House of Commons
Tuesday 27 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 Chancellor of the Exchequer was asked—
The £4.8 billion levelling-up fund will invest in local infrastructure that has a visible impact on communities across the United Kingdom. It has been jointly designed by the Treasury, the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government and the Department for Transport.
Having waited so long, I really hope that the levelling-up fund will boost infrastructure in south Wales. I have already written to the Chancellor about the improvements that are needed for the Ebbw Vale to Cardiff line, to help young people especially to get to work, so can the Minister assure me that this investment will finally be seen through?
I share the hon. Gentleman’s desire to boost infrastructure in south Wales, and he is quite right to focus on young people getting to work, given how impacted they have been by the pandemic. He knows that his area in particular has received additional funding for capacity, and this will enable it to bid for the levelling-up fund to address the issues that he highlights.
Fiscal Framework Agreement
The existing fiscal framework sets out the arrangements for a review following the Scottish elections. This will allow a settlement in the light of a Parliament’s-worth of experience, which is consistent with the Smith commission’s expectations that there will be effective operation of the fiscal framework and that it should not require frequent ongoing negotiation.
The reality is that the powers of the Scottish Government are not adequate to deal with the pandemic. There are too many constraints on borrowing powers for the Scottish Government; the reality is that councils can borrow more easily under the prudential borrowing code. Does the Minister not agree that it is time the Scottish Government had more flexible borrowing powers?
The Smith commission set out the conditions, and they already give substantial borrowing powers. That is why there is up to £450 million of annual capital borrowing, £700 million in the Scotland reserve and up to £600 million for resource borrowing in relation to forecast error, and of course that comes on top of the share of UK Government borrowing provided through the Barnett formula.
The Government are committed to supporting household living standards during this difficult time for our country. That is why we announced an unprecedented package of support to protect people’s jobs and incomes and to help those most in need.
It is approaching two years since this Government said that they would review the way in which dying people were treated through social security. Meanwhile, Marie Curie and many other campaigners for change estimate that as many as 6,000 people have died while waiting for a decision on their claims. This Government have repeatedly promised to end the six-month rule, which is currently forcing terminally ill people to prove how long they have left to live before they can access fast-track support, so can the Chancellor confirm that this long overdue reform will be in the Queen’s Speech?
It would be wrong for me to pre-empt the Queen’s Speech—I know that colleagues will understand that—but I can assure the hon. Gentleman that my right hon. Friend the Work and Pensions Secretary keeps all these matters under review, and of course we want to ensure that our welfare system is compassionate and effectively supports those who need our help.
My goodness, what a disastrous week for the UK Government. While they have been mired in scandal and slithering through sleaze, the SNP has committed to doubling the Scottish child payment and carers allowance and to introducing a new winter heating payment. Does the Chancellor accept that these are more noble social objectives than enriching well-placed cronies?
What I believe to be a more noble objective is to focus on the day-to-day concerns of the Scottish people at this difficult time, which involves making sure that the economy recovers, that the vaccines are rolled out and, of course, that our children receive the education they deserve. These are the issues that I know the Scottish people will care most about in the coming weeks.
Due to the increasing concentration of wealth in older generations, the value of the average inheritance received by younger generations is becoming significantly greater through time. Does my right hon. Friend recognise this trend and the fact that it means that living standards will increasingly be determined not by skill, entrepreneurship and hard work but by chance, which will have a detrimental impact on social mobility? While it is absolutely right that families can pass on wealth to their loved ones, does my right hon. Friend none the less recognise the strong trend here, and if so, what steps might he consider taking to address this?
I would say two things to my right hon. Friend. First, he will know that in the Budget we recently froze the inheritance tax thresholds for four years, which will provide some alleviation on the concern that he mentioned. Secondly, I believe that the best way to drive social mobility in our society is to provide everyone with the skills and education they need to make a better life for themselves, which is what this Government are committed to delivering.
The Tories’ two-child limit, and the rape clause, which stands part of it, are having a devastating impact on living standards, with the Child Poverty Action Group and the Church of England estimating that 350,000 families and 1.25 million children have been affected so far. Scrapping the two-child limit would be the easiest and most cost-effective way of reducing child poverty in the UK, so will the Chancellor scrap it or will he push more families into poverty?
Since 2010, over 1 million fewer people are now living in poverty, thanks to the actions of this Government and the coalition, and 300,000 fewer children are living in poverty. That is something to be celebrated, but of course there is work to do and we remain committed to making those improvements.
It is interesting that the Chancellor ignores the findings of the Church of England and the CPAG, which tell a very different story from that which he is willing to tell. In Scotland, the Scottish National party is committed to doubling the Scottish child payment, a new benefit described as a “game changer”, to £20 a week; providing free school meals to all primary children; and extending wraparound childcare. All of those are a huge help to the families that this Tory Government choose to ignore. Does this not demonstrate the choice of two futures: more austerity and more child poverty under the Tories, or a Scotland working hard to be the best place for a child to grow up?
I am glad that the Scottish Government are able to use the over £3.5 billion of Barnett consequentials that have been provided by the UK Government over the next year. Child poverty is of course an important issue and one that we remain committed to, which is why initiatives such as the troubled families programme are making an enormous difference to those families. Crucially, we also know that children growing up in a workless household are five times more likely to be in poverty, which is why this Government are committed to helping people find work and find well-paid work. That is something we have an excellent record of doing.
David Cameron said that Greensill had
“the mandate for the UK Government”.
Greensill said that it was the
“sole provider of…supply chain finance”
across Government and that it had a model that brings several benefits to the UK public sector. Does the Chancellor still believe that he was right to bring in real-terms pay cuts for public sector workers, while allowing David Cameron and Lex Greensill to target their pay packets and giving them the run of Whitehall?
With regard to public sector pay, I do believe it is right, at a time of extraordinary strain on our public finances—when those in the private sector have seen more than 1 million jobs lost, hours cut, wages cut and many millions furloughed, with the impact that that has on them—to take a fair and proportionate approach to public sector pay. That is why this Government have said that those on the lowest pay will see a pay rise this year, as will those in the NHS. Combined with all the other pay progression, this means that a majority of people in the public sector will see their pay increase this year, despite the difficult circumstances. Of course, the national living wage is also being increased ahead of inflation, making sure that those on the lowest incomes see an uplift in their take-home pay.
The Treasury is considering the merits of differentiating products based on their place of retail as part of its alcohol duty review. We are currently analysing responses provided by stakeholders to our recent call for evidence and will provide further updates in due course.
I thank my hon. Friend for her answer. It is all very well conducting calls for evidence and creating reports, welcome though they may be, but we live in extraordinary times that require extraordinary measures taken quickly. I implore the Minister to press her Department to act on this matter now. Hospitality in general, and pubs in particular, are facing closure every day. Will she act?
I know that my hon. Friend is a fierce advocate of pubs and brewers, and he has been proposing a duty differential for several years. I should stress that I am personally very interested in this proposal, but there are a number of complex issues associated with it, including how producers and wholesalers would account for and manage their stock of beer; how to ensure that any reduced rate is not exploited fraudulently; and how any differential would interact with the existing small brewers relief scheme. However, I would like to reassure him that we are looking closely at the proposals he has put forward.
At the Budget, I announced the location of eight freeports in eight regions of England following a highly competitive process. The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government is now leading a cross-Government effort to support the winning bidders to establish their freeport, and we expect the first freeports to open later this year.
My right hon. Friend authored a report in 2017, which found that freeports could easily create up to 90,000 jobs if they were as successful as the US foreign trade zone programme. Does he agree that, by voting against our Finance Bill and the setting up of freeports earlier this month, such as the Solent freeport near my constituency, the Labour party has shown that it has no interest in creating jobs and levelling up opportunity across the country, as this Government are committed to doing?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right and I congratulate everyone involved in the Solent freeport bid. This Government are using freeports to boost jobs, investment, trade and growth. Local communities, from Merseyside to Teesside, Humber and indeed the Solent, all agree with us and it is a shame that the Labour party does not support their aspirations.
UK Steel: Government Infrastructure Projects
There are global challenges in the steel industry, with vast overcapacity and supply outstripping demand. However, the Government have supported the steel sector extensively, including providing more than £500 million in recent years to help with the cost of energy. Our unprecedented package of covid support is still available to the sector to protect jobs and ensure that producers have the right support during this challenging time.
Steel is central in terms of good jobs, national security and combating climate change. There can be no post-pandemic economic recovery without a strong and healthy steel industry. Will the Chancellor therefore commit today to recognising the pivotal strategic importance of the steel industry by using the power of the Treasury to reduce the exorbitant electricity prices faced by our steelmakers—currently 82% higher than in Germany—so that our steel industry can compete on a level playing field?
I reassure the hon. Gentleman that that is something that we are doing. As I mentioned in my earlier answer, we have already spent £500 million across the sector specifically to deal with that point. Further, we are taking a number of steps to support the decarbonisation of the UK steel industry. For example, we announced the £250 million clean steel fund to support the decarbonisation of the steel sector, including its transition to new low-carbon technologies and processes.
Jobs in the steel industry are crucial to the people of Hartlepool. In June, the first instalment of the EU research fund for coal and steel will be returned to the UK. Are the Government planning to ring fence that money to support the decarbonising and modernising of the industry, given the vital importance of protecting steel jobs for the future?
I thank the hon. Lady for her question. I mentioned in my answer to the hon. Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock) the steps that we are taking to decarbonise the UK steel industry. As I said, there are global challenges in the industry and we have been supporting various companies. For example, last year, we provided a £30 million loan to Celsa, safeguarding a key supplier to the UK construction industry and securing more than 1,000 jobs, including more than 800 positions at the company’s main sites in south Wales. The Government will continue working with businesses to understand the issues that they are facing, including continuing to engage business sectors that are affected by covid and our changing relationship with the EU.
