House of Commons
Tuesday 13 October 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—
Hong Kong: National Security Law
We have been clear that the national security law has had a chilling effect on society and that it constitutes a clear and serious breach of the Sino-British joint declaration. It contains a range of measures that directly threaten the freedoms and rights protected by the joint declaration. In response to the national security law, the UK has offered a new immigration path for British nationals, suspended our extradition treaty and extended our arms embargo on mainland China to Hong Kong. We urge the Chinese and Hong Kong authorities to abide by their international human rights obligations.
In July, books by pro-democracy figures were removed from public libraries, and just last week Hong Kong’s leader, Carrie Lam, said that it was important to
“weed out the bad apples”
from the education system in response to a teacher “promoting Hong Kong independence”. Does my hon. Friend agree that the UK reserves the right to take further action to safeguard the rights of those in Hong Kong, especially if the human rights situation continues to deteriorate further?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We have taken clear action in response to the national security law, including, as I said, offering a new immigration path for British national overseas passport holders, suspending our extradition treaty and extending our arms embargo on mainland China to Hong Kong. We will continue to bring together our international partners to ensure that we stand up for the people of Hong Kong, to call out the violation of their freedoms and to hold China to its international obligations.
Does the Minister agree that the national security law in Hong Kong has infringed the rights of many Hongkongers and broken international law by breaching the joint declaration? Will he now either urgently review his Magnitsky sanctions regime or outline how he intends to target those who instigate such appalling human rights abuses against this once proud British Crown colony?
I thank my hon. Friend for raising that. As he will know, on 6 July we established our global human rights Magnitsky sanctions regime, and it is under constant review. However, he will be aware that it is not appropriate to speculate on who may be designated under any future sanctions regime, because to do so would reduce the impact of those designations.
Successive Conservative Governments since 2010 have been naive and complacent in their dealings with the Chinese Government. The resulting combination of over-dependence on China-based supply chains and the breaking of important international alliances has diminished our ability to exert influence on Beijing. Yet, despite these failings, there is clearly more that the UK could be doing for the people of Hong Kong. Will the Minister specify what the Government plan to do regarding citizenship for Hongkongers born after 1997? What consular support can he provide to the four BNO passport holders who are now detained in mainland China after attempting to flee? Will he commit to sanctioning the senior mainland Chinese Communist party and Hong Kong Executive officials who have been committing human rights abuses? It took the Government just days to sanction Belarusian officials. What, or who, is causing this delay?
We are working closely with the Home Office on our response for the BNOs, and there will be much more detail coming out in due course.
With regard to the cases that the hon. Member raises, we have raised the cases of the people detained in Shenzhen with the Chinese authorities in Hong Kong, and we have made it clear that due process should be followed. The rights and freedoms of people in Hong Kong, including their rights to freedom of speech and assembly, are expressly guaranteed in the joint declaration, and rights committed to under the declaration must be upheld. Under the memoranda to the joint declaration, BNOs are entitled to consular assistance in third countries, but not in Hong Kong, Macau or mainland China. The Chinese authorities do not recognise dual nationality, and absolutely would not grant UK consular access for those individuals. On sanctions, I refer the hon. Member to the answer I gave to my hon. Friend the Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell).
Trinidad and Tobago: Repatriation
The Trinidad and Tobago Government decided to close their borders on 22 March due to covid-19, and they remain closed. Consular support for Trinidad and Tobago nationals remains the responsibility of their Government. However, Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office officials are in close contact with the Trinidad and Tobago authorities, and we advise all Trinidad and Tobago nationals to contact their high commission in London for assistance.
I have Trinidad and Tobago citizens in my constituency who are burning through their savings and really terrified about failing to get home to protect their homes and businesses from the approaching severe weather. Will the Minister join me in calling on Trinidad and Tobago to ensure that their citizens get home? I think it is common humanity to enable people to return to protect their homes.
My hon. Friend raises an important point about people in his constituency. The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office has alerted the Trinidad and Tobago high commission to cases of stranded Trinidad and Tobago nationals whom we have been made aware of, and has supported affected individuals to contact the high commission directly. It is also important to say that we are in regular contact with our counterparts in Trinidad and Tobago.
Education for Girls
About 650 million girls were removed from primary and secondary education at the pandemic’s peak, and some risk dropping out of school permanently, so we must mobilise global investment and commitment to get education back on track and defeat the global learning crisis. The UK is proud to be co-hosting the Global Partnership for Education 2021 financing conference. We have adapted our education aid programming, and have committed new funding to UNICEF, Education Cannot Wait and the United Nations Population Fund to address the impacts of covid-19 on women and girls. We will use our presidency of the G7 next year to rally the international community for greater support for girls’ education.
I certainly welcome the Prime Minister’s announcement yesterday about the summit on global education. One reason girls are prevented from receiving education is that they are forced into child marriage. A recent Save the Children report revealed that a further 2.5 million girls are at risk of being forced into marriage by 2025 because of the current pandemic. With that in mind, will the Minister assure me that the FCDO will ensure that programmes to end the heinous practice of child marriage are at the centre of international development strategy?
My hon. Friend raises an important point, and ending child marriage is key to delivering the Prime Minister’s commitment of championing 12 years of quality education for girls. Since 2015, our £39 million flagship programme has helped to reach just under 40 million people with information designed to change attitudes towards child marriage. The UK will continue to use its development programmes and global leadership to end child marriage.
Yesterday, the Prime Minister spoke about his manifesto commitment that every child should have the best possible chance to have an education, yet development spending on primary education has been cut by more than 27% this year, which is evidence of a Government without a strategic direction who cannot be trusted to deliver on their rhetoric. Will the Minister tell us whether the Prime Minister is aware that the Foreign Secretary is cancelling and postponing programmes that would enable girls to have a safe education, such as the one investing in adolescent girls in Rwanda?
The UK is a world leader in both our educational expertise and our development spend, and during the official development assistance prioritisation process difficult but necessary decisions were made to meet our 0.7% ODA commitment. However, the process has ensured continued support and commitment to ODA priorities, including girls’ education. On Rwanda, the issue was raised with the Prime Minister at the Liaison Committee. A tough decision was taken, but the UK has protected schools and education spending across the world. We continue to support women and girls in Rwanda to have a decent education, and our spend in the country is expected to total approximately £13.6 million.
Occupied Palestinian Territories and Israel
The UK is a strong supporter of Palestinian state building efforts. In 2019, we spent £81 million in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Part of that contribution is helping to build Palestinian state institutions; fostering private sector-led sustainable economic growth; and providing technical assistance to strengthen the Palestinian Authority’s financial management. However, such progress can never be a substitute for a political settlement, which is why the Foreign Secretary visited Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories in August actively to encourage Israel and the Palestinian leadership to renew co-operation and work together. I also discussed this matter with UN special co-ordinator Mladenov on 1 October.
That is not an answer. Six years ago today, this House voted by 274 votes to 12 to recognise the state of Palestine. Three years ago, the Prime Minister, then Foreign Secretary, said that
“you have to have a two-state solution or else you have some kind of apartheid system”.
How can there be a two-state solution without two states? The UK’s recognition of the state of Israel shows that we respect its non-negotiable rights. Why should our recognition of the state of Palestine be a matter for negotiation? Are Palestinians entitled to less respect and fewer rights than the Israelis?
As I have said, the UK Government have supported the Palestinian Authority in putting in place the building blocks for a future Palestinian state, which we recognise. We have been very vocal that our preferred option is a safe, stable two-state solution, with a prosperous and peaceful Palestinian state neighbouring a prosperous and peaceful Israeli state.
The middle east is changing before our eyes and the significance of Israel’s peace agreements with the UAE and Bahrain cannot be overstated. Does my right hon. Friend agree that this new development between Israel and her Arab neighbours changes the narrative, creates a new dynamic in the region, and gives rise to new hope for a peace deal?
The normalisation of relations represents a move towards peace in the region, and the UK strongly welcomes that. We encourage other states to choose the same path, but, ultimately, there is no substitute for direct talks between the Palestinians and Israel, which is the only way to reach a two-state solution and a lasting peace. We do hope that normalisation can encourage dialogue between the parties and the UK stands ready to support such efforts.
The UK is committed to the promotion and protection of human rights, democracy and the rule of law acting as a force for good in the world. The UK is one of the longest standing members of the Human Rights Council, and we are aiming to maintain that record at today’s election. Another good example is our recent activity at the UN on China, which shows our commitment to defending human rights in Xinjiang.
