Skip to main content

Commons Chamber

Volume 707: debated on Tuesday 25 January 2022

House of Commons

Tuesday 25 January 2022

The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock


[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Order. Before we come to questions, I wish to make a short statement in relation to question 5. I am exercising the discretion given to the Chair in respect of the resolution on sub judice matters to allow a full reference to the Northern Ireland protocol.

Oral Answers to Questions

Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office

The Secretary of State was asked—

Middle East

1. What recent discussions she has held with (a) the Government of Israel and (b) representatives of the Palestinian Authority on supporting the peace-building process. (905224)

13. If she will take diplomatic steps to support the creation of an international fund for Israeli-Palestinian peace. (905236)

My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary met the Israeli President Mr Herzog and the Israeli Foreign Minister Lapid during their respective visits to the UK in November. I also recently discussed the situation in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories with Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Roll and Palestinian Prime Minister Shtayyeh.

The Foreign Secretary made clear her commitment to the Abraham accords at the Gulf Co-operation Council-United Kingdom Foreign Ministers’ meeting on 20 December. The UK is working with Gulf partners to help deliver shared prosperity and security for Arabs and Israelis alike. We support the objectives of the US Middle East Partnership for Peace Act and we will continue to engage with the US to identify opportunities for further collaboration. I outlined the UK’s support for increasing dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians at the Alliance for Middle East Peace’s “light the way” gala on 12 December.

Meanwhile, evictions and demolitions continue in East Jerusalem aimed at eradicating Palestinian presence from the whole basin, with a cemetery desecrated to make way for a Jewish national park and new settlements planned that are designed to smash the concept of a two-state solution. When will the UK Government actually take actions to demonstrate that violations of international law do indeed have consequences?

The UK enjoys a close and important relationship with Israel, and that enables us to raise important issues such as settlement demolitions directly with the Israeli Government, which we do. The UK’s long-standing policy is to pursue actions that support the creation of a viable two-state solution, and that will remain the focus of our engagement with both the Government of Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

If anybody wants to see something genuinely positive and uplifting in foreign affairs, they should look at the Abraham accords and the fruit stemming from them in the remarkable growth in trade, investment and people-to-people contact between Israel, the United Arab Emirates and other Arab states. Given the UK’s excellent relations throughout the Gulf region and our bilateral ties with Israel, does my right hon. Friend agree that we are well placed to help foster the growth of the Abraham accords’ fruit? Will he look at how he can encourage other states to embark on the same journey of peace and friendship with Israel?

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right that the UK enjoys excellent relations with all the signatory nations to the Abraham accords. Indeed, I was in Bahrain when the first ever Bahraini ambassador to the state of Israel was announced, and it was genuinely a joyous occasion. The UK will continue to support the Abraham accords and greater joint working between the states in the region. Ultimately, that is the best way to pursue peace, prosperity and freedom for all.

In 2017, I had the opportunity to visit Israel and Palestine, and what I saw in the west bank really shocked me. We must never see a return to last year’s violence. Will the Minister renew our commitment to an international fund for Israeli-Palestinian peace, based on the model of the International Fund for Ireland, and update the House on our international efforts to make the fund and lasting peace a reality?

The hon. Lady makes an important point about the relationships between Israelis and Palestinians. The UK has, does and will continue to support and facilitate people-to-people contacts and cross-community contacts as well as ensuring that the Government of Israel and the Palestinian Authority also have a good working relationship. That is and will remain a foundation stone of our foreign policy in the region.

With regard to ALLMEP—the Alliance for Middle East Peace—we have had discussions with the United States of America, and I have had discussions with representatives of the organisation. We will continue to explore what role the UK might play in the future delivery of that.

The successful conclusion of peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians is key to bringing peace to the region, yet Hamas publicly condemn peace negotiations and has committed itself to Israel’s destruction. Does my right hon. Friend agree that until Hamas disarms, Israel cannot be expected to negotiate with a terror group which calls for its very destruction?

Hamas has not proven itself to be good for the Palestinian people. The simple truth is that its aggressive posture and threats to eradicate the state of Israel have harmed relations between Israelis and Palestinians. We wish to see a viable two-state solution with Israelis and Palestinians living side by side in peace, prosperity and freedom. Hamas has long been a roadblock to that. We call upon it to set aside its violent ways and pursue a path to peace.

Afghanistan: Humanitarian Situation

2. What recent discussions she has had held with international partners on the humanitarian situation in Afghanistan. (905225)

6. What diplomatic steps her Department has taken to help secure safe routes for refugees as part of the Afghan citizens resettlement scheme. (905229)

11. What diplomatic steps she is taking to help secure safe routes in third countries for people seeking to leave Afghanistan. (905234)

The UK has supported more than 3,400 people in leaving Afghanistan since the end of the Operation Pitting evacuation and we will continue in our efforts. The UK is contributing £286 million in humanitarian assistance to Afghanistan in this financial year and we have disbursed more than £145 million already so far. My noble Friend Lord Ahmad visited Qatar on 17 January to discuss these issues directly with the Qatari Government.

What was a monumental military miscalculation has turned into a humanitarian catastrophe, with Gordon Brown—bless his cotton socks—warning of 23 million people, including women and children, facing starvation. That is 97% of the population below the poverty line. What are the Government doing to ensure that aid bypasses the Taliban and reaches those in need, who include constituents of ours—British nationals who are still trapped in that nightmare, harbouring hopes of getting home?

As I said in response to the hon. Lady’s initial question, the UK has committed £286 million and already distributed £145 million. We recognise that there is a pragmatic need to have a relationship of some sort with the Taliban. However, our conditions for that have always been clear. They need to renounce violence, not be a haven for terrorism and not take part in reprisal actions. Aid diversion is always an important consideration and that is as true in Afghanistan as it is anywhere else. We are seeking to support the Afghan people, not prop up the Taliban regime.

Yesterday I heard the shocking story of a refugee stuck in Iran, unable to leave because he has been told he needs to register with the Iranian Government. There have been cases of refugees in Iran being returned to their countries of origin, so he is too scared to register. Will the Minister act to ensure that cases such as that do not occur, secure a safe route and meet me to discuss this special case?

I invite the hon. Gentleman to write to me about the case. My noble Friend Lord Ahmad speaks with countries in the region that border Afghanistan. The House will be unsurprised to hear that our relationship with Iran is more strained than the relationship we have with other countries in the region. Nevertheless, we recognise that land routes across to Iran are an exit route for some people who are in fear of their lives in Afghanistan. It is not possible for me to comment on individual cases without more details.

Afghan citizens at risk cannot move, because without safe destinations and third countries to escape to, they will not be safeguarded by the specific measures in place against many of the risks they are experiencing in Kabul. With the Afghan citizens resettlement scheme inoperable and Government promises to protect minoritised groups and human rights activists and campaigners in tatters, what discussions is the Minister having with the leadership in third countries to guarantee a safe destination? How is the UK contributing to the safety of those people at this time?

I refer the hon. Lady to the answers I have already given on this issue. We have supported more than 3,400 people in leaving Afghanistan since the end of the Operation Pitting evacuation in August. That includes more than 2,200 Afghan citizens who either worked for the UK or worked in support of the UK’s objectives, or who are vulnerable—female judges, LGBT activists and injured children, for example. The UK is absolutely playing its part and we will continue to liaise with other countries, both in the region and those bordering Afghanistan, to help alleviate the terrible situation that Afghans find themselves in.

The all-party parliamentary group on Afghanistan invite the Minister’s Department to give an update on what representations the Department has made to international counterparts about the force used by the Taliban against those protesting against deteriorating living standards, in line with the comments by the hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell).

I will pass my hon. Friend’s comments to our noble Friend Lord Ahmad, who I know takes these issues incredibly seriously. He visited New York in October to hold events with Afghan women and to speak in the UN’s annual debate on women, peace and security. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has visited a number of countries in the region and beyond to solicit their support in alleviating the situation in Afghanistan.

