House of Commons
Wednesday 14 July 2021
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Virtual participation in proceedings commenced (Orders, 4 June and 30 December 2020).
[NB: [V] denotes a Member participating virtually.]
Oral Answers to Questions
The President of COP26 was asked—
Civil Society and Youth Groups
I have established a civil society and youth advisory council, which is the first of its kind at any COP. It is working with the UK presidency to deliver a successful summit. The co-chairs are youth climate activists, one from the global north and one from the global south. I also meet civil society and youth groups on my international visits, to ensure that their voices are heard.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his answer. Does he agree that children in our schools can play a crucial part in helping us to get to net zero by becoming young climate leaders? In my constituency there are groups such as Warrington Youth Voice, which last month organised its first green schools conference, and pupils at Penketh Primary School have come together to take steps to reduce energy use in their homes. Will my right hon. Friend encourage Members of the House to reach out to schools in their constituencies, and build greater understanding of the work of COP26?
What an excellent question. I commend my hon. Friend for the work he is doing to encourage youth climate activists in his constituency, such as those in Warrington Youth Voice and at Penketh Primary School. As he knows, last month we sent a COP26 schools pack, designed to engage students with climate action, to schools across the UK. In May, MPs also received a UK engagement pack.
Limiting Global Temperature Rise
We are pressing all countries to come forward with mid-century net-zero commitments, and aligned ambitious 2030 emissions reduction targets. We have seen some progress. When the UK took on the COP26 presidency, less than 30% of the global economy was covered by a net-zero emissions target, and that figure is now 70%.
The Government claim that the UK has reduced its emissions footprint by 42% since 1990, which is a commendable feat. That has been achieved in part by offshoring manufacturing and outsourcing many emissions to countries such as China that produce the goods we consume. If we factor in those emissions, the UK emissions reduction is possibly as little as 10% to 15%. Ahead of COP26, what steps will the Minister take to include the full scope of our emissions in the accounting, including those arising from UK consumption, supply chains, and international aviation and shipping?
Keeping the 1.5°C limit alive is now, quite rightly, one of the Government’s stated aims of COP26. Although we do not doubt the COP President’s personal commitment to delivering on that objective, the Government as a whole are patently still not doing enough. If we are to markedly increase the global ambition for 2030 targets, forge a coalition with vulnerable nations to hold the major emitters to account, and mobilise the climate finance that is essential to unlocking any agreement, we need sustained engagement and focus from the Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary and the Chancellor, and we need it now. With just over 100 days until this critical summit, does the COP26 President recognise that if senior members of the Government do not raise their game quickly, there is a real risk of failure in Glasgow in November?
There is a concerted effort across the whole of Government to ensure that we press other countries to come forward with ambition. We are, of course, seen around the world as a leader on climate action, in terms of both the actions we have taken and the commitments we have made. The Prime Minister has regular dialogue with world leaders, as do the Chancellor and the Foreign Secretary with their counterparts.
Current carbon budgets will see the world miss the 1.5°C target, with all the disastrous consequences that will have. The UK’s portion of that carbon budget is up to 3 billion tonnes of CO2 higher than is proportional to its population. France put in the effort for global improvement in the Paris agreement, but we have seen nothing comparable from the UK Government. When will we see that change? What conversations is the right hon. Gentleman having with his Cabinet colleagues about the immediate actions their Departments should be taking to reduce the UK’s carbon contribution?
I respectfully disagree with the hon. Lady. Since 2000 the UK has decarbonised faster than any other G20 nation, and our national determined contribution of at least 68% reduction in emissions on a 1990 base year by 2030 is world leading, as is the commitment in our carbon budget. We are doing our bit but, of course, there is always room for all of us to do more.
I have seen at first hand, when I was Secretary of State for International Development and, indeed, in other roles, that UK support continues to transform millions of lives for the better across the world. The hon. Gentleman will know that we will continue to spend over £10 billion this year in aid, and of course we now have certainty that we will be returning to the 0.7% target.
Emerging Markets Exports: Energy and Renewables
For COP26, we want clean power to be the most attractive option for new power generation for any country. This presents economic opportunities for every country choosing clean energy. The UK Government will showcase a variety of organisations and technologies at COP26 in the blue and green zones, including innovative energy solutions, green technologies and services that can help fight climate change and support resilience.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the contracts for difference auction that is happening in November, shortly before COP26, is a wonderful opportunity to ensure that there is a separate pot for marine energy, which can give opportunities for some of our great new technologies around the coastline to shine? Does she also agree that COP26 provides an opportunity for us to showcase some of those technologies to visiting delegations from abroad, particularly Asia? Mr Speaker, you will be interested to hear that a British company is the second biggest investor in renewables in the Philippines and will be launching a new large fund on the London stock exchange this autumn to invest in further renewable opportunities in Asia.
Just to confirm, the next contracts for difference auction will open in December this year and will be our biggest yet, firmly charting our path towards net zero. Technologies such as wave and tidal stream projects are eligible to compete in pot 2 for CfD auctions, and we will publish specific allocation round parameters in advance of the auction. The Government continue to provide support to UK companies that are looking to export tidal technologies and other marine renewables abroad.
Member Engagement with COP26
As I said in response to an earlier question, all Members of Parliament were sent a COP26 pack in May, which provides ideas for engagement on climate issues with their constituents. With regard to attendance at COP26, we will set out more details very shortly on how parliamentarians can register their interest to attend.
Reducing greenhouse emissions and tackling air pollution is a priority for many Carshalton and Wallington residents, not least because we have the Beddington incinerator in my constituency. In the spirit of engagement, I hope to host a local COP26 event later this year to discuss how we can work together to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. What steps is the COP26 President taking to ensure that the public can engage with COP26 and play their part in this important event?
I commend my hon. Friend for the work he is doing in hosting a local climate event in his constituency, and I would urge all hon. and right hon. Members to consider doing the same. We are today also launching the local authorities and mayors COP26 engagement pack. Of course, we want everyone to play their part in taking climate action; I have always said that we want this to be the most inclusive COP ever.
Ethics and Human Rights: Climate Change
The UK recognises the serious and unequivocal threat that climate change poses to our planet, and that it can indeed undermine the enjoyment of human rights. The Paris agreement preamble states that respecting and promoting our human rights is fundamental to effective climate implementation. Therefore, human rights are a cross-cutting consideration in all climate action, so we will be working with all countries this year to achieve an ambitious, inclusive and shared outcome from COP26 to help safeguard human rights.
I thank the Minister for that answer. Scotland was not only the first country in the world to declare a climate emergency, but the first in the world to establish a dedicated climate justice fund—a fund that was recently doubled by the SNP Scottish Government in Edinburgh. Will the UK Government, ahead of COP Glasgow, match Scotland’s ambitions? Will this Government create such a fund, and will the Minister and the COP26 President ensure that the focus of COP26 is placed squarely on the rights of those who will be affected first and foremost by the climate emergency?
As my right hon. Friend the COP26 President set out, the UK remains one of the largest donors in supporting a number of areas, including, obviously, humanitarian assistance and humanitarian rights. I would be interested to hear more on the details of the climate justice fund to understand the premise of it, but the UK continues to have an absolutely clear commitment to that.
Geothermal Energy: Net Zero Target
The Committee that I chair has been working with Departments across Whitehall to develop our plans to deliver on our carbon budgets and, indeed, our net zero commitments. The Government consider geothermal energy a low-carbon technology that is within the scope of our new £270 million green heat network fund, which supports the commercialisation of low-carbon heat network projects and opened for applications earlier this month.
The COP President will know from his recent visit that Cornwall is leading the way in the development of geothermal energy in the UK with two wells being drilled and many more planned. However, the people developing this new technology need the Government to back it to ensure that we can realise its potential, and they need certainty to make their plans in the near future. Will he ensure that the Government come forward with a renewable heat incentive for geothermal as soon as possible?
May I say that I very much enjoyed my visit to Eden Geothermal with my hon. Friend? It was particularly pleasing to note that some of those working in the project had made the transition from the oil and gas sector owing to their transferable engineering skills. As I set out, the fund has been launched, and I know that my right hon. Friend the Minister for Business, Energy and Clean Growth will be delighted to meet my hon. Friend to discuss the issue further.
Upholding COP26 Commitments
The UK presidency is focused on delivering a successful COP26 with ambitious outcomes across mitigation, adaptation and finance. We will use our presidency year to champion the outcome, maintaining close collaboration with our partners and, indeed, the COP27 presidency to make those commitments a reality.
My right hon. Friend makes an important point. As well as pushing for net zero and 2030 emissions reduction targets, we are indeed asking countries to set out their long-term strategies to demonstrate how they will turn ambition into action. In addition, we want to resolve the outstanding issue of transparency in the Paris rulebook, which will allow for reporting by countries of progress on climate action.
Economic Recovery from Covid-19: Climate Action
The Prime Minister’s 10-point plan sets out our blueprint for a green industrial revolution. The plan commits to investments in green technologies and industries, and leverages billions of bounds of private sector investment to create and support up to 250,000 green jobs across the UK. It is a clear plan to build back greener from the covid pandemic. The Government will publish their net zero strategy before COP26.
Two weeks ago, I went on a fantastic community litter pick with the fantastic Hannah Picken, who leads a local environmental group called Wild Earth Movement. Within an hour, we collected 244 kg of litter and waste—a quarter of a tonne in old terms, so it was pretty significant—the majority of which was plastic. Does my right hon. Friend agree that individuals need to do more and show personal responsibility for us to achieve the net zero carbon goal?
My hon. Friend is leading by example. I commend Hannah and her local group, the Wild Earth Movement, for their impressive clean-up operation—but, of course, it is a depressing one to have to do. The challenge we have is to educate and encourage all our citizens to make this wonderful group’s activities redundant by stopping plastic pollution. Through our Together for Our Planet campaign, we are building awareness and understanding of COP26 in every part of the UK to help educate our children and families on the behaviours to change so that we are all part of that positive impact on our carbon footprint.
The success of the UK presidency requires leadership at home. The Government have pledged to consider the Climate Change Committee’s recommendation for near-zero emission iron ore steel- making by 2035, but a plan for decarbonising steel production must be published before COP26. Hydrogen is among the emerging technologies offering solutions, and its use is progressing across the rest of Europe. The Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit recently reported on 23 pilot projects—planned or live—across several countries producing 10 million tonnes of clean steel annually by 2026. Are the Government considering hydrogen-based pilots as part of their plan for steel?
The hon. Gentleman will know that we will shortly publish our hydrogen strategy, which will set out in much more detail the commitment that the Government are going to make to that developing technology, and a £250 million fund will be available in due course for pilot projects to develop those skills.
