House of Commons
Monday 8 February 2021
The House met at half-past Two o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Virtual participation in proceedings continued (Order, 4 June and 30 December 2020).
[NB: [V] denotes a Member participating virtually.]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
Indefinite Leave to Remain
The UK offers a wide range of routes for people to settle in the UK, including those in need of protection and those who settle through marriage or work routes. There were 80,710 decisions on applications for settlement in the UK from non-European economic area nationals in the year ending September 2020, of which 97% resulted in a grant.
Since I was elected in 2017, I have been supporting Matt Jun Fei Freeman in his efforts to secure indefinite leave to remain. Matt has been in the UK for 17 years, and for the last nine he has made Lossiemouth and the wider Moray community his home. Will the Home Secretary agree to meet me to look at the considerable case for Matt to remain in Moray, so that he can continue to benefit from the friendship and support he gets here and so that Moray can continue to gain from Matt choosing this part of the world to be his home?
My hon. Friend raises a very important case. He spelt out the duration for which Matthew has lived in the UK and in his constituency. I would be delighted to meet him to discuss the detailed nature of the case, and I am happy to follow up on the concerns he has.
Police Officer Numbers
This Government are recruiting an additional 20,000 police officers by March 2023—an unprecedented increase in the next three years that reflects the biggest recruitment drive in decades. I am pleased to tell the House that, as at 31 December, the police have recruited an extra 6,620 police officers—620 ahead of target and three months ahead of schedule.
It is great to hear about the huge increase in police numbers, especially here in South Yorkshire, but what we really need is these new police to be visible and accessible. Does my hon. Friend agree that we need these new police officers to be front of house at Maltby police station, so that they can speak to residents and address their concerns, and to be established at a new base on Dinnington High Street, to clamp down on antisocial crime?
It is no surprise that so diligent a Member would take every opportunity to maximise the benefits from this enormous uplift in police officers for his constituents. While the decision on particular police stations is an operational matter for the chief constable, in consultation with the police and crime commissioner, my hon. Friend is quite right that an expansion in numbers on this scale means that all police forces should be reviewing their property strategy, to ensure that the presence he looks for in his constituency is felt across the country.
Under the leadership of our chief constable Lee Freeman, Humberside police has made good progress from the position it was in a few years ago, and we have benefited from increased officer numbers. If we are to maintain that progress and meet the expectations of my constituents, we must continue to increase force numbers. Can my hon. Friend give an assurance that we will be able to further increase the number of officers in Humberside?
In my nearly six years in the House, I have watched with admiration as my hon. Friend, terrier-like, holds the Government to their commitments; he is doing exactly the same today, and I do not blame him for it. He is quite right that we have seen a big increase in police officer numbers, but there is much more to come. We have done 6,620, which means that there are 13,000-odd yet to go. The Government’s commitment to the number of 20,000 is about as solid as it gets. It is the same as if the ravens were to leave the tower: if we fail to fulfil this promise, there will be fundamental problems and consequences for Government, not least, I am sure, from my hon. Friend.
I welcome the brilliant work of my hon. Friend’s Department, putting more bobbies on the beat in Darlington. Does he share my concern that those same officers will spend more time ferrying detainees across County Durham and less time on the beat if the plans of the acting police and crime commissioner to spend £21 million on a single custody suite for the whole county go ahead, robbing my constituency of its accessible custody suite? Does he agree that this decision should wait until after we have elected a new, democratic police and crime commissioner?
What a joy it is to hear a Conservative voice for Darlington once again! You will be interested to know, Mr Speaker, that in my very first general election in 1987, I fought in Darlington for the then young and fresh-faced Michael Fallon, who was the successful MP in that election.
My hon. Friend makes a fair point. When deciding about the disposition of custody suites in police stations across a particular force area, chiefs must have in mind the amount of time that will be spent by police officers in ferrying miscreants to and from those custody suites. I applaud him for pushing his temporary police and crime commissioner, and I hope there is soon to be a Conservative one—George Jabbour is a fantastic candidate—who will make a sensible decision in favour of all the people of Durham.
No Recourse to Public Funds: Covid-19
The Government remain committed to supporting everyone through this pandemic. Many of the wide-ranging covid-19 measures the Government have put in place are available to migrants with NRPF, including the coronavirus job retention scheme, statutory sick pay and discretionary hardship payments for those who have to self-isolate. In addition, migrants with leave under family and human rights routes can also apply to have the NRPF condition lifted, something that is successful now in 85% of cases, in just 17 days.
After hearing evidence at the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee on homelessness, I know that the unwillingness of the Home Office to suspend no recourse to public funds and a lack of clarity over support have had devastating consequences during this pandemic for many. Despite being over a month into this lockdown, policy is still opaque around section 4 eligibility for individuals with no recourse to public funds. Will the Minister provide an update on this as a matter of urgency?
There is absolute clarity about the benefits. I have mentioned things like the coronavirus job retention scheme already, and I have mentioned how people on family and human rights routes can get the NRPF condition lifted, but I did not mention the over £8 billion available via local authorities for NRPF-eligible migrants to apply for. In addition, the hon. Member asked about section 4: people on section 4 support do get accommodation provided by the Home Office. We currently now have, I think, about 61,000 people in accommodation. That is up from about 48,000 before the pandemic, precisely because we are looking after the people most in need.
The United Kingdom is a world leader in resettlement. My hon. Friend will know that, in the last five years, we have resettled nearly 30,000 people—more than any other country in Europe. My hon. Friend will be pleased to know that we will be completing the 20,000 people under the VPRS in the coming weeks, and after that we will be continuing to offer further resettlement places beyond that, as far as we are able to, given the current coronavirus circumstances. Beyond that, we will be making announcements—my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary will be making announcements—in the relatively near future about how we plan to continue resettlement beyond that.
My hon. Friend has rightly championed the record of this country and this Government in providing support to the most vulnerable people here and abroad, and it is clearly vital that safe and legal routes to refuge in the UK are available to disrupt smuggling and people trafficking. Is my hon. Friend confident that using the very successful current scheme as a template, the new UK resettlement scheme will have the necessary level of support and funding to resettle refugees effectively and in line with our aspirations?
I can absolutely give that assurance. Of course, our resettlement work will have the financial support it requires. We intend to build upon, but also learn the lessons from, the previous resettlement scheme. There are going to be significant ways in which we can improve it. Not only was our resettlement scheme over the last five years the largest resettlement scheme of any country in Europe, but there is more we are doing. Our refugee family reunion provisions see 6,000 people a year or more come into this country, and just a short while ago our BNO—British national overseas—route opened up, allowing people being persecuted by the Chinese Communist party to seek refuge here as well.
The United Kingdom’s world-beating vaccination programme is saving lives and livelihoods, and it is always vital that we arm ourselves with the facts and call out wrong information on vaccines. The counter-disinformation unit is responding to the misleading online content and working with social media platforms to ensure that all action is taken to remove harmful disinformation so that authoritative sources of information are promoted.
I have seen the brilliant work Labour councillors in Hounslow, Swindon and Blackburn have been doing to appeal to communities to take the vaccine. This work is being undermined by misinformation on social media, and is literally a matter of life and death. What plans do the Government have to bring forward legislation on, for example, financial and criminal penalties for social media companies that fail to act to stamp out this dangerous anti-vaccine content?
The hon. Lady raises a really important point at this very delicate time with the vaccine roll-out, and I would like to make two comments.
First, the Government are absolutely focused on zapping down the disinformation and misinformation that is circulating around the vaccine, because we cannot allow people—lives will be lost—basically to be duped into believing that this vaccine is not safe. I urge everyone—Labour councils, Conservative councils, and everyone in positions of authority—to get the message out to take the jab; it is safe, and it will protect individuals and their families.
Secondly, the hon. Lady asked about legislation and actions by the Government. A lot of work is taking place across Government, by the Home Office, the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and other colleagues, around sanctions and penalties, and work has also taken place with the online harms Bill very much to target social media platforms and the way in which they operate.
Finally, it is worth concluding, as we see the vaccine roll-out taking place, that everyone should, when called, take the vaccine, and collectively—no matter what our backgrounds politically or in terms of gender or ethnicity—everyone should be out there praising the efforts on the vaccine and making sure that people take the jab.
The spread of disinformation and anti-vaccine content on social media is presenting a real danger to the NHS in its efforts to vaccinate against covid-19, and some communities are hesitant to accept the vaccine, with people risking their own health and, in some cases, their own lives. In an agreement with the social media giants it was revealed that their only commitment was not to profit from or promote flagged anti-vax content, but there was no commitment to close down these groups, so is it not time that the Government got tougher to stop the anti-vax message getting through?
I very much refer the hon. Gentleman to the comments that I have just made: a lot of work is taking place with social media platforms. False information, disinformation and manipulated information are intended to deceive and mislead people, and when it comes to the vaccine that is going to risk lives. The Government are very clear about that, which is why action is taking place across all Government Departments, as I have outlined.
It is worth nothing that Ofcom’s latest research shows that the NHS remains the most trusted source of information on covid-19, and therefore it is right that we continue absolutely to put pressure on social media platforms when disinformation materialises, but also make sure that we maximise the right kind of information going out about the vaccine through respected channels of communication.
After a very difficult weekend in London, our thoughts are with the families, friends and neighbourhoods affected by those incidents of violent crime. Across England and Wales we are increasing police capacity in the forces most affected by violent crime, investing £176 million over two years. We have recently consulted on serious violence reduction orders, which will give the police stop-and-search powers to target individuals previously convicted of knife offences, and we are investing many millions of pounds in early intervention schemes to stop young people being drawn into violence in the first place.
After the recent tragic knife-related murder of a young man in Winsford, Cheshire police have secured funding for 25 16 to 18-year-olds to take part in an employment mentoring programme led by We Mind The Gap, as well as identifying a former community centre to deliver youth and apprenticeship activities. Will my hon. Friend congratulate Cheshire police on a constructive and long-term problem-solving approach to this issue and ensure that they have the funding necessary to prevent knife crime from happening in the first place?
My hon. Friend has a distinguished record of helping the most vulnerable children in our society, and I join him in welcoming the investment in this and other intervention projects in Cheshire to tackle the root causes of violent crime. I commend the work of Cheshire police in supporting such projects. In this financial year, Cheshire police will receive up to £219 million in funding, and it has already recruited 91 additional officers under the police uplift programme.