The Open Doors world watch list identifies Afghanistan as the most dangerous place in the world to be a Christian. Will the Government put the protection and support of Christians around the world and in Afghanistan at the heart of their foreign policy?

Freedom of religion or belief remains an incredibly important strand of UK foreign policy. The plight of Christians in Afghanistan is dire, but indeed that reflects the plight of a number of other religious and ethnic minorities in Afghanistan. A cornerstone of our foreign policy is our pursuit of genuine freedom for all, and freedom of religion or belief is an important part of that—without it, is anyone really free at all?

Many of my constituents have connections to people stuck in Afghanistan who they believe would have had a pre-existing visa entitlement to come to the UK. What steps will the Government take to ensure that those people who would have been entitled, had the Afghan Government not fallen, can come and join their families in Wycombe?

The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office and the Home Office have maintained a close working relationship on such issues throughout this situation. Entitlement for foreign nationals to settle in the UK is ultimately a Home Office competency, but we will continue to work closely with the Home Office on such issues.

The situation facing millions of Afghans right now is unimaginable—starving families lining up for food; parents selling their babies and handing teenage daughters to the Taliban for cash; a mother so desperate that she sold her kidney and two of her daughters. Yet amid this horror the UK Government slashed the overseas aid budget, actually cut their support for Afghanistan from 2019 levels and, with only two months to go, disbursed only half of the humanitarian aid and assistance they promised. With 5 million children now on the brink of famine, will the Government show leadership by releasing the remainder of the pledge and taking the action proposed by the UN, Save the Children and former Prime Minister Gordon Brown by convening a humanitarian pledging conference to raise the £5 billion needed? Failure to act will cost more lives.

I remind the hon. Lady that the £286 million that we have allocated to Afghanistan was put in place in the autumn, and we are still ensuring that the money is distributed. She made the important point that doing so quickly can sometimes come at the cost of doing so carefully. We want to ensure that our money reaches the people who are in need and is not diverted to support the Taliban regime. The UK remains at the forefront of international efforts to support Afghanistan, and I am proud of the work that my Department and the whole UK Government have done.

Supporting Democracy

4. What diplomatic steps her Department is taking to support free and democratic states from threats by autocratic regimes. (905227)

10. What steps her Department is taking to help strengthen democracies and open societies across the world. (905233)

Democracy and freedom are at the heart of our Foreign Secretary’s vision for a network of liberty that will use partnerships in trade, security and technology to promote democratic values. We are committed to working with partners and allies across the world, including civil society, to support more open, inclusive and accountable societies.

After the fall of the Soviet Union, the people of Ukraine chose for it to become a free and independent country, which, rightly, was supported by the United Kingdom. At this time of Russian threat, can the Minister confirm that she will do all she can to ensure that it stays free, whether by diplomatic, economic or military means?

The UK and our allies are unwavering in our support of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. Any Russian military incursion into Ukraine would be a massive strategic mistake and would come at a severe cost to Russia. We are working with our partners to develop a package of broad and high-impact sanctions that target the Russian financial sector and individuals. We are also providing a range of support to enhance Ukraine’s defensive capability.

I saw in Sarajevo last week how well appreciated is the Government’s robust response to the secession threat from Republika Srpska and Bosnia and Herzegovina, and how appreciated is the Westminster Foundation for Democracy’s five-year programme that works closely with missions there on more inclusive community and political leadership. That valuable programme comes to an end at the end of March and does not have certainty of further funding, so will the Minister do all she can to expedite budget decisions so that it can continue across the region?

I thank my hon. Friend for his work as chair of the Westminster Foundation for Democracy and for all the good that that organisation does globally, including in Bosnia and Herzegovina. We are proud supporters of it and especially of its work to increase the participation of women and young people in politics. On funding decisions, the Foreign Secretary has been clear that we intend to restore funding to women and girls and to humanitarian programmes. We will finalise budget allocations shortly.

When it comes to democracy and supporting civil society, one of the best things that the Government have done is establishing the Jo Cox memorial grants, which fund precisely the sort of women’s empowerment organisations that strengthen civil society, and with which Jo worked throughout her life. Through the Minister, I ask whether the Foreign Secretary would consider meeting me and colleagues from all parties who supported the creation of those grants and would like to discuss the future of them with her.

We have made it clear that we have a clear role to promote freedom and democracy. That is a core mission of the FCDO. I did not know Jo Cox as, sadly, I arrived in the House after she had left us, but her legacy lives on. I am sure that the Foreign Secretary would be very happy to meet those who work to keep that legacy going.

There is common agreement across the House that Britain’s soft power is of inestimable value, so why are the Government placing the British Council in a situation where it may be forced to close 20 of its offices?

As I said, we are looking at budget allocations for the years ahead now that we have a three-year settlement review from the Treasury. Budget decisions have not yet been made.

Time and again in this House, the Labour party has raised the issue of the failure to act on the Russia report. The Government have been painfully slow at bringing forward the action that we need to implement its recommendations. With mounting threats of Russian hostility, can the Minister tell the House what discussions she has had with colleagues across Government on the proposed implementation of the counter state threats Bill, the new and refreshed Computer Misuse Act 1990, the reform of Companies House and the register of property ownership, so that London will no longer have the reputation of being the laundromat for the dirty money that comes out of such regimes?

Mr Speaker, happy Burns night to you and to colleagues later on.

“O wad some Pow’r the giftie gie us

To see oursels as ithers see us”

would be a useful thing for those on the Treasury Bench to remember at the moment.

The best contribution that we, however we define ourselves, can make is to help other countries with resilience against disinformation, and I would praise to the rafters the Resist toolkit run out of the Cabinet Office. We already have a set of measures that we can use to assist other countries to combat disinformation. Could the Minister assure us that this will be beefed up, better financed and rolled out internationally? It is a very good domestic toolkit, but we could do a lot more to it, because plenty of other places really need it.

The integrated review made it very clear that the UK will be a responsible and democratic cyber-power. We intend to use our global network to strengthen the case for open, peaceful and secure digital space, pushing back against those who misuse technology or spread disinformation to undermine democracy.

Could the Minister reassure the House that there are no other Members who have received hundreds of thousands of pounds of funding without question from hostile actors, and what confidence the public can therefore have in this Parliament?

I am sure that all Members of the House have been watching these stories very closely. Let me just say that the UK does want to have a mature, positive relationship with China based on mutual respect, but we will not sacrifice our values or our security.

Northern Ireland Protocol: Dispute Resolution

5. Whether she has plans to change the dispute resolution mechanism in the Northern Ireland protocol. (905228)

The fact is that the Northern Ireland protocol is not working. We need to make sure that the dispute resolution mechanism under the protocol is in line with that in the UK-EU trade and co-operation agreement and end the role of the European Court of Justice as the final arbiter.

I am grateful to the Foreign Secretary for that reply, but as she will know, article 5 of the protocol requires Northern Ireland to maintain regulatory alignment with EU rules governing manufactured and agricultural goods; there are about 287 in all, set out in annex 2. Do the Government agree that that regulatory alignment should continue, and if so, what type of dispute resolution mechanism does the Foreign Secretary think would be appropriate to determine whether those rules are in fact being applied?

Our view is that the type of arbitration mechanism we need is the type in any standard trade agreement, which is an independent arbitration mechanism.

Recent Office for National Statistics data shows the Northern Ireland economy recovering more quickly from the pandemic than any other part of the UK, and a survey by Queen’s University has shown that, while people remain concerned about the impact of Brexit, the majority feels that the protocol is providing a unique trading position compared with Great Britain. While there are clearly some specific issues to be resolved, does the Foreign Secretary not recognise that demands to exclude the ECJ are confrontational, and suggestions that article 16 removes the protocol in its entirety are misleading and are creating unrealistic expectations within Northern Ireland?

I am taking a constructive approach to these negotiations. I was in Brussels yesterday meeting Maroš Šefčovič, and I do believe there is a deal to be done that helps protect peace and political stability in Northern Ireland and enables the free flow of goods between GB and Northern Ireland. Our officials are negotiating all this week, and I will be seeing Maroš Šefčovič again next week to make positive progress.

