House of Commons
Wednesday 21 April 2021
The House met at half-past Eleven 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—
Northern Ireland Protocol: Trade with Great Britain
Before I answer, let me say that I am sure the whole House will join me in offering my support and thoughts to the Police Service of Northern Ireland officer who was subject to a cowardly attack earlier this week. Those who attack our public servants and emergency services personnel have nothing to offer the communities they claim to represent. I am sure the whole community will join everybody across this House in support for that officer and for such a way forward, and people will I hope come forward with any information they may have to help bring those responsible to justice swiftly.
Overall freight flow between Great Britain and Northern Ireland has returned to normal levels. We are continuing to monitor and assess the situation, including any potential change in trade patterns. The temporary operational steps that we announced in this House in March have ensured that we prevented any significant immediate-term disruption to goods flows, as I have outlined, including food, and have provided space for the continued discussions on the protocol implementation in the Joint Committee.
I share the Secretary of State’s concern and alarm over recent events.
Pharmaceutical manufacturers and industry leaders are expected to withdraw up to 90% of medicines sent to Northern Ireland from the UK due to the unaffordability of meeting new Brexit-incurred costs and red tape, with Lord Frost stating last week that “difficult issues remain”. What do the UK Government plan to do to minimise and prevent further disruption of the distribution of medical supplies to Northern Ireland caused by a hard Brexit?
As I think we showed with the action we took just a month or so ago, which I have outlined, we will ensure that we take the action we need to take to continue to see the flow of goods and products. Obviously, the medicines issue is one we are working on intensively with the European Commission to address, with Vice-President Maroš Šefčovič and Lord Frost working at the moment on all of those issues—the outstanding issues—that the hon. Member highlights. There are some difficult issues, but we will do what we need to do, working in partnership with the EU, to get a resolution that works for the whole of the UK.
I join the Secretary of State in condemning unreservedly the attack on the female police officer, and our support is fully with her and her colleagues at this time.
The Secretary of State will be aware of the difficulties that the Northern Ireland protocol continues to cause for both consumers and businesses. What steps are the Government going to take to replace this protocol with arrangements that fully restore Northern Ireland’s place within the UK internal market?
I appreciate the right hon. Gentleman’s comments, as I am sure will the Police Service of Northern Ireland for its personnel.
The protocol is about safeguarding Northern Ireland’s place in the UK’s internal market, as we outlined in the United Kingdom Internal Market Act 2020, which legislated for that very fact. I have been very clear that there are outstanding issues with the protocol, and some of them are difficult issues. They are ones that need to be resolved from the point of view of both consumers and businesses, and just to restore confidence across all the communities—the whole community—of Northern Ireland. We are determined to do that, and I think we have shown with the actions we have taken that we want to do that in a pragmatic, flexible way that works for the people of Northern Ireland. We are also working, through the work Lord Frost is doing, to do that in partnership with our colleagues and friends in the EU. Ultimately, however, this is about making sure that we are protecting the Good Friday agreement in all of its strands.
The Secretary of State will also be aware that there is potential for significant difficulties with the supply of medicines to Northern Ireland as a result of the protocol. Again I ask the Secretary of State: what measures do the Government intend to introduce to ensure that medicines flow freely into Northern Ireland, and that everyone here in Northern Ireland will not be disadvantaged in accessing medicines and pharmaceutical products?
The right hon. Gentleman raises an important point, which of course we are working on and take seriously. The recitals to the protocol themselves state that it
“should impact as little as possible on the everyday life of communities”,
and very clearly, as well as food supplies, medicines absolutely fall within that. So it is well within the remit of the protocol to ensure that that flow can continue in the proper and flexible way it always has. We continue to work intensively with our friends and partners in the EU, but as I have said before, we will do what we need to do to ensure that Northern Ireland has access to the market in the way it would as part of the United Kingdom. That is what the structural integrity of the United Kingdom’s internal customs union is about.
Can I echo the comments of the Secretary of State on the despicable attempted murder of a serving police officer? All my thoughts are with the officer, her colleagues and her family today.
As recently as Monday, when wider protests over the Northern Ireland protocol resumed, anonymous social media accounts were still being used to exploit the situation and lure young people to the interface in Belfast, with provocative messages inflaming an already tense situation. Will the Secretary of State, working with the police, make it clear in the strongest possible terms that social media giants such as Facebook have a responsibility to act to prevent their platforms from being exploited to inflame tensions in the interface communities?
Yes, and I welcome the hon. Lady’s comments. I think it actually—I hope Members excuse the colloquial language—beggars belief that anybody could think that the cowardly act of putting a police officer and a young child at risk is a way to further their cause. I warmly welcome the condemnation all around of that cowardly action.
The hon. Lady is absolutely right: as I outlined in the statement I made last week, it is important that we are very alert to the risks of social media. People who look at social media should be alert to who may or may not be behind encouraging them to do things in a hugely inappropriate way that could ruin their lives and the lives of others. Yes, this is something we are taking forward and working on with social media companies—absolutely.
The Social Democratic and Labour party sends every good wish to the PSNI officer, after the appalling experience she has had at the hands of the warped throwbacks who have absolutely nothing to offer people here.
We appreciate that sanitary and phytosanitary checks are a tricky issue internally for the Conservative party, but as the person in government in charge of speaking up for Northern Ireland, has the Secretary of State personally articulated to his Cabinet colleagues how the UK-EU veterinary and SPS arrangements could address the frictions in trade? Has he directly asked them to put the interests of Northern Ireland ahead of a theoretical power to diverge that the UK does not look as if it is going to use any time soon?
I appreciate the hon. Lady’s comments as, I am sure, does the PSNI.
Obviously, I am always making the case in the UK Government for the best outcome for people in Northern Ireland, and it is right that Northern Ireland is an integral part of the United Kingdom in terms of trade. As I have said, SPS checks in one form or another, recognising the single epidemiological unit and biosecurity of the island of Ireland, have been in place since about the 19th century. We must ensure that we have a proper, pragmatic, flexible, free flow of goods, so that a consumer in Northern Ireland is able to have the same experience as a member of the United Kingdom anywhere in the United Kingdom. We are determined to ensure that we deliver that.
The sporadic localised disorder that we have seen in Northern Ireland is completely unacceptable, and I appreciate the comments made by the hon. Member for North Down (Stephen Farry) in that regard over the past couple of weeks. The factors behind that disorder are complex and, as I have said, multifaceted. All communities in Northern Ireland must work together to resolve current tensions and unrest. I have been in regular close contact with political and community leaders, as well as with the Police Service of Northern Ireland, and it is clear that, as we know in this House, the only way to resolve differences is through dialogue. In that regard, we all have the ability to lead the way by example.
I join colleagues in expressing full solidarity with the police officer affected this week. It is important always to remain united in opposing terrorism. Does the Secretary of State recognise that there is a trade-off between the nature of the UK’s Brexit, and the level of checks down the Irish sea as a consequence? The UK Government can play a key role in defusing those tensions if, like many other sovereign states, they follow through and negotiate that bespoke agreement.
As I outlined in a statement last week, and as I have just said, the tensions and issues that led to violence a couple of weeks ago are multifaceted and, as I am sure the hon. Gentleman is aware, a number of issues are going on. I would be wary of putting this on any one issue, or of giving anyone the view that it is acceptable to argue that, because of tensions over the protocol, it is acceptable to use violence. There is much more to what happened the other week than that. As I have said, we want to work towards a practical pragmatic solution with our partners in the EU, to ensure we have that good, free and flexible flow of products between Great Britain and Northern Ireland in the way we want, and as we deliver from Northern Ireland to Great Britain.
I agree with the Secretary of State that the reasons behind the violence are multifaceted, but the barriers to trade, which the Prime Minister repeatedly and wrongly denied existed, have played a part in the growing political instability in Northern Ireland. We need solutions. Will the Secretary of State do what he did not do in last week’s statement and confirm that his Government are seeking an agreement on common veterinary standards? That would go a long way to lowering barriers to trade in food products across the Irish sea.
We are working intensely with our partners and colleagues in the European Union. Lord Frost is currently working with Vice-President Maroš Šefčovič on a wide range of issues, including agrifoods, so that we get a resolution that works for the people of Northern Ireland, with Northern Ireland as part of the United Kingdom. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that we have seen an increase in tensions, particularly in Unionist communities, and we need to recognise the issues around a sense of identity. We can all play a part in helping the EU to understand better the lasting impact of the action it took when it went to trigger article 16 just a couple of months ago. The disruption affects people across all communities in Northern Ireland, and we want that to be resolved in partnership with the EU.
May I associate myself, as others have, with the remarks that the Secretary of State made with regard to the horrible and horrific event yesterday in Dungiven? That and recent scenes remind us all too well of the horrors of the past and surely must reinvigorate us all to ensure that they do not become either endemic to the present or part of Northern Ireland’s future.
Will the Secretary of State assure me that the PSNI has adequate resourcing to proactively interrupt social media platforms and posts, which are clearly the new way of communicating types of disorder? The PSNI needs to be able to monitor and intervene. Can he assure me that the full resource of the state is available to it to ensure that this important work is done to the best of its abilities?
My hon. Friend the Chairman of the Select Committee makes a very important point, as others have, about the impact and importance of dealing with social media. Yes, absolutely: I have spoken to the chief constable and outlined to him our full support and we are working with the police to ensure that they have access to the full capabilities to work and deal with social media issues. We obviously recognise that policing is a devolved matter, but they have our full support and we will continue to work with them on those issues.
May I, too, associate myself with the comments about, and send our best wishes to, the serving police officer? As a former special constable, I know that the whole police family will be reeling today, and my thoughts are with them all.
It is not an exaggeration to say that, in the 23 years since the Belfast/Good Friday agreement, the peace process has never been as vulnerable as it is now. The north-south institutions fundamental to the support of Irish nationalists are under pressure, and the east-west relationship has been seriously undermined by the Prime Minister and his approach to Brexit. The Secretary of State bears a responsibility to help stabilise the situation, so will he ensure that the British-Irish Council is urgently convened to give Northern Ireland representatives a voice in discussions around the protocol and huge decisions about their own future?
Yes. I suggest that the hon. Lady looks back: a while ago, we announced that the British-Irish Council would meet on 11 June. It continues its regular meetings, which have never stopped; the last one was in November. But yes—as it has been regularly meeting.
I suggest that 11 June is not an urgent meeting and recommend that that meeting should be brought forward urgently to discuss these important issues.
The Secretary of State will know that some very young children, born long after the Good Friday agreement, have been involved in some of the recent disorder. Does he agree that, wherever appropriate, working with the PSNI, restorative justice should be used to ensure that those children are not criminalised and do not run the risk of falling into the toxic, coercive grip of paramilitaries?
Yes, absolutely. I will also just say that the Northern Ireland Executive have been involved in the specialist committee, which feeds into the Joint Committee, through the work that we do through the engagement forums and, actually, a meeting with Vice-President Maroš Šefčovič just a few weeks ago. They are consistently involved and feeding into the process and the work that we do with the EU, but as I say, the British-Irish Council date was set a short while ago.
On the hon. Lady’s comments about young people, she is absolutely right; I fully support that point. Community groups and youth groups have been working with young people, not just in the last few weeks but consistently over the last year or so. They do amazing work to help young people to see a way through to a prosperous and exciting future. We should all be doing all we can to support, promote and encourage that so that people are not tempted, whether through social media or though bad advice in the heat of the moment in the streets, as we saw a few weeks ago, into the type of behaviour that gives them a criminal record and curtails their opportunities for the future.
May I take this opportunity to associate myself and my party with the comments that have been made on both sides of the House about the disgraceful and despicable attempt on the life of a serving police officer in Dungiven on Monday?
In these times of heightened tensions in the community, language and leadership matter, so does the Secretary of State consider that the Prime Minister’s referring to the “ludicrous” barriers that result from the protocol—a protocol that he himself insisted on the terms of—are a help or a hindrance to reaching a solution in Northern Ireland that all parts of the community can accept?
I am afraid the hon. Gentleman betrayed a lack of understanding, in the sense that people of the whole community of Northern Ireland are affected by these problems and the outworkings of the protocol. Whether it is somebody who has a nationalist constitutional view or a Unionist constitutional view, the practical outworkings for both consumers and businesses are real for the whole community. There is an added sense, as I outlined earlier, that the identity of the loyalist Unionist community in Northern Ireland has been affected, so the Prime Minister was absolutely right. It is helpful in that it clearly recognises—the hon. Gentleman sadly does not—the sense of injustice and feeling of attack on identity that is there in the Unionist community. We have to be clear that we recognise that and want to deal with that with our partners in the EU. To pretend it is not there simply is not going to handle the problem.
Dissident republicans tried to murder a police officer and her young child in County Derry this week. I take this opportunity, as an Irish nationalist, to send those dissident republicans a very clear message: your quarrel is not with the police, it is not with the British state; it is with the people of Ireland and that is a battle you will never, ever win.
Given the Prime Minister’s very speedy response to an issue about football—as important as that is—compared with the quickness of his response to the violence on the streets of Northern Ireland for almost 10 days, does the Secretary of State agree with me that we need an active, engaged and interested Prime Minister in dealing with our peace process?
Yes, absolutely, and I am very proud of the fact that we do. We have a Prime Minister who has been very much engaged. The hon. Gentleman should look at the Prime Minister’s comments and the fact that he was talking to the Taoiseach in the early stages. I absolutely agree with the hon. Gentleman’s opening remarks about dissident republicans. The Prime Minister has been actively involved. He has been in full communication all the way through this process. In terms of looking at how people deal with this, I would just say that all Members of this House, including some in the hon. Gentleman’s own party, need to think very carefully when they are tweeting things that could be seen as incendiary to make sure we all take the right tone on these matters to ensure we return calm for people as quickly as possible.
Having spoken to my constituent yesterday who was the subject of such a disgraceful attack, I can tell the House that the victim and her family deeply appreciate the unanimous support, and that the wider community in County Londonderry does as well. The Secretary of State has indicated his concern about the rising tensions. Will he take more steps now to understand the activities that are going on, the rationale behind them and the need to stand up to the violence, but also the need to understand and take action to deal with the underlying problems that exist in those areas?
Yes. I think the hon. Gentleman alludes to a wider issue that the previous questioner rightly raised in the statement last week. A multi-faceted set of issues came together over the last few weeks. We should not allow ourselves to miss out on the fact that it is important and highlights why we have to do more work to ensure that, as we are levelling up and building back better across the United Kingdom, that reaches all communities and that all communities can benefit, see opportunities, see growth, and really have a better opportunity for a better and brighter future.
Police Officer Numbers
The UK Government fully support the excellent work of the PSNI. I would like to thank all the officers involved in keeping people safe during the recent unrest and send my best wishes to those who were injured, as well as associating myself with the remarks we have heard across the House today about the appalling and cowardly act in Dungiven. Policing in Northern Ireland and police funding are primarily devolved matters. I welcome the further funding allocated to the PSNI by the Executive, which provides the PSNI with an additional £12.3 million for staffing. But how the PSNI allocates its funding is an operational matter for the Chief Constable, in consultation with the Northern Ireland Policing Board.
The hon. Gentleman is right: this was a commitment for the parties in the Executive under the New Decade, New Approach announcement. Clearly, the UK Government provide funding to the Executive through the block grant, but the Secretary of State has also spoken to the Chief Constable and made clear that, if he puts together a business plan, we will work with the Department of Justice to make sure that that can be properly supported. We certainly stand ready to support them in that regard.
Leaving the EU: Peace in Northern Ireland
In the 23 years since the Belfast/Good Friday agreement was signed, there has been a transformative change in Northern Ireland. The hard-won peace has created the conditions for economic growth, investment and stability. As we left the European Union, the protocol was designed to protect the agreement in all of its strands and to safeguard the stability created. It is only by respecting all elements of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement—north-south as well as east-west, and, obviously, Northern Ireland itself—that we will secure strength and stability into the future.
My good friend the late Charles Kennedy attended Lochaber High School and Glasgow University. He went on to represent a highlands constituency with distinction for many years. The fact that he was a Roman Catholic was neither here nor there. I would say that Charles Kennedy was an excellent example of integrated education. What more can the UK Government do to assist the Northern Ireland Assembly and Northern Ireland Government in getting integrated education going in the Province and reaping the benefits from it?
The hon. Gentleman makes a very important and powerful point, which I absolutely agree with. One of the things in the Belfast/Good Friday agreement that has not managed to be delivered on enough is integrated education. I am absolutely determined for us to do all we can to support the Executive to take that forward—obviously, education is devolved. As I have outlined in relation to the new deal package of money, it is an area that I am very focused on, and I want to work with the Executive to take integrated education forward over the period ahead for the benefit of the long-term stability, peace and prosperity of people in Northern Ireland.
Would the Secretary of State agree that it is not Brexit or leaving the EU that has had an impact on peace in Northern Ireland, but the Northern Ireland protocol that has been imposed in Northern Ireland by the EU, leaving us in a position where we have not yet got the same terms as the rest of the United Kingdom, leaving us with a trade barrier between east and west? This has meant additional bureaucracy and administration for local businesses and that there are businesses from England that do not wish to engage in the additional checks that are required. What progress is being made to remove this injustice from Northern Ireland, as we feel we are being punished for leaving the EU?
