House of Commons
Wednesday 19 May 2021
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Virtual participation in proceedings commenced (Orders, 4 June and 30 December 2020).
[NB: [V] denotes a Member participating virtually.]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
Connectivity and Infrastructure within Wales and Cross-border
From the castles of north Wales to the pleasure beach in my constituency, popular tourist attractions across north Wales and the north-west of England will host thousands of visitors this summer as people choose to holiday here in the UK rather than abroad. In order to support tourism and economic growth, it is vital that we strengthen transport links between those regions, so does my right hon. Friend agree that delivering on our manifesto pledge to upgrade the notoriously congested A55 must remain an absolute priority?
I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that question, and he is right. I have visited the area quite a bit recently and seen exactly the challenges ahead. It is a manifesto commitment. We visited with the Transport Secretary. That is very much in our sights, and we hope to have some good news about it in the foreseeable future.
My Italian forefathers always understood the importance of sunshine, sandy beaches and full-bodied, gorgeous ice cream, but for those who live in Dudley, the nearest beach is in Wales, and access is almost mission impossible. What can my right hon. Friend do to improve the wellbeing of my constituents by improving access to these basic rights?
Sadly, we cannot move Dudley, but what we can do is progress the Union connectivity review and strengthen the links. I know my hon. Friend’s part of the world very well. Of course, the cross-border holidaying and other activity between the west midlands and Wales is well known, and we want to improve it. That is exactly what the review is about, because we know that brings not only gratification to the residents of Dudley, but economic prosperity to both areas.
Diolch yn fawr, Llefarydd. The Wales Governance Centre has calculated that, were Wales to be treated like Scotland in relation to HS2 and rail funding, we would be over half a billion pounds better off. Only 1.26% of the firms in the HS2 supply chain are Welsh and we know that, when HS2 is complete, it will take £200 million out of the south Wales economy alone. In the Secretary of State’s opinion, what percentage of HS2 supply chain firms should be based in Wales—or is he happy for his Government to continue to short-change Wales?
I am glad that the right hon. Lady has recognised the relevance of HS2 in shortening journey times; indeed, the journey from her own constituency to London will benefit from the improvements that we are recommending—and that were included in the recent Queen’s Speech, for that matter. There will be shorter journey times, but there will also be numerous opportunities for businesses in Wales to be part of the supply chain, not only in the construction period but thereafter. I hope that what she has actually pointed out is how her party, in her area, is going to warmly embrace that major infrastructure scheme, which will benefit Wales, whichever part of it people live in.
A percentage would be nice, and an increase would be most welcome, given the effect that it will have.
In another area, Welsh-language TV channel S4C has seen a 36% real-terms cut since 2010, and there are now concerns that it will receive a flat cash settlement in the next licence fee round. S4C requires only a modest £10 million per annum of additional investment and the retention of CPI-linked annual increases in licence fee funding to remain competitive with the already advantaged BBC and, essentially, to reach audiences on new digital platforms. Will the Secretary of State work with the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport to ensure additional investment for S4C so that the channel is treated with equivalence to the BBC and, equally or more important, it is viable into the future?
I am grateful to the right hon. Lady for raising the cultural and linguistic significance of S4C, not least because it is headquartered in my constituency. I have a very warm relationship with all the individuals who have been making their case very powerfully to Members across the House in the last few months. I can confirm to her that the Wales Office has of course made some very strong submissions to DCMS. The decision has yet to be made, but I urge her and other colleagues to continue to do that. We recognise the importance of this and we want very much to get to a speedy and correct conclusion.
One of the ways in which the Government could improve transport connectivity is by figuring out what they are doing with their much-lauded levelling-up fund. Given the performance of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and Housing, Communities and Local Government Ministers at the BEIS Committee yesterday, which can be described as confused at best—not knowing how the fund will work, how it will be delivered or whether funding will continue into levels 2 and 3—can the Secretary of State confirm that there will be funding available for the second and third funding bids, and that it will be at the same level promised by Ministers just at the beginning of this year? Will he also commit to a further meeting with all Welsh MPs of all parties and MHCLG officials, so that they can clarify the confusing situation for those Members who have more than one county in their constituency and constituents do not lose out on this much-promised money?
Certainly as far as meetings are concerned, I am more than happy to confirm that we will put those in the diary. Whether they are with the MHCLG or others is a matter for discussion. I am very happy to do that; we have done it on a number of issues. I have found that to be quite a constructive and collaborative experience.
As far as the levelling-up fund is concerned, this is, at the end of the day, a good news story. I recognise that there are lessons to be learned from year one, but the levelling-up fund, in whatever shape or form we like to describe it, is here to stay. I am very keen to hear the lessons from the hon. Member, his local authorities and other stakeholders on how we can make it even better than it already is in years two and three.
The House only needs to look at the £16 million recently given to Meritor in Cwmbran, or the £30 million given to Celsa at the beginning of the pandemic, to see our commitment to Welsh manufacturing. The Government have provided over £11.35 billion in direct and indirect support for businesses in Wales to tackle the pandemic.
The news in recent days that the Serious Fraud Office has launched an investigation into Liberty Steel will be really concerning for workers in Newport and Tredegar, and for all of us who want to see a rescue deal. However, given that global steel production is actually increasing, the industry can clearly be viable and it is, of course, critical to our supply chain infrastructure for so many industries. May I therefore urge the Government to come forward in the next few days with a clear plan and to confirm that they will do whatever it takes, including the option of public ownership, to secure UK domestic steel capacity and the jobs they support, including in my constituency of Warwick and Leamington?
I am sure the hon. Member will understand if I do not get drawn into any questions about Liberty, particularly given the case he mentions, but I hope he will be reassured by the fact that my earlier reference to Celsa—we were able to step in at short notice and help a company for exactly the reasons that he rightly points out—is a demonstration of exactly how committed we are to a sustainable steel industry in Wales.
Way back in 2012, in the good old days, the Conservative-led Government promised to build a western rail link to Heathrow that would benefit not only my Slough constituents, but the many Welsh businesses and families who would have a shorter, more direct route to our major national transport hub. So can the Secretary of State tell us when we can finally expect work to begin on that line? Can he also guarantee that Welsh and other UK steel manufacturers will be at the front of the queue when the line is being built?
I would be a beneficiary of that line, so I am with the hon. Member in terms of our ambition to always try to improve on our infrastructure links. It is good for the economy and particularly good for the supply chain economy, as he rightly points out. Plenty of businesses in Wales could benefit from that. I hope the recent announcement on procurement in the Queen’s Speech will give him and others encouragement that we are taking that extremely seriously.
North Wales is part of an integrated cross-border economy that stretches from Wrexham and Flintshire to my constituency on the banks of the Mersey. Covid-19 has devasted key local manufacturers across the area, including the Vauxhall car plant in Ellesmere Port and many companies located in the Deeside enterprise zone. Can the Secretary of State inform the House what steps the Government are taking to expedite the proposed Mersey Dee Alliance fiscal stimulus package, which will help manufacturers across north-east Wales and the Wirral to build back better and greener in the wake of this terrible pandemic?
I hope I can give the hon. Gentleman some encouragement. We are enthusiastic about the Mersey Dee Alliance and everything it stands for. We are keen to continue to work with it, looking at ways of recognising that the economic area stretches way beyond the geographical borders of Wales and England—we absolutely recognise that point. We are determined to make sure we get further progress and deliver on some of the commitments we made on manufacturing and other industries in Deeside that he referred to.
The Port Talbot and Bridgend area could lend itself fantastically to the establishment of the UK Government’s first freeport in Wales, creating up to 15,000 jobs in the process. Does my right hon. Friend have an update on this initiative in Wales, and can he confirm whether the UK Government will start the freeport process alone if the Welsh Government continue to ignore this fantastic opportunity?
My hon. Friend is right to point out how enthusiastically the freeport scheme has been welcomed across the whole of Wales, and it is a source of some frustration that we have yet to get it over the line. He is right to ask whether we could do that. Clearly, we would like to do it in collaboration with the Welsh Government, which is where the blockage currently resides, but we can and, if necessary, will proceed to deliver on our manifesto commitment come what may.
Trade agreements with other countries can provide new opportunities to promote our excellent Welsh manufacturers around the world, but we must ensure that these deals do not end up undercutting our industries in the process. The Welsh Automotive Forum has said that current trading arrangements between the UK and Europe are leading to disruption to Welsh companies due to new checks on imports and rules of origin, and I have heard that from local companies in Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney, too. What has the Secretary of State done personally to address this and will he guarantee that Welsh agricultural producers do not lose out from the proposed deal with Australia?
We have regular meetings with the automotive sector, and with stakeholders, the supply chain and others, to try to ascertain exactly what the issues are and how they can be speedily resolved, so we are engaged on that level. As for the rumours about the Australia free trade agreement, I should point out that no deal has been done, but if and when it is done, it will include protections for the agricultural industry and it will not undercut UK farmers or compromise our high standards.
Covid-19: Financial Support
In the last year, the Government have provided £7.4 billion of additional support through the welfare system for people affected by covid-19, including the £20 a week increase in universal credit. I have regular discussions with my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer about financial support for Wales, and I was able to personally congratulate him a few weeks ago on the outstanding Budget that he delivered for Wales and the UK.
But more than a year has now passed since ExcludedUK was first mentioned in this place and still nothing has been done to support the millions of people across the UK who have seen their livelihoods decimated by the pandemic and who have not received a penny of support from this UK Government. The Secretary of State and the Minister mentions that they have met the Chancellor, but what representations have they made to him on behalf of Welsh people who have been excluded from support by his Government?
In addition to the £7.4 billion of additional support through the welfare system, the UK Government provided the Welsh Government with an extra £8.6 billion-worth of support, and the Welsh Government were free to use that in any way they wished. They were free to give it out to local authorities and allow them to make grants to anyone who had been badly affected, so we completely acknowledge that people have suffered as a result of the pandemic. That is why there was £8.6 billion of support for the Welsh Government, why Welsh businesses received £2.75 billion of support and why we supported 466,000 Welsh workers through the furlough scheme.
Families across Wales will have appreciated the recent easing of covid restrictions, made possible, of course, by First Minister Mark Drakeford’s cautious, evidence-driven approach, but rising concerns about new variants of coronavirus remind us that the pandemic has not gone away. The vast majority of people want to play their part to keep us all safe, but the UK Government’s failure to increase statutory sick pay is forcing many on low incomes to choose between going to work to support their families or staying at home to keep us safe. What pressure can the Minister bring to bear on the Chancellor to put that right?
