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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 690: debated on Wednesday 3 March 2021

Northern Ireland

The Secretary of State was asked—

Covid-19 Vaccines

What recent discussions he has had with (a) Cabinet colleagues and (b) the Northern Ireland Executive on the supply of covid-19 vaccines in Northern Ireland. (912609)

Since the start of the pandemic, the UK Government have worked closely with the Northern Ireland Executive to ensure the safety of the people in Northern Ireland. Vaccines are our way out of the pandemic, and the Secretary of State and I continue to hold regular discussions with Cabinet colleagues in the Northern Ireland Executive on this important issue. The Government have procured vaccines on behalf of all parts of the United Kingdom and are working with the devolved Administrations to ensure that they are deployed fairly across the UK. I am pleased to see that vaccine doses have been successfully administered to more than half a million people in Northern Ireland.

In Dewsbury, Mirfield, Kirkburton and Denby Dale, the roll-out of the vaccine has been a huge success thanks to the amazing work put in by North Kirklees and Greater Huddersfield clinical commissioning groups, and we appear to be well on track to hit the mid-April target for vaccinating cohorts 1 to 9. Will the Minister reassure the people of Northern Ireland that the target will also be met there, ensuring that we come out this pandemic as one United Kingdom?

My hon. Friend is right about this being a United Kingdom effort, and I congratulate his local clinical commissioning groups on what they are doing. When I visited the Worcester vaccination centre, I was pleased to be met by an ex-military logistics officer from Belfast—that shows the contribution that Northern Ireland is making to the UK roll-out. As of Monday 1 March, 558,000 vaccines have been administered to more than 29% of Northern Ireland’s population, including 525,000 first doses. Every step of the way, the UK Government work closely with the devolved Administrations, and I thank and commend those in the Department of Health, the local health trusts and the Executive who have helped to deliver such progress.

The vaccine roll-out is a great achievement, not just for the Minister here but for all the Ministers from the devolved Administrations, because we are part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland—better together. In less than two weeks, at 16:40 on 15 March, I will receive the vaccine at the Ulster Hospital when my opportunity on the list comes round.

On supply, will the Minister further outline what discussions have taken place with regard to the needs of rural isolated communities, which will need dedicated clinics because they will find it difficult to make it to the centralised locations for the vaccine roll-out?

We all welcome the news that the hon. Gentleman has waited his turn and got an appointment to receive a vaccine. He raises an important point. Although of course the delivery of the vaccine in Northern Ireland is primarily a matter for the Department of Health in Northern Ireland, we will continue to work closely with it to support the vaccine roll-out to all communities, including those in remote and rural areas.

Northern Ireland Protocol: Implementation

What recent discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on (a) the EU's approach to and (b) future implementation of the Northern Ireland protocol. (912610)

What recent discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on the implementation of the Northern Ireland protocol. (912621)

My Cabinet colleagues and I continue to work together closely to ensure that we meet our protocol obligations in a pragmatic and proportionate way. We have heard the concerns raised by people and businesses in Northern Ireland and are sensitive to the economic, societal and political realities in Northern Ireland. That is why we are taking forward a series of further temporary operational steps that reflect the simple reality that more time is needed to adapt to and implement new requirements as we continue our discussions with the EU. The steps include the new operational plan for supermarkets and their suppliers, committed to at the Joint Committee. I will lay a written ministerial statement detailing the steps later today.

After the EU’s outrageous abuse of the Northern Ireland protocol in relation to its failing vaccine programme, is it not clear that, as it stands, the operation of the protocol is not working? There is far too much disruption to businesses and families in Northern Ireland and it needs urgently to be either reset or scrapped altogether.

There were already challenges in the operation of the protocol in early January this year that were having a direct and often disproportionate impact on citizens. The EU’s decision to invoke article 16 has compounded those issues—there is no doubt about that—and significantly undermined cross-community confidence. That action was not in the spirit of the protocol, which is partly why we are taking the actions that I will outline in a written ministerial statement later today.

It took just shy of three years to leave the European Union but only 29 days for the EU to threaten to trigger article 16 of the Northern Ireland protocol, without discussions with Great Britain or Northern Ireland—an apparent “oversight”. Will my right hon. Friend please reassure my constituents that confidence in the protocol will be restored? Does he agree that the EU urgently needs to resolve the issues faced by people and businesses in Northern Ireland?

My hon. Friend makes an important point, which was why I was pleased to hear that Vice-President Šefčovič had recently agreed to meet businesses across communities and civic society in Northern Ireland to hear directly from the people who are being affected by some of the issues that we are seeing, particularly the impact that the EU’s decision to invoke article 16 had in terms of compounding these issues and of undermining cross-community confidence. That is why we will take forward some further temporary operational steps, which I will outline in the written ministerial statement, to ensure that people in Northern Ireland are able to continue to have access to products in the way that the protocol envisaged.

May I take this opportunity to thank my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol South (Karin Smyth) for her years of service on the Front Bench? I know that she will continue to champion the people of Northern Ireland from the Back Benches.

