House of Commons
Tuesday 30 November 2021
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office
The Secretary of State was asked—
I apologise that we do not have our normal cohort of Ministers here this morning. One of our colleagues tested positive for covid yesterday, and the Foreign Secretary is at a very important meeting with our NATO partners, where she will raise the situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
The situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina is serious, with Republika Srpska attempting de facto secession. We fully support Bosnia and Herzegovina’s territorial integrity and sovereignty. We are working with allies to support the peace stabilisation force EUFOR, enhance NATO’s posture and support the High Representative.
I thank the Minister for the answer. It is obviously important that we are strong, with the rest of the democracies in Europe and NATO, in our position regarding Bosnia and Herzegovina. What assessment have the Government made of Russia’s influence on what is happening in that country?
We see a concerning pattern of Russian behaviour. The aim is to hamper Euro-Atlantic integration in the region. The UK’s approach is clearly set out in the integrated review. The UK takes the threat from the Russian state extremely seriously and we will continue to call out Russian aggression.
It is clear that the situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina has worsened considerably as a result of the separationist ambitions of Republika Srpska, which is backed by the Russian Federation. Can my hon. Friend the Minister tell me what discussions the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office has had with the new High Representative and what steps we are taking as a nation to try to stabilise the situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina?
We are fully committed to supporting High Representative Schmidt. At the NATO foreign ministerial meeting in Riga today, the Foreign Secretary will focus attention on Bosnia and Herzegovina and encourage greater engagement from the alliance to play an enhanced role. She will call on allies to contribute personnel to the NATO headquarters in Sarajevo and to support work to counter disinformation and strengthen defence reform. The UK will do its part.
I am sure that all hon. Members present are deeply concerned about the situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina developing rapidly into conflict. What steps is the FCDO taking to assess the risk of atrocity in the region and take preventive action? What conversations has it had with civil societies of the Federation and Republika Srpska to encourage dialogue? How is the Foreign Secretary using her development programmes in the western Balkans, alongside diplomatic and security levers, to address the drivers of conflict?
As I said earlier, the political crisis in Bosnia and Herzegovina is serious, which is precisely why the Foreign Secretary will raise it today. We are working hard to prevent it from becoming a security crisis, but the risk of miscalculation or exploitation remains. The hon. Lady asked about UK aid. Our embassy in Sarajevo supports a range of programmes that promote stability, security and prosperity, and targets programmes in support of civil society and media freedom.
Given the current situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina, is it time to look again at the rulings of the Dayton accords? Are the UK Government willing to put in the political effort to ensure that the mistakes of the past are not repeated?
Many of us remember the 1990s and the horrors of the first major war since the second world war. We also remember the horrors of Srebrenica, where Muslims were massacred by the Serbs. Should the Government not be speaking to the Americans and engaging with NATO to see what can be done to stabilise the situation? I remember observing the elections in Bosnia. It was a very delicate democracy then; it is even more delicate now. It is urgent that the Government act.
Let us be clear that Srebrenica was a genocide, as confirmed by international courts. We must not forget the victims. The UK has urged all political leaders in Bosnia and Herzegovina and the region to reject hate speech; to condemn any glorification of the perpetrators of genocide and war crimes; and to respect the courts. It is precisely because it is so important that we work with our NATO partners that the Foreign Secretary will raise the situation in Riga today.
The Foreign Secretary will also be discussing Belarus with NATO partners today.
We remain deeply concerned about the human rights situation in Belarus. The UK has imposed over 100 sanctions designations. The action by Lukashenko to engineer a migrant crisis is an attempt to undermine Poland and others in the region. The Prime Minister emphasised our commitment to Poland’s security when he met the Polish Prime Minister last Friday. The UK will continue to work closely with our partners in holding Lukashenko to account.
I thank my hon. Friend for that reply. The situation in Belarus is truly disturbing. More than a year on from the 2020 presidential elections in Belarus, over 30,000 people have been detained, with widespread allegations of torture and ill-treatment, and hundreds of civil society activists and human rights defenders being detained. What can my hon. Friend do for those who are detained—for example, Mikita Zalatarou, who was just 16 when he was arrested, and has allegedly been tortured and kept in solitary confinement?
We are appalled by reports that there are now over 850 political prisoners in Belarus, and we strongly urge the Belarusian authorities to immediately and unconditionally release all those held on political grounds. We are supporting mechanisms through the UN, the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe and independent non-governmental organisations to investigate human rights violations in Belarus and hold those responsible to account. As I said earlier, we have also taken direct action through over 100 sanctions designations.
The Minister will have seen the appalling scenes on the Polish-Belarus border and the way the brutal dictator Lukashenko is instigating hybrid warfare against Poland by using these vulnerable refugees in trying to get them across the border. Will she give me an assurance that our Government are doing everything possible to help our Polish allies stand up against this absolutely appalling conduct by the Belarus authorities?
I completely agree, and the UK is absolutely standing side by side with Poland. The UK and Poland have a long history of friendship and are NATO allies. Already a small team of UK armed forces have been deployed, following agreement with the Polish Government. They are exploring how we can provide engineering support to address the ongoing situation at the Belarus border. The UK regularly deploys military personnel to work with partners and allies across the world. The UK also led on a G7 statement condemning the Belarusian regime’s orchestration of irregular migration across the border, and as I have said, this will be discussed in Riga today.
The House is obviously united in its condemnation of the dictatorship in Belarus and the illegitimacy of the role of the so-called President Lukashenko. However, in the past, sanctions regimes imposed by other European countries and our own have been eroded for very little in return, and the stranglehold of Lukashenko is still there. Will the Minister guarantee that we will work with the EU and the world community, and maintain sanctions until such time as they are genuinely effective in changing this regime?
We have already imposed over 100 sanctions designations, including on Lukashenko himself. We are absolutely committed to supporting the people of Belarus, and we stand together to impose costs on this regime for its blatant disregard of international commitments. The sanctions are imposed under our human rights sanctions regime as well. We keep all potential listings under close review, and we obviously continue to discuss these issues with international partners.
What assessment have the Minister and the Government made of Lukashenko’s statement in the past couple of days that, in any furthering and deepening of the conflict between Russia and Ukraine, Minsk will not stand by and be neutral? Would that not be bad not just for people in Ukraine, but for those in Belarus?
As Belarus’s closest ally, Russia is uniquely placed to exert pressure on the Belarusian authorities to end their campaign of repression and to engage in this dialogue, and we urge Russia to do so. There must be a transparent and peaceful process to allow Belarusians to determine their own future, and we want to see a reformed Belarus that has a good relationship with Russia and other European partners, but we have been consistently clear in engaging Russia with the fact that violence, harassment and arbitrary detention must stop.
The weaponisation of vulnerable refugees seeking to escape conflict in the middle east by Belarus is a gross infringement of their human rights. What are Her Majesty’s Government doing to raise and express international concern at this gross abuse?
My hon. Friend raises an important point about abuse and humanitarian issues. We are supporting humanitarian partners to help alleviate the suffering of migrants at the border, including through our contributions to the disaster relief emergency fund, organised by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. We are also president of the G7, and on 18 November the Foreign Ministers signed a statement, on which we led, calling on the Belarusian regime to provide the international organisations with immediate and unhindered access so that humanitarian assistance can be delivered.
Nigeria: Religious and Other Violence
The UK is committed to the global fight against poverty and promoting equality, and despite the seismic impact of the pandemic on the UK and the global economy the UK will still spend over £10 billion of aid in 2021. We remain one of the largest official development assistance spenders in the world, and we will review the impact of projects through the spending cycle, as is standard, in order to inform future spending decisions.
I am so sorry.
Nigeria is a very important country to the UK and we are deeply concerned by the increasing insecurity in Nigeria. I raised the question with the Foreign Minister Onyeama at a bilateral meeting at COP26 in Glasgow, and I hope to visit Nigeria myself next year to have further such discussions. I assure the hon. Gentleman that the UK is a staunch champion of the right to freedom of religion and belief, and in July 2022 we will host an international ministerial conference to energise collective efforts on this agenda.