Emergency Services Network
The programme continues to make steady progress, and confidence in the technical viability of the solution continues to increase. The core network has been built, and much of the ultimate functionality has already been demonstrated. We are working hard to demonstrate the emerging product and agree realistic plans with users for the final stages of delivery and deployment.
I know that my hon. Friend knows the critical importance for the shared rural network of delivering the ESN. It is vital for my constituency, to deal with the notspots that are sadly all too common in mid-Wales. As well as the technical capabilities he outlined, will he update us on the delivery of the ESN, alongside the shared rural network, in Montgomeryshire and other rural areas across the UK?
I share my hon. Friend’s frustration. Representing a large rural constituency myself, I know exactly his experience and therefore his keenness to have his constituents better connected—all the better to reach him with their various problems and difficulties, which he will no doubt solve with skill and speed. We are rolling out the programme. I am pleased to say that, after a difficult period, shall we say, last year, the programme is back on track. We expect to appoint contractors to allow the execution of the shared rural network later this year, but I am more than happy, once we have clarity on the programme, to write to my hon. Friend with details of where and when he can expect his mast to be lit up.
I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire (Craig Williams), many communities in my constituency, in particular around Auchenblae, Drumtochty and the wider Mearns area, remain unable to get an adequate phone signal or even any at all. Having been promised that the emergency services network would contribute to solving that issue, many are still to be connected to decent 4G services. May I ask what the delay seems to be in opening up mobile telephone masts to commercial operators, as was initially planned?
I know that living in one of the most beautiful constituencies in the country is not sufficient compensation for a lack of connectivity, although it provides some commiseration to my hon. Friend’s constituents. As somebody who found out just the other day that, frustratingly, the fibre network in my constituency stops 200 metres short of my house, I understand the impatience for connectivity in his area. It is true to say that we have experienced some delays, not least on legal negotiations last year. Happily, those have now been overcome, and I am confident that we can now proceed with all speed to make sure that the shared rural network, alongside the emergency services network, is rolled out on schedule to 2025.
The new emergency services network, which is much needed to replace our outdated system, has become yet another embarrassment for the Home Office. Costs have spiralled to an eye-watering £10.3 billion, and constant delays mean that the project will not be finished for up to seven years. Local police forces, already under strain from cuts and covid, have to foot a large part of the bill, and their bill has just increased by £600 million. That would fund around 8,000 new police officers, yet when I asked the Minister about this in a parliamentary question, he said that the extra cost was “minimal”.
There is a pattern: £600 million is “minimal”; the catastrophic loss of 400,000 essential data records is brushed aside and still no answers given; and the Home Secretary breaks the ministerial code and we are all somehow to brush that aside as well. When will the Government accept that their incompetence is wasting taxpayers’ money, delaying vital work and putting the public at increased risk?
I understand that the hon. Lady feels that her job is to trade in hyperbole, but I think she has slightly overstated her case today, not least on the cost of the emergency service network, which is actually only—“only”— £4.2 billion, not the £10 billion-plus that she quoted. Governments of all stripes—and, indeed, many private companies—experience challenges, shall we say, in executing large technical IT projects, and this project has been no different. Having said that, we have made significant changes to the leadership team and we have reset the project. It is broadly back on track and, critically, we now have a new system of, effectively, joint decision-making with the end users—the police and the other emergency services—which we believe is breeding much greater confidence in the programme at the moment and hopefully over the next two or three years as we bring it to execution. This is an absolutely vital piece of equipment for police officer safety and, indeed, for the better prosecution of crime, and we are determined to get it right.
Asylum System: Reform
The asylum system is in need of fundamental reform, and the Home Secretary and I will be introducing legislation in the relatively near future to do exactly that. Too many people come into the UK having first passed through a safe country—for example, France—without having claimed asylum there. We are determined that we are going to have an asylum system that will protect those people in genuine need of protection while preventing the abuse that we sadly too often see.
I completely agree with the Minister: our asylum system needs to change ASAP. My constituents are vocal about how long it is taking to process their applications, often leaving them in limbo for months on end. For example, Shahid suffers from severe depression and has been waiting 16 months while he cares for his disabled wife. He cannot get carer’s allowance while his application is pending. Likewise, Aswad was told that their application would take a maximum of six months to process, but it has now been 13 months. May I ask the Minister to meet me to discuss how we can bring some closure to my constituents?
I would certainly be happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss the particular case that he raises, and I will follow up to arrange that. I agree that we need to do more to speed up the system. Coronavirus has had a significant impact on asylum decision making, as it has on so many other areas of our public life. In the short term, we are hiring considerably more decision makers, we are introducing better IT and we are spending £20 million next year on system transformation, but beyond that, we need to legislate to make the system work more fairly and more efficiently, for the reasons that my hon. Friend has laid out.
Can my hon. Friend confirm that Napier barracks in Folkestone is only a temporary facility to accommodate people in the asylum system, that it is unsuitable for individuals to be placed there for prolonged periods, and that, post-covid and with a reformed asylum system that is swifter in processing applications, we should avoid using facilities such as this in the future?
I can confirm that Napier was set up in response to the enormous pressures placed on our asylum system by the coronavirus pandemic. We have set it up in such a way as to be safe, and it is of course accommodation that was previously used by the brave men and women of our armed services. We ensure that it is clean and secure and that there is health provision on site. It is not intended for use in perpetuity. I know that my hon. Friend spoke to the Home Secretary over the weekend, and we would be very willing to maintain a close and active dialogue with him and the local council to ensure that it is managed as well as it possibly can be.
The repurposing of disused Army barracks to house asylum seekers is proving a disaster and a disgrace. What is worse, the leaked impact assessment shows that this dreadful policy was justified by wild notions that proper support and accommodation could undermine public confidence in the asylum system. In short, the Home Office was pandering to gutter politics. Will the Home Office apologise for suggesting that people in the UK oppose decent support and care for asylum seekers, and close these barracks urgently?
No apology is due. As I just said, the barrack accommodation units in question were previously used by the brave men and women of our armed services. They were good enough for the armed services and they are certainly more than good enough for people who have arrived in this country seeking asylum. We fully comply with all the relevant guidelines.
On the hon. Gentleman’s question about this country’s stance on asylum seekers, we now spend getting on for £1 billion a year on accommodating them. That record bears comparison with any country in Europe and, indeed, around the world. No apology is due and certainly none will be made.
The sad fact is that the policy undermines the UK’s reputation as a welcoming place. Almost as bad as the impact assessment are the Home Office claims that people who criticise the use of barracks are insulting our armed forces: it is the Home Office that insults our soldiers by using them as cover for such disgraceful policies.
The former senior military legal adviser Lieutenant Colonel Mercer has agreed that it is “wholly inappropriate” to house asylum seekers in disused Army barracks, saying that
“this treatment is nothing more than naked hostility to very vulnerable people.”
If the Minister will not listen to me, will he listen to Lieutenant Colonel Mercer and a host of respected medical organisations and close the barracks quickly?
The closure of the barracks would be made a lot easier if more councils in Scotland—other than only Glasgow—would accept dispersed accommodation. That is the sort of thing that puts pressure on our accommodation estate. Thanks to the generosity of our approach, the number of people we are accommodating has gone up from 48,000 to 61,000 during the pandemic, because we have taken a thoughtful and protective approach. That is the right thing to do and we stand by it.
On Napier barracks, the equality impact assessment makes it clear that the use of disused barracks as asylum accommodation is absolutely a political choice. The Government have consistently refused to confirm the numbers of those who contracted the coronavirus while staying at Napier barracks, but I understand that, out of around 400 people, 105 who did not have the virus were moved out, leaving us to draw our own conclusions about just how massive an outbreak took place there. Does the Minister not agree with me and others that the use of barracks as asylum accommodation has been both a moral and public health disaster and that people must be moved into dispersed accommodation as a matter of urgency?
I do not agree with that. As I have said already, we have closely consulted Public Health England throughout this episode. The use of accommodation of this kind is appropriate and suitable. We need to have regard to a range of factors, including value for money. We have had to use a large number of hotels to accommodate people during the coronavirus pandemic and they do not represent particularly good value for money. Barrack-type accommodation is not only suitable but a great deal cheaper than hotels. We all owe the general taxpayer a duty to ensure value for money and the Government make no apology for that.
Covid-19: Border Measures
Throughout the pandemic we have kept our border measures under constant review, including through regular liaison with the devolved Administrations, given their responsibilities in this policy area. On 27 January, the UK Government announced further action for outbound and inbound passengers to minimise travel across international borders and reduce the risk of covid-19 transmission.
I am sure I am not the only person on these islands who has been left to wonder why the party that has spent so much of the past five years talking about taking back control of borders seemed to completely fluff the opportunity to do so when there would have been almost unanimous support in the House. Will the Minister advise the House what defence the Prime Minister previously offered to the Cabinet for not closing the border on the Home Secretary’s advice?
Given the overall positive engagement that we have had with the Scottish Government in this policy area, it is disappointing to hear the tone of the hon. Gentleman’s question. In deciding on border measures, the UK Government must take into account a number of factors, including the rather obvious need to keep open key supply lines across the short straits, and routes to and from the Republic of Ireland.
To give some background, since the health measures came in we have conducted more than 3.7 million spot checks of passengers arriving at the border, as part of the new testing requirements, carriers are required to check test results, and a fine of up to £4,000 in England and Northern Ireland and £960 in Scotland and Wales can be levied on passengers who fail to comply with the requirements.
Migrant Channel Crossings
The Government are taking a huge range of measures to prevent these dangerous and illegal crossings. Most notably, the Home Secretary reached an agreement with her French counterpart in late November to increase the number of gendarmes deployed on the French beaches and to take a variety of other steps aimed at preventing embarkations from the French shores. To anyone considering this trip, I say that it is dangerous, they are putting their lives at risk, it is illegal, but, most of all, it is unnecessary because France is a safe country where it is perfectly possible to claim asylum.