While we will study the detail that the Secretary of State is set to announce in his written ministerial statement, any more time will be welcomed by businesses across Northern Ireland which simply were not prepared for the changes that took place on 1 January. He admitted last week that he did not envisage the disruption that we have seen as a result of the protocol, despite businesses shouting from the rooftops for months. Given this lack of awareness and the shambolic preparation for the end of the transition period, what confidence can the Secretary of State give to businesses in Northern Ireland that this extension will be used properly to prepare businesses for the changes to come?

I join the hon. Lady in her thanks to her colleague the hon. Member for Bristol South (Karin Smyth) for the work that she has done. Both my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr Walker) and I have worked with her and know that her compassion and her passion for the issues of the people of Northern Ireland are without question, and huge credit goes to her for that.

On the issues that the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Louise Haigh) has just raised, I would say to her that, genuinely, we have been working with businesses and across communities in Northern Ireland over the past year on the development of the guidance notes. In fact, we have been working with businesses since the end of the transition period to ensure that things are delivered in a way that works for them. Our work is informed by businesses so that we can deliver what they need on the ground to deliver for their customers and our constituents right across Northern Ireland.

Any extra time will of course be welcome and is important, but it is not the long-term solution that businesses and the people of Northern Ireland need. Can the Secretary of State confirm that he is demanding within Government practical solutions, such as a veterinary agreement, that would reduce the barriers down the middle of our Union that his Government insisted on?

The hon. Lady will have seen the correspondence between the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and the EU Commission outlining some of the things that we are looking at implementing. I point out that it is worth all businesses looking at and taking advantage of the Trader Support Service and the movement assistance scheme, which are specifically there to help businesses and to support them entirely at the cost of the UK Government. We have put several hundred million pounds of support into those businesses through those schemes, and they are working exceedingly well. Some businesses are hugely positive about the impact they will have.

As we approach the end of the three months’ grace period under the Northern Ireland protocol, many businesses and individuals in Northern Ireland are very concerned about what this will mean for them, in particular in relation to their ability to order goods and receive parcels from suppliers in Great Britain. Without further disruption to this trade, what will the Secretary of State and the Government do to address these concerns?

The right hon. Gentleman makes a very good point. As has been the case since January, our focus will remain on supporting the effective flow of goods between Northern Ireland and Great Britain, avoiding any unacceptable disruption to the critical flow of goods on which lives and livelihoods rely. I absolutely agree that it is important that businesses and citizens across Northern Ireland do not see their lives or their livelihoods unacceptably disrupted as they adapt to new requirements. I can advise him that further guidance will be provided later this week on parcel movements from Great Britain to Northern Ireland.

I thank the Secretary of State for that response. He will also be aware that agrifood businesses and others in Northern Ireland are very concerned about the potential imposition of charges on goods that are brought into ports in Northern Ireland at the behest of the European Union. This will add significantly to the cost of doing business with the rest of the United Kingdom. Again, what does the Secretary of State intend to do to ensure that businesses in Northern Ireland are not required to pay these additional charges?

I know that the right hon. Gentleman, along with the First Minister and other party colleagues, have been strong in their determination to highlight this and other issues associated with the protocol—I absolutely recognise that. I can confirm today that it is our intention that no charging regime is required for agrifoods, and I will be outlining that in the written ministerial statement later today.

May I echo the thanks to the hon. Member for Bristol South (Karin Smyth) and welcome the hon. Member for Pontypridd (Alex Davies-Jones) to her Opposition Front-Bench duties? I welcome the general attitude of the Government towards resolving the issues on the protocol: they are right, and the Secretary of State will have our support as he goes forward. However, I urge him to really put some pressure on the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy to better explain to GB businesses what they need to do, how they need to do it and when they need to do it in order to sell their goods into the very welcoming market that is Northern Ireland?

I thank my hon. Friend for outlining this issue. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy is very keen to ensure that GB businesses have all the information they need. My hon. Friend is right to highlight the fact that a number of the issues we have found relate to companies in Great Britain not appreciating what they can do in order to continue their smooth supplies to people in Northern Ireland. We want to ensure that that is the case. I encourage businesses to engage particularly with the trader support service, which is there to help businesses and, as I say, has phenomenal response and success rates in helping them to ensure that they can deliver. We as a Government will continue to fund it to ensure that it is there to support business and the people of Northern Ireland.

There is considerable anecdotal evidence from food producers that exports continue to be below pre-Brexit levels. With the retailers’ grace period ending this month, export health certificates will be required for imports of chilled and processed meats. How do the UK Government plan to ease specific concerns of the agrifood industry over this requirement ahead of the end of that grace period?

In classic House of Commons terms, I refer the hon. Gentleman to an answer I gave a few moments ago: he will see our position in a written ministerial statement later today that deals with that very issue.

As the Secretary of State knows, we did not want Brexit, but we do have the protocol and the protocol is here to stay, despite what anybody else might say. It does give us a competitive advantage. Will he work with me to make the most of that competitive advantage by getting rid of the maximum student numbers cap and the historical under-provision of university places for Northern Ireland?