I welcome the Foreign Secretary’s constructive approach to the negotiations, but two years on from Brexit, can she confirm that disputes cannot go unresolved forever and that this situation has to be brought to an end sooner rather than later?

I completely agree with my hon. Friend on the urgency of this situation, which is why we have been holding intensive talks with the EU to resolve the very real issues there are for traders in GB and Northern Ireland. We do need to make sure that we maintain the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the United Kingdom and that we fix this issue once and for all.

Is the Secretary of State aware that confidence in Northern Ireland that the Government will take decisive action on this and do it quickly has evaporated? We need to see that action taken immediately.

I assure the hon. Gentleman that I am working very hard with my EU counterparts to resolve the difficult situation in Northern Ireland. We need to sort this out as soon as possible, and that is why we are in intensive negotiations. I believe that there is a deal to be done and that that is in the interests of the people of Northern Ireland, the people of Great Britain and the people of the EU.

We have learned that viruses and many infectious agents do not stick to international or, indeed, domestic borders. That is all too true in the human setting, but also in the veterinary setting. With that in mind, what discussions has my right hon. Friend had with the EU about the possibility of a veterinary or sanitary and phytosanitary agreement?

My hon. Friend makes a good point about biosecurity. Of course, that is a key priority for us and the European Union. We are exploring all options that maintain the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the UK. I completely recognise what my hon. Friend says: those issues cross borders, so of course we need to work with our EU partners to sort them out.

Ukraine: Diplomatic Efforts

8. What diplomatic steps she is taking in response to Russia’s threats to Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. (905231)

I hosted Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba in London in December. I speak to him regularly and I will be visiting Ukraine next week.

A further military incursion by Russia into Ukraine would be a massive strategic mistake and come with a severe cost to Russia’s economy, including co-ordinated sanctions.

I am pleased to hear about the bilateral discussions between the UK and Kyiv, but with the threat of serious conflict looming over Europe, what meetings has the Foreign Secretary held in recent days with the Prime Minister to discuss the crisis? Can she expand on the intellectual heft or geostrategic advice he applied to her at those meetings?

I met the Prime Minister last night to discuss this very serious issue. He had a call with President Biden, President Macron and Chancellor Scholz to continue to co-ordinate our efforts. Yesterday, I met the Secretary-General of NATO to talk about the contribution that the United Kingdom is making. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that the UK is at the forefront of putting pressure on Russia and supporting our friends in Ukraine.

I appreciate that the Secretary of State may be limited in what she can say in response to my question. The use of propaganda and deceit in warfare is as old as the Trojan horse, but nowadays it can reach millions in a matter of minutes from heavily disguised sources. Will the Secretary of State assure the House that the Government acknowledge the wide-ranging nature of the Russian threat and tell us what role UK experts are playing with NATO allies and Ukrainian counterparts to combat the use of powerful and far-reaching misinformation campaigns?

The hon. Lady makes the very important point that, as well as the risk of an incursion into Ukraine, there are efforts by the Russian Government to destabilise and undermine democracy. That is why we released intelligence to expose Russian attempts to install a puppet regime in Kyiv. We will continue to expose their playbook, including false flag operations, disinformation and cyber-attacks.

I very much welcome my right hon. Friend’s comments. She will know that the Foreign Affairs Committee was in Ukraine last week. I would like to place on record my thanks to Ambassador Simmons and her impressive team in Kyiv, who are serving our country extremely well. We are off to Sarajevo tomorrow. Does my right hon. Friend agree that we are seeing an arc of instability from Moscow, designed to put democracies on the back foot and make Putin’s regime look normal in a world of corrupt thieves? Will she reiterate her stance in the defence of freedom and promise to speak to our German friends about their decision not to support Ukraine with the sale of military weapons from Estonia, which was so recently denied?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right about the undermining that Russia is seeking to do of European democracy, including Ukraine, and Russia’s activities through Belarus and its activities in the Balkans. That is why we have appointed Sir Stuart Peach as our envoy to the Balkans and why I hosted a meeting of all the Balkans Ministers to discuss this issue. We need all our allies to step up. The UK is providing defensive weapons to Ukraine, we are supporting Ukraine economically and we are helping to train its armed forces. We need all our allies to get behind that, because ultimately, we do not want to see a Russian incursion into Ukraine, which would lead to huge loss of life and a huge quagmire, and we need to make Russia absolutely clear about that.

To build on my right hon. Friend’s answer, what assessment has her Department made of Russia’s other surrounding nations and their territorial and sovereign integrity? I am thinking especially of Azerbaijan and Armenia. Are the actions going on in Ukraine being assessed in respect of whether the west would take any intervention on Russian invasion in those areas?

My right hon. Friend makes a very good point. We are working with allies and partners across the world because this is a threat not just to Europe, but to broader global stability. I was at a meeting of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe in November where many of those countries were represented, and I saw very strong statements against further Russian action in the region.

As we stand here today, peace in Europe faces its greatest threat in decades. Our darkest moments in history have taught us that aggression must be challenged and bullies must be confronted. Putin’s imperialism must be met with our utmost strength and resolve. Twenty-eight years ago, Britain, America and Russia promised that if Ukraine gave up its nuclear weapons, its sovereignty would be assured. Putin has already run roughshod over that by annexing Crimea and backing separatists in the Donbass. Now he threatens Ukraine with full invasion. I ask the Secretary of State: at a time when arms control treaties have unravelled and non-proliferation efforts are under great strain, what message would it send to other countries in the world with nuclear ambitions, such as Iran, if those assurances to Ukraine were worth nothing?

The right hon. Gentleman makes an extremely good point. In the 1994 Budapest memorandum, Ukraine agreed to give up its nuclear weapons in exchange for the continued protection of its sovereignty and territorial integrity. It is absolutely right that this is about not just European security, which is incredibly important, but the response we will see from other authoritarian regimes around the world if Putin is allowed to get away with what he is seeking to do. That is why it is important that we work with allies, from Japan to India to Australia, as well as the United States and our NATO allies, to strengthen our resolve and our security and to make it absolutely clear that none of these regimes will succeed.

We owe it to the people of Ukraine to send a simple and united message: we support their sovereign democratic right to choose their own destiny and we will stand with them in this struggle against Putin’s reckless aggression. And we should send a firm, unambiguous message to Putin that any aggression will come at a high price, so will the Secretary of State assure me that any Russian military incursion or attack will be met with a full package of sanctions, unprecedented in depth and severity, cutting Russia out of the global financial system, blocking rouble conversion, halting exports of semiconductors and finally clamping down on the oligarchs who hide their ill-gotten wealth in this capital city?

I strongly agree again with the right hon. Gentleman. We will make sure that we have the wherewithal to have a very severe package of sanctions in the case of any Russian incursion into Ukraine. We have been working with allies such as the United States, France and Germany to put that together. That is why we brought people together at the G7 in Liverpool, where we said that there would be severe economic consequences of an incursion into Ukraine. It is important, at this moment, that we see all our partners around the world step up. We are leading by example, but we want to see others follow that example.

Security Partnerships

9. What recent diplomatic steps her Department has taken to help strengthen security partnerships with nations around the world. (905232)

We are building a network of security partnerships to protect our people, our partners and our freedoms. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has already outlined a number of interactions that she has had at multilateral and bilateral level, which echo conversations that the Prime Minister had last week. The Foreign Secretary was in Australia alongside the Defence Secretary for talks with our Australian counterparts, and on 12 January I was at the NATO headquarters alongside European and Atlantic allies for the NATO-Russia Council. As the Foreign Secretary has made clear, we are working through those partnerships to advance our interests from a position of strength.

I am very proud of the firm support that the UK has shown for Ukraine as we see increasingly unstable and threatening behaviour from Russia. Can my right hon. Friend confirm that as Russia’s threatening behaviour towards Ukraine continues and intensifies, he and all Ministers are working with our global partners to encourage further support for Ukraine?