I welcome the Minister’s words, but may I refer him and his words to the situation in Colombia where, since the signing of the peace deal in 2016, we have seen hundreds of human rights defenders, civic leaders, trade unionists and former FARC—Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia—members murdered, and where the fragile democratic process saw the FARC move from the armed struggle to the political process. Will the Minister commit to making Colombia a priority for this Government and will he or one of his colleagues commit to meeting a small delegation of MPs who are concerned about Colombia?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. He is absolutely right to raise this matter. We believe that democracy, human rights and the rule of law are the absolute foundations on which open, stable and prosperous societies thrive. I am more than happy to commit on behalf of the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Wendy Morton), to meet the hon. Gentleman to discuss this issue.
The International Development Committee is currently holding an inquiry into sexual abuse and exploitation by aid workers of the beneficiaries, and I am ashamed to report that we are finding that it is rife. I welcome the fact that the new Department has brought forward a safeguarding document as one of its first publications. However, will the Minister please comment on why the FCDO’s terms and conditions for staff say:
“Sexual relations with beneficiaries are strongly discouraged”?
Why is this not gross misconduct when there is an obvious power imbalance, and what will the Minister do to remedy this immediately?
Of course, what the Minister forgets is that the reason we are getting a seat on the UN Human Rights Council today is that the seat is uncontested. We actually have no representatives—a historic low—on any of the main committees of the 10 United Nations human rights treaty bodies and we have already failed to get elected to the International Court of Justice for the first time since world war two. Human rights barrister Amal Clooney resigned as a UK envoy, saying that it was untenable for her to urge other states to respect and enforce international obligations when the UK declares that it does not intend to do so itself. With so many crucial human rights abuses that we should be rightly taking leadership on, does the Minister accept that we undermine our position when his fellow Ministers undermine the rule of law and our commitment to human rights?
No, I do not accept that whatsoever. We have clearly set out our reasons for introducing the measures related to the Northern Ireland protocol. We need to create a legal safety net to protect the integrity of our internal market and ensure that we can deliver on our obligations. The UK Internal Market Bill is a defensive, precautionary and proportionate measure to safeguard the integrity of the United Kingdom.
Amazon Rain Forest
On 7 October, the Foreign Secretary held a strategic dialogue with his Brazilian counterpart which covered a number of topics of mutual interest, including trade, security and human rights. The Foreign Secretary raised the issue of climate change and the need to protect the Amazon from further deforestation. We run major programmes on sustainable agriculture and deforestation with various stakeholders in Brazil that totalled £259 million between 2012 and 2020. Climate change is one of the most important global issues, and international co-operation is vital to tackling it. As COP26 president, the UK will continue to work in partnership with Brazil on this important issue.
Some 58.4% of the Amazon rain forest sits within Brazilian borders. I am glad that the Foreign Secretary is raising the issue of climate change, but it is not one of the greatest issues facing the world; it is the biggest issue facing the world. Coronavirus is bad, but the longer-term problems of climate change could consume various countries around the world through flooding or deforestation. With COP26 now moved to next year, will the Minister make far more robust representations—not just to the Brazilian Government, but to many South American Governments—about the prioritisation of stopping illegal logging and the process of deforestation?
As I said in my previous answer, the Foreign Secretary had a strategic dialogue with his Brazilian counterpart, and both countries have affirmed that they will work to ensure that the COP delivers substantial negotiated outcomes in the fight against climate change. We believe that climate change is one of the most important global issues, and will be working not just with Brazil but with other countries to tackle this important issue.
Iran: BBC Persian Journalists
The attacks against BBC Persian employees and their families, and threats to an entirely legitimate media organisation, are unacceptable. We raise this harassment regularly with the Iranian Government, as well as at the Human Rights Council. We will continue to defend BBC Persian’s editorial independence. We most recently raised our concerns about media freedom in Iran in an E3 Foreign Ministers’ letter to Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif on 22 September.
I thank the Minister for that reply and for sharing the concerns about this serious issue. Will he give us some information on what responses the Foreign Office has received from the Iranian authorities to such representations? The BBC journalists themselves get very little feedback on this issue.
Sadly, the Iranian authorities have yet to provide any kind of justification for their actions that stand up to scrutiny. Their behaviour is indefensible, and we are confident that our Iranian contacts, including Foreign Minister Zarif, fully understand our concerns and our condemnation of such harassment.
We remain deeply concerned about the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh, and call on all parties to take every measure possible to protect civilians. That is why, on 29 September, the UK called for discussion at the UN Security Council. The day before that, on 28 September, I spoke to both the Azerbaijani and the Armenian Foreign Ministers to urge a return to dialogue under the OSCE Minsk group to ensure a peaceful and sustainable settlement.
The Minister will know that there are more Azeris living in Iran than there are in Azerbaijan—some 50 million of them, who hold great sway and influence. Russia, on the other hand, is firmly committed to supporting Armenia in this conflict, and that could see the Russian and Iranian co-operation in the Syrian war come under severe strain. What concerns does the Minister have about the potential for Iran to become embroiled in the dispute, and what steps is her Department taking to avoid that situation?
As I clearly indicated, we remain very concerned about this conflict, and the hon. Gentleman is right to raise it. That is why we are continuing to work to urge both parties back to the table to have dialogue, and to use the Minsk process to further that.
I am grateful to the Minister for that answer. I have two very concrete points. We are all concerned about the risk of a proxy war within this, because there are more than two sides to the conflict. What steps are the UK Government taking to make sure that no UK-made armaments, or indeed UK citizens, are finding their way into this theatre?
Again, the hon. Gentleman is right to raise this important point. On armaments, we have export licences in place and a very rigorous process to deal with applications with regard to any country, and that is always kept under careful and continual review. We are aware of many media reports that other countries are providing military support, for example, but we absolutely maintain a commitment to encouraging and urging both sides to come back to the table and have the dialogue that is needed.
I gently suggest that there is something for us to follow up in that, because there is a great deal of concern that UK armaments and people are finding their way into this theatre.
On a wider point, does the Minister share my concern about Turkey’s increasingly belligerent statements in the wider region? She will be aware of yesterday’s statement by the EU High Representative, Josep Borrell, about the retaking of the Varosha settlement in northern Cyprus, which continues to be illegally occupied. What discussions is she having with Ankara in order to strongly stress our defence of international law?
In terms of Turkey, the Defence Secretary discussed the conflict during a recent visit to Ankara and again agreed that de-escalation was the best option for all. I reiterate that, as the Foreign Secretary has said on previous occasions, we urge all external parties and friends of both states to redouble their efforts in support for an end to these hostilities and to refrain from taking actions that risk deepening the crisis. As co-chair of the Minsk group, Russia has a role in working to end the conflict too.
Further to the question of Nagorno-Karabakh, obviously the ceasefire is very fragile, and with the use of foreign fighters from Iraq and Syria, there is a real risk of escalation. What steps are the Government taking to ensure a return to dialogue, as ultimately only through dialogue can this dreadful conflict come to an end? Specifically on Turkey and Russia, what urgent discussions are being carried out in order to try to get them to stop their arms sales so that that does not increase the militarisation and the number of civilians who are tragically being killed in the region?
The hon. Lady makes a very important point reinforcing the need for dialogue. The Foreign Secretary issued two statements with Canadian Foreign Minister Champagne, most recently on 6 October, calling for an immediate ceasefire and a return to the negotiating table under the auspices of the OSCE group. On 28 September, the Prime Minister spoke to President Erdoğan and discussed the recent escalation. On 2 October, I spoke to Turkish Deputy Foreign Minister Önal to register concerns at the military escalation. We have been engaging with the co-chairs of the Minsk group—the French, the US and Russia. I will continue to reach out to my counterparts—both the Armenian and the Azerbaijani Foreign Ministers—to reinforce the UK’s support for de-escalation and a return to dialogue.
UK Internal Market Bill: Diplomacy
We continue to work with the EU in the Joint Committee to resolve outstanding issues in relation to the Northern Ireland protocol.
Last week the Foreign Secretary told the Foreign Affairs Committee that no one he has met thinks that the UK is not a defender of international law. The reality is that a fellow Cabinet member has admitted that the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill breaks international law. The reality on the ground is that 27 EU countries have begun legal proceedings against the UK, and in the US both sides of Congress have said that they will not support a Bill that breaks the international rules-based order. When will the Foreign Secretary see reality and admit that the UK is acting like a rogue state?