The hon. Gentleman makes a really important point that is worth highlighting. We have two great universities in Northern Ireland that are globally leading, with one of them recently winning the award for the most entrepreneurial university and one of them being among the best nursing provision universities in the UK. That is something we should be proud of. We should look at how we can develop and grow that work for the benefit of the universities, the wider economy and their phenomenal input, and the huge competitive advantage, that, yes, Northern Ireland has, not least because of the amazing skill sets across Northern Ireland. I am happy to work with him to ensure that we develop, promote and take advantage of that for the benefit of people in Northern Ireland.

Northern Ireland Protocol

What assessment his Department has made of the adequacy of the implementation of the Northern Ireland protocol. (912611)

What assessment his Department has made of the adequacy of the implementation of the Northern Ireland protocol. (912616)

What assessment his Department has made of the adequacy of the implementation of the Northern Ireland protocol. (912622)

What assessment his Department has made of the adequacy of the implementation of the Northern Ireland protocol. (912634)

The Government are committed to meeting our obligations in a proportionate way, taking account of the Belfast-Good Friday agreement in all its dimensions—north-south and, of course, east-west. As I stated in previous answers, we have heard the concerns raised by people and businesses in Northern Ireland, and we are sensitive to the economic, societal and political realities of Northern Ireland. While we have made good progress in line with this pragmatic approach, we will be taking forward a series of further temporary operational steps, details of which, as I say, will be in the WMS that I will lay later today.

The EU has approached the protocol with a malign and hostile attitude. Would it not make sense to renegotiate it to an agreement of mutual enforcement or trigger article 16?

My focus is on ensuring that colleagues across Government ensure that we are able to deliver for the people of Northern Ireland in the most effective, efficient, flexible and fluid way. It was good, as I said, that Vice-President Šefčovič met businesses and civic society in Northern Ireland and has committed to continuing to do that so that he can hear directly on the ground the impact that some of this is having, not least the action that the EU took in its movement towards activating article 16 and the impact felt across communities regarding people’s confidence around that. It is right that the EU understands the impact this has on people’s everyday lives in Northern Ireland.

Many businesses in Warwick and Leamington and across the country have already opted out of supplying to Northern Ireland due to the complexities. Does the Secretary of State accept that the Government’s denial over the reality of an Irish sea border has actually hampered efforts to prepare British businesses for trade with Northern Ireland and led to the disruption we are seeing today?

What I would say to businesses is that I would encourage them to engage with the trader support service that the Government have put in place and which we are funding. It works for businesses, and the businesses that have used it have had great success in continuing to be able to move their products, with advice, smoothly and fluidly. We have worked with businesses continually through the process—as we were in the transition period and since we have left the transition period—to ensure that businesses across the United Kingdom can trade across the United Kingdom, but I recognise there have been issues in how the protocol has been implemented since the end of the transition period, and that is why we will be outlining measures in a written ministerial statement later today.

Hard-liner Back Benchers in the Secretary of State’s own party want to tear up the deal they voted for and place our border on the island of Ireland. Will the Secretary of State today publicly reject the demands of the European Research Group, with all the damage and instability those demands could cause?

The hon. Gentleman may well have voted for the deal as well. I will be very clear with him: my focus is on ensuring that we deliver exactly what the protocol said, which is to ensure that it does not disrupt the everyday lives of people in their communities in Northern Ireland. We have to make sure that is the case. That is what the protocol set out to achieve. We have also got to make sure that it respects all the peace and prosperity that has been found in Northern Ireland as a result of the Good Friday/Belfast agreement, and that means respecting not just north-south relations, but east-west relations as well.

Trade groups say that the trader support service is simply not good enough for the 12,000 traders who need its help. Businesses report that the scheme is providing confusing and conflicting advice. Why on earth is the Northern Ireland Secretary saying that disruption was not envisaged? The problems with the trader support service were known about well before the end of transition, including by the then Department for Exiting the European Union, which warned of problems with additional documentation as long ago as October 2019.

At the end of the hon. Gentleman’s question, he was talking about a period of time before the transition period ended and before the trader support service was outlined and in place. What I would say is that the trader support service now has more than 34,000 registered users. On average, calls to the service are handled in six seconds and 98% of declarations are processed within 15 minutes. That sounds like a pretty good record of success to me.

If the hon. Gentleman has some examples that are different from that, I will very happily engage with him directly if he wants to let me know, but that is a track record of success that the people involved in the trader support service should be proud of. More businesses can engage with that service and benefit from it, for the benefit of those businesses and the people of Northern Ireland.

Even with the grace periods in place, which give exemptions from many of the EU checks that will eventually be required in Northern Ireland, there has been massive disruption of trade as a result of the implementation of the protocol. Does the Secretary of State accept that if the Prime Minister’s promise and the protocol’s assurance that there will be unfettered trade between GB and Northern Ireland are to be delivered, something more than an extension of the grace periods is required? Really, there needs to be a reset or a rethinking of the agreement so that we have an alternative arrangement, such as the mutual enforcement of regulations, that would exempt Northern Ireland from being subject to EU laws and from the European Court of Justice making judgments about this part of the United Kingdom.