I am sure that the hon. Lady would acknowledge that Mr Drakeford has been able to work very closely with the UK Government because he has been present at all the Cobra meetings and Welsh Government Ministers have been present at all the ministerial implementation group meetings, very much as part of a joint approach towards tackling the pandemic. The Chancellor and Prime Minister have always been clear that people will suffer as a result of the pandemic. We have not been able to help everyone, but we have, as I said, provided an extra £8.6 billion for the Welsh Government, £2.75 billion for Welsh businesses and supported 466,000 Welsh workers on furlough—plus the mortgage holidays, the cuts in VAT and the cuts in business rates. In Wales alone, we have already created 5,000 extra jobs through the kickstart scheme.
On a different matter, without delving into the chaos of this Government’s foreign travel policy, the reality for many airlines is that this summer will be nowhere near a return to normal. The whole aviation sector faces irreparable harm. We have already seen Welsh jobs lost in the sector and Aerospace Wales has warned that thousands more are on the line. What sector-specific financial support will the Government provide to the aviation industry in Wales to get it through yet another difficult summer and ensure that it has a strong future?
I very much welcome the hon. Lady’s support for the airline industry. Her stated view that we should get people back on to planes and flying around as much as possibly is in stark contrast to the extreme environmental view, which some people in her party seem to take, that nobody should ever get on a plane.
I can assure the hon. Lady that we meet the airline industry regularly; I spoke to the aerospace trade body about 10 days ago and met Airbus online a few days ago. We have not taken up sector-specific support, because the UK Government believe that we should be able to go out there and help all businesses that have been affected by the pandemic. That is why we have already put down £2.7 billion for Welsh businesses, which I hope she will welcome.
Research by the Centre for Progressive Policy has shown that UK Government covid emergency support was, on average, £1,000 more generous to London residents than to those in Wales, and that the UK Government spent nearly £7 billion more on London than if each nation and region of the UK had been allocated the same emergency spending per resident. What explanation has the Minister been given by his Cabinet colleagues for that discrepancy?
The fact of the matter is that the money has gone to those in need in all parts of the United Kingdom. I have already mentioned the £8.75 billion extra that went to the Welsh Government, the £2.7 billion for Welsh businesses and the 466,000 Welsh workers who were supported through the furlough scheme—to be honest, I really welcome these questions, because they give me an opportunity to spell out the huge support that the Government have delivered for Wales. UK-wide, the UK Government have spent £280 billion supporting people across the whole United Kingdom. With the greatest respect to the hon. Gentleman, I do not think that an independent Wales would have been able to manage that level of support.
British Made Goods: Public Sector Contracts
Last week’s Queen’s Speech announced legislation on procurement that will increase flexibility for contracting authorities and reduce bureaucracy, which will simplify procurement in the public sector and help support British businesses. I very much hope that the Welsh Government will join us in further supporting Welsh companies.
The Minister will be aware that the Department for Transport is spending billions on its programme to decarbonise transport, but it does not seem so interested in building our green manufacturing capacity. Does he share my concern at recent reports of Welsh councils buying green buses not from British firms, but from China? Will he hold urgent discussions with councils, Government and the Transport Secretary in London to demand that taxpayer-funded green subsidies support British industry and British jobs?
I am absolutely delighted that the right hon. Gentleman recognises that this Government are spending billions of pounds on supporting green industries; he is absolutely right. I do not know which specific councils he means, but I know that Newport City Council, a Labour council, recently bought some electric buses; I have no idea where from, but if he has a problem with how the council is conducting procurement, perhaps he would like to discuss it with some of his Labour colleagues. He will certainly know that we have to abide by the World Trade Organisation treaty agreement. I do not suppose that he is advising me to break our international treaty obligations, but if he is, I look forward to hearing more about it.
Strength of the Union: 2021 Senedd Election
The results of the recent elections clearly show that a majority of voters in Wales—and in Scotland, actually—voted for pro-Unionist parties. It is clear that voters in Wales want the freedom to study, work, live and travel freely between England and Wales without a border.
My right hon. Friend has been in this House for many years and has a great deal of wisdom. He makes an important point. We are united by a shared love of the Union, our United Kingdom and the firm belief that we are stronger together than apart—[Interruption.]
This fiscal settlement delivers for Wales. This year, the Welsh Government will receive almost £19 billion of block grant funding, which is £1 billion more than was agreed with the Welsh Labour Government as being a fair settlement for Wales.
The fiscal settlement will not matter all that much if the possible trade deal with Australia goes through with a zero-tariff regime, which would cause serious difficulties for Welsh and, indeed, Scottish farmers. What compensation for those farmers is being built into the fiscal settlement, should this latest gung-ho trade deal scupper their livelihoods?
No trade deal has been signed yet, but yesterday I was on a call with National Farmers Union representatives, who said that they welcomed the principle of a trade deal. They have a few concerns about some of the details, and we will continue our discussions with the NFU and with farmers. But I am surprised at the hon. Lady, who I think was in favour of having a free trade deal with the European Union. Why would she not want to have a free trade deal with a country with which we all—and she and I personally—have very close links indeed?
Economy in Wales: 2021 Senedd Election
I say to my hon. Friend:
“Anybody who thinks this is a good idea should knock some doors of Labour voters in working families. It might sound radical to academics and ‘policy wonks’ but it sounds out of touch if you ask most normal people.”
Those are not my words, but the words of the new Minister for the Economy in the Welsh Government, so it seems that they have a problem in their own ranks, let alone trying to persuade us of the merits of it.
Does the Secretary of State accept that it is Mark Drakeford’s superb stewardship of the Welsh economy and the Welsh NHS that has secured Mark’s overwhelming re-election? Will he welcome the Welsh Labour Government’s new 10-year infrastructure investment plan for a zero-carbon economy and release the promised UK Government funding for the global centre of rail excellence to be built in my Neath constituency?
There were many questions included in that, but I am delighted to have played a part in getting the global centre of rail excellence situated in the hon. Lady’s constituency. That was a Government announcement by the Chancellor in the Budget, and it shows that collaboration can work when we try to achieve these aims. As far as covid reaction is concerned, that has been a team effort and a cross-UK effort. The vaccination programme is probably the clearest indication of why the Union matters and how we have been able to work collaboratively with our colleagues in the Welsh Government to deliver something that genuinely benefits the entire nation.
Discussions with the Welsh Government since 2021 Senedd Election
My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister spoke with the First Minister shortly after the election result. I have extended an invitation to meet the new Minister for the Economy. We have had calls with the First Minister and the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster last week, and another one is due this evening.
The recent elections demonstrated that the vast majority of voters in Wales have no time for independence. They have little time for ripping up the devolution settlement either. What the elections showed is that they want their politicians and Ministers at either end of the M4 to work together to make good things happen for Wales, and to make Wales a stronger and more prosperous part of the UK. Given that the success of the vaccination programme shows that this can be done, what needs to happen now to unblock other important policies such as freeports, which are stuck between the UK and Welsh Governments?
My right hon. Friend is spot on; we have had considerable, really enthusiastic interest in the freeport programme from across the whole of Wales—it will bring 15,000 jobs and it is a manifesto commitment—and the only obstacle standing between us and delivering it is currently the Welsh Government. I am determined to work collaboratively, as we have said before, to get this over the line, and any pressure that anybody in this House can bring to bear to help us achieve that will be very welcome.
The Prime Minister was asked—
Last week, an inquest found Francis Quinn, Father Hugh Mullan, Noel Phillips, Joan Connolly, Daniel Teggart, Joseph Murphy, Edward Doherty, John Laverty, Joseph Corr and John McKerr, who were killed in Ballymurphy in August 1971, entirely innocent. On behalf of successive Governments, and to put this on the record in this House, I would like to say sorry to their families for how the investigations were handled and for the pain they have endured since their campaign began almost five decades ago. No apology can lessen their lasting pain. I hope they may take some comfort in the answers they have secured and in knowing that this has renewed the Government’s determination to ensure in future that other families can find answers with less distress and delay.
This morning, I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in this House, I shall have further such meetings later today.
I strongly associate myself with the earlier part of the Prime Minister’ comments. May I raise something slightly different though? It is nearly four years since the Grenfell Tower tragedy claimed some 72 lives, yet hundreds of thousands of families still live in unsafe, unsellable homes, and many leaseholders face crippling debts, through no fault of their own—Trident Point, Pearmain House and Amber Court are all in my constituency. Given that this was the biggest building scandal in modern UK history, why did the Prime Minister order his MPs to vote down our efforts yesterday to get this scandal sorted once and for all?
I in no way underestimate the suffering of the victims of Grenfell or of those whose buildings—whose homes—have been prejudiced by the spectre of unsafe materials. That is why we have provided an unprecedented £5 billion of investment, and I can also tell the hon. Gentleman that the most dangerous cladding is already gone or is going from all high-rise buildings. We certainly agree that leaseholders should be protected from remediation costs, and people in high-rise buildings will pay nothing to replace their unsafe cladding.
I can understand the feelings of frustration that the people of Havering may have about a current Mayor of London who does not understand the needs of outer London and is not investing in outer London in the way that a previous Mayor did—I seem to recall that they set up the outer London fund and drove through many other benefits for the outer boroughs. However, I must tell my hon. Friend in all candour that what we need to do is work together to ensure that that glad day returns when we have a Mayor who truly represents all Londoners.
I welcome the Prime Minister’s comments on the Ballymurphy inquest and the sentiment behind them.
Does the Prime Minister agree that the single biggest threat to hitting the 21 June date for unlocking is the risk of new variants coming into the UK?
I certainly think that that is one of the issues that we must face, but perhaps it would be of benefit to the House if I update it on where we are, because we have looked at the data again this morning. I can tell the House that we have increasing confidence that vaccines are effective against all variants, including the Indian variant. In this context, I want particularly to thank the people of Bolton, Blackburn and many other places who have been coming forward in record numbers to get vaccinated—to get their first and second jabs. I think that the numbers have doubled in Bolton alone, and the people of this country can be proud of their participation.
I think that is a yes: that the risk of other variants coming through our borders is one of the biggest threats to unlocking. We are not just talking about the Indian variant; we are talking about future variants. In those circumstances, why on Monday did the Prime Minister choose to weaken travel restrictions by moving 170 countries or territories to the amber list?
