House of Commons
Thursday 4 February 2021
The House met at half-past Nine o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Virtual participation in proceedings commenced (Orders, 4 June and 30 December 2020).
[NB: [V] denotes a Member participating virtually.]
Oral Answers to Questions
DIGITAL, CULTURE, MEDIA AND SPORT
The Secretary of State was asked—
Culture Recovery Fund
Over £1 billion-worth of funding from the culture recovery fund has already been allocated across all four nations of the UK. The funding is supporting over 3,000 arts and heritage organisations in England alone and more than 75,000 jobs.
I thank my hon. Friend for his answer. It is great that the Government are taking the theatre sector seriously, as demonstrated by this fund, but there is so much more that we can do to help our cultural offer that is not just cash injection. I implore him to push the Government to re-engage with the European Union on visa and carnet-free travel for performers, their kit and their support teams. I know that the EU walked away from our offer, but it must be brought back to the table. Touring performers will be left with a double whammy of an industry devastated by covid and the loss of an entire continent as a venue. Will he please bang the table and get the EU back to talk on this?
First, I thank my hon. Friend for banging the table so well for the culture sector over so many years. As my hon. Friend the Minister for Digital and Culture has previously said, the door always remains open should our European friends wish to reconsider our mutually beneficial proposals, which would have allowed UK touring professionals to tour more easily, but they rejected them. In the meantime, where visas apply, our agreement with the EU contains measures designed to make the necessary processes as smooth as possible. A working group has been set up by the Secretary of State to look at any obstacles that might face British performers seeking to tour. We will continue to seek to co-operate with our European friends on this important issue.
The £1.5 billion culture recovery fund has provided a lifeline to the culture and heritage sector during the pandemic. Does the Minister agree, though, that public money should not be spent on ideologically motivated projects by people who hate our history and seek to rewrite it, and will he review funding allocations accordingly?
I thank my hon. Friend for his deep interest in the heritage and cultural sector, which we have talked about on many occasions. He is absolutely right that the culture recovery fund has been a lifeline for heritage and cultural organisations. These grants are intended to help organisations with essential costs associated with operating, reopening, mothballing and recovery. I can assure him that the culture recovery fund money is awarded by our arm’s length bodies according to a strict set of criteria, and the funding goes to organisations in need of serious financial support, not for ideological projects. In addition, any grant award above £1 million is reviewed by the independent Culture Recovery Board to add additional assurance that funding is going where it is most needed.
Because of the nature of the industry, many performers organise their business in such a way that they sometimes fall through the cracks of Government support. What support is the Minister making available to performers who are not in an eligible organisation for the purposes of the culture recovery fund, such as ballet dancers, actors, musicians and many more?
May I first take the opportunity to wish my hon. Friend a very happy birthday?
The Government have supported self-employed persons in the performing arts sector through a number of pan-economic schemes, including the self-employment income support scheme. According to the latest statistics, over two thirds of self-employed people have been eligible for this scheme. Tens of thousands have been eligible within the culture sector, and they have claimed during its first, second and third phases. In addition, Arts Council England has given over £47 million in awards to individuals through non-CRF funds in this financial year alone, and that is on top of the 75,000 jobs being sustained through the CRF directly.
Have a good day, Pauline, and enjoy the rest of your birthday.
Aerospace Bristol in my constituency is very grateful to the Government for the support it received from its successful bid during the first round of the culture recovery fund, which was in excess of £500,000. Like many other museums, it will continue to need revenue support until it can reopen. Can my hon. Friend assure me that the current bid by Aerospace Bristol under round 2 of the fund will be given a sympathetic hearing?
I was very pleased that the excellent aerospace museum in my hon. Friend’s constituency received money from the culture recovery fund in the first round. It is a wonderful showcase of world-class British engineering, and I can confirm that organisations in receipt of grant funding from the first round of the CRF were eligible to apply to the second round. I am sure that the Aerospace Bristol museum will get a fair hearing as he requests, but it is important to say that all decisions on CRF grants are made by our independent arm’s length bodies, which are committed to a transparent and robust decision-making process.
Further to the question asked by the hon. Member for Mid Derbyshire (Mrs Latham) just now—happy birthday to her—I think I heard the Minister say that a third of self-employed people in the creative sector were not able to access the self-employment scheme, minus those supported by extra schemes made available by Arts Council England, which I think he said was about £47 million of support. Can he calculate for us how many people in the creative sector have been forgotten by the support schemes so far? Will he say what representations he has made to the Treasury to aid that remaining number of people?
I thank the hon. Lady. To clarify, I said that over two thirds of people who are self-employed in the country have been eligible for self-employment income support. Within the arts, entertainment and recreation sector, more than 60,000 people applied for and have received SEIS funding in phase 3. Some 76,000 did so in phase 1, and 72,000 did so in phase 2. As I said, Arts Council England has given additional support to the tune of £47 million of awards to individuals through non-CRF funds already.
The culture recovery fund was a great advent, but it will only go so far. It was never intended to cover three lockdowns and potentially 18 months of disruption. The news that the Lowry in Manchester has relaunched its emergency public appeal is a warning beacon blazing in our cultural landscape. Does the Minister recognise that more targeted help will be needed for our world-leading arts and cultural sectors? What plans are in train to deliver that help? Is a culture recovery fund 2 necessary?
I understand my hon. Friend’s concern, and I take the opportunity to recognise what a champion he is for our country’s cultural and creative industries. Some £400 million of CRF funding was held back from the first round of funding as a contingency to support cultural organisations later on in the pandemic. That now forms the basis of the second round of grant funding, which is currently being processed. I can assure him that we will continue to work with organisations to support flexibility in their plans, should the wider context change following awards being made. We have already extended the time period over which some of the original funds can be spent, and we are always in conversations with the Chancellor and the Treasury.
Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games
We remain on track to deliver a fantastic games on time and on budget. It will bring lasting benefits for Birmingham, the west midlands and the whole country. The west midlands region will benefit from a £778 million investment to stage the 2022 Commonwealth games in Birmingham, including £594 million of funding from central Government. Along with our partners, we continue to work hard to deliver the games in what are obviously very challenging circumstances.
I know many people, including me, are looking forward to the Commonwealth games next year. I thank my hon. Friend for his answer, but does he also agree that the games will give a much-needed boost to the tourism and hospitality sectors, as well as providing excellent opportunities and a lasting legacy for people and businesses in Staffordshire and across the west midlands?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Birmingham 2022 will be largest sporting event ever held in the west midlands, delivering a wealth of excellent opportunities, including £350 million in procurement opportunities for local businesses, world-class sporting facilities, a comprehensive volunteering programme and a vibrant cultural programme. The organising committee has created a dedicated business portal called “FinditinBirmingham”, where any business can register to be informed about procurement opportunities. To date, more than 40 opportunities worth around £250 million have been listed on the portal. In addition, our excellent, top-calibre West Midlands Mayor, Andy Street, has championed a £24 million business and tourism programme to help maximise the considerable long-term opportunities for the games.
EU Travel: Performing Artists
The UK’s creative industries are the finest in the world, and this Government are, of course, determined to support them. I deeply regret that the EU rejected our proposals, which would have enabled performers, artists and support staff to work freely across Europe. In recent weeks, I have discussed our approach with leading voices from music, including the head of Universal Music globally and, yesterday, Sir Elton John and his manager, David Furnish. We are working urgently to develop a plan to make it easier to tour across all of Europe.
I thank the Secretary of State for that answer, such as it was. This Government’s Brexit reality has the live music industry staring into the abyss and sports such as Formula 1 unable to operate sufficiently. Mark Davyd, CEO of the Music Venue Trust, has said that his industry has been dealt a no-deal Brexit due to the UK Government’s refusal to get a deal on touring visas with the EU. Will the Secretary of State assure the music industry, F1 and others that he will put their livelihoods before anti-free movement platitudes and go back to the negotiating table with the EU?
Of course we continue to engage with the EU. As I say, I deeply regret that it rejected our offer. It is worth noting that what we put forward was what the music industry had asked for. We will continue to engage with the music industry, and there are opportunities both with individual member states and with the Commission directly.
One of my constituents is the orchestral leader of two major British orchestras. More than 50% of her work with British orchestras is touring abroad in the EU, but she is a self-employed musician, so she does not have anybody to wade through all this new red tape for her. Putting covid to one side, by what specific date does the Secretary of State hope to fix this absurd, bureaucratic, self-defeating situation, so that self-employed musicians can enjoy visa-free travel in the EU?
I agree with the hon. Lady: it is absurd and self-defeating. It could have been solved, and it could still be solved today by the EU matching the offer that we have unilaterally made to EU nationals. She talks about support. I know her constituency well; it neighbours mine. For example, The Horn music venue in her constituency, which is a home to emergent artists, has received a quarter of a million pounds under the culture recovery fund. The Goblin theatre has received £51,000. Wind and Foster has received £63,000. We are demonstrating as a Government through our actions that we are standing behind culture in this country.
The Government are very keen to blame the EU for the barriers being put in place for touring musicians, but Brexit was born and bred in the UK. Does the Secretary of State agree that the onus is on this Government to fix the abject failure in statecraft, and can he confirm what urgent steps are being taken to ensure that touring musicians do not become yet another example of the collateral damage of Brexit?
First, I would like to reassure touring musicians and all those in the creative industry. I know how important the opportunity to tour is for them; it is something I discussed just yesterday with Elton John, and I have discussed it with many others. It is a vital part of them building their careers. That is why we have set up the working group with musicians, so that we can find ways of supporting them to continue to tour not just in Europe but across the whole world. There are huge opportunities for the industry.
I am glad to hear that you are still working with the EU bureaucrats—
Order. I am definitely not doing that. The hon. Lady is accusing me by saying “you”.
Sorry. I am glad to hear that the Secretary of State is working with the EU on this. Music is worth £5.8 billion to the UK economy, and I have been surprised at how many Putney residents and businesses rely on touring. I am glad to hear that the Secretary of State is working on a future plan. Will that plan be across the EU, not requiring red tape for each individual country, which will be a huge barrier? What is the Government’s plan to ensure that creative workers do not miss out on vital earning opportunities and a chance to represent Britain on the global stage?
I share the hon. Lady’s passion for the creative industries. That is why we have put the support in, including in her own constituency. For example, the World Heart Beat Music Academy has received over £100,000, and the Exodus track and the Deptford Northern Soul Club have received over £50,000. On what we are doing to promote touring, there are basically three threads to it: first, we are working with the industry to help it overcome barriers. Secondly, we are working across Government to overcome barriers; and, thirdly, we continue to engage both with the Commission and member states to see what further support we can provide.
