drop out of school with no qualifications, most likely to commit suicide and already falling behind in terms of attainment compared with all their peers by the age of five—the plight of white working-class boys still seems to be an unfashionable one, but although these young men have some of the worst life chances of any group anywhere in our country, the Equality Act 2010 does not touch on socioeconomic disparity or poverty. It seems like every other group in society, apart from these boys, has some kind of positive action in place. What can my hon. Friend do to ensure that this is the last generation of lost boys from places such as Mansfield who do not have the same opportunity in life as their peers?
The evidence is understood that early language and learning skills have a fundamental impact on a child’s education and future life chances. The Government are bringing in extra support for all disadvantaged children, including white working-class children—I know that my hon. Friend’s sees that as key to no area being left behind. The Department for Education has set up the Hungry Little Minds campaign, targeting low-income parents to support their child’s early language development, which is key to help them to set up for school and boost their life chances.
I have been clear that the Government are committed to tackling the abhorrent practice of so-called gay-conversion therapy in the UK. As the Prime Minister reiterated earlier this week, this practice has no place in civilised society. Our action will be determined by research looking at how best to define conversion therapy, the scale of the issue, where it is happening and who it is happening to. When that research is complete, I will bring forward proposals to ban conversion therapy, making sure that our measures are effective so that no innocent people have to endure such tortuous practices.
As we approach to the summer holiday recess, it looks like we all need it. With that in mind, what steps are the Government taking to tackle the effects of body-image issues on young people? Will the Minister meet me to consider the merits of a law that requires a logo to be displayed if an image of a human body or body part has been digitally altered in its proportions?
We are working closely with the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport on the issue of body image and its impact on young people. I would be happy to organise a meeting, possibly with those Ministers who are leading on the issue. I also welcome the work that the Women and Equalities Committee is doing on the subject.
Last week, the Government published details of the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities and announced its chair, who has previously said:
“Much of the supposed evidence of institutional racism is flimsy.”
Yet we know that black workers with degrees earn on average 23% less than their white counterparts. The need for action is urgent. Inaction is costing members of the black, Asian and minority ethnic communities both their livelihoods and their lives. What assurances can the Minister give the House today that her Government are serious about finally ending institutional racism?
It is important to clarify that Dr Sewell who chairs the commission has not denied that structural racism exists. However, he understands that disparities have a variety of causes, such as class and geography, which the commission will be examining in closer detail, and it is the findings of this commission that will address the issues that the hon. Lady rightly says are urgent and need addressing.
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. The national conversation on race has been distorted by some seeking to exploit racial tensions without any recognition of the progress that we have made as a multi-ethnic democracy and society. Guided by the evidence, this commission will improve and inform the conversation. It will use data to look at complex and interdependent factors in the round to better understand why disparities exist and what action can be taken to reduce them. The commission will be producing evidence-based recommendations.
The key priority during the coronavirus crisis is to make sure that we keep women in jobs, and that has been our No. 1 focus as a Government. Of course, it is vital that we address the issues that cause the gender pay gap, and we continue to help more girls study maths and science, which I talked about earlier, and we also continue to address discrimination in the workplace.
How about: I will take the hon. Lady’s question and give her a full response?
We are absolutely clear that alcohol is no excuse for domestic abuse or any other kind of abusive behaviour. We are acutely aware of the need to put victims at the heart of our approach to tackling domestic abuse at this time. We are working closely with domestic abuse charities, the domestic abuse commissioner and the police to understand the needs of victims of this type of abuse and how we can best support them.
The Prime Minister was asked—
Can I start by congratulating the Prime Minister on his one-year anniversary as Conservative party leader? As we look at our long-term economic recovery, can he assure me that Lincolnshire will receive the required funding to boost digital connectivity for all the people of Grantham, Stamford, Bourne and our local villages?
Yes, indeed I can, which is why we have pledged not only £5 billion in funding for gigabit-capable broadband across the country, including the hardest-to-reach areas but additionally a £34 million package for Lincolnshire superfast broadband, helping 135,000 households to benefit from gigabit-capable speeds.
May I start by welcoming reports this week of significant progress in the vaccine trials in Oxford? We all know that there is a long way to go, but I want to record my thanks and admiration for everyone involved in this huge effort.
Under my leadership, national security will also be the top priority for Labour, so I want to ask the Prime Minister about the extremely serious report by the Intelligence and Security Committee, which concludes that Russia poses
“an immediate and urgent threat”
to our national security, and is engaged in a range of activities that include espionage, interfering in democratic processes, and serious crime. The Prime Minister received that report 10 months ago. Given that the threat is described as “immediate and urgent”, why on earth did he sit on it for so long?
Actually, when I was Foreign Secretary, for the period I have been in office, we have been taking the strongest possible action against Russian wrongdoing, orchestrating, I seem to remember, the expulsion of 130—153—Russian diplomats around the world, while the right hon. and learned Gentleman sat on his hands and said nothing while the Labour party parroted the line of the Kremlin, when people in this country were poisoned on the orders of Vladimir Putin.
I stood up and condemned what happened in Salisbury, and I supported the then Prime Minister on record. I would ask the Prime Minister to check the record and withdraw that—I was very, very clear. The report was very clear that until recently the Government badly underestimated the Russian threat and the response that it required. They are still playing catch-up. The Government have taken their eye off the ball—arguably, they were not even on the pitch. After the Government have been in power for 10 years, how does the Prime Minister explain that?
I think the right hon. and learned Gentleman’s questions are absolutely absurd. There is no country in the western world that is more vigilant in protecting the interests of this country or those of the international community from Russian interference. In fact, we are going further now, introducing new legislation to protect critical national infrastructure and our intellectual property. I think that he will find if he goes to any international body or gathering around the world that it is the UK that leads the world in caution about Russian interference. I do not wish to contradict him, but he sat on his hands and said nothing. The previous Leader of the Opposition parroted the line of the Kremlin that the UK should supply—[Interruption.] I did not hear him criticise the previous Leader of the Opposition. If he did so, now is the time for him to set the record straight.
I was absolutely clear in condemning what happened in Salisbury, not least because I was involved in bringing proceedings against Russia on behalf of the Litvinenko family—that is why I was so strong about it. I spent five years as Director of Public Prosecutions, working on live operations with the security and intelligence services, so I am not going to take lectures from the Prime Minister about national security. [Interruption.]
The Prime Minister says that he will introduce new legislation. I want to make it clear to him that we will support that legislation and work with the Government. It is not before time. The Prime Minister says that the Government are vigilant. Eighteen months ago, the then Home Secretary said that we did not have all the powers yet to tackle the Russian threat. He said that the Official Secrets Acts were completely out of date. Other legislation has been introduced in that 18-month period. This is about national security. Why have the Government delayed so long in introducing that legislation?
