House of Commons
Tuesday 8 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
Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office
The Secretary of State was asked—
Our thoughts remain with the people affected by the terrible events in Beirut. The Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary and I spoke with the Lebanese President, Prime Minister and ambassador respectively. We rapidly deployed UK medical, humanitarian, military and logistics experts to support Beirutis in their response to the blast. The UK is a long-standing friend of the Lebanese people, and we were pleased to commit £25 million to help the most vulnerable.
On refugee resettlement, the resumption of arrivals remains dependent on covid-19 developments internationally and in the UK. We are not in a position to resume arrivals in the short term.
I thank the Minister for that answer and for the UK humanitarian response. The Lebanese people have suffered greatly from the consequences of civil war and then failed political institutions. What is the Minister doing to help bring about a stable political settlement, to allow the people of Lebanon to restore peace and security to their lives? Will he and the Foreign Secretary consider introducing Magnitsky-style sanctions in conjunction with other key members of the international community if any political leaders are found culpable?
As I say, my right hon. Friends the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary have engaged at the highest levels with the Lebanese Government, and ensuring that there is political and economic stability, as well as security, is key. We support the Lebanese Government in many ways, including through the Lebanese armed forces, which recruit cross-faith and cross-community. Our diplomatic efforts go hand in hand with our humanitarian efforts. My right hon. Friend will understand that future designations under our autonomous Magnitsky sanctions regime are not something that we wish to speculate about at the Dispatch Box, but we will ensure that our support to the people of Lebanon, and Beirutis in particular, continues.
Migrants are crossing the channel partly because of a lack of safe and legal routes. Refugee resettlement, including from Lebanon, is a safe and legal route, but the pandemic has understandably seen it suspended. Now is surely the time to reopen those safe and legal routes. Will the Minister take steps this week to assist the Lebanese Government in restoring safe routes to the UK for refugees?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. In 2015, the then Prime Minister committed to help 20,000 vulnerable refugees. As of March this year, 19,768 had been taken in by the UK, in a typical act of generosity. As I say, future acceptances will be dependent on the covid situation, which we will keep under review.
Before last month’s tragic blast in Beirut, Lebanon was already facing financial ruin, requiring investment from regional partners. Countries will obviously be reluctant to invest if they feel that some of their money may go to help fund Hezbollah and its activities. Has my right hon. Friend had conversations with his counterparts in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and other Gulf states about what they can do to help Lebanon in its time of need?
My hon. Friend is right that the diplomatic efforts of the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office go hand in hand with its humanitarian efforts. We have indeed spoken to good friends of the UK across the region about what more they can do to support the Lebanese people. I hear what he says about concerns about money going to Hezbollah, and I can assure him that the money committed by my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary to support the Lebanese was targeted directly at the vulnerable people in need and did not go through Hezbollah.
One month on from the horrific explosion in Beirut and the subsequent collapse of the Lebanese Government, the UK Government have rightly pledged aid to support the people of Lebanon. Global leadership is urgently needed now to ensure the rapid reconstruction of the port of Beirut, to allow vital supplies and international aid to reach those in need. How are the Government planning to work with our international allies, such as France, to ensure that aid is delivered swiftly and directly to those who need it most on the ground in Lebanon and that the port can resume its vital role as a point of entry for UN aid to the whole region, including Syria, Iraq and Jordan?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right about the importance of Beirut as a port city for the Lebanese—a traditionally internationalist and commercially minded people. On international leadership, my right hon. Friends the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary engaged very swiftly at the highest level and, in her role as Secretary of State at the Department for International Development, my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Anne-Marie Trevelyan) engaged within days with an international group of leaders—national leaders—to co-ordinate the response. I am very proud that British expertise, including under-sea survey experts, was deployed at haste to Beirut to help with the technical support in its rebuilding programme.
Climate Change: International Co-operation
The UK is leading by example on climate change. We are the first major economy to legislate on net zero by 2050. Globally, we have provided 33 million people with improved access to clean energy and helped 66 million people cope with the effects of climate change. As co-host of the conference of the parties and president of the G7 next year, we will bring together accelerated action on the climate change crisis.
With the UK being president of the climate change conference, COP26, I am really pleased to see the Government bring forward proposals that would prohibit large businesses from using products that have been grown on illegally deforested places such as in the Amazon, but what steps is the Minister’s Department taking to ensure that this is a workable and successful policy?
As a Government, we have worked for many years to tackle deforestation, and specifically deforestation caused by trade in unsustainable agricultural commodities, including timber. For example, in Indonesia, we have worked to improve regulations, improve independent monitoring and improve law enforcement. I am pleased to say to the House today that 100% of timber exports from Indonesia are sourced independently from audited factories and forests.
Next year, the UK will both host the UN climate change conference and assume the presidency of the G7, so does my hon. Friend agree that, at this crucial time for our foreign policy, now is the perfect opportunity to bring together security, foreign and development work and leverage that behind tackling climate change?
I do agree with the thrust of the question. The world is looking for the UK to show global leadership in one of the greatest challenges of our time. The creation of the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office brings together our diplomatic and development experiences, which means that we can do more to tackle climate change. The Department and I are working very closely with ministerial colleagues to support this agenda. In particular, we are working with Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park, who is known well to Members in this Chamber.
If we are to achieve our goal of carbon net zero by 2050, some form of effective carbon taxation that takes account of the challenges of international trade will be necessary. Given that, what negotiations has the Department had with our European partners on the establishment of an effective system of carbon border adjustment payments?
I have discussed this incredibly important and technical matter with Treasury officials. I can reassure the House that we remain a global leader on decarbonisation and recognise that, as we cut domestic emissions, it is important to ensure that that does not lead to emissions elsewhere. An active debate is under way on which interventions are going to work, and the Government are monitoring and actively engaging with those discussions.
To avoid scrutiny, the Secretary of State snuck out cuts of £2.9 billion from the aid budget on the day Parliament rose for the summer recess. That is around 20% of the aid budget, despite the fact that projections of an economic downturn suggested a required fall of something closer to 9%. Can the Secretary of State tell us where those cuts will come from, and how the Government will ensure that they tackle poverty and the climate crisis and deliver value for money for the British people? Will he today commit to ending the use of UK aid and investment to fund fossil fuel projects in the global south?
The Government take our responsibilities very seriously. I remind the hon. Lady that we have delivered on 0.7%, but that does mean that the budget goes down as GDP goes down. In our prioritisation process, we have looked at a number of things to protect, including, in particular, the vulnerable, the bottom billion, climate, girls’ education and using Britain as a force for good overall. The details of that will be presented to the House in due course.
The humanitarian situation in Yemen is worsening, and we are particularly concerned about the growth of famine. In addition, UK-funded modelling predicts that the number of symptomatic cases of covid-19 in Yemen could reach as many as 10 million. In response to the risk of famine, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs announced last week that we are committing a further £25 million to Yemen, and we continue to reiterate the UK’s unequivocal support for the efforts of the United Nations special envoy, Martin Griffiths.
Does the Minister agree that the action this Government have taken to support those in need in Yemen will be further enhanced by bringing together our diplomatic clout and development expertise in the new Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office?
I agree with my hon. Friend on that. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary speaks with his international counterparts about the international effort to support Yemen, and I speak with the Yemenis themselves. The best thing that can happen for the people of Yemen is for the conflict to cease, which is why diplomatic pressure is applied to that end.
Today, Oxfam campaigners are visiting the new FCDO to hand in a letter on behalf of thousands of people, including my constituents, that calls on the UK Government to stop fuelling the war in Yemen and to reverse the decision to resume arms sales licences to Saudi Arabia. Does the Secretary of State not accept the inherent contradiction between selling arms with one part of the FCDO and providing aid with the other? Does he also accept that what Yemen needs is an urgent and immediate ceasefire, rather than an escalation of this five-year-old conflict?
The UK has an internationally respected and robust arms trade licensing regime. We have a close working relationship with the allies that are involved in the conflict in Yemen, to minimise civilian casualties and collateral damage. It is completely legitimate for all countries around the world to defend themselves against external aggression, and we are proud of the work we are doing to help the people of Yemen through this difficult time.
The Government are deeply concerned at the situation in the north-west and south-west regions of Cameroon. We are assisting humanitarian efforts, and today I can announce that we are increasing funding to the humanitarian efforts by £4.5 million, bringing the total for this year to £13.5 million.
I am grateful to the Minister for his answer and for his clear commitment, as I am to the Chair of the Select Committee for his interest in this area. What is going on in Cameroon is concerning for us all, whether we are talking about the multiple hundreds of thousands of displaced persons internally or in neighbouring countries, the more than 1 million people going hungry or the significant and continuing violence, including last month’s suicide bombing. This country has a special connection to Cameroon and a special responsibility to be part of a peaceful future there, as does France. It is hard to see a future settlement that does not involve both countries, so will the Minister tell us what conversations he has had with his counterpart in France about working together to bring about a peaceful solution?
That is an excellent point. I thank the hon. Gentleman for his passion on Cameroon, and I know that a number of colleagues share concerns, which the Government of Cameroon understand. We regularly engage with a number of partners, including the French and Americans, and the UN, where there have been resolutions. I intend to travel to Paris, covid permitting, in the next few months to discuss areas of mutual interest across the continent where we can work together, and Cameroon will be high on that list.
The Government have been clear: we do not accept the results of the fraudulent presidential elections in Belarus. We have strongly condemned the shocking scenes of violence by the authorities in Belarus towards peaceful protestors and the targeting of journalists, including representatives of the BBC. I have raised these concerns with the Foreign Minister of Belarus, and in my statements to the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe on 28 August and to the UN Security Council on 4 September. The Belarusian authorities must be held to account, and we are calling for an independent investigation through the OSCE. We support sanctions, and there must be dialogue between the people of Belarus and the authorities.
My constituents in Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath do not view the suspension of military training to Belarusian forces as a cause for celebration. That the UK was supporting the last dictator in Europe does not square with the UK’s espoused role as a beacon of hope. Between 2018 and ’20, UK armed forces provided training to 17 of the 30 countries where the FCO is particularly concerned about human rights issues. Will the Minister urgently provide me with comprehensive detail on the specific training provided to the Belarusian armed forces and full details of police and military training being provided to Turkey, Bahrain and the Philippines?
With specific regard to Belarus, the hon. Gentleman raises a very important point around defence co-operation. The UK shares a co-operative relationship with the Belarusian armed forces, including mutual learning, winter survival training, language tuition and peacekeeping, but in the light of recent events we have suspended all defence engagement with Belarus.
There are protesters outside Parliament today trying to draw attention to the situation in Belarus. I hope that the Minister will find time to pop out to meet them, as it is really important that we talk to members of the diaspora community here. The EU is currently drawing up a list of Belarusian officials who they will make subject to asset freezes and travel bans. Is the UK looking to do likewise, and if not, why not?
The hon. Lady makes a very important point. She can rest assured that we will, at the very least, match that list.
As the Minister said, two BBC journalists have had their accreditation revoked in Belarus, and we have also seen entire shutdowns of the internet in that country to stop citizens both reporting on what is happening in their country and finding out information for themselves. Does she agree that this is completely intolerable and a violation of the rights of citizens of that country? What representations have we made to the Government of Belarus that they should stop these internet shutdowns and removals of accreditations for BBC journalists?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising this with me today. The Belarusian authorities have indeed blocked internet access for the entire country on several occasions. I have made clear through my statements at the OSCE and the UN that the democratic values and rights of the Belarusian people, including freedom of expression and media freedoms such as access to information, must be respected, and those who violate them must be held accountable.
I know that my hon. Friend shares my deep concern about the violence we have seen to suppress the peaceful demonstrations in Belarus, and I welcome her comments so far. Can she assure me that she will continue to work with our international partners to put pressure on the Belarusian regime to stop all violence against journalists, protesters and opposition candidates, and does she share my concern over the forced deportation of such individuals?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his question and for his interest in the situation in Belarus. I can assure him that we are supporting an independent investigation through the OSCE into the fraudulent election and the violations by the Belarusian authorities. I spoke to Germany and the US on 18 August and France on 19 August, and I have also spoken to the Baltic states, Finland, Sweden and Poland.
We on the SNP Benches, and I am sure those across the House, support and salute the bravery of pro-democracy activists and call for the immediate release of all political prisoners, along with, of course, Maria Kolesnikova. I am sure that we all agree on that point.
I am grateful for the Minister’s statement and I agree, as far as it goes, but I would urge her to go further. I make four concrete proposals specifically based on the rule of law. There are things we can do through the OSCE and European partners, but there also things we can do specifically. Targeted sanctions on individuals under the Magnitsky regime is something that the UK can do now. We welcome the suspension of military co-operation, but could we have an explicit statement on what it actually involves and its ramifications? Can we explore humanitarian aid to activists? Poland has given €10 million to brave activists. Can we explore sanctions against companies involved in facilitating oppression by the regime? These are concrete points that the UK can act on now.
You have two questions, so do not take so long, please—we have to get other colleagues in.
First, on sanctions, we have made it very clear that we support sanctions against those responsible for the election fraud and human rights abuses. We will work with our international partners to sanction those responsible and to hold the Belarusian authorities to account. We currently implement EU sanctions and we will continue to do so during the implementation period, and we will consider future designations very carefully, based on evidence.
The hon. Gentleman raises a number of points. I want to touch on humanitarian support and support for civil society, which will be really important. That is why we have doubled our support to independent media, human rights organisations and community groups in Belarus with an extra £1.5 million of projects over the next two years. I am sure that he will welcome that.
A brief second question from Alyn Smith.
I will be brief, Mr Speaker—my apologies. I welcome the Minister’s comments. There is a lot of common ground. Will she commit to meet Belarusian activists here in the UK? My office will be happy to facilitate that.
I will undertake to get in touch with the hon. Gentleman’s office to see if that can be arranged.
I do hope that the Minister has a chance to meet the activists who are outside Portcullis House as we speak. There is a consensus that the bravery and determination that they have all shown during this terrible crisis has been an inspiration to us all.
I have some specific questions around election monitoring in Belarus and other countries. Have the Government cut funding for that particular function? Is there a desk officer on Belarus who speaks Belarusian? At the same time, the Government are turning up the heat on European allies with leaked briefings that they will break internationally binding treaties, which is hardly the behaviour of a responsible Government intent on working with our allies to solve common challenges. Could we have, perhaps, great tweets but also specific action, to pull together with Europe to solve this terrible problem?
Let me be absolutely clear. The hon. Lady raises some very important points here. We are working very hard with our international partners, because we recognise the importance of doing so. As I highlighted earlier, we are working through the OSCE. We are also working to support sanctions. In terms of the support that I have from the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, I have a great team of officials who are working really hard on this area, as I am sure the hon. Lady would expect and welcome.
As I made clear in my statement on 13 August, we welcome both the suspension of plans to annex parts of the west bank and the normalisation of relations between the UAE and Israel. The deal was a historic step forward between two great friends of the United Kingdom.