Retraining and Upskilling
Our plan for jobs supports retraining and upskilling by tripling the number of traineeships, expanding sector-based work academies, incentivising apprenticeship hiring and providing funding for new, free, advanced technical courses and digital skills bootcamps under the lifetime skills guarantee.
People across Birmingham, Northfield remember only too well the impact that an economic shock can have on livelihoods and jobs in the community following the collapse of MG Rover many years ago. Does my right hon. Friend the Chancellor agree that things such as the lifetime skills guarantee will allow many adults to to train and retrain to get back into work so that they have the security of a pay packet as we ease out of lockdown and build back better following the coronavirus pandemic?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Across our nation, over 10 million adults do not have a level 3 qualification. Thanks to this Government’s lifetime skills guarantee, they will now be able to get one, and we know what that will do: it will boost both their employability and their earnings, providing them with the opportunity of a better future.
No matter where in the country people are from, everyone should be able to get the experience and knowledge they need to get the job they want. Does my right hon. Friend the Chancellor agree that the new flexi-job apprenticeships that he announced last month will boost opportunities in sectors key to Rother Valley, especially in high-end manufacturing, creating more chances for people to experience the life-changing opportunity that an apprenticeship can bring?
My hon. Friend makes a really important point. We were delighted to announce at the Budget a £7 million fund to create and expand flexi-job apprenticeship schemes, which enable people who need to work across multiple projects with different employers still to benefit from the high-quality, long-term training that an apprenticeship provides. That is particularly important in the industries of high-end manufacturing that he mentioned. I know that this will make a difference in his constituency.
Young people have been particularly affected by the pandemic, including in my Bridgend constituency. Can my right hon. Friend outline to the House what support he is putting in place to help young people get back into work and to boost opportunities?
My hon. Friend is right to highlight the importance of our focus on young people. More than half the jobs that have been lost since the start of the pandemic have been of those under the age of 25 and their rates of furlough are much higher than others. That is why, acting very early last year, we created the kickstart programme, which is creating hundreds of thousands of jobs across the country, including in my hon. Friend’s constituency. I urge all Members to talk to their local businesses to get them excited and joined up to the kickstart scheme, and to provide young people with the chance of a brighter future.
Small and medium-sized enterprises are often referenced as the beating heart of the UK economy, employing the largest number of people. That is certainly the case in my Dudley North constituency and across the west midlands, so will my right hon. Friend commit to working with colleagues in the Department for Education, the Department for Work and Pensions and with business to ensure that we improve engagement with small businesses, in particular in the design and funding of apprenticeship schemes, as they need providers to deliver much more at foundation level 2, which the current funding framework is less able to deliver? This would help to bring about the retraining revolution that our brilliant Mayor Andy Street talks about.
The brilliant Mayor Andy Street is right to talk about the retraining revolution that we need and that he is implementing in the west midlands. My hon. Friend makes an important point about the flexibility of the system to support SMEs. I am pleased to tell him that starting this August we are implementing a new scheme to allow SMEs to link with larger, levy-paying businesses through a new matching and levy transfer service that will help SMEs to access that funding and to provide the level 2 or 3 apprenticeships that he rightly identified as being important. He should also know that that scheme was based on, I think, a pilot programme that was launched in the west midlands.
Covid-19: Support for Businesses
Throughout the pandemic, the Government have sought to support businesses across the UK. To do this, we have put in place a package of economic support for businesses and individuals worth £352 billion since the start of the pandemic. The Office for Budget Responsibility and the Bank of England have highlighted that without this intervention the UK economy would be significantly worse than it is today.
What additional financial assistance can my hon. Friend give the all-important tourism sector in Cornwall to ensure that it is fully ready to greet the G7 in June?
Cornwall hosting the G7 is a fantastic opportunity. I know that my hon. Friend has welcomed this chance to showcase all that Cornwall has to offer. Many organisations in the broader tourism sector have benefited from business grants of over £34 million provided to her constituency of South East Cornwall, as well as business rates holidays and a temporary reduction in the rate of VAT. The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government has recently announced the £56 million welcome back fund to support safe local trade and tourism as economies reopen.
I thank my hon. Friend for that answer and particularly welcome the support being offered in the form of extended business rates relief. Looking to the future and with reform of business rates in the pipeline, what discussions have taken place with Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy colleagues about the potential to balance the need to secure the correct revenue to support vital local government services and boosting high streets like mine in Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner through the reform of business rates?
My hon. Friend brings a great deal of expertise and experience to this matter. The Government have committed to over £16 billion in business rates support for eligible retail, hospitality and leisure property since April last year. When combined with small business rates relief, this means that three quarters of a million retail, hospitality and leisure properties in England will pay no business rates for the 15 months from 1 April last year. The Government are, however, undertaking a fundamental review of the business rates system and have invited stakeholders to contribute their views and ideas for reform. I know that my hon. Friend will also be very pleased to see the £16.9 million of business grants that his constituents have received.
Warren Buffett once said:
“What we learn from history is that people don’t learn from history.”
With a 50% rise in the number of companies in significant financial distress, to prevent repeating the historical mistakes of post the last financial crisis, inflicting all that scandalous treatment on SMEs, will my hon. Friend consider working with the banks to extend the very fair and sensible provisions of the pay as you grow scheme and bounce bank loans, and also transfer that into CBILS—coronavirus business interruption loan scheme—loans?
The Treasury has, as my hon. Friend will know, amended the CBILS rules to allow lenders to extend loan terms from six to a maximum of 10 years, and that would assist borrowers in that repayment. CBILS term extension will be offered at the discretion of lenders, unlike pay as you grow options for bounce back loans, because they are different in terms of the guarantees that the Government have offered. Extensions are limited to those borrowers that lenders assess are in difficulty and will benefit from that extension, and only for the duration required. That customised approach, as I am sure he would understand given his vast business experience, is appropriate given the nature and scale of that different intervention.
When Lex Greensill was given his No. 10 business card, he had no contract and no job description, and there have now been reports that during the pandemic, the financial empire that he built may have lent Government-backed money based on invoices to companies that had never done business with his client, GFG, some of which say they had no intention of doing so. Will the Minister look into the issue of how this financing was structured and ensure that hard-working British steelworkers do not pay the price for Greensill’s collapse?
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his question. I can assure him that this Government are fully committed to examining all those matters through the review process and complying with all requests for information in order to get to the bottom of this matter.
Covid-19: Support for Self-employed People
The Government announced at Budget 2021 that the self-employment income support scheme, or SEISS, will continue until September, with the fourth and then the final fifth grant. This provides certainty to business as the economy reopens, and it means that the SEISS will continue to be one of the most generous schemes for the self-employed in the world, and one of the few where support is committed until September.
Is it not the case that under this Chancellor the Tories have gone from being seen as freelancer-friendly to the party of sleaze with their selective texts and promises of favours for their pals? If not, can they fix— their expression—the situation for up to 3 million people who have been excluded from all the grants the Minister mentioned, and from universal credit, and have been forced into bankruptcy, debt and worse, with 19 self-employed suicides in the past year? What are they doing about it?
The hon. Lady will know that the SEISS is one of the most generous schemes of its kind. The range of overall measures that the Government have taken is one of the most comprehensive of its kind in the world. I think she also knows that I personally and my officials have leant in as hard as we can to understand and to work with those groups to see whether we could extend the schemes. It has not been possible, because of features of the design of the tax system, but we have absolutely spent every effort possible to try to make it so.
More than 900,000 people who were self-employed at the start of the crisis, including many in the creative industries sector, now say that they are having to leave the sector as the crisis comes to an end. Does the Minister agree that the lack of support for the self-employed, who are not covered by the existing schemes, risks damaging the recovery we so desperately need?
A very large majority of the self-employed are, of course, covered by the schemes, and therefore I think that the hon. Gentleman’s concern is misplaced. Of course there will always be change in employments of different kinds, and in a dynamic economy such as ours, that is to be expected. If we can get through this desperate crisis—the worst for 300 years—with anything like any of the projected outcomes, that is something we can all, self-employed or not, be profoundly grateful for.
In a recent letter to me, the Financial Secretary admitted that 710,000 freelancers who receive a portion of their income from dividends have missed out on covid support schemes. He recognised that most people are honest in their dealings with HMRC, but said that concerns over fraud meant
“it has not been possible to support everyone in the way they might want”.
The Government have had a year to put in place a process with adequate safeguards. Why have they given up?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. Of course, there was no admission of any kind. He asked me a question, and I responded comprehensively and fully to the question he put. The fact of the matter is that many of the people we are talking about have other forms of income. They may have pension income. They may have dividend income. They may have property income. What we have tried to do is use all the sources of information that we have that are properly assessed and certified in order to get schemes up and running—as fast as anywhere in the world, and that is an astonishing achievement. We continue to use those schemes, and we continue to work with groups to see whether others can be included.
VAT Reduction: Tourism and Hospitality
The temporary reduced rate of VAT aims to support the cash flow and viability of around 150,000 businesses and to protect more than 2.4 million jobs. As was announced at the Budget, the Government extended the temporary reduced rate of VAT to 31 March 2022, with a phased return to the standard rate. This relief alone is estimated to be worth more than £7 billion to the tourism and hospitality sectors. Applying it permanently would come at a very significant cost to the Exchequer, and that would have to be balanced by increased taxes elsewhere or reductions in Government spending.
