House of Commons
Wednesday 16 December 2020
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Virtual participation in proceedings commenced (Order, 4 June).
[NB: [V] denotes a Member participating virtually.]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
Our commitment to this country’s fishing industry is absolute, and we have defended it resolutely in our negotiations with the European Union. We promised fishermen in Wales, Cornwall and across the United Kingdom that we would take back control of our waters, and that is precisely what will happen.
Transition Period: Business
The Wales Office is engaged with businesses the length and breadth of Wales, with a simple message: “Make sure you are prepared for the end of the transition period, whether or not we reach a negotiated outcome with the EU.”
When I was speaking to sheep farmers in Builth Wells in my constituency at the weekend, they made it clear that they do not want to be a political football. They are keen to embrace the changes that will come, but they want the certainty that their Government will support them come what may. Will the Secretary of State confirm that he is working closely with all Cabinet colleagues to ensure that my sheep farmers are front and centre of the UK Government’s mind when transition ends?
Not only my hon. Friend’s sheep farmers but sheep farmers in constituencies across the House can feel confident that the Government are on their side. One way we can demonstrate that is the fact that we have guaranteed the £337 million of funding across the lifetime of this Parliament. People said we would not do it, but we have done it, and we are committed to ensuring that there is a healthy future for the farming industry, particularly livestock in Wales.
Diolch yn fawr, Lefarydd. It was interesting to hear the reference made to Welsh fishing previously, but I am sure the Secretary of State is aware that 90% of the Welsh fleet is made up of small boats, under 10 metres in length, which catch shellfish and non-quota fish species such as bass. Between the prospect of no-deal tariffs to their markets in Europe and the covid closure of hospitality, fishermen such as those in Porthdinllaen near where I live see no Brexit bonanza on the horizon. As Nelson might have put it, “Wales expects that every Secretary of State for Wales will do his duty.” Can the Secretary of State explain how his Government’s vainglorious Trafalgar posturing with warships in the channel helps our small fishing vessels?
I am grateful to the right hon. Lady for her comments. I was rather hopeful that leaving the common fisheries policy and regaining our status as an independent nation state might be something that would appeal to a separatist, but sadly that does not appear to be the case. I can answer her question, perhaps, by referring her to the inclusion in the spending review of £2 million-worth of support for fisheries in Wales in 2021-22 and for the lifetime of this Parliament. We share a common theme, in the sense that I too have those fishing interests off the coast of west Wales and I am very conscious of the problems she raises. That is why we are determined to ensure that they are properly looked after.
I am sure the Secretary of State is aware that there is a consultation going on about how to allocate fishing quotas in the future. If that is done on historical grounds for Wales, it will be very bad news indeed for our fishermen. Turning to the Prime Minister’s latest U-turn on the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill, it will give a modicum of flexibility to the devolved nations, but it is undeniable that the Bill is a disaster, weakening devolved power and centralising more power here in Westminster. The Conservatives and Labour have been working together this week to let efforts to give our devolved Governments a say in state aid fail. Will the Secretary of State commit to a productive U-turn this time, and assure me that no other powers will be reserved through the internal market Bill?
The fact that the Government have listened carefully to the arguments should not be deemed some kind of act of evil or a U-turn. It shows that we are conscious of the complexities of this legislation and have listened carefully to the arguments. Where the right hon. Lady makes a mistake is in thinking that the contents of the UK Internal Market Bill are somehow a threat to devolution. Actually, they are a means by which we can encourage inward investment into Wales and encourage jobs and livelihoods. We have had this exchange across the House before, and it strikes me as worrying that she always refers to power—it is all about power to Cardiff, rather than jobs and livelihoods in Wales. For a party that argues it is the party of Wales, it seems to be remarkably out of touch with the people of Wales.
One of the findings of our Select Committee report last week on this issue was that the Government have really stepped up their communication with Welsh businesses ahead of the end of the transition period, which is very welcome. The new money that the Government have announced for Welsh ports, including Fishguard in my own constituency, is very welcome too, but will my right hon. Friend say a bit more about what he is doing with the Welsh Government to ensure that the inland checking facilities that will be required ahead of the full implementation of new border checks will be in place, given the very challenging timetables that he is working to?
My right hon. Friend raises an interesting point. Of course, the devolution settlement poses its own complexities. With Holyhead, we have a Welsh Government-UK Government-HMRC relationship that needs to be managed as we progress towards the end of the transition period, but Fishguard and Pembroke on the coast of west Wales, in the areas we represent, are entirely in the gift of the Welsh Government. However, we have tried to ensure that we work almost on a daily basis with the Welsh Government to ensure that those delivery timetables and objectives are in place.
The Government’s failure to get the Brexit deal that they promised means we still have no clue about the terms on which businesses will be trading from January, and we face the very real prospect of a no-deal exit, risking chaos at our ports and shortages of critical goods. As the CBI and others have said all year, businesses cannot be expected to prepare for a no deal Brexit in the middle of a pandemic, so what is the Secretary of State’s message to those Welsh businesses that now face a Brexit cliff edge in just a few days’ time?
I have been working closely with the hon. Gentleman’s colleagues in Cardiff, hosting joint webinars and seminars. We are also engaging with businesses across Wales in limitless number of ways, and the message I am getting from them is not the same as the message that he has just delivered to the House. They are, by and large, prepared. They are certainly aware of the challenges, but also of the opportunities that this process throws up for them. I would also make the point that, right from the start of this, the hon. Gentleman’s party was saying that there would not be a manifesto commitment about a referendum, but there was, and that there would not be a referendum, but there was. They said that the leave camp would lose the referendum, but it did not. Then they said there would not be a withdrawal agreement, but there was. They said that the Conservatives would not win the election, but they did. Now he is saying there will not be a deal; I think we should wait and see.
I have been speaking to businesses across Cardiff North, and they are doing all they can to protect against the impact of a no deal, but they are deeply worried about supply chain delays, stockpiling and a tariff cliff edge. They are saying that they can put the sandbags down, but that’s it. So will the Secretary of State apologise to the many people in Cardiff North and across the whole country whose jobs and livelihoods he is willing to gamble and play politics with, and tell me whether his Government are preparing to fail or failing to prepare?
After all, it was the hon. Lady’s party that voted against a deal last year, so when she had the opportunity to land this more carefully, she chose not to and therefore increased the risk of getting the outcome that she definitely does not want. Attempting to pillory the Government when actually there has been considerable daily joint working between the Welsh Government, under the control of her own party, and the UK Government over many months to ensure that the risks are minimised, is not just an insult to the House but an insult to her own colleagues in Cardiff who have been devoting a huge amount of time to try to make this work as seamlessly as possible.
Shared Prosperity Fund
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has been in regular discussions with Welsh Ministers about the UK shared prosperity fund before and after the announcement of the spending review. Further engagement will take place as further details of the fund are announced.
I thank the Minister for that response. It has been suggested in the other place that the management of the UK shared prosperity fund will involve advisers jointly appointed by the UK and devolved Governments, yet the past few months have shown that this Government do not see themselves as an equal partner to the devolved nations and that they are instead wrongly centralising power to Westminster at the expense of devolution. What guarantees can he give to the devolved nations that they will have a cast-iron equal say on the governance of the UK shared prosperity fund? This is particularly pertinent, given the shocking contempt shown by the Government in trying to railroad through the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill.
The Prime Minister is showing his commitment to the importance of powers for the Scottish and Welsh Governments at this very moment in Brussels, where he is standing up against those bureaucrats who are trying to take powers away from the Welsh Government and the Scottish Government. It is this Conservative party and this Government who are standing up for the devolved settlement, and of course the UK Government will be looking forward to working in partnership with the devolved Administrations around the United Kingdom to ensure that the shared prosperity fund is properly spent.
As well as providing no certainty on the trading arrangements in just three weeks’ time, the Government have also ducked and dived on questions about the funding that Wales will receive in future years. Despite the Tory promise that Wales will not lose a single penny, the actual figures tell a different story. Wales alone was due some £350 million of new money for projects next year, but the Treasury is providing only £220 million for the whole UK. With Wales losing not just pennies but millions of pounds, how can the Government say they have kept their promise?
The Government have kept their promise, because, of course, some of the funding that goes to Wales will still be coming from the European Union after we have left the transition period. If we take the total amount of money that is going to be spent, we will find it is the same. The Government have met their commitment to ensure that the same level of funding is spent in Wales, and we will meet our commitment to ensure that the money is better spent and not wasted, as the Wales Audit Office recently reported on agricultural spending, and is used to level up communities across the whole of Wales.
I am not sure whether that is a conclusive answer, but we are now nearly four and a half years on from the referendum and the Government still cannot provide clear answers on funding, so let me ask the Minister about the criteria on which the funding will be allocated. As he knows, the Welsh Government and local councils have agreed a framework for regional investment in Wales, so can he confirm that his Government will support that framework and not ride roughshod over devolved agreements or make up the spending criteria as they go along?
We are certainly not going to make it up as we go along. Of course, the UK Government have been heavily involved in regional partnerships through the growth deals, which have been working very successfully in Wales as a result of funding from the UK Government. We have already demonstrated our commitment to working in partnership not just with the Welsh Government but with local authorities, because we are absolutely determined that the money that replaces European funding is not wasted, as it has been previously, but is spent on the most needy communities in Wales.
The Government are steadfast in their support for Welsh agriculture, and that is why we have provided the same level of funding for Welsh farmers in 2021-22 as they received in 2019: £337 million a year. That meets our manifesto commitment to guarantee the annual budget for farmers, a commitment that applies for the whole of this Parliament.
We all want to see farmers in Wales and right across the United Kingdom prosper outside the European Union, but how can my hon. Friend ensure that farmers in my Eddisbury constituency will be able to compete with Welsh farmers just over the border who will continue to receive their area payments in the early years of the agricultural transition, whereas all English farmers will see their basic payment scheme payments of £230 per hectare halved by 2024?
As a Government who are committed to the devolved settlement, we obviously will not be telling devolved Governments what they can do with the money; we will simply make sure the money is there. Of course, the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill has been brought forward to make absolutely certain that we do not see a situation where one part of the United Kingdom is able to compete in an unfair fashion with another part of the United Kingdom, and that is why I hope all Members will support that Bill.
My constituency in the Scottish borders is the second-highest recipient of common agricultural policy payments in the United Kingdom. Indeed, four of the top five recipients are in the devolved Administrations. How will the Government support the devolved Administrations with these payments in the future?
I am sure that my hon. Friend’s constituents, like farmers across the whole United Kingdom, are pleased that the British Government will not implement the 10% cut to agricultural payments, which is being brought about by the European Union. He will be pleased that we have used the most generous exchange rate possible to calculate what those payments will be. If he lived in Wales, he would be pleased to know that the UK Government are providing £1.3 billion of additional funding to the Welsh Government, and we look forward to seeing how much of that will be used on agriculture.