I respect the right hon. Gentleman, who has been consistent in his views on this issue at all times. I have also been very clear: we were always determined to ensure that we were able to deliver unfettered access for Northern Ireland businesses to the rest of the United Kingdom, and we have done that. We have also been very clear that we want to ensure that free flow and flexible trade across the United Kingdom so that GB businesses can trade into Northern Ireland properly, while accepting and acknowledging the reality of the single epidemiological unit of the island of Ireland, as the sanitary and phytosanitary situation does. That has been there, as I said before, in some form or another since the 19th century. It is something that was acknowledged long ago, and I absolutely accept, as we have always outlined, that it does have an impact.

The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that we have to ensure that the people of Northern Ireland can continue to enjoy products, their commercial activities and their day-to-day lives in the way that they always have done as members of and part of the United Kingdom.

If businesses had had their voices listened to over the last year, disruption could have been avoided. The joint consultative working group offers a real opportunity for businesses, civic society and politicians in Northern Ireland to have their voices heard, but at the moment, all we know about it is that it merely exists. This is a missed opportunity, so will the Minister commit to giving these groups a formal role and an input into how the protocol works? Without them, there can be no decision about Northern Ireland.

I join others in welcoming the hon. Lady to her new role. I am sure she will be able to fight the case for the people of Northern Ireland with great strength and passion, and I look forward to working with her, as does my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr Walker).

I have been working with businesses throughout this process, including through the business engagement forum, which will meet again shortly. We engaged with businesses with Vice-President Šefčovič a week or so ago, to have that direct input. Ultimately, I am a democrat, and I believe in the democratic system and the way in which Parliament and the structures we have in place work. I know that businesses have a full voice within that, and we have ensured that at every stage of the process.

Northern Ireland Protocol: Implementation

What recent discussions the Government have had with the EU on the implementation of the Northern Ireland protocol. (912612)

The co-chairs of the UK-EU Joint Committee met last Wednesday to discuss the set of issues with the protocol that need to be addressed to protect the vital links between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom. These engagements are supported by regular official-level contact, including via the Northern Ireland/Ireland specialised committee, which met last Tuesday, to ensure that the protocol operates as intended, with minimum impact on the everyday lives of people in Northern Ireland. We will continue to discuss all our implementation efforts through the withdrawal agreement structures, including in giving effect to the commitments made at December’s Joint Committee, and there will be an informal meeting with the EU and Vice-President Šefčovič later today.

Some Northern Irish companies have been boasting about their dual access to both the British and EU marketplaces for trade purposes. Will the Secretary of State confirm that Northern Ireland businesses do indeed have great opportunities and that this also creates a relative disadvantage for businesses in Scotland?

As I outlined in response to an earlier question, Northern Ireland businesses have a huge opportunity and a huge competitive advantage, not least because of the amazing skillsets across Northern Ireland in technology, hydrogen and advanced engineering. There are a wide range of things that businesses in Northern Ireland have to promote, with the advantage they have in promoting around the world, to develop business and more jobs for Northern Ireland.

Administrative Burdens on Businesses

What steps the Government are taking to help reduce the administrative burden for businesses involved with the movement of goods into Northern Ireland since the UK’s departure from the EU. (912613)

In my engagements with businesses, I have heard directly about the importance of ensuring that processes are streamlined to the maximum extent, and we are working with businesses to ensure that we are delivering on that. More than £200 million has been put into the trader support service, the movement assistance scheme and the UK trader scheme to support those businesses. The newly established digital assistance scheme, when fully operational, will provide a simplified digital process for the certification and verification of goods moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland. We will continue to address issues that arise, and that will be part of the subject of my written ministerial statement later today.

Businesses also need stability and legal certainty. In the past few days, we have seen the Northern Ireland Agriculture Minister stress that he may unilaterally breach commitments under the protocol. Can the Secretary of State give an assurance that the UK Government, as a sovereign party to the withdrawal agreement, will, in the last resort if necessary, ensure ongoing legal compliance and that any changes to the protocol are agreed with the European Union?

As I outlined earlier, I can confirm that our intention is that no charging regime is required for agrifoods, and my written ministerial statement will confirm that later today. At all times we will be focused on ensuring that we are acting in a fully legal manner and delivering for people in Northern Ireland.

World Rally Championship

What representations he has received on a potential world rally championship round taking place in Northern Ireland. (912614)

This Government will always do what they can to champion Northern Ireland tourism, which in normal times includes major sporting events. I know that the Northern Ireland Economy Minister was giving consideration to hosting the world rally championship, for which the hon. Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley) has been a strong champion in the House. The Government will happily support the Executive should they decide to proceed with funding the event, but ultimately, this is a matter for the Executive.

I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. The United Kingdom proudly sits at the heart of global motorsports, having hosted a round of the world rally championship virtually every year since its inception in 1973. Does my hon. Friend agree with me that it is important that the UK continues to host a round of that championship, and will he do everything possible to work with the Northern Ireland Executive and all parties involved to see a round of the WRC hosted in Northern Ireland in the coming years?

