House of Commons
Monday 17 January 2022
The House met at half-past Two o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
Small Boat Channel Crossings
I would like to begin my remarks this afternoon by paying tribute to the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington. He was a member of the shadow Home Affairs team, and he sadly passed away the week before last. Jack was well loved by everyone and a hugely respected Member of this House. Along with all colleagues, I would like to pay my respects to him and send my condolences to Harriet and their family.
These crossings are unfair, unacceptable and lethally dangerous. They are totally unnecessary, as France and other EU member states are safe countries with long-established asylum systems.
I thank the Home Secretary for that reply, and I associate myself wholeheartedly with her remarks about the late member for Birmingham, Erdington.
I know that the Home Secretary has been requesting the assistance of the Royal Navy to reduce the number of illegal channel crossings, and I look forward to seeing growing co-operation between her Department and the Ministry of Defence. Does she agree that it is surely right to deploy all the available resources and tools to shut down the routes used by the cruel people smugglers and to protect lives at sea?
My right hon. Friend’s question is an important one because, as all hon. Members will be well aware, I asked for MOD naval assets and support back in 2020, because no Department can resolve the complex issue of channel crossings on its own. It is also right, having called for MOD involvement, that we now bring the whole machinery of government, the ultimate utility, together to ensure that we work collectively to protect our borders. My right hon. Friend is right about the wider issues on immigration, and that is why we have the new plan for immigration.
I fully echo the Home Secretary’s remarks about the late Member for Birmingham, Erdington. He was well liked and respected by many of us on this side of the House.
Does the Home Secretary recognise the anger felt about this issue, not least by the many people who fully respect this country’s proud tradition of asylum and the tremendous contribution made so many people who have come to this country legally?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. That is why this Government are unapologetic for the fact that we now have the Nationality and Borders Bill and the new plan for immigration. We are operationalising these changes primarily because we need a system that is firm but also fair to those who need genuine help when fleeing persecution and claiming asylum. That is effectively what this Government are doing.
If everyone is agreed that the channel crossings are so dangerous, we must clearly do whatever is necessary to stop them. Surely the quickest way to stop them is simply to turn the boats back and escort them back into French waters. I do not think it would take long for the word to get around that these crossings were futile. Has not the time come to do just that, on humanitarian grounds as well as to protect our borders from illegal immigration?
My hon. Friend will know that that is the policy of this Government. Border Force was commissioned to do this with the MOD, and through the hybrid ways of working that I have commissioned across Government, they will be doing exactly that. Routes have been tested and technology is being used, and the way in which boats can be pushed back has also been well tested, with the basis to do that. That is our policy.
My right hon. Friend is aware that the British people want to see decisive action being taken to reduce the number of small boat crossings in our channel. Does she therefore share my disappointment that the Opposition refused to support our measures to end vexatious and unmerited claims, and chose instead to side with those entering the UK illegally?
We could rerun the debate on the Nationality and Borders Bill, which I would happily do. This Government are determined not just to reform what is a broken asylum system—we are lifting up every aspect of the dysfunctionality of the system—but to tackle the root causes of illegal migration. In March 2021 the new plan for immigration was published, and we had the Nationality and Borders Bill in this House last autumn. The Opposition seem to be on the wrong side of the argument. They do not really want to support an end to illegal migration or stop the people smugglers.
Is there any truth in the reports that the Government want to have asylum seekers processed offshore in countries such as Gambia? Has any such country actually agreed to this? Does the Secretary of State accept that having people processed hundreds or thousands of miles away might meet the letter of our obligations to asylum seekers but certainly does not meet the spirit?
I absolutely disagree with the right hon. Lady’s question. Had she read the new plan for immigration—the policy statement published for the benefit of all Members in March 2021—she would know that this Government are considering all options for outsourcing processing and for removing people with no legal basis to be in our country. I completely recognise that she disagrees with the policies of this Government—[Interruption.] It matters not which countries. We will continue to discuss this with a range of countries, because I, as Home Secretary, and this Government are determined to fix the decades-long problem of a very broken asylum system. Frankly, under successive Labour Governments there were mass failures to remove people with no legal basis to be in the country.
With your permission, Mr Speaker, I join the Home Secretary in paying tribute to our dear friend and colleague, Jack Dromey. We very much look forward to the tributes later this month. Especially today, at Home Office questions, we very much miss his kindness, his passion and his wit alongside us on the Front Bench.
We hear that responsibility for ending dangerous crossings of the channel is to be taken away from the Home Office and handed to the MOD, but we have been here before. In 2019 the Government brought in the Navy to patrol the channel, and those patrols ended after just six weeks, having cost £780,000 and without a single boat having been intercepted. Can the Home Secretary explain how today’s proposal will be any different from 2019 and prevent lives from being lost at sea?
Of course I can. I restate what I have said in the House many times about the hybrid approach we need: no one Department can solve this issue in the channel on its own. Let us be crystal clear about this. I originally commissioned the military aid to the civil authorities request that went to the Ministry of Defence very early on, back in 2020. Of course my decision to bring in the MOD is vindication of our need to strengthen our defences in the channel.
This is about a number of things—[Interruption.] I can hear Opposition Members making noise about this issue. However, the reality is that we want to stop illegal crossings. People are dying in the channel and in the Mediterranean. All aspects of pushbacks and turn-backs—of the approach we take in the channel—are operational. This has been tested, there is a basis on which to do it, and individuals are trained. The MOD, maritime policing and Border Force originally came together, and they will continue to work together. This is, first, a global migration issue but, secondly, the British public will support the Government in doing everything possible to protect our borders. That is why a blended approach is absolutely vital.
I wholeheartedly endorse the Home Secretary’s comments about the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington.
The Home Secretary should have pointed out that, unlike the endless Downing Street parties, arriving in the UK to claim asylum is not unlawful, as the Court of Appeal reminded her just last month. It is only her atrocious anti-refugee Bill that will see Afghans, Syrians and Uyghurs arrested, prosecuted and imprisoned for up to four years. Why does she see relentless flouting of lockdown rules as forgivable for the Prime Minister but seeking safety here from Assad, the Taliban or genocide as worth four years in prison?
I always enjoy the hon. Gentleman’s contributions. As we saw on Report and Third Reading of the Nationality and Borders Bill, the Scottish National party choose to deploy political gimmicks—I am being kind to the SNP—to frustrate the will of the public when it comes to reforming asylum and illegal migration. It is fair to say that the Conservative party in government, through the Nationality and Borders Bill and the new plan for immigration, will do everything possible to tackle the unscrupulous exploitation of people who cross illegally and will provide sanctuary to those who need our help and support—those fleeing persecution who need refuge. Frankly, when local authorities in Scotland are not even helping to accommodate these people, I take no lectures from the Scottish National party.
That answer was about as convincing as the Prime Minister’s apology. The Home Secretary has quite a nerve to talk about political gimmicks, given that she is the first person to be sent out to the Dispatch Box to further Operation Red Meat; the proposals leaked out over the weekend have absolutely nothing to do with saving lives and everything to do with saving the Prime Minister’s career and her political career. The Home Secretary sending in the Royal Navy against small boats full of refugees and asylum seekers is pathetic, inhumane and an abuse of the Royal Navy, and her grubby shopping around for places to offshore asylum seekers to is an outrageous and dangerous big white elephant. Instead of ripping up the refugee convention and locking up refugees, why does the Home Office not start working with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and others to live up to our humanitarian obligations?
The hon. Gentleman needs to understand global migration challenges and the international exploitation of human lives and human beings that takes place, because clearly he has no recommendations or answers. His local authorities across Scotland refuse to house people who have come to our country. Frankly, I will take no lectures from him. He can carry on with his political gimmicks, but the Scottish National party’s lack of policy says a great deal.
Rape Prosecution Rate
We are determined to increase the number of rape cases reaching court, which is why we are working closely with the Attorney General and the Deputy Prime Minister to implement the rape review action plan, published in June. Progress includes publishing the first scorecard on cases, in order to understand where the system is failing to deliver; piloting a new approach to investigations through Operation Soteria; and launching a victims’ Bill consultation.
Two fifths of police forces actually lack specialist rape units, despite clear evidence showing that they are important to achieving successful case outcomes. Warwickshire shut its RASSO—rape and serious sexual offences—unit in 2014 and its domestic abuse unit last year, yet it has the worst conviction rate. Next week, I am going to hold a summit on violence against women and girls. I want to know from the Minister: why do the Government oppose Labour’s calls for RASSO units to be restored to all police forces? Can she explain whether there is any correlation between the conviction rates achieved, with Warwickshire’s being the worst in the country, and the loss of such units?
It is obviously not the case that we are opposing measures to improve rape prosecutions. That is why we are funding five police forces to pilot this new approach to rape investigations, and we have committed to expand this through 14 police areas. Moreover, we are providing comprehensive funding to independent sexual and domestic abuse advisers to help bring these atrocious cases to court.
I spent Friday morning with a young 20-year-old rape victim who is now in her fifth year awaiting a trial. I then spent the afternoon with a young woman who has been groomed and sexually exploited for a decade. She told me that on occasion she has been forced to have sex with up to 50 men a day. The police cannot guarantee her safety, in her complex case of organised crime, so she has come forward and withdrawn numerous times. Both the accused rapist in the first case and the many, multiple gang members involved in the second are walking free, able to abuse, groom and rape as many women and children as they like.
These cases are not rare; they are not unusual. Operation Soteria has already made it very clear to Ministers that there is a real need for more specialism and priority within police forces, so the Minister saying that she is going to pilot it in 14 more areas and find out the exact same thing is not going to be enough. There is a need for specialism, and a need for it now, so why are the Government not backing Labour’s calls to ensure that every police force area has a RASSO unit? Will she answer that?
All of us speak to and work with victims of horrendous crimes. Ministers are constantly engaged in that kind of work. That is why we are putting more funding into the police to enable them to tackle these hideous crimes. The hon. Lady has referred to a number of specific cases. She has not been clear which police areas or local authorities are involved, but we are very happy to work with her on these specific cases. To be clear, let me say that funding for these important specialisms has been increased, and we are increasing funding to the police to the tune of £15.9 billion.
The two points made by Labour Members were very powerful and have had a huge impact on the House, and I thank them for making them.
I simply rise to say that there also needs to be a very careful balance, because, from time to time, people are accused of rape when they are innocent. I do not want to see the pendulum swing from one extreme to another and injustice being done in another way.
I thank my hon. Friend for raising such an important issue. These and many other issues are captured in the rape review. Every Member of this House will be concerned about the level of rape prosecutions, which is why the Government are working across Departments to improve the system overall, and it is absolutely right that we do so.
The Minister will know that, in 2015, in her report on rape investigations and prosecutions in London, Dame Elish Angiolini recommended that the specialist RASSO police officers should investigate rape cases. We heard much evidence to back that up in the inquiry that the Home Affairs Committee has just concluded. I have a question for the Safeguarding Minister, who appeared before the Committee in December. At the time she could not tell us how many police officers were RASSO trained, or, indeed, how many of the new recruits to the police had been RASSO trained. Is she able to do so today?
