House of Commons
Monday 15 March 2021
The House met at half-past Two o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Virtual participation in proceedings commenced (Orders, 4 June and 30 December 2020).
[NB: [V] denotes a Member participating virtually.]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
Military Housing: Annington Homes
Before I turn to Question 1, on behalf of the Government I wish to pay tribute to Sergeant Gavin Hillier of the Welsh Guards, who tragically died in an accident during live-firing exercises in Wales earlier this month. Sergeant Hillier’s distinguished service throughout his career was a tribute not only to his own dedication to duty but to his family and to his regiment, who continue to prepare for operations in Iraq later this year.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington (Gareth Bacon) for his close interest in this issue, which is also actively pursued by my right hon. Friend the Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Stephen Crabb), my hon. Friends the Members for North West Cambridgeshire (Mr Vara) and for Devizes (Danny Kruger), and other colleagues. The Ministry of Defence longer has any ongoing military requirement for the homes, which we therefore intend to hand back to Annington, thereby helping to meet obligations under our agreements. I regret that, despite the MOD’s producing a significant package of support that we hoped might assist Annington to allow our tenants to remain in situ in many, although not all, cases, that was not a course that Annington felt able to pursue.
I join the Minister and, I am sure, the whole House in expressing sympathy for the family and friends of Sergeant Hillier.
A number of my constituents in Biggin Hill are keen to remain in their homes; is there no way that Annington Homes can facilitate that? If not, given that we are still battling the covid pandemic, is there any way in which the Minister can provide for a longer notice period to help to provide my constituents with greater certainty at this very difficult time?
I am pleased to say that I have some good news for my hon. Friend and his constituents. I am pleased to confirm that, mindful of the representations made by my right hon. and hon. Friends, of the fact that we are talking about packages of houses rather than single units and of the ongoing covid restrictions, we will be extending the notice period to 31 March 2022. That will mean that civilian tenants will have received more than 18 months’ notice in total. Furthermore, Annington has confirmed that it has no in-principle objection to selling the properties to local authorities or other social housing providers. I stress that any such deals would be a commercial proposition between the social housing providers and Annington, but I hope that the additional time provided may help to enable such transactions to be progressed. I shall write to my hon. Friend and other affected MPs on this subject today.
Defence Estate Optimisation Programme
The defence estate optimisation portfolio is a 25-year multibillion-pound investment in modernising MOD basing. It provides resilience and ensures that our service personnel can train in centres of excellence alongside those beside whom they will fight. We routinely review and assess the programme in the light of evolving requirements, including the contents of the integrated review. However, the fundamental drivers of the programme are unlikely to change.
The decision to site the entire Army presence in the north-west at Weeton barracks, putting all our eggs in one basket, will damage the operational and recruitment footprint of the Army in the north-west. Were the Government to retain the Dale barracks in Chester, that would provide easy access to the southern part of the north-west, the north part of the midlands and north Wales, so will the Government please look again at the decision to sell off the Dale barracks and let them retain their historic role in the City of Chester?
The hon. Gentleman has in the past spoken with passion about the retention of Dale barracks, and he does so again. We continue to speak to local stakeholders about alternative uses for the site, but I assure the hon. Gentleman that no disposal will take place before 2027 at the earliest. I also assure him that the armed forces will continue to be able to provide support to the north-west and, indeed, the whole of the United Kingdom.
What steps has the Ministry of Defence taken to ensure the sound financial sustainability of the defence estate, given that the National Audit Office found in 2016 that the estate would have an £8.5 billion funding shortfall over the next 30 years? A series of National Audit Office reports have shown that the defence estate faces a serious shortfall in investment. It is clear that there is a direct link between poor infrastructure and increasing risk to military effectiveness. What steps has the Minister taken to reverse this decline?
I am pleased to reassure the hon. Gentleman that £18 million a year is spent on single-living accommodation. Additional funding has been provided through the £200 million package announced in July last year, and the frontline commands intend to invest £1.5 billion in new build and upgrade programmes to accommodation over the next 12 years. It is an issue that we are alive to and on which we focus. It is not within the top 12 reasons why people leave the Army, as stated in the surveys, but it is incredibly important. We wish to look after the welfare of all the people who serve defence. I do not wish to say anything further about future funding, because that will be covered in announcements in due course, but we take the issue very seriously.
The threat of cyber-attack on UK interests is real. Every day, we witness malicious interference from adversary states and hostile actors. We are continually protecting our systems and have previously called out activity from Russia, China and Iran. Our defensive cyber programmes are delivering on an extensive suite of capabilities, but cyber defence is only part of our approach. A core element of broader deterrence is integrating our offensive cyber-capabilities into our military operations.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his answer. I particularly welcome the fact that the National Cyber Force will be based in the north-west of England. In saying that, may I urge the Secretary of State to look sympathetically at hosting it in Lancashire? We already have a really strong track record of supporting our armed forces, from the thousands of men and women who sign up from our county to manufacture the Typhoon and, hopefully, the Tempest in the future.
I certainly hear what my hon. Friend says. As another Lancashire MP, I am conscious of the good news which the Prime Minister announced that the force will be based in the north of England. Obviously, we will go through the processes of selecting where it is to be based. I think of the lessons that we learned when Bletchley Park and its successors moved to Cheltenham, as opposed to a big city. The impact that that had in levelling up the area is something on which we should all reflect. It is incredibly important that, in our whole levelling-up agenda, we focus not just on cities but on towns as well.
Perhaps we could bring all Lancashire MPs together.
Our Prime Minister and Secretary of State are backing the north by developing the National Cyber Force here. Some say that it should be in Manchester, but others say Lancashire. Surely Bolton is the place for it, with a foot in Greater Manchester, but our heart firmly in Lancashire.
It is tempting to ask for Bolton as well as Warrington to be returned to Lancashire following the reforms of the early 1970s. I must declare that I was once a secretary for the Friends of Real Lancashire. I think, Mr Speaker, you were probably a co-secretary with me at one stage. I hear my hon. Friend loud and clear. The strengths of these mill towns is clear. Whether it be Bolton, Wigan, Warrington, Preston, in my constituency, or Chorley, their contribution to Britain’s industrial base and the next generation, which is obviously cyber, should not be undervalued. I will certainly listen to all the arguments put forward. The National Cyber Force is a mix of GCHQ and the Ministry of Defence. We have a proud record of supporting the MOD and defence in the north, and I look forward to that continuing.
I welcome the weekend’s announcement that a full-spectrum approach will be taken to the UK’s cyber-capability. Can my right hon. Friend confirm that the integrated review will include a strategy for working with industry, great and small, so that robust cyber defence can be maintained across our entire economy?
After the Defence Command Paper is announced on Monday, a week today, the defence industrial strategy will be launched the following day, which will give us an opportunity to indicate investments not only in our more traditional industrial base, but in the new and future domains, such as digital, cyber, space and so on. This is incredibly important. Britain is one of the world leaders in both applying our cyber-technology and investing in it, and I predict that the strategy will have something to say about that.
May I, on behalf of the official Opposition, offer my tribute to the service of Sergeant Gavin Hillier and say to his family, his friends and his comrades that our condolences are with them?
I certainly welcomed the weekend news that the integrated review will commit the UK to full-spectrum cyber, as the hon. Member for Rushcliffe (Ruth Edwards) has just said, although I strongly feel that announcements of important Government policy such as that should be made in Parliament and not in the press. Is not the wider security lesson from cyber and other grey-zone threats that more civil and military planning, training and exercising is required? Given that some countries are well ahead of us, will the integrated review catch up with the need for full-spectrum society resilience?
I hear what the right hon. Gentleman says, but I would take issue with it on one thing, and that is about us catching up. I was the cyber-security Minister—I was the Minister of State for Security—for a considerable period of time. Britain actually led the world both in NATO, where we were the first to offer cyber-offensive capability, but also through our programmes. The national cyber-security programme spent billions on enhancing capability right across not just military, but predominantly the civil sector. The National Cyber Security Centre is a first; there are almost none in Europe.
We are one of the first to have such a centre to be able to advise business, private individuals and the Government how to keep themselves strong and secure. There is always more to do and there are lessons to be learned around the world, but Britain has a lot of innovation and strengths in cyber-security. It is a dangerous world out there in cyber. I certainly agree with the right hon. Gentleman that one of the ways to deliver this is to ensure that we constantly work with our friends and allies.
Let us go to another expert—Dr Julian Lewis.
Does my right hon. Friend accept that while the cyber-threat to critical national infrastructure can paralyse a society that is then subject to attack by more conventional means, we also have to maintain the methods and equipment to counter-attack anything involving conventional military force? Is he satisfied that the integrated review, while recognising the role of cyber, also recognises the continuing role of conventional defence?
My right hon. Friend makes a valid point; we absolutely recognise that. The important thing about the Command Paper and the integrated review is learning the lessons of today. The lesson that we learned from Syria was that when we tackle Daesh, we tackle its cyber-offence and cyber-campaign in tandem with the military campaign that we used to take apart its leadership and the evil tasks that it was setting out to cause attacks. It is absolutely the case that there cannot be one without the other, but we should also recognise that the growing vulnerability of our forces and civil society to cyber as we become more dependent on cyber means that we have to take a very strong lead in defending against that.
Veterans can access the same services provided by the Ministry of Defence, no matter where in the world they live.
I thank the Minister for that answer, because the covenant rightly offers to veterans provisions in areas such as education and family wellbeing, having a home, starting a new career, access to healthcare, financial assistance and discounted services. What I would like to know, however, is what the Ministry is doing to ensure that the undertakings that we give as a nation are actually delivered for veterans who now live overseas. Is there a specific budget for this vital work to ensure that those veterans are accessing the services that they qualify for?
There is not a carve-out in the budget for veterans who live overseas, but we are committed to ensuring that the armed forces covenant works equally for them as it does in this country. We are introducing the Armed Forces Bill in the coming months to legislate for the first time to ensure that discharge of duties cannot result in disadvantage from local authorities in health, housing and education. I look forward to the hon. Member supporting the Bill.