I can absolutely confirm that our support for Ukraine is discharged not only bilaterally, with training teams and defensive military equipment support, but with work at a multinational level through the Quad, which I attended recently, through NATO and through other international institutions such as the G7, to ensure that all countries support the principles of self-determination, territorial integrity, peace and freedom.

As the world becomes more dangerous and more uncertain, we need to tackle the root causes of security threats to the UK, namely poverty and instability overseas. I therefore find it very concerning that spending allocations for the conflict, stability and security fund show huge reductions to aid programmes around the world for this financial year: a 63% drop in funding in the middle east and north Africa, for example, and a 53% reduction in the western Balkans. Does the Minister agree that the Government’s cuts throughout overseas development are compromising UK security and global stability? What will the Government do to address that?

We have spoken at length in this House about the economic impact that the country and indeed the world have felt from covid, which has forced us temporarily to reduce our expenditure on official development assistance. We have had confirmation that we will return to 0.7%. With respect to the historical reductions in key areas such as humanitarian aid and women and girls, we will ensure that that money is returned to the budgets, as the Foreign Secretary has made clear. The process for future budget allocations has not concluded; until it has, any talk about figures can only be speculative on the hon. Lady’s part.

While all eyes have been on Ukraine, my right hon. Friend will be aware that as a result of recent Russian naval activity, Sweden has taken the decision to send hundreds of troops and arms to the island of Gotland in the Baltic. What are the Government doing to support Baltic and Nordic countries, which feel very much in the frontline, against Russian aggression?

I can confirm that the Defence Secretary has been doing a lot of work in that area. The Foreign Secretary was in Riga not so long ago. We absolutely recognise that our northern partners, the Baltic states and the Scandinavian countries, are in a geographically difficult and vulnerable place. I can assure my hon. Friend that our support for freedom, democracy and peace extends to that part of the world, as well as to more high-profile issues such as those in Ukraine.

Iran: British Detainees

12. What diplomatic steps she is taking to help ensure the release of detained British citizens during negotiations with Iran. (905235)

I can assure the right hon. Lady and the House that we remain committed to securing the immediate and permanent release of those British dual nationals unfairly detained in Iran. We continue to work together with our international partners. The Foreign Secretary pressed the Iranian Foreign Minister on 8 November for Anoosheh Ashoori, Morad Tahbaz and Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe to be released and to return home to be with their families as soon as possible. I raised their cases with my Iranian counterpart, Deputy Foreign Minister Bagheri Kani, on 11 November. We continue to call on Iran to do the right thing and allow the immediate release and return home of these British dual nationals.

I thank the Minister for his answer, but that was in November. Anoosheh Ashoori is on hunger strike and he needs diplomatic protection. He is innocent. Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, six years a hostage: innocent. Morad Tahbaz, an environmentalist: innocent. Mehran Raoof, a trade unionist: innocent. Will the Minister commit to working closely with the United States special envoy Robert Malley to bring these innocent hostages home?

I would remind the right hon. Lady of the point I made before. Our Department works tirelessly, daily, in our attempts to bring these people home and we do so not because questions are raised in the House or sent to us in correspondence but because it is the right thing to do and it is what we are committed to doing. We work tirelessly with international partners, both in the region and across the Atlantic, to bring about the release of these people, whose detention is completely illegitimate and completely wrong and is the sole responsibility of the Iranian Government. They are the ones who are in the position to release these people and we call on them to do so immediately.


14. What diplomatic steps the Government are taking to help support a negotiated peace settlement in Yemen. (905237)

A negotiated political settlement is the only way to bring long-term stability to Yemen. On 10 January, I hosted the UN special envoy for Yemen, Hans Grundberg, here in London and reiterated UK support for the UN-led peace process to drive forward the political process in Yemen. We urge the parties to engage constructively in negotiations to end this conflict, which is bringing death and suffering on an appalling scale.

I thank the Minister for that answer, but this brutal conflict is in its ninth year. Recent deadly coalition-led attacks on children and civilians have rightly been condemned by the UN General Secretary. As the UK is the penholder at the UN for Yemen, does he believe that the continued sales of arms from the UK and the recent withdrawal of UK aid are helping or hindering diplomatic efforts?

The money that the UK has allocated and distributed in Yemen has helped to protect lives and feed children, and I am incredibly proud of the work we have done. The fact of the matter, however, is that we cannot properly help the people of Yemen until this conflict has come to a conclusion. That is why we continue to work with the United Nations special envoy, Hans Grundberg. I remind the hon. Lady that aggression has been perpetrated by the Houthis in Yemen and across the borders in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. We call upon the Houthis to lay down their arms and engage with the peace process so that we can bring peace to Yemen and properly help the Yemeni people to lift themselves out of poverty.

The situation in Yemen continues to deteriorate, and the attacks are ever more brutal. Just last week, three children who were out playing football were among 60 people killed when missiles struck Hodeidah and Saada. Does the Minister agree that this demonstrates the importance of re-establishing the group of eminent experts? What fresh efforts does he believe are needed within the UN Security Council to end this terrible conflict?

The recent loss of life in Yemen, and in the nations surrounding Yemen that have received attacks emanating from the Houthis, is terrible. Ultimately, the best thing we can do as a leading member of the international community and the penholder at the United Nations is to push for peace in Yemen. I have in the past done that directly with the Houthi leadership, and we have done it indirectly through countries in the region that have some degree of influence with the Houthis. We also have these discussions directly with the Government of Yemen and the Governments in the surrounding countries. It will remain a priority for this Government to pursue peace through the United Nations special envoy and others so that we can set that country on a road to recovery and out of the hell that it currently finds itself in.

We were all horrified by the atrocities of the airstrike on Friday, which led to dozens of deaths and was another horrific incident in this conflict. It adds to one of the world’s greatest humanitarian disasters, with an estimated 20 million Yemenis in need of assistance. As the Minister knows, the Saudi air and sea blockade means that hardly any humanitarian aid is getting through, so I ask him: what influence are the Government using to bring about a peace conference to end the blockade, so that people on the brink of starvation can get the humanitarian aid they need?

I have in the past spoken both with the Government of Yemen and with countries in the region to ensure that fuel supplies that are needed, both to transport grain and also for grain milling for bread, have been made available, and I am pleased that the UK intervention at those times facilitated the distribution of aid to Yemen. The hon. Gentleman raises the issue of the loss of life that has been experienced, and I remind him that the only way to meaningfully reduce the loss of life, both within Yemen and in the nations around it, is for the parties to get to the negotiating table—and that means the Houthis. We will continue to support the United Nations special envoy in his work to bring that about.

Topical Questions

Together with our allies, we are standing up to Russian aggression. We will not tolerate their campaign of hybrid warfare aiming to destabilise democracies across eastern Europe. We will continue to expose Russian disinformation, including attempts to install proxies and puppets. The UK is at the forefront of providing support to Ukraine, with defensive weapons and through economics and trade. Any Russian military incursion would be a massive strategic mistake, with severe costs. The Ukrainians will fight and Putin should beware of an intractable quagmire.

As talks continue in Vienna on reviving the joint comprehensive plan of action nuclear deal, there are fears that Iran gets ever closer to a nuclear weapon. Will my right hon. Friend please convince the House of what is happening to maintain peace in the middle east?

This negotiation is urgent, and progress has not been fast enough. We continue to work in close partnership with our allies, but the negotiations are reaching a dangerous impasse. Iran must now choose whether it wants to conclude a deal or be responsible for the collapse of the JCPOA. If the JCPOA collapses, all options are on the table.

Some 9.4 million people are going hungry in northern Ethiopia, airstrikes are killing civilians and the blockade is being used as a political weapon. I am glad that the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs, the hon. Member for Chelmsford (Vicky Ford), met Abiy Ahmed last week. Did she make it clear that preventing humanitarian access is an abuse of human rights, that airstrikes on refugees are completely incompatible with UK partnership, and that a real dialogue to enable peace must start now and include the Prime Minister’s opponents?