A week before the election in Israel, Prime Minister Netanyahu indicated he would move forward with the expansion of the illegal settlement at Efrat—an additional 3,500 homes. That plan had been previously frozen for years. It would cut off the north and the south of the west bank and is particularly problematic. Does the Foreign Secretary agree that the suspension of annexation plans should be made permanent and should not be substituted for the massive settlement expansion such as the 5,000 homes that are planned in E1 zone, which represent—in my view and that of my constituents—annexation in all but name?
I agree with the hon. Gentleman that settlements are both contrary to international law and counterproductive to peace. It is hugely welcome, first, that Israel has taken the plans off the table for the foreseeable future, coupled with the UAE deal, which is a substantial step forward in the wider process of reconciliation and peace between Israel and its Arab neighbours.-
I welcome the Israel-UAE deal, which stops the prospect of any damaging annexation and should bring about normalisation between the two countries. What steps are the Government taking to encourage more Arab states to follow the UAE’s lead and to use it as a catalyst to get lasting negotiated peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians?
I thank the hon. Lady. She is right and there can hopefully be a virtuous cycle of these normalisation agreements. I have been in touch with US authorities, including Jared Kushner when he visited London and Mike Pompeo, the US Secretary of State, and I visited Israel on 25 August, where I not only saw Prime Minister Netanyahu, Alternate Prime Minister Gantz and Foreign Minister Ashkenazi, but visited the west bank and spoke to President Abbas and Prime Minister Shtayyeh—all with a view to encouraging normalisation with the countries of the region and, now that annexation is at least off the table for the foreseeable future, encouraging greater dialogue between the Palestinians and the Israeli Government.
Will the Secretary of State talk to European colleagues, particularly the Irish, with a view to taking joint action on settlement trade and on recognition to ensure the Israeli Government do not go ahead with their annexation threat in future?
I thank the hon. Lady. We do talk regularly to our E3 and wider European colleagues—we consider all the different permutations—but I think the positive here is that, through engagement and indeed through this wider process of normalisation, Israel has pulled back from those plans for annexation. That does create a window of opportunity not just with the countries of the region, but with the Palestinians themselves. My focus and the Prime Minister’s focus is on trying to use that to catalyse dialogue between the Palestinians and the Israelis, which is the only route to a two-state solution, which is the only route to enduring peace.
Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating the United States Administration and indeed the US State Department on helping to broker this deal? I suspect he will not agree with me when I say that I think it is their pragmatic approach to say that a two-state deal is not going to happen as long as we have Hamas and Hezbollah taking the line they do, but what I would ask my right hon. Friend is: what role does he see for the United Kingdom in brokering further such peace deals between the United Kingdom and Arab states?
I thank my hon. Friend. I think he is right about the positivity of this step. We need some good news in the peace process and in the middle east, and I think the UAE deal with Israel is very positive. We are looking to and will certainly be encouraging—indeed, we have already started to encourage—others to follow suit, but also to make sure that we can engage with the Palestinians, at the level of the Palestinian Authority, to try to galvanise some dialogue between the two principal protagonists to the dispute.
My right hon. Friend knows very well that one of the reasons for the proximity between the United Arab Emirates and Israel is the pressure put on both by the Iranian regime, and the work that his Department has done in holding the Iranian regime to account at the UN has been hugely impressive. Applying the rule of law and applying the principles of non-violable international treaty to international negotiation has been so important. Could he please tell me that the UK will read the letter of the treaty of United Nations Security Council resolution 2231, and recognise that any of the named states has the opportunity to snapback sanctions on the violating state of Iran? Will he recognise as well that those international treaties are not for interpretation, but are actually pretty clearly laid out in black and white?
I thank my hon. Friend the Chair of the Select Committee. Lawyers will always have different views on the precise permutations, but I think the position on snapback in relation to the joint comprehensive plan of action is tolerably clear. He is absolutely right also to point to the role that Iran plays not just with its own activities—those it engages in directly—but working through Hamas and Hezbollah and other proxies throughout the middle east as a source of tension and instability. We are working with all of our allies to try to make sure we limit and hold to account Iran for those activities.
The social and health situation in Gaza is extremely serious, especially with regard to covid-19, and recently there was a clash between Israel and Hamas. Fortunately, a ceasefire was agreed, but a concern is that it is only a matter of time before another outbreak of violence occurs. How does the Secretary of State believe that further conflict between Gaza and Israel can be avoided?
First, we need to see an end to the targeting of civilians and the firing of improvised explosive devices by Hamas into Israel. That is unlawful and totally unacceptable. I share the hon. Gentleman’s concerns on the broader humanitarian situation. When I visited the west bank on 20 August, I announced £2.7 million-worth of further humanitarian assistance. Now that Israel has taken annexation off the table, it would make sense, even irrespective of the broader peace talks, for the Palestinian Authority to engage with the Israelis on finance and security co-operation in the west bank and Gaza, including in relation to being able to receive tax revenues to pay Palestinian public servants. As a confidence-building measure, given the UAE deal, that is something the Palestinians could do on their side as well.
Saudi Arabia: Human Rights Defenders
The United Kingdom has a strong relationship with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, which allows us to have important frank discussions. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary raised human rights defenders with Saudi Ministers on his recent visit to Riyadh, and I have raised concerns with Dr Awwad, the head of the Saudi human rights commission, as did Lord Ahmad in June.
I am pleased to hear that the Minister is having robust conversations with the Saudis, but will the UK Government publicly call on the Saudi authorities to immediately and unconditionally release the five women human rights defenders who are still being detained, including Loujain al-Hathloul, Samar Badawi and Nassima al-Sada, and for all charges to be dropped against the 13 women’s rights defenders currently on trial for peaceful protest and activism?
It is important that we recognise that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is taking significant steps in the right direction, and we encourage and support it to do so. The Foreign Secretary raised the release of those human rights defenders face-to-face on his visit to Riyadh just last month[Official Report, 15 September 2020, Vol. 680, c. 1MC.].
The Government will prioritise the bottom billion, the very poorest around the world, as part of our core mission. This is in our national interest and it will project the UK as a force for good in the world.
The UK has a proud record as a provider of aid across developing countries and has achieved significant milestones in reducing poverty abroad. However, can my right hon. Friend assure my constituents in Ashfield that this aid money will be used as effectively as possible and will not be provided to countries that spend vast amounts of their GDP on projects such as space programmes, as opposed to addressing their own poverty problems?
I am happy to reassure the residents of Ashfield and beyond that reducing poverty will be at the beating heart of the FCDO. That is why we are committed to the Independent Commission for Aid Impact; that is why the Foreign Secretary has appointed Nick Dyer as the first ever envoy on famine prevention and humanitarian affairs; and that is why we have allocated a new £119 million package to look at the threat of the coronavirus and of famine more generally across the bottom billion.
Rule of Law
Promoting the rule of law internationally is integral to the UK’s global influence and to our status as a force for good. That is one of the reasons that the Foreign Secretary has commended the candidature of Judge Joanna Korner QC for election as a judge in the International Criminal Court in the December 2020 elections. The FCDO is supporting ROLE UK to provide expertise in law and justice to developing countries through its partnerships for development programme.
I thank the Minister for that answer, and I wish my old friend and colleague Judge Korner well in her candidature. Of course, the best way to promote the rule of law is always to adhere to it ourselves. But more specifically, will the Minister confirm that the Government will continue with the excellent ROLE UK, the rule of law expertise programme that has been run by the Department for International Development for the last five years, which has given very modest grants to enable British lawyers and judges to give pro bono advice and support to developing countries?
I thank my hon. Friend. We have greatly appreciated the enormous contribution of the pro bono work of some of the UK’s best judges and legal professionals, delivered through the ROLE UK programme. This year we had to reduce its funding due to potential shrinkage in the UK economy and a decrease in the value of the 0.7% commitment. The FCDO has had to prioritise urgent and high-priority work, such as tackling climate change, championing girls’ education, and UK leadership in the global response to covid-19. Although this is a significant cut, through our conversations with ROLE UK we are satisfied that we will be able to continue its good work.
The UK enjoys a strong relationship with Egypt, which is a key economic and security partner. We regularly engage at the most senior levels. In January, we welcomed President Sisi to London for the UK-Africa investment summit. The Foreign Secretary speaks regularly with Foreign Secretary Shoukry and I spoke with the Egyptian ambassador yesterday.
I thank the Minister for his answer. Security Print Solutions in Consett, County Durham, has a long-standing contract with the Egyptian Government to provide high-quality tax stamps for tobacco products, which have seen revenues to the Egyptian exchequer rise by 121%. Egypt is in the process of developing its own facility, but in the interim, ongoing contracts remain. Will the Minister use his good offices to do all he can to work with the Department for International Trade to help SPS fight for those interim contracts and look for other long-term opportunities to protect and expand export jobs in Consett worldwide?
My hon. Friend, in his relatively short time in the House, has shown himself to be a passionate defender of the businesses and people of North West Durham, and I commend him for doing so. I am aware of the case that he has raised. The ambassador and I did not speak directly on that case, but we did talk about bilateral trade relationships. I know our officials are following up on that, but I am more than happy to meet my hon. Friend directly, so he can raise the case with me.
Education of Women and Girls
Standing up for the right of every girl to 12 years of quality education is a major priority for the Government and the new Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, but covid-19 is having a profound effect on the barriers girls face to education and putting them at risk of dropping out of school permanently, so a focus on girls’ education is more important than ever. That is why, in response, we have adapted our education programmes in 18 countries and provided more than £10 million of new funding to support refugee and displaced children to access education.
I hear what the Minister has said, but today and this week we want the Prime Minister to stick to his agreements and promises, and he recently promised me that the Government’s highest priority would be tackling the lack of education for girls worldwide. Some 15 million little girls do not even get to primary school. There is an enormous commitment from the United Nations sustainable development goals to do something about that. Can I have an assurance that the ministerial team will keep berating the Prime Minister until we get action on that?
Let us be absolutely clear: as the FCDO, we will continue to deploy the UK’s diplomatic clout and world-leading development expertise to secure greater global ambition and investment in girls’ education. The Prime Minister has been clear in his commitment to that.
Integrated Review of Policy
The integrated review was formally launched in February 2020. It was paused because of covid and then recommenced in June. We expect it to conclude in the autumn. Ministers have met regularly. I have chaired those meetings on key themes from trade to security.
On the integrated review of security, defence, development and foreign policy, I would like to understand what specific steps the Secretary of State is taking to establish an atrocity prevention strategy to avert further identity-based violence worldwide.
I entirely agree with the hon. Lady’s passion and commitment on the subject. Of course, we have already introduced Magnitsky sanctions, which allow us to target the perpetrators of human rights abuses with visa bans and asset freezes. More generally, in the context of the integrated review, one of the powerful themes is the United Kingdom’s role in the world being joined up, which is why we have brought DFID and the Foreign Office together, in solving disputes, managing conflict and holding the worst perpetrators of human rights abuses to account.
I strongly believe that the Government must be more transparent and engage with the British people as we attempt to define our place in the world and how ambitious we want to be. Let us follow the example of the confederation papers, which through consensus helped unify what the US originally stood for. Will the Foreign Secretary please publicise the threat assessment of how the world is changing and the strategic options in response that reflect the degrees of global ambition and the scale of influence we might pursue? Only then can we design the appropriate defence posture. If he takes the nation with him as we define what “global Britain” really means, there will be greater support for the upgrading of our soft and hard power tools that is so urgently needed.
I thank my right hon. Friend. I share his commitment to making Britain an even stronger force for good in the world. We have engaged far and wide. We are engaged with the Foreign Affairs Committee’s inquiry on the integrated review. We are engaged with think-tanks, from the Royal United Services Institute to the Overseas Development Institute. In the other place, Baroness Sugg is chairing regular meetings with representatives of civil society, led by Bond and including Save the Children and Plan International. Those meetings are related to the covid recovery, but they also touch on the merger, both of which are key elements of the IR.
The integrated review was unpaused in late June. It is supposed to be the most comprehensive evidence-driven evaluation of foreign policy since the cold war, so why did the call for evidence go out only in mid-August for 20 working days, and why are the sustainable development goals absent from the scope of the review? Should we assume that the outcomes are a foregone conclusion?
I thank the hon. Lady. She should not assume any foregone conclusion. It is precisely because the consultation is open that we have not stipulated any particular thing with the level of specificity she has asked for. I have explained to the House the breadth of consultation. She is right to note that it was interrupted—that was an inevitable result of covid-19—but I reassure her that we are absolutely committed, as the merger into the new FCDO shows, to bringing all our international assets and attributes together to be an even stronger force for good in the world.
Since the last oral question session, on 25 August I visited Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories to press for a new dialogue and to reinforce the UK’s commitment to a negotiated two-state solution. On 2 September, we launched the new Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office to integrate our aid expertise and our diplomatic reach and to project global Britain as an even stronger force for good in the world.
Does my right hon. Friend share my concern about the case of Ye Ming Yuen in Singapore, and will he ensure that the Government continue to raise our objections to the use of corporal punishment all over the world?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and our staff continue to support Mr Yuen and his family during what must be a very distressing time. I can tell her and reaffirm that the United Kingdom’s long-standing global position is to oppose corporal punishment in all circumstances and to call for the consideration of alternative sentences.
In the last six months, the Foreign Secretary has publicly reminded Iran, Israel, China and Russia of their obligations under international law. I agree with him, so does he agree with me and with the most senior legal official in Government, who has behaved with honour and principle this morning, that when the Prime Minister briefs that he will unilaterally tear up our international obligations under the withdrawal agreement, it undermines our moral authority, harms our national interest and makes a mockery of the Foreign Secretary’s attempts to stand up for international law? Will he assure the House that he, as the Foreign Secretary, will never vote for amendments that violate our international obligations?
I obviously respect all the brilliant civil servants who work for us. I used to work as a Foreign Office lawyer myself. I can say to the hon. Lady that I am surprised she would open up this question. As we go through the uncertainty of changing our relationship with the EU, we will make sure that there is maximum certainty for businesses as regards the UK internal market, and of course we will legislate to that effect. Ultimately, we will take every measure necessary to protect the integrity of the United Kingdom and to comply with and live up to the Good Friday agreement, ensuring that it is respected. I am surprised she is not supporting that.
The right hon. Gentleman clearly does not read the newspapers, because his own Government have been briefing the precise opposite. Let me try him on another international obligation. An international arbitration ruling determined that the UK owes a debt to Iran, which has not yet been paid. In a letter to Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s family last week, the Defence Secretary said that the UK
“acknowledges there is a debt to be paid”
and is seeking to find ways to pay it. It is absolutely vital that the Government have a clear and agreed strategy for Nazanin, Anoosheh Ashoori and all dual UK nationals to ensure that they are brought home as soon as possible. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree with the Defence Secretary, and if so, what steps is he now taking to resolve these heartbreaking cases?
