House of Commons
Wednesday 2 September 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
The Secretary of State was asked—
While the Northern Ireland economy does have its challenges, I am confident that it has a promising economic future, with its talent, great companies, entrepreneurial spirit and world-leading sectors and universities, as well as world-class hospitality, leisure and cultural offerings. We will continue as a Government to work with businesses, the Northern Ireland Executive and local partners to ensure that we not only get the economy back up and running but are laying the foundations for a sustainable, growing and stable economic future.
I have not tested all the venues in Northern Ireland that were taking part in the eat out to help out scheme, but I did my bit to support the sector, as I am sure many colleagues around the House did. Comprehensive figures are not yet available, but I do know that over 1,500 restaurants in Northern Ireland signed up to the scheme in the first week of operation, highlighting just how important the scheme has been to give people confidence to go out and businesses a chance to see their customers again.
The Secretary of State will be aware that Northern Ireland businesses are concerned about the impact of the Northern Ireland protocol. Businesses I have spoken to report very little or no progress on export health certificates for animal-related food products being shipped from Great Britain to Northern Ireland. That potentially means increased costs for Northern Ireland businesses, and those costs will be passed on to Northern Ireland consumers. What will he do to ensure that arrangements are put in place to prevent that from happening?
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his question. We recognise the unique position of authorised traders, such as supermarkets, with stable supply chains and comprehensive oversight of warehousing and distribution operations, moving pre-packaged products for retail sales solely in Northern Ireland. We continue to look at specific solutions for the trade, working with the trade. EHCs and accompanying notes for guidance will be made available from 1 November on the EHC form finder, to allow exporters and certifying officers to familiarise themselves with the requirements.
I welcome that news, and I want to follow that up with a question about the formal guidance that is required from the Government on the definition of unfettered access. Can the Secretary of State explain how a trader in Northern Ireland will get qualifying status in order to benefit from unfettered access in shipping goods from Northern Ireland to Great Britain and in the other direction? What extra processes would a trader in Northern Ireland face if they did not have qualifying status? The Secretary of State will be aware that this has significant cost implications for Northern Ireland businesses. Will he therefore commit to discussing this matter urgently with his colleagues in the Cabinet Office, to ensure that guidance is issued to Northern Ireland businesses on the definition of unfettered access as soon as possible?
I can confirm that we are very keen to give as much guidance and information to businesses as early as possible. We are committed, as I said, to providing Northern Ireland’s businesses with unfettered access to the rest of the UK market. I am very clear about what that means. It means no import customs declarations as goods enter the rest of the UK from Northern Ireland. It means no safety or security declarations as goods enter the rest of the UK from Northern Ireland, no tariffs to be applied to Northern Ireland goods entering the rest of the United Kingdom in any circumstances, no customs checks, no new regulatory checks and no additional approvals required for placing goods on the market in the rest of the United Kingdom. For further reassurance, I can tell the right hon. Gentleman that we will introduce legislation for unfettered access shortly, and we will continue to provide that guidance.
I listened carefully to the very good questions put by the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson), but I do not think that that will reassure businesses. The Northern Ireland Affairs Committee was very clear about what we already knew: the movement of goods from Britain to Northern Ireland will be subject to a number of administrative requirements; businesses will trade at a competitive disadvantage; and consumers in Northern Ireland are likely to see increased prices as a result. The economic facts are—and this is a real worry—that, for a population of 1.9 million, the burden on British firms will be too much, and they will cease wanting to export in large numbers to Northern Ireland. Export health certificates are a major concern and a major cost. I will check the record, but I think the Secretary of State just said that there will be more formal guidance. He has his own view. That is not an agreement, and there are additional costs, so what will the costs be for those businesses?
I did say that notes for guidance will be available from 1 November this year. We are very clear that we are one single market—we are one customs union within the United Kingdom—and that is why we are very clear about the fact that we want unfettered access and we will deliver unfettered access for Northern Ireland businesses to Great Britain. We have already said that there will be some limited checks from Great Britain to Northern Ireland. We have announced the trader support scheme. The guidance that we issued just before the recess was warmly welcomed by Northern Ireland businesses. We continue to work with them so that, as we develop our processes, we ensure that there is good, smooth, fast, efficient delivery, as the protocol outlines, that does not disrupt the lives of people in Northern Ireland, in a way that works for business as well as the people of Northern Ireland.
On 7 August the Cabinet Secretary flew into Northern Ireland to announce a business package of £335 million. That money is apparently designed to alleviate the costs of border checks and Brexit red tape that the Prime Minister has repeatedly said does not exist. As a signed-up member of the Brexit Cabinet, can the Secretary of State assure Scottish businesses that the same level of financial support will be put in place to meet all the costs of Scotland being dragged out of the European single market?
The support package that we put in place, which is £155 million for the IT systems we have outlined and £200 million for the Treasury support scheme, is in order to recognise the unique situation of Northern Ireland—one that Scotland has a rather different position to. I am very clear that one of the things we will be looking to deliver as we go forward is the ability for Northern Ireland to trade prosperously as part of the whole of the United Kingdom—something I am sure that Scotland will benefit from as well.
In line with the protocol, Border Force is currently recruiting for jobs in Northern Ireland advertised as open to UK nationals only. In the press this week, the Home Office claimed that this does not prevent those who identify as Irish from applying. But will the Minister accept, as indeed the Home Office did when this previously happened in 2018, that the words “Irish nationals are not eligible for reserved posts” does not reflect the rights framework in the Good Friday agreement, and will he ask the Home Office to rework the advertisement and the rules to make them compatible with Northern Ireland’s fair employment legislation?
I am very happy to have a look at that. Obviously, as the hon. Lady will know, the Home Office outlined an update to the citizenship situation to rectify it for people so that however they wish to identify they can have the full rights that they wish to exert. However, I will happily follow up on that and come back to her.
The UK Government will never be neutral in expressing our unequivocal support for the Union. We are committed to strengthening the link between our four great nations, levelling up the whole country. That is why the Prime Minister has created a Cabinet coimittee on Union policy implementation. Our commitment to Northern Ireland is demonstrated in the £2.2 billion we have provided to help fight coronavirus, including an extra £300 million announced at the summer economic update.
May I begin by welcoming today’s news on same-sex marriage in Northern Ireland? Carshalton and Wallington residents have noticed that next year will be the centenary of the creation of Northern Ireland, so what plans does the Northern Ireland Office have to commemorate the United Kingdom as we know it today?
I agree with my hon. Friend on both points. This centenary represents a significant national anniversary. In the new decade, new approach deal, the Government recognised that the centenary provided an opportunity to reflect on the past as well as to build for the future in Northern Ireland across the UK and internationally. We are committed to facilitating national recognition and international awareness of the centenary. On his recent visit to Northern Ireland, the Prime Minister announced the establishment of a centenary forum and a centenary historical advisory panel. This approach will offer us the opportunity to work with a broad spectrum of people to deliver an ambitious and exciting programme of events to mark this important national anniversary. Further details about the centenary programme will be set out in the autumn.
Northern Ireland Protocol: Infrastructure at Ports
There will be no new customs infrastructure in Northern Ireland, and we see no need to build any.
With just four months left until the protocol comes into force, the National Farmers Union has warned that a clear lack of guidance is threatening the trade in agrifood products—Northern Ireland’s largest import. So can the Secretary of State clear one thing up—will each agrifood product require an export licence certificate, costing up to £200, or not?
As I have set out previously, the protocol obliges both the UK and the EU to seek to streamline trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland and to avoid controls at Northern Ireland ports as far as possible. As the hon. Member may well know, discussions are ongoing about the process by which this is conducted and the frequency. We want to bring the level of checks down to a proportionate and pragmatic level, as we have outlined before, for agrifoods and live animals. At Larne and Belfast there have been checks of one form or another in place since, I think, about the 19th century, and that is what we are building on. But there will be no new infrastructure.
Border Control Posts
I will answer the substantive and supplementary questions together and just repeat what I said a few moments ago—there will be no new infrastructure in Northern Ireland for borders.
Payments for Victims of the Troubles
We welcome the formal designation of the Department of Justice in Northern Ireland to provide administrative support for the scheme. Victims should never have had to go to court to see such progress. The Executive must now move to ensure that the scheme can be opened as soon as is practical, so that applications can be processed and payments made to victims who have already waited too long. The implementation of the scheme, including timescales for delivery, is a matter for the Northern Ireland Executive, but I look forward to seeing them progress this issue as quickly as possible.
Paddy Cassidy and Raymond Trimble have died since the pension and payment scheme became law, and many other victims are extremely ill. I urge my right hon. Friend to do whatever he can to provide the Executive with confidence that money will be forthcoming in the usual way through the block grant. Will he also do everything possible to dispel the horrendous myths that have been peddled about the payment scheme over the past few weeks? The scheme will primarily benefit civilians on both sides of the community who are desperate to have the recognition that they have been promised.
My right hon. Friend makes a good point. He was intrinsically involved in driving forward this issue. Words fail me: it should never have taken this long to get to this stage and it should never have taken a court case. My right hon. Friend is quite right that the Northern Ireland Executive are funded for the scheme through the block grant, and he is also quite right that this is about recognising people who have suffered for far too long. He and at least four of the party leaders in Northern Ireland were keen to see this scheme move forward; thankfully, that will now happen—and yes, I will give all the support that I can and that the Northern Ireland Executive need to see the scheme deliver as quickly as possible.