The hon. Lady is absolutely right: we need to secure peace in Ethiopia. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs was in Ethiopia and she has been extremely active on the issue. I have also discussed it with the Ethiopian Foreign Minister and urged them to join peace talks.

T3. When I was in Ukraine last week, the senior Government officials and military commanders wanted me to express the sincere gratitude that that country has for the support the United Kingdom is providing. What assessment has my right hon. Friend made of the involvement of the regime in Belarus in supporting Russian threats to Ukraine? (905250)

The world is aware that Russia is on manoeuvres both on Ukraine’s borders and across Belarus. We continually develop our assessment of the situation. I can only repeat what my right hon. and hon. Friends have said about the massive strategic mistake that Russia would make were it to invade Ukraine’s territorial borders.

T2. Just 5.5% of people in low-income families are still vaccinated against covid-19. That means disaster for so many nations. Why are the Government blocking the patent when the in-country manufacture of the vaccine could save millions of lives? The Government’s donation is simply a drop in the ocean. (905249)

Throughout the pandemic our top priority has been to save lives. We firmly believe that the best way to do so is to support the world’s leading scientists. There is no evidence that the intellectual property rights waiver would help to save lives. The TRIPS—trade-related aspects of intellectual property rights—waiver proposal would dismantle the international IP framework that helped to produce the vaccines at an unprecedented pace.

T4. [R] People in Dudley South and across Britain with vivid memories of the famines that followed civil war in Ethiopia in the 1980s will look with horror at recent reports from that country. What update can my hon. Friend the Minister give on the situation in Ethiopia and the prospects for a lasting peace? (905251)

My hon. Friend is right that the war in northern Ethiopia has caused huge suffering, but there are some welcome signs that it may now be possible to move towards peace. I visited Ethiopia last week and met Prime Minister Abiy. I urged him not only to work towards peace talks but to ensure that humanitarian aid flows to those who need it. We in the UK stand ready to support all efforts towards finding peace.

T5. The country will be astonished by the Minister’s answer on the TRIPS waiver. If it is right that nobody is safe until the whole world is vaccinated, how is it that the United States, for example, thinks that the waiver would allow vaccines to be produced in the right places for the right people but we are one of the very few countries sticking out to prevent it? (905252)

This is the country where the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine was developed. It has been supplied at cost around the world and I have seen it being produced in the Serum Institute in India, as well as in Mexico. The fact is that we have supported the roll-out of vaccines around the world and donated to developing countries.

T8. How does the Foreign Secretary believe the role of the Commonwealth could and should be developed in future, now that the UK has left the EU? (905256)

The Commonwealth is a vibrant and valued network of countries and we are deeply committed to it. Commonwealth nations are crucial friends in the delivery of the Foreign Secretary’s vision of a network of liberty and the need to plant the flag for freedom around the globe. We look forward to hosting the Commonwealth games in Birmingham this summer and to attending the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Kigali in Rwanda soon.

T6. Members of the all-party parliamentary group on Fairtrade recently met Bismark, a Fairtrade producer from Ghana who attended COP26 to explain how climate change was affecting his crops. As we approach Fairtrade fortnight, will international development Ministers outline how a farmer like Bismark will be able to access the climate-adaptation finance that the UK pledged at COP26 and that will support producers, tackle climate change and improve food security? (905254)

We are soon to launch the developing countries trading scheme, which will help developing countries to get better access to the UK market. We have also just launched British International Investment, which will help developing countries with their climate change adaptation by supporting their investment.

T9. With the NATO leadership set to change this September, does my right hon. Friend think it apposite that the leadership should go to a representative from a country that actually meets its defence spending commitments, which are vital to repel aggression from states such as Russia? (905257)

The UK is proud to be a long-standing—indeed, founding—member of NATO and to consistently meet its 2% target. NATO remains one of the most important institutions for Euro-Atlantic security and it is incredibly important that its future leadership recognises not only traditional threats, as we now see on Ukraine’s borders, but emerging threats such as cyber, space and other realms of conflict.

T7. Last week saw the first eviction of a Palestinian family in Sheikh Jarrah in east Jerusalem in five years. Demolitions of Palestinian homes in the Occupied Territories have increased by 21% in 2021, and currently, 200 more Palestinian families have eviction orders and are at risk of being displaced. The forced evictions of Palestinians must stop, so will the Minister condemn these demolitions, and what action will he take to stop further evictions of Palestinian families in Sheikh Jarrah? (905255)

I forgive the hon. Lady for not being a devoted follower of my social media feeds and statements; I have already put out a statement on those demolitions. As I said in response to an earlier question, the UK enjoys an incredibly strong relationship with Israel. That allows us to bring up difficult and sensitive issues such as this, but also enables us to work with Israel on areas of mutual interest and concern, including ultimately a viable two-state solution.

I very strongly welcome the strength and determination of the message that the Foreign Secretary is sending to Mr Putin to deter any possible aggression against Ukraine; it is just right. However, are there any circumstances under which she could foresee British troops being deployed in a combat role, defending Ukraine?

As the Defence Secretary said, it is unlikely that that would be the circumstance, but we are working very hard to make sure that Ukraine has the defensive weapons that it needs; that it has the training that it needs—we have trained 20,000 Ukrainian personnel—and that it has the support of the international community. We are pushing our allies very hard to make sure that they are offering similar defensive support.

The Foreign Secretary has concluded a trade deal with Australia, which advantages those who produce their food using animal welfare standards far worse than those met by Cumbrian farmers or British farmers in general. So when will those of us who care about farming and animal welfare standards get a chance to vote on that deal?

Unlike the hon. Gentleman, I have faith in Cumbrian farmers, and I believe that they are world-beating, and Cumbrian lamb is world-beating. So I encourage the hon. Gentleman to get behind the new trade deal that we are negotiating—the CPTPP. Why does he not go out to the Asia-Pacific region and promote his farmers, rather than talking them down in the House of Commons?

The Minister will be aware that I have raised repeatedly the case of Maira Shahbaz, a 14-year-old Christian girl forcibly abducted, raped and forced into a marriage. Will the Minister assure me, given that we give hundreds of millions of pounds in aid to Pakistan, that we are insisting that aid is contingent on reform of the blasphemy laws and making sure that there are no forced conversions in that country?

My right hon. Friend will understand why I will not go into specific details of that case. I can assure him that in our bilateral relationships with Pakistan and other countries where we are aid donors, we also ensure that we use that relationship to promote the values not just of tolerance but of protection of religious freedom. That is as true in Pakistan as it is in other areas, and it is an issue that my noble Friend Lord Ahmed raises bilaterally.

What more evidence does the Foreign Secretary need to take sanctions against General Silva, the chief of the defence in Sri Lanka, to follow the American Government in those sanctions for war crimes?

We have regularly engaged with the United States and other partners on issues relating to Sri Lanka. The UK Government keep all evidence and potential designations under the UK global human rights sanctions regime under close review, guided by the objectives of the sanctions regime. We would not normally speculate about future sanctions targets, as to do so would reduce their impact.

The Chinese Communist party is expanding its grip over the people of Hong Kong, destroying the freedoms and liberties defended by the British Crown for 100 years. Will the Foreign Secretary join me in condemning China for its flagrant misuse of power and its undermining of the rule of law?

We continue to make clear to mainland Chinese and Hong Kong authorities our strong opposition to the national security law, which is being used to curtail freedoms, punish dissent and shrink the space for opposition, free press and civil society. As a co-signatory to the joint declaration, we will continue to stand up for the people of Hong Kong.

It is good to be back after my brush with covid.

This could not be more topical; this morning we have seen crisis around the world, particularly in the problems on the border with Russia. Let me say, as the Labour Member who has been in the House the longest, that when we have such a crisis, we expect to see the Prime Minister not on the phone or on video calls, but out there visiting, talking, organising and showing leadership—showing that we care and that we lead from the front? Please, knock on No. 10 and get him out of there, and let us hope he does not say, “Crisis? What crisis?”