When the hon. Lady meets the Nigerian Foreign Minister in the future—I hope she does so in the near future and repeatedly—will she ask exactly what the Nigerian Government are doing to protect their own citizens? Many of us have constituents with relatives in Nigeria who have been the victims of torture, rape and murder, and at the moment exactly what the Nigerian Government are doing does not seem particularly clear.
Nigeria faces multiple serious and complex security challenges, including terrorism in the north-east and separately intercommunal conflicts and criminal banditry in the north-west and middle belt, and intercommunal violence is spreading into the south-east and south-west. It is very serious. The UK-Nigeria security and defence dialogue will take place next month, and we will discuss co-operation to tackle issues related to violence in Nigeria such as human rights, defence, counter-terrorism and organised crime.
Is it not extremely regrettable that there is virtually no publicity in the west about what is happening to Christians in Nigeria, amounting almost to genocide? Can we not put more pressure on the Nigerian Government, and can we not proclaim the fact that black lives matter everywhere, not just in the west?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. Islamic State West Africa and Boko Haram cause immense suffering not only to Christians but often to those of all faiths who do not subscribe to their extremist views. We condemn all incidents of intercommunal violence in Nigeria. This can also have a devastating impact on communities, and religion can be a factor in the intercommunal violence, but the root causes are extremely complex, including competition for land, water and resources, criminality and failures of government, so the British high commissioner and her team are working closely with state governors and local community and faith leaders as well as non-governmental organisations active in peacebuilding and reconciliation.
Israeli-Palestinian Peace Fund and Designation of Organisations
The decision by the Israeli authorities to designate six Palestinian NGOs, and the evidence that forms the basis of those designations, is a matter for the Government of Israel. The UK maintains its own criteria for designation. We continue engagement with a number of those organisations on human rights issues and respect the role that NGOs and civil society organisations play in upholding human rights and democracy.
We are in contact with the Alliance for Middle East Peace regarding its concept of an international fund. The Minister for the Middle East and North Africa, my right hon. Friend the Member for Braintree (James Cleverly), met it on 8 September to discuss that.
It has been more than five weeks since Israel designated six well-known and respected Palestinian NGOs and human rights organisations, and there is still no credible evidence to justify it. The EU has said that it has received no new evidence and no convincing answers to its queries. Does the Minister share my concern that the designation of these NGOs is a clear attempt to silence the peaceful defence of Palestinian rights, and will she call on the Israeli Government to immediately revoke the designation?
As I set out, the decision to designate these six Palestinian NGOs is a matter for the Government of Israel. The UK maintains its own criteria for designation. We continue engagement with a number of these organisations on human rights issues and respect the role of civil society organisations in upholding human rights and democracy. As I say, it is a matter for the Government of Israel, but we have our own position.
On the creation of an international fund for Israeli and Palestinian peace, the Government have previously said that they have not yet committed to join the fund because the US has
“not yet approached us to discuss it.”
Why has the Minister not shown some initiative and contacted United States Agency for International Development administrator Samantha Power about taking one of the two international board seats to support this exciting opportunity for collaboration?
As I mentioned, the Minister for the Middle East and North Africa met the executive director of ALLMEP on 8 September, and UK officials are in contact with it to better understand the concept of the international fund. The UK Government share the objective of increasing understanding and dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians.
I listened carefully to the Minister’s answer and I have to say, frankly, that it was entirely inadequate and wholly unconvincing. It is telling that, in answering the previous question, the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs, the hon. Member for Chelmsford (Vicky Ford), praised the role of NGOs in other countries, yet we are seeing NGOs being shut down in the state of Israel on entirely dubious legal grounds, with no evidence base, and the UK Minister seems to be washing her hands of the matter. I am offering my support to the UK Government, as are Labour Members. Surely we must do more to create and help save the civil space within the Israeli-Palestinian dialogue. These six NGOs are fulfilling that. Have the UK Government seen the evidence, and will they commit to helping to keep that civil space open?
As my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary mentioned, civil society is important. We continue our engagement with a number of these organisations on important human rights issues, and we respect the role of NGOs and civil society in upholding human rights and democracy.
Most of us on the Conservative side of the House welcome the Government’s decision to proscribe the so-called political wing of Hamas, but will my right hon. Friend outline the pact that has been drawn up following the visit of the Israeli Foreign Minister to the United Kingdom a couple of days ago?
As my hon. Friend said, the Foreign Secretary hosted the first UK-Israel strategic dialogue with Israeli Foreign Minister Lapid. They held substantial discussions on how to broaden and deepen our bilateral relationship, including by co-operation across science, technology, trade and innovation.
Cameroon: Human Rights
The human rights situation in the north-west and south-west regions of Cameroon is deeply concerning. Around 2.3 million people need humanitarian support and my Department has planned £5 million of humanitarian aid this year, which will help those affected by the crisis. We are urging all actors, including the Cameroonian Government, to remain engaged in efforts to find a peaceful resolution to the crisis.
The Biya Government’s hard-handed approach to calls for reform from those living in the Anglophone region has led to violence, 765,000 persons being displaced from their homes, and 800,000 children out of school. We have a long-standing connection to Cameroon and I am glad to hear from the Minister about efforts so far, but will she make a full-throated commitment today to a peaceful resolution to the crisis, and say what diplomatic efforts will be made by her and her colleagues over the next few months to bring it about?
We will continue to work with partners, such as the US and France, to raise the north-west and south-west crisis in multilateral forums. We urge all parties to remain engaged with the Swiss-led process to promote a peaceful resolution to the crisis. As I said, our planned humanitarian aid to Cameroon this year will be £5 million, which will help to support the World Food Programme and the International Committee of the Red Cross specifically for the most vulnerable populations in those regions.
In her time as International Trade Secretary, the Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs, the right hon. Member for South West Norfolk (Elizabeth Truss) blocked a genocide amendment against Chinese persecution of Uyghur Muslims, resumed the sale of UK bombs used against civilians in Yemen, and signed trade deals with human-rights-abusing tyrants from Egypt to Cameroon. Does the Minister recognise that the shoddy trade deal signed with Cameroon—a trade deal even Donald Trump would not sign because of human rights concerns—was not only a missed opportunity to insert clauses relating to genocide, mass killings of civilians and modern slavery, but, as her past record demonstrates, suggests that the Foreign Secretary does not give a jot for human rights or standing up against tyrants?
The UK and Cameroon signed an economic partnership agreement in March this year, which ensures the continuity of our trading arrangements. It is a development-focused agreement. The EPA recognises that the trade access provided is vital to the livelihoods of many, many Cameroonians. We are very clear that using trade to support development and prosperity does not have to come at the expense of protecting human rights. We continue to press the Cameroonian Government to uphold the principles of human rights and democracy which underpin the EPA.
2022 Winter Olympics and Paralympics: Diplomatic Relations
The Government are clear that we want a relationship with China that allows us to manage disagreements, defend our values and preserve space for co-operation where our interests align. We have taken robust action in response to our serious concerns about human rights in China. For example, on Xinjiang, we have led international efforts at the UN, imposed sanctions and announced a range of supply-chain measures.
Following the litany of abuses against the Uyghur Muslims and in Hong Kong, and, most recently, the international concern about the treatment of tennis star Peng Shuai, both the US President and the Prime Minister have admitted that they are considering a diplomatic boycott of the winter Olympics. Does the Minister agree that that has now taken on renewed urgency, and will she urge the Prime Minister to think about a boycott?
Taking a couple of points there, on Peng Shuai, we have called on the Chinese authorities to ensure her safety and we are following her case very closely. Everyone should be allowed to speak out without fear of repercussions. All reports of sexual assault, anywhere in the world, should be investigated. No decisions have been made by the Government on attendance of the Beijing Olympics and Paralympics next year.
It has now been published that, in a number of speeches back in 2014, President Xi drove his authorities to carry out the genocide that is going on in Xinjiang among the Uyghur. China is a country that has trashed an international treaty with the United Kingdom over Hong Kong and is arresting everybody who disagrees with it and persecuting them. What more does it take for my Government to make a clear decision that they will not attend the winter Olympics and will not allow officials to do so? The other day, the Leader of the House indicated that no tickets had been bought. That is not good enough. Can we now have a clear answer that we will not attend and neither will our officials?