I am often contacted by young constituents who care passionately about climate change and want to see Ministers taking bold action. The UK’s credibility as COP president rests on climate action at home. The Government have set legally binding net zero targets but are currently off track to meet their fourth and fifth carbon budgets, which are calibrated for previous, more lenient targets. When does the Minister expect the UK to have its house in order so that I can let my constituents know that their words are not falling on deaf ears?
I would be thrilled for the hon. Lady to go back and say to her constituents that in putting carbon budget 6 into law, as I did just a few weeks ago, we are driving up not only the ambition, but the policy making, frameworks and business models that will help industry to decarbonise and us to change the way that we travel and live in our houses of the future to ensure that we are all part of the solution to meeting that net zero target by 2050.
Recent United Nations analysis makes it clear that the current climate pledges will achieve emission reductions of only 1% by the end of this critical decade, not the 45% required to stay below 1.5° C. What has the Minister done to pressure large emitters such as Australia, Japan, South Korea and Russia who have merely resubmitted old pledges or, in the case of Brazil, have backtracked even further, to step up and do their fair share?
The COP presidency has an incredibly important role in drawing everyone together and driving up ambition. As the COP26 President set out in answer to an earlier question, we have shifted the dial in terms of the ambition brought forward through nationally determined contributions by many countries, but there is much more to do and we are under no illusions that the challenges that we all face as a planet to meet that are yet to be resolved. We continue to work tirelessly as a team and across the globe to encourage more ambition.
Businesses have a key role in tackling climate change, which we will showcase in the UK managed spaces of COP26. Businesses were able to apply for the expression of interest process and will also be able to participate through other delegations and in the action zone organised by the UN and the high-level planet champions.
Local government has a key role to play in tackling climate change and meeting net zero targets, and we are keen to ensure that there is representation at the summit from cities and regions across the UK. My hon. Friend will know that, following the G7 in June, the Government have backed a major drive to make Cornwall the first net zero region in the UK. I am sure that she will be leading on getting the maximum impact for her constituents from the town deals for Penzance, St Ives and Camborne, worth £65 million, up to £1 million of innovation funding and energy efficiency, power generation and energy storage for Cornish businesses, and the opportunities for Cornwall to pilot the new e-bike support scheme.
Last week, we set out our high-level two-week programme for COP26. The conference will open with a world leaders’ summit followed by a range of themed days of activity, including on finance, energy, youth, nature, adaptation, gender, science, transport and the built environment. These days will also be an opportunity to showcase specific global action on tackling climate change. I look forward to welcoming parliamentarians to Glasgow and we will very shortly be inviting Members of both Houses to formally register their interest for attendance at COP26.
As the president-designate says, it is not just world leaders and Governments who are needed to make COP26 a success, but parliamentarians from around the world. As chair of the British Group of the Inter-Parliamentary Union, we will be hosting events for parliamentarians around the world, and I hope that my right hon. Friend will encourage his officials to accredit as many parliamentarians from international delegations as possible.
The Copenhagen summit of 2009 was undone by deep mistrust of the developed world by developing countries. Rather than learning from that, rich countries are still failing to deliver on the promised $100 billion of climate finance and the billions of vaccine doses still required by poorer countries. Yesterday, shamefully, the Prime Minister decided to press ahead with the cut in our aid spending. When the COP26 President went to see the PM yesterday, did he explain that COP26 is not some international photo opportunity, but a complex and fragile negotiation, and that the aid cut simply deepens mistrust, damages our moral standing and undermines our COP presidency?
The right hon. Gentleman raises two issues. On vaccines, he will know that we now have an offer open so that any accredited delegates who are not able to get vaccinated in their home country are able to receive vaccinations through the programme that we are setting up. Secondly, I can tell him that there is huge appreciation for the UK’s leadership on climate action around the world. That is based on conversations that I have day in, day out with world leaders.
The COP26 President knows that world leaders and others are asking him why the UK is the only G7 country cutting aid spending in the year that we are hosting the COP. He knows that delivering support to developing countries is not just morally right, but essential to building a coalition to pressure the world’s largest emitters.
The most significant of those emitters is China. To have a chance of keeping global warming to 1.5°, we need China to ensure that its emissions peak and start to decline by 2025 at the latest. Does the COP26 President agree? If so, can he tell us what the Prime Minister is doing to engage directly with China on the issue and persuade it to step up?
We are engaged with all big emitters; as the right hon. Gentleman knows, I am travelling around the globe talking to different countries. To come back to his point about aid spending, I just point out that this year we will spend more on aid as a percentage of our GNI than the US, Japan, Canada or Italy.
I congratulate all local areas and local leaders who are doing their bit on climate action. As I said, today we are launching the local authorities and Mayors engagement pack, which I hope local authorities and Mayors will use to encourage climate action across their areas.
The UK is already leading the way on tackling air pollution. The Government are backing a £3.8 billion plan to clean up transport and tackle air pollution, investing in green transport and working with local authorities just like the City of Westminster. My hon. Friend will be keen to read the transport decarbonisation plan, which will be published later today and will set out the world’s first “greenprint” for decarbonised transport and clean air.
We are supporting industrial clusters around the world, as the hon. Lady will know from the 10-point plan that the Prime Minister published at the end of last year, and we are seeing action across the country. She will know that the Government have recently funded some new offshore wind ports and we have seen the investment that is going into battery manufacturing for electric vehicles.
I would just point out to the hon. Gentleman that MCI has secured only about a third of the market availability for hotel rooms, and that there are alternative options for booking accommodation, which are still available. If he has specific issues, I would be happy to speak to him separately.
The Prime Minister was asked—
While Sunday’s result may not have been the one we were all hoping for, I know that the whole House will want to congratulate Gareth Southgate and the England squad on their fantastic achievements over the last month. The nation is proud of each and every one of them.
This morning I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in this House, I shall have further such meetings later today.
I second the Prime Minister’s support for our outstanding England team and players, but it is perhaps a pity that it did not come sooner from him and the Home Secretary. We all know the importance of double vaccination, especially against the delta or Johnson variant of the virus, but in Hammersmith and Fulham, despite the hard work of our local NHS, council and volunteers, only 36% of adults have been double-jabbed, so will the Prime Minister think again before recklessly removing all barriers to infection and transmission on 19 January? Will he keep the regulations on mask wearing and, like the Mayor of London, keep fighting the virus until it is beat?
If we had followed the hon. Gentleman’s precepts—he campaigned vehemently to stay in the European Union—we would not have achieved the fastest vaccine roll-out of any European country or vaccinated a higher proportion than any European population. That is the reality. As for his criticism of the road map, I respectfully point out to the hon. Gentleman that the month is July, not January.
It should be obvious that the Cabinet is as inclusive as the English football team, and I think that some of these criticisms are misplaced. Mr Speaker, I welcome your words at the beginning of Tuesday’s debate and the Prime Minister’s first paragraph on the Treasury minute from Monday. Can we agree that a vote in this House does not amend an Act of Parliament passed by both Houses? Are we expecting a similar debate in another place? Can I suggest to the Prime Minister that, instead of leaping from 0.5% to 0.7% at some stage in the future, we step towards it, because a 40% increase in one year would be ludicrous? Perhaps the Chancellor could consider going to 0.55%, 0.6%, 0.65% and then 0.7%.
I thank my hon. Friend very much for his opening point. On official development assistance, of course I can give him the reassurance that we will continue to follow the law, and he will have heard clearly what my right hon. Friend the Chancellor had to say from this Dispatch Box and what I have said. We want to return to 0.7% as fast as we can, and when fiscal conditions allow.
I start by thanking the England football team for everything they have given this country over the last six weeks. I am so proud of this young, diverse and humble team and everything they represent. They are the very best of modern Britain and everything I know this country can be.
Does the Prime Minister think it was wrong to criticise the England team’s decision to oppose racism by taking the knee as “gesture politics”?
I agree very much with what the right hon. and learned Gentleman says about the England team, and I repeat that I want to thank each and every one of them for what they did and the incredible campaign they ran during the Euro 2020 championship. They represent the very best of our country, and I repeat that I utterly condemn and abhor the racist outpourings that we saw on Sunday night.
Today we are taking practical steps to ensure that the football banning order regime is changed, so that if a person is guilty of racist online abuse of footballers, they will not be going to the match—no ifs, no buts, no exemptions and no excuses.
I am sorry, but that just will not wash. It rings hollow.
Let me remind the Prime Minister and the House. On 7 June, his spokesperson said:
“On taking the knee, specifically, the Prime Minister is more focused on action rather than gestures.”
On 14 June, the Home Secretary said:
“I just don’t support people participating in that type of gesture politics.”
The hon. Member for Bassetlaw (Brendan Clarke-Smith), a Conservative MP, called it a “ridiculous empty gesture”. There is no point pretending these things were not said.
The England footballer Tyrone Mings said—[Interruption.] I heard “a Labour party member” shouted out. Is that really the response? Is that it? Tyrone Mings said, and the House might want to listen:
“labelling our anti-racism message as ‘Gesture Politics’”
served to “stoke the fire” of racism and hatred. Those are powerful words from someone who has been subjected to racist abuse. He is right, isn’t he?
I reiterate our total support for our fantastic England team, and I support them in the way they showed solidarity with their friends who faced racism.
When the right hon. and learned Gentleman talks about the Home Secretary, let me remind him that she has faced racism and prejudice all her career of a kind that he can never imagine. She has taken practical steps to get black and minority officers into the police in record numbers, of which I am very proud. [Interruption.]
Let me be clear. I totally condemn all racism, including that directed at the Home Secretary, but she has got this wrong. The whole country knows it and the Prime Minister’s own MPs know it. In the last few days, everybody has seen that England’s black players have been the target of disgusting racist abuse following Sunday’s match—disgusting.
This is really simple, either the Prime Minister is with the England players in their stand against racism or he can defend his own record, and that of his Ministers and some of his MPs, but he cannot have it both ways. Can he tell the House whether he now regrets failing to condemn those who booed England’s players for standing up to racism? Yes or no.
We made it absolutely clear that no one should boo the England team. Following the racist abuse that our players sadly suffered on Sunday night and thereafter, we are now taking practical action. In addition to changing the football banning order regime, last night I met representatives of Facebook, Twitter, TikTok, Snapchat and Instagram and I made it absolutely clear to them that we will legislate to address this problem in the online harms Bill. Unless they get hate and racism off their platforms, they will face fines amounting to 10% of their global revenues. We all know they have the technology to do it.