Last month, the Eastbourne Royal National Lifeboat Institution rescued more than 30 migrants who had got into difficulty in the channel. I commend its sterling work. Its mission is simply to save lives at sea. I have every concern for those it rescued, but, as my hon. Friend has just outlined, there are serious concerns that this is pump-priming human traffickers, and the fact remains that people are putting themselves at risk. Can he outline to the House the work that is being undertaken with the French and with our European neighbours to intercept and close down human traffickers long before they reach the channel coast?
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. Let me start by paying tribute to the RNLI for the work that it does at sea keeping people safe in what are often very treacherous and difficult circumstances. She is right to outline the work that we need to do to disrupt and prevent these dangerous criminal gangs before they even launch the boats in the first place. The National Crime Agency and many other law enforcement agencies across Europe and beyond are working together to disrupt these criminal gangs. We regularly prosecute people for facilitating these small boat crossings. Last year, we successfully prosecuted 50 or 60 people. There have been several more prosecutions just in the last week, in addition to the law enforcement work we are now doing with the French, doubling the gendarme patrols, for example, which, just in the last few days, has resulted in literally hundreds of people being intercepted before they even set off. So these measures are now working, but we are certainly not going to give up: we will continue working with our French colleagues until these dangerous, illegal and unnecessary crossings are completely stopped.
Will my hon. Friend join me in thanking Kent police and the police and crime commissioner, Matthew Scott, for their important work on this issue of migration and border policing? Can he assure me that, across my whole constituency, in Dover and Deal and at nearby Napier barracks, Kent police are having extra funding for carrying out this vital work?
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for the work that she has done in consistently standing up for her constituents on this issue, and to Matthew Scott, who does such a fantastic job as Kent’s police and crime commissioner. No doubt he will be triumphantly re-elected shortly. On the question of resources, Kent has had an extra 162 police officers recruited so far and I believe that there are many more to come. Assuming the precept is used, it will have an extra £19.5 million in the next financial year as well. In addition to that, if there are particular issues caused by small boats or, indeed, by the barracks at Napier, it is able to apply to the Home Office for exceptional funding and, if it feels that that is merited, I would certainly encourage it to do that.
We will bring forward legislation this Session to give the police the powers they need to tackle unauthorised encampments by moving people on and seizing vehicles where necessary. Intentional trespass will become a criminal offence, and we will broaden the range of harms that can be considered by the police when directing trespassers away from land.
The Home Secretary will know that I wrote to her back in June regarding unauthorised encampments. I thank her for her response. Although the majority of Travellers stay on authorised sites, a disproportionate amount of council and police time is spent dealing with the effects of unauthorised encampments. Does the Minister agree that communities such as mine in Wrexham need more protection against trespass on sites where there is no right of access?
My hon. Friend has hit the nail on the head in standing up for her constituents on this issue. People want to see greater protection for local communities, and for the police to be given enhanced powers to crack down on trespassers. That is why we consulted on how we might strengthen police powers and why we will introduce legislation in this Session. We will act on these concerns, and I very much look forward to working with my hon. Friend in so doing.
Covid-19: Support for Police
Throughout this pandemic, we have given the police not just guidance but funding to support them in dealing with the coronavirus outbreak. That also means working with them on increased support around guidance, changes to regulations and legislation. Of course, we also work with them every single day as various measures are constantly kept under review.
So far, more than 1,000 local people have taken part in my High Peak crime survey. Many residents have raised concerns about antisocial behaviour and drugs, particularly on Fairfield Road in Buxton. I am really pleased that Derbyshire police are being proactive and just last week made multiple arrests in the area, but I want to make certain that they have the resources that they need. Will the Home Secretary assure the people of High Peak that we will get our fair share of the 20,000 additional police officers?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise these issues. On a fair share of police officers, I understand that his force has already recruited 67 more police officers, and our plans to recruit 20,000 police officers go from strength to strength. I note that Derbyshire police have received over £400,000 in covid surge funding very much to step up on enforcement and fines, and to deal with issues such as antisocial behaviour, which is a particular issue that my hon. Friend has raised on behalf of his constituents.
According to the crime survey for England and Wales, overall levels of violent crime have reduced since the peak in the mid-1990s. However, this trend has begun to stabilise and there is growing public concern. We are taking action by surging police capacity in the forces most affected by violent crime, and investing in early intervention to prevent young people from being drawn into serious violence.
Last month, I found out through an answer to a written parliamentary question tabled in September that the serious violence taskforce has been discontinued. Are the Government still committed to a long-term public health-based approach to tackling violence affecting young people? I fear for other measures they may be looking to scrap via the back door.
I am slightly mystified by the hon. Lady’s attempt at surprise, not least because I think there was an exchange at this Dispatch Box some months ago when we discussed the serious violence taskforce, and, indeed, there have been previous questions. The Prime Minister—given that he had been a renowned crime-fighting Mayor—decided on coming to office that he wanted to take leadership of the crime effort himself, so we created the criminal justice taskforce. Beneath that sits the National Policing Board, and a performance board sits beneath that. That is all focused largely on fighting violent crime.
Our commitment to fighting violent crime remains strong. Just this morning, I was able to announce an extra £35 million of funding into violence reduction units, a very large proportion of which will obviously come to London. Both the Prime Minister and I have experience of fighting crime, and along with the Home Secretary—who was previously chair of the all-party parliamentary group on victims and witnesses of crime—have shown enormous commitment to this issue over a prolonged period, and that will continue into the future.
Crime has not stopped because of covid-19. After a brief respite during the first lockdown, the Department’s own figures show that overall violent crime is rising, and that drug and firearms-related offences are back at previous levels. The Government received the findings of Sir Craig Mackey’s review into serious and organised crime last February and told the House in June that the recommendations were being considered, but, as of today, they still have not come forward with them. So can I ask what we are waiting for and what it is that Ministers have been doing for the last year?
As I am sure the hon. Gentleman knows, we have been dealing over the past year with a pandemic—it might have passed him by, but it has not the rest of us. That pandemic has had a significant impact on UK policing, its disposition, what it has been involved in and, critically, the types of crime and the trends in crime that it has been dealing with.
The hon. Gentleman is correct that post the second lockdown we saw a surge in violence for one particular month. That number has stabilised since, and we are trying to understand, by research and analysis, what the implications of the pandemic have been for crime and therefore what they are for the police. Alongside that, we have been in conversations with our partners at the National Crime Agency, with chief constables involved in serious and organised crime and with territorial forces about what the disposition of serious and organised crime should look like into the future, and we will be making announcements about how it will be disposed in the near future.
I am proud to say that on 31 January the Government launched the Hong Kong British national overseas immigration route. The commitment to create this route was made following the Chinese Government’s imposition of the new national security law in Hong Kong. It is an unprecedented and generous offer and reflects the historical and moral commitment of this country to the individuals who retained ties with the UK at the point of Hong Kong’s handover.
Through this route, we will welcome BNO status holders and their family members to the UK on a pathway to citizenship. From 23 February, those with a BNO, Hong Kong special administrative region or European economic area biometric passport will be able to apply for the route through the fully digitalised process, using new technology developed through the UK’s points-based immigration system. I am clear that we must give BNO status holders every opportunity to thrive in the UK, and officials are working with colleagues across Departments to look at integration. This absolutely speaks about global Britain and how we will always stand up for what is right in the world, welcoming those who come to the UK in the right and proper way.
On 20 January, my constituent Andy Aitchison, an accredited journalist who had taken photographs that morning at the demonstration at Napier barracks in Folkestone, was arrested by five police officers at his home, charged with criminal damage and held for questioning for seven hours. The police confiscated his mobile phone and photo camera card. Last Friday, the charges were dropped and the case closed. Does my right hon. Friend agree that there should be a review of the guidance given to police before such actions are taken against accredited journalists, and does she agree that Mr Aitchison should have a clean record, as he has committed no offence?
Regarding the case that my hon. Friend has highlighted, he will know that Kent police were called following a report of a particular protest and an incident. All decisions on arrests are an operational matter for the police, and the police make arrests in line with their duties to keep the peace and to protect communities. I am afraid at this stage that is all I can say, because an arrest has been made, but I have no doubt that Kent police will continue to keep all interested parties, including my hon. Friend, updated on this particular case.
I would like to begin by wishing the right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (James Brokenshire) a swift recovery following his recent surgery.
Hotel quarantine for travellers will be introduced on a far too limited basis for 33 red list countries on 15 February, more than 50 days after the South African variant was discovered in the UK. To prevent a variant reaching our shores that could threaten the vaccination programme, that should be a comprehensive policy. Worse still, analysis over the weekend showed that, of the 41 countries that have confirmed they have cases of the South African strain of the virus, 29 are not subject to the hotel quarantine controls. Neither are a further six with the Brazilian variant. When will the Government publish the specific scientific basis for their existing red list?
The hon. Gentleman and I have spent some time at this Dispatch Box discussing this particular issue, and I think it is important that I make a couple of points to emphasise the work of the Government. The new health measures at the border are necessary to protect public health and our world-class vaccination programme. We have throughout the pandemic kept all measures under review, and that is absolutely right. He mentions new variants. However, I do want to emphasise, in the light of the many discussions that have taken place at the Dispatch Box between the hon. Gentleman and me, and colleagues from other Government Departments, that the Labour party has repeatedly flip-flopped on hotel quarantining measures. The Government have been very clear about measures that will be announced, some in due course, because a lot of operational and logistical planning is taking place around these measures. At the same time, it is worth recognising that there are many people on the frontline looking at the implementation of this policy, which is based on the advice by the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies and other Government advisers. It is important that we take time to absolutely make sure that these measures are put in place in the right way.
First, the Labour party has not flip-flopped on this. The 14-day blanket quarantine was only necessary because of the Government’s own failure on testing. Secondly, although the Home Secretary and I have had plenty of discussions about it, she was very clear about her own views last March that the border should have been closed, and we have all seen that on the video.
Is it not true that Ministers have been behind the curve throughout? There was no formal quarantining system until June last year, and when it was introduced, it proved ineffective. The South African variant is already here. Border testing was only introduced in recent weeks. On the hotel quarantining policy, we hear today that no formal contracts have been agreed—too little, too late. Is not the truth that the borders policy is a gaping hole in our defences against the virus? When is the Home Secretary going to take charge of this situation and put in place the proper protective measures that she knows are needed to protect the health of the British people and safeguard the vaccine roll-out?