I can tell the House that I had two conversations throughout August with Foreign Minister Zarif. We pursue all the cases of our dual nationals. The question of the International Military Services debt is a parallel issue, but we have always said that we would work to resolve that. As well as all the wider issues that have already been raised in relation to Iran, there is never an engagement, a meeting or a telephone conversation that goes by without our being absolutely clear—and I hope that the hon. Lady agrees—on the appalling and arbitrary detention of all dual nationals and calling for their immediate release.
I thank my hon. Friend and hugely welcome all his efforts in this regard. We are taking forward all these strands—from media freedom to the Magnitsky sanctions, to the work that we are doing on LGBT rights. He will know that we intend to build on our current official development assistance allocation for the strategic review on LGBT rights, which will be completed in the autumn. As a founding member of the Equal Rights Coalition of 42 states sharing the same values, in 2019 we took on the role of co-chair and we plan not only to deliver the first ever UK-led five-year action plan, committing the coalition to taking domestic and international measures on LGBT and equality issues, but to expand the ERC and, in particular, to try to draw in more participation from Asia, Latin America and Africa, for all the reasons that he mentioned.
The hon. Gentleman is right to point out that the UK has a comparative advantage internationally, with research that is going on at Oxford and Imperial in pursuit of the vaccine and the leadership that the Prime Minister showed at the Gavi summit to smash all the records and get $8.8 billion-worth of funding to ensure equitable access to the whole world. That is good for the United Kingdom—we do not want a second wave globally—and important as a matter of moral responsibility. On misinformation, we have discussed it in the G7 and plenty of other formats, and the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that we must be rigorous and robust in rebutting false information, particularly when it is irresponsible about something such as vaccine safety standards.
I pay tribute to the work that my hon. Friend does as one of the leading parliamentarians and Select Committee members, and indeed, Chairs. The normal position that the Government take is that Select Committees ought to shadow Departments, but having said that, the representation is ultimately for the House to decide. I welcome all the scrutiny; he will know that we have not only affirmed the role of the Independent Commission for Aid Impact in providing scrutiny and accountability on aid decisions, but I want to review it to make sure that it is focused on what adds the most value and that its critical analysis is followed by practical recommendations.
First, on the issue of timing, covid has shown precisely why we need to integrate more in respect of our international endeavours. That was true in relation to the combination between research for a vaccine, the Gavi summit and the misinformation that was asked about earlier. On the cost of the merger, we would envisage that, notwithstanding our commitment to 0.7%, over the long term—over the course of the comprehensive spending review—we can make considerable savings on administrative costs as we streamline, fuse and synergise the various different aspects of the previous Departments.
As we have left the EU, it is curious to have an operation overseas. We have a global network of 280 overseas posts, which represent all parts of the UK, including Cornwall. The decision to operate overseas is one for Cornwall Council and, ultimately, the voters of Cornwall, who I am sure will want at the next local elections to have a say on whether it is a good idea and a good use of their taxpayers’ money.
I thank and pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman for an exceptional endeavour. As we depart the EU and forge our way in the world, we ought to have stronger relationships with that part of the world. I would be very interested in receiving directly those proposals and ideas and would make sure that either I or the Minister for the region meets the hon. Gentleman and those involved.
My right hon. Friend will know that the resolution that was tabled garnered only two votes in the UN Security Council. The UK’s position is clear: we want to see the continuation of the arms embargo. It has to get through the Security Council, as frustrating as that may be. We have offered our good offices; indeed, had time been allowed between the original tabling of the resolution and the vote, we had offered, with the E3, to work with all the permanent members of the Security Council to try to find a compromise. Ultimately, unless the resolution can pass, it has no impact in restraining Iran.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question, and he is absolutely right to raise it. We have serious concerns about gross human rights violations being perpetrated against Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities in Xinjiang, including the extrajudicial detention of over 1 million Uyghur Muslims and other minorities in political re-education camps—as they have been referred to. We are playing a leading role in holding China to account for its widespread violations of human rights. On 30 June, the UK led a joint statement on behalf of 27 other countries at the UN Human Rights Council about the situation in Xinjiang. Finally, the Foreign Secretary has again raised Xinjiang with his Chinese Foreign Minister counterpart.
My hon. Friend will know that, along with our E3 colleagues, we have triggered the dispute resolution mechanism for the JCPOA on the nuclear side. It has always been the case that the JCPOA did not encompass the wider destabilising activities in which Iran engages in the region through militias and proxies, and we have always been open and willing, and indeed pressing, to try to incorporate a bigger agreement. But it is also right to say that until there is scope for that wider agreement, what we have is the JCPOA, which provides the vehicle for some kind of restraint on Iran, although I accept that it has been eroded because of systemic non-compliance. We would be reluctant to move to something bigger until it is in place, and should not lose sight of what the JCPOA adds.
I share the hon. Lady’s concern about the situation in Zimbabwe. We follow it carefully and engage with our international partners as well as directly with the Government of Zimbabwe. Working with our partners, we have the tools, if the evidence allows and we decide it is the right thing to do, to apply targeted sanctions on those who commit the most egregious human rights abuses.
In order to allow the safe exit of hon. Members participating in this item of business and the safe arrival of those participating in the next, I am suspending the House for three minutes.
Northern Ireland Protocol: UK Legal Obligations
(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland if he will make a statement on the UK’s commitment to its legal obligations under the Northern Ireland protocol.
We are fully committed to implementing the withdrawal agreement and the Northern Ireland protocol, and have already taken many practical steps to do so. The protocol was designed to maintain the Belfast/Good Friday agreement and the gains of the peace process, and to protect the interests of all people in Northern Ireland, and that is what this Government will do and will continue to deliver on. Throughout the last year, as we have taken steps to comply with our obligations under the protocol, we have always sought to honour both our international obligations and our commitments to the people of Northern Ireland.
The protocol itself states that it should
“impact as little as possible on the everyday life of communities”
and it explicitly depends on the consent of the people of Northern Ireland for its continued existence. As we continue to implement the protocol, this overriding need must be kept in mind. The Government have consistently said that people and businesses in Northern Ireland will have unfettered access to the whole of the UK market. Our manifesto made a very clear commitment to that. The approach that we will take in this legislation builds on that commitment and on the specific commitment that we made in the “New Decade, New Approach” agreement, to legislate for unfettered access by the end of the year. This has been one of the most consistent asks from Northern Ireland businesses since the protocol was agreed, and we are now moving to provide certainty.
Our approach guarantees that we will be able to deliver the objectives that we set out for implementing the protocol in a way that protects the interests of the people and the economy of Northern Ireland. We are working hard to resolve any outstanding issues through the Joint Committee and will continue to approach those discussions in good faith, but we are taking limited and reasonable steps to create a safety net that ensures that the Government are always able to deliver on their commitments to the people of Northern Ireland and in line with the protocol.
Thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting this urgent question.
This week starts a crucial period in our trade negotiations with the EU. Labour wants the Government to succeed—to secure a deal in the national interest and to protect the Good Friday agreement—so it is very welcome to hear the Secretary of State’s confirmation of their commitment to the protocol. But it has been deeply concerning ahead of these talks that the Prime Minister has appeared to undermine our legal obligations and his own deal. The resignation of the Government’s chief legal adviser this morning suggests that concern over the Government’s approach runs to the very top. It risks jeopardising the progress of the negotiation and the chance of securing a much-needed deal.
The protocol was not foisted on the Prime Minister by Brussels, by a previous Government or by Parliament. The Prime Minister personally renegotiated it, campaigned on it, legislated for it and ratified it in an international treaty. With these latest moves, some fear that the Prime Minister is once again using Northern Ireland as a political football to suit his wider political means. We cannot forget that at the heart of this are the people and businesses of Northern Ireland who risk paying the price. For them, this is not the latest episode in a Brexit drama but a profoundly worrying moment that will shape their livelihoods, their businesses and their future. It reopens the uncertainty that they hoped had been settled, takes us backwards in negotiations and undermines trust with the European Commission.
Ultimately, this is about trust. How can the people of Northern Ireland trust this Government with the careful progress made over the past two decades when they tell them that the protocol is necessary to protect it and then suggest that the protocol undermines it? How can the British people trust a Government who swore that they had an oven-ready deal only 10 months ago and now tell them that the deal was ambiguous and contradictory? How can our partners and allies around the world trust us to enter trade negotiations on multilateral arrangements?
Will the Secretary of State confirm whether the Treasury Solicitor resigned today in response to the Government’s plans to bring forward legislation that will undermine our legal obligations? Will he confirm whether a ministerial direction has been given on the internal market Bill? Will he further outline what legal advice he has seen and whether the ministerial code will be breached if MPs are asked next week to vote on provisions that will undermine those legal obligations?
There was no need for it to come to this. The elements of the protocol left to negotiate are not insignificant, but neither are they insurmountable. With trust, progress could easily have been secured. At the start of a new chapter for our United Kingdom, we cannot afford to be seen as a country that cannot be trusted. As Margaret Thatcher said,
“Britain does not renounce treaties. Indeed, to do so would damage our integrity as well as international relations.
In those interests and in the national interest, I urge the Government to stop the posturing, rediscover their responsibility and secure the deal that was promised to the people of this country.
The hon. Lady should wait until she sees the legislation tomorrow, because I hope she will then see that we are delivering on the very promises to which she just referred. She commented on the Prime Minister’s campaigning and our manifesto pledges, which I referred to in my opening remarks. The Bill, as she will see, will absolutely deliver on them.
The UK internal market legislation that we will bring forward this week delivers on our commitment to legislate for unfettered access, which Northern Ireland businesses have consistently asked us to do to ensure that we deliver certainty. The legislation will give the certainty that the people, businesses and economy of Northern Ireland have been asking for, and supports the delivery of the protocol in all circumstances, in line with the approach we set out in our Command Paper in May.
The safety net that we will implement, which we will outline this week, will deliver on the commitments made in the general election manifesto. Specifically, we will implement the provision in the protocol that Northern Ireland is fully part of the UK customs territory by ensuring that goods moving within the UK will never even inadvertently have to pay EU tariffs. We will ensure that businesses based in Northern Ireland have true unfettered access to the rest of the United Kingdom without paperwork, and we will ensure that there is no confusion about the fact that, while Northern Ireland will remain subject to the EU state aid regime for the duration of the protocol, Great Britain will not be subject to EU rules in that area.
Those steps are rightly part of the UK internal market Bill, the overriding aim of which is to ensure that the UK’s own internal market operates effectively, and I hope all Members will support that endeavour. The House will of course have an opportunity to debate these matters when it sees the details in full when considering the Bill. Further, the Bill will strengthen Northern Ireland’s place in the UK customs territory and ensure that the UK does take back control of its laws in an organised way after 31 December—exactly as we promised in the manifesto that won a resounding victory and mandate from the people of this country at last year’s election.
I cannot comment on the details of the Treasury Solicitor’s resignation because I have not seen his resignation letter, but we wish him well. We will continue to work at pace with the EU in the Joint Committee, and I stress to the hon. Lady that she should not presume what the outcome of the Joint Committee will be. We continue to work with the EU on that to ensure that we can reach a fair and positive outcome for Northern Ireland. That has always been and continues to be our priority.
The United Kingdom Government signed the withdrawal agreement with the Northern Ireland protocol. This Parliament voted that withdrawal agreement into UK legislation. The Government are now changing the operation of that agreement. Given that, how can the Government reassure future international partners that the UK can be trusted to abide by the legal obligations in the agreements it signs?
We have worked with the EU in a spirit of good faith, and both sides continue to work in that spirit to implement the arrangements that uphold the fundamental principles that lie behind the protocol. Of course, our first priority continues to be to secure agreement on the protocol on the Joint Committee and on the wider free trade agreement, but the withdrawal agreement and protocol are not like any other treaty. They were written on the assumption that subsequent agreements could be reached between us and the EU on the detail—that is the entire purpose of the specialised Joint Committee—and we continue to believe that that is possible, but as a responsible Government we cannot allow our businesses not to have certainty for January. The reality is that the UK internal market Bill and the Finance Bill are the last legislative opportunities we have to give the people and businesses of Northern Ireland the confidence and certainty that we will deliver what we agreed in the protocol, what we outlined in our manifesto and what we set out in the Command Paper.
The Prime Minister referred to Northern Ireland and said, “This is a good deal”, when he struck it last year. Now he seems to disagree with himself. There are U-turns everywhere, but this is something else. No wonder it is reported today that the head of the UK Government Legal Department has just quit because of the rowing back in respect of the withdrawal agreement and Northern Ireland. The internal market Bill is taking a wrecking ball to devolution. The Government are hellbent on a poor deal or no-deal Brexit—and hang the implications—but using the Bill to renege on parts of the withdrawal agreement is extraordinary and dangerous.
Can the Minister explain what discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues about the impact of these plans on Northern Irish businesses and the Good Friday agreement? What advance discussions did he have with the Northern Irish Executive? I suspect the answer is: precious few. We have all seen the Government’s wilful disregard for devolution and their own international reputation. Who will want to do business with a Government who cannot stick to an agreement with themselves, never mind anyone else, and who make it up as they go along, as we heard just now and as people in Scotland are only too aware?
The hon. Lady and I have a distinct difference of opinion, because whereas the SNP want to hand powers straight back to Brussels, we, the UK Government and the Conservative party, have been clear that we want to take back those powers for the residents and citizens of the United Kingdom, and indeed we will be devolving power to the devolved authorities, as we have outlined in our discussions with those authorities, including the First Minister of Scotland just this week. This is about taking back power from the EU, as people voted for, and giving it back to the people of the UK, including the Scottish Parliament. I am just sorry that the SNP does not share the desire to see democracy exercised here in the UK.
I wonder if my right hon. Friend recalls that in clause 38—the sovereignty clause—of the Act that gave effect to the withdrawal agreement the Government reserved to themselves the right to make clarifications. Given that, and given that when the protocol was signed, the Government recognised that state aid rules would apply to Northern Ireland, their extension to the rest of the Great Britain is an interpretation by the EU, and the Government are quite within their rights to dispute that interpretation and use clause 38 to explain that they do not agree with that and will not implement such an agreement.
My right hon. Friend has spoken about these issues over the last year or so and has been clear about his position, and he is absolutely right. The UK internal market Bill will make clear what will apply in January if we cannot reach a satisfactory and mutually suitable conclusions through the specialised Joint Committee and the wider free trade agreement. It is reasonable and sensible for the Government to give that certainty and clarity to businesses and people in Northern Ireland, which in itself will ensure that we abide by and deliver on the Good Friday agreement by ensuring that there will be no borders between east and west and north and south. He is also absolutely right that Great Britain will not be subject to EU rules in a state aid area while recognising the unique position of Northern Ireland.
I am afraid the Secretary of State’s protestations of innocence will not wash, because over the past two days—the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May) addressed this question—the Government have given the impression that they may not be trusted to honour obligations they have freely entered into.