I deeply regret that Ministers have rejected the EU’s offer. Like petulant weans, Ministers have walked away from negotiations on musicians’ and artists’ visas. The Government did not get what they wanted, and have given up. Stating that the UK’s door remains open is simply not good enough for the people who desperately need visa-free travel in the EU. Without it, there will be disastrous consequences. British haulage firms go on tours, but they will go bust. British crews will lose out to cheaper competitors from the EU, and all but the most successful bands will struggle to tour in Europe. The result will be bad for the economy and bad for culture. Surely the Secretary of State must now realise, as so many Tory MPs do, that renegotiations are the only option. Going off in a huff is not the answer; this is all far too important.
To be clear to the hon. Gentleman, the reason why we rejected the offer from the European Union, which he seems so keen to accept, was that it was not binding, it did not cover touring, it did not cover technical support staff and, crucially, it did not cover work permits. Of course, we continue to engage with it, but I must say to him that the most devastating consequences for musicians in Scotland would be to rip our precious shared cultural heritage apart by pulling Scotland out of our Union—I would note that £450 million a year is generated in Scotland through domestic music tourism; 90% of the revenue is through domestic markets—and that would be terrible for Scottish musicians.
Far-right Online Conspiracy Theories
The Government take the issue of disinformation, including far-right conspiracy theories, very seriously, and DCMS is leading work across Government to tackle this. Our counter-disinformation unit brings together monitoring and analysis capabilities across Government, and we work closely with social media platforms to ensure that swift action is taken and authoritative sources of information are promoted.
To tackle far-right extremism and conspiracy theories that undermine our vaccine roll-out, new legislation is urgently needed. Social media companies must take responsibility for the content shared on their platforms. Can the Minister therefore update the House on when the online harms Bill will be introduced, and give her assurances that the Bill will achieve this vital aim, which will keep our country safe?
I thank the hon. Lady for her question. As I have said, tackling disinformation in all its forms, including vaccine disinformation, remains a key priority for the UK. As we set out in the full Government response, the online safety Bill will introduce a duty of care that requires companies to address online harms such as harmful disinformation that could impact on people’s health and safety on their platforms, and that legislation will be put forward this year.
“No one should have to accept racist abuse as the price to pay for being in the public eye”,
the Secretary of State assured footballers. No one should have to accept racist abuse full stop, and no one should be subject to extremist grooming or have their lives endangered by anti-vax misinformation, but they are, and for 10 years Conservative Governments have refused to act. As the head of UK Counter Terrorism Policing tells us, extremism has become so widespread online that it “cannot be policed”. Will the Minister say what steps she has taken to protect us and, please, no more vague assurances for the future?
Of course, we want the internet to be a very safe space for all users, and we are very clear that what is unacceptable online is just as important as what is unacceptable offline. That is why we are absolutely committed to tackling extremist views, racist views and views that promote violence, hatred and division against individuals and against communities. We want the internet to be a safe space for all users, which is why the online harms framework will require companies to have very clear terms and conditions about how they would respond to such hateful content, and they will be expected to implement those conditions consistently and transparently.
Covid-19: Leisure Centres
Sport and physical activity are incredibly important for our physical and mental health and are a vital weapon against corona- virus. The Government recognise the integral role local leisure centres play in providing vital facilities within their communities, and last year the Government announced a £100 million national leisure recovery fund to support public sector leisure centres to reopen. Applications to the scheme have now closed, but I am pleased to say that over 99% of local authorities that were eligible for the scheme have applied, and funding decisions are currently being made and will be announced shortly.
Dalton community leisure centre in my constituency is badly in need of support. It is a fantastic organisation—a community-run charity with a devoted team led by Bernard McPeake—but covid has hit it very hard, with losses running into the hundreds of thousands of pounds. It supports 17 schools and the national leisure centre recovery fund offers a ray of hope. What comfort can my hon. Friend offer organisations like Dalton that they will be supported by this scheme?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to highlight the pivotal role played by Dalton community leisure centre, and indeed leisure centres up and down the country, in sustaining physical and mental health in their communities. That is precisely why we announced the fund. I cannot pre-empt the award that my hon. Friend will be getting locally at this moment in time, but of course we know it will make a real impact for the reasons he articulated. Also, as we have said before, reopening sports facilities overall will be an absolute priority when the time comes to begin easing some of the current restrictions.
Now more than ever it is obvious that the value of closing the digital divide is great. That is why we have worked with industry to provide the connectivity for vulnerable users that they need, why we will continue to encourage providers to offer social tariffs, and why, to boost digital skills, adults can undertake specified digital qualifications up to level 1 free of charge.
Coronavirus and lockdown has sped up society’s reliance on online services, but 42% of those aged 75 and above do not use the internet and Age UK says that
“there is little evidence that the pandemic has led to significant numbers of those previously digitally excluded getting online”,
so what are the Government doing to help older people access the equipment and training they need to get online, and to ensure that essential services such as NHS services and banking continue to be delivered equally to those who remain offline?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to highlight the need for that equality of access. The Department continues to work across government to make sure that, whether for supermarkets or banks, there is that equality of access, and of course the NHS makes all the efforts it can, as it has recently in the vaccination programme, to ensure that people are contacted in a way that suits them. But the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to highlight the issue, and it is why the Department will also work with organisations such as Citizens Advice to tackle what is a perennial problem.
Anti-Vaccination Content Online
The Government take the issue of vaccine misinformation very seriously, and DCMS is leading work across Government to tackle this through the counter-disinformation unit. We are working closely with social media platforms to help them identify and take action to remove incorrect claims about the virus, including anti-vax content that could endanger people’s health.
My sister is bravely battling cancer for the second time, so I was excited to tell everyone who has supported her on social media last night that she would be receiving her vaccine on Saturday. Within minutes, some very special individual was spouting anti-vax nonsense on that post. In six months last year, Facebook removed 12 million pieces of content and put labels on 167 million more that failed fact checking. Anti-vax rhetoric puts lives at risk. What practical steps can my hon. Friend take to work with social media platforms to make the point that freedom of speech is not absolute if it leads to societal harm?
It is lovely to see my hon. Friend in real life. I am very sorry to hear about his sister’s health concerns. I wish her a very speedy recovery and I am really pleased that she has got her vaccination.
Freedom of expression is an essential quality for a thriving democracy, but the act of sharing misinformation should not be confused with well-intentioned citizens asking perfectly valid questions about the safety of the vaccine. Of course, it is really important that harmful disinformation that is designed to undermine people’s confidence in these vital vaccines is addressed and removed as quickly as possible. That is why we are working so closely with social media platforms and have secured a commitment with them to ensure that authoritative messages about vaccine safety reach as many people as possible.
Last week, I met a number of footballers to discuss the issue of racist and misogynistic abuse on social media as part of a series of roundtables on the future of football. To be clear, we will not tolerate racism in any form, and we are committed to holding platforms to account through our new online safety laws, which we set out to the House in December. I also held a roundtable this week with players and campaigners across a number of sports to discuss the issue of concussion and what more can be done to improve player safety. Of course, in the meantime, we continue to work across Government on a road map for the recovery and reopening of our sectors.
The hopes and ambitions of thousands of Newcastle United fans for their great club are caught in limbo due to the ongoing takeover saga that the English Premier League helped to create. Can there be a more pressing reason for the Secretary of State to deliver the fan-led review of football governance promised in his party’s 2019 manifesto?
I reassure the hon. Lady that I remain firmly committed to the fan-led review, and events such as the meetings to discuss racism that I mentioned will help to frame it. Certainly, the events relating to football finance over the past year have demonstrated the need for that, and we will be making further progress on it this year.
My hon. Friend makes a very important point, and that is something that I have raised with social media companies. I know that many people are concerned that the moderators are not actually based in the United Kingdom, and speed of response is crucial. Through our online safety Bill, we will require social media companies to take swift and effective action against criminal abuse online, and as part of that we will put in place effective user reporting and redress mechanisms.
I call the acting shadow Secretary of State, Christian Matheson.
I am not quite sure about that yet, Mr Speaker, but thank you for the introduction.
The Minister for Media and Data, the right hon. Member for Maldon (Mr Whittingdale), who is not in his place this morning, has rightly won praise for his work on journalistic freedom and the protection of journalists, so may I ask the Secretary of State what advice he would give to fellow Ministers who respond to standard queries from journalists with public attacks and Twitter pile-ons?
May I begin by welcoming the hon. Gentleman to his place and, on behalf of the whole Conservative party, wishing the hon. Member for Cardiff Central (Jo Stevens) a swift recovery? I know that she is doing very well.
The hon. Gentleman mentions press freedoms. I have been working closely with my right hon. Friend the Minister for Media. We will shortly be publishing the material to which the hon. Gentleman refers—that is to say, the action plan to provide safety for journalists. That will be coming forth very shortly.
I thank the Secretary of State for his kind words about my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff Central (Jo Stevens); she will be watching and will be very grateful.
Ofcom is to become a super-regulator with a huge breadth of responsibilities and all their technical complexities, particularly in the digital sphere: online harms and safety, the BBC and broadcasting in general, security of telecoms infrastructure against hostile threats, broadband, and the Post Office. Does the Secretary of State agree that the new chair of Ofcom should have at least some knowledge of and experience in those complex sectors in order to be appointed?
As the hon. Gentleman will know, the position of Ofcom chair is vacant. I can update the House that I will shortly be launching the competition for that new role, and a number of excellent candidates have already expressed an interest.
My hon. Friend raises an important point. Covid has been a stark reminder of the importance of reducing obesity, and that is why it is right that we look to restrict the advertising of those products. I have been clear from the beginning in my discussions with the Prime Minister and others that we must ensure equivalence between the approaches to traditional broadcasting platforms and online. Any restrictions should not disproportionately disadvantage broadcasters over online providers, which is why we will bring in reforms to both media at the same time.
Freedom of expression is one of the cherished liberties that we have fought for, and one that Members of this House have defended for generations. I fully intend to continue to promote freedom of expression. As part of that, we will be publishing the plan for the protection of journalists, which will be coming forward shortly, as I said to the hon. Member for City of Chester (Christian Matheson)
Like my hon. Friend, I am deeply concerned about the growth of online fraud, and we are working closely with industry and law enforcement to disrupt those committing crimes online. While the online harms legislation will focus on user-generated content, we are also determined to tackle fraud such as phishing and fake websites. The Government’s “Cyber Aware” campaign has been set up to inform the public about how to keep safe online.
I join the hon. Gentleman in congratulating Celtic Connections on the huge success of its first wholly virtual festival, with more than 27,000 tickets sold and audiences tuning in from over 16 countries. That is testament to the strength of our United Kingdom. Of course, I will continue to work to provide ways to ensure that artists can continue to tour, but it is a bit rich for the Scottish nationalist party to talk about blame games; they are virtually its raison d’être.
Like my hon. Friend, I very much regret that there will not be fans in the stadiums for the Six Nations, particularly after the interrupted tournament last year, but we in this House all understand the reasons why. We have had to take decisive action to maintain this national lockdown, but we will be working to get fans back in stadiums as soon as it is safe to do so.