Armed Forces Personnel
Defence regularly monitors several metrics to gauge service personnel satisfaction levels, including for accommodation and pay, via the armed forces continuous attitude survey.
The Army has been instrumental in the fight against covid, from assisting with logistics to being directly involved in testing the vaccination programmes; yet the reward for army personnel is a pay freeze at a time when low pay is one of the factors that causes people to leave the armed forces, as Government studies should show. I ask the Minister, why was Dominic Cummings awarded a huge pay rise, yet armed forces personnel are not deemed worthy of one?
Minister, I do not think you are going to respond to that point.
No; I do not have responsibility for the Prime Minister’s advisers, clearly. On satisfaction around pay, I am clear that pay is one of the reasons that people stay in the military. If the hon. Member looks forward to the integrated review, we will be looking to announce a direction of travel on this matter in due course.
On behalf of the Scottish National party, I send our condolences to Sergeant Hillier’s family.
The issue of pay rises and satisfaction more generally has been a bone of contention in the House for many years. The numbers speak for themselves; four in 10 serving personnel do not think that the pay they receive reflects the work they do. Why?
The crushing irony of our people who work in Scotland having to pay more in tax and therefore take home less pay and the hon. Gentleman raising this point is not lost on those who serve. Pay is a one of a number of factors that people speak about when the armed forces continuous attitude survey comes through. It is by no means the primary factor. We are constantly reviewing it and I am comfortable that we offer a world-class package to our people.
Yet again, the Minister is rather poorly briefed. The lowest-paid members of the armed forces in Scotland actually pay less in tax. If he wants to talk exemptions, that is a power that lies in the Treasury; it is not a tax power that lies with the Scottish Government. But let me press him on this: when the integrated review is published tomorrow, will it contain something—anything at all—to reverse the trend on satisfaction, and will he apologise to the armed forces, who have had a kick in the teeth with their pay rise being paused, given everything they have done for everyone over the covid crisis?
Let me be clear: this will be the first strategic review to have a specific address to our people. They are our finest asset. They are rewarded not only financially but through the choice of career on offer to them. I encourage the hon. Gentleman to read that when it comes out and I am more than happy to have a conversation with him after that.
Support for Veterans
The Office for Veterans’ Affairs champions our veterans’ mental health and wellbeing needs at the heart of Government. This month, NHS England launched Operation Courage, bringing together three NHS England veterans’ mental health services with a single point of access. Op Courage is truly a game changer for veterans in the UK, including in the north-east.
The Royal British Legion has said that the current extortionate charges to Commonwealth veterans to settle in the UK are unfair and should end. We completely agree, so what is the Minister doing to end this unjust treatment of those who have risked their lives for our country?
Let me be absolutely clear: that is a policy that started under the previous Government. This is the first Government who have promised a pathway to residency for those who serve. We will deliver that. We are looking to consult in the coming months. This has been a long-term injustice for our foreign and Commonwealth service personnel and under this Government we are going to correct it.
There seem to be some really good schemes that have been awarded funding under the Positive Pathways programme, but what is the Minister doing to ensure that veterans know about these schemes, and how can we be sure that they are not just a short-term engagement with veterans but really offer the seamless route of care and support that is talked about in the documentation?
One of my biggest challenges in this role is not the fact that there are not pathways of care; it is getting people to understand that and to really be able to access fantastic, world-class healthcare and career advice and transition for a seamless progress from the military into civilian life. It is an ongoing effort and I welcome the hon. Lady’s efforts to help me with that.
The extra £10 million allocated in the Budget to supporting veterans’ mental health is a welcome step that the Opposition have been calling for. However, there is still a large disparity between physical and mental health support, and this extra money works out just at an extra £4 per veteran. Covid-19 has impacted heavily on veterans’ charities’ ability to raise funds and conduct their vital work. Will the Minister therefore commit to protecting our protectors and ensure that the funding is there for veterans to get the support that they need?
The £10 million announced by the Chancellor in the Budget was another important commitment, but we have also seen a greater commitment in the past few weeks with the launch of Operation Courage. It is the first integrated, single front-door approach to mental healthcare in our NHS for our veterans. It truly is a game-changer, and I urge veterans up and down the country to make sure that they are fully aware of what it offers. I will be going from this place to ensure that every GP practice and every NHS trust in the UK is part of that programme to ensure we do our duty by those who serve.
Five years ago, the Government announced that veterans could access the state-of-the-art £300 million Defence Medical Rehabilitation Centre, but it has seen just 22 people in the past three years. What steps will the Minister be taking to widen veteran access to these facilities and make a meaningful difference to the day-to-day lives of those who have sustained serious injuries during their service?
I have commissioned a review into veterans’ access to the Defence and National Rehabilitation Centre. It is an important project. To be clear, in its original specification, it was a national rehab centre, but I recognise that there are opportunities for veterans to access world-class healthcare there. I have asked the veterans community and others to go away, do a piece of work and understand the ask. We will then address that with the DNRC, and I hope we can find a path through the middle to ensure we are looking after those who have served.
Covid-19: NHS Support
The work of our armed forces in supporting the covid response is popular around the country and popular in Parliament, too. Defence has supported the NHS through the construction of Nightingale hospitals, PPE distribution, planning and logistical support, scientific advice, testing and vaccine delivery. Currently, the Ministry of Defence is providing 199 medical personnel to regional NHS trusts, and 321 general duties personnel are providing a range of support tasks, including support to the ambulance services. Some 1,600 defence medical professionals are also embedded in the national health service.
I would like to pay tribute to the armed forces personnel in Carshalton and Wallington for all they have done to help tackle coronavirus. Will my hon. Friend join me in thanking the hundreds of defence personnel across London who have been seconded to hospitals throughout the duration of the pandemic, fulfilling medical and general roles? Will he also outline the plans the MOD has for continuing that offer of support in the coming months?
I certainly join my hon. Friend, as I hope will the rest of the House, in thanking defence personnel for supporting the NHS across London over the past year. Those thanks should also recognise the NHS and frontline workers whom it has been our great privilege to work alongside at the strategic level here in Whitehall, all the way down to those in wards and in the back of ambulances across the country throughout the pandemic.
Besides MACA—military aid to the civil authorities—support for specific tasks, Defence has an enduring presence within the NHS for training and personnel placements. Work is being done to expand that for future opportunities, given the experience of our people working alongside the brilliant NHS clinicians throughout the pandemic.
Will the Minister join me in thanking the military personnel who set up the asymptomatic testing sites in Sevenoaks and Swanley? The 35 Engineer Regiment managed the whole process swiftly and efficiently, and has made it as pleasant as possible to visit. They deserve to be recognised.
I absolutely join my hon. Friend in praising the fabulous work of the 35 Engineer Regiment and the Kent resilience unit, which supported Kent County Council to deliver its community testing programme and to establish the Sevenoaks asymptomatic testing site. Armed forces personnel have been working tirelessly across the United Kingdom to help tackle this pandemic, and I know she is not alone in wanting to pass her thanks on to all those who have done such amazing work.
In times of crisis, such as foot and mouth disease 20 years ago, flooding catastrophes and now the coronavirus pandemic, the armed forces have been deployed effectively to keep us safe by working closely with the emergency services, the NHS and local authorities. Will my hon. Friend join me in paying tribute to the thousands of UK armed forces personnel who, aside from keeping us safe, are ready to be deployed in national times of crisis and have bolstered the vaccine effort, supported hospitals, assisted with covid testing and much more?
I thank my hon. Friend for his comments, and I wholeheartedly join him in recognising the consistency and excellence of the support that the armed forces have provided to the United Kingdom both in the past and throughout the covid-19 pandemic. It is worth mentioning that, throughout times like this, they are not just working on homeland resilience but continue with the many jobs they have to do overseas to keep countries safe. It is an extraordinary effort, and it is right that they should be recognised in this way in the House.
Will the Minister join me in thanking the 35 military personnel who continue to support the frontline team at South Central ambulance service, which serves my constituents? Will he confirm that the MOD will continue to be there by their side as we move towards the end of all national restrictions on 21 June?
I, of course, join my hon. Friend in thanking and acknowledging the fine work of the armed forces personnel supporting the South Central ambulance service, as well as those who have been supporting ambulance services in the north-west, London and Wales. Supporting the covid-19 pandemic response remains Defence’s main priority, and I can confirm that Defence will continue to provide support while our assistance is requested and the requirement endures.
Last summer, I met members of our armed forces in my constituency of Morley and Outwood who were undertaking tests for people who may have covid. These brave men and women are British heroes, and throughout the pandemic, they have done everything possible to keep the people of our great nation safe. Will the Minister detail the steps that are being taken to strengthen support services for our armed forces and their families so that we can show them the same support that they have shown us?
My hon. Friend is right to notice just how extraordinary the work of our armed forces has been. They have accepted great risk during the pandemic in doing the things we have asked them to do, which will have been of some concern for their families. While they have often been deployed at short notice, we have tried to make sure that the welfare provisions for them are as good as they can be. We also recognise the demands of service life and the impact that they can have on the lives and careers of family members. My hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) has done excellent work on the armed forces families’ strategy and action plan, and we are looking to develop those ideas fully over the next few months.
Covid-19: Vaccine Roll-out
We have established a support package of 14,400 personnel who are on stand-by to support covid-19 and winter resilience tasks. Those personnel have a range of diverse capabilities, including planning, logistical and medical. Approximately 700 personnel are currently deployed in support of the covid-19 vaccine roll-out.
I would like to give my massive thanks to all the military and defence personnel who have done such a fantastic job in establishing our field hospitals and in the vaccination programme; they certainly deserve a pay rise. Of the 250 teams of vaccinators promised in December, how many have now been deployed, and how many in Wales?
Forty two of the 252 available vaccination teams are now deployed as part of the vaccine quick response force. In Wales, 34 medical personnel are directly supporting the administering of vaccines, with approximately 150 personnel helping to co-ordinate and operate vaccine centres.