I wish my hon. Friend a happy birthday, and I welcome the points he makes about the UK’s leadership in the space of motorsports. I think Northern Ireland would produce an excellent backdrop for hosting an event of that sort, and I would be very happy to continue to work to support the Executive in that regard with any future bids.

Great Britain-Northern Ireland Tunnel

What discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Transport on the feasibility and viability of a tunnel from Great Britain to Northern Ireland. (912615)

The Secretary of State and I have regular conversations with ministerial colleagues regarding transport connections, which are particularly important for Northern Ireland given its unique position. Connectivity across the UK is vital to fuel Northern Ireland’s economic recovery and strengthen the Union. The Prime Minister commissioned a Union connectivity review to consider these important connections, including the feasibility of a fixed link between Northern Ireland and Great Britain.

In those discussions, could the Minister not get together with the Department for Transport and point out the huge cost, the geological problems and the inconvenient reality that Britain and Ireland operate on a different rail gauge? Is it not time to dump this project at an early stage, along with the garden bridge, into the bin and save a lot of money, effort and probably a few column inches in articles?

I have to say that I am not impressed with the right hon. Gentleman’s lack of ambition. I want to make sure that we look at all options to support connectivity to Northern Ireland, and I am grateful that we have a Prime Minister who is willing to do that.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—


It will be three years tomorrow since a chemical weapon was deployed by Russian military intelligence on the streets of Salisbury. All our thoughts remain with those affected, their families and loved ones, and we will continue to seek justice for them. I am sure this House will want to pay tribute to the people of Salisbury and Amesbury, and wish them well for the future.

This morning, I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in this House, I shall have further such meetings later today.

Liverpool is a welcoming city, with the oldest Chinese community in Europe, but in 1946 the British Government ordered the forced repatriation back to China of thousands of Chinese seamen who were living in Liverpool with their British families, causing lasting emotional trauma. Many of their descendants still live in my Liverpool, Riverside constituency. Will the Prime Minister take steps to acknowledge these events, and provide the descendants with a formal apology and the justice they deserve?

I have happy memories of my own visits to Liverpool, and I can tell the hon. Member—[Interruption.] I can tell her that we are certainly very grateful across the country to the Chinese community for their amazing contribution. Her message has been heard loud and clear.

The Pirelli factory in Carlisle employs around 800 people, contributes hundreds of millions of pounds to the local economy and is an exporter. Its location is a consequence of regional economic policy from 50 years ago. Does the Prime Minister agree that, if we are to rebalance the economy and level up the country, we need a modern-day, proactive regional economic policy? If he does agree, will he come to Carlisle to see the old and new in action? (912840)

Of course, I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for what he says. He will hear more in just half an hour or so—let us try to keep it to half an hour, Mr Speaker—from the Chancellor about how exactly we intend to make sure we build back better across the whole of this country and unleash the tremendous potential of the whole of the United Kingdom, including of course Carlisle, which he so well represents.

I join the Prime Minister in his comments about the Salisbury atrocity.

Does the Prime Minister agree with President Biden that the sale of arms which could be used in the war in Yemen should be suspended?

Ever since the tragic conflict in Yemen broke out, this country has scrupulously followed the consolidated guidance, of which the right hon. and learned Gentleman will be well aware.

The trouble is that, while President Biden has suspended arms sales that could be used in Yemen, the UK has not. In fact, we sold £1.4 billion-worth of arms to Saudi Arabia in three months last year, including bombs and missiles that could be used in Yemen. Given everything we know about the appalling humanitarian cost of this war, with innocent civilians caught between the Saudi coalition and the Houthi rebels, why does the Prime Minister think it is right to be selling these weapons?

The UK is part of an international coalition following the UN resolutions, which the right hon. and learned Gentleman will know well and which are very clear that the legitimate Government of Yemen were removed illegally. Those are the resolutions that we follow, and we continue scrupulously to follow the humanitarian guidance—among the toughest measures anywhere in the world—in respect of all arms sales. He talks about humanitarian relief, and actually I think the people of this country can be hugely proud of what we are doing to support the people of Yemen: almost £1 billion of aid contributed in the past five years.

The Prime Minister says the system is very robust in relation to arms sales. It cannot be that robust: the Government lost a court case just two years ago in relation to arms sales. The truth is that the UK is increasingly isolated in selling arms to Saudi Arabia, despite what is happening in Yemen, despite Saudi Arabia’s human rights record, and despite the brutal murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi—a murder the US has concluded was approved by the Saudi Crown Prince. So I have to ask: what will it take for the Prime Minister to suspend arms sales to Saudi Arabia?

We condemn the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. We continue to call for a full independent investigation into the causes of his death, and indeed we have already sanctioned 20 people in Saudi Arabia. I repeat the point that I have made that the UK Government continue to follow the consolidated guidance, which, by the way, was set up by the Labour party.

To make matters worse, the Government decided this week to halve international aid to Yemen—to halve it. The United Nations has said that Yemen faces the worst famine the world has seen for decades, and the Secretary-General said on Monday that cutting aid would be a “death sentence” for the people of Yemen. How on earth can the Prime Minister justify selling arms to Saudi Arabia and cutting aid to people starving in Yemen?

