House of Commons
Thursday 12 November 2020
The House met at half-past Nine o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Virtual participation in proceedings commenced (Order, 4 June).
[NB: [V] denotes a Member participating virtually.]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Minister for the Cabinet Office was asked—
Covid-19: Local Discussions
At every stage of the pandemic, the UK Government have engaged with the devolved Administrations, metro mayors and local councils. Local resilience forums are at the frontline of providing the response to tackling covid-19, and the Government will continue to engage with local authorities to beat the virus.
With covid cases in York now well below the level they were when the city went into tier 2, can the Minister reassure me that the Government are listening closely to the feedback and case numbers they are receiving from the city authorities, and that York’s restrictions from 2 December will be based on the local virus situation and local judgments, not based on decisions imposed by central Government or on wider regional figures?
First of all, let me acknowledge the immense sacrifices that people in York and elsewhere around the country are making, and what people are having to endure. As the Prime Minister has made clear, the current restrictions will end on 2 December, and we will then return to a local and tiered approach. The Government will work with my hon. Friend and other local leaders in the area to determine the most appropriate response. We will be tailoring any tiers that people have to go into, as we have done previously, depending on what is needed locally.
Will my right hon. Friend join me in commending the strong local agency working and local resilience forums, such as our own in Hampshire? Will the Government commit to working with local areas to really understand the pressures that, sadly, will persist even after this time? I am thinking in particular of areas such as children’s services.
I am very pleased to join my right hon. Friend in sending thanks to Hampshire LRF and all the LRFs around the country, which are doing an incredible job in such difficult circumstances. We very much understand that they are in the frontline of this fight, and communications with them and with local authorities are vital. That is why we put in liaison officers at the early stage of the crisis. We know and understand very well the additional pressures that they are under, particularly, as he says, with regard to children’s services, and children going into care or being in care for prolonged periods because of pressures on the family courts.
Will my right hon. Friend let us know what Government discussions are taking place about an exit strategy for lockdown, so that local businesses such as pubs and close contact businesses such as Skinderella in Broxtowe can plan ahead?
I thank my hon. Friend for the work that he has done in recent weeks to stand up for individuals and businesses in his constituency. The Government do listen to all representations that are made, as we have seen in recent weeks—for example, over takeaway beer, which was a suggestion as to how pubs and related businesses could help themselves throughout this period. The Government are always keen to hear ideas from business and hon. Members about how we can best ensure that our economy comes through this strongly. We will continue to listen to all representations made as we leave the current restrictions on 2 December and return to the tiered system.
Transition Period: UK Preparedness
The Government have been clear that the transition period will end on 31 December, when the UK will be outside the single market and the customs union. There is a guaranteed set of changes and opportunities for which the Government, businesses and citizens all need to prepare. The vast majority of the changes that will come into effect will take place regardless of the outcome of negotiations with the European Union on our future trade relationship. Although we have seen a significant increase in readiness among businesses and citizens, there is still more to do, which is why I encourage everybody who needs to do so to go to www.gov.uk/transition, where there is a range of tools to help people to make the changes they need to for life after the end of the transition period.
I have every confidence that the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster—and all Government Ministers—wishes to continue to prioritise the protection of children online after we leave the transition period. Over the past decade, the UK Safer Internet Centre has removed millions of child sexual abuse images and videos from the internet. Its work costs the UK Government 10p per child under the age of 15 in the UK. What assurances can the Minister give me that the UK Government will continue to fund this work, and will work with the centre, after the EU funding it receives ceases at the end of the transition period?
The hon. Gentleman raises a critically important question. The online exploitation and abuse of children is one of the most horrific crimes, and the more that we investigate, the more we are aware that its scale is even greater than any of us feared. That is why it is so vital that we continue to fund all the organisations that are fighting this scourge. Funding will be maintained. I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his work in this area.
The Marine Management Organisation has stated that about 700,000 tonnes of fish caught in UK waters are landed by other member states. We catch a tiny amount in their waters by comparison. What steps is my right hon. Friend taking to ensure that fishing businesses are ready to take advantage of a rebalance once we have finished the transition period?
My hon. Friend makes a very important point. Under the common fisheries policy, it is not just the case that environmentally we have lost out, but that the coastal communities that she stands up for so brilliantly have lost out as well. As an independent coastal state, we will be able to rebalance the opportunities in our waters in order to ensure that our coastal communities can benefit more financially. We will replace the European maritime fisheries fund with new funding to ensure that there are facilities onshore to help with the processing of the fish that we catch, and of course we will enhance our maritime security capability as well.
We left the EU in January and there are now less than 50 days to go until the end of the transition period. Labour Members have been clear that failing to achieve a deal with the EU would be a disaster for the British economy, but deal or no deal, preparations need to be in place for whatever our new trading relationships are on 1 January. In February this year, the Minister recognised the need for 50,000 customs agents trained and ready to go by the end of this year, and in July he announced a £50 million new fund to make this happen. So can he update the House: how many customs agents are now trained and ready to go?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her question and also for the emphasis that she quite rightly puts on the need for all businesses to prepare, whether or not we secure a deal. Of course we are determined to secure a deal, and that is why our negotiators, under Lord Frost, are working hard with Michel Barnier to close the remaining gaps in the negotiations. As to the number of customs agents, 50,000 was always an estimate. There has been a significant increase in the number of customs agents who are being employed, both by companies themselves with in-house capacity, and through intermediaries who have been scaling up their activities as well.
It is frustrating that the Minister cannot answer this basic question. One minute he wants to channel his inner Roosevelt and the next minute he says that this should all be left to markets, but businesses are demanding leadership and demanding action. Last week, the National Audit Office expressed its concerns about a lack of preparation, and now more and more businesses are expressing their concerns that crucial technology like the customs declaration system is just not ready. Is the Minister actually in control, and will he stake his own reputation on there being no delays, disruption or lost orders due to this Government’s gross incompetence?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for drawing attention to the National Audit Office report of last week. I would encourage everyone who cares, as she does, about making sure that we make the most of the success that life outside the European Union can offer us, to read that report. One of the points it makes is that there are many IT systems for which the Government are responsible. Progress on all those systems has been good. The customs declaration system is essential to making sure that we make a success of life outside the European Union. That is why we have invested, particularly, hundreds of millions of pounds in making sure that businesses that will use CDS when they are transferring goods to Northern Ireland can do so with the support of the Trader Support Service.
It is now some 50 days until we go over the Brexit cliff edge, and in the meantime the covid death rate in the UK reaches 50,000. England is in the middle of another national lockdown, unemployment is on the rise, and the faceless characters that actually run this country at No. 10 are at each other’s throats. Should Scotland be celebrating this incoming Brexit, and whose side is the Minister on—Dom’s or Carrie’s?
I am on the side of people from Aberdeen to Aberystwyth who voted to leave the European Union. They want us as a United Kingdom to make a success of these new opportunities. I know that the Scottish Government are total strangers to behind-the-scenes intrigue and briefing wars, so I can imagine his shock and amazement to see these things reported in the newspapers, but let me assure him that the Government continue to make decisions in the interests of the whole United Kingdom. The people of Perth and North Perthshire can have confidence that they have not only a gamesome representative in the House of Commons, but a Government committed to their welfare.
May I tell the right hon. Gentleman what Scotland is in fact doing? Scotland is quickly determining that it wants no part of this incoming Brexit nightmare after the transition. Independence and a European future is now the new settled will of the Scottish people. We are now the majority, so can he think of an example anywhere in the world where another dilapidated, finished Government are attempting to deny a majority in a democracy?
I think that the hon. Gentleman might be referring to Belarus, of course, with his last question, but let me assure him that the United Kingdom Government remain strong, resolute and committed to delivering on the will of the British people. In particular, the Union, which has provided for 300 years an example of people coming together in a spirit of solidarity to proclaim the values of democracy, human rights and liberalism, will endure for many decades to come.
We now learn that the First Minister and her deputy have said that there is a “real threat” to the continuity of food supplies in Northern Ireland. The Road Haulage Association has described border preparations as “frankly pathetic”. The customs declaration service probably will not be ready in time, and the NAO has warned that widespread disruption for 1 January is likely. Given that the right hon. Gentleman has repeatedly assured the House that it will all be fine, why does he think so many other people do not share his optimism?
