House of Commons
Thursday 10 June 2021
The House met at half-past Nine 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—
Trade Agreements: SMEs
Employing 17 million people and generating £2.3 trillion in turnover, small and medium-sized enterprises are vital to increasing UK trade. That is why we are continuing to seek SME chapters and SME-friendly provisions throughout all our free trade agreements. Outside the SME chapter, the wider benefits of the agreements—for example, reducing customs costs, supporting intellectual property rights, facilitating mutual recognition of professional qualifications and increasing regulatory transparency—will help to level the field between SMEs and large businesses.
Small and medium-sized farms across the country are rightly worried that this weekend’s agreement with Australia and the precedent it will set for future trade deals will not just undermine their business but destroy them. Last November, the Minister of State promised these farmers that the new trade and agriculture commission would mean that
“all the National Farmers Unions…will play an active role in assessing trade agreements going forward”—[Official Report, 17 November 2020; Vol. 684, c. 190.]—
and that as a consequence the farming industry’s interests would be “advanced and protected” by the TAC. Does he stand by those statements today?
I thank the right hon. Lady for those questions and I absolutely stand by that. We are involving NFUs from all four nations; I have met NFU Scotland’s Martin Kennedy twice in recent weeks. We are confident that the new trade and agriculture commission will be up and running in good time for it to conduct its statutory review of the Australia free trade agreement.
I thank the Minister for that answer but the British farming industry knows the truth: the trade and agriculture commission it was promised to defend the interests of British farmers is not the one advertised by the Government this week, and my question to the Minister of State is simply this: why? What are the Government so scared of? If they are confident that their deal with Australia will benefit British farmers, not undermine them, why do they not have the courage of their convictions and establish the trade and agriculture commission on the basis that farmers were promised last November and let the voice of British farming deliver its verdict on the deal?
We—myself, the Secretary of State and the whole of the Department for International Trade—listen very carefully, of course, to the voices of British farmers. The Secretary of State opened expressions of interest to become members of the trade and agriculture commission just this week. It is very important to understand that the role of the commission never has been to advise on negotiations; its role will be as debated and approved during the passage of the Trade Act 2021 and the Agriculture Act 2020, and we are looking forward to seeing its scrutiny later this year.
Many happy returns to you today, Mr Speaker.
SMEs make up the backbone of the Scotch whisky industry and the Minister likes to talk about whisky, so let us talk about the reality for the industry resulting from the Government’s trade policy. Speyside Distillery, winner of best whisky at the world whisky awards, tells me that sales are dramatically down since Brexit and that this Government’s awful Brexit deal has led to the cost of its goods going up by a fifth—up 12% on glass and up 7% on cardboard—and increased shipping costs and delays. Extra paperwork alone is costing it 33p per case. It tells me that a deal with Australia will not even scratch the sides of its substantial losses from Brexit, so what additional support and compensation will the Government pay to distilleries such as Speyside for these losses?
I am delighted to hear the Scottish National party raise the subject of whisky, because it did not do so in the urgent question two weeks ago on the Australia trade deal. I remind SNP Members that Scotch whisky currently faces tariffs going into Australia; it is one of Scotch whisky’s most important markets and is a growing market even during the pandemic. In terms of trade volumes with the European Union, we are continuing to see a recovery in the data. This is of course volatile data, but none the less there was a 46% increase in exports to the EU in February and a further 9% increase in March. Further data will be coming out in due course.
As ever, when presented with the realities the Minister just spins into Brexit fantasy. They just do not care about Scottish businesses. There is a good reason why the SNP has never supported Westminster’s trade policy, and that is because Scotland’s needs are always ignored. The UK Government said fishing was expendable during the EU negotiations in the ’70s, their Brexit obsession dragged us out of the world’s largest single market, and now they are betraying our farmers and crofters all while capitulating on standards in animal welfare. They do not listen to Scotland and they do not care about Scotland, but is the Minister aware that they are being found out in Scotland?
I am not sure that the hon. Gentleman has been listening carefully enough to what I have been saying to him about the SNP and trade deals. It is not just Westminster trade deals that he and his colleagues have rejected; they have even rejected the trade deals negotiated previously by the European Union. He has pledged to rejoin the EU, in which case Scotland would become immediately subject to those trade deals. He also wishes to rejoin the common fisheries policy, which would be completely against the interest of fishers right across Scotland.
The SNP has never supported any trade deal. It has been against the Canada and South Africa deals, and it has not supported the Japan or Singapore deals. It is simply anti-business, anti-trade and against the interests of the Scotch whisky industry and of Scottish fishers.
Trade Agreements: US, Canada and New Zealand
We are making significant progress with our free trade agreement negotiations. We have just launched a consultation on the new, improved trade agreement with Canada, we are in the final stages of our FTA with New Zealand, and we are in the midst of resolving the Airbus-Boeing dispute with the US.
Next week we have the New Zealand Trade Minister, Damien O’Connor, coming to the UK, and we are working on a gold-standard agreement that will give us more access to Pacific markets at the same time as further deepening our economic relationship with a long-standing and trusted partner.
Happy birthday from Na h-Eileanan an Iar, Mr Speaker.
The point of trade deals is economic growth, but as the Secretary of State well knows, the trade deals with the US, Canada and New Zealand will make up only about 4% of the Brexit damage. However, signing a Swiss-style sanitary and phytosanitary agreement could achieve greater economic growth, would not threaten farming as the Australian trade deal does, would sort out the Northern Ireland protocol sausage situation and would prevent the Prime Minister from getting spoken to like a naughty schoolboy by the President of the United States. Given those four advantages, has she considered lifting her pen and signing a Swiss-style SPS agreement to make things a whole lot better on a number of fronts?
My colleague Lord Frost is clear that we need to see pragmatism from the EU to resolve this issue. The hon. Gentleman does not seem to acknowledge that the parts of the world where we are striking deals, whether Asia-Pacific with the comprehensive and progressive agreement for trans-Pacific partnership or countries such as India and those in the Gulf, are the fast-growing parts of the world. He is living in a static past; we are living in a dynamic future.
English Language Teaching
Happy birthday, Mr Speaker.
Recognising the challenges that the sector faces, both I and my co-chair of the education sector advisory group, the Minister for Universities, continue to engage with colleagues across Government to explore options for further support.
The English language is arguably this country’s most successful export. Covid has of course devastated the sector, and with the international scene still challenging, the impact goes on and is deep and wide even as other sectors recover. Will my hon. Friend meet me, a delegation of MPs and officials from the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government to work together to overcome the challenges that the sector faces and safeguard the future of this vital export, which is so important to Eastbourne and to the UK?
Free Trade Agreements
We have signed trade deals covering 67 countries and the European Union, we are making good progress with like-minded friends and allies such as New Zealand and Australia, and we will shortly launch negotiations to join the trans-Pacific partnership, worth £9 trillion of GDP.
Penblwydd hapus, Mr Speaker. On 6 November, the Secretary of State told the National Farmers Union of Wales:
“We have no intention of ever striking a deal that doesn’t benefit farmers, but we have provided checks and balances in the form of the Trade and Agriculture Commission”.
May I ask her if the commission will have the power to tell Parliament whether her Australia deal benefits Welsh farmers, or is she breaking the promise that she made only seven months ago?
I assure the hon. Lady that the Trade and Agriculture Commission will be up and running to fully scrutinise the Australia trade deal. As set out in the Agriculture Act 2020, the TAC will look at whether FTAs
“are consistent with the maintenance of UK levels of statutory protection”
“animal or plant life or health…animal welfare, and…the environment.”
That is what Parliament supported in the Agriculture Act and the Trade Act 2021.
On 6 October, the Secretary of State said:
“A lot of farmers would consider it unfair if practices that are banned in the UK because of animal welfare reasons are allowed elsewhere and those products are allowed to come in and undercut the standards that our farmers are asked to follow. I agree with that. I think that’s an important principle.”
That is what she said, so may I simply ask the Secretary of State whether she still stands by that principle in the context of her proposed deal with Australia?
I have always been clear that we will not allow our farmers, with their high animal welfare standards, to be undermined by unfair competition from elsewhere. The right hon. Lady will be well aware that Australian beef and lamb is already able to come into the United Kingdom under our current import rules.
I thank the Secretary of State for that answer, but if I may, I will give her a specific example. The practice of mulesing is illegal in Britain but is in common use in Australia, not just in the wool industry, but in meat. Lambs at six weeks old are held down without pain relief and have the skin from their buttocks gouged out to prevent the scar tissue that grows back bearing wool. My simple question to her is this: under her proposed trade deal with Australia, will tariffs be reduced on meat produced on sheep farms that use the practice of mulesing?
We are still in negotiations about the final stage of the deal, but I can assure the right hon. Lady that British farmers, with their high animal welfare standards, will not be undermined. I am sure she is aware of World Trade Organisation rules that prevent discrimination on the basis of production methods, and what she seems to be advocating is leaving the World Trade Organisation. By the way, she might be interested to know that foie gras is already banned in Australia.
Unfair Trading Practices
Happy birthday, Mr Speaker. The United Kingdom now has a fully operational trade remedies system that can take action if foreign subsidies harm British businesses. In addition, last month, my right hon. Friend the International Trade Secretary chaired a meeting of G7 Trade Ministers that called for the start of negotiations to develop stronger international rules on market-distorting subsidies and trade-distorting actions by state-owned enterprises, such as the forced transfer of technology.
Happy birthday, Mr Speaker. With nine out of 10 of the largest Chinese firms being state-owned enterprises, it is clear that the international rulebook is not keeping up with the latest players’ tactics. I do not want to see—I do not think anyone here wants to see—British businesses undercut. Will the Minister elaborate on what more we can do, working with like-minded allies in the WTO and the G7, to tackle these unfair practices?
My hon. Friend is right that global trading rules have not adapted to take account of China’s growth or its different economic model, so Britain cannot, and will not, allow her businesses to be damaged or undercut by those who do not play by the rules, such as through the non-transparent granting of different forms of industrial subsidies. We will work with like-minded partners at the G7, the G20, the WTO and elsewhere to address the harmful impacts of these unfair practices.
Happy birthday, Mr Speaker. The Trade Remedies Authority has made a deeply flawed recommendation to withdraw half of all the safeguards on steel. If the recommendation is implemented, it is likely to lead to a flood of steel imports, with potentially disastrous consequences for the steel industry, communities and livelihoods. The Government’s own regulations do not allow them to retain the safeguards unless the Trade Remedies Authority advises them to do so. The Secretary of State has already said that the regulations need to be reviewed, so will Ministers accept our offer to work together to find a way to retain these vital safeguards and, in so doing, live up to the commitment made by the Trade Secretary to do whatever it takes to protect our steel industry?