We have been leading on the response to Ukraine. Only last night, the Prime Minister was on a call with the President of the United States, the President of France and the Chancellor of Germany. We are showing leadership in providing defensive support to Ukraine and putting in place the toughest economic sanctions in the case of a Russian incursion. I encourage the hon. Gentleman to put his points to the Russian President.

Downing Street Parties: Police Investigation

(Urgent Question): To ask the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster to make a statement on the status of the investigation into Downing Street parties following the statement from the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police.

As the House will be aware, earlier today the Metropolitan Police Commissioner confirmed that the Metropolitan Police Service will be investigating alleged breaches of covid-19 regulations within Government. This is a matter for the police, and the House will understand that I am not in a position to comment on the nature or content of the police investigation. I have previously made it clear from the Dispatch Box that the Government recognise, and I recognise, the public anxiety and indignation that it appears as though the people who have been setting the rules may not have been following the rules. I would like to repeat that sentiment today.

That is why the Prime Minister asked for a Cabinet Office investigation to take place. The terms of reference for that investigation, led by the second permanent secretary at the Cabinet Office and the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, Sue Gray, have been published and laid in the Library of this House. Those terms made it clear that, as with all internal investigations, if during the course of the work any evidence emerges of behaviour that is potentially a criminal offence, the matter will be referred to the police and the Cabinet Office’s work may be paused.

As the House would expect, there is ongoing contact between the Cabinet Office investigation and the Metropolitan Police Service. However, the Cabinet Office investigation will continue its work. I would urge the House to wait for the findings of that investigation and for the police to conclude their work. That is important to allow the work to take place unimpeded and to protect the rights of all involved. I must emphasise that matters relating to adherence to the law are properly a matter for the police to investigate, and the Cabinet Office will liaise with them as appropriate.

Finally, I can confirm that the findings of the investigation will be provided to this honourable House and made public. The House will understand that there is a limit to what I can say, given that this is an ongoing investigation. I also cannot comment on what is now an ongoing police investigation, and therefore I ask that Members of the House let the investigation run its course and do not pre-empt its conclusions.

Thank you for granting the urgent question, Mr Speaker.

Well, well, well: all too soon, the Paymaster General and I find ourselves here once again—and once again, rather than dealing with the cost of living crisis and its impact on families, we are talking about scandals in Downing Street. [Interruption.] Conservative Members can chunter from their positions, but they are allowing this to happen.

For two months, Cabinet Ministers have been working hard to make Sue Gray the most famous woman in Britain. In response to every question asked about the poor conduct, bad behaviour and rule-breaking culture that this Government have overseen, the Ministers have repeatedly told us that Sue Gray is the answer. Now there is a police investigation, and the terms of reference for Sue Gray, set by the Prime Minister himself, are clear:

“if…any evidence emerges of behaviour that is potentially a criminal offence, the matter will be referred to the police”.—[Official Report, 9 December 2021; Vol. 705, c. 561.]

So it seems, Mr Speaker, that potential criminality has been found in Downing Street. What a truly damning reflection on our nation’s very highest office.

So I ask the Paymaster General these questions. Given this morning’s announcement, when will the Sue Gray report finally be published? Can the Paymaster General assure the House that the Sue Gray report will be published in full, not just as a summary, and will the accompanying evidence be provided? Can he clarify for the House what Sue Gray and her team will be doing while the police conduct their investigation? Can he tell the House whether the decision to delay the publication of the Sue Gray report was made by the Metropolitan police or the Government? Given this Government’s record on lost phones and missing messages and minutes, can he assure the House that all evidence from the Gray inquiry will be properly held by the Cabinet Office? Can he clarify whether the Chancellor, as a resident of Downing Street, is co-operating fully with the Gray inquiry and the police investigation, and whether he has been interviewed?

Just weeks ago, the Prime Minister told this House, “there was no party”. How does the Paymaster General explain that? I know that across the country, people know enough. They have made up their minds about the Prime Minister. When will his party catch up?

I will agree with the right hon. Lady’s first point. Her first point was “Why are we not talking about the cost of living?” Well, the Prime Minister is working on the cost of living right now, and he is working on Russia-Ukraine. The Prime is doing those jobs, and he is focused on those areas.

As for the right hon. Lady’s second point, I think she forgets that the word “potentially” was used. The reality is that no conclusions can be drawn from the fact that the police are investigating the matter. If the right hon. Lady looks at the statement issued by the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Cressida Dick, she will see that the commissioner stressed that the fact the Met is investigating does not mean that the result will necessarily be the issuing of fixed penalty notices in every instance and to every person involved; so “potentially” is a key and operative word.

The right hon. Lady wants to jump to conclusions, but she has asked about the details of the investigation, and those are of course matters for the Cabinet Office and for the police. They are not details of which I would be informed. I would not expect to be informed, because the police have independent operational assessment of matters that are before them, and they will conduct the matter as they see fit.

When Europe stands on the brink of war and there is a cost of living crisis, can we please have a sense of proportion over the Prime Minister’s being given a piece of cake in his own office by his own staff?

On Burns Day, it is probably appropriate to start with the line:

“The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men

Gang aft agley”.

Or perhaps it should be a line from that other great Scottish writer, Sir Walter Scott:

“O what a tangled web we weave,

When first we practise to deceive!”

Now that the police are finally involved, I do wonder how much more personal humiliation and indignity the Prime Minister will be prepared to endure. Perhaps more importantly, how much more of this embarrassing circus are his colleagues prepared to tolerate before they act to remove this man from office? This is not going to go away; the wound is not going to heal miraculously by itself. I am sure we all know that there is an awful lot more still to come out.

I ask the Minister: at any time has anyone from the Sue Gray inquiry contacted the Metropolitan police? When did the Cabinet Office first learn about the police investigation? When does he now expect the Sue Gray report to be delivered? Finally, can he assure this House that when it is, it will be delivered in full, will be open and will be completely transparent for every Member of this House to access?

The hon. Gentleman asks me questions about the police investigation. I have no knowledge about that—nor would I expect to, nor should I have knowledge about it. He asks about the publication. I have already indicated that the findings of the investigation will be published.

I accept that the Paymaster General may not be able to answer this question now, but will he assure the House that either he or other Ministers will keep the House posted about whether the Prime Minister will be interviewed by the Metropolitan police—either as a witness or as a potential suspect in this criminal investigation?

I thank my right hon. Friend for his question but of course the police will conduct the investigation, as they do in any case, entirely at their own discretion. I would not expect to be informed about that, nor would the House expect me to be.

There have been newspaper reports of Downing Street staff being told to delete evidence of parties from their phones and staff fearing to give evidence to the Sue Gray inquiry for fear that the PM will see it and that there will later be recriminations. Now that there is a police investigation, will the Paymaster General make it clear throughout Whitehall that all evidence must be given to the police? Will he undertake to publish a report and evidence so that we can all see at the end of this affair that that has been done?

If I may say so, I think one can draw a conclusion from the fact that in their liaison with the Metropolitan police, the Cabinet Office has, according to the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, satisfied her that an investigation should take place. That should give comfort, to those who might otherwise doubt the investigation, that it is a proper and due-process investigation.

As in all cases where due process should be followed in the interests of fairness, it would not be appropriate to presuppose any result of a police investigation—or, for that matter, of an independent Cabinet Office investigation. As I have already said, I would expect the findings to be published in due course.

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree with me that it is a long-standing convention in this House that when there are independent inquiries and investigations, they are allowed to run their course and that prejudgments are not made in this House? Given that that is the case and that it would be advisable for that convention to be carried on, does he also agree that we really need to concentrate on matters that really affect our constituents on a day-to-day basis—cost of living, energy prices and so on—as well as on the fact that 100,000 Russian troops are on the Ukrainian border, which threatens global instability?

My hon. Friend makes a powerful point about the pressing international situation, particularly as regards Ukraine and Russia. I know that the Prime Minister is focused on that matter.