I appreciate that it has been a while since Labour has been in government, and Labour Members will obviously fail to realise that there is cross-Government work on the delivery of these measures. We are in a pandemic. Just to restate this to all colleagues in the House, health measures at the border have been in place since January last year. Those measures have been developed, as everyone would expect, as the situation changes; they are calibrated measures. I think it is an absolute shame to see the hon. Gentleman joining his colleagues in playing party politics with this crisis while attacking the Government, because although he originally welcomed the measures on the border that we brought in last year, he then wrote to me calling for the “blunt tool” of our border quarantine to be lifted quickly. Labour’s behaviour throughout this pandemic has shown the British public that it has no interest in being constructive or acting in the national interest, and that is exactly what we can see right now, while the Government are getting on and dealing with this hotels policy.
My hon. Friend makes some very good, strong and important points that, absolutely, the British public support the removal of foreign national offenders, those who come to our country to cause harm, and also those who are, quite frankly, making asylum claims that are not legitimate. We intend to introduce legislation later this year. I have spoken frequently about the need for a firm but fair asylum system, with fairness to target those who genuinely need our help. I have already spoken about one new safe and legal route that this Government have supported. Absolutely, fairness is needed, and firmness is needed to stop abuse of our system and to make sure that we remove those who come to our country to create harm and participate in criminality. I should remind my hon. Friend—he will know this—that Labour has been campaigning against that over the past 12 months.
The South African variant has now been identified on many continents, and the risks to the vaccine programme are concerning. Can the Home Secretary confirm, following her letter to me last week, that even under her future plans, the majority of passengers will not be covered by hotel quarantine, no one will be tested on arrival before going on public transport, and less than one in four travellers will get a follow-up phone call check? Is this worrying information correct, and why are there all these gaps?
The answer to the question is no, because as I have repeatedly said in this Chamber throughout the pandemic, all our measures are kept under review. We already have 100% compliance checks taking place at our airports. Ironically, the hon. Member for Torfaen (Nick Thomas-Symonds) was complaining at me three weeks ago about queues at Heathrow airport, but those queues were there because compliance checks were being undertaken. It is absolutely right that those checks take place, including through the passenger locator form, the pre-departure testing, and the impacts and liabilities that are now on the carriers.
I have already stated that my colleagues across Government will report to the House on the subject of hotel quarantining, but it is really important to say that, yes, there are concerns about new variants. We are working across Government—and, I have to say, a lot of people are working valiantly on the frontline—on vaccine roll-out, but we keep all our measures under review, obviously to protect the vaccine but also to ensure that as the number of passengers coming into the country reduces, full checks are in place.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. He has already heard me speak about the amazing work of people on the frontline, which includes our police officers but also our serving fire officers, who are working in local resilience forums to deliver and safeguard the vaccine and make sure people are getting vaccinated—including, no doubt, at local sites in my hon. Friend’s constituency. The British public are fed up of seeing egregious breaches. It is the police on the frontline, day in and day out, who are not only protecting the public but putting themselves in harm’s way, and we are absolutely right to support them.
It is absolutely right that we provide accommodation—the right kind of accommodation—for people who have come to our country to claim asylum, and we have a statutory duty as a Government to do so. No one would dispute that at all. With regards to Napier, I spoke to one of the ward councillors at the weekend, and I have been in touch with local MPs and representatives from the local authority. We are working with everyone to make sure that base is secure, which it absolutely is; that it is covid compliant, which it has been from day one; and that all the suitable accommodation measures are put in place, which is absolutely correct.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. In fact, we have already mentioned this afternoon that the legislation will soon be coming before this House, and I am sure that his constituents and many other constituents will welcome the change. I would like to give my hon. Friend and his constituents reassurance that the legislation we will bring forward will address many of the issues related to groups that have that disproportionate impact on the local community.
First, on misinformation and disinformation on the vaccine, as I said earlier, we are working across Government to ensure that the right information is being put out. With specific reference to refugee groups, we have health facilities, and refugees have access to medical help and support, and obviously that has continued throughout the coronavirus pandemic. When it comes to people getting the vaccine, as I said earlier, everyone should ensure that when their turn comes, they take the jab and ignore this misinformation. [Interruption.] I am sorry that the hon. Member is shaking her head; everyone across Government is working night and day to deal with misinformation. I have said it many times; I hope that all colleagues in the House will unite across the board and forget political divisions to ensure that everybody who should get the jab absolutely takes a jab.
I thank my hon. Friend, and I look forward to coming back to Wolverhampton, obviously when circumstances permit. I also thank him for the great work he is doing with local groups, organisations and police to protect the victims of crime, but also to do much more on preventing crime. The police uplift, more police officers, the record sums of cash that we are putting into policing—all of this will go towards preventing crime, but also ensuring that victims are safeguarded.
As I have said several times already, all measures are under review. Colleagues across Government are working to implement the hotel quarantine policy and the logistics involved in that, but this is not just about hotels. This is absolutely about compliance and enforcement, and we have measures in place at our ports and airports to ensure that people are being checked and to ensure compliance.
My hon. Friend and I have spoken about this previously, and I very much recognise the pressures experienced in his constituency. Obviously we have had accommodation pressures throughout the pandemic, and we are implementing a recovery programme, with which he is familiar. Within that, we are looking to accelerate, where we can and in a covid-compliant way, working with Public Health England and all the relevant organisations that he is familiar with, the movement of people out of contingency accommodation and into much more dispersed accommodation across the UK.
The hon. Gentleman will know my very strong views on this—I have spoken about it previously. Last year when the pandemic started, we saw the most appalling abuse and attacks on shop workers. We are working with colleagues in Government, so please let me give the hon. Gentleman my assurance on that. This type of violence and abuse should never, ever be tolerated at all, and we will also continue to work with employers to ensure that they are doing everything possible to protect shop workers—their employees.
My hon. Friend raises such an important point. He is right to say that throughout the pandemic we have seen criminality manifest itself and reinvent itself—and, quite frankly, become far too agile and a bit clever as well. Cyber-security and cyber-crime absolutely top the list when it comes to criminality, and there is a lot of work. We now have a new national cyber-security strategy supported by almost £2 billion of investment. Through the national cyber-security programme we are constantly bolstering our police and law enforcement response at a national level, working with those organisations at grassroots level—local levels and regional levels—deemed to be vulnerable. I am afraid there are far too many vulnerable organisations that absolutely need to step up and enhance their own cyber-security.
First, it is important that the House recognises we always work constructively with the PCS union when it comes to the protection of Border Force staff. Secondly, the rosters were changed to enhance covid-compliance measures and so that there was fairness across all staff, who could be protected in their shift work. We continue to work with the union, and we are committed to doing that, but my absolute priority is to ensure that Border Force staff are protected, because they come into contact with members of the public every single day.
My hon. Friend will know the details of the scheme and the numbers that were published six or so weeks ago. We are working on the new scheme with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, which as the lead Department will look at the roll-out with seasonal agricultural worker providers. We have a number of providers, and he will be familiar with them, but we are happy to provide him with a written update because I know that is of great interest in his constituency.
The scheme has only just been launched. I reassure the hon. Lady that we are working with all sorts of civil society organisations, and I have spent a lot of time in dialogues and roundtables with a range of representatives. Therefore, having just launched the scheme, which is a bespoke humanitarian route created for BNOs, we are absolutely looking at how we can ensure that the route works well. We are also engaging with non-governmental organisations and civil society to ensure that we do not miss people.
Given that planning permission for the asylum seekers temporary accommodation at Penally in Pembrokeshire is due to run out at the end of March, can the Home Secretary confirm that the local community will this time be fully consulted on the camp’s future and that all new transfers to the site will cease in the intervening period?
If I may, this is an important point that the Minister responsible for immigration compliance and the courts, my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South (Chris Philp), touched on. I am so disappointed to hear that colleagues across the House are not supportive of asylum accommodation, when many local authorities fail to co-operate with the Home Office to identify sites in their constituency. Quite frankly, the hypocrisy of basically saying, “We don’t want asylum seekers here, send them elsewhere.” is simply not acceptable. We consult with everybody—I can assure the right hon. Lady—
We know that Greater Manchester police are in special measures and that the chief constable is on gardening leave. We know that victims of crime in Greater Manchester are at risk. We even know that police officers going out on calls are at risk, because they are not getting the information. The Mayor of Greater Manchester tells us that he is not getting the information from the police. I know that the Home Secretary has previously replied that she is not getting the information from Greater Manchester police. Can she tell the House when she expects to get the information from Greater Manchester police that will enable us to know if there is an improvement in the appalling situation?
The hon. Gentleman is right: it is an absolutely appalling situation. He will also know that the Mayor’s responsibility is to ensure that Greater Manchester police act immediately on the force improvement plan. My hon. friend the Minister for Crime and Policing has been working assiduously on this and has met the deputy Mayor and the acting chief constable. We have a force improvement plan and we intend to use it to get information and data as well as to hold everybody to account over what has happened with that failure in data collection and, ultimately, the impact that has had on victims.
To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs, if he will make a statement on Yemen.
I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood) for asking a question on this important matter. The ongoing conflict and humanitarian situation in Yemen remain a challenge for the international community. The new Houthi offensive in Marib has only made our efforts to bring peace and stability even more difficult. Nevertheless, we continue to work with the international community to find a peaceful resolution, with an emphasis on the political process.
The UK is playing a leading role in responding to the crisis in Yemen through both our humanitarian response and our diplomatic influence. We actively support the UN special envoy, Martin Griffiths, in his work to reach a political solution, and we pay tribute to his tireless efforts to bring about peace. The UK has pledged over £1 billion in aid to the humanitarian response since the conflict began.
My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary and I have regular calls with partners on Yemen. Recently, the Foreign Secretary spoke to Secretary Blinken in the new United States Administration and to the Saudi Foreign Minister. Last month, I spoke with the Yemeni Foreign Minister to offer my condolences after the attacks at Aden airport. The UK has also used its role as the penholder at the UN Security Council to help move the Yemen peace process forward, working with our partners and allies at the United Nations to ensure that Yemen continues to be a top priority for the international community.