Pub Closures: Covid-19
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State wrote to the First Minister before he announced the closure of pubs in Wales and asked him to consider a tiered structure for covid restrictions, which would have better targeted areas with a high incidence of the virus. Regrettably, at that time the First Minister chose not to do so. I believe he may now be about to follow my right hon. Friend’s advice.
Before the Welsh Labour Government had the bright idea of bringing in a circuit breaker, the infection rate in Wales was 33 per 100,000 head of population. Since then, Wales has had one of the toughest lockdowns. Pubs have to close at six o’clock and they cannot serve alcohol. Infection rates in Wales are now 423 per 100,000. Have Welsh Government Ministers confided in my hon. Friend the reasons for this raging success, and is it perhaps that people in Wales have been so driven to drink with despair that they have to do it at home without social distancing, rather than in pubs?
It is a sad fact that at the moment Wales has the highest number of cases per 100,000 in the UK, the highest number of deaths per 100,000, and the lowest amount of testing, but I do not think my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I wish to make any political point out of that. All of the United Kingdom has suffered. What I think we would welcome is a recognition that the Welsh Labour Government do not have some sort of magical answer to this situation which has eluded everybody else. We would welcome Welsh Ministers sitting down and working with the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care and the UK Government, so we can tackle this pandemic together as one nation.
As we have heard, pubs in north Wales have been closed down by the Welsh Government and their trade is being destroyed, despite the fact that infection rates in north Wales are significantly less than in much of south Wales. When my hon. Friend does speak to Welsh Ministers, can he urge them to adopt a more intelligent and nuanced approach to covid restrictions? Otherwise, many of those pubs will never reopen.
As I have just said to my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton), we would welcome the Welsh Government working in tandem with the UK Government to bring in a tiered system, so that in areas with a low incidence of the virus fewer restrictions are put in place. I believe that is an approach the Welsh Government are finally going to adopt. We look forward to sitting down and working with them.
Financial Support: Covid-19
The Government have provided a record amount of support to the Welsh Government, including a funding guarantee of an additional £5 billion this financial year. The Welsh Government will also receive an additional £1.3 billion next year, including £770 million to tackle covid-19.
What further pressure can the Secretary of State bring to bear on Cardiff Bay to ensure that the funding going to the Welsh Government as a consequence of the Barnett consequentials formula finds its way to frontline services and is not absorbed in the bureaucratic costs of the Lib-Lab Government in Cardiff Bay?
My hon. Friend makes a very interesting point, particularly at a time when the Welsh Government are sitting on over £1 billion of unallocated Barnett funding, and so many businesses and institutions in Wales are crying out for support. As the Under-Secretary of State for Wales, my hon. Friend the Member for Monmouth (David T. C. Davies) said, we respect the devolution settlement and it is right that we should. However, if people are concerned, they have an opportunity to change this one-party state at the Senedd elections next May.
The House needs only to look at the £30 million loan we secured for Celsa to see our commitment to Welsh manufacturing industry. We also provided over £2 billion in direct support to businesses in Wales, and our 10-point plan for a green industrial revolution will mobilise £12 billion of Government investment to stimulate manufacturing across the whole of the UK.
The delays in the Brexit deal, alongside the pandemic, have meant that the Welsh steel industry has been hit hard, Airbus has lost 1,400 jobs, Grenadier cars will be produced in France instead of Wales, and even Brains brewery is up for sale. Will the Secretary of State now press the Chancellor for a sector-specific manufacturing strategy, in the knowledge that only UK Governments can borrow in the long term at low interest rates to secure long-term pre-pandemic production levels after the vaccine is deployed and after the deal is agreed?
The Chancellor’s contributions to the companies that the hon. Gentleman mentioned, as well as to Celsa, which I mentioned in my answer, have been second to none. We have had a very good, robust and thorough exchange with all the businesses to which the hon. Gentleman referred. I could not agree with him more that part of the covid recovery programme is there to ensure not only that we get through the next few months but that there are sustainable futures for all those industries, particularly steel. I hope the hon. Gentleman recognises the fact that we were quick off the blocks to rescue Celsa—and 600 to 800 jobs—in that process right at the beginning of the pandemic. That shows beyond reasonable doubt that we are absolutely committed to a steelmaking footprint in Wales.
The Shotton steel plant produces some of the finest quality steel products in the world. The Prime Minister has said that UK steel producers will be
“at the front of the queue”—[Official Report, 24 June 2020; Vol. 677, c. 1311.]
when it comes to future infrastructure projects, so will the Government now set targets on procurement? We need action rather than words—all we tend to get from this Government are warm words. Please, do not just blame Europe; can we have a proper answer?
I am not going to blame Europe—or anybody else, for that matter. I absolutely agree with the hon. Gentleman. We have been making big strides as far as procurement is concerned and, of course, after the end of the transition those strides will be even bigger—that does not constitute blame, of course. We have regular conversations in Government, including with the Welsh Government, about making sure that procurement not only offers value for money for taxpayers but taps into the wonderful supply chain that we have in the UK, of which he gave a very good example.
The Government are unwavering in their commitment to the Union as a social and economic partnership. Its strength is demonstrated by the economic support we have provided to Welsh business during the covid-19 outbreak and by the city and growth deals that help to level up communities across the UK.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that one of the strengths of our Union—our great and united Union—is that we can support and help each other in times of crisis? What support are the UK Government giving to the Welsh Government to help them to fight the pandemic, now that Wales has the second-highest death rate per 100,000 in Europe?
My hon. Friend touches on a current and important point: the Union is not a competition; it is a partnership. I sometimes think it gets portrayed as the former, whereas we all know that it is the latter. The UK Government have been able to introduce numerous financial interventions to assist the Welsh Government in fighting this dreadful pandemic. The most recent is yesterday’s joint letter from the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care to the First Minister saying that where hospitals face real challenges and hardship in Wales, NHS England and the UK Government stand ready to offer whatever support we can and to put down our political differences to make sure that we fight covid as a UK-wide challenge.
The scale of the response to covid in Wales in terms of economic support would never have been possible without the combined strength of our United Kingdom, so will my right hon. Friend emphasise that that strength will help us to ensure that Wales recovers alongside the rest of the United Kingdom as, hopefully, we move on from covid next year?
My right hon. Friend is right. All the businesses in Wales that we have spoken to during the covid crisis have pointed out that they do not recognise political boundaries: they are fiercely Welsh and very patriotic, but they recognise that the economic regions stretch into the far corners of the UK and well beyond. My right hon. Friend is absolutely right that we do make that commitment. Whether or not we are Unionists in the original sense, we are very much on the same page.
Shared Prosperity Fund
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has regular discussions with the First Minister and Welsh Ministers on a range of issues, including the UK shared prosperity fund.
Nadolig llawen i chi, Mr Speaker.
We have heard a lot from the Minister about the shared prosperity fund this morning, but I am still none the wiser on the details. What guarantees can the Minister provide that the long-awaited shared prosperity fund will provide no reduction in moneys received by the Welsh Government compared with current structural funding? What guarantees can the Minister provide that it will be the Welsh Government who decide how the money is allocated in Wales?
We have already made the commitment that the amount of money will match everything that came from Europe. Previously, the European Union held the strings and controlled how the money was spent; now, it will be the UK Government working in partnership with local authorities and the Welsh Government to ensure that the money is spent wisely.
The shared prosperity fund will mean more money going into Wales, along with more powers, which will come about as a result of Brexit, going to Wales. We are looking forward to putting our Conservative record before the people of Wales in the elections next May.
If, like the road to hell, this UK Government’s proposals regarding the shared prosperity fund are littered with good intentions, their actions, as with the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill, show that they are most interested in accumulating power to themselves. Please can the Minister explain when exactly we will learn what the mechanism will be for involving the Welsh Government in deciding which people, communities and local businesses will receive the necessary funding to enable them to level up, who will be the final arbiter, how much money will be available and when the process will begin?
We have already said that discussions are ongoing, that the money will be matched, and that the shared prosperity fund will deliver our levelling-up agenda across Wales. The Labour party spent a long time saying that there would not be any money and that there would not be any interest in Wales, but the reality is that we have shown that the money will be there and we want to make sure that it is used properly. Those sorts of arguments might raise a few cheers at Labour party conferences, but the people of Wales will be pleased to know that that money is going to come and that that interest in levelling up the whole of Wales will follow.
The Prime Minister was asked—
Yesterday, I made a written ministerial statement updating the House on the latest position on the leak investigation,
as you requested, Mr Speaker.
I am sure the whole House will want to join me in wishing all Members and staff a merry Christmas and a happy new year. Members from across the House will also want to join me in sending our warmest wishes to all our armed forces, both in the United Kingdom and those who are stationed overseas. Members will also, I hope, want to join me in sending our very best wishes to all members of the emergency services, health and care workers, and those who will be working over Christmas.
This morning, I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in this House, I shall have further such meetings later today.
May I join the Prime Minister in those good wishes for Christmas and add my own good wishes to you, Mr Speaker, and to the Prime Minister and hope that you both have a peaceful and safe Christmas period?
Look, on the subject of Christmas, my constituents in Lichfield and Burntwood and those in the rest of the country have had a torrid year with the covid pandemic, and we have this very small break over Christmas. People must use common sense, of course: do not start hugging granny; do not go wild over Christmas; and, as my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister previously said, let us be jolly careful over Christmas. I want to say to my Prime Minister that it would not be helpful if some smarmy lawyer, or somebody now at this late stage, were to argue for a change in the laws. May I ask my right hon. Friend, here and now, who is neither smarmy nor a lawyer—
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. He is right in many ways, but right to stress the importance of people taking care this Christmas, because although some things are unquestionably going well—I am very pleased to tell the House that we have had a good start with the roll-out of the vaccination programme and in just seven days 108,000 people in England and 138,000 across the whole of the UK have received their first vaccination—we must remember that transmission takes place asymptomatically in so many cases: one in three people are currently asymptomatic with covid. That is why my hon. Friend is absolutely right that we should exercise extreme caution in the way we celebrate Christmas. We can celebrate it sensibly but we have to be extremely cautious in the way we behave.
May I join the Prime Minister in his good wishes to all the staff, the armed forces and our emergency services, and thank you, Mr Speaker, and the House authorities for doing all that you have done this year to keep Parliament safe, and open, in challenging circumstances?
Since this is—probably—the last PMQs of the year, I want to look at some of the decisions that the Prime Minister has made in the last 12 months. Let me start at the beginning of the pandemic, when images from hospitals in Italy and Spain were being shown on our televisions and the infection rates were rising in the UK. Does the Prime Minister now accept that his slowness to respond led to more deaths, a longer lockdown, and deeper economic damage?