I, too, welcome the news that the Department of Justice has been designated to implement the victims’ payment scheme, but does my right hon. Friend share my disappointment that it took a court to tell Sinn Féin to stop playing politics and finally designate the Department?
My hon. Friend is right. I have consistently expressed my disappointment—to say the least—at the lack of progress in establishing the scheme, as have the First Minister and others. It was wrong for Sinn Féin to hold up the process of designating the Department. I am pleased that it has now happened, but it is a shame that it took a court case.
Last week, Sinn Féin’s Martina Anderson described victims of the troubles applying for the victims’ payment scheme as
“mainly…those who fought Britain’s dirty war”
“involved in collusion.”
Will my right hon. Friend join me in condemning those grossly insulting comments to the victims, many of whom live in my constituency?
The simple answer is yes. Particularly with people having waited so long, to see an insensitive, ill-advised and inappropriate comment like that was the last thing that anybody needed. It should never have been made in the first place, and we should all condemn it and move forward to make sure that victims get what they have morally and legally been waiting far too long for.
May I begin by reflecting on the fact that this summer we lost the great John Hume, a peace campaigner and politician who, more than any other, is responsible for the peace these islands enjoy today? I am sure the whole House will join me in sending our deepest condolences to his extraordinary wife Pat, his family and our friends in the Social Democratic and Labour party.
Yesterday would have been the 40th birthday of Tim Parry who, along with three year-old Johnathan Ball, was killed by an IRA bomb in Warrington in 1993. The peace foundation set up in their name supports victims of terrorism nationwide, but at the end of this month that service will close unless Ministers deliver on the funding that they have promised in the House. In this week, of all weeks, will the Secretary of State step up and secure the future of this vital service?
First, I join the hon. Lady in her comments about John Hume and his family. I was honoured to be able to attend the funeral, which was a great example of how something can be done so sensitively, delicately and appropriately, even at a difficult time such as with covid. It was a real honour to be there.
As I said earlier, a range of victims have waited too long for things such as victims’ pensions and victims’ payments, so we need to see that moving on. We need to see a whole range of areas moving on. I hope that, with the work we can do with the Northern Ireland Executive, not least with the introduction of the independent fiscal council, we can see the Executive start to allocate their funding and move on with these projects.
I think the Secretary of State may have misheard me: I was talking about the Warrington Peace Centre, which previously enjoyed funding directly from the Home Office. I hope he will consider that and raise it with his colleague the Home Secretary.
The father of Tim Parry, Colin, has said, on the anniversary of his son’s 40th birthday, that the appointment of Claire Fox to the House of Lords offends him deeply. Given her continued refusal to apologise for defending the Warrington bombing, may I ask whether the Secretary of State was consulted on her peerage? Has he raised any concerns with his colleagues in No. 10?
As I think it has already been outlined, Claire Fox will be sitting as a Cross-Bench peer. She has already provided her own answer to that question, and I will let her words deal with the matter. I will certainly talk to the Home Secretary about the issue that the hon. Lady raises about the funding for the Warrington bombing. What we have seen over the past few weeks is that there is still a need and a determination for us to keep a focus on security issues. I also want to take a moment to pay huge credit to the Police Service of Northern Ireland and its partners for the amazing operation that they ran just two weeks ago, arresting some 10 people, which is probably the biggest step forward that we have seen in a generation in ensuring the peace and security of the people in Northern Ireland.
My right hon. Friend is right to draw attention to the £150 million that has been set aside in the New Decade, New Approach agreement with regard to legacy resolution issues, but the funding of the pension scheme is of concern to all parties, as it was to the Select Committee. Can he confirm that he will ensure that, through the block grant, moneys that are required on top of the £150 million will be forthcoming so that justice can be done and the money paid in a full and timely way?
My hon. Friend the Chair of the Select Committee is absolutely right. This matter is devolved and it is for the Northern Ireland Executive to pay for through the block grant. Those discussions will go ahead in the normal way, but, as I have said, as the money is already there, this is something that the Executive can be moving on with. They can start getting this process going and start getting these payments out to the people who have already waited too long.
I also thank the Secretary of State for all he has done with regard to the victims’ pension fund. May I ask him to outline what steps have been taken to claw back the money from Sinn Féin that was spent on the court case that took place solely because of Sinn Féin’s refusal to do the right thing and appoint a Minister to oversee the fund. Sinn Féin should pay the legal fees.
The court was clear that the Executive, through their action of not designating, or refusing to designate, a Department, which was down to the Deputy First Minister, were acting illegally. The hon. Gentleman puts forward an interesting proposal, which I am sure that the Finance Ministry, in terms of wanting to make sure that Northern Ireland’s finances are well spent, will consider properly.
Leaving the EU: the Economy
By the end of this year, the process of transition to our new relationship with the EU will be completed. I and colleagues across the Cabinet are determined to ensure that Northern Ireland benefits fully from the opportunities that that will bring.
I am sure that all in business will welcome the announcement from the Secretary of State that there will be guidance given to all those trading in Northern Ireland by 1 November, but can he explain to the House how one formulates guidance for the implementation of a deal that has not yet been done, or will that guidance be written on the presumption that there will be no deal?
As we did with the guidance that we outlined just before the House broke for the summer recess, we have done it in conjunction with our partners in businesses across Northern Ireland through the business engagement forum that we have put together. We are consulting with businesses about what they need to live on the protocol, and that protocol does give confidence to businesses about what will be in place next year.
Does my right hon. Friend recognise that the UK internal market is the cornerstone of simplicity in terms of uncertainty over attracting investment to all parts of the United Kingdom, and any detractors from the Government’s plan and policy to maintain the integrity of the UK internal market would be undermining the potential investment in their community.
Absolutely right. My right hon. Friend makes a hugely important point. The UK internal market Bill will outline that integral structure of the United Kingdom as one customs union and one single market, which will give confidence to businesses and investors to the benefit of all our economies.
Northern Ireland-Republic of Ireland Border
I and ministerial colleagues speak regularly with our counterparts in the Irish Government. The protocol itself provides for a practical solution that avoids a hard border on the island of Ireland in all circumstances, including in the event that we do not agree a free trade agreement, while ensuring that the UK, including Northern Ireland, can leave the EU as a whole.
I am very grateful to the Secretary of State. He will know that small and medium-sized enterprises with business across the border are in a state of uncertainty at the moment, given what is potentially going to hit them in four months’ time. Given that, the trader support service announced last month is particularly welcome. What discussions has he had with trade organisations in Northern Ireland about the trader support service? When does he anticipate the service actually providing services to SMEs?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. We—not just myself, but ministerial colleagues—have had continual engagement with businesses. The Business Secretary and the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster have both been in Northern Ireland engaging with businesses and representative organisations, as has my hon. Friend the Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office. We will continue to do that and we aim to have the scheme running in September.
Covid-19: Film and TV Quarantine Exemptions
Self-isolation exemptions have been in place since 5 July for the whole of the United Kingdom for all international cast and crew working on qualifying TV and film productions. We have worked closely with the Northern Ireland Executive and the film and TV industry, which has been a major success in Northern Ireland and represents a significant part of its economy estimated to be worth £270 million a year. This has seen important projects such as “The Northman” and “Line of Duty” restart filming, bringing significant investment to Northern Ireland’s economy.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the quarantine exemption arrangements could be the catalyst for reigniting the Northern Ireland film industry, where 49 locations were used for “Game of Thrones”, including Winterfell. Although the days of House Stark have passed, I hope that the exemption will allow for Northern Ireland to continue to be a beacon for the film industry across the world.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. As I said, over the summer we introduced the exemptions. We absolutely recognise what a crucial and important sector this is, and the benefits of its success can be seen across Northern Ireland, not least for the tourism industry. Local success stories such as “Game of Thrones” and “Derry Girls” benefit every part of Northern Ireland. Programmes such as “The Fall” have firmly established Northern Ireland as an ideal destination for film and TV projects. The restart of filming in significant projects shows that the industry can continue to achieve global success.
The Government recognise that this industry is key to Northern Ireland’s economic success, with the sector in Northern Ireland valued at over £1.8 billion. Like many sectors, aerospace has come under immense pressure during the pandemic. That is why we put unprecedented support in place through the job retention scheme and the Bank of England’s covid corporate financing facility. Last week, I met Bombardier at its Shorts site and Stratospheric Platforms to discuss the challenges and opportunities for developing the sector and how the UK Government can support their success.
The UK Government have made available £2.1 billion to the UK aerospace sector through the covid corporate financing facility and additional flexibility for UK export finance, which is supporting £3.5 billion of sales in the next 18 months. I continue to work closely with my colleague the aerospace Minister, the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Nadhim Zahawi). I am determined that we do support businesses in Northern Ireland, as across the UK.
I trust that the Minister’s visit to Bombardier last week was successful. He knows how important aerospace is to the Northern Ireland economy, but he also knows that there is a cliff-edge coming in the job retention scheme and in the support for our aerospace sector in particular. He also knows that should redundancies continue and the situation gets worse, the skills will be lost and they will not come back. The time is coming. Talk is talk. We need to see action. We need to see a bespoke package of support for aerospace in Northern Ireland and across the United Kingdom.