The Attorney General was asked—
Crown Prosecution Service: Apprenticeships
The Crown Prosecution Service offers a range of apprenticeships across the legal, human resources, finance, project management, leadership and management professions and has launched a flagship solicitor apprenticeship. The CPS has consistently exceeded the Government’s apprenticeship target. It currently employs 287 apprentices and a further 94 are about to enrol on a programme. This year, the CPS will also launch a pilot programme recruiting apprentices from low socioeconomic backgrounds to meet its diversifying law agenda.
I am grateful for that answer. It is encouraging to hear that the Crown Prosecution Service is offering lots of apprenticeships. However, it is really important that those opportunities are based not just in London but across the whole country, so I ask the Minister: what apprenticeships are being offered in places such as the High Peak?
A very good point. The CPS is actively contributing to the Government’s levelling-up agenda, offering apprenticeships across the board in a number of professions across England and Wales. I am pleased to say that the CPS East Midlands, where High Peak is, covers my hon. Friend’s constituency, and it has had 30 apprentices since 2016 and currently has two members of staff undertaking a solicitor apprenticeship. Upon completion of that, the solicitor apprenticeship results in fully qualified solicitor status and a role as Crown prosecutor.
There is a backlog of 55,000 cases in our Crown courts, victims are waiting years for their cases to be heard, and CPS letters fail to be of standard nearly 50% of the time. While we welcome apprenticeships in the CPS, staff levels were cut by 31% between 2011 and 2019, so why have the Government Law Officers failed to get to grips with the fundamental crisis facing the CPS and our criminal justice system?
I do not accept the characterisation that the hon. Lady puts on the Crown Prosecution Service. Indeed, it is performing very well and the inspectorate confirms that. The position, of course, is—it is National Apprenticeship Week next week—that I and the Government very much support apprenticeships, and it is right that the CPS does the work that it does to support young people and people from other socioeconomic backgrounds in getting apprenticeships. I hope that she is as supportive as we are of apprenticeships. The reality is that the apprenticeship programme has meant that currently at the CPS, 3.8% of the workforce are apprentices, and that is compared with a national target of 2.3%. This is another parameter in which the Crown Prosecution Service is actually doing very well.
Unduly Lenient Sentence Scheme
The unduly lenient sentence scheme is a vital safeguard in our criminal justice system. It permits me to intervene personally in a case where I consider that a sentencing judge has fallen into a gross error and imposed a sentence that is outside the reasonable range. Sentencing judges do get it right the vast majority of the time, but in those rare cases where they get it wrong, this is a very good scheme that ensures that justice is served.
I thank the Minister for his reply, but it is my constituents’ view and, I think, the view of constituents up and down the country that too many sentences are too lenient. Do the Law Officers and the Government have any plans to ensure that sentences are at a level that ensures public confidence in the judicial process?
I know that my hon. Friend speaks for his constituents and always has done. It is right to say, though, that our judiciary is admired around the world for its impartiality, intelligence, independence and intellectual rigour. It is of essential importance to the rule of law. I can, therefore, reassure my hon. Friend, and reiterate to him that it is rare for judges to get sentencing wrong. It is, of course, important that sentences reflect the seriousness of offending, and I have gone to court myself on several occasions to seek referral of sentences where we have felt they have been too low. However, generally speaking, he will find that sentences meet the gravamen of the crimes.
Serious Fraud Office
I regularly meet the director of the Serious Fraud Office and her senior leadership team to discuss the SFO’s progress in tackling the top level of serious and complex fraud, bribery and corruption. The SFO takes on some of the most complex and difficult cases, and it has delivered significant successes. From 2016-17 to 2019-20, the SFO’s successful judicial outcomes rate was 95% by case and 62% by defendant. To date in this financial year, the SFO has agreed two deferred prosecution agreements, making a contribution to Her Majesty’s Treasury thereby of over £44 million, including its costs, demonstrating significant value for money.
May I remind the Minister that many people believe that the Serious Fraud Office is seriously underfunded and under-resourced? It has just abandoned its inquiry into British American Tobacco. It is not able to take on the big boys and girls that cause the real trouble here, including serious financial misdeeds. When is he going to start again, look at the Serious Fraud Office, and give it the resources it needs to go after these real problems?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for the interest he takes in the Crown Prosecution Service, and the Serious Fraud Office in particular. I know that he has a history of doing so, and we are grateful for it.
The reality is that the SFO has proper funding. The Attorney General and I meet the leaders of the Serious Fraud Office on a regular basis, and they know that this Government support them in what they do. They have, after all, obtained guilty pleas for bribery offences in the Petrofac case. The hon. Gentleman mentioned one other matter, but the reality is that they have secured convictions and guilty pleas in the Unaoil case, and agreed deferred prosecution agreements with Airbus and Airline Services. In a whole litany of cases they have secured very good results. Although I appreciate the hon. Gentleman’s point that there are always more resources that could be utilised, we will continue to support the Serious Fraud Office in its very good work.
May I start by asking the Solicitor General to convey to my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney General the good wishes of myself and the members of the Select Committee on Justice, as I know she is due to start her maternity leave before we have the next session of questions to the Law Officers?
Does the Solicitor General recognise that it is not just a matter of resources? Both the current and previous directors of the Serious Fraud Office have pointed out that they are handicapped in dealing with some of the most significant corporate crime, because the United Kingdom’s law on corporate criminal responsibility—in particular, the need to identify those who are the “directing mind” of the company—does not reflect well modern corporate practice. Will he confirm that there will be swift action once the Law Commission, which the Government have asked to look at this matter, reports at the end of the year, so that we come up to speed and be able to tackle serious corporate crime more effectively, in much the same way as the United States can because it has a more modern and effective legal test?
I thank my hon. Friend, the Chair of the Justice Committee, for his remarks. I will convey his remarks—in fact, I know my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney General will have heard them—wishing her well.
As far as the ability of the Serious Fraud Office to prosecute matters is concerned, as my hon. Friend knows, these issues are kept under constant review. They are very complex cases, and it is right that the law must keep up with issues at hand to enable the Serious Fraud Office and, where appropriate, the Crown Prosecution Service to conduct those services effectively. Those matters are always kept under close review.
Crown Prosecution Service: Fraud Cases
The CPS continues to work with the police and other investigators to prosecute criminal cases involving fraud. In 2019-20, the CPS prosecuted more than 10,000 defendants where fraud and forgery were the principal offence. It also has a dedicated specialist fraud division to deal with serious, complex and difficult cases of fraud that can often result in huge financial loss to victims.
Constituents in West Bromwich East have made me aware of some of the latest scams that criminals are using to exploit the public at this difficult time. They include text messages about covid-related grants and even criminals going door to door pretending to sell vaccine doses. Can my right hon. and learned Friend update us on any discussions she has had with the CPS about these specific types of fraud cases?
I thank my hon. Friend for raising this issue. Crimes where covid is the context for exploitation and fraudulent behaviour are completely sickening. The Director of Public Prosecutions has made it clear in his interim charging protocol that offences related to covid, including fraud, will be prioritised and that the offenders will be prosecuted. The joint inspectorate report commended the CPS’s response to the pandemic, including its ability to move to remote working without any major service interruption. That was noted as a major achievement.
Those who use this pandemic to exploit vulnerable people really are the lowest of the low. In Redcar and Cleveland, we have had a number of examples of fraudsters trying to trick elderly people in particular with fake vaccines and scam NHS emails. What more can the Government do to crack down on those types of criminals?
My hon. Friend is right to raise this sickening trend. The Government are committed to stopping criminals benefiting from their ill-gotten gains. In 2019-20, the CPS successfully used its specialist prosecutors to seize more than £100 million through confiscation orders across all offence types.
Over the pandemic, we have seen scammers claiming to be from Her Majesty’ Revenue and Customs, Royal Mail delivery scams, NatWest urging scam warnings out to its customers and, perhaps the lowest of the low, an NHS vaccine scam. Could my right hon. and learned Friend outline how the CPS is working in partnership with those organisations to tackle fraud?
We are aware that cyber-criminals and fraudsters are attempting to exploit opportunities around the pandemic, as I have said. That is why the Government have invested in the National Economic Crime Centre, which is leading a multi-agency response to tackle serious and organised fraud during the pandemic. The CPS continues to play a key role in this effort, providing early investigative support in serious fraud cases.
I, too, would like to join the Chairman of the Select Committee in wishing the Attorney General the very best for the birth of her child and maternity leave afterwards.
At a time when we are hearing about more disturbing cases of fraud, not just against private citizens but against the state and the public purse, will the Attorney General continue to give us information through the House of Commons Library, publicising the success stories of the CPS in following, tackling and prosecuting those fraudsters?
I thank my hon. Friend for his kind wishes. He is right to highlight the successes that the CPS has had in tackling serious fraud. In recent months, the serious fraud division has brought three high-value investment scammers to justice. These include Joseph Lewis, who ran a £20 million Ponzi scheme fraud for a decade and was sentenced to five years and four months’ imprisonment, and Freddy David, an authorised financial consultant who was operating a parallel Ponzi fraud which resulted in a loss of £10.4 million to his victims. He was sentenced to a total of six years in prison and was issued with a confiscation order for just over £1 million.
Covid-19: Pro Bono Legal Services
I have heard directly from members of both my pro bono committee and the Public Legal Education Committee on the impact of the pandemic on their work. I know that the legal profession has continued valiantly to undertake pro bono work throughout this crisis, and I would like to restate my gratitude to all those who have volunteered their time and experience during this difficult time. It makes me proud to be one of the Government’s pro bono champions.
May I ask my right hon. and learned Friend how my constituents can feel confident that they can still access the pro bono support they need, despite the pandemic?
My hon. Friend asks a good question, and his constituents should feel confident. I was heartened to hear of the overwhelming number of legal professionals across the country who have stepped forward to offer assistance during the pandemic. It is a true testament to the very nature of pro bono; as a tool, it is there to give back and help those most in need. I heard from members of my pro bono committee in September about the impact of the pandemic on their services, and the resilience and flexibility that they have shown in the face of such adversity is very impressive and much appreciated.
Domestic Violence Prosecutions
The Government take tackling domestic abuse extremely seriously, as shown, of course, by the introduction of the landmark Domestic Abuse Bill. I am absolutely committed to ensuring that justice is delivered in such cases. In fact, I personally successfully presented the first unduly lenient sentence case of its kind at the Court of Appeal last year on coercive and controlling behaviour. The CPS is working hard to deliver justice and protect the public, and has recently published an ambitious 12-month domestic abuse programme to help narrow the disparity between the reporting of these offences and criminal justice outcomes.