I thank my right hon. Friend for his question. We have taken robust action in relation to human rights issues in Xinjiang and Hong Kong, and we have imposed sanctions on those responsible. As I said, no decisions have been made on Government attendance at the Beijing Olympics and Paralympics in 2022.
The Minister will be aware that, over the weekend, documents emerged that clearly demonstrate that the orders to commit genocide in Xinjiang are coming from the very top of the Chinese Communist party, including from Chen Quanguo and President Xi Jinping himself. For several months, Opposition Members have been calling for a full diplomatic and political boycott of the Beijing winter Olympics in response to those atrocities, but the Government continue to sit on their hands. In the light of this profoundly disturbing new information and amid deep and growing concern about the treatment of tennis player, Peng Shuai, does the Minister think that it is appropriate to send members of our royal family to the Beijing Olympics to rub shoulders with the very people who are orchestrating these horrific crimes against their own people?
As I said in previous answers, we have taken robust action in response to our concerns. The hon. Gentleman raises a number of issues including that of Peng Shuai, the tennis player. We have imposed sanctions, but in terms of attendance at the winter Olympics, no decisions have been made.
Baltic States: Economic and Security Relationship
The UK has a close working relationship with the Baltic states Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, collaborating together in NATO and in the Joint Expeditionary Force. The Foreign Secretary hosted the Baltic Foreign Ministers at Chevening on 11 October and they discussed working together to strengthen NATO, shared security concerns and UK-Baltic economic co-operation. The Foreign Secretary will discuss security of the Baltic states with her counterparts in Riga today.
The Governments of the Baltic states, as well as their citizens, suffer from persistent, strategic and aggressive Russian propaganda and misinformation, designed to undermine confidence in the Governments of the Baltic states, NATO and other institutions and to sow social and ethnic tensions. What steps is my hon. Friend taking to work with our NATO and European allies and with the Baltic states to help to build their cyber-capabilities, communication strategies and resilience?
The UK and Baltic states are close partners in international efforts to tackle disinformation. The UK’s counter-disinformation and media development programme is providing funding in this financial year across the Baltic states. The programme builds collective resilience to Russian information operations through strategic communications, exposing disinformation and supporting independent media and civil society.
Ethiopia: Tigray Crisis
We remain deeply concerned about the situation in Ethiopia and continue to engage with and call upon all parties to press for a ceasefire. Since the state of emergency was declared, I have spoken with African Union High Representative Obasanjo, making clear our support for his mediation efforts, as well as with President Kenyatta of Kenya and AU Commissioner Bankole. I recently urged the Ethiopian State Minister Redwan to engage with these mediation efforts. Our Foreign Secretary spoke to the Deputy Prime Minister Demeke on 5 November and our ambassador has spoken with the President, Prime Minister Abiy and leaders in Tigray, consistently calling on all parties to stop fighting, declare a ceasefire and allow humanitarian aid to flow.
The conflict in Tigray has dramatically escalated in the past year. My constituents in Bath who have family detained in the capital in Ethiopia have not heard from them for the best part of this year. Can the Minister outline what efforts have been made with the international community to ensure that all those who are unlawfully detained across Ethiopia are released?
As I have said, the situation is incredibly challenging. When I spoke to Minister Redwan, I urged him to end the mobilisation of civilians and ethnically targeted arrests. There is a growing risk of uncontrollable ethnic violence, which is doing huge long-term damage to the social cohesion of the country. As I said in my statement on 24 November, we may see the conflict move closer to Addis Ababa, and we are strongly urging all British nationals to leave now while commercial flights are readily available.
As chairman of the all-party parliamentary group for Ethiopia, may I thank the Minister for all the work that she is doing on this terribly difficult issue? We recently saw the Prime Minister of Ethiopia taking up arms himself and urging others to do so, which demonstrates the seriousness of the situation. I do not think that it is an exaggeration to fear that the very existence of Ethiopia may be at stake and at risk. Does the Minister feel that the United Nations could be doing more to bring about peace in the country?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right: it is a truly tragic situation. Civilians have experienced appalling, outrageous abuses, including widespread sexual violence. We are fully supporting the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights in her calls for further timely discussion of the report of the joint human rights investigation and its recommendations at the UN in Geneva.
The crisis in Ethiopia and Tigray has catastrophic implications for civilians, the region and the globe. We have seen shocking atrocities over the past year, including war crimes and sexual violence. We are now hearing warnings of potential genocide from former New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark and from Lord Alton in the other place, and deeply concerning reports of further apparent incitement this weekend in the media, which I have raised with the Minister. What assessment has the Minister made of those very serious reports and warnings? What are we doing to protect and secure UK citizens who are still present in Ethiopia? What are we doing to bring to justice all those who are committing or inciting such atrocities?
The hon. Gentleman raises a number of points; I thank him for continuing to look at this serious situation. It is really important that we keep spreading the message that British nationals, whatever their circumstances, should leave Ethiopia now while the airport remains available and there are flights. We have asked all sides not to use inflammatory language; it is making the situation even more dangerous, and the impact on civilians is very severe.
We have provided humanitarian aid of up to £76.7 million in badly needed support for people in north Ethiopia, which makes us the second largest donor to the humanitarian response. That support has gone into Tigray, Afar, Amhara and eastern Sudan; it includes critical food aid, safe drinking water, medical care and support for women who have been victims of sexual violence.
May I congratulate the Minister on the excellent job that she is doing of standing in for the Foreign Secretary?
A genocide is happening in Tigray. What work is the Minister doing with our partners in the United States, the EU and other western countries to send a message to Prime Minister Abiy that no international aid can be channelled through the Ethiopian Government until the genocide stops? Why does he still have that Nobel peace prize? Is it not high time that he was stripped of it?
I thank my right hon. Friend for his praise. I am not sure I am doing that brilliantly!
We are continuing to work extremely closely with our partners in the United States and the United Nations, and I met the African P3 partners during my recent visits to New York and Washington. It is particularly important that we are also supporting the efforts of Obasanjo, Bankole and President Kenyatta to bring all people to a ceasefire. As for the Nobel peace prize, that is a decision for the Nobel Committee itself.
Covid-19 Vaccines: Low-income Countries
The UK is committed to ensuring that people in the poorest countries receive vaccines. We were a leader in setting up the international COVAX facility, which is providing equitable access for 92 lower and middle-income countries, and we champion equitable access through our G7 presidency. Our commitment of £548 million makes us one of COVAX’s largest donors. COVAX has delivered more than 475 million vaccine doses to the poorest countries, and that figure will rise to 1.8 billion by mid-2022.
The shockingly low vaccination rates in low-income countries should shame the global north, and made the omicron variant all but inevitable. The Government have been quick to impose travel restrictions on southern African countries, but where was the urgency when it came to ensuring that people on the African continent were vaccinated? My question to the Minister is this: is it not time for the Government to drop their opposition to the intellectual property waiver on covid-19 vaccines, of which South Africa was one of the key supporters, and to provide whatever vaccine capacity and technical support they can offer to speed up the roll-out?
We are fully committed to doing all that we can to get vaccines out to poorer countries, but when it comes to delivery, there are three different issues. The first is supply, the second is the need to ensure that the local health services are able to deliver the vaccine, and the third is, sadly, the very serious issue of vaccine hesitancy in many countries. COVAX did experience severe challenges in obtaining vaccine supplies owing to export bans, but supplies are now increasing. We in the UK have already delivered 16.1 million doses through COVAX, an additional 9 million AstraZeneca doses will be sent out in the coming weeks, and, most recently, we delivered 5.2 million doses to the Philippines last Saturday.
The UK is engaging intensively and constructively in the trade-related intellectual property rights—TRIPS—waiver debate, but in the meantime we must continue to push ahead with pragmatic action. For example, we have sent UK emergency medical teams to 11 African countries, where they are providing training and advice for health workers in respect of issues including vaccine confidence.
I am pleased that Labour has recognised that International Development must remain a Cabinet role, and it is an honour to be able to continue our work to tackle poverty and inequality around the world.