We have one of the strongest border regimes anywhere in the world. There are currently 43 countries on the red list. Everybody should know that if they travel to an amber list country for any emergency or any extreme reason that they have for doing so, when they come back they have not only to pay for all the tests, but to self-isolate for 10 days. We will invigilate that; we are invigilating that. People who fail to obey the quarantine can face fines of up to £10,000.
I think everybody would agree that, having moved 170 countries to the amber list, absolute clarity is needed about the circumstances in which people can travel to an amber country. Yesterday morning, the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said that people could fly to amber list countries if they wanted to visit family or friends. By the afternoon, a Health Minister said that nobody should travel outside Britain this year, and that, “Travelling is dangerous.” The Prime Minister said that travel to amber countries should be only where it is essential. By the evening, the Welsh Secretary suggested that
“some people might think a holiday is essential”.
The Government have lost control of the messaging. Can the Prime Minister answer a really simple question that goes to the heart of this? If he does not want people to travel to amber list countries, if that is his position, why has he made it easier for them to do so?
I think that, after more than a year of this, the right hon. and learned Gentleman will understand that what the public would like to see is some effort to back up what the Government are saying to deliver clarity of message. On his point about legal bans, as he knows, we are trying to move away from endlessly legislating on everything and to rely on guidance and asking people to do the right thing. It is very, very clear, Mr Speaker: you should not be going to an amber list country except for some extreme circumstance, such as the serious illness of a family member. You should not be going to an amber list country on holiday. I can imagine that the right hon. and learned Gentleman wants to take a holiday, but he should not be going to an amber list country on holiday. If people do go to an amber list country then, as I say, we will enforce the 10-day quarantine period. If they break the rules, they face very substantial fines.
That completely swerves the question. The point was that, if it is only in “extreme circumstances” —the Prime Minister’s words—why make it easier to go? Let us test it by looking at the consequences. Since the Government loosened travel restrictions, 150 flights a day are going to amber list countries and travel agents are reporting surges in holiday bookings to those countries. Prime Minister, this is not just a coincidence; it is because of the messaging. Can he tell the House how many people are now travelling to and from Britain from amber list countries every day?
I can tell the House that there has been a 95% reduction in travel of any kind to and from this country, and that is exactly what we would expect in the circumstances of this pandemic. There are 43 countries on the red list, and if people come back from one of those countries, they have to go immediately into hotel quarantine. The reason we are able to move forward in the way that we have been is because, as I have told the House repeatedly, we are continuing with the fastest vaccination roll-out, I think, just about anywhere in Europe. As of today, 70% of adults in this country have been vaccinated. That is a fantastic achievement, which is enabling us to make the progress that we are.
I think that’s an “I don’t know”. The suggestion that in the last few days there has been a 95% drop-off in travel to amber list countries does not hold water. I am trying to understand the logic of the Government’s position. We know that new variants are the single biggest risk to unlocking. We know that the Government do not think that people should travel to amber list countries, save for in extreme circumstances, but the Government have made it easier to do so. The messaging is confused and contradictory. As a result, this week many people are now travelling to amber list countries, but the Government cannot say how many or when. We are an island nation; we have the power to stop this. Why does the Prime Minister not drop this hopeless system, get control of our borders and introduce a proper system that can protect against the threat of future variants of the virus?
Actually, I think what would be helpful—I have set out the position on amber list countries very clearly at least twice; wouldn’t it be great to hear the right hon. and learned Gentleman backing it up for a change and using what authority he possesses to convey the message to the rest of the country? The Labour position on borders is hopelessly confused. Last night, I think, the shadow Home Secretary said that Labour wanted to cut this country off from the rest of the world—to pause all travel, even though 75% of our medicines and 50% of our food actually come from abroad. It was only recently that the Leader of the Opposition was saying that quarantine was a “blunt instrument” and he would rather see alternatives.
The Prime Minister is just wrong again; we have called for a blanket hotel quarantine for months. I have raised it here at Prime Minister’s questions three times. The Government ignored it every time and look where we are now, talking about the Indian variant.
The Prime Minister’s former adviser had this one right. He said that the Government’s border policy was a “joke”. Our borders have been wide open pretty well throughout the pandemic. [Interruption.] For those who say that is not true, there was no hotel quarantine system in place until February this year. Flights are still coming in from India, and even as the variant is spreading the Prime Minister decides that now is the time to weaken the system even more. It is ridiculous.
Finally, I want to raise the appalling rise in antisemitism in the last week, and the attacks and violence that we have seen. On Saturday, a rabbi in Chigwell was hospitalised after being attacked outside his synagogue. Many of us will have seen the appalling incident in Golders Green. The Community Security Trust reports a 500% rise in antisemitic incidents since the outbreak of violence in Gaza and Israel. I know that the Government are working on this, and both the Prime Minister and I have condemned these antisemitic attacks and violence, but across this House we all know that Jewish communities remain very anxious. What more does the Prime Minister think can be done to provide the extra support and protection needed to reassure Jewish communities at this really very difficult time?
I share the right hon. and learned Gentleman’s horror at the outbreak of antisemitic incidents. The Government have conveyed that message loud and clear to those who are responsible for enforcing the law against hate crime of that kind. Obviously, we will continue to work and support the Jewish community in any way that we can, particularly by working with the Community Safety Trust, which does an absolutely outstanding job, but also by showing, as a country and as a society, that we will call this out at every stage. We will not let it take root; we will not allow it to grow and fester. In welcoming his remarks, I may say that I believe it is one of the most important changes of attitude —or U-turns, I should say—that I have seen from the Labour party in recent times. I am delighted that he is taking that attitude now. But what this country wants to see is a Government who get on with delivering on the people’s priorities, making everybody safe. It might have been a good thing if he had voted—and got his party to vote—for tougher sentences against serious and violent sexual offenders, to say nothing of people who commit hate crime.
Yes, and I thank my hon. Friend, who is a great advocate for the people of Cheadle. As part of our plan to move from jabs, jabs, jabs to jobs, jobs, jobs, I am delighted to say that over £1 billion-worth of Government-funded science and innovation projects are currently taking place across the north-west, thanks largely, or at least in part, to her advocacy.
May I thank the Prime Minister for his comments on the Ballymurphy inquest?
As a member of Scotland’s crofter community, I understand just how disastrous a Brexit trade deal with Australia, as proposed by this Tory Government, would be for Scotland’s farming and crofting sectors. If reports of this Tory deal were true, farmers will lose their livelihoods, rural businesses will collapse, and ultimately families will be driven off the land. Let us be very clear: if that happens, this UK Tory Government will be solely responsible. Just for once, will the Prime Minister give a straight answer to the farming and crofting families who are living with this threat? Can he categorically rule out his Government being prepared to sign up to a trade deal that will at any future point guarantee tariff-free access to Australian lamb and beef—yes or no?
I am delighted to see the shots of the right hon. Gentleman’s croft, by the way—the humble representative of the crofting community. I do not think that he does justice to crofters and to farmers across the country, and in Scotland as well, because he grossly underestimates their ability to do great things with our free trade deals and to export Scottish beef around the world. Why does he not believe in what the people of Scotland can do? Why is he so frightened of free trade? I think it is a massive opportunity for Scotland and for the whole of the UK, and he should seize it and be proud of it.
That was quite chilling. To try to treat something as serious as this in the way that the Government and the Prime Minister have done is really quite pathetic. The fact that the Prime Minister could not give a straight answer will send a real chill across Scotland’s farming communities. The UK Government led the betrayal of Scottish fishing and now the Tories are planning to throw our farmers and crofters under the Brexit bus. This morning Martin Kennedy, president of National Farmers Union Scotland, told ITV that farmers will feel “seriously betrayed” by these proposals. This deal would be the final nail in the coffin for many Scottish crofters and farmers. It will end a way of life that has endured for generations—generations, Prime Minister. I know that many of the Prime Minister’s Tory colleagues privately agree with me and want him to pull back from this deal. Will the Prime Minister finally listen, think again, and ditch a deal that will send our farmers down under?
First, the right hon. Gentleman is totally wrong in what he says about the fisheries. In fact, there are massive opportunities for fisheries in the whole of the UK as we take back control of our territorial waters. That will be the same for Scotland and around the UK. Again he is grossly underestimating the ability of the people of this country, the agricultural communities of this country and the farming industry to make the most of free trade. This is a country that became successful and grew prosperous on free trade and exporting around the world. Our food exports are second to none. He should be proud of that and he should be celebrating that. All he does is call for us to pull up the drawbridge and go back into the EU to be run by Brussels. That is his manifesto, and I think the people of this country have decisively rejected it.
I thank my hon. Friend very much, and she is totally right. It is part of our levelling up. We are absolutely determined to do that as fast as we possibly can, and I thank her for her message about it this morning. We are not just sending back offices; some of the most important Departments of State will be run from around our great cities and towns in the whole of the UK. I believe that will have a dramatic effect on levelling up across the UK, and I thank her for her question.
Local planning reforms introduced by Liberal Democrat Ministers have seen communities across England vote for new developments, including new housing, new affordable housing and new community facilities, while also protecting the environment and the countryside. Why therefore is the Prime Minister so determined to push through his planning reforms, which will do nothing to solve the country’s real housing crisis and will allow developers to ride roughshod over local communities? The reforms will mean, in the words of his immediate predecessor as Prime Minister,
“the wrong homes being built in the wrong places.”—[Official Report, 11 May 2021; Vol. 695, c. 39.]
The right hon. Gentleman is completely wrong, and he should look at the Bill when it comes forward, because we want to protect the green belt. We want to protect our wonderful open spaces. This is a Government who understand the value of the countryside and rural Britain, but we also think that young people have been deprived for too long of the ability to get on to the housing ladder. That is not just in the south-east, but across the country, and that is why we are bringing forward sensible reforms to allow brownfield sites to go ahead.
I will back Britain’s farmers and Welsh farmers in exporting their fantastic lamb around the world. Is it not a disgrace that not a single morsel of Welsh lamb has passed the lips of the Americans in the past 20 years or more? What about China? Has the hon. Gentleman no ambition for the people of this country, the people of Wales or Welsh farmers? I do, and this Government do, and that is why we are getting on with our agenda.
It says here that I must not express a preference on the location of freeports, and I will not, but my hon. Friend makes an outstanding case, as ever. Together with our Welsh Conservative colleagues, she is helping to apply the Vicks inhaler to the bunged-up nostrils of the Welsh dragon.
I totally reject what the hon. Gentleman just said. I notice that, actually, the Scottish National party did less well than it did under Alex Salmond in 2011—I hesitate to point that out to the hon. Gentleman, but that is the reality. I think the reason for that is that, notwithstanding the nationalist approach that he takes, the people of Scotland have been very disappointed by the record of the Scottish Government in fighting crime, improving education and making Scotland a great place to live and to invest. That is the failing for which his Government are being held to account.