About a fifth of crimes reported in lockdown have involved domestic abuse, and there is real concern that the number of specialist domestic violence courts seems to be reducing. Will the Minister commit to strengthen the system and increase the number of specialised courts, so that we can support the hard work of the police and support victims at trial?
That is a very good question. We are always looking at ways in which we can support those engaged in this important work. The Government have recently announced several funding packages linked to domestic abuse, including funding to deal with the effects of the covid-19 pandemic on domestic abuse. During the pandemic, the CPS has continued to prioritise domestic abuse cases. In addition to the interim charging protocol, a memorandum of understanding on the subject of domestic abuse was agreed in June across the whole criminal justice system. It supports multi-agency pre-hearing case progression for domestic abuse cases that are listed for trial.
Despite what the Minister says, domestic abuse prosecutions continue to plummet. They had already fallen off the cliff edge before the pandemic hit the justice system, with an annual decrease of some 22% in the year up to March 2020. Will he tell me what pre-emptive action is being taken now to stop this freefall and maintain the confidence of the victims of these deplorable crimes?
I hate to focus on this issue, but the reality is that of course all prosecutions have been affected by the pandemic. The whole courts system, as well as most other functioning systems in this country, are necessarily adversely affected by the pandemic. However, the hon. Gentleman has my assurance, and that of the Government, that domestic abuse cases are among the highest priority in the criminal justice system. On joint interim charging, for example, guidance issued by the police and the CPS immediately following the outbreak of covid-19 stated and confirmed that cases should be prioritised where the defendant is being held in custody, and that specifically included high-risk domestic abuse cases. So we are keeping our eye on this. These are extremely important cases and they must and should continue to be given the priority that they deserve.
I, too, offer my congratulations to the Attorney General on her forthcoming maternity leave.
As well as domestic violence prosecutions being down 19%, victims are left waiting for months for their cases to go to court and are increasingly being told to pursue civil cases instead. Despite the Solicitor General’s warm words, it is clear that the Government are letting victims down on every front. With the huge barriers facing victims of domestic abuse, will the Solicitor General join me today in backing the Bar Council’s call for non-means-tested legal aid to be made available to victims in the upcoming spending review?
Of course, I have to leave spending review issues to my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of Exchequer, but the reality is that the CPS best practice domestic abuse framework seeks to address withdrawal rates by delivering a high-quality service to victims, and it encourages more timely court listings. As the hon. Lady knows, we cannot always guarantee immediate court listings, but the CPS does encourage more timely court listings for this type of case. The provision of holistic support for victims—including, where appropriate, the support of an independent domestic abuse adviser—is very important. Funding is going into this issue and it is being given priority. More can be done—the hon. Lady is right and in agreement with Government Members that this is an important area of priority—and we will continue to focus on the issue.
Order. I am now suspending the House for three minutes to enable the necessary arrangements for the next business to be made.
Treatment of Uyghur Women: Xinjiang Detention Camps
(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs if he will make a statement on the treatment of Uyghur women in Xinjiang detention camps.
I acknowledge the strength of feeling about the human rights situation in Xinjiang, which is shared by hon. Members across the House. The BBC report to which my hon. Friend refers is chilling. It includes deeply distressing testimony of the rape, torture and dehumanisation of Uyghur women in Xinjiang detention centres. It is a further compelling addition to the growing body of evidence of the gross human rights violations being perpetrated against Uyghur Muslims and other minorities in Xinjiang. The evidence of the scale and severity of these violations is now far reaching. It paints a truly harrowing picture. If China wishes to dispute this evidence, it must allow unfettered access to the region for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights or another independent fact-finding body.
This Government are committed to taking robust action in respect of Xinjiang. That is why on 12 January the Foreign Secretary announced a series of targeted measures to help ensure that British organisations are neither complicit in nor profiting from the human rights violations in the region. This includes a review of export controls as they apply to Xinjiang, the introduction of financial penalties for businesses that do not comply with the Modern Slavery Act 2015, and support for UK Government bodies to exclude suppliers that are complicit in forced labour.
These measures demonstrate to China that there is a reputational and economic cost to its policies in Xinjiang, and it is why the UK has played, and will continue to play, a leading role in building international pressure on China to change course. In October 2019 and June 2020, the UK led the first two joint statements on Xinjiang at the UN. In October 2020, 38 countries joined the UK in a robust statement at the UN Third Committee. This diplomatic action is vitally important. More countries than ever are speaking out about Xinjiang. China has already been forced to change its narrative about the camps, and its denial of these violations is increasingly hard to sustain. The Foreign Secretary has made clear the extent of our concern directly to his counterpart, Foreign Minister Wang Yi, and I have raised the issue with the former Chinese ambassador in London.
On the specific allegations of forced birth control, we have raised these with the Chinese authorities and used our national statement at the UN Human Rights Council last September to draw international attention to this deeply concerning issue.
I can assure the House that we will continue to work with our international partners, including with the new US Administration and through our G7 presidency, to hold China to account for its actions. The UK has called repeatedly for China to abide by the UN’s recommendation to release all those who have been arbitrarily detained, and I know that right hon. and hon. Members will join me today in reiterating that call.
I thank the Minister for his powerful statement. Yesterday, the BBC broadcast harrowing footage of Chinese state-orchestrated abuse against Uyghur women on an unprecedented scale.
“They had an electric stick, I didn’t know what it was, and it was pushed inside my genital tract, torturing me with an electric shock.”
That is the testimony of Tursunay Ziawudun. “They did whatever their evil minds could think of. They were barbarians. I felt I had died. I was dead.” Then there are the gang rapes of Uyghur women by the police in front of other camp detainees, as a form of re-education, seeking out those who look away to punish them even further.
These horrifying stories add to the huge and growing body of evidence detailing atrocities perpetrated by the Chinese authorities in Xinjiang—atrocities that may even be genocidal. These horrors have led the Board of Deputies of British Jews to compare the plight of the Uyghurs to the Holocaust. But as everybody in this House knows, there is no prospect of China being held to account through the International Criminal Court or the International Court of Justice. So I ask the Minister: how will the Government get the court judgment they need to act when all international routes are paralysed by China? We cannot be bystanders to the deliberate attempt to exterminate a group of people. Not again.
Will the Minister make a promise today that no further deepening of ties of any kind will take place with China until a full judicial inquiry has investigated these crimes? Will he commit himself to a meeting with Rahima Mahmut, a Uyghur survivor, who is known by so many in this House? Rahima is a brave woman, risking her safety to save her family and her people. The United Kingdom cannot stand by and do nothing about the extermination of the Uyghur—mass rapes, scalping and forced sterilisations. We can act and we must act.
May I thank my hon. Friend again for her powerful questions and her speech? I know how important this is to her. I reiterate that the Foreign Secretary announced a series of measures on 12 January in response to the human rights situation in Xinjiang. This will help to ensure that UK businesses are not complicit in human rights violations. We are leading international efforts to hold China to account, and of course I would be delighted to meet with Rahima, the Uyghur lady whom my hon. Friend referred to.
Importantly, we will continue to work on this incredibly crucial issue alongside our international partners, pulling together, including making the statement that we did late last year alongside Germany and 38 other countries. We will work with the new US Administration, under President Biden. May I thank my hon. Friend again for bringing this incredibly powerful testimony to the House? Anybody who has seen the report by the BBC—I congratulate the BBC on producing it—cannot help but be moved and distressed by what are clearly evil acts.
The Chinese Government’s brutal campaign of oppression in Xinjiang is a scar on the conscience of the world. The Labour party stands shoulder to shoulder with the Uyghur people. We already know about the forced labour camps, and yesterday we heard utterly heartbreaking testimonies from Uyghur women who have been systematically raped, sexually abused and tortured. This follows last summer’s harrowing accounts from Uyghur women who are victims of forced sterilisation and forced intrauterine device insertion. The Chinese Government’s own statistics show that birth rates in Xinjiang fell by a third in 2017-18—further evidence that what is happening may meet the international legal definition of genocide, which the new US Administration have already acknowledged.
Last month the Foreign Secretary rightly condemned the events in Xinjiang as
“barbarism we had hoped was lost to another era”—[Official Report, 12 January 2021; Vol. 687, c. 160.]
Surely the time for tangible action has now come. First, where on earth are the Magnitsky sanctions that the Opposition and Members across the House have been calling for since last June? The Foreign Secretary said that the body of evidence in Xinjiang is “large, diverse and growing”, and we know the names of the senior Chinese officials who are responsible for these atrocities. The US sanctioned them last summer. Who in Government is holding this up?
Secondly, 20% of the world’s cotton comes from Xinjiang. We welcome the steps that the Government have taken to help UK business cease being complicit in forced labour, but they did not go far enough. Companies must be accountable, not simply transparent. Rather than tinkering around the edges of the Modern Slavery Act, will the Minister commit himself to bringing forward legislation that moves us to a system of mandatory due diligence?
Next Tuesday, when the Trade Bill returns, the House has the chance to send a united message to the world that genocide can never be met with indifference, impunity or inaction. This should not be a partisan issue. Given that it is a long-standing Government commitment that courts, not the Government, must rule on genocide, will the Minister join with us and colleagues across the House to give UK courts the powers to determine genocide and therefore prevent the UK from ever doing trade deals with genocidal states?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his questions, which raised a number of issues. He mentioned the US announcement regarding genocide. It is worth pointing out that the US has a different process for determining genocide that is not linked to a court decision. With regard to sanctions, we have had targeted measures in response to this matter. On 12 January, the Foreign Secretary announced a series of robust actions to ensure that no companies profit from forced labour and we will target in a forensic way those companies that are doing so, whether deliberately or otherwise. Of course, we are carefully considering any further designations under our global human rights regime. We keep all evidence and potential listings under review.
Let us head south to the Chair of the Select Committee, Tom Tugendhat.
I very much welcome the urgent question from my hon. Friend the Member for Wealden (Ms Ghani). She is raising a central point on the humanity that we share with people around the world, including with citizens of China. I was very keen that the Government should assist companies here, because we heard only yesterday that Manchester University is in partnership with the China Electronics Technology Group Corporation unaware of its connections with the surveillance state that is going on in Xinjiang. Will the Minister commit to helping British institutions, academics or, indeed, companies to make sure that they are not complicit with any genocidal regime or any autocratic state using data or technology that they have provided together to oppress people? Those institutions cannot always know such information themselves, but the Foreign Office can certainly assist them.
My hon. Friend, the Chair of the Select Committee, is right to raise this matter, especially around academia. UK universities are open to the world and we warmly welcome overseas students, including, for example, from China, but we will not accept collaborations that compromise our national security. We do work with academia to make sure that any links are closely monitored —whether that is with students or foreign military organisations—and we also work with British companies over the measures that the Foreign Secretary announced in January.
We now head to SNP spokesman Alyn Smith.