The past year has clearly illustrated just how important the hospitality and tourism sectors are not only to our economy, with the jobs and businesses they support in the supply chain, but to our overall wellbeing and the contribution they make to social mobility. As the chair of the all-party parliamentary group for hospitality and tourism, I know just how important this cut in VAT has been in supporting those businesses, but will the Treasury take another look at the merits of making this reduction permanent to further support the sector and the growth in jobs that it can create?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right that this has been an incredibly challenging period for the tourism and hospitality sectors, and it is also right to recognise that many organisations within these sectors have benefited from the measures that I have described, including the extensions to the employment schemes, business rates holidays and the VAT reduction, as well as the very important wider restart grants and the additional restrictions grant. As these restrictions are lifted and demand for goods and services in these sectors resumes, temporary reliefs are being phased out and in time will be removed. Bridging that transition to a standard rate by applying a temporary 12.5% rate will help businesses to manage the change. We should want them to get back to normal trading and the support that they offer through that to their communities and the economy.
Aviation Sector: Financial Support
We speak to our colleagues on a regular basis about a range of matters. The Department for Transport is in regular contact with the Treasury regarding the challenging circumstances facing the aviation sector as a result of covid-19.
Furlough ends in September, which is of no help to the aviation sector and airport communities, which will take months to recover even partially as we wait for the world to unlock. Many aviation businesses are on the edge financially, and they employ staff in safety-critical roles where there is a risk of skill fade if they cannot be supported. They are seeking longer-term support, as are communities such as ours in Hounslow, where tens of thousands of people depend on the airport for their livelihoods. Will the Treasury address the specific challenge of the aviation sector and airport communities well before the furlough scheme ends in September?
The Government recognise the challenging circumstances facing the aviation industry, which the hon. Member described. The industry can draw on the package of measures announced by the Chancellor, including not just the furlough scheme but schemes to raise capital, flexibilities with tax bills and employment support. The aerospace sector and aviation customers are being supported with over £11 billion made available through loan guarantees, support for exporters, the Bank of England’s covid corporate financing facility and grants for research and development. In addition, the renewed airport and ground operations support scheme, which the Chancellor announced in his Budget, will provide support for eligible businesses in England with their fixed costs for a further six months up to the equivalent of their business rate liabilities for the first half of 2021-22.
Stimulating private sector investment will be key to our economic recovery. The recent Budget announced multiple policies to help achieve that, including freeports, the Help to Grow programme, the future fund breakthrough, the life sciences investment partnership, consultations on reforming R&D tax credits and, of course, our radical new super deduction to support business investment as we recover from the coronavirus.
I thank my right hon. Friend and the whole Treasury team for the extensive package of support and investment incentives over the past year; I know that businesses and employees in Yeovil are incredibly grateful for that. There is a very welcome focus in the defence review on local prosperity in procurement decisions. Will he work with me to ensure that Leonardo and our wonderful local supply chain for the helicopter industry can take full advantage of that into the future?
I thank my hon. Friend for all the advice and support he has provided for me and the team over the past year as we have sought to develop policies that will help businesses, including Leonardo in his constituency, which I know he champions. He is right to highlight the opportunities of better procurement, particularly for our defence supply chain, and I look forward to working with him and colleagues to ensure that we can support his local businesses and many others across the United Kingdom.
Small Businesses: Customs Paperwork
The Government have put in place a number of measures to facilitate trade with the EU, including publishing comprehensive guidance on the new arrangements. HMRC has produced step-by-step guides, videos and webinars for small businesses that may be new to customs processes. The Government have also provided a £20 million Brexit support fund to assist small and medium-sized businesses in adjusting to new customs procedures, questions of rules of origin and VAT rules when trading with the EU.
Just over a month ago, the Paymaster General told me that she would follow up on my invite to Bedfordshire chamber of commerce to hear the widespread concerns of businesses that are really struggling to overcome the new and complex operational challenges around her Government’s Brexit deal. I have heard nothing. Will the Minister attend a meeting with the chamber of commerce to hear about how customs paperwork is impacting viability, or would the Treasury also prefer to ignore the problem?
The Paymaster General is always happy to take inquiries from businesses, as am I, so if the hon. Member wishes to write to me, I am perfectly happy to respond to his questions.
Steel Industry and Green Manufacturing Jobs
The Government have supported the steel sector extensively, including providing over £500 million in recent years to help with the costs of energy. At the summer economic update, the Government announced an ambitious £3.05 billion package for housing decarbonisation designed to cut carbon, save people money and create jobs. Alongside that, our covid support package is still available to the sector to protect jobs and ensure that producers have the right support during this challenging time.
My constituency is home to Liberty Pressing Solutions, part of the Liberty Steel Group. The threat of the company’s collapse risks losing good, skilled, unionised jobs in Coventry and across the country. This would be a disaster for the city and for British manufacturing, so rather than waiting for the company to go bust before taking action, risking workers’ jobs, terms and conditions, will the Government step in now, with all options on the table, including bringing the business into public ownership, guaranteeing its future and retaining the skills we need to rebuild and to tackle the climate emergency?
It would not be appropriate for me to comment on the details of individual companies, due to commercial sensitivities. We are monitoring developments around Liberty and continue to engage closely with the company, the broader UK steel industry and trade unions. I recognise that reports around Liberty cause worry and uncertainty to the affected workers and their families. What I would say to the hon. Lady is that there is a lot of stuff that the Government are doing that will help her constituency. For instance, we are helping to create new green manufacturing jobs by providing support to drive the electrification of the UK automotive sector, supporting thousands of high-quality jobs in the west midlands.
Helping Young People into Work
Our plan for jobs will help young people find employment opportunities, including through our youth offer and the £2 billion kickstart scheme, where 180,000 kickstart vacancies have already been created.
I appreciate that the Government are helping to create those jobs, but it is important that young people have the confidence to learn and master a skill after leaving formal education, so how will my right hon. Friend ensure there are funds for people to do that in my constituency, including in Sittingbourne, which is the largest town in Kent that does not have its own further education facilities?
I agree with my hon. Friend that young people should have access to the skills and training opportunities they need to access great jobs. That is why my right hon. Friend the Chancellor has provided £126 million for traineeships in England to enable an additional 40,000 places over the next academic year, and why he has incentivised apprenticeships, with up to £3,000 for employers who hire new apprentices of any age.
Measures such as the kickstart scheme are a fantastic way to help young people into work and reduce the risk of long-term unemployment. Many young people will have taken part-time or casual work to support themselves through the pandemic, such as in Fylde’s hospitality and leisure sector, and may not be claiming universal credit. What steps will my right hon. Friend be taking to help young people get the skills and industry experience to help them move from casual employment and launch full-time careers?
My hon. Friend raises an important point, and that is why, as well as the fantastic kickstart scheme, which he points out, the plan for jobs also expands existing programmes with proven employment outcomes, including traineeships, sector-based work academies and incentivised apprenticeship hiring. At the spending review, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor announced £138 million for the lifetime skills guarantee to fund free advanced technical courses for adults without A-levels or equivalent and to expand employer-led skills bootcamps.
Coronavirus Business Support Schemes
The Government have provided £25 billion in cash grants for businesses, and that includes the £5 billion of funding allocated at the March Budget for restart grants and the discretionary additional restrictions grant fund. My right hon. Friend the Business Secretary has been working closely with local authorities to ensure that these grants are delivered as swiftly as possible and directed towards the businesses that have been most impacted by the pandemic.
It is clear that equitable distribution of covid business schemes is not a priority. Only those on this Treasury Bench would have the gall to claim fairness when the Chancellor and his Ministers were consumed with pulling out all the stops to support their friend the former Prime Minister on behalf of Greensill, while 3 million people were excluded from support schemes, some so distraught that they took their own lives. So to clear this up once and for all, can the Minister explain what news did Treasury officials report at a meeting on 24 April that made Greensill representatives “very pleased”?
As I have said previously, the Government are committed to co-operating fully with all reviews on these matters. I do not accept what the hon. Lady has said with respect to the schemes that the Government have put forward over the past 14 months. Her constituency has had £16.7 million in business grants and 1,206 bounce-back loans totalling £30 million. In addition, 12,700 of her constituents have benefited from the furlough scheme, and 2,000 have benefited from the self-employed income support scheme. That is a significant contribution to help her constituents.
Loan Charge: Prosecutions
Promotion or enablement of a tax avoidance scheme is not, in and of itself, a criminal offence, as we have regularly debated in this House. However, there have been numerous cases in which Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs has made arrests or prosecuted people in relation to fraud, and particularly in relation to disguised remuneration loan-busting schemes.
My understanding is that very few promoters of these schemes have been prosecuted. Is it not rather shocking that so many people who were mis-sold the schemes on the basis that they were perfectly legitimate are being pursued so relentlessly, while the promoters are in some cases being allowed to continue their work unhindered?
The suggestion that promoters are being allowed to do just anything is quite wrong. If my right hon. Friend had looked closely at the current Finance Bill, he would have seen a range of measures in that Bill alone aimed at preventing the promotion of tax avoidance schemes and at the disclosure of tax avoidance schemes, as well as other measures. HMRC takes such issues extremely seriously, and that is why the avoidance tax gap fell from £3.7 billion in 2005-06 to £1.7 billion in 2018-19—a fall of more than 50%.
This Government have supported our economy through coronavirus with more than £350 billion to protect jobs, families and businesses. As we approach the next phase of our road map out of lockdown, our support continues to ensure that we emerge from the pandemic stronger and more united.