The online harms Bill has been promised for three years. I am not sure a 15-minute chat at a garden party moves things forward that significantly. But I want to take the Prime Minister up on what he said about being absolutely clear, because here I have the headline, “Boris Johnson refuses to condemn fans booing England taking the knee”. That is the story and that is the headline, from 6 June. That is absolutely clear, but it is not quite what the Prime Minister is implying today. The story goes on to quote the Prime Minister’s spokesperson saying that the Prime Minister
“fully respects the right of those who choose to…make their feelings known”.
This is about booing; it says that he fully respects their rights. The Home Secretary said that booing was
“a choice for them quite frankly.”
So no condemnation there and no absolute clarity there. When senior Government Ministers and Conservative MPs defend the booing of an anti-racist message, who do they think they are defending, Prime Minister? And why are they defending it?
Thank you, Mr Speaker. We love and admire the England side and what they did. They represent the best of our country. Nobody defends booing the England side. But what the Home Secretary has been trying to do all her life is not just fight racism, but take practical steps to advance the cause of black and minority ethnic groups, which she has done successfully, notably in the police. As the right hon. and learned Gentleman is chucking this kind of thing around, may I ask him now to retract this leaflet I have here that was produced by the Labour party during the Batley and Spen by-election, which was condemned by his own MPs as “dog-whistle racism”?
The Prime Minister is not kidding anyone in this House, he is not kidding the public and he is not even kidding his own MPs. The hon. Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Johnny Mercer), a Conservative MP, has said:
“The painful truth is that”
“is completely right.
Very uncomfortable with the position we Conservatives are needlessly forcing ourselves into.”
So, Prime Minister, behind you they don’t believe you, and neither do we. We can all see what has happened here. The Government have been trying to stoke a culture war and they have realised that they are on the wrong side and now they hope that nobody has noticed. Why else would a Conservative MP boast that he is not watching his own team? Why else would another Conservative MP say that Marcus Rashford spends too much time “playing politics”, when he is actually trying to feed children that the Government will not? And why will the Prime Minister refuse time and time again, even now, to condemn those who boo our players for standing up against racism? What is it that this England team symbolises that this Conservative party is so afraid of?
The House will judge for itself the quality of the question that the right hon. and learned Gentleman has just put. I think the whole House is united, including our distinguished Members from Scotland, in admiration of the England team—of every single member of that squad and what they did. We stick up for them, and what we are doing is taking practical steps to fight racism, changing the football banning order regime and fining the online companies. By the way, we will use more legislation if we have to, just as we used the threat of legislation to stop the European super league. We will get on with delivering for the people of this country. We will get on with vaccinating the people of this country, while the Opposition continue to vacillate. We will continue to immunise the people of this country, while the Opposition improvise and dart around. I do not want to engage in a political culture war of any kind; I want to get on with delivering for the people of this country—he simply wants to get on with dithering.
He does not want to engage in a culture war and point scoring—give me a break. Football is a game and racism is not, Prime Minister. That is why many of us have been involved in the charity Show Racism the Red Card for years. Far from giving racism the red card, the Prime Minister gave it the green light. I will tell you the worst kind of gesture politics, Mr Speaker: putting an England shirt on over a shirt and tie while not condemning those booing is the worst kind of gesture.
Finally, I want to ask the Prime Minister about the reported amnesty for crimes committed during the troubles in Northern Ireland. I worked in Northern Ireland for six years with the Policing Board and the police and I have prosecuted terrorists as the Director of Public Prosecutions, so I know how difficult and sensitive the issue is. But a blanket amnesty, including for terrorists, is plain wrong.
I was in Northern Ireland last week, and it is absolutely clear that the Government’s amnesty is not supported by the political parties in Northern Ireland and it is not supported by victims’ groups. Last Thursday, I spoke to victims of terrorism at the WAVE Trauma Centre in north Belfast; they have not even been properly consulted on the proposal. If things are to move forward in Northern Ireland, any discussion has to start with the victims. Politicians in London cannot simply draw a line under terrorism and other crimes and then force it on those most affected. [Interruption.] The Prime Minister looks up; let him look up and let him hear, because I want to quote Julie Hambleton. Her sister Maxine was among the 21 people killed by the IRA in the Birmingham pub bombings—that is Julie Hambleton, Prime Minister. She says:
“Tell me Prime Minister, if one of your loved ones was blown up beyond recognition, where you were only able to identify your son or daughter by their fingernails…would you be so quick to”
grant their murderers an amnesty and propose
“such obscene legislation”?
What does the Prime Minister have to say to Julie—she is listening—and other victims like her?
I think that the whole House will acknowledge the suffering of victims like Julie and their families. Of course, nothing I say or can do now can in any way mitigate her loss. That is clear. But it is also true that the people of Northern Ireland must, if we possibly can allow them to, move forwards now.
The right hon. and learned Gentleman will know that the proposals that are being introduced—the House will hear about them in more detail later from my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland—are measured, balanced and have a wide degree of support, if I may say so, from former Labour Prime Ministers and former Labour leaders who are of considerably more distinction than the right hon. and learned Gentleman. He will recall that it was under a Labour Administration that many terrorists were unfortunately given, effectively, an amnesty. They were allowed to escape the full consequences of their crimes, as he knows very well. That is the reality.
This is of course no consolation to people like Julie, but the sad fact remains that there are many members of the armed services who continue to face the threat of vexatious prosecutions well into their 70s and 80s and later. We are finally bringing forward a solution to this problem to enable the Province of Northern Ireland to draw a line under the troubles and to enable the people of Northern Ireland to move forward. Someone with greater statesmanship and clarity of vision would have seen that and given the proposals a fair wind.
I yield to no one in my admiration for the Environment Agency, but in this case I thank my hon. Friend because it is not, in my view, sorting the problem out fast enough. I am fed up with this issue being raised with me. We must stop the stink, and I want the air around Walleys Quarry to be of alpine freshness before too long.
Let me begin by congratulating the England team on reaching the final, which was an incredible achievement, but the tragedy of the tournament was the undercurrent of racism that was ultimately targeted at three young men: Rashford, Sancho and Saka. Wherever there is racism, it falls on all of us to face it down and to call it out, and it is shameful that it took until last night for the Prime Minister to meet with the main social media companies and finally wake up to the fact that those who publish and promote vile racist online abuse need to be faced down and sanctioned. Can the Prime Minister tell us what sanctions he thinks would be appropriate for someone who publishes racist context—it is shocking even to have to say this out loud—describing Africans as “flag-waving piccaninnies” with “watermelon smiles”?
I have commented many times about the words that I have said in the past, and I think the House understands how we can take things out of context. [Interruption.] I do think people understand that. What they also understand is that there is a chance now to hold these internet companies to account and to make sure that they face fines running to 10% of their global income if they fail to take hate and racism off their platforms. I hope that the Scottish nationalist party will support that.
There is still no contrition, still no apology. The truth is that the Tory party does not sanction those who publish that kind of racist content; it promotes them to be Prime Minister. The legacy of this Prime Minister’s dog whistling has followed him into No.10 Downing Street and it is now at the heart of this Tory Government. As the England international Tyrone Mings has so powerfully stated, this Government
“don’t get to stoke the fire…and then pretend to be disgusted”
when it happens. They do not get to condemn the racism of others, but deny the racism that they have even provoked. In March, this UK Government’s own report on racism, the Sewell report, said that there was no “systemic problem” in the UK. I think the England men’s football team would beg to differ.
After the shocking racism on show over the past week, does the Prime Minister still stand by his Government’s belief that systemic racism is not a problem that exists in the United Kingdom?
I do think that racism is a problem in the United Kingdom, and I believe that it needs to be tackled and stamped out with some of the means that I have described this morning. When he attacks my party, I am afraid that he has the wrong target. This is a party that has not only had the first ever Muslim Secretary of State for Health and Social Care—and he is the former Chancellor, of course—but two female Prime Ministers. It has the most diverse Cabinet in the history of this country. It has the most diverse Government in the history of this country. If you are a young person growing up in a black or ethnic minority group in this country, we are the party that represents hope and opportunity. That is the reality about the Conservative party today.
I thank my hon. Friend, who knows a lot about the subject that she mentions. This is a fantastic opportunity for this country, because we do indeed produce a great many tech breakthroughs and we are very much looking at how to scale up fast, but we must not forget that, as I speak, there are three countries in the world that have scaled up tech breakthroughs to 100 unicorns worth more than a £1 billion. Only three countries have 100 unicorns. They are the United States of America, China and the United Kingdom.
Diolch yn fawr, Llefarydd.
For more than seven years, Plaid Cymru has been calling for the gargantuan HS2 railway to be treated as an England-only project, so that Wales gets our fair share. Not a single inch of track will be in Wales, but we are footing the bill. Today the Welsh Affairs Committee backed our call, calling the UK Government’s categorisation of HS2 in relation to Wales “unfair and biased”. Will the Prime Minister today right this wrong, respect the Welsh Affairs Committee and ensure that Wales, like Scotland, receives our fair share from HS2?
I normally have a great deal of respect and interest in what the right hon. Lady says, but in this case she has missed what the Government are doing for transport connectivity in Wales and to Wales—something about which I know she is as passionate as I am. Look at what we are doing in the Union connectivity review with the A55, the north Wales railway corridor into Liverpool and the M4. Never let it be forgotten that it was the Welsh Labour Government—not the right hon. Lady’s fault, of course, because she is Plaid—who spent £144 million on a study and then did not even do the diversion.
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point about the victims on Alderney. We must never forget those on the Channel Islands who suffered under occupation between 1940 and 1945. I am told that the documents in question have been transferred to the National Archives, but I will ensure that the relevant Minister meets my hon. Friend to discuss the matter further.
The hon. Gentleman seems to want us to relax our rules on self-isolation that are protecting people from coronavirus. I do not think that is the right thing to do at this time. He also calls for us to go against the JCVI. The point he raises is a matter for the JCVI.
Yes. I know how much my right hon. Friend cares about this matter. This is not only one of the reasons why we are rolling out our massive plan for jobs, but why I am proud that under this Government we have increased the national living wage by a record amount, to £8.91 per hour.
The treatment of the postmasters and sub-postmasters in the recent computer malfunction was, I am afraid, appalling, and I have made that clear. When it comes to protecting and supporting post offices, particularly rural post offices, which I think is what the hon. Gentleman was driving at, this Government will do everything they can to protect them.
I thank my hon. Friend. I know the stretch of road that she refers to very well, as I am sure many Members across this House do. I will not be able to click my fingers and say that we can tunnel under Guildford; all I can say, in all candour, is that we will certainly look at it. But hon. Members should be in no doubt that we are spending record sums—£27 billion on improving England’s strategic roads following £640 billion for the biggest, best-ever package of infrastructure investment in this country.