No, I do not agree with that. The measures in the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill are a defensive, precautionary and proportionate, to safeguard the integrity of the UK. I was in Washington recently and had very constructive conversations on both sides of the aisle on the hill.
The way that the Government have used the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill to allow the United Kingdom to abrogate an international treaty in recent weeks has seen the UK take a step away from being a normative power committed to an international rules-based order. As my constituent Jagtar Singh Johal now faces his third anniversary in custody without charge in India, will the Secretary of State at least tell both my constituent and the House how he and his Government seek to remind the Republic of India of its obligations under international law, given that his own Government have so flagrantly disrespected it?
I am afraid I just do not accept the assertion, and I do not accept the equivalence. We have very clear understandings in relation to the positions we take in terms of consular access and upholding human rights. We engage with the Indian Government and other Governments right across the world. I have never had the pushback the hon. Member describes.
Further to the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Alan Brown), can the Secretary of State specifically outline how and in what ways he believes the United Kingdom International Market Bill strengthens the international credibility of the UK, given that it is in breach of international law?
I thank the hon. Lady. As I have made clear, the Bill is a defensive, precautionary measure to safeguard the integrity of the UK. If the hon. Lady wants to know what people outside the United Kingdom and the EU say about the United Kingdom when it comes to upholding the international rule of law, perhaps she would like to listen to Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, the Belarusian opposition leader, who said on 5 October in an interview:
“I am really grateful to the United Kingdom. For them to be so vocal, for them to be so brave, for them to be so strong in their position—it was all action. The United Kingdom has really shown itself as an example to the whole world.”
That is what they say about the United Kingdom outside the EU.
My right hon. Friend is rightly addressing the rule of law in a particular negotiation. Will he recognise, however, that the negotiations we are conducting around the world, including with the Japanese Government and the beginning of the conversation with the comprehensive and progressive agreement for trans-Pacific partnership will rely on the UK making deals that will endure the future? Those deals will only endure truly if the UK holds together and values all parts of this United Kingdom. Will he recognise, therefore, that his role is to promote the voices of Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland together to make sure all those four nations achieve the best for the whole United Kingdom?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We have just signed a deal with Japan, and we have signed a continuity deal with South Korea. We are looking at a second one, and we have ambitions for scoping talks in relation to that, so that we can improve in areas such as data. We are making good progress on Vietnam. That is precisely the way in trade negotiations we will represent the businesses and consumers of all four nations of the United Kingdom, and that is the way we will continue.
Climate Change: International Co-operation
The Government are fully committed to independent parliamentary scrutiny in this House. The Foreign Secretary has already announced our commitment to maintaining the Independent Commission for Aid Impact. He has also announced a departmental review to make ICAI even more effective, leveraging what works and producing more practical recommendations. This will make scrutiny stronger.
May I apologise to the House? In my enthusiasm sharing a joke with you, Mr Speaker, I had the wrong page on my briefing and so answered in advance the question tabled by the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Layla Moran). I apologise to the House for my enthusiasm.
I thank my constituency near neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for South Basildon and East Thurrock (Stephen Metcalfe), for his question. We are committed to COP 26 through the presidency of G7 next year. We will be urging Governments to be bold in what they are hoping to achieve. Indeed, we are co-hosting events with the UN on 12 December to mark the fifth anniversary of the climate agreement.
I will not be thrown off course.
With the United Kingdom being the fastest country in the G7 to decarbonise, it is quite apparent that this Government are leading the world in tackling climate change, but our efforts will pale into insignificance if other nations around the world do not face up to their own responsibilities. What efforts is my hon. Friend making to ensure that everybody plays their part?
Transition Period: Cabinet Discussions
It remains our intention and our hope to reach an agreement with the EU, but as a responsible Government, we continue to make extensive preparations for a wide range of scenarios. The two Cabinet Committees focused on EU exit strategy and operations meet regularly to discuss the Government’s work, to ensure that the UK is prepared for the end of the transition period.
I thank the Minister for her response. The new Department will no doubt have a busy autumn, as it looks to seize the many opportunities that lay ahead. What discussions have been held with the Department for International Trade to ensure that the Government sing from the same hymn sheet in their future trade negotiations on food, animal welfare and environmental standards?
I can assure my hon. Friend that FCDO Ministers are in regular contact with DIT colleagues on a range of trade-related issues. The UK Government have been consistently clear that we will never sign a trade deal that would compromise the UK’s high environmental protection, animal welfare and food safety standards. All existing food safety provisions will be retained.
Two thirds of my constituents in Stourbridge voted to leave the EU—“Roll on 31 December” is the message I hear loud and clear. Does the Minister agree that we must strongly back the Government’s negotiating position to deliver a trade deal that takes back control of our money, laws and borders, but that we should not be afraid to fall back on an Australian-style arrangement if necessary?
My hon. Friend asks an important question. We continue to work hard towards reaching an agreement with the EU. We want a deal with free trade provisions similar to those that the EU agreed with Canada, and if that is not possible, we will have a trading relationship similar to how Australia trades with the EU. Either way, we will be leaving the single market and the customs union.
The United Kingdom has a proud history of defending human rights. Does the Minister agree that a key benefit of leaving the European Union for our foreign policy is the ability to put in place our own independent sanctions regime, allowing us to go further on human rights than the EU?
Yes, the UK will indeed pursue an independent sanctions policy driven by our foreign policy objectives. We established a global human rights sanctions regime on 6 July, which gives us new powers to fight those involved in serious human rights abuses. The sanctions we recently imposed on individuals in Belarus are a good example. Sanctions are best delivered, though, through collective action, and we will continue to work with EU and other international partners.
Yes. At the end of this year, the process of transition will be complete, and we will recover our economic and political independence. That is why we did not extend the transition period. We need to be able to design our own rules in our best interests, without the constraints of following the EU.
The Government’s integrated review, which is ongoing, will define the UK’s role in the world and the longer-term strategic aims for our national security and foreign policy following our departure from the European Union. We are committed to the UK being a force for good in the world, defending open societies, free trade, democracy and human rights.
South China Sea
On 3 September, I reiterated our concern about reports of militarisation, coercion and intimidation in the South China sea, and I called on all parties to refrain from activity likely to raise tensions. Given the importance we attach to the UN convention on the law of the sea, I also put our comprehensive legal position on the SCS on public record for the first time.
China’s brazen human rights abuses and its increasingly assertive behaviour internationally are both deeply disturbing issues. In the light of this behaviour, what consideration has the Department given to the integrated review of security, defence, development and foreign policy to safeguard British friends and interests in south-east Asia?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising this. I would remind him that, on 6 October, 39 countries joined in a statement at the UN Third Committee expressing deep concern at the human rights situation in Xinjiang, Hong Kong and Tibet. This growing caucus willing to speak out reflects the UK’s diplomatic leadership. The tilt to the Indo-Pacific is a key ambition for our integrated review. It will outline the UK’s intention to become a long-term partner to south Asian and Asia-Pacific countries. We are already working to develop closer partnerships with the region through our bid to achieve Association of Southeast Asian Nations dialogue partnership status. The Foreign Secretary visited Hanoi recently, and that was high on our agenda. We are also keen to pursue our accession to the comprehensive and progressive agreement for trans-Pacific partnership.
President of Belarus
The UK does not accept the results of the rigged presidential election in Belarus. We have worked with our international partners to promote a peaceful resolution. We have condemned the actions of the Belarusian authorities, and we hold those responsible for human rights abuses to account.
Everybody’s favourite continental politician Guy Verhofstadt expressed his huge frustration with the European Union recently, surprisingly enough, when he said that unlike the United Kingdom and Canada, which have imposed sanctions on Belarus for the very reason that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has just said, the European Union has been unable to do so because of the unanimity rules. What assessment has my right hon. Friend made of the EU foreign policy ability to impose things such as sanctions, and does he share my relief that the United Kingdom has now left the EU?
I thank my hon. Friend. He makes a powerful point about the agility and the autonomy that we have with our new Magnitsky sanctions regime, and also some of the latitude we will have now we have left the EU. Equally, I co-ordinate closely with our European partners. He is right to say that the UK, with Canada, proceeded first, on 29 September, to impose targeted sanctions on Lukashenko’s son and six other senior Belarusian officials. I can, though, reassure my hon. Friend that the EU has followed our lead and, at the latest Foreign Affairs Council, announced that it will now follow that lead and impose sanctions on Lukashenko.