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. His Committee on the Future Relationship with the European Union has done extensive work drawing attention to the preparations that are required to be made. There are still significant preparations that we and businesses need to make to conclude our preparedness, which is why later today, I will be meeting representatives from business representative organisations, including the CBI and others, to ensure that everything possible is being done to prepare for the changes. I do not shirk from acknowledging that there are challenges we all face in the run-up to the end of the transition period, but there are also significant opportunities for which the British people voted and which we are pledged to deliver.
Transition Period: UK-EU Relations
I and other Ministers have regular discussions with representatives of the Scottish Government and also other devolved Administrations to ensure that we can be prepared across the United Kingdom for the challenges we face as we end the transition period and the opportunities that will follow.
Let us head into the dark with Kenny MacAskill.
A shared prosperity fund is by its very name inclusive. Why then, given the proximity to the end of transition, are not just Scottish businesses but the Scottish Government excluded from its details?
The Scottish Government, unlike the hon. Member, will not be in the dark about the future of the UK shared prosperity fund. He is absolutely right to draw attention to the fact that outside the European Union, we will be able to take back control of the billions that currently we give to the European Union, and we can invest that money in our shared priorities—for example, making sure that his constituents in East Lothian are better connected digitally, by rail and by other means to other parts of the United Kingdom, so they can enjoy the shared prosperity that comes from a strong United Kingdom working for all.
We now know, through leaked Cabinet papers, that this Tory Government hid their Brexit plans from devolved Governments, including on state aid and food supply availability. How does the Minister expect these Governments to prepare when those crucial details are blocked from Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland? Does he agree that this level of ignorance and contempt is helping to deliver record levels of support for independence and a consistent majority over the last 12 polls in a row?
I have no secrets from the hon. Gentleman. We take an open-book approach to our preparations for leaving the European Union, which is why, later today, the Cabinet Sub-Committee that deals with the preparations—
I can see the hon. Gentleman making goldfish-type movements of his lips and teeth. Now he is breaking into a smile. That smile, of course, welcomes the fact that later this afternoon, the Government Sub-Committee that deals with our preparations for leaving the European Union will have Ministers from the devolved Administrations, including my friends from the Scottish Government, taking part. It is one of the pleasures of this role that I have the opportunity every week to talk to excellent colleagues such as Mike Russell, Humza Yousaf and others, who do such a good job in working across the United Kingdom in the interests of all.
Regional Equality of Economic Opportunity
The Government are doubling down on levelling up opportunity across the United Kingdom, ensuring that everyone benefits from economic growth. That includes longer-term measures such as £1 billion for local projects to boost local economic growth, alongside unprecedented support for businesses, workers and local authorities in every nation and region of the United Kingdom in the light of covid-19.
Cornwall has been in receipt of funding through the European regional development fund for many years. I am delighted that the Government have committed to continue to support the Cornish economy at a similar level through the UK shared prosperity fund, which will be vital for continuing to level up our country. With the current ERDF programme coming to an end shortly, it is vital that the replacement fund is put in place as soon as possible. Can the Minister update the House on when we can expect the Government to come forward with details of the shared prosperity fund?
I thank my hon. Friend for his question about Cornwall. I was delighted to have the chance to support the Cornish economy as part of a south-west visit over the summer, which included visiting him in his seat of St Austell and Newquay. As we said in our manifesto, we will introduce a UK shared prosperity fund that will match at a minimum the current levels of funding to each nation from EU structural funds. The arrangements for the fund will be confirmed following the upcoming spending review.
In order for us to truly level up, we will need to mobilise billions of pounds of private capital. Does my right hon. Friend agree that, as part of the national infrastructure strategy, we should launch a new financial institution such as a British development bank to make that happen?
The Government are committed to ensuring that businesses and infrastructure projects continue to have access to the finance they need. The UK has a range of existing tools to support investment, including the UK guarantees scheme. The Government will bring forward further measures to boost investment in UK infrastructure as part of the national infrastructure strategy.
This year has presented many challenges, but as my right hon. Friend will know from her visit to my constituency in the summer, there remains a strong desire to see a levelling-up agenda in constituencies like mine, with better infrastructure, better educational standards and more affordable housing. Can she assure me that this Government remain committed to levelling up constituencies like Bolsover?
I want to take this opportunity to congratulate my hon. Friend once again on his historic election victory in Bolsover exactly 11 months ago. I was delighted to visit him in Bolsover during the summer. I can assure him that the Government are as committed to levelling up opportunity across the UK today as we were last December.
British Nuclear Test Veterans: Service Medals
I appreciate how important medallic recognition is to so many of our veterans groups. There is an independent process that looks at the consideration of historical medal claims. That sub-committee restarted in 2018, and I know that it has received representations from nuclear test veterans. Those review recommendations will be made public as soon as possible.
I thank the Minister for his response. My constituent John Ward was one of many veterans sent there in 1957, and he has campaigned for many years for recognition of his work and also for acknowledgement through a medal. May I encourage the Minister to continue to do what he can to acknowledge the service of those veterans and to confirm that the recent Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Bill, which was passed, has no bearing or impact on their cause?
I have for some time been a supporter of his campaign, and I would urge him to continue in that vein. When it comes to the Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Bill, there were a huge number of misunderstandings about this. It deals with people who are deployed on overseas operations. The nuclear test veterans were not deployed on overseas operations, and their ability to claim compensation for what happened to them is unaffected by this legislation.
Civil Service: Apprenticeship Targets
The Cabinet Office has been working closely with the Department for Education to deliver on our ambition of 30,000 new apprentices by the end of 2020 and of 2.3% of the civil service workforce in England as apprenticeship starts. We had been on track to meet those targets; unfortunately, because of the pandemic, that has been delayed slightly to April, but we will be publishing further performance data as it becomes available. In the past fortnight, I have written to the skills Minister—the Under-Secretary of State for Education, my hon. Friend the Member for Chichester (Gillian Keegan)—and the Minister for Universities about how we can broaden the apprenticeship supply market and use apprenticeships to attract ever more talented people into the civil service.
Will my hon. Friend just make it absolutely clear that all public sector bodies must fulfil the legal requirements to fill the 2.3% apprenticeship target, and will she ensure that every new appointment, where possible, is advertised as an apprenticeship to the civil service, whether at level 2 or degree level? Will my hon. Friend also make certain that all Government sector employment contracts have a significant percentage of employees as apprenticeships before the jobs of procurement are offered out?
I thank my right hon. Friend for his question. I wish to assure him that apprenticeship recruitment is an absolutely core part of Departments’ resourcing plans. We want to make sure the apprenticeship route is used for all recruitment activity, where it is appropriate. I shall look into some of the other issues that he raises.
I am also very keen that we as MPs play our part in highlighting to our constituents some of the absolutely incredible civil service apprenticeship opportunities on offer. In that vein, I am going to host an online apprenticeship event to advertise some of the civil service apprenticeship opportunities, and I should be grateful if my right hon. Friend joined me in that event so that he can advertise them to places such as Harlow College in his constituency.
Civil Service Jobs outside London
We want to make the administration of government much less London-centric and more reflective of the country as a whole, with an ambition to relocate 22,000 civil service roles out of the capital and into the regions and nations of the UK by the end of this decade. Our Places for Growth programme is an incredibly exciting one, working with Departments and public bodies to establish a series of hub locations that we hope will deliver on our levelling-up ambitions, strengthen the Union, reduce estate costs, support our industrial strategy, and take advantage of untapped talent and expertise.
I thank the Minister for that answer. Can she confirm that, as well as civil service reform, this Government will use the opportunity to level up all parts of the UK? With a Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs site already in Workington, does she agree that we are perfectly placed to take this forward and ensure that the north-west does not get left behind?
I thank my hon. Friend for his question. We hope to be able to announce where we are going to place hub locations shortly. I am afraid that I am not in a position to confirm that now, but I am very confident that the north-west will benefit from the programme. I hope that he will engage with that and contribute in his role on the levelling-up taskforce.
The purpose of moving civil service jobs out of London is not simply to relocate jobs from one part of the country to another, but to place policy makers in communities that have been left behind for too long, such as mine in Redcar and Cleveland. Can my hon. Friend confirm that she has seen the plans presented by Ben Houchen to relocate civil service jobs to Teesside, and will she commit to meeting me and my Tees Valley colleagues to progress these plans further?
I thank my hon. Friend for his question. I have heard the Mayor of Teesside mentioned in this place perhaps more than any civic leader in the country, and I find myself in awe, once again, of the raw power of the Teesside parliamentary caucus. I am pleased to say that I spent last night eagerly reading the Mayor’s plans for the international campus in Teesside, and I particularly enjoyed the value-for-money comparisons with the London housing market. I understand that he has already met the lead official for Places for Growth, and I will be asking for an update on those discussions so we can make sure that the north-east benefits from this agenda.