The Prime Minister will have seen that two recently published Government-commissioned reports, mine on competition policy and that of the Taskforce on Innovation, Growth and Regulatory Reform, both make the same two recommendations to inject fresh energy into our better regulation regime so that we can deliver our Brexit ambition of replacing ponderous EU regulations with simpler, digital and less burdensome UK equivalents without reducing quality standards in the process. Will he take this opportunity to unleash a big post-Brexit better regulation dividend by declaring his enthusiastic support for a strong new one-in-two-out regime with no loopholes or exceptions, right here today?
Yes. It is obvious that the UK has a massive amount to gain not just from my hon. Friend’s report, which I much enjoyed, as I told him—I thought it was excellent—but from the bigger report from the taskforce on reducing regulation. I thank them for that, and he and the taskforce will be seeing a lot more in the next few weeks.
I think the people of this entire country should be immensely proud of what the UK is doing abroad, whether it is educating millions of girls, with an increase in support for female education, helping countries around the world to tackle climate change with £11.6 billion of investment, or helping refugees in Yemen, Syria or Ethiopia with £900 million. We are spending £10 billion a year on overseas aid alone, to say nothing of what we are doing with vaccines. The whole country should be immensely proud of what the UK is doing in spite of this pandemic.
Mr Speaker, I am sure you will know the Green Man festival, an incredibly popular international music event which takes place in Crickhowell in my constituency. The festival organisers have gone to great lengths to ensure that the event is covid-secure, but the Welsh Government refuse to give them the green light to go ahead as a test event, unlike similar events in England. So will my right hon. Friend help us by giving the Green Man festival his full support, and encourage the Welsh Government to get behind the festival at long last?
My message—I am sorry, obviously, for the condition that Jacqui suffers, and I think that the Labour party obviously needs to work out whether it is in favour of going ahead with step 4 or not, because that is not at all clear from what the hon. Gentleman has said, or what the Leader of the Opposition has said. They do not have a clue. But what I can say to the hon. Gentleman, and to Jacqui, is that we expect and recommend everybody to wear a face covering in a confined space where they are meeting people they do not normally meet, and that is quite right.
Last week I met with the Reading Agency, which is about to launch its annual summer reading challenge and hopes to reach 1 million primary school children this year. What a great excuse to go to one of our brilliant libraries and take part in the big covid education catch-up. With that in mind, will my right hon. Friend join me in encouraging every child across the nation to take part in the summer reading challenge? Pick up a book and read back better!
I thank my hon. Friend. She is quite right; there could not be a better campaign for the summer. We have put £1.9 million of support into the reading scheme that she mentions. But of course there is £200 million going into the holiday activities fund, and there could not be a better, more useful, happier way of occupying your time on holiday than reading a good book.
Can I just gently say to all leaders that in the end I have had to cut off quite a few Back Benchers because of the amount of time that has been taken up at the beginning? Can we think about those as well? It is so important that they get their questions heard.
Racist Abuse on Social Media
To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department if she will make a statement on the prevalence of racist abuse on social media.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his question. I will take a moment to reflect on the extraordinary success of the England football team in this tournament, knowing as we do the background to the urgent question. That team played their hearts out for us, and they won through to their first international final for 55 years. They did so with enormous skill, with sportsmanship and with dignity. They brought our country together and they united us in joy. It is therefore a great shame that the success and achievements of every member of that team have been overshadowed by the racism of online trolls.
In Prime Minister’s questions, the Prime Minister just reinforced our collective condemnation of racism online and offline. Individuals who commit racist offences should face the full force of law, and we already have robust legislation in place to deal with online hate. Governments around the world are grappling with how we collectively tame the wild west of the internet. We are leading the world in tackling online harms through the introduction of the online safety Bill, which will put in place measures to tackle illegal and legal but harmful abuse, including racist abuse.
If major platforms do not meet their own standards to keep people safe and address abuse quickly and effectively, they could face enforcement action. Let one message ring loud and clear to those companies: there is no reason for companies to wait until the regime is fully running to take action against this abhorrent abuse. Indeed, I suspect that such delays will serve to stiffen the resolve of the Government and of this House.
In addition, we have asked the Law Commission to conduct a wide-ranging review into hate crime, including offensive online communications. Let us put that in context: in 2019-20, the police recorded more than 76,000 race hate crimes. Increases in police-recorded hate crime in recent years have been driven by improvements in crime recording and better identification of what constitutes a hate crime. Although statistics can help us track trends, we must always remember that behind the numbers are real people who are often left traumatised and shaken by their experiences. There is nothing so damaging and corrosive as the impact that racism has both on victims and on our communities more widely.
I would like to conclude this statement with the words of our England manager Gareth Southgate:
“We have been a beacon of light in bringing people together…the national team stands for everybody and so that togetherness has to continue. We have shown the power our country has when it does come together”.
Let us all live up to those words.
I am grateful for that response, but the reaction of the Government has lacked urgency and completely failed to understand the scale of the revulsion that exists as a result of the events of recent days. The England men’s football players have been a credit to the country on and off the pitch. When they took the knee to stand against racism, that was not gesture politics. They spoke courageously to a desire for change across our country. The failure of the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary to condemn those who were booing the team while they took the knee was shameful, and frankly makes their later protestations of support for the team no more than empty words. The Home Secretary has not even bothered to turn up to answer this urgent question today.
The racist abuse to which Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho and Bukayo Saka have been subjected is disgraceful. Such behaviour has been too common on social media for too long. Social media platforms have had more than long enough to act. The Home Secretary said to me on Monday that “legislation will be absolutely pivotal”, but the Government have dragged their feet bringing the online harms Bill forward. Worse still, the Bill as proposed will not address what we have seen in the past couple of days—allowing social media companies to set their own terms and conditions will not be enough.
Will the Government therefore commit to including criminal sanctions for senior executives in the Bill? In addition, will the Minister tell us exactly when the Government will be acceding to the demand from Opposition Members to extend football banning orders to offences that take place online, as was promised by the Prime Minister in Prime Minister’s questions?
Finally, will the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary finally show some leadership, and apologise for siding with those who are booing and not with the brave England players?
If I may, I will just explain to the House where the Home Secretary is today. She is at this very moment hosting a long-standing meeting with charities on the frontline of tackling violence against women and girls and with the survivors of those crimes, so I hope the House will instead put up with me answering this urgent question. However, I know that the Home Secretary would reject many, indeed all, of the allegations that the right hon. Gentleman has just made about her conduct. She has been relentless—relentless —in pursuing social media companies to ensure that they take much tougher stances, as we all expect, not just on racism online, but on child sex exploitation, terrorism and other offences. So I do not accept his accusations across the Dispatch Box.
On the online safety Bill, this is a landmark piece of legislation. The Government have been very careful to ensure that the Bill receives the scrutiny of the House, and that is why we are taking the confident step, I would say, of opening up the draft Bill to pre-legislative scrutiny. We do not do that for every Bill, but we want to get this Bill right. The House will remember that we did exactly the same with the Domestic Abuse Bill, and the Bill was made all the better for it. I am delighted that Labour has now, I understand, provided the names of its Committee members, so that the pre-legislative scrutiny can take place at pace. However, I underline the message that this House, but also the public, are watching the behaviours of online companies very carefully, and any company would be very wise to set out what it plans to do in relation to meeting the expectations of this place and of the public when it comes to conducting their systems in a way that is clear and that prevents the sorts of abuse we have seen this weekend.
On football banning orders, again the right hon. Gentleman will have heard what the Prime Minister said very clearly at PMQs about the work the Government are conducting in relation to football banning orders. It is complex because we know, for example, that some of the trolls who have targeted some members of the team over the weekend are overseas, but we very much want to work with football clubs and others to ensure that these orders have the powers that we all want them to have. As I have said throughout—and this is the golden thread that runs throughout our work on tackling online crimes—what is illegal offline is illegal online, and that is the principle we will be adopting throughout the online safety Bill.
I thank my hon. Friend for her statement and for calling out some of the vile racist abuse that our brilliant players have had to face. On Sunday night, the Centre for Countering Digital Hate identified and reported 105 Instagram accounts that racially abused members of the England football team. As of this morning, only six of them have been taken down, so while we are getting warm words from some of these social media companies, that appears to be all we are getting from them at present. Can my hon. Friend therefore confirm that the online safety Bill will be brought forward with speed, and that those who post this abuse online will be held to proper account?
My hon. Friend highlights some of the very practical responses that social media companies can take right now; they do not need to wait for the online safety Bill. I read with some dismay and anger a report in the i paper today about how Instagram had applied its own rules—community rules—in relation to offensive emojis and indeed highly offensive words that were sent to players, but the social media companies themselves have to explain how exactly their community rules accord with the expectations and indeed the law of our country. May I, however, just make the point again that we are not alone in this? This is a challenge facing every democratic society in the world, and it is by working together, as we are doing with our voluntary principles on tackling terrorism and child sexual exploitation, that we are going to be able to make real progress against these companies and against this hatred.
The disgusting online racism faced by England players is unfortunately overshadowing a fantastic tournament and a fantastic performance by an England team that has lately attracted admiration and perhaps even a little bit of envy.
Yes, we urgently need stronger online regulation. Content must be taken down faster, and platforms must no longer be allowed to support racist content through shamefully lax rules. We also need a debate on how we identify and punish those peddling this hate. Does the Minister agree that social media regulation is not a silver bullet, that online racism reflects offline racism, and that the Government need to take tackling racism, including structural and institutional racism, more seriously?
Whatever our disagreements, no one could say that the previous Prime Minister did not take tackling racism incredibly seriously. Why do we struggle to say the same about the current Prime Minister? Is it not because on his watch too many in his party have spent more time downplaying racism than tackling it, and more time ridiculing anti-racism campaigners than going after those who actually peddle racism? So yes, we will support action to clamp down on online platforms, but will the Minister support a change of attitude in her party?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. I can assure him that had Scotland reached the same dizzy heights as England, I would have been cheering them on with great passion and strength of feeling, so I am pleased that he was able to concede some support for the England team.
As for the hon. Gentleman’s wider question about racism and hate speech across society, he is right to acknowledge that this is a matter for us all to tackle. As a member of the Home Affairs Committee, he will be aware of the work that the Government are doing to tackle hate speech and hate crimes. Of course, “hate crimes” is a very broad term: it includes not only racism but hatred towards disabled people, hatred towards transgender people, and so on. That is why we have asked the Law Commission to look at online crimes to ensure that the position is up to date and meets our expectations.