I wonder whether the Secretary of State can answer a very specific question relating to the Northern Ireland protocol, which he had some trouble answering in the summer when he appeared before the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee. Will goods moving from GB to Northern Ireland be required to complete export declarations, import declarations or entry summary declarations—yes or no?
As I assume the right hon. Gentleman knows, that forms part of the discussions that are going on in the specialist committee, between us and the EU, to deal with these issues. Our view is that the regime should be very flexible, as Michel Barnier has outlined, in terms of respecting the unique position of Northern Ireland, because those goods going from GB to Northern Ireland are, by definition, very low risk, and we must ensure that we do not end up in a situation where it is presumed that 100% of the goods going from GB to Northern Ireland are what the EU would refer to as “at-risk goods.” That would be inappropriate for Northern Ireland businesses, would drive up prices in Northern Ireland and would restrict supply to Northern Ireland. That does not fit with the protocol’s outline of Northern Ireland remaining an integral part of the UK customs territory and single market.
At the moment, for Northern Ireland, there appears to be no certainty for businesses, and no certainty for the long-term future of the Good Friday agreement, as clearly any transporting of goods between north and south will now need to be checked somewhere and somehow. Also, in echoing the remarks of my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May), there appears to be no certainty for the continuity of our country as a country that keeps its word and abides by the rule of law and international obligations. What certainty can my right hon. Friend give me that the Government understand the seriousness of these issues?
We, as a country, stand for international law and the order of the international system, and we always will. I think countries around the world are aware of that. They are equally aware that we are in these negotiations with the EU. Our focus is on concluding those in a satisfactory and suitable way in order to get a good outcome with a free trade deal, and good outcomes from the specialist committee that work for Northern Ireland. We must remember that delivering on the Good Friday agreement is not just about north-south; it is also about east-west and ensuring that there are no borders, north-south or east-west. That is why we have made the commitment on unfettered access, and that is what we will deliver through the UK internal market Bill.
There are those in this House who say that the protocol is the problem here, when in fact the protocol is a symptom of the problem, which is four years of terrible political decision making. It is now the law and the Government are obliged to implement it in full. A Member of the House told the BBC yesterday that his party had been engaged with the Government since January to achieve the change. Given that the Government are legally bound to rigorous impartiality, and given that they have cited the peace process among their motivations, I hope that they will indicate what engagement there has been with all the parties, and whether they value better the guidance of their top legal adviser or the DUP. May I caution the Secretary of State, please, not to use the threat of a border on the island of Ireland or the hard-won impartiality of the Good Friday agreement as a cat’s paw in this or any other negotiations?
In large part, I agree with what the hon. Lady just outlined. We had a letter from her party and others yesterday, outlining the issues around the Good Friday agreement. The point is that this is also about ensuring that we continue to deliver on all the gains of the peace process in Northern Ireland, and ensuring that we are able to give Northern Ireland businesses the certainty that, no matter what happens over the next couple of months, at the very least in January they can be assured of having the unfettered access that we have promised. That is what we will set out in the UK internal market Bill, to ensure that Northern Ireland remains an integral part of both the customs union and the single market union of the United Kingdom.
We shall continue to have conversations with Northern Ireland businesses and parties, as we did around the Command Paper earlier this year, as the hon. Lady knows from the conversation that I had with the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee.
My party has voted against this withdrawal agreement. We have warned Ministers about not just the impact that the withdrawal agreement has on Northern Ireland but the foot in the door for the EU for the rest of the United Kingdom. I am pleased that we now have a Bill that—at least, according to reports—appears to deal with some of those issues. But I am disappointed to hear from the Secretary State today that we still do not know the depth and width of checks for goods coming into Northern Ireland and that we will still be left with state aid rules applying in Northern Ireland, which will stop us defending ourselves against predatory behaviour from the Irish Republic and other European countries. I want to emphasise to him that we will judge this Bill on whether it delivers on the issues that he and his Government have promised to address, in trying to undo the damage that the withdrawal agreement has caused. But ultimately, this agreement, which damages the whole of the United Kingdom—this Union splitting, economy destroying and border creating agreement—has to be changed and replaced. It can be replaced and should be replaced.
The right hon. Gentleman has had a strong, consistent view on these issues from the very beginning. I think that there is a huge opportunity for the whole United Kingdom and businesses in Northern Ireland as we leave the European Union. I think there are big opportunities for growth in the Northern Ireland economy, including in areas such as cyber. I believe that the EU will continue to act in good faith, as we are acting in good faith, in these trade negotiations and the specialist Joint Committee to get a good, mutually beneficial outcome for the EU and the United Kingdom. We are very focused on that. That is our priority and our desired outcome. If that does not succeed, we want to ensure, through the internal market Bill, that Northern Ireland businesses have confidence and clarity about what the situation will be in January. That is a reasonable, sensible step for the Government to take, and it will deliver unfettered access.
This Government were elected on a manifesto which guaranteed that Northern Ireland would truly remain in the UK customs territory and committed that EU law would not get in the way of other elements of essential Government business. Does my right hon. Friend agree that these changes are simply delivering on that landslide winning, red wall smashing manifesto commitment?
My hon. Friend makes a good point. We outlined very clearly—I do not think anybody can be under any misapprehension about it—our position at the general election: that we would deliver unfettered access, that we would deliver for the people of Northern Ireland and that we would continue to deliver on the Good Friday agreement. That is exactly what we are still focused on doing. We are doing that through the negotiations, but we also want to ensure that we are taking reasonable steps to be prepared for January should we need to be. We will do that in the UK internal market Bill, delivering on that manifesto pledge.
Any unilateral change to the very necessary protocol risks undermining the Good Friday agreement, risks a hard border returning to the island of Ireland and places Northern Ireland businesses in a very uncertain legal position. Do the Government recognise that, in the event that they make unilateral changes to and, in particular, undermine the agreement, they will reduce the prospects of a future relationship with the European Union? In particular, there will be zero chance of negotiating a trade deal with the United States under a Biden Administration and with a Democrat-controlled Congress.
On the first part of the hon. Gentleman’s question, quite the opposite—we are focused on coming to an agreement through the trade negotiations and the specialist Joint Committee, to ensure that we are able to deal with the detailed issues that were always, as set out in the protocol, to be worked out by the Joint Committee. That is exactly what the Committee is there to do. All we will be doing in the UK internal market Bill is giving clarity to the businesses and people of Northern Ireland about what happens on 1 January if that does not come to a satisfactory conclusion. I say to him gently that that is the best way to give certainty to the people of Northern Ireland.
Given the sovereignty clause, the need for certainty and clarity for businesses and the timeframe involved, does my right hon. Friend agree that it is absolutely right for the Government to use domestic legislation—the UK internal market Bill—to ensure that Northern Ireland truly remains part of the UK customs territory after the end of the transition period?
Yes. My hon. Friend makes a hugely important point. We should be clear that the UK internal market Bill and the Finance Bill are the last two legislative opportunities for us to put into law what we will need to do if the Joint Committee and the negotiations do not come to a satisfactory conclusion. It is nothing more than that. It means that we have a sensible and reasonable position and can say to people in Northern Ireland, “If that is what happens, this is what the situation will be in January.” It gives confidence and certainty to businesses and people in Northern Ireland that we will deliver for them.
What authority do we have to criticise China for not keeping her side of the bargain under the joint declaration on Hong Kong if we are seen to approach our own treaty obligations to the European Union in this way?
As I said earlier, specific issues in the protocol were always designed to be worked out through the Joint Committee. It is right that the Government are taking reasonable, sensible and limited actions to make sure we have that certainty for people in January should the Joint Committee and the withdrawal agreement negotiations for the free trade agreement not come to a satisfactory conclusion.
The EU signed a withdrawal agreement and political declaration with two things at its core: it would respect the restoration of UK sovereignty, and it would work for a free trade, tariff-free agreement. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that if the EU kept its word on those two colossally important points, the problems it has created in Northern Ireland would disappear?
This is exactly why it is important that we are clear about our intentions to ensure that we are delivering for the people of Northern Ireland. As I say, I am sure that the EU negotiating team will continue to be negotiating in good faith. Michel Barnier has said that peace in Ireland is due
“thanks to the open border”,
and that this process
“should not and must not lead to the return of a hard border, neither on maps nor in minds.”
He is absolutely right on that and we are determined to ensure we deliver on it. I am sure that the negotiations will be able to get us to that point, but it is right that we are able to say to the people of Northern Ireland that should those not succeed, we will legislate in UK law to ensure that.
I did not hear an answer to the question put by my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Louise Haigh), so I will ask it again: can the Secretary of State explain whether a failure to uphold international legal commitments would breach the ministerial code?
I think I did outline earlier that, as a Minister, my focus is on ensuring that we are delivering for the people of the United Kingdom and, within that, the people of Northern Ireland. As Northern Ireland Secretary, my focus is on ensuring that we are delivering for the people of Northern Ireland, as we said we would both in the Command Paper and in our manifesto.
For the avoidance of any doubt, is it the case that if the EU negotiators, including those on the Joint Committee, are prepared to move forward to implement the existing agreement in a workable way, these provisions will not be necessary?
My right hon. Friend, as often, is absolutely right; these provisions will be in the Bill to take effect if other things do not come through. I think that with both parties acting in good faith we will get to a position where these provisions become, in effect, irrelevant, exactly as he has outlined.
Does the Secretary of State recognise that, as others have reminded him, there would be terrible future consequences for Britain if the Government fail to abide by an international treaty they have signed? Does he recognise that—yes or no?
As I said earlier, I absolutely recognise the importance of following international laws and the rule of law. We have a unique situation with this treaty. Listening to what some Members have been saying from a sedentary position, it seems that there is a fundamental misunderstanding here; there are items and issues in the protocol that were always designed to be worked through in the Joint Committee, because they were not able to be agreed and worked through at the time of the protocol. What we will be outlining in the UK internal market Bill is what the UK Government’s position will be if that does not succeed, in order to ensure that we are delivering for the people of Northern Ireland as part of the internal and integral market of the United Kingdom.
This Government have been clear that they will work flat out during September to agree our future relationship with the EU. Does my right hon. Friend agree that there is no reason why these clarifications as to how the protocol is implemented should undermine our negotiations in any way whatsoever?
My hon. Friend is right on that. Those negotiations are ongoing—they are ongoing today, in fact. As I say, I am confident that our negotiating teams and the EU negotiating teams are all focused on getting a good outcome for both our friends and partners in the EU and us in the UK, and that they will come to a solid and good conclusion. We are simply taking reasonable, limited steps to outline what the position will be if that does not succeed, but I am with him in being confident that it will.
What assessment has the Secretary of State made of how the failure to implement the protocol in full will impact on the flow of Northern Irish goods exported to Great Britain necessarily through the Republic of Ireland and then through the port of Holyhead?
The purpose of the clauses we will be putting into the UK internal market Bill is to ensure that we continue to have good, free-flowing trade across the whole of the United Kingdom, including for Northern Ireland—I have mentioned the issue of unfettered access before. I hope that when the hon. Gentleman sees the clauses in the Bill that we will publish and introduce tomorrow he will see that that is a positive and sensible step.
What reassurance can my right hon. Friend give that the UK internal market Bill will provide the certainty needed in Northern Ireland to ensure that it remains within the UK customs territory, and that there is no reason whatsoever that the negotiations should be detracted from or undermined by such an Act?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. The clauses we will put into the Bill are very clear about ensuring Northern Ireland’s place within the United Kingdom customs territory and single market. The EU has recognised that that is important, and it is a key thing that we will be delivering. There is respect for that point. Acting in good faith by both parties will, I am sure, bring us to a good and sensible conclusion to the negotiations.
We know that people in No. 10 like to move fast and break things, but I do not think we knew that that extended to the Northern Ireland protocol, with the consequences that will have for the Good Friday agreement and the devolution settlement as a whole. Does the Secretary of State accept that these are not just bits of paper, but that they affect people’s lives and livelihoods? Who, once all this is broken, is going to pick up the pieces?
I suggest the hon. Gentleman waits until he has seen the detail of the text tomorrow so that he can support us, as this is about delivering on ensuring that people in Northern Ireland stay part of the United Kingdom, regardless of whether he wishes to or not.
Article 6 of the Act of Union provides, in essence, that no duties will be applied to goods passing between Great Britain and Ireland. Does my right hon. Friend agree that these are constitutional rights still enjoyed by the people of Northern Ireland, and that unless the protocol is clarified and adjusted, those rights may possibly be infringed?
My right hon. Friend makes an interesting point. He is right in the sense that Northern Ireland is and has been an integral part of the United Kingdom for almost 100 years—as we know, next year, we celebrate the centenary of Northern Ireland. It is an integral part of the United Kingdom. The negotiations have recognised that Northern Ireland will remain part of the United Kingdom customs territory and single market. The clauses we will put in the UK internal market Bill to be published tomorrow will confirm that, regardless of the outcome of those negotiations.
A little over two months ago, the Government in their Command Paper defined the Northern Ireland protocol as existing
“to ensure that the progress that the people of Northern Ireland have made in the 22 years since the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement is secured into the future.”
It went on to say:
“Whilst the Protocol is in force, both the UK and EU must respect and abide by the legal obligations it contains, as well as our other international law obligations.”
Does the Secretary of State stand by that commitment, and if not, why not?
Yes, and I suggest to the hon. Lady that paragraph 19 states:
“The Protocol is clear that nothing in it prevents Northern Ireland business enjoying unfettered access to the rest of the UK internal market. We will ensure this. As set out in New Decade, New Approach, we will legislate to guarantee unfettered access for Northern Ireland’s businesses to the whole of the UK internal market”.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that there is no indication that the UK is at this stage seeking to leave the withdrawal agreement, and that it is right and legitimate that adjustments are made so that UK courts have jurisdiction in the UK and the Northern Irish economy is protected from otherwise punitive tariffs?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. As I said in my opening remarks, we are still determined to deliver on the withdrawal agreement and the protocol. We hope the negotiations come to a suitable and sensible conclusion. This is purely a set of clauses that we are putting in place so that, should that not happen, we are clear about what the position will be in January and so that there are legal structures in place to be able to deliver on those issues, including unfettered access.
On 20 May, the Government outlined their four key principles for supporting Northern Ireland through this process. They said that we would have unfettered access for businesses across the Irish sea, that there would be no tariffs on internal UK trade, that there would be no new customs infrastructure, and that Northern Ireland would benefit equally from the trade deals that are currently under negotiation. I hope the Secretary of State will agree that any customs arrangement that affects trade, or impacts in any way on trade between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom in either direction, is unacceptable and must be stopped. Do this Government have the mettle, or do they have a tin foil spine when it comes to standing up to our detractors in Brussels and our debtors in the Republic of Ireland? Give the people and the businesses of Northern Ireland the certainty that they deserve and let us have certainty in those four key principles.