The number of personnel currently serving in the Army as full-time trade trained strength is 76,350. That is supported by 26,920 Army reserves.
I thank the Minister for that answer. For years, the Ministry of Defence has staggered from one recruitment crisis to another as it has struggled and failed to meet its personnel targets, including the broken promise of 12,500 personnel to be based in Scotland by 2020. The Government are now set to cut a further 10,000 soldiers. Can the Minister confirm whether any regiments are due to be disbanded completely and whether these further cuts will pertain to Scotland, which was promised thousands more personnel, not thousands less?
The hon. Gentleman tempts me to pre-empt the announcement next week. He will have heard my colleagues say already that these are things he just has to wait seven days more to understand.
Mental Health Support for Veterans
The Office for Veterans’ Affairs champions our veterans’ mental health and wellbeing needs at the heart of Government. This month, we launched Op Courage, bringing together three NHS England veterans’ mental health services with a single point of access, something we promised to do when we were established 18 months ago.
But waiting times for face-to-face appointments under the veterans’ transition, intervention and liaison mental health service was 37 days in 2020 against the Government’s own target of 14. North-east charities, such as Forward Assist and Anxious Minds in Newcastle, do fantastic work to support veterans in civilian life, but they have been overwhelmed with demand. Does the Minister agree that care for the mental wellbeing of our armed forces veterans must begin before they leave the armed forces, and what is he doing to ensure that they are better supported in that transition to civilian life?
I do not recognise the waiting times the hon. Member relays to me, but I am happy to write to her about what I understand them to be. Let me be really clear that with the funding that has gone into veterans’ mental health—£16 million written into the long-term plan for the NHS, rising to £20 million by 2022-23—I am absolutely determined that world-class veterans’ mental health care will be available in this country. Op Courage, which we launched last week, is the start of that, and we will continue with that progress.
Last week, we saw Meghan Markle speaking out about how her pleas for support for her mental health crisis were dismissed. While obviously the military is a very different institution, military charities continue to see an increase in demand for mental health support, although people do still struggle to speak out. What steps is the Minister taking to help reduce the stigma around mental health in the military and veteran community?
I pay tribute to the hon. Member for all the championing she does in this area. Mental health has come on in leaps and bounds, particularly in the last five to 10 years. Actually, this year we are introducing mandatory mental health and fitness training for our armed forces personnel, which they will undergo every year. We are fundamentally changing our approach to mental health, fundamentally making it easier for people to come forward. It does take courage, but I encourage all those who have mental health concerns to speak up. There is help available, and they can get better.
Submarine Dismantling Programme
Ministers have regular discussions with the Submarine Delivery Agency on the progress of the submarine dismantling project and the MOD holds regular discussions with the Office for Nuclear Regulation, which is satisfied with the safety performance at Rosyth dockyard.
I thank the Minister for his response. Any delay in the submarine dismantling programme is of grave concern to my Dunfermline and West Fife constituency, where we accommodate many of these redundant submarines. Can the Minister confirm whether the Government’s commitment to endorse the recommendations of the Public Accounts Committee in 2019 still holds, or will his Department continue to move the goalposts to guarantee that the removal of these boats will remain a taxpayers’ nightmare forever?
I believe I am right in saying that we have now adopted all the recommendations of the PAC report, and we remain committed to continuing to decommission these boats in a safe and swift way. There were, and I have written to the hon. Gentleman, some small delays due to covid, but they were minimal, and we are continuing with the programme and are committed to continuing to do so.
Service Justice System
The Armed Forces Bill includes measures to reform the service justice system. This includes the creation of an independent Service Police Complaints Commissioner. In addition, we have commissioned an independent review of policing and prosecutorial processes for dealing with serious criminal offending overseas.
As my hon. Friend knows, there are many service personnel and veterans in Derbyshire Dales, and they expect to see real justice in the service justice system. Can my hon. Friend say what else, other than what is in the Armed Forces Bill, is going to be brought forward to protect justice in the system?
There is a suite of measures in the Armed Forces Bill. The most significant thing we are introducing is a serious crime unit, which will ensure that our investigators are skilled, capable, and have all the tools they need to conduct investigations of a standard that will withstand ECHR compliance tests and such things. We totally understand the need to address not only that issue but the legal side of this matter through the Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Bill. We are determined for uniform to be no hiding place for those who commit offences, and as we go forward, we will improve the standard of those investigations. These provisions will be a serious step towards doing that.
Service Medal Awards
The review by the independent Advisory Military Sub-Committee into medallic recognition for those who participated in the UK’s nuclear test programme concluded that it did not meet the level of risk and rigour required for the reward of a campaigning medal or class. That independent process operates to strict criteria, and the outcome in no way diminishes the contribution of veterans. The Government remain grateful to all who participated.
Our nuclear test veterans were sent to the south Pacific in the 1950s at great risk to themselves. They have heard decades of warm rhetoric about their crucial role in the country’s defence during the cold war and beyond, but they lack formal recognition. Recently, a constituent wrote to me:
“My dad was a veteran who was present at two of the grapple tests on Christmas Island in the 1950s. Sadly, my dad is no longer with us and never got round to seeing the Government award a medal or compensation to the veterans.”
Does the Minister share my concern that no more nuclear test veterans such as my constituent’s father should pass away with their contribution left unrecognised?
Their contributions are not unrecognised. We work hard to ensure a programme of support for those who have become ill as a result of their exposure to nuclear tests. This is a consistent process that we are always refining, and the review I undertook eight months ago tightened up that support. The medallic system is outwith the control of Ministers and always has been. It is rightly in that position, but I am determined to continue to do all I can to support this cohort of nuclear test veterans.
Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy
Our people are our finest asset, and the Government will continue to invest in our extraordinary armed forces personnel. We are committed to ensuring that the UK continues to have the world-class armed forces it deserves. I will publish further details of my plans on 22 March.
Will my right hon. Friend outline what consultation has been undertaken with our military personnel ahead of the policy changes that will be announced as part of the integrated review and defence Command Paper?
From the very beginning of the integrated review and defence reform process, we have engaged with the chiefs and many members of the armed forces across all services. We have been informed throughout that process by defence intelligence and other intelligence products, to ensure that our plans match the threat that we face, as well as the capabilities that we should give to the men and women of our armed forces.
We greatly value everyone who serves in our armed forces, wherever they come from, for their contribution to the security of our nation. Non-UK personnel can settle in the United Kingdom after four years’ service, and I am pleased to confirm that we are extending the time before discharge so that applicants can be submitted from 10 to 18 weeks before they leave. In addition, an imminent consultation is due, and I urge Members to contribute to that and to try to solve the current ongoing issues regarding Commonwealth veterans.
Pay up or pack up: that is the shameful choice presented to our Commonwealth servicemen and women. I am aware of the strength of feeling that the Secretary of State has on this issue. Will he confirm when we will see the public consultation? Will the reforms promised apply to veterans and families, as well as to serving personnel?
First, may I place on record my apology to the hon. Gentleman for the delay in responding to his correspondence? That should not have happened and I apologise for it. The consultation is imminent, and we will schedule it in as soon as possible. Once it has been published, I will be happy to sit down with as many Members as possible to discuss their views on what we are proposing and on whether the measures should go further. We can take it from that point. I understand what the hon. Gentleman is saying. I am keen that whatever we do is fair for all veterans, whether Gurkhas, or serving UK national or Commonwealth personnel. We must ensure equity, but at the same time I understand the strength of feeling in the House. Those who contribute should be recognised.
Military Aid to Civilian Authorities
Defence remains able to assist other Departments where appropriate and, through prudent planning, has continued to provide support when required throughout the pandemic. Mitigation measures such as testing of key personnel and adaptation of working practices have ensured that Defence has maintained both its UK operational and contingent readiness, as well as being able to generate the forces we require for our commitments overseas.
As a proud veteran, I am delighted to see what our great armed forces have done throughout this pandemic. They continue to go over and above. Will my hon. Friend go over and above in honouring our armed forces by seeing that they have everything they need in the integrated review to stand proud on the world stage?
I look forward to the announcement later in the week and next Monday, but I have a strong suspicion that it will be jam-packed full of opportunities for our men and women to serve at home and around the world in really fulfilling roles that keep our country safer for the future.
Included in my responsibilities is the duty to uphold the duty of care to our workforce. We were all appalled by the reporting we saw of the incident involving members of the RAF Regiment at the weekend. The RAF police are investigating the incident and the victims have been offered our full support. The Chief of the Air Staff and I had a discussion about the incident over the weekend and he has, with my support, acted quickly. He has removed officers from the immediate chain of command without prejudice pending the findings of the police investigation, and the unit involved, the Support Weapons Flight, will be disbanded with immediate effect. Bullying, harassment and discrimination has no place in our armed forces. I will not tolerate it and nor will the Chief of the Air Staff.
What proportion of servicemen and women are currently deployed in UN peacekeeping, what was it last year and how is it set to change over the next three years?
I can write to the hon. Lady with the exact proportions. All I can say is that there has been a significant increase recently, with the deployment to Mali of our forces to assist in the United Nations mission there. We also have a number of forces deployed in Somalia, assisting that fragile state in trying to come to terms with the consequences of the civil war. The Government are determined to continue to contribute to UN missions wherever we can, lending military support—not necessarily operational support, but in the logistics, the enabling and humanitarian aid.
Russia is rearming, Daesh is regrouping and China is nudging us out of military and trade partnerships across Africa, yet we are about to witness a shocking reduction in our conventional hard power and full-spectrum capabilities. That is overshadowed by the fanfare of announcements promoting a tilt towards niche capabilities, including electronic warfare and autonomous platforms. Yes, we must adapt to new threats, but that does not mean that the old threats have disappeared. Severe cuts to our infantry regiments, main battle tanks, armoured fighting vehicles and Hercules C-130s will worry our closest allies and delight our competitors. Regarding the F-35 jets, does the Secretary of State agree that cutting back our order from 138 to 48 will mean that, if required, we could never unilaterally operate both carriers in strike mode simultaneously?