However, there is a wider message on racism more generally. I have been overwhelmed by the public’s response to those trolls over the weekend—by, for example, the way they responded to what happened to the mural in Withington: how angry they were that some individual had defaced it, and how positive their reaction has been. I think that that is what we need to reflect on and act on. Indeed, that is why I quoted our team’s manager. I think he has summed up where the public are and where we are on this, and I think it is by working together that we will tackle some of these hateful attitudes.
I know that the Home Secretary herself has been at the receiving end of terrible racist abuse. Does the Minister agree that fighting racism online and in any other form is a priority for her and for the Government? Does she also agree that that fight will be most effective when racism and anti-racism campaigns are fully understood by everyone, and that what really matters is meaningful action to tackle the scourge of racism?
Very much so. The Home Secretary has been targeted,, along with other Members on both sides of the House, and it seems that, sadly, women in particular—women of colour—are targeted by online trolls.
There are many, many people in our society who have to deal with this racism, not just online but, I am afraid, offline. I think that part of our national conversation should be about how each of us can show our complete support for the campaigns to combat racism, and how we can all ensure that we are doing everything we can, both individually and as a country, to tackle racist behaviour. I know that the Home Secretary feels very strongly about this, and indeed she has been particularly strong in her communications with tech companies throughout the two years for which she has been in office; but I also know that this is a feeling shared by many in the House, and, as I say, I am very conscious that there are others in this place who are victims as well.
On the Instagram profiles of England heroes this lunch time, there are still racist posts, including blatantly racist words and emojis, that have been up for more than 24 hours. I have challenged Instagram on this from the Home Affairs Committee repeatedly over the last few days. It told me this morning that using some of those emojis as racist slurs is against its rules, yet inexplicably, they are still up, and it is still taking Instagram days to remove these posts. Speed matters.
Can the Minister tell me what the Online Safety Bill is actually going to do to take action on this speed issue and to penalise companies for not moving fast enough? At the moment it looks as though that action will not happen. That is unacceptable. Keyboard cowards are being given a megaphone by these social media companies, and it has to stop.
I completely agree with the right hon. Lady, the Chair of the Home Affairs Committee. I do not think these tech companies quite understand the anger and frustration of everyone involved in trying to scrutinise and hold them to account when they come back at us with, “It doesn’t meet our community rules.” Words such as the words I suspect she is thinking about, the emojis, the language—that is unacceptable in any civilised society, and that includes online fora as well as offline. The Bill is a real opportunity for the Government to lay the law down but also, as I say, for parliamentarians across the House to make their views known. I have long urged the companies to listen carefully to Members of Parliament, and I would urge them again to do so, because if they do not listen, we will act.
As someone who represents one of the most diverse constituencies in the entire country, may I put on the record how abhorrent racism is, in any form? Does my hon. Friend agree that many of these online trolls hide behind the cloak of anonymity? Can she confirm that the police can still prosecute anonymous postings, and will she consider whether we should outlaw such online posting? I think that people would take more personal responsibility if it were in their own name.
My hon. Friend alights upon a very important point, but also one that will require the scrutiny and debate of this House. While we know that many, many cowards hide behind anonymous accounts, there are people who use their anonymity legitimately—victims of domestic abuse, for example, and indeed whistleblowers in very restrictive regimes overseas. I know that this place, when we come to scrutinise the Bill, will weigh those arguments up very carefully, but again, I have great sympathy with my hon. Friend’s viewpoint that if people are able to hide behind these accounts anonymously, of course that makes it much more difficult for the police to trace them. Again, we need to think through collectively where we are prepared to draw the boundaries in the wild west of the internet.
The Minister gave the usual Tory platitudes. Yes, she condemned the horrific racism our England stars have faced, but what did she think about the Prime Minister when he was describing black people as “piccaninnies” with “watermelon smiles”, when he used newspaper columns to mock Muslim women as “letterboxes” and “bank robbers”, when he refused to condemn the booing of England players taking the knee, and when his Home Secretary derided that anti-racist message as “gesture politics”? Is it not the case, like England star Tyrone Mings has said, that the Home Secretary and the Prime Minister were stoking the fire of racism and giving the green light to racism, and only now, when the consequences are clear, are they feigning outrage?
I had hoped that we would be able to conduct this debate in a measured and collective way. I do not genuinely think the hon. Lady is accusing either the Prime Minister of this country or, indeed, the Home Secretary of racism. That would be a truly extraordinary allegation to make. I hope that, at some point, we will be able to work together to tackle racism. That is what we all want to do. That is what the work of this Government is directed towards. I hope that we can lower the tone a little bit and understand that in—[Interruption.] Again, the hon. Lady is trying to shout at me. In tackling these horrific instances of racism, we need to work collectively together, and shouting at me across the Dispatch Box is not going to help with that.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the incidents of racism on social media over the past few days show why the approach taken in the draft Online Safety Bill is right? We need an independent regulator that will hold companies to account. Those companies have failed to take down this abuse, even though it is against their platform policies, and they have failed to take it down when people have complained about it. Worse than that, their own recommendation tools were actually promoting the content on Sunday night. This has to stop, but it will only stop once there is independent regulation of these companies.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right in describing that Bill as necessary and required. I think that in 10 or 15 years’ time we will look back on this era of the internet, and with the regulations we will be in a much better place in terms of people accessing social media in a positive, healthy way, rather than having to put up with the hatred we have seen in some quarters. In the Bill, as part of imposing that duty of care, we propose fines for the companies concerned of up to £18 million or—importantly—up to 10% of qualifying annual turnover. I suspect that the second figure may be the one that helps to concentrate minds.
Is not the issue that the Government have refused to take any action towards ending social media discrimination of any kind? That, in turn, has fanned the flames of divisiveness and hate in our communities that we are currently witnessing, as my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry South (Zarah Sultana) pointed out. The Amnesty International report on “Toxic Twitter” pointed out that black women are 84% more likely to experience racist abuse online than anyone else. What real steps will the Minister take, urgently, to ensure that no one—and I mean absolutely no one—is able to post racist abuse online?
I suspect I am not the only person who feels a little astonished that it is this right hon. Member who chose to ask that question about taking immediate action to tackle racism. I remind the House of the findings of the Equalities and Human Rights Commission under his watch—Labour has
“unlawfully discriminated against, harassed or victimised people because they are Jewish.”
I am also reminded that a Jewish female MP had to have police protection at the right hon. Gentleman’s party conference, because of fears for her own safety. I will listen to many people about tackling racism and I will work with pretty much anyone, but I will take a long spoon with which to sup with this particular Member.
It is popular to blame mutant algorithms for many things, but social media giants could use them quickly and effectively to shut down accounts that are spouting racist bile. Will my hon. Friend assure me that the Government are prepared to take action against platforms such as Instagram, which have been painfully slow to respond to the horrific racist abuse targeted at black players since Sunday?
My right hon. Friend alights on an important point. This power is already within the reach of internet companies. Those companies seem to think that their community rules somehow take precedence over the laws of our country, and I imagine that is the same across other countries in the world. The message to those tech companies is this: please listen to the public’s outrage at some of the posts festering on your platforms, and deal with them. It is simply not acceptable to expect players, or victims of such abuse, to deal with it themselves. The tech companies have the algorithms and no doubt the powers to intervene, and they should use them now.
My question is a similar one. The racist abuse targeted at black footballers has been absolutely abhorrent. The tech giants could have stopped it, but they chose not to because it suits their business model. In October 2020, Mark Zuckerberg decided, literally on a whim, to remove holocaust denial from his Facebook, and he did that. In February 2021, after a public outcry, Instagram made a U-turn, changed its policy and started to regulate some direct messages of racial abuse.
Does the Minister agree that it is not the powers or the capability of the tech giants that is lacking, but the will? Everybody knew that the Wembley final could result in a torrent of abuse, yet the online platforms chose not to plan, not to monitor and not to act. Does she further agree that if we are to turn empty rhetoric into action, it is not enough to fine the companies, but the Government must legislate to hold the senior executives to personal account? They should be personally liable for failing to remove harmful content from their platforms.
I am extremely grateful to the right hon. Lady and mindful of her own experiences with abuse, online and offline. I agree that of course these powers exist already, so one can only conclude that in the cases highlighted in this Chamber and in newspapers, the businesses concerned do not wish to remove those items; I have no doubt that if I am wrong, they will correct me.
There must be a will there. I very much hope that a former Member of this House—one Sir Nick Clegg, who, as we know, advises Facebook at a very senior level in California—is advising Facebook as to the powers of this place and the anger that Members across the Chamber feel. It seems to me that responding to these concerns makes not just good moral sense, but good business sense.
The abuse that we saw after England’s heroic final Euro game is beyond disgusting and has no place in any world, let alone the modern world. I know that my hon. Friend will agree that it is not beyond the ingenuity of social media platforms to deploy their vast coding expertise to develop artificial intelligence and algorithmic solutions to rapidly remove disgusting, abusive racist posts while still being able to protect appropriate freedom of speech. Sadly, there is more than enough training data for them to use.
Very much so. My challenge to these tech companies is, “Look: you have some of the brightest brains in the world. You recruit from the top universities. You pay—I imagine—handsomely. Use those brilliant brains to do some good and to stop this abuse on your platforms.”
The whole England team have been remarkable in opposing racism and championing justice and equality for all. Sadly, they have not had the full support of this Government. It is up to all of us with a public platform, including the Home Secretary, to personally confront racism in all its forms and give our full support to those who are working against it. The Home Secretary is not here today, so I cannot ask her personally, but will the Minister add her support to the petition to ban racists for life from all football matches in England, which now has more than 1 million signatories?
I do not know whether the hon. Lady was in the Chamber at the beginning of this urgent question when I explained that the Home Secretary is hosting a meeting—a long-standing meeting—with charities that work with survivors of violence against women and girls. I hope that the House will understand.
On the hon. Lady’s general allegations, I am minded to point out that the Home Secretary herself receives extraordinary levels of online hatred. Some of the things that she—and, in fairness, others across this House—have to deal with are eye-watering. I urge hon. Members to join together with us in tackling this racism.
On the petition, the hon. Lady may have missed the Prime Minister’s answer at Prime Minister’s questions. We are going even better than the petition, because we are looking urgently at football banning orders to ensure that people who express these racist views are stopped from going to our matches entirely.
I believe this great and united nation is one of the most tolerant and anti-discrimination nations I know, and that what we have witnessed is orchestrated hate crime by the minority and trolls. Does the Minister agree that we need tougher punishments for racially driven violence, intimidation and abuse on social media? The biggest issue I see is with the social media companies, which have been very slow to remove abuse from their platforms.
My hon. Friend has worked assiduously not just on online hatred directed on racist grounds, but on other categories of people affected on social media, including women. I hope she will work tirelessly with the Government on our forthcoming Online Safety Bill to ensure not only that these companies do what they should do and clear out their own backyard, but that we work together to tackle the horrific attitudes that underline this abuse.