I also understand the anxiety and indignation of many who are frustrated by the reports that have been emanating over the course of many weeks about alleged gatherings in the Downing Street area. The reality of the matter is that the Prime Minister is focused, as he has been focused, on delivering for this country as he has succeeded in delivering vaccines and on the manifesto commitments. He will continue that laser focus.

It is clear that the Government are now in total meltdown. We have story after story about covid laws being broken in No. 10, revelations about hon. Members having constituency funding threatened by Government Whips, and now a Prime Minister and his staff under police investigation. In the midst of a pandemic and a cost of living crisis and with Europe on the brink of war in Ukraine, we cannot go on with this chaotic Government. Does the Minister accept that the Prime Minister’s authority is in tatters? Will he advise his boss to do the right thing in the national interest and resign?

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his advice on propriety, but he will forgive me if I decline to follow it.

Does the Minister agree that anyone taking a view on the Prime Minister must take into account the fact that he has presided over the most successful vaccination programme in the world, which is taking us out of the pandemic ahead of most other countries in the world?

My right hon. Friend is right, and we would be in lockdown now were it not for this Prime Minister.

Is the Prime Minister not simply compounding his previous terrible mistakes by continuing to deny culpability, leading to an unnecessary and expensive police inquiry, when he could do the decent thing and resign?

I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman would expect fairness to apply to all in this country, whether that is to one of his constituents or to one of mine, and I would hope and expect that he would not wish to see unfairness for anyone. What we are doing at the Cabinet Office is co-operating with a police investigation. That will carry on and take its natural course, as police investigations invariably do, in an orderly way, unencumbered by interference from the Executive.

Would the Paymaster General consider the Metropolitan police, or any other police force, looking into the activities of the Leader of the Opposition with his beer party? As far as I can see there is no difference. What does he say to that?

My hon. Friend makes an interesting point, but, of course, police investigations and how they are conducted are operationally independent. I am sure that they will have heard what he said.

Does the Paymaster General not think that it would be a good idea to set up a police special operations unit room in No. 10 Downing Street, because, while the police are looking at this case, they could perhaps look at cash for honours, cash for access, personal protective equipment for pals, paid advocacy, breaking the ministerial code, and all the other general Tory badness?

I have to say that a quick Google analysis of the SNP would not be particularly edifying. Despite noises off, this Prime Minister is focused on what matters to the British people and it is right that those matters conclude in an orderly way.

I welcome the investigation. We can see the absolute terror on the faces of the Opposition. For them, this is partygate, but they know that they are up against a Prime Minister and a Government who have brought youth unemployment to its lowest ever level. This Government, led by the Prime Minister, brought us the AstraZeneca vaccine and ensured that we had the most successful booster programme in the world. That is why there is absolute terror on the Opposition Benches that we should focus on policy in this place and on the priorities of the British people. That is why the Opposition are so desperate to land this even as the inquiry is going on.

I agree completely. The Prime Minister also welcomes the announcement by the Met police today, because alongside the Sue Gray inquiry, which he set up, we will offer the public the clarity that they need to help draw a line under these events.

My Middlesbrough constituents have obeyed the rules, done exactly what the Prime Minister demanded of them and abided by the laws that he initiated. Does the Paymaster General not understand that the continued refusal to do the right and decent thing only serves to damage our democracy and tarnish our reputation across the world? That will not be turned around until such time as the Prime Minister goes and brings this shameful business to an end.

Does the Paymaster General agree that compared with being interviewed under caution for flogging peerages, as Tony Blair was, trying to prosecute a former First Minister of Scotland despite being told that there was no evidence or taking money from Chinese spies, eating a piece of birthday cake is a relatively minor offence?

Given that the police investigated and intervened on several parties across London on 20 May, can the Paymaster General explain why they did not intervene when enormous amounts of booze were being trundled into No. 10 with enormous amounts of noise? Does that make him fear some sort of fudging of the investigation? Perhaps another police force should intervene.

I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman chooses to criticise the Metropolitan police; I do not think that has the support of the House. I ask him to accept that the position is that the Metropolitan police and the public servants who work in Government work hard, including during a period of major crisis for the country, in the public service. They are devoted to their work and they seek to serve the public in the best way they can. Assumptions ought not to be made of police or civil service impropriety. The matter is subject to investigation and I ask him to accept the default position that persons are innocent unless otherwise proved—that is how it works.

Last night, NATO announced that it was putting troops on standby in response to the situation in Ukraine. In April, gas prices are forecast to rise by more than 50% when the energy price cap lifts. People in Redcar and Cleveland want to move on from the debacle on parties and focus on the real issues. Will the Paymaster General assure me that the Cabinet Office will publish Sue Gray’s report as soon as it can?

I completely agree with my hon. Friend’s position. I would say that the report of Sue Gray—the findings of that report—will be published as soon as they are available.

The right hon. Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) invited us to have a sense of proportion in relation to the matter. I refer him to one of the many emails that I have had from constituents and I ask the Paymaster General what he thinks about it. My constituent said that if he had not followed the covid restrictions, like the Prime Minister:

“I would have driven…to Norfolk to see my mum after she broke her leg and had to stay in a nursing home. I would have taken a trip south to prepare her house…I could have helped cook and clean for her while we found suitable local carers. I would have sung happy birthday to her from the hospital grounds while she recovered from covid she caught from a carer. I could have been closer when she died a few days later, 82 and alone in a ward of strangers.”

What should I say to my constituent? Should I tell him to have a sense of proportion or will the Paymaster General apologise to him and all the other people across the United Kingdom who kept the rules when the Prime Minister and his mates did not?

I would invite the hon. and learned Lady to offer her constituent my abject sorrow and condolences for his loss. There is nothing that I can say to bring back that which is lost, but what I can say is that the Prime Minister, in the exercise of his functions over the course of the pandemic, has brought the country out of a dire situation into a situation where we are now leading the world in our arrangements around the pandemic. He will continue to focus on those priorities.

I welcome the Metropolitan police inquiry and express surprise that it was not announced earlier. In the Paymaster General’s previous role as Attorney General, he will have been more familiar than most with the covid-19 regulations and the fixed penalty notices that have been issued. Can he confirm that they are summary offences normally investigated within six months and that the burden of proof is beyond reasonable doubt?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his question. As he can imagine, I would prefer not to get into the legal position. What I would say is that I expect, as everyone would, the police to conduct their investigation expeditiously and at a time that is, no doubt, in accordance with their own procedures and protocols. He is right to raise the fact that there will be tests—evidence and the burden of proof—and it is always right that a person in this country is innocent unless or until they be proven guilty.

What assessment has been undertaken of the damage that partygate has on our economy and inward investment, and on the trust of the British people in this Government?

The hon. Member asks what assessment has been made. I invite the House to note that this Prime Minister held a Cabinet meeting the day after his own mother died, was working just weeks after he was released from intensive care in hospital and has led the world on AstraZeneca and vaccine availability. We would still be in a lockdown situation if it were not for him. I invite her to accept those points as those that really focus the mind.

Given that there are ongoing investigations by Sue Gray and the Metropolitan police at this time, and we await the results, does my right hon. and learned Friend not agree that this urgent question is a vexatious waste of everybody’s time?

Order. I am sure the hon. Gentleman is not questioning my judgment. I am the person who grants urgent questions. I am sure he would like to withdraw the question; it does not need answering.

One of my constituents, Billie-Jean, got in touch. Billie-Jean was in university accommodation during the pandemic and was fined £100 for having a gathering of 11 people during that time. Billie-Jean says that, while they were being fined and disciplined by the university, the Prime Minister

“was living a lush life of champagne and party nibbles”.

Would the Minister like to apologise to my constituents and everybody else for having done one thing in Downing Street while people in the world outside did quite another?

Her constituent, in order to have been fined, would either have had to admit wrongdoing or have been found guilty in a court of law on the evidence before that court. The situation is completely different. No such state of affairs exists as far as No. 10 or the Prime Minister is concerned.

I fought in bloody conflicts in Europe. At the moment, we are seeing hundreds of thousands of Russian troops on the Ukrainian border, and could see the bloodiest conflict for generations. We are wasting time here. [Interruption.] Sorry, Mr Speaker. Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that every time the Opposition call for our Prime Minister to resign, it only strengthens Putin’s hand and destabilises negotiations?