The House will have understood from my opening apology how difficult, how complex and how fraught these issues are, but we are committed to introducing legislation in this Session to address the legacy of the troubles in Northern Ireland, to introducing a fair package for veterans and to protecting them, as I have said many times before, from unfair, vexatious litigation when no new evidence has been brought forward.
We are putting £2 billion into the kickstart programme for 18 to 24-year-olds and investing massively in the restart programme for those who have been longer out of work. I can also tell the hon. Gentleman that the businesses I talk to are currently facing shortages of workers in many sectors, and we will work flat out to ensure that we get those who want jobs to those who need workers.
My hon. Friend is spot on in what he says about the need for an offshore grid. As well as building the fantastic windmills, it is vital that we bring the energy onshore in a way that has minimal disruption for local communities and enables us to maximise efficiency.
I think the whole House acknowledges our collective debt to the nurses of the NHS, and I certainly acknowledge my own huge personal debt. That is why, of all the professions in this country in very tough times, we have asked the public sector pay review board to look at an increase in pay for nurses, but in the meantime we have increased starting salary for nurses by 12.8%, and we have put in the bursary worth £5,000—we have restored that—as well as £3,000 for extra help.
But above all, to all nurses—and I know what a tough year they have had, I know how hard it has been on the frontline coping with this pandemic—we have done what I think is the most important thing of all, and that is to recruit many more nurses. There are now about 11,000 more nurses in the NHS today than there were this time last year, and there are 60,000 more in training, and we are on target to reach our target of 50,000 more nurses in the NHS.
Yes. I thank my hon. Friend for his point, and he knows a great deal about the subject. We have worked very hard with the Welsh Government throughout the pandemic, supporting them with £8.6 billion of additional funding through the Barnett formula, but clearly we need to learn the lessons together as we bounce forward from this pandemic.
Yes is the answer, but the Labour party junked it in—[Interruption.] This is something that, for decades, politicians have failed to address: in 1999, Labour failed to address the plan. They had 13 years—13 years—in government. I think it was 13—13 unlucky years for this country—and they did not do it. They did not do it, and this Government are going to tackle it. This Government are finally going to address the issue of social care. If they want to support it with their customary doughty resolve, if they want to support it without wibble-wobbling from one week to the next on whatever their policy is—without changing like weather vanes, which is what they normally do—if they want to support it and if they want to back it, then I am all ears.
Yes. That is why we are investing, for instance, £3.6 million from the getting building fund for the development of Pioneer Place, and Burnley will also benefit from our high streets taskforce, but what Burnley and towns across the country need more than anything else is passionate leadership, such as my hon. Friend shows, in championing their localities and getting the right investment in.
The Prime Minister will be aware of Pladis’s proposal to close the McVitie’s factory in Glasgow’s east end, placing at risk 470 jobs. So will he join me in engaging with Pladis’s global CEO, Salman Amin, and call upon him to rethink his plans, which would definitely unleash economic armageddon on a very fragile part of the local economy?
McVitie’s has been a proud part of the Scottish economy since 1800, and I know that people at the Tollcross factory and their relatives will be very concerned about what is happening. I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising it. I know that conversations are now going on to see what we can do. I think it is the Turkish company that now owns McVitie’s, and I know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland is meeting the hon. Gentleman to discuss the situation.
Israel and Gaza: Ceasefire
Since I was last at the Dispatch Box on 13 May, we have sadly seen further violence and more civilian deaths. I am sure the House will join me in offering condolences to all the families of those civilians who have been killed or injured across Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories.
Mr Speaker, with your permission I will set out to the House the work that the Government are doing, along with others, to bring about a peaceful resolution. We are urging the parties to work with mediators towards an immediate ceasefire to prevent further loss of life and a worsening humanitarian situation. We are supporting United Nations, Egyptian and Qatari efforts to that end, and we work closely with the United States.
We are also prioritising our own diplomatic efforts through both bilateral and multilateral channels. The Foreign Secretary and I, with the support of our diplomats on the ground, have been working to progress the conditions needed for an immediate ceasefire. The Foreign Secretary has spoken in recent days with the Israeli Foreign Minister and the Palestinian Prime Minister; he reinforced our clear message of de-escalation and our desire to work together to end the violence. I delivered similar messages to the Israeli ambassador and the Palestinian head of mission in London.
We have also engaged regional partners at ministerial level. The Foreign Secretary spoke with the Foreign Minister of Jordan on 17 May and just this morning I spoke with a number of ambassadors from Arab states to reiterate the need for an immediate ceasefire, and I underlined our shared goal of a peaceful two-state solution. We are playing a leadership role in the United Nations Security Council, where we are calling for measures by all sides to reduce further violence. We will participate in the emergency UN General Assembly session later this week.
The UK unequivocally condemns the firing of rockets at Jerusalem and other locations within Israel. We strongly condemn these acts of terrorism by Hamas and other terrorist groups, who must permanently end their incitement and rocket fire against Israel. There is no justification for the targeting of civilians.
Israel has a legitimate right to self-defence and to defend its citizens from attack. In doing so, it is vital that all actions are proportionate, in line with international humanitarian law and make every effort to avoid civilian casualties. We are aware of medical institutions, a number of schools and many homes in Gaza that have been destroyed or seriously damaged, and we are concerned that buildings housing media and humanitarian organisations such as Qatar Red Crescent have been destroyed. We call on Israel to adhere to the principles of necessity and proportionality when defending its legitimate security interests.
We are also concerned by reports that Hamas is once again using civilian infrastructure and populations as a cover for its military operations. Humanitarian access is essential, and we urge all parties to allow the unimpeded entry of vital humanitarian supplies. Hamas and other terrorist groups must cease their mortar attacks on these crossings. We urge all parties to work together to reduce tensions in the west bank, including East Jerusalem. The UK is clear that the historic status quo in Jerusalem must be respected. Violence against peaceful worshippers of any faith is unacceptable.
The UK position on evictions, demolitions and settlements is clear and long-standing: we oppose these activities. We urge the Government of Israel to cease their policies related to settlement expansion immediately and instead work towards a two-state solution. The UK will continue our intensive diplomatic efforts in the region focused on securing a ceasefire and creating the conditions for a sustainable peace.
It is of enormous concern to everyone in the House that in this conflict between Hamas and Israel nearly 300 people have been killed, including 65 children. This is truly appalling. We condemn the rocket attacks by Hamas and the Israeli airstrikes, which have killed so many innocent people and severely damaged schools and medical facilities.
I listened carefully to what the Minister had to say regarding the Government’s position and his statement in favour of an immediate ceasefire. We have heard in the last few hours that the French and Jordanian Governments are making real efforts to bring about a UN resolution that would help to secure an immediate ceasefire. We have heard that there have been discussions with the Egyptians and the Germans. The name of the United Kingdom Government has not been mentioned.
I ask the Minister whether he would care to elaborate on what representations he has recently made to secure the objective of an immediate ceasefire. Could I also press him on what efforts his Government are making to provide humanitarian support for the people of Gaza? I urge the Government to do everything they can to restart a meaningful peace process as a matter of urgency. If further conflagrations are to be prevented, we need a process that will uphold international law, end the illegal occupation of the Palestinian territories and create a viable Palestinian state alongside a secure Israel.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his recognition of the diplomatic work that the UK Government have put in. I can assure him that we remain fully committed to an immediate ceasefire, and we are working to that end. As I have said, the Foreign Secretary spoke with his Jordanian opposite number only a few days ago, and I spoke to ambassadors from the region this morning.
Some of the diplomatic efforts are done, quite rightly, very visibly through institutions such as the United Nations. Some—I am sure the hon. Gentleman will understand why—are perhaps done more discreetly and quietly. The international community is pulling together, both in the region and in Europe and the United States, to try to bring about a meaningful ceasefire and work towards what can only be the right way of bringing permanent peace to the region, which is through negotiated political means.
Israel has the right to defend its citizens from terrorist attack, and I welcome the Minister’s strong confirmation of that this morning. Will he go further, however, and send a message about terrorism by proscribing the whole of Hamas as well as the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, which is making possible these horrific rocket attacks?
I thank my right hon. Friend for the points that she has made. She will know that the military wing of Hamas is recognised internationally as a terrorist organisation, and the entirety of Hamas has no contact—we have a no-contact policy—from the UK Government. We enjoy good working relationships with the leadership of the Palestinian Authority. Solutions need to be achieved —they must be—through negotiated political means, rather than through military means. She will also understand that we do not speculate on future proscriptions.
We are witnessing the second week of horrific violence in Israel and Palestine. It has been reported that 10 have been killed by Hamas, and more than 200 have been killed by Israeli airstrikes, including 65 children. The SNP abhors all indiscriminate violence against civilians so, first, what further steps can the UK Government take in demanding an immediate ceasefire? I am incredibly proud that last month my city of Dundee voted to recognise Palestine as a nation state so, secondly, will the UK Government commit today to recognising Palestine as an equal and independent nation state?
The UN Secretary-General has accused the Israeli Government of acting contrary to their obligations under human rights law. Indeed, Amnesty International has highlighted potential war crime by both Israel and Hamas, so, thirdly, what pressures are the UK Government bringing to bear to investigate these shocking breaches? Lastly, UK arms export licences to Israel have increased by over 1,000% in the past two years. This is not neutrality, so, finally, will the UK Government immediately suspend those exports until they have been thoroughly examined?
I urge the hon. Gentleman, for whom I have a huge amount of respect, not to equate the legitimate Government of Israel with a terrorist organisation —the military wing of Hamas. As I have said at the Dispatch Box a number of times, Israel has a right to self-defence, but we have made it clear that we expect at all times for it to exercise that in accordance with international humanitarian law, and make every effort to minimise casualties. Ultimately, the best way of minimising civilian casualties is to bring this conflict to a conclusion. That is why we are working with both the Palestinian leadership and the Government of Israel, and with our international partners, both in the region and further afield, to bring this conflict to a timely end, and work towards a more permanent ceasefire and, ultimately, a peaceful two-state solution.