I absolutely sympathise with the point the hon. Gentleman is making, and the crucial importance of this sector and its skills to his constituency. The covid-19 outbreak has seen a severe impact on aviation and aerospace industries around the world. The UK Government have provided significant support to the sector, including the business interruption scheme and the job retention scheme. The Chancellor has confirmed that that commitment remains in place until October, but one of the things I discussed with Bombardier on my visit last week is the vital importance of maintaining that skills base. That is a point I will absolutely take to colleagues across government.
The threat from dissident republican terrorism continues to be severe in Northern Ireland. The Government’s first priority is to keep people safe and secure across the UK. Terrorism, paramilitary violence and criminality have no place in Northern Ireland. They must not hold us back from progress towards a peaceful and prosperous future. As I said earlier, thanks to the hard work and professionalism of the Police Service of Northern Ireland and its partners, 10 people have recently been arrested and charged with a range of terrorism offences under the Terrorism Act 2006. Those arrests are the biggest step in tackling violent dissident republicans in Northern Ireland in a generation, and I thank the PSNI for its work.
I thank my hon. Friend for her question. We as a Government are clear: we will put an end to vexatious claims against our brilliant armed forces. We are also determined to address the legacy of the troubles, as I set out in my written ministerial statement on 18 March, and we will deliver on that.
The Prime Minister was asked—
Three weeks ago today, the community in my constituency of West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine, and indeed I think the entire country, was rocked by the events on the railway line just south of Stonehaven: the tragic events in which three men—Brett McCullough, Chris Stuchbury and Donald Dinnie—tragically lost their lives. I am sure my right hon. Friend and indeed the whole House will join me in sending our deepest condolences to the family and friends of those three men today, as well as our thanks and heartfelt gratitude to the incredible men and women of our emergency services and multiple agencies who worked in incredibly difficult conditions to help the survivors from that incident.
The interim report is on the desk of the Transport Secretary as we speak, and I know that the full report will take time to run its course, as is only right, but what assurances can my right hon. Friend give my constituents that the serious questions that they have will be answered, that any recommendations will be implemented and that the Government will do everything they can to prevent an accident like this from ever happening again?
I thank my hon. Friend, and I know the whole House will want to join me in sending our condolences to the family and friends of Brett McCullough, Donald Dinnie and Christopher Stuchbury. I would like to join my hon. Friend in paying tribute to the extraordinary work of the emergency services and the public for the bravery that they showed. Britain’s railways are among the safest in Europe, partly because we take accidents like this so seriously, and therefore we must ensure that we learn the lessons of this tragic event to make sure that no such incident recurs in the future.
Can I join the Prime Minister in those comments about the tragic events of just a few weeks ago? Can I also begin by paying tribute to John Hume, who passed away during recess? John was a beacon of light in the most troubled of times. He will be seriously missed.
Let me start today with the exams fiasco. On the day that thousands of young people had their A-level grades downgraded, the Prime Minister said, and I quote him:
“The exam results…are robust, they’re good, they’re dependable”.
The Education Secretary said there would “absolutely” not be a U-turn; a few days later—a U-turn. We learned yesterday that the Education Secretary knew well in advance that there was a problem with the algorithm, so a straight answer to a straight question, please: when did the Prime Minister first know that there was a problem with the algorithm?
Perhaps I could begin by congratulating the right hon. and learned Gentleman on his birthday? I say to him, on the exams and the stress that young people have been through over the summer, that both the Secretary of State for Education and I understand very well how difficult it has been for them and for their families, going through a pandemic at a time when we have not been able, because of that pandemic, in common with most other countries in the world, to stage normal examinations. As a result of what we learned about the tests—the results—that had come in, we did institute a change. We did act. The students, the pupils of this country now do have their grades, and I really ask the right hon. and learned Gentleman whether he will join me in congratulating those pupils on their hard work, and whether he agrees with me that they deserve the grades they have got.
I have already expressed congratulations to all those students and I do so again, but I want to go back to my question, which the Prime Minister avoided. I know why he avoided it, because he either knew of the problem with the algorithm and did nothing, or he did not know when he should have. Let me ask again: when did the Prime Minister first know that there would be a problem with the algorithm?
As the right hon. and learned Gentleman knows perfectly well, Ofqual made it absolutely clear time and again that in its view the system that was in place was robust. Ofqual is, as he knows, an independent organisation and credit had to be given to its views. All summer long, he has been going around undermining confidence and spreading doubts, in particular about the return to school in safe conditions—[Interruption.] It is absolutely true. And today is a great day because the parents, pupils and teachers in this country are overwhelmingly proving him wrong and proving the doubters wrong, because they are going back to school in record numbers, in spite of all the gloom and dubitation that he tried to spread. It would be a fine thing if, today, after three months of refusing to do so, as pupils go back to school, he finally said that school was safe to go back to. Come on!
The Prime Minister is just tin-eared and making it up as he goes along. I am surprised—[Interruption.] The Education Secretary stood at that Dispatch Box yesterday and acknowledged that Labour’s first priority has been getting children back to school. That has been our first priority. I have said it numerous times at this Dispatch Box, and the Prime Minister knows it very well. He is just playing games.
The Prime Minister is fooling nobody. Even his own MPs have run out of patience. The vice-chair of the 1922 Committee, the hon. Member for Broxbourne (Sir Charles Walker), has said that the Government are
“saying one thing on Monday, changing its mind on Tuesday, something different presented on Wednesday.”
That sounds familiar doesn’t it? Another of his MPs, who wisely wants to remain anonymous, is perhaps in the Chamber today. He or she said—[Interruption.] I am speaking for you, because this is what was said by his own MPs. He or she said, “It’s mess after mess, U-turn after U-turn…It’s a fundamental issue of competence, God knows what is going on. There’s no grip.” His own MPs are right, aren’t they?
This is a Leader of the Opposition who backed remaining in the EU and now is totally silent on the subject. Now he has performed a U-turn. He backed that, and perhaps he still does. This is a Leader of the Opposition who supported an IRA-condoning politician who wanted to get out of NATO and now says absolutely nothing about it. This is a Leader of the Opposition who sat on the Front Bench—
Mr Speaker, if I may say so, I think it would be helpful to all those who are watching to know that this Opposition, and this Leader of the Opposition, said absolutely nothing to oppose the method of examinations that was proposed and, indeed, they opposed the teacher accreditation system that we eventually came up with. Is he now saying that those grades are not right, or is this just Captain Hindsight leaping on a bandwagon and opposing a policy that he supported two weeks ago?
The problem is that he is governing in hindsight, as well as making so many mistakes.
Mr Speaker, before I go on, the Prime Minister said something about the IRA, and I want him to take it back. I worked in Northern Ireland for five years with the Police Service of Northern Ireland, bringing peace. As Director of Public Prosecutions, I prosecuted serious terrorists for five years, working with the intelligence and security forces and with the police in Northern Ireland. I ask the Prime Minister to have the decency to withdraw that comment.
It is the same every time: pretend the problem does not exist, brush away scrutiny, make the wrong decision, then blame somebody else. This has got to change, because the next major decision for the Prime Minister is on the furlough scheme. The jobs of millions of people are at risk. The longer he delays, the more they are at risk, so will he act now, finally get this decision right and commit to extend the furlough scheme for those sectors and those workers that desperately need it?
What we are doing in this Government is getting our pupils back to school, in spite of all the doubts that the right hon. and learned Gentleman has tried to sow, and we are getting people back to work. What he wants to do is extend the furlough scheme, on which this country has already spent £40 billion. What we would rather do is get people into work through our kick-start scheme, which we are launching today—£2 billion to spend to support people, young people in particular, to get the jobs that they need. He wants to keep people out of work in suspended animation. We want to move this country forward. That is the difference between him and us.
When the Prime Minister has worked with the security and intelligence forces on prosecuting criminals and terrorists, he can lecture me. I asked him to do the decent thing, but doing the decent thing and this Prime Minister don’t go together.
This has been a wasted summer. The Government should have spent it preparing for the autumn and winter. Instead, they have lurched from crisis to crisis, U-turn to U-turn. To correct one error, even two, might make sense, but when the Government have notched up 12 U-turns and rising, the only conclusion is serial incompetence. That serial incompetence is holding Britain back. Will the Prime Minister take responsibility and finally get a grip?
I take full responsibility for everything that has happened under this Government throughout my period in office. Actually, what has happened so far is that we have succeeded in turning the tide of this pandemic, and, despite the negativity and constant sniping from the Opposition, we are seeing a country that is not only going back to school but going back to work. Britain is in the lead in developing vaccines and in finding cures for this disease—dexamethasone—and treatments for this disease. Not only that, but we are taking this country forward, despite the extreme difficulties we face. What I think the people of this country would appreciate is the right hon. and learned Gentleman and I, the Labour Front-Bench team and everybody across this House coming together, uniting and saying that it is safe for kids to get back to school. I must say that we still have not heard those words from him. Will he now say, “School is safe”?