No, because at every stage we followed the scientific guidance, and continue to do so. The right hon. and learned Gentleman is right to draw attention to what is happening across the whole of Europe, and indeed there are spikes now taking place across the whole of the EU. Thanks to the tiering system that we have in place in large parts of the country, and thanks to the heroic efforts of the people of the north-west, the north-east and Yorkshire and the Humber, we are seeing those rates coming down. Yes, it is true that we have spikes now in some parts of London and the south-east, but we will make sure, with our adjustments to the tiering that we conduct over the next weeks, that we will address those issues. That is the right way forward for this country, and that is how we will defeat the virus—with vaccines, with community testing and with tough tiering. I think that what people would like to hear in this season of good will to all men is a little bit of support from the right hon. and learned Gentleman for what the Government are trying to do to beat coronavirus, and perhaps just a little less carping.
If the Prime Minister will not listen to me, let me quote his own spending watchdog, the Office for Budget Responsibility. It said that the UK locked down later and for longer than some of its European neighbours and experienced a deeper fall and slower economic recovery. This is not bad luck. It is not inevitable. It is the result of the Prime Minister’s choices. But if the Prime Minister disagrees, perhaps he can tell us why Britain, the sixth-richest country in the world, with all our brilliant scientists and amazing NHS, ends the year with one of the highest numbers of covid deaths in Europe—over 64,000, each one leaving a grieving family—and the deepest recession of any major economy. Why does he think that has happened?
The House will have noted the slight change of tune in the right hon. and learned Gentleman’s criticisms of the UK’s performance. But perhaps he could tell me why the UK is the first to produce a viable treatment for coronavirus in the form of dexamethasone or the first country in the world to roll out a clinically tested stage 3 vaccine. This is a pandemic that has affected the whole of Europe, and this Government have continued to take the tough decisions necessary to beat it. If I may say so, without wishing to cast aspersions on the point of the view of the right hon. and learned Gentleman, I would take his criticisms of the UK Government’s decisions a little more seriously, frankly, if he had been able to decide last week, or the week before, whether he even supported the approach we were taking or opposed it. He could not do either: he abstained.
I said two weeks ago at this Dispatch Box that I was very concerned that tier 2 would not be strong enough to hold the virus. The Prime Minister said, “Don’t worry about that. Just support us. Throw away the problems.” Two weeks later, what have we got? The virus rising in tier 2 and tier 3, and I will come back to that. If the Prime Minister thinks that the highest death numbers and the deepest recession is somehow delivering for the British people, he is a long way removed from the truth.
The problem is that the Prime Minister makes the same mistakes over and over again. Two weeks ago, he unveiled the latest covid plan. He told the House, as he has many times before, that his plan would suppress the virus, but the latest figures show the opposite. The Prime Minister talked about spikes here and there. Let me tell the House that in three out of four tier 2 areas, infections are going up. In over half of the tier 3 areas, infections are going up—exactly the concern that I put to the Prime Minister two weeks ago, when he said, “Just back us anyway.” As a result, this morning 10 million people moved into tougher restrictions—exactly what we said would happen: areas going up the tiers. Does the Prime Minister not recognise that his latest plan has once again failed to control the virus and protect the NHS and our economy?
Once again, the right hon. and learned Gentleman criticises the Government’s plans without producing any kind of plan of his own, except I seem to remember that he was the mastermind author of the Labour firebreak in Wales. If we look at what is happening across the country, it is thanks to the efforts of the British people that we are seeing significant reductions in the virus in some of the areas where it was really surging. That is because of the hard work of the people of this country. We will, of course, continue to reflect that as we go forward with the tiering approach, and we will continue to roll out the vaccine and community testing. I think that his time would be better employed supporting those wonderful initiatives, supporting community testing, encouraging people to get a test and encouraging people to get a vaccine, rather than continually attacking what the NHS and the Government are trying to do.
I have encouraged everybody to have the vaccine every time I have stood up and talked about it. The Prime Minister is avoiding the issue. In some places, the infection rate has gone up 70% in the last seven days. Everybody knows that this is a problem. The Prime Minister is yet again pretending that it is not.
Another major mistake of the last 12 months was losing public trust. We all know what the tipping point was: the 520-mile round trip to Barnard Castle and the humiliating way in which the Prime Minister and his Cabinet chose to defend it. Now we learn that, while the Prime Minister and the Chancellor are telling the armed forces, police officers, careworkers and firefighters that they will get a pay freeze, Dominic Cummings has been handed at least a £40,000 pay rise. How on earth does the Prime Minister justify that?
The right hon. and learned Gentleman totally trivialises the efforts of the British people in getting the virus down. He says that none of the lockdown measures have worked. That is absolutely untrue. From 5 November to 3 December, the people of this country came together once again to get the virus under control, and they have made a huge amount of progress. We will continue with that tiering system, and we will get the virus down. That is the best way forward for this country. All he wants to do is to lock the whole country down—he is a one-club golfer; that is the only solution he has—and then, all he does is attack the economic consequences of lockdowns.
Mr Speaker, you could script that from October and November, when the Prime Minister was saying that a lockdown was the last thing the country needed and would be disastrous. Two weeks later, he put it on the table and voted for it—ridiculous! This is exactly the problem: not learning from mistakes. Obviously, we know that for Dominic Cummings, it was not performance- related pay. I think that the British people will find it pretty hard to understand why it is one rule for our key workers and another for his advisers.
It is now likely that the next big mistake will be over the easing of restrictions over Christmas—and it is not smarmy lawyers saying this. Let me tell the House what the British Medical Journal has said. The British Medical Journal said yesterday:
“we believe the government is about to blunder into another major error that will cost many lives.”
The Prime Minister should listen to that advice, not just ignore it as usual. If he really is going to press ahead with this, can he tell us what assessment has been done of the impact that it will have on infection rates and increased pressure on the NHS? What is the impact?
I wish the right hon. and learned Gentleman had had the guts just to say what he really wants to do, which is to cancel the plans people have made and cancel Christmas. That is really, I think, what he is driving at. He is looking a bit blank; I think that is what he is driving at. But I can tell him that, as of today—just this morning—there is actually, as I say, unanimous agreement across the UK Government and across all the devolved Administrations, including members of all parties, including his own, that we should proceed, in principle, with the existing regulations, because we do not want to criminalise people’s long-made plans. We do think it is absolutely vital that people should at this very, very tricky time exercise a high degree of personal responsibility, especially when they come into contact with elderly people, and avoid contact with elderly people wherever possible. That is how, by being sensible and cautious, not by imposing endless lockdowns or cancelling Christmas, as he would appear to want to do—that is the only implication I can draw from what he has said, unless he wants to announce some other idea—we will continue to work together to keep this virus under control, to defeat it and take the country forward.
Here we go again: ignoring the medical advice, and we know where that leads, because we have seen what happened in the last nine months. Whatever the Prime Minister says, there is no escaping the brutal facts that Britain has one of the highest numbers of covid deaths in Europe and the worst economic damage.
This is the last PMQs of the year, and I for one often wonder where the Prime Minister gets his advice from. Well, now I know, because I have here the official newsletter of the Wellingborough Conservative party. It is not on everyone’s Christmas reading list, but it is a fascinating read, because it gives a lot of advice to wannabe politicians. It says this:
“say the first thing that comes into your head… It’ll probably be nonsense… You may get a bad headline… but… If you make enough dubious claims, fast enough”,
you can get away with it. The December edition, includes the advice:
“Sometimes, it is better to give the WRONG answer at the RIGHT time, than the RIGHT answer at the WRONG time.”
So my final question to the Prime Minister is this: is he the inspiration for the newsletter, or is he the author?
I think what the people of this country would love to hear from the right hon. and learned Gentleman in this season of good will is any kind of point of view at all on some of the key issues. This week, he could not make up his mind whether it was right for kids to be in school or not, and havering completely. He could not make up his mind last week whether or not to support what the Government were doing to fight covid, and told his troops, heroically, to abstain. He could not make up his mind about Brexit, we all seem to remember. We do not know whether he will vote for a deal or not. He cannot attack the Government if he cannot come up with a view of his own. In the words of the song, “All I want for Christmas is” a view, and it would be wonderful if he could produce one.
This Government are getting on with delivering on the people’s priorities, with 20,000 more police, 50,000 more nurses, 48 new hospitals and—although it has been very tough and very difficult, and everybody appreciates the suffering and hardship that the people of this country have been going through—by rolling out the vaccine, by community testing and by tough tiering, which I hope the right hon. and learned Gentleman supports, we are going to defeat coronavirus and we are going to take this country forward into a great 2021.
I thank my hon. Friend, who has campaigned nobly in that cause. As he knows, already we have not only set up a points-based immigration system, taking back control of our borders, but we will ensure that—and we have already done many free trade deals—we will use the economic advantages of Brexit, coming out of the European Union, to do free ports, to make this country the most attractive place for investment for business and for enterprise around the world and, above all, to resist the depredations of the socialists opposite, who would destroy that opportunity and do everything they possibly could to take us straight back into the lunar pull of the European Union, which is the true ambition of the right hon. and learned Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer).
May I wish you, Mr Speaker, and all colleagues, staff, essential workers, health workers, and everyone in these nations all the best for Christmas? I hope everyone does their best to keep everybody safe.
In the past few hours, the President of the European Commission has said that the next few days are going to be “decisive” in the Brexit negotiations. With just two weeks to go, it is a disgrace that businesses and people have been left with that crippling uncertainty, and the real threat of food and medicine shortages come the new year. One year ago, at the general election, Scotland rejected this Prime Minister. It rejected this Tory Government, and it rejected their extreme Brexit. People in Scotland now need to know the price they will be forced to pay. Ahead of any vote in Parliament, will the Prime Minister commit to releasing a detailed economic impact assessment of the cost to the UK of his extreme Tory Brexit plans?
Notwithstanding the slight uncharacteristic air of gloom from the right hon. Gentleman, there is every opportunity—and hope I have—that our friends and partners across the channel will see sense and do a deal. All that takes is for them to understand that the UK has a natural right, like every other country, to want to be able to control its own laws and its own fishing grounds —I would have thought that would be important to the right hon. Gentleman. Whatever happens in the next few days, I know that this country will prosper mightily on the terms that we agree with our European friends, and whatever those terms may be—whether they are Australian or Canadian—he can go forward with a high heart and confidence into 2021, knowing that there are great opportunities for Scotland and the rest of the UK.
I am not quite sure what that was, Mr Speaker, but it certainly wasn’t an answer to the question. I am not surprised, because the Prime Minister did not want to answer the question. He knows that the United Kingdom is poorer and worse off as a result of the extreme Tory Brexit, and the costs continue to soar. The Warwick study estimates that Scotland has already lost £4 billion as a result of Brexit, and Bloomberg Economics estimates that the UK will have lost £200 billion by the end of this year. Scottish Government analysis estimates that every person in Scotland will, on average, be worse off to the tune of £1,600.