Reports indicate that at least 500 Hamas rockets—one in seven of the total number fired—have exploded within Gaza. A Palestinian non-governmental organisation has confirmed that eight Palestinians were killed last week by a rocket that fell short. Does my right hon. Friend agree that Hamas rocket fire not only threatens Israelis, but causes grave harm to ordinary Gazans and must be condemned in the strongest possible terms? Would he also acknowledge that, far from being able to negotiate with a democratic Palestinian Government, Israel is facing existential threats from Hamas and Hezbollah, extreme Islamist terrorist organisations funded and backed by Iran, and that there should be no moral equivalence between democratic Israel and the terrorism of Hamas and Hezbollah?
The UK enjoys good relations with both the Government of Israel and the Palestinian Authority. I urge all Members of the House and those further afield to recognise that Hamas, the military wing of which is recognised as a terrorist organisation, is no friend of the Palestinian people. We will work with the leadership of both the Palestinians and the Israelis, alongside our friends and partners internationally, for peace. Ultimately, nobody wants to continue seeing images of fatalities—either Palestinians or Israelis.
Last week, I read the names of four of the then 14 Palestinian children and one Israeli child who had died. A week on, the number of Palestinian children dead is now 63 in Gaza alone. My heart was broken before; it is shattered now.
We need a ceasefire. The UK should not have left it to France to be the main sponsor of a UN resolution calling for it. This Government are shirking their historic responsibility and it is time to step up. Today, I wear my keffiyeh in recognition that if we want lasting peace, we cannot go back to how things were before: the police brutality, the demolitions and the oppression. We need a peace process that is not doomed before it begins. If this Government are committed to a lasting peace, why do they not recognise the state of Palestine?
I recognise the hon. Lady’s passion for the Palestinian people and her own background. I completely understand how painful it is for her in particular, and for all of us, to see images of those who have lost their lives. I can assure her that we are working with international partners, both at the United Nations and more broadly, to bring about peace. When I last stood at the Dispatch Box and responded to her urgent question, I made the point that the UK was pushing towards a cessation of violence and a ceasefire and that we are absolutely committed to a meaningful two-state solution.
Palestinian recognition is, rightly, an issue to be debated in this House, but at this point our focus is relentlessly on bringing about an immediate end to the conflict so that we can work in good time to a negotiated political solution and a two-state solution for the benefit of both the Israeli and the Palestinian peoples.
We are using all our diplomatic contacts and our diplomatic leverage. Understandably, the United Nations is the predominant multilateral body through which we are working, but I spoke to a meeting of the Arab ambassadors just this morning. We are ambivalent as to which organisation helps to bring about peace and will work with whomever, wherever we feel able to apply positivity. I assure my hon. Friend that we will leave no stone unturned in our efforts to bring about an end to this conflict.
The sad aftermath of a tragedy in which children who are pulled from the rubble are considered lucky among a three-figure death toll is—the Minister said it himself—people newly displaced from their homes, double refugees and destroyed schools, hospitals and cultural centres, all at a time when we are cutting our aid contribution internationally. Does he agree with his two recent predecessors, Alistair Burt and Alan Duncan, that although UK Government policy is against illegal settlements and for a two-state solution, our long-standing lack of proactivity sometimes makes it look as if we do not really mean that? The only real victor in all this is Netanyahu. Until recently he was a caretaker leader after an inconclusive election; he has now well cemented himself.
The outcome of democratic elections in the state of Israel is for the Israeli people. We will continue to work with the Governments elected by the Israeli people. It strikes me, however, that that is an important but fundamentally different issue to the subject of the urgent question. We will work with international partners, the Israelis and the Palestinians to bring peace to the region, both in terms of this specific conflict, which we seek to resolve as quickly as possible, and, ultimately, for a sustainable prosperous two-state solution. That remains the UK Government’s policy.
Iran’s role in this conflict is just one more example of Iranian efforts to undermine peace and stability throughout the middle east via its proxy terror group allies. Given that it was exactly that kind of behaviour that many warned was a blind spot in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action agreement, what assurances can my right hon. Friend give today that the current discussions on resuscitating the agreement will not just repeat that mistake all over again and give a free pass to Iran to continue re-arming its Hamas allies?
My right hon. Friend makes an incredibly important point. We recognise that in our desire to prevent Iran acquiring a nuclear weapon we cannot be blind to its broader regional destabilising activity. That will remain one of the UK’s priorities. It is regularly raised with me by my interlocuters in the region and I can assure him that that will be at the forefront of our minds throughout the forthcoming negotiations.
How many more Palestinian children have to be killed? How many more Palestinian homes have to be reduced to rubble? How many more Palestinian schools and hospitals have to be bombed before the British Government take the action necessary to force the Israeli Government finally to stop their war on the Palestinian people? Surely now is the time for all UK weapons sales to Israel to be stopped. Surely now is the time for sanctions on the Israeli Government for their repeated violations of international law. Surely now is the time—this House voted for it back in 2014—to recognise the state of Palestine, because Palestine has the right to exist.
I remind the hon. Gentleman of the sequencing of the events that unfolded in Gaza and Israel. Israel’s actions were in response to indiscriminate rocket attacks from an internationally recognised terrorist organisation. Israel has the right to self-defence. We have urged it at every step to do so proportionately and to take every step it is able to take to minimise civilian casualties. I am sure that like me he is horrified when we see images of fatalities, whether they be Israeli or Palestinian, and that is why, while the issue of recognition is important, it is not for now. Now is about bringing this conflict to an end.
I welcome the Minister’s statement, but given our history and our legacy, could Britain lean into this more? We called for a ceasefire. Let us ask the United States to join us there as well. It is difficult to see how any tactical or strategic advantage could be gained by either side from continuing this conflict. Once we get to a ceasefire, the old legacy challenges will remain and Israel will require a partner to work with. My concern is that Palestinian elections have not taken place for about 16 years and Hamas is now supported by the Iranians. It has no interest in working with Fatah in the west bank, let alone the Israelis. Does my right hon. Friend agree that perhaps the neighbouring Muslim countries, particularly those that have just signed the Abraham accords, could be invited to help to encourage Palestinians to hold fresh elections, so that we get more representative voices that Israel can work with?
My right hon. Friend makes an incredibly important point. The UK has been fully supportive of elections for the Palestinian Authority, which are now well overdue. We have seen on numerous occasions the Palestinian Authority working and co-ordinating with the Government of Israel, and we are always supportive when that is the case. The actions taken by Hamas are not to the benefit of the Palestinian people. The solution to the conflict, both in the short term and ultimately, will be through a negotiated political solution, and I would urge the Palestinian people to choose a leadership that is respected on the international stage and able to negotiate with international partners.
I thank the Minister for his very balanced response to the questions that have been put. He knows that Hamas is trying to make the Palestinian Authority and Mahmoud Abbas redundant, to make him appear irrelevant and to present itself as the ultimate defender of Jerusalem and al-Aqsa. Our own history in this country proves the folly of doing business with terrorists. Will the Minister take the opportunity today to tell Hamas that the British Government will never do business with terrorists?
The hon. Gentleman makes the point that the military wing of Hamas is recognised as a terrorist organisation. Ultimately, the future of the Palestinian people should lie in the hands of people who are able to negotiate on the international stage, and Hamas is not in a position to credibly do that.
I welcome the Prime Minister’s call for both sides to step back from the brink and show restraint. Does my right hon. Friend agree that continued escalation in the region will only lead to further violence and more deaths, and that both sides need to urgently down their arms?
My hon. Friend makes absolutely the right point. The images that we have seen of fatalities and injuries of both Israelis and Palestinians are heartbreaking. We continue to work with international partners to work to peace and an ultimate, sustainable, two-state solution.
The images of death, destruction and loss of life all over the region are horrific. The targeted bombing of buildings in Gaza, the tanks on the west bank, and the destruction of education and health facilities is absolutely appalling. Will the Minister explain exactly what is the nature of Britain’s military relationship with Israel? What is the nature of that co-operation with Israel? Can he tell the House whether any munitions sold by Britain to Israel have been used to bomb places in Gaza, and whether any drone equipment supplied by Britain or bought by Britain has been used as a surveillance method on either the west bank or Gaza and followed up by the destruction of civilian life and the death of many people, including the tragedy of the deaths of whole families and children? Our public need to know exactly the nature of that military relationship with Israel. Of course, the Minister rightly says that the occupied territories, which are occupied by Israel, are the places that suffer as a result of this bombardment.
The UK has a robust arms export licensing regime, and all export licences are assessed in accordance with it. I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that the UK takes its arms export responsibilities very seriously. I would also remind him that Israel is responding to rockets fired at it from an organisation closely associated with Iran. We would urge all nations to take their arms export responsibilities as seriously as the UK does.
Can my right hon. Friend confirm that he is working with international counterparts on calming tensions in the region and bringing an end the violence, to ensure that all sides can move towards a peaceful dialogue? Can he also give assurances that he will work to ensure that the hard-won Abraham accords between Israel and the Gulf nations remain intact?
My hon. Friend makes a very important point. I can assure him that the conversation I had this morning with representatives of the Arab nations, including the representative of the Palestinian people here in London, was balanced, thoughtful and productive. I can assure him that our friends in the region share our desire to see peace come quickly to the region, and we are all working closely with one other to pursue that particular goal.
The Minister will be aware that, around the world, people want to see an end to the violence and the rising death toll—both of Israelis and Palestinians—and to see a ceasefire, and they welcome efforts to that effect. However, does he also accept that the long-term solution to these issues lies with the UK Government, among others, demanding an end to forced evictions of Palestinians in East Jerusalem; the UK Government insisting that sacred sites, including the al-Aqsa mosque, are treated with the utmost respect; the UK Government asking for an immediate halt to new settlements and an adherence to international law; and the UK Government recognising Palestine as a state, with full membership of the United Nations? The Minister said earlier that recognition of Palestine is not an issue for now, but I say to him that if justice for the Palestinians is not an issue for now, in the midst of this violence and death, when will justice for the Palestinians be an issue?
Let me read verbatim a section from my opening speech. I said: “The UK position on evictions, demolitions and settlements is clear and long-standing: we oppose these activities. We urge the Government of Israel to cease their policies related to settlement expansion immediately and instead work towards a two-state solution.” So our position on the very questions that the right hon. Lady raised is clear and long standing, and I do not understand why she is raising them. Again, on the issue of Palestinian state recognition, the UK position is clear and long standing. We will do so when it is most conducive to advancing the peace effort.
The Minister’s point on the two-state solution does him great credit and it should be clear for anybody to understand. Long-range rockets at scale are not possible without the involvement of a sophisticated, malign state actor that will never be content until the state of Israel is driven into the sea. Does my right hon. Friend agree that there will never be peace in the Levant, never be a two-state solution and never be a solution of any sort until Iran ceases to be a feral bandit state, uncouples itself from its regime and rediscovers the dignity, poise and leadership appropriate to its history and its culture?