In 2018, just 9% of the civil service fast stream came from a working-class background, which was higher than some previous years, but still low. Does my hon. Friend agree that, as well as improving the locations that civil servants work in and come from, we need to improve the social backgrounds they come from for better policy making and delivery?
My hon. Friend’s commitment to opportunity for people from less wealthy backgrounds extends back many years to his tremendous work at the Social Mobility Foundation. We are looking at how we can get a more diverse array of people via the Places for Growth programme, but it is not just limited to places for growth; we are looking at the whole human resources strategy in the civil service so that we look at diversity in a much broader way than previously.
We now head up to Jonathan Gullis in Stoke-on-Trent. No, he is unavailable, so I call David Simmonds.
Future Relationship with the EU
Negotiations are continuing in London this week, and this of course is a continuation of the intensive talks that both sides agreed to on 21 October. Progress is being made, but divergences remain. That said, the UK will continue to engage in negotiations on a free trade agreement, and the UK’s negotiation team, led by Lord Frost, will continue to work hard to find solutions that, of course, fully respect the United Kingdom’s regained sovereignty.
In pursuit of the levelling up agenda, which we are so passionate about, will my right hon. Friend provide an update on the progress being made to ensure that powers that are being released from EU treaties are devolved to local and regional government, where they may most appropriately sit?
My hon. Friend makes a very important point and, as a distinguished former local government leader, he knows the power of good local government to make a difference for the better for all our citizens. That is why, as we take power back from the European Union, we are working not just with the devolved Administrations in Holyrood and Cardiff and Belfast, but also with local government leaders and metro Mayors—including, of course, the superb metro Mayor in Teesside, Ben Houchen—to ensure that we exercise the distribution of power in a more equitable and progressive fashion.
These negotiations are not going well and time is running out. The best the UK can now hope for is a very basic trade deal with the EU. The Minister knows that in all negotiations there needs to be concessions and some give and take on all sides, so what exactly, if anything, is the UK willing to concede or compromise on?
The UK has already shown a great degree of flexibility in these negotiations, but it is that the European Union shows flexibility too, and in particular there needs to be full recognition that we are sovereign equals, and any attempt to continue to tie the UK into EU processes or to extend EU jurisdiction by other means will be quite wrong.
May I remind the Minister that the Road Haulage Association described the Government’s preparations for the transition as not only “chaotic” but “pathetic” and said that
“logistics may not be able to deliver”?
The Minister has a deserved reputation for politeness, but can he also be candid and give us a guarantee that there will be no jobs lost and no goods not delivered, particularly to and from Northern Ireland, when we hit the end of the transition period?
The hon. Gentleman makes a very important point, and in his time in this House he has been a distinguished champion of the rights of the people of Northern Ireland. It is very important in the discussions that we have in the Joint Committee that we make sure that we implement the protocol on the future of Northern Ireland in a way that ensures that its people can continue to have unfettered access to the rest of the UK, and in particular that we can maintain the flow of goods that are so vital to the life of the Province. That is why I am confident that the Vice-President of the European Commission, Maroš Šefčovič, who is the co-chair of the Joint Committee, will work pragmatically, as he has in the past, to ensure that the people of Northern Ireland have a secure future.
When the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster made his statement to the House on the negotiations on 19 October, his former boss, the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May), was left incredulous when he told her that without access to previously shared databases, the UK could act
“more effectively to safeguard our borders outside the European Union than we ever could inside.”—[Official Report, 19 October 2020; Vol. 682, c. 761.]
So can he explain precisely how without that access we will get the real-time information needed to pick up foreign criminals at the point of entry in ports and airports?
One of the things that we will be able to do when we take back control is to have total discretion over who comes into this country. One of things that we will be able to do, for example, is to end the abuse of ID cards, which are easily forged, easily used by organised criminals, and utilised in order to gain access to this country. Once we are out of the transition period, we will take back control of our borders, a precondition of greater security for all.
Frankly, we are at a stage of this process where empty reassurances and dodging questions just will not do. Earlier this week, the president of the Police Superintendents Association said that without this access, information sharing will be “less effective”, and highlighted his concern about the implications for policing and security. So let me try again. At the Home Affairs Committee on 4 November, the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster), was asked repeatedly by the Chair to state which real-time system will be available for Border Force to identify foreign criminals, without access to SIS II. Repeatedly, the Minister was unable to give an answer, so can the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster simply answer that question?
Yes, of course; it is the case that Border Force will be in a stronger position to be able to detect a criminal—[Interruption.] Well, if the hon. Gentleman keeps asking the same question, I will give him the same answer, which is that Border Force will be able, through the deployment of safety and security declarations, to have a more effective means of monitoring organised criminals. The truth is that when we take back control of our borders, we enhance our ability to deal with criminality.
Covid-19 Vaccines: Logistics
The Department of Health and Social Care is working closely with Government Departments and bodies and the NHS, as well as local leaders, on all aspects of vaccine deployment, including distribution logistics.
In his response to the urgent question on Tuesday, the Minister for Defence Procurement said that it is not for the Ministry of Defence to suggest that it should do the logistics. I think he was being unusually shy. My right hon. Friend the Paymaster General will know how good the armed forces are at logistics, so will she ask the Ministry of Defence to definitely get involved in the deployment of the covid-19 vaccine when it is available?
I thank my hon. Friend for affording me the opportunity to pay tribute to the work that our armed forces have done across many aspects of this, often visibly but also behind the scenes in providing planning expertise. They have provided in an incredible service to every aspect of the response. This is a massive undertaking—the largest vaccination programme, I think, in the NHS’s history—but, as the deputy chief medical officer has said, plans for it have been under way for some time. That includes logistics, transport and personal protective equipment, but also an expanded workforce so that we can deploy it rapidly. Every part of Government is going to be making a contribution to that, and as soon as the vaccine is approved, we want to be in a position to deliver it to as many people as possible.
Covid-19: Government Use of Consultants
Working effectively with the private sector is a vital part of our response to tackling the covid-19 crisis, allowing us to procure quickly and innovatively and to obtain specialist solutions to the myriad challenges that are facing us. Rapidly obtaining PPE is the most obvious example, but we have also turned to the private sector to help us operate things such as the virtual courts service and video services for families wishing to see loved ones in intensive care units.
We are clear throughout that contracting authorities must use good commercial judgment and continue to achieve value for money for taxpayers, and we are engaged in both internal and external audit to satisfy ourselves that that has been the case. Through “The Outsourcing Playbook” we are also improving the decision making and quality of contracts that the Government place with industry, and we are building our internal civil service capability, as we believe it is important that we invest in our in-house capacity and expertise so that we rely less on external consultants and contractors.
The Government failed to publish any information about £4 billion-worth of covid-related contracts, all awarded to private companies, in what appears to be a flagrant breach of the law. Will the Minister hold an independent inquiry—and if not, why?
I am unaware of the details of the allegations that the hon. Lady makes and I would be grateful if she wrote to me about them. As I mentioned in my earlier answer, the National Audit Office will conduct an external review of the procurements during the pandemic, but we are also doing our own internal review. I note some of the criticisms that are made by the Opposition and I wish to satisfy ourselves that those have no basis, because it is very important in this time of crisis that we maintain public confidence in everything that we are doing.
Some £175 million of taxpayers’ money has been shelled out so far on covid consultants. There has been £252 million for face masks from a company specialising in currency trading and offshore property—more than half the masks were not even fit for purpose because they had the wrong straps on—£43 million for hand sanitisers from a company that was previously dormant, 11 PPE contracts for a pest control company, and so the sordid list goes on. All aboard the covid Tory gravy train. It is no wonder that across our country, there are accusations of corruption and cronyism, with contracts handed down to Tory firms that have links to Tory chums and donors. Does the Minister think that it is right that consultants should be paid up to £7,000 a day to work on test and trace, which, in itself, is a world-beating failure?
We are going to have to have shorter questions for other people to get in—it is only fair.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for the points he raises. As I mentioned, we wish to reassure the public through the use of external and internal audits on some of the issues that he raises, but when it comes to some of the contracts that have been let, we were advised by Labour that we should be looking into a number of different companies, from people producing costumes to a number of other interesting leads that actually led nowhere. We were trying to procure at speed and I have a good degree of confidence in the PPE contracts that were let during this time.