Thank you, Mr Speaker. As I said earlier, some of the tension that we have seen over the last few weeks is multi-faceted, with a number of issues involved. On the hon. Gentleman’s points about the protocol, that is something that we are working through. We are working intensively with our partners in the EU. Lord Frost is working with Vice-President Maroš Šefčovič. We are very much aware that the protocol is there. From the EU’s point of view, it wants to protect the sacrosanct position of its single market. We are focused on and determined about protecting the Belfast/Good Friday agreement, as I said before, in all three of its strands, and we are very alert to the fact that east-west is as important as any other strand. We want to make sure that we deliver on that and get a solution that means that this can work in a proper, pragmatic way that means that a consumer, a business and a citizen of Northern Ireland can have the same experience as a citizen anywhere else in the United Kingdom.
I have been in close conversation with political and community leaders and the Police Service of Northern Ireland in response to recent events. Their unification in condemning the unrest has been a welcome sign that those engaged in the destruction and disorder that we saw do not represent Northern Ireland. We as a Government will continue to engage with stakeholders across the whole community in Northern Ireland to find solutions that work for everybody and to ensure that we are always clear that the right way to express concerns is through dialogue, engagement and the democratic process—never violence.
The Secretary of State is right: dialogue is important, as are inter-Government relations between the UK and Ireland. It is a vital part of upholding the Belfast/Good Friday agreement and managing tension that leads to disorder, so why has the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference never met under this Prime Minister, and why has the Prime Minister never chaired the British-Irish Council? Can he commit that he will chair the next meeting, whether it is in June or sooner, as it should be?
The British-Irish Council has never ceased to meet regularly and has always been chaired in the same way. The conversations are ongoing between ourselves and the Irish Government. Even over the last few weeks, whether that has been with Foreign Minister Simon Coveney or the Prime Minister talking to the Taoiseach, that engagement has been ongoing and will continue, because we are partners working together, with a long relationship—a positive relationship—that is of benefit to the people of the Republic of Ireland and the whole of the UK.
Mental Health Services Funding
We recognise the importance of ensuring that there is proper provision and access to mental health services right across the UK. Health services are devolved in Northern Ireland. The funding allocated to this specific service is therefore a matter for the Northern Ireland Executive to allocate from within the substantial resources provided by the UK Government. The Government are providing funding of £14.2 billion to the Executive in 2021-22 and we would, of course, support them allocating some of this funding for these vital services.
Recently published figures show that between January 2017 and September 2020 mental health referral targets were missed more than 42,000 times at emergency departments in Northern Ireland. Given that rates of suicide in Northern Ireland continue to be the highest of any part of the UK, will the Minister please confirm that the funding in New Decade, New Approach to tackle the mental health crisis will be urgently released?
The hon. Lady is right to draw attention to the acute demand on all health services across the UK, including in Northern Ireland, and she is also right to refer to the funding in the NDNA agreement. There was £50 million allocated for mental health support through the confidence and supply agreement. That funding is part of £350 million provided under that agreement to support the health sector, but there is a further £60 million of capital and resource funding for medical purposes that the Government have since announced and approved, and we continue to deliver on our NDNA commitments to the Executive.
The Prime Minister was asked—
I know that the whole House will want to join me in sending our very best wishes to Her Majesty the Queen on her 95th birthday.
Last night’s verdict in Minneapolis delivered justice for the family and friends of George Floyd, and I know that the thoughts of the whole House remain with them.
I welcome the decision taken by the six English football teams not to join the European super league. The announcement was the right result for football fans, for clubs and for communities across the country.
This morning I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in this House, I shall have further such meetings later today.
May I extend my good wishes to the Queen today in what must be a difficult time? I hope that she finds herself surrounded by friends and family and that she can find it within herself to take some time to celebrate her 95th birthday.
I know that the Prime Minister is not a supporter of basic income, but given that Hull, Belfast, Norwich, Leeds, Lambeth, Guildford, Swansea, Glasgow and 24 other councils around the United Kingdom have expressed a desire to run pilot schemes that would enhance our knowledge of all the pros and cons, would he consider facilitating any pilot projects in the United Kingdom? Have the UK Government considered any research into basic income, and if so, what?
I am grateful to the hon. Member for his support for a UK-wide proposal. I trust that he understands the irony of that, when we consider that his party is, as I understand it, still hellbent on calling an irresponsible referendum on breaking up the United Kingdom.
My hon. Friend raises an important point. He and the whole House are aware of the pressure that young people, in particular, can feel as a result of doctored images. As part of the consultation on the online advertising programme, we will look at what we can do, and I know that we will be responding to the Select Committee’s report in due course.
May I join the Prime Minister in wishing Her Majesty a very happy birthday? The last few weeks have been a time of incredible personal anguish and we all send Her Majesty and the royal family our very best wishes.
May I also join the Prime Minister in his comments about the verdict in the George Floyd case? There has been justice in that case.
Even as an Arsenal season ticket holder, I join the Prime Minister in his comments about the European super league, which would have destroyed football. We now need to get on with the other changes that are necessary.
Finally, Mr Speaker, may I send my condolences to the family of Frank Judd, who died earlier this week? Frank was a much-loved Member of this House and the other place for many decades and was highly respected as a Labour Minister. He was a great internationalist and campaigner for peace and human rights and he will be sadly missed.
What does the Prime Minister think is the right thing to do if he receives a text message from a billionaire Conservative supporter asking him to fix tax rules?
First, I echo the right hon. and learned Gentleman’s remarks about Frank Judd.
In response to the right hon. and learned Gentleman’s question, if he is referring to the requests from James Dyson, I make absolutely no apology at all for shifting heaven and earth and doing everything I possibly could —as I think any Prime Minister would in those circumstances—to secure ventilators for the people of this country, to save lives and to roll out a ventilator-procurement process that the Labour-controlled Public Accounts Committee itself said was a benchmark for procurement
Let us be clear what the texts show. The Prime Minister was lobbied by a wealthy businessman and close friend for a change in the tax rules; the Prime Minister responded: “I will fix it”. Then, after a discussion with the Chancellor, whom everybody seems to be lobbying these days, the Prime Minister texted his friend to say, “it is fixed”. How many other people with the Prime Minister’s personal number has he given preferential treatment to?
I recall the right hon. and learned Gentleman saying at the time that we should do everything that we could to get more ventilators. Indeed, he congratulated the roll-out—he said well done to everybody involved in the ventilator challenge.
May I just remind the House of what we were facing in March last year? We had a new virus that was capable of killing people in ways that we did not understand. The only way to help them, in extremis, was to intubate them and put them on ventilation. We had 9,000 ventilators in this country; we secured 22,000 as a result of that ventilator challenge. I think it was entirely the right thing to do to work with all potential makers of ventilators at that time. And by the way, so does the former leader of the Labour party—a man to whom I think the right hon. and learned Gentleman should listen—Tony Blair.
I am surprised the Prime Minister brings up former leaders as it is his former leader—his friend Dave—who is at the heart of much of this.
I acknowledge that thousands of businesses stepped up during the pandemic. That was a good thing and we celebrate that. The difference is that they did not all have the chance to text the Prime Minister to ask him to fix the tax situation in exchange for doing so. That is the difference.
At the heart of this scandal are people’s jobs and wasted taxpayers’ money. Take, for example, the thousands of jobs at Liberty Steel that are on the line in Hartlepool, Rotherham and elsewhere following the collapse of Greensill Capital. The Prime Minister has not fixed that—in fact, he has done nothing to help steelworkers. Is it now quite literally one rule for those who have the Prime Minister’s phone number and another for everybody else?
The right hon. and learned Gentleman calls it a scandal; he voted for the changes that we brought in. He called our ventilator challenge an outstanding success and I think he was completely right. This is a Government who get on, deliver for people in distress and deliver on the people’s priorities.
Yes, of course I am concerned for the families of steelworkers up and down the country. That is why the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy has been meeting the unions and the management of Liberty Steel repeatedly over the past few days. We believe in British steel. It was under the last Labour Government that jobs in steel fell by more than 50% and output fell by more than 50%. We now have a 5 million-tonne pipeline of British steel, with our massive infrastructure investments, and we intend to use our new freedoms under Brexit to make sure that procurement goes to British companies.
The Prime Minister says, “We believe in British steel”. Well, do something. I have to say to him that steelworkers waking up this morning will find it deeply offensive to hear the Prime Minister boasting to his friends that he is the First Lord of the Treasury and can give them the backing they need. He will not give the steelworkers the backing that they need. This shows that, once again, favours, privileged access, and tax breaks for mates are the main currency of this Conservative Government. If that is not the case, if one of the 3 million self-employed people who have been excluded from Government support for over a year and now face bankruptcy texted the Prime Minister to ask for a tax break so that they could survive, would he change the rules for them, too?
This Government have supported the self-employed with more than £14 billion throughout the pandemic. That is part of a vast package of support for jobs and livelihoods across the country. We continue to do everything it takes. The right hon. and learned Gentleman should take back what he said about the ventilator challenge. He attacks the ventilator challenge—our efforts to get more ventilators at a very, very difficult time for this country—in the same way, by the way, in which he opportunistically attacked the Vaccine Taskforce at a critical moment, which he will recall. We take the tough decisions that are necessary to protect the people of this country and get things done.
If I had to correct the Prime Minister for everything that he gets wrong, I would be here all day. I take it that that is a no as an answer to the question in relation to the 3 million. There we have it: an open door for those with the Prime Minister’s number; a closed door to the 3 million. What this shows once again is the extent of the sleaze and cronyism that is at the heart of his Conservative Government. Let me try another way, Prime Minister. If an NHS nurse, who has been working on the frontline during the pandemic, had the Prime Minister’s phone number, would they get the pay rise that they so obviously deserve?
I am proud of what this Government have done to support the NHS throughout the pandemic with record investment of another £92 billion. To help nurses, as the right hon. and learned Gentleman knows, we put in, last year, the bursary of £5,000, plus the £3,000 on top to help with training and the costs of childcare; and in the past couple of years, a 12.8% increase on the starting salary. Above all, we are helping the profession by recruiting more nurses than ever before. There are already 50,000 more people in the NHS this year than there were last year, and 10,600 more nurses. That is what I would say to many of the nurses that I have talked to in the past few days and weeks, and we will continue to back them to the hilt.
If the Prime Minister had been talking to the NHS frontline he would know how insulted they are by his pay cut after everything they have put in over the past year. They did not get a text from the Prime Minister; they got a kick in the teeth. Mr Speaker, there is a pattern to this Government: the Prime Minister is fixing tax breaks for his friends; the Chancellor is pushing the Treasury to help Lex Greensill; the Health Secretary is meeting Greensill for drinks; and David Cameron is texting anybody who will reply. Every day, there are new allegations about this Conservative Government: dodgy personal protective equipment deals; tax breaks for their mates; and the Health Secretary owning shares in a company delivering NHS services. Sleaze, sleaze, sleaze, and it is all on his watch. With this scandal now firmly centred on him, how on earth does he expect people to believe that he is the person to clean this mess up?
I will tell the right hon. and learned Gentleman why this Government are doing the right thing at the right time. The difference between us and the Labour party is, I am afraid, staringly obvious. We get on with taking the tough decisions to protect the people of this country and to take our country forward, uniting and levelling up. We take the tough decisions to procure tens of thousands of ventilators in record time, which, apparently, he now opposes. We put forward tougher sentences for rapists and violent criminals, which he then opposes on a three-line Whip. We take tough decisions to stick up for the fans of our national game. While captain hindsight snipes continually from the sidelines, this Government get on with delivering on the people’s priorities.
On my hon. Friend’s second point, I am sure that the relevant Minister would be happy to meet and consult him. On his point about the Shipley bypass, the matter is currently with Bradford Council. I suggest that that Labour-controlled council follows the example of many Conservative-controlled councils and delivers that essential infrastructure on time, creating jobs and opportunities for his constituents.
May I associate myself with the remarks of the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition on both the Queen’s 95th birthday and the justice that we have now seen in the George Floyd case?
This morning’s revelations surrounding the Prime Minister’s interference in covid contracts are incredibly serious. Whether it is cash for questions in the ’90s or texts for contracts during this pandemic, people know that this is the same old story; this is how the Tories do government. The Prime Minister is at the very heart of this scandal. Will he reveal today how many more covid contracts he personally fixed? If he has nothing to hide, will he publish all personal exchanges on these contracts before the end of the day?
Of course, there is absolutely nothing to conceal about this. I am happy to share all the details with the House, as indeed I have shared them with my officials, immediately. It is thanks to that immediate action that we have been able not just to deal with the ventilator challenge, but to help the people of the whole United Kingdom to get access, in record times, to the vaccines on which we all depend. The same goes for rolling out PPE. We have had to work at incredible speed, and I think the people of this country understand that it is sometimes necessary to act decisively to get things done.
If the Prime Minister says, “There’s nothing to see here”—publish those exchanges. Let us all see them and have that transparency. Frankly, his excuses just do not stack up.
Last March the Prime Minister and the Chancellor had all the time in the world to fix contracts for a cosy club of friends and Tory donors, but did not have any time to support the millions of self-employed. Those 3 million people did not have a David Cameron or a James Dyson to text the Prime Minister for them; they were on their own and they were left behind by this Prime Minister. This Tory texts for contracts scandal is growing more and more serious with every revelation—[Interruption.] The Prime Minister was eager to initiate an inquiry into his predecessor, David Cameron—[Interruption.] Will he be as quick to commit to a public and comprehensive inquiry into himself and his own Government?
Well, Mr Speaker—the right hon. Gentleman says we had all the time in the world. In fact, as the House will recall, at the end of March last year the pandemic was taking off very fast and we had to act very fast, as I think people up and down the country understand. I thought that his dog made a more sensible contribution just now than he did.
Yes, my hon. Friend is entirely right, because agriculture is of course devolved in Wales. If people want to send a clear signal and they want change in the way farmers are treated in Wales, then I hope they will vote Conservative in the Welsh Assembly elections in just two weeks’ time and vote for a party that actually champions agriculture and believes in it.
Prime Minister, I was proud to put on the uniform of the Crown and to serve with tens of thousands of men and women from our armed forces and our police in protecting the entire community in Northern Ireland from the ravages of terrorism during our troubled past. The Prime Minister gave a commitment in his election manifesto to introduce legislation to protect those men and women from vexatious prosecutions. Will he stand by and honour that commitment?
I thank the right hon. Gentleman very much, first of all, for his service, and I know that the whole House will agree. I want to put on record, by the way, my thanks to the former Minister for Veterans, my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Johnny Mercer), for all that he did to help with improving the lot of veterans across our country. We have protected many veterans with the Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Bill. There is more to be done, as the right hon. Gentleman rightly says, in the case of veterans of the Northern Ireland conflict, and we will be bringing forward further measures in due course.
I thank my hon. Friend very much. It was only lately that he and I stood on the seafront at Blyth and looked out at some of the incredible wind farms—the harbingers and the prelude to the huge Dogger Bank wind farms that are going to be built in the North sea. I am delighted that a gigafactory for batteries is being established in Blyth Valley. Thanks to his help and his leadership, we are seeing Blyth Valley and many other parts of the north-east at the forefront of the green industrial revolution delivering high-wage and high-skilled jobs across our country.
My hon. Friend is entirely right. That is why we have massively accelerated the roll-out of superfast broadband and gigabit broadband. Coverage of reliable gigabit broadband was just 9% when this Government took over; it will be 60% by the end of this year. We are driving it up across the whole country, uniting and levelling up and unleashing the potential of the entire UK.
I am proud of the roll-out of the ventilators—the 30,000 we delivered from scratch—[Interruption.] I am proud of it. I am proud of the decisions that we took. I am proud of what we did—criticised by the Labour party—to roll out vaccines at record speed. I am proud of what we did to support the people of this country throughout the pandemic, with an overall package of £407 billion to support them. We in this country will bounce back all the better and all the stronger because of the strong economy that we ensured this country had going into the crisis, which would have been impossible under a Labour Government. That is what the hon. Lady should tell her constituents.
Did you notice, Mr Speaker, how those on the Opposition Benches recoiled at the idea of the recapture of the Falkland Islands? We have just heard the hon. Member for Cardiff North (Anna McMorrin) say that she was ashamed of her country. It is no wonder that people take that kind of attitude. I think my hon. Friend is entirely right in what he says about President Reagan. He was a very distinguished president. It is not up to me to install a statue for him; I think that is for the Greater London Authority. I think he has to appeal to the current Mayor of London, although let us hope that there is a new one to do justice to the memory of Ronald Reagan.
The Global Polio Eradication Initiative has been backed by £1.37 billion of UK aid since 1995. As the hon. Lady rightly says, there are many proud successes of that programme, and polio across the planet, largely thanks to the help of the British taxpayer, has been almost eliminated.
Yes, I do. One of the most worrying features of the European super league proposals is that they would have taken clubs that take their names from great, famous English towns and cities and turned them just into global brands with no relation to the fans and the communities that gave them life and that give them the most love and support. That was, in my view, totally wrong, to say nothing of the lack of competition. It is entirely right that my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch) will do a root-and-branch investigation into the governance of football and what we can do to promote the role of fans in that governance.
I think what the people of Scotland need is an Administration in Scotland who spend the taxpayers’ money in Scotland better and more wisely, because the results of the Scottish nationalist party are dismal. They are failing on education. They are failing on crime. They are failing on their taxation policies. No wonder all they can talk about is another irresponsible referendum and breaking up this country.
My hon. Friend draws attention to a very valuable and important point, which is that across the country, it is Conservative councils that keep council tax low, overwhelmingly, and deliver better services, such as recycling. He is absolutely right to laud the efforts of the Conservative-led council in West Sussex.
I do not wish to sound like a stickler for accuracy—[Laughter]—which is my normal position, Mr Speaker, as you know, but since becoming Humberside’s PCC in 2016, the force has recruited 434 officers. Of those, 129 have been recruited as part of the Government’s 20,000 drive, and Mr Hunter himself praised the Government’s police recruitment strategy, saying that the Government’s target had lifted officer numbers in Humberside above 2,000. So I think it would be fair to say that Mr Hunter’s efforts, however laudable they may be, would have been impossible without the determination of this Government to recruit more police officers and put them out on the street.