I am delighted to hear what the shadow Minister says, but what he is asking for, which is the imposition of measures against the independent recommendation of the TRA, is not within the Secretary of State’s powers today. In fact, his party argued that the Secretary of State should have fewer powers when the legislation was going through the House under the last Government. It wanted to curtail her powers further, and it was robust on that. We will not hesitate to defend British industry; that is our policy. The world has changed since 2018, when these powers were put in place, and the Trade Secretary is exploring what else might be needed in Britain’s toolkit to defend British industry.
Australia Trade Agreement: Buckinghamshire
There will be opportunities for businesses across Buckinghamshire as part of the 2,600 businesses in the south-east that were already exporting goods to Australia last year. They are set to benefit from action on tariffs in areas such as cars, food and drink, and machinery, and there will be benefits in services, including digital, data and innovation provisions that will future-proof the FTA for businesses in Buckinghamshire and across the United Kingdom.
Many happy returns, Mr Speaker. I thank the Minister for his answer. Buckinghamshire has more microbusinesses than any other county in the country, so now that we are a free sovereign trading nation once again, what help can my right hon. Friend give to those very small businesses that want to export to Australia but might not yet have the expertise and experience to do so?
I am well aware of the situation in Buckinghamshire; my father set up a microbusiness in Buckinghamshire 40-odd years ago. I can tell my hon. Friend that our refreshed export strategy will raise the exporting culture of the UK, taking advantage of our new independent trade policy by providing SMEs and micro-businesses across Buckinghamshire with new opportunities to build their exporting capability in both goods and services, to enhance support, to strengthen one-to-many digital services and to improve access to finance.
Trade Deals: Human Rights
The United Kingdom has long supported the promotion of her values globally. We are clear that more trade does not need to come at the expense of rights or responsibilities, and although our approach to agreements will vary between partners, our strong economic relationships allow us to have open discussions on a range of issues.
Penblwydd hapus, Mr Speaker. Given the ongoing violations of international law by the Israeli Government, the attacks on the human rights of the Palestinian people and their suffering, and Israel’s recent bombardment of the Gaza strip in May, in which more than 240 Palestinians, over a quarter of them children, were killed, thousands more were injured and more than 90,000 people displaced, does the Minister agree that it is now essential that there is an investigation into whether UK-made arms or components have been used in the recent violence and destruction of homes, businesses and health facilities in Gaza? In the meantime, will the Government immediately cease the export of arms to Israel?
Every Israeli and Palestinian has the right to live in peace and security. We understand the deep frustration on all sides at the lack of progress in the middle east peace process. The ongoing violence just underlines that a lasting resolution that ends these problems is long overdue. In respect of our arms exports, we have a robust arms export control process in the United Kingdom that is governed by the consolidated criteria, and no exports occur where the consolidated criteria are not met.
The UK’s deal with Cameroon will complete its ratification process today, with no vote by MPs and no apparent concern from Ministers about the abuse that is taking place in that country. Can I ask the Minister whether he thinks the US Government were wrong to end preferential trade with Cameroon because of the Biya regime’s abuses, and if not, why are we ratifying a deal to do the opposite?
The Under-Secretary of State for International Trade, my hon. Friend the Member for Beverley and Holderness (Graham Stuart), spoke in an Adjournment debate yesterday on this topic, and the Opposition could, of course, have used an Opposition day debate on this area. We have a strong history of protecting rights around the world, promoting our values globally, and we will continue to do so. By having an economic partnership agreement in place and encouraging trade, we are continuing to support some of the most vulnerable people in Cameroon, providing valuable employment and helping to lift them out of poverty.
Happy birthday, Mr Speaker.
“Mass torture”, “rape” and “forced sterilisation”—that is the testimony of dozens of survivors at the Uyghur tribunal in London, which is chaired by the former lead prosecutor at The Hague, Sir Geoffrey Nice, QC. Does the Minister really think the British Government should be turning a blind eye to the suffering of the human race for the sake of trade deals?
We have not. We have proven our leadership and commitment time and again. We have ramped up pressure on China in multilateral forums. We are taking targeted action on supply chains and our approach to China remains clear-eyed: we remain rooted in our values and in our interests. The truth is that we have announced a series of measures to help make sure that British businesses and the public sector are in no way complicit in the rights violations in Xinjiang, and that includes making sure there is a review of export controls as they apply to the situation there.
Happy birthday, Mr Speaker. The English-speaking population in Cameroon faces mass killings, atrocities and torture. As we have heard, the US has now invoked trade sanctions, but the UK has signed a trade deal without parliamentary approval. So can I ask: has the EU’s essential rights clause now been removed from all future trade deals, so that abuses, however abhorrent and widespread, will now be supported by the British economy through secret deals, thereby taking control back from Parliament and giving it to those with blood on their hands?
I am not entirely sure what the hon. Gentleman is referring to in respect of secret deals. This is an agreement that the EU had originally. We have continued an agreement here to provide certainty to businesses in both countries and to date the EU has not taken measures against Cameroon—I know how fond he is of the EU.
In response to the Adjournment debate last night, the Under-Secretary of State for International Trade, the hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness, told the House in relation to Cameroon that
“Violence does appear to have decreased in recent months compared with the peak of the conflict”.—[Official Report, 9 June 2021; Vol. 696, c. 1070.]
as if the fact that the Biya regime is killing and maiming fewer of its citizens was justification for our trade deal with them. Is it really the Government’s position that it is fine to do trade deals with murderous regimes if they are now killing fewer of their own people than they were?
The British people will have noticed that I have now answered five questions from Labour Members on future trade agreements and, instead of seeking to secure benefits for their constituents on those deals, they are clutching at straws to stop them. The Labour party is hopelessly out of touch. This Conservative Government are focused on delivering for the British people. Unlike Labour, we have a plan for jobs and growth, and trade is central to that. We have secured trade deals with 67 countries around the world, plus the EU, covering trade worth £730 billion last year—and we are just getting started.
UK Steel Exports
We are working to de-escalate trade tensions that negatively impact steel exporters, including our pursuit of a permanent resolution to the US section 232 tariffs, which so unfairly harm the UK steel industry. I am pleased to say that in terms of the EU we have agreed tariff-rate quota allocations for UK steel exports, without which the industry could have been hit by a 25% tariff and an estimated cost of £80 million in the first half of this year alone.
Another penblwydd hapus to you, Mr Speaker.
The greatest step that Ministers can take to protect our exports is to protect our steel industry as a whole. As my hon. Friend the Member for Sefton Central (Bill Esterson) asked earlier, will Ministers commit to working with Labour on a cross-party basis, as was promised in the Westminster Hall debate yesterday, to fix deficiencies in our trade remedies legislation and reverse the recommendations from the Trade Remedies Investigations Directorate that UK Steel has called “a hammer blow” to our industry?
The TRA has conducted a full review of the steel safeguard measure so that it applies to the UK in a proportionate and WTO-compliant manner. It is an independent body, as the hon. Lady knows, that provides unbiased evidence-based assessments of the need for remedies. For clarity, the Secretary of State—[Interruption.] It would be great to get through one answer without chuntering from the right hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry), but it seems to be impossible. The Secretary of State can only accept or reject the TRA recommendation as a whole; she cannot modify or partially accept it and she cannot extend the measure if the TRA does not recommend it. However, it is crucial that the Government have the correct tools available to allow them to tackle unfair trade, and the Secretary of State will be giving careful consideration to the trade remedies framework and the powers that it affords her.
G7 Summit: Trade Priorities
Happy birthday, Mr Speaker; I am sorry that I did not mention it earlier.
Penblwydd hapus, Mr Speaker.
Ahead of the G7, the Prime Minister has said that climate is his top priority, yet the Department for International Trade is still funnelling billions—including £3.5 billion from UK Export Finance—into overseas fossil-fuel projects and dirty projects are still being considered, despite the promise to end them. The Prime Minister himself flies into Cornwall on a private jet to talk climate. How can this Government expect to be taken seriously as a climate leader on the biggest threat facing us when they clearly do not take the issue seriously themselves?
I refute what the hon. Lady just said. We have changed the rules that govern UK Export Finance to make sure that it is focused solely on financing clean-energy projects, and that is alongside other measures that support our zero-carbon objectives. We are also working hard at the World Trade Organisation and through the G7 to make trade greener and to make sure that zero carbon is part of how the global trading system works.
Labour has backed an intellectual property waiver on vaccines to help with the pandemic in the poorest countries. The US agrees, as do the majority of world leaders, but the UK remains steadfastly against the plan. With the G7 giving us the opportunity for breakthrough this weekend, will the Secretary of State tell us why she will not support this life-saving initiative?
I am very proud that the UK Government funded research into the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, which is now producing 98% of the 49 million covid vaccines delivered right around the world. We have played a leading role in that. I am interested in practical measures that have real effect, such as voluntary licensing agreements. If there is any evidence that intellectual property waivers could help, I am all ears and interested to hear it, but we cannot have a regime that destroys intellectual property rights and ends up stopping future innovation.
With all due respect to the Secretary of State, boosting the overall global supply of vaccines is key to get global trade going, secure British jobs and help our allies in the Commonwealth and the developing world. In these exceptional times, why did Britain, as my hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth South (Stephen Morgan) said, refuse to support at the World Trade Organisation yesterday—presumably on the Secretary of State’s instruction—allies of ours such as America, India and South Africa, and many other countries, and to back a temporary waiver of patents on covid vaccines?
As I have said, the UK is always willing to listen to pragmatic suggestions about how we make the regime work better. For example, we have supported the abolition of export restrictions—many other countries have not—so that we can see goods flow around the world. The fact is that the real changes are being made by voluntary licensing, as we have enabled at the Serum Institute in India. We are part of the third-way work to roll out practical answers. There is no IP waiver proposal on the table that would actually deliver more vaccines to the poorest people in the world, which is what we want to achieve.
Free Trade Agreement: Australia
Following two days of intensive discussions during the visit of Dan Tehan, the Australian Minister for Trade, Tourism and Investment, on 22 and 23 April, both sides reached consensus on most elements of a comprehensive free trade agreement. The UK and Australia are now working to agree the outstanding elements, with the aim of reaching agreement in principle this month.
I am speaking from Lincolnshire, the bread basket of England. It is a prosperous county, but in the area of world free trade before the second world war, we could walk on derelict farms from Lincoln to Grimsby. Can the Minister assure me that this free trade deal with Australia, which I welcome, will ensure a bright future for our farmers, and that there will be no relaxation of our high-quality standards and no imports of mass-produced wheat that could undercut our farmers?