I congratulate the right hon. Lady on her election to the Chair of the Home Affairs Committee. I look forward to responding to her in due course. She raises an important issue. It is important to say that specialist training is taking place through Operation Soteria and a number of other avenues. I am very happy come back to her or to write to her with those figures.
Removal of Failed Asylum Seekers
Our new plan for immigration will overhaul our asylum system and speed up the removal of failed asylum seekers. The Bill will introduce new measures to prevent repeated last-minute, meritless claims that are designed to frustrate proper removal. We are determined to return people who have no right to be here and arrive in the UK illegally.
I thank the Minister for his response. This country has a proud record of accepting refugees and treating asylum seekers fairly, and long may that continue. Does he agree that, in order to retain confidence in our system and to avoid it being a draw to people taking very dangerous and unnecessary journeys, asylum seekers must have their cases considered very quickly, and, if they have not established a right or a need to be here, they should be removed quickly?
My hon. Friend gets to the nub of the issue by saying that we must have a fair but firm system. Returns have undoubtedly been hard hit as a result of the pandemic, and we want to see a quick recovery from that. The issue of attrition is also important. We are addressing that through the Nationality and Borders Bill, and I appreciate his support for that. On returns agreements, we need, of course, to secure more. Those with India and Albania prove exactly what can be done.
Hundreds of people in my constituency of Enfield North are residents in this country on the European Community Association agreement visa, also known as the Ankara agreement, which allows them to set up businesses in this country. When they try to extend their stay in this country, the majority of them are not able to renew their visas. There have been hundreds of emails in relation to this from across the country. The delays in some cases are 14 months, and they mean that those people are unable to renew business leases and housing and residential contracts. What assurances can the Minister give to my constituents whose lives are at a standstill that these timings will be reduced and that they will receive a timely response to their applications?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her question. She will know that Ministers in the Home Office are always keen to try to assist in these matters wherever possible. If she could provide me with the specifics, I would be very happy to take those cases away and have a look at them.
Does the Minister agree that one of the problems with genuine victims of human trafficking is that they are lumped together with asylum seekers? The quicker we can return bogus asylum seekers, the quicker we can get help to the genuine victims of human traffickers.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who raises an important point. It is fair to say that the Nationality and Borders Bill and the new plan for immigration focus very much on returning those who have no right to be here, while ensuring that those who require our protection and are genuinely in need of support do get that support as quickly as possible.
Domestic Abuse: Support for Victims
Our landmark Domestic Abuse Act 2021 will strengthen our protection of victims and ensure that perpetrators feel the full force of the law. Furthermore, we will be publishing the first ever domestic abuse strategy to transform the whole of society’s response to domestic abuse to prevent offending, support victims and pursue perpetrators as well as strengthening the whole system needed to deliver those goals.
A recent meeting of the all-party parliamentary group for ageing and older people reviewed the shocking figures for femicide and violence against older women. Women aged over 60 are one in five of femicide victims, representing 75% of the 280,000 older people between 60 and 74 who are victims of domestic abuse. Further, the crime survey for England and Wales has only just started collecting data on people over 74, and that data is beset by problems of under-reporting. Does the Minister recognise the need for both more effective data collection and support services that are designed around and suitable for older domestic abuse victims?
I thank the hon. Lady for raising this important issue. She is right that more needs to be done. More is being done, and we will set out more ways that we will help older victims in our domestic abuse strategy, which we will publish shortly. It is vital that every victim of domestic abuse, no matter their age, can get the right help. That is why we have provided additional funding to support victims of rape and domestic abuse, and we are giving local authorities more money to enable them to play their part.
Windrush Compensation Scheme
We take our commitments to the victims of the Windrush scandal seriously, and our focus is on resolving claims as quickly as possible. To enable us to do that, we have recruited 40 new caseworkers, with 35 more in the pipeline for the coming months. We have also refreshed and streamlined internal processes to reduce processing times and improve user experience for those applying to the scheme.
A recent report criticised the Home Office, which was forced to apologise to charities and community groups that were meant to be supporting victims with their applications. The budget remains as full as ever and underspent. It took two years for one of my constituents to receive a reply, which is an absolute disgrace considering the age profile of Windrush victims. What will the Minister do to put that right? Will he outsource the process to a proper independent group that will get on with the job?
As we have said before, outsourcing would merely introduce further delays into the process when our focus should be on getting compensation out to the victims of the Windrush scandal. The hon. Member will be aware that the changes we made in December 2020 saw us pay considerably more compensation, offering an average of £3.1 million a month, with more than £38.7 million in compensation now offered. To be clear, there is no “budget” here; we will pay the compensation that is due to people, and there is no ceiling on what will be paid.
I remind the Home Secretary of the legal maxim, “Justice delayed is justice denied.” This Government promised to try to right some of the wrongs with the Windrush compensation scheme in a time-limited manner. In November, the Home Affairs Committee found that only 20% of claimants had applied, and that only 5% had received any compensation. Twenty-three people have died before receiving their compensation. Is it not high time that the responsibility to provide justice to the ageing Windrush generation was passed on to an independent body capable of delivering it?
Again, we would make the point that moving this operation out of the Home Office would merely further delay the provision of the compensation that we all want to see paid. As I have touched on, we are recruiting more caseworkers and speeding up the process. Given the age cohort we are talking about, we are aware that some people have sadly passed away. However, that is why we are more motivated to speed up the process and make a real difference. As I have said, we have more staff coming in, and we will streamline the process to make it not only quicker, but simpler for those claiming compensation to engage with the team.
Online Safety Tools
I speak regularly with the Equalities Office and campaigners on ways to tackle violence against women and girls. We believe that women should not have to change their behaviour to stay safe, which is why our strategy sets out preventive measures to tackle violence against women and girls focusing on changing misogynistic attitudes; however some people might choose to use one of the many apps, including the Path Community app, that are available to them.
Many women’s rights campaigners, including Reclaim These Streets, have called apps such as the Path Community app insulting to women and girls. They claim it does nothing to tackle men’s violence against women, so why are the Government continuing to push the app and present it as some kind of solution?
I thank the hon. Lady for giving me the opportunity to put on the record that we are not specifically pushing—I think that was the word she used—or promoting or backing that one app. As I said in my answer, there are many apps, and many women use those apps of their own choice. Of course we welcome that choice for individuals; on the other hand, it is vital that the Government play our part in tackling violence against women and girls through the multiple other measures set out in the “Tackling violence against women and girls strategy”, which I invite her to read.
The Government are proposing a total police funding settlement approaching £17,000 million in 2022-23, an increase of up to £1,100 million compared with this year. Assuming full take-up of precept flexibility, overall police funding available to police and crime commissioners will increase by a whopping £796 million next year.
Vale of Glamorgan, like many rural areas, experiences horrendous animal welfare incidents, from illegal dog breeding and hare coursing to fly-grazing and horse neglect. Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating Chief Inspector Rees and her team of officers on how they have used the additional resources that have been made available to combat some of the worst crimes we could possibly imagine?
I am more than happy to join my right hon. Friend in congratulating his local police force on their work in this area, and I am pleased to hear that his non-human constituents are as important to him as the human ones. He will be aware that some of these truly appalling crimes need to be addressed much more assertively, and I hope he has noticed that, in the Police, Crime, Courts and Sentencing Bill, we are tabling amendments specifically on hare coursing, which will help to fight that awful crime.
Bearing in mind the security statement coming after this question session, will my right hon. Friend assure me that he is working with both law enforcement and security services to understand what more can be done to increase capacity to counter hostile activity that has the potential to damage democracy but operates below the legal threshold?
I know this is a matter of concern to the whole House, which I know is to be addressed by the Home Secretary shortly. As I hope my hon. Friend knows, police capacity—that relates specifically to the question—has been increased not just in territorial policing but in other arms of policing, recognising as we do that, while it is important to fight crime on the ground in all our constituencies, it is also important to fight it there as well.
I am pleased that the Government are well on their way to delivering on their pledge to deliver 20,000 police officers, 867 of whom are in the west midlands, but does my right hon. Friend agree that the decision by the Labour police and crime commissioner to close Solihull police station goes a long way to undermining safety and security for my constituents in the north and the south of my constituency?
My hon. Friend will know that there was a passionate Adjournment debate just the other night to discuss issues in west midlands policing. As I said during that debate, it is strange that at a time of unprecedented expansion in UK policing, the impression is being given, in his constituency and elsewhere, of a retreat. I was in the west midlands on Thursday and I know that the chief constable and others are working hard to get on top, but I would hope that in the light of the expansion of policing in my hon. Friend’s part of the world, their property strategy would be reviewed again.
Workers in local food shops in Cambridge have had a tough time in recent years, facing organised shoplifting and threats of violence. It took the intervention of E. J. Matthews, a notable PC, to help to sort that out, but they are now facing organised ramraids. What resources can be made available to Cambridgeshire police to tackle this awful crime?
As I am sure the hon. Gentleman knows, Cambridgeshire police has expanded quite significantly, in terms of pure police numbers, over the past couple of years, but I hope he will also have noticed the work that is being done by the national retail crime steering group, which I chair, to look specifically at crime in this area. Given what he has mentioned about ramraiding in his constituency, I will go away and look at whether a pattern is emerging across the east of England and hope that I can encourage the police to address it.
The Minister has just said that there is an unprecedented expansion, but back in the real world, antisocial behaviour increased by 7% last year: it is a growing problem across so many communities in my constituency and around the country. Although the new officers are beginning to come on-stream, does he even begin to understand the damage that the cuts not only to police numbers but to services such as youth services have done to communities like the ones I represent?
Year on year, last year and the year before, we actually saw a fall in police-recorded incidents of antisocial behaviour, but we have seen fluctuations in that crime type over the past few months as the variations in covid lockdown regulations have changed. We are keeping a close eye on it. The hon. Gentleman will have noticed that in our “Beating crime plan”, published in July last year, we encouraged police and crime commissioners—I hope he will encourage his to do this as well—to form their own antisocial behaviour taskforces so that they can really pinpoint and address this most local of crime problems very effectively.
The Minister will be aware that proper community policing is vital for preventing crime and saving lives, yet across London, since the Prime Minister was Mayor, we have seen community policing slashed, and in Richmond borough, in particular, we see our officers routinely extracted to other events. Yet in the same period knife crime has doubled. He will be aware that in September there was the fatal and brutal stabbing of an 18-year-old Afghan refugee and college student in Twickenham. So when will we see a boost to community policing in the Twickenham constituency and across Richmond borough, as this Government have promised us so many extra police officer numbers since 2019?