When my right hon. Friend visited the west midlands earlier this week to meet our brilliant Mayor, Andy Street, was he aware that the Mayor has increased sevenfold the investment in transport, and we now have 108 shiny new carriages for the cross-city line? What advice does he have for my constituents in the royal town of Sutton Coldfield on 6 May?
Andy Street is rolling out not only 50 new stations but 150 miles more track, linking up communities across the west midlands, delivering job opportunities, delivery growth and delivering hope for the west midlands, and that is why I think the people of the west midlands should vote for another term for Mayor Andy Street.
Yes, of course—look at what we are achieving. Since the PPE crisis began—since the pandemic began—we have turned things round. We have procured 32 billion items of PPE, and 85% of it can now be made in this country, which was completely impossible before the pandemic. Look at what is happening on vaccines: we have the Valneva factory in Scotland, and we have Novavax in Teesside, which is going to be absolutely indispensable for our future success. Those investments will not only help to protect our country against pandemics for the future but will help us to drive jobs and prosperity for the long term across the whole of the UK.
I would like to update the House on some news from the House of Lords. I am informed that Lord McFall of Alcluith has been successfully elected to the position of Lord Speaker. I have known John McFall since I was elected as MP for Chorley in 1997, and you could not find a nicer, kinder and more welcoming politician. Not only was he an extremely hard-working constituency MP, but he played a leading role as Chairman of the Commons Treasury Committee in holding the banking sector to account following the financial crash of 2008-09. For the past five years he has served with distinction as senior Deputy Speaker of the House of Lords, demonstrating a zeal for impartiality and fair-mindedness. I believe that his collaborative style and experience prove that he is exceptionally well qualified to take up the duty of Lord Speaker.
Having worked closely with John on issues such as security, I relish the chance to do so again on matters that cut across both Houses of Parliament. May I send congratulations on behalf of the whole House? I also want to send my best wishes to Lord Fowler, who has been Lord Speaker. I wish Lord Fowler—Norman—well in the next stage of his illustrious career, which we know of well.
Points of Order
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I have constituents at Liberty Steel. I have been trying to make sense of its financial relationship with Greensill Capital. I raised the issue of lobbying with the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, and asked him about possible contact with the former Prime Minister, David Cameron. I have asked the same of the Governor of the Bank of England. An answer to my named day parliamentary question of 29 March is long overdue. Mr Speaker, would you advise how Ministers should respond in a timely way to reasonable questions asked by Members of the House?
First, I thank the hon. Member for giving me notice of his point of order. All hon. Members are entitled to expect a timely response to their parliamentary questions. In this case, those on the Treasury Bench will have heard the point of order, and I am sure that the matter will now be looked into. If the hon. Member does not receive a response to his question he might wish to talk to the Table Office about ways to pursue this matter. I would point out, and quite strongly, that we are talking about people’s lives and communities, and I would expect that Ministers take seriously their role and duty to Members of Parliament who have been elected in those constituencies. Whatever their political side, MPs quite rightly deserve answers to their questions. There is no reason for Ministers not to answer in a timely way, so I hope that the message goes across clearly to the Treasury Bench.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. During Northern Ireland questions, the Secretary of State accused members of my party of making incendiary remarks on Twitter. He should know by now that words in this Chamber have an implication on the streets—we have seen that too many times. He has been sitting in his ivory tower during all this trouble, when the rest of us were on the street, toe to toe with the men of violence, so will you ask him to come to the House to clarify his remarks, please?
That is not a point of order for the Chair, but I assure the hon. Member that his point is on the record, and it will certainly have been heard.
I am now suspending the House for three minutes to enable the necessary arrangements for the next business to be made.
Fur Trade (Prohibition)
Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)
I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to prohibit the import, export, purchase and sale of fur and fur products; and for connected purposes.
Twenty-two years ago, my hon. Friend the Member for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle) introduced in this House a Bill to ban fur farming. She said it was time to
“put an end to a cruel barbaric practice”
“keeping wild animals in small barren cages simply to obtain an unessential luxury product.”—[Official Report, 5 March 1999; Vol. 326, c. 1339.]
Her Bill was taken up by the Labour Government and a year later became law, making Britain the first country in the world to ban the cruelty of fur farming, but despite that decision the products of that same cruelty have continued for the past 20 years to be imported into our country from overseas and put on sale in our shops. That double standard has continued simply because as a member of the EU, decisions on what imports to permit were not ours to take. Now, however, as an independent trading nation, we have the opportunity to eliminate that double standard and once again to make history by becoming the first country in the world to ban the importation and sale of fur.
In doing so, we will have the overwhelming support of the animal-loving British public. The most recent YouGov poll commissioned by the Humane Society International UK shows that 72% of the British public support a complete ban, and currently only 3% of people wear animal fur. Yesterday, in a further sign of public feeling, the Fur Free Britain campaign delivered to Downing Street its petition with more than 1 million signatures in support. I thank all the organisations and individuals behind the Fur Free Britain campaign, led by the Humane Society International UK, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, PETA UK, Open Cages and Four Paws, as well as their official campaign partner, the Daily Mirror, for all their tireless work on this issue over the years and for the concern and compassion they have inspired in so many, including myself.
The Bill I am presenting today, is a response to that public pressure, but let me explain why it is necessary, what it seeks to do and, just as important, what it does not. At present, fur taken from farmed animals gassed or electrocuted after spending their short lives in cramped cages can be imported into the UK from countries all around the world. In addition, fur taken from wild animals after their slow, agonising deaths captured in leg-hold traps and other inhumane devices can be imported from the EU and a select group of other countries. Last year, the value of those imports was £29 million. The majority of the imported fur is turned into clothing, hats and accessories by the fashion industry here Britain, either to be sold in our shops or exported overseas in an export trade that was worth £20 million last year. Under the Bill, everything I have just described would be banned in the UK: the import and export of fur and fur products and the sale of new fur products in our shops.
Some people will argue that we should not criminalise the wearing of existing fur products in the UK, or their sale in the second-hand market. I entirely agree. The ultimate purpose of the Bill is to ensure that animals in other countries are not bred, trapped or killed today to supply the UK trade in fur. It does nothing to serve that purpose to criminalise the wearing or sale of products made many years ago. Others will argue that there should be an exemption for fur hats and other items traditionally worn for religious reasons, such as the Jewish shtreimel. Again, I agree. A reasonable ban on the trade will be able to distinguish between fur worn as a mark of faith and fur worn as a fashion accessory.
Finally, some will argue that any ban will have consequences for jobs and businesses in the fashion industry—a point made for many years by the British Fur Trade Association. I agree that, just as there was with the ban on fur production two decades ago, there must be support and compensation for any business and workers affected—but we should not exaggerate the economic effects. After all, in 2020, the UK imported £20 billion worth of clothing items, but imports of fur and fur articles made up just 0.15% of that total. Nor should we let the economic effects distract us from the core principles at stake. It was the former head of the British Fur Trade Association, Mr Mike Moser, who left the organisation last year saying that it was an “indefensible” industry and that
“there is no justification for fur”.
If there are some arguments that my Bill seeks to accommodate, there are others that I feel it cannot. Some critics will say that the Queen’s Guard must be allowed to continue wearing bearskin hats as part of its ceremonial dress. As we wish Her Majesty a happy birthday in this very sad week, my view is that if she decided to stop purchasing new fur some 18 months ago, it is high time for her guards to do the same and transition to synthetic alternatives. After all, it was the Prime Minister himself who said in 2015:
“If Stella McCartney can help save a few bears by making false busbys then…I’m not going to fight that.”
Other critics may argue that this is a civil liberties issue and people should be free to buy and sell whatever they please. My view is that the British public feel deeply that the trade in animal fur is something that we do not wish to continue in our country, and that overwhelming opinion cannot be permanently blocked by the very small minority who disagree.
Finally, some critics may argue that a ban on fur might cause us problems when seeking to negotiate new trade deals with fur-producing nations such as the United States and Canada. My view is that that is, in fact, an argument for pressing ahead with a UK ban at the earliest opportunity, before it can become a bargaining chip in any negotiation or, even worse, we find ourselves bound by the terms of any trade agreement that makes a fur ban more difficult to introduce. After all, it would be bizarre if we finally regained the right to take this decision as an independent trading nation but then found ourselves unable to do so because of a new trade deal signed elsewhere.
That brings me to the question of timing. I hope that the Government will take up my Bill, but if they intend to do so, I hope that they will do so quickly, decisively and as a stand-alone issue, because the time to act is now. We cannot wait and run the risk that a proposed fur ban gets either bogged down or watered down as a result of future trade negotiations. We cannot wait for a fur ban to be included in some much wider animal welfare Bill that risks suffering months or years of delay. And from the point of view of morality, we should not wait while yet more animals overseas live short, miserable lives in wire cages, or suffer cruel, slow deaths in leg-hold traps, just to service a fur trade in our country that the vast majority of our people oppose.
Let me conclude by echoing the words of my hon. Friend the Member for Garston and Halewood in 1999, when she introduced her Bill to ban the domestic production of fur. She said:
“As we approach the new millennium, it is up to the House to set the standards that we want for the next one”.—[Official Report, 5 March 1999; Vol. 326, c. 1339.]
As we enter another new era as an independent trading nation, it is once again up to this House to set the standards we want by deciding what trade we wish to permit. I therefore urge colleagues across the House to join me in saying that Britain no longer wishes to permit this barbaric trade in the fur of animals, and instead chooses to make history by being the first country in the world to ban that trade in full. That is what my Bill seeks to do, and I commend it to the House.
Question put and agreed to.
That Taiwo Owatemi, Emily Thornberry, Luke Pollard, Clive Lewis, Kerry McCarthy, Maria Eagle, Bell Ribeiro-Addy, Alex Sobel, Edward Miliband, Rachel Hopkins, Caroline Lucas and Seema Malhotra present the Bill.
Taiwo Owatemi accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time tomorrow, and to be printed (Bill 289).
Prevention and Suppression of Terrorism
I beg to move,
That the draft Terrorism Act 2000 (Proscribed Organisations) (Amendment) Order 2021, which was laid before this House on 19 April, be approved.
This Government are committed to taking all necessary steps to protect the people of this country. Tackling terrorism in all its guises is a key element of that mission. The threat level in the UK, which is set by the independent joint terrorism analysis centre, remains at substantial. That means that a terrorist attack in our country is likely.
I can confirm to my right hon. Friend that our security services and our counter-terrorism police work tirelessly to foil terror plots. In fact, in the past four years since 2017, 28 such terror plots have been successfully thwarted. I want to take this opportunity to pay tribute to our security services, our counter-terrorism police and all those who work in the law enforcement and intelligence community for the work they do, often at risk to themselves, to keep us, our constituents and our fellow citizens safe on a daily basis.
The constantly evolving nature of terrorism means that we continuously have to consider whether new action is necessary to ensure that our response is adapted to the threat picture. The danger posed by terrorist organisations varies from one group to another. There are those that recruit, radicalise, promote and encourage terrorism, as well as those that prepare and commit terrible acts of violence against innocent members of the public. We have a duty to tackle all those groups. While we can never entirely eliminate the threat from terrorism, we can minimise the danger that it poses and keep the public safe.
In that spirit, 76 international terrorist organisations are currently proscribed under the Terrorism Act 2000. Thanks to the dedication, courage and skill of our counter-terrorism police and our security and intelligence services, most of those groups have never carried out a successful attack on UK soil. Proscription is a powerful tool for degrading terrorist organisations, and I will explain the impact that it can have shortly. The group that we now propose to add to the list of terrorist organisations, by amending schedule 2 of the Terrorism Act 2000, is the Atomwaffen Division, or AWD, and its alias, the National Socialist Order, or NSO. The AWD is a predominantly US-based white supremacist group that was active under that guise between 2015 and 2020. The NSO is the alias of the AWD, and it has claimed to be the AWD’s successor group. It remains active to this day. The group’s actions, which seek to divide communities, stir up hatred and incite terrorism, are entirely contrary to the interests of our nation.
Under section 3 of the Terrorism Act 2000, the Home Secretary has the power to proscribe an organisation if she believes that it is currently concerned in terrorism. If the statutory test is met, the Home Secretary may then exercise her discretion to proscribe that organisation. The Home Secretary considers a number of factors in considering whether to exercise that discretion, including the nature and scale of the organisation’s activities and the need to support other members of the international community in tackling terrorism.
The effect of proscription is to outlaw a listed organisation and ensure that it is unable to operate in the United Kingdom. It is a criminal offence for a person to belong to, support or arrange a meeting in support of a proscribed organisation. It is a criminal offence to wear clothing or carry articles in public that arouse reasonable suspicion that an individual is a member of that organisation. The penalties for proscription offences can be up to 10 years in prison or an unlimited fine, and the Counter-Terrorism and Sentencing Bill, which I believe is due to receive Royal Assent next week, includes provisions to increase the penalty for certain proscription offences to 14 years.
Proscription is designed to crack down on a group’s ability to operate, through various means including enabling prosecution, supporting the takedown of online material, underpinning immigration-related disruptions—for example, excluding members of the group from United Kingdom—and making it possible to seize cash. Given the wide-ranging impact of this power, the Home Secretary exercises it only after thoroughly reviewing the available evidence on any organisation, whether that is open-source material, intelligence material or advice that reflects consultation across Government, the intelligence agencies, law enforcement and international partners. Decisions are taken with great care and consideration, and it is appropriate that such orders must be approved by both Houses of Parliament.
Having carefully considered the evidence, the Home Secretary believes that the AWD, including through the activities of its alias, the NSO, is concerned in terrorism and that the discretionary factors weigh in favour of proscription. Although I am unable to comment on specific intelligence, I can provide the House with a summary of the group’s activities. It celebrates a collection of noxious essays that advocate the use of violence to bring about a fascist, white ethno-state by initiating the collapse of modern society via an ideology known as accelerationism. AWD’s online propaganda has encouraged and promoted terrorist acts, and this content remains influential among accelerationist terrorist groups.
We know that AWD has inspired, at least in part, several loosely affiliated franchise groups abroad, including Feuerkrieg Division, which was proscribed in July last year. In March 2020, AWD claimed that it had disbanded, following pressure from US law enforcement agencies, but in July 2020, NSO announced itself online as AWD’s successor, adhering to the same abhorrent ideology. We therefore believe that NSO should be covered as an alias organisation of AWD. Our strategy to combat terrorism looks at the full spectrum of activity. It is absolutely right that this includes confronting square on the threats from groups who call for violence and mass murder and who unlawfully glorify horrific terrorist acts so that they are prevented from continuing to stir up hatred and incite or carry out terrorism.
When groups without a physical presence in the UK are proscribed, particularly when looking at groups such as AWD, which have an established online presence, it is important to consider the impact that proscription has. By proscribing supremacist, accelerationist terrorist groups such as these, we underline our commitment to ensuring that the UK is a hostile environment for individuals involved in terrorist activity. Our objective is to ensure that there are no safe spaces for any of these terrorist groups or their ideologies, in which they are able to promote or share their extreme views. We are committed to preventing that from happening, so in proscribing AWD and NSO, we send a clear signal that dissemination of the group’s online propaganda is unacceptable.
The Home Office continues to work closely with law enforcement, our international partners and tech companies, including through the Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism, to collaboratively tackle the spread of terrorism content online. We know that the proscription of groups helps tech companies to better tackle terrorist materials on their platforms. We believe that there is a strong case for the Government to proscribe AWD and to list NSO as an alias. It will build on the robust action that the Government have already been taking by proscribing National Action and its aliases, Sonnenkrieg Division and Feuerkrieg Division.
Our message is clear: we will always take every possible action to counter the threat from those who hate the values we cherish. The safety and security of the public is our No. 1 priority and I therefore commend this order to the House.
This Labour Opposition have made it clear repeatedly that our first, overriding priority is, and always will be, to protect the British public and keep our communities safe. This includes from those who cynically and dangerously attack our values, customs and way of life through the provocation and perpetration of horrendous acts of terror. It is right that this foul group be outlawed as a terrorist organisation, so we welcome and support this proscription motion, which sends a strong message that racism, fascism and the glorification of terrorism simply will not be tolerated in our society or on our streets. We also welcome the clarity and direction that this measure will provide to counter-terrorism policing and the intelligence and security services, as well as their operational partners in respect of this organisation and its members.
As has been touched on, Atomwaffen Division, or AWD, is a white supremacist group, predominantly US-based, and it was active between the years 2015 and 2020. Disturbingly, AWD believes in an ideology that has come to be known as accelerationism. This group follows a collection of writings that advocate violence to bring about a white ethno-state by instigating the collapse of society through a race war. It is reported that AWD’s techniques include the harassment of public figures, such as politicians, journalists and others, and organising terror plots.
AWD’s vile propaganda in the online sphere has promoted and sparked terrorist activity. The content very likely remains influential among accelerationist terrorist groups. It is said that AWD inspired affiliated franchise groups abroad including Feuerkrieg Division—the last terrorist group to be proscribed. In March 2020, AWD claimed it had disbanded. The National Socialist Order announced itself as AWD’s successor in July 2020, following the same aims and ideology. It is believed that AWD is almost certainly operating under the NSO alias. Shockingly, under the guise of the NSO, the group has dedicated itself to bringing about white power government by “any means necessary”; this is seen to be an open endorsement of violence.