We welcome the recent statement by President Biden to instigate a review of US foreign policy towards Yemen. Our ambassador in Washington has already spoken with the new US envoy to Yemen. I also welcome reports that the US may reverse the previous Administration’s designation of the Houthis as foreign terrorist fighters. The UK has engaged closely with the US Administration on that very matter.
However, we cannot—we must not—ignore the Houthi actions. Those include the use of children and sexual violence as tools of war, the persecution of religious minorities and attacks on civilians. On 30 December, the Houthis attacked Aden airport, killing 27 civilians and injuring more than 100 others. We must address the Houthi sense of impunity, to make the peace process meaningful, and that must extend to other actors in the region, notably Iran. I note the US decision to pause its arms exports while it reviews its policy towards Yemen. I reassure the House that the Government take their own export responsibilities extremely seriously and assess all export licences in accordance with strict licensing criteria.
The political settlement is the only way to bring about long-term peace and stability in Yemen and to address the worsening humanitarian situation. The Government remain committed to bringing an end to the conflict.
Last week, President Biden gave his first foreign policy speech, reversing many of the isolationist policies of his predecessor and seeking to re-engage with like-minded allies in order to revisit major global hotspots neglected by the west. The complex civil war in Yemen, now entering its seventh year, was named specifically. Today, it is the largest humanitarian catastrophe in the world. The US President has appointed a new envoy, as we have just heard, and will end support for the offensive operations and connected arms sales, seeking to establish the conditions for a ceasefire and fresh peace talks.
The war in Yemen is complicated. The country never properly stabilised following unification in 1990, and President Hadi has struggled to handle corruption, unemployment, tribal disputes and, most critically, separatist and extremist agendas pursued by the Houthis and al-Qaeda respectively. The Houthi advance into the capital in 2014 led to UN Security Council resolutions that legitimised a Saudi-led military coalition to support President Hadi. Despite many rounds of talks—some of which I was involved with, as a Minister—six years on, we are no closer to peace. Indeed, the conflict has spilled out into a wider proxy war.
The US reset is to be welcomed, and this poses our first big test of what global Britain means in practice. In that spirit, I encourage the UK to fully align ourselves with our closest security ally by ending arms exports connected to the war and to reverse the cuts to our overseas aid budget. I recommend that, as the UN Security Council penholder on Yemen, the UK offers to host a UN summit that looks at political options for peace and that the UK is willing to commit British forces to any UN stabilisation effort that may be required once a political settlement is reached. This is a real opportunity for Yemen to end the war. I hope the Minister can confirm today Britain’s resolve to play a leading role.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his thoughtful contribution and the work he did as Minister on this portfolio. I can absolutely confirm that the United Kingdom’s desire to bring about a peaceful settlement in Yemen is unwavering. We will continue to work with our international partners—both the United States and regional partners—to bring that about.
My right hon. Friend made a number of specific points. The UK has—indeed, I have on a regular basis—spoken with the UN envoy to Yemen, Martin Griffiths, and we fully support his work. We will look at ways to bring together the various parties around the negotiating table. I note my right hon. Friend’s idea about a UK-hosted summit. He will understand that I cannot commit to something like that at the moment, but I welcome his thoughtful contribution. Similarly, he will completely understand that it would be inappropriate for me to speculate about what a military intervention might look like. The Saudi-led coalition was mandated at the UN Security Council; as he said, this is something he worked on during his tenure. We also note that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has a legitimate right to defend itself against attacks, and we completely condemn the attacks both within Yemen, at Aden airport, and cross-border, into the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
We are not a bystander to this conflict—UK arms, training and technical support sustains the war in Yemen and the worst humanitarian disaster in the world. More than 80% of Saudi’s arms imports come from the US and the UK. The US’s decision to end all support for offensive operations, including relevant arms sales, is welcome, but it leaves the UK dangerously out of step with our allies and increasingly isolated. What is worse is that the UK is the penholder for Yemen at the UN. We cannot be both peacemaker and arms dealer in this conflict.
It was the Foreign Secretary who said:
“human rights will be at the forefront of our leadership this year”—[Official Report, 12 January 2021; Vol. 687, c. 178.]
This is the first test since that statement just four weeks ago, and he has failed it. It is surprising, given the obvious panic in Downing Street about relations with the Biden Administration, that the Government were so reluctant to challenge President Trump’s decision to change the designation of the Houthis and are now determined to continue to be an outlier in arming Saudi Arabia. It puts us out of step with our US and EU allies, despite the compelling moral and diplomatic case to change course.
When the Foreign Secretary re-emerges, perhaps he could confirm that he will now take long overdue action to end arms sales and support to Saudi Arabia and explain what possible reason there could be for not doing so earlier. Can he tell us whether he spoke with Secretary Blinken about this announcement before it was made and whether the US Government have asked for UK support in this matter? Will he tell us what he will do to live up to our responsibilities to reinvigorate the peace process and help bring this appalling conflict to an end?
I do not know where the hon. Lady gets her assessments of Anglo-US relations from. I was very pleased that our Prime Minister was one of the first world leaders to speak with President Biden upon his taking office, that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary spoke with his counterpart shortly after that appointment and that we have engaged with both the last Administration and the current Administration on our concerns about the implications of the designation of the Houthis as a foreign terrorist fighting organisation, particularly the implications for the passage of humanitarian aid, to which the UK has committed over £1 billion since the conflict started.
Obviously, the decisions the US takes on matters of arms sales are decisions for the US Government. The UK takes its own arms export responsibilities very seriously, and we continue to assess all export licences in accordance with strict licensing criteria.
I mentioned in my opening response to my right hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood) the very recent assault by Houthi forces on Marib and the Government of Yemen’s need to defend themselves and to have support from the international community to do so.
I can assure the hon. Lady that our relationship with the United States of America remains very strong indeed, and we welcome the commitment that President Biden has made to the United States’ international responsibilities and his engagement on this most important of issues.
I am glad that my right hon. Friend mentioned Marib, because does he recognise that much of this dispute is about water and the missile technology now being used to threaten Saudi Arabia’s water desalination plants on both the western and eastern side of the country? Will he stand up for Britain’s interests in the regions and our partners in the area, and oppose the Iranian action that is causing a spread of violence across the Arabian peninsula the like of which we have not seen since perhaps even the year of the elephant?
I thank my hon. Friend for making that point. We are clear that we must see an end to Iran’s destabilising interference in Yemen, which has stoked further conflict through its support of the Houthis. As I have said, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has the legitimate right to defend itself and its key national infrastructure. We have raised the issue of Iran’s behaviour with the Iranian Government. Iran’s provisions of weapons to the Houthis contravenes United Nations Security Council resolution 2216, and while Iran has stated that it supports UN-led efforts to bring about peace in Yemen, we encourage it to ensure its actions are consistent with its comments. It is important that Yemen is not used as a theatre for the escalation of conflict in the region.
The Scottish National party is in fundamental and deep disagreement with the UK Government position on Yemen. It is impossible to pretend to be the humanitarian honest broker on one side while also simultaneously being the biggest arms dealer to the conflict; we are tackling the symptoms of a problem that the UK has in no small part helped create. The situation in Yemen is, of course, complex, but this is a test for global Britain, as the right hon. Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood) has said; the US policy change is to be welcomed, and I would be the first to welcome a similar announcement from the UK Government, because they risk being behind the times. Surely now is the time to suspend arms sales to Saudi Arabia while we work towards a peace?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for highlighting the fact that we have a fundamental disagreement on this issue. The UK’s position is that we have been not just the penholder at the United Nations but an active player in attempting to bring about peace. Both my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary and I have engaged extensively with the regional players, including with the Houthis directly and with the Government of Yemen, to try to bring about a negotiated political settlement to bring peace to the people of Yemen. The best thing that we can do in terms of pursuing our humanitarian aid is to bring about an end to the conflict, and we work tirelessly with international partners and the United Nations to do that.
On 18 February, the UK will chair the UN Security Council meeting on Yemen, where the Security Council will consider the final report of the UN panel of experts. The publication of the panel’s latest report has caused a stir in Yemen and the wider region. It has alarmed numerous organisations in Yemen, which suggest procedural irregularities in the report’s drafting and raise questions about the credibility of its content. Ahead of the Security Council meeting next week, will the Minister urgently consider representations from parties in Yemen and the international community to hear their concerns about the report, including fears that inaccuracy in the report could lead to the food security challenges on the ground being compounded in what is already the world’s worst humanitarian crisis?
The food insecurity situation in Yemen is of great concern to us in the United Kingdom, which is why we have focused so much on our humanitarian response. I am more than happy to receive details of the concerns that my right hon. Friend raises, but he will understand that it would be inappropriate for me to comment in more detail until I have seen the points that he has brought forward.
The Liberal Democrats have long called for arms sales to Saudi Arabia to be suspended in response to its consistent targeting of civilians in Yemen, in clear breach of international law. The humanitarian impact of this conflict is hard to put into words. At least one child dies every 10 minutes because of preventable disease, and 100,000 children are on the brink of starving to death. On the issue of arms sales, the Minister rightly says that the US’s decision to stop selling arms was a matter for it. The matter for this House is whether we continue to sell arms, so I ask him to answer plainly: will the Government follow the example of our ally and finally stop all arms sales supporting this horrific war—yes or no?
The United Kingdom takes its arms export licensing responsibilities very seriously. We will not issue any export licences for items where there is a clear risk that the items might be used in the commission of a serious violation of international humanitarian law. Every licence application is rigorously assessed against the consolidated EU and national arms export licensing criteria.
I thank my right hon. Friend for what he said about Iran, but is he as surprised as me that we rarely hear from the Opposition parties about Iran and what it is doing in Yemen? Unless Iran stops its malign activity there, it will fundamentally affect the progress of peace.
I thank my hon. Friend for making that point. I publicly welcomed Saudi Arabia’s unilateral ceasefire last year, and I was very disappointed to see attacks and attempted attacks on both Riyadh and key national infrastructure in Saudi Arabia. We have been clear that we must see an end to Iran’s destabilising activities in the region, and it would be nice if some of the comments from those on the Opposition Benches were more balanced when they are holding parties responsible for the terrible situation in Yemen.
I thank the Minister for his response to the urgent question. In 2020, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office “Human Rights & Democracy” report asserted that in Yemen:
“Freedom of religion or belief was widely denied in 2019.”