My right hon. Friend is quite right to point to the brilliance of the Lincolnshire farmers and their industry in helping both to feed this country and to export. We have been absolutely clear that, when it comes to trade deals, there will be no compromise on our standards, food safety, animal welfare and the environment. I agree that there is an opportunity here for Lincolnshire to be exporting more. We have secured more access last week in the Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein deal. We are looking forward to joining the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, which has big opportunities for UK agriculture and future free trade agreements going forward.
Australia Trade Agreement: Scottish Farming
This is a deal for the whole Union. Our scoping assessment found that Scotland will benefit in all modelled scenarios. Reducing tariff barriers for our world-class food and drink industry should help bolster exports of iconic Scottish goods to Australia, such as Scotch whisky, apparel and services, such as financial services. Once we accede to CPTPP, Scottish farmers will also gain access to the increasing middle class in Asia.
Australia’s red meat industry has the goal of doubling its sales by 2030, which requires access to UK markets. That expansion can only come, despite what the Government say, at the expense of domestic producers and standards. What absolute minimum SPS, bio-security and welfare standards will the Government insist on in any Australian trade deal to safeguard producers and consumers, and to ensure that our farmers are not simply the next industry to be thrown beneath the wheels of the Brexit bus?
I have met with NFU Scotland a few times in recent weeks. To be honest, it would be nice to hear the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues for once sticking up for agriculture in Scotland and the opportunities that come from trade, rather than being against every single trade agreement. Australia apparently exports a lot to Asia—75% of its beef exports, 70% of its lamb exports—and only 0.15% to the UK. There are strong reasons for that. The production costs, for beef in particular, are much higher in countries such as Japan and Korea than they are in either the UK or in Australia. Staged over time, tariff reductions and making sure that safeguards are in place, we are confident that we will have the ability to protect UK farmers from any unforeseen increases in Australian imports to this country.
I wish you a very happy birthday, Mr Speaker.
Currently, the UK does not have specific legislation to ban meat from animals raised by inhumane methods such as battery cages—methods that are utterly intolerable here but permitted and used extensively in Australia. The Department for International Trade has also never set out if or how it might inspect animal welfare and food standards in countries with which we may sign new post-Brexit trade deals. Does the Minister truly believe that the people of Scotland are prepared to see food on their supermarket shelves reared in appalling conditions, all for the additional 0.1% to 0.2% of GDP over 15 years as per his Department’s own assessment?
I have never heard the SNP support any trade deal, ever. SNP Members even voted for a no-deal Brexit last December. The hon. Member mentioned standards. We have been absolutely clear that there will be no compromise on our standards. However, Australia, in its standards on animal welfare, is actually ranked five out of five by the World Organisation for Animal Health for its performance in veterinary services across 38 categories. The hon. Member talks about meeting our standards; our import standards remain high, and will be unchanged as a result of this or any other trade agreement. Australian produce—as, indeed, other produce—must continue to meet our high import standards.
Domestic Battery Development
We recognise the importance of domestic battery development and manufacturing, which is why we have engaged with business to understand its needs and ensure that our free trade agreements deliver. That includes negotiating rules of origin that consider the transition to electric vehicles and enable British manufacturers such as Jaguar Land Rover and Nissan to access global markets.
Happy birthday, Mr Speaker.
As the Minister acknowledges, the future of our car industry in the west midlands is dependent on battery production and the Government giving the go-ahead for a gigafactory, but battery production requires ready access to materials such as cobalt, lithium and manganese. Will he tell us which countries he is talking to about trade deals that would secure these supplies?
We are talking to friends around the world to make sure that our supply chains are more resilient than ever before. That is a clear lesson from our coronavirus situation, where we have seen that we should not be too reliant on any one country. We have prioritised securing investment in battery cell gigafactories, to which the hon. Member refers. I am delighted that he is supporting our agenda, which we believe is key to anchoring the mass manufacture of electric vehicles in Britain, safeguarding jobs and driving emissions to net zero by 2050.
Australia Trade Agreement: Bishop Auckland
The Government are clear that any deal with Australia must work for UK farmers and producers. We will use a range of tools to defend British farming. As well as improving access to the Australian market, an FTA will act as a gateway to CPTPP, creating unheralded new export opportunities for British farmers and producers.
Last summer, the Secretary of State visited Grange Hill farm in Bishop Auckland, where leading farmers John and Jane are rightly proud of the fabulous beef that they produce. Will my right hon. Friend please tell the House how the gateway to the CPTPP—a deal with Australia—will open up new markets for British beef farmers?
I know that the Secretary of State greatly enjoyed her visit last year to the farms in my hon. Friend’s constituency. CPTPP is a great opportunity. I referenced in an earlier question growing Asian demand for products such as meat and other British agrifood products. We see there being tremendous opportunities in that fast-growing market—13% of global GDP across four continents. This is a real opportunity to be able to sell British farming produce to those fast-growing Asian and American markets.
UK-China Trading Relationship
China is an important trading partner for the UK, with bilateral trade worth £78.8 billion in 2020. In fact, China was our third largest overall trading partner and seventh largest export market last year, with UK exports to China amounting to £22.9 billion. The UK also remains a leading destination for Chinese outbound investment in Europe.
Coda Octopus, a company based in my constituency, has been encouraged by successive Tory Governments to expand its sales to China. Its world-leading Echoscope is used in underwater port construction and in renewable energy projects, and it does not have a military use. Yet despite a 23-year track record of exports, it is now losing millions of pounds in orders due to a change in attitude on export licences, and responses from the Minister’s Department are taking over 100 days. Will the Minister meet me so that I can sort this situation out for my constituents?
I thank the hon. and learned Lady for her reasonable question. It is a delight to have an SNP Member in the Chamber actually championing business and looking to open up markets. We have one of the most rigorous and thorough export licensing regimes in the world, and we are proud of it. Every application is looked at on a case-by-case basis against the consolidated criteria. However, I will ensure that a meeting is set up for her with the appropriate Minister to discuss this.
Happy birthday, Mr Speaker.
Two weeks ago, we heard that Jimmy Lai, the owner of the largest pro-democracy newspaper in Hong Kong, had not only been sentenced for a second time but has now had his assets frozen. This step makes it incredibly hard to continue to fund his journalistic enterprises, which in turn has a chilling implication for a free press in Hong Kong. Colleagues across this House have called on the Government to implement Magnitsky sanctions, but there is concern that the UK’s sluggishness to implement sanctions is because the Government seek a future trade deal with China. Can the Minister clarify: is the prospect of a future deal causing this Government to treat China with leniency it does not deserve?
It is one of the abiding characteristics of the left in general that if they cannot find a scare story they invent one. This Government are clear: we are not seeking a free trade agreement with China. We have led the world in challenging China where we have found it necessary to do so. Working with international partners, we seek to maximise impact on any actions China takes that run counter to its international treaty obligations, including detentions without trial, detention of human rights defenders, and persecution of some religious and ethnic minorities. We work with allies on the most effective means to challenge it. On 30 June, at the 44th session of the UN Human Rights Council, the UK read out a formal statement on behalf of 28 countries highlighting concerns about the human rights situation in Hong Kong and Xinjiang. I hope that the hon. Lady and other Opposition Members will never again suggest that we would do anything to put trade ahead of our responsibilities on human rights.
Last week the UK agreed in principle a new trade deal with Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein worth £22 billion that brings opportunities for British exporters and services, from farmers to lawyers to musicians. It is the first trade deal ever to include provisions on mobile roaming, and it brings benefits to UK fish processing, supporting 18,000 jobs in Scotland, East Yorkshire and north Lincolnshire.
Last month, Members in all parts of the House were horrified by the appalling outbreak of violence between Israel and Gaza. Can the Secretary of State set out whether British arms exports were used in any way against innocent civilians in that conflict? If she is unable to do so, does she not agree that the inability to know where our arms are being used, and what for, is hugely concerning given the potential breaches of international law?
We welcomed the announcement of a ceasefire in Israel and Gaza last month. We are committed to a durable ceasefire. As the Under-Secretary of State for International Trade, my hon. Friend the Member for Beverley and Holderness (Graham Stuart) mentioned, we have one of the most robust export control regimes in the world and we take these issues very seriously.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to recognise the importance of the Gulf given that the six countries in the Gulf Co-operation Council are our third-largest non-EU export market, at over £30 billion last year. I am very pleased that we have a strong visa offer for our partners there, including the electronic visa waiver programme, and that the introduction of Britain’s new points-based immigration system creates a level playing field for the first time in many years. I will continue to work closely with fellow Ministers at the Home Office to make sure that the visa system contributes to Britain rightly being recognised as a world leader with which to trade and invest.
I thank my hon. Friend for his continued support for businesses in his constituency, and I agree with him that B&B Attachments is an example of UK manufacturing at its best. My Department was delighted to help B&B grow its business overseas by providing specialised advice and dedicated funding. The Department is doing all it can to help other manufacturing suppliers from across the regions and nations of the UK to achieve success overseas, including with grants from our £38 million international-isation fund.
I thank the hon. Lady for her excellent question, because trade show support is really important for putting British business on the front foot. We have worked across multiple industries to improve our digital and virtual offer, and I am delighted to say that in some areas that has led to higher levels of activity than we had before. I will make sure that the House is informed as soon as we have further to say about the plan, possibly following 21 June.
I welcome my hon. Friend’s enthusiasm for a deal with Australia. There is also the fact that it will lead to entry to the CPTPP—a vast Pacific market of huge benefit to the manufacturing industry in the north-east of England and beyond. I thank him very much for his support.
The Labour party is the party of red tape; we are the ones who are getting rid of it. We have called for pragmatism in this area. We are a sovereign nation—we are British, and we are proud of it—and we are going to stand by every corner of this country as we deliver trade benefits and create jobs. In respect of the issues around meat, it is wrong that anyone should be threatening the British sausage. We will stand up for the British sausage, and no one will ever be able to destroy it.
I am pleased to say that my Department has recently created the new Export Academy, designed precisely to equip businesses with the capabilities and confidence to export successfully. My hon. Friend is such a champion of his local exporters, and it is so refreshing to have Government Members like him championing local business. I believe that he is holding an exporters fair shortly, and I congratulate him on that. He will be pleased to hear that 259 businesses from the north-west have joined the SME pilot Export Academy since it began, including 15 from the Burnley area. We have international trade advisers for the northern powerhouse, so additional resource has gone in there, and with his help, we will continue to champion northern businesses, and businesses from Burnley in particular, over the coming months and years.