We know that the threat from far-right extremism and terrorism here in the UK and abroad is rising. Home Office figures show that the number of far-right prisoners in custody for terrorism-related offences has grown steadily for the last seven years. In the year ending December 2020, there were 42 persons holding far-right ideologies in custody for terror offences—the highest number on record, and accounting for a fifth of those in custody for terrorism-related offences. To put that into perspective, only five years previously in the year ending 2015, there were five persons with far-right ideologies in custody for terrorism-related offences, accounting for just 3% of those in custody for terror offences.
The latest Home Office figures for Prevent and Channel show that 43% of the 697 Channel cases in the year ending March 2019 were initially referred due to concerns about right-wing radicalisation—the most common reason by more than 90 cases. Some 22% of Prevent referrals more widely were referred due to right-wing radicalisation concerns.
It is profoundly concerning that AWD seems to have been operational since 2015 and to have expanded in March 2020, yet it is only now that decisive action is being taken. We raised similar concerns on the adequacy of timing back in July 2020, during the proscription of the white supremacist group Feuerkrieg Division. Why on earth has is taken so long for the Government to recognise this threat and finally proscribe this group? It is already way past its peak and action has already been taken against it in the USA. The slowness of the UK’s response begs the question: is the proscription process really fit for purpose? We have previously raised the need for action to be taken against organisations such as the Nazi occultist group, Order of Nine Angles, which has influenced Atomwaffen Division and still seems able to operate freely in the UK.
Counter-terrorism police leaders have long warned about the growing threat from far-right terrorism both here in the UK and abroad. I ask the Minister whether counter-terrorism policing has been granted all the funding and additional resources it has requested to tackle the operations of Atomwaffen Division and National Socialist Order, and shut down their existing networks. Can he tell me whether enforcement orders are being tracked and enforced?
We need to know what steps the Government are taking to ensure that proscription measures have the maximum possible impact, including preventing the group’s illicit operation in new formats in both the online and offline arenas. Proscription should be at the start of the enforcement process, not the end. Will the Minister tell me whether a ban has been imposed on the association of Atomwaffen Division to prevent the group from setting up as a new organisation again?
Today demonstrates yet more conclusive evidence of the Home Secretary’s lack of a robust, coherent strategy to deal with the growing menace of far-right terrorism. Labour has long warned the Government about this, but where is the action? How can the Home Secretary seriously claim that she is doing everything in her reach to address the threat without such a strategy, and how many times do the Opposition have to raise this matter? I trust that the Minister will recognise the gravity and urgency of these questions in the context of today’s motion and in terms of protecting the public, and I hope he can provide suitably adequate assurances to the House.
I wish to put on record our thanks to HOPE not hate for its hard work and dedication in monitoring the activities of far-right extremist organisations.
Our priority is to keep the public and our communities safe. Today’s proscription order is welcome in relation to that most important of goals, but we are seeing an emerging pattern from this Government—one of dither and delay on these vital decisions, with action happening far too late. Ministers must prove that they have a robust enough strategy to address this worrying rise in far-right extremism and terrorism, and tackle this appalling threat.
I too thank the Minister for setting out the reasons behind the tabling of this order. Of course, we fully support the proscription of Atomwaffen Division and its National Socialist Order alias. There is little more I can add to what has already been said about why that is the right thing to do. AWD is a neo-Nazi white supremacist group which rails against Jews, LGBT people and other minorities. It promotes and celebrates violence and terrorism. It has made efforts, as I understand it, to recruit from the US military. The proscription of this horrendous organisation is therefore absolutely appropriate. That is particularly so against a backdrop of right-wing extremism that is a growing problem in the US, at home and elsewhere, an extremism that is increasingly vicious and increasingly attracted to violence.
There are four issues I want to raise with the Minister as constructively as possible. The first, echoing what the shadow Minister the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Bambos Charalambous) said, is about timing—why now? The explanatory memorandum sets out that AWD has inspired, at least in part, several loosely affiliated franchise groups abroad, including Feuerkrieg Division which was proscribed here in July 2020—the Minister repeated that himself. Similarly, it is just over a year since we debated in support of the proscription of Sonnenkrieg Division—SKD. Some describe SKD as the UK arm of Atomwaffen Division. We know that in December 2018 three members of SDK were arrested for threatening to kill Prince Harry and that the leaders had been in direct contact with senior AWD members. All that prompts the question why did we not proscribe AWD at those earlier points in time when we knew of those associations? The explanatory memorandum itself suggests that AWD has already passed the peak of its powers. Why could this not have happened earlier? As the shadow Minister said, timing is an issue that has been raised before and similar complaints are regularly made at debates of this type. Last year, when SKD and System Resistance Network were proscribed, that happened only after the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) in particular had for many months been calling for such action in the Home Affairs Committee and in the Chamber. I think we will hear from him shortly. If we are to maximise the disruptive potential of the orders, is there not more potential to act speedily?
On a related note, again echoing what the shadow Minister said, we know there have been calls from HOPE not hate and others for the Order of Nine Angles to also be proscribed, adding that it has been a key influence on AWD and several other Nazi terror groups, and implicated in planned terror attacks in the USA. Is there not a danger that the Government are repeating their slow step-by-step approach and thereby again limiting the ability of these orders to cause disruption?
Secondly, I want to ask the Minister about what international discussions there have been with allies about this specific group and the more general approach to proscription. It was noticeable that when reporting on the recent Australian decision to proscribe SKD, The Sydney Morning Herald quoted an Australian security intelligence organisation official in saying that other extremist groups had been suggested for prohibition by the UK. However, it was decided that they did not meet the legal definition and that the UK’s definition for proscribing a terrorist organisation was broader than Australia’s. I appreciate that the Minister will be limited about what he can say with regard to those discussions, but does that not highlight the need for better co-ordinated international action to tackle the specific and unique threat posed by far-right terror groups? We know—I think I have already mentioned this—that the international connections among white supremacist groups are complicated, but there are, apparently, all sorts of close relationships, with members drawing inspiration from each other.
Thirdly, what recent assessment has the Minister made of how effective proscription is proving to be and will continue to be? I think he used the word “powerful” to describe it as a powerful tool. We know it does lead to disruption and the arrest of members, but equally the fact that we are continually adding aliases, while I appreciate that that is absolutely and appropriate, raises the question of whether we are really causing anything more than inconvenience to these actors. I just ask simply: what can be done to maximise the potential impact of the orders?
Fourthly and finally, can we look again at precisely how we scrutinise these orders? I appreciate there are good reasons why the Government do not want to give significant advanced notice to the groups they are planning to proscribe, hence this instrument was laid only two days ago, and nor, of course, can the Government publish the information that the proscription review group has about these organisations, but that does tend to mean, as former independent terrorism legislation reviewer David Anderson said, that these debates can be perfunctory. These are significant powers. While this is a clearcut case, others will not be so clearcut. So how can we strengthen the scrutiny process? Is there possibly a role for the Intelligence and Security Committee in scrutinising these decisions? What more can we do to improve oversight?
In conclusion, in due course we should perhaps have a broader debate on the use and operation of these powers, but for today we of course fully support the proscription of this horrendous organisation and pay tribute to all who work hard to tackle and contain such groups, and to keep us safe.
I welcome the banning of the AWD. It is a dangerous Nazi group and any Government action against such groups is welcome. Far-right terrorism is on the rise and is currently the fastest-growing terror threat in the country. Although I of course welcome proscription, the banning of an organisation must be the start of the enforcement process, not the end.
As parliamentary chair of HOPE not hate, an anti-fascist campaign group, I have spoken previously in the Chamber about the threat of the far right, particularly with regard to the Order of Nine Angles. HOPE not hate has consistently provided a clear case for the proscription of the O9A. It is not a new organisation—it has been active since the 1970s—and its members make use of largely unmonitored, encrypted social media platforms to incite hatred and inspire people to commit acts of terror.
Over the past 24 months alone, eight Nazis who have been linked to the O9A have been convicted for terror offences in the UK, with the majority of them in their teens. Strong evidence suggests that children as young as 13 are being groomed by the group. It is believed that the O9A’s core membership is around 2,300 people, with a further 2,000 sympathisers worldwide. This is no fringe group; it is a very serious organisation and is quickly becoming one of the most extreme far-right terror groups in the UK.
In July last year, a US soldier was charged with giving the O9A classified information on his unit’s deployment, with the intent of the group attacking the unit. A second soldier has posted pictures of himself brandishing O9A literature, alongside the caption “Hidden in plain sight”. Such groups make use of encrypted social media platforms and dark online spaces, so it is extremely difficult to track their movement and activity.
It is more than a year since I co-ordinated a letter from a cross-party group of MPs calling for the O9A to be banned, and I also met the Minister for Security, the right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (James Brokenshire). I am therefore disappointed that, despite vocal pressure and constructive discussion from me and other colleagues, and compelling evidence from HOPE not hate, the Government have missed an opportunity and are still unwilling to act and proscribe the group. Will the Minister tell the House why that is?
It is becoming clear that the Government need to conduct a review of the proscription process. Ministers have previously told me that they cannot give a running commentary on the workings in this policy area, but will they answer the following question themselves? Does the proscription review process have sufficient resources to ensure that it is able to move briskly enough? Are Ministers seriously satisfied that it has taken this long to ban the AWD? Given that the far right poses the fastest-growing terror threat, are Minister satisfied that intelligence gathering is sufficiently strong to proactively consider groups that engage in activities close to the threshold for proscription? Are Ministers happy with the level of enforcement against proscribed organisations and their members?
In the past, proscription was the culmination of the process against a group, whereas it should merely be the start. I again urge the Government to review the process in full and seriously to consider the proscription of other groups—such as the Order of Nine Angles—that have a clear and consistent record of spreading hate and conspiring to commit acts of terror.
I am sure that all of us in this House are united in opposing violent, fascist and anti-democratic terrorist activity. We will all agree on proscribing the Atomwaffen Division, which calls for white supremacy and race war, but it is clear that the measure before us was not introduced soon enough and does not go far enough.
Fascist political activity online now has global reach, and Nazis in one country inspire and encourage those elsewhere, while seeking to twist political debate to their race-obsessed ideologies, particularly on social media. Sites such as Parler, 8chan and BitChute are a hotbed of extremist content, and more mainstream social media sites, including Twitter, Facebook and Reddit, both host such content and point users towards the more niche parts of the internet where terrorist activity is glorified and copycat activity encouraged.
Governments must take this issue more seriously and be more adept at responding to the threats posed by these groups. The Atomwaffen Division formed in 2015 and claims to have disbanded back in March 2020, to be replaced by its successor, the National Socialist Order. Will the Minister set out what will be done to speed up future proscriptions?
This is a missed opportunity. I commend HOPE not hate as the leading and tireless campaigners against fascism in this country. HOPE not hate was instrumental in intervening in a murder plot against one of my hon. Friends. The organisation is clear that this was a chance also to ban the Order of Nine Angles, a Nazi occult group that promotes terrorism, murder, sexual violence and child abuse. HOPE not hate recommended that it be proscribed in March 2020—over a year ago—yet there has still been no action to ban it and to give the police the specific instruction to disband it. Over the past two years, eight Nazis linked to the Order of Nine Angles have been convicted of terror offences in the UK. Between 2015 and 2020, the number of people holding far-right ideologies in custody in the UK for terror offences increased fivefold. These are dangerous, vile networks, and the Government should be taking a proactive lead to quash them.
Our political debate is vulnerable to these extremist groups pushing their racist poison, which can then seep through into the mainstream, as when a Warrington Conservative council candidate tweeted at me, as a Jewish woman, to
“Keep the Aryan race going”
about the Prime Minister’s baby. For the safety of all of us, the Government should be faster and tougher in banning these Nazi groups, particularly with the danger of vulnerable children and young people being recruited online and given the delays in bringing forward robust online harms legislation to protect them from such a threat.
I commend the Community Security Trust for its work in monitoring threats from far-right organisations, such as those under discussion today, to the Jewish community, including Jewish MPs like myself. It has been an incredible support since I was first elected, and I do not think I could have made it through this year without it. The Jewish community should not need to have guards outside our schools and places of worship, but we know from events in the UK, US and Europe that, as long as these Nazi organisations are free to recruit others, we still need those guards.
More robust action against far-right organisations that we know pose a threat—not only to public figures, but to the wider community and to the very fabric of multiculturalism in Britain—will ensure that the police and other organisations that tackle violent extremism in the UK are better equipped to deal with that threat. I hope that the Home Secretary will bring forward measures on the so-called Order of Nine Angles and other Nazi organisations not covered by existing proscriptions.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Warrington North (Charlotte Nichols). I wholeheartedly endorse her comments, because I also believe that fascism is a threat to everyone in this great United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, as indeed are others.
I thank the Minister for his speech and for the hard work he has done up until now and will do in the future, and also our Government for all they do to protect us. I also wish to put on record my sincere thanks to the police, MI5 and others that ensure we can continue to have such democratic opportunities in this society. Everyone who makes that happen and helps that happen deserves our sincere thanks.
Coming as I do from Northern Ireland, I am very aware of the attack in Dungiven on the policewoman and her child as they went to get into a car. I wish to put on record my condemnation of the attack—that deed was targeted in Dungiven in Londonderry—and I think every one of us today realises just how important it is to record our condemnation.
As someone who has lived in Northern Ireland all my life—through some 30-odd years of a terrorism campaign and having served in the Ulster Defence Regiment in that role—I am very aware that many good friends have given their lives in uniform, in the Army and the police, over the years. I always want to put that on record, and I thank them personally in this House today. We have been able to sleep in our beds because of their efforts.
In Northern Ireland, we have seen the devastating impact of the use of abuse for political activism, turning it into political terrorism, and I am always mindful, as my mum would have said, of nipping that problem in the bud. I hope that the Minister is sincerely and honestly trying to nip it in the bud.
Following the murders carried out in the US, the Minister has laid out the impact in his speech to the House, indicating that youths arrested for terror offences have such links. Outlawing the group called Atomwaffen Division carries my full support and that of my party, the Democratic Unionist party. I understand that the group has been linked to National Action and, as the Minister said, it is also known as the National Socialist Order. It does and could create a potential threat for every one of us in this House and our constituents outside it. Will the Minister confirm that this action will also address the offshoots—any youth programmes and so on affiliated with the group?
What steps can be taken to help those young people who have been radicalised? Radicalisation in our society is a scourge, whatever side it comes from. Whether it comes from the left or the right, it destroys lives and young people. We must take action to address that ill. Will this order apply to Northern Ireland? There is some indication that National Action has been trying to organise there, and I have concerns about that. There is also evidence that AWD has been trying to gain access to and increase its influence in parts of Northern Ireland.
I congratulate the Minister and the Government on this positive concrete action that will extend to all groups that threaten the stability of the Government and society. Groups that attack people purely because of their ethnicity or religious background must be taken out of society. The Government have responded to this issue in a positive way, and I think all hon. Members will welcome what they have done, and look forward to such positive action in other cases as they arise.
I thank Members from across the House for the constructive tone they have taken in contributing to this debate. I will pick up on one or two of the points raised before concluding and making way for the Government’s newest Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Leo Docherty), who I see is preparing to make his well-deserved debut on the Front Bench.
The shadow Minister asked about the speed at which this process unfolds, and various other Members, including the hon. Member for Barnsley East (Stephanie Peacock), asked about other groups that might be under consideration. Given how significant these powers are, and given that someone who is a member of a proscribed organisation or conducts activities in association with it is liable for a prison sentence of up to 10 years—soon to be increased to 14 years—it is right that such matters are considered in a thoughtful and careful way, and not in haste. I assure the shadow Minister, and other Members, that where organisations are suspected of being involved in terrorist activities of this nature, the Government, the Home Office and the intelligence community will move as quickly as they can. I will certainly pass on the remarks I have heard from various Members this afternoon to my colleague the Minister for Security, to ensure that those points are raised.
The shadow Minister asked about resources for counter-terrorism policing, and I am pleased to remind the House that last year there was a £90 million—10%—increase in the resources made available for that, increasing expenditure to £900 million a year. Counter-terrorism policing is categorically getting the funding it needs to keep us safe.
I confirm to the hon. Gentleman that Northern Ireland gets its fair share of counter-terrorism police funding. As we know, that issue has been so serious and so acute over many years.
The shadow Minister asked about ensuring we take action against groups that appear in new formats, or groups that discard their old name and organisation but start up as the same organisation in substance, but in a different guise. That is why the concept of aliases is so important. Indeed, we are using that concept today as we formally recognise NSO as effectively an alias of AWD. That is the mechanism by which we ensure that groups cannot just cast off one identity and assume another.
The hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald) asked about international discussions. I obviously will not comment on the detail of those, because they touch on security and intelligence issues, but I can confirm that we are in very frequent and close discussion with international partners—particularly Five Eyes countries, but much more widely than that as well—to make sure that we are co-operating and exchanging information on these terrorist groups, to protect our citizens and other citizens from the serious threat that they pose.
The hon. Member asked about follow-up. I agree that proscription is just the beginning, not the end, of the process. The intelligence community and counter-terrorism police continue to monitor and follow up on these organisations. It is for that reason that, since 2001, 49 convictions have been secured in connection with proscription offences—an organisation has been proscribed, and a conviction has later been secured in connection with that.
The hon. Member also asked how these decisions can be scrutinised. There is an appeal process. If an organisation is the subject of a proscription order, it is able at any time—immediately or later—to exercise the right of appeal to a body called the Proscribed Organisations Appeal Commission, which is judicial. An organisation can put its case to the judges there. Evidence can be heard in secret, if necessary, and that appellate body can either overturn the Home Secretary’s decision or refer a matter back to the Home Secretary. So there is an independent body to which appeals can be made.