It further noted that the Baha’i minority was the “most visibly persecuted” group, but that many others are also facing difficulties. For example, according to the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, the Yemeni Christian community that once numbered 41,000 has shrunk to a few thousand. What steps are the Minister and our Government taking to address freedom of religion or belief violations in Yemen?
The hon. Gentleman makes a very important point. As he knows, freedom of religion is something this Government take very seriously. We welcome the long overdue release of six Baha’is from Houthi detention, but it is worrying that they were detained for their beliefs in the first place and that they cannot live freely in their country. We continue to follow the treatment of the Baha’is in Yemen closely, including through meetings of their representatives in the UK and lobbying the relevant authorities, and we strongly—strongly—condemn the continued persecution of religious minorities in Yemen.
The actions of the Iranian regime continue to destabilise the middle east, as my right hon. Friend has said. In particular, the supplying of Houthi rebels with arms is only prolonging the conflict in Yemen. Is my right hon. Friend able to update the House on what discussions he has had with the new US Administration about their policy on Iran and any potential implications for the current conflict in Yemen?
I thank my hon. Friend for raising this point. I can confirm that on Friday, the E3, which of course includes ourselves, and the United States discussed a united approach—or discussed how a united approach—could address our shared concerns about Iran. We will of course continue to work with the new Administration in the White House as well as with our European partners to pursue this agenda.
Will the Minister accept that there is a serious and huge humanitarian disaster in Yemen at the present time: 80% of the population are in need of aid and, as others have pointed out, hundreds of thousands have died and many more are on the brink of starvation? Britain’s contribution over the last five years has been to sell to Saudi Arabia billions of pounds of arms and logistical equipment that have been used to bomb Yemen. Will he welcome the moves by Martin Griffiths to go to Iran to try to broker a regional peace agreement that will bring about a long-term peace, but will he also give a clear commitment that we will no longer supply any arms to Saudi Arabia so long as the war in Yemen goes on?
I have spoken with Martin Griffiths on a number of occasions, and the United Kingdom fully supports his role in trying to bring about peace. The right hon. Gentleman speaks about the provision of arms to the conflict. I do not remember recently hearing him criticising Iran for their support, with weapons, to the Houthis and the devastation that Houthi military activity has caused to the people of Yemen. Were he to do so, I think his criticisms of this Government’s actions might carry a little bit more weight.
It is extraordinary that there has still been no mention of the malign influence of Iran in this whole tragic situation. The humanitarian crisis has got far worse since we last debated the situation in Yemen back in September, with 2 million children now out of school, half of all medical facilities having been destroyed and at least one child dying every 10 minutes, as we have heard. Will the Minister undertake that, at the pledging conference in March, the UK will maintain its very generous aid towards Yemen and perhaps work with partners to see how we can make vaccines available in the battle against covid, which is just one of many battles that that country faces at this time?
My hon. Friend makes a very important point about the UK’s contribution in Yemen. As I have said, we have contributed £1 billion since the conflict started. He will know that the official development assistance budget will be constrained because of the economic situation brought about by coronavirus. He also made the very important point that cash is not the only way that the UK is supporting people in Yemen. We have worked with our international partners to try to pursue peace. He also mentioned vaccinations in response to the coronavirus. I am very proud of the leading role that the United Kingdom took in working with international partners to raise funds to roll out vaccinations to those countries that were unable to do so, and I have no doubt that the UK will continue to be a leading player in the equitable and global distribution of vaccinations, as they are manufactured.
For too long, Yemen has been the worst humanitarian crisis in the world, so what steps is the Minister taking to protect UK aid spending to Yemen from his Government’s cuts, and how is he encouraging the participation of women and girls in conflict resolution and peacekeeping in Yemen?
I thank the hon. Lady for the points that she has made. As she knows, coronavirus has, in the UK and around the rest of the world, had severe and detrimental effect on our economies, and this will have an impact on our aid spend. Nevertheless, Yemen will remain a UK priority country, and we will continue to use the full force of our diplomatic efforts to bring about peace. I am also glad that she raised the importance of women peacebuilders. I myself have spoken—virtually, unfortunately—with women in Yemen. I am the ministerial lead for women, peace and security, and I have on numerous occasions called for the voices of women in Yemen and further afield to be right at the heart of decision making about peacebuilding. I will continue to do so.
Two of the most worrying aspects of the role of the Houthi rebels in this conflict are, first, their use of increasingly advanced and increasingly long-range missile technology procured from Iran, targeted indiscriminately at civilians in Saudi Arabian cities and, secondly, their persistent recruitment and engagement of child soldiers. How are these two issues best addressed?
My hon. Friend is right to say that we have seen recent news about long-range attacks by the Houthis on Riyadh and, as I mentioned in my response to my right hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood), the use of child soldiers is of very significant concern. Ultimately, the best way to address both those problems is to bring about peace in Yemen as quickly as possible, and that will absolutely be a priority in the work that we do. We fully support Martin Griffiths and the UN-led peace process, and we speak directly with regional partners, with the Government of Yemen and with the Houthis directly to encourage them to the negotiating table to bring about a political solution, because that is really the only sustainable way of protecting the very people that my hon. Friend has identified.
May I say once again to the Minister, as I have to his predecessors, that the Scottish National party unequivocally condemns the actions of Iran in this conflict and the atrocities committed by the Houthis and by everybody else? The difference is that the United Kingdom is not providing weapons to Iran or to the Houthis, but it is providing £5.5 billion-worth of weapons to the Saudis. The only reason that the British Government have no evidence that those weapons are being used in deliberate attacks on civilians is that they have made a great point of not looking hard enough in the right places where everyone knows the evidence is. So will the Minister explain how the continued provision of weapons to one party in this conflict is helping to end the conflict? If he cannot do that, will he agree that the best contribution that Britain can make to peace in Yemen is to stop arming Saudi?
I am genuinely amazed that the hon. Gentleman in some way equates a UN-recognised state—the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia—and its legitimate right to defend itself against the attacks that we have heard detailed by Members of this House, with an organisation that is not a state actor.
The UK supports the pursuit of peace. We do speak with the Houthis, but ultimately we look to support the legitimate Government of Yemen, which was, in our assessment, attacked by the Houthis. To equate the actions of a nation state in defending itself with the actions of a group of people trying to prevent peace embarrasses the hon. Gentleman and he should reflect on making a false equivalence between the two.
I have a long personal memory of Houthi atrocities and well recall the activities against my father’s battalion, the Aden Protectorate Levies, when I was a boy in Aden. Several of my father’s brother officers were killed—one in a very brutal way—by Houthis in June 1955. It does not surprise me that the Houthis have utterly failed to reciprocate the Saudi-led coalition’s unilateral ceasefire, and they have recently made a grievous attack in Aden. Apart from fully supporting the United Nations special envoy Martin Griffiths’ efforts to secure a lasting peace, is there anything more that we in the UK can do about it?
My hon. Friend and I have spoken privately about this issue and he knows that I have a huge amount of respect for his knowledge of the region, born out of his personal experience and that of his family. Our assessment is that the best way to bring about meaningful peace is to work through the UN and the work of Martin Griffiths. We support his work by speaking directly to the various parties involved—with both the Government of Yemen and the Houthis directly —to encourage them to bring about a meaningful political resolution to the situation. I genuinely hope that in years to come other people who sit on these Benches will not have repeatedly to see deaths and conflict in Yemen, as my hon. Friend has done. The UK will continue to work tirelessly to bring about a sustainable, peaceful resolution to this long-standing and difficult issue.
This year will mark the seventh anniversary of the start of the war in Yemen, which has led to the largest humanitarian crisis in the world. UNICEF has described Yemen as “a living hell”. Last week, the US pledged to stop support for offensive Saudi operations in the country; does the Minister agree that it is now time for the UK to follow suit and commit to go that extra mile so that we can stop this horrific war?
The thing that will stop the war is if the Houthis respect and reciprocate the Saudi-led coalition’s unilateral ceasefire that we saw last year. Unfortunately, we see through things such as the attack on the Yemeni Government at Aden airport, the drone attacks on Yemen and the other attacks raised by right hon. and hon. Members in this House that at the moment the Houthis are not reciprocating the overtures towards peace. We strongly encourage them to do so. We will work with the international community to support meaningful peace efforts and we will do what we can to alleviate the humanitarian situation caused by the conflict. That is our commitment to the people of Yemen, and that commitment is enduring.
Yemen has been described as one of the worst places in the world to be a woman, and has for 13 consecutive years been ranked last in the World Economic Forum global gender gap index. With the situation continuing to deteriorate for both men and women, and with famine, human rights abuses and the use of sexual violence commonplace, what assurance can my right hon. Friend give me that the UK Government are doing all they can to work with all the parties involved to bring this dreadful civil war to an end, support victims of sexual violence, and allow the country to rebuild and recover in peace?
I thank my hon. Friend for the point that she has raised. When I made a virtual visit to Yemen, I was able to speak to Yemeni midwives and medical professionals. Their reports of the situation, particularly for women, were horrific. On a personal level, I found it very difficult to deal with, which is part of the reason why I and the UK Government are so committed to being a leading player in the pursuit of peace in Yemen. The conflict brings a particular horror to the lives of women that we want to address and to alleviate, but the best way of doing so is to bring about a meaningful and lasting peace. As I said in response to the hon. Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion), I will do what I can to ensure that the voices of women are at the heart of those peace negotiations and beyond.
I welcome this urgent question, because the humanitarian situation is just dire. I heard what the Minister said about the rigorous nature of British arms licences, but I am afraid that it just sounds like whataboutery while innocent people are being killed by British-made arms. The Biden Administration have made absolutely the right call on this, so can the Minister explain to the House how our selling arms to Saudi Arabia will assist the UN special envoy for Yemen in his diplomatic efforts in trying to secure a negotiated political solution to this dreadful conflict?
The ability of a nation state to defend itself is widely recognised as legitimate. The UK’s work, both bilaterally with the Government of Yemen and also through Martin Griffiths and the United Nations, is a completely separate issue. We are working very hard, and we will continue to do so, to alleviate the humanitarian situation until a sustainable peace is brought about. We will work just as hard to support Martin Griffiths and the United Nations and the regional players to bring that peace about.