Minister, we live in an era when online abuse is becoming normalised. The disgusting comments directed at our footballers on social media have in many cases been illegal, and the perpetrators must be brought to justice. But in other cases the abuse has been technically legal, yet remains extremely harmful and distressing. Warm words and veiled threats are clearly not enough. Will she therefore commit today to ensuring that legal but harmful content will be adequately addressed in the Online Safety Bill, to improving the Bill to ensure that social media companies’ terms and conditions meet a minimum standard, and to ensuring that those standards are enforced so that harmful content is swiftly removed from their platforms?
Yes, I am very happy to confirm that of course we are looking at legal but harmful material. Let me draw the House’s attention to the fact that the Online Safety Bill is a really significant piece of legislation but there will be other vehicles for legislating on these sorts of crimes, including not only the victims Bill but the Law Commission’s work on online hate law more generally. It is really important that we get this right. The law has probably struggled to keep up to date with some of these developing advances in technology and we have to make sure it is future-proofed to cover these terrible crimes.
Since Sunday’s final, everyone I have spoken to in my constituency, everywhere I have been, has expressed nothing but pride in our England team. Racist abuse online has inspired an outpouring of support and solidary. By contrast, figures released by Twitter in 2020 show that the company responded to less than 50% of all requests for information from law enforcement in the UK. Alongside support for campaigns such as Kick It Out, does my hon. Friend agree that such social media platforms must seriously raise their game or face serious repercussions?
I completely agree with my hon. Friend, and I am delighted to hear that the football team have received such support in her constituency—I suspect that that is the experience of us all. The racist attitudes that have been displayed by a small number of people and trolls, some of which we know originate from overseas, are very much in the minority. The overwhelming majority of us are incredibly proud of our great team.
I refer to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests and my position as co-chair of the all-party group on showing racism the red card. Show Racism the Red Card does fantastic work in tackling racist abuse, online and elsewhere, but the Home Office, in its wisdom, cut its funding to zero 18 months ago. Show Racism the Red Card still gets funding from the Scottish and Welsh Governments, so will the Minister meet me, parliamentary colleagues and Show Racism the Red Card so that we can discuss its funding, to help to tackle this scourge in our society?
I am very happy to do that. I should point out that a huge programme of work continues, including the online crime hub run by the police, which we help to fund. Campaigns that help to tackle racism are clearly in our country’s interests, so I am happy to meet the hon. Gentleman to discuss those issues further.
Sunday night should have been a celebration of achievement. Instead, we woke up the next morning with racism aimed at three men simply doing their job. That is not acceptable. We know that social media is at the centre of the storm and has a growing influence across our lives, from bullying and racism to my interest, which is in body image. Does my hon. Friend agree that social media campaigns and companies have a duty and responsibility to work proactively with Government and the police to better our society?
I most certainly do agree. In fairness, as the House would expect, I should say that we do a lot of work with online companies across a great range of subjects. Indeed, only yesterday I met business leaders, including tech leaders, to discuss how we can create opportunities for our hardest-to-reach young people who are at risk of serious violence. I am grateful to them for those activities, but the message is coming out loud and clear not just in this country but across the world that somehow we must tame the wild west of the internet so that these more hateful practices are not dominating our national headlines and taking away from the great achievements of our England team.
Racist abuse online is not just abhorrent; it normalises racist views offline and desensitises people to them. The true spirit of Greater Manchester is in the scenes that the Minister mentioned of the community placing messages of support and love on the defaced Marcus Rashford mural, not the graffiti of some pea-brained moron. As a Man City fan, I say that United’s Rashford is among the best of us. I welcome the Prime Minister’s commitment to extending football banning orders to cover online abuse, for which Labour has been calling for some time. Given the urgency, when and how will that happen?
I do not have a timeframe to hand, but I will happily write to the hon. Gentleman on that. May I thank him, as a Man City fan and a Member of Parliament for one of the greatest cities on the planet, for highlighting the great humour and support that the people of Withington have shown?
We all know that social media companies have the tools and powers to prevent online hate, yet it is still happening day in, day out. The incidents following Sunday evening have shone a light on this disgusting abuse. If social media companies will not act on their own, what actions will the Government take to ensure that finally we put a full stop to online hate?
My hon. Friend has identified the opportunity for the Government, and indeed the House, in the Online Safety Bill. The powers-that-be in the tech companies are no doubt watching the debate closely, and I assume they have got the message loud and clear from all parts of the House about our expectations on their next moves.
I thank the Minister for coming to the House this afternoon. Racist incidents online do not exist in a vacuum; they exist in a world where, according to the YMCA, 95% of young black British children have witnessed racism in education. They exist in a world where, according to the Runnymede Trust, racism in the UK is systematic in our health system, in the criminal justice system, in employment and even in politics, which I know all too well. I want every young black and minority ethnic person watching today to know that they have a place in this society and they can reach the height that I did from a council estate in Brixton. I will continue to do my bit to ensure that we speak out against racism.
This racism also exists in a world where so-called spectators even want to boo their own team—disgraceful! Social media companies need to take a lot more action, but, until they feel the full weight of the law, they will not understand that. Will the Minister confirm whether the Government will introduce criminal sanctions against social media executives in the Online Harms Bill?
I thank the hon. Lady for her comments; she spoke with such passion, and she is right. Every time she and other Members of this House stand up to speak on behalf of their constituents, they are role models. I am delighted that this House is more diverse than it has ever been, although it needs to be even more diverse. I am also very proud of the fact that the Government are more diverse than they have ever been. The fact that two of the great offices of state are filled by people who happen to be of ethnic minority heritage is a real credit to our country and to how one can achieve what one wants with hard work and effort.
On the hon. Lady’s question relating to executives, that is something we are looking at in the Bill. There are measures in it that have been set out to deal with executives. Of course, I welcome her and any other Members’ input to the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport to ensure that the Bill is meeting the expectations of all.
Some of these vile abusers are totally open, but the cloak of anonymity does embolden others. It also opens the door for hostile actors, with the divisive exploitation that can sometimes follow. As the Minister said in response to my hon. Friend the Member for Kensington (Felicity Buchan), anonymity is important in some contexts, including, for example, for survivors of domestic abuse, but it does not follow that it is therefore required in all contexts. If someone is communicating online in their own identity, should they not be able to say that they want to hear from and be commented on only by other people who are using their own identity? Will the Government please look at that again in the Online Safety Bill?
Like thousands of other Welsh fans, I stand with Marcus Rashford and others, including many Welsh players, against the vile racist abuse they have received. Tory Home Secretaries have wasted years through their inaction on this issue. In 2016, I introduced my Criminal Offences (Misuse of Digital Technologies and Services) (Consolidation) Bill, which included tackling racist abuse online, to make the current fragmented law workable in the 21st century. Five years on, we are still waiting for action. I have a specific question: will the Online Safety Bill provide clarity on what constitutes illegal racist hate speech against groups of people as well as offences against individuals?
The hon. Lady knows that we have asked the Law Commission to look into the laws relating to malicious online communications. I declare my interest as a former prosecuting counsel. This is a horribly complex area of law, and as technology develops with, for example, deep fake images and so on, it becomes more complex. That is precisely why we asked the Law Commission to look into it. In terms of the hon. Lady’s other challenges, the Bill is going to be scrutinised at length by the House, so she will no doubt have the opportunity put her views forward. I want to get the message out that the Online Safety Bill needs to be considered carefully, because we very much want it to be a piece of legislation that stands the test of time. I cannot really think of another country in the world that has entered into such an ambitious project to try to bring some of these corners of the internet into the light so that we do not see these sorts of practices online.
Much of the online racist abuse against England’s footballers is thought to have originated from overseas social media accounts. What steps are she and her Department taking with counterparts in other countries to ensure that there is a concerted international effort to stamp out these appalling attacks so that there is no hiding place?
I think my hon. Friend is referring to the early analysis by the Premier League. I hope he will be reassured by the fact that we are looking into this with some urgency. Given that it is a global football competition, it is perhaps no leap of the imagination to suppose that some of this abuse may have come from overseas, and we want to look at that carefully. This also underlines the point that the internet is available across the world and that we have to act collectively with other nation states in order to bring these trolls to heel. We are already doing that through the Five Eyes and through the voluntary principles that we have won agreement on in relation to child sexual exploitation and tackling terrorism.
I join the Minister and others in their congratulations and tributes to the England football team, and in their condemnation of the abuse suffered by the three black players. In a couple of months’ time, David, in the form of Northern Ireland, will take on Goliath, in the form of Italy, in World cup qualifying. We will endeavour to build on the national pride and endeavour we have seen in the past few weeks.
On the online safety Bill, will the Minister reassert, as she has said several times, that if the providers do not act, they will suffer grievous financial hardship and we will hit them where it hurts, in their corporate pockets?
I am pleased to join the hon. Gentleman’s support for Northern Ireland. I am sure Italy will pose no problem for Northern Ireland, and I wish Northern Ireland all the greatest of success.
On the serious subject of our work to tackle the online hatred we saw again this weekend, the online safety Bill is a landmark piece of legislation and I look forward to working with the House on its passage.
Racism, racist bullying and any form of bullying is completely unacceptable, and I hope my hon. Friend uses all her powers to stamp down on such behaviour. On divisiveness in our society, it appears it has become about whether or not people take the knee. Does she agree that the single biggest cause of divisiveness is the lack of tolerance and respect from both sides of the argument, equally? It does not matter whether someone chooses to take the knee. What matters is that they have tolerance and respect for those who choose to and, equally, for those who choose not to.
My hon. Friend has defined what it is to live in a free country. We abide by the principles of free speech, within the genuine and legitimate confines of legislation such as hate crime legislation. We have a wonderfully diverse football team with enormous talent and enormous skills. Just as they have acted with tolerance, respect and humility in the face of the nation’s joy and adoration, we should extend that to each other and treat each other with tolerance and respect.
We all know that racist abuse is not confined to social media. On 3 July, The Sunday Times ran an article stating that Raheem Sterling’s success in the Euros was being celebrated on the “violent Jamaica streets” where he grew up. This sort of ignorant and tasteless commentary only feeds the stereotype that black people and black populations or countries are dangerous. Will the Minister today condemn the disgusting attitudes that have been propelled by the tabloids and broadsheets for decades? What will she do about it?
I have not seen that report, but my memory of Raheem Sterling is the story he told of growing up in the shadow of the Wembley arch and imagining himself playing under that arch—instead of being outside the stadium, being inside the stadium. Of course, he has done exactly that.