The plight of the Uyghurs is a well-trodden path within the House, and evidence of the dreadful situation just keeps mounting. I really commend the hon. Member for Wealden (Ms Ghani) for bringing this forward today, because it is important that we keep the matter very much on our radar. I do not regard the Minister as part of the problem here. We are all supportive of his efforts that are under way, but we would like to see more. I have three particular points. I have raised before the academic links that the Chinese state has with UK institutions. Much greater clarity is needed there. On EU co-ordination, there are measures within the EU-China trade deal that could be activated. Frankly, the EU could be a bit sharper in activating them over this to trigger a dispute resolution. The most fundamental thing that the UK Government could do is to change their face on the genocide amendment, which is before the other place in the Trade Bill. At a stroke, that would change how the UK does business on this and would be a really positive sign. The time for the Government to reverse their position on that is long overdue.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his measured questions. On that last point, may I be absolutely clear that we understand fully the strength of feeling on this matter with regard to the Trade Bill? We agree that there must be enhanced scrutiny for Parliament on both the issue of genocide and also the Government’s response to this most serious crime. As a result, the Government are looking to see how we can ensure that relevant debate and scrutiny can take place in Parliament in response to credible concerns about genocide. I know that Ministers have been reaching out to colleagues across the House in this regard. We want to work with Parliament to find a credible solution—a parliamentary solution—that is both robust and properly accountable to the House.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wealden (Ms Ghani) on her question and the BBC on its programme. A litany of terrible, terrible abuse —rape, mass internment, people going into concentration camps, people being sterilised, people being maltreated, abused and tortured—which sounds like something from 75 years ago, but it is not; it is today. With respect to the Minister, it is no good anymore coming to the Dispatch Box to say that he agrees with all this. Where are the Magnitsky sanctions on individuals? We have all the evidence necessary. Finally, why, oh why are the Government going out of their way to block this amendment that is coming back to the House of Commons, which will give the courts the power to decide that this is genocide? The Minister has just said in his statement that only the courts can say it is genocide, so let us stop this nonsense, please. Allow the amendment to go through and get the courts to make that decision. It will be a leading position from a British Government—that is the way to go.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his continued interest. I know how strongly he feels about the issue. Again, to be absolutely clear, we understand the strength of feeling, in particular around the Trade Bill, and we believe that there must be more enhanced scrutiny by Parliament of genocide and our response to the crime. That is why we will work with him and other right hon. and hon. Members in that regard.
As we have said, competent courts include international ones, such as the International Criminal Court and the International Court of Justice, and national criminal courts that meet international standards of due process. On sanctions, we have already come up with targeted measures in respect of UK supply chains. Those are direct actions. Nobody should be any doubt. We are being very clear in our public statements about what is going on in Xinjiang. As I have said, we are carefully considering further designations.
I echo the words of the Minister in thanking the hon. Member for Wealden (Ms Ghani) for obtaining this important urgent question. The best thanks that we could give to the hon. Lady and others in this House would be to actually act. What we saw on the programme was shocking, but it can no longer be any surprise. Nobody can say now that they do not know what is happening there.
The Minister has said it twice now: genocide is a matter for the courts, unlike in the United States. Surely the logic of his own arguments is that, when Lord Alton’s amendment to the Trade Bill comes back to this House next week, the Government should be supporting it or, at the very least, finding a form of words that they will bring forward to achieve the same end. I am afraid that warm words and hand wringing are no longer enough.
The right hon. Gentleman always talks in a measured and passionate way about this issue. I reiterate the comments that I made earlier to the hon. Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock): the US has a different process for determining genocide, but it is not linked to a court decision. Our long-standing policy is that any judgment as to whether genocide has occurred is a matter for a competent court.
We are looking to work with right hon. and hon. colleagues to ensure that the relevant debate and scrutiny can take place here. That work has been going on while the Bill has been in the other place. No doubt there will be further such conversations over the weekend as we lead up to the Bill coming back.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wealden (Ms Ghani) on securing the urgent question today. It is right to shine a light on the vile atrocities being carried out in Xinjiang. The official denials by the Chinese state today are a humiliation for China on the world stage. I, too, would welcome stronger Magnitsky-style sanctions against individual officials, but is not the bottom line that we have to face up to the fact that, when totalitarian regimes become established, there is a limit to what we can do from outside? Therefore, there is all the more moral responsibility on us to confront China’s strategic aims in other parts of the world and to give support to Governments around the world who believe in democracy, freedom and the rule of law.
Again, my right hon. Friend is spot on. That is why the UK Government are leading international efforts in this regard to hold China to account. We led the first two joint statements at the UN on this issue at the Human Rights Council in June 2020 and at the Third Committee in October. The growing international pressure on China reflects the diplomatic leadership that the UK has been giving, not least in bringing together a total of 39 countries, alongside Germany, to express our concern at the situation in Xinjiang.
As the case of the horrifying treatment of the Uyghur women outlined by the hon. Member for Wealden (Ms Ghani) demonstrated very well, women and girls from marginalised religions or belief communities often encounter unique persecution and challenge due to their religion and gender. Other examples, such as the sexual violence suffered by Yazidi women and kidnapping and forced marriage of young Christian, Sikh and Hindu girls in Pakistan, like 14-year-old Maira Shahbaz and 13-year-old Arzoo Raja, serve to emphasise the scale and severity of this problem. What action are the Government taking to tackle issues at the intersection of gender violence, inequality and freedom of religion or belief violations?
The hon. Gentleman raises two or three horrific cases, and he is right to refer to the issue of sexual violence suffered by Yazidi women and young Christians, Sikhs and Hindus. We absolutely recognise that women and girls from religious minorities can often suffer because of their gender and faith. That is why we ensure that our human rights policy work considers the intersectionality of human rights—for example, the importance of addressing the specific issues that may be experienced by women from particular religious minority communities.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wealden (Ms Ghani) on securing this urgent question. Many of my constituents are deeply concerned about the plight of the Uyghur community in China, and also the abuse, oppression and undermining of international agreements that is taking place in Hong Kong. What steps is my hon. Friend taking to support freedom of religion in China?
My hon. Friend is, like the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), right to raise this issue. We are deeply concerned about the persecution of people because of their beliefs or their religion. The freedom to practice, change or share faith or belief without discrimination or opposition is a human right, and that is something that all people should enjoy. We are working very hard on this. The Prime Minister recently appointed my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) as special envoy on freedom of religion and belief. We work with and meet officials around the globe. Specifically, we met Chinese officials in 2019 and expressed our concerns, for example, on the pressures that Christians are facing. We raise cases directly. My ministerial colleague, Lord Ahmad, continues to work in this regard as the Minister responsible for human rights.
Will the Minister explain the Government’s strategy for the G7 in Cornwall? The UK has the opportunity to work with its democratic allies to send a very strong message that China’s treatment of the Uyghur women in Xinjiang is completely unacceptable to the international community. Does he agree that actions speak much louder than words?
The hon. Lady raises the G7 and the opportunity we have as chair this year, and she is right to do so; ensuring that multilateral fora are at the forefront of holding China to account is really important. As I have said many times at the Dispatch Box, we have raised the situation in Xinjiang many times. We work very closely with our international partners, and I am pretty confident she can rest assured that the issue we are discussing will be brought forward as a matter of urgency with our G7 colleagues.
It is more important than ever that we work with allies around the world to protect the values we share. What steps is my hon. Friend taking to co-ordinate with our Five Eyes partners, so that we can both monitor and combat China’s clear human rights abuses?
My hon. Friend talks about what we are doing internationally, which is really important. We have taken a leading international role, and the impact of our diplomacy is reflected in the growing number of countries that have joined our statements. We will continue to try to get the widest caucus of support, to ensure that measures brought forward hold China to account, as long as they are as effective as possible. We will continue to work with international partners, including Muslim and Arab countries and those in the region, as well as the traditional Five Eyes and European partners, to try to expand this caucus of like-minded states.
Given that the evidence of industrial-scale human rights abuse, including mass rape, torture and cultural genocide, is incontrovertible and known to the Chinese Government and the Chinese President, will the Government now give the UK courts the power to judge genocide; instruct our industries to ensure that we source our cotton not from the slave trade of Xinjiang but from democracies such as India; and instruct our pension funds and institutions not to invest in companies that are complicit in abuse, including surveillance companies? After all, our actions will be judged; our words will be ignored.
Again, I want to be absolutely clear: we are committed to ensuring that our trade policy is consistent with our international obligations. Trade does not have to come at the expense of human rights. That is why the Foreign Secretary announced further measures on 12 January. We will continue to work in this regard. Our long-standing position on determining genocide is that competent courts include international courts—the ICC and the ICJ—and national criminal courts that meet international standards of due process.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wealden (Ms Ghani) on securing this urgent question. The Minister may be aware that I am vice-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on the preventing sexual violence in conflict initiative. Does he agree that there is a need to set up a PSVI body to document crimes, support survivors and lead prosecutions and that China must allow such a body of independent observers unfettered access to Xinjiang—or East Turkestan, as it is also known —so that they can report on what is occurring there?
I thank my hon. Friend for the work that she does on the preventing sexual violence in conflict initiative APPG, and I would like to wish her a happy birthday. We have made it clear that the UN human rights commissioner or another independent fact-finding body must be given unfettered access to Xinjiang. We have called for that repeatedly in joint statements and national statements at the UN. It is vital that China allows such access without delay. If, as China claims today, these allegations are mere fabrications or fake news, how can it object to granting access?
I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Wealden (Ms Ghani) for securing this urgent question.
In 2018, some 80% of all inter-uterine devices used in China were implanted in women in Xinjiang province, even though they account for only 1.8% of China’s population. Forced sterilisation, rape, sexual torture and violence are happening before our eyes and are clearly documented. We know we are not the only nation that is trying to speak up on this issue. The Minister has talked about the importance of human rights access; will he update us on the conversations he has been having with the Australians, who have also been leading on this issue at the UN, in order that we can show the world a joint economic and diplomatic approach to holding China to account?
The hon. Lady is absolutely right that we need to co-operate on an international level, and we are. I had a meeting yesterday with the Australian deputy high commissioner and we discussed Xinjiang. It is crucial that we work together in all sorts of different multilateral fora and bilaterally with like-minded countries. As I have said previously, the impact of our diplomacy is reflected in the growing number of countries that have joined us in our statements.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wealden (Ms Ghani) on securing this question. The BBC programme was indeed harrowing, and many Carshalton and Wallington residents have raised it with me. One of the most distressing aspects of the treatment of the Uyghurs is the sickening online propaganda suggesting that they are somehow happy with or, indeed, responding well to their so-called re-education. Will my hon. Friend the Minister outline what conversations he has had with his colleagues in the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and in tech about tackling this harmful online content?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise this issue. Content that denies that these atrocities are going on should be judged as harmful content. We are developing an online harms regulatory framework, which will establish a new duty of care to ensure that companies have processes in place to deal with the sort of disinformation and harmful content to which my hon. Friend refers.