I thank my predecessor and good friend for the point that he raised. I have already said that the UK encourages Iran to be a more thoughtful and less disruptive regional player and to stop arming and supporting terrorist militia groups in the region. We will continue to work towards a two-state solution with the framework that has been explained from this Dispatch Box many times, and I pay tribute to the work that he did in this role to try to make that a reality.
Gaza has been under a suffocating blockade for almost 15 years, which already undermines the delivery of healthcare. Having been involved in breast cancer projects in Gaza for many years, I am aware from colleagues that 14 Government hospitals and clinics, including the covid laboratory, have been bombed, along with those run by international charities. We have been in this situation before, so once a ceasefire is finally agreed, what is the Government’s plan to achieve a long-term, yet just solution for both the Palestinians and the Israelis?
I pay tribute to the hon. Lady’s work in this area and more broadly in the provision of health services to communities around the world. We are aware of the reports and, indeed, footage of medical facilities that have been damaged or destroyed, but we are also deeply concerned about the continued use by Hamas of civilian infrastructure for its military operations. Ultimately, we seek to bring about an end to the conflict so that humanitarian support can get to the people who need it. We remain one of the most generous humanitarian donors in the world and we are working hard to keep those humanitarian access routes open so that our support and the support of others in the international community gets to the people it needs to.
Hamas has consistently chosen to prioritise its goal of the destruction of Israel over the safety and prosperity of Palestinians, but in conflict it is always the innocent, Palestinians and Israelis, who suffer. That must end and a ceasefire must be agreed. Does my right hon. Friend agree that we cannot just condemn Hamas, but must ensure that moderate Palestinians’ representatives are supported and championed?
My hon. Friend is right; we seek, as does the international community, a peaceful life for the Palestinian people and for the Israeli people. That can be done only through international co-operation, and ultimately it has to be done by representatives of the Palestinian people who respect Israel’s right to exist.
My mother always wanted me to take a side, either for the Palestinians or the Jews. I can never decide which side I should take, but is it not profoundly unhelpful for us to take a side? If we are going to take a side, would it not make far more sense for us to be on the side of the families who have been fleeing rocket attacks from Hamas, of the families who have been evicted in East Jerusalem or in the illegal settlements, and of the doctors who have seen their facilities bombed or who do not have any vaccines to be able to deal with coronavirus? I know this sounds terribly pious, but in the end do we not just have to be on the side of the humanity in this?
The hon. Gentleman speaks with a huge amount of wisdom on this. It is perhaps seductive but ultimately futile to work to reinforce a side of an argument while an argument persists. What we should do is seek to end arguments, end conflict, pursue peace and pursue the right of Palestinians and Israelis to live in peace, side by side, in harmony and prosperity. The Government will continue to pursue that as our primary goal in this region.
The Minister says he has a policy on evictions and demolitions in East Jerusalem and the west bank, on the attacks on al-Aqsa and the expansions of settlements, but the illegal settlement and occupation of Palestinian territories has been going on for more than five decades. What is the Minister actually going to do to tackle the causes of violence? What steps are his Government actually going to take?
The hon. Gentleman answers his own question, in the fact that the tensions in this region have persisted for decades and have done so under both Conservative and Labour Governments. If it were simple and easy, it would have been done. The truth of the matter is that we are seeking to have a sustainable future for both the Palestinian people and the Israeli people. We will work with the representatives of those people and more broadly in the international community to pursue that goal.
I join the Minister in urging both sides to move to a ceasefire to prevent the further loss of life. We have all seen the images of what is happening in Israel and the Gaza strip, and I have to say thank god for the Iron Dome. Were it not for that outstanding piece of Israeli technology, today we would see thousands of innocent Israeli citizens dead and maimed at the hands of Hamas terrorists and no doubt even worse conflict in the region. Does the Minister agree that we must condemn Hamas and weaken its close relationship with Iran, and work to bring moderate Israelis and Palestinians together through co-existence projects?
My hon. Friend makes an incredibly important point. There are plenty of thoughtful and passionate Palestinians and Israelis who are determined to bring peace to the region, and we must ensure that their voices are heard. We will work alongside them and our friends more broadly in the international community to that end, and he makes an important point about what might have been the situation had Israeli air defence systems not been as effective as they are.
I am utterly horrified by the scenes unfolding in Gaza, as are hundreds of my constituents who have contacted me to express their concerns. The UK Government are absolutely right to condemn Hamas’s rocket attacks, but they must also condemn in much stronger terms the completely disproportionate response from the Israeli Government, which has resulted in the loss of hundreds of civilian lives, including at least 63 children, coming on the back of sustained breaches of international law for many years. So I ask again: given the UK’s historic responsibility in the region, will the Minister urgently intensify and accelerate efforts with international partners to broker an immediate ceasefire by both sides, and will he suspend arms exports to Israel?
I have already made clear our desire to see an immediate end to the hostilities, a permanent ceasefire and a negotiated settlement between the Palestinians and the Israelis. We have also urged that, in their response to rocket attacks from within civilian infrastructure in Gaza, the Israelis exercise all caution to minimise civilian casualties. That will remain the UK Government’s position on this issue.
Yesterday, Israel facilitated dozens of trucks filled with humanitarian aid, including field hospitals and covid vaccines, to enter Gaza, yet Hamas deliberately fired repeat barrages of mortars at the Israeli crossing terminal, injuring an Israel Defence Forces soldier involved in the aid transfer and killing two foreign workers nearby. Will my right hon. Friend join me in condemning that appalling incident, which shows, as he stated earlier, that the actions of Hamas are categorically not in the interests of Palestinian people?
My hon. Friend makes an incredibly important point. As I said in my initial response, the targeting of civilians is unacceptable, and the specific targeting of humanitarian support particularly so. I have urged Hamas and other terrorist organisations to cease their targeting of humanitarian access routes, so that our support and the support of others in the international community can get to the people who need it.
We heard the Minister’s statement of policy; we just do not understand the strategy for advancing it. He has to realise, like the rest of us, that there is no peace without justice. The way to disarm Hamas, to make progress towards peace and to ensure genuine calm and de-escalation can only be through the full realisation of Palestinian rights and the end of systematic discrimination against Palestinians in the Occupied Palestinian Territories.
It is vital that the UK uses its influence with the United States to insist on a ceasefire. It is vital that the UK Government fully support the International Criminal Court investigation into all alleged war crimes, no matter which party stands accused, including those who are launching appalling rockets and those launching airstrikes. It is vital that we suspend the sale of arms to Israel until we know the outcomes of these prosecutions. Crucially, it is vital that the UK understands that the hope of peace is disappearing because people no longer believe that a two-state solution is possible. That is why we have to act now to sustain hope among Palestinians by ensuring recognition of the state of Palestine. We voted for it in 2014. On 7 July 2020, the Government said:
“The UK will recognise a Palestinian state at a time when it best serves the objective of peace”—
I recognise the passion with which the right hon. Gentleman speaks, but there can be no legitimisation of indiscriminate rocket attacks against civilian targets from within civilian infrastructure by an internationally recognised terrorist organisation.
I thank the Minister for his robust support on behalf of the British Government for Israel’s right to defend itself from attack by a proscribed terrorist organisation. Listening to what he said about the prospects for peace, it is clear that Hamas has no interest in dialogue and moving towards peace. What can we do to strengthen the Palestinian Authority, which is a credible partner for peace, and to reduce the influence of Iran, which is trying to strengthen the hand of those who are Israel’s enemies and who do not wish to see peace for the Palestinians?
My right hon. Friend makes an incredibly important point. The Palestinian people have many friends and allies in the international community and they have people within their own leadership who are determined to bring about peace and see a peaceful two-state solution. We should find ways of strengthening their voices and their hands and work with them in pursuit of a two-state solution. There are also people who claim leadership or who aspire to leadership who will never accept the existence of an Israeli state, and we cannot, will not and should not work with them.
The nub of this issue, having visited both Israel and Palestine, is a colonial-era mindset of a gradual land grab: the forcible eviction of people from their homes; the building of illegal settlements; the extreme and shameless violation of human rights and international law; and the sheer suppression and humiliation of an entire nation. At this point in time, however, the efforts of the international community should be focused on securing an immediate end to the bloodshed and hostility. So can the Minister explain: where is the logjam and exactly how much aid have we managed to get through to the inhumanely blockaded Gaza?
The hon. Gentleman makes the important point that the priority at the moment is twofold: an immediate end to the conflict and the immediate access of humanitarian aid. The UK remains one of the most generous donors of humanitarian support to the Palestinian people and we are very proud of that fact. I am not able to give him an accurate assessment, as humanitarian access routes have been closed because of their targeting by Hamas, but we will continue to pursue the joint aims of bringing about a conclusion to this conflict and ensuring that humanitarian support reaches the people who need it.
Reports emerged yesterday that Hamas had launched a torpedo at Israel’s natural gas field in the Mediterranean and that an armed unmanned aerial vehicle caused an explosion at Israel’s Ashkelon power station. Does my right hon. Friend agree that Hamas’s ability to acquire these non-conventional weapons is a very worrying development? Will he join me in condemning Hamas for targeting energy infrastructure that will disrupt energy supplies not only in Israel, but in Gaza?
I am not able to confirm the reports to which my hon. Friend referred, but I reinforce the points that I made about the need for Iran not to be a destabilising influence in the region, for Hamas to step back from this conflict and for both sides to step back and pursue peace so that we can work to a negotiated, permanent two-state solution to the region.
I associate myself and my party with the Minister’s opening words about the wholly unacceptable deaths and casualties, particularly of children.
Self-evidently, the first step to peace is to stop the violence. President Biden has expressed support for the ceasefire, according to press reports. Can the Minister reassure me that all relevant international partners are actively working for an immediate ceasefire as a prelude to a substantial international attempt to secure a permanent and just solution?
I can assure the hon. Gentleman that everyone I have spoken to in the international community is absolutely focused on bringing about an end to this conflict and a ceasefire. That is true within the region, and in respect of our European friends and partners and, indeed, the recent conversations that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has had with President Biden’s Administration. That will remain, I have no doubt, the focus of the international community.
Of Hamas’s many deplorable aspects, its cynical locating of military infrastructure within densely populated civilian areas is perhaps the worst. This was confirmed again yesterday, as Hamas was found to be launching rockets close to a school. Will my right hon. Friend join me in condemning this double war crime?