The UK has blocked international agreements to increase the supply of vaccines, has only donated a fraction of the promised doses to low-income countries, and continues to stockpile doses. As a result, hundreds of thousands of doses have expired and have been destroyed, including 600,000 in August alone. In addition, the Government slashed the aid budget for programmes tracking new covid variants. Labour Members warned of this repeatedly, knowing that the virus would continue to mutate unchecked.
Can the Minister tell the House how many surplus vaccines the UK will have by the end of 2021, and why the Government have repeatedly refused to speed up the process of donation to other countries? Will she ensure that we airlift those vaccines immediately?
Not only did we set up COVAX, but we are one of its largest donors. We have committed ourselves to donating 100 million doses, and that is part of the G7 commitment to sharing 870 million by 2022. Furthermore, we are helping many countries to set up their own vaccine manufacturing. Last Thursday I visited the Institut Pasteur de Dakar in Senegal, which, thanks to help from the UK with the delivery of a business plan, now has the necessary investment to ensure that it will be one of the first manufacturers of covid vaccines in Africa.
A small proportion of those who are vaccinated against covid-19 suffer adverse reactions. Can my hon. Friend explain why, under the COVAX compensation scheme, we give more generous compensation—paid for by our taxpayers—to citizens in foreign countries than we give to our own citizens who suffer adverse consequences from the covid-19 vaccine?
Zimbabwe: Political Repression
We remain concerned about the political and human rights situation in Zimbabwe and our embassy is in contact with Mr Haruzivishe’s lawyers regarding his appeal. We regularly urge the Government to live up to their own constitution by ensuring that the Opposition, civil society and journalists can operate without harassment. I reinforced these messages to President Mnangagwa at COP26 on 1 November. The UK will continue to support the Zimbabwean people and to help Zimbabweans to secure their constitutional freedoms.
I thank the Minister for her answer, but overnight we saw more news of Opposition supporters in Zimbabwe losing their lives at the hands of the authorities. Zimbabwe is a beautiful country and it can and should be playing a leading role in southern Africa, so can the Minister explain what discussions she has had with the African Union and the Southern African Development Community about political repression in that country?
We are deeply concerned about the civil rights situation and about the reports of the recent death of the opposition MDC Alliance supporter Nyasha Zhambe Mawere on 26 November. We continue to urge the Government to carry out proper investigations and to ensure that those responsible are held to account. Our sanctions designations are holding to account those individuals who we believe to be responsible for human rights violations, and these include those responsible for the deaths of demonstrators in August 2018 and January 2019. Those restrictive measures are not targeted at or intended to impact the wider economy or the people of Zimbabwe; they are targeted at those who commit these atrocities.
Since the last oral questions the Foreign Secretary has launched a campaign to stop sexual violence in conflicts. Last week she launched the British international investment, which will invest billions in honest and reliable infrastructure and technology in low and middle-income countries. She has visited south-east Asia to deepen our economic, tech and security ties with partners including Indonesia, and yesterday she hosted the first UK-Israel strategic dialogue with her Israel counterpart Yair Lapid in London. Today she is meeting NATO allies in Riga, delivering the message that we must act together to stand up against Russia’s malign activity. Obviously, two of my other colleagues are unable to be here today, for reasons that have already been set out.
I thank the Minister for her reply. I want to put on record my personal thanks to the Foreign Secretary for her strong personal support for freedom of religion or belief. Do Ministers agree that FORB for all is a fundamental strand of the network of liberty that the Foreign Secretary has so powerfully spoken of recently, integrally connected as it is with so many other freedoms, such as speech, association and even life itself? Where FORB is violated, we see a whole range of abuses, such as racism, gender inequality and societies that are more prone to violent extremism.
I thank my hon. Friend for her question. She is a real passionate champion. Promoting freedom of religion or belief for all is one of the UK’s long-standing human rights priorities and a key pillar of the integrated review. Where FORB is under attack, other human rights are often threatened too. We used our G7 presidency to defend and advance these fundamental freedoms, and next year’s international ministerial conference, to be hosted in London on 5 and 6 July, will play a key role in shaping the network of liberty.
Thank you very much, Mr Speaker.
The deaths of 27 people should have acted as a sobering moment for the British and French Governments. These were human beings, not migrants, but instead both Governments have engaged in a petty public spat. This incompetence is costing lives. How can the Government hope to maintain good relations around the world with a Prime Minister who is more interested in burning bridges than building them?
I welcome the shadow Foreign Secretary to his place.
It was a tragic incident that happened in the channel last week. I extend my condolences, as I am sure everyone in the House does, to the families of those people who lost their lives while trying to get across to the UK. As the Prime Minister said, this was a shocking, appalling and deeply saddening loss of life.
The Prime Minister spoke to French President Macron on 24 November, and they agreed on the urgency of stepping up joint efforts to prevent these deadly crossings and to stop the gangs responsible for putting people’s lives at risk. The Prime Minister, as we know, wrote to President Macron on this issue.
UK and French Ministers discuss issues in the UK-France bilateral relationship. That includes the Home Secretary, who is working closely with her French counterpart on the issue of small boats and is in regular contact with him.
Three months ago, the Prime Minister promised to “shift heaven and earth” to help evacuate Afghans in danger, yet many have been left behind, including female judges, as I first raised on 16 August. The perception is that we have turned our back on those who champion the rule of law and democratic freedom, and who stand up to oppression. What impression does the Minister think this gives to our allies across the globe? When will the resettlement scheme actually be up and running?
When we look back at what happened with Operation Pitting, we have to remember the sheer scale of the evacuation from Afghanistan: the number of British nationals who were evacuated, the 5,000 locally employed Afghan staff and the 500 special cases of particularly vulnerable Afghans, including Chevening scholars, journalists, human rights defenders and judges.
The resettlement scheme will provide protection for the most vulnerable who are identified as at risk, and it will be announced by the Home Office in due course.
Iran’s destabilising activity risks regional peace and prosperity, and we regularly raise Iran’s destabilising role in the region at the UN Security Council. We have more than 200 UK sanctions designations in place against Iran under various UK sanctions regimes, including against the IRGC in its entirety. We continue to support our allies’ security, including through close defence partnerships across the middle east. We work to strengthen institutions and build capacity in more vulnerable countries.
Colombia is an FCDO human rights priority country. We regularly raise human rights concerns with the Colombian Government and in multilateral fora. The Under-Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Wendy Morton), visited Colombia last week and spoke to Vice President Ramírez about the human rights situation.
I thank my hon. Friend for his question and for his passion for high-quality jobs in Dudley. We are building a network of liberty with our friends and allies. It will include new technological partnerships to embrace the opportunities of a global economy shaped on innovations in tech. In June, the Prime Minister agreed to develop a new, landmark bilateral technology partnership with President Biden to enable a new era of strategic co-operation between our countries. The AUKUS alliance will deepen security and defence-related science and technology with the US and Australia.
On the points about humanitarian aid, we are doubling our assistance for Afghanistan, taking it to £286 million in this financial year. At the end of October, the Prime Minister announced an allocation of a further £50 million to provide more than 2.5 million Afghans with food, health, shelter and warm clothing.
British people who are currently in red list countries should check the Department’s travel advice for the latest rules on returning to the UK. If they need to change their travel plans, they should speak to their airline or travel agent. Consular staff are available 24/7 to provide assistance to any British national who needs help overseas, through a call to their local consulate, embassy or high commission.
The Government promised that they would not abandon the Afghan people, yet millions are teetering on the edge of famine, with winter fast approaching. Will the Minister stop with the meaningless pledges and start with meaningful action? She will have seen the harrowing report from John Simpson and the powerful words of David Beasley, from the World Food Programme, who said:
“imagine that this was your little girl or your little boy, or your grandchild about to starve to death…We let any child die from hunger. Shame on us. I don’t care where that child is.”
A failure to act is a betrayal of those people. So will the funds be disbursed to save lives in Afghanistan today?