That shows that in this country there is the opportunity and the chance, if you have the talents of Mr Sterling and others, to succeed. I very much hope that is the message that comes out of our debate both this afternoon and more generally in relation to the horrendous hate crimes we saw over the weekend.
Does the Minister agree that this should be a matter where both sides of the House and all parties come together to ensure we put an end to racist abuse once and for all? Will she highlight how, through the online safety Bill, this will actually happen?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. By working together, we are so much stronger. Today we have seen that there is great unity of intent and will across the House to ensure that those who express racist views are held to account and brought to justice, and that each part of society plays its part, including online companies.
Does the Minister think her colleagues’ refusal to condemn the booing of players for taking the knee, their dismissal of taking the knee as “gesture politics”, No. 10’s denial of institutional racism in the UK or the Government’s three-year delay to legislation that would crack down on online abuse could have given space to a culture or hostile environment that sees the racist abuse of England players as acceptable? Does the Minister regret that denial of the problem and the failure to act?
I am going to temper the hon. Lady’s remarks with some facts. The Home Secretary did not say that she supported football fans booing England players for taking the knee. The Prime Minister was clear in saying that the public should be cheering our team, not booing them. We have to be very careful with how we handle the facts; we are presenting our plans for the future to help to eradicate racism and our plans for taming the internet, and that is how we will achieve things. A little bit of back and forth at the Dispatch Box is welcome and part of our rich tapestry of democracy, but I do hope that the hon. Lady will stick to facts next time.
I draw the Minister’s attention to the paradox identified by Sunder Katwala, the director of British Future: there are far fewer overt racists in Britain today than there were 20 or 30 years ago, which is a very good thing, and there are far fewer racist attitudes in Britain, but because of social media and the fact that everyone is always online, individuals from black and ethnic minority communities experience far more racism on a day-to-day basis than they did then. That is why fixing this needs to be a public policy priority and why people at Twitter and Facebook need to step up. They need to stop people who are banned opening new accounts, and they need to address the algorithms that promote that material, and in that way we can rebuild community cohesion.
We all acknowledge the echo chamber that social media provides, and the fact that being available online across the world perhaps enables just a single person to have far more volume added to their voice than would be the case if they were known, as they usually are, to be sitting in their bedroom rather pathetically tapping away on their laptop or phone. We must build resilience among our young people in schools to prepare them to understand that torrents of abuse like this may represent only a tiny number of people, and very much build on education and the cultural attitudes that we are seeking to address through relationships, health and sex education in schools to ensure that people understand the principles of tolerance and kindness in being able to debate without hatred. There are many ways of tackling racism. I look forward to debating them in the months and years to come, but we do not need to take chunks out of one another while we are debating.
Legacy of Northern Ireland’s Past
Before I call the Secretary of State, I wish to make a short statement about the sub judice resolution. I have been advised that there are active legal proceedings on the legality of the Northern Ireland protocol and active legal proceedings and open inquests in relation to historic troubles-related deaths. I am exercising the discretion given to the Chair in respect of the resolution on matters of sub judice to allow full reference to the challenge to the Northern Ireland protocol as it concerns issues of national importance. Further, I am exercising that discretion to allow limited reference to active legal proceedings and open inquests in relation to the historic troubles-related deaths. However, references to these cases should be limited to the context and to the events which led to the cases but not to the detail of cases themselves, nor the names of those involved in them. All hon. Members should, however, be mindful of the matters that may be the subject of future legal proceedings and should exercise caution in making reference to individual cases.
I also wish to say something further about the actions yesterday of the hon. Member for Foyle (Colum Eastwood) in naming somebody apparently subject to an anonymity order. As Members of this House, we enjoy freedom of speech. “Erskine May” states that
“a Member may state whatever they think fit in debate”
“the Member is protected by parliamentary privilege from any action for defamation, as well as from any other question or molestation. This freedom extends to statements which, if made out of Parliament, would breach injunctions, although this has been deprecated by the Speaker.”
Freedom of speech must, however, be used responsibly. It is a grave step to use privilege to breach a court order. As the Joint Committee on Privacy and Injunctions made clear:
“privilege places a significant responsibility on parliamentarians to exercise it in the public interest. The presumption should be that court orders are respected in Parliament and that when a Member does not comply with one he or she can demonstrate that it is in the public interest.”
It is for others to judge whether the action of the hon. Member for Foyle was indeed in the public interest. However, the hon. Member broke no rules of order, as his comments were made while the House was considering the Armed Forces Bill and the sub judice rule does not apply when legislation is in question.
Finally, before I call the Secretary of State, I have to deprecate the fact that, once again, a statement appears to have been extensively briefed to the media before being made to the House. That is not acceptable. That is not the way that we want to do business. I have to say that I have had a number of texts and emails on this from Members who take a very keen interest in this and who are very supportive of this issue. They are, quite rightly, disappointed that it seems more important that newspapers are the ones to carry this, not this House.
Once again, let me say—and I say it to all Secretaries of State and all Departments—that this House must hear that statement first. It should not be briefed to the newspaper 24 hours before, so, please, look and listen. If not, it will be much more difficult, as we will grant urgent questions every day to bring that Department to this Dispatch Box. Please, let us work together and let us respect Members of this House, who are, quite rightly, very concerned and want to make sure that they are involved in the statement first. I now call the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. My apologies to you and to the House. I accept the comments that you have made. I just say in my defence and in that of colleagues who have been working on this issue for the past 18 months or so that we have been having wide engagement on a range of issues that inform the statement that I am going to make. This is the first time anybody will hear or have seen this statement, apart from the advance copies that we gave to colleagues earlier as per the normal protocol, as it has always been done, not to the press. It has been important in the past few weeks and months, and will be important in the weeks ahead, to have that wide engagement with people around the issues that we are talking about, because of the complexity and sensitivity of the matter.
I would like to make a statement now about the way forward in addressing the legacy of Northern Ireland’s past.
The troubles saw a terrible, extensive period of violence that claimed the lives of some 3,500 people, left up to 40,000 people injured, and caused untold damage to all aspects of society in Northern Ireland. The Belfast/Good Friday agreement in 1998 sought to move Northern Ireland forward, setting a bold and visionary path that would guide all the people of Northern Ireland towards a shared, stable, peaceful and prosperous future.
It is wonderful to mark, in this centenary year, just how far Northern Ireland has come. While Northern Ireland is undoubtedly today a fantastic place in which to live, work and visit, the unresolved legacy of the troubles remains. It continues to impact and permeate society in Northern Ireland. The past is a constant shadow over those who directly experienced the horrors of those times, and also over those who did not but who now live with the trauma of previous generations.
It is clear that the current system for dealing with the legacy of the troubles is not working. It is now a difficult and painful truth that the focus on criminal investigations is increasingly unlikely to deliver successful criminal justice outcomes, but all the while it continues to divide communities and it fails to obtain answers for a majority of victims and families. That is borne out in the figure. The Police Service of Northern Ireland are currently considering almost 1,200 cases, which represents just a fraction of the 3,500 deaths and wider cases. These would take over 20 years to investigate. More than two thirds of troubles-related deaths occurred over 40 years ago, and it is increasingly difficult for the courts to provide families with the answers they are seeking. If we fail to act now to address, acknowledge and account for the legacy of the troubles properly, we will be condemning current and future generations to yet further division, preventing reconciliation at both the individual and societal level.
That is why I am today laying before the House, and publishing, a paper that proposes a series of measures to address the legacy of the past in Northern Ireland. These proposals are being considered as part of an ongoing and an important engagement process, which I announced alongside the Irish Government at the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference last month. As set out in the framework, which we published at the same time, that engagement process is committed to involving not just the UK and Irish Governments and the Northern Ireland parties, but those directly affected by the troubles, and experts and Members and Committees of this House and the other place. The objective of this engagement is to deal with legacy issues in a way that supports information recovery and reconciliation, complies fully with international human rights obligations and responds to the needs of individual victims and survivors, as well as society as a whole.
This is a hugely difficult and complex issue, and many have strongly held and divergent views on how to move forward, but I hope we can all agree that this is an issue that is of the utmost importance to the people of Northern Ireland and beyond. It is critical that all involved continue to engage in a spirit of collaboration in order to deliver practical solutions on this most sensitive of issues. This Government reaffirm their commitment to intensive engagement in that spirit, and we are committed to introducing legislation by the end of the autumn.
The measures set out in the paper will include three key proposals. First, a new independent body, that will focus on the recovery and provision of information about troubles-related deaths and most serious injuries. That body will be focused on helping families to find out the truth of what has happened to their loved ones. When families do not want the past raked over again, they would be able to make that clear. For those families that want to get answers, the body will have the full powers to seek access to information and find out what happened.
Secondly, a package of measures will also include a major oral history initiative, consistent with what was included in the Stormont House agreement. That initiative would create opportunities for people from all backgrounds to share their experiences and perspectives related to the troubles and, crucially, to learn about those of others. Balance and sensitivity would be of central importance and a concerted effort would be made to engage with those whose voices may not have been heard previously.
Thirdly there will be a statute of limitations, to apply equally to all troubles-related incidents. We know that the prospect of the end of criminal prosecutions will be difficult for some to accept, and this is not a position that we take lightly, but we have come to the view that it is the best and only way to facilitate an effective information retrieval and provision process, and the best way to help Northern Ireland move further along the road to reconciliation. It is a painful recognition of the very reality of where we are.
As I say, these issues are complex and they are sensitive. That is why they remain unresolved, 23 years after the Belfast/Good Friday agreement. We also understand the importance of the Stormont House agreement, and remain committed to its key principles, which this paper will outline and cover. In particular, we acknowledge that any proposal that moves away from criminal justice outcomes would be a very significant step that will be extremely difficult for some families to accept.
The Belfast/Good Friday agreement was a bold step—one to address the past—and there have been other bold steps, such as the decommissioning of weapons and the limiting of sentences, all those years ago, to two years. However, it is increasingly clear to us that the ongoing retributive criminal justice processes are far from helping, and are in fact impeding the successful delivery of information recovery, mediation and reconciliation that could provide a sense of restorative justice for many more families than is currently the case.
The Government are committed to doing all in their power to ensure that families from across the United Kingdom do not continue to be let down by a process that leads only to pain, suffering and disappointment for the vast majority. As part of that, we will deliver on our commitment to veterans who served in Northern Ireland. We will provide certainty for former members of the security forces, many of whom remained fearful of the prospect of being the subject of ongoing investigations that will hang over them for years to come, even though the vast majority acted in accordance with the law, and often at great personal risk.