I understand what the Minister is saying about trying to procure at speed, but it does seem that some of the agencies that the Government have chosen to do this are completely not fit for purpose and inappropriate. I cite Deloitte, which was appointed to set up a testing centre in south Leamington in my constituency. It took six weeks for a couple of portakabins and a couple of gazebos. How difficult is it? Why was Public Health England not more involved? It could have done this better.
There is some naivety from Labour Members about how easy it is to do some of these very complex operations at the speed at which they need to be done. We have to thank the private sector for the support that it has given us. We do not have huge volumes of public sector workers sitting there ready to be deployed, and if we did, they would have to be sucked out of other important frontline services. I think we should thank the private sector for the support that it has given us in this very difficult time.
£1,040,585,807—that is the value of Government contracts that have been directly awarded without competitive tender to companies that have links to the Conservative party’s friends or donors during the covid crisis. Will the Minister explain why, with the Tory party, it seems to be all cheques and no balances?
The hon. Lady makes a very serious insinuation about some of the ways in which contracts were let. As I said, we have external and internal audits to make sure that those allegations are investigated and that we are confident that they are baseless. I am happy to continue to engage with her on these issues, but the challenges that have faced us in this time have been substantial and a lot of people have dedicated substantial amounts of time, often for free, to giving their services at a time of crisis. To have insinuations about their character and integrity is very damaging to public confidence.
Covid-19: UK-wide Response
We have extensive discussions across Cabinet and with representatives from the devolved Administrations as we co-ordinate an appropriate UK-wide response to the covid-19 outbreak. Only yesterday afternoon I was discussing with the First Minister and Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland and the First Ministers of Scotland and Wales how we can ensure that we can co-ordinate effectively the roll-out of mass testing.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State for his answer. Building on that answer, what steps is he taking to ensure that, as the guidance and lockdown measures change, the public are fully informed about what is expected of them across the UK?
My hon. Friend makes a vital point. Of course, devolved Administrations have the right and responsibility to tailor solutions to their geography and their populations, but unity of communication is important. That is why, in the call we had yesterday, we also talked about the vital importance of having an aligned approach towards relaxation of restrictions for the Christmas period so that people can be with friends and family across the United Kingdom, confident that they are following rules that have been agreed by all.
As a number of hon. and right hon. Members have reminded us, there are just 50 days to go before the end of the transition period. That is why I am pleased to be able to discuss with the CBI and other business representative organisations this afternoon exactly how we can ensure that we are all ready for both the challenges and the opportunities that that will bring.
Let us head to Scotland with an enlightened Kenny MacAskill.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. Even senior Tories are accepting the inevitability of a second referendum. As Parnell once said:
“No man has a right to fix the boundary to the march of a nation.”
Scots have learned, as the Secretary of State will know, from the trickery of 1979 when even the dead were counted against. Does he not then realise that the people of Scotland will not accept political chicanery on the number or the nature of the question to be asked?
The hon. Gentleman makes a very important point. It is vital that we have confidence in the integrity of our democratic institutions. That is why the Electoral Commission and other bodies play such an important role. Of course, it is also important that people can have confidence in the promises made by politicians, and it was the case in 2014 that Nicola Sturgeon and leading Scottish nationalists made the point that that referendum was for a generation. Just six years later, I do not believe a generation has passed.
Stoke-on-Trent, Kidsgrove and Talke are rich with industrial heritage, from the pits of Chatterley Whitfield to the pots of Middleport Pottery. We are also a UK-leading city, having installed a full-fibre network that will connect every home and business to gigabit. Does my right hon. Friend agree that we are the perfect location for the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport’s new hub?
I cannot think of anywhere better to put DCMS Ministers than Stoke-on-Trent: a jewel in the heart of Staffordshire, home to industrial innovation for generations and boasting three of the finest Members of Parliament in the House of Commons.
Talking of which, what will you say to Robert Halfon? Let us bring him in.
Yes, my right hon. Friend makes an important point. While taxation matters are questions for the Chancellor, who will be updating the House shortly on a variety of important fiscal matters, it is nevertheless the case that outside the European Union we can lower VAT in a way that we could not within the European Union—one of the many benefits of Brexit.
The right to vote independently and in secret should be enjoyed by every voter at an election. I draw the Minister’s attention to the recent report by the Royal National Institute of Blind People about the last general election that found that just one in 10 blind voters and less than half of partially sighted voters were able to cast their vote independently and in secret. What steps are the Government taking to turn around those terrible statistics so that blind and partially sighted voters can enjoy the right that sighted voters have to vote independently and in secret?
The hon. Lady makes an important point, and it is important that everyone’s vote counts. Those who are living with a disability, blind or partially sighted must feel that they can have confidence in the integrity of our electoral system. We have forthcoming legislation on electoral integrity, and I know that the Minister for the Constitution and Devolution, my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich North (Chloe Smith), has been working with charities to ensure that we have a fully inclusive and modern voting system.
My hon. Friend does a fantastic job speaking up for the fishermen on both the north and south coasts of Cornwall, and I can absolutely reassure her that in the negotiations we are standing firm on ensuring that her constituents and the coastal communities that she represents can benefit from our exit from the common fisheries policy.
Yes, I would be delighted to.
Yes. My hon. Friend makes an important point, and it was one that was emphasised earlier. The relocation of parts of Government to different parts of the United Kingdom is not just about distributing economic opportunity; it is also about ensuring that, as we think about the future, we represent in particular those undervalued communities and overlooked families in coastal communities just like Blackpool, who for generations now have not been at the centre of our thinking about how to ensure that we truly represent every citizen. One of the lessons of the Brexit campaign and its aftermath is that far too many people in the United Kingdom felt that the values and instincts of those who governed them were out of tune with their own sentiments and beliefs, and we have got to ensure, as we restructure government, that their values and instincts are at the heart of everything.
My hon. Friend makes an important point. Listening to some of the questions from the other side of the House, you would think that the only way in which we could ever procure vaccines, testing or personal protective equipment was by having some sort of Gosplan Stalinist approach in which no private sector individual or organisation could ever be involved. I think that most people looking at, for example, the contribution of—
Order. I do not think we need more political broadcasts. We have had a good day today. We are meant to have short, punchy answers to these questions, not rhetoric.
Well, we are.
Again, my hon. Friend makes an important point. There is no better representation of how we work well together as a country than the shared sacrifices made by those in our military, and they are doing an outstanding job in supporting us in the fight against coronavirus, as they did in all the challenges we have faced in the last 100 years.
My hon. Friend makes absolutely the right point—we will be able to control who comes into this country—but we will also have visa-free travel with the EU.
As I mentioned earlier, I will be meeting businesses this afternoon to make sure we provide all the support necessary for businesses, in York and elsewhere. The hon. Lady makes an important point about working together, but she prefaced her remarks by reflecting on the length of time from the referendum to the conclusion of the transition period, which would have been shorter had her party been committed to implementing the results of the referendum. I commend to her the words of the hon. Members for Hemsworth (Jon Trickett) and for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery)—wise men indeed.
With excellent advocates such as my hon. Friend the south-west will always be heard and never left behind, and it is indeed crucial that we make the most of the opportunities that Exeter and Devon can provide for a bright economic future.
Whenever I see the hon. Gentleman, I am irresistibly reminded of the words of “Bring Me Sunshine”. I do not know whether he is Wise, but he is certainly one of the reasons the Conservatives represent Morecambe.
I think there was a little blush as well in there.
My hon. Friend makes a very important point, and he has been a consistent and effective advocate for the rights of older and vulnerable citizens in all his time in the House. We must make sure, both through effective voter registration and through the effective roll-out of our vaccination programme, that older and vulnerable voters are in a position to take part in the democratic process, and I will work with the Minister for the Constitution and Devolution to do just that.
Thank you for getting through topicals on time—we have done well. In order to allow the safe exit of hon. Members participating in this item of business and the safe arrival of those participating in the next, I am suspending the House for three minutes.
(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs if he will make a statement on the disqualification of pro-democracy lawmakers in Hong Kong.
Yesterday was another sad day for the people of Hong Kong. China’s National People’s Congress Standing Committee imposed new restrictions that mean that any Hong Kong legislator who is deemed to support independence, refuse to recognise China’s sovereignty, seek foreign forces’ interference or endanger national security should be disqualified from membership of Hong Kong’s Legislative Council. This decision led to the immediate removal of four elected Members of the Legislative Council, who were, at that moment, sitting in the Chamber.