The hon. Lady is stretching it a bit to say that crime over the past three or four years was the fault of the previous Mayor, who has not been in office for some time; she may not have noticed. It is hard to notice who is in office in London at the moment. Nevertheless, I hope she will welcome the recent decision by the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police to reinstitute neighbourhood policing, and that she will see the extra numbers of police officers—many hundreds—that have now been recruited in London appearing in her constituency soon.
Current recruitment is welcome, of course, but will the Minister at least acknowledge and be honest with the House that there are 24,000 fewer police officers, police community support officers and staff in the police workforce since 2010 because of this Government’s cuts, and that has a real impact?
I will certainly acknowledge that police numbers fell post the 2010 election, but only as long as the hon. Lady acknowledges that her party crashed the economy, causing us to make much-needed and very vital economies in our national spending. If we had not undertaken those economies, God knows what financial state we would have been in now, following what we have had to do during the pandemic.
The great town of Tunstall sadly missed out on its recent safer streets fund bid. Analysis from Staffordshire police and Stoke-on-Trent City Council shows that we suffer disproportionately from more burglary, aggressive begging and feral youths committing antisocial behaviour, so we want to see improved lighting, CCTV extended and gates for alleyways. Will my hon. Friend agree to meet me so that he can hear about this bid and why the great town of Tunstall deserves this investment?
I am certainly happy to meet my hon. Friend. We will see future rounds of the safer streets fund, and I hope his police and crime commissioner and his local authority will make a bid. I will be more than happy to meet him, not least because the commitment and conviction he shows should be at the forefront of their bid to convince us all to fund this.
Police Community Support Officers
The decisions on how to use funding and resources are operational matters for chief constables, working with their democratically elected police and crime commissioners. They are best placed to make these decisions within their communities, based on their knowledge and experience, including decisions about the right balance of their workforce.
Our Conservative police and crime commissioner was elected on a platform to fix the unfair funding formula for Bedfordshire police, but his solution to raise much-needed funding to put more police on our streets is to raise local council tax. With two large towns and an international airport, Bedfordshire police should not be funded as a rural force. Will the Minister give our force the resources it needs before expecting my constituents to pay more?
Obviously the Bedfordshire police and crime commissioner is doing a fantastic job. He won a resounding victory in the recent election, and I know he continues to enjoy significant support in that county. As I hope the hon. Gentleman has heard me say in the past, we are committed to coming up with a new funding formula for policing. The formula we use at the moment is a little bit elderly and creaky. He will be pleased to hear that I had a meeting just this morning with the chair of the new technical body that is putting that work together. We hope to be able to run the formula before the next election.
The Minister has brushed off criticisms from the Labour Benches, but is he aware of the disquiet on his own Benches? Only last week, Conservative MPs lined up in Westminster Hall to describe a broken system that is
“stacked in favour of the perpetrators rather than the victims.”—[Official Report, 12 January 2022; Vol. 706, c. 258WH.]
“Across the UK there are people afraid to leave their homes after dark, scared to go to the shops…That cannot go on…The police quite simply do not have the powers or resources.”—[Official Report, 12 January 2022; Vol. 706, c. 257-8WH.]
We agree. That is why neighbourhood policing is at the heart of our new proposals. We will put a police hub in every new community, create neighbourhood prevention teams and fund a next generation of neighbourhood watch. I wonder whether the Minister has anything new to say to his own disaffected Back Benchers, or is crime simply not “red meat” enough for the “big dog”?
Hilarious. I understand the hon. Lady is playing catch-up on policing, and she may have missed the 11,000 police officers we have recruited so far. She may have missed the significant falls in knife crime, acquisitive crime and all neighbourhood-type crimes, as we have seen recently. Policing and fighting crime are a challenge, as I know more than most. It is always two steps forward, one step back. It is right that hon. Members on all sides should be anxious and concerned about crime in their constituencies, but that is why we are recruiting 20,000 police officers, why the Prime Minister has made crime a priority and why he wants to roll up county lines and deal with youth violence. This is a fight that we can win, but over time. While we are having some success as it stands, there is always much more to do.
My hon. Friend will know that all efforts are being made on reducing knife crime. As the Policing Minister has just said, the latest police-recorded crime figures have shown a fall in offences involving knife crime, but at the same time, a great deal of investment is taking place when it comes to violence reduction units, alongside the investments in the police force.
I welcome the work from the Home Secretary on reducing those numbers, but sadly last year saw the highest number of teenage murders in London since records began. Can I therefore commend the “No More Red” campaign set up by Arsenal football club, supported by Ian Wright and Idris Elba? As Ian Wright points out, and as I found out myself as a volunteer in a youth centre, they offer the chance to give people a better route in life, away from gangs and crime. Too many have closed in recent years. May I ask the Home Secretary what we can do to get charities to set more up?
It is not every day I can come to the Dispatch Box to celebrate and praise the Gooners, but in this case I take great pride in joining my hon. Friend. The “No More Red” campaign, which I have been following, is fantastic. My hon. Friend’s point speaks to the power of charities alongside the Government’s work, because they are the ones at the grassroots that can reach out to young people in constituencies and engage them so they do not get into the cycle of a life of crime.
Pending Asylum Applications
We accept that the asylum system is broken, often taking too long to reach decisions. We are working to fix it via the Nationality and Borders Bill. Alongside that, we have plans to speed up the decision-making process and reduce unnecessary delays. I hope the hon. Gentleman will reconsider his opposition to the Bill and play his part in helping to fix our broken system.
The Conservatives say that the asylum system is broken, but having been in power for more than a decade, the truth is that they are the ones who broke it. Asylums seekers are some of the most vulnerable individuals. The Greater Manchester Immigration Aid Unit revealed the emotional and physical trauma they experience—the anxiety, insomnia, self-harm, depression, deterioration of relationships with friends and support staff and reduced engagement with vital services. How has the Home Office’s ability to make initial decisions been allowed to collapse so completely under this Government? What steps will the Minister take to intervene to ensure the situation is addressed with urgency?
I am sorry to hear that it sounds like the hon. Gentleman will not be reconsidering his opposition to our reform plans, most notably in the Nationality and Borders Bill, while his party offers no meaningful alternative. The Home Secretary, the whole team in Government and I will continue to focus on our work to reform and update the system, to ensure it offers resettlement based on need, not the ability to pay a people trafficker. That is what our focus will continue to be and we are working towards that.
The Nationality and Borders Bill was overwhelmingly backed by elected MPs and is now being debated in the other place. Ahead of its Royal Assent, I am operationalising new changes on disrupting and deterring illegal migration, in line with the new plan for immigration which, as the House knows, was announced and published last week. We continue to work with our French counterparts. Law enforcement has achieved 67 small boats-related prosecutions since the start of 2020; we have dismantled 17 small boat organised criminal groups and secured more than 400 arrests.
I am reforming the entire asylum system to bring effective casework into decision making, speeding up processing and introducing fast-track appeals to remove those with no right to be in the UK. I have developed new operational solutions to deter illegal boat arrivals. That is a whole Government effort. As a result, I confirm that we have commissioned the MOD as a crucial operational partner, to protect our channel against illegal migration.
In the light of the news late last week about MP security, will the Home Secretary assure me that the Home Office is working with other Government Departments and devolved Administrations to protect our democracy from those who want to do it, and our country, harm?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I will come to my statement shortly, when I will talk about that issue in much more detail. There are important issues about protecting our democracy from our adversaries, individuals and countries that want to do us harm. That is a whole of Government effort.
I join the tributes to Jack Dromey, who was in our team and should have been with us today. His kindness, principles and determination mean we badly miss him.
On 25 January 2021, the Home Secretary commented on a Met police video of officers breaking up an illegal party in London. She said,
“This illegal gathering was an insult to those hospitalised with COVID, our NHS staff and everyone staying at home to protect them…Police are enforcing the rules to save lives.”
Why has she now changed her mind?
I welcome the right hon. Lady to her role; I did not get the chance to do that when we last met to debate the Nationality and Borders Bill. With regards to the coronavirus regulations, I stand by my comments, primarily because during the time of the virus and the pandemic, the entire country was doing incredible work to ensure that the virus was not being spread. My views have not changed on that; they are absolutely consistent. On policing throughout the pandemic, we asked the police to do extraordinary things. As she knows, however, the police are operationally independent of me. They were following the guidance issued by the Government at the time and did very good work to protect the public.
I am glad that the Home Secretary stands by her words and her defence of the police, but how on earth can she then defend the Prime Minister, who has publicly admitted breaking the rules? She is not even waiting for the Sue Gray report. Beth Rigby asked her:
“Are you reserving judgment until the Sue Gray report comes out?”
And she said:
“No. On the contrary, I have publicly supported the Prime Minister”.
Tens of thousands of fines were given out in the months when Downing Street was holding parties. She told the police to enforce those rules but she is now defending someone who has admitted breaking them. The Home Secretary’s job is to uphold the rule of law. Does she realise how damaging it is to public trust and to trust in the police to undermine the rule of law now?
Perhaps the right hon. Lady has forgotten that, in this country, the police and courts are independent of the Government, and I will always respect that principle. Rather than seeking to prejudge, pressure, smear or slander—as it is fair to say that she and perhaps the entire shadow Front Bench and her party clearly are—it is important to let everyone get on and do the required work. We should continue to support the police in the right way and let them do their job in an objective way. I find it pretty rich that she talks about upholding the rule of law on the day that in the other place her party is doing everything possible to undermine support for the police through its opposition to the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill.
Like my hon. Friend, I have seen a rise in that kind of offence in my constituency. As the crops are cut and those animals become more apparent, it obviously becomes more of a problem. As I said earlier, I hope that he will see that in the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, which I hope the whole House will support, we are introducing a range of offences to deal with that crime which, for the first time, will attract a prison sentence of up to six months.
If I may say so to the hon. Lady, I repeat the comments that I made earlier. I appreciate that she may be trying to demonstrate some humour, but the Prime Minister has apologised. At the same time, it is right that the police, who are operationally independent, get on and do their job in the right and proper way, as they have been doing.
I am conscious of the statement to follow, but my hon. Friend is right that those are concerning matters. In truth, they are not restricted to a single British politician or a single party. The security briefings that he mentioned continue to play an important role.
To be clear, the wider immigration system obviously operates separately from the Afghan citizens resettlement scheme, but we are carefully considering what the requirements are, and not least how we can ensure people can actually access the system to make applications because, as the hon. Gentleman will appreciate, for obvious reasons we cannot run our usual application centre that we would have in Kabul given the Taliban’s control of the territory.
It must be hard for everybody to imagine what kind of twisted mind would think it was a good thing to do to break or steal a defibrillator, and I would be more than happy to meet the hon. Gentleman to examine the problem in his constituency and, indeed, to see if it is a problem elsewhere.
The hon. Lady raises the very important and, frankly, quite pressing issue of spiking and its impact across the night-time economy and, much more widely, across society. We are looking in much of the work we are doing in policing at how we can review the matter and how we can actually give the support required.