The Financial Conduct Authority has asked John Swift QC to investigate the mis-selling of certain business loans to small businesses, as well as their response to complaints about that mis-selling. The review has refused to take into account any loans that were settled with non-disclosure agreements between the businesses and the banks, giving a skewed view and a skewed outcome. Will the Chancellor speak to the FCA and ask John Swift to ensure that all evidence is taken into account, so that we get a proper review of the FCA’s dealings?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question, which is on an important matter. I welcome the conclusions of the Swift review, and I hope he will appreciate that it would not be appropriate for me to comment or intervene on the scope of that review, as it was set up to be completely independent of Government. That said, we have always been clear that the mis-selling of interest rate hedging products is wrong, and nothing that the redress scheme does means that businesses cannot still go to the FCA, the Financial Ombudsman Service or the courts if they wish. If he wishes to raise particular circumstances with either the FCA or the Swift review, he can do that directly.
Fishing is at the heart of many of our coastal communities, and I pay tribute to Mr Chapman and my hon. Friend for their commitment to the sector. I am happy that the Government are also championing and committed to the sector, and we have announced a £100 million fund to modernise our fleet and infrastructure. That is on top of £32 million that will replace EU funding this year, and £23 million that was made available earlier to support the sector, while adjusting to new export requirements.
A year ago, the Chancellor personally announced the coronavirus large business interruption loan scheme, or “our loan scheme for large companies”, as his Department put it. Allowing Greensill Capital access to that scheme put hundreds of millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money and thousands of jobs at risk. The Prime Minister said he would publish every personal exchange related to covid contracts. Has the Chancellor published his every communication relating to Government business on Greensill, including with David Cameron—yes or no?
We have actually responded to all the requests that I have been asked and, indeed, gone above and beyond in providing disclosure. I would say a couple of things to the hon. Lady. First of all, I am very happy to co-operate fully and constructively with both the independent Boardman review and the Treasury Committee inquiry, and those processes have begun. Secondly, on the substance, it is important to remember what was going on. We were in the midst of a financial crisis and we were keen to explore all avenues to support small and medium-sized businesses. We have heard in the House today that there are still challenges, so it was right to examine all avenues to do that. This was just one of many strands of work that the Treasury and I conducted, rightly and appropriately. It is important to notice that, in the end, we rejected the taking forward of any proposals on supply chain finance.
I will take that as a no. It appears that the Chancellor is less committed than the Prime Minister himself to transparency. That is not what I would call levelling with the British public. Let us see if he can level on another significant Government failure: the delay to imposing restrictions last autumn, which cost lives and our economy dear. In late October, when I asked the Chancellor if he was blocking a circuit breaker, he said,
“I agree with the Prime Minister”—[Official Report, 20 October 2020; Vol. 682, c. 889.]
Now it is being suggested that he sided with others against the Prime Minister. We have grown used to the Chancellor chopping and changing his mind, but can he explain whether this change of heart is driven by science and the needs of our economy, or by the internal politics of the Conservative party?
The hon. Lady is confusing multiple things. She has asked me previously about circuit breakers. At the time there was a debate, appropriately, about whether a national intervention was right at a time when the epidemiology across this country was incredibly varied. That is something that the deputy chief medical officer himself spoke about at a press conference, and he said it would be inappropriate at that time to take forward national interventions. That is what I was referring to.
To go back to the shadow Chancellor’s previous comment about transparency, in fact I voluntarily published extra messages to aid the transparency of this process for people. I am fully committed to working constructively with the inquiry, both the Boardman review and the Treasury Committee inquiry. It is worth reminding the shadow Chancellor of something she herself wrote last April in The Daily Mirror:
“The ‘Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan Scheme’ seems to be stuck in the banks, and not getting to small businesses in particular, where cash flow is desperately needed.”
Well, the Government were also looking at how to get cash flow to small businesses, and I am sad and disappointed about what a conveniently short memory she has.
In my previous job as Minister for local government, I enjoyed many conversations with my hon. Friend about local government matters. He will know it is not for the Chancellor or indeed national Government to implement redress processes. There are established redress processes, which I would be happy to write to him about, so he can seek redress for his particular concerns.
I agree with my hon. Friend. The Government are committed to levelling up opportunities across the UK, including in Rother Valley. The £4.8 billion levelling-up fund will invest in infrastructure that improves everyday life across the UK, including by regenerating town centres and high streets, upgrading local transport and investing in cultural and heritage assets. I look forward to working with him for his local area.
As I said in answer to earlier questions on this issue, the Government are providing unprecedented support to the steel industry. If the hon. Gentleman has something specific to bring to my attention about the steel industry in Hartlepool, I am happy for him to write to me and I will look at the issues, but I have already answered the question and talked about the measures of support that are in place.
There has been no change in the Treasury’s position since I updated the House in January 2019. The relevant records—the data relating to all payments made under the scheme—are retained, and will continue to be so for as long as that is legal. Contrary to the press reports, there are no plans to destroy records. There is a complaints process provided by the scheme, and those who are not satisfied may take their case to the independent review panel which resolved such cases before closure. Further to the oral evidence session to which my hon. Friend referred, the permanent secretary to the Treasury will be writing to the PAC to provide similar reassurance and clarification. Since the scheme has now closed, there will be no further funding on this matter.
I am not sure exactly what reduction in air passenger duty the hon. Lady is referring to. We are increasing air passenger duty in this year’s Finance Bill.
Of course I would be happy to look at the report to which my hon. Friend refers. He knows that addressing future local authority resourcing is a matter for future spending reviews and the local government finance settlement. However, I would remind him that at the spending review 2020 we provided an estimated 4.6% cash increase in core spending to local authorities. That is on top of the largest real-terms increase in their core spending at the spending review 2019, and that is in addition to the about £11 billion of support that has been provided as part of the covid response.
I am very sorry for the hon. Gentleman’s loss, and I know the whole House will join me in passing on those condolences. I am not aware of the particular proposal that he mentions, but if he writes to me, I will be happy to take a look at it.
Yes, I agree with my hon. Friend. On modern slavery, the landmark provision in section 54 of the Modern Slavery Act 2015 includes institutional investors that fall within the scope of the requirement and meet the criteria requiring them to publish an annual statement.
The Prime Minister has appointed Nigel Boardman to conduct an independent review of these various matters. With regard to covid in general, the Prime Minister has also said that at the appropriate time there will be all the necessary lessons to be learned.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. As he will know, we have covered this quite extensively in this debate so far. The self-employed scheme is very wide ranging and comprehensive. We have worked very closely with groups representing those who believe they have been excluded from the schemes—I have personally met many of them—and we have tried everything we can to incorporate them. We continue to engage with them, and we take the issue very seriously.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I salute the people of Carlton and I rejoice in the businesses of Mapperley. I encourage businesses across the constituency of Gedling to take advantage of the Government’s unprecedented package of support, including the £5 billion-worth of grant support that the Chancellor announced at Budget, which is providing a lifeline for businesses as they relaunch their trading safely.
I am now suspending the House for three minutes to enable the necessary arrangements to be made for the next business.
(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs if he will make a statement on Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe.
Iran’s decision to sentence Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe on further charges is totally inhumane and wholly unjustified. This Government remain committed to doing all that we can to secure Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s return home to the United Kingdom so that she can be reunited with her daughter, Gabriella, and her husband, Richard. It is indefensible and unacceptable that Iran has chosen to continue this wholly arbitrary court case against Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe. The Iranian Government have deliberately put her through a cruel and inhumane ordeal. We continue to call on Iran in the strongest possible terms to end her suffering and allow her to return home.
Since her arrest in April 2016, Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe has faced terrible hardship and appalling treatment. This Government have relentlessly lobbied for an improvement to both the conditions endured by Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe while she was in prison and those conditions still experienced by others, including Morad Tahbaz and Anoosheh Ashoori, who are still incarcerated. Although Iran does not recognise dual nationality, and therefore views Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe as only an Iranian citizen, that has not stopped this Government from lobbying at every opportunity for their release, and her return home to the UK. We have never been granted sight of the judicial process, or consular access to our dual British nationals detained in Iran; however, that has not stopped our ambassador in Tehran consistently pressing for her full and permanent release with senior Iranian interlocutors, most recently today, 27 April.
Since I was last at the Dispatch Box, the Foreign Secretary and Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office officials have been in regular contact with Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe and her family. Our ambassador in Tehran has visited Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe at her parents’ home in Tehran to reiterate the Government’s commitment to do all that we can to secure her return to the UK. The Foreign Secretary has spoken with both Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe and her husband to underline the fact that the UK Government, from the Prime Minister down, remain committed to doing everything that we can to achieve that.
Since Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s arrest in 2016, we have raised the case regularly at the highest levels of Government. The Prime Minister has raised it with President Rouhani, most recently on 10 March, and the Foreign Secretary’s personal ongoing engagement with Foreign Minister Zarif continues, with their most recent call being on 3 April. That lobbying of Iranian interlocutors at every opportunity has helped to secure the release of Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe in March 2020 and the removal of her ankle tag on 7 March this year.
As I have said, however, what we ultimately seek to achieve, and what we are ultimately working towards, is the release of all British dual nationals held in arbitrary detention in Iran, and their ability to return home. The UK continues to take concrete steps to hold Iran to account for its poor human rights record. At the Human Rights Council in March 2021, we strongly supported the renewal mandate of the United Nations special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Iran, and we made clear to Iran that its repeated violations of human rights, including those of foreign and dual nationals, are completely unacceptable. The UK Government also joined the Canadian initiative against arbitrary detention on 15 February. We continue to work with G7 partners to enhance mechanisms to uphold international law, tackle human rights abuses and stand up for our shared values.
I assure the House that the safety and the treatment of dual British national detainees in Iran remains a top priority for the UK Government. Iran is the one responsible for putting Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe through this cruel and inhumane ordeal over the last five years, and it remains on them to release her to be reunited with her family, and to release the others. We continue to stress that these second charges are baseless. She must not be returned to prison.
Thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting this urgent question. The whole House will be aware that Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, my constituent, has been in prison in Iran for five years now; from last March, she has been under house arrest. The Iranian authorities dangled the possibility of freedom in front of her by removing her ankle tag, but then, yesterday, announced that she had one more year in prison and another year of a travel ban—effectively, a two-year sentence.
As the news unfolded yesterday, I watched with great interest as the Prime Minister talked about redoubling his efforts to get Nazanin home and how he was working as hard as he possibly could to secure her release. If the Prime Minister is watching now, I would like to ask him what efforts he has put into trying to release Nazanin in the first place, because from where I am standing I have seen no evidence on the part of the Prime Minister so far.
At the heart of this tragic case is the Prime Minister’s dismal failure to release my constituent and to stand up for her, and his devastating blunder in 2017, as Foreign Secretary, when he exposed his complete ignorance of this tragic case and put more harm in Nazanin’s way. The Prime Minister did not even arrange for UK officials to attend Nazanin’s recent court hearing, which might have ensured that she got a free and fair trial. He still has not got his Government to pay the £400 million debt that we as a country owe Iran. We MPs might be many things, but we are not naive. We cannot deny the fact that Nazanin was handed a fresh new sentence a week after the International Military Services debt court hearing was delayed. Bearing that in mind, I have a few questions to ask the Minister. I would really appreciate some proper answers from him.
Will he acknowledge that Nazanin is being held hostage by Iran and is a victim of torture? In light of the recent adjournment of the IMS debt hearing scheduled for last week, what are the Government doing to ensure the debt is paid promptly? The Prime Minister said yesterday that he was working with our American friends on this issue. Can the Minister please explain what that involves and why the US has had more success in securing the release of dual nationals than we have? Tomorrow, another British-Iranian dual national, Mehran Raoof, is on trial in Iran. What link does the Minister see between development in that and Nazanin’s case and upcoming talks on the Iran nuclear deal?
The Prime Minister and other Ministers might not listen to me, but perhaps they will listen to someone from their own Benches. The Chair of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee said today that Nazanin is being held hostage by Iran. Please, Minister—please, everyone on the Government Benches—get Nazanin released, stand up to Iran and bring my constituent home.
I completely understand the passion with which the hon. Lady speaks and I can hear the anger and frustration in her voice. However, her anger and frustration are misdirected, because Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and the other British dual nationals held in arbitrary detention are being held by Iran—it is on them. The situation with regard to the charges that have recently been brought against other British dual nationals, and indeed the sentence that has been handed down for Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe, is because of Iran, and it should be towards Iran that we direct our attention.
With regard to Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s treatment, our priority has always been her full release and her ability to return home to the UK. The UK does not and will never accept our dual nationals being used as diplomatic leverage. We recognise that her treatment has been completely unacceptable. It is totally inhumane and wholly unjustified, and we call upon Iran to allow Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe to return home to the UK and to release from detention all British dual nationals that are being held.
The hon. Lady speaks about international co-operation. Of course we co-operate with our international partners on a whole range of issues with regard to Iran, including the United States of America and the E3, and, as I have already said, we are working with Canada on the work that it is doing on the initiative against arbitrary detention. We will continue to focus our efforts on getting Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe home to the UK and the other dual nationals in detention fully released.
Thank you very much, Mr Speaker, for agreeing to the request from the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq) for an urgent question. It is absolutely essential that we keep a focus on this cruel and inhumane treatment of a mother being held captive as a hostage and a pawn in order to get ransom money out of others and to extract diplomatic leverage. Let us keep that focus where it really belongs: on the brutal, tyrannical regime in Tehran that treats its own people as hostages and pawns. As we focus on that, can we please focus on why the regime is doing that? It is doing it for personal profit, to sow violence in the region, and in order to mask its crimes. Perhaps the Minister can tell us what sanctions are going to be brought against the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, which has so profited from this violent regime, and, now that corruption is permitted as a reason to use the Magnitsky sanctions, how that is going to be used to ensure that the regime’s pockets are emptied and not filled.
My hon. Friend the Chairman of the Select Committee is absolutely right to say that the blame lies with the Iranian regime—not even with the Iranian people but with the Iranian regime. He will understand that I am not willing to discuss sanctions designations for fear that that might be prejudicial to any future success. We do, of course, recognise that Iran’s behaviour is unacceptable in a number of ways, not just on the detention of British dual nationals, but with regard to its international and regional actions, and we call on Iran to step away from the dangerous and self-destructive route that it has taken and to rejoin the international community and be a regional partner that behaves in accordance with international rules and norms.
After having completed a five-year sentence, for Nazanin to be given a further one-year sentence and a travel ban is truly appalling. Let us be clear: Nazanin was put on trial on a trumped-up charge of promoting “propaganda against the system” and found guilty after a sham trial. Sadly, we are seeing a sustained failure of British diplomacy. Now the Government must demand Nazanin’s immediate and unconditional release in the strongest possible terms, so that she can return to Britain and be with her family. As the UN special rapporteur has said, it is totally unacceptable that Iran is imprisoning UK nationals, Nazanin and others, in an attempt to exert diplomatic leverage. Let us not forget that other British nationals are also being unfairly imprisoned in Iran. Anoosheh Ashoori has been held for three and a half years and says that the UK Government are not doing enough to secure his release. My question to the Minister is this: clearly the Government’s approach to date has not worked, so what are they now doing to secure the release of Nazanin and the others so that they can all come home?
The Government work on behalf of all the British dual nationals, whether they be held in detention, open prison or elsewhere, and indeed of Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe so that she can come home. The UK has had some positive impact. For example, Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s release on furlough and the removal of her ankle tag were in response to lobbying by this Government. We want to do more. We want to ensure that the people who are held in detention are released and are all able to return home to their families. We will continue to work hard at every level of Government to ensure that that happens.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq) on securing this urgent question and on ensuring that the family of Nazanin and the imprisonment of Nazanin herself are at the forefront of our minds in this House. Iran has a dreadful human rights record, with the largest number of executions anywhere in the world and the oppression of its native people. Does my right hon. Friend not find it ironic then that the United Nations Economic and Social Council elected Iran for a full four-year term to the Commission on the Status of Women? Will he therefore take that up at the United Nations to say that it is totally unacceptable for a country that suppresses women and imprisons them without proper process even to be considered to represent human rights across the world?
The UK Government take the rights of women very seriously, and, indeed, one of the priorities as set out for our official development assistance expenditure is girls’ education. The election of countries to various roles in the United Nations is ultimately a decision for that multilateral forum, but I understand the concerns that my hon. Friend has raised about Iran’s treatment of women. We call upon Iran to do the right thing, and we will continue to lobby for the release and return of British dual nationals and also on a whole range of other issues where we believe that Iran’s behaviour is unacceptable.
Let us go to the SNP spokesperson, Chris Law.
The SNP’s condemnation of the Iranian Government for the painfully outrageous detention of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe is unequivocal. Iran has never followed the rule of law in Nazanin’s case and she has never received a fair trial. Its cruelty, it seems, is boundless. The precise nature of the charges and evidence in the second case remain unclear and indistinct from the first case. What confirmation have the UK Government sought on the detail of these charges and whether Nazanin will be returned to prison, or put under house arrest, as a result of this new sentence? Furthermore, it is easy to forget that Nazanin’s case is yet another matter that the Prime Minister has blundered into and made much worse with his grossly incompetent mishandling while Foreign Secretary. He cannot continue to wash his hands of this case. Will the Prime Minister be making an apology on record to Nazanin and her family, and will the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office now do all that it can with the utmost urgency to undo the damage that the Prime Minister has done to secure Nazanin’s release?
What we have seen in recent days is the completely arbitrary nature of the detention of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and of other British dual nationals in Iran. This is the action of the Iranian regime and we should not let them off the hook by attempting to divert attention elsewhere. It is down to the Iranian regime. We will continue to work to secure the release of those incarcerated and the return home of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe. We are seeking detail, because the detail was quite sparse initially, on what exactly this means and we will be lobbying in the first instance to say that Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe is not returned to prison. We will continue to push for her return home to the UK and for the full and permanent release of the others who are detained.
Iran has proudly announced that it is now enriching uranium to 60% purity, a move that puts the country perilously near the threshold for weapons-grade uranium. Given this latest provocative nuclear action, Tehran’s ongoing support for terror proxies and its detention of British citizens, including Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe, does the Minister share my view that it would be dangerous to ease sanctions on Iran?
My hon. Friend makes an important point about Iran’s broader destabilising actions. I will not speculate as to future decisions about sanctions, for the reason that I gave to the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, but we are very conscious that Iran’s behaviour on a number of fronts is unacceptable. It should return to compliance with the JCPOA, and that is what we are calling on it to do.
Liberal Democrats join colleagues across the House in their condemnation of the Iranian regime’s actions. Our hearts have to go out to Richard, Gabriella and the whole family. This must feel like one step forward, two steps back. I sincerely hope that the Government are considering Magnitsky sanctions, which are surely the next step.
I am concerned about Nazanin’s current state. Redress says that Nazanin
“has already suffered severe physical and psychological impacts from the torture and ill-treatment”
and that if she is subjected to more, it could cause “irreparable damage” to her. What immediate attention have our Government directed to the Iranian regime to ensure that Nazanin’s medical needs are met in full?
We are very conscious of the health of all those detained, particularly in the light of the covid situation. We lobby the Iranian Government hard and regularly to ensure that British dual nationals held in detention have adequate medical treatment, and we will continue to push for the thing that we are all ultimately trying to achieve, which is their full release and their ability to return to the UK.