It is my unfortunate duty to report to the House our judgment that that decision breaches the legally binding Sino-British joint declaration. It breaches both China’s commitment that Hong Kong will enjoy a high degree of autonomy and the right to freedom of speech, guaranteed under paragraph 3 of the declaration. This is the third time that the Government have called a breach of the joint declaration since 1997, but the second time that we have been forced to do so in the last six months.
This decision is part of a pattern designed to harass and stifle all voices critical of China’s policies. The new rules for disqualification provide a further tool in that campaign, with vague criteria open to wide-ranging interpretation. Hong Kong’s people are left now with a neutered legislature, and 15 pan-democratic legislators have already resigned en masse in protest.
China has yet again broken its promise to the people of Hong Kong. Its actions tarnish China’s international reputation and undermine Hong Kong’s long-term stability. The UK has already offered a new immigration path for British nationals overseas, suspended our extradition treaty with Hong Kong and extended our arms embargo on mainland China to Hong Kong. The permanent under-secretary at the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office has today summoned the Chinese ambassador to register our deep concern at this latest action by his Government.
Hong Kong’s prosperity and way of life rely on respect for fundamental freedoms, an independent judiciary and the rule of law. China’s actions are putting at risk Hong Kong’s success. The UK will stand up for our values. We will stand up for the people of Hong Kong. We will call out violations of their rights and freedoms. With our international partners, we will continue to hold China to its international obligations.
Thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting this urgent question, and I thank the Minister for his words. Today I have a very simple question. What are the Government going to do as “one country, two systems” disappears before our eyes? The disqualification of pro-democracy lawmakers from the Legislative Council of Hong Kong means it has effectively been reduced to a rubber-stamp Parliament and democracy on the peninsula is now in mortal peril.
Although the previous actions of this Government are to be commended, it is time to do more. Indeed, the Foreign Secretary told the House in July that the Government
“will hold China to its international obligations.”—[Official Report, 20 July 2020; Vol. 678, c. 1832.]
Yet here we are again. Through these actions, the Chinese Government are making a mockery of the joint declaration. I ask the Minister what legal routes to defend the joint declaration are being considered. What has the Minister done to co-ordinate a response with our allies internationally, in particular the USA, including President-elect Biden, and the European Union? Will the UK finally impose Magnitsky-style sanctions on those individuals in Hong Kong and China who are responsible for human rights abuses, and, if not that model, will he look at a sanctions register, as used by the US?
The BNO citizenship scheme excludes those who need it, particularly young people who have so bravely protested in the best traditions of democracy. We must protect them. The estimated true cost for a Hongkonger to come here for five years is £3,000, and that is before living costs. Many simply cannot afford it. Will the Minister confirm how many applications have been made under the scheme and how many have been granted? Will he consider introducing a bursary scheme for those unable to pay, and will he introduce a lifeboat policy for all Hong Kong citizens regardless of age and, if not, will he agree to meet me to discuss this matter further?
In 1996, John Major underlined our commitment to Hong Kong when he said:
“If there were to be any suggestion of a breach of the Joint Declaration we would have a duty to pursue every legal and other avenue available to us.”
“Hong Kong will never have to walk alone.”
It is time for actions, not just words. It is time to make good on our promise.
I thank the hon. Lady for raising this urgent question. One of her points was about whether I would meet her; of course, I am more than happy to meet her. I know how important this issue is to her and other Members of this House, and my door is always open for conversations with me and my team. I can tell her that we have already seen statements from our partners thus far on this particular issue. Australia, the USA, Canada and Germany have all made statements on the matter and we will continue to work with all our Five Eyes partners to hold China to account. The actions we have taken at the UN over the last few months are testament to that and proof of our leading diplomatic role in this regard.
The hon. Lady asked about sanctions and we will continue to consider designations under our Magnitsky-style sanctions regime. She will appreciate it is not entirely appropriate to speculate on who may be designated under the sanctions regime in the future, as that could reduce the impact, but we are carefully considering further designations under the scheme.
She was right to mention the action we have taken on British nationals overseas. The Home Secretary issued a statement on 22 July on the new route for BNOs, which states that
“in compelling and compassionate circumstances, and where applications are made as a family unit, we will use discretion to grant a visa to the children”
of BNO status-holders
“who fall into this category…the existing youth mobility scheme is open to people in Hong Kong aged between 18 and 30, with 1,000 places currently available each year. Individuals from Hong Kong will also be able to apply to come to the UK under the terms of the UK’s new points-based system”.—[Official Report, 22 July 2020; Vol. 678, c. 115WS.]
The hon. Lady asked about the number of BNOs. From July 2020, BNO citizens and their dependants have been eligible to be granted six months’ leave outside the rules at the border to the UK, and from 15 July to 14 October 2020, a total of 2,116 BNO citizens and their dependants have been granted that. That data is not a reliable proxy for the number of people who may apply for the visa when it opens in January, but it does suggest that the number of BNO citizens seeking to come to the UK in the short term is unlikely to be at the high end of the scale.
I welcome my hon. Friend’s designation that this is the third breach of the Sino-British joint declaration, and I do not think that anybody in this House disagrees with him. After all, we are now seeing that China really does believe in “one man, one vote”, and that man, of course, is Chairman Xi. We now need Her Majesty’s Government to respond not just, as my hon. Friend quite rightly said, by looking at our own laws and Magnitsky sanctions, or, indeed, by seeking to work with others, but by working on the international trade platform as well. What conversations has my hon. Friend had with the Department for International Trade, partners at the World Trade Organisation and others around the world to make sure that Hong Kong is designated correctly as a part of China and that it no longer has a separate status for customs or, indeed, any other form of commerce?
I thank the Chair of the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs for his question and for his ongoing leadership on this particular issue. Trade with China is absolutely pivotal and crucial to the UK. Figures over the last six months show that China is only one of two countries where our exports have actually grown over a very difficult period. We have a high level of ambition for our trade partnership. We want to work with it to increase trade, but as we strive for that positive relationship we will not sacrifice our values or our security. We are very clear-sighted about the challenges. As we continue to engage, we will always protect our national interests. Absolutely and imperatively, as the Foreign Secretary has said at this Dispatch Box on many occasions, we will continue to hold China to its international commitments and its promises.
This assault on democracy represents not only a clear breach of the Basic Law and the joint declaration; it also confirms that the Chinese Government and the Hong Kong Executive are committed to the removal of dissenting voices from the democratic process, and to the repression of the rights of the people of Hong Kong. The Labour party stands in solidarity with the four pro-democracy representatives who have been removed from the Legislative Council, and with the 15 additional Opposition Members who have resigned in protest. Their departure leaves Hong Kong without an Opposition in the legislature, removing one of the vital checks on the Hong Kong Executive and effectively denying the people of Hong Kong the right to choose their own representatives.
The UK Opposition welcomed the Government’s recent announcement regarding BNO passport holders, but it would be unacceptable for the UK Government now to conclude that they have done all they can for the people of Hong Kong. With that in mind, I ask the Minister the following questions.
First, does the Minister agree that the British Government are legally obliged, through the joint declaration, to defend human rights in Hong Kong, and that failure to do so, to the utmost of their abilities, would put the UK in default of its treaty obligations? Secondly, when will we see details of what the UK Government are offering by way of support to Hongkongers born after 1997? Thirdly, will senior Hong Kong Executive officials now be added to the Magnitsky list? The Minister has been asked this question many times and he has consistently declined to give a definitive answer. Who in Government is holding this up? Fourthly, the Foreign Secretary has rightly condemned the likes of HSBC and Standard Chartered bank for their stance on Hong Kong, but could the Minister please update the House on what action, if any, has actually been taken against those two banks?
I thank the Opposition spokesman for his questions. On sanctions, he will be fully aware that it is not appropriate to speculate on who exactly will come under the radar of our new sanctions regime. We are considering further designations constantly. In terms of HSBC and Standard Chartered in Hong Kong, I have had previous conversations with HSBC, and I am very happy to have more. I am also more than happy to write to the hon. Gentleman on that particular issue.
As I said to the Liberal Democrat spokesman, the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Layla Moran), our door is always open. Our offer to British nationals overseas of a pathway to UK citizenship is compelling and compassionate, and as I said in my previous answer, the youth mobility scheme is open to people in Hong Kong aged between 18 and 30. I am more than happy to flesh this out with the hon. Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock) when he is next in the Chamber or in London.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Layla Moran) on her position. She is a friend, because she is part of the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China, and of alliances on many other countries around the world.