The public are truly appalled by the further horrific crimes that have now come to light. We cannot allow this situation to be tolerated. Will the Minister advise us on what more can be done to tighten the restrictions to prevent Xinjiang cotton and other goods manufactured by prisoners from entering UK supply chains and ending up in our shops?
The hon. Gentleman is correct to raise this issue; it is important that we take action in this regard. We believe that the measures announced by the Foreign Secretary in January are robust. We have led the international action in this regard. The measures in respect of UK supply chains are targeted and will help to ensure that no British organisation, whether in the public or private sector, is complicit in human rights violations in Xinjiang.
I refer to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.
We all agree that nobody should profit from the abuse of others. Forced labour is a hideous crime. I welcome what the Minister has said regarding the use of the Modern Slavery Act, but will he consider introducing provisions similar to those used in the United States, where hot goods produced by forced labour are prevented from even entering the country, to stop perpetrators profiting from their abusive behaviour?
I thank my right hon. Friend for the work she did when she was the Minister responsible for the Modern Slavery Act; it has had a huge impact. In respect of the US Department of Labour’s hot goods provision, we certainly do not rule out taking further measures. Xinjiang’s position in the international supply chain network means that there is a risk of businesses inadvertently or otherwise sourcing from suppliers that are complicit in the use of forced labour. That is why we have announced the package of measures to ensure that businesses that profit from forced Uyghur labour are not part of the supply chains. It includes the introduction of financial penalties for businesses that do not comply with the Modern Slavery Act and guidance for businesses operating in Xinjiang, and also support for UK Government and public bodies to exclude suppliers who are complicit in forced labour.
We have heard of the Chinese regime carrying out forced sterilisations on Uyghur women as well as carrying out forced abortions and tearing children from their mothers. As if it could not get any worse, we now know they are systematically raping and torturing women in their detention camps; nowhere is safe for them. As we approach the next stage of the Trade Bill, now is the time for the Government to accept Lord Alton’s amendment to finally call this programme of abuse what it is: genocide. If the Minister’s Department continues to refuse, what exactly is it waiting for China to do before it takes this action?
The hon. Lady is right to raise the deeply disturbing reports of forced sterilisation; we had a debate in this place late last year on the issue. It adds to the growing body of evidence about the disturbing situation that Uyghurs in Xinjiang and other minorities are facing. I can assure the hon. Lady that the Government fully understand the strength of feeling on this matter; that is why we are looking to work to ensure that the relevant debate and scrutiny can take place in Parliament, where there are credible concerns about genocide in defined circumstances.
The news from Xinjiang becomes ever more horrific, so what can the Government do to help us as consumers know when we shop online exactly where our products are coming from? Are the Government having conversations with the big online retailers so that we will know if anything we are buying is coming from either Xinjiang or China? Can the Government help in this area so our collective power as consumers can be brought to bear?
My hon. Friend is right to raise that point. It is important that we strengthen the measures that we announced previously on the Modern Slavery Act and that we announced in January on strengthening the overseas business risk measures, making it clear to businesses, whether online or otherwise, that if they are investing or have supply chains in Xinjiang they must not inadvertently or directly be complicit in the exploitation of forced labour. We are reviewing the export controls to ensure that we are doing everything we can to prevent the export of goods that may contribute to human rights violations, and, as I mentioned to the hon. Member for Lewisham East (Janet Daby), the financial penalties for organisations that fail to comply with these transparency obligations will be severe.
I am grateful to the hon. Member for Wealden (Ms Ghani) for seeking this urgent question. I have a simple question that has been asked several times already this morning, but as I have not heard a clear answer I will ask it again: why do the Government continue to drag their feet on applying Magnitsky sanctions to Chinese officials in Xinjiang when the evidence of serious human rights violations is so compelling?
We have taken action. We have led international action; we have targeted measures, as announced in January; we will continue to work closely with our partners and lead international efforts to hold China to account, including by working with the new Administration in the United States; and I can tell the hon. Lady we are carefully considering further Magnitsky designations on the Chinese regime and keeping all the evidence and the potential listings under close review.
The treatment of the Uyghurs by the Chinese regime is beyond appalling. The Minister was right to say in his statement that the initial step we need to take to resolve the situation is for the Chinese to allow unfettered access for the United Nations Commission on Human Rights. What possible excuse could the Chinese regime have for preventing that, and how are Her Majesty’s Government going to bring that about?
My hon. Friend makes a very valid point. If China has nothing to hide and claims again today that these allegations are false, there is absolutely no excuse for unfettered access not being granted to the UN human rights commissioner, and we have constantly called for that to happen.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Wealden (Ms Ghani) on securing this urgent question, but it is the third urgent question we have had on the treatment of Uyghurs, and indeed the Foreign Secretary made a statement on the issue not three weeks ago. I reiterate the comment by my right hon. Friend the Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) that thoughts and prayers are no longer sufficient. What else do the Government and their international partners require to take action?
I thank the hon. Lady for her question. We are taking action. We have taken action with regard to Xinjiang. We have raised this directly with the Chinese authorities; the Foreign Secretary has raised it with his direct counterpart, and I have raised it with China’s ambassador—now the former ambassador—to the UK. We announced a series of measures in January, and we funded the research that helped build the evidence base for what is going on in Xinjiang. We will continue to work not just on our own but with our international partners to ensure that China is held to its international obligations.
First, I thank the Minister for his work. He is a good Minister; it is a difficult brief, and he does his job diligently. However, does the Foreign Office believe that it is ethically right to sign preferential treaties with states credibly accused of genocide? Systematic rape, sexual torture, forced sterilisation, re-education camps, forced labour, Orwellian surveillance—this is a tragedy happening in our time and it demands moral recognition, so why are the Government blocking our meaningful genocide amendment to the Trade Bill? Will they please work with us to introduce a meaningful amendment to that Bill that recognises the criticality—the moral imperative—of recognising genocide, and a genocide that is happening now, in our age?
I thank my hon. Friend for his comments; I knew there was going to be a “however” or a “but” at some point. I know how passionate he is about this issue. To his first question, of course it is not right that we should be entering into these agreements with genocidal countries. I can again be absolutely clear that we understand the strength of his feeling on this matter, and that of other hon. and right hon. Members. We want to work, and we are working, with hon. and right hon. Members right across the House—work that will continue in the run-up to next Tuesday, when the Bill comes back to this place.
The extent of these crimes of sexual violence can only be considered to be systematic and a further symptom of the genocide being carried out, using a whole armoury of appalling tactics, by Chinese officials. Can the Minister tell us whether the Government are considering adopting an atrocity prevention strategy to ensure that the resources of all Departments always operate in a way that is consistent with our values?
We are working incredibly hard with our international partners to ensure that there is an effective response to the situation in Xinjiang. The hon. Gentleman raises a very good point. We will continue to do that. I do believe that our diplomatic pressure is having an international impact, by virtue of the fact that the most recent statement had 38 countries joining us. We will continue to work both directly—bilaterally—and internationally to ensure that China is held to account for its international obligations.
Like my hon. Friend the Member for Wealden (Ms Ghani), I was appalled by the statement from the Chinese embassy condemning the BBC report about the treatment of Uyghurs, including the systematic rape of detained women, as little more than fake news. This is another example of the Chinese state denying genocide, despite it being glaringly obvious that the Chinese Communist party is orchestrating the systematic eradication of the Uyghur.
Unlike some today, I believe that whether a totalitarian state is established or not, we must have the courage and confidence to resist inhuman despotism, as this country proudly has in the past. Will my hon. Friend tell me when and which additional measures the Government intend to employ in the light of the overwhelming and still growing mountain of evidence of human rights abuses and shameless lies by the Chinese Government?
I thank my hon. Friend for his question. Again, I know how passionate hon and right hon. Members feel about this particular issue. With regard to the measures, we have taken action, as he knows, both at the UN and with our statements bringing together our international partners. We announced further measures in January aimed at targeting companies that are potentially indirectly or inadvertently profiting from forced labour. We will continue to look and to lead international efforts to hold China to account. We will consider carefully further designations under our global human rights regime, and we will keep all evidence and potential listings under close review. It is important that sanctions are developed responsibly, and it is not appropriate to speculate on who may be designated in the future.
I am now suspending the House for three minutes to enable the necessary arrangements for the next business to be made.
Before I call the shadow Leader of the House to ask the business question, I want to make a short statement about changes to the timings of Divisions. These changes will come into effect on Monday and reflect the fact that a large number of Members currently hold proxy votes. For the first Division, the doors will be locked after eight minutes, as normal. For any successive Divisions on the same business, the doors will be locked after five minutes. If there are Divisions later in the day, then again the doors will be locked after eight minutes for the first Division and after five minutes for any successive Divisions. If there is any problem, more time can be allowed before the doors are locked. I hope these changes will help us speed up our processes, without disadvantaging Members—we hope it will be to their benefit.
Business of the House
Will the Leader of the House please give us the forthcoming business?
The business for the week commencing 8 February will include:
Monday 8 February—Second Reading of the Armed Forces Bill, followed by a motion to approve the draft Armed Forces Act (Continuation) Order 2021.
Tuesday 9 February—A motion to approve the draft Social Security Benefits Up-rating Order 2021, followed by a motion to approve the draft Guaranteed Minimum Pensions Increase Order 2021, followed by consideration of Lords amendments to the Trade Bill, followed by a general debate relating to the publication of the integrated review of security, defence, development and foreign policy. The subject for this debate was recommended by the Backbench Business Committee.
Wednesday 10 February—Motions relating to the police grant and local government finance reports.
Thursday 11 February—Consideration of a Business of the House motion, followed by all stages of the Ministerial and Other Maternity Allowances Bill.
Friday 12 February—The House will not be sitting.
The provisional business for the week commencing 22 February will include:
Monday 22 February—A general debate on covid-19.
Tuesday 23 February—Opposition day (17th allotted day). There will be a debate on a motion in the name of the official Opposition. Subject to be announced.
Wednesday 24 February—Consideration of Lords amendments.
Thursday 25 February—A general debate on the proposal for a national education route map for schools and colleges in response to the covid-19 outbreak, followed by general debate on Welsh affairs. The subjects for these debates were determined by the Backbench Business Committee.
Friday 26 February—The House will not be sitting.
May I start by thanking the hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard) for all his work? We now know that the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) will be taking over for him, and I thank the hon. Member for Midlothian (Owen Thompson) for standing in for him today.
I thank the Leader of the House for the business. Of course, we say thank you for the Opposition day, but the Government have abstained on the past six Opposition motions in a row. Even though they have been passed by the House, the Leader of the House and the Government seem to be ignoring the will of Parliament and indeed the sovereignty of Parliament; he will know that the Executive derive their authority from Parliament.