Finally, the hon. Member for Warrington North (Charlotte Nichols) asked about the damage that can be done by hateful ideologies being spread online. The Government published their response to the White Paper on online harms last December and have confirmed their intention this calendar year to bring forward new measures to combat online harms, which will include precisely the dangers that she referred to.
In conclusion, as we have clearly established during the debate, AWD and its alias organisation, NSO, are dangerous organisations. They promote and advocate terrorism. They pose a threat to citizens in not just this country but many countries around the world, including the United States. As such, I urge colleagues across the House to support the order.
Question put and agreed to.
That the draft Terrorism Act 2000 (Proscribed Organisations) (Amendment) Order 2021, which was laid before this House on 19 April, be approved.
Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Bill (Programme) (No. 2)
Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 83A(7)),
That the following provisions shall apply to the Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Bill for the purpose of supplementing the Order of 23 September 2020 (Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Bill (Programme)):
Consideration of Lords Amendments
(1) Proceedings on consideration of Lords Amendments shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion three hours after their commencement.
(2) Any further Message from the Lords may be considered forthwith without any Question being put.
(3) The proceedings on any further Message from the Lords shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion one hour after their commencement.—(David Rutley.)
Question agreed to.
Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Bill
Consideration of Lords amendments
I beg to move, That this House disagrees with Lords amendment 1.
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
Government amendments (a) to (o) in lieu.
Lords amendment 2, and Government motion to disagree.
Lords amendment 3, and Government consequential amendment (a).
Lords amendment 4, and Government motion to disagree.
Lords amendment 5, and Government motion to disagree.
Lords amendments 6 to 8.
Before moving to the main meat of my speech, I wish to formally put on record my thanks to my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Johnny Mercer) for his fantastic work on veterans’ issues for many years and his work in getting the Bill to this point. I know that he will share my satisfaction that, with a following wind, it will make further progress today.
Importantly, although it is not in the scope of the debate, I would like to confirm to the House that a Bill will soon come forward from the Northern Ireland Office that will protect our Northern Ireland veterans of Operation Banner and address the legacy of the troubles. I know that this will be of sincere interest to many Members here today.
I thank the brand-new Minister for allowing me to intervene. That is very good news indeed, and I look forward to it. If that does not happen, we have second-class veteran soldiers, because those who have served abroad are first-class in the way they are treated, and those of us who served many times in Northern Ireland would be second-class.
I thank my right hon. and gallant Friend for that intervention. I acknowledge his significant service on operations in Northern Ireland, and I know that he will share my keen expectation that we will, through legislation, in due course, deliver the protection that our Op Banner veterans so richly deserve.
I congratulate the Minister on coming into his post and very much look forward to working with him, as I did with his predecessor. I wish him well. Obviously, we owe a great debt to those who have served in Northern Ireland, including the right hon. and gallant Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart). I reiterate that we in the Democratic Unionist party and Unionist people as well want to put on record our thanks to all those who served and made a contribution. We very much look forward to that legislation coming through, which we feel is only correct and right for everyone.
I thank the hon. Member for that intervention and I agree entirely with him. Those who have served are the finest among us, and this Government are resolutely committed to delivering through legislation the protections that our veterans of the troubles of Northern Ireland deserve.
I turn to the Government amendments in lieu of Lords amendment 1. The Lords amendment adds a new subsection to clause 6 that has the effect of excluding genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and torture offences from the measures in part 1 of the Bill. In proposing the Government amendment to include genocide, crimes against humanity and torture in schedule 1, I repeat what has been said many times during the passage of the Bill: the decision to exclude only sexual offences from the measures in part 1 did not mean that the Government would not continue to take the international obligations in respect of other offences extremely seriously. I should like to reassure hon. Members once more on that point. The United Kingdom does not participate in, solicit, encourage or condone the use of torture for any purpose, and we remain committed to maintaining our leading role in the promotion and protection of human rights, democracy and the rule of law. However, the Government have listened to the very real concerns expressed by many in both Houses. I would like to express my thanks to Lord Robertson of Port Ellen for his constructive and collegiate approach on this issue.
I congratulate the Minister on his appointment. I very much welcome the concession he has just announced, but why are the Government retaining the presumption against prosecution in the case of war crimes, because that leaves open the risk of UK troops in future being summoned to the International Criminal Court? Surely nobody wants that.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I think he will derive reassurance from the remarks that I am shortly about to make, so I ask him to bear with me.
These concerns are that, by not excluding other serious offences, the Bill risks damaging not only the UK’s reputation for upholding international humanitarian and human rights law, including the UN convention against torture, but the reputation of our armed forces. Although we can be absolutely reassured that our armed forces would never resort to acts of genocide or crimes against humanity, and that it would be extremely unlikely for individual members of the services to be charged with such offences, not explicitly excluding these offences from the Bill is clearly an omission that must be rectified, and I am therefore happy to propose that now.
In addition, in order to prevent any further perceived damage to the UK’s reputation in respect of our ongoing commitment to uphold the rule of law and our international obligations, particularly the UN convention against torture, the amendment would add torture offences to the list of excluded offences in schedule 1. The intent of the Bill as drafted is to ensure that the part 1 measures will apply to as wide a range of offences as possible in order to provide reassurance to our service personnel that the operational context will be taken into account in relation to allegations of criminal offences on historical overseas operations. Excluding further offences beyond those of genocide, crimes against humanity, torture and sexual offences would, however, undermine that reassurance by excluding a considerable list of offences from the application of the measures in part 1. We believe that we can take this approach safe in the knowledge that the prosecutor retains their discretion to make the appropriate decision about whether to prosecute a service person on a case-by-case basis, including in respect of other serious offences. The presumption, therefore, against prosecution is a high threshold; it is not a bar.
In proposing this amendment, which will see the exclusion of a greater number of offences from the measures in part 1, the Government believe that it is appropriate to also propose the removal of the delegated power in clause 6, which allows the Secretary of State to amend schedule 1.
May I also welcome my hon. Friend to the Front Bench? It is an overdue promotion.
May I bring him back to this question of war crimes? He will talk about the Henry VIII clause in a minute, but I want to bring him back to this question. Many of us who are emotionally very supportive of the Bill and, indeed, its successor in respect to Northern Ireland do not want to see, under any circumstances, British soldiers brought before the International Criminal Court. That would be a shame on them and a shame on our country. The International Criminal Court’s chief prosecutor has made it plain that, in the event that we hinder—and this would be a hindrance—the prosecution of war crimes, they would see it as appropriate for them to bring the prosecution. Much of this is a fantastic improvement, but that seems to me a fairly sizeable hole in the improvement.
I take my right hon. Friend’s point, but the point to bear in mind is that nothing in the Bill will hinder a prosecution of that sort. What we must bear in mind is that the prosecutor retains the absolute discretion to prosecute if there is a serious allegation. The prosecutor will take into account the severity of the crime, but removing any more categories from the Bill would unnecessarily weaken the reassurance to service personnel and veterans. We must remember that it is a high threshold and not a bar. I hope that he is reassured by my words.
I accept the sincerity with which the right hon. Gentleman makes his point. The bottom line is that, because the prosecutor will retain the agency to pursue a prosecution in the event of a grave allegation, that will provide for the required investigation. It will not make more likely the ICC pursuing a prosecution of a member of our armed forces. I hope that he takes reassurance from the fact that this is a high threshold, and not a bar, to prosecutions. If there is a case to answer, the prosecutor will make sure that it is answered.
I shall conclude my remarks in relation to Lords amendment 1 by saying that these proposed amendments go a very long way to addressing the concerns of the House of Lords in respect of relevant offences. I therefore urge that these amendments be accepted in lieu of their Lordships’ amendment 1.
I will move now to Lords amendment 2, which seeks to introduce artificial timelines for the progress of investigations, including what appears to be an arbitrary cut-off point at six months for referral to the Service Prosecuting Authority, and a power for the Judge Advocate General to make directions in respect of investigations. The Government do not support introducing any such legislative limitations on the investigative process, not least as they would bring the real risk that to do so could lead to a contravention of our domestic and international legal obligations. They would also bring inconsistency of approach as these limitations would not apply to service police investigations in the UK, or to those conducted by civilian police forces.
I am also strongly of the view that it would be premature to propose any changes to the investigative process while Sir Richard Henriques’s review of investigative processes in relation to overseas operations is still in progress. I will briefly set out the key reasons why the Government are resisting the Lords amendment.
The timescales in the amendment are operationally unrealistic. They do not take account of the nature of investigations on overseas operations and could put us in breach of our international obligations to investigate serious crimes effectively. Where the service police have reason to believe that an offence may have been committed, they have a legal duty to investigate it. Artificial timelines and restrictions placed on them in respect of the conduct of investigations would clearly prevent them from carrying out effective investigations and impinge on their statutory independence.
Subsection (2) includes a requirement for referral of investigations to the service prosecuting authority and sets an arbitrary timeline for that. However, a referral threshold—the evidence sufficiency test—already exists in the Armed Forces Act 2006. Furthermore, section 116 of that Act contains a statutory obligation on the service police to consult the service prosecuting authority before deciding not to refer certain serious cases.
I welcome the Minister to his position—it is a long overdue promotion and a vast improvement on what went before. He said that the Henriques investigation will make recommendations. In Committee, I tabled a series of amendments that would get to the heart of the matter. The real issue in the Bill is the length of investigations. I accept that it should not be arbitrary. In Committee, I proposed that investigations would have to be brought before a judge to ensure that at least there were grounds for them to continue. If the idea is to let the Bill go through now and make changes later, surely we should make them in this Bill rather than miss that opportunity.
I am grateful for the right hon. Gentleman’s intervention and note his long-standing interest in the Bill and the issues more broadly. We must have confidence in the Henriques review. I do not believe that there is a tension between a good outcome for the review and the necessity of passing the Bill in good order. However, if the right hon. Gentleman writes to me with those concerns, I would be pleased to write to Justice Henriques to suggest that he include them in the scope of his inquiry.
I am grateful for the Minister’s offer to do that, but the problem, which I will address later, with the Bill is that it is being done ad hoc. The Minister’s predecessor promised that investigation would be in the Armed Forces Bill. Lo and behold, it is not and has been kicked into the review. If we are really to address the issue of veterans being reinvestigated, the problem is the length of the investigations, not whether there should be prosecutions at the end. That is a judicial test. That is the mess that the Government have got into with the entire process.
I entirely agree with the point that the right hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) just made. The issue starts with the investigative mechanisms inside the Ministry of Defence. My hon. Friend does not need to take it just from us; he should look at the comments of Justice Blackett, who, as a former JAG, was expert in the matter and understood it all too well.
I acknowledge the contributions of both right hon. Members. I agree that the length of investigations is the recurring problem, but I point out that since the early days of our military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, our ability to carry out rigorous and timely investigations has radically improved. That should be borne in mind when we consider the Bill.
Closing down or restricting the investigative timeline as subsection (3) of the Lords amendment would do raises the risk of contravening our legal obligations to investigate allegations of serious crimes effectively and presents the serious risk of the ICC determining that we are unwilling or unable to investigate alleged offences on overseas operations properly. An effective investigation is led by the evidence, on a case-by-case basis, not carried out under the shadow of arbitrary timescales.
Furthermore, and of equal concern, is that we could also fail to clear the names of our own forces or fail to provide much needed closure to the families of deceased personnel if investigations are curtailed in this way. Lords amendment 2 would introduce a novel role for the Service Prosecuting Authority and for the Judge Advocate General to make direction in relation to investigations. Neither of those new roles is necessary.
While we accept that there may have been shortcomings in some of the early investigations in Iraq, that is simply not the case now. All elements of the armed forces, including the service police, have come a long way since then. Lessons have been learned. Processes, policies, training and education have all been updated to reflect the experiences of those early days and matters that have arisen since. Lords amendment 2 is therefore not only unnecessary, but unworkable and would seriously risk the UK’s failing to meet its legal obligations. I therefore strongly urge the House to reject it.
Lords amendment 3 removes clause 12 and will mean that future Governments are not required by statute to consider whether to make a derogation under article 15 of the European convention on human rights in relation to significant overseas operations. The ability under article 15 to derogate in appropriate circumstances will remain, and the Government will still have the freedom, when committing the armed forces to significant operations, to derogate from the ECHR. That is why the Government have agreed to Lords amendment 3.
Lords amendment 4 carves out claims by service personnel and veterans from the limitation longstops in part 2 of the Bill. The urge to give special consideration to our service personnel who make great sacrifices to serve us is noble, but I believe that the amendment is unnecessary, not only for reasons that I will come on to, but because it would be discriminatory to single out service people in this way.
The limitations longstops in part 2 of the Bill have been introduced to help address the difficulties the MOD has faced in defending civil claims arising from historical overseas military operations, as the longstops provide greater legal certainty and greater certainty to service personnel and veterans that they will not be called upon many years after operations have ended to give evidence about potentially traumatic events relevant to a claim. That is at the heart of protecting our service personnel and veteran community against the legacy of lawfare as experienced following operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
What is also important for service personnel is that these measures may also help reduce criminal investigations many years or decades after operations have ended. That is because in future, the longstops will likely encourage any civil claims to be brought sooner, and any associated criminal allegations are also therefore likely to be investigated sooner.
Lords amendment 4 concerns the fact that the limitation longstops in part 2 would apply to service personnel and veterans and civilians alike. However, I strongly believe that the impact on our service personnel and veterans would in practice have been minimal. The vast majority of service personnel and veterans already bring timely claims. Our analysis of the relevant figures indicates that around 94% of claims from service personnel and veterans arising from operations in Iraq and Afghanistan were brought within six years of the date of the incident or the date of knowledge. What that means is that any carving out of claims by service personnel from the longstops would have very little practical impact.
It is true that based on our analysis of historical claims, 6% of service personnel brought their claims after six years from the date of knowledge or incident. The Government clearly have a role to play in ensuring that potential claimants know about the measures we are introducing in the Bill. We will therefore make service personnel aware that a claim in connection with an overseas operation will have to be brought within the relevant time periods.
The Minister has said he does not want to discriminate against people, but with this measure he is discriminating against members of the armed forces. He refers to claims being brought against the MOD, but a lot of those cases are actually brought by members of the armed forces. He says that 6% will potentially be discriminated against, and we heard evidence about that in Committee.
I will give the Minister one practical example. The Snatch Land Rover case came before the courts way after the fact, because it came out in the Chilcot review. Families were able to take those cases forward outside of the limitation time. There is an idea that somehow people can get a case out of limitation times without very good arguments, but that is difficult. What this measure is doing is taking the rights that we all share as individuals under the Limitation Act 1980 and saying that they do not apply to people who have served in our armed forces. That is wrong.
I do not share the right hon. Gentleman’s analysis. We have to bear in mind the fact that 6% is a small number. However, it is still too high, and we will work to get it down to zero.
It is worth reminding ourselves that the limitation longstops will cover only a small subset of the personal injury claims brought by current and former service personnel against the Ministry of Defence—those connected with overseas operations. Additionally, personnel will continue to have access to the armed forces compensation scheme. Let me conclude by confirming that part 2 of the Bill will not breach the armed forces covenant, which states:
“Those who serve in the Armed Forces, whether Regular or Reserve, those who have served in the past, and their families, should face no disadvantage compared to other citizens in the provision of public and commercial services.”
The primary focus of the covenant is to help ensure that service personnel and veterans are not disadvantaged in comparison with civilians in the same position. Indeed, the longstops in part 2 will apply in the same way to all claimants bringing claims connected with overseas operations against the MOD, whether they are military personnel, civil servants, contractors or local nationals. Everyone, military or civilian, who is deployed on an overseas operation is treated equally in that respect. I therefore urge the House to reject the amendment.
Lords amendment 5 would require the Secretary of State to establish a duty of care standard for current and former service personnel and, where appropriate, their families, and would require the Secretary of State to provide an update in the armed forces covenant annual report. I would like to begin by saying that we take our responsibilities to our service personnel and veterans extremely seriously. On Tuesday 13 April, the Secretary of State published a written ministerial statement setting out as a matter of record the support that is, and will continue to be, available. First, that makes clear that service personnel are entitled to receive legal support where they face criminal allegations or civil claims that relate to actions taken during their service and where they were performing their duties. Legal advice and support are also available whenever people are required to give evidence at inquests and inquiries, and in litigation.
Secondly, a range of welfare support and mental health support is routinely offered to all service personnel. The potential impact of operations on a serviceperson’s mental health is well recognised, and there are provisions in place to help manage and mitigate those impacts as far as possible. Additionally, the Office for Veterans’ Affairs works closely with the MOD and Departments across Government, the devolved Administrations, charities and academia to ensure that veterans’ needs are met.
Significant progress has been made to ensure that our service personnel and veterans have access to a comprehensive package of legal, pastoral and mental health support, so we believe that it is unnecessary to establish a statutory duty of care. Not only is Lords amendment 5 unnecessary but it could result in unintended consequences, and would be likely to lead to an increase in litigation, which would mean more of our people being subject to potentially lengthy and stressful court proceedings, which is profoundly undesirable and contrary to the Bill’s objectives. Notions of moral and pastoral duties are extremely difficult to define adequately, and there is a real risk that attempting to do so in legislation would lead to more, rather than less, litigation and greater uncertainty. We are concerned that as allegations may occur in operational theatres involving commanding officers, the Royal Military Police and service personnel, the amendment might have unintended consequences that would undermine our operational effectiveness. The Government are clear about their responsibilities to provide the right support to our personnel, both serving and veterans, and to seek to improve and build on that wherever necessary. I do not believe that setting a standard duty of care in the Bill is necessary, so the Government cannot support Lords amendment 5.