I fully understand the issues for my hon. Friend the Minister and the Government, but the reality is that we face an arrogant country, led by an arrogant leadership that has trashed the Sino-British agreement and is guilty of huge human rights abuses and dangerous confrontations with its neighbours. The British Government must lead in this matter, not wait. It is time for us to let the Chinese Government know that these actions come with serious repercussions. Does he accept that we need to sanction individuals responsible for any of these actions? Let us start with Carrie Lam in Hong Kong.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his continued efforts on this issue, and for working positively with the Government. We will continue to consider designations under the sanctions regulations. I fear I am repeating myself, but he will know, given his background, that it is not appropriate to speculate on who may be designated in the future, as putting that on the record may well reduce the impact of the designations. I completely agree with his opening comments, but we have offered a new immigration path for BNOs; we have suspended our extradition treaty with Hong Kong; we have extended our arms embargo on mainland China to cover Hong Kong; and we have led international efforts to hold China to its international obligations. Gaining 39 signatures at the UN is no mean feat. We have also, rightly, consistently raised our concern with the Chinese authorities.
I try to be fair, and I have much respect for the Minister. I listened to his statement carefully, and anyone would accept that there are limited things that the UK Government can do about the internal workings of the Chinese state. It would be unfair to say that the UK Government have done nothing on this, but it would be fair to say that they have not done much of any consequence—certainly nothing that has elicited a change of heart from Beijing. I reiterate colleagues’ calls for Magnitsky sanctions. We are not looking for speculation; we are looking for announcements, which are overdue. I appreciate that it is difficult, but we need to take that forward.
There are things that the Government can do, and that are in their control. I would be interested to hear plans for an audit of Chinese engagement with our academic infrastructure, and particularly of Confucius institutes and their activities in the UK. We are overdue an audit of Chinese involvement in the UK’s physical, and data and communications, infrastructure, big chunks of which are being bought up by Chinese companies that are emanations of the Chinese state. We should also look at audits of UK companies engaged in trade in Hong Kong to make sure that they are not benefiting from slave labour. There are things that the UK Government can do domestically now, and I support calls for, and moves towards, our taking those steps.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his considered question. He is absolutely right to raise the issue of academic interference. UK universities are international at their core, and we warmly welcome overseas students, including from China, and the valuable contribution that they make, but we will not tolerate any attempt to interfere with academic freedom, or freedom of speech. As I have said before in the House, if any universities experience any attempts to undermine free debate, we encourage them to get in touch with the Government.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned data infrastructure. The long-term security and enduring resilience of our telecoms network are incredibly important, and we are taking difficult decisions to protect those interests. The position in January on high-risk vendors was based on the need to balance security with the need for us to level up and be a world leader in our digital infrastructure. I hope that answers the hon. Gentleman’s point, but I am more than happy to have a direct meeting with him when he returns to London, as I have said to the Lib Dem and Labour spokespeople, the hon. Members for Oxford West and Abingdon (Layla Moran) and for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock).
First, the Minister says that our Government continue to hold China to account. Has the Chinese ambassador been summoned to meet the Foreign Secretary following the most recent developments? If so, with what results, and, if not, will the ambassador be summoned? Secondly, it is clear that human rights safeguards have effectively collapsed now in Hong Kong. One of those, of course—a key human right—is freedom of religion. We have seen what has happened with the attacks on freedom of religion in China. Have the Government considered how that can be protected in Hong Kong? What calls have they made to ensure that the right to worship remains there?
I can confirm that the Chinese ambassador has been summoned to the Foreign Office this morning. Freedom of religion or belief is a key issue for this Government. My hon. Friend has spoken on this matter on many occasions, and I have had the pleasure to be in such debates. We are very concerned by what has been going on in mainland China—particularly in Xinjiang—but we are concerned by all restrictions placed on freedom of religion or belief in China.
It started with the disappearance of a bookseller. Then there was state-sanctioned violence against protesters and health workers, university lecturers were sacked and the free press challenged. Twelve Hong Kong youths have been detained for over 80 days, and now we see the disqualification of four moderate legislators. Things are clearly escalating. What will the Minister actually do to hold China to account for the breach of the joint declaration and international treaties, and what consular support is he providing to Hongkongers?
As I have laid out in previous answers, we are working with international partners and have summoned the Chinese ambassador. We have done an immense amount of work at the United Nations whenever we believe that China is transgressing, particularly on human rights. We could not be any clearer; our assessment is that this action is a breach of the joint declaration. This is a subject on which we have been incredibly robust over the past 12 months, as the hon. Lady will know. The joint declaration is in force and the policies contained within it should remain unchanged for 50 years. It is a legally binding international agreement that is registered with the UN, and we are fully committed to upholding Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy, rights and freedoms.
Just last year I had the privilege of meeting, here in Parliament, one of the legislators who has now been disqualified, and we had extensive discussions about the rights of British national overseas passports. It is now clear that our very generous offer to BNO passport holders is a critical lifeline to Hongkongers, but there is concern that those in positions of power in Hong Kong with links to Beijing may seek to use the BNO route to come to this country and enjoy the very democratic liberties that they are seeking to oppress. What discussions has the Minister had with the Home Office on this matter, and will the Government do everything possible to ensure that those who seek to undermine democracy and violate human rights are not able to come to this country and enjoy the benefits of BNO passport holders?
We have a duty to uphold our promise to the people of Hong Kong to protect their rights and autonomy. I am pleased that my hon. Friend realises that the offer that we are making to BNO citizens and their dependants is a generous one. In turn, they will be expected to be self-sufficient and contribute to UK society. We look forward to welcoming applications under this new immigration route. However, he raises a good point, and I can tell him that the existing provisions in the immigration rules will apply in relation to criminality and other adverse behaviour.
Under the national security law, individuals and companies outside Hong Kong and China can be prosecuted for offences that pertain to that law. What steps is the Minister taking to ensure that Hongkongers in the UK or British-based businesses with operations in Hong Kong will not be targeted by this repressive law?
We have made our position very clear on the national security law—the second occasion that we called out a breach of the joint declaration. That certainly should not be the case, but as the hon. Lady would expect, we are in contact with firms that have investments both ways between China and the UK. It is key that we do not agree with the principal tenet of this national security law. We believe it is vague and far-reaching and could have very damaging consequences. I appreciate the question, and we do have communication lines open with those firms.
Yesterday the world witnessed the ousting of elected lawmakers in Hong Kong by the Chinese Government, and over the past week the world has witnessed the outgoing President of the US fail to concede defeat, despite the outcome of the election being clear. It is in everybody’s interests—especially here in the free world—for the benefits of democracy not to be undermined. Will the Minister join me in condemning these blatant attacks on democracy, and does he recognise that continual attempts to deny the will of the Scottish people in relation to our own constitutional question will also be viewed by the watching world as an attack on democracy?
That is the one of the cleverest ways I have seen of segueing from an urgent question on the actions in Hong Kong to a question about Scottish independence—the hon. Member should be applauded for his gall. Of course, we object in the strongest terms to the actions that have been taken in the last 48 hours.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Layla Moran)—she is my hon. Friend, because we are both members of the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China—on securing this urgent question, and I welcome the Minister’s robust language. He stated that China’s policy is to “stifle all voices critical” of it and that China has failed to meet its international obligations. I want to ask about the Magnitsky sanctions; I am not asking the Minister to speculate, but to explain. If our friends and allies can gather enough evidence on Chinese officials’ abuses of the Uyghur, what is stalling the Minister’s Department in doing the same?
As I have said in previous responses, it is not appropriate to speculate on sanctions or individuals. The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office will consider any evidence that is put forward, and if my hon. Friend has such evidence, I urge her to get in touch with that Department.
The sleeping giant is most certainly not sleeping anymore, and Hong Kong is shaking. The new legislation passed this week is not just illegal but, frankly, tyrannous. Are the Government actively considering compiling a case to take China to the International Court of Justice for breaching the Sino-British treaty for the third time, as well as the Vienna convention on the law of treaties?
I thank my hon. Friend for her question, and for her continued interest in China and her work at the FCO previous to her work in this place. The simple answer is that we cannot submit a case to the ICJ without the consent of China. In my judgment, and I would imagine that of anybody of sound mind, it is very clear that China would not accept that. There is no easy adjudicative route, I am afraid.
What progress has the Minister made in identifying the senior Chinese Government officials who have committed serious human rights violations in Hong Kong, and also those who have persecuted Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang? We are not asking for speculation: when will the Government do more than just consider Magnitsky sanctions and actually use them?