Our determination and desire is to be able to deliver that certainty through the free trade agreement negotiations and the Joint Committee work. What we will be outlining tomorrow in the Bill is how, if that does not succeed, we will be giving that certainty to Northern Ireland businesses about what the framework and the legal structures will be from January to ensure that we do deliver on unfettered access. Let me just say that we are continuing to deliver on the protocol. With the issues around live animals, with the agrifoods work that we have done, with the EU settled status scheme and with other such issues, we are delivering on what we have agreed. We will continue to do that, and we will do so in good faith.
The much hyped Financial Times story has caused understandable concern right across the island of Ireland and more widely, so can my right hon. Friend reassure the House that the measures being introduced tomorrow are solely a safety net to the work of the Joint Committee, do not in any way prevent the Government from complying with the Northern Ireland protocol in full, and do not compromise the Good Friday agreement?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We are doing this in order to ensure that we can always deliver the wider objective of the protocol, which is to protect peace in Northern Ireland and the Good Friday Belfast agreement, and to do so as part of the protocol, outlining, as we did in the Command Paper, how we would deal with those issues that are still outstanding—if they are outstanding—at the end of December.
The truth is that, whatever reassurances the Secretary of State gives today, the people in Northern Ireland simply cannot trust a word that comes out of this Tory Government’s mouth. At every single turn, they have used us as a bargaining chip, as a useful tactic and as part of a cynical game. Rather than taking his steer from cosy chats with the Democratic Unionist party, will he once and for all accept that people in Northern Ireland—the majority voice in Northern Ireland—will accept nothing less than the full implementation of the protocol?
If the hon. Gentleman looks at what we have been doing on the protocol, such as the dedicated mechanism, the settled status scheme and the live animals and agrifoods work that we have done on sanitary and phytosanitary checks, he will see that we are delivering on the protocol and delivering on what we said we would do, as we did with the rules and regulations that we passed this year, not least on victims’ pensions. We have a good track record of delivering and doing exactly what we say we want to do. One thing that we said we would do, that we outlined we would do, and that we have a manifesto pledge and a mandate to do was to deliver unfettered access for Northern Ireland businesses, and we will do that.
The Secretary of State has said that he and the Government are committed to the rule of law. Does he recognise that adherence to the rule of law is not negotiable? Against that background, will he assure us that nothing that is proposed in this legislation does, or potentially might, breach international legal obligations or international legal arrangements that we have entered into? Will he specifically answer the other point: was any ministerial direction given?
I would say to my hon. Friend that yes, this does break international law in a very specific and limited way. We are taking the power to disapply the EU law concept of direct effect, required by article 4, in certain very tightly defined circumstances. There are clear precedents of this for the UK and, indeed, other countries needing to consider their international obligations as circumstances change. I say to hon. Members here, many of whom would have been in this House when we passed the Finance Act 2013, that that Act contains an example of treaty override. It contains provisions that expressly disapply international tax treaties to the extent that these conflict with the general anti-abuse rule. I say to my hon. Friend that we are determined to ensure that we are delivering on the agreement that we have in the protocol, and our leading priority is to do that through the negotiations and through the Joint Committee work. The clauses that will be in the Bill tomorrow are specifically there should that fail, ensuring that we can deliver on our commitment to the people of Northern Ireland.
I am astounded that the Secretary of State has just conceded that he is proposing to break international law. Perhaps for the first time I agree with the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May). It is a question of trust when it comes to signing international treaties. We cannot condemn others for seemingly breaking the international rules-based order if we are prepared to do the same. It is incredibly damaging to our reputation if we are seeking to acquire trade treaties and the UK internal market Bill tomorrow seeks to disapply section 7A of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018. That would be a clear breach of our international obligations, and for that reason should he not rule it out?
As I have said several times today, obviously our focus is on ensuring that none of these clauses is required because we are able to secure a free trade agreement through the negotiations, which are ongoing this very day in London, as well as through the work of the Joint Committee. These clauses will simply put in place reasonable and limited structures to ensure that, should those negotiations not come to a satisfactory conclusion, in January we are able to show that we are delivering unfettered access for the people of Northern Ireland and ensuring that Northern Ireland remains an integral part of the UK customs territory and single market.
The Prime Minister was clear yesterday that an agreement with our European friends must be made by 15 October if it is to be enforced by the end of the year. Can my right hon. Friend confirm that under no circumstances will we agree to any demands that would force us to give up our rights as an independent state?
Absolutely. That was very clear in the votes in 2016 and the past two general elections, arguably in 2017, as well as the overwhelming mandate in 2019, bearing in mind that people, even Labour voters, were at the time voting for a party that said it would deliver on leaving the EU. I appreciate that Labour has changed its position somewhat over the past year or so. There has been a regular, clear mandate from the people of the United Kingdom that we should get on and deliver on what they asked for: to leave the European Union, to bring back sovereignty to the UK Parliament, and, where we can—as we will be doing through the UK internal market Bill—to devolve more powers to the devolved authorities as part of the United Kingdom.
Adam Tomkins MSP described the proposed changes to the Northern Ireland protocol as being
“in breach of our international treaty obligations”.
Can the Secretary of State confirm that he agrees with his Tory colleague’s analysis, and does he accept that the UK internal market Bill demonstrates a complete failure of the negotiating strategy that gives Scotland a raw deal that it did not vote for?
I appreciate that the nationalist party in Scotland wishes to put a border between Scotland and England. The reality is that what we are looking to do is to take powers back from Brussels. We feel that people in Scotland can exercise them better than people in Brussels. That is what we will do through the UK internal market Bill.
Is not the right way forward to reach a free trade agreement of the kind that the EU proposed to us back in the spring of 2018 and of the kind that the Government want to reach, combine it with the border arrangements set out in Prosperity UK’s excellent report—arrangements of the kind that the DUP supported—and use that to supplant the protocol? Is not the key to doing that a spirit of good will that accepts that the whole UK is leaving and has left the European Union?
My hon. Friend, as ever, makes a really powerful point. The best way forward—this is what we are all focused on, and I am sure our partners and friends in the EU are, in good faith, as well—is to get the agreement on a free trade deal that delivers on all those issues in the right and appropriate way. I say to Members across the House that it would be wholly wrong for the UK Government not to take this approach to ensure that, should that fail, there is a safety net to ensure that in January businesses and people in Northern Ireland know that they have the confidence of a structure in place that delivers on our promises. He is absolutely right. Our focus remains on getting that positive agreement.
Hon. Members across the House have talked about the importance of trust and how this will damage the trust of our European Union partners in the trade negotiations that we are currently undertaking. The timing is strange, as we head towards the crunch point for those negotiations. Was it an intentional effect or an unintended consequence that we have put this torpedo into the confidence of the European Union just as we are heading towards that point, making it much more likely that we have destroyed its trust in us and that the no-deal scenario that so many Conservative Members want to achieve is actually achieved?
The hon. Gentleman may wish to look back in Hansard at what my hon. Friends and other hon. Members have said this afternoon and previously. Our desire, as I have outlined, is to get a free trade agreement, as the previous question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Mr Baker) specifically outlined. We are still working on that, but I have confidence that the negotiators of the UK and EU will be able to do that in the full knowledge that what we will outline in the UK internal market Bill tomorrow is a safety net should they not succeed. It is good practice for the Government to be ready for all scenarios. It would be inappropriate for us not to prepare the UK for all scenarios should those negotiations fail, but they are where our focus is and they are the way we want to go forward. I am confident that they will do so positively.
As a responsible Government, the internal market Bill is simply a necessary and precautionary step to ensure that good government is maintained in the event of a no-deal Brexit. Does the Secretary of State agree that the best way to avoid the need to implement those measures is for the EU to finally get a grip and negotiate a free trade agreement that will benefit all the people of the island of Ireland?
My hon. Friend makes a good point in that the best way forward is for us to agree that free trade agreement. I am confident that that is the EU’s overriding position and focus, and that that is why it is at the negotiations. I hope that we will be able to come to a positive conclusion that will be good for people across the United Kingdom and Europe—and, from my point of view as the Secretary of State, for the people of Northern Ireland.
The Conservative party manifesto described the withdrawal agreement and the Northern Ireland protocol as “a great new deal” that was “signed, sealed and ready.” It explicitly stated, “No more renegotiations.” It also promised to take our
“whole country out of the EU as one United Kingdom.”
Given that none of those things has proven to be true, and given that the Secretary of State has just conceded that the Government are proposing arrangements that would break international treaties, why should anyone at home or abroad trust a single word the Government say?
Apart from the fact that countries around the world will look at our wider position, as I said earlier, on international law and the rule of law, for which we are a beacon around the world, if the hon. Gentleman looks back at his question, he will see that it reinforces the reason we are taking this position, which is to ensure that we deliver on the points that we included in our manifesto, where we specifically outlined the issues that are in the Command Paper published in May this year, which businesses are supportive of—businesses asked for that certainty—and said:
“We will ensure that Northern Ireland’s businesses and producers enjoy unfettered access to the rest of the UK and that in the implementation of our Brexit deal, we maintain and strengthen the integrity and smooth operation of our internal market.”
That is exactly what we will be doing in the UK internal market Bill when we publish it tomorrow.
Does my right hon. Friend concur that this complex issue is ultimately about the good people of Northern Ireland and that any future protocols will be agreed with their best interests at heart?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. That has to be at the core of what we do and at the heart of that is why the concept of consent is important. It is right that we remember that for the people of Northern Ireland.
Signing an international treaty is not a game; it is a commitment. Catherine Barnard is professor of European law at the University of Cambridge, and she warns that we agreed to a dispute resolution mechanism that could lead to heavy fines or further sanctions. What legal advice have the Government taken? If Ministers choose to ignore that advice, can the Minister spell out the consequences for those Ministers?
As I said in response to an earlier question, our focus is on ensuring that we are delivering on the protocol or delivering on securing a free trade agreement and the discussions in the Joint Committee. That is our priority and that will ensure that we go forward in a sensible and agreed manner with our partners and friends in the European Union. The hon. Gentleman should wait and see the clauses tomorrow, which will deliver, as I have outlined, on the promises that we have made to ensure that the people and businesses of Northern Ireland have the certainty that they need should that not succeed. I am confident that it will, but should it not, it is sensible and reasonable for the Government to have that safety net in place so that people have confidence in what the situation will be in January.
My constituents and I are clear that we want our obligations to Northern Ireland to be upheld and for there to be no delays or extensions. If a deal cannot be reached with Brussels by the middle of October to ensure that we are a truly independent country, we have no choice but to walk away from the table. Can my right hon. Friend confirm that under no circumstances will the country agree to any demand that does not give us sovereignty over our laws, land, sea and borders?
My hon. Friend makes a powerful point. When people voted to leave the European Union in 2016, they were giving us a very clear message that they wanted us to return powers and decision making to the UK Government, and that is what we are doing. We are also moving those processes closer to people directly in their everyday lives by then devolving powers, as we will outline through the process of the UK internal market Bill.
“Whatever form it takes, Brexit cannot be allowed to imperil the Good Friday Agreement, including the seamless border between the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland”.
That is a clear statement of intent from your counterpart in Capitol Hill, the Speaker of the House of Representatives. Given that they make it clear that the Secretary of State’s Government can rip up international agreements to suit their own version of Brexit or they can have a US-UK trade deal, but not both, what will it be?
I am not sure that I quite follow the logic of the hon. Gentleman’s question, bearing in mind that his party is arguing for a border between Scotland and England; it seems more than ironic. Our top priority will always be to preserve the huge gains from the peace process and the Belfast/Good Friday agreement. We will not do anything or take any risk that may harm that. In fact, as we will be outlining in the Bill tomorrow, we are seeking to take actions through which, should the trade negotiations not come to a satisfactory and positive conclusion, we can ensure that we are delivering on the Good Friday agreement and keeping not just peace in Northern Ireland but prosperity and economic growth for the people of Northern Ireland as part of the internal structure of the United Kingdom.
It seems to me that these measures for contingency planning give clarity and make sense in the case that we do not get an agreement. It would make sense for officials north and south of the border to have something they can put their hands around in case it does not work out as we hope it might.
My hon. Friend succinctly makes an excellent point: this is about having a safety net and contingency planning. These measures will not prevent the Government from complying with our commitments. They will provide Ministers with the powers needed for the UK Government to comply with the Joint Committee’s agreed decisions. As he outlined, they will provide a safety net, so we avoid activating any harmful defaults, even inadvertently, that could jeopardise the peace process or create confusion, by giving certainty about the fact that we will deliver as we said we would on unfettered access and issues that protect Northern Ireland’s place in the United Kingdom.
With the UK at the foothills of a new era and a raft of trade negotiations ahead of us that will affect the lives of people in Putney and across the country, what message does the Secretary of State think it gives about our word that the UK is prepared to break international law at times, to override treaties and rewrite commitments that we signed up to only months ago?
I am sure that the hon. Lady will appreciate that, as I said earlier, there are some precedents in very specific, technical circumstances. Countries around the world, including some of those that we will be looking to and are working to secure trade deals with, vary their position on international laws, as I have outlined that we will be doing in this situation. As our trade negotiations start and are ongoing, countries around the world will be looking at the UK as a country that is outward-looking and global, that believes in free trade and that wants to deliver that for the benefit of economies around the world and for the United Kingdom. I want to make sure that Northern Ireland benefits from that. The clauses that we put in the Bill tomorrow will ensure that, regardless of anything else, Northern Ireland will benefit from those kinds of trade deals.
I thank the Secretary of State for his earlier answers to my colleagues, which have given me and my constituents in Newcastle-under-Lyme reassurance that, although we all want a deal, we will not compromise in the negotiations on the things that make our state independent. On Northern Ireland, does he agree that we need “flexible and imaginative solutions”? Those are not my words, but the words in the EU negotiation guidelines.
My hon. Friend makes a good point. Those kinds of flexible outcomes are exactly what we need. I am sure that the negotiators on the EU side, as well as on our side, are determined to ensure that we deliver on that because that is how we get the right outcome for people across the United Kingdom. Importantly, it means that we can continue to deliver for the economy of Northern Ireland and to continue to protect the peace process.
The purpose of the protocol is to protect the Good Friday agreement. Will the Secretary of State outline what discussions he has had with parties in the Northern Ireland Assembly and with the Irish Government about the new clauses in the internal market Bill?
Obviously, I am having conversations with party leaders, party members and indeed the Irish Government all through, but the clauses in the Bill will not be published until tomorrow. We will be having ongoing conversations with partners and colleagues on that. However, I would just say to the hon. Lady that in order to ensure we can continue to deliver on the Good Friday agreement, it is important to ensure there are no borders, north-south or east-west. That is all part of ensuring that we deliver on the Good Friday agreement. We are determined to do that. We will do that. The clauses that will be in the UK internal market Bill are important in ensuring that, even if we do not come to an agreement on the free trade agreement, and even if the Joint Committee does not come to positive conclusions on how we manage the protocol, we, the UK Government, are able to show that we are delivering on that and there will be no borders.