I thank the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq) for securing this question and for her tenacious campaigning for Nazanin. I also thank the Minister for mentioning Anoosheh Ashoori and Morad Tahbaz, the other dual nationals, because they, too, have families who are desperately upset by the incarceration of their loved ones.
What will the consequences be for Iran of this hostage diplomacy, other than words? We know that it does not fundamentally care what we think or say, and it has to know that there will be consequences. We have to do our part by settling the IMS issue, which, however unjustified, is being linked to Nazanin’s incarceration, and that is taking a very long time. Ultimately, what will the consequences be for Iran of continuing with hostage diplomacy? Otherwise, it is all bark and no bite.
I thank my right hon. Friend for reinforcing the point that, as well as Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, there are other British dual nationals incarcerated. The UK Government work tirelessly to secure the release of all those people. Some of them are household names and others are less well known, but we work on behalf of all of them. I assure him that we will continue to lobby to try to secure the release of them all and that we will investigate the full range of options, but, as I said, it would be inappropriate for me to speculate at the Dispatch Box as to what those might be.
I compliment my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq) on her tireless work on behalf of her constituent and other dual nationals held in Iran. It is disgraceful that they are still held. It is disgraceful that Nazanin has had another sentence imposed on her, and she ought to be released. In the many negotiations that are no doubt taking place with the Iranian Government, what other issues are raised by Iran? Is the issue of financial dealings between Britain and Iran in the past raised? What other discussions does the Minister propose to have with Iran in order to secure the early release of all the dual nationals?
The UK does not and will never accept dual nationals being used for political leverage, so I am not going to amplify whatever claims the Iranian regime have made about them. Our message and the message that I hope the right hon. Gentleman and every other Member of the House would echo is that the Iranian regime must release our people.
As my right hon. Friend will know, in 2019, the Foreign Secretary visited Iran, where he raised the case of Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe with Foreign Minister Zarif. Since then, what other discussions has the Foreign Secretary had with the Minister to try to resolve this and is any progress being made in each of these communications?
As I have said, we engage regularly at the most senior levels with the Iranian Government. We had diplomatic engagement to secure Nazanin’s initial furlough and the removal of the ankle tag. Our ambassador visited Nazanin at her home last week. We raise the case regularly; the Prime Minister raised it in his recent call with President Rouhani and the Foreign Secretary did so in his call to Foreign Minister Zarif. The British ambassador to Tehran has formally protested Nazanin’s continued confinement. We will raise this on every occasion where we have an opportunity to speak with the Iranian regime. We will continue to push this until all our British dual nationals are released and allowed to return home.
Last year, Nazanin’s husband Richard Ratcliffe said he feared that, if she was not home for Christmas, there is
“every chance this could run for years.”
Was he right, Minister?
I sincerely hope that he is not right. We will continue to work to bring Nazanin home and for the release of all British dual nationals. Their incarceration is unacceptable, unjustified and arbitrary, and it must stop.
We are strongest when we work together with our international partners. I understand that several western countries have citizens who are dual nationals and suffering a similar dreadful fate to Nazanin. Will my right hon. Friend update the House as to what discussions he has had with our western allies about how we can work together for the release of our citizens?
I thank my hon. Friend for the points she raises about the international nature of this situation. Of course, we work closely with our international partners —as I have said, with the E3 and the United States of America—in particular with regard to our policy towards Iran. We will work with any and all international friends and partners to bring pressure to bear for the release of their and our dual nationals in detention. The challenge is that Iran does not recognise dual national status and therefore denies us a number of the consular access opportunities we would normally have. We will continue to work to secure the release of our British nationals in Iran.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq) for her urgent question, and all that she does to champion Nazanin’s case and get her home to her family. It is a shame that the Foreign Secretary is not here today to answer the questions himself. In Newport West, the case is personal because Richard Ratcliffe’s sister is a constituent of mine, so I was determined to speak today. The United Nations has previously ruled that Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s imprisonment is unlawful and ordered Iran to release her, so what are this Government doing to work through the international community to put pressure on Iran to follow their international obligations?
As I said in response to the previous question, we work with and will continue to work with our international friends and partners on a range of issues with regard to Iran and its destabilising behaviour, both globally and in the region.
Is it the view of Her Majesty’s Government—or, indeed, of any previous Government—that we do, or do not owe any money to Iran?
The legal situation with the IMS debt has been settled. It is a multi-decade-long problem, and we are investigating ways by which this can be resolved.
My constituent Sarah McCullough is one of many who have been in touch over the years to express their concerns and solidarity with Nazanin and her family. Nazanin’s continued detention is a mark of failure of this Government, this Minister and his predecessors. What confidence can British citizens have in the ability of this UK Government to protect them abroad?
The situation of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and the other British dual nationals held in detention is the fault of the Iranian regime. We must never lose sight of that. It has the power to release them, it should release them, and we regularly call on it to do so and allow them to return to the United Kingdom. The United Kingdom gives travel advice to help to inform British travellers when they go overseas, and we have an extensive network to give support to British travellers. We absolutely do everything we can to protect our British nationals when they are overseas and when they find themselves in a situation such as the British dual nationals in Iran have found themselves in. We work tirelessly in all respects, in all cases, to support them.
I know that the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq) looks forward to the day she does not have to bring this case to the House, and we are with her on that. Nazanin has an extra year in prison and another year of not being able to be at home with her family. As the Minister says, this is both inhumane and unjustified, and it is squarely at the feet of the Iranian regime. Was he as surprised as I was when the United Nations, in its wisdom, elected Iran to the Commission on the Status of Women? That shows a couple of things, not just about the United Nations but also the fact that Iran wants to have credibility on the international stage. So will the Minister impress on the United Nations that one way for Iran to hold its position is to allow Nazanin and other dual nationals home?
My hon. Friend—my dear hon. Friend—makes an incredibly important point. If Iran wants to be taken seriously and to speak with authority on the international stage, it must change its behaviours on a whole range of issues, but most notably with regard to the release of the British dual nationals held in incarceration and their ability to return home to the United Kingdom.
I thank the Minister for his update. We all share the same frustration and that goes without saying. To say that the situation is distressing is a gross understatement. While I understand the issues highlighted, it is my opinion that something must be done to reunite this mother with her child, husband and family. Is there nothing that can legally be done by the UK Government in conjunction with other Governments, such as those of the USA and the EU, and with the UN to stop the persecution of this British citizen and the desecration of this British family?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that this whole House shares the frustration at the situation that these people find themselves in, through no fault of their own. We will, as I say, continue to work with international partners on a whole range of issues with regard to Iran. We will continue to lobby Iran to change its behaviours and to come back into the international fold. One of the most high-profile and perhaps one of the easiest things that it could do is to release these people and allow them to return home.
I welcome the Foreign Secretary’s decision to grant Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe diplomatic protection to help her to resolve her case. This is the first time that this tool has been used in recent memory. Will my right hon. Friend update the House on what further steps the UK is taking to help to secure Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s release?
I thank my hon. Friend for his point about the granting of diplomatic status. That sends a signal to Iran of how seriously we take the issue of our British dual nationals. This Government remain committed to doing everything we can to secure the full, permanent release of all dual nationals, including the return home of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe. We constantly review what further steps we might take—as I said, that is not something I am willing to speculate about at the Dispatch Box—to secure the release of all our British dual nationals and allow them to return home.
Like many other Brits abroad, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe has been completely let down by this Government through a litany of errors, including the Prime Minister’s gaffe. Nazanin and her family will doubtless be experiencing serious mental health pressures and anguish at this point in time. Indeed, her husband, Richard Ratcliffe, has previously stated that the Government’s inability to secure his wife’s return is a “failure of diplomacy”. Would not the Minister agree that this further sentence proves that he is right?
Sadly, what this sentence proves is that Iran is willing to do anything to attempt to apply diplomatic leverage, using British dual nationals as the tool. We will never accept that. We will continue to lobby for the release of all the British dual nationals. As I say, the fault sits wholly, squarely with Iran.
I join colleagues from across this House in our condemnation of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s further imprisonment. Could I press my right hon. Friend a little further on Iran’s election to the Commission on the Status of Women? This is not just an empty title; it confers status and suggests a commitment to gender equality that Iran does not have. Could we not use our position on the UN Security Council, in conjunction with allies, to consider our own participation with the commission for as long as Iran remains a member?
My hon. Friend makes an incredibly important point. The various functions within the United Nations are separate from each other. However, she does raise a broader point about the treatment and status of women in Iran. This is something we take incredibly seriously. We will continue to lobby for improvements for the status of women, both in Iran and globally, as part of our force for good agenda.
The news that Nazanin will be forced to spend another two years in Iran, far from her family, is completely devastating. Anousheh Ashoori, who is also being held in Tehran in prison as a hostage, is dearly missed by his family in my constituency of Lewisham East. Over the past few days, his family have been concerned that he is showing severe signs of coronavirus. What urgent action will the Foreign Secretary take this week to ensure Anousheh gets the medical furlough he desperately needs?
I thank the hon. Lady for the point that she has raised and the work that I know she has done in support of her constituent. We are aware—we have been in contact, and we are aware—of the concerns about the medical situation in the prison, and we have pushed the Iranian regime to allow access of medical professionals for, as I say, Mr Ashoori. We will continue to push for the better treatment of our British joint nationals while they are incarcerated, but ultimately for their release and ability to return home.
I am suspending the House for a few minutes to enable the necessary arrangements to be made for the next business.
Post Office Court of Appeal Judgment
On Friday 23 April, the Court of Appeal handed down its judgment to quash the convictions of 39 postmasters. This is a landmark judgment, and I know that colleagues on both sides of the House will join me in welcoming the court’s decision to quash those convictions. I will turn to what more needs to be done to address the wrongs of the past and to ensure that injustices such as this do not happen again, but I will begin by setting out the context to the judgment.