The hon. Lady is right to raise this issue. We are deeply concerned about the extrajudicial detention of over 1 million Uyghur Muslims and other minorities in so-called political re-education camps. We have made our case very clear to the Chinese authorities in this regard—that invasive surveillance targeting techniques and suppression of freedom of religion and belief are unacceptable. I am sorry to have to refer to my previous answers in terms of sanctions. We are constantly considering designations under our Magnitsky-style regime, but it would not be helpful to speculate on the names of the people that are being considered at the moment.
I thank the Minister for his response and the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Layla Moran) for the urgent question. On Monday, the United States State Department announced that it was to impose further sanctions on four more Chinese officials over their alleged role in recent crackdowns on democracy in Hong Kong, and that is further to its sanctions on officials with regard to the actions in Xinjiang and the unacceptable treatment of the Uyghur Muslims. My question is on sanctions, but it is slightly different to the questions being put by others. Can the Minister explain the difference in terms of why emergency Magnitsky-style sanctions were rightly imposed in Belarus and why they are not being imposed on Chinese officials with regard to their behaviour in Hong Kong or their behaviour in Xinjiang on the treatment of Muslims?
I thank my hon. Friend for his question and for all his work as the Prime Minister’s special envoy on freedom of religion and belief. We are aware of the designations by the US, and we will continue to consider designations under our regulations. I am more than happy to write to him to try to clear up the point he has made. Again, I apologise for repeating this, but it is important to emphasise that it really is not appropriate to speculate on who may be designated under the sanctions regime in future.
Depressingly, I think we know where all this will end, and it is not pretty. We are therefore into mitigation. Does my hon. Friend agree that, not least out of a sense of enlightened self-interest, we should encourage and welcome Hongkongers who wish to leave Hong Kong for the UK, as those from other countries have also done, noting, for example, those we welcomed from Hungary in 1956, as well as Iranians in 1979 and Chinese after Tiananmen Square in 1989?
My right hon. Friend is very highly skilled in this area, having served in a similar role to me at the FCO, and he is absolutely right. Hongkongers are highly skilled and highly educated individuals, and we very much look forward to welcoming applications under our new immigration route.
I listened to the answer that the Minister gave to the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith). I can understand the logic of it and I can understand his caution, but, in practical terms, the idea that the likes of Carrie Lam might at some stage be subject to Magnitsky sanctions is something for which we may now have lost that element of surprise. Therefore, the practical consequences of the Government’s position are probably not that significant, but the political consequences of a more robust answer to the hon. right Gentleman and others could be immense, especially if we were to pursue this through our membership of the UN Human Rights Council, to which we have now been elected for the next two years. What will the Minister do with that very useful tool?
I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman, my former ministerial colleague, on his question and also on the interest that he takes in this particular issue, but he will have to forgive me when I say that, as tempting as it may be, it is absolutely inappropriate and not right for us to speculate on our sanctions regime. We do not want a situation where the effect of our regime is diminished, and speculation could very much do that. We are working very closely and very hard with the EU, as he will be aware.
I hope that every self-respecting member of the international community will condemn this action by China. I also hope that the businesses that have tried to shut their eyes to what has been going on now open them and realise that this affects them, too. This is the latest attempt to try to crush the spirit of the people of Hong Kong and my friends from there are understandably anxious. What is the Minister’s message to the people of Hong Kong?
We will always stand by Hong Kong. That is why we have taken the actions that we have. We believe that there have been three breaches of the joint declaration. Our offer to BNOs is generous, compassionate and widely welcomed. We have a duty to the people of Hong Kong, clearly, given our history there and we will not stop speaking up on behalf of the people of Hong Kong when we believe that there have been these serious breaches.
In October this year, the Government confirmed that a new immigration route for BNOs from Hong Kong will open in January. Unfortunately, under the current plans, BNOs will still be subject to an expensive immigration health surcharge of £1,560 per 30 months and £3,120 for five years. Will the Government consider abolishing the immigration health surcharge for BNO applicants?
We have been generous with regard to BNOs, and rightly so, given the duty that we owe to them. We have developed proposals for a bespoke immigration route for them and their dependants with five years’ limited leave to remain, with the right to work or study. The issue to which the hon. Lady refers is a matter, of course, for the Home Office. It is entirely appropriate for her to write to the Home Office and see whether she can get a response that gives her the satisfaction that she requires.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for confirming to the House this morning that this is the third breach of the Sino-British agreement, which was registered at the UN. As a friend of China for 25 years, I say that this is unacceptable. He and the Foreign Secretary must now show the Chinese that this sort of breaking of international norms has consequences. Will he therefore build as wide a coalition of the free world as possible to act in unison on things such as the Magnitsky sanctions? If he does that, they will be much more effective.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise this. We have already seen statements from four of our partners earlier today. I understand there may very well be a statement from the European Union later. In response to these developments, we have, as I say, offered this new immigration path, suspended the extradition treaty and extended our arms embargo on mainland China to Hong Kong. We have summoned the Chinese ambassador. We will continue to raise our concerns internationally at the UN. We will continue to lead the international community in calling on China to live up to its obligations under the joint declaration.
One country, two systems was supposed to be a magic formula, but it has turned out to be nothing more than a mirage. Democracy and free speech are as good as dead in Hong Kong. The British Government are bound by their obligations through the joint declaration to defend human rights in Hong Kong. The offer to BNO passport holders is welcome, though it does nothing to hold the Hong Kong Executive to account for the human rights violations they are carrying out against their own people. Does the Minister not run the risk of allowing the UK to default in its treaty obligations if it fails to do more to hold the Hong Kong Executive and the Chinese Government to account on this?
The hon. Gentleman is right to raise his question. I do not necessarily agree with his last point. On the one country, two systems point that he raises, these actions by China have had an incredibly detrimental impact on many areas of one country, two systems. We will do everything possible to uphold Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy and, most importantly, the rights and freedoms under the joint declaration.
I welcome my hon. Friend’s clear statements in relation to the violations of freedom and democracy in Hong Kong. Will he assure me that he will continue to speak out against any violations of the one country, two systems protocol that we have and take up in every international institution, including the United Nations Security Council, this clear abuse of democracy in Hong Kong?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Again, I would like to thank him for his continued work on this issue. We have played a leading role in the international community in holding China to account. On 6 October, 39 countries joined a statement at the UN General Assembly Third Committee, in which we expressed our deep concern at the situation in Hong Kong, Xinjiang and Tibet. We will continue, as I have said, to bring together our international partners to stand up for the people of Hong Kong, to call out the violation of their freedoms and, importantly, to hold China to account for its international obligations.
I am sorry to say that it feels as if the Government have given up on this, to be honest. They did not choose to make a statement on this; they had to be dragged to the House by an urgent question. Frequently, it is Back Benchers in this House who are dragging the Government to make more categorical statements and to stand up to the cross words, which is so far all we have had. They have devoted next to no energy to pursuing this in the vast majority of international forums. The one thing that they could do they repeatedly refuse to do, which is to implement Magnitsky-style sanctions against Carrie Lam and others. I do not know what more the Minister needs to know. We have a country that has millions of people in concentration camps. We have people who are being refused the right to their own religion, and women who are having forced abortion and sterilisation. We have the whole of democratic systems being suppressed, and, frankly, communism today looks remarkably like fascism. Every single time he says, “I can’t speculate,” he is actually announcing that he is not implementing sanctions. Please, please take the whole of the House seriously on this. We must not give up.
I have got an awful lot of time for the hon. Gentleman, but to accuse this Government of sitting idly by on this issue, frankly, is nonsense. We have led the international community in this regard, and we have made incredibly generous offers in terms of the BNOs. I applaud him for harrying and hassling the Foreign Secretary in terms of making sure the sanctions regime has been delivered; it has been delivered. I appreciate that we are in the theatre of the Chamber, but the hon. Gentleman will know in his heart that it is not right to speculate publicly about individuals and sanctions before there are any designations—he will know that—but I would just ask him to reflect on the actions that we have taken, particularly internationally, where we have led the way.
I am afraid that history teaches us what happens if regimes like this are not stood up to, but we cannot act alone, so what engagement has the Foreign Office had—at an early stage, I know—with the incoming American Administration, because their support on these issues will be key?
Also, I recognise that we have a healthy and robust debate in this Chamber about matters such as Scottish independence, and I know we proceed with good humour, but does the Minister agree that to link in any way, shape or form what is happening in Hong Kong, with the absolute destruction of people’s rights and fundamental freedoms, with the healthy debate that we have around Scottish independence is disrespectful to the people of that country making that fight?