Afghanistan faces one of the largest food security crises in the world. We are aware that the crisis is approaching levels where there is severe, acute malnutrition, which is why we have doubled UK aid for Afghanistan to £286 million this year. In addition, between April and November this year we have disbursed more than £55 million, including life-saving humanitarian support for emergency food, health, nutrition, shelter and water sanitation. We are providing a lot of support.
As well as the Prime Minister’s promise to bring vulnerable Afghans to refuge in this country, other Ministers suggested that they travel to neighbouring countries as the first step. I have constituents who took those Ministers at their word, but the Afghanistan resettlement scheme is not open, as we have noted, and those who fled are told to apply for expensive visas, with prohibitive salary requirements. Will the Minister at least agree to speak to the Home Secretary and the Prime Minister and urge them to fulfil their promises without delay?
My hon. Friend is a passionate voice for his constituents in Bury North. We recognise the human rights concerns in Indian-administered Kashmir and Pakistan-administered Kashmir, including the continuation of some temporary restrictions in Indian-administered Kashmir. We encourage all states to ensure that their domestic laws are in line with international standards. Any allegation of human rights violations or abuse is deeply concerning and must be investigated thoroughly and transparently. We have raised our concerns with the Governments of India and Pakistan.
In the run-up to the winter Olympics, the Chinese Government have made clear their international standing in terms of their attitude in the South China sea and their attitude to Taiwan, the Uyghur Muslims and Members of this House. Internationally, China should be a pariah; why are we not joining an international approach to ensure that it is regarded as such?
The hon. Gentleman raised several different issues. As I set out in earlier answers, the Government are leading international action and taking robust action in respect of some serious concerns about a number of different areas relating to China. As I said earlier, in particular we have imposed sanctions in relation to those responsible for the atrocities in Xinjiang.
Officials are in regular contact with host Governments in order to understand their requirements and update FCDO travel advice, so travellers should always consult that advice for the latest covid-19 restrictions. Covid certification is a devolved competency; Welsh residents can use the NHS covid pass to evidence their vaccine status but cannot use it to evidence proof of recovery.
On genocide, when we say, “Never again”, we must mean it. Will the Minister commit to introducing an atrocity-prevention strategy for every country—the countries-at-risk-of-instability process just does not go far enough—and specifically to support civil society peacebuilding in Republika Srpska to prevent future conflict and atrocities in Bosnia?
Most atrocities sadly occur in and around armed conflict and the Government have dedicated significant resources to the prevention of conflict. We do not believe we have to have a separate strategy for atrocity prevention because we are committed to a more integrated approach to Government work on conflict and instability that places greater emphasis on addressing the drivers of conflict, on atrocity prevention and on the strengthening of fragile countries’ resilience to external influence.
Further to my constructive Adjournment debate on the British Council with the Minister for the Middle East and North Africa, my right hon. Friend the Member for Braintree (James Cleverly), and given the fact that the FCDO’s overall budget is to increase by 21% over the coming three-year spending review period, I seek clarity from those on the Front Bench as to whether the Government still intend to cut funding to the British Council, which will mean it will have to close a further 20 overseas offices on top of the 20 that it is already having to close.
Let me be clear: the British Council’s budget has not been cut. We agreed in the spending review settlement an amount of £189 million, which is a 27% increase in funding on the previous year. While we had to make difficult decisions on cuts in other areas, we actually increased the money that we are providing to the British Council. We have reviewed the physical Council presence in countries as part of a wider modernisation process. I visited the British Council in Senegal last week, and its work was outstanding.
I have a wonderful Tamil community in Croydon, and they still feel the devastating impacts of the civil war. May I add my voice to those from across this House for sanctions against General Silva who has been accused of great crimes? Does the Minister have some words of comfort on this point for my constituents?
On a recent visit to Bosnia and Herzegovina with the all-party group for the armed forces, which was duly declared in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, our overall impression was one of hope for the best, hope that the Republika Srpska will recognise the genocide, hope that the geography of Bosnia and Herzegovina will hold together, and hope that the whole thing will survive, but, none the less, fear that it might not. Does the Minister not agree that of incredible importance right now are messages from this place—particularly messages to the Bosnian Serbs—to say that we are watching what is happening in Bosnia very closely indeed and that the questions that we are asking today and in the debate on Thursday are of immense importance, as they say to the Bosnian Serbs that we care, that we will not allow a return to what happened all those years ago and that we support the Dayton agreement?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right: voices in this House matter. It is excellent that the serious situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina has been raised by colleagues a number of times today and that it will be debated on Thursday, but it is also important that our Foreign Secretary is in Riga with her NATO counterparts, and that she will be focusing her attention on the situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Is the Minister aware of the drastic shortages of drugs being faced by hospitals in Malawi, not least anaesthetics, which is having an impact on the treatment of women, particularly those trying to give birth. What discussions will she have with counterparts in the country to try to address these shortages, and what impact does she think that the proposed 50% cut in the UK’s aid budget to Malawi will have on its ability to respond to this kind of crisis?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising access to women’s health in Malawi, and I will write to him on that specific issue. However, one of the announcements that we made at the time of the Budget was that, thanks to increased funding, we are able to restore funding to girls’ education and to humanitarian aid.
Will the Minister join me in paying tribute to John and Ceri Channon from my constituency who, following the tragic death of their son, Tom, in Majorca in the summer of 2018, have worked tirelessly with the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, the Minister for Europe, and the embassy in Spain to enhance the various authorities’ response to tragic accidents overseas, resulting in Tom’s Check, which was reported in the news today?
I thank my right hon. Friend for his question. I know that he has met my ministerial colleague, the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Wendy Morton), and also the family. Consular staff have been providing support and advice to Tom’s family following his really sad death in Magaluf in July 2018. As well as the virtual meeting that he has held, consular officials in Spain have had meetings with local authorities to understand the procedural investigations that have taken place to ask whether they can do more for the family.
The Government’s response on Afghanistan is simply not good enough. Yesterday, I met with a democratically elected Member of Parliament from Afghanistan who set out the escalating human rights atrocities as well as the humanitarian situation. Will the Minister urgently meet with MPs from Afghanistan to talk about the situation and put aid in the right places to stop this crisis from getting worse?
As I have mentioned in a number of answers, we have doubled aid for Afghanistan. This is being provided via UN agencies and non-governmental organisations—not directly to the Taliban—to ensure that it is reaching the people who really need it, and helping those who are most vulnerable and for whom it is intended.
There is a huge global appetite for Government-to-Government partnerships with the UK, with significant commercial benefits to be unlocked. Will the Minister undertake to work with the Department for International Trade to build UK Government-to-Government capability, so that we cease to lag behind our competitors?
Points of Order
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Amid the first lockdown, the Prime Minister promised NHS and social care staff from overseas that they would be refunded the unfair annual £624 charge that they have to pay to use the NHS that they themselves work in. It was big, front-page news at the time, and he was pressured into it by the Leader of the Opposition, the trade unions and his own Back Benchers, including members of the Health and Social Care Committee.
I have asked Ministers countless times in written questions, in the Chamber and face-to-face in Select Committees, but none has been able to tell me the number of successful refunds of these unfair NHS charges. Yesterday, a written answer from the Minister for Health, the hon. Member for Charnwood (Edward Argar), finally admitted that the Government know the figure; they just do not want to publish it yet. As long as the figure is not published, I can only assume that it is because the number is actually a tiny fraction of the hundreds of thousands of health and social care heroes who are eligible—another broken promise to the people to whom we owe so much. May I request your advice, Mr Speaker? Given that the Government are ducking and diving—
Order. Sorry, but we cannot get into a full debate. I have to try to answer the hon. Member’s point of order, which I thank her for giving me notice of. She will know that I do not have responsibility for the content of ministerial answers, but I note that the answer that she was given says that
“this information is currently unvalidated. The Home Office is considering whether this information can be verified and released”.
There are genuine questions and concerns. I am sure that the Government want to be transparent in the way in which they deal with questions. I suggest to the Home Office: get it answered quickly, and then we will have no further points of order on this matter.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Five days following Storm Arwen, thousands of my constituents—as well as those of my hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland (Dehenna Davison), my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Anne-Marie Trevelyan), my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman), and Members in Cumbria and North Yorkshire—remain without electricity. This morning we were informed by Northern Powergrid that the damage is more extensive than initially realised, with some households potentially facing weeks without electricity. Our towns and villages are fully pulling together, but given the scale of what is going on—including issues such as water pumps not being available to feed animals and get water to households—it is clear that more action is needed.
