Monday 9 November 2020
Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office
Belarus: Violations Report
The Government have welcomed the publication of the report by the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe’s (OSCE) independent rapporteur, Professor Wolfgang Benedek, on Belarus. The report was initiated under the Moscow mechanism to consider alleged human rights violations related to the presidential elections in Belarus on 9 August 2020.
As I noted in my statement to the House of 24 September, alongside 16 other participating states at the OSCE on 17 September, the United Kingdom invoked the Moscow mechanism of the human dimension of the OSCE. This triggered an independent investigation into credible reports of electoral fraud and human rights violation before, during and after the presidential elections in Belarus. The investigation commenced on 30 September and is now complete. The report was formally presented to the OSCE Permanent Council on 5 November 2020 and was welcomed by all 17 invoking states in a joint statement. The UK also made a national statement to welcome its publication.
Belarus refused to co-operate with the rapporteur or allow him access to the country. Nevertheless, the report draws heavily on evidence and observations from international organisations and mechanisms, as well as more than 700 submissions from Belarusian citizens and organisations.
The findings of the report are clear.
The report concludes that the allegations that the elections were not transparent, as well as neither free nor fair, are accurate and well evidenced. The report notes that from the selection of the national electoral commission through to vote counting, Belarus fell short of its international commitments and of the basic requirements of previous OSCE and Council of Europe election monitoring reports.
The report finds that the allegations of human rights violations have been proven beyond doubt and that the Belarusian authorities have carried out violations on a massive and systematic scale. The report highlights the environment of impunity that exists in Belarus; no one has been held accountable for the well documented cases of torture and inhumane treatment by the security forces. The report also confirms that freedom of the media and the safety of journalists are under sustained attack in Belarus.
The report makes 82 recommendations to the Belarusian authorities including new presidential elections, an immediate end to the violence and release of all those illegally detained, an independent oversight mechanism on detention conditions, and an investigation into all allegations of torture.
The Government call on Belarus to implement all of the recommendations included in the report. Further, the report makes 16 recommendations to OSCE participants and the wider international community. The UK has already begun to implement the majority of these recommendations. In addition, the UK supports the recommendation that Belarus must hold new elections and that a detailed and thorough investigation in the human rights violations is required.
A copy of the report is being placed in the Libraries of both Houses.
UK's Future Trading Relationship with New Zealand: Negotiations
The second UK-New Zealand free trade agreement (FTA) negotiating round took place from 19 October to 2 November. Negotiators carried out 46 sessions over two weeks, covering all areas of the proposed FTA, and bringing us closer to agreeing an ambitious FTA. Between round 1 and round 2, both sides shared 35 draft texts and 25 position papers, which enabled detailed and constructive talks.
The talks underscored both countries’ commitment to removing trade barriers and creating new opportunities for business, and a belief that a deep and dynamic agreement can send a clear signal to the world that both the UK and New Zealand are prepared to fight protectionism and advance free and fair trade.
There has been encouraging progress on numerous areas of common interest. In the area of small and medium-sized enterprises, both sides reaffirmed their ambition to agree a chapter that will enable these businesses to fully benefit from the FTA. Productive conversations were also held on trade and the environment and promoting clean growth, where both countries are working closely together to support sustainable outcomes across the agreement.
Discussions also demonstrated shared ambition in trade in services, particularly exploring opportunities for the recognition of professional qualifications, as well as exploring innovative provisions to promote sustainable finance and diversity in the financial services sector. Our negotiations on digital trade also underlined shared aspirations, and a mutual intent to agree a cutting-edge chapter.
The groundwork was laid for the exchange of initial goods market access offers as well as positive discussions in the areas of rules of origin and customs on agreeing simple, modern customs procedures that consider current and future supply chains.
The UK and New Zealand are both keen to continue the momentum of discussions, and the third negotiating round is expected to take place in January 2021.
Below is a summary list of those areas discussed in the round, which continued to take place by video conference:
State-to-state dispute settlement
Environment and clean growth
Good regulatory practice
Trade in goods
Legal and institutional
Rules of origin
Sanitary and phytosanitary measures
Services (including cross-border trade in services, professional business services, transport and delivery services, and movement of natural persons)
Small and medium-sized enterprises
State owned enterprises
Technical barriers to trade
Trade and women’s economic empowerment
Trade for development
Any deal the UK Government agree will be fair and balanced and in the best interests of the whole UK. We remain committed to upholding our high environmental, labour, food safety and animal welfare standards in our trade agreement with New Zealand, as well as protecting the national health service (NHS).
Presumption of Parental Involvement Review
On the 25 June 2020, the Government published the final report on Assessing Risk of Harm to Children and Parents in Private Law Children Cases, alongside an implementation plan. The report contained a number of recommendations from a panel that included external experts, and the implementation plan set out how the Government proposed to address the recommendations.