Over the years, the Horizon accounting system recorded shortfalls in cash in post office branches. The Post Office at the time thought that they were caused by postmasters, and that led to dismissals, recovery of losses and, in some instances, criminal prosecutions. A group of 555 of those postmasters, led by former postmaster Alan Bates, brought a group litigation claim against the Post Office in 2016. In late 2019, after a lengthy period of litigation, the Post Office reached a full and final settlement with claimants in that group.
It is clear from the findings of the presiding judge, Mr Justice Fraser, that there were real problems with the Horizon IT system and failings in the way that the Post Office dealt with postmasters who encountered problems or raised complaints in relation to Horizon. The findings of Mr Justice Fraser led the Criminal Cases Review Commission to refer the convictions of 51 postmasters for appeal: eight to the Crown court and 43 cases to the Court of Appeal. The Crown court quashed the convictions of six postmasters back in December 2020, and 42 further appeals were heard in the Court of Appeal in late March.
The Court of Appeal was asked in late March to decide whether the convictions of those postmasters were safe based on two grounds of appeal, namely whether the prosecutions were an abuse of process either because of the postmaster being unable to receive a fair trial or because of its being an affront to the public conscience for the postmaster to be tried. On Friday, the Court of Appeal announced its judgment. The Court decided to quash the convictions of 39 postmasters. The Court of Appeal also concluded that the failures of investigation and disclosure were so egregious as to make the prosecution of any of the Horizon cases an affront to the conscience of the court. In the remaining three cases, the convictions were found to be safe.
In response to the Court of Appeal judgment, the Post Office has apologised for serious failings in historical prosecutions. Tim Parker, the Post Office chair, has said that the Post Office is
“extremely sorry for the impact on the lives of these postmasters and their families that was caused by historical failings.”
The Government recognise the gravity of the court’s judgment in those cases and the hugely negative impact that the convictions have had on individual postmasters and their families, as has been highlighted on a number of occasions in this place. The journey to get to last Friday’s Court of Appeal judgment has unquestionably been a long and difficult one for affected postmasters and their families, and the Government pay tribute to them for their courage and tenacity in pursuing their fight for justice. The Government also pay tribute to colleagues across the House who have campaigned tirelessly on their behalf.
However, while the Court of Appeal decision represents the culmination of years of efforts by those postmasters, it is not the end of the road. The Post Office is already contacting other postmasters with historical criminal convictions between 1999 and 2015 to notify them of the outcome of those appeals and provide information in respect of how they could also appeal. The Post Office’s chief executive officer, Nick Read, is also leading a programme of improvements to overhaul the culture, practices and operating procedures throughout every part of its business. The Government continue to closely monitor delivery of those improvements. The changes are critical to ensure that similar events to these can never happen again.
Last week, the Post Office announced the appointment of two serving postmasters, Saf Ismail and Elliot Jacobs, as non-executive directors to the Post Office board. I wholeheartedly welcome those appointments. Their presence on the Post Office board will ensure that postmasters have a strong voice at the very highest level in the organisation. As part of the 2019 settlement, the Post Office also committed to launch a scheme to compensate postmasters who did not have criminal convictions who had suffered shortfalls because of Horizon, and who were not party to the 2019 settlement. The Post Office established the historical shortfall scheme in response.
Applications to that scheme were much higher than anticipated. Consequently, in March 2021, the Government announced that it would provide sufficient financial support to the Post Office to ensure that the scheme could proceed, based on current expectations of the likely cost. Payments under the scheme have now begun, and the Government will continue to work with the Post Office to see that the scheme delivers on all of its objectives, and that appropriate compensation is paid to all eligible postmasters in a timely manner.
While those are positive steps in the right direction, the Government are clear that there is still more to do. Postmasters whose convictions were quashed last week will also now be turning to the question of appropriate compensation, which I know will again be of great interest to the House. The judgment last week will require careful consideration by all involved. The Government want to see all postmasters whose convictions have been overturned fairly compensated as quickly as possible, and we will work with the Post Office towards that goal. I commit to keep the House informed on this matter going forward.
Finally, it is essential that we determine what went wrong at the Post Office during this period to make sure a situation like this can never happen again. To ensure the right lessons have been learned and to establish what must change, the Government launched an independent inquiry led by ex-High Court judge Sir Wyn Williams in September last year. The inquiry has made swift progress already, having heard from a number of affected postmasters and a call for evidence has recently closed. The inquiry is now planning public hearings. The Horizon dispute has been long-running. For the benefit of everyone involved, it is important that the inquiry reaches its conclusions swiftly. I look forward to receiving Sir Wyn’s report later this summer. As the Prime Minister said, lessons should and will be learned to ensure that this never happens again.
I thank the Minister for advance sight of his statement.
This is the largest legal miscarriage of justice in our history: 900 false prosecutions, each one its own story of persecution, fear, despair, careers ruined, families destroyed, reputations smashed, lives lost, and innocent people bankrupted and imprisoned. I want to congratulate each and every postmaster and their families who withstood this onslaught of false accusations and fought back. I want to congratulate the Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance and the Communication Workers Union who campaigned to get at the truth for over a decade. I want to congratulate hon. and right hon. Members across this House who fought for justice for their constituents.
I wish I could congratulate the Minister and the Government, but I cannot. I am pleased to see the Minister here making today’s statement, but the Government have consistently failed to stand with the postmasters in their quest for justice: investigations delayed, claims denied and not one word of explanation or apology as to why the Government let it take so long to clear these innocent victims.
Now, to add insult to injury, the Government are failing to deliver the proper statutory public inquiry that postmasters, their families and the British public deserve. Let us be clear: Friday’s judgment vindicates the postmasters, but to deliver justice we need a statutory inquiry with genuine subpoena and witness compulsion powers, and a specific remit to consider compensation claims. We have the greatest respect for Sir Wyn Williams, but his inquiry has no real powers and key questions about compensation, the criminal prosecutions of postmasters, and the responsibility of civil servants and Government, are outside its remit. As such, the inquiry is toothless and may even lead to a whitewash. Postmasters have been clear that they will fail to recognise and participate in such an inquiry. How can the Minister stand there with the wreck of hundreds and hundreds of lives before him, and say that this scandal does not warrant a statutory inquiry?
The sad truth is that this horrific miscarriage of justice did not happen overnight. For a decade now, we have known that there were serious problems with the Horizon system, but the Post Office denied all wrongdoing, pursuing the victims and imposing huge lawyers’ fees on the claimants. Even after the High Court ruling vindicated postmasters in 2019, the Government refused to act. Given the long litany of Government failure, there are a number of urgent questions for the Minister. The Government are the Post Office’s only shareholder, yet time and time again the Post Office was allowed to abuse its power over postmasters. That was the finding of the court. Will the Minister acknowledge the Government’s failure of oversight and due diligence with regard to public money? Will he apologise to the victims and their families today?
The postmasters were criminalised for a culture that assumed technology is infallible and workers dishonest. How will the Minister change that and what are the implications for algorithmic management? The faulty software was provided by Fujitsu. What steps are the Government taking to hold it to account? Will ongoing Government contracts with Fujitsu be reviewed? Paula Vennells led the Post Office during this time and was honoured with a CBE. Is it right that she continues to be so honoured? The Minister referred to what he described as a full and final settlement for some postmasters with the Post Office. Their compensation was largely taken in lawyers’ fees. Does the Minister agree that they should be considered for appropriate compensation? Finally, does the Minister agree that actions should have consequences, and that it is therefore essential that there is a thorough criminal investigation into any potential wrongdoing?
In recent weeks, we have heard about the special access and power that millionaires and billionaires have with the Government, Ministers and the Prime Minister personally. Compare and contrast that with how the postmasters have been treated. They did not have the Prime Minister’s personal phone number. They did not have a former Prime Minister lobbying for them. They were not millionaires looking for tax breaks. They were ordinary working people. This speaks to a broader question of whose voice the Government hear and whose justice they deliver. On behalf of the working people who have had their lives ruined, I urge the Minister to apologise, own the Government’s mistakes and commit to a real public inquiry so that justice, for far too long delayed, can finally be delivered.
The hon. Lady makes some important points about the length of time and the egregious nature of the situation that the former postmasters have had to suffer. She talks about the time it takes to get justice, and that is one of the core reasons why we set up the inquiry under Sir Wyn Williams. The average length of a statutory inquiry under the Inquiries Act 2005 is nearly three and a half years, which is a long time. We want to get answers now for the postmasters so that we are able to answer questions about who knew what, who did what and at what point, and learn lessons.
The hon. Lady asked about the Government’s role in this. The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy is working well with Sir Wyn Williams, and we are participating fully in the inquiry, as are the Post Office and Fujitsu. Sir Wyn Williams clearly feels that he is getting the support, answers and participation that he needs from the relevant organisations. If that changes, clearly we can review that.
The hon. Lady talks about Fujitsu. As well as the inquiry, there are ongoing investigations with the police into wider aspects of the case. She talks about Paula Vennells. People will talk about Paula Vennells’ positions and awards—there is an independent forfeiture committee to consider awards—but I am particularly pleased that, having stepped back from her other roles, she has committed to participate fully in this inquiry. It is to be welcomed that the former chief executive of the Post Office is doing that.
Finally, the hon. Lady talks about the Prime Minister not being on speed dial, or however she described it, for the group of litigants and the other postmasters. I can confirm that the Prime Minister is incredibly interested in and exercised about the situation, as we all are. He wants to make sure we work with the sub-postmasters to get them the justice they want and compensation for the prosecutions, through discussion and dialogue and by working with them and the Post Office in the first instance.