I have listened to my right hon. Friend’s consistent messaging over the last few months. I think the thing that we can all agree with is that, as he said at the weekend,
“we must modernise—but first let’s agree the threat—& then design the right defence posture.”
That is exactly what we have been doing. Obviously, in the Ministry of Defence, we have made sure that we have been doing that in conjunction with our serving personnel, our allies and the threats. I think playing by the Ladybird book of defence design is not the way to progress.
Why are Britain’s full-time armed forces still 10,000 short of the numbers that the last defence review, in 2015, said were needed to meet the threats and keep the country safe, which the Defence Secretary’s Government pledged to meet?
I have listened to the right hon. Gentleman. We are 6,000 under. The strength is 76,500 from the 82,000 that was pledged. He will of course know—it is well documented—that under the previous coalition Government and Conservative Government there was not a satisfactory outcome by the recruiting process. That has now been fixed. Until the covid break, we were on target to fulfil the pipeline and target for that recruiting. We have to make sure we continue to invest in that. That is why we are investing in people. We will continue to invest throughout the process and next week there will be announcements that put people at the heart of our defence review.
The Secretary of State may want to check the numbers. I was talking about the full-time armed forces, not the full-time Army numbers. He has rightly said before that our forces personnel will go to war alongside robots in the future, but robots do not seize and hold vital ground from the enemy. They do not keep the peace or rebuild broken societies, and they do not give covid jabs. Size matters and no Government can secure the nations with under-strength armed forces. Is it not the truth that over the past decade we have seen our armed forces run down—numbers down, pay down, morale down—and that all the indication from stories ahead of tomorrow’s integrated review is that Ministers are set to make the same mistakes as in the last reviews, with our servicemen and women paying the price for cuts and bad defence budgeting?
The right hon. Gentleman seems to forget that for the past three or four decades we have had that characteristic, where Government after Government have been over-ambitious and underfunded the defence policy. His Government did it. The Governments before mine have done the same things. I only have to point him, as I do during at every defence questions, to the National Audit Office report into the processes of his Government in 2010 and our previous Governments to show that the biggest problem is that we have been promising soldiers, men and women of the armed forces equipment they never got, or numbers gains when just tying them up alongside. That is not the way to confront an enemy. The way to confront the enemy is to invest in the people, give them the right equipment to take on the threat, and make sure they are active, busy and forward. As a soldier, being active, busy and forward is what keeps you engaged and in there.
I am sorry that that has been my hon. Friend’s experience. I think in the public sector it is cyber-security. In the intelligence services I worked with when I was Security Minister and in key parts of the armed forces, such as the Signal Regiment, there are higher proportions of women. I think that is something on which the state can lead. That is why the state signed up and sponsored the CyberFirst campaign, designed to stimulate among girls at school an interest in cyber and to invest in them. Hopefully, we are seeing an increase in that. But she can rest assured that with the next stage of the defence review she will see us making sure that, loud and clear, the sign “women are welcome” will be put above the door.
The hon. Lady refers to two bits of potential industrial action. I have written to her about RAF Leeming in the last month. Obviously, it is a source of concern when employers and employees fall out, but I am not going to get into discussions on the specific action involved. We urge all those involved to come to an agreement.
The UK Government are committed to working with the Government of India and increasing our efforts to combat shared threats. In particular, the UK is focused on increasing bilateral maritime co-operation in the Indian ocean and on ensuring a closer defence industrial relationship in line with Prime Minister Modi’s made in India policy. We are also committed to uplifting our defence education and training relationship to enable us to work together more effectively. I am certain that my hon. Friend and our friends in India will be hugely excited by what may follow in the integrated review.
I am not going to prejudge in advance of the announcements that are going to be made. They will all be made in the next eight days or so. The hon. Gentleman will be able to see for himself, but I assure him that we have gone through the numbers very closely and there is a lot of new money coming into defence—a £24 billion increase in the amount of money being spent on defence. We can see an awful lot of benefit coming through to our armed forces and our personnel.
Many constituencies and many constituents will benefit from it. I know my hon. Friend is a fierce advocate for Leonardo helicopters in his part of the world. In that particular case, we really value our strategic partnership arrangements and recognise the contribution that they make to UK prosperity. We will shortly be publishing the findings of our review into the defence and security industrial strategy, setting out our strategic approach to a number of sectors.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising that question. First and foremost, I can give him some reassurance that not only are we continuing to move our submarines from the south to the north to invest in basing in Scotland—for submarine basing, and submarines pose just as lethal a threat to our adversaries as any surface fleet—but we continue to patrol the high north, recently in the Barents sea, and earlier in the year when we returned for the first time since the cold war, joining NATO allies to make sure that those vital trade routes are invested in. From my point of view, the key place for a ship is at sea doing its job on operations. The bases are very important, but let us remember that the way we protect our coast is by being out at sea.
My hon. Friend is right to ask about the actions of the ICC. We of course respect the independence of the ICC, but we expect it to exercise due prosecutorial and judicial discipline. We continue to engage with the ICC and international partners to make those points.
Under Op Courage, the new NHS pathway for all veterans’ mental health, there is an ability to monitor waiting times in almost real-time data, and I am absolutely committed to meeting those targets. There is significant investment going into it. I will always argue for more investment in something that has historically been underinvested in for so long. But I am confident that, as we stand here today, we have a world-class offering of mental health provision for our veterans, and it is incumbent on all of us to get that cohort to understand where that help is, to understand what the care pathways are and to have hope, because they can get better and they will be looked after.
The recent conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh demonstrated with brutal clarity the devastating impact of unmanned aerial vehicles, intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance and traditional artillery when combined to produce a lethal cocktail of precision, lethality and range. The destruction of Armenian forces throughout the battlefield, not just on the frontline, demonstrated the vulnerability even of armoured forces on the modern battlefield. This includes our own forces, which is not something that, as Defence Secretary, I am willing to ignore any further. I will set out further details in the future review.
The hon. Member will know that I held a debate in the House as a Back-Bencher about that very debt and the need and determination to repay it, as it is a stain on Britain’s honour from when we dealt with this in the 1970s. It is definitely the intention that we comply with any court orders that are made against us, and we continue to do so, but we have to ensure that whatever we do is in line with both this law and the sanctions law that we have to observe as well.
Warton plays a key role in the UK’s combat air sector and Tempest is the future of that sector, with over 1,800 highly skilled engineers already involved in the programme, going up to 2,500 next year. As the Prime Minister has made clear, this Government are committed to investing in the future of our combat air strategy.
The Armed Forces Bill is an important opportunity to enshrine the armed forces covenant. I understand that for some it goes too far and for some it does not go far enough. I say to the hon. Member that it is the start of the process and the start of a conversation to ensure that the experience of being a veteran is levelled up across this country, and I look forward to working with her in the years ahead.
I hope we may have found a technical solution that would enable base-dependent sites to be dealt with to allow sales to social housing providers if the parties agree. Our advice is that the transfer of supply can generally be effected relatively rapidly, and we are willing to share this advice with Annington, which will need to be satisfied that it can perform connections to mains networks safely and efficiently with tenants in situ.
I am aligned with my right hon. Friend’s views. The Secretary of State has worked tirelessly on this issue to try to correct the historic injustice of war widows’ pensions. We continue to examine all possibilities, including the ex gratia scheme and all the other ideas that my right hon. Friend has come up with in his tireless campaigning. We will arrive at a solution. Like I said, the Secretary of State is committed to resolving it, and we will get there in the end.
The Government maintain that every F-35 built has 15% UK content, but I understand that the MOD’s definition of “content” includes work carried out for UK companies by US subsidiaries. Will the Minister therefore publish how he defines UK content in the programme, so that I can decide what is done in the UK and what is done in the US?
I have received a large number of parliamentary questions from the right hon. Gentleman, and I believe that I have answered that question as part of them. If not, I will make certain that it is clear to him. It is 15% by value, and we are proud of the contribution that is being made by UK manufacturing to the F-35. I will make certain that that is covered again.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. The ministerial code is clear that
“When Parliament is in session, the most important announcements of Government policy should be made in the first instance, in Parliament.”
I know that you believe this principle to be fundamental to the proper role of Parliament and the accountability of Ministers. We look forward to the Prime Minister’s statement tomorrow on the integrated review, yet over the last week there have been a series of detailed media briefings about decisions in that integrated review. With the Defence Secretary in his place, can you offer guidance to the House, ahead of the follow-up Command Paper on Monday and the defence industrial strategy on Tuesday, so that we do not have the same serious disregard of the ministerial code and disrespect for Parliament?
Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. We have indeed seen a steady drumbeat of media stories promoting radical changes to our defence posture, but the Defence Committee has not received any of those briefings, despite frequent departmental requests. What troubles me the most is the MOD’s decision to share with the media the desire to increase our nuclear stockpile with the purchase of 200 W93 US-made warheads. I am a firm supporter of continuous at-sea deterrence, but changes to our non-proliferation policy deserve proper oversight in this House and should not be used a sweetener to overshadow dramatic cuts to our conventional defence posture. May I ask for your guidance on how we can encourage the MOD to brief the Defence Committee—perhaps in the Ladybird book form that the Defence Secretary likes to promote—and to ensure that any announcements on CASD are made in this Chamber first?
I am grateful to both right hon. Gentlemen for giving me notice of their points of order. “Erskine May” states that
“The Speaker has made it clear that the media should not be informed about the content of statements before they have been made to the House”.
When a statement is made, Members will of course have an opportunity to ask about any advance briefing given to the media, but my position is clear: I want important policy announcements to be made first to this House. Ministers on the Treasury Bench will have heard the comments of the right hon. Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey) and the Chair of the Defence, Committee as well as this response. I expect that that response will be shared with all Ministers and that they will act accordingly. Thank you.
I suspend the House to enable the necessary arrangements to be made for the next business.
Policing and Prevention of Violence against Women
Before we come to the statement by the Home Secretary, I need to inform the House that because charges have now been brought in the Sarah Everard case, legal proceedings are now active for the purposes of the House’s sub judice resolution. That means that reference should not be made to the case, including to any details of those against whom charges have been brought. It is, however, in order to discuss the relationship between the covid-19 regulations and the right to protest, for example. I now call the Home Secretary.