Lords amendments 6 to 8 are minor and technical, and are simply drafting improvements. All in all, I urge the House to accept the Government amendments in lieu of Lords amendment 1, and to reject Lords amendments 2, 4 and 5 so that we can fulfil our solemn obligations for greater legal protection for our service personnel and our veteran community.
I congratulate and warmly welcome the Minister for Defence People and Veterans to this, his first—and, I am sure, not the last—Front-Bench role. It is at this point that, as the departmental Whip, he might have wished he had paid more attention to the content of the debates on the Bill than to winning the votes, but he brings a wealth of expertise to his post from six years in the Scots Guards and from serving as the Member of Parliament for Aldershot, and I think the House has already heard this afternoon that he will make a very good fist of his new role. We wish him well.
We will miss the hon. Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Johnny Mercer) in a mixed sort of way. He has been a roadblock to reason during the passage of the Bill through Parliament, but no one can fault his passion or his sense of mission. His letter of resignation last night to the Prime Minister lays bare the failings of the Government, not just across the breadth of veterans’ concerns, but in the very character of the Prime Minister and his Government. In it, the hon. Gentleman said:
“we continue to say all the right things”
“fail to match that with what we deliver”.
I am glad to have heard the new Minister say today that the Government promise legislation on Northern Ireland shortly. We will look hard at that, but when it comes to dealing with the legacy of the past in Northern Ireland, we remain committed to the only way forward, which must be based on the Good Friday agreement, and in particular on the broad consensus reached at Stormont House with victims at its heart.
The Minister was probably responsible for this as the Whip, but I am delighted to say that, unlike the previous stages of the Bill in this House, we have plenty of time this afternoon to deal with the Lords amendments. I pay tribute to the peers who led on each of the four amendments before us: Lord Robertson of Port Ellen on Lords amendment 1; Lord Dannatt on Lords amendment 5; Lord Thomas of Gresford on Lords amendment 2; and Lord Faulkner and Lord Tunnicliffe on Lords amendment 4. Each of the amendments had strong Crossbench backing, each had the most senior military members of the Lords signed up and each was passed with a big majority in the other place. I say to Government Members that not a single Conservative peer spoke in favour of the Government or against these four amendments during the last stage in the House of Lords. I hope that gives them pause for thought about just how isolated their Ministers are on these amendments and how they have failed to convince an ever-widening group of distinguished individuals, experts and specialist groups about the Bill.
I believe that if the right hon. Gentleman consults Lords Hansard, he will see that Lord Mackay was speaking to another amendment. I am talking about the four main amendments that are before us today.
I know there has been a long-running problem. The Labour party accepts and recognises the problem of baseless allegations and legal claims arising from Iraq and Afghanistan under both Labour and Conservative Governments. But the Bill, unamended, is not the solution, even though we have worked hard from the outset to forge consensus on the changes needed to make the Bill into legislation that best serves the interests of British troops, British justice and British military standing in the world. I take a perhaps old-fashioned view that it is our duty in this House and the other place to make this legislation fit for purpose, and ensure that it is a new legal framework for this country when we have in future to commit our servicemen and women to conflict overseas.
I thank and pay tribute to the work of the organisations that have been most active in helping parliamentarians in both Houses during the passage of this Bill with their expertise and views. Those organisations include Freedom from Torture, Reprieve, the Royal British Legion, the Centre for Military Justice and the Association of Personal Injury Lawyers. I also pay tribute to Members on both sides of this House, particularly the 15 who served with our Front-Bench colleagues on the Public Bill Committee and who have contributed so fully to the debates that we have had so far.
Let me turn to the Lords amendments on which I will concentrate. The reason that no Tory peers spoke in support of the Government on these amendments is because the Bill just does not do what it says on the tin—that is, protect British forces personnel serving overseas from vexatious legal claims and from repeat investigations.
I turn to Lords amendment 2. More than 99% of the 4,000-plus allegations against our troops arising from Iraq and Afghanistan would not have been affected at all by this Bill, because it relates only to the prosecution’s process and the prosecutorial system. That is why Lord Boyce, former Chief of the Defence Staff, said:
“The Bill’s significant emphasis on presumption against prosecution as a way of relieving some of the stress of legal proceedings”
is misplaced, and that,
“it is the investigation and reinvestigation process that…so…wears people down.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 13 April 2021; Vol. 811, c. 1170.]
I turn to Lords amendment 4. Part 2 of the Bill strips forces and forces’ families of their current rights to civil justice and compensation if they suffer injury or even death as a result of MOD negligence. That is why Lord Stirrup, also a former Chief of the Defence Staff, said:
“It seems strange to me that a Bill with the avowed purpose of providing government reassurance to service personnel seems intent on preventing those very personnel from seeking redress from that same Government.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 13 April 2021; Vol. 811, c. 1222.]
I turn to Lords amendment 1. The presumption against prosecution after five years increases the risk of British service personnel being dragged before the International Criminal Court. That is why the former Judge Advocate General—the military’s most senior legal figure—said in evidence to the Bill Committee itself:
“What it actually does is increase the risk of service personnel appearing before the International Criminal Court.”––[Official Report, Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Public Bill Committee, 8 October 2020; c. 117-18, Q234.]
Of course, the ICC’s chief prosecutor has indeed written to the Defence Secretary while the Bill has been in Parliament
“to ensure that the exemption clause extends to all crimes within the jurisdiction of the Court”.
Otherwise it would “render such cases admissible” before the International Criminal Court.
I turn to Lords amendment 3. I am pleased that the Government have accepted the case for removing clause 12, which would have required Ministers to consider derogating from the European convention on human rights before committing British troops to overseas conflicts. We challenged this with a Labour amendment at the very earliest stage of the Bill’s passage through the Commons. The decision to drop the clause reasserts the UK’s commitment to an important treaty that Britain played a leading role in drafting. It is important too in allowing an avenue of justice for both British forces personnel and for victims.
Let me turn to the core of the debate and concern in the House of Lords, which is Lords amendment 1 and the Government’s counter-proposals before the House this afternoon. The Secretary of State’s decision to accept parts of Lord Robertson’s amendment to exclude torture, genocide and war crimes from the presumptions is welcome, and it is testament to the efforts of Lord Robertson, many other groups and, indeed, Members of this House. I pay particular tribute to the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis) and my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis), who together have banged the drum about the importance of torture not being carved out from provisions in the future.
The acts that Lord Robertson and so many Members of the upper House were concerned about are illegal and immoral. Under all circumstances, they must be investigated and, if there are grounds for the allegations, there must be prosecutions and punishment. The Minister talked about rectifying an omission with the Government’s amendments in lieu of Lords amendment 1. However, the Government are still picking and choosing some of the crimes that are covered by the Geneva conventions. Today they have picked out torture and genocide, but they are excluding the more general case of war crimes.
Torture and genocide should never have been included as offences within this Bill. Like sexual offences, there is no justification—there can never be justification—for them, so the decision now to exclude them is certainly a good step forward, and we welcome it and will support the Government’s amendments in lieu of Lords amendment 1. But can I urge the Minister, in the time between the consideration of these Lords amendments in this House and their being discussed again in the other place, to accept in full those crimes specified in Lord Robertson’s amendment 1, including war crimes, as excluded offences?
Clearly those are the arguments we made in Committee, asking why sexual offences were excluded but these very serious crimes were not. If the Government have given way on two, I have not yet heard an explanation from the Minister as to why war crimes are not going to be excluded. It is not only right that they should be excluded but, in terms of the UK’s international reputation, it would save a lot of embarrassment. I want to avoid, and I think everyone wants to avoid, members of our armed forces ending up in the International Criminal Court.
Indeed, my right hon. Friend makes an important point. I have touched already on the risk that this will undermine Britain’s international reputation for fully upholding and adhering to many of the international rules and laws that we were instrumental in drafting and creating after the second world war. The Minister describes torture and genocide as omissions from the provisions of the Bill, and he rectifies that with his proposed amendments in lieu of Lords amendment 1, but it is not clear, as my right hon. Friend says, why other crimes covered by the Geneva conventions, particularly war crimes, are still omitted, because exactly the same arguments apply to those as to the ones the Government have rightly conceded on and reflected in their amendments in lieu.
Let me spell it out for the Minister. Article 8 of the Rome statute says that war crimes are:
“Grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions”.
This dates back to 1949, just after the second world war. These grave breaches include:
“Wilful killing… Wilfully causing great suffering, or serious injury… Compelling a prisoner of war or other…to serve in the forces of a hostile Power”.
That is important because, as both the Judge Advocate General and the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, and Members on both sides of the House this afternoon, have made clear, not excluding these offences makes it more likely that British soldiers risk being prosecuted and pursued in the ICC.
As my right hon. Friend rightly said, it is also about our adherence to and respect for international law. If we ourselves meet the highest standard of legal military conduct, we can hold other countries to account when their forces fall short. If we do otherwise, it compromises our country’s proud reputation for upholding the rules-based international order that Britain itself has helped to construct since the days of Churchill and Attlee.
I ask the Minister and his colleagues in the MOD, when the Bill returns to the other place, to include war crimes as excluded offences, along with the other exclusions that he lists in his amendments in lieu of Lords amendment 1.
I think the right hon. Gentleman thought I was trying to trick him when I said that Lord Mackay had voted for Lords amendment 1. The point I was making is that Lord Mackay is a previous Law Officer—a very senior Law Officer in a Tory Government —and he voted for George Robertson’s amendment, reinforcing its force, not undermining it.
I am so grateful that I gave way again to the right hon. Gentleman. He rightly believed that I thought his challenge was intended to trick me. I thought he was arguing—this was not my recollection, but I was not entirely certain because I do not have the Hansard record in front of me—that Lord Mackay had not spoken out against the Government’s position and had not supported Lord Robertson’s amendment. My main point—this gives me an opportunity to repeat it—is that no Conservative peer spoke up for the Government and against the amendments we are discussing this afternoon.
I hope that gives not just Government Back Benchers but those on the Front Bench pause for thought about just how isolated the Government are on these issues and how, during the passage of the Bill, they have failed—this is certainly not the responsibility of the Minister—to convince a wide range of experts and specialist groups, and the forces themselves, particularly those with service experience, that they are doing the right thing in this Bill.
Lord Mackay is a very old gentleman, and I am a historian—of adequate standard only. Surely, the conduct of the British troops in the second world war—the trusted Tommies—gave us the moral authority that we used at the Nuremberg war trials, something that Lord Mackay will remember himself.
This debate gets richer with every intervention I take, which probably suggests that I should stop talking and allow others to contribute. If the hon. Gentleman feels he is only an adequate historian, I am an inadequate historian. I did not know that. It has helped the strength of the argument that I am trying to make, as well as the information that the House has this afternoon.
I thank my friend the shadow Secretary of State for giving way. I have been tussling in my mind with why a war crime is different from torture, crimes against humanity or genocide, but I have come to understand—probably because I am a bit silly or stupid—what a war crime is. An example of a war crime is getting a whole load of the enemy when they have surrendered, putting them up against a wall and shooting them. That is a war crime, and I think it is quite a good thing that we should be against that.
The right hon. and gallant Gentleman has experience of conflict. I do not know whether a legal mind, which mine certainly is not, would regard that as wilful killing, but as such, it is probably an act that is beyond the categories of specific crimes cited in the Government’s amendment that excludes them from the provisions of the Bill. That underlines the case I am making, for which I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman, that that category of Geneva convention-defined crimes, including war crimes, really must be excluded from the presumption in this Bill; otherwise, we face the risks that we are discussing this afternoon of exposing our forces to potential action from the International Criminal Court, which none of us wants to see, and of dragging down the reputation of this country for upholding in full and fully adhering to the international rules and standards of military legal conduct.
I turn to Lords amendment 2, on investigations. I said earlier that the Bill does not yet do what it says on the tin. We were told that this Bill would bring an end to the harassment of forces personnel through repeated legal claims, but because it deals only with prosecutions and not with investigations, it will not do that. Only 27 prosecutions arising from Iraq and Afghanistan have been registered, yet 3,400 allegations were considered by the Iraq Historic Allegations Team and 670 from Operation Northmoor. Therefore, less than 1% of allegations were prosecuted. The problem here is investigations: the serious, consistent problems that lie in a system of investigation that has proved to be lacking in speed, soundness, openness and a duty of care to alleged victims or the troops involved. Those are all problems well before the point of decision about prosecution, which is the point at which the provisions of this Bill kick in.
The Minister describes the proposals in Lords amendment 2 as somehow premature and cites Henriques. I am aware, of course, that the Government have set up a review on this, but there have been three reviews already and he might want to ask his officials to dig them out for him. There have been three reviews in the past five years, with at least 80 recommendations on investigations that the Government could act on now. The Minister and his predecessor promised us that investigations reform would be a matter for the Armed Forces Bill, as my right hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) has said, yet when that Bill was brought before the House nothing was included.
I have sympathy with the Lords amendment on investigations, but I think that the new clauses 6, 7 and 8 that I tabled in Committee would have been far better. My new clause 8—I think it was that one—sought to put a time limit on minor investigations; they could go before a judge and be dismissed, and that would reduce the numbers. The other thing is the need to have judicial oversight of the investigations. That is not saying that we do not investigate things; it is about having rigour in ensuring that investigations are being done in a timely way, and can carry on if more evidence needs collecting, and that, likewise, reinvestigations can be opened only where a judge determines that new and compounding evidence is brought forward. That is the gaping hole still in this Bill even if we agree to the Lords amendment, which I have sympathy with. Without that, my right hon. Friend is right: this Bill does not pass the Ronseal test, because it does not do what it says on the tin.
My right hon. Friend is right to say that there is a gaping hole. This is the gaping hole in this Bill, and it could be fixed. It could be fixed in the way that was proposed and passed to us by the Lords in their amendment 2. I guess the Minister might want to ask his officials to dig out my right hon. Friend’s new clauses 6, 7 and 8 from Committee, because, having served in this House for a long time with him, I can bet strongly that those new clauses will resurface in debate on the Armed Forces Bill, because once he gets his teeth into something, he is reluctant to let it go.
My right hon. Friend is correct, but the problem is that the previous Minister promised that investigations would be part of the Armed Forces Bill and, lo and behold, they were not there. The Government have therefore had two chances to put this right and clearly have still not done it.
Indeed. Madam Deputy Speaker, I am not going to get tempted on to the Armed Forces Bill any further in case you call me to order. Let me address my remarks to this Bill and these Lords amendments, particularly Lords amendment 2.
I have to say to the Minister that I am pleased that the Secretary of State has now taken a personal interest in this Bill, because that is helpful all round and I hope it will ensure that we can see it go smoothly on to the statute book. Lords amendment 2 proposes a tried and tested mechanism to improve investigations. It is not arbitrary, as the Minister told the House earlier. It is not a time limit; it ensures timely, not time-limited investigations. It is not unrealistic, because it has been tried and tested in civilian law. This is one of the reasons why the former Judge Advocate General is so keen on it. I am conscious that the Secretary of State believes that the proposals in Lords amendment 2 are somehow novel or that they may prejudice independent investigations. So I say to the Minister, and I have communicated this today to the Secretary of State, that they are not novel and they will not prejudice the independence of investigations, for the following reasons.
In civilian law, which is the model and the principle that we take here, there is in section 127 of the Magistrates’ Courts Act 1980 a six-month time limit on investigations for certain offences. It establishes the target, if we like, not a hard limit, and focuses the mind of the investigators. That is the principle that Lords amendment 2 seeks to establish.
On prejudicing independent investigations, the principle of judicial oversight of investigations has already been established, not just in civilian law but in military practice. I quote the former Judge Advocate General, who said in evidence to the Public Bill Committee:
“I introduced something called ‘Better Case Management in the Court Martial’, towards the end of my time as the Judge Advocate General. That puts time limits on investigations. The most important thing about it is that a case, early on, goes before a judge, and a judge then sets out a timetable of what various things should do.”––[Official Report, Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Public Bill Committee, 8 October 2020; c. 116, Q231.]
In other words, it is not novel and does not prejudice the independence of investigations. It is a principle that is already established in the military system and established in statute in the civilian system. I hope the Minister will therefore accept the intent of Lords amendment 2, and that it is workable, is certainly in scope, is implementable and gives us the opportunity to fix really long-standing problems. I hope that he and the Government will start to see our proposals in this area as being additional to the current content of the Bill, not a direct challenge to it.
Let me move on to Lords amendment 4 and part 2 of the Bill. I cannot for the life of me I understand why the Government are asking their Back-Bench Members to support something that will strip away the existing rights of forces personnel and their families. It seems to me to be simply wrong for those who put their life on the line serving Britain overseas to have less access to compensation and justice than the UK civilians whom they defend or, indeed, their comrades whose service is largely UK-based.
Lords amendment 4 to part 2 of the Bill was designed to ensure that claims by troops or former service personnel are not blocked in all circumstances after six years, as they would otherwise be under the Bill. There are already safeguards in the Limitation Act 1980—at not just six years but three years—but this Bill now penalises a group of people by applying to them a unique deviation from that Act. It clearly constitutes a disadvantage for those armed forces personnel, their families and the veterans affected, and it directly breaches the armed forces covenant, as the director general of the Royal British Legion confirmed himself in evidence to the Public Bill Committee. Frankly, it really does beggar belief that Ministers are looking to strip from forces personnel and their families their right to justice—to penalise them instead of protecting them.
Let me put this into perspective, because I have sometimes heard Ministers dismiss this issue as affecting such a marginal, small group of people that it does not matter. Some of the cases that have eventually secured justice are deeply moving, deeply troubling and would have been blocked by this Bill. Numbers matter, but they are not the only criteria. Nevertheless, in the most recent financial year, the number of claims by forces personnel against the MOD for injuries was 2,796—up 70% on five years previously. Almost nine in 10 of those claims were for noise-induced hearing loss.