In the technical note on the implementation of the Northern Ireland protocol earlier this year, the European Union suggested that its rules, quotas and tariffs might be imposed on fish landed from Northern Ireland vessels into Northern Ireland that was destined for Great Britain. That runs contrary to the Command Paper earlier this year, certainly, but does my right hon. Friend agree that it also drives a coach and horses through the Northern Ireland protocol itself?
My right hon. Friend makes a really important point and that is one of the key areas the Joint Committee is continuing to work on. It is important that it comes to a satisfactory, sensible and positive conclusion for both parties, to ensure that we can deliver on the protocol in a way that we can all agree on in a positive way. That is the perfect outcome. That is what we are focused on and want to see achieved.
The Secretary of State knows that the north-east has traditionally sent proportionately more of its young people into the armed forces than any other region. As a consequence, we have many veterans who served during the troubles. They, their loved ones and indeed all of us are proud of the hard-won peace. At the heart of the protocol is protecting the Good Friday agreement. Is he seriously contemplating using it as a bargaining chip in a trade deal?
If the hon. Lady looks through my answers throughout this afternoon, she will see that I have been absolutely clear that it is quite the opposite: we are determined to ensure that we have a structure and a situation for the United Kingdom and the people of Northern Ireland that continues to deliver on the Good Friday agreement. We are determined to ensure we do that. That is a peace that has been hard won and it must be protected and delivered in the future as well.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon (Julian Smith) worked tirelessly to get the Northern Ireland Assembly back up and running—something people said could not be done. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has taken out key members of the New IRA because of his commitment to peace and the hard work he is doing. He is also a very successful businessman who understands that business needs certainty moving forward. Does he agree that it is hubris in the extreme to doubt this Government’s commitment to the governance of Northern Ireland, the protection of Northern Ireland and the peace in Northern Ireland?
My right hon. Friend makes a very generous point about a number of my predecessors. They all worked hard—across this House, to be fair—in terms of the gains from the peace process. He is absolutely right that one message that consistently comes from Northern Ireland businesses across all sectors is the desire for certainty and understanding of what the situation will be for them in terms of trade, as Democratic Unionist party Members have outlined as well today, should we get to January and a free trade agreement has not been agreed. We have outlined the matter in the Command Paper and the guidance notes, which was positively received. The work we have done on the UK internal market Bill will go further to ensure that they have confidence in what the situation will be, even if we are not able to succeed in a positive outcome to those agreements and discussions of the Joint Committee.
Does the Secretary of State agree that what was used as a negotiating ploy over the first few years was the concept of a hard border on the island of Ireland, when most people should know—if they are in the real world—that it is inadvisable, unworkable and undoable? No one wants it to happen and no one is going to construct it. Will he ensure his colleagues know that we must not allow something that is not going to happen to impede the need to get something that must: a good deal?
The hon. Gentleman makes a very powerful point, and he is absolutely right that nobody wants to see, and there is no reason for there to be, a border either on the island of Ireland or between the island of Ireland, Northern Ireland and Great Britain. We are determined to deliver on that. As I have said, the clauses in the UK internal market Bill are there as a safety net to ensure that, even if we do not reach a satisfactory conclusion to the free trade agreements, although that is something that I am sure both parties, acting in good faith, will be able to do in the coming weeks and next few months.
May I ask a very simple question, in case anybody is still unclear? Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is of paramount importance to protect the peace process and that, to do so, unfettered access is essential between Great Britain and Northern Ireland?
In the spirit in which the question was asked, yes.
Listening to the debate today, would I be right in summarising that the oven-ready deal we were promised by the Conservative party at the general election is missing a cooking apparatus?
I would say that the apparatus we are using is working through the Joint Committee on the free trade agreement deals and the UK internal market Bill. As anything, this is all part of a package of things that mean we are able to ensure that, when we finish the transition period at the end of December this year, companies, businesses and the people of Northern Ireland have confidence about what the situation will be in January, even if we are not able to conclude those negotiations satisfactorily.
We are now heading to Bob Blackman, who is about to land his question. [Laughter.]
Thank you, Mr Speaker. I welcome the statements made by my right hon. Friend. Clearly, we hope that there will be a comprehensive free trade deal with our friends from the European Union, negotiated in good faith. But does he agree that it would be wholly irresponsible of the Government not to take measures to ensure the integrity of the United Kingdom and to preserve the ability of Northern Ireland businesses to trade with the rest of the United Kingdom by publishing this draft Bill tomorrow, and that the Government will ensure that we preserve that integrity while always preserving the sanctity of the Good Friday agreement?
My hon. Friend has put the situation absolutely perfectly. The Bill, as we will publish it tomorrow, as colleagues and Members across this House will see, will set out how we ensure the integrity of the United Kingdom trading markets—that customs union and the single market that has been so much a part of the United Kingdom for hundreds of years, in reality. It will ensure we are delivering on our determination to ensure we continue to see the benefits of the peace process, we deliver on the Good Friday agreement and we deliver on our promises to ensure that there are no borders, that we have unfettered access to Northern Ireland businesses, and that we deliver on exactly what we said in our Command Paper and in our manifesto.
In order to allow the safe exit of hon. Members participating in this item of business and the safe arrival of those participating in the next, I am suspending the House for three minutes.
With permission, Mr Deputy Speaker, I would like to make a statement on coronavirus. As a country, we have made huge strides in our fight against this invisible killer. Today’s Office for National Statistics figures show that weekly coronavirus deaths have dropped to the lowest number since mid-March, and the latest daily number of recorded deaths is three. However, we have seen a concerning rise in the number of positive cases, particularly among younger people. These figures serve as a salutary reminder that this virus is still very much with us and remains a threat, so it is critical that we maintain our collective commitment to controlling this disease.
Social distancing is the first line of defence. While young people are less likely to die from this disease, be in no doubt that they are still at risk. The long-term effects can be terrible, and of course they can infect others. Six months on, many people are still suffering chronic fatigue, muscle pain and breathing difficulties. Previously fit and healthy people have been reduced to barely being able to function. A King’s College survey published today shows that 300,000 people in the UK have reported symptoms lasting for more than a month and that 60,000 people have been ill for more than three months.
I also want to address the point, which is of course good news, that the number of people who are sadly dying from coronavirus in this country is currently low. We have seen all across the world how a rise in cases, initially among younger people, then spreads, leading to hospitalisations and fatalities. In Spain, where the rise in cases started around two months ago, hospitalisations have risen 15 times since mid-July. The number of daily deaths there has reached 184. In France, hospitalisations have more than tripled in the same period.
This must be a moment of clarity for us all. This is not over. Just because we have come through one peak, it does not mean we cannot see another one coming towards our shores. But together we can tackle it, so long as we remember that, in a pandemic, our actions today have consequences tomorrow for the people we love, for our communities, and for our country. Each and every citizen has a responsibility to follow social distancing and help to stop a second peak. After social distancing, the next line of defence is test and trace. Over the past six months we have built the biggest testing system of any major European country, and one of the biggest testing systems in the world. Today, I can tell the House that we have met our target to provide testing kits to all the care homes for older people and people with dementia that have registered to get tests.
But I will not rest. We are working flat out to expand our testing capacity even further. Using existing technology, we are expanding our capacity right now, and we are investing in new testing technology too. Last week, I was able to announce £500 million for next-generation tests such as saliva tests and rapid turnaround tests that can deliver results in just 20 minutes. The ability to get rapid, on-the-spot results will significantly increase the weapons in our armoury, in our fight both against coronavirus and for economic recovery. We are rolling out these tests right now, and plan to use them to relieve capacity constraints, to expand asymptomatic testing to find the virus and to give people the confidence that a negative test result brings.
Where it is necessary, we will not shy away from taking targeted local action. In June, I established the Joint Biosecurity Centre, to provide the best possible data analytics, using information from all possible sources. Our local action is driven by the data. We now publish daily local data on cases, so that everyone can see the data on which these decisions are taken, and this shows that our approach is working. For instance, in both Leicester and Luton, the weekly case rate more than halved during August. I want to thank the people of Leicester, including the hon. Member for Leicester South (Jonathan Ashworth), of Luton and of the other areas where we have taken local action, who have followed social distancing and helped to bring the virus under control.
Sometimes local action requires us to act fast and respond to changing circumstances. Unfortunately, after improving for several weeks, we have seen a very significant rise in cases in Bolton. Bolton is now up to 120 cases per 100,000 population—the highest case rate in the country—and I am publishing the data behind the decisions that we have taken. I must therefore tell the House that, working with the local council, we are taking further local action. The rise in cases in Bolton is partly due to socialising by people in their 20s and 30s; we know that from contact tracing. Through our contact tracing system, we have identified a number of pubs at which the virus has spread significantly. We are therefore taking the following action in Bolton, starting immediately. We will restrict all hospitality to takeaway only, and we will introduce a late-night restriction of operating hours, which will mean that all venues will be required to close from 10 pm to 5 am. We will urgently introduce further measures that put the current guidance—that people cannot socialise outside their household—into law.
I want us to learn the lesson from Spain, America and France, not to have to learn the lesson all over again ourselves through more hospitalisations and more deaths, and take this local action in Bolton. Crucially, we all have a part to play. Young people do not just spread the virus to each other. They spread the virus to their parents and their grandparents. They spread it to those they come into contact with and others who they love. I know that social distancing can be hard and that it will be extra tough for students who are starting university, but I ask them please to stick with it and to play their part in getting this virus under control.
We are also putting in place extra measures, including visitor restrictions, to restrict the spread of the virus into care homes and hospitals in Bolton. I want to thank the leadership of Bolton Council, who are doing an outstanding job in very difficult circumstances, and colleagues who represent Bolton in this House, with whom I have discussed these measures. I want to say this directly to everyone living in Bolton: I know how anxious you will be, and I know the impact that these measures will have. We are asking you to take a step back, at a time when we all just want to get on with our lives and what we love and get back to normal, but we need to take this crucial step to keep the virus at bay, because as we have seen elsewhere, if we act early and control the virus, we can save lives.
As well as controlling the virus using the tools we have now, we will do everything in our power to bring to bear the technologies of the future. Over the past few months, we have seen the pivotal role that technology has played in our response, such as next-generation rapid testing, machine-learning tools to help the NHS predict where vital resources might be needed, and the discovery here in the UK of the only two treatments known to save lives from coronavirus. We want to keep that momentum going, so today, we are allocating £50 million from our artificial intelligence in health and care award. That fund aims to speed up the testing and evaluation of some of the most promising technologies, because through bringing new technologies to the frontline, we can transform how we deliver critical care and services across the country.
Finally, the best way out of this coronavirus pandemic remains a vaccine. We have already announced that we will roll out the most comprehensive flu vaccination programme in history this winter. We now have agreements with six separate vaccine developers for early access to 340 million doses of coronavirus vaccines, and we will use every method at our disposal to get as many people protected as possible.
This virus feeds on complacency, and although time has passed since the peak in the spring, the threat posed by the virus has not gone away. Now, with winter on the horizon, we must all redouble our efforts and get this virus on the back foot. I commend this statement to the House.
I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of his statement. There can be no question but that the rise in case numbers in recent days is deeply worrying, and I agree that this is no time for complacency, that those who suggested this could be over by Christmas were foolish, and that we should be taking every reasonable measure possible to utterly suppress this virus. It is indeed a very dangerous virus and I am pleased that he and his Department have recognised the condition of long covid—we probably need a better term for it—whereby many people get long-term conditions as a result of the virus. I am pleased about the emerging research into that.
We have been seeing the trends in young people catching the virus for some time, in Greater Manchester, and indeed in Leicester, where the lockdown was due to the trends among young people. Many have warned that we could be facing a resurgence as we move into winter.
The Secretary of State has just announced the closure of pubs and other parts of the hospitality sector across Bolton. Has that been discussed and agreed with the Mayor of Greater Manchester? Can I ask the Secretary of State a very practical question? He may not realise it, but I grew up in Radcliffe, which is next to Bolton. What happens if people in Bolton want to go for a drink and end up going to Radcliffe or Bury, or indeed Chorley—which will be of interest to Mr Speaker? Will they be allowed to travel to neighbouring areas for a drink? How will restrictions be enforced? Given the action that the Secretary of State has taken on the hospitality sector in Bolton, is he keeping that sector under review in other hotspot areas? What guidance has he issued to pubs, restaurants and so on in those areas?
I am grateful for what the Secretary of State said about Leicester, and we have made great progress in the city of Leicester, but we still have in place the rule that people cannot congregate in private gardens with their extended family. Can I ask him again to set out the evidence for that? Can he update us on when Leicester will next be reviewed, because infection rates have come down?
Universities are set to return imminently, yet the SAGE analysis was not published until last Friday. Will the Secretary of State urgently produce a national plan for reducing transmission of the virus in the higher education sector? On schools, we have seen several outbreaks in recent days, including at the school the Prime Minister visited in Coalville a few weeks ago to promote the opening up of schools, yet the exact circumstances in which a school ought to close if a pupil displays symptoms are still unclear. In what circumstances does the Secretary of State believe a school should close?
The Secretary of State may recall that I warned him early on that one of the biggest barriers to self-quarantining would be not fatigue but personal finances. Does he accept that the Government need to go much further in helping people who need financial or housing support to self-isolate? Otherwise, he will never get on top of infections in areas characterised by low pay, child poverty and overcrowded housing. Does that not help to explain the poor record of contact tracing in these areas? In Bolton, contacts were reached in only 57% of non-complex cases; in Oldham, only 50%; in Blackburn, only 47%; in Bradford, only 43%. Nationally, only 69.4% of contacts are now reached and asked to self-isolate. [Interruption.] These are the latest statistics—his own statistics that he publishes. What is world-beating about that?
There was little explanation in the Secretary of State’s statement of what has gone wrong with testing in recent days. He tells us we have capacity for about 300,000 tests a day and that about 100,000 of those are antibody tests. What is the current capacity for testing? How many PCR tests are available at the moment? Yesterday, he said no one should have to travel further than 75 miles for a test, but for many people, such as the 20% of home careworkers on zero-hours contracts, taking a 150-mile round trip for a test simply is not feasible. At the moment, it is not even possible! Last night, it was reported that there were no tests in London. People in Kent were asked to travel to Cardiff. In Denton, they were advised to visit Llandudno. In Leicester, someone was advised to head north to Edinburgh. Helpfully in Devon, people were told they need only travel 20 miles, but unfortunately that involved crossing the sea to get to Swansea. Now, I know the Secretary of State thinks he walks on water, but many of our constituents cannot.
In the Health Select Committee earlier, the Secretary of State admitted that it would take weeks to fix these problems, yet last week he was boasting of plans for 10 million tests a day as part of his Operation Moonshot. When he cannot get the basics right, never mind Moonshot—people will think he is on another planet. His testing regime has been a fiasco in recent days, yet we have had no apology from him today. Is not the core of the problem that he did not listen to the experts? They all advised him to invest in public health teams and NHS labs. Instead, he gave contracts to outsourcing firms such as Deloitte, Serco and G4S, which had no experience in testing and tracing. He should now accept that that was a mistake and invest in public health teams.