I have to point out to my hon. Friend that extending visas beyond six months comes with issues such as payment of the immigration health surcharge and the requirement to issue a biometric residence permit, where appropriate. There are some quite considerable issues with the request, but I am always happy to talk to him about how we can support the businesses in his constituency, and I would point out that visas are already not restricted to working at one farm.
The reality is that the seasonal agricultural workers scheme has been woefully inadequate. In the last few years, we have seen fruit and veg being left to rot in the fields. Why then do this Government think it is clever to introduce a further taper, making it worse, and does the Minister understand the damage he is doing to agriculture?
It is safe to say that we have not seen the maximum number of visas taken up. The hon. Member may want to have a think about some of the issues that might have affected international travel for seasonal work over the past two years—particularly relating to a global pandemic. Ultimately, our goal is the right goal, and I think it is fair. I think what the vast majority of people across the UK believe is that in the first instance we should actually focus on making sure that job offers go to our domestic workforce and that key workers are appropriately rewarded.
I thank my hon. Friend for his question; this is a very important matter. Just prior to questions this afternoon, I had a bilateral call with my homeland security counterpart in the US. Let me say a few things. First, we are working with the FBI—in fact, we have been since the incident took place—and there is a great deal of intelligence sharing and work taking place. Of course, when it comes to our domestic homeland, a range of measures are being undertaken right now, including protective security for the Jewish community. The investigation is obviously live, so I am unable to talk about the specifics.
Child sexual, criminal and online exploitation are all increasing in this country; they can all be addressed by joined-up working by Government Departments, robust data collection on perpetrators and a police IT system that is fit for the 21st century. That all takes money, vision and leadership. Can the Home Secretary provide that?
Let me start by thanking the hon. Lady for her question and for her work in this area. In particular, she has worked a lot with me and my Department on the issue of grooming gangs and child sexual exploitation. A wide range of work across the whole of Government is taking place on this, including local authorities, social services and public health. That work is crucial, as is—I know she knows this and has seen it—the incredible investigatory capability of our National Crime Agency, as well as policing, to go after the perpetrators. That work is getting stronger and stronger.
Further to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Bury South (Christian Wakeford), a month ago, Feras Al Jayoosi was convicted on four counts under the Terrorism Act 2000, including twice walking around Golders Green with a large rucksack on his back and a Palestinian Islamic Jihad t-shirt on. Three days ago, Tahra Ahmed was convicted of two charges of stirring up racial hatred, after a complaint about a Facebook post that claimed the Grenfell Tower fire was a “Jewish sacrifice”. My constituents face this daily, often by people from outside the area who are coming in to incite violence and outrage against them. Can the Home Secretary please advise, in addition to the measures she has mentioned about the disgraceful behaviour in Dallas, what my constituents can expect to receive from the police and security services?
My hon. Friend is right to raise this. Let me be very clear: in no way and under no circumstances are any of the acts that he has spoken about acceptable. They are thoroughly unacceptable and that is why the police in particular are doing everything possible to go after the individuals. As he will know, certain individuals have been on various watchlists, radars and so on, where we come together to ensure that the Jewish community, and his constituents in particular, are fully supported and fully protected.
The community in Keyham has serious concerns about the amount of pump action weapons being held in residential areas. Will the Home Secretary agree to meet a delegation from Keyham to discuss the concerns about how rules on holding pump action weapons in residential areas can be tightened?
The hon. Gentleman has raised a vital issue and I thank him for his work locally, and the work of his local authority and policing. I know he has been in contact with the Policing Minister on this issue. We will happily meet him and others from his community. I know this is a particular issue and it is something that we need absolutely to come together on and to work together to resolve.
Does my right hon. Friend share my concern that, last year, the British public had £78 million stolen from them by clone scammers and people posing as legitimate companies online? Will she work with colleagues from the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport to set out in law robust identity checks that all online platforms should have to make, before letting people take out advertising on their site?
My hon. Friend is right about the scourge of fraud and its prevalence online. We brought fraud into scope for the draft Online Safety Bill. I am conscious of the issues that she mentions about advertising and we continue to work with colleagues from DCMS on that.
In our communities, we have asylum seekers who are ready and willing to work in sectors that are experiencing acute shortages, such as fruit and veg picking and HGV driving, but those occupations still do not appear on the shortage occupation list. When will the Government widen that list, or will they simply sacrifice the economy for their hostile immigration environment?
It is worth noting that those whose applications have been outstanding for over a year through no fault of their own can access jobs on the shortage occupation list, and we are expanding that to include care workers next month. This highlights an opportunity for 31 out of 32 local authority areas in Scotland to become part of the dispersal accommodation scheme, so that some of these people will be living in their communities.
Foreign Interference: Intelligence and Security
With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement on foreign interference in UK politics.
I, like all Members across this House, am utterly appalled that an individual who has knowingly engaged in political interference activities on behalf of the Chinese Communist Party for a number of years targeted Members of Parliament. It is a fact that this kind of activity has recently become more common, with states that have malign intentions operating covertly and below current criminal thresholds in an attempt to interfere with our democracy. Members of both Houses of Parliament should ensure that they are aware of the threat of foreign interference.
State threats to and malign influence on the UK are growing and diversifying as systematic competition intensifies. State threats are persistent and take many, many forms. In fact, we have discussed that many times in this House, given some of the terrible incidents that have taken place, including espionage, interference—that means political interference as well—sabotage and physical threats to individuals.
The Home Office has been working closely with the police and the Crown Prosecution Service for some time on potential measures to help to secure successful prosecutions for this kind of activity. I am unequivocal in the tasking that takes place with our security partners to protect our citizens and institutions from hostile state activity and foreign influence.
In relation to the MI5 security alert issued last Thursday, the parliamentary authorities, following careful and detailed discussion with MI5, issued an alert to Members of Parliament—MPs and peers—alerting them about specific individuals involved in direct political interference. In this case, the individual has well-established links to parliamentarians and facilitated political donations to serving and aspiring politicians, with funding coming from foreign nationals in China and Hong Kong. That was done covertly to mask the origins of the payments.
The individual has links to the United Front Work Department, which is the Chinese Communist Party. They have not been open about the nature of these links. MI5 concluded that this person acted covertly in co-ordination with the United Front Work Department, and is involved in political interference activities in the UK. As anyone would expect, those investigations are ongoing.
In this case, the aim was to make the UK political landscape favourable to the Chinese authorities’ agenda and, in particular—I would not question this as there is no doubt—to challenge those who raise concerns about the Chinese authorities’ activities on very pressing and pertinent issues such as human rights. Of course, this activity is not new, which is why our agencies are so diligent in the work that they undertake.
We can expect to see these kinds of alerts become more commonplace as a result of the work of our world-class intelligence agencies, which have adapted to counter these new and emerging threats. Security service interference alerts are just one of several tools MI5 can use to highlight—and thus robustly mitigate—state threats such as malign political interference activity.
Decisions to prosecute individuals are made by the Crown Prosecution Service independently of politicians, so I cannot comment in detail about the work that is under way, but all Members should know that we already have strong security structures in place in the UK to identify foreign interference and any potential threats to our democracy. This case in particular demonstrates such robust action. Those structures enabled our world-leading intelligence and security agencies to issue this particular warning.
Protecting the UK from foreign interference is absolutely crucial. Our most recent integrated review highlighted the importance of strengthening our defence when it comes to state threats, and we are at the forefront of that activity. To build on the strong safeguards that are already in place, we are developing new national security legislation to make it even harder for states to conduct malign activity. We are also taking further steps to protect the integrity of our democracy by tackling electoral fraud and preventing foreign interference in elections through the Elections Bill. We will introduce new legislation to provide the security services and law enforcement agencies with the tools that they need to disrupt the full range of state threats.
As I mentioned at departmental questions, we are working with our allies to take steps to safeguard our open, democratic societies and to promote an international rules-based system that underpins our stability, security and prosperity. We will always take proportionate and necessary action in response to foreign interference in our political system when it comes to state threats, and we will always act in the interests of our country. I commend this statement to the House.
I thank the Home Secretary for her statement on such an important national security issue and for advance sight of it. As she will know, the Labour party always stands ready to work with the Government on national security and protecting our country from foreign interference.
May I take a moment to think of those in the Congregation Beth Israel synagogue community in Texas who will still be reeling from their terrible ordeal? People must be free to worship at synagogues and other religious sites, free from fear of violence, across the world. It reminds us that we must be unrelenting in our fight against antisemitism and against extremism. It is, of course, of deep concern that the hostage taker was a British citizen. I want to give thanks to our intelligence agencies and police forces, who are working in co-operation with their US counterparts and other international partners to investigate the issue further.
To turn to the Home Secretary’s statement, the information that you, Mr Speaker, received from the Security Service last week was obviously extremely serious. We condemn in the strongest terms the attempts by China to interfere in Britain’s democratic process. I support the Home Secretary’s words on this important issue and, again, I thank the security and intelligence services for their work on this.
Obviously, there are further important questions about the extent of the deception and interference that took place in this case and the ongoing risks of malign activity from foreign states in our Parliament and across our democracy. I appreciate that the Home Secretary will be limited in what she can say in the Chamber; I am grateful to her and to the Security Service for the further briefing that has been arranged.
May I raise a concern about one point in the Home Secretary’s statement? She says that this alert shows that our system is working. The work that has been done is clearly important, but I would be very concerned if that meant that the Home Secretary and the Home Office were complacent in this area, because we have seen a series of important warnings about attempts by both Russia and China to interfere in the Russian report and in the report from the Committee on Standards in Public Life, particularly with respect to the risks from foreign money. Lord Jonathan Evans has said:
“I don’t think we should assume”
“would be the only case. I would be astonished if there weren’t similar cases, for instance from Russia.”
He has raised concerns that loopholes for foreign money have not been closed, and has described that as
“a live and present threat”
to our democracy.
The Russia report was published in July 2020, and we are still waiting for the full implementation. Nor have we yet had a proper response to the recommendations from the Committee on Standards in Public Life, which is chaired by the former MI5 head. Can the Home Secretary assure us that she is not complacent about threats to our national security and to our democracy? Can she tell me when the Russia report’s recommendations will be implemented in full and when the results of the consultation on foreign state interference, which closed last summer, will be published?
When will there be a response to the Committee’s crucial recommendation on the funding of digital campaigns and to its important recommendation that more needs to be done on identifying the source of donations and the role of shell companies? Labour has tabled a common-sense amendment to the Elections Bill this very afternoon: new clause 9, which would close the loophole allowing foreign donors to hide behind shell companies. Will the Home Secretary now support that important amendment to ensure that donors to UK political parties have a connection to the UK?
First of all, I take issue with the right hon. Lady’s overall comment: there is no complacency. There is never any complacency at all. On issues of national security, it is absolutely vital and important that all parties, irrespective of their previous opposition to aspects of protecting our country from some of our adversaries, come together.