My understanding is that the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy offered military aid to the civil authorities—MACA—this weekend, but that Northern Powergrid refused it. Mr Speaker, if you have not had notice of a statement from the Government, will you let me know how we can ensure that the Government are doing everything possible to support our communities and constituents in the north Pennines?
I have great sympathy with the hon. Member. Power cuts really do destroy lives, especially with the current cold weather, and the pressure that has been put on different constituencies and constituents. I am grateful to the hon. Member for giving me notice of his point of order. I have been offered no statement by the Government; nothing has been forthcoming. Given the concern of many Members, I am sure that he is aware that there are other ways of pursuing this matter, including possibly applying for an urgent question. I am not sure what the answer will be, but it might be a good way forward. Who knows—it may encourage the Government to come forward with a statement.
Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. This is the second day running that no Minister has come to this House—I have submitted an urgent question bid as well—to answer on the issue of the very worrying power cuts around the country, right across the United Kingdom. My concern is specifically for more rural communities such as mine in Cumbria and those in in Shropshire and Lancashire. I am very concerned. I spoke to residents just overnight. Places such as Torver, west of Lake Windermere, and the Cartmel peninsula have now been without electricity for four nights and may face a fifth night without power. What is clearly needed is support for Electricity North West engineers who are working really hard around the clock to solve this problem, so we need to bring in the Army, as has been mentioned. We also need to bring in generators so that no community is without energy for a fifth successive night. Can you give me guidance, Mr Speaker, as to how we can bring Ministers to this House to act on this most urgent issue?
I think this is the best advice I can give: first, we do not normally discuss UQs, but I cannot grant a UQ unless you put in for it. [Interruption.] No, we have never received it. You may have put it in late. I can tell the hon. Gentleman—and the Clerk at the Table is here—that we have had no request. You cannot request it by just saying it yesterday; that is not an application. We have received no application, so I suggest you check with your office or somebody. Secondly, of course we have sympathy and of course we should be doing more. In fairness, I think this was answered yesterday, when it was raised, by the Deputy Speaker. Of course we have complete sympathy. We do need a statement. If a statement is not forthcoming, I suggest again that a UQ, if applied for, may be considered, but I can assure Members that I have had no request for a UQ as yet.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker, which I have not given you notice of and which actually is for you. I have been noticing over the last few Question Times that there is a growing trend of Back Benchers on both sides of the House reading long questions word for word rather than using notes or even actually memorising a question. I just wonder whether it might be worthwhile, if you have a view on this, putting out an email to colleagues with some guidance about how to do questions in the House. Can I suggest that it can be slightly less boring—although I know I can bore for Britain—if people ask questions in an extemporaneous manner rather than laboriously reading them word for word for word?
When I first came into the House, a little bit later than the hon. Gentleman, you did not read questions but always asked questions. You only had a note as a back-up in case you began to struggle. I always thought it was better when people would ask a question briefly, off the cuff, and move on. I think the problem is that people read pages, hence what happened earlier. It is covered in the book of conventions. I think it is important to know that we have that book here. I suggest, as the hon. Gentleman has put this on the record, that people read it to bring themselves up to speed as to the best practice in the Chamber. Thank you for raising it and it is certainly on the record now.
Microplastic Filters (Washing Machines)
Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)
I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to require manufacturers to fit microplastic-catching filters to new domestic and commercial washing machines; to make provision about the promotion of the use of microplastic-catching filters in washing machines and raising awareness about the consequences of microplastics from washing machines for pollution in rivers and seas; and for connected purposes.
I thank colleagues who have co-sponsored my Bill and all colleagues across the House who have given their support on this issue. We do not often think about plastic pollution when we wash our clothes. However, all our clothes and garments shed what are known as microfibre plastics. Microfibre plastic pollution is one of the most pervasive and preventable forms of microplastic pollution, with 35% of total microplastics released into the environment being shed from clothing. ITV’s “Good Morning Britain” and the University of Portsmouth recently carried out an investigation that found a large amount of airborne microplastics in our homes. It is estimated that we are breathing in between 2,000 and 7,000 microplastics a day—just think about it. But we can do something now for those microfibres we release through washing machine cycles. Microfibre plastics are tiny fibres that can shed from our clothes during the wash cycle. Due to their tiny size, they are too small to be caught by existing washing machines and can end up in the wastewater system, where they are caught, or remain in sewage sludge, which can be spread on to our growing crops, or are released into rivers and marine environments. Research by the University of Plymouth has found that one wash cycle can release up to 700,000 microfibres into our wastewater system—that is 700,000 in every wash cycle.
Microplastics can then escape from the wastewater treatment works, polluting our rivers and seas. These microplastics, which can contain chemicals, can be ingested by fish and other small aquatic creatures and travel up the food chain, and we then enjoy them on our plate when we eat our fish fingers or other aquatic produce. We are ingesting these microfibre plastics. Research led by the University of Manchester has found that the River Tame in Greater Manchester contains such enormous levels of microplastics that it is one of the most polluted waterway systems in the world. Investigators found 517,000 plastic particles per square metre of sediment. That figure is extremely concerning for all of us, the environment and aquatic life.
As chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on microplastics, I have been working with that favourite civil society stakeholder, the National Federation of Women’s Institutes. It is a wonderful organisation that has long campaigned on this issue through its “End Plastic Soup” campaign. Many of us will remember just a few years ago, when it came to Portcullis House and demonstrated in a bowl of water what microfibre plastic pollution looks like.
The all-party parliamentary group has also worked with a range of stakeholders including academics, environmental groups and, most importantly, global washing machine manufacturers. The group’s report, published in September 2021, put forward a series of important holistic recommendations, with the support of the Women’s Institute and stakeholders, on what policies would be needed to help reduce the effects that microplastics have on the environment. Today, I am introducing this Bill to encourage the Government to work with washing machine manufacturers to set standards to ensure all new domestic and commercial washing machines are fitted with a microfibre plastic-catching filter.
I emphasise the importance of also tackling the issue at source. We must encourage textile and clothing manufacturers to make garments with sustainable thread that has a reduced shedding rate, so that the garments do not shed microfibres in the first place. However, adding filters to washing machines is a solution that is achievable in the short and medium term and can be enacted quickly by this Government. Through my work on the all-party parliamentary group on microplastics, I am aware of several companies that make microfibre-catching filters for washing machines. The technology for this solution is already available. For example, the company Grundig, which is part of Beko group, has made its own washing machine called the FiberCatcher, with a filter fitted inside. I understand it is one of the world’s first integrated systems and is currently on the market.
I am proposing that the Government work with manufacturers, which are very keen to help with the solution, to set standards for microfibre-catching filters to ensure that all new domestic and commercial washing machines are fitted with a filter that captures a high volume of microfibres in the wash cycle. What I am proposing in the Bill is not novel. Other countries, such as France and Australia, have already pledged to look at this and are working with manufacturers to install microfibre-catching filters.
It is incumbent on us all to ensure that the environment is left in a better condition than when we found it. I was inspired, as I am sure were you, Mr Speaker, and all Members of this House, by Sir David Attenborough when he produced and presented the BBC’s “Blue Planet II” documentary, released only four years. It opened all our eyes to the damage we have caused to marine life through our use of plastic. Plastic breaks down, but it does not biodegrade. Microfibre plastic pollution is a huge problem, and the Government should explore all avenues to tackle the different types of pervasive plastic, in addition to the already excellent work that the Government are doing generally to tackle other sources of plastic pollution.
I urge the Government to consider my modest Bill today and to work with washing machine manufacturers—the door is open with them—which want a solution to ensure that microfibre plastics do not become an even bigger problem. With legislation such as what I am proposing, the UK could become a world leader in tackling microplastic pollution. This is a way forward for us all to continue to enjoy the health and hygiene that washing our clothes brings and to increase the fashion industry as well, while ensuring that we stop polluting the marine environment, as we currently do at a terrible rate.