Scotland has been completely ignored by Westminster throughout the Brexit process, and we are now being kept in the dark over the devastating price that we will be forced to pay. People in Scotland are not willing to suffer the consequences of this economic vandalism, and 16 consecutive polls have shown a majority for independence—that is little wonder, Mr Speaker. Is it not as clear as day that the only way left to protect Scotland’s interests and our place in Europe is for Scotland to become an independent country?
Again, despite the gloom that the right hon. Gentleman seeks to spread about Scotland and the rest of the UK, the UK currently has the highest youth employment in the G7—I could perhaps have made that point to the right hon. and learned Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer)—and lower unemployment than France, Italy, Spain, the United States and Canada. There is a threat to the Scottish economy, sadly, and that is the high tax regime and mismanagement of the Scottish nationalist party. That is the problem that Scotland faces, and I hope that the people of Scotland can see it.
I thank my hon. Friend for everything she does to campaign for Derbyshire Dales and for hospitality. It has been a terrible time for hospitality. We all share the anguish of those who work in the hospitality sector. That is why we have cut VAT overall, as she knows, from 20% to 5% in those sectors until the end of March, and we are going to develop, with her help, a tourism recovery plan to help people come to see the beauties of the Derbyshire Dales in particular.
Last week, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster said that Northern Ireland would have the “best of both worlds” as a result of the talks with the European Union. For that to be true, we need access to both UK and EU trade deals. Will the Prime Minister confirm whether he is pushing for that in those talks?
Of course, as the agreement with our friends has already made clear, the whole of the UK, including Northern Ireland, will participate fully in all trade deals that the UK does, and Northern Ireland will continue to have unfettered access to the whole of the UK market.
Yes indeed. I know that my hon. Friend, as a doctor, knows the vital importance of medical research and pure science. That is why this Government are investing record sums in science R&D—£14.6 billion in 2021-22. That is going to support all the life sciences sectors. If anybody wants evidence of why it is so vital to support those sectors, they have only to look at the events of the last few months.
I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman is quite wrong. What the NIC is saying is that there are other things we can do as well, including massively improving the midland main line—I think everybody would want to do that—but the ambition to do the eastern leg, as I have said in the House before, remains absolutely unchanged.
Mr Speaker, the whole of the country and the taxpayers of this country play that role; it is our job to make sure that we spend the money sensibly, and that is what we were doing. I am delighted that, thanks in part to the campaigning by my hon. Friend, his constituency is attracting an average of 3.8% more per pupil next year compared with this year through the national funding formula—a total of £4.8 million more, in addition, of course, to our commitment to pay every teacher a starting salary of £30,000.
The hon. Member is quite right to raise the problem in the hospitality sector. We are committed to doing everything we can. She knows about the £3,000 grant, the additional £2,100, plus the £1,000 for wet pubs. But the best thing of all—in addition to the cuts in business rates and VAT that I have already mentioned—is for areas in the west midlands to work together—
Sorry; forgive me. The best thing is for areas in the north-east to work together to reduce the virus through community testing in the way that Liverpool has succeeded in doing. I appreciate that the hon. Member’s constituency is in in tier 3 and things are very, very tough, but if we all work together, we can get the virus down and get our pubs open again.
Transition Period: Business
In the light of the new opportunities that the end of the transition period will bring, is the Prime Minister aware of the ambitious economic growth proposition developed in Buckinghamshire? Will he back this bold bid for Bucks to ensure that Buckinghamshire continues to increase its contribution to the Exchequer: a win for the businesses of Bucks and a win for the levelling-up agenda?
My apologies, Mr Speaker. I am obviously addressing my question to the Prime Minister. There are obstacles that exist across the United Kingdom to the creation of drug consumption rooms, and those obstacles can be removed at Westminster. Previously the UK Government have held an ideological view that drug consumption rooms encourage drug taking. Will the Prime Minister engage with me and allow me the opportunity to help him do a good thing?
I listened very carefully to the hon. Gentleman. I must say that we do not want to do anything that would encourage the consumption of more drugs, nor do we want to decriminalise the possession of drugs, because I believe that they ruin lives and drive criminality across the whole United Kingdom. I am more than happy to look at the proposals made by the hon. Gentleman one more time, and to pursue the agenda of tackling drugs, but the vast panoply of powers that are needed to tackle drugs and drugs crime are already vested with the devolved Administration in Scotland, and I am afraid that the failures that he talks about are very largely down to them.
It is great to hear my hon. Friend, because he speaks such good sense on this matter; I hope that he is heard up and down the land. It is absolutely vital that people who are offered the vaccine do take steps to get it immediately. They will be protecting themselves and they will be protecting everyone else.
It is very important that all businesses treat their employees with fairness and respect. In that sense, I utterly share the point of view of the hon. Lady, but it is also vital that we have a flexible economy that is able to generate jobs, particularly when we are going to go through a very difficult and bumpy time. We have had a proud record of keeping employment high and unemployment low in this country, and we want to continue with that approach.
I thank my hon. Friend. I will do what I can to fit in his very kind invitation to inspect this sculpture. I admire Mr Gormley’s work greatly, by the way. I am delighted that Kirklees College has opened the Pioneer Higher Skills Centre, providing high level education and skills training for the people of Dewsbury. I thank my hon. Friend for what he is doing to campaign for that.
I can confidently say that I do not believe that there is another Member of this House who has built as many buses, or caused as many buses to be built, as I have. We are absolutely committed to rolling out, as the hon. Gentleman rightly says, 4,000 zero- emission buses and the country’s first all electric bus town. He is right to lobby for the wonderful Alexander Dennis buses that are built in in Falkirk. We will certainly champion them, as well as buses built in Ballymena and elsewhere. He can take it from me that, in a zero-carbon way, we are putting the pedal to the floor until we get to 4,000.
The hon. Lady is of course right to draw attention to the hardship of parents who have had to cope with kids coming home from school because of self-isolation rules. One of the things that we are trying to do now is roll out lateral flow testing on a grand scale for schools, so that we reduce the size of the bubbles that have to self-isolate. We are doing whatever we can to support families throughout the crisis, as she knows, with big uprates in universal credit and all manner of support that we are providing, in addition to free childcare for 30 hours a week.
The best answer for this crisis is to keep our kids in school, to test them and to roll out that programme of mass community testing, which I am sure the hon. Lady supports in her neighbourhood, in order to drive the virus down, allow the vaccine time really to kick in, and protect our elderly and vulnerable so that we can all move forward together as a society. That is what this Government are aiming for, but in the meantime I fully appreciate the problem that she has raised, and we will do our very best to address it.
Immigration Rules: Supported Accommodation
(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department if she will make a statement on whether the changes to the immigration rules laid last week will reduce the numbers of asylum seekers in supported accommodation.
This Government are taking action to fix the asylum system so that it is firm and fair—firm where the system is being abused, but fair to those who need protection. And we have been clear: we will use every means at our disposal to make the use of small boats to cross the channel unviable.
Last week we laid changes to the immigration rules that are vital to curb irregular migration, which is often facilitated by ruthless criminal gangs. Channel crossings are not only highly dangerous but unnecessary, because France and other European countries are safe. Asylum should be claimed there. These changes will mean that individuals who could and should have claimed asylum previously in a safe country may not have their asylum claims determined in the UK where we are able to safely return them. The changes also enable us to consider the return of these individuals to any safe country besides the safe country where they could have claimed asylum. Individuals will also not be able to make asylum claims at sea.
At the end of the transition period, the UK is no longer bound by the Dublin regulation. These new measures will enable us, by agreement, to replace Dublin with more flexible returns arrangements. This will have a deterrent effect, by sending a clear message to anyone thinking of coming to the UK dangerously from a safe country that they should not risk their lives by doing so. This deterrent effect will also destroy the business model of the ruthless criminal gangs.
Such returns would, of course, reduce numbers in accommodation. I want to be clear that we are not turning our back on those who need our help after fleeing persecution, oppression or tyranny. We stand by our obligations under the 1951 refugee convention, the European convention on human rights and other relevant treaties. We will continue to welcome people to the UK through safe and legal routes, assisting the most vulnerable, providing accommodation and meeting essential living needs.
As I have set out, we are taking a number of steps to tackle irregular, dangerous migration. But addressing the problem really requires a complete overhaul, and in the first half of next year we will bring forward a Bill to fix the immigration and asylum system once and for all. This country will be fair to those who need protection, but firm where the system is being abused.
Coming into force on 1 January, the Home Office’s proposed changes to the asylum system have far-reaching implications. Intended to act as a deterrent to people traffickers, which of course is laudable, they instead create a separate tier of asylum seekers, who will not have their claims considered and who the Minister will seek to return, albeit with no mechanism yet to do so. They will also be housed in camps, such as the one proposed in Test Valley, with no mains electricity or mains water. How does the Minister intend to issue written guidance as to how these changes will be processed? He has just 10 working days before they come into force. Will the permitted development powers that the Minister intends to use to create several of these camps be extended by statutory instrument, like these rules, avoiding parliamentary scrutiny? Does he think the changes might in fact see an increase to the asylum application backlog? Does he have a strategic plan or does he hope that housing people on sites where he admits he will not provide healthcare will just act as a deterrent? He acknowledges that, even without covid, only a few thousand failed asylum seekers are returned each year, and in 10 working days he loses Dublin. I know he is working with the French to secure a replacement, but what about Greece, Spain and Italy, and will those agreements be in place by 1 January?
The Home Office is already in court over its inhuman treatment of asylum seekers housed in barracks and it has settled some claims, moving people into more appropriate accommodation. Is the Minister concerned he has laid these rules before the rest of those cases are heard, and just a matter of days after the Equality and Human Rights Commission stated that the Home Office had
“a culture where equality was not seen as important”?
Last year, Wendy Williams identified that the Home Office needed to examine the development of policies to make sure that the person was put at the heart of its services. How do these rules fit with that?
The Minister has talked of legal routes, but he has committed to resettle only 232 people—the final step in delivering the pledge to resettle 20,000 Syrians, of which we were all proud. When will he finally launch the programme to resettle 5,000 refugees this year, which was announced in 2019?
The Minister plans to put people in camps with no mains water at a time when we know hygiene is critical. If it were not for you having granted this urgent question today, Mr Speaker, he would not even have come to the House to explain himself.
On the first question, about the asylum track, after somebody arrives—having come, we believe, from a safe country where they could have claimed asylum—and if they are declared inadmissible, we will seek for a short period to get the agreement of that other country to return them there, where their asylum claim can be substantively and properly considered. If that is not possible, the asylum claim will of course be substantively and properly considered in this country.
My right hon. Friend asked some questions about our asylum system more generally—I think she was in some way seeking to insinuate that it was not reasonable or fair. The accommodation that we provide is reasonable and good, and there are 60,000 people currently being accommodated.