ASEAN Countries: UK Relations
I visited Vietnam last month, where we held the first UK-ASEAN Foreign Ministers meeting, discussing collaboration on covid, the green economic recovery and the UK’s application for dialogue partner status with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his answer so far. What steps is my right hon. Friend taking to support new growth markets in the ASEAN region, such as Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam, to ensure that the UK economy and UK businesses, especially South Derbyshire firms, feel the full benefit of global Britain?
First, I must congratulate my hon. Friend on her appointment as trade envoy for Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. She will know that UK-ASEAN trade is already worth over £40 billion in 2019. There are huge opportunities to strengthen that. The International Trade Secretary was meeting ASEAN Economic and Trade Ministers last month. I have been out to ASEAN to talk about our partner dialogue status. We also have a broader ambition to join the comprehensive and progressive agreement for trans-Pacific partnership. All that, through our Indo-Pacific tilt, will increase opportunities for businesses and consumers in her constituency and across the whole United Kingdom.
Wales and Welsh Businesses
The FCDO works in partnership with the Department for International Trade, the office of the Secretary of State for Wales, and the Welsh Government, to promote Wales internationally. The GREAT Britain campaign, which is actively supported by our diplomatic posts overseas, showcases the very best of the whole UK, encouraging the world to visit, study, and do business here, and generating jobs and growth for the UK economy. The GREAT challenge fund also promotes Welsh business and culture throughout the world. In the last financial year, more than 40 projects were promoting the devolved nations, including Wales.
Diolch yn fawr, Mr Speaker. For some bizarre reason, the Conservative party in Wales is pledging to scrap the Welsh Government’s Department for International Relations and Development, yet the Federation of Small Businesses is calling for a greater international footprint by the Welsh Government. Will the Minister support the Welsh Government to expand their independent international presence, since many in Wales have little faith that so-called global Britain will even acknowledge the existence of Wales as a nation?
I reiterate our commitment to the work that we do to promote the UK as one whole UK—we are much bigger as one UK than in our parts. The Department for International Trade promotes British trade and investment across the world, and we are engaging regularly with the Welsh Government on their international offer to businesses in the devolved nations. The Department promotes capital projects in Wales to international investors, such as Cardiff’s Central Quay, and the new Shaping Swansea regeneration project.
Since the last oral questions, I have hosted my German and French counterparts at Chevening to discuss Iran and Belarus. I visited Washington where I met Vice-President Pence, Secretary of State Pompeo, and others, to discuss the free trade agreement and a whole range of foreign policy issues. In late September I visited South Korea and Vietnam to forge closer partnerships and discuss our application for ASEAN dialogue partner status.
My hon. Friend takes a close interest in this issue, and he will know that India and Pakistan are both long-standing and important friends of the United Kingdom. We have encouraged, and continue to encourage, both sides to engage in the dialogue that is necessary to find a lasting diplomatic solution to the situation in Kashmir, and to maintain regional stability. It is, of course, ultimately for India and Pakistan to find a lasting political resolution, taking into account the wider issues of the people of Kashmir.
The Foreign Secretary has said that the Chinese Government must accept the responsibilities that come with being a leading member of the international community, and he has rightly highlighted the egregious human rights abuses against the Uyghurs in Xinjiang. Since July, he has apparently been gathering evidence to impose targeted sanctions against the officials involved, but so far we have seen very little action. Today China is standing to be elected to the UN Human Rights Council. While I welcome the right hon. Gentleman’s willingness to speak out about this issue, surely, today of all days, we should take a clear moral stance and show that the UK has more than words at our disposal. Will he confirm that we will oppose China taking a seat on that council?
I suspect the hon. Lady will know that the UK has a long practice, under successive Governments, of not commenting on voting in UN elections that are conducted by secret ballot—[Interruption.] Never under a Labour Government: the hon. Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock) is wrong. The hon. Lady and I stand in total solidarity on the point of principle. We have unequivocally made clear to China our grave concern about Xinjiang. On 6 October, since we last met, the UK joined 38 other countries in the UN Third Committee to call on China to allow immediate and unfettered access to independent UN observers.
May I say to the Foreign Secretary, who is a former human rights lawyer, that it is quite desperate and a sign of our diminished influence in the world that the UK is not willing to take a stance on this important issue? We are deeply concerned about our relations with the rest of the world. Whether it is the covid vaccine, climate change, the Iran deal, west bank annexation, NATO or Scotch whisky, the Government appear to have no influence at all in Washington at the moment when we most need it. We are told that they are now scrambling to repair the damage to relations with Joe Biden and his team. There is no greater indication of why that matters than the case of Harry Dunn. In July, the Foreign Secretary told the House he had reached an agreement with the US about immunity arrangements for Croughton annex. His repeated refusal to publish that agreement has fuelled the family’s anguish and underlined the widespread belief that his Department has chosen to side with the US Government over its own citizens. Why does he believe that neither Parliament nor the family of Harry Dunn should see the small print of this important agreement with the United States?
We did indeed change the arrangements, exactly as I undertook to the family and to the House. We also issued a written ministerial statement, which set out the terms. When the Labour party was in government, at two points when they reviewed the arrangements for Croughton, they did not make a WMS and they did not put into the public domain the memorandum of understanding. It has been standard practice not to do so and I think the hon. Lady knows that.
I am going to say to both Front Benchers once again that from today onwards—just a warning—I will be stopping questions that are too long. Topicals are meant to be short and punchy for the benefit of everyone. I have got to get through a list. Please, let us help to make sure that other hon. Members get on it.
I reassure my hon. Friend that the raison d’être of the merger is to bring together our aid clout and heft with our diplomatic reach and muscle. If he looks at the visit I made to the Occupied Palestinian Territories, he will see the support we provided for the Palestinians in dealing with covid alongside our diplomatic support for a two-state solution; if he looks at the situation in Yemen, he will see that we are doing the same; and he will see the same in our response to the explosion in the port of Beirut. I think he will find that we are practising what we preach, which brings together the aid—taxpayers’ money—with our diplomatic muscle to make a real difference on the ground.
We have a European Council this week. The scope and the prospects for a deal are there. I am hopeful that we can close the gap, but ultimately it will require the same good will, the same pragmatism and the same flexibility on the EU side that the United Kingdom and this Prime Minister have shown.
I share the hon. Lady’s view about the importance of scrutiny. We have made clear our commitment to not just maintain but strengthen the Independent Commission for Aid Impact. Select Committees of the House are ultimately a matter for the usual channels and for the House, but we will make sure that the FCDO is willing to be scrutinised however the House decides.
I thank my hon. Friend and pay tribute to her work in government; I know her commitment on this issue. She will know that since 2015, the UK has supported 8 million girls to gain a decent education. What is important is not just the number, but the quality of education. Our global objective is to help 40 million girls into a decent education. That is a key focus of our use of ODA—this touches on the point about merging DFID and the Foreign Office—and it is also one of our top priorities for 2021, both with the summit that she mentioned and our G7 presidency.
I absolutely agree with the concern that the hon. Lady has raised. Bringing ODA into the FCDO gives us the opportunity to raise these issues diplomatically, as well as to look very carefully at our aid budget. We are a member of the International Religious Freedom Alliance. We are looking to co-host one of the next summits, whether that is next year or the following year, depending on covid, and the issue that she raises will be very much at the top of our agenda.
We continue to hold Iran to account for its destabilising activity in the region. We currently have over 200 EU sanctions listings in place against Iran, including against the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in its entirety. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary and FCDO officials take every opportunity to discuss Iran with our US counterparts. As part of this regular dialogue, the Foreign Secretary last spoke to Secretary Pompeo on 16 September.
I agree with the hon. Member about the importance of raising human rights. The most recent thing we did, with my French and German counterparts as E3, was démarche Tehran on the human rights situation, including not only the case that he raises but the fate and arbitrary detention of the UK dual nationals held in Iran.
My right hon. Friend makes a good point about the shifting economics and the shifting geopolitical centre of gravity. We have more co-operation with South America, as well as other regions, and that will be crucial if we are to shift the dial on climate change. Earlier this week I had a strategic dialogue with my Brazilian opposite number that was very much about not only the issues he raises but tackling deforestation and sustainable commodity use.
Turkey is a close partner and a strategic ally in NATO and has Council of Europe obligations. We raise the whole suite of international obligations that apply as a matter both of customary international law, and of the conventions that Turkey itself has signed up to.