My hon. Friend makes an incredibly important point. The location of military activities within civilian infrastructure is completely unacceptable and demonstrates a disturbing attitude towards the lives of the Palestinians that the leadership of Hamas claim to be defending.
There are many underlying reasons for this most intractable of conflicts, most notably 54 years of occupation of Palestine and 14 years of the blockade of the Gaza Strip, but the most recent violence and devastating damage and loss of life has been inflamed by Israeli violations of the fourth Geneva convention in occupied east Jerusalem and the rest of the west bank. While I welcome the Government’s long-term focus on peace and the two-state solution, can the Minister tell us specifically what consequences the UK is advocating to the international community to deal with Israel’s illegal actions? What steps is he taking, beyond raising it in bilateral talks with Israeli Ministers, to ensure the end of all settlement building and the cancellation of all forcible evictions and demolitions in Sheikh Jarrah and elsewhere? He has been asked this before but has not given any concrete details in his response. I would be grateful if he did so now.
The hon. Lady implies that bilateral conversations with partners are somehow invalid, but that is how diplomacy is done. Speaking with our friends and partners around the world and in the region is how we bring about positive change. The UK’s position on settlements, evictions and annexation is well known, and we have been vocal at the Dispatch Box and indeed in our conversations directly with our Israeli interlocutors. That is what we will continue to do. We will continue to work with friends in the international community to seek peace in the region.
Yet again, we see the distasteful spectacle in this place of a pile-on against the democratic state that is under attack from terrorism, while those who hide their murder weapons among children and civilians are given a near-free pass. It is that, and the misinformation circulating from certain groups with regard to access to religious sites, which is directly contributing to the rising hate against some in this country and what we saw on the streets of London this weekend. Will my right hon. Friend call out all those who spread this misinformation?
I think in issues as sensitive as this we all have a duty to speak carefully to ensure that what we say is accurate. On my hon. Friend’s point about some of the scenes that we saw in London and elsewhere over the weekend, the people who would seek any excuse to perpetrate antisemitic attacks or to say antisemitic things should not be given any justification, whether it be from Members of this House or anywhere else.
The Minister will be aware that the United States has specifically blocked the adoption of a joint UN Security Council statement calling for a halt to Israeli-Palestinian violence. I am sure that Members right across the House agree that we need a joint international approach to achieve a ceasefire. So what steps will the Minister take to urge the US Administration to stop blocking any call for a joint ceasefire? Today the Minister has repeatedly expressed support for a two-state solution. I would just like to understand how the Government expect to command the confidence of the public and the House on this matter when they will not recognise Palestine, one of those two states, because one plus zero does not equal two.
The United Kingdom will continue working with the whole of the international community, including our European partners, partners in the region and the United States, towards what is our explicitly shared goal, which is an end to the violence and ultimately peace for both the Palestinian people and the Israeli people. That remains our focus and that is what we will work towards.
Everyone in this House hopes that hostilities will end soon, with a permanent ceasefire. However, the reality is that there will be further rounds of fighting unless the international community ends Iran’s bankrolling and arming of Gaza-based terrorist groups such as Hamas. Some Members today appear to be defending the actions of that terrorist group. I am not one of them, so may I ask: as nuclear talks continue in Vienna, can my right hon. Friend outline how the P5+1 intend finally to end Iran’s ability to fuel conflict in the region?
I can assure my hon. Friend that, in addition to preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, a priority is for it to cease its destabilising actions in the region. That will remain a priority in our bilateral relationship with Iran and in our multilateral work with regard to Iran. We will continue to pursue an end to the specific violence that we see in Gaza and Israel, and we will redouble our efforts to bring about a sustainable, peaceful two-state solution.
I would like to press the Minister to set out specifically what further actions the Government will take to ensure that there is a co-ordinated international response to secure an immediate ceasefire, and then specifically what the UK will do to address the sources of long-term injustice and insecurity, including forced evictions and the expansion of illegal settlements.
The hon. Gentleman would have heard in my response to the urgent question that we have had a long-standing opposition to settlement expansion, demolitions and evictions. Some of our multilateral diplomatic work is done publicly, and some is done more discreetly and privately, but I assure him that we will work closely with our international partners in the region and further afield to pursue peace in the middle east.
Large numbers of people gather at the al-Aqsa mosque to pray. Does the Minister agree that the attacks that we saw on people praying there, and the large number of civilian casualties that resulted, cannot be justified? Will he urge the authorities there to ensure that there is no repeat?
The right hon. Gentleman makes an important point about the ability of the faithful to worship and the importance of the status quo of the holy sites of all religions in Jerusalem. It is the UK Government’s explicit policy that those holy sites need to be protected, and that worshippers should be able to worship in peace and confidence. That will remain the position of our Government.
I am very glad that my right hon. Friend has made it absolutely clear today that the current situation was provoked by Hamas firing rockets into Israel, and that Israel has the absolute right to defend itself. The Minister has also referred to the goal of a negotiated political settlement—the two-state solution. We have to accept, do we not, that the continued building of illegal settlements makes that two-state solution ever harder to achieve? What steps can the Government take to dissuade Israel from this policy?
My hon. Friend makes an important point about actions that might make a two-state solution more difficult. The UK’s position is that continued settlement expansion does make a sustainable two-state solution more difficult, and that is why we have been opposed to that and have communicated our opposition to that to the Israeli Government. We will continue to do so, and that will form part of the work that we put forward to make a peaceful two-state solution more likely, rather than less.
The UK Government previously halted military export licences to the Israeli defence forces after the attacks in Gaza in 2014, but since 2015 there have followed £400 million of licences to Israel from the UK to date. There exists a profound asymmetry to this conflict, evidenced by the appalling civilian death toll in each territory, with almost 200 Palestinian civilians and 10 Israeli civilians killed—all victims; all wasted lives. Is the UK content to uphold that asymmetry with continued military sales, or will it promote de-escalation dynamically, with renewed limits on military exports to Israel?
Israel seeks to defend itself against attacks from the military wing of Hamas, which is an internationally recognised terrorist organisation. Our military export licensing regime is very robust, as I have said, and we are proud that we have such a robust arms exports regime in place—all export licences are measured against that. We will work with the Israelis and with the Palestinian people to bring about peace, and once a ceasefire has been achieved we will continue our work to bring about a peaceful, sustainable two-state solution.
May I thank the Minister for his balanced opening statement in response to this urgent question? Securing a ceasefire will be very difficult, but maintaining it will be more difficult still, so can he confirm that once that ceasefire has been secured, we will offer whatever support we can to the Palestinian Authority, so that they can hold free and fair elections, which are the only way that moderate voices can get into power and then take the country forward?
My hon. Friend makes an incredibly important point. A ceasefire to this conflict is the beginning of an incredibly important process, which will include ensuring that the Palestinian people have credible voices to speak on their behalf on the international stage, and that we work together—with the Israelis, the Palestinians and the international community—for the thing that we should all aim for, and which I believe the vast majority of people, both in this House and more broadly, seek to see, which is a peaceful, sustainable and prosperous two-state solution.
Post Office Update
With permission, Madam Deputy Speaker, I would like to update the House on changes to the Post Office Horizon IT inquiry. Over a 20-year period, the Post Office Horizon computerised accounting system recorded shortfalls in cash, which were allegedly caused by sub-postmasters, leading to dismissals, recovery of losses and, in some instances, criminal prosecutions. I know that Members across the House are aware of the terrible impact that this has had on affected postmasters and their families. The life-altering implications of these accounting errors cannot be overstated.
The Post Office Horizon IT inquiry, led by Sir Wyn Williams, was launched in September 2020 as a major step towards righting the wrongs of the past. The inquiry was established on a non-statutory basis to enable the chair to work quickly to establish a clear account of the implementation and failings of the Horizon computer system over its lifetime.
On 27 April, I made an oral statement to the House following the decision by the Court of Appeal on 23 April to quash the convictions of 39 postmasters who had been convicted for Horizon-related shortfalls. As I said then, the Government recognise the gravity of the court’s judgment and the scale of the miscarriage of justice that it makes clear.
Sir Wyn and I are both of the view that the context for the inquiry has changed in the light of the judgment by the Court of Appeal and that now is the right moment to convert the inquiry to a statutory footing. Therefore, I can now inform the House that, with the agreement of the Prime Minister, I will convert the inquiry to a statutory footing on 1 June 2021. I have also agreed that Sir Wyn will now have more time to undertake his work. The inquiry is now expected to report in autumn 2022, rather than summer 2021.
Together, these changes will give Sir Wyn the powers and the time that he needs to conduct an in-depth analysis of the decision-making processes that led to the Horizon scandal. He will be able to compel organisations to provide documents and witnesses to give evidence, under oath if necessary. It is now for Sir Wyn to consider his next steps, and I expect that he will provide more information on his proposed approach soon. In the short term, the inquiry will complete its planned engagements through May, but public hearings that had been expected to take place in June will be delayed.
I have always said that the inquiry should proceed quickly to get the answers that postmasters and their families are seeking. Sir Wyn has gathered a lot of evidence from key parties and engaged with many affected postmasters; I have therefore asked that he provide a progress update to his original timeline of summer 2021, to make public the progress to date and any initial findings. I hope that still more affected postmasters will choose to engage with Sir Wyn as he continues his work on a statutory footing.
The inquiry’s overarching aims—to ensure that the right lessons have been learned and to establish what must change—will remain. However, there will be some changes to the terms of reference in the light of the Court of Appeal judgment. I have today notified the House of the updated terms of reference in a written ministerial statement.
I thank Sir Wyn for his quick progress on the inquiry to date and for taking the time with me in recent weeks to consider the next steps for it. I am pleased to confirm that he has agreed to remain as chair of the inquiry for the next phase.
Finally, I note that converting the inquiry to a statutory footing and proceeding over a longer period will, of course, have cost implications, but I assure colleagues across the House that they are being fully considered with my colleagues in HM Treasury.
The Horizon saga has wrecked lives and livelihoods. We cannot undo the damage that has been done, but we can establish what went wrong at the Post Office and ensure that nothing like it is ever allowed to happen again. The events surrounding the dispute have long been shrouded in darkness, and this Government are determined to bring them into the light. The landmark Court of Appeal judgment changed the context for the inquiry. Following it, the Government did not hesitate to act to give the inquiry more teeth and equip Sir Wyn with more powers. To affected postmasters and their families, my message is that we are listening and we will get to the bottom of this appalling affair. I commend this statement to the House.