This Government are bringing forward legislation—not only a new espionage Act and new laws to protect against theft of our intellectual property, but a Magnitsky Act directly to counter individuals in Russia or elsewhere who transgress human rights. Let us be in no doubt what this is really all about: this is about pressure from the Islingtonian remainers who have seized on this report to try to give the impression that Russian interference was somehow responsible for Brexit. That is what this is all about. The people of this country did not vote to leave the EU because of pressure from Russia or Russian interference; they voted because they wanted to take back control of our money, of our trade policy, of our laws. The simple fact is that, after campaigning for remain, after wanting to overturn the people’s referendum day in day out, in all the period when the right hon. and learned Gentleman was sitting on the Labour Front Bench, he simply cannot bring himself to accept that.
I see the Prime Minister is already on his pre-prepared lines. This is a serious question of national security. He sat on this report for 10 months and failed to plug a gap in our law on national security for a year and a half. One of the starkest conclusions in the report is that the
“UK is clearly a target for Russia’s disinformation campaigns”.
The report also highlights that this is being met with a fragmented response across Whitehall and across the Government. The report refers to this as a “hot potato” with no one organisation recognising itself as having the overall lead. That is a serious gap in our defences. This is not about powers; it is about responsibility, Prime Minister. So, how is he going to address that gap and make sure the UK meets this threat with the joined-up, robust response it deserves?
There is no other Government in the world who take more robust steps to protect our democracy, to protect our critical national infrastructure and to protect our intellectual property, as I have said, from interference by Russia or by anyone else. Frankly, I think that everybody understands that these criticisms are motivated by a desire to undermine the referendum on membership of the European Union that took place in 2016, the result of which the right hon. and learned Gentleman simply cannot bring himself to accept.
There is a serious gap in our Official Secrets Act, laying bare for 18 months, and that is all the Prime Minister has to say about it. One way the Government could seek to clamp down on Russian influence is to prevent the spread of Kremlin-backed disinformation. Obviously, social media companies have a big role to play, but the report also highlights
“serious distortions in the coverage provided by Russian state-owned international broadcasters such as RT”.
The High Court has ruled that Russia Today broadcasts pose actual and potential harm. Does the Prime Minister agree that it is time to look again at the licensing for Russia Today to operate in the UK?
I think this would come more credibly from the Leader of the Opposition had he called out the former Leader of the Opposition when he took money for appearing on Russia Today. He protested neither against the former Leader of the Opposition’s stance on Salisbury nor against his willingness to take money from Russia Today. The right hon. and learned Gentleman flip-flops from day to day. One day he is in favour of staying in the EU; the next day he is willing to accept Brexit. The Leader of the Opposition has more flip-flops than Bournemouth beach.
Pre-prepared gags on flip-flops. This is the former columnist who wrote two versions of every article ever published! In case the Prime Minister has not noticed, the Labour party is under new management. No Front Bencher of this party has appeared on Russia Today since I have been leading this party.
Finally, I want to ask the Prime Minister about the appalling persecution of the Uyghur Muslims in China. We have all seen the footage of the Uyghurs being herded on to trains and heard the heartbreaking stories of forced sterilisation, murder and imprisonment. We support the Foreign Secretary, the Prime Minister and the Government in their strong and clear condemnation of China for that in recent weeks. What further steps will the Prime Minister take? In particular, will he consider targeted sanctions against those responsible? Will he lead a concerted diplomatic action with our international partners to make it clear that this simply cannot be allowed to stand in the 21st century?
That is why the Foreign Secretary, only this week, condemned the treatment of the Uyghurs. That is why this Government, for the first time, have brought in targeted sanctions against those who abuse human rights in the form of the Magnitsky Act. I am delighted that the right hon. and learned Gentleman now supports the Government, but last week, of course, he did not support the Government. I am glad he is with us this week. I do not know how many more questions he has got since you allowed him to come back, Mr Speaker, throughout this session.
We have been getting on consistently with delivering on our agenda. A year ago, this was a Leader of the Opposition who was supporting an antisemitism-condoning Labour party and wanted to repeal Brexit. I represent a Government who were getting on with delivering on the people’s priorities: 40 new hospitals, 20,000 more police, 50,000 more nurses. And, by the way, we have already recruited 12,000 more nurses, 6,000 more doctors and 4,000 more police. We are delivering on the people’s priorities. We are the people’s Government. And, by the way, we are the Government who support the workers of this country as well, with the biggest ever increase in the living wage.
Yesterday, the Tory party held a political Cabinet, with the Prime Minister in a panic about the majority and increasing support for Scottish independence. Apparently, their great strategy amounts to more UK Cabinet Ministers coming to Scotland. Can I tell the Prime Minister that the more Scotland sees of this UK Government, the more convinced it is of the need for Scotland’s independence? A far better plan for the Tories would be to listen to the will of the Scottish people. Before his visit tomorrow, will the Prime Minister call a halt to his Government’s full-frontal attack on devolution?
I really do not know what the right hon. Gentleman is talking about. The only Bill I can think of that is before the House, or will be coming before the House, and which I know enjoys cross-party support, is the UK internal market Bill. Although that is a massively devolutionary Bill, which gives huge powers straight back from Brussels to Scotland, its principal purpose is to protect jobs and protect growth throughout the entire United Kingdom to stop pointless barriers of trade between all four parts of our country. Anybody sensible would support it.
Anybody sensible would realise from that answer that the Prime Minister simply does not get Scotland. In 2014, the people of Scotland were promised devolution-max, near federalism and the most powerful devolved Parliament in the world. Instead, we got a Tory Trade Bill that threatens our NHS, an Immigration Bill that will devastate our economy, and a power grab that will dismantle devolution. Scotland’s powers grabbed by Westminster, workers’ rights attacked, the rape clause and the bedroom tax, our NHS up for sale—the overwhelming majority in Scotland’s Parliament, its MPs and its people oppose all those measures. How can the Prime Minister claim that this is a Union of equal partners when his damaging policies will all be imposed upon Scotland against its will?
I hesitate to accuse the right hon. Gentleman of failing to listen to my last answer, but it is clear that the UK internal market Bill is massively devolutionary, with 70 powers passed from Brussels to Scotland. It is quite incredible. Of course, its purpose is very sensible, which is to protect jobs and growth throughout the entire UK, but just on a political level it seems bizarre that the Scottish nationalist party actually wants to reverse that process and hand those powers back to unelected and unaccountable bureaucrats in Brussels. Is that really the policy? I do not think it is sensible.
My hon. Friend makes an extremely important point. As I have said repeatedly at this Dispatch Box, it is very important that we wait until the conclusion of this epidemic and have a proper statistical assessment of where we are. That is the course I would recommend to him.
No, and I think that is a pretty lamentable way of looking at it—it is a lamentable question. If the right hon. Gentleman thought there was genuinely something in the ISC report that showed that, for instance, the Brexit referendum had been undermined by Russia, he would now be saying it, but that does not appear. I am afraid that what we have here, as I have told the House several times, is the rage and fury of the remainer elite finding that there is in fact nothing in this report—no smoking gun whatever, after all that froth and fury. Suddenly, all those who want to remain in the EU find that they had no argument to stand on. They should simply move on.