One of the recommendations made by the panel was
“that the presumption of parental involvement be reviewed urgently in order to address its detrimental effects.”
I am pleased to announce the commencement of a review of the presumption of parental involvement in child arrangements, and certain other private law children proceedings. This review will focus on the application of the presumption and the statutory exception in cases where there are allegations or other evidence to suggest that involvement of the parent would put the child at risk of harm.
The review will focus both on the courts’ application of the presumption, as well as on the impact on children’s welfare of the courts’ application of these provisions. In particular, the review will examine:
(i) how courts are applying sections 1(2A), (2B) and (6) of the Children Act 1989, which together require courts to presume, in child arrangements and certain other private law children proceedings, that involvement of a parent in the child’s life will further the child’s welfare, unless there is evidence to suggest that involvement of that parent would put the child at risk of suffering harm, and to define involvement as ‘involvement of some kind, either direct or indirect, but not any particular division of a child’s time’;
(ii) and the impacts on children’s welfare of the courts’ application of these provisions.
This is an important, and complex, issue and this approach is intended to identify whether any reforms are needed in this area, and if so, what kind (legislative or otherwise), and to ensure that any conclusions and recommendations are rooted in a solid understanding of the effect of the presumption and its exception, and the evidence base surrounding its application.
I am establishing an Advisory Group to guide the evidence gathering for this important review. The Advisory Group members will be:
Rachel Thomas, Welsh Children’s Commissioner’s Office
Nicole Jacobs, the Domestic Abuse Commissioner
Peter Jackson LJ
HHJ Michelle Corbett
Jacky Tiotto, CEO Cafcass
Matthew Pinnell, Cafcass Cymru
Tammy Knox, Resolution
Michael Lewkowicz, Families Need Fathers
The evidence that this review will gather will include a case file review, input from those working in the family courts, and an academic literature review of how the presumption is currently applied and the impact of parental involvement on the wellbeing of the child.
The Ministry of Justice will follow a competitive tender process to identify the most appropriate individuals to conduct the evidence review.
I anticipate being able to update the House before summer recess with the outcomes of the review.
Work and Pensions
Yesterday marked 25 years since the introduction of the landmark Disability Discrimination Act. The Disability Discrimination Act (and the subsequent Equality Act) has stood the test of time and provides a strong and straightforward legal framework that protects disabled people from unfair treatment. This vital protection supports disabled people in all aspects of their daily lives, whether they are at school, at work or accessing services and has had a life-changing impact for many. This has focused minds and crucially has helped us support record numbers of disabled people into work, with growing confidence in businesses of all sizes to make what are often just small changes to unlock the potential of a diverse workforce.
I am therefore updating the House on how this Government are continuing to make progress in supporting and engaging disabled people. Through my role as the Minister for Disabled People, Health and Work, the Prime Minister has asked me to lead on the national strategy for disabled people. I am making sure disability policy is prioritised in all Departments. This is vital work.
The national strategy for disabled people takes a cross-Government approach, focusing on the issues that disabled people say affect them the most in all aspects and phases of life, including housing, education and transport. This will be the most ambitious piece of disability policy in a generation. All Departments are supporting cross-Government work to remove barriers and make this country more inclusive for disabled people, with a nominated ministerial lead to identify policies and priorities. I chaired the first inter-ministerial taskforce of these Ministers recently and I am encouraged by the shared commitment for joint working with each Minister wanting to play their part.
As a Government, we continually strive to make improvements to the service we provide. For example we have extended Video Replay Service (VRS) for British Sign Language across 61 benefit-related helplines and have supported 8,029 VRS calls over a six-month period. But we recognise there is much more we can do improve. The DWP health and disability Green Paper will explore how the welfare system can better meet the needs of disabled people and those with health conditions.
Both the national strategy and the Green Paper will be extensively consulted on in the coming months and shaped by disabled people, disability forums and disability stakeholders, ensuring that real lived experience at the very heart of our plans. We are engaging with disabled people’s organisations including through the regional stakeholder network and the recently established Disabled People’s Organisations Forum. To inform the content of the Green Paper, we have hosted a series of workshops across the country where local disability organisations and disabled people have shared their experiences of DWP services and priorities for future changes. Despite covid-19 preventing us from doing physical face-to-face consultations, which has also caused us to decide to now publish in 2021, we have continued engagement with a series of virtual events with charities and disabled people. To date, the Department and I have heard from disabled people and those with health conditions, and their representatives at 17 events.
I am hugely excited by this work which represents a real opportunity to deliver a more inclusive society. Both the health and disability Green Paper and the national strategy will deliver ambitious policy reforms to improve the lives of disabled people.