It is under this Government that we have increased aid spending to the highest proportion in the history of our country, and, yes, it is true that current straitened circumstances, which I am sure the people of this country understand, mean that temporarily we must reduce aid spending, but that does not obscure the fact that when it comes to our duty to the people of Yemen we continue to step up to the plate: a contribution of £214 million for this financial year. There are very few other countries in the world that have such a record and that are setting such an example in spending and supporting the people of Yemen.

This week the Government halved our international aid to Yemen. If this is what the Prime Minister thinks global Britain should look like, he should think again, and if he does not believe me—if he does not like it from me or the UN Secretary-General—he should listen to his own MPs. Just this morning, the Conservative MP the right hon. Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood) said:

“Cutting support to starving children is not what Global Britain should be about. It undermines the very idea of the UK as a nation to be respected on a global stage.”

The right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell) said this was “unconscionable”. Will the Prime Minister now do the right thing and reconsider this urgently?

I repeat: we have given £1 billion since the conflict began; we are in support of UN resolutions; this year we are contributing another £214 million to support the people of Yemen. There are very few other countries in the world that have that kind of record. In these tough, straitened circumstances, bearing in mind the immense cost of the covid epidemic that has affected our country, I think the people of this country should be very, very proud of what we are doing.

Britain should be a moral force for good in the world, but just as the US is stepping up, the UK is stepping back. If the Prime Minister and Chancellor are so determined to press ahead with their manifesto-breaking cuts to international aid—cutting the budget to 0.5%—they should at least put that to a vote in this House. Will he have the courage to do so?

We are going to get on with our agenda of delivering for the people of this country and spending more than virtually any other country in the world—by the way, spending more, still, than virtually any other country in the G7—on aid. It is a record of which this country can be proud. Given the difficulties that this country faces, I think that the people of this country will think that we have got our priorities right.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman cannot work out what his priorities are. One minute he is backing us on the road map; the next week he is turning his back on us. He cannot even address a question on the issues of the hour. He could have asked anything about the coronavirus pandemic; instead, he has consecrated his questions entirely to the interests of the people of Yemen. We are doing everything we can to support the people of Yemen given the constraints that we face. We are getting on with a cautious but irreversible road map to freedom, which I hope that he will support. Very shortly, Mr Speaker, you will be hearing a Budget for recovery.

My right hon. Friend will be aware that when devolution was established in Scotland, there was no separate Scottish civil service created; we have a UK civil service, with UK ministerial oversight. Given the turmoil in Scottish politics, will he confirm that any civil servants who feel pressurised to behave inappropriately have a mechanism to seek redress beyond the Ministers to whom they are immediately answerable? (912841)

I thank my right hon. Friend, and of course we will support all civil servants. By the way, I thank them for the work that they have done up and down the country throughout the pandemic. I think everybody in this House would agree that now is the time, really, for our civil service to focus on working together to build back better together, rather than on measures that might divide our country.

May I associate myself with the remarks of the Prime Minister on the terrible atrocity three years ago in the town of Salisbury?

The situation in Yemen has been called the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. One hundred thousand people have been killed, 16.2 million are at risk of starvation, and 2.3 million children, Prime Minister, are at death’s door, facing acute malnutrition. The UK Government’s response is not one of compassion; instead, it is to impose cuts. That is what you are doing, Prime Minister—a 50% cut to international aid to Yemen, a move that the UN chief, António Guterres, has described as “a death sentence”.

Since the start of the war, the Tories have shamefully backed the Saudi regime through billions of pounds of arms sales and support, despite evidence of war crimes and of the targeting of civilians. Will the Prime Minister confirm that today’s Budget will force through the devastating cuts to international aid?

I think anybody listening to this debate will have heard me say that this country—this Government—in the last five years has given £1 billion to support the people of Yemen. I can tell the right hon. Gentleman, in case he thinks there is any diminution of our efforts, that on Monday we are going to provide cash support to 1.5 million of the most vulnerable Yemeni households, support 400 health clinics and treat 75,000 cases of severe malnutrition. That is the continuing effort of the British people and the British Government to help the people of Yemen.

The reality is a 50% cut to Yemen aid at a time of a global pandemic. The coronavirus has hit poor and vulnerable countries the hardest, threatening decades of hard-won gains while exacerbating existing inequalities. During his leadership race, the Prime Minister made a commitment to stand by 0.7% for aid spending, a position he reaffirmed in June last year at that very Dispatch Box. What followed was yet another U-turn—another broken promise. Why is the Prime Minister breaking his own manifesto commitment, and why are his Government breaking the promises they made to the world’s poorest?

I think most people in this country will know that the Government have given £280 billion to support the people, the economy, the livelihoods and the businesses up and down the whole of the United Kingdom. That has, as you will hear from the Chancellor, Mr Speaker, placed strains on our public finances. In the meantime, we continue to do everything we possibly can to support the people of Yemen, including, by the way, through a massive vaccination programme, to which the people of this country have contributed £548 million—the second biggest contributor in the world.