We must do everything reasonable to suppress this virus, but in recent weeks we have had muddled messages, failed testing and ineffective contact tracing. Winter is coming, and the Secretary of State needs to get a grip.
I will certainly answer the questions posed by the hon. Gentleman, but as for his proposal to dismantle the testing system that we have built so painstakingly over the past six months using not only the NHS and PHE, but all the testing capacity of the nation, that is one that I and the British people will reject. We need to build our capacity, and we need to build on what we can do. We have built one of the biggest testing capacities in the world over the past six months, and I will reject all narrow, partisan calls to dismantle a testing capacity that is working.
Of course, with the increase in demand for tests that we have seen in the past few days, there have been challenges, which we have acknowledged, and we are working day and night to fix them. The long-term solution, using the new technologies that are coming on stream, is a critical part of ensuring that we can expand testing capacity still further.
I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman got into a bit of a muddle on contact tracing, saying that under 70% of contacts are traced. That is simply untrue and below the number that we publish weekly—we published the latest figure last Thursday.
Some of the hon. Gentleman’s questions were sensible. On schools, he is quite right that having clear guidance on how we approach schools and on what schools should do in the event of an outbreak is important. That guidance has been published and sent to schools. In the first instance, of course, a school should work with their local director of public health to minimise the impact of an outbreak.
The hon. Gentleman also asked about financial support for those who have to self-isolate, and we have put that in place. We have rolled that out in areas of the north-west, and we are watching the progress effectively.
The hon. Gentleman rightly asked about Leicester, where, of course, he has both national responsibilities and a local interest. The local lockdown in Leicester has resulted in a significant drop in the number of cases, and we will take a formal review of the measures in Leicester on Thursday. I will be certain to talk to him in advance of that and take his local intelligence and views into account.
The hon. Gentleman asked for a plan for higher education. An enormous amount of work has been done with all universities to ensure that the sector can open safely in the coming weeks.
Finally, I am glad that the hon. Gentleman started his response in a constructive form in respect of the measures that we must take in Bolton. I have communicated with the Mayor of Greater Manchester and he has had a briefing from the official team—that has been offered. The statutory responsibility of course lies with Bolton Council, with which we have been working very closely to put into place measures that in essence build on the measures that Bolton Council has been putting in place. I put on the record my thanks to those in Bolton Council—its leader, David Greenhalgh, who has been doing an excellent job, as well as the director of public health and the chief executive—because it has been a difficult challenge in Bolton.
Thankfully, what we have learnt from this sort of local action elsewhere in the country is that we do not see large-scale numbers of people travelling to other areas nearby where there is a problem. We have not seen that yet. Of course, we remain vigilant on that and on all these measures, but I am sure that the people of Bolton will understand how significant this problem is and will follow the guidance and, indeed, the new laws that we will bring in to back up the proposals we have made today.
I thank the Secretary of State for his public recognition of the terrible symptoms that many people face many months after their coronavirus bout has ended; his words will give great comfort to the 60,000 people who have been suffering for more than three months.
On testing, it is important to recognise the step change that we have seen and the massive increase in the volume of testing that is now taking place. Will the Secretary of State give the House some sense of the confidence he has that, with the increased testing and the local lockdowns that are now being rightly pursued, we will be able to follow the low infection levels seen in South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore and Hong Kong, and not see the increases we have seen in France and Spain and have to go back into another national lockdown?
The Chairman of the Health and Social Care Committee precisely sets out our goal. Some countries—not only in the far east but closer to home—have seen a rise in cases, especially among younger people, and taken action that has turned the curve. That is particularly true in, for instance, Belgium, which we were very worried about a month ago: the case rate came right down when Belgium put a curfew in place. We are taking local action here, and our approach to local action has been commended by the World Health Organisation.
Of course, the responsibility is on all of us. I know that this is a riff that we talked about a lot in March, April and May, as the cases were coming right down, but we all have a role to play in this, because the local action and the test and trace—actions that we take in Government and with local authorities—are only the second and third line of defence. The first line of defence, for everybody in this Chamber and all our constituents, is to follow the social-distancing advice. We will be stepping up the communications and making sure that people are reminded very clearly of the rules, and we will also be taking action to step up enforcement, to make sure that we can keep this virus under control until we can build up both the mass testing capacity and ultimately, as I mentioned in my statement, the vaccine on which the scientists are doing great work, although all vaccine work is uncertain until we get clarity from the regulators that a vaccine is safe and effective to use.
I agree that it is indeed critical that everyone recognises the importance of our own personal actions in controlling covid, but we also need an efficient test, trace and isolate system, the first step of which is for people to get access to a test. With UK cases having trebled over the past fortnight, demand has increased and there have been many reports of people being sent hundreds of miles to get a covid test. One of the most extreme examples was somebody in Plymouth being sent by the booking system to the test centre in Inverness.
I understand that demand varies depending on local incidence, but surely it is dangerous to have possibly infectious people travelling long distances when they are unwell and may need to use motor-services facilities on the way. Would it not make more sense to allow covid tests still to be taken locally, and just shift the samples around the UK to the labs with the greatest capacity?
While the commercial pillar 2 testing has increased dramatically since April, the
laboratories are very centralised, whereas NHS hospital laboratories are far more numerous and based within easier reach of communities. To meet the high demand that is likely this coming winter, will the Secretary of State consider additional funding to the NHS to allow the expansion of its PCR facilities and to maximise pillar 1 testing capacity?
The answer to that last question is, absolutely, yes. The hon. Lady is quite right that expanding the NHS capacity, as well as expanding the so-called pillar 2 capacity, is right. The SNP spokesperson and I sometimes have robust exchanges but on this, she is completely right. It is an “and/and together” strategy of having the pillar 2 mass testing across the board and the expansion of NHS capacity. I am working as closely as I possibly can with Jeane Freeman, my opposite number in the SNP Government in Edinburgh, to deliver that as effectively as possible right across the UK.
Please do not take this as unduly critical, because none of us could have done any better, but the problem for the Secretary of State—[Interruption.] It is easy to be wise after the event. The problem for the Secretary of State is that given the contradictory nature of advice given to people—maybe necessitated by events—fewer and fewer people are listening to him, particularly young people. I think we need a different approach. The approach of the nanny state, of ordering people about, particularly in this country, is not going to work. We have to appeal to the good sense of young people—“Stay away from grandpa and grandma. It is your responsibility.” These lockdowns and things are not going to work—it is their responsibility. And for us grandads—“Stay away from your grandchildren”. The problem is that if we order people about more and more, they stop listening. They realise the Secretary of State cannot enforce anything. He will become the emperor without clothes, and we will go backwards. We need an approach based on traditional self-reliance and to trust the people.
I understand the argument that my right hon. Friend is making. Unfortunately, we have seen this play out in other countries around the world. We have seen a sharp rise in the number of cases—in the first instance, among younger people—and we have seen people make this argument, entirely understandably, because younger people are much less likely to die of this disease. Notwithstanding the point about long covid and the fact that young people can have debilitating long-term consequences from this disease, the problem is that the isolation of older people who are more likely, because of their age, to have very serious consequences has simply not been effective anywhere in the world. The challenge is that younger people may pass it on, for instance, to their parents, who, in turn, can pass it on to theirs. This disease is absolutely insidious in getting from person to person. In its natural state, it spreads on average from one person to between two and three others, and it doubles in the community every three to four days.
The challenge is that without widespread social distancing, as opposed to the segregation that my right hon. Friend proposed, all the evidence is that we will end up with more hospitalisations and more deaths. I would rather get ahead of this here, learning the lessons from what we have seen first in America, and then in Spain, and now, sadly, it is starting to happen in France. I absolutely take the point about the need to communicate more but I believe, with my whole heart, that we need to communicate that we all have a responsibility, including young people, and we cannot let this rip through any part of the population, because it will inevitably then get into all.
Today in Hull, the prospects of getting a timely local covid-19 test are patchy. People are being sent as far away as Leeds and Withernsea, so how can it be right that local councils such as Hull City Council, with statutory public health responsibilities, are being kept completely out of the loop in sorting out local testing problems, in a system that seems all about protecting Deloitte, G4S and the noble Baroness Harding, rather than having that joined-up national and local system that safeguards public health during this pandemic?
I will do everything I can to solve the problems and the challenge of having more demand than supply in testing capacity everywhere in the country, including in Hull. However, trying to split, according to their employer, the different people who are working on this, be they in local authorities, the local NHS, Public Health England or the private sector parts of this delivery, is just not going to help—in fact, it will make the problem worse. It was a pity to hear this from the shadow Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Leicester South (Jonathan Ashworth), because he is so often a very sensible person. What we have to do instead is all work together to solve these operational problems.
I congratulate the Secretary of State on the positive elements of his statement, but he will know all too well that rural communities have lived in fear in the past few months, especially during lockdown. He and the Chancellor have made a great deal of money accessible and available through the budget, but can he provide further funding for our rural healthcare network as we enter winter, not only to ramp up testing, but to deal with undiagnosed cases and operations not undertaken?
My hon. Friend makes an important point; especially in parts of the world such as the south-west, we have to make sure we get the treatment out and we get the recovery of the NHS from covid, so that we can get things going again for people who have been waiting for operations, which might have been delayed necessarily because of the pandemic. The NHS has set a goal of getting back to 95% of these elective operations and has put with it the funding to make that happen, and we have to make it happen, especially in rural communities and right across the country.
The Secretary of State says that we all need to work together, and I am sure he will agree that we need to make better use of the excellence of public health officials at the local level. The director of public health in Sheffield, Greg Fell, has said to me that there are two obstacles to doing that. One, of course, is the need for more resources from the centre to enable local level activity to take place. Secondly, he says that local authorities such as Sheffield have not got full access to the data under the contact tracing and advisory service system. Currently, they have access only to the case management element of the system and not to the contact management element. That second element is made available only to authorities on the watch list. Will the Secretary of State now remove that obstacle and make sure that all authorities that really want to engage fully in this are enabled to do so?
The hon. Gentleman makes an important technical point, which I will take away and look at.
I really welcome the announcement about the increase in testing capacity, the comprehensive flu vaccination programme and, of course, the early access to coronavirus vaccines. My right hon. Friend will, obviously, have heard that there are some problems on access and availability. Will he set out his plans to overcome those operational difficulties, so that we have availability at local centres?
In the short term, we have seen a rise in demand for testing, and the capacity—the supply—has been increasing too. We had some short-term problems with contracts; before the summer, I came to the House to describe the problem with a particular contract to do with swabs and the cleanliness of the swabs. The bigger challenge is to make sure that capacity stays ahead of demand, and when demand has gone up sharply, we need to make sure that capacity expands. There are two ways of doing that. The first is more expansion of the current technology, which we are doing, both within the NHS, as the Scottish National party spokesperson correctly called for, and by using more private sector capacity—the combination of the two. The second, where we can really break through this, is with the new generation of tests, which are much, much easier, much better value for money and easier for people to use. The combination of trying to drive up capacity in the existing system, as we have been doing for months and months, and then bringing onstream these innovative new tests is what we are trying to pull off.
The call list has the party of Mr Alyn Smith wrong—he is from the SNP.
Like many people in Scotland, I am a former Labour supporter and I switched to the SNP some time ago.
We all make mistakes.
If I was in England, I would be, but I am in Scotland, so I am SNP.
I have much sympathy for the Secretary of State, who is doing a difficult job at a difficult time. If he is promoting a precautionary approach, he will have allies on these Benches. That said, does he agree that the exhortations from the Prime Minister to get people back into crowded transport systems, crowded city centres and congested offices is irresponsible at this time and undermines his public health messaging?
It is incredibly important that people have the confidence to know that when workplaces are covid-secure, it is safe to go to them. Trying to get through this pandemic, protecting as much as possible the education of our young people and the livelihoods of people in work, while keeping the virus under control, is a difficult and challenging balance, but it is the right balance to be attempting to strike. The hon. Gentleman might note that both the actions of the Scottish Government and the actions that we are taking locally, for instance today in Bolton, have economic consequences, and I regret that, but they are targeted as much as possible on reducing the social activity, which is where we are increasingly seeing transmission.
We heard further evidence from Prostate Cancer UK today of how the original national lockdown impacted detrimentally on cancer referrals and other aspects of cancer care. I entirely accept that that was unavoidable because of the necessity of protecting the NHS through the peak of the pandemic in the spring, but as we move to a new phase of hopefully local rather than national lockdowns, can the Secretary of State assure me that the NHS will do everything possible to ensure that rising numbers do not again translate into a negative impact on those with other conditions that can, after all, also be fatal?
Yes, absolutely. My hon. Friend makes an incredibly important point with which I agree wholeheartedly. The backlog that was caused by the inevitable and, as he put it, unavoidable delays to treatment in the peak has more or less halved, which is good news. So there is progress. We have changed the NHS to be split, essentially, between sites that are covid-secure and sites where there may be covid. That will help us to protect cancer treatment, as we go forward, exactly as my hon. Friend asks.
On 16 July, I flagged with the Secretary of State that the Academy of Medical Sciences was warning that we needed a rapid expansion of test and trace to be prepared for a second wave. He told me they were learning lessons as we go. Today, pupils and parents in my constituency are being sent as far afield as Aberdeen and Newquay for tests. They cannot get home tests. Children are back at school. Forget world-beating—what is he doing to ensure that we have a functioning test-and-trace system in place right now?
We have the largest testing system imaginable. We want to expand it further and of course there are challenges, as many Members have raised, but the imperative for people who have symptoms to get a test is important. We are trying to solve the operational problems that the hon. Lady raises.
I was saddened yesterday to hear that, because of a rise in local cases, care home visits in Wolverhampton are to be severely restricted again. I have a dear friend, Felicity, who lives in a care home. Without regular visits from family and loved ones, her mental health and wellbeing has declined very noticeably over the past months. I absolutely recognise the heroic efforts of care home staff, but how can we facilitate safe family visits so that care home residents can enjoy quality of life?
My hon. Friend asks an incredibly important question with great sensitivity. The decisions over the visitor arrangements for care homes are rightly made by the care home in consultation with the local director of public health, according to the local risk. Of course I want to see as much visiting as possible and to see it done safely. That is the difficult balance that needs to be struck, not least because of the negative health impacts, both mental and physical, of the restriction of visiting to care homes. I also very much hope that, as testing expands, we will be able to use that more and more to provide for safe visiting.
Looking to the long term, obesity is a leading risk factor for contracting covid-19, and problems with obesity usually start in childhood. By this year, the Government were aiming to reduce sugar by 20% in the food products most popular with children, but Public Health England’s 2019 review showed a sugar reduction of just 2.9%. The Government are clearly way off track. Why has the 20% ambition not been met?