We have already given the East Riding of Yorkshire more than £21 million to deal with the pressures of coronavirus. We have supported 90% of caravan manufacturers, whom the hon. Lady rightly supports, with the furlough scheme. As she knows, we have not only the £2 billion kick-starter fund to help young people into work, but the furlough bonus scheme to retain people in their jobs, as part of a massive package—£640 billion overall—to get our country moving again and make sure that we bounce back stronger than ever.
Yes, and I am proud that we have fulfilled our manifesto promise. We are levelling up school funding across the country so that every primary school pupil receives at least £4,000 per head and every secondary school pupil £5,150, and I pay tribute to all the teachers and all the schools in my hon. Friend’s constituency for the excellent work that they have done in the last few months.
I thank the hon. Gentleman very much for his question. As he knows, we have removed VAT from all PPE, including VAT on face masks that, as everybody knows, can protect from infection. That removed the burden of VAT in care homes, NHS trusts and for key workers. For home-made face masks, those that meet the Public Health England guidance will be covered, and will continue to be covered, by the zero rate, but I am happy to ask the relevant Minister to write to him to clarify the entire position.
I thank my right hon. Friend, and I can absolutely give her that guarantee. In the current circumstances, now is the time to double down on levelling up and that is what we are going to do. That is why we are rolling out a colossal programme of investment in infrastructure, massive investments in our public services and fantastic new technology, because that is the way to give every part of our country the opportunity to realise its potential.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. I well remember Bethany and her question, and I know how difficult this problem is for many people. I can certainly commit to him to look at it in detail and see what we can do, and I will write back to him.
I thank my right hon. Friend for the extreme tact with which she expressed her question. She makes a very important point, because I am afraid that there are significant comorbidities associated with covid, and we do need as a country to address obesity and the sad fact that we are, I am afraid, considerably fatter than most other European nations apart from the Maltese, as far as I can tell—no disrespect to Malta; that is what the statistics told me—and we will be bringing forward a strategy, which I hope will conform with my right hon. Friend’s strictures.
I was proud as Mayor of London to change the London plan to ensure that we went for Parker Morris plus 10% for our space standards. We will ensure that we not only build back better and more beautifully, but that we give people the space they need to live and grow in the homes that we will build.
That is wonderful advice, which I will take to heart. I look forward to joining my hon. Friend for a game of Poohsticks in the Hundred Acre Wood. Would it not be a wonderful thing if the Labour party abandoned the spirit of Eeyore that currently seems to envelop it?
Yes indeed. I thank the local authorities and people of Luton, who are obviously working very hard to ensure that they contain the epidemic, as are other local authorities around the country. We are supporting them, as the hon. Lady knows, with £3.7 billion of investment, as well as £600 million for the infection fund and a further £300 million to support local track and trace. Of course, if local communities do have to go back into lockdown, we will take steps to support them as well.
I wholeheartedly support this Government’s plans to level up our country and build, build, build. Many of my constituents are concerned, however, about a proposed housing development in Chorleywood. Although it is important that we build more affordable homes, this cannot come at the expense of our beautiful countryside. Can the Prime Minister tell me how the Government will balance local authority obligations to build housing under local plans with protection for the green belt?
Of course, and I thank my hon. Friend very much for his question because it allows me to point out that there is massive opportunity to build back better on brownfield sites. That is what we should prioritise, and that is certainly what we will be telling local authorities.
As the hon. Lady knows, we already have in place the job retention scheme and the bonus of £1,000 for employers keeping on furloughed workers. She also knows about the £2 billion kick-starter fund that we have instituted, the “eat out to help out” programme, the VAT cut and the many other things that we have done, on top of the £160 billion that we have invested in incomes, jobs and livelihoods throughout this crisis. But of course we will continue to do more as the economic ramifications of covid unfold; of course we are preparing for that. As the Chancellor has said, we must be clear with the country that we cannot protect every job, but no one will be left without hope or opportunity, and this country will bounce back stronger than ever before.
St Mawes in my constituency was recently placed first in the Which? survey of the best coastal destinations in the UK and the coastal town of Falmouth constantly punches above its weight with very little. Can my right hon. Friend confirm that the Government are looking at further financial measures to help the coastal towns that have been hardest hit in their time of need?
I chair the new all-party parliamentary group on coronavirus, and we are leading a cross-party rapid inquiry to ensure that we have learnt the lessons from the UK Government’s handling of this pandemic before a second wave. We have had over 900 submissions so far, including from bereaved families, from people who have long covid and from professional bodies such as the British Medical Association and the NHS Confederation. We will be releasing recommendations as we go, throughout the recess. I simply ask: will the Prime Minister take our recommendations seriously, with a view to acting on them when we come back in September?
I have a short statement to make about Select Committees. On Tuesday 24 March, the House passed an order allowing for virtual participation in Select Committee meetings, and giving Chairs associated powers to make reports. I was given a power under the order to extend it if necessary. On Monday 8 June, I announced an extension until Thursday 17 September. I can notify the House today that I am now further extending the order until Friday 30 October.
In order to allow the safe exit of hon. Members participating in this item of business and the safe arrival of those participating in the next, I am suspending the House for three minutes.
Intelligence and Security Committee: Russia Report
This Government will not tolerate any foreign interference in the running of our sovereign state. We have long recognised the threat posed by the Russian state, including from conventional military capabilities, espionage, cyber-attacks, covert interference and illicit finance. We have been clear that Russia must desist from its attacks on the UK and our allies, and we have been resolute in defending our country, our democracy and our values. We categorically reject any suggestion that the UK actively avoided investigating Russia.
The UK has a record of taking strong action against Russian wrongdoing. This is demonstrated by our responses to the Salisbury attack, the ongoing illegal annexation of Crimea and, just last week, cyber-attacks on research and development facilities in the US, the UK and Canada. Our world-class intelligence and security agencies continue to produce regular assessments of the threats posed by hostile state activity, including any potential interference in past or current UK democratic processes. Our 30-year Russia strategy is designed to move us to a point where Russia chooses to work alongside the international community.
Since the Committee took evidence in January 2019, much more has been done. We have established the Defending Democracy programme and strengthened our cross-Government counter-disinformation capability. In March, we formally avowed the existence of the joint state threats assessment team. Earlier this month, we launched the UK global human rights sanctions regime to target serious human rights abuses, with 25 Russian Government officials already sanctioned.
We have committed to bring forward legislation to counter hostile state activity and espionage. This will modernise existing offences to deal more effectively with the espionage threat, and consider what new offences and powers are needed. This includes reviewing the Official Secrets Acts and considering whether to follow our allies in adopting a form of foreign agent registration.