We are also unequivocal in our commitment to delivering for victims and survivors. Time is crucial, and as it moves on we risk the very real possibility that we will lose any chance to get the vital information that families want and need. They have waited long enough and a focus on information would offer the best chance of giving more families some sense of justice through acknowledgment, accountability and restorative means. We need to progress our understanding of the complexity of the troubles and in doing so seek to reconcile society with the past as we go on to look forward together.
This Government are determined to address all aspects of Northern Ireland’s troubled past. We know from our recent history, particularly with the implementation of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement, that we can achieve more when we are bold and move forward together. I want us all to continue to engage on the shape and the detail of the proposals as we work to address this issue, which is of the utmost importance to the people of Northern Ireland and beyond.
Finally, I draw the attention of the House to a quote from Margaret Fairless Barber. I came across it when reading the report by Lord Eames and Denis Bradley into Northern Ireland’s past and I think it is worth repeating today in the House:
“To look backwards for a while is to refresh the eye, to restore it, and to render it more fit for its prime function of looking forward.”
I commend this statement to the House.
I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of his statement, but share your frustration, Mr Speaker, that the Government have repeatedly chosen to brief newspapers rather than to respect this House, and more importantly the victims whom these proposals concern.
In debates about Northern Ireland’s past here in Great Britain, it is all too easy to forget the victims of the conflict—people such as Brian Service, who was just 35 years old when he was shot in the head by loyalist paramilitaries in a random sectarian attack just weeks before the Good Friday agreement. After his death, his mother said she felt:
“It was as if he never really existed as a person and that his life and death did not matter.”
The deep pain of that conflict was the proximity of the violence and the absence of justice. More than 3,000 people lost their lives and tens of thousands were injured—in a place of fewer than 2 million people. Society and the peace process in general remain so fragile precisely because the pain runs so deep. It is why any proposal to deal with legacy must have victims and the communities of Northern Ireland at its heart, and that requires real care from the Secretary of State. It is therefore deeply regrettable that his approach has already seen trust among victims reach rock bottom.
Victims have been treated appallingly over the last 18 months: promises made torn up; gaslighted by the Secretary of State at this Dispatch Box. It is little wonder that many have greeted today’s proposals with deep scepticism and question whether this is more an exercise in shoring up narrow party support than in delivering the reconciliation that the communities in Northern Ireland crave.
We must not forget that this Government gave victims their word. Just 18 months ago, they promised to legislate on the Stormont House agreement in New Decade, New Approach. These proposals are a seismic departure from that promise. If the goal is reconciliation, why would the Secretary of State begin by taking a sledge- hammer to promises made by his own Government? I am afraid that to dress this up as truth and reconciliation is deeply disingenuous. As they stand, these proposals will deliver neither.
We cannot impose reconciliation and the truth will never out with an amnesty in place—because at the heart of these proposals is an amnesty in all but name, which is profoundly offensive to many. No wonder the five main political parties in Northern Ireland have objected to the proposals, as have victims’ groups right across the spectrum, including South East Fermanagh Foundation, WAVE and Relatives for Justice. Crimes committed in the United Kingdom, the vast majority of which relate to republican and loyalist murder, closed for good; no justice for the Bloody Sunday families whose cases remain live; no justice for the 21 innocent people murdered by IRA bombs on a November night in Birmingham in 1974—the deadliest act of terror in Britain until 7/7. Their families have said today that such an amnesty would be abhorrent.
As veterans of the Ulster Defence Regiment I met in Cookstown told me, “We have nothing to hide. We were there to protect the rule of law. If we broke it, use it against us. If we didn’t, defend us with it.” Ministers today appear to have concluded that the rule of law no longer applies—an amnesty for the republican and loyalist terrorists who tortured, maimed, disappeared and murdered men, women and children.
Addressing the toxic legacy of the past in this way—through unilateral imposition by Westminster without the support of any political party in Northern Ireland—is foolish and unsustainable. A way forward has to be found—one done with people, not to them, which genuinely prioritises reconciliation and upholds the rule of law. It is striking that the Secretary of State made scant reference to the Government’s obligations under article 2 to conduct effective investigations. If his proposals are not legal, they will be tied up in the courts for many years to come.
The work of Operation Kenova is demonstrating that even now, many years on, important new evidence can be retrieved. The case for a comprehensive legacy process, as outlined in Stormont House, through investigations with full police powers, remains strong and compelling. It is totally wrong to abandon it.
The Secretary of State’s deliberations concern the most shattering moments; the midnight hour of some of the darkest days seen on these islands. They concern whether families for whom the violence was so intimate will have the chance to come to terms with what happened to their loved ones. I urge him to ask himself whether society’s interests are truly served by an amnesty, or whether it is his own party’s interests that he is serving.
This is the last chance for many victims to find the truth. The Secretary of State’s decision could be the last word. On this issue, more than any other, those most affected by the dark legacy of the past must come first.
We are committed to addressing the unresolved legacy of Northern Ireland’s past so that communities can reconcile and heal. That is what the Command Paper we will publish today sets out. I suggest the hon. Lady has a look at it; she will see that some of the issues she raised are the issues we have been talking to people about and cover in that Command Paper. As I said, we are determined that anything we do is article 2 compliant.
The hon. Lady referred to Operation Kenova, which has done excellent work with victims of families to get to the bottom of the truth. In the four or five years that has been functioning, there have been no prosecutions, but there is a model in Operation Kenova about how these things can work, which gives is a clear indication of how to get to information as we move forward. That is the kind of process that it would be constructive for us to look at and deal with.
On Stormont House, it is increasingly clear—I was frank about this in my opening remarks—that any approach to dealing with the legacy of the past that focuses on criminal investigations will be unlikely to deliver the outcomes that people hope for. There comes a point when we in this House need to be honest with people about the very painful and difficult reality of where we are today, as recent cases have shown us. That is probably why the previous Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland made the comment that some of those things were simply unworkable. We are also clear that we will never accept any moral equivalence between those who upheld the law in Northern Ireland, who served their country, and those on all sides who sought to destroy it.
Let me gently say to hon. Lady that she stood there and talked about engagement, but some of the people she criticised me for not engaging with we engaged with just last week, as part of a wide range of engagement over the past 18 months that will continue. The paper is part of the tools that are ongoing and will continue in the weeks ahead.
In the light of not hearing from the hon. Lady a single thing about what the Labour party would propose as a way forward, I will finish, as I did in my opening statement, with a quote: “Instead of releasing the sort of politics that can ensure the success of the Good Friday agreement, the party is an obstacle to progressive political development.” That is a quote today from Boyd Black, the secretary of the Labour party in Northern Ireland.
The Belfast/Good Friday agreement enabled peace to come to Northern Ireland and opened up the prospect of a much brighter future for that part of the United Kingdom, but does my right hon. Friend agree that young people today and future generations will be able to enjoy that brighter future only if Northern Ireland can find a path to reconciliation and if it is able to address—and, crucially, move on from—the legacy of the past?
Yes. My right hon. Friend, who I know has had a great interest in Northern Ireland for many years, is absolutely right. It cannot be right that, 23 years on from the Belfast/Good Friday agreement, still only some 7% of children in Northern Ireland are able to enjoy integrated education. If we want to see society move forward, we need to be clear and honest with ourselves that there is much more work to do on that. She is absolutely right that we need to end the intergenerational trauma that we are seeing and find a way to help Northern Ireland move forward so that the next generation and today’s younger generation can look forward, while always understanding where we have come from and what has happened.
May I associate myself with your remarks before the statement, Mr Speaker, about the unfortunate way in which this information has entered the public domain? I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of his statement, but we should not be reading these things on the BBC and RTÉ websites before we can discuss them in the House.
I acknowledge the untidy and imperfect nature of some of the compromises that have had to be made over the decades, first to achieve peace in Northern Ireland and then to maintain it. However, whatever merits in principle there might be in proposals surrounding aspects of truth, reconciliation and ensuring that the hidden truths of the troubles can at last be told while it is still possible, there remain huge concerns about the apparent lack of formal consultation and engagement on them.
Does the Secretary of State understand the huge concern, unease and upset that these proposals for a statute of limitations will cause, not just across Northern Ireland, but right across these islands? Will he acknowledge that unease and commit to engaging with victims’ groups and political leaders to discuss the way forward? Will he also think again about that statute of limitations and find a way to ensure, whatever final proposals he brings forward to the House, that where independent prosecutors consider that there is a sufficiency of evidence and a likelihood of successful conviction and, importantly, where they independently judge that it is in the public interest to bring forward a prosecution, they will still be able to do so?
I absolutely agree with the hon. Gentleman about making sure that we are able to get to the truth and get to information. Nobody in this House ever wants to see again a situation like the Ballymurphy case, where the families have had to wait 50 years to get to the truth. We have to find a better way forward. The current system is failing everybody, so to do nothing simply is not an option that will deliver for people in Northern Ireland. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right.
We do want to engage. We have been engaging, and not just over the past 18 months. Even last week, my officials and I engaged with victims’ groups on these very issues. In the weeks ahead, with the Command Paper for people to read through and engage with, that engagement will continue, including with the political parties and our partners in the Irish Government.
My right hon. Friend should be commended for trying once again, as others have done, to resolve legacy. As we do so, can we resolve not to use the language—I know that he has not done so—of drawing a line and closing a chapter? For those who suffer still, that is something unreachable. We need to show the utmost sensitivity on that point.
The work of Operation Kenova has commanded cross- community support. Where do that model and approach fit into my right hon. Friend’s thinking as he tries to pursue truth and reconciliation? How will he evolve these plans, working in concert with the Irish Government, to ensure and maximise buy-in for a joint approach? Is there a George Mitchell-like figure hovering in the wings who could be deployed to help and to act as an honest broker as we try to resolve this all-too-long issue?
I appreciate the comments of the Chairman of the Select Committee. There is a lot of work to do with our partners, not just victims and veterans—who of course are also often victims of the troubles themselves in a wider sense, and in some cases directly—but the parties in Northern Ireland and also the Irish Government. There are still a range of cases that I know exist, which the First Minister of Northern Ireland wrote to the Taoiseach about not that long ago. That is why we are looking at how we can work together on information recovery to ensure that we find a way that gets to the truth and to information that we have not yet been able to secure in a process that works for families and victims. I do think Operation Kenova is a very good example of showing how we can get to the truth and can get information in a format we have not had before. We need to accept the difficult reality that, over the last five years, it has not yet seen any successful prosecutions, but the model of how it has worked—worked with victims and with families—is an important part of the discussions to have about information recovery.
I share with my hon. Friend the view that this is never about ignoring what has happened. We should not do that, and it would be wrong to do that. We have to be conscious of our past to be able to understand and learn more about where we can go for our future, and that has to be the aim for people, including the young generation of people, in Northern Ireland.