With permission, Mr Speaker, I should like to make a statement on the tragic death of Sarah Everard and the events of Saturday evening. I would like to begin by saying that my thoughts and prayers are with Sarah’s family and friends at this unbearable time. I know that every Member of this House will join me in offering her loved ones our deepest sympathies. While this is a horrific case, which has rightly prompted debate and questions about wider issues, we must remember that a young woman has lost her life and that a family is grieving.
Let me turn to this weekend’s events. I have already said that some of the footage circulating online of Clapham common is upsetting. While the police are rightly operationally independent, I asked the Metropolitan police for a report into what had happened. This Government back our police in fighting crime and keeping the public safe, but in the interests of providing greater assurance and ensuring public confidence, I have asked Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary to conduct a full, independent lessons-learned review. The Metropolitan Police Commissioner has welcomed this and I will await the report and, of course, update the House in due course.
I would like to take a moment to acknowledge why Sarah’s death has upset so many. My heartache and that of others can be summed up in just five words, “She was just walking home.” While the specific circumstances of Sarah’s disappearance are thankfully uncommon, what has happened has reminded women everywhere of the steps that we take each day without a second thought to keep ourselves safe. It has rightly ignited anger at the danger posed to women by predatory men, an anger I feel as strongly as anyone. Accounts shared online in the wake of Sarah’s disappearance are so powerful because every single one of us can relate to them. Too many of us have walked home from school or work alone only to hear footsteps uncomfortably close behind us. Too many of us have pretended to be on the phone to a friend to scare someone off. Too many of us have clutched our keys in our fist in case we need to defend ourselves. And that is not okay.
Women and girls must feel safe while walking our streets. That is why we have continued to take action. Our landmark Domestic Abuse Bill is on track to receive Royal Assent by the end of April, and this will transform our collective response to that abhorrent crime. It builds on other measures that we have introduced, including the controlling or coercive behaviour offence and the domestic violence disclosure scheme, known as Clare’s law, which enables individuals to ask the police whether their partner has a violent or abusive past. We have also introduced new preventative tools and powers to tackle crimes including stalking, female genital mutilation and so-called upskirting, but we can never be complacent. That is why throughout the passage of the Domestic Abuse Bill, we have accepted amendments from hon. Members from political parties across the House. The Bill now includes a new offence of non-fatal strangulation, outlaws threats to disclose intimate images and extends the controlling or coercive behaviour offence to cover post-separation abuse. This is in addition to the Bill’s existing measures, which include a new statutory definition of domestic abuse that recognises the many forms that abuse can take—psychological, physical, emotional, economic and sexual—and, of course, the impact of abuse on children, as well as new rules to prevent victims from having to go through the pain of being cross-examined by their abusers in family and civil courts.
We all know that action is needed to improve the outcomes for rape cases, and we are currently developing robust actions as part of our end-to-end review of rape to reverse the decline in outcomes in recent years. At the end of last year, in December, I launched the first ever public survey of women and girls to hear their views on how we can better tackle these gendered crimes. On Friday, in the wake of the outpouring of grief, I reopened that survey. I can tell the House that as of 11 am today, the Home Office had received 78,000 responses since 6 pm on Friday. That is completely unprecedented, and considerably more than the 18,000 responses received over the entire 10-week period when the survey was previously open. I am listening to women and girls up and down the country, and their views will help to shape a new strategy on tackling violence against women and girls, which I will bring forward to the House later this year.
The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, which we will shortly be debating, will end the halfway release of those convicted for sexual offences such as rape. Instead, under our law, vile criminals responsible for these terrible crimes will spend at least two thirds of their time behind bars. Our new law will extend the scope of the Sexual Offences Act 2003 with regard to the abuse of positions of trust—something that predominantly affects young girls—and it will introduce Kay’s law, which will encourage the police to impose pre-charge bail with appropriate conditions where it is necessary and proportionate to do so. We hope that that will provide reassurance and additional protection for alleged victims in high harm cases such as domestic abuse. I note that the Opposition will be voting against these crucial measures to support victims of violent crimes, including young women and girls.
The Government are providing an extra £40 million to help victims during the pandemic and beyond. Last month we launched a new Government advertising campaign, #ItStillMatters, to raise awareness of sexual violence services and ensure that victims know where to get help.
Over the past year, during the coronavirus pandemic, the police have been faced with an unenviable and immensely difficult task—one that, for the most part, they have approached with skill and professionalism—of helping to enforce regulations, as determined by Parliament, with one crucial objective in mind: to save lives. On 6 January, this House approved those changes by 524 votes to 16. Sadly, as of Sunday 14 March, more than 125,500 lives have been lost to this horrible virus. It is for that reason that I continue to urge everyone, for as long as these regulations are in place, not to participate in large gatherings or attend protests. The right to protest is the cornerstone of our democracy, but the Government’s duty remains to prevent more lives from being lost during the pandemic.
There will undoubtedly be more discussions of these vital issues in the days and weeks to come, but we cannot and must not forget that a family is grieving. I know that the thoughts and prayers of the whole House are with Sarah’s loved ones at this truly terrible time.
I thank the Home Secretary for coming to the House to make a statement and for advance sight of it. We come together at a time of national grief and what must now be a time of change. The news of Sarah Everard’s death is heartbreaking for us all and our thoughts are with her family and friends. Although I of course appreciate the legal sensitivity of the case, reports around its circumstances are extremely distressing.
The reaction to Sarah Everard’s death throughout the country has been extraordinarily powerful and moving, led by the passionate voices of women and girls who are rightly demanding action and change. It cannot be right that so many women continue to fear for their safety on a daily basis, whether on the streets or at home. The testimonies that have been shared highlight the unacceptable levels of abuse and misogyny—harassment on the streets; women walking home with their headphones turned off so that they can listen for threats, keys between fingers; women being told to stay home after dark to avoid attackers. Let me be clear: it is not women who should change their behaviour; it is men and wider society that need to change.
At times like this, it is vital that people are able to have their voices heard—in, of course, a way that is lawful and covid-secure—yet this weekend in Clapham things clearly went very wrong. I share the anger about the policing and the scenes that we saw. It is right that the Mayor of London has shown leadership by calling on Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary and the Independent Office for Police Conduct to investigate. The Home Secretary asked for a report from the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, and I hope she will publish it, because transparency is so important. Will the Home Secretary also publish the minutes of the advance meeting that was held on Friday, as mentioned by the Minister for Crime and Policing in the media this morning? Will she confirm what communication she personally had with the Metropolitan police prior to the events on Saturday?
Although Saturday’s event was a vigil, not a protest, the scenes from Clapham should be a red warning light to the Government: Ministers should not be rushing through laws that crack down on protest. The truth is that the Government are failing to address violence against women and girls and Ministers even want to curtail their right to protest about it. It is a chronic failure of the Government. Meetings and the reopening of surveys are nowhere near enough—and we understand that the Minister for Women and Equalities will not even be attending the meeting this evening.
Figures from the Office for National Statistics show that recorded rapes doubled between 2014 and 2019—doubled. The crime survey for England and Wales showed that more than 2 million people experience domestic abuse in a year, yet only a tiny fraction of perpetrators are charged and charging rates are falling. The justice system sends a perverse message that murdering someone at home—which predominantly means men killing women—is a lesser crime than killing someone in the street, because it hands out shorter sentences for domestic homicides.
The 296-page Bill that we will consider later contains the word “memorial” eight times and fails to include the word “women” once. The Government’s message is that they want to lock up for 10 years people who damage the statues of slave traders, when rape sentences start at half of that. I say to the Government that unless this changes—unless there is action on homicide, on street harassment and on stalking—the Bill will risk becoming an abuser’s charter that just allows violence and injustice on our streets and in our homes to continue unchecked.
Ministers have been on the airwaves today struggling to find aspects of the Bill that will make a difference to addressing violence against women and girls. Let me take just one example: Ministers have pointed to whole-life tariffs for rape. When the Home Secretary gets to her feet, will she say how many rape convictions have resulted in life terms? The answer is hardly any. Today, the High Court ruled in favour of the status quo on rape. It is a status quo that is shameful and that the Government must change. The figures show that 99% of rapes reported to the police in England and Wales result in no legal proceedings whatsoever—99%. It is effectively a get-out-of-jail-free card and it is appalling.
It does not have to be this way: this could be a time of national unity when we decide to come together as a country to put forward protections. Either the Government can change course and take the necessary action, or Ministers will find themselves on the wrong side of history once again.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his comments, but at a time when the country is mourning a significant loss and there are moments of great unity,
I am quite sorry to hear his tone, particularly regarding the Government’s record on and commitment to tackling violence against women and girls.
The right hon. Gentleman will be well sighted—more than aware—of the significant contributions of all Members of this House to the Domestic Abuse Bill, which has been under debate, scrutiny, challenge and amendment for a considerable period of time, and is in the House of Lords right now. I emphasise that we are committed to addressing violence against women and girls at the highest level. Look at the work of this Government over the last decade; I pay particular tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May) for all her work, as she was the one who really set the bar high in legislation. That work includes not just the DA Bill, but all the measures to address female genital mutilation, and violence against women and girls, and all the money and support that has been put forward for charities. This Government are building on those measures, and no one can ignore that simple fact.
The right hon. Gentleman referred to the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, which will be debated this afternoon, and he specifically mentioned rape and rape convictions. The Bill is a criminal justice Bill as well as a policing Bill, and he will be very mindful of the work that the Government are undertaking right now through the end-to-end rape review to completely reverse the decline in outcomes that we have seen in recent years; this Government are increasingly very honest and upfront about that decline in outcomes. We are working with all relevant parties, including the Crown Prosecution Service. We want to change the direction there. There is much more work to come and that will be published in due course—shortly, in fact.