We are taking action at every level. We have stepped up our response to illicit finance through the introduction of new powers by the Criminal Finances Act 2017, including unexplained wealth orders, and the establishment of the multi-agency national economic crime centre within the National Crime Agency. The rules on investment visas have already been tightened, but we will continue to consider whether any further changes are required to ensure that they cannot be abused. Let there be no doubt: we are unafraid to act wherever necessary to protect the UK and our allies from any state threat.
I thank the ISC past and present and all involved in producing the Russia report:
“until recently, the Government had badly underestimated the Russian threat and the response it required.”
Not my words, but the damning indictment of deep systemic failings in the Government’s approach to security that the Russia report sets out. It is not so much that the Government studied what was happening and missed the signs. The truth is that they took a conscious decision not to look at all, as in the case of the 2016 referendum. If there is any doubt about the failure of Ministers to look, let me tell the House what the report says:
“The written evidence provided to us appeared to suggest that HMG had not seen or sought evidence of successful interference in UK democratic processes”.
Who provided the written evidence? If we check the footnote, it was the Government themselves. No wonder the Government were so desperate to delay the publication of the report. Sitting on it for months and blocking its publication before a general election was a dereliction of duty.
We have no issue with the Russian people. It is the Russian state that is involved in a litany of hostile activity, cyber-warfare, interference in democratic processes, illicit finance and acts of violence on UK soil. The report finds a failure of security departments to engage with this issue to the extent that the UK now faces a threat from Russia within its own borders. Does the Minister accept that that is in a situation when the UK is, as the report says, a top target for the Russian regime? Does he also accept, on defending the UK’s democratic processes and discourse, that no single organisation was offering leadership in government? Instead, it was, in the words of the report, “a hot potato” passed from one to another, with no body taking overall responsibility.
I thank our security services for the work they do, but they need help, and the report makes it clear that they have not received the strategic support, the legislative tools or the resources necessary to defend our interests. The report concludes that
“recent changes in resourcing to counter Russian Hostile State Activity are not (or not only) due to a continuing escalation of the threat—but appear to be an indicator of playing catch-up.”
When will the Government stop playing catch up? Anyone who saw the Prime Minister’s failure to engage on this at Prime Minister’s questions will be extremely worried. When will the Government treat this matter with the seriousness it deserves, act on the findings of the report and put the security of our country first?
The one thing I agree with in what the hon. Gentleman said is the threat we face from Russia, as I made clear in my opening statement in terms of all the different varieties in which that threat presents itself. We recognise and have always recognised the enduring and significant threat posed by Russia and Russia remains a top national security priority for this country. However, in terms of the other assertions that he makes, I reject them. It is a bit rich for those on the Labour Front Bench to lecture this Government on our stance in relation to Russia, given that the shadow Foreign Secretary herself even said at the weekend that the Labour party had got its position wrong.
The hon. Gentleman highlighted the issue of strategy and again I point to the Russia strategy that was implemented in 2017. Indeed, a cross-Government Russia unit is focused on all this and brings things together across Government with accountability through the National Security Council. He highlights the issue of the protection of our democracy. Unlike the Labour party, I am proud that we stood on a Conservative manifesto that committed to defend our democracy, highlighting that we will protect the integrity of our democracy by introducing identification to vote at the polling station and stopping postal vote harvesting, and through measures to prevent any foreign interference in elections. I look forward to the Labour party supporting those measures, which it did not in its own manifesto at the last general election.
Our approach to the threat Russia poses is clear-eyed. That is why we have taken the steps that we have, and, as I outlined, all the different measures we have implemented over the last months and years. Indeed, we have set out the message to Russia that, while we want to maintain a dialogue with it, there can be no normalisation of our bilateral relationship until Russia ends the destabilising activity that threatens the UK and our allies and undermines the safety of our citizens and our collective security.
We take the issue of our national security incredibly seriously. As I have said, I will take no lectures from the Opposition on putting the interests of this country first.
Given that the Minister has so much to say on this subject, it is really rather sad that it is having to be said in the context of an urgent question rather than a voluntary statement by the Government.
The Russia report could not have been produced to this high standard without the dedication, the expertise and, above all, the objectivity of the ISC’s brilliant staff, some of whom I have worked with previously, yet according to the journalist, Tim Walker, some people within Government tried to sack the secretariat and make political appointments. Will my right hon. Friend, as I still regard him, resist the temptation to fob us off with clichés about not believing everything we read in the media and give this House now a categorical commitment that no party political special advisers will be allowed anywhere near the ISC?
I thank my right hon. Friend for his comments on the work of the Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament. He will recall that he and I served on the Bill Committee establishing the ISC so he will know the weight and consideration I give to it, and indeed to the work of its officials and those who work to support its activities, inquiries and investigations. He can certainly have my assurances on the weight and support I give to his Committee.
I commend the work of the previous Committee, which produced the report that is the subject of this urgent question. I also commend all members of the Committee on the robust and rigorous work that I know they will do in the course of this Parliament.
Unlike the Minister, I will at least have the grace to congratulate the right hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) on his election to the chairmanship of the Intelligence and Security Committee, and he will have our backing in making sure he stays there because he is an independent-minded person and the right person to chair that Committee. Like him, I thank the Committee for publication of the report.
There is a lot of stuff in the report; this is a cow that is going to give us a lot of milk for quite some time, and it deserves to be taken seriously and considered objectively. The issues it raises in relation to actively looking the other way on interference in the Brexit referendum needs to be addressed objectively by both Government and the Opposition.
That also applies to what the report has to say about the Scottish referendum. I have banged on more about this than any other MP or politician in Scotland; in fact in Scotland, my party has a stronger record on this than any other political party. So let us have the inquiry into Brexit and the 2014 referendum campaign; let us bring that forward, and be clear that that is something only the United Kingdom Government can do—and if they do, the Minister will have my support in that.
When do the Government intend to bring forward the legislation that the Minister mentioned, for example on foreign agents, and can he clarify that there will be ample time to debate the rather confused and obscure effort across Government to counter this threat seriously?
We have produced our response to the Committee’s report, and I commend it to him. He highlights the issue about an inquiry, which underlines the fact that it is the work of the intelligence and security agencies to assess any new evidence as it emerges. Given that long-standing approach, we do not believe that it is necessary to hold a specific retrospective inquiry. If evidence were available to be found, it would emerge through our existing processes. We have seen no evidence of successful interference in the way that has been described by some. Indeed, that leads many people to think that it is more about re-arguing some of the issues of the Brexit referendum, not respecting and reflecting the outcome of that referendum. We are working at pace on the legislation and I am sure that there will be plenty of opportunities in the House to debate that, as well as other issues related to the report.