The right hon. Lady has asked a series of important questions not just about protecting us from our adversaries and malign threats, including state threats, but in relation to the Russia report. She will be aware that the Government gave a full response to the Intelligence and Security Committee Russia report in July 2020. Many of the recommendations were already in train, co-ordinating Her Majesty’s Government, the work across the Treasury, and all aspects of Government work, led by the Cabinet Office.
That comes together in relation to much of the work around protecting democracy, which, as the right hon. Lady will be well aware, sits with the Cabinet Office and is co-ordinated through our agencies in terms of understanding where the threats are, calling out malicious cyber-activity, sanctioning individuals, working further on global anti-corruption sanctions regimes and cracking down on illicit finance. That work is clearly co-ordinated at that particular level.
The right hon. Lady also makes reference to aspects of new legislation, and I touched on that issue myself during my opening remarks. She is right to say that the consultation took place last year. Work is under way, and there will be announcements in due course about the approach that the Government are taking to new legislation on state threats.
My final comment is that when it comes to state interference it is absolutely vital that not just all Members of this House, but members of the public—we have had many debates about this during previous elections—officials across Government and local authorities are highly attuned to the implications of state threat interference in democracy and when it comes to cyber. That is why across the whole of Government there is such extensive work on systematic integration and co-operation to ensure that institutions of the state are protected from hostile state interference.
My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary will undoubtedly be aware of the important distinction between agents of influence or covert propagandists, and espionage agents or spies. In her statement she referred to new national security legislation. In precisely what areas does she anticipate that new legislation interfering in the activities of agents of influence and of espionage agents?
My right hon. Friend has made an important point. In my statement I also alluded to the fact that, when it comes to interference and influence, there are so many facets, including in commercial and economic life. Those are the strands that we are pulling together—in fact the Security Minister, other colleagues across Government and I are developing that legislation so that we can close down that permissive environment and space where, frankly, there has been too much exploitation in the past.
I thank you for your letter, Mr Speaker, and the Home Secretary for advance sight of her statement. I join her in paying tribute to the work of our security and intelligence agencies and I agree with her that it is appalling that such activities have been ongoing for a number of years. Will she say a little about why the alert is happening now if the activity has been going on for a number of years? Will she address any concerns that the alert came later than it had to come?
I also welcome the prospect of a refresh of some of our national security legislation. We will work constructively on that, but will the Home Secretary confirm when we will see that legislation? Will the remaining recommendations from the Intelligence and Security Committee report be fully implemented?
In her statement, the Home Secretary said that malign actors are operating covertly and below current criminal thresholds. Is it her view that those thresholds have to change?
Finally, the Home Secretary talked about making the rules around foreign money tougher. What about the millions of pounds of donations received by political parties, particularly the Conservative party, from unincorporated associations—a type of body that the Committee on Standards in Public Life warned was
“a route for foreign money to influence UK elections”?
Will that be stopped?
There were a number of points there, but first I will address the hon. Gentleman’s question about legislation. That will come when parliamentary time allows. Specific work is taking place on the development of that legislation in the way I have spoken about; there are many aspects to cover.
The hon. Gentleman also touched on the Russia report, where I refer him to comments I made earlier. He also touched on some of the economic elements of malign activity and influence, in particular. It is fair to say that the security alert issued on Thursday last week pointed quite specifically to the type of activity taking place in relation to lower criminal thresholds. We are going to change the laws to ensure that we can look at those thresholds—that is important work that takes place. However, there is no doubt that foreign influence manifests itself in many, many ways: economic; through our institutions—not just Parliament, and some of these institutions’ involvement are well documented; and dirty money. That has been a long-running issue and it absolutely needs to be addressed.
It would seem that for some of us the old adage, “Beware of Greeks bearing gifts” does not seem to be well understood. The sad truth is that from time to time this activity has happened in our House. Looking to the future, and in welcoming my right hon. Friend’s statement, may I ask whether she agrees that not only is it incumbent on the Government, through their new legislation, to deal with the criminal threshold issue that she mentions, but that we must work, with the House authorities, on the granting of passes and the funding of all-party groups, to ensure that all these subtle but insidious and increasingly brazen attempts to influence Members are stamped out, and stamped out for good?
My right hon. and learned Friend is absolutely right, and I thank him for his support, not just now, but when he was in government, on these issues and on thresholds in particular. Of course, Mr Speaker, the alert last Thursday was issued in conjunction with the parliamentary security directorate, and there is work that we will provide support on in terms of vetting and security. It is right that we all come together, not just across law enforcement, but with the intelligence services, to ensure that we close down any gaps that have been exploited by those who want to do us harm.
The Home Secretary has been very robust in defending the Government’s response to the ISC’s report on Russia. In the light of recent events, has she had an opportunity to review the clear recommendations in that report, particularly those pertaining to the Palace of Westminster and what we need to do?
First, let me welcome the new Chair of the Select Committee and congratulate her on her election. There is no question—I should be very clear about this—but that we learn all the time about gaps and about not just new threats, but the type of tactics and techniques used by those who want to do us harm. It is right that we review absolutely every facet of security here. I come back to my earlier point about protecting democracy from malign interests. Working with the Cabinet Office in particular, which oversees this, that is effectively what we are doing.
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement. Of course it is shocking that any Member of this House should allow themselves to be used by a foreign power, but one problem we have is that this issue is not suddenly emerging. We have now a real problem with China. There are more than 13 organisations hell-bent on such purposes, hiding in public view, working with the United Front and other organisations to report back to China. We know that there are four people we have failed to sanction that the Americans have sanctioned for complicity in the Uyghur genocide that is going on. The Government have got to get tougher even still. The problem is that in the integrated review, which she rightly referred to, we referred to Russia as a threat but to China as a “systemic challenge”. Given that the head of MI6 said that the “single biggest priority” for MI6 was
“adapting to a world affected by…China”
does she not think, as I do, that it is time to change our position and call China the threat that it really is to us?
My right hon. Friend speaks a great deal of sense on this issue. He has highlighted and spoken clearly about the direct threat, which we have seen, in this House alone, when it comes to undermining our democracy. I am very conscious that a number of our parliamentarians have been sanctioned by the Chinese Government for rightly speaking out—we live in a free country and an open democracy, and we are privileged to do so—against abusive actions of the particular Government at hand. It is right that we constantly review all our threats from adversaries, which manifest themselves in different ways. I can give him my complete assurance that I will be working with my colleagues across Government to make sure that that absolutely happens.
Through you, Mr Speaker, may I please thank Members from all across the House for the kind messages that I have received over the past few days? I welcome the Home Secretary’s statement and the work of the security services in protecting Parliament. Will the measures she has announced help MPs to get extra support when making the required checks about the true source of any donations? She will know that the security services told me that their alert was based on specific intelligence of illegal funding, which did not relate to the donations that paid for my office staff. Those ceased in 2020. Is she able to tell the House what steps she is taking to ascertain where the tainted money ended up?
First, I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will continue to work with the intelligence and security services and co-operate with them at the highest level with regards to the alert that has been published and also to the areas that he has referred to. It is a fact that, across this House, we will come together to do everything possible to protect the integrity of our democracy and all hon. Members from such malign interference and threats. I also look forward to working with you, Mr Speaker, to close down some of the permissive loopholes that have been so publicly exposed in the last few days.
It is a great pleasure to hear my right hon. Friend’s statement today. The work she has done on defending this country from foreign interference, and on protecting British nationals under threat of Chinese state propaganda and influence, has been impressive, from her work on the Foreign Affairs Committee to her work in the Department on protecting British nationals overseas. May I ask, building on the questions that my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith) rightly asked, what more we are going to do to ensure that this dirty money does not come into our community? She will remember that the work she did on the Committee in 2019 raised the idea of a foreign agents registration Act, which would have exposed to criminal prosecution those who put money into our system to undermine our democracy.
My hon. Friend knows my views on the whole area of foreign agent registration. This is not shining a spotlight any more; this is putting the full beam of transparency on to the dirty money that comes into our country. If I may have your indulgence for a second, Mr Speaker, let me say that for those of us who have spent time reading banking reports and financial reports, following the money that has had the most corrosive influence in some of our institutions has been self-evident. I have already referenced the new legislation that will come forward. This is an area that we are keen to pursue, working with our colleagues across Government, and that is something that my Department will lead on.
I completely agree with the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith). We have to have our eyes wide open about the possible infiltration of British politics by Iranians, Russians and from China. The Government should indeed be sanctioning Chen Quanguo, Zhu Hailun, Zhu Changjie, Huo Liujun and, for that matter, Carrie Lam. They have been undermining human rights both in Hong Kong and in China. However, my biggest anxiety is that we have been saying for a long time—ever since the Home Secretary was on the Foreign Affairs Committee with us and we produced the “Moscow’s Gold” report—that we need to ensure that it is illegal to act as a foreign agent in this country. The Intelligence and Security Committee report says quite clearly in paragraph 1.11 that this still is not the case. I know that she has been consulting on it, but can I just tell her to get a blasted move on?
The hon. Gentleman makes his point very powerfully; no question about that. He knows the work that I am trying to push forward, and the need to bring forward the legislation. We have had the consultation—we have to consult, clearly—and as I have said already, we are going to be bringing forward the legislation. We need the parliamentary time to do this, but we have a busy timetable—[Interruption.] No, we are absolutely working to do that.
I declare an interest as someone who has been banned, not bunged, by the Chinese Government. Mr Speaker, you boldly and rightly banned the Chinese ambassador from coming to the Palace of Westminster when seven parliamentarians and our families were sanctioned by China. Does the Home Secretary agree it will be right that anybody determined to be an agent of influence, or people close to them, have no place coming to this place or any Government Department, sharing our resources and having access to Ministers, parliamentarians and intelligence? Will she also ensure that there is a proper audit of the activities of the United Front Work Department and the harassment and intimidation it brings to members of the Chinese diaspora across the country?
My hon. Friend articulates very clearly the extent to which, across the board both here and in the diaspora, we have been experiencing intimidation and harassment. Having brought forward the scheme to secure British nationals overseas, I heard the most harrowing tales of the most appalling abuse of people from the BNO community who were subjected to all sorts of dreadful things. My hon. Friend is right, and I want to give assurance on a number of fronts. First, not just in relation to Parliament and this House but across Government, I make it clear that we are auditing individuals who could or may have had access to Government and Government Departments over a period of time, as well as auditing meetings that may have taken place not just with Ministers but with officials. These alerts will be shared with officials not just in Whitehall but across the country, including in local government, because we know that the footprint is much wider than just the heart of Government.
I thank the Home Secretary for her statement. It is truly sickening that anyone would attempt to infiltrate our Parliament, circumventing the security of this place and even of Prime Ministers. I am also deeply concerned that, following a massive spike in racist attacks levelled at east and south-east Asians during the pandemic over the last two years, this serious incident may cause an entire community and ethnicity to become targets for abuse yet again. What will her Department do to ensure that does not happen?