That is a good example for all the other challenges we have; it is an area where we must work with China if we are going to shift the dial on climate change. China is the largest emitter, but also the largest investor in renewables. My right hon. Friend will have seen the welcome recent commitment by China to be carbon neutral by 2060. In that and other areas—including, for example, the recent UN General Assembly leaders’ pledge for nature on biodiversity, co-led by the UK—we want to work with China. We will not persuade others to step up to the plate unless we can shift the dial with China.
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is an important strategic partner, and we recognise its right to defend itself against attack from parties within Yemen. The UK has a stringent arms control regime, and it is used whenever we work with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in terms of arms trade with them.
My hon. Friend brings the passion for journalism that he had outside this House to the core of this issue. He is right to say that we value the role of the BBC World Service in projecting UK soft power around the world, and I will look very carefully at future funding in the context of the spending review.
Saudi Arabia has been an ally of ours against terrorism for some time. Foremost among Saudis, the erstwhile crown prince Muhammad bin Nayef was a great friend of this country. He has now disappeared from public life, with great concerns over his safety. Will the Foreign Secretary make plain the importance of Prince bin Nayef’s safety to the United Kingdom Government?
Canada and the Netherlands have formally joined the International Court of Justice case, led by Gambia, on the genocide against the Rohingya people by the Myanmar Government. Can the Foreign Secretary explain why the UK Government, despite being a penholder on the UN Security Council, for instance, in relation to Burma, have not done so, and when he plans to change that? Will he meet me and my co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on the rights of the Rohingya to discuss this matter further?
We have a Commonwealth Foreign Ministers’ meeting coming up, where we will be looking at the further amount of support we are providing to ease the humanitarian plight of the Rohingya. We have looked at the ICJ proceedings and will continue to keep those under close review.
I have a short statement to make about Select Committees. On Tuesday 24 March the House passed an order allowing for virtual participation in Select Committee meetings and giving Chairs associated powers to make reports. I was given the power under the order to extend it if necessary. On Wednesday 22 July I announced an extension until Friday 30 October. I can notify the House today that I am now further extending the order until Friday 22 January.
Public Health Restrictions: Government Economic Support
Yesterday, the Prime Minister and the Chancellor set out further measures to support local authorities through the crisis. On Friday, the Chancellor set out how we will support jobs in every part of the UK through an extension of the job support scheme, and these announcements build on the Chancellor’s September statement on the winter economic plan.
Throughout the pandemic the economic policy focus has been clear—to save jobs. Last month, we set out our plans to help viable businesses that can open through the job support scheme. However, businesses that are required to close due to coronavirus restrictions will also need our help. On Friday, the Chancellor announced the expansion of the job support scheme. Where coronavirus restrictions legally require business premises to close, we will pay up to two thirds of an employee’s salary, up to £2,100 a month, if they cannot work for a week or more. The scheme is nationwide and will run for six months.
In addition, businesses in England required to close will be eligible for a non-repayable cash grant of up to £3,000 a month. This can be used for any business costs. On Friday the Chancellor and I agreed with the First Minister of Wales, the First and Deputy First Ministers of Northern Ireland and the Finance Minister of Scotland on this additional package of support. We have now also guaranteed an extra £1.3 billion of funding to the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish Administrations if they decide to do something similar, bringing total guaranteed Barnett funding for this year to £14 billion.
In addition, as announced yesterday, we are providing local authorities in England with around £1 billion to protect vital services, and up to £500 million for local authorities at high or very high risk.
These measures build on the Government’s economic package, one of the most generous in the world, and underline our unwavering commitment to the people of this country.
Just over a month ago the Conservatives passed a motion in the House stating that
“any deviation from this Government’s proposed plan will cause damage to the United Kingdom economy.”
The first deviation came two weeks later when the Chancellor announced his sink-or-swim job support scheme, design faults in which are already leading to substantial and unnecessary job losses. The second deviation came as a belated response to the imposition of localised restrictions announced on television last Friday, with further measures announced yesterday—yet Leicester, for example, has been under localised restrictions for over 100 days. The Chancellor told us to learn our new limits as we go. His handling of the economic crisis is testing patience to its limits, especially the patience of those whose jobs are threatened.
The Government must answer many critical questions, but here are just three: first, why will local areas be provided with support for test, trace and isolate only once they are already in tier 3? This is indefensible. Secondly, there is £1.3 billion-worth of unspent local grants. Why will not the Government allow this money to be used to support local businesses in affected areas? Thirdly, why are workers in closed businesses expected to face poverty as a result of the businesses they work for doing the right thing?
It is slightly odd that Opposition Front Benchers talk about deviation when their position has deviated as much as it has, not least on the curfew, which they said they would support yet refused to.
On the hon. Lady’s points of substance, the package of support announced by the Chancellor and Prime Minister did support local authorities with an additional £1 billion, as I said in my opening remarks, plus a further £500 million to address trace and trace locally, reflecting the fact that the Government are listening to local leaders and bringing forward responses. We saw that with the additional funding allocated to Merseyside and to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland—again reflecting our listening in conversations with the First Ministers of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
The hon. Lady makes a fair point about underspends that has been made by a number of colleagues. She is right to point to the sheer extent of support that we have offered, including the grants of £10,000 and £25,000. To deliver them at pace, they were allocated on the estimations that we had. As a result, the actual spend that has been required has led to some local authorities having very big underspends and others not. If we were to say that the authorities where the estimates were incorrect should benefit disproportionately, we would be accused of treating some unfairly compared with others. We met the need that was addressed at that time through the awards.
It is right from a fiscal point of view that the underspends are returned because they are surplus to the requirement on which they were allocated. In last week’s urgent question issues were raised by Merseyside Members, and ministerial colleagues engaged, listened and the funding for Merseyside more than doubled per head.
It is a slightly odd line of attack for the Opposition to say that we should not bring back underspends where they met their need but the estimations were inaccurate, yet not use the money to respond to the legitimate needs of areas such as Merseyside and elsewhere that are being moved into tier 3.
My right hon. Friend and the Chancellor of the Exchequer have done a great deal to support the economy, but there has to be a careful balance struck between protecting against the virus and avoiding further economic destruction. With that in mind, what scientific evidence has the Treasury received that closing pubs at 10 pm gets that balance right?
We have to balance the evidence that the Government receive from a range of quarters. My right hon. Friend will recall that when the initial advice from the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies was put forward, the Government came forward with a range of measures, such as the rule of six and the curfew. Indeed, if we look at the projections that were made at that time, we see that we could potentially have had 49,000 or so daily cases by 14 October when in actual fact the figure on that date was 12,872. That indicates the fact that the package of measures put in place by the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer have had an influence. However, listening to the SAGE advice, it is recognised that we need to go further and that is why the tiered approach has been set out.
The Chancellor of the Exchequer is proving exactly what Tory values are with this dogged determination to return to 1980s levels of unemployment. Switching away from the rhetoric of whatever it takes to hard choices exposes the fact that protecting jobs was an empty promise even before the end of furlough. He is risking more than 60,000 jobs in Scotland alone. The Institute for Fiscal Studies is clear. It says:
“Despite the claim by Chancellor Rishi Sunak last week that he would ‘always balance the books’, this will not happen, and he would be most unwise to try.”
Mass unemployment is a terrible policy, so will the Minister urge his boss to change course even at this late stage and extend furlough to save jobs, to use returned moneys to help those who have been excluded and to listen to the SNP demands for an £80 billion stimulus package? Will he listen to the nearly 70% of the Scottish public who want financial powers devolved to Scotland, or are the Government going just simply to plough ahead ignoring Scotland’s needs and further proving that Scotland needs the powers of independence?
It is a slightly odd premise to say that the Conservative Government are not supporting the response when we have spent more than £200 billion as part of that response, when we are currently supporting nearly half a million jobs in Scotland, when 8.9 million people across the United Kingdom have benefited from the furlough scheme and more than half of those are back in their jobs, and when more than 65,000 businesses in Scotland have benefited from our loan scheme. However, the hon. Gentleman is right in one aspect of his question. This Government are true to Conservative values and those are the values of the Union. It is through the shared broad shoulders that we are able to put in place the fiscal package of support that has enabled us to protect as many jobs in Scotland and around the UK as we have.
Surely the Minister will recognise that the Welsh Government face the same task as UK Ministers in needing to manage their budget in the face of the unprecedented pressures brought about by the pandemic. That task is made harder by the lack of transparency from the UK Treasury. We know that the IFS has called on the UK Treasury to follow Wales’ example in publishing budget adjustments in full so that we know what announcements apply to Wales and how much budget is available. Will the Minister today agree to publish the information around the decisions so that we have transparency and Welsh Ministers can make decisions with confidence?