Question put and agreed to.
That Alberto Costa, Philip Dunne, Caroline Lucas, Tim Loughton, Derek Thomas, Mr Jonathan Lord, Mrs Pauline Latham, Alexander Stafford, Andrew Selous, Jim Shannon, Patrick Grady and Holly Lynch present the Bill.
Alberto Costa accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 21 January 2022, and to be printed (Bill 205).
Business of the House (Today)
That, at this day’s sitting,
(1) notwithstanding paragraph (1) of Standing Order No. 16 (Proceedings under an Act or on European Union documents), the Speaker shall put the Questions necessary to dispose of proceedings on the motions in the name of Maggie Throup relating to (a) the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Wearing of Face Coverings) (England) Regulations 2021 and (b) the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (Self-Isolation) (England) (Amendment) (No. 4) Regulations 2021 not later than three hours after the commencement of proceedings on the motion for this Order;
(2) notwithstanding paragraph (2)(c) of Standing Order No. 14 (Arrangement of public business), the business in the name of Ian Blackford may be entered upon at any hour and may be proceeded with, though opposed, for three hours; and proceedings shall then lapse if not previously disposed of;
and, in respect of both items of business, Standing Order No. 41A (Deferred divisions) shall not apply.—(Mr Jacob Rees-Mogg.)
I beg to move,
That the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Wearing of Face Coverings) (England) Regulations 2021 (S.I., 2021, No. 1340), dated 29 November, a copy of which was laid before this House on 29 November, be approved.
With this we shall take the following motion:
That the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (Self-Isolation) (England) (Amendment) (No. 4) Regulations 2021 (S.I., 2021, No. 1338), dated 29 November, a copy of which was laid before this House on 29 November, be approved.
In September, the Government set out their autumn and winter plan for fighting the virus, which could be implemented to ensure that the NHS is not overwhelmed. Although we are not implementing the entirety of the plan now, we are taking steps to respond to a potentially potent mutation of the virus. We have taken great steps in our fight against the virus, having delivered nearly 115 million vaccine doses so far, and more every day, with almost 18 million people having also received their booster jab, including me.
Will the Minister deprecate those public appointees who, notwithstanding the clear proportionate advice of the chief scientific adviser, have been on the airwaves telling people that they should not socialise, to the huge detriment of people’s wellbeing and of an industry struggling to recover from earlier lockdowns?
I am sure the people my right hon. Friend is referring to will have heard him loud and clear. We all enjoy socialising but, as he will appreciate, we are in a difficult situation. However, we also have personal responsibility.
We are confronted with an emerging threat, which is familiar but not yet well known. The measures that we are putting in place are proportionate, precautionary and balanced, and are being made in response to the specific threat.
Late last week, the challenge arising from the latest covid-19 threat from the variant of concern known as omicron emerged. Public health officials in South Africa shared information on the omicron variant and it was identified as a coronavirus variant of concern. Thanks to our world-leading genomic sequencing experts at the UK Health Security Agency, we were able to identify that some cases of the new variant are present in this country. So far, we have identified 14 cases in the UK and, unfortunately, we expect to find more in the coming days.
The Minister mentioned the UK Health Security Agency, the head of which my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest West (Sir Desmond Swayne) was referring to. Dr Harries said two things this morning. First, she said that people should not socialise. Secondly, she also implied—only implied, to be fair—that people should work from home. When the Prime Minister was asked about that, he made it clear that that was not the Government’s position and that people should follow the advice. I listened carefully to the Minister’s answer and I do not think that is quite what she said. Could she be clear that Dr Harries was speaking only for herself, not for the Government?
Dr Harries is a public health professional who therefore understands what public health measures need to be taken to secure our wellbeing against the pandemic. Why are the Government not listening to what public health professionals are advising?
Is the Minister seriously saying that it is not for Ministers to have any particular view on officials employed in the Department going out and taking a position that is at odds with the Government’s public policy? If it is now the policy that even Department employees can take their own personal positions, we are facing chaos and the overturning of long-standing Government principles.
I reiterate that I cannot speak for other people. I am setting out the measures today that we implemented this morning in a timely fashion, and it is those measures that we are considering. From the Government’s point of view, that is the legislation that we are implementing.
I support what the Minister is putting forward. What happens here will happen in Northern Ireland, as the Minister in Northern Ireland has said that he will follow the instructions and guidelines from Westminster. We are aware of the variant and we are aware at this stage that our vaccinations may be enough to combat it. If we hand wash, distance and wear a mark, surely we cannot do anything other than support the measure. Does she agree that other hon. Members should adopt the same attitude?
I speak for myself in saying that I have changed my habits with regard to hand washing since the pandemic began, much to the detriment of my skin. We can take simple measures that have been put in place that have no impact on other people but help to protect us and others indirectly.
The Minister is being incredibly generous. Can I clear up something for the travel industry and the airline industry? There is an SI on travel restrictions, not least PCR tests on day two, as I understand it. They are not being debated today. Why not and when will they be?
The Minister mentioned hand hygiene. Is she aware of a study published in The BMJ on 20 November that showed that hand hygiene was as effective as mask wearing? Does she agree that anything we do here needs to be firmly evidence-based? Can she say why we have focused on mask wearing in the regulations and not, for example, if our aim is to improve public health, mandating for alcohol gels in hospitality venues?
My right hon. Friend, with his medical background, makes a good point that I will take away and look into further.
I will return to my speech. Accordingly, our scientists are investigating omicron to determine, among other things, how quickly it is likely to spread and what the impact may be on the immunity that many of us have acquired through vaccination.
I thank the Minister for giving way. On the point of immunity, many people who are immunosuppressed are extremely worried. I have asked the Secretary of State on several occasions whether he will consider doing antibody testing so that those people have some idea whether they have any protection or they need to adjust things in their working lives.
My hon. Friend is the kindest of Ministers. On the question of the new variant’s severity, I wonder if she has data to hand about whether any of the new cases of omicron in this country that she mentioned have been detected in patients hospitalised with covid.
I am not aware of that, and it may not be in the public domain due to confidentiality. I must make some progress.
Meanwhile, the Government have responded quickly to introduce a temporary and targeted package of precautionary measures to combat the risk of transmission. The aim of the package is to buy our scientists time to investigate and gather information on the omicron variant, and to continue to build the protection that vaccination provides.
The package comprises the requirement for people to wear face coverings in shops, shopping centres and transport hubs, and on public transport; the requirement for those returning from abroad to take a PCR test by day two and to quarantine until they receive a negative PCR test; the requirement for people to self-isolate if they are identified as a close contact of a confirmed or suspected case of the omicron variant; the addition of 10 countries to the red list; and the requirement that those arriving from those countries in Africa quarantine in a managed quarantine service for 10 days.
Across England, at 4 o’clock this morning, face coverings became mandatory in all shops and shopping centres, which includes supermarkets, banks and close-contact services such as hairdressers, and on public transport.
I must continue.
They became mandatory in transport hubs, including taxis and private hire vehicles. From the same time, close contacts with confirmed or suspected cases of the covid-19 omicron variant will be legally required to self-isolate. These measures will remain in place until the end of the day on Monday 20 December. By this point, we will review the measures to see whether they remain necessary. We do not wish to keep any measures of this nature in place any longer than is absolutely necessary. However, these measures are an important step in the fight against the virus, particularly while we wait to discover the full implications of the threat from omicron.
The word “mandatory” was used but is that not just a word in the statutory instrument? In practice is it not unenforceable? As Darren Pearce, the manager of Meadowhall shopping centre, said in evidence to the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee, “The biggest problem we had last time was about trying to get face coverings to be worn. I saw a group of young people going to Meadowhall, saying very loudly, ‘If they ask you, just say you’ve got asthma.’ Then they say, ‘We’ve got asthma. We’re exempt’, and there is nothing anyone can do, is there?” That causes all sorts of tensions with the shop assistants and with other people wearing face masks, who feel that some people are getting away with it. What is the Minister going to do about that situation?
I must make some progress.