The Prime Minister will know from his time working in the Black Country how important our green spaces and green belt are. Will he make sure that Dudley Council and our Mayor Andy Street have the powers and resources they need to ensure that development is on brownfield rather than valuable green spaces, and that local people’s voices are clearly heard and taken into account, including where the proposed development is across local authority borders in the green belt surrounding Dudley South? (912843)

Indeed. We will protect our vital green belt, which I think constitutes 12.4% of our land. We can build our homes as my hon. Friend rightly suggests—300,000 of them on brownfield sites across the country.

We are now in the third month of the Northern Ireland protocol and we are fast approaching the end of the three-month grace period. The Prime Minister will be aware of the disruption the protocol is causing to trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and the damage it is doing to the stability of the political institutions established under the Belfast agreement. What action does the Prime Minister intend to take to deliver on his promise to protect Northern Ireland’s position within the UK internal market and provide us with unfettered access to goods from Great Britain?

The position of Northern Ireland within the UK internal market is rock solid and guaranteed. We are making sure that we underscore that with some temporary operational easings in order to protect the market in some areas, such as food supplies, pending further discussions with the EU. As I have said to the right hon. Gentleman and his colleagues, we leave nothing off the table to ensure that we get this right.

Our British vaccine, finished in Wockhardt in Wrexham, has shown the globe exactly what the UK can achieve. In Wrexham, we have Maelor Hospital, Coleg Cambria, Glyndŵr University and an industrial estate bristling with small and medium-sized enterprises. We are close to the midlands and the north-west. Does the Prime Minister agree that now is the time for our young people to look at and aspire to careers in STEM and healthcare, and that Wrexham is the hub that can take us forward? (912844)

My hon. Friend is completely right. I thank her again, by the way, for her amazing service in the NHS in Wrexham and in returning to the frontline. It was at Wockhardt in Wrexham that I met young female scientists who are helping to make the vaccine that will not only free our country, we hope, from the captivity of covid, but help to liberate the entire world. It was wonderful to see it happening in Wrexham. We want to see many more young female scientists growing up in that part of the world.

I would like to ask about a very important domestic issue. The property tax system in England is broken. Council tax places an unfair burden on people living in the poorest communities without generating the revenues needed to fund local services. Does the Prime Minister agree that a proportional property tax, as proposed by the Fairer Share campaign, would create a transparent property taxation system, generate revenues that local government needs and ease the tax burden on hard-pressed families across the country, including in my constituency of Easington? (912842)

With great respect to the hon. Member, what the country needs are councillors who charge you less while delivering better services. If we look across the country, we can see that it is overwhelmingly Conservative-run councils that do that. The right hon. and learned Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer) laughs. Westminster has kept council tax low. In Camden where he lives, it is three times as high. That is the difference.

Last Friday, my constituent Mr Luke Bellfield, who was aged just 18, was stabbed to death just a few miles from his family home. This has been horrendous for his family and friends who have been left behind and my heart goes out to them all. What more does my right hon. Friend think that the police, society and Parliament can do to make sure that there never will be such senseless murders again? (912845)

I sympathise very much with Luke’s family and his friends, and there is nothing I can say that will alleviate their loss. But what we are doing is recruiting many more police officers to fight crime, rolling up the county lines drugs gangs wherever we can and setting out plans to keep serious sexual and violent offenders behind bars for longer. I can tell the House that we now have 6,620 of our target extra 20,000 police already recruited.

We know that the Prime Minister is the proud leader of a British nationalist party, and he says that his no to another independence referendum in Scotland is final, so why are his colleagues in Scotland distributing leaflets that say a vote for the Tories is a vote to stop an independence referendum? If a vote for the British nationalist Tories in Scotland must be accepted as a legitimate vote against a referendum, surely a vote for the Scottish National party in May must be respected as a mandate for putting Scotland’s future in Scotland’s hands. (912851)

I was delighted to hear a sort of acceptance there that the hon. Gentleman is running a nationalist party, if that is what he was saying, because I am afraid I agree with that; they are not in respect of the whole of this country. But I think that most people will think it extraordinary that they are talking about another referendum—the Labour Chief Whip is nodding quite rightly—when, actually, what the people of this country want to see is us working together as one United Kingdom without further constitutional upheaval, to get through the pandemic and build back better.

May I first say how great it was to welcome my right hon. Friend to Accrington last week? I am sure that he will join me in thanking the staff and pupils at Accrington Academy for making our visit such a welcoming one. As you will know, Mr Speaker, my constituency was at the heart of the first industrial revolution, and we are ready to lead in the new green industrial revolution and level up once and for all. On that note, will my right hon. Friend commit to supporting my campaign to rejuvenate our high streets and town centres across Hyndburn and Haslingden? (912846)

I congratulate my hon. Friend on her campaign. It was great to be in Accrington and I hope that she will be hearing even more shortly from my right hon. Friend the Chancellor about what we can do to support the towns fund and other measures to help Accrington and places across the whole country.

Thank you, Mr Speaker, and I would like to thank you and Members across the House, including the Prime Minister, for your well wishes during my illness.