The hon. Gentleman talks about transparency for the Welsh Government. The Chancellor had a call last Friday, which I joined, with the First Minister of Wales as part of our transparency with the Welsh Government, so it is slightly odd to say that we are not being transparent. However, the hon. Gentleman is right that there are issues that need to be managed by the devolved Administrations and the concern he sets out is exactly why we provided the upfront guarantee on Barnett consequentials. We recognise that, in order that the Welsh Government can make decisions in advance of knowing what the Barnett consequentials are, it is important to give a forward-looking guarantee on that. That is why we gave the additional guarantee of £1.3 billion to the devolved Administrations, including the Welsh Government, as a response to the point that he raises.
A tenth of pubs have not reopened since lockdown in March while two thirds were already trading at a loss, even before restricted opening times, mandatory table service and the new restrictions announced yesterday. Will my right hon. Friend look at the support that is available for pubs that are not yet compelled to close, but are legally prevented from operating economically, and in particular state aid limits that threaten to prevent 10,000 pubs from receiving the support they need? Without that support, many thousands of pubs will close their doors and never reopen.
My hon. Friend is a champion of the pub sector and he speaks to the fact that it faces many challenges, but that is why we have been trying to strike a balance. Some would say the curfew is insufficient, but part of it is about recognising the very real pressures on the pub sector that he speaks to. Other colleagues in the House sometimes talk of the Sweden model but, as he will know, in Sweden the 2-metre rule is often more difficult for the hospitality sector and the pubs to adjust to. Ultimately, that is why the Chancellor set out the wider package of support, recognising the concerns he speaks of with the tax deferrals, the loans, the business rate support and the measures on VAT, which are targeted at the sector because of the very real concerns he correctly articulates.
My Aberavon constituents are increasingly concerned about the practice of firing then re-hiring, whereby unscrupulous employers are using the pandemic as a cover to sack their employees and then re-hire them on inferior terms and conditions. What steps are the Government taking to tackle this completely unacceptable practice and to exclude firms that engage in these behaviours from Government support schemes?
The hon. Gentleman raises a legitimate concern that is shared across the House. It is wrong for companies to act in that way. One purpose of the furlough is to retain that link between the labour market, the person and their job. The furlough bonus is designed to strengthen that link, so people are brought back. He takes a constructive approach to these issues and I am happy to work with him in the weeks and months ahead, because this is a practice that all of us in the House would condemn. The schemes we have designed try to retain the link with the worker to prevent that sort of practice.
Stockton South has some of the best bars, pubs, restaurants and breweries in the country, and many play an important role at the heart of the community. So far, they have benefited from a fantastic package of support, but the tier 2 restrictions pose a huge challenge. What will the Government do to protect jobs and ensure that we do not hospitalise our hospitality sector?
It is about getting the right balance because, ultimately, the most damaging thing for those pubs in tier 2 would be a further escalation of the virus and a situation in which they faced further restrictions. We have sought to ensure, first, that they can continue trading through tier 2, while having alongside the package of support for jobs, which the Chancellor set out in our winter plan to back those jobs with Government support, as well as a cash flow package. Cash flow will remain a key challenge as we go through the winter crisis, which is why we have such an extensive package supporting cash flow.
I am sure the Minister was as concerned as me to hear reports that those people with businesses who take out bounce back loans to help them to follow the Government rules and survive this economic crisis—not just in their interest, but in all our interests—could face action up to and including repossession of their home if they struggle to repay those loans. Will he reassure not just the House, but people across the country, including in my constituency of Edinburgh West, that this Government will not allow that misery to be heaped on the misery already being suffered?
The very favourable terms of the bounce back loans were designed to deliver with speed. This was an initial challenge of the coronavirus business interruption loan scheme; we received feedback from debate in the House and elsewhere that the speed was not there, so that was part of the design for the bounce back loans. Another part of the design was the Government guarantee to get that credit to people. We have extended access to that scheme and the possible repayment period, so that issue should not be crystallising at this point. Clearly we need to look at the risk with regard to repayments. As I said to the hon. Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock), I am happy to work with colleagues around the House, but the hon. Lady will be well aware of the package of measures that we have put in place to protect people vis-à-vis their mortgage and to protect renters from eviction.
Is there any specific evidence that swimming pools and gyms are centres for covid transmission? Has any research been done into rising obesity and unfitness levels, and has any research been done into rising unemployment caused by the closure of gyms and pools that is now happening in parts of the UK?
In some ways, that is slightly more of a Health question than a Treasury question, but I recognise that there is read-across from those businesses into the economy. In short, the opinion of the chief medical officer and the chief scientific officer is that those businesses do carry significantly more risk, which is why they have been harder hit in the guidance that has been issued. The package of support that the Chancellor set out recognises that businesses that are closed need additional support, which is why the measures announced by the Prime Minister and the Chancellor yesterday spoke exactly to the issue of businesses that have been closed due to the guidelines.
The wisdom and necessity of some of the restrictions introduced yesterday have been questioned by leaders of cities in the north of England, by businesses and by the workers who are going to be affected, so it is right that the Government should introduce a package of support for businesses that are forced to close. However, there are many businesses that have not been instructed to close, but which will be forced to because of the restrictions placed on them. For example, the hospitality industry faces curfews, restrictions on table numbers and on who can sit at tables, and so on. How does this package of support assure those businesses that they are not going to be killed off by the restrictions that have been placed on them? They have been put in the firing line, yet seem to have been left without any level of support at all, given the conditions attached to this economic package.
The right hon. Gentleman speaks to an important issue, which was at the heart of the job support scheme’s design: recognising businesses that are not in closure, but which have difficulty bringing people back full time. The scheme provides support. The employer pays the first third, and the remaining amount is split three ways, with the Government supporting. Additionally, there is the wider package of measures, including support to local authorities to get better compliance, which is in the interests of businesses. The £1 billion to local authorities, the £500 million for local test and trace services, the business loans and the tax deferrals are all targeted at the sector that the right hon. Gentleman is talking about: businesses that can still trade and are not closed, but which do face further pressure. The winter plan sets out that support.
Care homes across the country are struggling to survive, and the areas with greater restrictions are particularly dealing with unprecedented levels of vacancies. What are the Government doing to support those vacancies and prevent the forced closure of care homes, which would in turn lead to many thousands of vulnerable people being rehoused or moved out across the community?
My hon. Friend raises an important point. There is a strong interplay between the workforce challenges and the financial viability of the care home sector. One of the biggest risk factors is transmission as a result of staff, particularly agency staff, moving between care homes. He will know—and I know from my time as a Health Minister—that the financial pressures of that sector are not new pressures from this covid period; they are of long standing. The first tier of the £3.7 billion package of support that was initially allocated to local authorities was particularly directed at the adult social care sector. My hon. Friend will be aware that we are now on the second tranche of infection control funding to support these sectors. He speaks to a very real issue, which we are monitoring closely, and which is at the heart of how we address staff transfers between care homes and the infection risk that such transfers pose.
The Government have said that schools will be among the last to close under any covid restrictions or lockdowns. Headteachers in my constituency have told me that they are having to pay additional costs for cleaning to keep schools safe. When will the Government announce additional funding for schools, so that this money does not come out of schools’ budgets, risking deficit for them?
As the Minister responsible for Government spending on behalf of the Chancellor, I would want to look closely at why the school in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency is saying that that very significant uplift in funding for schools last year does not appear to be reaching the frontline. The education funding settlement in the 2019 spending round should more than cover the cleaning costs. I will happily look at that, but if he looks at the funding settlement allocated in SR19, I think he will accept that it was a very generous one.
It is not surprising that more and more Members are calling for more Government support, because the Government are forcing more and more businesses, particularly in the hospitality sector, out of business. The Chief Secretary says that his priority is to help business. The best way to help businesses is to let them get on and do business. We are going bankrupt as a nation—there will not be the money to pay for the NHS or pensions. What is the Treasury doing to row back against other parts of the Government and insist that we must allow British business to operate? He did not answer the question from the Chairman of the Select Committee, my right hon. Friend the Member for Central Devon (Mel Stride)—what is the scientific evidence for pubs closing at 10 o’clock? Is he leading the fight to help Britain to stay in business?