To say that the Bill does nothing for women is completely wrong, especially when it comes to sentencing, because it will end the halfway release of those convicted for sexual offences such as rape. Instead, our laws will go after those vile criminals, and they will spend at least two thirds of their time behind bars. It is worth reflecting that it was a Labour Government in 2003 who made automatic halfway release mandatory for all standard determinate sentences, regardless of whether the offender had been convicted of a violent or sexual offence. The Bill that the House will debate later will reverse that policy.
The right hon. Gentleman said that there is no specific mention of women in the Bill. That is another accusation that I reject, primarily because it is a criminal law and sentencing Bill, which applies equally to everybody. The Labour party knows that it is in line with the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005 and the Criminal Justice Act 2003, neither of which, as Bills that related to criminal justice and sentencing, mentioned women.
There are many other measures that we will discuss later in the passage of the Bill, but I want to come back to the points that I made in my statement. It is right that I have had many discussions with the Metropolitan police and specifically the commissioner on Friday and over the weekend in relation to preparations and planning prior to Saturday evening. My comments are public and on the record regarding what has happened and, quite frankly, the upsetting images of Saturday evening. A review is now being conducted by Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary. It is right that that takes place. No one should prejudge anything in terms of conduct until we absolutely see what has happened through that report. The police are, rightly, operationally independent.
All of us in this House—this is not just about the Government—want to work to drive the right outcomes, so that women feel safe. Laws and legislation will absolutely do that; there is no question about that. But this is also about behaviour and culture—that is culture across society, and that is culture with men as well, and we should be up-front about that and never shy away from being honest in discussing that. Right now, all Members should have in their thoughts and prayers Sarah’s family and friends at this particularly unbearable time.
I thank my right hon. Friend for her remarks. She is right to remind us that behind the events of Saturday lies the tragic death of Sarah Everard, a bright young woman dearly loved by her family and friends. I join my right hon. Friend and other Members of the House in saying that my thoughts and prayers are with Sarah’s family and friends at this time. We want justice for Sarah. We also want women to be able to feel and be safe on our streets and in their homes.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that we must redouble our efforts to ensure that the Government’s excellent Domestic Abuse Bill reaches the statute book next month, as anticipated, but also recognise that legislation is not enough? If we are going to eradicate violence against women and girls, we need a change of attitudes. That is about dealing with perpetrators and changing their behaviour but also teaching young men and boys about respect for women and what is or is not acceptable in a relationship.
I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend for her work and leadership around domestic abuse and violence against women and girls. She is absolutely right that the Domestic Abuse Bill is a landmark piece of legislation that all Members of the House should feel proud of, in terms of the work that has come together across the House. She is also right about the cultural and behavioural aspects that must be changed. All of us have to be conscious of that. As a mother bringing up a young son, I think that respecting women and girls, treating everyone fairly with equality and understanding that there are no barriers in demonstrating that respect to one another and, importantly, tolerance of one another is absolutely vital.
There is so much more work to do. Legislation can only go so far. We can never, ever be complacent. The Government and both Houses share the determination and desire to do so much more when it comes to protecting girls and women, and we must be united in our strategies. This is not about just saying, “There’s a survey taking place.” We must all contribute to that. In fact, now that the survey has been reopened, I very much hope that Labour Members will contribute to it, to help us have a united and coherent approach—a one voice approach—to how we can support women and girls and prevent violence against women and girls.
The murder of Sarah Everard has truly shocked and saddened us all, and I join others in sending our heartfelt condolences to Sarah’s family and friends at this time. “She was walking home”—a sentence that resonates with all women. This tragedy serves as a stark reminder to women, who assess every aspect of their daily lives in fear of sexual violence, assault or abhorrent crimes at the hands of men. I once more take this opportunity to urge the Prime Minister to ratify the Istanbul convention without further delay.
Across the UK this weekend, women reclaimed the streets in protest and to pay tribute to the life of Sarah Everard. Police responding have received widespread criticism, and questions must be answered about whether the actions were necessary and proportionate to protect people and prevent public harm. The public health crisis has made restrictions necessary and public gatherings inadvisable. While the police face difficult decisions every day, it is impossible to watch the footage of the events at Clapham common without shock and concern that the policing appeared heavy-handed and disproportionate. It is therefore right that the chief inspector of constabulary has been asked to conduct a review. In Scotland, this incident would have been examined by the Independent Advisory Group—experts with a specific remit to ensure that the use of powers is consistent with human rights principles and legislation.
In terms of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, the right to protest must remain a fundamental human right. Will the Secretary of State confirm that the chief inspector’s review will focus on human rights as well as policing matters?
I thank the hon. Lady for her remarks and for her sentiment on the tragic death of Sarah Everard. If I may, I will come back on a number of points. The hon. Lady is absolutely right on the role of the inspectorate, and we will wait for that review and, obviously, I will report back. It is worth reflecting, once again, that this has been a difficult and demanding period for the police, with the impact of coronavirus restrictions—we know why they are in place. On the point about protest, I am very conscious that we will have the debate later this afternoon as well. This Government absolutely support freedom of expression and, clearly, the whole issue of the right to protest is fundamental to our democratic freedoms. Without wanting to pre-judge the debate or the future discussions on the Bill, let me say that the legislation will, of course, speak about the police using powers in terms of how they would manage protest, but it is also worth reflecting that this will be updating legislation—the Public Order Act 1986—that was enacted more than 30 years ago. So this will be very much part of the discussion we will be having in due course.
I join my right hon. Friend and voices from right across the House in paying my deepest condolences to Sarah Everard’s family and loved ones. It is a truly heartbreaking situation, which I know has allowed many women to find the strength to share their own experiences, and I was really moved to hear that 78,000 people have now responded to the reopened consultation. I am encouraging many others to do the same and share their voice. Does my right hon. Friend agree that if we really want to get the best outcome and make our streets feel safer for everyone, we have to listen to all voices—both men and women, and people of all political persuasions—to ensure that we are truly working together to deliver the change we need?
I thank my hon. Friend for her comments and her questions. She is of course absolutely right; this is a collective effort, for everyone to be part of shaping future strategy, policy and legislation. We can do that together, which is why it is unprecedented and incredible that 78,000 people have responded to the survey. We are really pleased about that, because we do want to encourage people to contribute. As you have heard me say, Mr Speaker, I encourage all Members of this House to play their role and join that contribution.
May I join in the expressions from across the House of deep sympathy and condolences to Sarah Everard’s family following her tragic death? Women across the country have been moved to talk about the experiences that we all share, and that no one should have to endure, of feeling threatened and unsafe on our own streets. Eight months ago, I put forward measures to deal with repeat perpetrators of abuse and stalking: to be able to register them; and to be able to prevent the problem where they move from one victim to another, no one keeps track and they get away with it. At that time, Ministers said that those measures were not needed. Has the Home Secretary looked at this again? Will she work with me, Baroness Royall and Paladin to make sure we can bring in these strong measures, take action against repeat perpetrators and keep more women safe?
The right hon. Lady is absolutely right about the points that she has been raising and the measures at large. There is something about perpetrators and their serial offending that has to be addressed—there is no question about that. Of course this does link predominantly to many of the criminal justice outcomes and the wider debate that this House will be having, not just later today, but over future weeks. I will be very candid: we will look at all measures, and rightly so. We should be doing everything possible to keep women safe—and indeed everybody safe. The behaviour of serial perpetrators and offenders is deeply corrosive and damaging, and obviously it has dreadful, dreadful implications and consequences. So we will be happy to continue not just to look at these measures, but, right now, with the violence against women and girls consultation that is under way, to engage with others and follow up on these points.
It is clearly unacceptable for any woman to feel unsafe walking the streets. Can I propose some practical measures that the Home Secretary might adopt? Can she introduce a fund to roll out much more CCTV around the country, which will help to make our streets safer for people and bring evidence where there is a crime committed? Can she stop taking people off the DNA database? There are huge numbers of crimes—sexual assaults, rapes and murders—where there is DNA evidence available but no match. The more people on the DNA database, the more chance of getting these people off our streets and rightly convicted. Can we increase the sentences for people convicted of sexual assaults and rapes? Can we stop the automatic early release of criminals who are still considered a threat to society? These measures would help to make our streets safer for everyone.
I thank my hon. Friend for his comments and his practical suggestions. We are doing a lot on CCTV, and we do have the Safer Streets fund, which he will be very aware of. He has raised a number of areas, and I suspect that if he were to join the Committee on the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, he could absolutely contribute to that and make those points there.
I join Members in continuing to extend our thoughts and prayers to Sarah Everard’s family. My constituents have reacted with justified anger to the Metropolitan police’s treatment of those in attendance at this weekend’s vigil to commemorate Sarah and all women who lost their lives to gender-based violence. It is bitterly ironic that an event intended to highlight the issue of public safety for women was blocked on the grounds of public safety. What happened this weekend is a reminder of what happens when police try to completely bypass the views of the communities they serve. Does the Home Secretary recognise that the police’s high-handed approach got the balance between public safety and the right to protest completely wrong? Does she agree that the police’s heavy-handed treatment of female protesters was wrong? Will she now accept that her Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill is ill-conceived? My constituents are very angry about what has happened and want to know what the Government will do to reassure them that they will proactively address violence against women and girls and deep-seated forms of institutional discrimination in the UK police.
I understand the sentiments that the hon. Lady is raising on behalf of her constituents and obviously recognise the constituency that she represents and the terrible, tragic events that have taken place. All our thoughts are clearly with Sarah Everard and her family. Of course, the Metropolitan police themselves had been involved with the vigil that was planned and spent a great deal of time with the organisers, and the Metropolitan police have been very public about that. I am not going to repeat my comments about seeking greater assurance and ensuring public confidence in policing, hence the reason why Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary is now conducting a full, independent “lessons learned” review. I think that is absolutely appropriate. My comments about Saturday evening are on the record and well known.
With regard to the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, that is a manifesto Bill that this Government were elected on, and we will of course participate in its Second Reading later on this afternoon. It is not ill-conceived at all. The British people voted for it. We live in a democracy and this Government will work to deliver on it.