I thank the hon. Lady for making that important and powerful point. Of course racism and racist abuse against any community is abhorrent, and we have to work to stamp it out. She is right to highlight the fact that, throughout the coronavirus pandemic—this is a tragedy and awful to know—the south-east Asian community have been particularly vilified and subjected to racist abuse.
It is right that not just the Government but the Home Office, working with our community partners and the police, do everything possible to ensure that any racist incidents are dealt with in the right and proper way and that we give the right protective measures, awareness and support to members of that community.
The granting of a parliamentary pass is a real privilege, and I think that all of us should take responsibility by helping the House authorities and the Security Service when we are looking at people for our own offices, because we have the right to nominate people. We bear responsibility for checking out these individuals. May I suggest, from my previous experience in the military, that one way of doing that is to make each and every one of us sit down with anyone who wants a pass or who comes into our office and jointly go through a detailed form, with very detailed questions, and jointly sign it?
I return to my earlier comments about vetting and the support that is currently in place. We can work together to close down any issues of concern. For the assurance of not just all right hon. and hon. Members but the British public, who will no doubt be watching this debate and wondering how on earth any malign influence could enter the heart of our democracy, we will continue to work collectively to make sure we put all the protective measures in place.
In her statement, the Home Secretary said it was a fact that this kind of activity has become more apparent, but the United Front Work Department has been in existence since 1949, it has a budget of £3 billion a year, and for many years it has used useful fools to propagandise its arguments. May I ask the Home Secretary about universities in particular? There is evidence, certainly from Australia and other countries where tough action has been taken, that the Confucius Institutes are backed by money from the United Front Work Department. Is it not about time we closed them down, and is she content that the Department for Education is responsible for monitoring this?
The right hon. Gentleman referred first to the prevalence of the activity that we are seeing. Yes, there is more activity, for a number of reasons. Technology changes, these threats evolve and develop with time, and tradecraft adapts and evolves as well. That brings me to his second point, which was about our academic institutions. This is the subject of an ongoing discussion. I have been in many committees where it has been raised, including the ISC, and it is being discussed across Government. He asks whether the Department for Education is doing enough. We have spent a great deal of time working with the Department.
Let me say something about the legislation that we want to introduce. We are learning from other countries, such as Australia—indeed, I had a bilateral meeting just last week. This is also part of the work of Five Eyes. A lot of work is being done to look at the institutional impacts of hostile state activity, alongside issues such as foreign agent registration. We want to get this right through future legislation, and that is what we are working on.
This is a really important issue, and one that has lessons for all parliamentarians and all political parties. It seems to me that the crucial issue, as the Home Secretary has highlighted, is the whole business of foreign donations and cash being used for inducements. That is the main reason why, during the 10 years in which I have chaired the all-party parliamentary China group, all our sponsors have been British organisations. Does she agree, first, that we need to get a grip of the whole issue of foreign donations, wherever they come from, because third-party countries can be used as well? Secondly, does she agree that the Committee on Standards needs to look more closely at whether any individual parliamentarian needs to be investigated? Thirdly, does she agree that while of course we must rise to the systematic challenge of China that was raised in the integrated review, we do not wish to avoid any engagement with a nation that is a fellow permanent member of the United Nations Security Council and with which we have much important business to do?
My hon. Friend makes a number of points. In relation to the House, standards and transparency, there are already measures in place, as we know, and greater work will take place, as I have said. Obviously we will support all aspects of Parliament to ensure that when more work can be undertaken on transparency, it will indeed be undertaken. When it comes to China’s role in the world, in multilateral institutions and organisations, and our own values versus the type of values that the Chinese Government are proposing around the world, I think it is fair to say that there are many difficult issues. The House recognises that, as do I as Home Secretary and the entire Government. I have already alluded to issues such as human rights abuses, whether they involve the Uyghurs or even BNOs, whom I have helped assiduously. I have set up a bespoke scheme to ensure that they are safe, despite the measures that the Chinese Government are putting in place. We as a Government will always stand up for what is right in the world. That means international law and the rules-based system, and it means calling out those who have behaved in an appalling and inappropriate way in respect of some of the issues that I have touched on.
I remind the House that I serve as co-chair of the all-party parliamentary groups on Uyghurs and on Hong Kong, and that I am a member of the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China, which is chaired by the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith). I heard what the Home Secretary said about the implementation of the ICS’s Russia report. I hope that there will now be a bit more urgency in the implementation of its recommendations, not least because we expect the publication of the Committee’s China report before too long. May I also say to the Home Secretary that if this is to be done effectively and the House and indeed this Parliament can then present a united front to the outside world, she should now be working with all parties across the House to build the consensus necessary to implement those recommendations?
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his comments. On issues such as national security and intelligence co-operation, he is privy to much of our work and will understand the approach that we take. When it comes to legislation that is under development, we know that there are just so many aspects on which we need to legislate. I have already touched on criminal thresholds and the changing nature of the threats. We are also looking at schemes that are already running in other countries—jurisdictions overseas—to see how we can apply them to our own jurisdiction. It takes time to work through them, but I give the House every assurance that we will work in a collaborative way on these measures.
Two years ago, I wrote a paper on how to bring in a foreign lobbying law into the UK—the Security Minister has a copy of that. With great respect to the Home Secretary, I think that these scandals will just carry on, as they have been doing ever since I came to this place, until we update our espionage laws, until we update our domestic lobbying laws, and until we bring in a foreign lobbying law. The Australians and the Americans—examples I looked at in the paper—have robust laws that cover banking, finance, law, politics and information. We need such laws, because otherwise these scandals will just keep on coming, as sure as eggs is eggs.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. He has also just touched on the wide-ranging nature of threats. That covers, as I have said, institutions, finance and all aspects of direct harm to individuals. As he will know, there is a great deal of work taking place on the economic and financial front. I know that he and the Security Minister discussed much of that as well. Let me assure him that, through the work that we are undertaking—he is welcome to have further meetings with us on this—he will see the way in which we are pulling these strands together and, importantly, learning from some of the other countries to which he has referred, including in his own report. We are looking to create similar schemes, but obviously within our legal framework and within the lawful way in which we can implement them.
The Chinese state holds a 33% stake in Hinkley Point, a 10% stake in Heathrow airport, and a 9% stake in Thames Water. Moreover, a number of the UK’s top universities have ties with Chinese military-linked research centres. For more than 18 months now, Labour Front Benchers have been calling on the Government to undertake a comprehensive audit of every aspect of the UK-China relationship, so that our businesses, universities and public figures are aware of the risks and the threats to our national security. Will the Home Secretary now agree to get this audit underway as a matter of the utmost urgency?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question, and indeed for setting out the context of the question. He highlights the extent to which China has been investing in the United Kingdom across our utilities, various aspects of business, our institutions and academia, as we touched on earlier. The National Security and Investment Act 2021 is a response to many of the things that have taken place, predating many of us in office and some aspects of this Government as well. We must not only constantly keep a watching eye, but review and look at the investments that are coming into the United Kingdom. That work is taking place across the whole of Government.
I thank my right hon. Friend for her statement. The word “covert” has been used quite a bit, but the Chinese Communist party is acting in plain sight. It is threatening the House and it is threatening MPs, and then it sanctions MPs who expose what it is up to. My question to my right hon. Friend is this: where is the organising force of this Government? I respectfully say the same to the Speaker: where is the organising force for this House in defending our democracy and also ensuring that we are not complicit in genocide? What support is being provided to parliamentarians who have been sanctioned, and to those individuals who gave evidence to the Business, Energy and Industrial Committee, especially the World Uyghur Congress, which feels threatened in this country? Why are we not blacklisting firms that are selling our data to the Chinese Communist party and selling us products made by Uyghur slave labour? Finally, will she do everything she can to get the individuals who run those prison camps in Xinjiang sanctioned—in particular, Chen Quanguo?
I thank my hon. Friend not just for her question but for her commitment and the work that she has been leading on. I thank all parliamentarians who have been so vocal on many of the abuses that have been well rehearsed and debated in this House.
On the support for parliamentarians who have been sanctioned, which is a really important point, that is where the House needs to be strong, and we are coming together with the parliamentary authorities to ensure that measures are put in place. She asked where is the might in Government. When it comes to defending democracy—as she will know, because she will have had discussions with my colleagues at the Cabinet Office as well—we lead on this, and, with other Departments, absolutely work in an aligned way on the specific details. A great deal is taking place that covers all aspects of threats. I touched on institutions, education and business, and the National Security and Investment Act, but there are also spaces such as cyber, and direct threats to individuals too.
My hon. Friend asked about sanctions on key individuals, and she is not the only Member to touch on this. I have heard the calls from all Members who have spoken on this issue and I will be raising it with my counterparts in the Foreign Office.
Our relationship with China has rightly evolved from the “golden decade” heralded by former Conservative Chancellor George Osborne. Today Members across the House have raised issues of political interference, university research technology transfer, the diaspora presence here, human rights, and investment in this country. The Secretary of State seems to imply that the work on the National Security and Investment Act will address all these issues, but it will not. Will she commit to the audit of UK-China relations that Labour has been calling for?
A whole raft of work is taking place, not just on China but in relation to the integrated review, and I am sure the hon. Lady has seen that. There will be new legislation coming forward. A great deal of work, much of it unspoken, takes place with our security and intelligence agencies that influences the work on China of Government, Government Departments, and the agencies within Government. It is right that we do absolutely everything we can. New threats evolve, technology advances and tradecraft advances as well. That is why we put very significant investment and resource into not just law enforcement but our intelligence agencies, who inform Government Departments and Ministers in terms of the approaches that we should be using.
The actions of the Chinese Government towards Members of this House, and apparently now within this House, are unforgivable. Will my right hon. Friend meet me to discuss how, within the counter-hostile state Bill, we could put in place protection not only for Members of Parliament but for all British nationals when hostile Interpol red notices are placed on them? Does she agree that every Member of this House should be taking it upon themselves to make sure that we do not act as helpful idiots for our enemies?
My hon. Friend has summed it up quite well. Of course I will be happy to meet her in relation to the legislation that is under development. There is a very poignant note here. We have touched on defending democracy and exposure to Parliament by those that seek to do us harm, but it goes much wider than that, as I have already mentioned: to different institutions, to officials, to civil servants, and across the board. Everyone should be very, very well attuned to the types of engagements that they are having from individuals and what their motivations are.
It goes without saying that we all have to do everything we can to prevent foreign influences from buying their way into our democracy, but there is an opportunity to deal with an aspect of that today—the shell companies that can be used to hide resources of money that is being used for that purpose. Why are the Government not supporting that move today?
Work is under way in looking at that whole area. In fact, the Security Minister is also working with his Treasury colleagues and counterparts. A lot of work has taken place on it, and we are happy to write to the hon. Gentleman directly to give him an update.