I have said it so many times. School is safe. My own children have been in school throughout. There is no issue on this. The Prime Minister is seeking to divide, instead—[Interruption.] I wrote to him on 18 May, in confidence and in private, offering my support to him to get kids back to school. The only reason they were not back before the summer was because of his incompetent Education Secretary.
The Prime Minister will recall that before the recess I asked him whether he would meet the Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice UK group. I had the privilege of meeting the families on 15 July. They gave me incredibly moving accounts of how covid-19 had taken their loved ones from them. On Sky News last week, the Prime Minister was asked whether he would meet the families and he said:
“of course I will meet…the bereaved—-of course I will do that.”
But yesterday they received a letter from the Prime Minister saying that meeting them was now “regrettably not possible”. The Prime Minister will understand the frustration and the hurt of those families that he said one thing to camera and another to them. May I urge him to reconsider, and to do the right thing and find time to meet these grieving families?
May I say to the right hon. and learned Gentleman that it is absolutely typical of him that he should frame it in that way? Of course I am very happy to meet the families and the bereaved and I sympathise deeply with all those who have lost loved ones throughout this pandemic; we all feel their pain and their grief. But it turns out that this particular group he refers to are currently in litigation against the Government, and I will certainly meet them once that litigation is concluded. I say to him that it would be a better thing if, rather than trying to score points in that way, he joined together with this Government and said not only that school is safe to go back to—[Interruption.] By the way, that is the first time in four months that he has said it, so I am delighted to have extracted it from him over this Dispatch Box—[Interruption.] He has never said it to me in the House of Commons. I hope he will also say that it is safe for the workforce of this country to go back to work in a covid-secure way.
We want to take this country forward. Not only are we getting the pandemic under control, with deaths down and hospital admissions way, way down, but we will continue to tackle it, with local lockdowns and with our superlative test and trace system, which, before Opposition Members sneer and mock it, has now conducted more tests than any other country in Europe. The right hon. and learned Gentleman might hail that, rather than sneering at this country’s achievements.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise the concern that he does. We must, of course—and will—deliver on what the protocol says, which is that there shall be unfettered access between GB and NI, and NI and GB, and there shall be no tariffs. We will legislate in the course of the next months to guarantee that.
May I associate myself with the remarks of the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition on the tragedy that we witnessed close to Stonehaven, and indeed with the Leader of the Opposition’s tribute to John Hume—a man who did so much for the delivery of peace in the island of Ireland?
Yesterday the Prime Minister told his Cabinet:
“I am no great nautical expert but sometimes it is necessary to tack here…in response to the facts as they change”.
It was surprisingly honest for the Prime Minister to admit that his Government are all at sea—a UK Government now defined by eight U-turns in eight months. But if the Prime Minister is true to his word, surely he must see sense and change tack for a ninth time. With the clock ticking for struggling businesses and workers, will the Prime Minister commit today to extend the job retention scheme beyond October—or are Boris’s Government making the political choice to accept levels of unemployment last seen under Thatcher in the early 1980s?
Opposition Members of all parties seem to want to extend the furlough scheme, which has already cost the country £40 billion. It has supported 11 million people, but, after all, keeps them in suspended animation and prevents them from going to work. We want to get people back to work, and that is why I hope the right hon. Gentleman will instead support our kick-start scheme to get young people into jobs and support them in those jobs. How much better is that than languishing out of work?
My goodness, “languishing out of work”; the furlough scheme is there to protect people so that they can come back to work when the time is right. France, Germany and Ireland have extended their furlough schemes until 2021. They have made a moral choice. They are not prepared to punish their people with record levels of unemployment. People in Scotland are seeing a tale of two Governments. While the Tories are cutting furlough scheme support, yesterday Nicola Sturgeon was announcing new investment to protect jobs, including a youth guarantee. We all know that jobs are under threat if the furlough scheme ends in October. The power to end this threat lies with the Prime Minister. Will he do his duty and extend the furlough scheme, or are we going to return to levels of unemployment last seen under Thatcher, with the resultant human misery?
We are not only continuing with the furlough scheme until the end of this month, as the right hon. Gentleman knows—a scheme that is far more generous, by the way, than anything provided in France, Germany or Ireland. We are continuing with that scheme, but after it elapses we will get on with other measures to support people in work. Starting today, there is the kick-start scheme to help young people to get the jobs that they need. That is in addition to a £160 billion package that we have spent to support the economy throughout this crisis. The Government have put their arms around all the people of this country to support them throughout the crisis. That is what we are doing, and we will now help them to get back into work.
May I thank the Prime Minister and the Chancellor for the financial and economic interventions the Government have made to date? The Prime Minister will be aware that, as much as we want to see people back in work, there are certain sectors, such as tourism, travel, hospitality and aerospace, where that will not be possible in the short to medium term. Therefore, may I encourage the Prime Minister to look at a targeted extension for those sectors, and also to look at a specific UK-wide scheme to help those who have so far been excluded from the current schemes, including the newly self-employed?
As the right hon. Gentleman knows, there are a great number of schemes in addition to the job retention scheme that support people in work in all sorts of sectors—the coronavirus loans, the bounce-back loans, and the grants that we have made to businesses of all kinds. He mentions the tourism and hospitality sector, and we have made huge investments in those, including the very successful eat out to help out scheme that we have been running. But it is also very important that we get people back into the workplace in a covid-secure way and, unlike the Leader of the Opposition, we do everything we can to give them confidence that it is a good idea to go back. An ounce of confidence is worth a ton of taxpayers’ money.
I thank my hon. Friend, who raises an important point. As he will know, the rules around access to schemes for alternative finance are not the responsibility of my right hon. Friend the Chancellor, but of the Bank of England. I am sure the Governor will have heard my hon. Friend today.
Not at all. We have supported the arts industry alone with about £1.7 billion of support. In Scotland, as I am sure the hon. Gentleman never tires of saying, the overall support for tackling coronavirus has been in the order of about £4 billion. We will continue to give support, but we happen to think—and I hope it is common ground across the House—that it would be better for the UK economy and better for all the people he rightly cares about to get back into work.
I must say that I listened carefully to what the hon. Gentleman said, but he seems to have ignored the fact that we have just had an inflation-busting public sector pay rise. As part of the package that we agreed in 2018, nurses alone have had a 12.5% pay increase since then. I appreciate his sentiments—he is on the right lines—but he should look at what is actually happening.
I thank my hon. Friend for her apposite intervention on behalf of Alexander Dennis. I was a keen customer of Alexander Dennis’s fantastic machines. I cannot guarantee this, but I hope that our green recovery and our massive investment in green buses will be of benefit to the workforce of Alexander Dennis.
I thank the hon. Gentleman. I encourage him to return from New York, Shanghai or wherever he is and join us in this House as fast as he can. Actually, what the people of this country want to see is their representatives back on their seats as fast as possible in the Palace of Westminster. That is what we should work for, and that is why we are working together to drive down this virus and create a covid-secure environment.
My hon. Friend makes a very interesting point, and I am sure that point of view is shared by many people in this country. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport will be setting out a roadmap for reform of the BBC shortly and addressing the very issues he mentions.
It is a rare privilege to ask a question in the House, so you would have thought, Mr Speaker, that they could have come up with something better than that. This is a global pandemic, which this Government are dealing with extremely effectively at a medical level. What we want to do now, in a covid-secure way, is to get our children back into school. That is happening today, in spite of the Leader of the Opposition and his colleagues; I do not know where the hon. Lady has stood on this issue. We also want to get our country’s economy back on its feet again and get us back to work. So I hope that she and her colleagues will say that it is also safe to go back to work in a covid-secure way.
I heartily endorse, I am afraid, the sentiments that my right hon. and learned Friend has expressed. Anybody who has worked with HS2 over the past few years will know that it does treat local residents with, I am afraid, a high-handed approach—or has done. What I can tell him, however, is that where there is damage to local roads HS2 will pay compensation. I will certainly take up his point with HS2.
I direct the hon. Lady to what I have said already, which is that there will always be those who argue for an infinite extension of the furlough scheme, and who want to keep people off work, unemployed, being paid very substantial sums, for a very long time. I do not think that is the right thing. I think the best way forward for our country is, as far as we possibly can, to get people back into work. As she knows, there is the job retention bonus at the end of the year, and there are abundant schemes. Already £160 billion has been spent to support the economy throughout the crisis, and we will continue, as I said, to put our arms round the entire people to keep them going throughout this crisis. But furlough—indefinite furlough—is just not the answer.
I thank my hon. Friend. I have a great deal of sympathy with those who are so desperate as to put their children in dinghies, or even children’s paddling pools, and try to cross the channel, but I have to say that what they are doing is falling prey to criminal gangs and they are breaking the law. They are also undermining the legitimate claims of others who would seek asylum in this country. That is why we will take advantage of leaving the EU by changing the Dublin regulations on returns, and we will address the rigidities in our laws that make this country, I am afraid, a target and a magnet for those who would exploit vulnerable people in this way.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman and, yes, it was incredibly exciting to go to Appledore and see the potential of that yard and see what Harland and Wolff is doing there. Also, of course, he is absolutely right in what he says about the potential for various other contracts both in Devon and in Belfast; I cannot give him the kind of guarantees he wants over the Dispatch Box now, but watch this space.