My hon. Friend is quite right to focus on what matters around the world and to the Prime Minister of this country.

Every day, in my constituency of Birkenhead, parents are going hungry so that their children can eat, while elderly people are living in freezing homes because they simply cannot afford to put their heating on. Will the Minister concede that the Government are more interested in their own internal turmoil than in helping those most in need? Will he now join the calls for the Prime Minister to step aside so that we can finally begin to get grips with this Tory cost of living crisis?

Last night, the food critic Jay Rayner, quoting the late, great Julia Child, said

“a party without cake is just a meeting. Johnson’s staffers supplied a cake. Ergo, it was a party.”

Does the Paymaster General agree not only with Jay Rayner, but with the late, great Julia Child?

If while at work someone eats cake for 10 minutes, I do not think that conclusions can be drawn from that, so the hon. Member is putting the cart before the horse.

Is it not the case that those on the Opposition Benches are in cahoots with the media to undemocratically depose this Prime Minister not because he is an electoral liability for us, but because he is an electoral liability for them?

One has to wonder. The Labour party’s focus on gatherings two years ago, as alleged, rather than on Ukraine and the Russian troops massing on the border of Europe, is quite extraordinary. What we are doing is focusing on the matters that really make a difference for the people of this country, while the police and the Cabinet Office continue their investigations.

Given that it has taken six weeks since the Daily Mirror first broke the story of parties in Downing Street to have a police inquiry, what consideration have the Government given to appointing Pippa Crerar as the commissioner of the Metropolitan police?

Over the last few days, I have been out and about with my constituents in Great Grimsby, and they are sick and tired of listening to this constant thread. They are very happy that essential workers have gathered together for two years to get us through the pandemic. Will my right hon. and learned Friend send a message to the Prime Minister that they support his policies and want him to carry on getting on with the job?

I will gladly send the Prime Minister that message. In fact, my hon. Friend’s message is very similar to those that the Prime Minister is hearing from colleagues around the House, and that is the focus that matters.

Does the Minister really think that it is in the interests of our country—our country, not the Prime Minister—that the Prime Minister remains at the helm, giving public health advice to the people of Newcastle and security reassurances to the people of Ukraine, while mired in scandal and facing criminal investigations?

I do, passionately. I think that the Prime Minister is the best leader for this country, and he would bring to shame any leader that the Labour party might put forward for this country. The Prime Minister knows what matters and focuses on the matters that are important to the British people. This investigation is also important, but it is being conducted by the Cabinet Office and the Metropolitan police. We recognise the upset that has been caused by these allegations, which are being properly investigated.

I know that I myself, colleagues and constituents were shocked by the alleged lockdown rule breaking by none other than the Leader of the Opposition, the right hon. and learned Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer). Does the Minister agree that there can be no hypocrisy and that all sides need to be investigated—after all, those in glass houses should not throw beer bottles?

Order. I am sure that “hypocrisy” was not aimed at an individual Member—surely not. I think that was badly phrased and I will let it go.

Nothing in the law forbade people who were legitimately at work from having a 10-minute coffee break in between meetings, and I am sure that people across the country did that, whether they ate cake with it or not. The reality of the matter is that my hon. Friend’s point is completely accurate.

The Home Affairs Committee has been looking into the consistency of enforcement of covid regulations, because we are well aware that failure to enforce consistently can erode public trust. The Committee will have an opportunity to question the Metropolitan Police Commissioner soon. However, as the police have primary responsibility for criminal investigations in this country, does the Minister think that it would have been much better to pass this on to the Metropolitan police as soon as these allegations came to light, and that we would now be concluding that Metropolitan police investigation and he would have to stop coming to this House to defend the Prime Minister?

I know that the right hon. Lady is a very fair Chair of the Home Affairs Committee, and she will acknowledge that the police have their job to do. It is not a matter for the Government or the Executive to refer matters. That has been done by the Cabinet Office, independently, as part of its investigation. As to the length of the police investigation, we have no idea how long it will be.

It is clearly correct that the police should investigate any suspicions of breaches of the law, regardless of who may be involved. Can my right hon. and learned Friend assure this House and the country that Sue Gray is being left to conduct her investigation independently and freely, and that there are no barriers to her passing on to the police any relevant information she may find on any potential rule breaking?

Yes, I can confirm that. The fact the Cabinet Office has passed matters to the Metropolitan police is proved by today’s news.

Will the Minister explain to his less quick-witted colleagues that the claimed good works on covid are no excuse for breaking the law?

It is absolutely right for there to be a full investigation into these matters, just as it was right for the police to investigate the cash for honours scandal under the Blair Government. Can my right hon. and learned Friend assure me that the police will, of course, be given full co-operation on these matters, just as the Cabinet Office investigation has been?

I can assure my hon. Friend that full co-operation will be accorded to the police as and if they ask for it.

It is quite clear that, even after this, the Prime Minister does not want to leave No. 10 Downing Street, but do we not face the possibility that the UK’s PM might eventually be leaving No. 10 Downing Street in police handcuffs?

On 8 December the Prime Minister told this House “there was no party”. Paragraph 1.3 of the “Ministerial Code” says that anyone who knowingly misleads the House will be expected to resign, so why is the Prime Minister still in his job?

If a group of people take cake for 10 minutes while at work, everyone is permitted a reasonable break as part of their working day. That is one possible interpretation. Ten minutes of eating cake and wishing someone a happy birthday would not a party make, but it is a matter for police investigation, and that is what is now happening.

I thank the Paymaster General for his responses to these questions. It seems like there are new reports of suspected lockdown breaches each day now. I am pleased, however, that the Metropolitan police’s investigation is under way. Will he confirm that any and all findings from these investigations will be disclosed to the media for public reassurance, that this will be the case for all reports of potential breaches that may yet come before Sue Gray’s investigation is concluded and that justice will be done?

I assure the hon. Gentleman that the findings of Sue Gray’s report will be put before this House.

Once again, the Paymaster General has been forced to come to the Dispatch Box to defend the indefensible, and no one is buying it. Honesty, transparency and leadership should be at the heart of this country’s Government, but they are severely lacking. Will the Prime Minister now come to this House to set the record straight and tell us exactly what gatherings and parties he attended at Downing Street? Or better yet, will he just resign?

I know the hon. Lady wishes to make a political point, and it is kind of her to focus on my comfort, but I am not forced to do anything. I am here because I know the Prime Minister is entitled to the same justice as anyone else. It is unedifying to see the Opposition making party political points over this matter. The focus of this Government is on the primary concerns of the cost of living, employment, the economy and the situation in Ukraine and Russia, while the police and the Cabinet Office conclude their investigations.

The police were asked to enforce covid rules across the country and faced difficult challenges in doing so to keep us all safe, issuing tens of thousands of fines to people who broke the rules—even those gathering for birthdays. Does the Minister believe that the Prime Minister is above the law? My constituents are asking why these events took place, disregarding the rules. I say to Conservative Members who have attacked this business that these matters do concern our constituents—they do.

The Paymaster General does not want to speak about the specifics of the investigation. So, for all the dodgy coronavirus contracts, the cash for honours for the Tories, the stated intention to break international law, illegally proroguing Parliament and the many other crimes and misdemeanours of this Government, does he find it a tad ironic that it is the parties in which they demonstrated their contempt for the public that finally prompted the police to investigate?

I remind the Minister that it started with a joke about a fictional party during a dummy press conference. Then there was the faux outrage from the Prime Minister, who was angry about that joke. All the while, there were parties—lots of them—and he was at some of them. There is a mountain of evidence of truth twisting, rule bending and lawbreaking, and it lands at the feet of the man at the top. Why is the Minister still defending the indefensible?

I see that the hon. Gentleman wishes to be judge, jury and executioner, but no one in this House would give him that position. What matters is justice—justice for all—and that will apply in this case as it does in any other.