I welcome the announced in-depth review of the criminal justice system when it comes to rape and sexual assault. Does my right hon. Friend agree that every part of the criminal justice system has to play its role in bringing perpetrators to justice and better supporting victims? A lot of rape happens within marriage, and it is not the best situation when people have married under the age of 18 to a man who is much older. Will she also look at that to see how we can stop that sort of situation arising?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and I would like to pay tribute to her for all her work and campaigning on this particular issue. Of course, she is absolutely right that this about the criminal justice system from an end-to-end perspective—from policing right through not just to charging, but to conviction. That is effectively what the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill is about, which is why it goes across two Departments.
The rape review is fundamentally important because obviously the numbers have not been going in the right direction. We have to understand the lessons as to why charging decisions have been how they are, and the impact on witnesses and victims themselves, including, with victims, the attrition that takes place when it comes to going to court. A lot of work is taking place in this area.
I should also mention in dispatches that the Prime Minister leads the crime and justice taskforce. This is one of those fundamental issues, again across Government—not just the Home Office, but across the MOJ—where we are bringing core elements together with the Director of Public Prosecutions, and working with the CPS and working with the Attorney General. These issues are absolutely integral to the entire system.
I send my condolences and thoughts to the family and friends of Sarah Everard at this most difficult of times.
The scenes of women being forced to the ground, restrained and arrested simply for holding a peaceful vigil in memory of Sarah Everard and in condemnation of violence against women and girls were utterly disgraceful. Of course the Met Commissioner Cressida Dick must resign, but what personal responsibility does the Home Secretary herself have for the terrible handling of this peaceful vigil? Did the Home Secretary speak to the Met commissioner in the run-up to the vigil, and if so, will she tell the House now what guidance and advice she gave the Met police in advance of the vigil?
The right hon. Gentleman is right in the sense that those scenes were distressing and upsetting. There is no question about that at all, and I have already spoken about the measures that are now in place for getting assurance about the way in which the Metropolitan police conducted its operations. It is rightly operationally independent, and the independent lessons learned review is obviously now taking place.
I had been in touch with the Metropolitan Police Commissioner on Friday and throughout the weekend, and we have had extensive discussions on planning and preparation for the vigil. I should, however, emphasise that on Friday there was legal action under way, so until that legal action had been determined—and of course the commissioner and the Met police themselves were engaging with the organisers of the vigil—there were various plans that the police were working on. I will be very clear, though: on Friday my views were known, and they were based on the fact that people obviously wanted to pay tribute within the locality.
We need to bear in mind that we are in a pandemic—we cannot forget that; we are in a health pandemic—but for people who live locally and out on a daily basis or passing through, laying flowers is absolutely the right thing to do, and we saw many people doing that. Of course, as I have said, those scenes on Saturday evening were upsetting. That is the reason why I asked the Metropolitan Police Commissioner to provide a report on the event itself and what happened, and now why we have a lessons learned review into the operational effect and the impact of what happened.
Like colleagues across the House, my condolences are with Sarah Everard’s family and friends.
All women should feel safe, and no offender should think they can abuse women on the streets or anywhere else. Does my right hon. Friend agree with me that all reports of allegations of abuse must be seriously and more rigorously investigated, and that there must be confidence in the justice system that it will do this and that it will support victims? Will she confirm that she intends that there will be such confidence in the justice system after the consultation on the violence against women and girls strategy?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Much of what we are discussing right now speaks to greater assurance and public confidence in the criminal justice system and of course, as Members have touched on already, in policing and the events on Saturday evening. It is vitally important that, through the VAWG consultation and the development of the strategy, we look at this not in an isolated way, but end to end. We need to look at the entire system, right down to the types of abuse and harassment that girls and women are experiencing. We need to look at the root causes and behavioural factors to understand why perpetrators and individuals are behaving in a particular way. We need to look at why abuse is taking place and at how we as a country and a Government tackle those issues. That does impinge on the criminal justice system. All our work is based on driving better outcomes—the right outcomes—so that, when criminality takes place, we can ensure that the perpetrators of crimes are receiving the tough sentences that they deserve.
I join others in extending my condolences to Sarah Everard’s family and to the families of Bibaa Henry and Nicole Smallman and countless others who have lost their lives because of male violence.
I acknowledge the particular policing challenges at a time of covid restrictions, but the Met is still obliged to follow the Human Rights Act and execute its powers proportionately and only when necessary. It is clear to everyone that it got it terribly wrong on Saturday night. Does the Secretary of State therefore not see that handing over yet more draconian powers to the police when they have so badly misjudged this situation would be both foolish and dangerous? A Bill that criminalises protests that are noisy and have impact effectively means cancelling this country’s long-standing right to peaceful protest altogether. Finally, will she stand in solidarity with the women arrested over the weekend and call for the withdrawal of any fixed-penalty notices that were issued because of the Met’s disproportionate response?
I will not go over my comments about the police on Saturday evening. Those points have been made. I absolutely disagree with what the hon. Lady said, but we will discuss it further on Second Reading of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill later this afternoon. The fact is that, as a country, we believe in freedom of expression, free speech and the rights of people to express themselves freely through protest—managed protest—in the right way. The police always engage with individuals and organisers. We will debate this during the course of the Bill, but I am afraid that the hon. Lady has completely misrepresented the proposals that we are putting forward.
The murder of Sarah Everard was a shocking event and I feel terribly sorry for what the family has gone through, made even edgier really by the fact that there have now been charges levelled against a police officer. We require police officers to protect everybody, particularly women. However, I received a note—
Order. I remind the right hon. Gentleman that we should not be talking about the suspect at this stage.
My apologies, Mr Speaker. I was not going to refer to him other than just in passing.
The reality is that my right hon. Friend has announced that she will have an inquiry into those terrible events on Saturday night. They were shameful, but it ill behoves politicians to get up and pass judgment on what happened without having all the evidence. I was contacted by a female police officer today to tell me what happened to her on that night. She was threatened and told that she, not Sarah Everard, should have been murdered. She was also manhandled. I simply say that both sides should be dialling this down, not trying to raise the temperature by calling for resignations.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his remarks—his point was well made. I, too, have been written to by many police officers expressing very similar sentiments from their own experiences. The point about not pre-judging is absolutely right. The police have operational independence. Obviously, as Home Secretary, I called for a report. I have now received that report, and an independent review is under way. It is right that we have that review, yes, for assurance purposes, but also to strengthen public confidence in policing and, obviously, for all Members of this House to hear the full facts of what happened in due course.
I take this opportunity to extend my personal sympathy to the family and friends of Sarah Everard at this horrific time.
In June 2020, I proposed a domestic abuse register for the early identification of abusive men as a means of preventing death and injury. The Minister for Safeguarding rejected that, claiming that current systems for preventing violence against women were adequate. The National Police Chiefs’ Council also objected, on the grounds of cost and its capacity to manage such a register.
I sense that the Government now recognise that the current system is failing women and that a properly funded, staffed and supported register for serial stalkers and domestic violence perpetrators is urgently needed. How will the Home Secretary ensure that such new proposals and funding properly account for the different legislative landscape in Wales, so that women in Wales are not excluded from future protections, which I hope are on their way?
I think this is an important moment for this House and for all colleagues when it comes to Domestic Abuse Bill measures, which have been extensively debated in the House. The right hon. Lady has clearly spoken about Wales and the authority and responsibilities there. We are absolutely working across the devolved Administrations, because we want consistency of approach.
It is right that we all work together to support women, and the Domestic Abuse Bill will absolutely do that. My hon. Friend the Minister for Safeguarding has worked extensively with all colleagues in the House on the issue that the right hon. Lady raises, but the fact of the matter is that we want that Bill to receive Royal Assent. It should do so very soon. We need that to happen to safeguard more and more women and give them the protection that they desperately need from their abusers.
I went to Clapham common bandstand yesterday evening to pay my own respects. I, like Members across the House, send my greatest sympathies and sadnesses to Sarah’s family.
I believe that it is highly regrettable that Members of the Opposition demand that the first female Commissioner of the Metropolitan police resign in this situation. May I ask my right hon. Friend what she is doing to ensure that the facts are understood properly before premature conclusions are made on people’s actions?
I thank my hon. Friend for his question and for the sentiment that he has shared with the House this afternoon. I agree entirely with his comments. Alongside that, of course, he asks what I am doing. I have commissioned the inspectorate of constabulary. It is important that we have the full facts in addition, to supplement the lessons learned review. I come back to the point that I really, strongly recommend that colleagues do not prejudge. The images were upsetting—of course they were upsetting—but alongside that, it is right that we see the full report in due course and that we hear the facts as they come out.
I add my condolences to the family and friends of Ms Everard, and all those who have been affected by this most hellish and tragic of murders.
Turning to the events that we saw on Clapham common on Saturday evening, I think Members are entitled to ask the question, what on earth was the Metropolitan police thinking? What on earth happened to police discretion? What on earth happened to proportionality, to flexibility, to empathy, to any sense of self-awareness, given the circumstances that surrounded that hellish murder? Every ingredient of good policing, in my view and in the view of many of my constituents, appeared to be completely absent from the policing activity on Clapham common.
The defining image that will stick in the collective mind of Britain will be of Patsy Stevenson being almost sat upon by three police officers while being detained. I must say that if I saw one of my adult daughters treated in that way, I would find it impossible to contain my anger. May I ask the Home Secretary, therefore: how quickly will this report be made available? How expeditiously can she act to rectify what is an appalling wrong?
The hon. Gentleman’s comments are very strong, but in response to his question, he knows, and the House knows, that I have commissioned a report from the inspectorate of constabulary. I have asked for the report to be concluded in the next fortnight. We will obviously then update the House in terms of findings and recommendations.
I think it is worth reflecting that in terms of what happened on Saturday, for approximately eight hours there was peace around the bandstand. People were respectfully paying their respects, laying flowers, grieving and showing support and empathy in a way in which every individual would want to in offering their sympathies and condolences. That is why we need to look at the review to see effectively what happened operationally, and then if lessons need to be learned, they will be post the report.