In terms of our system more widely, last year we made 20,000 grants of asylum or other forms of protection—that is a very high number. We welcomed and received more unaccompanied asylum-seeking children last year than any other European country, including Greece. Over the last five years, our resettlement schemes have seen 25,000 people taken directly from conflict zones and resettled in the United Kingdom—more than any other European country. After the 232 remaining people have come over, we will continue with resettlement, as far as we are able to, given the context of coronavirus and everything else. I therefore think we have a proud record of helping people who are genuinely in need.
My right hon. Friend asked about safe and legal routes. In addition to what I have described, last year over 6,000 people came into the UK under the refugee family reunion routes, which of course continue to exist.
The purpose of these changes is to prepare us for life after Dublin, and it is quite right that we make preparations, but at the heart of this is a desire to dissuade people—indeed, prevent people—from making unnecessary and dangerous journeys, particularly across the English channel, endangering their own lives and feeding ruthless criminal people smugglers, and all for no purpose, because France is a safe country where asylum can easily be claimed, as are the other European countries these migrants have travelled through.
My right hon. Friend asked about future agreements. She referenced France, and we are of course in close dialogue with France—we have a very close and friendly relationship. We will also be entering into discussions with other countries, including some of the ones she mentioned, as soon as the current European-level negotiations are concluded. These rules lay the foundations for those future discussions and negotiations, but most of all they will deter dangerous and unnecessary journeys, and I hope the House will join me in supporting that objective.
I thank the right hon. Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes) for securing this urgent question and for the incredibly important points she made, not least in relation to asylum accommodation.
As we have heard, these changes will allow a claim to be found inadmissible if someone has had the opportunity to claim asylum in another safe third country prior to claiming asylum in the UK. That is not dissimilar to the current arrangements under the Dublin III regulations that we have in place with our European neighbours, but which will cease at the end of this month. We are leaving the Dublin III regulations, so this change allows the Government to deem a claim inadmissible without any co-operation or agreement in place to facilitate returning the person concerned to a third country. This is an unworkable half-plan, being introduced by the back door as changes to the immigration rules, with no opportunity for proper parliamentary scrutiny.
On Monday, the Minister outlined that it is this Government’s intention to open discussions with those countries as soon as we are able to do so. Can he confirm that those talks are yet to start and that there will be no such arrangements in place by 1 January, when these changes come into effect? Will he clarify what a person’s rights will therefore be in the period between their claim being found inadmissible and a returns agreement being reached?
The changes also suggest that an asylum claim can be reinstated after a reasonable period of time, if another safe country is unable to admit that person. How long is “a reasonable period”? Further still, as the Minister has confirmed, these changes will allow someone to be removed to any safe third country, including countries that the person has never been to and has no connection with. How does he envisage that that could possibly work in practice?
The changes before us come into effect in less than a month’s time. The Minister must realise the widespread concern about leaving some incredibly vulnerable people in limbo, at risk of homelessness and destitution.
Let me reassure the shadow Minister on one or two points. She concluded her questions by asking about the risk of destitution. To be clear, if somebody who is in the inadmissible cohort is unable to make provision for their own accommodation or upkeep, they will be eligible for accommodation in the normal way, just as people currently in the Dublin third country cohort, awaiting return to a European country, are accommodated and supported. There will be no risk of destitution, which would of course infringe their article 3 rights were it ever to happen.
The hon. Lady asks about the status of people who may fall into that cohort. Clearly, the intention is that a period of time will pass when we seek the agreement of a third country to return them. That will happen within a reasonable time—we will set that out in guidance, but it will be a matter of a few months; it will not be a long time. If, after that reasonable time, no agreement is forthcoming, their asylum claim will be substantively considered here. There will not be any extended period of limbo, which I do not think would be in anybody’s interests.
The hon. Lady refers to the fact that these arrangements are in some regards similar in concept to Dublin. I hope the House will take from that that they are reasonable in spirit, because no one has objected to the principles that underpin the Dublin regulations—indeed, many people have pointed to them as exemplars.
Finally, the message all of us in this House should be sending out, the Opposition Front Bench included, is that if somebody is in continental Europe and they feel they have a protection claim that needs to be heard, they should not attempt a dangerous crossing of the English channel. They should not pay money to ruthless people smugglers. They should use the very well-functioning asylum systems in our very civilised European neighbours. Let that message go out from this House today; it will save life.
Many people in the country share the views the Minister has just expressed; they are appalled by the dangerous and illegal trade in people across the channel, both in dangerous boat voyages and in trucks and cargo containers. He has every support from millions of people to do something. Will he also ensure in the new law that comes in that, while there is the opportunity for appeal, there are not repetitive, constant and frivolous appeals, delaying the judgment and wasting the time and resource of the Home Office?
I thank my right hon. Friend for his comments. As he says, I think these proposals and this approach will command widespread public support. The public do not understand why people should cross the English channel in dangerous circumstances, facilitated by criminals, when they could perfectly easily claim asylum in France or somewhere else, which is of course what they should do. Characteristically, he makes an extremely pertinent and prescient point about the legal process, which the new Bill next year will most certainly address. At the moment, it is possible to bring a series of claims over a period of time—repetitively, sometimes vexatiously and sometimes even in contradiction with one another—with the express purpose in mind of preventing, frustrating or delaying the proper application of our immigration rules. We will be legislating to prevent that kind of abuse of the legal process, and I look forward to working with him on making that law a reality.
I thank the right hon. Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes) for securing this urgent question. It seems to me that this is not about fixing the asylum system; rather, it is about blocking access to it, leaving people in limbo and undermining the refugee convention in doing so. The Minister has focused on the channel, but putting aside those crossing the channel, can he be clear on what percentage of asylum applicants the Department thinks is likely to be impacted by these inadmissibility rules and left in limbo? Can he be clearer on what statutory support and accommodation will be available to those who are put in that limbo situation? If this is really about replacing Dublin, surely we must wait to see what replacement agreements are concluded and what safeguards are in place before being asked to look at these changes.
Finally, if the Government are serious about fixing the asylum system, will they start by addressing yesterday’s news of 29 deaths in asylum accommodation this year alone? Can we have a clear Government commitment and published policy to record and investigate such deaths, to support the bereaved and to learn lessons so as to prevent further tragedies? Surely creating a legal limbo of several months will only make things worse, not better.
First, as I have said, the people in this cohort will not be in limbo, because after a reasonable period, if no return to another country is possible, the asylum claim will be substantively considered here. The possibility of limbo that the hon. Gentleman referred to does not exist, as I have said twice already.
Secondly, the hon. Gentleman raised the question of destitution. As I said in response to the hon. Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch), the people in this cohort will be eligible for accommodation and support, so the risk of destitution, which would be in contravention of article 3, does not exist either.
The hon. Gentleman asked about people crossing the channel and referenced the refugee convention. He will know that article 31 of the refugee convention talks about people
“coming directly from a territory where their life or freedom was threatened”
being immune to various forms of penalty. He will know that France is a safe country where people’s life and freedom are not threatened. Human rights are respected in France. Asylum claims can be processed in France and, indeed, in other countries through which this cohort typically pass prior to their arrival in France. That deals with the questions that he raised.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned the very sad deaths in accommodation, every single one of which is, of course, a tragedy. I remind him that we have 60,000 people in asylum accommodation. While each individual case is very sad, if he studies the statistics he will see that the numbers are not out of line with what we would expect among a population of 60,000 people.
Sooner or later, there is going to be an appalling tragedy in the channel. The reason economic migrants make this crossing is that they know that our present asylum laws are a complete joke. If someone makes it halfway across the channel, their chances of ever being deported are virtually nil, because of the activities of so-called human rights lawyers, who are actually putting lives at risk by their shenanigans in the law courts. What we want from the Minister is a firm commitment that, from 1 January, if someone crosses the channel and it is obvious that they are coming from a safe country, they will be immediately returned—that is what we want to know.
I thank my right hon. Friend, who has a distinguished legal background, for his question. He is absolutely right: we need to deter these crossings, and we need to ensure that our legal process works effectively. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (John Redwood) said, very often it does not do so. Despite that, we are able to return and deport quite large numbers of people if they should not be in the country or if they have committed very serious criminal offences, as we discussed a couple of weeks ago.
In relation to the question about immediate returns from 1 January, that is the policy objective of the Government—it is my objective, the Home Secretary’s objective and, indeed, the Prime Minister’s objective. But in order to effect returns, we need the agreement of the receiving country, and so my top priority, as soon as the European-level negotiations are concluded, is to seek exactly those kind of return agreements.
The Government are about to end the only agreement that they have in a place for safe returns by ending the Dublin agreement, which will make it harder, not easier, for the Minister to complete safe returns. He told the Home Affairs Committee that there are currently no negotiations for a replacement—they have not even started—and we are only 15 days away. Will the Minister confirm what I think he just said—that asylum accommodation and support will still be available for everyone who is in this limbo for the next few months? Does that mean that with no return agreement in place and the existing support systems continuing, he is actually adding several months to the waiting times for asylum claims to be sorted out? If he had an agreement, he could just use the existing rules.
On the Select Committee Chair’s question about accommodation and support, I can confirm that it will be available, as I have said already, because not to provide it would breach article 3. That support will be available and people will not fall into destitution.
On the negotiations, back in May—I believe it was 19 May—we tabled an EU proposal on these matters, but if that is not agreed to in the course of the current discussions, we will seek bilateral agreements with various countries. As I said to the right hon. Lady’s Committee a week or two ago, individual member states have been asked by the Commission not to engage in such discussions while the European negotiations are ongoing, so we will commence those as soon as we are able to. Even in the absence of those discussions, it is possible to raise returns cases on a case-by-case basis with member states, which, of course, we can do from 1 January. Critically, the new provisions prepare the way—they lay the foundations—for agreements that we may reach in future, besides facilitating case-by-case action.
Finally, although currently in force, the Dublin regulations have not been terribly effective. The right hon. Lady will know that the numbers we successfully return under Dublin are really rather small, numbering in the low hundreds per year. I am confident that, through active negotiation, not only can we replace Dublin but we can improve on it.
I thank the Minister for everything he is doing to tackle illegal migration into this country. As he knows, in Stoke-on-Trent we have resettled the largest number of refugees in the region, which has put significant pressure on local services. Will my hon. Friend look at what more can be done to ensure that local services are not overwhelmed, and put more pressure on local authorities in other parts of the country that are not contributing fairly to the rehousing of refugees?
I thank my hon. Friend and Stoke-on-Trent for their work to welcome genuine refugees, including as part of the resettlement programme. He raises a good point, because some parts of the country decline to take unaccompanied asylum-seeking children as part of the national transfer scheme, thereby putting enormous pressure on gateway authorities such as Kent, Portsmouth, Croydon and Hillingdon; and many other authorities, despite proclaiming themselves to be cities or even nations of sanctuary, often do not give consent for dispersed accommodation for asylum seekers. I say to any of those local authorities and to the devolved Administrations in Scotland and Wales: please help us by accepting unaccompanied asylum-seeking children under the national transfer scheme, particularly from Kent, Portsmouth, Hillingdon and Croydon, and please give consent for dispersed accommodation, because it is essential that we have that available to accommodate people who are seeking asylum.