Point of Order
Thank you, Mr Speaker; I am most grateful.
On Friday 21 August, the Daily Mail ran a front-page story revealing the location of the Prime Minister’s holiday in Scotland. This was a violation of his family’s privacy that neither myself nor my party in any way condone. Later the same day, a senior Conservative source in Downing Street told The Sun newspaper:
“The finger of blame for this all getting out is being pointed at the SNP, particularly Ian Blackford who is local.”
This was subsequently repeated in a number of newspapers and broadcast outlets.
This allegation and briefing was entirely and deliberately false; it was a targeted political smear from the Prime Minister’s office. The photographer who provided the material for the original Daily Mail front-page later confirmed that I was not the source in revealing the Prime Minister’s location—a location, I might add, I was not even aware of. However, by this point, the damage was done.
This matter has not only been the worst kind of political smear; the false allegation has equally resulted in security implications for myself and my family, given its serious and personal nature. [Interruption.] I can see the Prime Minister pulling a face, but all we have to do is go to social media to see the threats I was then forced to witness.
It is a very serious situation when the apparatus of the UK Government can be deployed in this way, manufacturing false briefings in order to attack an Opposition politician. I raised this issue with the Prime Minister’s office in writing. However, as I have not received a response, I am raising this point of order today to ensure that these false briefings are now stopped and are never repeated for any parliamentarian.
May I first say what a wonderful staycation holiday I had in the right hon. Gentleman’s constituency, what a fantastic part of the world it is, and how thoroughly I commend it to everybody? It is an absolutely beautiful location and he is very lucky to represent it.
On the substantive point that the right hon. Gentleman raises, I am very happy to accept the assurances that he gives. However, he talks about going to social media and I just draw his attention to a tweet by a chap called Torcuil Crichton on 17 August, saying,
“Ferocious midge count in Wester Ross tonight, I hear. Must be bad if you’re fair-skinned and camping”,
to which an account that purports to be the right hon. Gentleman’s—but I am sure that it is not because of what he has just said—says,
“I wonder if an education at Eton stands you in good stead for these blighters.”
Anyway, I am happy to accept his assurances and his protestations, and I think we should leave it at that, Mr Speaker.
What I would like to say, obviously—[Interruption.] Mr Brennan, please. May I just say that what I am very concerned about is the security implications for the Prime Minister and the security implications for the parliamentary leader of the SNP? Please may I just say to everyone, let us be very careful and learn from this? Obviously, this is on the record from both parties, and I hope we can draw a line under it, but please let us take each other’s security very, very seriously. Thank you.
Channel Crossings in Small Boats
To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department if she will make a statement on those crossing the English Channel in small boats.
In recent months, the UK has seen a completely unacceptable increase in illegal migration through small-boat crossings from France to the UK. This Government and the Home Secretary are working relentlessly to stop these crossings. Illegal migration is not a new phenomenon. Every Government over the last 20 years and more have experienced migrants—often economic migrants—attempting to reach the UK through illegal means. The majority of these crossings are facilitated by ruthless criminal gangs that make money from exploiting migrants who are desperate to come here.
We are working with the National Crime Agency to go after those who profit from such misery. Already this year, 24 people have been convicted and jailed for facilitating illegal immigration. In July, I joined a dawn raid on addresses across London, which saw a further 11 people arrested for facilitating illegal immigration, and £150,000 in cash and some luxury cars were seized. Just this morning, we arrested a man under section 25 of the Immigration Act 1971 who had yesterday illegally piloted a boat into this country. Further such arrests are expected.
These crossings are highly dangerous. Tragically, last month a 28-year-old Sudanese man, Abdulfatah Hamdallah, died in the water near Calais attempting this crossing. This morning, the Royal National Lifeboat Institution has been out in the English channel and has had to rescue at least 34 people, and possibly more, who were attempting this dangerous journey.
These criminally facilitated journeys are not just dangerous; they are unnecessary as well. France, where these boats are launched, and other EU countries through which these migrants have travelled on their way to the channel, are manifestly safe countries with fully functioning asylum systems. Genuine refugees seeking only safety can and should claim asylum in the first safe country they reach. There is no excuse to refuse to do so and instead travel illegally and dangerously to the UK. Those fleeing persecution have had many opportunities to claim asylum in the European countries they have passed through long before attempting this crossing.
We are working closely with our French colleagues to prevent these crossings. That includes patrols of the beaches by French officers, some of whom we fund, surveillance and intelligence sharing. Over 3,000 crossing attempts were stopped this year alone by the French authorities, and approaching 50% of all crossing attempts are stopped on or near French beaches. This morning alone, French authorities prevented at least 84 people from attempting this crossing, thanks in significant part to the daily intelligence briefings provided by the National Crime Agency here in the United Kingdom.
It serves both French and UK interests to work together to cut this route. If this route is completely ended, migrants wishing to come to the UK will no longer need to travel to northern France in the first place. We are therefore urgently discussing with the French Government how our current plans can be strengthened and made truly comprehensive. We have already in the last two months established a joint intelligence cell to ensure that intelligence about crossings is rapidly acted upon, and this morning’s interceptions on French soil are evidence of the success of that approach.
It is also essential to return people who make the crossings where we can, and we are currently working to return nearly 1,000 cases where migrants had previously claimed asylum in European countries and, under the regulations, legally should be returned there. Last month, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary announced the appointment of former Royal Marine Dan O’Mahoney as clandestine channel threat commander. He will collaborate closely with the French to build on the joint work already under way, urgently exploring tougher action in France, including—
Mr Speaker, I sincerely apologise. In that case, let me conclude by saying that these crossings are dangerous, illegal and unnecessary. They should simply not be happening, and this Government will not rest until we have taken the necessary steps to completely end these crossings.
I am grateful to you for granting this urgent question, Mr Speaker, and for the Minister’s response. I would first like to send my thoughts to the family of Abdulfatah Hamdallah, who died in the English channel—a powerful reminder of the gravity of this issue.
Over a year ago, the Home Secretary said:
“We’ve been working extremely closely with our French colleagues to tackle the use of small boats but we both agreed more needs to be done.”
Why does the Minister think that that work last year has proved so inadequate? The Minister himself scrambled to France on 11 August and announced the joint action plan, but can he outline when that will be available for scrutiny? We all agree on the need to tackle criminal gangs, but does he also accept the importance of safe routes for those seeking asylum? The Government were warned, including by the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs, that the collapse of safe routes would lead to growing numbers of people taking to the sea.
The expectation around the Dubs amendment across the House was that 3,000 children would be accepted under the scheme. Does the Minister now agree that it was a profound error and, frankly, lacking in compassion to close down that scheme when only a 10th of that number had been accepted? What provisions have been put in place for the welfare of any children who have been intercepted on the crossing? What safeguards are being put in place to ensure that all accommodation is kept safe and covid-secure, as well as protected from far-right attacks, which have unfortunately been reported in recent days?
What we need now are solutions, not empty headlines trying to sound tough. I have deep concerns that in recent weeks the Government, through talking up the deployment of the Navy and the RAF, have tried to militarise the solution when lives are at risk. Ultimately, the sad truth is that people are fleeing their homes as a result of poverty, war and persecution. Does the Minister accept that abolishing the Department for International Development is a great mistake? Is it not the truth that the Government’s approach to this whole issue has, frankly, been defined by a lack of compassion and a lack of competence?
I shall try to be brief in my reply, Mr Speaker.
The shadow Home Secretary asks why numbers are so high. Global migration has been growing strongly, and he will be aware that 40,000 people—a far larger number than have crossed the channel—have crossed the Mediterranean. Moreover, during the coronavirus pandemic we have seen displacement from other illegal entry routes, such as lorries and the use of fake documents on aeroplanes, into the maritime route, and we have been successful at preventing illegal immigration through the juxtaposed controls. The situation has been compounded by unusually benign weather conditions in the English channel over the summer.
The shadow Home Secretary asks about safe routes. Since 2015, the Government have provided almost 20,000 resettlement places—a number that dwarfs the 3,000 that he mentions. Since 2010, some 44,000 children have been offered protection of one form or another by the United Kingdom. He says our approach lacks compassion, but I direct him to those figures. I also remind him that last year, 2019, this country received more applications from unaccompanied asylum-seeking children than any other European country, and all of them have been generously looked after while their claims are processed.
The shadow Home Secretary asks about children. When children arrive, they go straight into social care and are extremely carefully looked after while their claims are processed. This Government certainly need no lessons in compassion. Our asylum system is extremely compassionate and extremely generous, and the numbers speak for themselves.
I thank the Minister for his statement. May I impress upon him the strength of feeling on this issue in Newcastle-under-Lyme and elsewhere? It is not because my constituents lack compassion or humanity; it is because they recognise that what is going on is not only illegal but represents unfair queue jumping. I spoke to my hon. Friend the Member for Dover (Mrs Elphicke) about this issue earlier; she has been working all summer to bring this issue to the Minister’s attention. Does he agree that what is currently happening is in essence a form of asylum shopping, wherein people claim asylum in the first country they reach and then move to another and claim asylum again? They keep claiming asylum—instead of securing asylum in the first safe country, they keep coming to the UK, where they believe we have a more favourable asylum system. Does he agree that asylum shopping needs to end?