With respect, I did answer it. I pointed to the projection given by the chief medical officer and chief scientific adviser at that time, the SAGE guidance and the fact that the package of measures put in place by the Prime Minister has resulted in a lower infection risk. The CMO and others would recognise that this is a range of measures. My right hon. Friend says that the Government have gone too far and that there is no evidence for the curfew. The tenor of most of the questions one gets is that we have not moved far enough and should be taking more drastic actions. That speaks to the fact that this is a balanced judgment. One needs to look at the range of measures we are taking, and that is what I would refer him to.
My constituents in Cardiff South and Penarth and the Vale of Glamorgan are under a local lockdown and dealing with the economic pressures that that brings. Does the Chief Secretary agree that it is deeply disappointing that major local employers such as British Gas/Centrica are engaging in the type of “fire and rehire” tactics that we have seen others try to use, such as British Airways? What message does he have for the chief executive of British Gas/Centrica about those measures, which I believe are completely unacceptable in the current climate?
I do not think it is acceptable to have a “fire and rehire” culture. The hon. Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock) put it very well in his question, and I echo those sentiments. This is an area of common ground across the House. The package of measures we have put in place is to retain the link between a worker and their business, and that is very much the Government’s approach.
My right hon. Friend may remember that I raised with him last week the issue of tourism businesses in north Wales, which have been severely impacted by the decision of the Welsh Government to impose movement restrictions. Many of those businesses now face the prospect of closure, but they are not being required to close by the Government, and there is little help being offered by the Welsh Government. The expansion of the job support scheme last week was welcome, but that only benefits businesses that have been required to close by the relevant Administration. What further support can Her Majesty’s Government offer to Welsh tourism businesses, which are so badly affected by the current state of affairs?
Among the range of measures that we have put in place as support, one speaks directly to my right hon. Friend’s issue, which is the rent support of up to £3,000 for businesses that are forced to close. The Welsh Government can then use Barnett consequential funding to support businesses and to design a scheme as they see fit, but it is for the Welsh Government to design those schemes, not the UK Government. That is what devolution entails. What we have done through the comprehensive package of measures that we have put in place is ensure that there is Barnett consequential funding to allow the Welsh Government to put that support in place.
Like infectious diseases of the past, covid is a disease of poverty. Various indicators, including cuts to local authority funding, show that regional inequalities have been exacerbated over the past decade. Contrary to the Minister’s earlier remarks about the generosity of the packages to local authorities, only 10% of costs associated with the pandemic have been reimbursed by the Government. What is the Minister’s assessment of the actual impact that the recent announcement of measures have had on the Government’s ambition to level up?
If the hon. Lady looks at international comparators, she will see that the Government’s package of support—more than £200 billion—is generous. I point her to the job support scheme, for example. A number of colleagues across the House question whether the 67% is sufficient, but the point is that it is dynamic in conjunction with the additional funding that has been put into welfare. [Interruption.] If the hon. Lady lets me answer the question, she will hear that I am talking about the support for people in businesses that have closed, which is an issue that all colleagues across the House take very seriously. [Interruption.] Well, that applies to regional equality. Opposition Members may not like the answer, but the question was: how does the UK compare with international comparators. I am pointing to the fact that the package of measures put in place—the furlough at 80% for eight months—was much more generous than that of most other countries. The business support package, including business rents, tax deferrals, loans, such as the bounce back loans and help to grow loans—we can go through the full list—bears comparison. The question over the past 24 hours is whether the latest measures bear international comparison. The point I was making is that if one looks at the French, German, Italian and other schemes, the two thirds support for those businesses that are closed, coupled with a dynamic relationship with the support on universal credit does bear favourable comparison with those, which is why I stand by my comments that, internationally, the UK has a world-leading package.
Further to the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley South (Mike Wood) and the right hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson), the tier 2 restrictions on social mixing are cutting the legs away from the hospitality industry. Equally, even in tier 3, restaurants will not necessarily be closed, but the fact remains that people are just not going to them. May I implore my right hon. Friend to extend the £3,000 grant to all hospitality venues in tiers 2 and 3 regardless of whether they are told to close? The industry is dying, because people are trying to do the right thing and not mix. Chief Secretary, the industries are open in name only. Please look at extending the available help before the industry is destroyed.
I hear the concerns of my right hon. Friend, but there is a balance that needs to be struck between the comprehensive nature and the fiscal cost of the range of packages that we have put in place and the measures that we have taken to control the virus. The balance that we have struck, in line with the advice that we have received, is about balancing how we control the virus with the wider implications not only for the economy, but for non-covid health issues as well. That is the balance that we are striking. Of course it is attractive for him to say that we should keep spending more and more, but we have already committed more than £200 billion.
The Prime Minister has been clear that the Government’s response to the covid crisis will follow the science. Last night, on a conference call with Professor Stephen Powys, the medical director for England, the hon. Member for Windsor (Adam Afriyie) and my hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead (Ian Mearns) asked about the science behind the 10 pm curfew on pubs and restaurants. Professor Powys said that there was no specific advice and in his words it was a “policy decision”. Given that thousands of jobs and businesses are at risk in tier 2 areas such as the north-east, can the Minister tell us what the logic is behind this policy decision?
As the right hon. Gentleman will know, that same SAGE guidance also says that there are multiple anecdotal reports of outbreaks linked to bars, and the Public Health England case control study also identifies visits to entertainment venues as a risk factor. It comes back to the point about balance. Some in the House say that there is a risk of infection in these hospitality venues and we should close them entirely; others say that we should have no restrictions at all. We have taken our decision on the basis that compliance tends to decrease later in the evening and that there are links to outbreaks in these venues. That is the balance that we have been striking.
My right hon. Friend will be aware that there has been a high degree of public opprobrium for employers who have taken advantage of the furlough scheme and then engaged in poor employment practice. Returning to “fire and rehire”, will he consider an immediate guillotine on any employer who sacked 50% or more of their staff and then rehired some or all on reduced pay, so as to disqualify those employers from any further form of direct Government support, including the furlough retention bonus?
It is very many years since I gave legal advice as a community lawyer, but one of the things I remember is that in employment law there is often a lot of complexity around what can and cannot be done. The wider point that has been raised in the House, and which my hon. Friend’s question points to, is that there is a consensus that it is not acceptable for businesses to be doing that. Going back to the very first statement that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor gave as we started on the response to covid, he said that how people conduct themselves throughout this pandemic will be remembered. With regard those businesses that do act in this way, we will obviously need to look at that in due course.
Given the Chief Secretary’s answers on “fire and rehire”, which I am very much heartened to hear, I hope that he will back my Employment (Dismissal and Re-employment) Bill. With no aviation support package as promised, the job support scheme riddled with holes and the abolition of airside tax-free shopping, further debt or job losses are the only options for firms. It is akin to 1980’s policies of “sink or swim”. Last week’s statement was completely silent on the sector. Is it now Treasury policy to write off aviation, making tens of thousands of jobs unviable?
The reality is that the aerospace and aviation sectors have received over £8.5 billion through the covid corporate financing facility. Grants for research and development, loans and export guarantees are also expected over the next 18 months. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport recently launched the Global Travel Taskforce, which underscores the Government’s commitment to this sector. The hon. Gentleman talks about support. The aviation sector has benefited from our comprehensive package of measures, whether it is the furlough or tax deferral schemes, or all the other measures that we have put in place. That is all part of the wider support that we have given to UK business as a result of the broad shoulders we have as a United Kingdom.
UKHospitality reports trade down by 40% to 60% due to the ban on the indoor mixing of households. Can I therefore add my name to that of other colleagues who have called for my right hon. Friend to commit to urgently reviewing what targeted support could be provided for enterprises stuck in tier 2, who, as it stands, receive very little specific help but will still suffer huge losses of trade from additional restrictions that come with tier 2, and ultimately will really struggle to stay open?
The most important thing for businesses in tier 2 is that we are able to control the virus. That is why the Government are investing as heavily as we are in track and trace—over £12 billion so far—and enabling businesses in tier 2 to retain their staff, which, again, is what the winter plan and the job support package is doing. The Government have made targeted interventions in support of businesses in tier 2, but we need to balance that against the wider fiscal position that we face.
The Minister will surely know by now that my local authority of Rhondda Cynon Taf has had local restrictions imposed on it for some weeks now. The Chancellor, when he can be bothered to show up, talks a good game, but it is clear that this Government do not care about people in communities across Wales. It was only earlier this year that Pontypridd was decimated by the worst flooding for many decades, and the UK Government simply sat on their hands and watched as homes and businesses were devastated. The Minister now has an opportunity to redeem himself and this Government. We need action now on the money that was promised, so what are his plans to finally assist the 3 million people who have been excluded from the Government support packages thus far?