The United Nations said last week that it had indefinitely delayed the salvage operation off the coast of Yemen to avert an ecological disaster from the oil tanker FSO Safer, which holds roughly 48 million gallons of oil, citing a failure by the Houthis to guarantee the salvage team’s safety in writing. Has the Minister any further information on the efforts to stabilise and empty the oil tanker, and has he any indication that the new Biden Administration will prioritise this in their agenda in Yemen?
I thank my hon. Friend for her question. We have liaised directly with the Houthis on this issue. The ecological disaster that would inevitably happen were the oil from the Safer tanker to be released into the sea is unimaginable, and we must do everything we can to prevent that from happening. Ultimately, it is up to the Houthis to ensure the safety of the people who would seek to secure that tanker. We have encouraged and we will encourage them to deliver on that promise so that we can avert what would be the worst ecological disaster probably in our lifetime—it is significantly larger than the Exxon Valdez spilling—costing an estimated £20 billion to repair.
Yemen is the world’s gravest humanitarian emergency, with 80% of the Yemeni population reliant on humanitarian assistance and protection. If President Biden’s decision to end support for Saudi Arabia’s offensive operations in Yemen was part of his pledge to restore US moral leadership, how would the Minister characterise the UK’s continuing support for and arming of Saudi Arabia —moral indifference, perhaps?
The UK has played a leading role in pursuing peace in Yemen. I have spoken to the representatives of the Government of Yemen and representatives of the Houthis, as well as to Martin Griffiths, in pursuit of that. The UK absolutely stands by its leading position in attempting to bring about a meaningful and sustainable peace in Yemen.
I thank my hon. Friend for making that point. She is right to highlight the diplomatic work that is necessary in this. The UK plays a very active role: as a humanitarian donor in our own right; in encouraging other countries around the world and the region to support the humanitarian effort; and in encouraging active engagement both within Yemen and beyond Yemeni borders to bring about a coalition of the willing to drive forward the peace agenda. We will continue to act as humanitarian supporters, and as the convener and encourager of the diplomatic efforts to bring about peace.
This is a complex conflict, on which any sensible Government would not take sides. There is clearly evil on all sides, and the Houthis are some of the worst of all of them. But the UK has repeatedly sided with Saudi Arabia, its coalition partners and even its proxy terrorist group, al-Qaeda in Yemen. The Government have been found guilty by British courts of illegally approving arms sales, and even broke UK court orders to prevent further arms sales last year and had to apologise to the courts. Surely now is the right time to stop the rhetoric and mistruths that we have the strongest arms control in the world—we do not—and to follow the US lead, stop British complicity, stop the arms licences being approved, and revoke those that continue to be extant. Will the Minister just do the right thing?
The hon. Gentleman’s comments equate the activities of regional players as equal—I am sorry, but it is almost beyond credible. His deployment of the word “evil” betrays his prejudices, rather than any flaw in UK Government policy. We will continue to pursue peace in the region and to support humanitarian efforts until that peace is brought about.
It is clear that the reason the Houthis will not meaningfully engage in the quest for peace is that they continue to get militarily, financial and political support from an Iranian regime, so may I ask the Minister what steps the UK is taking to pressure the Iranian regime to end this reckless and destabilising intervention?
My hon. Friend is right; Iranian involvement is without a doubt prolonging the conflict, and therefore, by extension, prolonging the suffering of the people of Yemen. We support the work of Martin Griffiths and the United Nations in attempting to bring about a resolution to this issue by speaking to all the parties involved, and we will work with our E3 partners and the new Administration in the White House to put pressure on Iran to stop supporting the violent activities of the Houthis and to help us bring about peace in Yemen.
Despite the UK Government’s claims that they provide training to the Saudi-led coalition to avoid civilian casualties and prevent Saudi Arabia from breaching international humanitarian law, there is no sign that that has reduced the deadly toll of the air raids. How can the Government justify not only profiting from the crisis in Yemen through arms deals, but spending £2.4 million of taxpayers’ money since 2016 via secretive funds to bolster the Saudi forces as well?
The UK is proud of the role that we have taken in trying to uphold international humanitarian law, working with countries around the region to try to improve and support their institutions. That is part of our ongoing agenda of being a force for good in the world, and we are proud of that role.
Other Members have raised the issue of the nefarious activities of Iran, acting in a proxy fashion in Yemen. The reality is that the people of Yemen are suffering as a result. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is absolutely essential for the United Kingdom to retain good relations with Saudi Arabia, to ensure balance in the region and to eliminate the humanitarian problems that are occurring in Yemen as a result of Iran’s activities?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right; Saudi Arabia is one of the larger contributors to humanitarian support for the people of Yemen, and maintaining good bilateral relations is an important part of that. More broadly, it is also the case that Saudi Arabia is a strong bilateral partner on a whole range of issues, including security issues, which keep British people and British interests, as well as Saudis, safe. We will continue to work with it, with the Government of Yemen and with other countries in the region to try to bring about a sustainable political solution and peace for the people of Yemen.
UK Shellfish Exports
To ask the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs if he will make a statement on the EU ban on UK shellfish exports.
We have a long-standing trade in live bivalve molluscs to the EU from UK waters. This has benefited both our own shellfish industry and EU restaurants and retailers, which rely on these premium products from the UK.
Recently, concerns have emerged for our trade in live bivalve molluscs to the EU coming from UK class B production waters that have not been through purification or have not cleared testing. The European Commission has changed its position in recent weeks. It advised us in writing in September 2019 that the trade could continue. We shared the Commission’s view and worked with the industry on that basis, and that included explaining that for one small part of the industry—wild harvested molluscs from class B waters—there would need to be a pause while we awaited new export health certificates to become available in April, but that, in line with the guidance from the EU, trade in the molluscs from farms could continue uninterrupted.
We continue to believe that our interpretation of the law and the EU’s original interpretation is correct, that the trade should be able to continue for all relevant molluscs from April, and that there is no reason for a gap at all for molluscs from aquaculture. However, last week the Commission gave us sight of instructions that it sent to all member states on 3 February, stating that any imports into the EU from the UK of live bivalve molluscs for purification from class B waters, such as the sea around Wales and the south-west of England, are not permitted. Exports from class A waters, such as we find around parts of Scotland, may continue.
Bringing an end to this traditional and valuable trade is unacceptable, and I recognise that it is a devastating blow to the businesses that are reliant on the trade. While we do not agree at all with the Commission’s interpretation of the law, we have had to advise traders that their consignments may very well not be accepted at EU ports for now. I am seeking urgent resolution to this problem and have written to Commissioner Kyriakides today. I have emphasised our high shellfish health status and our systems of control. I have also said that if it would assist the trade, we could provide reasonable additional assurances to demonstrate shellfish health, but that this must also recognise the existing high standards and history of trade between us. It is in the EU’s interests to restore this trade. Many businesses in the EU had invested in depuration equipment and are configured around managing the export of molluscs from class B waters.
We have met the industry several times, and it is of course extremely concerned. We are working well with the Shellfish Association of Great Britain, which is taking up the issue in meetings with European counterparts. The molluscs affected include mussels, oysters, clams and cockles. In general, the scallop trade is less affected. Scallop exports may instead undergo pre-export testing, as was the case before exit. However, we know some businesses have not traditionally been working in that way, and we are discussing with them how we may help. The issue does not affect molluscs landed in Northern Ireland. It does, however, affect movements from GB to Northern Ireland.
I know that this issue will be of great concern to many exporters around the country. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs will continue the technical discussions with the European Commission, and I will update the House with any developments in due course.
Whoever is to blame, the fact is that shellfish farmers and fishermen are not able to export their most valuable product to their most important market. The rule banning imports from third-party countries of untreated shellfish from class B waters has been in place for decades. The Secretary of State claimed in front of the House of Lords EU Environment Sub-Committee last week that the EU had changed its position on how the rules would affect the UK. He had originally told the industry that the ban would be lifted in April, but we now hear it will not. On that basis, will he publish and put in the Library all the correspondence between his Department and the EU that demonstrates why he believed a change would occur? Can he explain to the House today what mechanism he expected the EU to use to make that change?
The letter that the Secretary of State has published today is welcome, but it does not answer those questions. It refers to contact in September 2019, when the UK’s future trading agreement still was not clear. Many fleets are unable to sell their catches and exporters unable to ship and trade. What assessment has his Department made of how many businesses and employees are affected by the situation? What provision has his Department made to use some of the £23 million compensation fund that the Government recently announced to support the businesses who are unable to trade and how long will that support last? A multimillion pound industry has ground to a halt overnight. Jobs and communities are at risk. Unless this situation is resolved, the UK shellfish industry will not survive.
The hon. Lady refers to the evidence I gave to the House of Lords, and indeed that is entirely in line with what I have just set out. It is the case that in September 2019 the European Commission told us that for wild caught molluscs there would be a need for a new health certificate and, when that was discussed more recently, indicated that that could not come on stream until April. The Commission said that the existing trade in farmed molluscs could continue under existing export health certificates, so it has indeed changed its position. The hon. Lady asks whether I would be prepared to put that correspondence in the Library; I am happy to do so, including the letter I have written to the Commission today and that earlier letter from 2019.
The hon. Lady asks what we wanted to have changed. The answer is that we do not really want anything to be changed. We simply want the European Union to abide by its existing laws. The export of molluscs is governed by the animal health regime, and falls under directive 2006/88/EC and regulation 1251/2008. The directive and regulation are clear that the export of bivalved live molluscs is indeed lawful.
The Commission now seems to be pointing to separate public health regulations, namely regulation 853/2004 and regulation 2019/628, and suggests that they are the reason for a prohibition on sale. Again, that is incorrect, because legislation is clear through article 12 of the Commission implementing regulation 2019/628, which makes it clear that it does not apply where the molluscs are exported to a depuration centre. That is because when they are sent to a depuration centre, they are not yet food for sale. Therefore, the reason given by the European Commission for this change in position is not consistent with the EU’s existing law. That is why we will continue to raise these issues with the Commission because under both the aquatic animal health regime and the public health regulations that the EU has cited, there is no legal justification for a bar on this trade.