Once again, the Labour party is obsessed by membership of the European Union. It has not moved on from the referendum, when the British people provided a clear signal to us in this place that we should get on with delivering the benefits of Brexit. This deal is a world leader in digital trade, eliminating the need for paperwork, and many countries and trade blocs could learn from that.
I feel somewhat inadequate that I can only say this in English, but many happy returns, Mr Speaker.
Will my right hon. Friend confirm that, as and when a trade deal with the United States is agreed, the Government will not compromise on the principle that underpins the online safety Bill—that digital platforms, including American ones, must comply with the duty of care to keep their users as safe as they reasonably can—and that that will hold true whether or not the Bill has completed its legislative passage and is enforced by that point?
The UK is committed to making our regime the safest place in the world to be online. In trade negotiations, we will protect our online safety regime, while also promoting our thriving digital industry. I am pleased that in free trade agreements with Japan and the European economic area, we have agreed free flow of data alongside protecting Britain’s high standards, and that is exactly what we would do in an agreement with the United States.
Scotch whisky is vital in North East Fife, not just because we enjoy a wee dram, particularly on birthdays—many happy returns, Mr Speaker—but because it forms a key part of the local economy. With four independent distilleries in my constituency, the success of these businesses matters both for those in directly linked jobs and for those working in tourism and hospitality. Can the Secretary of State confirm that the Prime Minister will use his bilateral meeting with President Biden this week to agree and publish a clear road map for the permanent settlement of the Boeing-Airbus dispute, which would remove the risk of tariffs being reimposed on Scotch whisky and other sectors?
It was very positive news when the tariffs were lifted earlier this year. We are now working very closely with Katherine Tai, the US TR, with whom I have regular conversations, on a permanent settlement to this arrangement, and we are making good progress.
The difference is that you and I don’t count the years, Mr Speaker. Instead, we make the years count, and that is important.
It is really important that we have these trade deals and I support them, but I wish to express concern about the Australian trade deal. I declare an interest as a member of the Ulster Farmers’ Union. The Ulster Farmers’ Union and my neighbours, who are members of it, have expressed concern about the quality of Australian beef and the fact that it might impact adversely on the Northern Ireland beef sector and industry. We export most of our beef. Can the Secretary of State assure me that the deal will not impact on the Northern Ireland beef sector?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. I have met the Foyle Food Group, for example, who were the first beef exporters to export to the United States when we got the ban removed. I know that there are huge opportunities around the world for high-quality Northern Ireland beef. Part of what we are doing with the Australian trade deal is opening up wider access to the Asia-Pacific markets, which have higher prices than here in the UK and in Europe and will bring more opportunity. I am very happy to have further conversations with the hon. Gentleman.
Napier Barracks Asylum Accommodation
(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department if she will make a statement on the judicial review judgment on Napier barracks contingency asylum accommodation.
Happy birthday, Mr Speaker.
Happy birthday from me as well, Mr Speaker. I made my maiden speech on your birthday when you were in the Chair as Deputy Speaker six years ago.
I am answering this question on behalf of the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster), who has sadly suffered a family bereavement and therefore cannot be here this morning.
Covid-19 has had a major and unprecedented impact on the asylum system. We make absolutely no apologies for doing everything in our power to provide shelter to those in need during these exceptional times.
Between March and October last year, nearly 12,000 extra people needed to be housed as a result of the pandemic, nearly 10,000 of whom ended up in hotels, at huge public expense. Every accommodation option had to be considered.
Those accommodated at Napier barracks are catered with three nutritious meals per day, with options for special dietary or religious requirements. There is a recreational building with a library. Prayer rooms are available and scheduled activities now include yoga, English conversation and art. There is a nurse on site and access to a GP. All asylum seekers housed at Napier have access to a 24/7 advice service, provided for the Home Office by Migrant Help.
Napier barracks has been happily used for many years by Army and police personnel. The army itself has continued to use barrack accommodation around the country during the pandemic, when needed. While we are disappointed by some of the judgment, the High Court found in the Home Office’s favour in a number of areas. It rejected the claim that conditions at Napier amounted to “inhuman or degrading treatment.” The judge declined to rule that dormitories or barrack accommodation could never provide “adequate accommodation” for asylum seekers, and the judge rejected the claim that the expectation that residents would be back on site by 10pm amounted to a curfew or unlawful imprisonment.
Furthermore, the judgment was based on conditions in the past, before several significant improvements. These include a stronger cleaning regime, reopening of communal areas with staggered access times, limiting the period of residency and using lateral flow tests three times a week. The overall capacity of the site has also been reduced. At all stages, the Home Office believed it was taking reasonable steps to respond to Public Health England suggestions on public health, where possible.
We have published the suitability criteria that we use for assessing who is suitable to be accommodated at Napier. If it becomes apparent that someone is resident but unsuitable, a transfer is then arranged.
Through our new plans for immigration and the upcoming sovereign borders Bill, this Government are taking action to increase the fairness and efficiency of our asylum system but also to fight illegal and unnecessary migration, such as that by small boats coming across the English Channel. I hope Members will support that Bill when it comes forward, as it is sorely needed to support reform of the system.
In January, there was a major covid outbreak at the Home Office centre at Napier barracks. Some 200 people got covid, both residents and staff, impacting on the local community too. Last week’s damning court judgment said:
“The ‘bottom line’ is that the arrangements at the Barracks were contrary to the advice of PHE…The precautions which were taken were completely inadequate to prevent the spread of Covid-19 infection, and…the outbreak which occurred in mid-January 2021 was inevitable.”
The Home Office put people in dormitory blocks, with shared facilities for up to 28 people, at the height of a pandemic.
When the Home Affairs Committee asked the Home Secretary about this, she said that
“the use of the accommodation was all based on Public Health England advice, and…working in line with public health guidance…so we have been following guidance in every single way.”
The permanent secretary told the Committee
“we were following the guidance at every stage”.
But the court judgment and the evidence from PHE shows the opposite is true.
An internal Home Office email from 7 September records PHE advice as
“advice is that dormitories are not suitable”.
Public Health England told the Home Affairs Committee they
“don’t know how dormitories can be COVID compliant.”
They told the Home Office to follow youth hostel guidance—single rooms only and dormitories to be closed, except for household groups. They and Public Health Wales advised that if the Home Office were going ahead, they should at least limit the number of beds to six, keep people in bubbles with clear isolation facilities and have strong cleaning regimes. None of those things happened at Napier.
Instead, the independent inspectorate and local health officials found poor ventilation in dormitories, inadequate shared washing facilities, a deficient cleaning regime and no proper arrangements for self-isolation, with those testing positive and negative all kept in the same large dormitories. The Home Office was clearly not following public health advice in every way or at every stage. The Minister has an obligation to correct the record, so will he now admit that the Home Office did not follow public health advice and apologise for the inaccurate information given?
Will the Minister tell us what is happening now? Leading local health professionals have warned that the site still cannot be considered safe, and the Home Office’s own documents show local health professionals saying that another outbreak is inevitable. Charities have told me that there are still 12 to 14 people in a room and 28 people in shared blocks. Is that true, even after a damning inspectorate report and a damning court judgment, and even after 200 people caught covid on the site? The Home Office has a responsibility to keep people safe. Why has it been ignoring public health advice in the middle of a pandemic and putting public health at risk?
First, the Select Committee Chair should take into account the context that pertained last September: 60,000 people needed to be accommodated in the middle of a pandemic—an increase of 12,000 people in just the space of a few months. With the best will in the world, it is operationally extremely difficult to accommodate 60,000 people in a pandemic—an extra 12,000 people at a matter of a few weeks or a few months’ notice.
The reality is that in the middle of a pandemic outbreaks in some places occur. We have had outbreaks in the hotels that have been used. In other parts of Government—in prisons and other places—there have been covid outbreaks. We have had covid going around Parliament as well. I have caught covid myself; in fact, 5 million people have tested positive for covid. The virus knows no boundaries, and it is very difficult to manage 60,000 people in those circumstances. The measures taken to combat covid on site included rigorous cleaning built into the contract, hand sanitisers, social distancing, personal cleaning equipment provided to service users, isolating and cohorting arrangements. They have now been enhanced further, with more cleaning, staggered access to communal areas and, three times a week, lateral flow testing. We have also reduced the numbers currently on the site.
Public Health England wrote to the Select Committee Chair on 1 June. I have the letter in front of me. In the second paragraph, it says:
“PHE has been in a positive ongoing dialogue and working collaboratively with Home Office (HO) colleagues on a range of COVID-19 related issues since spring 2020.”
Moreover, public health guidance published on gov.uk on 15 December 2020, which she will be aware of, said that ideally accommodation providers would
“identify single-rooms with en suite bathroom facilities”.
That is difficult to do for 60,000 people. However, it then said that
“if single occupancy accommodation is not available”—
thus acknowledging that that will not be possible in all cases—
“accommodation where cohorting is possible should be provided”.
We have maintained a close dialogue with Public Health England. Where possible we have followed its guidelines, and a number of improvements have been made in recent months.
Whatever people’s view on the asylum situation in this country, people in Folkestone are united in their opposition to the use of Napier barracks in this way. It has been destructive to the community, not least because the barracks have been the focal point of protests—both people protesting about migrant crossings and people protesting about the use of the barracks. It has been a drain on other public services as well. Does the Home Office intend to renew its lease on Napier barracks, which expires in September?
I thank my hon. Friend for his question and for the tireless work that he has done on behalf of his constituents, liaising with the Home Office, Kent County Council, Folkestone and Hythe District Council and others, and representing his constituents extremely effectively. Unfortunately, very often the local population is not terribly keen on accommodation centres of this kind, for the reasons that he outlined.
We are obviously working hard to mitigate those impacts. Kent police, for example, have received extra funding, and we are working closely with the local health service. The current arrangements on the site are due to run until September. No decision has been made beyond that, but I assure my hon. Friend that he will be closely engaged with at all stages as any further decision is taken.
I, too, wish you a very happy birthday, Mr Speaker.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper) on securing this urgent question. The recent High Court judgment was a further shameful indictment of the Government’s approach to asylum accommodation. My right hon. Friend highlighted the failure of the Home Office to listen to the public health advice about Napier barracks that led to the covid outbreak affecting 197 asylum seekers and staff and posing a danger to the wider community.
On 30 November, as a result of a fire safety inspection at Napier, the Crown premises fire safety inspectorate concluded that
“identified individuals or groups of people would be at risk in case of fire.”