The report highlights concerning aspects of Russian interference in UK affairs with a sinister combination of 21st-century technology and tactics that are reminiscent of the cold war. Much of the report is redacted for obvious reasons, but can the Minister assure the House that he is satisfied that, where mistakes were made or threats were underestimated, they are already being put right to ensure that our democracy and economy are protected from nefarious influence, now and in future?
We keep all of our response under review, which is why I have highlighted all the different measures and steps that are in place to guard against the risk from action, interference or espionage by any hostile state or hostile state activity and what that requires. That is why, for example, in 2017, we established the NSC-endorsed Russia strategy. My hon. Friend has my assurance on the steps that we have taken and will continue to take to guard our national security. We will ensure that it is absolutely at the forefront.
I was clear about the weight and importance of the independent scrutiny that the ISC provides and why, from my perspective and the Government’s perspective, we will always examine and reflect carefully on its incredibly important work. I was also clear about the importance of that being conducted in the independent way in which it has always fulfilled its role and responsibility. I am quite clear that that will continue into the future.
The ISC report suggests that the SNP has questions to answer about Russian interference. Does the Minister agree that, given that Scotland and the independence referendum are at the centre of the allegations, it is right that the SNP explains what it knew about the issue and when?
My hon. Friend has made her point clearly and firmly. We wait to see how the SNP responds to the various points that have been flagged. Obviously, our priority is the national security of our whole United Kingdom, and the Government firmly continue to do that work.
I wish that the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Jo Gideon), or the special adviser who wrote that question, had actually read the report, because clearly she has not.
One of the Committee’s main recommendations was the need for a Bill to reform the Official Secrets Act and for an espionage Act. I welcome what the Minister has announced today and, more broadly and more informatively, what was in The Times this morning. The former director of MI5 and the right hon. Member for Bromsgrove (Sajid Javid) when he gave evidence to the Committee supported that.
In 2017, the Law Commissioners set off a consultation process about that, which is yet to report. I ask the Minister when it will report. I also urge him to make sure that we get the legislation in place, because it is needed. Let us hope that it is not just some spin to take the headlines the day after the report was announced. Let us get it into action.
I agree with what the hon. Gentleman said about legislation. He will note that in the Queen’s Speech, we committed to introduce legislation to counter hostile state activity and espionage. It is right that we put in place steps that reflect things like the foreign agent registration-type processes that exist in other countries, as well as receiving the Law Commission report on the Official Secrets Act. I can say to the hon. Gentleman that the commitment of this Government is to act at pace and speed to get this right, to ensure that we do our utmost to strengthen powers where they need to be strengthened and, in the interim, to take all necessary action to call out and highlight Russian activity and take further action as appropriate.
As a Select Committee Chair, may I welcome this report? Scrutiny is good. It helps to raise the bar and it is healthy for democracy. However, for those who follow such events, it has long been recognised that Russia poses a national security threat. It regularly buzzes our airspace with its MiGs, and the Foreign Affairs Committee “Moscow’s Gold” report highlighted many of the same issues as this report. Does the Security Minister agree that Russia’s cyber and disinformation actions are a reflection of the changing character of conflict, with calibrated state-sponsored attacks designed to interfere with our politics and economy, but beneath the threshold of any military response? Does he agree that we need to adapt quickly to that new form of political competition?
I agree with my right hon. Friend. I commend the ISC and his Committee for their work, for their reports, and for the way in which they have put this into focus. I hope to assure him that offensive cyber capabilities are now a critical part of our work, and we will ensure that we integrate that within our military and in some of our broader response to the issues as well—appropriately bounded, obviously, by legal and policy oversight. He is right to highlight the changing nature of conflict and activities against states, and that is why, through our National Cyber Security Centre and other initiatives, we continue to enhance and be vigilant against the threat outlined.
I have been warning about Putin’s Russia for 19 years now, and calling for the Magnitsky sanctions for 10 years. What mystifies me is that Government Ministers still give out golden visas to dodgy Russian oligarchs, that Government Ministers still grant exemptions to dodgy Russian oligarchs so that they can hide their ownership of businesses in this country, and that Government Ministers still take millions of pounds from dodgy Russian oligarchs. We have to clean up our act, and it has to start with the Government.
I recognise the work of the hon. Gentleman over a number of years on Magnitsky sanction-type regimes, as he rightly pointed out, and I hope that he will recognise and welcome the steps that have been taken in that regard. Equally, I highlight our work to tighten tier 1 visas and the retrospective examination that continues into visas granted before 2015. I assure him of our continued review of and vigilance about the abuse of our immigration system and, if further action is required, we will carry it out. I also assure him of the transparency of the workings of support for politics, which the Government underlined with their manifesto commitment.
I fully accept what the Minister says about this Government acting, and I give credit where credit is due. I have met folks in the Russia unit, and I thank them for their work. However, from 2007 to at least 2014, as the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) said so eloquently, we were hugely complacent and it damaged us. My question is about a foreign agent registration process, because I am unclear about it. Is the Minister talking about spies—making it illegal for the GRU to have people here—or is he talking about foreign lobbying? I have been calling for a foreign lobbying Act for two years now, and the foreign agent registration process in the US is about foreign lobbying, on which we badly need new and updated laws.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his question. We have been examining the laws in different countries that govern foreign agent registration. We are drawing that together into something that will be effective from a UK standpoint, learning whether that has been effective and applying that to our law as we prepare for the introduction of legislation countering espionage and hostile state activity. I look forward to continuing that discussion with him.
I declare my interest as the chair of the new all-party group on technology and national security and as a member of the Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy. The remarkable insight from this report was the lack of horizon scanning, understanding, mitigation and response to modern threats in the technological frontier from hostile states. On the assumption that the Minister agrees that we need to invest in and enhance our capabilities in this technological frontier, when does he intend to come to the House with the Government’s strategy to secure our national security?
Members will have heard what I said in my opening statement about the various steps that have been taken, including on countering illicit finance, dealing with the potential abuse of visas and investing through our national cyber-security strategy to counter cyber being exploited against us in so many different ways. That work continues. We also continue to work with those involved in the internet and social media on our online harms legislation, which we remain committed to. That underlines the breadth of our response.
My right hon. Friend may be aware that I have done more than most to try to stop the return of Russia to the Council of Europe, so I recognise the enduring threat that it poses. Does he share my belief that the Russia report largely underplays the bigger picture and that there is a distinct risk to the UK through the international institutions to which we jointly belong?
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for all his work. Russia seeks to advance the sense of a state that supports the rules-based order, yet through all its other actions, we can see that there is a fundamentally different approach. I would underline his focus on the fact that we need to be clear-eyed about the threats and risks posed through multilateral organisations. I look forward to working with him and others as we continue to call that out and ensure that our interests are best reflected through those organisations in upholding the rules-based order.
The Minister still has not answered the question posed by the right hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis), who alleged that there was a political attempt to remove the secretariat of the ISC and replace it with political placemen or women. Was the Minister aware of that—yes or no?