On the issue of the excluded campaign, we have covered this pretty much every time we have come to the House, for the reasons we have set out. On support for Wales, the point the hon. Lady makes is at odds with the reality; in the urgent question last week, the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) raised the issue of some specific flood damage support, and between then and now we have addressed it, and I have written to him indicating the support available. The hon. Lady makes a point about the wider support without any mention of the guarantee on Barnett consequentials that has been given. It is unprecedented for the Government to give a guarantee up front on Barnett consequentials, yet she does not even mention it in her question.
Track and Trace nationally gets a bad press, wrongly in my view, but when we add a local tier, with local people employed, the success rate on contacts climbs. Calderdale’s local tier takes the success rate on contacts to almost 90%. How much extra support is being given to these local tiers, which are another tool in the armoury to help protect business and local residents?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right about the importance of benefiting from the local knowledge on track and trace, which is why the Prime Minister and the Chancellor announced an additional £500 million to address exactly the point my hon. Friend highlights about the benefit of working closely with local directors of public health. That is exactly what we are doing, and the funding announced by the Prime Minister and Chancellor yesterday will enable that work to accelerate.
Yesterday, I held a roundtable with hospitality businesses facing tier 2 restrictions, at which a restaurant owner said that his business would just bleed out with the economic support that was available. They asked whether we could look at increasing the intervention rate for the job support scheme in November in order to be more generous, because otherwise they will have to let go of their staff and there is the potential for large-scale closures of hospitality businesses. What additional measures can the Government bring forward for hospitality businesses that are under tier 2 restrictions?
Again, I appreciate the concerns the hon. Gentleman raises on behalf of businesses in his constituency, but, as I said to the hon. Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams) a moment ago, by international standards the package of support the Chancellor has put in place stands fair comparison. That interaction between the support for those jobs and businesses that are able to be open, and the additional £7 billion of welfare support through universal credit, provides dynamic support for the workers to which the hon. Gentleman refers.
My right hon. Friend spoke a few moments ago about the important role being played by universal credit at this time, so may I press him again on the Treasury’s intentions on the temporary uplift in universal credit? It is one thing for a Government to reduce a planned rate of increase of a benefit or even to freeze a benefit, but it is another thing altogether to give extra money to some of the poorest people in the country and then take that away. That is precisely what we are on course to do next April unless we change course, so will the Minister address that issue?
My right hon. Friend raised exactly the same issue at our urgent question last week, and I know he has a huge understanding of it from his time as Secretary of State for Work and Pensions. He knows full well that the announcement made was a temporary one to deal with the immediate consequences of the covid pandemic, and with all these decisions we need to balance the competing pressures at a particular time with the wider fiscal position.
Fish and seafood wholesalers have been hit hard by a decline in demand from the hospitality sector. I have been contacted by My Fish Company, which is based in Fleetwood and which is concerned that the Government’s domestic seafood supply scheme appears to favour the larger national companies because of the short period of time in which to make an application and the level of resources that would require. So what reassurances can the Chief Secretary give to my constituents and companies based in Fleetwood, many of which are small and medium-sized enterprises, that the Government scheme is going to deliver for them?
When we agreed that scheme, it was very much with SMEs in mind. I would be quite keen to look at the delivery of that and to speak to colleagues in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. As the hon. Member knows, as part of this wider package of support, and after listening to businesses such as the ones to which she refers, we put in place a £10 million support package in England for the fishing sector. That was about recognising that the restaurant trade in particular as a market had been hit and also that exports had been hit. We recognised that there was a pressure in the fishing sector and we provided support for it. I am grateful to her for drawing the House’s attention to the support that the Government have given to the fishing sector. If there is a particular constituency issue, I will ask DEFRA colleagues to look at it.
In Bassetlaw and north Nottinghamshire, we are now subject to tier 2 restrictions in line with Nottingham and the rest of the county, despite having significantly lower rates. Despite the tremendous support that has been offered so far, some in the hospitality sector are really struggling, as we have heard from colleagues in the Chamber, so will the Minister please tell us what can be done for those in tier 2 to help them to get through this incredibly difficult time? Will he also try to keep this under review?
In part, it is our winter plan to support those businesses in terms of the staff they are able to bring back. There is no gap between the end of the furlough scheme, which has run for eight months—by international standards, an extremely generous measure—and the start of the job support scheme. On top of that, there are the measures that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor announced on the extension of loans to help with cash flow, and on top of that there are the measures that the Prime Minister and the Chancellor announced yesterday—the extra £1 billion, the extra £500 million to local authorities, to help those businesses to control those things. That is ultimately why, collectively, we all have a responsibility to keep the virus down in order that those businesses in tier 2 are able to trade and come down into tier 1 as soon as possible.
Local lockdowns will undoubtedly affect small businesses that have already struggled due to the initial lockdown earlier this year. In my constituency, traders at Chrisp Street market and Watney market were impacted by the lack of Government support earlier in the year. Some of those traders operate from rented lock-ups, where their goods are stored, and business rates for those properties are paid for by the leaseholder, meaning that market traders did not benefit from business rates relief and therefore suffered financial hardship. May I ask the Chief Secretary to the Treasury what further financial support can be provided for those local businesses that are not covered by business rates relief in the event of a local lockdown?
The hon. Lady is right to point to the fact that when the Government put in place the £10,000 and £25,000 grants of support linked to premises, market traders fell outside of that scheme because it was based on property. The specific issue of market traders was raised with us, and in response we put in place a further support scheme giving discretionary grants to local authorities in order that they could tailor that additional funding to local circumstances. I think she could raise this issue with her local council and ask why it has not used the discretionary grants to support those traders to whom she refers.
I hugely welcome the expanded jobs support scheme, which is so important, but what it does not do is help those businesses that supply the events industry—for example, the sound engineers and lighting engineers and, in my constituency, Beat the Street, which provides tour buses to the music industry. It has not been forced to shut down, but it has seen its trade wiped out. I urge my right hon. Friend to think of ways in which he can help companies such as that, which employ in excess of 150 people and can see no end in sight to their current financial woes.
My right hon. Friend rightly highlights an industry and a sector that have been particularly hit. Again, we have tried, through the package of measures such as the extension of the self-employed income support scheme, to help some of those within that sector. I think the business to which she is referring is more a pay-as-you-earn one, but it is often freelancers who work in, say, the lighting sector and the events sector, and they have been particularly impacted. That is why the self-employed scheme was introduced. To some extent, and given the over £200 million of support, the Chancellor has been very candid, as have I, about the fact that we were not in a position as a Government to save every single job. We are working with colleagues—I am always happy to work with my right hon. Friend—to look at what measures we can take, but it has to be balanced against the wider fiscal position.
I thank my right hon. Friend and the Chancellor for all the support they have given to jobs and businesses over this period. However, as we move to the next stage of our battle, to echo other colleagues, will my right hon. Friend at least agree to keep an open mind about further support for hospitality businesses in tier 2, which are not required to close, but are going to struggle with reduced capacity? I am sure none of us wants to see hollowed-out communities as pubs permanently call last orders.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his question; I think the Chancellor has demonstrated throughout the health pandemic that he has both kept an open mind and consulted widely, with the TUC, business leaders and many others. That is why for hospitality specifically we had a range of measures in the summer, with eat out to help out, the targeted VAT support and cash support measures, and the job support for staff coming back, where the Government helped with some of those labour costs. Of course the Chancellor will keep these things under review, but the key issue for all of us is to get the virus down, and that is the best way of helping our hospitality sector.
Yesterday, my constituency of Wallasey, as part of the Liverpool city region, was mandated by the Government to go into tier 3 restrictions. Does the Chief Secretary agree that the £40 million of unallocated support that his Government gave to the city region at the start of the pandemic could now be used, given that we are in tier 3, to support local businesses that are in the worst form of lockdown?
We did address this issue; I recognise that many hon. Members in the House have raised it on behalf of those councils where the initial estimate was at odds with the actual number of grants issued, but for the same reasons I gave earlier I do not think that would be equitable. Where there are pressures with tier 3, as with the conversations that took place for example between the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government and leaders in Merseyside, among others, over the weekend, it is right that the needs are addressed pertaining to tier 3, not that the underspend on funding that was allocated in a previous period is then used in that way. If the Government were to agree that, many hon. Members across the House would feel that that was unfair.