The Prime Minister previously guaranteed that there was no threat to the Erasmus scheme as a result of Brexit. We now know that charities such as STAND International in my constituency that participate in the programme are set to lose 96% of their funding as a result of the UK Government’s decision to pull the plug on Erasmus+. Can the Prime Minister guarantee that charities will receive match funding under the new Turing scheme, and will he agree to meet me and representatives from STAND International to ensure that no young person in East Dunbartonshire gets left behind as a result of Brexit?

I am sure I speak for everybody when I say how much I welcome the hon. Lady back to PMQs—it is great to see her back. I do give her that assurance, and I think the Turing scheme will be better and will deliver exactly what she wants. If there was a criticism of the Erasmus scheme, it tended to favour higher-income households. We will do everything that we can with the Turing scheme to reach out to give opportunity to people from disadvantaged backgrounds. That is what we intend to do.

My right hon. Friend has taken a strong personal interest in the tragic story of my constituent, Harry Dunn, so will he please continue to do everything in his power to reassure Tim and Charlotte, Harry’s parents, and all their family that he will try to persuade President Biden to deliver justice for Harry? (912847)

My right hon. Friend is completely right to continue to raise the case of Harry Dunn, and we sympathise deeply with his family. It is a case that we continue to raise with the highest level, and I know that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has only just raised it with Tony Blinken, the US Secretary of State.

Rhondda Cynon Taf, where my constituency is located, has the third highest covid death rate in the UK, due mainly to inequality, poverty and chronic underfunding. This UK Government have an appalling record on providing Wales with even a fair share of UK spending, let alone the funding needed to level up. Eleven years of Tory austerity cuts have destroyed the capacity of our public services to withstand the pandemic, and now they plan to bypass the democratic structures in Wales. My constituent Lyndon has a question for the Prime Minister. What will it take for him to stop ignoring the south Wales valleys?

I am afraid I disagree profoundly with the implication of what the hon. Lady is saying—and indeed with what her constituent Lyndon is, by implication, asking—because this Government continue to give massive support through the Barnett formula and elsewhere. I think through Barnett alone it is £2.4 billion, and there is now more coming through the levelling-up fund and other means. It is thanks to the UK Government that the furlough scheme has supported 3,400 jobs in her constituency alone. That is one of the advantages of the United Kingdom.

Only this week, the Government once again demonstrated their commitment to energy industry jobs in the north-east of Scotland as a whole, with over £30 million committed to creating a green energy transition zone and a global underwater hub. Will my right hon. Friend therefore go further in supporting this most vital industry? It is vital to developing the energy technologies of the future—based, he will agree, in the greatest part of the country—and transitioning to net zero with the long-awaited energy transition deal, which will help to transform the oil capital of Europe into the green energy centre of the world. (912848)

I congratulate my hon. Friend on his last-minute lobbying. He has only a few minutes to wait before he may hear something to his advantage.

Prime Minister, in an interview with Sophy Ridge broadcast on 8 December 2019, you pledged that there would be no checks on goods going from NI to GB or from GB to NI. While this has proven more challenging to deliver in practice, would you wish to take this opportunity to encourage Ministers in Northern Ireland to do all they can—

Order. Unfortunately, I am not responsible and “you” is not something that we should be using.

My humble apologies. Can the Prime Minister make this aspiration a reality and ensure that they act in accordance with section 46 of the United Kingdom Internal Market Act 2020, which stresses the importance of facilitating the free flow of goods between Great Britain and Northern Ireland?

Yes, I certainly can do that. As I said in answer to the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson), we leave nothing off the table in order to make sure that we get that done. There is unfettered access NI-GB and GB-NI.

The Prime Minister has been a good friend of East Yorkshire and northern Lincolnshire. He will know that the Humber is the biggest trading estuary in the country and that it contains the UK’s biggest port. May I therefore encourage him to look closely and favourably at the Humber free port bid as it contains sites in Hull, Goole, Grimsby and the Scunthorpe steelworks, which are really important for the region too? (912849)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. He has mounted an excellent campaign and my right hon. Friend the Chancellor will say more about that shortly.

HS2 reduces journey times from Manchester airport to London from two hours 24 minutes to 59 minutes. With the carbon capture that we would generate and the increased capacity to the west coast main line, what prevents the Government from putting shovels in the ground in the north now?

The answer to that is, as anybody who gets a project done on their home or wherever knows, that starting again midway through I am afraid greatly multiplies the cost, but we will go as fast as we possibly can.

The last time the UK hosted the G7 in 2013, the then Prime Minister launched the social impact investment taskforce to catalyse a market for private capital seeking social outcomes as well as financial returns, and this country now leads the world in the development of financial innovations for public good. Will my right hon. Friend therefore confirm that the social investment tax relief, which was launched after that summit, will continue beyond April? Will he use this year’s G7 to trumpet to the world the benefit of social investment, social enterprise and the social economy in general? (912850)

My hon. Friend has long been a campaigner for the wonderful benefits of social enterprise. I visited some of his own, and if he just waits a little longer, he will receive an update on social investment tax relief.

I am suspending the House for three minutes to enable the necessary arrangements for the next business to be made.

Sitting suspended.