In January, a fire broke out in Napier. The independent chief inspector of borders and immigration noted that the CPFSI’s concerns had not been addressed prior to the fire. Can the Minister tell me why the Home Office ignored the advice of Public Health England and the CPFSI? Can he give me a categorical assurance that the Home Office will now follow all future advice from PHE and CPFSI, and publish the advice it was given by PHE?
The Kent and Medway clinical commissioning group’s infection prevention report outlined that the site did not facilitate effective social distancing. Quite simply, how on earth did this happen in the middle of a global pandemic?
I have said already that having to accommodate 60,000 people in the middle of a pandemic, and an increase of 12,000 in a few months, poses very substantial challenges. Where we were able to, we followed suggestions that were made. The hon. Gentleman asked about publishing PHE advice. I said in my first answer that it was published on gov.uk on 15 December last year. He said that a fire broke out. A fire did not break out; there was an act of deliberate arson by the people who were accommodated there, which was disgraceful, outrageous, unjustifiable and unconscionable. It did not break out; it was arson.
In relation to the points about public health, I have already listed, in answer to the Select Committee Chairman, the measures that have recently been taken to improve conditions at the Napier site.
The residents of Blackpool South were absolutely appalled by the recent High Court judgment. Many of them have questioned why accommodation that was previously fit for our brave troops is somehow inadequate for those who are supposedly fleeing persecution around the globe. Indeed, some have asked why so many people want to remain in the UK at all if the accommodation is so bad. Does the Minister agree that the High Court judgment only highlights the need for urgent reform of our asylum system as a whole, and does he agree that we now need to look at processing asylum seekers outside the UK as part of this plan?
The judgment, as I said earlier, did not find that the conditions were inhuman or degrading, and it did not find that using dormitory or barrack accommodation was inherently unsuitable, so I agree with the spirit of my hon. Friend’s question.
We certainly need to reform the system. The people who are coming across the English channel on small boats are making a journey that is not only dangerous and illegal, but unnecessary. France is a safe country, Germany is a safe country, Belgium is a safe country and Italy is a safe country. The right thing to do—the safe thing to do, and the legal thing to do—is to claim asylum in the first available place. In relation to his last question, yes, all options are being considered.
The utterly damning judgment said expressly that if the MOD had treated soldiers in this way, that, too, would have been unlawful. But let us just run with the idea that this was six soldiers instead of six asylum seekers, and they were put in conditions where a covid outbreak was inevitable, where the fire inspectorate highlighted serious or significant risk of harm, where self-harm and attempts at suicide were occurring because of the prison camp conditions, and where failed screening processes meant that that group of soldiers included those who were particularly vulnerable to covid or mental ill health. Imagine MPs were then told that use of the accommodation was all based on Public Health England advice, without us ever getting to see that advice, and then a court case established that the opposite was true. [Interruption.] Yes—only thanks to the court case.
Knowingly placing soldiers or anyone else into a covid trap and a fire trap would lead to outrage, resignations and sackings. Why are the consequences not exactly the same when it is six torture and trafficking survivors from Eritrea or Sudan? Will the Minister apologise for telling the House that conditions at Napier were good enough for the armed services? If he thinks that, it is insulting to the armed services. Will he accept that the conditions are not good enough for the Government to use the barracks for any cohort of people, and what does he think the Home Secretary can learn from the precedent of Amber Rudd’s resignation for inadvertently misleading the Home Affairs Committee?
The hon. Gentleman talks about the publication of the public health guidance. It was published online. He said it was only published because of the court case. It was published on 15 December—long before the court case was registered.
The hon. Member said the people there were sick. There are screening criteria to make sure that people who should not go there do not go there. If they become vulnerable during the time of occupation, they get moved out. I should also add that the people accommodated there are all young single men, almost entirely aged between 18 and 40. On the number who got covid—along with 5 million, or more than 5 million, other people in this country—not a single person was hospitalised that I am aware of. That is why we are taking further steps to make sure the site is covid-secure. I have listed some of them already: lateral flow testing three times a week now, numbers being reduced and enhanced cleaning. Those are sensible steps in response to the pandemic and in response to the court judgment.
A very happy birthday to you, Mr Speaker.
The Home Office has worked incredibly hard in very difficult circumstances to improve conditions, and covid security particularly, for the men temporarily housed at Napier barracks since the evidence informing the High Court ruling was submitted. However, I represent a large Army community that will be wondering why conditions considered fine for servicemen and women are considered not good enough for asylum seekers, including those who have made the illegal and perilous journey across the channel. How am I to advise my constituents?
I think my right hon. Friend is raising an extremely good question. It is precisely because of that question that we will be introducing a Bill in the near future, announced in the Queen’s Speech, to reform our system to make sure that the asylum system is fair, as of course it should be, to those in genuine need, but that we deal with these claims quickly, effectively and fairly, and also prevent unnecessary illegal migration, which puts enormous pressure on the system of the kind we are discussing.
The British Red Cross, which I think we would all acknowledge as the expert in the area of provision of accommodation of this sort, made a recommendation in its recent report that the Home Office
“should introduce a formal, independent inspection regime for asylum…accommodation with publicly available reports,”
in order to better
“monitor the quality and effectiveness of support provided and improve transparency and accountability”
for decisions. Surely, in the Home Office’s own interests, that would be preferable to a status quo where it is left to mark its own homework or to be called out by the courts.
Many happy returns, Mr Speaker.
One of the most shocking aspects of Napier barracks was the detention of vulnerable people who had already survived serious human rights abuses, including torture and trafficking. Given that people’s immigration cases can be resolved more humanely, efficiently and cost-effectively by supporting them in the community, why is the Home Office opening a new detention centre for vulnerable women in County Durham?
I am afraid to say that the hon. Lady is getting a little muddled up there. The Napier site is not for detention; it is an accommodation centre, and people are free to come and go, as the court case found. The centre up in Hassockfield in Durham is a detention centre prior to removal for people whose appeal rights are exhausted and who have no legal right to be in the country. They are two completely different things.
Would the Minister agree with me that the problem is not Napier barracks, but people crossing the channel illegally from France? Is not the simple solution that, when these people arrive in England, we put them on a Royal Navy boat and take them back to France, because France is a safe country and that is where asylum should be claimed? If we did that, it would stop the problem.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that these channel crossings, which are now running at extremely and unacceptably high levels, are completely unnecessary because France is a safe country and people do not need to make the crossing. It is dangerous and it is also illegal, so I completely agree with those sentiments. In relation to the decisive action needed to stop these crossings completely, I can assure my hon. Friend that every single option is under very active consideration.
The Home Secretary told the House in January that Napier barracks was
“in line with Public Health England guidelines.”—[Official Report, 26 January 2021; Vol. 688, c. 177.]
She reiterated that earlier this week when she told the House that her Department worked fully with PHE, but it is not true, as the High Court ruled last week, with the honourable Justice Linden writing that
“the arrangements at the Barracks were contrary to the advice of PHE”.
The ministerial code states that Ministers must give
“accurate and truthful information to Parliament, correcting any inadvertent error at the earliest opportunity.”
So I ask the Minister, given this blatant discrepancy between the facts and what the Home Secretary said, why is she not here today to correct the record, or will she learn from her predecessor, who resigned as Home Secretary for inadvertently misleading MPs?
I have already read the quote from the letter from Public Health England to the Chair of the Home Affairs Committee dated 1 June in terms of the work we have been doing with them, and it says in the second paragraph:
“PHE has been in a positive ongoing dialogue and working collaboratively with Home Office…on a range of COVID-19 related issues since spring 2020.”
I wish you a long life and happiness of your birthday, Mr Speaker.
My hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone) rightly said that the problem here is the illegal crossings from France. May I take this opportunity to thank the Minister and his colleagues for doing everything they can to reform the asylum system so that it helps those who actually are vulnerable and need it most? Can he confirm that under the new proposals we will be opening more safe routes to the UK while clamping down on the people smugglers who prey on the most vulnerable?
My hon. Friend, as always, puts it exactly right. We intend to stand by those in genuine need with schemes like the resettlement scheme, which has taken vulnerable people directly from places of danger and resettled them, and has done so more than any other country in Europe, but when it comes to illegal migration we intend to clamp down hard.
Happy birthday to you, Mr Speaker.
Yesterday, I was made aware of a serious matter that could revolutionise our equality laws. Professors gave evidence at the Women and Equalities Committee and said that buildings—not people—could be something akin to aggressive or threatening. So I think the illegal immigrants at Napier may perhaps have acted in self-defence when trashing and torching the barracks. We should all be aware of their vulnerabilities and sensibilities, so will the Minister agree to send a delegation from the Committee to assess this building aggression, in particular my hon. Friend the Member for Ashfield (Lee Anderson), whose sensibilities make him ideally suited to the job?
I am not quite sure where to start. I certainly do not agree with the comments made about building aggression; they seem absurd. My hon. Friend makes a good point, and there is absolutely no excuse whatsoever for incidents such as the terrible act of arson we saw back in January.
A very happy birthday to you today, Mr Speaker.
The Minister’s description of Napier barracks sounds like a propaganda film—yoga, three meals a day, regular cleaning. However, in reality refugees and those seeking asylum are living in squalid accommodation, bitten alive by bedbugs and with inadequate health support. The Government’s accommodation policies are entrenched in controversy, so can the Minister explain how the £1 billion contracts are monitored, and does he agree with the High Court ruling that the use at Napier barracks was unlawful and shameful?
I have explained that many aspects of the judgment found in favour of the Home Office, and I have also explained that improvements have been made subsequently. The contracts are monitored on an ongoing basis, but I repeat again that the challenges of managing 60,000 people in asylum accommodation in the middle of a pandemic are very considerable.
I see this issue about public health in a pandemic as a little bit of a distraction technique, frankly. Pandemic or no pandemic, I am pretty sure that most Labour Members would rather have these people, who are largely illegal immigrants, in elaborate hotel accommodation for as long as possible—potentially indefinitely. Does the Minister agree that if we are going to do what the elected Government were asked to do, which is take back control of our borders, it might be necessary in time to be open to looking at human rights law, because it seems that these judges, who are so often out of step with public opinion, are a blockage to us doing what we need to do?
I think the public do expect us to reform the system and to control our borders, which is why we are bringing forward a new Bill very shortly to do exactly that. On the question of human rights, which my hon. Friend rightly raises, there is a review going on currently into the operation of the Human Rights Act 1998 that will be reporting, I think, later this year.