I am happy to say that I do not have any knowledge of what the hon. Gentleman is saying; I do not recognise that at all. From my standpoint, it is important that the ISC is able to conduct its work and present its report to the House, given the mandate that this House provided it with through the legislation establishing it.
I pay tribute to all those working in the British intelligence and security services who are putting their lives at risk here and abroad, including my father, who spent 45 years working for the Government, facing the Soviet Union as the enemy during the cold war. This report highlights that, as we have always done, we need to adjust and adapt to a new battlefield. Can the Minister assure me that the intelligence services and the armed forces will get every resource and piece of legislation they need to be effective?
Like my hon. Friend, I pay tribute to the work of our world-leading and incredible intelligence and security agencies and the steps they take day in, day out to assure our security. We should all be proud and supportive of their actions. My hon. Friend will know that an integrated review and a spending review are ongoing and can be assured of the importance and emphasis we give to our national security. That will be reflected in this process. We will protect and guard our future against the range of threats out there from those looking to undermine this country. We stand firm against that.
For years, when I was campaigning for an infected blood inquiry, I was familiar with the “nothing to see here” response from Whitehall, until it was decided that there was something to see. If a chief constable played down a spate of local muggings because police chose not to investigate, any MP worth their salt would not accept that. It should not be any different when it comes to properly investigating and taking action to protect our national security and democratic institutions from those who wish to subvert those institutions, weaken or divide our country and break up our alliances. Should not any welcome measures taken to strengthen national security be taken in the full knowledge of what those weaknesses are by having an inquiry into Russian interference in 2016?
Our work is informed by regular assessments by our security and intelligence agencies to ensure that dynamic response, hence the reason we are not persuaded by this call for a separate inquiry. We have seen the ISC report and responded to it, but in defending our democracy, we are vigilant against the threats and challenges. Indeed, we have a defending democracy programme looking at further steps and legislation to underpin that. The hon. Member certainly has the Government’s commitment to standing firm on those issues and to the security work that continues to inform all our actions.
I want to pick up on the point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood). Russia poses a serious threat to this country and is changing that threat, so can my right hon. Friend confirm that the Government will continue to work with NATO and our other international allies to tackle this threat and that we will be resolute in defending our country, our democracy and our values from a hostile state?
I can give that assurance to my hon. Friend. I recognise very clearly the importance of NATO, especially its work on cyber and other support. In that context, I would cite the example of the steps we continue to take to support our allies in the Baltic with the challenges that remain there. The strength of NATO and how that guards our security remain so important to our future policy.
The Committee said that Ministers did not want to know or ask about Russian interference in elections and referendums. It seems they did not want to ask either about dark money funnelled into the Brexit referendum through the Democratic Unionist party by a former Scottish Tory vice-chair, Richard Cook. How will the right hon. Member stop foreign donations polluting our elections?
It seems as if again the issue is about trying to rerun the Brexit referendum, but I would say on the hon. Member’s broader point that through the defending democracy programme, we are taking further steps to safeguard our voting system and democracy. I hope that she supports that and all the measures I identified earlier—for example, on individual voter ID. She will also know how transparent we are. We do not accept foreign donations and are stepping up our response to illicit finance through the National Crime Agency.
I recommend to my right hon. Friend the report published yesterday by the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee into misinformation during the pandemic. It makes clear that state campaigns, including those from Russia, lay at the heart of it. Does he agree that social media companies hold great power yet have been left unaccountable for their inaction, and does he have any general reflections on the ISC report generally, which has caused great interest in the House and certain parts of the country? Does he think it might be welcomed by President Putin in Russia?
My hon. Friend makes several relevant points on the role of the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and the need for social media companies to do more. They need to step up, which is why we are introducing legislation on online harms and looking into the further role required of them.
I recognise the point about disinformation. I am sure that the important work of the cross-Whitehall counter-disinformation unit is reflected in the report that my hon. Friend references, which I will certainly look at. The important message we need to send from this House in respect of the ISC report is about that sense of vigilance and being clear-eyed about the threats posed by Russia, but equally that we are not picking an issue with the Russian people. This is about the Russian state and the Russian Government, so we are looking to them to shift their position, which is what our strategy is all about.
Further to the question from the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), and for absolute clarity for people watching at home, Russians who invest £2 million or more in the UK can get a visa and in five years can convert that visa into citizenship. Does that not mean that restricting political donations to British citizens makes no real defence?
In the context of this report, does my right hon. Friend agree that it is absolutely shameful that Alex Salmond, the former First Minister of Scotland, remains in the pay of the Kremlin as an apparatchik of Russia Today, and that so few nationalists condemn him for it?
My right hon. Friend has, in his customary and very powerful way, set out the position on Russia Today and those who have supported it and those who have been engaged in it. We all have firm questions, doubts and real concerns about the objectivity of Russia Today. It is right that we have Ofcom and other agencies that are there and the independence of Ofcom on its regulation and therefore the need to step up and make sure that that sense of—
The Minister will be familiar with the four horsemen of the apocalypse; I believe that Russia is one of those horsemen and a real danger to the free world. Will the Minister further outline what lessons we have learned from the report that will help us to counteract the very real presence of Russian interference, especially in social media? How do we balance safety with our inalienable right to hold and express our political opinions?
The hon. Gentleman wrapped a few questions into that contribution. The point is that we are taking this issue forward in relation to our legislation on online harms and working with social media and other companies to ensure that information is valid and we do not have that sense of disinformation. We are being vigilant against the threats that are posed.
The ISC’s report states that Russian influence in the UK has become the new normal. Individuals with close links to Putin are now well integrated into the UK’s business and social scene and accepted because of their wealth. Surrounding these oligarchs is an industry of enablers who, wittingly or unwittingly, help to extend Russian influence and the nefarious interests of the Russian state in the UK. What steps will the Minister now take to tackle the growth of this industry and the ability of wealthy individuals to influence British politicians and parties and our democracy?
Dirty money—money obtained through criminality or corruption—has no place in this country, and there should be no doubt that we will ensure that the full weight of the law enforcement regime bears down on those who look to use, move or hide the proceeds of crime. Our National Crime Agency is vigilant. We have introduced unexplained wealth orders. We will continue to enhance our legislation to ensure that corruption is rooted out, and that where dirty money is identified and seized, action is very firmly taken.
As a former special adviser at the Ministry of Defence during both the Syrian and the Ukrainian conflicts, I am well aware of the threat that Russia continues to pose to the UK and our allies. Will my right hon. Friend clarify what immediate next steps the Government will be taking to counter the disinformation and cyber-attacks—including, at the moment, against the vital work on a coronavirus vaccine?
The disinformation point is a very relevant one. Our counter-disinformation unit is led by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, bringing all this action together across Government to highlight and call out work with the social media companies over this important time. It does incredibly important work to guard against disinformation now, as it has done before. It will continue to do that, as well as leaning towards the online harms legislation that I have already spoken of.