Does the Minister recognise that this is a huge global issue; that there are almost 80 million refugees globally; that 85% of them have been taken in by the poorest countries in the world, not the wealthiest; that all of them are human beings; and that those who have made their way to this country, historically and in the current time, have made a massive contribution to our lives and our wellbeing? Can he say something positive about the contribution that refugees make to our society?
In the light of the new regulations, can the Minister give us an assurance that no refugees will be destitute while they are waiting for a decision, that none will be left homeless and that none will be left without food? Sadly, in all our cities one comes across people who are making apparently legitimate claims for asylum but are left in a position of destitution and forced to rely on the faith community merely to survive. Does the Minister not think that we can do a bit better than that in the fifth richest country in the world?
I have already given the assurance about destitution to the shadow Minister and to the Chair of the Select Committee. The right hon. Gentleman will know that the asylum system in general does provide support, accommodation and other support, the cost of which is getting on for £1 billion a year, so it is generous in nature. He talks about the refugee problem around the world, which we recognise. That is one reason why we spend a great deal of money on overseas aid. Even after the recent adjustment, that will still be many, many billions of pounds, probably in the region of £10 billion, which is more than almost every other country in the world, so we are doing our bit that way.
We are also doing our bit through the resettlement scheme, which I talked about earlier. It is the largest resettlement scheme of any European country—25,000 people over the past five years. Of course I accept that the people who choose to make their home in this country can, and very often do, make a significant contribution, which we welcome. That is why the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster), set up the points-based immigration system with the Home Secretary, which went active very recently. It is essential that people either claiming asylum or entering the country for work and other purposes do so legally, and all Members of this House, including the former Leader of the Opposition, should be very clear with migrants in Europe that they should not attempt this dangerous crossing and they should not pay dangerous people smugglers. If they need protection, they should claim it where they are in Europe.
My Dudley North constituents and I really want to place on record our gratitude to the Home Secretary and her team for the huge efforts that they are putting into fixing our broken asylum system. Does the Minister agree that we must get this legislation absolutely watertight to put a stop to the fraudulent claims that are costing the hard-working taxpayers of this country very dearly?
I very much agree with my hon. Friend. I am afraid that, as it stands, the legal system is, as my right hon. Friends the Members for Wokingham and for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) said, unfortunately routinely abused with repeated unmeritorious claims. We are determined to prevent that from happening. Of course people will have a fair hearing, but we cannot have our legal system abused. I am very much looking forward to my hon. Friend’s assistance in making sure that this legislation is tightly drafted to ensure that there are no loopholes.
I too congratulate the right hon. Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes) on obtaining this very important urgent question. It is quite remarkable that, but for her efforts, there would be no effective scrutiny of changes of this magnitude. May I take the Minister at his word when he speaks about support for safe and legal routes and perhaps invite him then to update the House on what work he is doing to build a replacement for the Dubs scheme to bring unaccompanied refugee children from Europe to the United Kingdom?
As I have already said, we have a very effective resettlement scheme, which takes people directly from conflict zones. The resettlement schemes that we have run over the past five years have principally focused, for obvious reasons, on Syria. A total of 25,000 people have come in via those schemes over five years. The Dubs scheme focuses on unaccompanied asylum-seeking children in Europe. If we have to prioritise our scarce resources, we should prioritise people, including children, who are in dangerous places such as Syria, not people who are in Italy, who are already in a safe European country. Furthermore, in terms of UASCs in Europe, this country had more UASC applications last year than any other European country. The figure was about 3,800 applications, which means that we are doing our bit for UASCs in Europe, but it is right that we prioritise people in dangerous places, not people in countries such as Italy when it comes to direct resettlement.
My hon. Friend is right: the measures in this set of rules are only a first step. The asylum and immigration system has far more systematic and fundamental problems that cause it, unfortunately, to be abused on many occasions. We need to have fundamental legislative change and, as I said in oral questions just a few days ago, we intend to legislate in the first half of next year to make sure that the legal system is tightened up, so that it cannot be abused and we have a system that is fair to those who need protection, but firm on those trying to abuse it.
I, too, would like to thank the right hon. Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes) for securing the urgent question. The treatment of asylum seekers already in the care of the Home Office is immensely significant and the Government’s shocking treatment of asylum seekers in Penally camp in Pembrokeshire contrasts with the heart-warming response of local groups who support them as they arrive in the community. Winter is upon us and it remains unclear whether the camp was ever used by the Ministry of Defence during the winter months in the past. The camp is located in a remote rural location, raising questions of whether the Home Office can provide duty of care services effectively. Given those questions, will the Minister commit to set a date for an inspection of the camp by the independent chief inspector of borders and immigration?
It is not for me to tell the chief inspector how to conduct his inspections and his affairs, but I would say that Penally has been set up in a thoughtful and careful way. We have had to use such emergency accommodation because during coronavirus the number of people we are accommodating has gone up very dramatically, from 48,000 to about 60,000, as the cessations or move-ons we would ordinarily do have been substantially reduced. In the case of negative cessations, they are currently paused entirely across the whole United Kingdom. So that is the reason why it is organised as it is. As I said earlier, if Members, and in particular local authorities and devolved Administrations, want to see the use of hotels and places such as Penally reduced, supporting the Home Office in procuring more dispersed accommodation is the way to do that.
On accommodation, Clearsprings Ready Homes, which I believe manages the Penally camp and has also managed accommodation in my constituency for many years, made multimillion-pound profits over the past few years, paid one of its directors £147,000 last year—that is more than Dominic Cummings—and took a £2 million dividend in 2019. Yet we hear of squalid, degrading and unsafe conditions at its properties. I have raised those issues over many years with Ministers and officials, but it has been awarded a generous new contract with the Home Office. Why was it awarded that contract? How is it value for money? What will the Minister do to bear down on those appalling conditions?
The contracts for the three service providers were awarded after a thorough process to evaluate the bids and they are, of course, subject to ongoing scrutiny on issues such as quality of accommodation, in the way that the hon. Gentleman describes. Generally speaking, the accommodation provided is of good quality and it compares very favourably with accommodation provided by some other countries. However, if he would like to write to me with any specific issues he wants to raise in relation to particular units of accommodation in his constituency, I will of course make sure they are investigated.
My hon. Friend is quite right that hotels are being used in central London and, indeed, in other cities. That is a consequence of the very short-term pressures created by coronavirus. It is our intention, as we go into next year and as the coronavirus pandemic abates, to get hotel numbers back down again. For financial and other reasons, it is not ideal to have to use hotels and we would like to phase out their use as quickly as we possibly can in the coming year.
On Christmas eve, the first asylum seekers are due to arrive at the remote site of Yarl’s Wood immigration removal centre, where they will be housed in prefab-style accommodation. We have seen a similar approach in Kent and Wales, where Army barracks are being used, and other sites are planned. That is a lot of activity for what we are told is a temporary arrangement. Will the Minister explain the new policy approach to housing asylum seekers in hostile environments and tell me exactly when it will end?
It is not a hostile environment. The accommodation meets the required standards. As I explained in my answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Kensington (Felicity Buchan), we are having to provide additional units because the number of people being supported has gone up enormously as a result of coronavirus. Far fewer cessation notices have been served this year than would ordinarily be the case, because we are mindful of the welfare of the people concerned and the wider population. We do intend to scale up the cessations as quickly as we safely can. As we do that, the pressure on numbers will reduce correspondingly.
I welcome my hon. Friend’s commitment to preventing the criminal gangs from preying on the vulnerable people who make the dangerous crossings from France to the UK. One of the concerns that we all have is about how he will speed up the decision-making process so that those who are entitled to asylum in this country can be speedily resettled, and those who are not entitled to be here can be returned to a safe place as fast as possible. Will he advise the House on what action he will take in the new year to speed up the process so that decisions are made quickly?
My hon. Friend is right that speeding up the decision making is in everybody’s interests. It will mean that fewer people will need to be accommodated, it will be good for those people who get a positive decision, and for those who have a negative decision we can proceed with removal. Clearly, the coronavirus pandemic has had a negative effect on decision making, but it is now being rapidly ramped up again. We intend to recruit more asylum decision makers in the new year, and we also intend to look at ways of deploying technology, so better IT systems, to speed up processes and decision making. I recently visited Lunar House in Croydon, close to my constituency, where many of the teams who make the decisions are based. The spirit of my hon. Friend’s question is absolutely right, and we certainly intend to act upon it.
This afternoon the Minister has sought to assure Members that the changes to this regime will protect applicants from destitution, but the Joseph Rowntree Foundation estimates that the level of destitution in the UK, among UK citizens, is set to double to 2 million families. Can he explain how he expects Members to accept that the Government will protect asylum seekers from destitution, when they cannot protect 2 million UK nationals?
We are protecting asylum seekers from destitution at the moment. I have already pointed out that we are spending in the region of £1 billion a year supporting the various cohorts of asylum seekers, and the accommodation and cash allowances that they are provided with have been tested by the courts and found to be suitable, so there is very clear evidence that the Government’s work in this area does the trick. The hon. Gentleman asked about wider issues, so I will just point out that measures such as elevating the minimum wage and increasing the tax-free allowance have done huge amounts over the past five or six years to combat poverty and create prosperity. As the economy recovers next year, after coronavirus, that will continue.
I know that both my hon. Friend and the Home Secretary are doing everything in their power to stop the illegal crossings on the south coast and the continuing abuse of our immigration and asylum system, but it is perfectly clear that we do need long-term reform. When can we expect the full details of how the Government intend to reform our currently broken system so that the UK is no longer a soft touch?
I welcome my hon. Friend’s question. We intend to introduce legislation in the first half of next year, but that will of course be consulted on, so that everyone with an interest in the matter, including my hon. Friend and his constituents, can propose ideas and we can make sure the legislation has the desired effect.
During this transition period, the Dublin regulations have given the UK temporary power to transfer refugees and migrants back to the EU country from which they arrived. As the ever-shifting deadline looms, I understand that the Home Office has sped up its asylum seeker processing in an attempt to deport vulnerable immigrants, including suspected trafficking victims, before the year’s end. I have dealt with a lot of cases of trafficking victims in Ilford South. I seek reassurance from the Minister that he will seriously consider putting proper screening in place so that anything that is unlawful and could end up creating serious harm can be stopped. Will he consider ending deportation until robust and proper screening is implemented?