In speaking of hearing loss in evidence to the Public Bill Committee, the specialist forces solicitor Hilary Meredith said—and this points to the problem with the hard block after six years:
“In latent disease cases…it is not just about the diagnosis. Many people are diagnosed at death. It is about the connection to service. That connection to service may come much later down the line, and by that time they will be out of time to bring a claim.”––[Official Report, Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Public Bill Committee, 6 October 2020; c. 18, Q30.]
It is plain wrong, and I hope that the Government will, at this late stage, reconsider giving those who put their lives on the line for Britain overseas less access to compensation than the UK civilians they defend. Since 2007, there have been at least 195 cases of troops that would have been caught by the Bill and prevented from pursuing a successful claim.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the only people who will benefit from this Bill are the lawyers? I cannot for the life of me think why a Government would want to put into statute something that will discriminate against former members of our armed forces. This will clearly be a test case in litigation, and I cannot see what justification the Government will use when that litigation goes ahead for why they have scooped out a certain section of our society away from the Limitation Act, as he outlined. It would be better if they gave up now, rather than spend a lot of time later on—which they will—when this gets tested in the courts.
My right hon. Friend says that he cannot see why the Government are pursuing this, but the director general of the Royal British Legion could. When he spoke to the Public Bill Committee, he said:
“I think it is protecting the MOD, rather than the service personnel”––[Official Report, Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Public Bill Committee, 8 October 2020; c. 86, Q163.]
He is right. When my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth South (Stephen Morgan) pressed him and asked whether it would breach the armed forces covenant in his view, he said:
“That is what we think, yes.”––[Official Report, Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Public Bill Committee, 8 October 2020; c. 84, Q155.]
I turn to the last of the four main amendments at hand today, Lords amendment 5, which was moved in the other place by Lord Dannatt and is on the duty of care. One of the things that struck me most when talking to troops and their families who have been through the trauma of these long-running investigations is that they felt cut adrift—cut adrift from their chain of command and from the Ministry of Defence. The Public Bill Committee heard really clearly from Major Campbell. He gave dramatic evidence, and I am sure that the Minister has followed this; in fact, he was on the Committee, so he will have been there. When Major Campbell was asked what support the MOD gave him, he simply replied: “there was none.”
Of course, for veterans, it is even worse. For them, there is nothing—not even the chain of command—there for them. Although some of the previous decisions that the Government have taken—for instance, to cover the legal costs of those involved in the Iraq Historic Allegations Team investigations—were welcome, there should be and there can be a higher standard to reach for us in this regard.
When Lord Dannatt moved this amendment successfully in the Lords, he said:
“Defence priorities change; the fortunes of military charities fluctuate; Ministers come and go; but the law does not change. Amendment 14 would bring into law the good ideas and intentions of well-meaning Ministers and officials with whom we are currently united in common cause but who are strangely reluctant to enshrine the fruits of their endeavours in a Bill which will become an Act of Parliament and thus part of our law—a law to protect our people for all time from vexatious investigations and prosecutions.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 13 April 2021; Vol. 811, c. 1244.]
The former Veterans Minister wrote in his resignation letter last night:
“I remain genuinely appalled by the experiences of some of the Nation's finest people who have served in the Armed Forces.”
I say to the Minister, we can do better than this duty of care, particularly when the MOD has forces personnel and veterans subject to investigation or prosecution. I hope he will now accept this, so that we can establish a new duty of care standard and that legal, pastoral and mental health support is made available as a matter of course and a matter of duty by the MOD for those who are put under pressure and under investigation or prosecution.
I am coming to my conclusion, Madam Deputy Speaker. We are now legislating for the future. The Bill is not a framework that is fit for that future point when we must again commit our forces to conflict overseas. The Government are still getting important parts of the Bill badly wrong. I continue to believe strongly that, ultimately, the Government, Labour and the armed forces all want the same thing: we want to protect British troops and we want to protect British values. That is not, and should not be, a matter of party politics.
I end today as I ended our debates on Report back in November by saying this: it is late, but it is still not too late for Ministers to think again about the best way both to protect service personnel from vexatious litigation and to ensure that those who do commit serious crimes on operations abroad are properly prosecuted and punished. I urge the Minister and the Government to do just that in the very final stages of this Bill in Parliament.
May I declare an interest as a trustee of a regimental association? Let me reinforce my congratulations to the Minister at the Dispatch Box. I, too, in my time, have gone from the omertà of the Whips Office to the garrulousness of the Dispatch Box. It is not an easy transition, and he has carried it off with aplomb and class, and I look forward to a great future for him. What he has not been able to do for himself is manufacture time between his appointment and the consideration of these matters.
I will speak solely to Lords amendment 1—Lord Robertson’s amendment. I will broadly support the Government today with some caveats that the Minister will hear in a minute, but on the other amendments—in fact on all the amendments—I recommend right here and now to the Lords that, when we send them back, they send them back modified to take on board some of the intelligent comments that we have heard from across the House. The Minister then should look very hard at accepting them, because, next time around, I would be inclined to support the Lords amendments, as they have been very considerate in the way that they have presented them.
I also know from my experience as a Minister quite how difficult it is to undertake a 180 degree turn on a massively central point in a Bill. I commend the Government for doing almost exactly that on Lords amendment 1, because it reflects very closely what I and the hon. Member for Barnsley East (Stephanie Peacock) put forward on Report. However, it is an almost 180 degree turn, but it is one that was plainly needed. As the right hon. Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey) has said, it was supported by the most august panel of people in the Lords that one could possibly pick for a subject such as this: six Chiefs of the Defence staff—people who do not willingly vote against the Government of the day; an ex-Secretary-General of NATO; a former head of MI5; two former independent reviewers of terrorism legislation; a former National Security Adviser; and several other senior military figures.
The bishops often vote against the Government. This is something where the military securitat—as it were—do not vote against the Government. They are people whose patriotism is unquestionable and whose knowledge is unparalleled in this area, so the Minister should pay great attention to them and take notice.
The aim of the Bill, as we have heard several times, is to shield our military personnel from being pursued by vexatious claims—I was going to say something rude about lawyers. It is a proper and worthwhile ambition and one that we should fully support. The Government have rightly made it clear—and this is the point on which I support them—that torture and genocide can never be acceptable and have excluded them from a five-year presumption against prosecution.
However, even with these concessions, there remains a fundamental problem. The Government have failed to exclude war crimes from the list of offences, as has been made clear by the Opposition spokesman. I asked the Minister whether he would clarify for me how he distinguishes between war crimes, torture, and genocide as subjects properly excluded from the Bill. Although he made a very skilful response he could not do it and I do not think anybody could do it. As my right hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) made plain, war crimes include wilful killing: in the case he raised, the wilful killing of prisoners; the wilful killing of innocent civilians; and wilfully putting people through miserable pain or suffering. All those things are, quite properly, war crimes. They are, quite properly, things we would be held to account for by the rest of the world, let alone our soldiers being held to account by our courts and our judicial procedure.
I firmly believe that we cannot protect our own soldiers without correcting that exclusion. That is not just my opinion; it is the opinion of many of our experienced military leaders. Take Lord Robertson, the former Labour Minister—he was both Defence Secretary and NATO Secretary-General—who authored the amendment. He argued that the Bill would create
“a two-tier justice system in which troops acting for us abroad would be treated differently from other civilians in society.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 13 April 2021; Vol. 811, c. 1190.]
That cannot be right and that cannot be just. Indeed, it is not what our troops stand up for. It is not what they fight for. When they go abroad to fight, they do so because they stand up for our civilised values, and this is one of them. There is a certain quirk to that.
The Bill must give confidence to military personnel, complainants and other countries that the United Kingdom remains a stalwart upholder of the rule of law. There can be no greater test of our national character and no more important measure of our moral fibre than maintaining the highest of standards in this most difficult of tasks. We must get this right. If we get it wrong, we will be in the shameful position—this was made clear several times by the Labour party spokesman, the right hon. Member for Wentworth and Dearne—of putting our troops at risk of being summoned before the International Criminal Court. The chief prosecutor of that court wrote to the Secretary of State for Defence. When I saw the account of that, I wrote to the chief prosecutor and received a clarification. War crimes are plainly in the court’s sights. If somebody is alleged to have been guilty of a war crime and we exercise the presumption against prosecution as stated in the Bill, they will end up in front of the ICC. That is quite clear to me. That is not a risk, but a certainty.
In Committee, we spoke at lot about the famous case of Marine A. Under this measure, that individual would not have been prosecuted after five years, but it is clear that he would have ended up in the International Criminal Court for what he did. He would not have been given the hearing he had in this country, not just in terms of the fairness of our judicial system but also on appeal, taking into account the specific nature of the reasons why that incident occurred. To me, it would be absolutely awful if such individuals were found before an international court, rather than a court in this country.
Yes, murdered is the right word.
What would that lead to? It would lead to members of the British military being arraigned before a court that is traditionally used for arraigning tyrants and people we would view as monsters. What would that say about our nation’s moral compass? I shudder to think how people would use it. Of course, those who would use that impugning of our position would be our opponents, who themselves have no moral compass. They would be the first to use it against us. It would embolden our adversaries and be a bad day for Britain.
I say this to the Minister: I will support the Government today, even though I am unhappy with that exclusion, because they have made a major concession in areas on which I and the hon. Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis) pressed them. However, I will also say to the Minister that if the Lords send it back again and insist on the exclusion of war crimes, I will vote for it next time and I will encourage my many colleagues who are concerned about the Bill to vote that way, too. The Minister cannot invent time, but it will give him time to look at all the amendments and think through carefully what is really in the interests of our soldiers and our country. On that basis, I support it.
I congratulate the Minister for Defence People and Veterans. Many Members across the House are not only pleased by his elevation to the Front Bench, but relieved to see him there. I wish him all the best in his new role.
A major frustration for those of us involved in earlier stages of the Bill and in Committee was the refusal of the former Minister to consider even the most reasonable and uncontroversial amendments. That meant that the Bill sent to the Lords was fundamentally flawed. What we have back is a slight improvement on a flawed Bill, rather than what we were looking for, which was a competent piece of legislation. The Bill was sold as legislation that would tackle vexatious claims, but throughout its passage the evidence we received, both written and in Committee, pointed to the problems arising from flawed investigations. Nothing in the Bill will improve service justice, and much of it will damage the UK’s international reputation.
We rightly expect our personnel to conduct themselves with the highest professional standards, and the vast majority do. Let me take this opportunity to thank them for their service in what is often a challenging and dangerous environment. We must have robust systems for investigation that are understood, and in which personnel, Members of the House, our allies worldwide, and members of the public have confidence. That is the importance of this issue. We must be able to stand by the Bill and say, “This will do what it says on the tin.” I do not think we are convinced of that yet.
We welcome Lords amendment 1 from Lord Robertson, but although the Government’s proposed amendment in place of that removes the presumption against prosecution for torture, crimes against humanity and genocide, as many have already said—I think we will hear more about this—it retains the presumption against prosecution for war crimes. The right hon. Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) has already given us a graphic illustration of what that means and why war crimes must be included. The Minister has tried to explain this issue, and I commend his efforts to explain that the prosecutor will retain agency, but we should not be leaving it to the prosecutor. We should be getting this right in the Bill, and ensuring it is correct at this stage.
There is no justification for protecting those accused of war crimes. The problem is what such a measure does for our international reputation, and we should not have to stand up in this place to point that out—it is blindingly obvious. War crimes also come under the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court, so despite the efforts of Lord Robertson, the revised Government amendment still leaves troops at risk of being hauled in front of the ICC. That is one of the big problems with the Bill.
The Government’s amendment is an improvement on their original position, but it is far from satisfactory. I hope the Minister will take that point away and consider it. When the Bill returns to the Lords, I hope they will throw it back at us again. We have to get this right, and the Bill just needs the inclusion of that provision for it to be strengthened significantly.
Moving on to Lords amendment 2 from Lord Thomas, while we support the amendment, this brings us back to the manner in which investigations are conducted. The Bill was an opportunity to overhaul the system that is in place for investigations and, sadly, this seems to be an opportunity lost. Unless we establish proper structures and processes for investigations, and that will include independent investigators—we cannot be marking our own homework on this—I worry that personnel will remain vulnerable to repeated investigations and, indeed, investigations by the ICC.
The Minister made comments about the timescale of investigations involved under the amendment, saying that they were unrealistic. I have some sympathy for that position and understand the point that he is making. Many of us do not understand what it is like to be in the theatre of war under which these investigations would be carried out. However, some timescale, some independence and some urgency around investigations would result in a system in which we could all have a bit more confidence.
Does the hon. Lady agree that Lord Thomas’s amendment 2 and the issue of duty of care, which has been touched on repeatedly in this debate, if not dealt with properly, could act, first, as a disincentive to serving personnel staying on in the services and, secondly, as a major disincentive to future recruitment?
I thank the hon. Gentleman—yes, of course. We heard evidence directly from Major Robert Campbell in the Bill Committee, who has gone through 17 years of hell, of repeated investigations. There is no doubt that people looking at that—serving personnel and potential serving personnel—will consider their future career.
The hon. Lady is right, but the missing point in this is investigations. It was heartbreaking to hear Robert Campbell’s evidence to the Committee, but if the Bill goes through as it stands, there will be nothing to stop another case like Campbell’s going forward in future. This has been sold as a way of stopping vexatious claims and investigations, but without change in investigations, it will not do that.
And in fact could make it worse. If we throw the ICC into that as well, potentially, we could have a much worse situation for personnel who are facing prosecution.
On Lords amendment 3, any derogation from the European convention on human rights for future overseas operations would have set a damaging precedent for an international treaty—an international treaty that this country played a major role in drawing up. These proposals would have undermined the protections that the UK was so integral to establishing. We welcome Lords amendment 3 and are pleased that the Government have accepted it. It is one of those common-sense ones that should not have needed to come to this stage, but we have got there, so we are thankful for that.
On Lords amendment 4, I spoke on Second Reading and in Committee about the issue of the time limit on claims. One thing that was raised was that some personnel are told, while they are still serving, that they are unable to pursue a claim, which is false, or they are told by those higher up the chain of command that they do not have a valid claim. The nature of the armed forces is that, for many serving personnel, if they are told by their superiors that they are not able to do something, they will accept that. It is only when they find out years later that, actually, they do have a valid claim and they are able to pursue it, they will be able to take action, but with this six-year limit, that is problematic.
We very much welcome Lords amendment 4, but it does not go far enough. As has already been mentioned, it in effect creates an unfair two-tier system in which MOD civilian employees, or indeed the families of deceased personnel, will not be able to make claims beyond the six-year limit. So we will be supporting the amendment, but it is disappointing that it only applies to members of the armed forces.
The Government had the opportunity to strengthen Lords amendment 4 by widening it to apply to all, but instead they are rejecting it entirely so that everyone has the time limit applied. We have heard about those with hearing loss, and again I spoke in Committee about an individual whose significant hearing loss could not be pinpointed to one event and had got progressively worse. Certainly, the six-year limit would have caused problems for that individual to pursue a claim, as it would for claims relating to post-traumatic stress disorder, because that can manifest itself very differently in different people and it may be many years later.
I know the time limit is supposed to be from the point of diagnosis, not from the point of first symptoms, but even at the point of diagnosis the link would still need to be made to service, and if that was not done in a timely way, it would prevent further progress of a claim. Another such issue I have spoken about is that of the nuclear test veterans, who 60 or 70 years on are still looking for stuff, but they would be prevented from making any claims under this. It is notable that we should be making it easier for our personnel to make claims against the MOD when the MOD is seen to be negligent, but as has already been said, this legislation seems to be crafted specially to protect the MOD, not the personnel themselves. We should all be quite concerned about that, so we will be supporting Lords amendment 4 today.
Finally, on Lord Dannatt’s amendment—Lords amendment 5—which ensures care and support for personnel involved in investigations, I cannot see why every Member of this place should not be supporting it. I know the Minister has spoken about the reasons why the Government are not supporting this, but if all these structures are in place just now, why do we still have personnel who are not getting that support at the moment? If that support is already there and is not working, then we do need something, and if it has to be statutory, then it should be statutory.
I will finish my comments by saying that I hope, with the change of Minister, that we do see a change of attitude. I know it will surprise Government Members, but occasionally Opposition Members may have points that are worth consideration. We are not always out to get you, although I will not be putting that on social media. I think there has to be an acknowledgment and a recognition of the experience that Members across the House can bring to legislation, particularly legislation such as this. I will, finally, just thank the Minister for his input today, and we certainly look forward to working with him in the future.
Let me begin by warmly congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Leo Docherty) on his promotion. He started his Government career as the Parliamentary Private Secretary to me, so I congratulate him in particular on overcoming that disadvantage and acquiring a job that I know he will enjoy, and I am sure he will do it extremely well. I congratulate him too on the way he has handled the business this afternoon. It is no easy task to deal with something this complex, and certainly not when given it at almost a moment’s notice.
I want to follow on from what my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis) has said. I support the Government’s move to change their approach to Lords amendment 1, but like my right hon. Friend, I am concerned about whether they have gone far enough. Like everyone who has spoken so far and I am sure a large number of people more broadly, I support the intention of this Bill. It is clearly the right thing for us to do collectively to offer what reassurance we can to armed services personnel that they will not be pursued through the courts for offences that are either illegitimately alleged or interminably investigated. I also take the points that have been made about the need to improve investigation. However, like my right hon. Friend, I want to confine my remarks to Lords amendment 1 and the Government’s amendment in lieu.