I join my hon. Friend in paying tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Dover (Mrs Elphicke) for her tireless campaigning on this issue. She has done a huge amount of work in this policy area. My hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Aaron Bell) is absolutely right: people who are genuinely seeking a safe refuge could and should claim that refuge in the first country they reach. The people arriving in Dover yesterday and today have left from France, which is a safe country with a well-functioning asylum system. If their principal objective was to seek refuge from persecution, they could easily have done that in France or, indeed, any of the other countries through which they passed before they arrived in Calais.
Five years on from the day the world was shocked by little Alan Kurdi’s death, perhaps the Minister could just agree that the response to the channel crossings should be informed by empathy and evidence and not driven by Farage and friction. Will he confirm that, despite what he has said, there is nothing in international law that requires refugees to apply for asylum in the first safe state that they come to, even though the overwhelming majority do? Will he acknowledge that there will be good reasons, such as family ties, for many of the people attempting crossings to make their claims here instead of in France? Will he recognise that by failing to provide safe legal routes, the Government force people to use ever more dangerous alternatives and drive them into the arms of people smugglers, as at least two parliamentary Committees have previously pointed out?
Instead of bashing our brilliant human rights lawyers, will the Minister now put those safe routes in place; ensure a successor to the Dublin family unity rules; restart resettlement and commit to it for the long term; and reopen Dubs and other safe routes from Europe? That would be a response rooted in empathy and evidence.
Safe routes from Europe are not the answer to this problem because, by definition, people in Europe are already in a safe country. Transporting people from one safe country in Europe to the United Kingdom does nothing to add to their protection. There are, of course, routes for family reunion—at the moment under Dublin and in the future under the United Kingdom’s own immigration rules. In relation to a safe legal route for people fleeing persecution, the hon. Member has already referenced the resettlement programme, which between 2015 and the onset of coronavirus saw just a shade under 20,000 people being resettled directly from dangerous conflict zones, mainly in the vicinity of Syria. Those routes have existed for the last five years, yet I am sad to say that illegal migration continued none the less.
French authorities have a serious and significant role to play in preventing small boats from crossing the channel and putting so many lives at risk. Does my hon. Friend accept that the more that the French authorities negate their responsibilities, the more lives are put at risk and the further encouragement is given to traffickers?
My right hon. Friend is correct. I should pick up on the point made a moment ago; the way to ensure that lives are protected is to ensure that no one attempts these crossings at all. As he says, that means working with the French to prevent these crossings from taking place. That is the way to protect lives and stop the ruthless criminal gangs exploiting migrants, and that is the Government’s objective.
A report last year by the Foreign Affairs Committee, of which the Home Secretary was a member at the time, said:
“In the absence of robust and accessible legal routes for seeking asylum in the UK, those with a claim are left with little choice but to make dangerous journeys by land and sea.”
How many more people like Abdulfatah Hamdallah have to die before the Home Secretary creates those safe and legal routes?
I have already pointed out that there are safe and legal routes into the United Kingdom. In addition to the vulnerable persons resettlement scheme that I have referenced already, which ran very successfully from 2015, there was also the vulnerable children’s resettlement scheme, the gateway scheme and, of course, the Dubs scheme—a commitment that we met in full. Many people claim asylum having arrived in this country on a visa as well, so the safe routes that the hon. Member describes do exist already.
Let me emphasise once again that the people making these crossings on small boats are leaving a safe European country—France—having often travelled previously through countries such as Germany and Italy, which are also safe countries with an asylum system. If these people’s principal concern is to secure protection from persecution, they have had ample opportunity to do so long before getting on one of these dangerous boats.
Having had some responsibility in the past for the immigration system, I know how complex this particular subject is, so may I press the Minister on two points? First, I urge him to discourage economic migrants. If we were to improve our asylum decision-making speed, that would discourage them. Secondly, I urge him to use our development assistance, which the shadow Home Secretary mentioned, to focus on the source countries to ensure that people are not leaving for economic reasons and have more reason to stay at home. In that way, our 0.7% development assistance can help our national security as well.
My right hon. Friend has a long track record of distinguished service in this area. I completely agree with his point about overseas aid. This country is the only G7 country meeting the 0.7% of GNI commitment, and that is part of our efforts to help source countries to develop economically. As he clearly laid out, that will reduce the economic incentive to migrate.
Given the recent very violent assault on a young man who had just landed on a Kent beach and the planned protests by far-right groups in Kent reported in several broadsheet newspapers, what extra support is the Secretary of State offering police in Kent to ensure the safety of all those who seek asylum in our country? Will the Minister join me in telling the hate-driven, violent groups that make their way to Kent to go back to where they come from?
Yes, I will join the hon. Lady in condemning wholeheartedly and unreservedly the groups she describes who have targeted migrants in that way. There is no excuse at all, under any circumstances, for harassing people who have arrived. Whatever someone’s views may be about the immigration system, there is no excuse and no justification. The police have our full support in dealing with anyone who perpetrates violent offences or harassment offences of the kind she describes.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the simplest and quickest way to ensure the flow of illegal immigrants is stemmed would be to send them immediately back to France as soon as they reach our shores? Does he understand the anger and frustration felt by many people in Kent that the Government are either unwilling or unable to take that action?
I do understand and share the anger and frustration my hon. Friend describes. I do agree that the best way to disincentivise or deter these dangerous and illegal crossings is returns when people arrive, because then the migrant would not bother attempting the crossing in the first place. We are, as I said, in the process of progressing getting on for 1,000 cases where the migrant has previously claimed asylum in a European country. We started that process in August and 26 people were returned on 12 and 26 August. That is a small start. We have a large number of further flights planned in the coming weeks and months to make sure that those people who legally should be returned will be returned.
With reports that the UK Government are planning to reduce or scrap their overseas aid budget, will the Minister confirm whether he is aware of the very clear link between migration patterns and efforts to provide international aid and development abroad? Does he agree that moves to cut back on that would only worsen the current situation?
Clearly, improving economic conditions in source countries is a vital part of tackling this problem upstream, as indeed is working with law enforcement agencies in those countries to disrupt the dangerous and ruthless criminals who operate in those areas. Work with the overseas aid budget is an important part of that, but so is trade. As we negotiate trade agreements around the world, that will also help to encourage economic development in some of the source countries. As employment is created and prosperity generated, I hope that will also reduce the economic incentives for the kind of mass migration we are currently seeing.
The Labour party could not be more out of touch with the vast majority of people on this issue, and I am quite surprised that it brought it forward. However, Labour party strategy is not a matter for me. One of the key drivers of illegal channel crossings is our easily exploited asylum system. Once inside the system, illegal migrants know the chances of being able to stay for good are high. Will the Minister prioritise bringing legislation before this House that eliminates the vexatious aspects of our asylum system, such as repeated asylum claims on different grounds, and consider the wisdom of using taxpayers’ money for legal aid claims to support those who have come over here illegally?
Speaking frankly, my hon. Friend is right in much of what he says. There are considerable issues with the way our asylum and immigration system has been operating in this area. I can confirm that there is considerable policy work under way to address areas where the UK’s immigration and asylum system is being exploited and abused. We are working on developing legislation to address those loopholes in exactly the way he describes, because we will not tolerate our system being abused in any way.
The UK has often been a safe haven for those fleeing their homeland for genuine reasons, whether persecution or fleeing terror. That should continue, while recognising that other countries can provide such protection. However, does the Minister believe that the Government have sufficient domestic tools, and co-operation from the EU and others, to manage illegal immigration into the common travel area and inward into the UK, whether through Northern Ireland or other ways?
As we leave the transition period in a few months’ time, we will want to continue co-operating with the European Union and, indeed, bilaterally with individual European countries. The problem of mass migration is in many ways a shared problem, so I hope that co-operation will continue. We are discussing that with the European Union, and we are discussing it bilaterally with France, Belgium, Germany and many other countries. I hope that the co-operation that the hon. Lady describes will continue, but, of course, it takes two to tango. I agree with her first point. We do have in this country a long and proud history of providing protection for those who are being genuinely persecuted and, of course, that will continue.
I thank my hon. Friend for his robust response today, which I am sure will provide some reassurance to the many people in Bishop Auckland who have contacted me about small boat crossings. I understand that, just last week, 23 migrants were due to be returned to Spain, but that was blocked by a string of legal cases. We need to remember that these are people who travel to our country illegally, bypassing safe nations, including Spain and France. Does my hon. Friend believe that the Home Office’s efforts to facilitate legitimate and legal returns of illegal migrants are too often being frustrated by activist lawyers putting in last-minute challenges, happy to see taxpayers’ money wasted in such a manner?
It is the case that the planned flight to Spain on 27 August was cancelled as a result of the lodging of a large number of last-minute claims, which left no time for them to be properly considered prior to the flight. It is likely that many of those claims were intentionally lodged at the last minute, but as those are being worked through, we will be organising subsequent flights so that people can be lawfully returned to Spain, a safe country where these migrants had previously claimed asylum. That can and should take place.