Let’s park the lines from Mr Cummings, shall we? The Conservative party takes money from the Russians, No. 10 suppressed the report, and the Prime Minister forgot that his first duty is the security of the British people. So will the Minister go away and tell the Prime Minister to investigate the Kremlin’s role in undermining our democracy?
I will take no lectures from the Labour party, or indeed the Whips’ question that the hon. Gentleman has asked me. This Government and my party are vigilant on issues of national security, and we will remain so. We will be clear-eyed as to the threat that Russia poses, and where further action needs to be taken, as I have said, we will do so.
The report said that it was surprisingly difficult to establish who has responsibility for what. That conclusion is supported by the Government’s response, which alludes to the responsibilities of the Paymaster General, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, DCMS, the Home Office, the Defence Secretary, the Foreign Secretary, and the PM. At 10 am this morning, we still did not know who had drawn the short straw and would come to the House to defend the indefensible. Is not this report, the Government’s delay in publishing it and their reaction to it just further examples of the incompetence and arrogance that we have come to expect of this Conservative and Unionist Government?
No. I am very comfortable in underlining the Government’s commitment to defending our national security. As for the hon. Gentleman’s point about structure, this is about having a whole-Government approach, ensuring that each part of Government is engaged and working, with the concept of fusion in drawing this together. That is what we do, with our National Security Council and the accountability through that to deliver.
I can tell my hon. Friend of the support and resourcing that is given to our intelligence and security agencies and how we have such world-leading capabilities. We can be proud of the work they do for us—and therefore for his constituents in Wolverhampton, and indeed for constituents across the country—as we give them that support in defending our security.
The ISC stressed the need to ensure that our response to the threat from Russia is not solely focused on national events and organisations. So what does the Minister intend to do to protect our public sector—our NHS and local government services, which he knows all about—from malicious Russian cyber-intrusion once funding for the national cyber-security programme comes to an end in March next year?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his point, because our cyber-defences are something in which this Government have very clearly invested. He highlights the National Cyber Security Centre, and I know the work that it does with local government and the devolved Administrations in ensuring that they are vigilant against the threats. Indeed, only last week, it called out Russian activity against pharmaceutical companies and others to ensure that our knowledge remains here and that we guard it against attack.
This morning, on the radio, Commissioner Cressida Dick said that people should be concerned about “the threat from Russia”. Will the Minister assure me that our security services will work with our police services to make sure that they have the data, the information and the resources to deal with any local threats?
The Minister has told us today that he is confident that there is no need for an investigation into any potential Russian interference in the EU referendum, because if there had been, it would have been detected by existing processes. Given that this report sets out that there was Russian interference in other referendums and that the Russians continue to be involved in British politics, why does he think that the Russians chose to sit that one out?
Again, we are certainly hearing some questions that are about trying to refight the referendum. Actually, we should respect the referendum, and that is what this Government have done, and we have been elected on a mandate to deliver on the Brexit referendum. None the less, the hon. Lady certainly has my assurance that we are vigilant against that sense of intrusion and disinformation and I have outlined the steps that we are taking to guard against that.
It comes as no surprise to me that the Russian state seeks to infiltrate and influence so many aspects of our society, but I am particularly worried by Russian cyber-activity, especially attempts to steal our secrets, intellectual property and new technologies. I know that, in recent years, more resources have been given to the security and intelligence services, particularly GCHQ and the Army’s 77th Brigade, but does my right hon. Friend agree that our offensive cyber-capabilities may well have to be enhanced further given the persistent and increasing threats from Russia?
My hon. Friend, with all of his experience, has highlighted a very important point about the need for offensive cyber-capabilities. We were the first NATO ally to offer offensive cyber-capabilities to the alliance. I am quite sure that this is an issue that will be of core interest and focus as we look at the integrated review. He sets out a compelling argument for further investment. I am quite sure that that will be reflected on very carefully.
Despite repeated requests and reminders from hon. and right hon. Members, this Government have dithered and delayed for 10 long months and tried their very best to suppress the Russia report, and now we all know why. Given the threat to our national security and the fact that it was about preserving and protecting our very democracy itself, how could this Government have been so incompetent, so asleep at the wheel, and not even asked the bare minimum obvious questions?
I do not recognise the hon. Gentleman’s characterisation at all. I welcome the fact that, speedily after its creation, the ISC report was published, shining a light on the issue of Russia and the need for vigilance, which this Government continue to demonstrate. It is that approach that we take through from this rather than the political characterisation that he sought to proffer.
The ISC report rightly thanks five Russia experts from outside the intelligence community, two of whom have done some great work with the Legatum Institute. Will my right hon. Friend join me in thanking those individuals, the institute and, indeed, its visionary founder, Christopher Chandler, for having the courage and the commitment to expend the resources and take the risks to oppose Russian wrongdoing from the private sector?
I commend Legatum and all those who have sought to assemble evidence of the impact and the effect. I think it has added to the report the ISC has produced. I look forward to that continuing as the ISC gets into its stride in this Session and I look forward to the contribution that so many people have to offer to help ensure that the ISC does its job well and can work to ensure that our response to these national security issues is as well-informed as possible.
As if it was not bad enough that we have unelected peers making major decisions for Scotland, the report raises serious questions about several Members of the House of Lords, their links to business interests in Russia and the potential for those relationships to be exploited by the Russian state. Will the Government urgently support measures to enhance scrutiny of the incomes of the Lords to the same level as the rules for registering MPs’ interests?
I agree that the transparency of information about political donations is incredibly important. I should say to the hon. Lady that the relevant code is the responsibility of the House itself and it is kept under review by the House of Lords Conduct Committee. I am confident that the Conduct Committee will give due consideration to the clear recommendations made in the ISC report.
The people of Darlington voted to leave the EU in 2016. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the referendum accurately recorded the genuine will of the people, and that the Government were right to deliver on that mandate and take us out of the EU?
I served on the ISC in the late ’90s. We had a big Labour majority in Parliament and a Conservative Chair, the much-respected Tom King. There is a long tradition of Members of both Houses putting aside party politics to engage in independent scrutiny of the vital work that our intelligence agencies do and, crucially, to work in support of the national interest. The Government put that at risk at their peril, so can the Minister answer the question put by the current ISC Chair, the right hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis)? Will he now rule out any attempt at Government interference in the work of the ISC, any political appointments to its secretariat and any special advisers to be appointed by him? Will he rule that out now, yes or no?
I am very clear, as I have been in response to previous questions, on the need for independence by the ISC. I do not want to see its independence questioned or drawn into any doubt. It is important that the ISC is independent and rigorous. The right hon. Lady can have my assurance on the steps that I take to uphold that.
Yes, Russia is attacking our democratic structures, and internationally Russia and others are also undermining our greatest assets, our alliances and multilaterals. Does my right hon. Friend agree that we need a unit at the Foreign Office specifically focused on protecting our interests and upholding the democratic nature of elections of presidents and chairs of multilateral organisations?