I do not know whether the Leader of the House has read Lord McFall’s account of reforming the Select Committee in the other place in The House magazine, but I can tell him that the Lords is to have a European affairs Committee and a sub-Committee on the Northern Ireland protocol. The Northern Ireland Secretary told the House of Commons Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs on 20 January that
“we are not at the moment in a position where we want to be looking at extending the grace period.”
However, on Tuesday, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster called for an extension of the grace period, which is due to expire in March. The Prime Minister has previously said that he has concerns about the protocol and that there were teething problems, but the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster said he would “not describe” them in that way. It sounds as though the Government are in disarray. Let us recall the Prime Minister’s election promise to businesses in Northern Ireland:
“No forms, no checks, no barriers of any kind. You will have unfettered access.”
Will the Leader of the House look at restoring our Select Committee along the same lines as what they have in the other place—unless the Leader of the House thinks that there is more accountability there than we have in this place?
Yesterday, the Prime Minister said that the Health Secretary will update the House on the Government’s failure of a policy on comprehensive quarantine. When are we likely to expect that—or did the Prime Minister misspeak again? The Leader of the House will know that the Road Haulage Association has said that 40% to 50% of trucks are going back to the EU empty. The Federation of Small Businesses has called for transition payments. They are saying the problems have not emerged because of stockpiling, but the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster is now having weekly meetings of the Brexit taskforce. How about a weekly update to the House? Our businesses in our constituencies are part of the supply chain, and they want to know what is going on.
More broken promises, Mr Speaker, and more hypocrisy. The 2019 Tory manifesto pledged to “safeguard our green spaces”, but we have allotments being built on and sold off in Walsall. Two hundred and fifty residents are on the waiting list. The Tory-led council has agreed permission for 15 new townhouses on one of the two green public spaces in Walsall town centre, with no consultation with residents on a house in multiple occupation in a built-up area in Redhouse Street, and no consultation on using up a green space—again, in a built-up area—for a Traveller site. The current mayor is looking to Sandwell about green spaces, yet he is not looking to Tory-led Walsall Council and how it is using up every single green space. Could we have a debate on local councils and the lack of scrutiny?
The Leader of the House did not announce Foreign Office questions, but he will know the major incidents that are taking place around the world. He will also know that this House has supported Burma in setting up its democracy by building a library and training its MPs. The leader of Burma is in jail—the Proud Boys seem to be the same as the generals. Kameel Ahmady has escaped from Iran. Again, I raise Nazanin and Anoosheh: it is not public speculation, but parliamentary scrutiny. The Foreign Secretary’s American counterpart, Secretary of State Blinken, has spoken to all the families of those hostages. Will the Leader of the House undertake that the Foreign Secretary will do the same? My constituents are distraught at the sight of farmers—their extended families—being tear-gassed in their peaceful demonstration, so could we have a debate on foreign policy?
Today is World Cancer Day, and I am sure there is not a single person who does not know of someone who has suffered. We send our condolences to the family of Captain Tom Moore. He wanted us to remember how lucky we were to have an NHS, because he remembered when it was not there. Clapping is not enough: the Prime Minister can do something, which is make a payment to all our frontline services and NHS workers now that the Budget is coming up. We also pay tribute to Maureen Colquhoun. It is absolutely amazing that, in her five years, she managed to do so much. Perhaps the intranet and digital services can pay tribute to the work she has done, given that it is LGBT+ History Month.
I wish our hard-working shadow vaccine Minister, who is coming in later, a very happy birthday. Finally, welcome to the world, Henry George Elmore-Sedgebeer, who was born on 28 January.
Indeed: welcome to the world, Henry. There is a great joy in new life, and we must also celebrate the life of Captain Sir Tom Moore, who was an inspiration to so many people in this country. I am glad that the right hon. Lady mentioned World Cancer Day. Macmillan Cancer Support provides hotline services for those who need help and support, and I encourage people to use them if they need support. People should go to the doctor if they have any symptoms they are concerned about.
I also thank the hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard) for his participation in these exchanges, and for the exceptionally courteous dealings that I always had with him privately. Our public dealings may have been occasionally rambunctious, but privately, the dealings were extremely civilised. I welcome back the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart), and express my gratitude to the hon. Member for Midlothian (Owen Thompson) for standing in for him at short notice today. He is a very distinguished member of the Select Committee on Procedure, and asks me difficult questions there; I hope he will ask me easier questions in a moment’s time. [Interruption.] The right hon. Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz) says not—oh, dear. We shall wait and see.
Let me come to the right hon. Lady’s key points. First, the Government have made Opposition days available in the proper course of events, in accordance with Standing Orders, and the Opposition have brought forward important matters to debate. They have been debated, and the Government have set out their view during these debates. However, she knows that there are different functions within this House and different motions that have different effects, and motions that are passed by the House on Opposition days are not the law. They are different from the legislative processes that we have and are therefore treated in a different way. The reason that the Government, under Standing Order No. 14, have the right to order business in this House is because they command a majority. It is always open to the Opposition to ask for a vote of no confidence or to use an Opposition day for that, but I do not think that it would get them very far, so I think the House is being treated courteously, in accordance with the constitutional norms.
As regards various Select Committees, there are Select Committees that can look into all the matters relating to our departure from the European Union. It is the general position of this Government and predecessor Governments that, by and large, Select Committees should reflect the Departments that they cover. Anything relating to Northern Ireland can be looked at by the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, which is so wonderfully chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for North Dorset (Simon Hoare)—one of my oldest friends in the House—who does it with great distinction and can carry out any inquiries that that Committee sees fit. There are plenty of opportunities for scrutiny, as there are of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, who has been the most assiduous appearer at this Dispatch Box to set out what the Government have been doing. There will be a statement later on the vaccine, but he has been second to none in his courtesy to the House and his frequency of appearances, so I think criticising him is, dare I say it, a bit unreasonable.
I think the right hon. Lady showed her characteristic courage in suggesting that the Prime Minister may have misspoken the day after the Leader of the Opposition had to make a rather embarrassing public admission of having misspoken in this Chamber, when he forgot what he had said previously. I was not going to raise this private embarrassment for the socialists until she said that the Prime Minister had done this, which he has not. He has been completely accurate in what he said, but the Leader of the Opposition—oh dear, oh dear, oh dear. It was rather awkward yesterday, and who knows what was going on behind the Speaker’s Chair later on? [Interruption.] Oh, it was the other end, was it? They kept safely away from Mr Speaker. If you were to read the MailOnline, it was a very interesting state of affairs to have going on in this House of Commons.
The right hon. Lady raises her wonderful local council, Walsall Council, brilliantly run by the Conservatives, whom I had the pleasure of visiting last year. They are doing amazing work in developing brownfield sites, which is of fundamental importance. It is a great local authority and I hope that, when it has the local elections, everybody in Walsall will vote Conservative, because that is how they get good local government.
The right hon. Lady is right to raise foreign affairs. As she will have noticed, we are having a Back-Bench debate on 9 February—the general debate relating to the publication of the integrated review of security, defence, development and foreign policy—but we must encourage countries around the world to respect democracy. What has been going on in Burma is deeply shocking, and the Government are working with other countries to try to pressurise those who have done wrong to do right. That is what this Government must continue to do. They have been doing the same in relation to other countries where there are these abuses.
Once again, the right hon. Lady raises the dual nationals who are held improperly by Iran, and I will, as always, take this up with the Foreign Secretary on her behalf. It is a matter of the greatest importance, and a primary duty of the British state is to defend the interests of its nationals abroad.
I start by echoing the comments from both Front Benchers in regards to Captain Sir Tom Moore. This week is Children’s Mental Health Week. With the closure of schools and the impact of the pandemic on all children, it is more important than ever that we consider this particular issue. I commend the work that the Government have been doing, in particular, with the Department for Education on the catch-up programme to help to tackle the attainment gap. However, mental health issues are becoming more prevalent across the country. Can I ask my right hon. Friend for a debate or a statement on the effects of the pandemic on children’s mental health and what we can do to tackle this issue?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who raises an issue that has I think been raised with all of us in our constituencies. Children’s Mental Health Week is an opportunity to keep raising awareness about the importance of looking after our mental health. The Prime Minister announced a new youth mental health ambassador, Dr Alex George, who will be working with the Government to promote the importance of mental health education and support in our schools to help young people to build resilience. We are making sure that support is available for any children who may be struggling with their mental health currently. Schools have the flexibility to offer a place in the school to vulnerable children, which might include those for whom being in school helps them to manage their mental health. Schools will continue to offer pastoral support to pupils working remotely, supported by £8 billion of taxpayers’ money that the Government are providing for wellbeing, training and advice. There is also the increase in public expenditure on mental health to help to support many hundreds of thousands more children and adults who have mental health problems. I can also tell my hon. Friend that there will be an opportunity to debate this issue relating to covid on 22 February.
I thank the shadow Leader and the Leader of the House for their kind comments about my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard). I know he certainly enjoyed his exchanges in these sessions, and I am sure the Leader of the House will be looking forward to the return of my hon. Friend the Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart). I am hoping that this transition period is slightly smoother than the Brexit one.
The Oxford Internet Institute recently published a report on industrialised disinformation. Given the importance that I know the Leader of the House places on confidence in democracy, he will I am sure be worried at the report’s finding that
“industrialized disinformation has become more professionalized, and produced on a large scale by major governments, political parties, and public relations firms”,
and that the UK is listed among the 81 countries in which this is a permanent situation. Can we have a debate in Government time on how we can tackle and regulate this issue, as a number of firms are springing up—65, in fact—offering this service to clients?
Yesterday, I tried to seek an assurance from the Secretary of State for Wales on the financial powers for devolved nations in tackling the pandemic and, looking forward, tackling climate change. As part of that, I was looking to see why the Treasury continues to impose unfair and unreasonable limits on the devolved nations’ borrowing powers. I would be very grateful if we could have a debate in Government time to further consider what steps we could take to consider those implications and their impact on the devolved nations, and to untie the hands of the devolved nations so that we can tackle all the challenges that face us.
With sitting Fridays currently suspended, I am sure the Leader of the House will be keen to look at the number of private Members’ Bills there currently are and to consider which could be brought forward, perhaps in Government time, or adopted by the Government. I might even take this opportunity to make a plug for my Ministerial Interests (Emergency Powers) Bill, which I am sure the Leader of the House would be keen to see adopted, as it would further ensure confidence among Members.
Finally, as well as being World Cancer Day, today is Time to Talk Day. To support the hon. Member for Bury South (Christian Wakeford), I ask the Leader of the House whether he will join MYPAS—the Midlothian Young Peoples Advice Service—in my Midlothian constituency, which, among others, is having conversations about mental health with so many. This is such a challenging time that these conversations are so important.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for telling the House that today is Time to Talk Day. This is a really important thing to do; we should all try to do more of it. I commend him for what he is doing in his constituency. If he wanted me to talk to his constituents, although I am not sure they want to hear from me, I would be honoured to do so. This is a very important initiative.