There is a robust screening process in place, via the single competent authority and the national referral mechanism. That is working, I think it is fair to say, extremely effectively, so the risks the hon. Member identifies do not currently exist. This is a matter that is frequently tested in the courts, so we will almost certainly not be stopping removals and deportations. The Government are determined to apply the law, whether to people who have failed in their asylum claims or dangerous criminals who pose a threat to our constituents. I hope the Labour party and the hon. Gentleman will join us in supporting the proper operation of our law and protecting our constituents.
I welcome the steps the Government have taken to deter dangerous journeys that put human lives at risk. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is a long-standing principle that asylum seekers should claim asylum at the earliest opportunity, in the first safe country they reach? Will he also confirm that safe countries still include France, Italy, Greece, and so on?
My hon. Friend is right. European Union countries, including the ones she lists, are obviously manifestly safe and civilised countries. People who find themselves in need of protection in those countries should claim asylum there, as she says. They should not attempt dangerous crossings of the English channel, facilitated by ruthless criminals, and every single Member of this House should send the same message.
These major, fundamental changes to the immigration rules were laid last week, incredibly, with zero consultation with stakeholders such as local authorities and the asylum sector. In the last two years the number of people waiting for longer than six months for a decision has increased almost threefold, with nearly 40,000 people having to wait at least that long. Surely the changes risk creating even greater inefficiency and delays, with people having to wait to find out whether the UK will even consider their asylum claim?
The changes are designed to ensure that we can enter into agreements with other countries to replace Dublin. They are designed to ensure that people who unnecessarily come to the United Kingdom—often clandestinely, often dangerously and often facilitated by criminals—do not do so, because they could instead claim asylum somewhere safe, such as France or Germany. I hope the hon. Gentleman agrees with me that that is the right thing to do and what we should be encouraging people to do.
On the timing of asylum decision making, as I mentioned in answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman), we want to speed things up, but unfortunately coronavirus has impacted decision making, as it has impacted so many elements of the public service system. However, we are focused on making sure the system speeds up, and that is a top priority for the coming year.
I thank the Minister and the Home Secretary for everything they are doing in this area. Does the Minister agree that the attitude of many Opposition Members in objecting to the deportation of convicted criminals, including murderers and rapists, harms the case of genuine refugees? Will he act to overhaul the rules, which see some lawyers abusing the system, to the detriment of taxpayers in North West Durham and across the country, and also genuine refugees?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We saw in our debate a couple of weeks ago some Opposition Members, astonishingly, standing up for the rights of people who have been convicted of extremely serious criminal offences, instead of standing up for the rights of victims or the rights of our constituents to be protected against the harm that those dangerous individuals represent. He is also right when he points out that unmeritorious claims crowd out, or push further back in the queue, the claims of those who have every right to protection. That is why we are determined to legislate next year to ensure that those whose claims are genuine are treated quickly and fairly, but that where people do not have a good claim and are abusing the system, the system is firm and rejects those claims.
As a city of sanctuary, Newcastle seeks to support those fleeing war and persecution, but all too often the Home Office places them in accommodation that is unsuitable, inadequate or plain disgusting, and where they may be targeted by far-right groups, as happened recently in Newcastle, and then leaves them for months or years without proper consideration of their case, at great cost to the mental wellbeing of those who are already vulnerable. Am I right to think that the Minister’s solution to this is now to arbitrarily reduce the cases considered, rather than actually fixing the process?
The Government’s policy, as I have laid out, is to do everything we can to make sure that where people wishing to claim asylum are already in a safe, civilised country like France, Germany or Spain, they claim asylum there and do not attempt a dangerous journey facilitated by ruthless criminals. That is the right thing to do, and I would hope to have the hon. Lady’s support in doing it.
The people of Ashfield and Eastwood are fed up with seeing illegal economic migrants leaving safe countries such as France to claim asylum in the UK while filling the pockets of greedy lawyers. I welcome the immediate steps the Government are taking to overhaul our broken asylum system, but the people of Ashfield and Eastwood want to know what steps my hon. Friend is taking in the longer term to fix this system once and for all.
My hon. Friend is right in the sense that the system does not work currently in the way that it should. People are able to make repeated, unmeritorious and sometimes vexatious claims to frustrate the system and prevent removal. For that reason, we will legislate in the first half of next year to make sure that the system is fundamentally fixed and fundamentally reformed in a way that will give his constituents the confidence they have every right to expect.
The Minister will be aware that Glasgow has housed and accommodated asylum seekers for almost 20 years—something of which we are very proud. Can he say a bit more about how those who may be considered to be inadmissible under the new rules will be supported and accommodated? Will they, for example, be placed in detention centres, camps, barracks and hotels—he will be aware that a group of doctors has written to the Department with concerns about the conditions for asylum seekers in these sorts of accommodation—or is he going to rule out those sorts of accommodation going forward?
Glasgow does accommodate a large number of asylum seekers. We work very closely with Glasgow City Council and the Communities and Local Government Secretary in the Scottish Government on that topic. Glasgow is the only Scottish authority to receive asylum seekers. It would ease the pressure on Glasgow, and indeed across the United Kingdom, if other Scottish local authorities were able to accommodate asylum seekers as well. In terms of the type of accommodation provided, the inadmissible cohort, although inadmissible, will be entitled to accommodation, as I have said, and the support that goes with that. We will make sure that the support they receive fully complies with all our legal and moral obligations.
I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes) for asking this question. The vast immigration detention estate, in all its forms, is a standing indictment of our failed immigration system, which, as the Minister knows, every day carries with it a risk. He is right to focus on reform, although I would say that the goal is not so much to be fast and furious as to be fair and accurate.
My question relates to the security of some of the barracks accommodation and other accommodation that is being provided. There have been some reports of asylum seekers leaving these estates and not coming back. What inquiries has the Minister undertaken, and what reassurance can he give to communities where these sites are located?
The size of the immigration detention estate has actually shrunk considerably over the past five or six years. I think I am right in saying that it has reduced in size by, very approximately, 50%. Detention is used sparingly and only as a necessary precursor to removal. On the accommodation for people seeking asylum, this is not detention. The people are not detained and are free to come and go as they choose, but obviously those operating the sites keep a very careful eye on them. For example, there is a process of signing in and signing out, and if people are not back on the site by 10 pm each evening, then inquiries are made. Although the people in the centres are not detained, very careful measures are taken to understand their whereabouts to make sure that nothing untoward happens in the local communities. I hope that my hon. Friend will take that as reassurance, but I would be happy to discuss these issues further, particularly in the Yarl’s Wood context, if he would like to do that.
I thank the Minister for his response to the questions so far. The changes explain that an asylum claim can be reinstated after a “reasonable period of time” if another safe country is unable to admit that person. Can the Minister outline what a reasonable period is, what support will be given in the interim period, and what processes are in place to support people whose claims are deemed inadmissible in the United Kingdom?
I can assure the hon. Member that while the process unfolds of seeking another country to receive the person, support will be made available to avoid the risk of destitution. The reasonable length of time taken to secure the agreement of another country will be laid out in guidance shortly, but it will be a matter of a few months; it will not be an extended period.
Britain’s broken asylum system is currently costing the taxpayer over £1 billion per year. Does the Minister agree that a decisive push is now needed comprehensively to deal with and process more quickly the 60,000 asylum seekers currently in supported accommodation, and to disincentivise others from making the perilous journey across the channel?
Yes, I do agree. In fact, some of those 60,000 are people whose asylum claims are not pending but whose asylum claims have been rejected, and where the legal process has been convoluted and removal has not been effected. One of the things that we intend to do in our Bill is ensure that failed asylum seekers can be more quickly returned to their safe country of origin, which, of course, is what should happen. My hon. Friend is right that we need to speed up asylum decision making and get these numbers down. That is fair to individuals who have a valid asylum claim, but also to the taxpayer, upon whom otherwise falls an extremely large financial burden. I agree entirely with my hon. Friend’s sentiments.
Lewisham is proud to be a borough of sanctuary, and the council has stated that it will not collaborate with the Home Office in enforcing new immigration rules that make rough sleeping a legal ground to cancel or refuse permission to stay in the UK. As we enter the coldest months of the year, how can the Minister justify these rules when they risk deterring rough sleepers from seeking help and threaten to put many lives at risk?
The Government have been extremely clear that the rules on rough sleeping to which the hon. Lady refers only apply where the person concerned has persistently refused offers of help and support, and are engaging in persistent antisocial behaviour. It is expected to be used in an extremely small number of circumstances. Of course everybody will be offered help and support to get off the streets. The Government have invested about £700 million this year alone in helping people to get off the streets and into accommodation. She mentions Lewisham’s desire to assist. One way in which the London Borough of Lewisham can certainly assist is by taking on some unaccompanied asylum-seeking children who are arriving in Kent. I look forward to hearing from her and from the leader of her authority as to exactly how many of those children they propose to take in over Christmas.
I thank the Minister for his statement and for responding to questions for approaching an hour. We are now going to suspend for three minutes for the sanitisation of the Dispatch Boxes, and the safe exit and arrival of Members of Parliament.
Uyghur Slave Labour: Xinjiang
(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs if he will make a statement on what the Government are doing to deal with the overwhelming evidence of the Chinese Government’s use of Uyghur slave labour in Xinjiang province.
Evidence of forced Uyghur labour within Xinjiang and in other parts of China is credible; it is growing and it is deeply troubling to the UK Government. Yesterday’s media reporting, based in part on Chinese Government documents, suggests that forced labour is occurring on a significant scale. The reports raise particular concerns regarding the cotton industry, with serious implications for international and UK supply chains. We have consistently made clear our view that all businesses involved in investing in Xinjiang or with parts of their supply chains in Xinjiang should conduct appropriate due diligence to satisfy themselves that their activities do not support, or risk being seen to support, any human rights violations or abuses.
In our national action plan, implementing the UN guiding principles on business and human rights, we set out our expectation that UK businesses should respect human rights across their operations and their international supply relationships. While there is an important role for Government, businesses have a clear responsibility to ensure that their supply chains are free from forced labour. We have issued clear guidance and held regular meetings with businesses and industry stakeholders to underline our concerns and the importance of thorough due diligence. We have also financed projects to build the evidence base and increase awareness of the risks. This includes the high-profile report “Uyghurs for sale”, which has led several companies to take action in respect of their supply chains.
I have updated the House on a number of occasions on the UK’s international leadership and extensive diplomatic activity to hold China to account. Most recently, alongside Germany, we brought together a total of 39 countries in a joint statement at the UN General Assembly Third Committee in October. That sent a powerful message to China on the breadth of international concern, including on the issue of forced labour. In September, we devoted our entire national statement at the UN Human Rights Council to China, again raising forced labour.
In summary, the UK has taken the lead internationally. We have shone a light on the evidence of what is going on, to raise awareness and urge action, and we have provided clear guidance to business. However, the Government acknowledge that, in light of the gross human rights abuses being committed, there is more to be done. That is why, in September, the Home Secretary announced plans to strengthen the Modern Slavery Act 2015 and why the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office is co-ordinating extensive work right across Government to address this deeply concerning issue.