I absolutely recognise the different threats and challenges. That is why we have the Government Russia unit, which brings together the diplomatic, intelligence and military capabilities to maximum effect. There is a specific lead official at the Foreign Office who is responsible for our work on Russia. Therefore, the important point my hon. Friend makes about vigilance and the need to draw that information together is absolutely in place. We will continue to ensure that the interests of this country are, through that work, at the forefront and that we defend our nation’s security.
I have to notify the House, in accordance with the Royal Assent Act 1967, that Her Majesty has signified her Royal Assent to the following Acts and Measure:
Supply and Appropriation (Main Estimates) Act 2020
Finance Act 2020
Stamp Duty Land Tax (Temporary Relief) Act 2020
Business and Planning Act 2020
Channel Islands Measure 2020.
Rented Homes: End of Evictions Ban
As the Government take steps in the next phase of the response to coronavirus, it is right that we consider how to transition from the emergency measures put in place in March in the face of the then imminent public health emergency. On 13 May, the Government took decisive steps to unlock the housing market, enabling people, whether they own or rent, to move home safely if they need to. The end of the pause on possession proceedings on 23 August is another important step towards more normal life resuming and to ensuring all people—landlords and tenants—have access to justice. Prioritising cases is a matter for the judiciary, but I consider it important that cases such as those of serious antisocial behaviour are heard again.
During this period, we are working to provide appropriate support to those who have been particularly affected by coronavirus when possession proceedings start again. As part of this, we have been engaging with a working group convened by the Master of the Rolls. An early outcome of the group’s work has been changes to the court rules of possession proceedings. These rules will apply within the current legislative framework from 23 August. They will require landlords seeking possession of their property to set out relevant information about a tenant’s circumstances, including information on the effect of the pandemic. This encourages landlords to have the right conversations with tenants before seeking repossession. Through guidance, we are also encouraging landlords to agree to rent repayment plans or rent flexibilities, where possible. Landlords will need to follow strict procedures if they want to gain possession of their property. This includes, until at least 30 September, giving tenants a minimum of three months’ notice of their intention to seek possession, as set out in the measures introduced in the Coronavirus Act 2020.
The Government have provided unprecedented financial support to renters through the job retention scheme, boosting the welfare safety net by more than £9 billion and increasing the local housing allowance rate to the 30th percentile. These measures will remain in place when the courts reopen. We are also committed to bringing forward reforms to provide greater security to tenants, alongside strengthening the rights of landlords who need to gain possession of their property when they have a valid reason to do so. Legislation will be brought forward in due course.
I thank the Minister for that response, but it really will not do, because he knows that his proposals are toothless. Eviction law remains intact, so extra information about the tenant will not prevent people from losing their home, and in the middle of a public health crisis. In a Government statement on 18 March, the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government said:
“The Government is clear—no renter who has lost income due to coronavirus will be forced out of their home, nor will any landlord face unmanageable debts.”
Labour wants to hold him to this.
The evictions ban ends on 23 August. The Government have failed to plan for what happens next. That failure looks set to lead to evictions and homelessness this autumn. Data from Citizens Advice and others indicates millions of households are struggling with rent. Current law makes evictions mandatory, with no court discretion, if tenants are in two months’ of arrears under ground 8, section 8 of the Housing Act 1988, and discretionary evictions can still be made under section 21, which the Government have promised to abolish but so far have not done so. They could have prevented people from falling into arrears by adjusting social security or bringing in emergency temporary legal changes, but they have chosen not to.
What assessment have the Government made of likely numbers of people facing homelessness? What consideration have they given to public health, with possibly thousands of households becoming homeless as we go into winter? What resources have they provided to councils for the cost of additional advisers and emergency and other accommodation? Will the Minister admit that yesterday’s practice direction will make no material difference to the outcomes for tenants with arrears, as eviction laws remain unchanged?
The Government made a promise. This is not just affecting antisocial tenants; it is affecting people struggling now. Nobody benefits from renters becoming homeless, nor mortgage payers struggling with the end of the deferral scheme. We have called on the Government repeatedly to act. It is not too late to extend the ban and sort out the legal changes in September. For the sake of everyone whose home is at risk, and everyone who cares, I urge them to act now.
The hon. Lady knows full well—the House knows full well—that this an unprecedented epidemic. In its face, we have brought forward unprecedented measures to help tenants in difficulty. We are protecting 8.6 million people as a result of the stay in court action, the moratorium on evictions and the three-month minimum notice period that landlords need to apply.
We have spent billions of pounds on the furlough scheme, which the shadow Chancellor has described as a lifeline, to make sure that people have an income and can help pay their rents. We have given local authorities £4.3 billion. We have given £500 million in council tax relief. We have spent £433 million on the Everyone In campaign to help with homelessness, which has resulted in 90% of homeless people being taken off the streets. We have committed to 6,000 new long-term homes—3,300 this year—to help anyone who suffers from homelessness. I think the House will agree that that is, by any measure, a real effort to help people who are in need.
But we are moving out of the worst of the epidemic, and we are moving through a transition phase. It is right that we normalise proceedings and procedures. To that effect, I have had conversations with the Master of the Rolls and with Sir Robin Knowles. They have been quite clear that they want to ensure that courts act properly to hear landlords’ and tenants’ concerns. They are also very clear that, should a landlord not provide requisite information to the courts about the effect of covid-19 on a tenant when the landlord brings forward an application, the courts will have power to adjourn the case, which will hit the landlord in the pocket—something that will focus the landlords’ minds.
I have been told by many stakeholders and representatives, including the National Residential Landlords Association, that this will definitely be a wake-up call to landlords. It will also be of definite support to tenants, so I am convinced that we have struck the right balance between tenants’ needs and the landlords’ rights. I am convinced that we are supporting people to the best of our ability. I am pleased that we are now moving out of the epidemic and we are supporting people appropriately.
I am obliged to my hon. Friend for his question. As I said, we will bring forward the renters’ reform Act, which will abolish section 21 of the Housing Act 1988, in due course, when we have stable terrain on which to do so. That will improve tenants’ rights. We will also ensure that there is provision for a lifetime deposit scheme in that Bill. As I have described from my discussions with the Master of the Rolls, the courts have set out strict procedures that landlords will have to follow if they want to claim repossession of their properties. That is the right and balanced course, and I commend it.
In the end, as I am sure the Minister will agree, we all want to get to a position where no tenant is evicted because of covid-related matters. I recognise that the Government have made efforts, through the statutory instrument and the guidance, to toughen up the pre-action protocol, but what happens if a landlord comes to the court with all the information about a tenant’s circumstances but still wants to go for a section 21 eviction—they do not have to give any reasons—or for a ground 8 eviction, where simply rent arrears will do? If all the information is given to the court, does the court have any discretion to refuse the eviction request?