Knowing who did what will matter, but it is clear why it happened. In 1999, the Government withdrew from the contract and it became one of the worst private finance initiatives ever.
To know what happened, people should pay attention to the investigative journalists and what Lord Arbuthnot said. Computerworld in 2015, Computer Weekly in 2009 and Private Eye in 2015 laid out what the problems were. Second Sight, in its report, showed 12,000 communications failures a year between the terminals and the centre. There was a suggestion that some of the machines’ recordings of tax disc income, cash machines and other things were not coming through. I want to know whether Ministers and senior people in business, whether suppliers or customers, will pay attention not to glossy reviews saying how good things are, but to investigative journalists who say how bad things might be for the innocent. Until those innocent people, who were forced to plead guilty when they were not, are reimbursed the money they had not taken, we cannot sit quietly here in this House.
I thank the Father of the House for his comments. There is no sense that this inquiry is glossy in any sense. Sir Wyn will get the technical support that he needs to understand exactly the points that my hon. Friend makes, including the testimony in the court cases. In the call for evidence, there is an opportunity to listen to the magazines that he referred to, including Computer Weekly, and other journalists who have covered this.
I thank the Minister for advance sight of his statement. He will hear from both sides of the House, and we are all going to be beating the same drum, but I do not apologise for repetition in this important statement.
The Minister stated that the chair of Post Office Ltd has apologised, but I note with regret that there is no direct apology from this Government. Yet again, this Government are acting as though the Post Office has absolutely nothing to do with them. I remind the Minister that the Government are the single shareholder in Post Office Ltd and civil servants sit on the board, and therefore the Government must apologise—in fact, the Prime Minister should apologise.
The Court of Appeal’s decision shows that there has been a devastating failure by Post Office Ltd during Paula Vennells’ leadership. She should be stripped of any titles and any additional compensation received as a result of her inexplicable decision to continue legal proceedings in spite of what was known about Horizon at the time. However, I agree with the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah) that it is much more important that a statutory, judge-led inquiry is launched, so that all who failed sub-postmasters are held to account. That would be meaningful progress in the pursuit of justice, rather than a token gesture. Sir Wyn Williams will do his best and will bring forward many things that need to be looked at, but we need a statutory inquiry. Will the Minister agree to that?
Horizon has united Members across the Chamber. Will the Minister therefore agree to meet the all-party parliamentary group on post offices, which I chair, to discuss in detail and agree a way forward that will ensure justice for sub-postmasters?
Finally, sub-postmasters deserve to be fully compensated for having their lives devastated by Horizon and the injustices that followed, without detriment to the current post office network. The Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance needs to be compensated. It has not been properly compensated yet, as its legal costs swallowed up any compensation that it received at the time. Will the Minister agree to cover the legal costs of the 555 sub-postmasters involved in civil action against Post Office Ltd and all costs accrued by Post Office Ltd in payment of compensation?
The Department is indeed the single shareholder in the Post Office. This has been going on for so long that we have gone through various models of ownership of the Post Office and various names of the Department, but throughout, we have worked with Post Office management, who have reported back about how Horizon was believed to have been working. We will continue to make sure that these questions come out of the independent inquiry, led by Sir Wyn Williams.
In terms of a statutory inquiry, I have covered some of these areas, but it is important to make sure that we are driven by the outcomes for the sub-postmasters, although we differ in some ways on the process to get there. I will happily discuss this further with the APPG.
On compensation, the group litigants have had that money in the final settlement. It is incredibly frustrating and difficult for them that they have been pushed from both sides, with the extremely high costs of their litigation and the drive from the Post Office, but we will continue to work with the Post Office to make sure that postmasters have adequate justice and see their compensation discussed in full.
Unfortunately, in part due to the serial failure to act by successive Ministers, I and the right hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones), and others, have been forced to campaign for sub-postmasters, including my constituents Mr and Mrs Rudkin, for the past 10 years. Given the huge miscarriage of justice now fully exposed, including the 10-year attempted cover-up by the Post Office, will the Minister concede that only a full public inquiry and independent compensation panel for victims will now suffice finally to lance this boil?
As I said, an independent inquiry is looking into the actions of the Post Office and the responsibility of the Government within that, and everybody is participating fully. To ensure that we “lance the boil”, the Post Office has launched a historic shortfall scheme, which has started to make payments, and those whose convictions were rightly quashed last Friday will be considering compensation. We will ensure that the Post Office addresses that in quick order.
I was present in the Court of Appeal on Friday for their lordships’ judgement and the formal exoneration of those innocent former sub-postmasters. Millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money has been wasted on pursuing unnecessary and unjust prosecutions. When will the Government order Post Office Ltd to call off its lawyers, who have been instructed to search desperately for a defence to the indefensible?
The hon. Gentleman has represented his constituent, Janet Skinner, as both a constituency MP and a former solicitor, so he has a lot of experience of this. We will work to ensure that the Post Office does not defend anything that is indefensible, and that we get answers. That is exactly what Sir Wyn is there to do, and he will produce his report by summer so that we get answers this year.
The Minister is a decent, able man who I know will do his best to put right these terrible wrongs. Some 555 sub-postmasters showed tremendous courage and dignity in the group litigation against the Post Office, which concluded in 2019. Will the Minister ask his officials whether his Department authorised the Post Office to use millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money to fight the sub-postmasters in that litigation, waging a war of attrition on them, purely to disguise the Horizon failings? Will he ask whether his predecessor, the Minister responsible for post offices in 2018-19, was aware of that, and if not, why not?
The litigation was taken on entirely by Post Office Ltd, and my hon. Friend does not need me to ask those questions, as they are exactly the kinds of questions that Sir Wyn Williams will be asking throughout his independent inquiry, which will report back in summer this year.
I appreciate the Minister’s comments about the inquiry and compensation, but will he assure me that the Government will commit to seeing former sub-postmasters as individuals, and to treating each case with importance for all those who have faced more than a decade of accusations and had their life burdened with legal difficulties due to the Post Office’s mismanagement? Many have lost their homes and been refused insurance. Will they each be treated individually and not simply as one overarching scandal?
The hon. Lady makes a crucial point: each and every single one of these people, whether they were prosecuted or “just” suffered a shortfall, is a human being. I see the anger on social media and the tears in some of the interviews following the quashing of the convictions; we cannot fail to realise that these people have suffered so tragically and terribly over so long a period. The Government and I will absolutely treat everybody as individuals. This has come at human cost.
The group litigation of 2019 performed an enormous public service by bringing this miscarriage of justice to light, but although successful, those involved paid an enormous price for that public service, because most of their compensation was diverted away into legal fees, leaving just £15,000 per victim. That is grossly unfair. The Minister has referred a couple of times to the full and final settlement that has been reached for them, and it is true that that is the contractual position, but it is open to the Government to look behind the contractual position and actively compensate these people in full. Is that something that the Minister will consider?
Before we look at wider compensation, I want first to understand and make sure that we can learn the lessons and find out exactly what happened and when. This happened over a 20-year period and we need to unwind those 20 years, but we want to do that as quickly as possible so that we can get a timely response and justice for those people, rather than waiting for the three, four or five years that a statutory inquiry might take.
The Minister said that this was a landmark judgment; I just wonder what it is going to take for the Government actually to take action. People’s lives were ruined. People went to prison. People took their own lives. Surely the way forward now is, first, for the Government to put in place a compensation for all those who lost something. The hon. Member for Broadland (Jerome Mayhew) just made a good point: it was the Government and the Post Office that spent £100 million of taxpayers’ money basically to bankrupt people so that they had to settle.
What is actually needed is a judicial inquiry, because the toothless inquiry that the Minister has set up will not have any powers to force people to give evidence. Without that, we are not going to get to the truth, because the guilty people need to be exposed. I know that the Minister has said he is trying but, alas, I have dealt with numerous Ministers over the past 10 years and I think his name is going to be added to the board of useless Ministers we have seen dealing with this issue over the past few years. We need action now, Minister, not more words.
The right hon. Gentleman talks about unpicking something that happened over 20 years and describes a landmark judgment, then expects it to be dealt with within three days. That belies the complexity and depth of the situation. The decisions on Post Office Ltd’s litigation strategy were taken by the Post Office. The Government were not party to the litigation; they monitored the situation and challenged the approach taken by the Post Office.
The right hon. Gentleman also talks about the fact that the non-statutory inquiry led by Sir Wyn Williams cannot compel people to give evidence, but at the moment everybody is participating in that inquiry. If that changes, obviously our view will change.
I welcome this decision and thank and congratulate the postmasters who led the campaign to right this wrong. What more can be done to prevent a similar miscarriage of justice from occurring in future? Will the Minister join me in thanking the postal workers in Redcar and Cleveland for their hard work throughout the pandemic?
My hon. Friend works tirelessly for his constituents in Redcar and Cleveland. It is right that he highlights the future prospects of the Post Office and its role and social value moving forward. That is why we need to get the answers now, so that we can not only give the former sub-postmasters justice but draw a line to prove and demonstrate that lessons have been learned and that this can never happen again.
The wrongful conviction of the sub-postmasters is one of the biggest miscarriages of justice in British legal history. Post Office bosses aggressively prosecuted workers in spite of full knowledge that the Horizon data system was unreliable and that many convictions were unsafe. People’s lives were ruined, with some tragically passing away before their names were cleared. To get the answers that workers deserve and hold to account those who were responsible for this injustice, will the Government heed the Communication Workers Union’s call for a proper public inquiry into what happened, put it on a statutory footing and give it the necessary powers to compel witnesses and require them to give evidence under oath?
I refer the hon. Lady to the answer I gave a moment ago.