I will conclude by reassuring the House that we recognise and share the depth of cross-party concern on the human rights situation in Xinjiang. We have made that concern abundantly clear to the Chinese Government, and we expect China to live up to its responsibilities under international law and to the commitments it has made as a leading member of the international community. Continuing to stand up for those whose human rights are oppressed remains a top priority for this Government.
Let me make it clear that this question is not about being anti-Chinese—far from it. It is about the abuses of the dictatorial Chinese Communist Government and its ruling elite. On Monday, Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China adviser Adrian Zenz published research taken from internal Chinese Government files, which showed that in 2018 the prefectures of Aksu and Hotan sent 210,000 workers via coercive labour transfer to forcibly pick cotton for a Chinese paramilitary organisation, the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps. That is, in effect, slave labour. Furthermore, Mr Zenz and IPAC have also shown that the Chinese Government forced Uyghur women into sterilisation. As a result, the Uyghur population in those regions fell by as much as 84% between 2015 and 2018. That is action verging, I believe, on genocide.
Meanwhile, the peaceful proponents of democracy in Hong Kong are locked up and forced to flee their homes; Christians and Falun Gong have suffered organ harvesting, while half a million Tibetans have been forced into labour camps. The Chinese Communist party is oppressive at home and bullying abroad—just look at the its actions in bullying Australia for calling for an independent inquiry into the origins of covid, and the revelations over the weekend that supposedly secure institutions such as even the Foreign Office have been penetrated not only by CCP members, but by members of the fanatical United Front. The security issues are paramount.
I ask my hon. Friend when he will announce that those responsible for all these evils will be sanctioned under the Magnitsky regimes. We have been going on and on about that, without answer. Will he commit to reviewing all our dependency on China and to putting that on a secure basis? May I ask what he is doing now about the penetration by those United Front entryists into the embassy and other secure institutions in the United Kingdom? Will his Department support the forthcoming genocide amendment that is now in the other place?
I simply say to my hon. Friend that we must condemn—not just criticise, but condemn—the actions being taken by this abusive Government. We have learned in the past that appeasement does not work. That is why we must take this head-on, right now, before it becomes too big to manage.
I thank my right hon. Friend both for securing this urgent question and for the work he does with colleagues cross-party on this important issue. He raised the question of members of the CCP and United Front getting access to some of our institutions. First and foremost, we protect our most sensitive information by ensuring that local staff do not have access to it, regardless of whether they hold any party affiliation, and we undertake robust vetting of staff. We value the work of local staff immensely and they help to promote UK prosperity, but, as he knows, there are 91 million members of the Chinese Communist party; it is a mass-membership organisation at the heart of Chinese government, business, academia and social life.
My right hon. Friend also raised the question of sanctions. Of course, that is an issue that we have discussed on a regular basis since announcing our regime in July. We are constantly and carefully considering further designations under that regime, and we will keep all potential listings under review.
My right hon. Friend also asked about the amendment to the Trade Bill in the other place. Our commitment to upholding human rights and opposing genocide in all its forms is unequivocal. The Trade Bill applies only to trade agreements that have already been signed with the EU that we are rolling over as an independent trading nation. None of the agreements that we have signed, which have been scrutinised by Parliament, have eroded any domestic standards in relation to human rights or equalities.
Yesterday, Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis described the treatment of the Uyghur people as an “unfathomable mass atrocity”. He added:
“Let no person say that the responsibility lies with others.”
The shocking BBC revelations must be the trigger for action, following accounts of forced sterilisations, beatings and re-education camps, which undeniably share features of genocide.
Yesterday, it became clear that Britain is deeply involved in this story. We are tied to the Uyghur people through our global supply chains, importing cotton born of forced labour into our markets and, in doing so, unwittingly helping to sustain these appalling mass atrocities. I want to hear about action today. The Government must introduce Magnitsky sanctions and work with our allies to maximise their effect. Has the Minister discussed targeted sanctions with partners in North America, Europe and Australia?
In October, the Foreign Secretary said he needed to “gather the evidence”, but by December no Xinjiang officials were included in the updated Magnitsky list. Without further evidence, we will not make progress, so how are the Government going to work with allies to pressure China to allow the UN access to Xinjiang? Has the Minister considered the use of the 1984 convention against torture, a potential international legal process that does not present the same jurisdictional challenges facing the International Criminal Court or face the same evidence bar?
When the BBC asked British companies to confirm that cotton from Xinjiang was not used in their supply chains, only four were able to do so. If that does not fire our sense of urgency, what on earth will? The review of the Modern Slavery Act 2015 concluded that for many companies it was simply a “tick-box exercise”, with 40% not complying at all. It recommended enforcement and stronger processes. What are the Government waiting for?
Can the Minister confirm today that no public body, whether it is the NHS, the armed forces or his own Department, uses cotton from Xinjiang? If he cannot, will he tell us what he is going to do to ensure that the Modern Slavery Act covers public bodies and that not a penny of public money is spent on allowing the mass persecution of the Uyghur to continue?
I thank the hon. Lady for her questions. I share the Chief Rabbi’s serious concerns about the gross violations of human rights that are being perpetrated against Uyghur Muslims—and other minorities, it is fair to say—in Xinjiang.
The hon. Lady is right to mention the report. We have repeatedly urged businesses involved in investing in Xinjiang or with parts of their supply chains in the region to ensure that they conduct the appropriate due diligence—to ensure that those activities do not support human rights violations or abuses. We have reinforced that message through engagement with businesses, industry groups and other stakeholders. Of course we work internationally in our co-operation on these issues; we were able to pull together 39 countries at the UN to support our statement.
On the Modern Slavery Act, incidentally, the UK is the first country in the world to require businesses to report on how they are tackling modern slavery in their operations. The Home Office has announced a series of measures to strengthen the Modern Slavery Act, including extending transparency obligations to certain public bodies, which the hon. Lady mentioned, and those measures will be introduced as soon as parliamentary time allows. I can also tell her that the FCDO is co-ordinating extensive further work across Government to address this deeply concerning issue, which we acknowledge.
First, I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith). This report by Adrian Zenz is extremely powerful and makes clear and sobering reading. I am sure the Minister will have followed the Foreign Affairs Committee hearing yesterday, where we heard from Uyghur activists—one in Europe and one in the United States—as well as human rights lawyers and a UN expert. They all made clear their view on the human rights violations that we are witnessing today.
The Minister has heard the call for Magnitsky sanctions to be urgently applied and not merely promised, as we have sadly heard too much in the House. Will he commit to ensure that the resources of the Foreign Office at home and abroad will help companies to ensure that they track slave products and slave labour through their supply chains and that Her Majesty’s Government will help them to inspect factories and supply routes around the world?
My hon. Friend the Chair of the Select Committee is right. That is why we will be taking measures to strengthen the Modern Slavery Act. As I mentioned, the FCDO is co-ordinating further extensive work. We are working right across Departments to ensure that we have the correct response. That involves supporting businesses, which do an awful lot of trade in that part of the world, and we have been making it absolutely clear that they need to ensure that their supply chains are free of forced labour, otherwise there will very likely be consequences. He knows that sanctions are being constantly and carefully considered. They also need to be developed responsibly and on the basis of evidence. It is not appropriate to speculate on any individuals who may or may not be sanctioned in the future.
I congratulate the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith) on bringing this important issue to the House. I am pleased to follow three very strong contributions that I agree with. There is common ground here and a common effort, so I do not propose to cover that ground again. I will boil it down to two concrete questions for the Minister.
The Minister is right to say that companies have a primary responsibility for their own due diligence, to ensure that they are not profiting from slave labour, but there has been a lot of carrot, and it is time for some stick. The BBC has shown up the Government’s inaction in auditing UK companies’ involvement in and potential profiting from slavery, so I repeat my call for a Government audit of UK companies involved in this. I was struck by his comments to the hon. Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy) about the FCDO’s work across Departments to have parallel efforts on Government procurement. Could we have a statement to the House specifically on those efforts in early course?
We will be able to update the House on that cross-Government work in due course—likely in the new year. The hon. Gentleman says that we are behind the curve. I would politely mention that the UK being the first country to require businesses to report how they identify and address modern slavery should be to this Government’s credit. The Home Office made it clear in September that we intend to strengthen those laws. He will have to wait a little bit longer in terms of those actions being brought to the House.
I want to add my weight to the Chief Rabbi’s intervention, which exposes the abuse of the Uyghur. The Chief Rabbi also said that there must be an
“urgent, independent and unfettered investigation into what is happening.”
Can the Minister comment on that? As crimes against humanity by the Chinese Government grow, has the Chinese ambassador been summoned to explain what is happening?
The Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee, on which I sit, is conducting an inquiry into UK business supply chain links to Xinjiang. We are now implicated in this, and we have to take action, not speak powerfully on this issue. Finally, may I encourage the Minister to reach out to the incoming Biden Administration, to learn more about the United States Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act and see how we can collaborate to prevent the abuse of Uyghur men, the exploitation of Uyghur women and the destruction of the lives of Uyghur children?
My hon. Friend is right to raise a number of points. We are seriously concerned about a number of gross violations of human rights that are being perpetrated against Uyghur men and women and other minorities in Xinjiang. The Chief Rabbi is spot on, and we share his concerns about these violations that are being perpetrated. As I said, we are working internationally and co-operating with our partners on this issue. I am hopeful that my hon. Friend will draw some comfort in the new year from the new measures that we bring forward.
As people shop for their Christmas presents, we are all grateful to be able to buy products from our fifth largest trading partner, China, but I am sure that many people would be appalled to know that by shopping for some brands, they are inadvertently spending their money on such abhorrent practices as slave labour. To help consumers make wise choices now, will the Government create a publicly available watchlist of companies of concern? Will the Minister consider a total ban on any products that are linked in any way to human rights abuses?
I thank the hon. Lady for her question and for the way that she engages with FCDO. Most parties are on the same page in this situation, and our officials meet businesses and industry stakeholders regularly to make them aware of the scale of forced labour issues. I ask her to have a bit of patience into the new year, when we will bring to the House the next stage of support and action via the Modern Slavery Act 2015. We will also be able to talk a little more about cross-Government work.
I forgot to answer one point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Wealden (Ms Ghani), about the Chinese ambassador. He has been summoned to the Foreign Office to meet the permanent under-secretary, and following the publication of the report in the last couple of days, yesterday we made our views known strongly to the embassy.
The principle of non-intervention in another country’s internal affairs is generally a good one, but surely it is applicable only when people are able to choose the Government whom they live under, and where their rights and freedoms are respected. Does my hon. Friend agree that with respect to totalitarian states there is a duty on all strong and free nations to speak out for the weak and forgotten, even when politically uncomfortable or inconvenient?