My hon. Friend the Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald) has reminded the House that quite recently a Home Secretary resigned for inadvertently misleading the Home Affairs Committee. Other hon. Members have asked the Minister whether the current Home Secretary misled the Home Affairs Committee in oral evidence on 24 February this year. In response to those questions, the Minister keeps referring to a Public Health England letter from June this year that talks about full co-operation from the Home Office since spring of this year.
Of course, when the Home Secretary gave evidence on 24 February, she was talking about what had happened before then, not what happened this spring. Evidence presented to the High Court suggests that what she said—that the Department had previously followed public health guidance regarding Napier barracks in “every single way”—was simply not factually correct. The High Court has said that the fact that that public health evidence was ignored meant that the covid outbreak was “inevitable”, so why is the Home Secretary not tendering her resignation, as Amber Rudd had the grace and decency to do?
The hon. and learned Lady refers to the letter of 1 June and says that it post-dates the Home Affairs Committee appearance on 24 February, which it does. However, the paragraph that I quoted says that the positive ongoing dialogue and collaborative working had been ongoing “since spring 2020”.
Many happy returns of the day, Mr Speaker.
The High Court judgment was absolutely damning. The judge said:
“I do not accept that the accommodation there ensured a standard of living which was adequate for the health of the Claimants.”
The Government are housing people 14 to a room. As we have heard, more than 200 people contracted covid. What is the Minister going to do to ensure that people are protected from covid? How many people have been vaccinated at the barracks, and what are the future plans for housing asylum seekers in accommodation that is fit for human habitation?
Just to be clear, the court judgment found that there was no article 3 infringement. It did not find that the conditions amounted to inhuman or degrading treatment. Moreover, the judgment did not find, in relation to the requirement to be back at 10 o’clock, that a curfew had been imposed; nor did it find that the barracks or dormitory accommodation were inherently inadequate in the context of asylum accommodation. It is important that the House understands those important aspects of the judgment.
I have already outlined the measures that have been taken: an increased cleaning service, social distancing and lateral flow testing three times a week. All those measures are designed to ensure that users are safe. The hon. Member asked about vaccinations. The Government’s approach to vaccinations in general is that, outside of things like the NHS, vaccinations are done in the order that people are entitled to them based on age and clinical conditions, so the same rules that apply to the hon. Member, to me and to Mr Speaker will apply to people at Napier as well.
I wish you many happy returns, Mr Speaker.
After the second world war, my grandfather, Paul, who fought alongside British forces, was settled in the UK in a refugee camp. A few years later, my mother was born in the same refugee camp. That refugee camp was at an old Army base. Yes, conditions were not great, but they were thankful that they were born in that, because, had my grandfather returned to the Soviet Union, he would have returned to a gulag or perhaps even worse. Why were those conditions good enough for a hero who fought against the Nazis and for my own mother, but not good enough for this current wave of migrants?
Happy birthday, Mr Speaker.
The High Court judgment showed that Napier was unsafe in terms of fire safety, covid security and mental wellbeing, whether for armed forces personnel or asylum seekers, but it is representative of a generalised callousness with regard to support for refugees which leaves many in Newcastle living in inadequate accommodation with inadequate support to keep themselves and their accommodation clean and covid secure. How is the Minister going to change that? Will he say whether Nationwide Accommodation Services, which ran Napier day to day, has other contracts with the Home Office?
If the hon. Lady would like to raise that case in writing, I would be happy to look into it to find out the details and circumstances. We are accommodating 60,000 people across the country. The cost of running the asylum system now amounts to £1 billion a year, which is a staggering sum and makes the case for reform, for all the reasons that Conservative Members have been laying out.
Happy birthday from the people of Ashfield, Mr Speaker.
After five years of living in the back of a lorry fighting for King and country during the second world war, my grandad Charlie returned to these shores, to live in poor housing, with no heating and no hot water, and he made do with an outside toilet and no access to free yoga lessons. He then went on to work for 40 years down the pit and not once did he ever complain about his life. So does the Minister agree that if illegal immigrants entering this country do not like the housing, which has much better facilities than in my grandad’s day, one solution would be to return to France, taking their leftie lawyers and the Opposition with them?
My hon. Friend, as always, makes a powerful point. There is serious question to answer about why people who are in safe countries, such as France, Germany, Belgium, Spain, Italy and all these other European countries, are attempting these dangerous, illegal and unnecessary journeys. What I say to them is that they are in countries that have a fully functioning asylum system and they should claim asylum there.
Happy birthday, Mr Speaker.
The people of Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke cannot figure out what is wrong with an Army barracks that has provided free accommodation, food, sanitation and yoga to people who have entered this country illegally. Leftie lawyers have stuck their oar in and ensured that hard-earned UK taxpayers’ money is going to have to be splashed on expensive accommodation, such as hotels or buying properties, as seen in Stoke-on-Trent, adding further strain to local public services. Does the Minister agree that people entering illegally from safe places such as France should be returned immediately and that we should now look to Denmark and process asylum seekers outside the UK as part of our plan for immigration?
I agree with the thrust of my hon. Friend’s point, which he makes powerfully. We have already changed our inadmissibility rules to enable the sort of thing that he is describing, and we are in discussions to help make those operational. He rightly says that people should not be entering the UK illegally and dangerously having come from a safe place where they could reasonably have claimed asylum, and that most certainly includes France.
The Home Office’s treatment of asylum seekers is appalling. Will the Minister address the latest scandal: the failure to provide new prepayment Aspen cards, which has left many individuals and families without any money at all for several weeks? In my constituency, many asylum seekers are reliant on a local charity, West London Welcome, for food and necessities, because the Minister’s Department cannot or will not do its job.
There have been some delays with the new Aspen cards, which are in the process of being rapidly resolved. However, I categorically reject the allegation that the Home Office, the Government and the UK are not doing their reasonable bit to support asylum seekers. As I have said, the cost of providing asylum support to these 60,000 people now amounts to £1 billion a year, so any suggestion that there is a lack of generosity or there is a meanness of spirit is categorically and completely untrue.
Hillsborough: Collapse of Trials
I am sure that the whole House would want to join me in paying tribute to the immense courage, determination and patience of the families of the 96 people who died in the Hillsborough disaster, and of those injured who, 32 years on, continue to grieve about the events of that truly terrible day.
The collapse of the case concerning two former police officers and a solicitor who are charged with perverting the course of justice for allegedly having altered statements to be provided to the 1990 Taylor inquiry was the final opportunity for the families seeking justice for what happened at Hillsborough. As the House will have seen, the trial judge in that case ruled that the offence of perverting the course of justice could not have been committed because the inquiry was carrying out an administrative function for the Home Secretary and was not a process of public justice. As such, the prosecution was not able to establish a key element of the offence of perverting the course of justice and the case was unable to proceed any further. Of course, as Lord Chancellor, it is my duty to respect that decision.
Since the Taylor inquiry, the Inquiries Act 2005 was introduced, which allows inquiries to take evidence on oath and to compel witnesses to give evidence and to produce documentary evidence. Section 35 of that Act also makes it an offence to commit acts that intend to have the effect of distorting, altering or preventing evidence from being given to the statutory inquiry. It is also an offence intentionally to suppress or to conceal a relevant document or to destroy such a document.
Members will be rightly concerned as to what, if any, effect this may have on current public inquiries, such as the Grenfell inquiry, the undercover policing inquiry and the independent inquiry into child sexual abuse.
Each of those are statutory inquiries and each has been set up under the aegis of the 2005 Act, which means that, should someone seek to distort, destroy, conceal or suppress evidence in any of those inquiries, that Act provides that those actions will constitute a specific criminal offence. Indeed, the common law offence of perverting the course of justice may also be an appropriate offence to charge if the elements of that offence are made out.
We recognise the need for those in public office to act responsibly and to discharge their duties with both honesty and integrity. As we continue to consider the judgment in the latest Hillsborough trial and its implications, we will of course always consider opportunities to review the law and how it operates. I want the families to know that there will be no exception in this case. We are carefully considering the points made by the former Bishop of Liverpool, James Jones, in his 2017 report on the experiences of the Hillsborough families, including in relation to the proposed duty of candour. Our focus now, after the trial’s conclusion, will be on publishing the Government’s overarching response to that report, after having further consulted all the families.
Irrespective of the outcome of this case, the Government continue to be committed to engaging with the survivors and the bereaved families. It is critical that the lessons of the Hillsborough tragedy—the Hillsborough disaster—are not only learned but consistently applied so that something similar can never be allowed to happen again. The Government are absolutely determined to do just that.
This is a very important urgent question and I wanted to make sure that it was debated, quite rightly, today. The Lord Chancellor took longer than I expected, so if Members feel they need to take longer, will they please bear in mind that I want to make sure that everybody gets a fair chance to have their say about this very important matter?
I thank Lord Chancellor for his careful and thoughtful words.
It is 32 years since the 96 people were unlawfully killed having gone to watch a football match, primarily through the gross negligence of the South Yorkshire police who should have been protecting them. Five years since the inquest verdicts, after six men were charged with 14 offences, only two charges were even put to the jury. Twelve charges were thrown out or withdrawn and just one conviction was secured, for a health and safety breach, resulting in a £6,500 fine. Yet since 2016, the families and survivors have been silenced to prevent any prejudice to the criminal proceedings, necessitating the cancellation of all public memorial services, including the 30th anniversary, and preventing them from correcting the record when the Hillsborough slurs about fans causing the disaster have been repeated—and they have been repeated in court and outside court.
Does the Lord Chancellor agree that it is a catastrophic failure of our criminal justice system that nobody has been held accountable for these killings and that it has taken 32 years for things to fail so badly? Does he think that the Crown Prosecution Service has any questions to answer about the charges laid, the vigour with which they were fought, and the CPS’s failure to challenge the reintroduction of the Hillsborough slurs when the families themselves could not because they were silenced? Does he accept that the utter failure, over 32 years, of our criminal justice system to do justice for these people requires changes of the law to make sure that families who are bereaved in public disasters never again have to endure this extended ordeal, after so many years trying to get truth and justice?
The Lord Chancellor seemed to say that he wants to learn lessons, and I welcome that, so will he consider enacting measures in the Public Advocate (No. 2) Bill, which is designed to stop things going wrong in the first place—that is the key to stopping things going wrong in respect of public disasters—and in the Public Authority (Accountability) Bill? Will he work with those of us in this House who have been campaigning on this issue to get it right for the future?