This is all very disappointing and unfair. Following what the hon. Member for Barnsley East (Stephanie Peacock) has just said, I have many small independent fishermen and wholesalers whose very livelihoods depend on the export of live molluscs to the European Union. I know that my right hon. Friend is working very hard on the issue, but will he redouble his efforts? We just want the law to be upheld. The EU changed its mind on vaccines; perhaps it will change its mind on shellfish.
My hon. Friend makes an important point. We believe that the EU has simply made an error in interpretation of the law in all the regulations it has cited. We are working closely with it to try to resolve this at a technical level. We do not think that the ban it has put in place is at all justified and, indeed, it represents a complete about turn on everything the EU has told us to date. We want the EU market to have access to the fantastic shellfish we produce in constituencies such as my hon. Friend’s.
The past five weeks have been an absolute nightmare for food-exporting businesses. Fishing businesses face bankruptcy, dairies cannot shift their cheeses, and meat was sitting rotting in lorries, stuck in customs. Small businesses ended mail order deliveries to Northern Ireland and European truckers are refusing UK loads bound for Europe for fear that they will end up stuck in a lorry park in Kent. Forty years of building good customer bases in Europe have been swept away in one month by this Government’s incompetence. The Government blamed the companies for not getting the paperwork right, said it was teething problems or blamed the French, the Dutch or any other big boy who might have done it and run away. Will the Government accept that the fault and the blame lie with them, because they made a bollocks of Brexit? Will they go back to the EU to seek a grace period and new negotiations on market access, even if that means accepting some regulatory alignment?
We will not accept regulatory alignment. This country voted to become an independent, self-governing country again, and to make its own laws again. We were elected as a Government on a clear manifesto commitment to deliver what people voted for in the referendum, and that is what we have done.
Of course, there have been teething problems in these early stages, as people familiarise themselves with new paperwork—not just businesses, but border control post inspectors in France and in the Netherlands, who are also on quite a steep learning curve. They are getting better, and we are working with them to iron out difficulties: for instance, the French at one point said that everything needed to be in blue ink, but they now accept that that is not correct and is not what is required in law. We are working to iron out those difficulties, working with authorities in France, the Netherlands and Ireland to try to improve these processes, and of course we would be willing to have a discussion with the European Commission about how we might modernise some of the forms they have to make them more user-friendly.
I did not realise that “bollocks” was parliamentary language, Madam Deputy Speaker, but obviously that is for you to decide.
My right hon. Friend is very familiar with the Filey fishing community, and lobster and crab are important markets for them. Food exporters of all types are currently finding it more difficult in instances to export to the EU than to non-EU countries and, as he said in his opening remarks, this seems to be a consistency problem related to a common understanding of the rules. Will he do whatever he can to build an agreement that deals with food and plant exports and resolves these issues as soon as possible?
My hon. Friend makes a very important point. I have focused my comments so far on bivalve molluscs, where the European Union is now proposing an outright ban, which is a change from its former position. We are aware that there have also been some teething issues in other sections of the shellfish industry, notably crabs and lobsters, particularly when they are exported live. There have been improvements: a lot of consignments are now going through the short straits, clearing border control posts, often in no more than 45 minutes, and reaching their destination on time. However, I agree with my hon. Friend that the paperwork associated with that could be improved. That would require the EU to engage constructively in such a discussion.
On the matter of unparliamentary language, the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake) is quite right to question the matter. The hon. Member for Edinburgh North and Leith (Deidre Brock) uttered a phrase that I would not have allowed had she directed it specifically at any individual Member of this House. I did not interrupt her for the way in which she used it in her question, but I remind all hon. Members that regardless of whether they are participating virtually or physically, they ought to be very careful never to use any language that could be considered offensive. We are honourable Members in this place.
Families in Flookburgh in my constituency have fished on the sands for centuries. In recent generations, they have built a market that means the majority of their catch is sold in France. The Government’s failure to secure export rights for Flookburgh fishermen is a negligent betrayal of my communities. My constituents do not care whose fault it is, and are not impressed with the Secretary of State’s buck passing while their livelihoods are destroyed. Will he be clear about what he will do to compensate my constituents and restore their access to live shellfish markets, as they had been promised?
The UK Government, the hon. Gentleman’s constituents and other bivalve mollusc producers around the country were all promised by the European Commission that this trade could continue. We are all greatly disappointed by the about-turn by the European Union, which made the change just last week. I have written to the Commissioner setting out why that approach is wrong in law. We will be progressing those technical discussions, so that this trade can resume, since there is no justification—neither animal health nor plant health—for such a ban to be put in place.
Does my right hon. Friend share my utter frustration that the European Union has completely changed its position on the rules governing the export of unpurified shellfish with virtually no notice, putting UK exporters in an extremely difficult position and hardly acting in the EU’s promised spirit of fairness and co-operation?
I absolutely share my hon. Friend’s frustration at the way the EU has conducted itself in this matter. It changed its position just last week, having assured us all along that it simply sought a new export health certificate for wild-caught molluscs. That is why we want to work with the EU to try to get this situation resolved. There is no justification for it whatsoever.
May I seek clarity from the Secretary of State in relation to the measures being taken to support the Northern Ireland fleet in making the shipment of shellfish landed in GB and returned to Northern Ireland unfettered? May I also take this opportunity to urge him to ensure that opportunities are maximised for our Northern Ireland fleet by delivering a full Brexit dividend in the allocation of extra quota won from the EU?
As I said in my opening comments, the ban that the EU proposed does not affect bivalve molluscs that are landed into Northern Ireland or that are farmed in Northern Ireland waters. It is a restriction on GB trade, although under the Northern Ireland protocol, it could affect the trade in these molluscs from GB to Northern Ireland. As the hon. Lady points out, we are working on other issues with the Northern Ireland industry, particularly around the allocation of new quota as we depart from relative stability.
With your permission, Madam Deputy Speaker, I would like to offer my sincere condolences to the family of the Cornish fisherman who died while fishing off the coast of the Isles of Scilly at the weekend and remember the fishermen onboard who witnessed this horror.
The Government and the Secretary of State are right to do everything to unblock this. Shellfish is normally purified or processed in the EU before it is distributed to supermarkets, restaurants and bars. Surely a further course of action available to the Government is to urgently fund the setting up of the necessary processing plants in the UK and identify what other infrastructure investment is needed to satisfy and increase our export market. Will the Secretary of State support those investment priorities, including here in Newlyn?
First, I join my hon. Friend in offering our condolences to the family of the fisherman who was tragically killed in an accident off the Isles of Scilly over the weekend. It is a reminder that fishing is a dangerous occupation, and our thoughts are with his family at this very difficult time.
My hon. Friend makes a very important point, which we will consider: if we are unable to unblock the current situation and get access to the EU for our undepurated shellfish, one of the options available to us is to support the industry in procuring the depuration equipment, so that it can be done here. We will be exploring that and other options.
Despite the EU’s well documented position on third country exports, the Government breezily assured our shellfish industry that the ban would be lifted. We now know that that is not the case. Agriculture and fishing are devolved; negotiating trade deals is not. It is this Government’s responsibility that the Welsh shellfish industry is now unable to export to Europe, and further proof—if any were needed—that Wales needs a seat at the table when it comes to negotiating. Will the Government now guarantee to cover the costs of all necessary export facilities for Welsh businesses such as Bangor Mussel Producers in Gwynedd, which are presently unable to trade with their export market?
As I pointed out earlier, it is not the case that we sought assurances or thought we had them and that the EU has not made a change to accommodate this trade. Nor is it the case that the EU had a ban on the trade from third countries for bivalve molluscs. Indeed, its own health certificate—in the notes to guide it—makes it very clear it is within scope, because it states:
“This certificate is to be used for the entry into the Union of consignments of live aquatic animals intended for all other aquaculture establishments including purification centres”.
So the status quo law the EU has does allow this trade to continue. That is the guidance that the EU gave us all along. It has changed its position. In the short term, our objective is to get the EU to abide by its own laws and legal processes here. Obviously, if it refuses to do so, or it decides to change its law to make things more difficult, we will consider what steps are necessary at that point to support industry.
Under the terms of the UK-EU trade deal, two committees are to be set up: a trade-specialised committee on sanitary and phytosanitary measures; and a specialised committee on fisheries. If those are not being set up, which they should be given the urgency of those issues, surely it is right to move towards an arbitration panel to figure out what can be done. The fishermen of Brixham, Salcombe and Dartmouth are incredibly worried about that point and, if they go under, they expect compensation from the EU for changing its mind over this issue.
My hon. Friend makes an important point. Under the trade and co-operation agreement, there is provision for a specialised committee dealing with SPS issues. There are some early discussions on what that would look like—it would probably be a senior level technical group, probably led by our chief veterinary officer. At the moment, the issue is that the EU, because it has not even got around to ratifying the TCA, is not yet in a place to have formal discussions on how we would form those groups. That of course does not prevent us from doing what we are doing, which is working very closely with the EU at a technical level to iron out the difficulties.
The Prime Minister and Conservative Ministers made grand promises about how they would take back control of our fishing waters and how the fishing industry would prosper. The Leader of the House stood there recently, smiling and saying that
“they are now British fish, and they are better and happier fish for it.”—[Official Report, 14 January 2021; Vol. 687, c. 510.]
The reality, however, is that our shellfish industry is on the verge of collapse and that, thanks to this Government, costly new red tape and bureaucracy are holding back British businesses and our economic recovery. Does the Secretary of State accept that no business, consumer or community should have to pay the price for this Government’s incompetence?
The reality of the trade and co-operation agreement is that its fisheries section delivered a 25% uplift in fishing opportunities, a rebalancing of the sharing arrangements and an abandonment of relative stability as the quid pro quo for granting the EU continued access to our waters for five and a half years. We are free to review it after that. We also have the freedom to set our own regulations in this area. But we recognise that there have been teething problems. That is why the Government announced a new £23 million fisheries disruption fund to support those businesses that struggled with the paperwork in the initial weeks.
Fishermen who land scallops into Scarborough and Whitby have been told by their wholesalers that there is no market for their fish, so they are currently tied up, despite approaching peak season, which ends at the end of April. Is the situation with regards to the European Commission—this flies in the face of the advice it gave in September 2019—an example of its vindictiveness, or its incompetence? Will the Secretary of State write to the chair of the European Parliament Fisheries Committee, whose job it is to hold the Commission to account?