In July, when we lifted most of the remaining restrictions at step 4 across England, we made it clear that our response to the pandemic was not over. The vaccination programme continues to be a huge success and vaccines remain the most important weapon in our fight against the virus. However, as we enter this uncertain time, we must do more and we must do it quickly.
I am very grateful. I listened carefully to what the Minister said about the timing. The Government have said that they are going to review these measures after three weeks and she is right—on the face masks, the regulations expire on 20 December—but the self-isolation SI has no expiry date, which means it will run all the way until the main statutory instrument expires on 24 March 2022. Why is that?
My right hon. Friend makes a very good point. I would like to reassure him that we will continue to update the House over the next few weeks, that we will not continue to have these regulations in place for any longer than is necessary, and that—[Interruption.] If I may just finish. The type of regulations he is referring to are reviewed under legislation every four weeks and are more likely to be reviewed every three weeks. I understand his point and I do take it very seriously. I wish we were not in a situation where we have this conflict, but I reassure him that I take his point very seriously and these measures will not be in place for any longer than is absolutely necessary.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. The hon. Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts) raised a question about the enforcement of mask wearing. One of the major problems being faced by GPs in my constituency of St Albans is that some people are refusing to wear masks because, “The Prime Minister didn’t have to when he went to a hospital”, so could I ask the Minister how she intends to lead by example when half of her own colleagues are still refusing to wear masks on the Benches opposite?
The Minister is really being most generous and I thank her very much indeed. Our right hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper) is absolutely right and I fear that, inadvertently, she has not given the fullest answer that she might have done to this. The fact is that motion 3 on the Order Paper expires on 20 December, yet motion 4 expires on 24 March 2022. Can she explain the logicality of that? I also observe that, given the extraordinary restriction on liberty that this potentially offers, most Members of this House would be more than delighted to return after the House rises for the Christmas recess in order to reaffirm our support for the measures that she has put before the House today.
I must make progress.
Given the potential severity of the consequences of not responding swiftly to this new variant, the Government have taken decisive action to bring back compulsory face-covering wearing in an array of settings. Face coverings are again compulsory in shops and on public transport, unless an individual has a medical exemption or a reasonable excuse.
I will continue.
The requirement to wear face coverings is not new. We have asked people to do their bit to stop the spread of the virus before, so we are again asking people to play their part, this time to help slow down any transmission of this new variant of concern.
No, I must make progress. I have been very generous with my time up until now.
However, anyone who has an age, health or disability reason for not wearing a face covering need not wear one, and they need not provide proof of their exemption. The Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies has found that face coverings are likely to reduce transmission through all routes by partially reducing the emissions of and exposure to the full range of aerosols and droplets that carry the virus. This includes those that remain airborne and those that deposit on surfaces.
I must make progress.
Scientific evidence also shows that all types of face coverings are to some extent effective in reducing the transmission of covid-19 in all settings. This is through a combination of source control, which limits the spread of the virus from a person, and protection to the wearer. Laboratory data shows that even non-medical masks, such as cloth masks made of two or three layers, may have similar filtration efficiency to surgical masks. As ever, we are guided by the advice of our scientific and medical experts. We will keep these measures under review, and we will take further action if necessary.
No, I must make progress.
The self-isolation regulations were introduced to provide a legal requirement to self-isolate for individuals who have been notified that they have tested positive for covid-19 or that they are a close contact of a positive case. On 16 August, thanks to the success of the vaccine roll-out, we were able to introduce a number of exemptions to self-isolation for close contacts, including for those who are fully vaccinated or under the age of 18 years old. Given the greater threat that may be posed by the omicron variant, we have reviewed the application of these exemptions. This latest amendment to the self-isolation regulations is targeted at helping to slow its spread. From 4 am today, all individuals notified by NHS Test and Trace or a public health official that they are a close contact of a confirmed or suspected case of the covid-19 omicron variant are legally required to self-isolate for a period of 10 days, regardless of their age or vaccination status.
No; I have been very generous up until now.
Anyone who has been notified as testing positive for covid-19, regardless of the variant, will continue to be legally required to self-isolate. We appreciate that self-isolation is not easy and that it places a burden on people, but we also know that it is highly effective in limiting the spread of the virus. The Canna model estimated the impact of testing—
I really must make progress.
The model estimated the impact of testing and tracing and self-isolation on covid-19 transmission from June 2020 to April 2021. During the period of the study, the model found that testing, tracing and self-isolation had a critical impact on identifying cases of covid-19 and reducing onward transmission. The model found that between 1.2 million and 2 million infections have been directly prevented as a result. Additional assistance is available to those who are being required to self-isolate through the range of financial and practical support measures that the Government have put in place.
I am confident that these two sets of regulations represent proportionate precautionary and targeted action in the face of the new covid-19 variant, the risk of which we still do not yet fully understand. [Interruption.]
Together, the impacts of these regulations should combine to help slow down the spread of the omicron variant and give us valuable time to assess how effective our vaccines are as a shield against this new variant. We are committed to reviewing these measures in three weeks’ time, when further scientific analysis should help us determine whether they are still needed, or whether they need to be extended or strengthened to support us in our wider fight against covid-19. I hope colleagues will join me in supporting these regulations, and I commend them to the House.
It is a pleasure to speak for the Opposition in this important debate.
The omicron variant is a sobering reminder that this pandemic is not over. We need to act with speed to bolster our defences to keep the virus at bay, and to keep each other safe throughout the difficult winter period. We on these Benches were critical of the Government’s slow response to the delta variant—slow to protect our borders, slow to act to reduce transmission in the community—so we welcome swifter action with regard to the omicron variant and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Dr Allin-Khan) said in this place yesterday, we support the measures laid out in these two statutory instruments, one on face coverings and one on public health restrictions. It is right to be acting urgently given the seriousness of the threat, but it is sad to be debating these SIs after the fact; we need to build public confidence in whatever measures we bring in and it is always better to discuss them beforehand, rather than afterwards, to show that parliamentary scrutiny really matters.
I am very pleased to hear the hon. Gentleman say that about parliamentary scrutiny. He will know that yesterday I asked the Government for assurances if they were to want to extend or strengthen these measures after the House has risen for the Christmas recess, as I feel that if that is the case the House should either continue sitting or be recalled. In answer to my question, the Leader of the House suggested that it would be up to the House. I therefore ask this of the hon. Gentleman speaking for the Opposition: if the Government were to bring forward strengthened measures or want to extend them after the House has risen, would the Opposition support the House being recalled so that we can debate and vote on the matters in advance, or is he prepared to give the Government a blank cheque?
My predecessor as Member of Parliament for Nottingham North had a strong record on recall of Parliament in 2003 and would smite me down if I were to dismiss the right hon. Gentleman’s question out of hand. It is a hypothetical question, however, and I am not going to be drawn on that, but I will say this: when we were getting through the backlog of such SIs over the summer I said to the Minister at the time, the hon. Member for Bury St Edmunds (Jo Churchill), that I would have met at any hour at any time to get through some of them, since they were weeks and weeks delayed at some points. I have not changed my view on that.
The hon. Gentleman’s question makes me think he has some plans to book; if he is trying to book a weekend away, he should not let me set those dates for him.
Turning to the regulations, and starting with the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Wearing of Face Coverings) (England) Regulations 2021 (S.I., 2021, No. 1340), it is right to reintroduce masks on public transport, in shops and other settings including banks, hairdressers and post offices for those who are not exempt. This measure should never have been abandoned. While mask wearing in public spaces forms part of the Government’s plan B, it was always part of the Opposition’s plan A rather than an emergency measure, as was encouraging working from home where possible.
I am slightly confused by these measures, because the risks are the same in any indoor setting; whether on public transport, in a shop or in some other indoor space, the risks still exist. Can my hon. Friend tease out why there is an inconsistency in these regulations?
Last night I walked past the shadow Cabinet room and there was quite a party going on inside, and I popped my head round the corner and there was a lot of drinking and shuffling going on. That is fair enough, as those are the rules at the moment—knock yourselves out, it’s nearly Christmas—but why is it okay to come into the Chamber and tell us all one thing in front of the cameras and do something completely different behind closed doors?