Since the collapse of the trials, two defence barristers have repeated the Hillsborough slurs in public. This matters so much to the families—the cover-up has been denied—so does the Lord Chancellor agree that it now has to stop? Will he make it clear that it must stop and that the apology that the former Prime Minister, David Cameron, gave in this House matters now as much as it did then and sets the record straight? Does he agree that the idea that it is lawful for a public authority to withhold information from an inquiry established to identify why 96 people died at a football event and to learn lessons, and for a solicitor to advise such a step, cannot be right and must be changed?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady, and I pay tribute to her for the consistent work that she continues to do in this area. She has asked a number of questions, and she will perhaps forgive me if I cannot answer them with absolute specificity, but I will do my very best. I will start by reiterating the apology that David Cameron made. That is the Government’s position—no ifs, no buts.
With regard to the prosecution, clearly, it was right for the case to be brought and, as I have said, as Lord Chancellor, I have to respect the process. However, that has had quite a consequence for the families.
The important work that now needs to be done by colleagues in the Home Office—I have taken the trouble to speak to Home Office officials this morning—is to focus on Bishop James Jones’s 2017 report and work with the families to ensure that those recommendations are carried out. The focus has to be unrelenting, and I want this to take months, not years. Obviously, the families need to be at the heart of it—“nothing about them without them” clearly has to be the watchword—and I am confident, in the light of the work done by David Cameron, by my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May) and now by the Home Office, that that approach will very much be taken.
In regard to the work that the hon. Member for Garston and Halewood and others, including Lord Wills, have been doing on the independent public advocate, I want to assure the hon. Lady that we are absolutely committed to ensuring that bereaved people are supported and given a proper voice throughout the process. A Government consultation was conducted in 2018, and the responses to it were rather varied. I propose to do some more work on that process more swiftly, and to bottom-out what the options might be in ensuring that any service is independent, has the confidence of those who use it and makes a difference, particularly in major public inquiries where many lives have been lost. I know that that has been the focus. I will work with the hon. Lady to ensure that the consultation will look at what the threshold might look like and at the overall impact. I do not think we need to create some huge public body; I know that that is not the hon. Lady’s intention. I now want to give this careful and close attention, and I am sure she will work with me on that.
It is good to note that a lot of work has already been done with regard to legal aid eligibility. We have, in effect, ended any means test on legal aid for legal help and, indeed, representation by the use of the exceptional cases funding category of legal aid. That was an important and welcome initiative. We must also bear in mind the work done by Mr Nick Hurd, a former Member of this House, as the Prime Minister’s adviser and envoy on the Grenfell inquiry. I want to make sure that the correlation of that type of role is fully understood in the concept of a potential independent public advocate. I am sure that the hon. Lady and I will have further exchanges, and I am sure she will forgive me if I have not answered every specific question that she has asked. I am profoundly grateful to her for her urgent question today.
My right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor has acknowledged that the collapse of this trial has been the final blow to the Hillsborough families in their desperate search for justice over so many years. He has referenced the independent public advocate. In 2017, I pledged:
“To ensure that the pain and suffering of the Hillsborough families…is not repeated, we will introduce an independent public advocate who will act for bereaved families after a public disaster and support them at public inquests.”
We are now four years on, so can I urge him to act swiftly in this matter? We have established our former colleague here in this House, Nick Hurd, as a ministerial representative working with the Grenfell families after that tragedy, but I would say to the Lord Chancellor that I see that role as quite different from the role of an independent public advocate. The independence of the public advocate is incredibly important. The Lord Chancellor wants to get it right, but please get it right quickly.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend, and I pay tribute to her for the approach that she took not only as Prime Minister but as Home Secretary throughout those years, particularly after the first report by Bishop James Jones in 2012. I well remember being a Back Bencher in this House and raising the issue of potential criminal charges, and now here we are, nearly 10 years later. I take the point about time, but I know that she will appreciate that I want to get this absolutely right. I want to make sure that anything that we do chimes with the aspirations and needs of those who might use such independent advocates. Our work will be fruitless if it does not achieve those aims.
I am very grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle), who has been at these issues in this House for 24 years on behalf of her constituents and others.
The Secretary of State will know that inquests have since found that 96 victims were unlawfully killed by the negligence of others. The authorities who were supposed to protect the 96 that day instead failed them. More than five years ago, the South Yorkshire police commander in charge on the day of the Hillsborough disaster admitted not only that he had inadequate experience to oversee the safety of the 54,000 people, not only that he accepted responsibility for the deaths, but that he lied, telling the then secretary of the Football Association that Liverpool fans should be blamed for getting entry through a large exit gate when, in fact, he ordered the gate to be opened himself. These lies—these pernicious, ugly mistruths—have caused incredible pain to the families of the 96, who were already in despair and obviously experiencing grief.
The collapse of the most recent case at the end of last month is yet another kick in the gut for the families of all those who lost loved ones at Hillsborough. It is nothing less than a national scandal that not one person responsible has been punished or held to account in the criminal justice system for these deadly failures. The lack of justice in this case is undermining the very concept of a public inquiry. After a tragedy like this, the system only works where there is good faith. There is clearly bad faith in respect of the Hillsborough tragedy, and we must legislate so that this can never happen again.
The travesty of Hillsborough is not a one-off. We can see parallels in the experience that the Grenfell families are going through at this time. Do the Government now accept that they need to change the law? Another tragedy, another 32 years of injustice—we clearly need to do something. This does not have to be a partisan issue. The former Prime Minister, as we have heard, yesterday expressed the need for legislative change after the most recent trial collapsed because, although it was accepted that police evidence had been altered, it did not constitute perversion of the course of justice as it was evidenced to a public inquiry. Authorities must be held to account and victims must be given the support that they need. The proposals to ensure that this takes place—the Public Advocate Bill and the Public Authority (Accountability) Bill—are ready to go. We cannot have more cover-ups, more lies and more pain for bereaved families. Truth and justice matter. Will the Secretary of State today commit to working cross-party to change the law not only to secure justice for the families of the 96, but to ensure that this does not and cannot ever happen again?
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman and, of course, I reiterate the commitment that I made to the hon. Member for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle) to work across the House. Those are not just words; that is backed up by the consistent work that this Government have done both in the incarnation of the previous Prime Minister and, indeed, when David Cameron was in office.
The right hon. Gentleman refers to changes in the law. I have already alluded to my intention with regard to the additional work to be done on how an independent public advocate service might work. I am also mindful of work that the Law Commission has done on potential changes to the offences of misconduct in public office, which are clearly tied in with these matters. On the matter of perverting the course of justice, I have made it clear that inquiries under the Inquiries Act 2005 could indeed be covered by that common law offence, which is a significant difference from the Taylor inquiry, which was, if you like, an administrative inquiry ordered by the Home Office, which formed the basis of learned trial judges’ decisions. I am confident that the current inquiries under the 2005 Act—indeed the future covid inquiry—would be covered, subject to the evidential tests being met by the common law offence of perverting the course of justice as well as the section 35 offences that I referred to in my initial statement.
Nothing can take away from the grief and heartache that the Hillsborough families have suffered. The system, for various reasons, has prolonged that suffering, and this has been rightly brought to our attention by the hon. Member for Wallasey (Dame Angela Eagle). She is a fellow member of the Justice Committee, and all Committee members would want to extend their deepest condolences to the families at what must be a very trying time.
Will the Lord Chancellor recognise that we have to be cautious in moving to legislative change in relation to the specific facts of this case? This is a case in which a legal decision—a point of law—was argued by very experienced counsel on both sides in front of a very experienced High Court judge. Conclusions may have to be made, as he has set out, as to what should come from that, but legislative change may not be appropriate where we are dealing with a very fact-specific set of circumstances and the particular legal status of the Taylor inquiry.
Will the Lord Chancellor also recognise that he has received from the Justice Committee a report that highlights the way in which, in a number of important areas, the coronial inquest system fails, regrettably, to protect and support bereaved families both in large cases of great public attention such as this and in smaller ones too? The report makes a specific recommendation that legal representation should, as a matter of course, be available to families in cases where there has been a disaster that has significant public consequences or where state agencies such as a police authority are themselves legally represented, so that the families can get their concerns aired and their desire to challenge and scrutinise the evidence heard by their own representatives at the inquest stage earlier in the proceedings?
I am grateful to the Chair of the Justice Committee. I think I should correct the record; it was, of course, the hon. Member for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle) who asked the urgent question. I know that the hon. Member for Wallasey (Dame Angela Eagle) is similarly supportive, and I am sure that she is more than grateful to be referred to, but I am grateful to the hon. Member for Garston and Halewood, who is in the Chamber.
My hon. Friend is right to talk about the excellent report that his Committee has done. We will respond to it by the end of July, and my officials are working on that response. His question draws out some important points that we should all remember when it comes to inquests. Inquests are processes that are designed to uncover the facts. They are not trials; they cannot be trials. This brings us back to the essential point for the families. The families have put their faith in the criminal trial process as a way of responsibility—people being held to account. However comprehensive the inquest process was—and the inquest chaired by Sir John Goldring was, indeed, a very comprehensive and thorough piece of work that all of us can reflect upon and understand—it was never going to be a trial.
The point I seek to make is that we must ensure that, when we talk about equality of arms, which is a very important point that underpins the hon. Lady’s campaign, we do not turn to some sort of adversarial blame game. That would be wrong. It would be a disservice, frankly, to bereaved families, and it would be a misunderstanding of the coroner’s function. Article 2 widens the provisions of the inquest to allow for wider consideration to be given, but it is important that all of us focus upon the function of an inquest and the fact that any changes to be made should not detract from its essential quality.
The Hillsborough disaster was a fatal human tragedy at a football match at Hillsborough stadium in Sheffield on 15 April 1989. I pay tribute to those who lost their lives and the families who have spent decades in pursuit of justice.
In 2016, the inquiry findings concluded that 96 victims were unlawfully killed due to gross negligence. Police errors in planning, defects at the stadium and delays in the emergency response all contributed to the disaster. The behaviour of fans was not to blame. The 32-year battle for justice by the families shows that the English legal system is in dire need of reform. It has failed to provide any real accountability for these unlawful deaths and a cover-up that extended from the police lying and omitting crucial details to the media narrative shifting, blaming fans for their deaths, and a long, hard fight for the truth. The collapse of the latest trial means that no one will be held criminally responsible. Margaret Aspinall, who lost her 18-year-old son in the disaster and is the former chair of the Hillsborough Family Support Group, has called this outcome a
“cover-up of the cover-up of the cover-up”,
saying that families have been
“put through a 32-year legal nightmare looking for the truth and accountability.”
Given the collapse of the trial, how does the Minister plan to promote confidence in accountability for public servants and in the idea that fair justice is ensured in the English legal system? The ruling that the Government inquiries are not a course of public justice and that in effect public servants cannot be held legally to account for evidence provided to them is incorrect and risks creating a dangerous precedent for those who wish to withhold or amend evidence for future inquiries. What action will the Minister take to ensure that the system of inquiries is not compromised by this ruling?