I apologise in advance for stating the totally blindingly obvious, but I do so in the hope of assisting the Minister here. If we do not provide safe and legal routes for people who are fleeing war and persecution, they will resort to unsafe and illegal routes. There is only one other country in Europe that does not allow unaccompanied refugee children to be reunited with their families and sponsor that reunification. Why is that?
I repeat that there are plenty of legal mechanisms by which people may claim asylum. About 40% of those people claiming asylum have entered the country in a lawful manner. I will just draw attention once again to the resettlement scheme, which has seen almost 20,000 people resettled here directly from conflict zones—not people coming through France and Spain who are in a safe country already, but the people who were in or around places such as Syria who were genuinely in danger. On unaccompanied asylum-seeking children, given that last year we received more than 3,500 UASCs, the highest number of any country in Europe, we need no lectures on that topic.
Can my hon. Friend confirm that his Department is urging the French Government to take more rapid and productive action to prevent those leaving the French coast in the first place and that he is looking at ways to return economic migrants and to process those vexatious asylum claims in a more rapid manner?
Yes, I can confirm that we are doing all those things. Work is under way as we speak to do more with our French colleagues. I have mentioned the joint intelligence cell already, and we are doing work to strengthen our existing operational plans. Moreover, the work on returns, both now, under the Dublin framework, and subsequent to the end of the transition period, is actively under way, because if we return people who make this unnecessary, dangerous and illegal journey, there will be no incentive or reason to attempt it in the future.
One reason we have seen a rise in small boat crossings is the crackdown on border controls in terms of lorries and the significant drop in freight traffic because of coronavirus. Does that not just show that the problem will not go away, despite the sort of military heroics that the Government are trying to embark on in the channel, and that we need to identify safe and legal routes? In particular, we need to work in France with people who have a proven connection to the UK, particularly refugee children, to try to deal with the problem before they try to reach the UK by illegal means?
In relation to children, there are already family reunification provisions in the Dublin regulations, and there are provisions for children to be reunified, particularly with their parents, under our own immigration rules that will come into force after we leave the transition period. In terms of the displacement between different methods of illegal entry, the hon. Lady’s analysis is, broadly speaking, correct, but just because it is difficult, or can be difficult, to stop illegal migration, that is not going to deter us from doing so. It is our duty, as the United Kingdom’s Government, to prevent illegal immigration and to choose, as a sovereign Parliament and a sovereign nation, to decide who comes into the country and who does not. We will never abandon our responsibility to properly police and protect our borders.
I congratulate my hon. Friend and our law enforcement agencies on the recent arrests that have been made. Will he set out what further steps he is taking with counterparts overseas to smash the criminal networks who are exploiting migrants and risking their lives by organising these dangerous crossings?
I add my tribute to my hon. Friend’s tribute to our crime fighting agencies—the police, the National Crime Agency and Immigration Enforcement, who are working day and night to break up these criminal gangs. I mentioned the raid that I accompanied in July, which went to about 13 different addresses across most of London and resulted in 11 arrests and the seizure of £150,000 in cash. There are multiple operations under way in the United Kingdom, but also working with law enforcement partners in other European countries and countries beyond Europe, to break up these criminal gangs. It is not just in France; it goes way beyond France. They are dangerous; they are ruthless; they are exploiting vulnerable migrants; and they are engaged in other associated criminality. We will stop at nothing to get all of them rounded up, arrested and put out of business.
It has been sad to watch a summer of the Government chasing cheap newspaper headlines, rather than getting a grip of this challenge, because growing global climate change will only make more challenging migration patterns for European countries. We need a cross-European solution. We have heard from the Minister for immigration compliance what his solution is: “Nothing to do with me, guv—stay in Italy, stay in Greece, stay in France, stay in Germany.” That will not do. So what are the Minister and the Home Office doing, today, to get to a mature, equitable and humane solution with our European partners?
As I say, we have, as part of our European Union negotiations, made a detailed and comprehensive offer in relation to returns arrangements—readmission arrangements—and indeed UASC and family reunification. That offer was a detailed offer. We tabled a full legal text in both of those two areas in May last year, and that will provide the basis of the co-operation that the hon. Gentleman describes. But if, for any reason, that agreement cannot be reached, then obviously we will make our own unilateral arrangements that are compassionate, humane and fair but at the same time control our borders.
I wrote to the Home Secretary recently about the concerns raised by my constituents who are seeing repeated images in the media of these dangerous and illegal crossings. Our current asylum laws are bound by the EU’s restrictive and rigid legislation. Will my hon. Friend commit to reforming our laws around asylum, illegal migration and the associated criminality to stop these crossings completely once our transition period with the EU ends this year?
I do share that objective, so does the Home Secretary, and so do the whole Government. Where we need to legislate to tighten up the law in this area to make these crossings impossible, we will not draw back or hesitate before taking those steps. We are determined to do whatever it takes to make sure that our borders are properly policed. If that requires legislation, then we will legislate.
The Minister talked earlier—with some pride, I think—about our taking the highest number of applications from unaccompanied asylum-seeking children, which is good. Overall, the UK takes three times fewer asylum applications than France, three times fewer than Spain and four times fewer than Germany. So if we were to reopen safe routes properly, what level of asylum applications does he think would be a fair share for us to deal with?
When it comes to helping vulnerable people, it is far more effective to help those who are in dangerous locations rather than shipping people from, say, Spain to the United Kingdom, because countries like Spain are already safe countries. As I say, we do more than our fair share when it comes to protecting vulnerable people. I have already referenced the fact that we have the highest number of UASCs of any European country, and our resettlement programme, in the five years from 2015 to 2020, took in more people directly from conflict zones than any other European country. So any suggestion that this country is not doing its fair share is completely wrong and completely misguided.
This issue just seems to be maundering on and on; we keep coming back to it again and again. On 9 June this year, I asked Ministers about this issue, as my constituents in Clacton expect this matter to be dealt with—it is what they voted for. People’s lives are at risk. Criminal gangs are getting rich and it has to stop, so what concrete progress has been made since I last asked this question? I reiterate that we need to get the French navy to step up to the plate and take those people off the boats in international waters. How are we going to ensure that that happens, and soon?
Since we last spoke, the French officers operating on or near French beaches have stopped hundreds of crossing attempts—they have stopped about 3,000 crossing attempts so far this year. We have also established the joint intelligence cell that I mentioned earlier, and intelligence passed from the National Crime Agency here in the UK to our French counterparts contributed, I believe, to 84 crossing attempts being prevented this morning alone, so that is good progress. However, there is undoubtedly more that needs to be done, because these crossings are continuing at frankly unacceptable levels, and negotiations and discussions are continuing as we speak with our French colleagues to step up our efforts and activities even more.
Refugees experience situations that few of us can even imagine, yet in recent months, while sitting aboard overcrowded dinghies in the middle of the English channel, they have been subjected to a voyeuristic media filming them, like some sort of perverse sea safari, while also facing a UK Government intent on enforcing upon them their hostile environment. So I ask the Minister: do either of these things give him any shame?
The hon. Gentleman, frankly, has a cheek to talk about hostile environments in this context. We have one of the most accommodating asylum systems in Europe. When people arrive and claim asylum, they are accommodated. Their council tax and utility bills are paid for. They get an allowance to cover essentials and food. That is a far more accommodating approach than in many other European countries, so to say that somehow they face a hostile reception, frankly, could not be further from the truth.
Many of my constituents in Lincoln know that the majority of the illegal crossings are being facilitated by organised criminals who are exploiting vulnerable migrants and putting their lives at risk. I have heard the answers that my hon. Friend has given, but will he confirm that he and the Secretary of State are committed to cracking down on the criminals? Can he update us on the French levels of law enforcement in this regard and how joined-up our Gallic friends are in assisting the UK and our agencies under Home Office control in stopping this illegal practice occurring and currently flourishing, seemingly, in the first place?
There are dozens of investigations under way into these criminals who are facilitating illegal immigration. I have mentioned the 24 convictions and prison sentences given already this year in the UK, and there has been a similar number—in fact, I think a slightly greater number—in France. We are now working ever more closely with our French colleagues and the various arms of the French Government on this activity. We have the joint intelligence cell. There is the Co-ordination and Information Centre unit in Calais, which co-ordinates activity between our two Governments and our two sets of law enforcement agencies. I said that an arrest was made as recently as this morning. The French are making arrests as well. Both Governments share the objective that my hon. Friend described of putting these dangerous and ruthless criminal gangs out of business.
The Minister keeps referring to applying for asylum in the first safe country, as though it were a legal requirement. It is not—it is one of the criteria under Dublin. People have a right to apply in any country they choose and family reunion is supposed to take precedence, so I would like him to correct that when he replies. I would also like him to say whether his Government will focus more on the causes of migration, including the accelerating climate emergency, and take seriously a Bill that I will be tabling later today—the climate and ecological emergency Bill—which is designed precisely to try to tackle some of these root causes of why so many people are taking to dangerous boats.
Of course we agree that dealing with issues in source countries—economic issues and others—is a vital part of fixing this problem. Migration trends across the world, and into Europe across the Mediterranean and the Aegean, have grown dramatically over the last few years. The small boat crossings that we are seeing are a small part of that much bigger picture. This Government have done a huge amount on climate change. We have virtually eliminated coal-fired power stations, one of the biggest emitters of greenhouse gases, and CO2 emissions generally in this country have fallen dramatically over the last 10 or 15 years, as the hon. Lady well knows.