Will the Government outline the action that they are going to take to work with UK businesses and universities to ensure that they are more resilient and effective at protecting their data, research and intellectual property from theft and interference by foreign Governments?
I reassure my right hon. Friend that much of that work is under way through the National Cyber Security Centre, which not only constantly puts out alerts across the board but has direct engagement with those institutions. That work, of course, will continue.
Further to the Home Secretary’s answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Eltham (Clive Efford), tonight this House will debate the Elections Bill. Although it is important to ensure that we can close loopholes that allow foreign money to flood into our British democracy, it is also important to ensure that we do not create new loopholes. I draw her attention to the changes that will allow millions more citizens who are overseas to donate to British politics. In the light of what she knows from the Russia report, which the Minister responsible for the Elections Bill has not read, as she told us in Committee, can she say whether the Bill makes us more or less safe from foreign interference in British politics?
It is important to say that the Elections Bill covers a whole range of aspects, such as protecting democracy and electoral reform. It is important to recognise the work that is taking place across the board with the Cabinet Office. I know that Cabinet Office Ministers will speak much more about that later.
I start by paying tribute to our outstanding security services, which keep us safe day in, day out. I have been astounded by the eye-watering sums that some individual parliamentarians received from Christine Lee and organisations connected to her. Does my right hon. Friend think that those individuals should pay back those sums, if not to the people who donated them, perhaps to a charity connected to human rights in China?
My hon. Friend raises some tantalising recommendations, it is fair to say, for consideration. It is important that anyone who has been in contact with the individual or who has received anything from the individual continues to co-operate with our intelligence and security services.
Friday’s announcement came as a surprise to many people, but not to many in Hendon, because it was in fact my predecessor, Andrew Dismore, who established the British Chinese Project in Parliament. He subsequently went on many trips to China and the Hendon Labour party received more than £6,500 in donations. When I was first elected, representatives who I can only presume were connected to this individual came to me and I rejected their overtures. I agree with the hon. Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock) that we need an audit of what has gone on in our political system and in our civic society.
Half a million quid is a lot of money. If I had had that, I would probably have had a deeper scratch and sniff at it. However, by accident or whatever, people are seeking to undermine our democracy. Can my right hon. Friend tell me: are we are going to nick ‘em, are we going to lock ‘em up, and are they going to face criminal charges?
My hon. Friend robustly makes her point. She will have heard in my statement about the issue with the CPS, the approaches that it takes and the criminal threshold. There are ongoing investigations that I cannot comment on, but a review of criminal thresholds will take place, because we need to see action taken against individuals who undermine our democracy.
I would like to add that, quite rightly, we will work closely, between the Home Secretary, the services and this House, to ensure that Members are kept safe and that we put the right protection in place. I also stress from this Chair that I think the sanctions against Members of this House and of the other House are wrong, and the time has come for China to lift them. The sooner it does that, the sooner trust can be rebuilt. While they exist, however, trust will always begin to fail.
Before I call the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture Media and Sport, I want to point out that there were extensive stories in the media over the weekend about the future of the licence fee and the BBC’s funding arrangements. I also understand that the Secretary of State tweeted about the subject—either that or she lost her phone—stating:
“This licence fee announcement will be the last.”
These are very important matters that affect all our constituents, and this House quite rightly has a keen interest in them. Any statement on a substantial policy development should have been made to this House before being made to the media.
I am glad that we have a statement today, but it is not good enough for this House to come second to the media, especially on subjects such as this that are of interest to us all. When the House is sitting, important policy statements must be made here before being made to the media, as required by the Government’s ministerial code. In any event, I will always ensure that the House has the opportunity to scrutinise important policy announcements, and the Government may well find that such opportunities are more frequent and more extensive if announcements are made to the media first.
I have the greatest respect for the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and for the Secretary of State, but can we please ensure that such announcements are made here? If it was leaked and the Secretary of State felt that she had to respond, let us have a leak inquiry, because we have a major colander right across Government, and I do not want to see this happen again.
Thank you, Mr Speaker, and I offer you my personal apology. I actually refused every media invitation both yesterday and today.
Under article 43 of the BBC’s royal charter, I am required to determine a funding settlement for the level of the licence fee for a period of at least five years from 1 April 2022. I am legally required to make my determination as far in advance as possible.
I also highlight that, this year, the licence fee settlement has featured S4C prominently for the first time. In line with the recommendation from the independent review of S4C completed in 2018, the licence fee will be the sole source of public funding for S4C.
Negotiations began back in November 2020, and both I and my predecessor met the BBC on several occasions during this period to discuss this settlement. As part of those negotiations, the charter requires that I assess both the BBC’s commercial income and activities and the level of funding required so that the BBC can effectively fulfil its mission and public purposes. In addition, this Government set out our own relevant factors to consider during the charter review in 2015-16: evasion, commercial income, household growth and industry costs.
As the Prime Minister has said, the BBC is a great institution. It has a unique place in our cultural heritage. Beyond our shores, the BBC broadcasts our values and identities all over the world, reaching hundreds of millions every day. Likewise, the Welsh broadcaster S4C plays a unique and critical role in promoting the Welsh language, and in supporting our wider public service broadcasting landscape.
However, in reaching this settlement, I had to be realistic about the economic situation facing households up and down the country. The global cost of living is rising, and this Government are committed to supporting families as much as possible during these difficult times. Given that climate, we had to think very carefully about imposing any potential increase in the TV licence fee, particularly when any increase would expose families to the threat of bailiffs knocking on their door or criminal prosecution. When it comes to monthly bills, this is one of the few direct levers we have in our control as a Government. In the end, we simply could not justify putting extra pressure on the wallets of hard-working households.
Every organisation around the world is facing the challenge of inflation. I simply do not believe that those responsible for setting household bills should instinctively reach into the pockets of families across the country for just a little more every year to cover those costs. Today, I am announcing that the licence fee will be frozen for the next two years, and will rise in line with inflation for the following four years.
The BBC wanted the fee to rise to over £180 by the end of the settlement. Instead, it will remain fixed at £159 until April 2024. That is more money in the pockets of pensioners and of families who are struggling to make ends meet. We are supporting households when they need that support the most. This settlement sends an important message about keeping costs down while also giving the BBC what it needs to deliver on its remit. The approach to funding will be the same for the BBC and for S4C. However, I can announce that S4C will receive an additional £7.5 million funding per annum from 2022, to support the development of its digital offering. That is a 9% increase, following five years of frozen funding.
We believe this is a fair settlement for the BBC; it is a fair settlement for S4C and, most importantly, it is a fair settlement for licence fee payers all across the United Kingdom. Let us not forget that the BBC will continue to receive billions in annual public funding, allowing it to deliver its mission and public purposes and to continue doing what it does best.
To support the BBC even further in what is a fast-changing broadcasting landscape, the Government will more than double the borrowing limit of the BBC’s commercial arm to £750 million. That will enable the BBC to access private finance as it pursues an ambitious commercial growth strategy, boosting investment in the creative economy across the UK. But as Tim Davie said in his first speech as director-general of the corporation, the BBC must be a “simpler, leaner organisation” that offers “better value” to licence fee payers. We agree with that. Ultimately, this settlement strikes the right balance between protecting households and allowing broadcasters to deliver their vital public responsibilities, while encouraging them to make further savings and efficiencies.
The licence fee settlement is only one step in our road map for reform of the BBC. In the last few months, I have made it clear that the BBC needs to address issues around impartiality and groupthink. Those problems were highlighted definitively by the recent Serota review. The BBC’s own leadership rightly recognised those findings in full and committed to deliver all the review’s recommendations in its 10 point action plan on impartiality and editorial standards. I have had constructive discussions with the BBC about those issues in recent months. The BBC now needs to put those words into action. It needs to convince the British public that those changes are being made, and to provide regular and transparent accounts of its progress.
We will shortly begin the mid-term review of the BBC’s charter, which will consider the overall governance and regulation of the BBC. A key part of that review will look at whether the BBC’s action plan on impartiality has, in fact, materially contributed to improving the organisation’s internal governance.
It is also time to look further into the future. As any serious commentator will tell you, Mr Speaker, the broadcasting landscape has changed beyond all recognition over the past decade. We are living in a world of streaming giants, on demand, pay per view and smart TVs. Technology is changing everything. Some 97% of homes already have superfast broadband. A family in Cumbria can stream five different movies in five different rooms in their house at any one time, and our gigabit roll-out is transforming those networks even further. More than 65% of UK households now have access to the fastest connection on the planet.
As the tech has changed, so have audience habits, particularly among younger viewers, so it is time to begin asking those really serious questions about the long-term funding model of the BBC and whether a mandatory licence fee with criminal penalties for individual households is still appropriate. As we have said before, we will therefore undertake a review of the overall licence fee model. Those discussions will begin shortly.
The BBC has been entertaining and informing us for 100 years. I want it to continue to thrive and be a global beacon in the UK and in the decades to come, but this is 2022, not 1922. We need a BBC that is forward-looking and ready to meet the challenges of modern broadcasting; a BBC that can continue to engage the British public and that commands support from across the breadth of the UK, not just the London bubble; a BBC that can thrive alongside Netflix, Amazon Prime and all its other challengers that attract younger viewers. The licence fee settlement represents a significant step in that journey and in our wider reform of the BBC.
I look forward to continuing to work with the BBC and others across the industry over the coming years to secure the future of these vital British services. I commend this statement to the House.
I completely agree with you, Mr Speaker, that it is a disgrace that an announcement of this importance was not made to Parliament first. I also look forward to the leak inquiry that you mentioned.
May I take this opportunity to congratulate the Secretary of State on coming top of the teacher’s pet list? She was the first Cabinet Minister to tweet support for the Prime Minister; she was the first to volunteer to do a broadcast round; and now she has been the first to throw up a distraction and find someone else to blame for the Prime Minister’s disintegrating leadership: the BBC’s reporting, of course.
The licence fee deal must be fair to fee payers while ensuring that the BBC can do what it does best. There should be no blank cheques. However, the Government claim that this is all about the cost-of-living crisis. I mean, pull the other one! What is it about the £13.57 a month that marks it out for such immediate and special attention to address the cost of living, over the £1,200-a-year increase in energy and household bills or the £3,000-a-year tax increases that the Culture Secretary’s Government have imposed?
Is the licence fee really at the heart of the cost-of-living crisis, or is this really about the Government’s long-standing vendetta against the BBC? Now it is part of Operation Red Meat to save the Prime Minister from becoming dead meat. Apparently, negotiations with the BBC had not even been finalised when the Culture Secretary gave the details to a Sunday newspaper on the very weekend when the Prime Minister’s position was most in peril? I leave it to you, Mr Speaker, and others to judge the timing of that.