My hon. Friend makes a reasonable point. I will not use the term disrespectful to describe the comments of the hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Steven Bonnar) from the SNP, but I would say that he has more front than Scarborough in trying to link the two issues during this urgent question.
I can tell my hon. Friend that we have seen this morning the United States make its statement on these latest moves to disqualify the four legislators. The Prime Minister has had conversations with the President-elect, and I am sure that Hong Kong will feature in future conversations. I would add that we have consistently led the international community with regard to the response to breaches of the joint declaration and the events in Hong Kong.
We have a technical problem with question 25, so I call Bob Stewart.
The Security Council is hamstrung because of China’s veto and the General Assembly is largely supportive of Chinese policy. May I ask my hon. Friend the Minister what sort of feel he gets from the forum of the world, the United Nations, in support of what we are trying to do against China?
What I can tell my hon. Friend is that we work very closely with our international partners, and to have 39 countries sign up to our statement at the UN on this single issue was quite the achievement. People internationally do realise that China has yet again broken its promise to the people of Hong Kong, and its actions tarnish its international reputation and, more importantly, undermine Hong Kong’s long-term stability.
I thank the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Layla Moran) for securing this urgent question and the Minister for his answer. As MPs in this House, we stand side by side with the MPs in Hong Kong; they need to know that, and we are doing that today. Will the Minister outline whether any support can be offered to these MPs who have taken a stand, specifically in regard to their families, who are often the ones left trebling in the background, fearing for their very lives? Can any support of a practical nature be offered, and what form might that take?
I have laid out the terms and the offer that has been made to BNOs over the past couple of months. We completely understand the issue for Hongkongers and MPs advocating in particular for the families left behind. If the hon. Gentleman has any specific cases that he wants to bring to my attention, I am more than happy to discuss them.
A great many of us have little faith in the processes at the United Nations when it comes to defending liberties in Hong Kong, precisely because of the influence of China at that body. Aside from the 39 signatures at the UN that the Minister has mentioned, will he please tell the House what precisely we are doing as a Government to build the international coalition of support that he talks about, specifically in putting together an international contact group or using the G7 as a forum for bringing together a coalition of democracies, to really show China that the international community is serious about defending the rights of Hong Kong people?
As I say, and as my right hon. Friend will have seen this morning, we are working closely with our international partners. Australia, the US, Canada and Germany have all joined us with their statements this morning. We will of course continue to work with our partners—our Five Eyes partners in particular—to hold China to account. My right hon. Friend is right to point this out. There is a growing caucus of support at the UN that is very much behind the UK’s leading diplomatic role on the issue of Hong Kong.
After the ethnic cleansing of Buddhists in Tibet, the cold, calculated genocide of Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang and the mistreatment of Christians and other minorities, the authoritarian Chinese Communist party regime has now turned its tyranny on to pro-democracy Hongkongers. What concrete steps is the Minister taking to mobilise our international partners so that the world’s democracies act against this human rights crisis in an effective and co-ordinated manner?
The hon. Gentleman is right to raise this, and I know that he has a deep interest in freedom of religion and belief. We are very concerned about the reports coming out of Tibet. We had a debate in Westminster Hall on this very issue. I believe that our growing caucus at the UN is bearing fruit. Thirty-nine countries is no small achievement. The Foreign Secretary should be congratulated for his work in this regard, and Lord Ahmad, a fellow FCDO Minister, has delivered several statements at the UN on this issue. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that, with the Foreign Secretary and the FCDO taking a leading role on this issue, we are getting purchase internationally, and China will have heard the remarks today and countries’ abhorrence at the actions in Hong Kong.
The legally binding joint declaration signed by China as well as the UK sets out that Hong Kong will have a high degree of autonomy. China must respect that. Will my hon. Friend assure the House that he will continue to work with our international partners to condemn these attacks on democracy in every possible way?
My hon. Friend is 100% correct in every word he has just said. I can assure him that we will continue to lead this international effort against the violations and the breaches of the joint declaration. We are in constant touch with our international partners on this, not least Australia, Canada, Germany and the US, which, I reiterate, have all issued statements today condemning this action by China.
Given the latest brutal attack by China on Hong Kong democracy and freedom of speech, will the Minister undertake to increase the number of visas available to Hong Kong citizens, tell us what he will do if they are not recognised by China and reassure those who may need them that they will have access and recourse, in the short term at least, to public funds in the UK if they need to flee?
It is a very generous offer that we have laid out to British national overseas citizens. We will expect them to be self-sufficient and contribute to UK society. We look forward to welcoming those applications. As I have said, the new route that the Foreign Secretary and the Home Secretary have hammered out is compelling and compassionate, particularly, as the hon. Gentleman will welcome, with regard to applications that are made as a family unit. We will use discretion in issuing a grant to children of BNO status holders who fall into this category.
The United Kingdom, a stalwart champion of democracy, pluralism and liberty, has demonstrated its purpose to defend those values with all available tools, including Magnitsky-style sanctions. The disqualification of four Hong Kong pro-democracy lawmakers from the Legislative Council is another case in an ever-growing list of intrusions by the Chinese Communist party into the rights and freedoms of Hong Kong. Will my hon. Friend outline what efforts the Government are making to ensure a co-ordinated approach among our international partners to the crisis in Hong Kong and ensure that the Chinese Communist party is held responsible for its violations of both its international treaty obligations and fundamental human rights?
I thank my hon. Friend for his question and his continued leading voice on these matters. We are focused on giving voice to the widespread international concerns, basically in order to protect Hong Kong’s rights and freedoms. As I have said, the increasing number of countries supporting joint statements in the UN’s various human rights bodies underscores, we believe, the success of our approach. There are elections next September, and there not being an effective Opposition voice in them when half of the Legislative Council is appointed does make a bit of a mockery of the situation. We will continue, however, to call on China to uphold the contents of the joint declaration and, most importantly, live up to its responsibilities.
Extending the right to apply for BNO status has been very welcome and indeed is a lifeline to many Hongkongers. However, the CCP is likely to do its utmost to obstruct the process. Will the Government consider giving diplomatic assistance to legitimate applicants who are still in the process of applying but might get arrested under the draconian new security laws?
We are very much opposed to, and have called out, the new national security law. We welcome applications under our new immigration system, which has been broadly welcomed in the House and beyond for Hongkongers. Of course, the Home Office will work with applicants on visas. On the specific point the hon. Lady makes, if she writes to the Home Office, it will hopefully be able to give her the satisfaction she is looking for.
Does my hon. Friend agree that this latest step really does indicate that we have seen the end of the one country, two systems approach?
My hon. Friend raises a good point that has been made previously. These latest actions by China have had an incredible impact on many areas of the one country, two systems approach. However, I assure her and all right hon. and hon. Members of the House that we will continue to do everything possible to uphold Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy, rights and freedoms under the joint declaration.
The world has watched aghast as President Trump desperately tries to suppress domestic democracy. Thankfully, his successor President-elect Biden has promised to fully enforce the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act. Ironically, even the Trump Administration have imposed sanctions on four more Chinese officials in Hong Kong over their role in crushing dissent. What concrete action will the Minister’s Government take to uphold the Sino-British joint declaration and the Hong Kong Basic Law, which were supposed to grant a high degree of autonomy to Hongkongers until 2047?
The hon. Gentleman is right to raise this issue. This should have been a 50-year agreement. We continue to call out breaches of the joint declaration. The actions we have taken at the UN have been almost unprecedented, having 39 co-signatories. We will continue to call out China on its actions with regard to Hong Kong, and, as we speak, the permanent under-secretary at the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office has summoned the Chinese ambassador to make our points incredibly clear to him directly.
The anti-democratic national security law shows that China is willing to break the Sino-British joint agreement, and that puts religious freedom under threat. Religious leaders in Hong Kong are already fearful for their safety, with some scared to read certain scriptures in case they are accused of subversion by the Government. What conversations is the Secretary of State having with the authorities internationally on the dangerous experience of people of faith in Hong Kong, and what will he do if the situation worsens?
It is absolutely the case that all countries, China included, must comply with their international obligations. Freedom of religion and belief is incredibly important, and this UK Government take that incredibly seriously. We will continue to make the case that individuals should have the ability to practise their religion, and whatever they believe in, in a free way. We will continue to call out any transgressions of that where people are being oppressed, not least in mainland China.
In order to allow the safe exit of hon. Members participating in this item of business and the safe arrival of those participating in the next, I am suspending the House for three minutes.
Business of the House
Will the Leader of the House please give us the forthcoming business?