We went to my hon. Friend the Minister and the Home Secretary to be candid about the level of anger and frustration felt by many of my constituents in Mansfield and people across the UK at stories that we hear about illegal migrants arriving on our shores, being put up in hotels and having endless legal challenges funded at the expense of British taxpayers. The Minister is right that we need to stop the boats leaving France in the first place, stop this criminal activity and prevent people from putting their lives at risk in this way, but what can we do here at home to ensure that our domestic system for asylum and deportation is seen to be working for British taxpayers?
The hotel situation that my hon. Friend describes is a very short-term, temporary measure that was a response to the coronavirus epidemic. It is certainly not intended to be permanent, and we are in the process of making arrangements to unwind it as quickly as possible. On the asylum system and the legal loopholes, as I said, we are actively exploring legislative options to ensure that our system is tightened up and cannot be abused.
This Government are militarising the humanitarian crisis, made worse by past military interventions in countries such as Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya. The inconvenient truth, of course, is that Britain has long played the role of agitator, making worse global crises that destabilise regions and displace people. Wales has committed to becoming a nation of sanctuary. What will the Minister’s Department do to enable that, or is sanctuary not part of the Government’s vocabulary at present?
Some of the largest source countries include Iran, Eritrea and Sudan—countries in which the United Kingdom has had no previous military engagement. On the question about being a nation of sanctuary, I have already pointed out that last year we made 20,000 grants of asylum and other forms of protection. We have resettled just a shade under 20,000 people under the vulnerable persons resettlement scheme, and many more under the vulnerable children’s resettlement scheme and the gateway scheme, and we have done the full number that we committed to under the Dubs amendment. That is clear evidence of this country’s commitment to compassion and to giving refuge. At the same time, we will police our borders.
I start by paying tribute to our law enforcement and our Royal Navy, despite the comments of Opposition Members. It is approximately a 300-mile drive from Heywood in my constituency to Dover, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Dover (Mrs Elphicke). When I say to the Minister that I have received a large number of communications about these crossings, I think he will accept the depth of feeling among people not just in coastal areas but across the entire United Kingdom. I ask him to reiterate the Government’s commitment and to ensure that no stone is unturned and no illegal crosser is unreturned.
The Home Secretary and I and the Government completely understand and fully accept the depth of anger that is felt right across the country at the crossings that are occurring illegally, dangerously and unnecessarily. My hon. Friend can have my assurance that we will leave no stone unturned. We are trialling various methods that could be used on the sea to prevent crossings, and we are actively exploring necessary legislative options. As far as returns are concerned, we are working daily to return those who legally can be returned under the existing legal framework, and we will be aiming to construct a replacement legal framework once we are outside the transition period.
The world is interconnected, and when we do not help fellow humans suffering from hunger or persecution, or in war-ravaged nations, they inevitably, in utter desperation, risk life and limb and try to seek refuge elsewhere, including trying to cross the English channel in small, unsafe boats. Does the Minister agree that it is a cruel irony that the Department for International Development, which works to eradicate poverty, is being abolished today as we debate the inevitable impact of the fact that so many people are displaced by conflict, poverty or persecution?
It strikes me as surprising that the hon. Gentleman’s analysis made no reference to the fact that we are the only G7 country contributing 0.7% of GNI in overseas aid. We were the second largest global donor of aid in the Syrian region. Our contribution to that humanitarian effort is without question. He talks about people fleeing war-ravaged countries, but the people getting on these small boats are not embarking from the shore of a war-ravaged or dangerous country—they are embarking from Calais. France is a safe and civilised country. So are Germany, Spain, Italy and all these other European countries. They are not fleeing war; they are crossing the channel from France.
The Minister has repeatedly stressed that these people crossing the channel illegally have already sought sanctuary in other countries in Europe, and yet they still come. He said that 1,000 people are being returned, but what the House would like to know is what percentage of the people who have arrived on our shores illegally over the last year have actually been expelled from the country back to a country where they have already claimed asylum.
In the last 18 months, about 185 people have been physically returned. There are getting on for a further 1,000 people whose cases we are currently progressing where there is evidence of a previous asylum claim, and therefore, under the Dublin regulations, they are liable to be returned. That work is continuing at pace. A number of flights have been booked in the coming days and weeks to do exactly what my hon. Friend quite rightly calls for.
There are still 6,000 children in makeshift camps in the EU. In the time it took for the Home Office to process the 480 spaces—only 480—that it committed to under the Dubs scheme, hundreds of those young people have gone missing. In another life, they could be my children. With the Dubs scheme now formally closed, what steps is the Minister taking to protect vulnerable children such as the ones in those camps who seek refuge from war, torture and persecution?
I have already pointed out that last year we received 3,500 asylum applications from unaccompanied children—the highest number of any European country. That is our contribution to the European effort to look after children—more than any other country. I call upon the other European countries operating the camps that the hon. Lady describes to show the same compassion and attention that we do when we look after UASCs in this country.
My hon. Friend rightly points out that these crossings are facilitated by criminal gangs—criminal gangs who, we should remember, care not a jot about those who are taking such treacherous journeys to our shores. Intelligence from the NCA and other partners suggests that these gangs are not just facilitating people-trafficking; they are linked to money laundering and wider organised crime group activity. What assurances can he give that we are looking at this issue in the round and applying all our intelligence to try to stop these gangs and stop these crossings?
My hon. Friend is right in his analysis. National Crime Agency officers are embedded in law enforcement units around Europe and beyond to track down these criminal gangs. It is not just an issue in the UK and France. These criminal networks extend throughout Europe, through countries such as Germany, Italy and Greece, often through Turkey and thereafter into the middle east. The National Crime Agency and others are working tirelessly with other law enforcement agencies to crack down on these gangs in exactly the way he describes.
Just last week, the Minister’s Department posted a video attacking so-called “activist lawyers”. Does he understand that Trumpian language like that and other comments in the Chamber today risk stoking further divisions and tensions? Will he apologise for demonising both asylum seekers and lawyers acting on their behalf in saying that they were trying to “undermine” the rule of law? Will he at least introduce safe passages to prove that this is not a dystopian Government?
I have repeatedly outlined the safe passages or safe routes that already exist, which many tens of thousands of people have availed themselves of. In relation to legal processes, there are loopholes in our legal system at the moment that are frequently exploited, and this Government are determined to close them.
According to a poll, 77% of the public see illegal immigration as a serious problem. They know what the Minister knows: that the system is being gamed. Asylum is a noble cause—giving safe haven to people in genuine need is something to be proud of—but the system is broken and needs to be fixed. I have complete confidence in the Home Secretary and her diligence, dedication and determination. When will we see root-and-branch reform in the form of legislation?
Can the Minister confirm that the UK is not in fact being invaded, and does he recognise that the Government’s quasi-military response, rather than humanitarian response, with terms such as “clandestine channel threat commander”, only fuels tension, the scapegoating of asylum seekers and racism?
Dover is the national centre for the small boats crossing routes, with more than 5,000 illegal entrants this year and boats arriving day after day on the beaches in my constituency. Does the Minister agree that we can put an end to the small boats crossing routes and that that has three parts: stopping the boats before they leave the French shores, turning around boats when they are in the English channel and sending them back to France and, if people do break into Britain through these illegal routes, making sure they are returned swiftly to France and other countries?
My hon. Friend has been a tireless campaigner and advocate on this issue—I can testify to that as a Home Office Minister—and her analysis is essentially correct. The three strands of work she just outlines are the three we are pursuing. Some will require new techniques to be deployed on the water, which we are trialling at the moment, and some might require legislation, as my right hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Sir John Hayes) mentioned a moment ago, and we are prepared to legislate.
The UK needs to do more, not less, to provide sanctuary for refugees, given the world’s growing ecological and economic crises. Instead, the Government are dehumanising these people by presenting them as an illegal threat. This is a dangerous path and one that goes completely against the ideals we should be aspiring to: empathy and humanity. Why can the Minister and the Government not see this?
Where people have a genuine fear of persecution, where they are fleeing to our shores and need our protection, or where we encounter them directly in dangerous areas, we are of course prepared to offer protection, as we did via the resettlement scheme, but that in no way removes, dilutes or diminishes our obligation and determination to protect our borders from illegal immigration. This Parliament and this country will decide who comes here, not ruthless people smugglers, and I call on the hon. Member and the whole Labour party to assist us and work with us in protecting and defending our country’s borders.
By the time people reach the English channel, be they economic migrants using illegal routes, or asylum seekers seeking safe haven, they have often passed through a number of safe countries, so what steps are the Government taking to ensure that those countries along the whole route are fulfilling their legal obligations?
My hon. Friend raises a good and interesting point. I have already pointed out that the UK is scrupulous in discharging its obligations in international treaties to look after unaccompanied asylum-seeking children and asylum seekers more generally. Not all countries in Europe are as diligent and scrupulous as we are in discharging that duty, and I again take the opportunity to call on those countries to step up and do as much as we do to look after those vulnerable people who enter their countries. If they did that, it would again reduce the incentive for people to attempt these dangerous, illegal and unnecessary crossings.