May I also offer my condolences to the friends and family of Sarah Everard? Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is absurd to hear this afternoon that the Opposition are actually opposing the provisions of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, which wants to increase sentences for rapists? There is a dichotomy there that is a bit absurd, is it not?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. To be very frank, I was quite surprised when I heard that was the position that the Opposition were taking. This is a criminal justice Bill. It will increase sentences for individuals and perpetrators who perpetrate the most horrendous, appalling sexual offences and crimes against women, children and citizens. It is an important Bill, as I have already said. It was key to our manifesto, and the British public voted for it. This Government and our party in government are absolutely determined to strengthen our laws and the criminal justice system so that we can put away those individuals who cause harm to individuals and increase sentences.
Our thoughts and prayers are with Sarah Everard’s family. The Home Secretary will be aware that the whole nation was upset by the images of women who had come to a peaceful vigil about violence against women finding themselves wrestled to the ground and handcuffed by police officers. The statement by the Metropolitan police sought to justify what happened on Saturday by talking about
“the overriding need to protect people’s safety”.
Is she aware that some people are puzzled by the idea that you can make people safe by manhandling them and handcuffing them?
In relation to the policing Bill, which the House will be debating later, the Home Secretary herself has made it clear that it is expressly designed to crack down on peaceful protests by groups such as Extinction Rebellion and Black Lives Matter. She described the peaceful protests by Black Lives Matter as “dreadful”. Can she understand why many people in this country believe that giving the police even more powers to crack down on peaceful protest can only lead to more distressing scenes like those the nation witnessed on Saturday at the vigil on Clapham common?
With respect to the right hon. Lady, I urge her not to be so judgmental with regards to the events on Saturday evening until we see the report that comes from Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary. She will have plenty of opportunity to discuss protest and police powers during the passage of the Bill, but I would like to say this: in recent years, we have seen a significant change in protest tactics, which has led to disruption and also to violence and people’s lives being endangered. I look forward to the debate with her on this particular point later on, but she is absolutely wrong in her characterisation of the measures we are introducing.
Before I call the next speaker, I just say that I am very keen to ensure we get everybody in during this important statement. I ask colleagues to be fairly brief with their questions and their answers as well.
I will try my best, Madam Deputy Speaker. The Home Secretary rightly said that the right to protest is a cornerstone of our democracy but, as she also said, on 6 January the House voted for swingeing powers to control protests for the period of the coronavirus restrictions. May I ask her to work with concerned Members across the House to ensure that the legislation we are about to pass protects that right of peaceful protest and stops only serious disruption?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. I will continue to engage with all colleagues on this. It is a really important point, and I know how hard it has been for many colleagues in the House. Of course, the regulations, with their implications and the restrictions they have brought in, will be subject to debate in the House going forward.
I would like to pay my deepest sympathy and respects to the family of Sarah Everard and her many dismayed and grieving friends. I welcome the reopening of the violence against women and girls consultation. It is evident that the Home Secretary recognises the genuine and justified strength of feeling about women’s safety that lay behind the vigil on Clapham common, so surely it was just wrong of the Metropolitan Police Commissioner to refuse to reach agreement with the organisers and find a way so that the vigil could go ahead safely.
Does the Home Secretary agree with the Joint Committee on Human Rights that the law on protest during the covid pandemic needs to be clarified so that protests can go ahead, but do so safely? The Joint Committee has drafted regulations that will be published with our report later this week. Will she undertake to consider them seriously with a view to laying them before the House?
I thank the right hon. and learned Lady for her comments. I think everyone across the House has expressed shock, grief and, obviously, concern about the images from Saturday evening. There is no dispute there whatsoever. I will, of course, look at the report when it is published and I will be more than happy to have discussions with colleagues about it. We are in a pandemic, and this has been a very difficult period. It has been difficult for the police as well—I am the first to acknowledge that. We have asked the police to do unprecedented things, and they have had unprecedented powers throughout the pandemic based on the need to protect public health. With the incredible work of the vaccine roll-out, and as we ensure that that carries on smoothly and we move through the Prime Minister’s road map and plan of easements, one would now hope that we can work together collectively, yes, to live with coronavirus but do things differently.
I join colleagues across the House in sending my heartfelt condolences to Sarah Everard’s loved ones. I am shocked at the way in which Saturday night’s vigil was policed. The situation demanded sensitivity and compassion—something which was evidently lacking. But I am also shocked that what started as a peaceful and important vigil turned into a protest, with photographs showing ACAB—“all cops are bastards”—signs. I am concerned that a young woman’s murder could be hijacked by those who would seek to defund the police and destabilise our society, making it even harder for women to come forward and report assaults. Will the Home Secretary confirm that nothing will deter the Government from delivering stronger legislation to protect women and girls from harm?
I thank my hon. Friend for the points that she made. She is absolutely right. We will continue to do everything in our strategies, policies and laws going forward to protect women and ensure that they are safeguarded in the right way. She also made the very important point that a peaceful vigil on Saturday turned into some pretty ugly scenes. We will wait for the report. There is no question but that where there are lessons to be learned, they will be learned. Where individuals were acting inappropriately, in the way in which she said, that will also be subject to some consideration.
First, I would like to put on record my thanks to Kent police for their incredibly difficult work in the ongoing investigation into the tragic death of Sarah Everard. In order to seriously tackle violence against women and girls, it is vital to put women at the heart of legislation. However, in today’s policing Bill, women are not even mentioned. With that in mind, and with rape convictions at a shocking all-time low, how will the Home Secretary ensure that women can come forward with confidence that they will be believed and that they will receive justice?
If I may, I too would like to thank Kent police for all the work they have done in conjunction with the Metropolitan police in the investigation associated with the Sarah Everard case. This has been a very difficult time across policing; there is no doubt about that.
I am not going to come back in detail to those points, because I have covered many already in my statement. I speak with conviction in my determination, as does every member of this Government, when it comes to safeguarding women and to our strategies and approach to violence against women and girls. As I have repeatedly said, I would welcome all Members joining us in a cross-party effort to do much more to give women and girls the confidence to come forward.
This House criminalised the freedom of protest. It was this House—us—not Dame Cressida or the Metropolitan police, who criminalised the freedom to protest collectively. We are up to our eyeballs in this. Does my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary agree that now is the time to decriminalise freedom of protest—not tomorrow, not next week, but this afternoon or this evening? Let us get people back on the streets and allow them to get things off their chest again. Protest is a safety valve.
I understand entirely the sentiment that my hon. Friend has emphasised this afternoon. The Prime Minister has laid out a road map, and I appreciate that my hon. Friend would love me to say right now, “Let’s just do this and change things immediately,” but we are still in a pandemic and we are following the guidance that has been put in place. Obviously, it will be subject to debate over the next week or so, and I am more than happy to continue to discuss this with my colleagues.
Peaceful assembly must be an absolute right in this country, and the actions of the police on Saturday were deeply troubling. I would like to highlight the use of kettling, in particular. Many disabled people and disabled people’s organisations have long raised concerns about the use of this controversial crowd control tactic, which in the past has been used for up to 10 hours, with serious potential health implications. What does the Home Secretary have to say to the many disabled people who fear this disproportionate policy?
In response to the hon. Lady’s question about operational tactics—of which kettling is one, based on a police assessment around a situation, a protest or an event—the police themselves make judgments and decisions about the tactics that they use as part of their operations.
The hon. Lady raised an important point about disabled people who wish to express themselves by participating in protests. Of course, their needs can be met by working with the police, and many organisers talk to the police about the groups of people and the characteristics of individuals who are coming out to protest. This is not a one-size-fits-all approach. She will be well aware of the approach that the police take in engaging with organisers over protests.
I would like to put on record my sympathies to the family and partner of Sarah Everard.
I thank my right hon. Friend for her statement. In the last few months I have been working with Our Streets Now on the issue of public street harassment: vile and explicit language that is aimed at women with the purpose of degrading them. It is often aimed at children—schoolgirls. I look forward to my right hon. Friend’s strategy later this year, but will she consider, as part of that, introducing legislation that might address the issue?
My hon. Friend raises an important point. I have met many schoolgirls who are a part of that campaign. We will consider all options as part of the VAWG strategy.
On Sunday, I shed a tear, along with so many other women, at the gates of Queen’s Park, where ribbons and tributes had been left in memory of Sarah Everard, and for Moira Jones who was raped and murdered there in 2008 and all women who have experienced abuse at the hands of men. May I ask what the Home Secretary is going to do to change the toxic culture we have that diminishes and minimises women’s experience, and to challenge the whole spectrum of men’s behaviour so that my daughter and all young women can grow up without living their lives in fear?
The hon. Lady has an opportunity to join us. She has heard me speak today, as all colleagues have, about the need to contribute to our VAWG strategy. This is not about the work of one individual; this is about what we do collectively, together, in terms of cultural norms and a change in behaviours. We all have a role to play and I urge her to join us in that effort.
I thank my right hon. Friend for her statement and extend my heartfelt condolences to Sarah Everard’s family at this time. Does she agree with me and my constituents that it is frankly absurd for the Labour party to call for tougher sentences against rapists while, in the same breath, opposing the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, which delivers exactly that?
My hon. Friend sums it up perfectly. I completely agree with the sentiment she has just expressed.
Last week on the Armed Forces Committee we heard about prosecuting crimes, including rape, through the military courts. One statement stood out for me. It was:
“our servicepeople are thoroughly good people, but they drink too much, something goes wrong and they end up in court.”
What discussions has the Home Secretary’s Department had about that attitude towards victims of male violence, and does it reflect a general attitude to women that we saw on Saturday on Clapham Common?
First, no it does not reflect a general attitude to women, and no one should pre-judge or make assumptions of that nature. The hon. Lady makes a very important point, though, in terms of the armed forces work and the work that has taken place across both Departments. Our Minister with responsibility for safeguarding has done extensive work on this particular issue with our colleagues in the Ministry of Defence and that will of course continue.