The Culture Secretary has proven today that Conservatives may know the price of the licence fee, but not its value. The last time they targeted it, the over-75s paid the price. What assessment has she made of the impact of the two-year freeze on BBC output and commissioning and on the wider creative industries more broadly? Is she happy to become the Secretary of State for repeats? [Interruption.] Oh, there’s more coming—there is lots of fun to be had with this, don’t worry.
This is not enough red meat for the Culture Secretary. She will not stop until her cultural vandalism has destroyed everything that is great about Britain. Vandalism is exactly what it is to tweet on a Sunday—with no notice, discussion or thought—the end to the BBC’s unique funding, without any clue about what will replace it.
Perhaps the Secretary of State will explain how the BBC will continue valued services that just would not be commercially viable. First, how can it continue to support local journalism where so many have recently failed? In many areas, the BBC is the last local news desk standing.
Secondly, how would a commercial-only BBC be able to play such a crucial role, as the BBC has, in levelling up and growing the creative industries across our regions and nations, from Cardiff to Salford and elsewhere? The Government are silent on that one. I support the increased funding for S4C, but the Government claim to support the Union, so what assurance can the Secretary of State provide for the continuation of distinct broadcasting in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland when there is no licence fee?
Thirdly, would the Secretary of State’s cut-back BBC be able to continue with the world service and its global soft power, which her Government’s review described only last year as
“the most trusted broadcaster worldwide”?
Finally, what would happen to BBC Learning, BBC Bitesize, and children’s educational programming, which, frankly, did a much better job than the Government, who could not even provide iPads, in getting high-quality education into children’s homes during lockdown?
The impartiality of the BBC is crucial to trust in it. By explicitly linking charter renewal to the BBC’s editorial—[Interruption.]
Order. Quite rightly, I wanted silence for the Secretary of State. I expect the same respect to be given to the shadow Secretary of State. To those voices that I keep hearing, I know who is behind the mask. If you want to go out early, do not make me help you on your way.
I know that the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis) is actually a big fan of mine but he is just trying to hide it behind his mask.
The impartiality of the BBC is crucial to trust in it. By explicitly linking charter renewal to the BBC’s editorial decisions, the Government sound more like a tinpot dictatorship that a healthy democracy. The BBC creates great quality, British-produced programming, from royal weddings to “Strictly Come Dancing” and great British drama, as well as championing new music. It is at the cutting edge of harnessing the digital age. Of course it needs to change with the times and review its output and reach, but it is a well-loved and trusted British treasure, and it is the envy of the world.
The Government are in trouble, however. The Prime Minister is casting around for people to blame, and the Culture Secretary has stepped up to provide some red meat. Well, it will not work. This is not how the future of our jewel in the crown and the cornerstone of our world-leading creative industries should be determined. She will have a fight on her hands if she wants to destroy it.
I think there were about 30 questions in that statement so I will address the top points. First, it is nobody’s intention to destroy the BBC. In fact, I completely agree with the hon. Lady that it is a beacon, but the BBC licence fee is not a small amount of money for families across the UK who are working hard but struggling to pay that bill, and who face bailiffs at their door or a magistrates court appearance. Who are we to say that it is a small amount of money? That is a disgrace. It is a significant sum, and it is also regressive. Whether getting by on minimum wage or on a multimillion-pound presenter’s salary, we fork out the same amount of money. That is not right. Only those who have not faced hard choices weekly on what they can and cannot afford for their families would claim that that was a small amount of money. As a point of principle, we cannot add to that bill at a time when every family faces pressure on their wallets.
Would the hon. Lady like to indicate from a sedentary position whether she supports freezing the licence fee for two years and helping those hard-pressed families? [Interruption.] Is that a no? The hon. Lady is shaking her head. She does not support freezing the licence fee to support those hard-pressed families who need every bit of help in the face of rising global energy costs and rising pressures from inflation. The hon. Lady has declined to help those hard-working families. What we are saying is that moving forward, we need to decide, discuss and debate. Bring it on—everybody in the House, let’s discuss what a BBC in 2027 will look like. It is not a policy; we are announcing a debate and a discussion. Let’s all get involved positively.
May I say to my right hon. Friend that I am not impressed by the process or the proposal, and I do not think it necessarily leads to progress, either? I would be grateful to know whether there was an assessment of alternatives, when they were put to Cabinet Sub-Committees, when the Cabinet considered the proposal and why it is that this is the one thing on which a Government Minister will claim that we cannot have any kind of increase because people are short of money.
Other things that the Government run are linked to the retail price index or the consumer prices index, and it seems to me that it would be better to have a discussion in the House on whether we should have a moderated increase during the remaining years of the charter. If she did not say that this is the last time that there will be a charter with a subscription, will she please put the options in front of the House for people like me who say that if the choice is between the United States or the state, public broadcasting on the BBC and Channel 4 is better than having everything go to some of the big media people around the world who would not maintain the kind of BBC that we have had for the past 100 years?
The decision on what the future funding model looks like is for discussion. Some of us may not even be here by the time 2028 arrives, but it is up for discussion, and that is what we need to decide. I have the greatest respect for the Father of the House—he knows that; I have known him for 20 years—but I honestly cannot agree that the BBC can just continue to ask for more money from the British public year after year. I do not agree with that premise. Do not be under any illusions: the BBC will continue to receive billions of pounds, even under this settlement. It will get £23 billion of public money over the course of the charter to 2027. We cannot justify, in the face of rising inflationary pressures and increasing global energy prices, going to the British public and say, “Pay more. If you don’t, a bailiff will be at your door.”
I thank the Secretary of State for an advance copy of the statement, not that we needed it; she shared her thoughts with Twitter. Plus ça change. We all know that the timing is to distract from the Prime Minister. The Secretary of State claims that the move will protect pensioners from court cases, but that argument is disingenuous nonsense. It was this Conservative Government who abolished automatic free television licences for the over-75s. If pensioners are struggling with the BBC fee rate of 43p a day, imagine how they will cope with the cost of a Netflix or Sky subscription model. Everyone knows it means less programming at a greater cost.
The Secretary of State has spoken about exploring the options for the BBC, but in reality I suspect her mind is well made up. She let that slip in the Select Committee when she said to me:
“How do I even know if the BBC is going to be going in 10 years?”
Some custodian of public service broadcasting. The hostility towards the BBC and its future does not stem from a desire to protect pensioners, but rather from a visceral loathing of the Prime Minister’s critics. The Tory right hates the BBC almost as much as it hates Channel 4. That is why the Culture Secretary, a doting prime ministerial loyalist, is so determined to destroy both. She does not want to see Krishnan Guru-Murthy lead presenter of Channel 4 News, or Nick Robinson—a former chair of the Young Conservatives no less, and now lead presenter on the “Today” programme—pin down the Prime Minister or his slippery apologists. She knows, does she not, that the Tory right wants the broadcast media to be as sycophantic as most of the print press, offering fawning adulation to their leader. If the BBC is felled, and Channel 4 privatised, free speech will be the victim, and we know—do we not, Mr Speaker?—that the result will be yet more obsequious, unquestioning news.
Speaking strictly personally, I welcome the freeze, and the overt commitment to wean the BBC off the licence fee. As Lord Grade said on the “Today” programme this morning, nearly £160 is nothing to Gary Lineker, but it is a lot to our constituents. I and the House would like more details please about whether the licence fee will stop in 2028, or be phased out. The latter, in my view, gives the best chance of preserving the BBC’s status in our national culture. How will moving to alternative funding models work given, first of all, the paucity of broadband coverage, with old technology such as Freeview being embedded in the system? Will the central Government funding that has been mooted stand up legally, and also measure the key issue of impartiality?
I thank my hon. Friend for his comments and support on the freeze, but I take issue with the point about paucity of broadband. Some 97% of homes in the UK have superfast broadband—[Interruption.] As I said, 97% of homes have superfast broadband, and we are rolling out gigabit. As I said in my statement, someone in a house in Cumbria can download five videos—five movies—in five different rooms in the house. We do not have a paucity. On whether the licence fee will be phased out and what a future funding model will look like, those discussions and analyses have not even begun, but all Members of the House should, and will, be part of those discussions. I imagine that the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee will be doing very important work on the issue moving forward, in terms of establishing a future funding model, and that work will continue in the future.
Will the Secretary of State say what impact assessment she has done of the impact that the change will have on households if fees were increased? What will be the impact on services provided by the BBC as a consequence of these freezes to its income, on top of the 31% that it has had cut from its income over the past 10 years? How will that affect the services provided by the BBC, and how will they survive her plans for the BBC?
Like many of the best things in this country, the BBC licence fee may not work in theory but works really well in practice, as shown by very low levels of evasion. There are, of course, many alternative ways of funding it, but as the DCMS Committee, which my right hon. Friend referred to, concluded last year, the Government either need to
“come out with a strong alternative to the BBC licence fee that it can put to Parliament, or strongly support the current model for at least the next Charter period (2028-2038).”
Does the Secretary of State have that alternative on offer?
We abolished the radio licence fee in 1979 and moved to a TV licence fee, so I am not against moving towards an internet licence fee or something like it. But we need to know the details, the thresholds and the amount of money that would be raised. Does the Secretary of State accept that her announcement that this would be the last licence fee, without going through the consultation first, was reckless?
As the Secretary of State will know, the Select Committee report that my right hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Damian Green) just referred to acknowledges in its very first recommendation that
“the Government will need to act…to ensure that the public service broadcasting system remains sustainable in…today’s…global media market.”
In that sense, I am glad that we are having the debate, even if I am a little unclear about where it came from this weekend.
Given that the Select Committee report is also clear that the Government need a credible view on what any alternative to the licence fee might be and on what their vision is for the future of public service broadcasting, what are my right hon. Friend’s instincts as she kicks off this welcome national debate?
My instincts are let’s start the discussion. Let’s have a look at the—[Interruption.] That is what I am starting, Mr Speaker—unless, of course, Members of the House would just like us to decide and not have the debates and not have the discussion. That is where we are going: we are going to start that discussion—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Manchester Central (Lucy Powell) is speaking from a sedentary position; perhaps she would like to confirm whether she supports the freeze to the licence fee? A yes or a no—a nod or a shake—would be great. No? There we go.
Despite the fact that the removal of the free licence for the over-75s was a result of her own party’s actions, the Secretary of State’s tweet yesterday indicated that her attack on the BBC was due to the over-75s being threatened with prison sentences and bailiffs knocking on their doors. Yet less than two weeks ago, she told this House that
“no enforcement action has been taken against anyone over 75 years of age”.—[Official Report, 6 January 2022; Vol. 706, c. 131.]
I know that the Secretary of State would not make such claims without evidence. Will she please now share with the House what data she found to support yesterday’s comments?
I accept the need to freeze the licence fee. However, the conversation over the future of the licence fee is far from over. What steps will the Secretary of State take to protect the BBC’s local services, which those who pay for it watch and enjoy, before the knives are sharpened within the BBC?