I entirely agree with the premise of the question, which is that tackling obesity is critical for the long-term health of people, and that has been highlighted yet further because of the impact of obesity on the likelihood of someone dying from covid if they get it. Of course I want to see that sugar reduction. The sugar tax has had a very significant impact on the areas that it covers, and we have a wider obesity strategy that the Prime Minister set out in July to drive forward this agenda.
Across Watford and the entire UK, volunteers have been going out on the frontline, helping our brave NHS workers. One group that I met recently was from St John Ambulance, and they explained to me that the red tape in place a year ago would have made it impossible for them to be able to help, and now they have been able to cut through that during the covid crisis. Can my right hon. Friend please assure me that as we move forward, that red tape will not start binding their hands again and they can continue to help?
Absolutely. My hon Friend is quite right. There are improvements that we made in the heat of this crisis that we should never go back on. He has just highlighted one example. There are legion others. In this House, we discuss the problems that need to be fixed. That is quite right, and often they are raised and I did not know about them in advance and I go out and fix them. That is my job, as the hon. Member for Leicester South (Jonathan Ashworth) raised with his example, but we should also note where things have gone well because of changes and be clear that we will not be going back on that.
This month, more than 1 million students are moving to university for the new academic year. I welcome the thousands who will be joining Coventry University and the University of Warwick, both of which are in my constituency. Both SAGE and Independent SAGE have warned that the Government need to get a grip and work to minimise the risk of that return to university leading to more covid-19 spreading. Will the Secretary of State work with his colleagues to support universities and to heed the recommendations of scientists, the University and College Union and the National Union of Students, including the recommendation to move to remote learning by default?
We are working very closely with the universities sector, including the two universities that the hon. Lady mentions, to make sure that we can get the universities open in a covid-secure way.
From today, indoor gyms and dance studios can now open in Keighley, so I thank my right hon. Friend for that move, which I know is welcome to many. However, I have been contacted by many shop owners who, unfortunately, are being verbally abused when reminding customers to wear face coverings. Will he join me in calling for all to adhere to the basic rules of washing hands, wearing face coverings and social distancing?
Yes, and people will be hearing far, far more about hands, face, space. It is really simple: wash your hands, wear a face covering when you need to and keep that social distance. That is the responsibility of everybody to help us control this virus.
The Secretary of State has had four months to respond to a letter I sent as the chair of the all-party parliamentary group on cancer, requesting a national cancer recovery plan. Of course I recognise the extreme strain that covid-19 has put on the NHS and his Department, but people living with cancer—diagnosed and yet to be diagnosed—have been left in limbo. When will the Secretary of State respond to my letter, and when will he make public his Government’s national cancer recovery plan?
I will respond right away. I am very glad that the hon. Lady has raised this issue. It is something that I have been doing a huge amount of work on, along with the Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St Edmunds (Jo Churchill). We have been working on it intensively and, as I say, the backlog has come down by about half, but clearly there is much more to do.
Testing is a vital line of defence against coronavirus. Although we have one of the best testing systems in the world, I appreciate that there is much more that can be done. What steps is my right hon. Friend taking to explore the benefits of repeat population testing; and if that is effective, will he look to scale that up throughout the country?
We are looking at the asymptomatic testing of parts of the population where the virus is rife. Testing roll-out is about the prioritisation of what can be done with the capacity that we want to grow. As the capacity grows we could do more, but also it is necessary to prioritise within that capacity. It is not impossible to envisage reaching a point where everybody tests, say, weekly or more regularly, but there are very many steps along the way.
With the universities returning shortly, there will be lots of students moving into shared houses, so there is real concern in communities like mine in south Manchester, where there are lots of houses in multiple occupation. There is clearly plenty of good work going on to make campuses covid-secure, but the recently published SAGE advice is very thin on community spread around universities. Will he urgently provide a national plan for managing that situation by limiting transmission in communities around where students live, to include comprehensive testing at universities?
We are doing a huge amount of work on the very issue that the hon. Gentleman raises. Ultimately, when students are off campus they are citizens like everyone else—hence the focus on the social distancing rules that we all have to follow. However, he is right that we have seen the biggest rise in infections among 17 to 21 year-olds, many of whom will be going to university in the next few weeks.
I thank the Secretary of State and his team for their tireless work throughout the pandemic. Last week, I had the pleasure of visiting the Kuumba centre in West Bromwich, where I met Patricia and her team to hear about their passion for helping the local BAME community get through this difficult time, including by providing mental health support to the local area and some junior doctors. What further support can he make available to similar organisations that are supporting the community and are heroes on the frontline of the NHS?
This is another important question about how we can provide support locally, especially in the west midlands, where it is so important, especially with cases rising, not only that we have the national response that we are discussing in this Chamber, but that we ensure that the local community, which my hon. Friend supports so effectively, can get the support it needs. I am happy to write to her with details of the extra funding that we have put into her area and to discuss with her what more might be done.
I appreciate that we must keep a very close eye on infection rates and respond quickly and effectively. The Government say that they are listening to local leaders on the local restrictions, yet the very clear data-led recommendation from myself and Calderdale’s leaders last week was for the restrictions to be lifted in Halifax, with a continued focus on test and trace and the incredibly effective targeted community work that has been undertaken by Calderdale Council. Now that Calderdale has significantly lowered infection rates in areas that do not have the restrictions, can the Secretary of State tell me when Halifax will see those restrictions lifted and what else needs to happen to make that a reality?
We look at the issue of restrictions in Halifax every week. Calderdale has seen a fall in the number of cases; it is an example of a local lockdown being effective. I was really pleased that we were able to take some parts of the local authority area out of the restrictions 10 days or so ago now, and it was very good to be able to make that progress. I accept that we had to leave Halifax in the restrictions and I look forward to working with the council and with the hon. Lady and other local colleagues. We shall consider the matter again this Thursday.
The scaling of testing has been an incredible achievement over the summer, and I heard from many constituents who were able to get same-day tests with results in as little as 12 hours. However, in recent days I have had a number of cases of constituents unable to get timed testing or being asked to travel an unacceptable distance. I welcome my right hon. Friend’s commitment to further scaling testing capacity, especially by embracing new technology; but what assurances can he give Buckinghamshire residents that that will be a rapid scaling, and that they will be able to get local and quick tests?
My hon. Friend is exactly right—we are going as fast as we can. I recognise the importance of this. There was spare capacity earlier in the summer. We have maintained the turnaround times—they are very rapid—but there have been challenges in the last couple of weeks because of that increase in demand and some of the operational issues that we have discussed. He is right to raise this, and he has raised it with me privately before. There is no one more assiduous in putting forward the needs of their constituents than my hon. Friend, and I will keep him posted on how much we can expand testing in Buckinghamshire.
On a similar point to the one raised by the hon. Member for Leicester South (Jonathan Ashworth), can the Secretary of State tell us what advice and guidance his Department is issuing to employers that are trying to use covid-related absence to trigger points for absence management interviews and to remove occupational sick pay? We saw recent such attempts by IKEA, which then dismissed the trade union representative who had the temerity to tell trade union members what their employer was up to. Will he condemn those employers that are trying to use covid-related absences to remove occupational sick pay and the like?
The hon. Gentleman raises a point that I know the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy is looking at. Of course, returning to a covid-secure setting is safe and the right thing to do, and that is a matter between the employer and employee, but people must follow employment law. After all, as an employer, that is their statutory duty.
We have seen incredible advances by the UK’s scientific community throughout the pandemic, and it is great news that scientists at the University of Sheffield are joining the UK Coronavirus Immunology Consortium to undertake research that we all hope will lead to an effective vaccine. Until we have that vaccine, we have to take seriously the threat of a rapid rise of the virus again. Does my right hon. Friend agree that, with cases on the rise, we must not hesitate to use local lockdown measures such as the ones in Bolton, to ensure that increased infection rates in the young do not lead to increased hospitalisations in the older population?
That is spot on. The logic that we have seen repeated in country after country is that a sharp rise among younger people leads inexorably to a rise in the number of hospitalisations and deaths, even though it is not the younger people who tend to get hospitalised, but others who catch it from them. It is really important that we get that argument across, so that everybody feels the necessity to follow the social distancing rules that are incumbent on us all.
I think the Secretary of State has got the message about the need to sort out the testing problem, not least to help councils such as Leeds that are working really hard to limit the increase in cases. I hope he will join me in paying tribute to the public health team and the council for the great efforts they are making. He knows that local contact tracing is the most effective. I understand that the figures in Leeds for contacts are in the high 90s when it is done locally, as opposed to a lower figure when done by the national system. Given the position in Leeds, can he commit to provide more support and resource to local contact tracing in the city, to help try to prevent a further increase in the number of cases?
We are absolutely putting more resources into that local end of the contact tracing, but I stress that it is one system. I think the right hon. Gentleman has made the same category error as the hon. Member for Leicester South (Jonathan Ashworth). If we count contact tracing results from institutional settings within the local categorisation, of course the number of contacts that we reach is higher—for instance, in a care home it is very easy to reach 100% of contacts, by the nature of the setting. The hon. Member for Leicester South, who is also a very sensible fellow, tried to make that comparison, and it is not quite fair—it is not comparing apples with apples.
The Secretary of State is right to warn against complacency, and perhaps it would be wise to remind people that we are in this for the long haul. My I ask him a question about testing? The director of testing for NHS Test and Trace has confirmed that we have testing capacity at all our testing sites, but that there is a critical pinch point in the laboratories. My director of public health, who is excellent, and a number of her colleagues in the south-west would prefer that, rather than artificially limiting access to testing sites and home testing kits, we ensured that people could take those tests locally and managed the pinch point at the laboratory end of things, because that would improve public confidence in getting testing. Is that something that my right hon. Friend could take away and look at? If he cannot do that, can he at least give me a good reason that I can take back to her about why that is not possible?
I entirely understand the point, and I can see the argument that is being made. The challenge is, since lab capacity is what we need more of, that if we take more swabs locally and send them in to the lab, we need to have the lab capacity to be able to turn them round. Otherwise, we get a much slower response, which means that we are not getting back to people fast enough for them to be able to act. That is the nature of the challenge, and the answer is more lab capacity, which is what we are driving through.
In Wirral, there has been a sudden, sharp rise in covid-19 infections, with yesterday’s figures standing at 33 infections per 100,000. What extra assistance can the Secretary of State promise to my local authority, which is fighting hard to suppress this outbreak? On Test and Trace, if he does not want a reorganisation of Test and Trace because he thinks it will slow down progress, can he tell us why he is reorganising Public Health England in the middle of this dangerous pandemic?
Well, of course I am improving the public health responses by bringing together different organisations. I am not sure that the hon. Lady is doing anything other than—[Interruption.] Well, I am not going to query her motives, because we have worked together, at the start of this crisis especially. On her question about the Wirral, absolutely, we are vigilant in looking at the Wirral. That will be reconsidered in the Joint Biosecurity Centre silver meeting tomorrow and in the JBC gold on Thursday. Part of the improved data that we have now, compared with a few months ago, means that we will be able to pinpoint where the problem is and, working with the council, make recommendations on what action needs to be taken.
Can my right hon. Friend explain to the House exactly what are the main reasons behind the fact that although the level of infection often continues to rise, the numbers of deaths is now so absolutely small?
My right hon. Friend asks an important question, and the first answer is that there is a lag between people catching the disease and the statistics for new cases and those who sadly die. The second is that this most recent rise has been predominantly, although not entirely, among younger people, who are much less likely to die. However, the danger is that they will pass it on to others and it will spread more broadly into the community. So it is important to act on these cases even though, thankfully, the current number who are dying is small.
I will try to give a better answer. Let me put it this way. If we were to wait until we saw the number of deaths rising before we took action, there would already be many people who had caught the disease and who would end up hospitalised and unfortunately die of coronavirus. We have to act before that happens and before the disease spreads to those who may die from it, because the alternative is that we will inevitably see the number of deaths rise.
Given covid, the Health Secretary said it was “mission critical” to prepare the NHS for the winter, as he unveiled the biggest flu vaccination programme in history; that is very Trumpian, I have to say. In the light of the lockdown delay, the PPE debacle, testing and tracing chaos—we could not get tested yesterday in my borough, with 300,000 people in it—not to mention, I will remind the Secretary of State, the 40,000 people already dead from covid on his watch and that of the Prime Minister against, and he is quite happy to compare internationally, 9,400 in Germany, why should we have any confidence in this bungling Government’s ability to get the flu vaccination programme in shape for this winter?
We are going to have the biggest flu vaccination programme in history. I think the hon. Gentleman simply has not taken into account the action that was taken to protect the NHS in the crisis, building a capacity for testing that is bigger per head of population than any other major European country. This country is the only country in the world that has discovered treatments that reduce people’s likelihood of dying from coronavirus. I think he should get onside with what this country is doing, not keep squabbling from the sidelines.
The Government and the Secretary of State have messed up. The result has been loss of life and an economy in tatters. It is little wonder that my home, South Shields, is now seeing a rapid spike in cases, and we are approaching a potential lockdown that will irrevocably devastate us. Instead of just pointing the finger at our young people, will he take some responsibility and explain what extra direct support he is going to give us locally to help us stop this spread?
I regret the tone of the question. I think it is far better for everybody if we all work together. I know the hon. Member and the hon. Member for Bootle (Peter Dowd) seem to have taken the attitude that it is better to have brickbats thrown across this House, but I think the public would expect us to work together—to work together for the benefit of South Shields and to work together for the benefit of the north-west. I am very happy to meet her to discuss the situation in South Shields and see what we can do to try to tackle the problem, and it is better to do that together.
My right hon. Friend has identified that our response to covid is about personal responsibility, but it is made much harder when the young have the lure of socialising and the risks are substantially borne by unseen others. However, in my view, the young are just as civic-minded as all the rest of us, but it is a complex message, so what is the communication strategy to get that message over effectively to our young people, particularly when access to Parliament TV seems unaccountably low?
It is so important that we explain to everybody that they have a responsibility to “hands, face and space”—to their social distancing. The two critical messages for younger people who may think that this is not a disease that affects them are, first, that they can transmit this disease and cause great harm or death to their loved ones, but, secondly, that nobody is immune from this disease. The long-term impact of covid—so far, we have seen this with 60,000 people who have suffered for more than three months—can be devastating, and that can happen to anyone.
The credit checking company TransUnion has had difficulty issuing home testing kits to people because they are not on the public electoral register. We know that, for good reason, some people are not on the public electoral register, perhaps due to fleeing domestic violence or abuse. Can I ask the Secretary of State if he will go away and have a look at this, and see what he can do to make sure that everybody can get a home test, regardless of whether they are on the on the public electoral register?
I am very happy to look at this point. Of course, we do have to verify the identity of people who are asking for home testing kits, and there have to be protections against fraud, and we take advice from the National Cyber Security Centre on that, but I will look at the point the hon. Member raises.