This is the end of the legal line for the Hillsborough campaigners. The reviews, inquiries, inquests and criminal trials have allowed the record to be set straight and established that fans were not to blame for the disaster. However, no convictions have been made and many still feel that justice has not been served. What assurances can the Government give to the victims and their families that the lessons of Hillsborough have been learned and that justice and accountability remain unequivocally guaranteed in the English legal system?
No one should go to a football match and not return home afterwards. It is right that the matter is considered carefully and sensitively, but after 32 years the campaign for justice for the 96 rightly deserved justice.
Indeed, Mr Speaker; you are quite right to add that to the record.
What brings those two tragedies together, although they are separated by time, is the fundamental approach that was taken to safety then. It seems that public order trumped safety, and the attitude of the then authorities was about the containment of potential unruly behaviour rather than the fundamental issues of safety. That lazy thinking, which seems astounding now in 2021, underpins many of the ways in which disasters such as this happened—or near disasters, which on many occasions were averted only by mere good luck or circumstance. That is an important point to reflect on. We cannot go back to those days. The care and safety of fans at matches have to be paramount and at the centre of any considerations by police and other agencies responsible for safety on these important occasions.
I have in my previous answers dealt with many of the proper points that the hon. Lady raises. I will reflect in this way: with regard to the inquest process, I think she will appreciate the important need for me to balance the imperative of ensuring that those who have been voiceless have a voice while at the same time making sure that we do not do anything inadvertent to close down opportunities for frankness. Although the Inquiries Act has done a very important job in making clear what is covered not just by statute but by the common law offence of perverting the course of justice, just because an inquiry might not be held under its aegis does not mean that there should be some retreat from principles of honesty, openness and integrity. That should not be the case. It should not just be about the letter of the law being there; it should be about the spirit of behaviour by everybody. That is what I want to see, and I know that it is what hon. and right hon. Members want to see too.
It is hard to disagree with the reported comments of Deanna Matthews that it is “ludicrous” for the search for justice to have ended in this way, particularly when the community in Liverpool have had to fight so hard for so long to uncover the truth. What does my right hon. and learned Friend consider is the key lesson for the Department he leads to prevent things like this from ever happening again?
My hon. Friend encapsulates very well the task that is before me and the Government. The task is to make sure, first, that we have finally moved away from the public order mindset that I referred to, but secondly, that in response to any tragedy or disaster that might happen, there is a spirit of openness and a willingness and an understanding that the needs of bereaved families must be at the heart of processes. In everything that we do with regard to future investigations, inquiries and criminal investigations, people must not hide behind process and use that as a shield, because that has been the impression and the perception, which is why the families feel today that deep damage has been done to the process.
Bishop James Jones set out in his report that one of the problems with the initial inquest was that there was no public funding for the families to get the representation and advice they needed. The Government have said that providing legal aid for inquests is too expensive. I listened carefully to the Secretary of State’s earlier response about that: an inquest is not like criminal proceedings or court proceedings. But clearly some legal advice is important for families in these cases. Whatever he wants to call it, will he listen to those families and prevent further injustices in future by providing legal aid for inquests?
I do not know whether the hon. Lady heard my observations about what has already been done with regard to legal aid and legal eligibility. The effective removal of the upper means test threshold with regard to exceptional case funding for legal help and legal representation in circumstances just such as this is a very important development. I take the point that she makes. That is why I have already undertaken not just to present the response to the 2018 consultation but to develop it further so that any potential change that can be made will be done with the fullest, most careful and earliest consideration.
With your permission, Mr Speaker, as this is the first time I am speaking on this topic, I hope you will allow me to pay tribute to the four victims from Warrington who lost their lives at Hillsborough—in particular, to David Benson from Penketh in my constituency, who was just 22 when he died. Having read some of the comments from Brian, David’s father, it is clear to me that he feels that the system has failed him at every single level. With that in mind, will the Lord Chancellor clarify what steps he is taking following the collapse of the most recent trial in relation to the offence of perverting the course of justice and common law offences that touch on those who hold public office?
My hon. Friend puts in very heartfelt, genuine terms the real sense of loss and frustration, to say the least, that his constituents and their families feel. I have already outlined the steps that I want to take with regard to looking at the public advocate role. In line with that, I and my officials are considering very carefully the work of Law Commission on the offences of misconduct in public office published right at the end of last year. I aim to issue a response as soon as possible with regard to any next steps. There is a joint protocol that we have agreed between my Department—the Government—and the Law Commission. I want to make sure that any potential changes are done in the round so that we are not inadvertently missing out any particular issues that clearly need to be addressed.
May I pay my own tribute to the families and survivors? It took 27 years to get to the truth that 96 people were unlawfully killed at Hillsborough, yet 32 years on, justice remains out of reach. The decades-long fight of the bereaved families and survivors is all the evidence we need that the legal system is broken, and the collapse of the recent trial risks setting a precedent that tips the scales of justice even further away from victims. Can I ask the Lord Chancellor to say how he will engage with the families and survivors about their experiences? Will he quickly set out a timetable for reviewing and changing the law, to learn lessons from the horrific experiences that the families and survivors have had of the British legal and judicial system?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. I can assure him that when it comes to ramifications, we must remember that this was a decision of first instance that turned on its particular facts. I have clearly set out the position with regard to the existing Inquiries Act 2005 and the section 35 offences applying to that and, indeed, the common law offence of perverting the course of justice.
In terms of the other important points the hon. Gentleman makes, colleagues at the Home Office will now be working closely with the families with regard to the 2017 Bishop James Jones report. They can get on with that work now that the trial has come to a conclusion. As I said earlier, “nothing about them without them” has to be at the heart of the work that is done with the families, so that what emerges will be a positive set of changes informed by the excellent work of Bishop James Jones.
Secondly, I have already outlined what my intentions are with potential legislative change, and I absolutely get the hon. Gentleman’s point about the need, after all this time, for work to be done as speedily as possible.
The Hillsborough tragedy is one of those events where anyone who was alive at the time will remember where they were when these terrible events were unfolding. All our sympathy must be with the families of the victims and those recovering. Will my right hon and learned Friend set out what plans he has to review the existing position so that legal support is provided to the families of victims not only of the Hillsborough tragedy, but of other tragedies that may sadly happen? There will need to be legal support for families undergoing this. We need to learn the lessons and ensure that the failure to provide proper legal support for these families during the entire process is not repeated.
I think it goes further than that; it starts right at the beginning of the process, and I think the families would say that they were shut out from day one. The rot sets in much earlier than the investigative, inquisitorial and adversarial process. That is something that none of us can accept or wants to see happen. What we are left with is the aftermath. The work that Government have been doing and will continue to do in the spirit of cross-party co-operation is designed to try to create a higher degree of accountability and involvement, but I emphasise something that I have not yet properly emphasised, which is that the justice system cannot do this alone. It is only as good as the product of the evidence, information and intelligence it receives, and that requires all arms of the state to act in a way that is responsible, open, accountable and honest.
Those of us who were at Hillsborough that April in 1989 will never forget the scenes that we witnessed that day, made all the worse by the deliberate attempt by South Yorkshire police to blame Liverpool fans. It made the trauma of the families 10 times worse. It is worth putting on the record again that what has been found is that the police lost control, the stadium was unfit for a match of that importance and that size of crowd, and other agencies such as the ambulance service failed on the day.
What is important now is that we take the lessons forward. This has been a terrible time again for the families. I hear what the Secretary of State says, but over the years as an MP on constituency cases I have had some good and bad experiences with the coronial service. I dealt with a case recently that also raises questions about whether sensitivity and openness to families is really there throughout the coronial service. I hope that we will look at that again.
I thank the hon. Gentleman who, as a Merseyside MP as well as a football fan, has lived this experience, along with all of us who have followed this tragedy over the years. I am, of course, more than happy to look at the case that he raises. In the past I have always been happy to see him on particular issues, and this occasion will be no exception.
I am sure that the whole House has immense sympathy with the families affected by the tragic events of Hillsborough, and their tireless pursuit of justice is to be praised. Has my right hon. and learned Friend made an assessment of the adequacy of the financial package of support available to bereaved families after such a tragic event?
I thank my hon. Friend for that important point. As I outlined in previous answers, it is important, certainly from my position with regard to the justice process, that we act as swiftly as possible to make legal aid eligibility easier. We have done that, but clearly, in the light of the responses to our consultation, more work needs to be done to achieve the level of justice-related support that families deserve.
The recent collapse of the Hillsborough trial was a devastating development for many people living in my constituency and across Merseyside who have suffered so much in their decades’ long quest for justice. The pain that it has caused the families of the 96 Liverpool fans who lost their lives, along with the trauma still haunting so many of the survivors, needs to be urgently addressed by this House. Do the Government accept that the payment of compensation by the police to 601 people affected by the disaster is inconsistent with the court’s failure to find anybody responsible for the tragedy, and that that failure needs to be addressed by legislation to protect victims in the future?
The hon. Gentleman asks a proper question about compensation; indeed, it echoes that of my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool South (Scott Benton). I undertake to write to them both about that aspect. I do not want to say anything that would in any way be misconstrued or misunderstood. Frankly, this is a very sensitive matter that needs more careful consideration. I am alive to the fact that things are said and done purportedly on behalf of the families when in fact the families have not been involved. We have to act in a way that is consistent with our words, and that is what I am doing on this occasion.
I pay tribute to the families and survivors at Hillsborough. Liverpool is a proud and resilient city, and I am a proud Scouser. Contrary to the Prime Minister’s description, we are not a city that wallows in victim status; we have a long history of fighting social injustice, and Hillsborough is the worst kind of injustice. On 15 April 1989, 96 Liverpool fans left to watch a football match and died as a result of corporate failures. Can the Lord Chancellor tell the House, and the families of the 96, what he intends to do for justice to be served?
I join the hon. Lady in paying tribute to the great city of Liverpool. I am a proud Welshman, but Liverpool is very close to my homeland and to my heart. It is a great city—a wonderful place, full of amazing people. I want to put that on the record. I am sure that she listened very carefully to the points that I made about my intentions, and the Government’s, with regard to achieving as high a degree of justice as possible. Sometimes the word “justice” is bandied about a bit too much and we are perhaps a little careless with the way we use it. Bearing in mind everything that has happened, and the huge setbacks and reversals that the families have experienced, I will try to achieve as high a degree of justice as possible in these terrible difficult and deeply sad circumstances.