I thank the Minister for advance sight of his statement. My hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah) is not able to attend today but, like me, she welcomes today’s statement, including the much belated conversion of the inquiry to a statutory footing and the extension of its scope, although we believe that it does not yet go far enough.
This is indeed the largest legal miscarriage of justice in our history. It is estimated that there have been 900 false prosecutions in total—each one its own story of persecution, of fear, of despair, of families destroyed, of reputations smashed, of lives lost and of innocent people bankrupted and imprisoned. I thank and congratulate everybody who has campaigned over so many years—for more than a decade—to reveal the truth, including the Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance and the Communication Workers Union. I also congratulate right hon. and hon. Members across the House who have fought for justice for their constituents; I mention in particular my right hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr Jones), who has worked tirelessly on the issue.
The campaign for justice has been long fought, and there is still a long way to go. The Minister’s announcement is a step in the right direction. The Labour party and the Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance have always said that the inquiry must be statutory, but less than a month ago in this Chamber, four days after the Court of Appeal’s decision, the Minister rejected calls for a statutory inquiry on the grounds that it would take
“three, four or five years”—[Official Report, 27 April 2021; Vol. 693, c. 254.]
Can he tell us what has happened to change his mind?
The horrific miscarriage of justice did not happen overnight. For a decade, 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. The next step has been delayed and victims’ lives have been disrupted by this Government.
It is important to remember that having a statutory inquiry is not, of itself, justice. There remain a number of urgent questions for the Minister that he did not answer a few weeks ago. The Government are the Post Office’s only shareholder, yet time and again, the Post Office was allowed to abuse its power over postmasters. That was the finding of the Court, and it is a really important point. 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 the management of human teams relying on AI or computer algorithms?
We welcome any new powers for Sir Wyn and the review. It was reported—and this seemed to be in the statement—that Sir Wyn will have the power to summon witnesses to give testimony under oath and to force the Post Office to hand over documents. Can the Minister confirm that, and will that power apply to any other entity or organisation from which evidence is sought? While the terms of reference have been updated, they do not seem to reflect the issues raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central previously. For example, compensation still appears to be out of scope of the inquiry—why? Who has been consulted on the revised terms of reference?
Fujitsu was the one that provided faulty software. An independent investigator, Second Sight, drew attention to that as far back as 2013, yet the Government do not appear to be doing anything to hold Fujitsu to account. Instead, the Horizon software has been renewed, rewarding Fujitsu with a new £42 million contract. Will ongoing Government contracts with Fujitsu be reviewed? Paula Vennells led the Post Office during this time and was honoured with a CBE, along with a long list of others. Is it right that she and others continue to be honoured?
The Minister has referred to a “full and final settlement” for some postmasters with the Post Office. However, he will know that of the £58 million settlement approved in the High Court case, only £12 million will go to the victims, with the rest taken up in legal fees. Does the Minister agree that they should be considered for appropriate compensation?
The JFSA and Labour want there to be a public consultation to guarantee that the inquiry will deliver for all the victims and provide conclusive answers. The Post Office is a Government-owned company that has been found to be at fault. It is vital that the Government act to improve the corporate structure of the Post Office, to prevent this kind of thing from ever happening again. It should never have been allowed to develop into this scandal, but all we can do now is ensure that we get to the truth, that those wrongly convicted get justice and that lessons are learnt.
Securing this statutory inquiry is a big victory for sub-postmasters, trade unions and justice, but despite the Government’s U-turn, this is only the start. The Government have failed to live up to their responsibility to prevent this scandal from occurring, and they have, until today, stood in the way of justice. I urge the Minister to apologise, to own the Government’s mistakes and to start work to ensure that justice is served and that a scandal of this magnitude can never happen again.
I did not want to interrupt the hon. Lady, but Mr Speaker would be annoyed with me if I did not point out that she has taken a minute longer than she ought to have had, and that is a minute that will not be taken later today by some other Member who wishes to speak.
I send my best wishes to the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah); I understand why she cannot be here. I appreciate the response from the hon. Member for Feltham and Heston (Seema Malhotra), and I will try to answer some of her questions.
The hon. Lady talked about Ministers’ role in this. Clearly, the role of our Department, Government and Ministers will be included in the inquiry. We do want to learn the lessons, and that will be the case, but as we have seen from the judgment, the Post Office consistently maintained that Horizon was robust and was misguided in its approach to the issue, leading to the decision to prosecute these postmasters. We pressed management on issues regarding complaints brought by postmasters about Horizon and received repeated assurances that the system was reliable. As I say, the inquiry will look into that.
In terms of the Government’s response, we clearly recognise the impact that convictions have had on individual postmasters and their families. That is why the Prime Minister and I met with a small group of them last month, to hear directly from them. They had some incredibly tragic and terrible stories, and I can understand why they find it difficult to trust anybody in this regard after many, many years of difficulty and the impossible situation that they and their families have been in.
On Horizon itself, the Post Office is looking into that. It cannot, unfortunately, just switch off a system and change midstream, but clearly it will be looking to work on the successor CRM—customer relationship management —system. Yes, the terms of reference and the statutory footing allow Sir Wyn to compel people to give evidence and documents, and there are sanctions on them if they should fail to do so, under the Inquiries Act 2005. One of the reasons for that, as we move to the second stage and, I hope, engage more sub-postmasters to give their stories, is that we want to give them the confidence that people will be giving their evidence. I must say that, to date still, everybody involved in this whom Sir Wyn has asked to do so has given their full undertaking and worked on it. Nobody has resiled from the inquiry, but it is important that we do this.
On the terms of reference in relation to compensation, an inquiry, whether statutory or not, cannot determine liability in itself—that still has to be done through the courts—but sub-postmasters clearly can raise, and I would fully expect them to raise, the issue of the losses and difficulties as they outline the difficulties they have had. On Fujitsu, as I have said, clearly the Post Office will be looking at what it does in further compensation, and that will include Fujitsu. There are criminal investigations going ahead, so that is outside the scope of the inquiry, but the GLO—group litigation order—settlement was a full and final settlement. The Government did not have a part in the litigation. It is not part of the inquiry itself, but none the less, this is one part—an important part, but one part—of making sure that we get to the bottom of this and get sufficient justice for the postmasters so badly affected.
I warmly congratulate the Minister on his statement, and I think it is fantastic news for sub-postmasters. I would like to thank the Prime Minister for meeting sub-postmasters, including my constituent Tracy Felstead, and for understanding the terrible injustice that they have suffered for so long. Can the Minister assure me that compensation will be paid to all those affected, including those who were party to the horrendous struggle that was the group litigation? Does he agree that these sub-postmasters should not be penalised for shining a light on the conduct of the Post Office, and they should not be required to fund the pivotal judgment of Mr Justice Fraser, without which no convictions would have been overturned? Can he please agree with me that compensation must be fair to all sub-postmasters?
I thank my hon. Friend, who has been really dogged in her championing of Tracy Felstead and many others who have been affected. I was pleased to meet Tracy—who gave such tragic testimony—alongside the Prime Minister. On compensation, the Post Office is engaging in the compensation process. I will, in my regular meetings with the Post Office, make sure that we keep on top of that, because we want to ensure justice and fair compensation for all who have been affected.
It is a real pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Telford (Lucy Allan), who is a member of the all-party parliamentary group on post offices. I thank the Minister for advance sight of his statement, and I welcome the statement that the inquiry into the Post Office’s Horizon scandal is to be put on a statutory footing—something for which MPs across the Chamber have been calling for months. However, if this is the case, it should have been set out properly by the UK Government in Parliament, not briefed beforehand to the press.
The Horizon scandal has been a serious miscarriage of justice, potentially carried out knowingly. It is a grave injustice that some, sadly, have taken their own lives and others have been imprisoned. The SNP has repeatedly called for a judge-led statutory inquiry, and the Minister and I have had discussions on this previously. Entire lives have been ruined, and it is critical—critical—that no stone is left unturned in securing real justice for those affected. The UK Government must agree to meet all costs as a result of any compensation due, so that the post office network is not impacted. We must not lose sight of that. We absolutely welcome the statutory inquiry, as I have said, but we must also make certain that those responsible are held to account. This is really important.
I want to thank the Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance, the Communication Workers Union and the long-standing members of the APPG, who have fought tirelessly for this outcome. I look forward to seeing the Minister next week in my capacity as chair of the APPG, when he comes to talk to us further.
I always welcome meeting the hon. Lady, and I congratulate her on her work for the all-party group. I appreciate her support for this change and I absolutely agree with her that we have to make sure that in getting justice and righting the wrongs of the past we do not jeopardise the future of the Post Office, with the social value it gives, as well as the economic value, for so many people across this country. We must make sure that we restore confidence for not only future postmasters within the network but its customers, so that it is there for many years to come.
I am delighted that the Minister has announced that we will get the full public inquiry that we have needed for so long, to finally draw a line under this tragic fiasco and get to the truth. Following his and the Prime Minister’s recent meeting with a few of the sub-postmasters caught up in this debacle, including my constituents Mr and Mrs Rudkin, does my hon. Friend agree that the sub-postmasters are ordinary, honest and credible people, who have been caught up in incredible events that were not of their making and not their responsibility, but which have had a massive detrimental effect on their lives and the lives of their families?
Let me again thank my hon. Friend for his work in raising the case of Mr and Mrs Rudkin and other postmasters, and he is right. Mr Rudkin was one of the leading witnesses who blew a hole in the evidence and this led to success for those postmasters in various stages of the court case and, unfortunately, Mrs Rudkin was left to carry the can in her experience as postmaster. She is very typical of many postmasters who have been affected: ordinary people who are stalwarts of their villages, towns, communities. That is why we must redouble our efforts to seek justice and fair compensation for them.
I thank the Minister for an advance copy of the statement. My Select Committee and I called for this inquiry to be on a statutory footing from the beginning and so we welcome the statement today. However, if I have understood it correctly, the terms of reference are still being decided by Ministers and not by the independent chair, Sir Wyn Williams —why?
No, that is incorrect; this is being done in collaboration with Sir Wyn. I spoke to Sir Wyn shortly after the Court of Appeal’s judgment and comments. He asked for more powers—not just statutory ones but to be able to look further back—and that is why we made changes. Although the inquiry would not explore matters of substantive criminal law, which of course should be decided by the criminal courts, he felt that he could look at this better, first, within the statutory footing and, secondly, with some of the changes to the terms of reference that we have expanded today. That was done in collaboration with Sir Wyn.