On the question of industrialised disinformation, I think that people are wise enough to know which sources of information are reliable and that people—our voters—understand that much of the information on the internet cannot be accepted at face value. However, sometimes it goes further than that, and it is right that the Government will bring forward proposals in the online harms Bill in due course to try to ensure that the internet is properly regulated. The question of whether the internet companies are in fact publishers is a very important one to bear in mind. They seem to have many of the aspects of publishers, though they are keen to avoid any of the responsibilities of publishers.
I am extremely keen to find a way of bringing private Members’ Bills back before the end of this Session, whenever that may come. They are an important way in which Back Benchers raise issues of concern to their constituents and have them debated. I gave the commitment to bring them back as soon as is possible and practicable. That remains the case, and I am working with people throughout the House to try to find suitable time to do that, but I cannot give a date at the moment.
On the most contentious matter that the hon. Gentleman mentions—the fiscal arrangements—it is worth reminding him that £8.6 billion of UK taxpayers’ money has gone to help Scotland during the pandemic. It is the strength of the United Kingdom that, throughout this pandemic, has provided the support needed. He may chunter behind his elegant mask, but that means 779,500 jobs in the furlough scheme. It means £1.13 billion in the self-employed scheme. It is a really important Unionist level of support. We know now that the Unionist Government are helping the devolved Scottish Government to roll out their vaccine programme, and more people will be going from the British Army to help set up more vaccine centres. This is our UK Government bailing out a devolved Government. That is what we do, and we should be really proud of the United Kingdom, which has such strength as one country.
In 2018, a terrorist plot would have meant that Members of Parliament from a UK cross-party delegation and from around the world who were attending the free Iran rally were murdered. Fortunately, the French and Belgian police co-operated, and the plot was foiled. This morning, the Belgian court announced its verdict, and the Iranian diplomat Assadolah Assadi was convicted and sentenced to 20 years in prison, together with his accomplices. That has severe implications for our relations with Iran and for Iranian diplomatic services across the world. Will my right hon. Friend ask the Foreign Secretary to come to the House and make a statement on the implications of this verdict for diplomatic relations with Iran and its embassies not only in the UK but across Europe?
My hon. Friend is right to raise this matter. Her Majesty’s Government are deeply concerned about this incident and continue to work closely with our European partners on security and counter-terrorism issues. We are closely monitoring reporting on the trial taking place in Belgium. We expect diplomatic and consular missions in the UK to respect our laws and regulations in line with their obligations under the Vienna convention on diplomatic relations, the Vienna convention on consular relations and UK law. Who in this House can forget the murder of PC Yvonne Fletcher by somebody with diplomatic immunity from Libya? Only the worst states abuse diplomatic immunity to plot acts of terror. The Iranians surely do not want to put themselves in the same category—the same class—as Mr Gaddafi’s regime.
I thank the Leader of the House for the business programme. It is obviously regrettable, from the Backbench Business Committee’s perspective, that we have lost the previously proposed time on 11 February, but I thank him for the time now proposed on Tuesday 9 February. Could we have three hours’ protected time for that general debate on 9 February relating to the publication of the integrated review of security, defence, development and foreign policy, to make sure that it gets a good airing?
On 25 February, we propose debates on a national route map out of the pandemic for schools and colleges, and a Welsh affairs debate to coincide with a date as close as possible to St David’s day on 1 March, which is the following Monday. We propose those debates on 25 February as we are highly unlikely to get any time the following week, due to the probability that the Budget and the Budget debate will take place during that week. Both the debates we have proposed for 25 February are very well subscribed, so can we have as little additional business as possible from the Government and from yourself, Mr Speaker, to give as much time as possible for those debates to be aired properly?
I had a feeling that the hon. Gentleman would ask for protected time on 9 February, and I will certainly consider it. However, he has asked me on previous occasions whether the Government would be willing to schedule Backbench Business time when Government business may fall short. If we then made that protected time, that of course would extend the day, which is a different request from the Backbench Business Committee. I am saying as gently as I can that the hon. Gentleman cannot have it both ways, but I will think about it next week, because the Government changed business from the Thursday to the Wednesday due to the important Bill on the Thursday.
As regards 25 February, Mr Speaker, you and I did what we could to protect time for the Holocaust memorial debate. That has to be exceptional. There are important statements and urgent questions on Thursdays as there are on other days. Although there is a gentlemen’s agreement on Opposition days—[Interruption.] A gentlemen’s agreement is an inclusive term!
No, it’s not!
Yes, it is. Although there is such an agreement on Opposition days, that cannot be extended to all days, otherwise we would lose time for important statements and urgent questions.
Once again, homes and businesses in the northern part of my constituency, particularly the area around Barrow Haven, are threatened with flooding. Will my right hon. Friend arrange for a statement to update the House and my constituents on the Environment Agency’s plans to alleviate flooding in that part of northern Lincolnshire?
My hon. Friend, as always, is a champion for his constituents to ensure that they are properly protected and looked after. The sympathies of the whole House go to those affected by flooding, and the Government are determined to tackle the risks. Flood defences will have £5.2 billion of taxpayers’ money devoted to them over the next six years to protect 336,000 properties better than they are currently protected.
In Lincolnshire, there has been expenditure of £296.8 million on flood defences since 2010—which coincides with my hon. Friend becoming a Member of this House—providing better protection for around 77,500 homes. There is planned further expenditure of £57.8 million of taxpayers’ money on flood defences for the period 2020-21, protecting around 22,800 homes. A great deal is being done, but none the less for those whose homes have been recently flooded there is no better compensation than one’s sympathy and the hope that things can be done to stop it happening in future, because the pain and distress that they bear is considerable.
A constituent contacted my office in tears this week about the uncertainty of their immigration status. They have worked for years as a community carer for the elderly in Westminster, which has obviously become incredibly difficult over the past year. She waited two years before her initial application was refused, and she is distraught at the prospect of another lengthy wait. Please can we have an urgent debate on prioritising visa applications for healthcare and medical workers?
The hon. Lady will know that the immigration system is being updated to ensure that we have a fair points-based system to help people. If there are individual constituency questions, they are best taken up directly with the Home Office, although if the hon. Lady is not getting answers as swiftly as she would like, I will certainly use my office to help her.
Now that Putin the poisoner has jailed Alexei Navalny for the “crime” of missing probation appointments while in a coma, may we have a statement about British policy towards Russia, so that the House can express its view on such issues as that outrage and the increasing reliance of our European friends and allies on Russian gas supplies through such follies as the Nord Stream 2 pipeline project?
My right hon. Friend is so right to raise this important and disgraceful issue. The Government have called for the immediate and unconditional release of Mr Navalny. It is a completely perverse ruling. To say that somebody who has been the victim of an attempted murder, with a poison that is usually only available to state actors, has missed an appointment and therefore must go to prison is peculiar and unjust. It shows Russia is failing to meet the most basic commitments expected of any responsible member of the international community. Russia should fulfil its obligations under international law to investigate this despicable crime and explain how a chemical weapon came to be used on Russian soil.
We cannot hear Chris Law. We will come back to him if we can.
I know we are all grateful, across this House and of course across the whole country, to the staff, teachers and everybody involved in keeping schools open over the pandemic for the children who need them most. Headteachers in Ousedale School and St Paul’s Catholic School in Milton Keynes have received particularly glowing praise in my inbox recently, and I am sure everybody here will join me in congratulating them on the hard work they have done. Could my right hon. Friend arrange for a debate or a statement to inform the House on the efforts that are being made to recognise school staff, and the steps that are being taken to fully reopen schools as soon as it is safe to do so?
I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for paying tribute to the Ousedale sixth form and St Paul’s Catholic School in his constituency. That is one way, and an important way, of recognising the contribution that people are making during the current pandemic in the education system.
We will return to face-to-face learning as soon as we possibly can, which the Government hope will start from Monday 8 March. However, before we increase attendance, we need to be confident that doing so will not increase the pressure on the NHS—not because schools and colleges are no longer safe, but because that may increase the level of contact all of us have with other households. While we are seeing signs of things starting to move in the right direction, case rates remain high across the country and the NHS is still under immense pressure, so it is too early to set out a precise timetable, but I think everybody wishes to see schools reopen as soon as it is safe to do so.
The climate and ecological emergency has the potential of becoming an even bigger crisis than the global pandemic. Countries across the world, including the UK, were woefully under- prepared for the global pandemic, despite many warnings. Here in the UK, we do not even have a Department dedicated to working towards the enormous challenges of getting to net zero. In the year that the UK is hosting COP26, can we have not just one but several debates on how this Government are planning for and working towards getting to net zero by 2050?
I am very grateful to the hon. Lady, my constituency neighbour, for her important question. The Government are committed to leaving the environment in a better state for the next generation. We cannot forget, after all, that it was Margaret Thatcher who led the world, with her foresight, in early efforts to tackle climate change in the late 1980s, and the Prime Minister aims to follow in her distinguished footsteps. This Government want to lead a green industrial revolution in the United Kingdom, levelling up the country, creating thousands of high-skilled green jobs and building back a greener economy, while helping to get to net zero by 2050.
The 10-point plan is the blueprint for a green industrial revolution. It combines ambitious policies with significant new public spending to deliver a vision for the United Kingdom as greener, more prosperous and at the forefront of the industries for the future. Spanning clean energy, buildings, transport, nature and innovative technologies, the plan will mobilise £12 billion of taxpayers’ spending and will support up to a quarter of a million green jobs. This year, with COP26, as the hon. Lady says, and our chairmanship of the G7, we are going to be leading international efforts in this regard.
Let us try to return to Chris Law.
The Perth Road Pub Company in my constituency has been using the furlough scheme since it was introduced last March. Despite Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs approving its claim in December, this was never received. HMRC claimed that it would take 15 days to resolve, but there has been no progress since. The company has been unable to make further claims and employees have lost out on income, with over 30 jobs now at risk. I have written to HMRC and will be writing to the Financial Secretary to the Treasury today. May we therefore have an urgent debate on HMRC’s delays in investigating and resolving unpaid furlough claims?
The hon. Gentleman raises a really important point for his constituents. I would remind him that 779,500 jobs in Scotland have benefited from the furlough scheme. It has been a really important way of keeping people in employment, rather than having unemployment figures spiralling out of control. It has been a very effective scheme. However, as with any scheme, there are inevitably occasions when things do not work. I will undertake immediately after these exchanges to take up his point with ministerial people and ensure that the question about the pub in his constituency is resolved as swiftly as it may be. If he would like to send me a copy of his letter to the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, I will ensure that my offices are used to pursue an answer for him.