The intention of any legislation is important, but just as important, if not more so, is what effect it is likely to have. Its intentions will only be supported if we avoid that legislation being counterproductive and make sure that its contents are inherently logical and consistent. I will make some remarks about both those things.
First, this Bill would clearly be counterproductive if, in seeking to reduce the prospect of domestic prosecution, it increased the prospect of international prosecution at the International Criminal Court. That is a real risk. My time as Attorney General involved attempting to make sure that the IHAT—Iraq Historic Allegations Team—process was as efficient as it could be, and I would not pretend that we succeeded. It was an extraordinarily difficult process that dragged on for an extremely long time, but it was, for most of us involved, the lesser of two evils, because we knew that if there was not an adequate process for the investigation and pursuance of such allegations domestically, there was a real risk of that process being undertaken by the International Criminal Court, which, for all its many advantages, if anything was taking longer to deal with cases. Given that the objective of the Bill is to remove the shadow of impending investigation and prosecution over our service personnel, it would clearly be counterproductive to move that obligation to the International Criminal Court instead. I know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has been in contact with the ICC. He may want to make contact again to confirm that the suggestions the Government are making about the robustness of their provisions in the amendment in lieu will be accepted by the ICC.
As I say, I welcome the Government’s move insofar as it goes, but that brings me to my next concern, which is about internal consistency of this legislation. The Bill installs additional restrictions on bringing a prosecution against a member of the armed forces. It does not—it is worth restating this point—involve a prohibition on such prosecution, in any case, and it would be wrong to misrepresent it in that way, but its restrictions apply only to what is described as a relevant offence. There are certain offences included in that description and certain offences specifically excluded. If we amend the Bill in the way that the Government seek through their amendment in lieu of Lords amendment 1, offences specifically excluded would include crimes of genocide, crimes against humanity, and torture. Again, I support that change.
However, the Bill as it stands also includes, as others have mentioned, a range of sexual offences. That includes rape and serious sexual violence as well as some offences that come further down the scale of seriousness. That is important. My concern about lack of consistency arises if we are to put in place additional restrictions on prosecution of war crimes, some of them very serious, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) has mentioned, but do not impose those additional restrictions on a variety of sexual offences, some of them far less serious. The Minister could of course argue that it is not the seriousness of the offence in this context that matters most—perhaps what matters most is the likelihood of those offences arising in vexatious complaints—but it would help if he gave us some further explanation and detail in his concluding remarks.
It is worth being clear about how the Bill operates on a prosecutor’s decision making; it does not operate on all of the so-called prosecutorial test. As hon. Members will know, there are two stages to a prosecutor’s consideration of a case. The first is the evidential stage to look at the evidence before the prosecutor and determine whether the evidential test is met—whether, in effect, there is a better than 50% chance of securing a conviction. The Bill does not operate on that part of the prosecutor’s work. It operates only on the second and subsequent test—the process is sequential—which is whether it is in the public interest to prosecute.
Two matters arise from that. First, if we are determining which offences to bring within the rubric of the Bill on the basis of their seriousness, it is worth recognising that if an offence passed the evidential test—if the prosecutor considered that a war crime had a better than 50% chance of getting a conviction—in most cases, I suspect it would be in the public interest to prosecute such an offence. Why then make it harder to do so when we do not intend to make it harder in relation to less serious—at least apparently—offences?
If, on the other hand, we are concerned about the likelihood of a vexatious complaint being made, it is again worth recognising that, in that sequential test, the evidential part comes first and it is much less likely that a spurious or vexatious allegation of a war crime would get as far as discussion of the second test—the public interest test—which is the point at which the provisions of the Bill apply.
There are reasons for us to be cautious about whether the Bill as the Government would have us amend it retains the sort of internal consistency and logic that all legislation of this kind should have, especially when its primary purpose is to offer reassurance about the way it will operate.
Like my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden, I support what the Government have done so far, but I have reservations about whether they have gone far enough. I will listen with interest to my hon. Friend the Minister when he winds up the debate, but I believe that further consideration of internal consistency will be required to put the Bill in the place we would all like it to be.
It is a privilege to follow the right hon. and learned Member for Kenilworth and Southam (Jeremy Wright). I begin by declaring an interest as a British Army veteran. I also want to take the opportunity to congratulate the Minister on his appointment and welcome him to his important new post.
I rise to speak in a virtual sense in support of Lords amendment 1, which aims to remove torture, genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes from the scope of the Bill. For the record, and I am grateful to the shadow Secretary of State for referencing it, the Lords amendment builds on the amendment that the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis) and I tabled on Report in November. That amendment was roundly defeated by the Government.
I was genuinely relieved to read the comments coming out of the MOD yesterday stating that torture, genocide and crimes against humanity would join sexual offences in being excluded from the Bill. I recognise that the Government disagree with Lords amendment 1 and have tabled a suite of amendments in lieu. The Government’s alternative is not perfect, but it is a welcome concession for several reasons, not least because last month, the Government published their long-awaited integrated review, which under a section entitled, “Our force for good agenda”, states that the UK will ensure that the principles and values on which our legal system is built
“remain a global standard.”
It would have proved difficult, if not impossible, to square the ambition of those words with the original version of the Bill. It is worth reflecting on how we arrived at this point.
The relevant offences aspect of the Bill generated near-universal opposition—not quite to the level that we have seen with the European super league over the past 48 hours, but considerable opposition none the less. The amendment passed last week was moved by someone who had served as both Secretary of State for Defence and Secretary-General of NATO, and it was supported by an impressive cohort, several of whom have lifelong ties to defence and security. The group included no fewer than six former Chiefs of the Defence Staff, who between them have contributed more than 200 years of service. Supporters also included a former Chief of the General Staff and a First Sea Lord, a former director general of MI5 and a former national security adviser. We have also seen a former Commander, Land Forces and a Judge Advocate General publicly condemn this element of the Bill, as have the Joint Committee on Human Rights, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and, perhaps most concerningly, the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, who warned that cases involving British troops might have been brought before the ICC. We should pause and consider what that might have meant. This is something I have been deeply worried about, and it has been raised on numerous occasions since the Bill was published. We are a proud signatory to the Rome statute, and Ministers should never risk our troops being dragged before the ICC alongside dictators and tyrants.
I know the strength of feeling and high regard that all Members of this House have for those who serve in our armed forces and, sadly, we are all too familiar with stories of our service personnel being hounded for years. No one is denying that there is a problem, and lives have undoubtedly been ruined as a result. I have said consistently throughout the Bill’s passage that we must address the deficiencies of the investigative process and provide those under investigation with our full support.
To conclude, Lords amendment 1 is the international standard. The Government’s counter falls short of that. For instance, torture is excluded, which is a welcome move, but mutilation and inhuman treatment are not. As a reminder, the ICC has warned that the exemption clause should extend to all crimes within the jurisdiction of the court, meaning that the possibility of British troops finding themselves before the court has not completely disappeared. While I still do not believe that the Bill will achieve its stated aim, I am pleased and relieved that concessions have been made. However, I urge Minsters to accept Lords amendment 1 in full, because we can never use deeply regrettable instances of failure to renege on our commitment to the rule of law.
It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. and gallant Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis). It would not be right to talk about the Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Bill without mentioning my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Johnny Mercer). While the circumstances surrounding his departure are regrettable and sad to me, I wish to commend him for his fantastic contribution, hard work and passion. I cannot think of a single Minister who has given so much of himself, worn his heart on his sleeve or driven his cause harder. We now have legislation in place in an area where previously we had none, and I want to issue to my hon. Friend a public and heartfelt thank you on behalf of all the veterans community.
I would also like to welcome the new Minister for Defence People and Veterans, my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Leo Docherty), to his place. As my friend and neighbour in Aldershot, he is perfectly placed to take on challenges ahead. He has done his time in the Whips Office, he has done his time in uniform and he is also a veteran. He is the perfect combination.
While my good friend is blowing smoke up the backside of the new, excellent Minister, I have to say that I have a real worry. In the Ministry of Defence, we are now stuck with two woodentops and one black mafia, with two officers from the Scots Guards and one from The Rifles. I am a bit worried about where the rest of us will fit in.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his intervention; he has stolen my thunder, because I have a similar theme. As a long-standing member of the new Minister’s association in Aldershot and a former commanding officer of a proud regiment in Aldershot, I will be keeping a close eye on him while supporting him as best I can. I know that Aldershot will be very proud of him.
I am a bit concerned that, as my good friend, the right hon. Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart), mentioned, the MOD has not two but three infantry officers at the helm. My admiration for Jeremy Quin, the procurement Minister, goes up by the day. [Interruption.] No, he is not an infantry officer. As the veritable quartermaster for the MOD, my good friend Jeremy will, I know, keep an eye on any daring adventures and keep them in check within the MOD.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. The point is well made and well taken.
I made it clear on Second Reading that the Bill is a good Bill. I voted it through because it was the right thing to do. My view has not changed, despite the Lords amendments that have been introduced. People would be amazed by the hysteria and shock in my inbox from people attacking the Bill from every angle. But I want to make something absolutely clear. The supposition in some quarters that British troops are predisposed to wantonly commit war crimes in operations, or that the UK has given them a green light or a get-out-of-jail-free card is absurd. The MOD already has one of the most effective and robust service justice systems in the world, and I can tell the House as someone who has served on eight operational tours that we have the best-led and best-trained soldiers in the world.
We have a great record in this area and nothing will change. That is why I am less worried about the exclusion of war crimes. The presumption against prosecution does not affect in any way the UK’s ability to conduct investigations or prosecutions. It is a higher threshold, not a bar. However, in deference to those who spoke so eloquently, both on Second Reading and on Lords amendment 1, and the views of many in this place, I note that the MOD is seeking to exclude more serious crimes such as torture, genocide and crimes against humanity from the five-year rule, which I welcome.
Lords amendment 2 sets out a new process for investigations. It introduces timelines for them and gives a direct role for prosecutors in investigations. Personally, I do not like the phrase, “artificial timelines for the progress of investigations”, or the power of the Judge Advocate General to intervene. Furthermore, the limitations in the amendment do not apply in civilian life to police force investigations, meaning this would create an anomaly. I am therefore comfortable with the Government’s position and I urge the House to reject the amendment.
Lords amendment 3 removes from the Bill the duty to consider derogation from the convention. The Government have noted that article 15 of the European convention on human rights provides that states may temporarily suspend relevant human rights obligations. The removal of clause 12 would not prevent the Government from making a conscious decision when committing armed forces to overseas operations. I am therefore comfortable, as we maintain the capability to deploy soldiers abroad and derogate, that we are in the right place. So, again, I support the Government’s position on Lords amendment 3.
Lords amendment 4 excludes action brought against the Crown by serving or former service personnel from the limitation measures introduced by part 2 of the Bill. The impact of new limitation periods on the ability of service personnel to make claims will be minimal. The longstops in part 2 have been introduced to offer greater legal certainty, as well as greater certainty to service personnel. So I agree again that the amendment should be opposed.
Amendment 5 requires the Secretary of State to lay before Parliament, within six months of the Bill receiving Royal Assent, a duty of care standard in relation to legal, pastoral and mental health support provided to service personnel involved in investigations or litigation arising from overseas operations; it also requires an annual report. As someone who knows, I can tell the House that service personnel are entitled to legal support at public expense when they face criminal allegations and civil claims. Legal support is also available when people are required to give evidence at inquests, to inquiries and in litigation. In addition, the Armed Forces Bill is bringing the armed forces covenant into statute, and medical support available to all soldiers and veterans is unrivalled. And let us not forget mental health. The Government are now throwing money at this problem, and we are getting better all the time. I agree with the Government that the amendment is neither viable nor necessary.
This is a good Bill, and the Government’s concessions today make it even better, but the rest of the Lords amendments, in my view, should be rejected.
It is, as always, a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Bracknell (James Sunderland), who serves expertly as the chair of the all-party parliamentary group on veterans. It is appropriate that he has sought to recalibrate the dangerous notion that could arise from some of our considerations about the ongoing, genuine and sustained efforts that our armed forces make as they serve our country.
On behalf of my party, I congratulate the new Minister for Defence People and Veterans on his appointment. I know him well. We have served together in the Select Committee on Defence, and I know he will be a true champion for veterans. It would be inappropriate were I not to mention the hon. Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Johnny Mercer). He was elected at exactly the same time as me, I made my maiden speech immediately after he made his, and we served together on the Defence Committee. I do not think that anyone in this House would question his passion or his commitment to veterans. Yesterday was a difficult day for him, but he should take comfort from knowing that he has stood steadfast by the commitments he gave to veterans who served in Northern Ireland.
I was interested to hear the Minister, at the start of today’s proceedings, indicate that the Northern Ireland Office will bring forward a Bill that offers equivalent protection for veterans who served in Northern Ireland. Last night, the hon. Member for Plymouth, Moor View wrote that the Government are good at saying the right thing, but perhaps not so good at delivering. We need to see action. That commitment to provide for veterans from Northern Ireland was given to the House in a written ministerial statement on 18 March last year—the day that this Bill, the Overseas Operations Bill, was introduced. Thirteen months later, we are still waiting, eager and interested to see the detail. There is genuine concern, Should there be an attempt to provide equivalence between those who served our country— those honourable service personnel who stood against tyranny and terrorism—and terrorists, I hope that it will not find favour in this House.
I thank the Government for their movement in the light of Lords amendment 1. We will support the amendment, as we think that, in totality, it captures the range of issues that were fairly outlined by the hon. Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis) and the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis). It is important that we ensure there is no suggestion or no cause for concern that our armed forces personnel would be engaged in activities such as torture, crimes against humanity, or war crimes and genocide. That is where I differ from the Government. I hope that they will reflect honourably on the fears relating to war crimes in particular. Having moved on the other three issues, I ask that the Government do the same on war crimes as well.
I ask the Minister, when he sums up, to reflect again on the comments he made about Lords amendment 5. A duty of care on legal, pastoral and mental wellbeing is not something that Government should fear. I think I heard the Minister indicate that there was potential to impact upon the operational effectiveness of our armed forces should the amendment pass, but I cannot see that cause for concern. I ask him to give that renewed consideration and reflect on it in his closing remarks.
On the other Lords amendment, 2, 3, 6, 7 and 8, we will support the Government. We have welcomed this Bill. We recognise the need for it. We want to see an end to vexatious prosecutions. In supporting some of the amendments and in asking the Government to go a little farther, we will keenly work with the new Minister as he embarks on his role, not only on the concluding stages of this Bill, but on honouring the commitments that he and his colleagues made, in their manifesto and to this House, on protecting veterans from Northern Ireland.
May I reiterate my congratulations to my very good friend and now my former Whip, who had a very difficult job of keeping me in order? Best of luck to the next one—bring ‘em on. Well done. I am really pleased for him. I am also saddened. The one thing about my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Johnny Mercer), a good friend of mine, is that he led all the time with his heart. He was trying his very best to do the right thing for his constituents and for the armed forces. It was good, too, that he was a commander gunner, rather than a woodentop or member of the black mafia.
I have given evidence in war crimes trials and in trials that involved crimes against humanity and genocide—not torture, but those two—and I am slightly concerned that we have not put war crimes into this Bill. After all, there are plenty of war crimes that are well documented from the second world war, such as Wormhoudt, on 28 May 1940, where 80 mainly British soldiers from the 2nd battalion the Royal Warwickshire Regiment and the 4th battalion the Cheshire Regiment, both regiments that have gone now, were stuck in a wooden hut and machine gunned. Grenades were then thrown in at them. This was done by the 1st SS division Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler. That is a clear war crime. But, sadly, we are not immune from some criticism. In the second world war, some of our submarines did machine gun survivors in the water. Some of our soldiers did rape and kill civilians in Normandy and in Germany. And, I am afraid, the British Army was involved in similar instances in Malaya and in Kenya. I will not go further on this. I am not trying to blame anyone, but I think the crime of war crime should be in this Bill. I will be voting for it, but I hope that the Government will think again on the subject of war crimes. Everyone is nodding because it makes sense.
My last paragraph or so is fundamentally to reinforce something that I know my friend the Minister is fully on board with. The Ministry of Defence cannot escape its responsibility to look after veterans from Northern Ireland. I know that the Minister has got that point. I also know that it is not the MOD that is in the lead on this; it is the Northern Ireland Office. I really believe that very shortly we will have some good news—I hope so. When this Bill goes through, as I have mentioned already, we will have two grades of veterans: those who are better protected in the matter we are discussing today, and those who are not. Those who are not will broadly be classified as Northern Ireland veterans, which others here can classify themselves as, too. I think I have said enough. Thank you very much, Madam Deputy Speaker.
I refer the House to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. While it is an absolute honour to follow the right hon. Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart), it is also a tough gig in defence debates, but I will do my absolute best in the time that I have.
I will speak to Lords amendments 4 and 5 and the new clauses they would insert into part 2 of the Bill. Many of our witnesses in the Public Bill Committee called for this section of the Bill to be scrapped altogether. Before I turn to the amendments, I also want to add my welcome to the Minister, who is no longer in his place. He will know the frustrations felt by many of us who sat on the Public Bill Committee at his predecessor’s obstinance in the face of expert evidence and personal testimonies. Like others, I sincerely hope for a change in approach, because our forces and veterans would have been better served by well considered and evidenced legislative changes, not this confused hash of a Bill. The Government have rightly identified that there is a problem and a need to provide greater legal protections to armed forces personnel and veterans serving overseas, but they have drafted legislation that makes the problem worse, all in a hurried effort to match the sweeping rhetoric of their 2019 general election campaign.
Lords amendment 4 inserts a new clause that would ensure that our armed forces retain the same