House of Commons
Wednesday 26 January 2022
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Before we come to questions, I wish to make a short statement. I am exercising the discretion given to the Chair in respect of the resolution on sub judice matters to allow full reference to the challenge to the Northern Ireland protocol and to allow limited reference to active legal proceedings and open inquests in relation to historical troubles-related deaths. As before, reference to those cases should be limited to the context and to the events that led to the cases, but Members should not refer to the detail of cases, nor the names of those involved.
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
Veterans: Protection from Prosecution
Before we begin, I would like to make some brief remarks regarding the upcoming anniversary of Bloody Sunday. This Sunday marks the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday. The killing of 14 people on that day began what was the most brutal and tragic year of the troubles in terms of lives lost. I echo the words of the then Prime Minister David Cameron, who, following the publication of the Saville report in 2010, stood at this Dispatch Box and apologised on behalf of the British Government, describing the events of Bloody Sunday, rightly, as “unjustified and unjustifiable.” It is important that we do not repeat the mistakes of the past, but remember these difficult moments in our history, and come together to help build a better shared future for all the people of Northern Ireland. My thoughts this weekend will be with all those affected.
The Government collectively believe that any system for addressing the legacy of Northern Ireland’s past must focus on delivering for those most impacted by the troubles, including victims, survivors and veterans. We were very clear when publishing the Command Paper that we would engage intensively and widely with stakeholders, including the Northern Ireland parties, before introducing legislation, and that is what we have done and what we are doing. We are reflecting carefully on what we have heard, and we remain committed to addressing the issue through legislation.
Does the Secretary of State agree that if he reflects carefully on the responses to his Command Paper and if he engages with the professionals who have worked on legacy over many years, there is a landing zone for victims and for veterans that will address the grievance industry that has been built up in Northern Ireland off the back of people’s horrendous experiences and will deliver a lasting legacy agreement so that Northern Ireland can move forward?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and I agree with what he says. It is important that we find a way forward that works for the people of Northern Ireland and, as I say, delivers for victims, survivors and veterans; has a lasting ability to move things forward; and ensures that those who still do not know the truth and do not have information about what happened to loved ones will have a chance to get to that truth in a reasonable timeframe.
As a veteran who served in Op Banner, I welcome any legislation that comes forward on this issue. While we wait for that legislation, will the Secretary of State work with the Office for Veterans’ Affairs to ensure that any Op Banner veterans have the support they need?
Yes. Again, my hon. Friend is absolutely right. The Government are unequivocal in our commitment to deliver for all those most impacted by the troubles, including those who served so bravely to protect life and country for people in Northern Ireland. As part of that process, I assure my hon. Friend that we will work closely—and we are working closely—with the Office for Veterans’ Affairs and my hon. Friend the Minister for Defence People and Veterans; in fact, we will be meeting this afternoon.
Can I welcome the Secretary of State’s words at the outset? Fifty years ago this week, the Parachute Regiment were sent to my city to murder 14 people—people who were unarmed, marching for civil rights—[Interruption.] And I would condemn that as well, as well the right hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson) knows. Last weekend, Parachute Regiment flags were flown on the outskirts of Derry. The Parachute Regiment rightly condemned the flying of those flags as a grossly offensive act against the victims of Bloody Sunday, but they have yet to apologise for and condemn the actions of their soldiers on Bloody Sunday in Derry in 1972. Does the Secretary of State think they should?
As I have outlined, as the Prime Minister said at the time and as I have said in responding to public inquiries recently, we as the Government must accept responsibility for what has happened in the past. When things are wrong, we need to be clear about that, as we have been. It is right that we have apologised for that, and I have added my own personal apology to that of the Government. We also need to ensure that we all work together to find a way forward to ensure that people are clear that violence is not an answer to anything in Northern Ireland or elsewhere.
The Secretary of State rightly made his comments about Bloody Sunday at the beginning of his remarks, but he will recognise that it took nearly 40 years for the Saville inquiry to clear the innocent victims who were murdered that day and those who were injured. Will he confirm that under the proposals that he will bring to the House a judicial inquiry will still be possible? If not, we condemn victims and their families to the accusation of guilt when an inquiry would prove their innocence.
The hon. Gentleman gives a powerful example. Ballymurphy, which I spoke about at the Dispatch Box not that long ago, is another powerful example of it taking far too long in these situations for families to get answers and to get to the truth. I can be very clear with the House, as I have been before, that I am determined that the legislation we bring forward will allow families to get to the truth and understand what happened quicker than we have seen before. People should not be waiting decades for information.
British soldiers like myself were sent to Northern Ireland to keep the peace, and to put their lives on the line for the peace of everybody in Northern Ireland. I say to the Secretary of State that, while I welcome the Command Paper, we must not have any delay in the functions of Government getting to a conclusion on this, so that veterans—many of them have passed away already—can live their lives in peace, rather than in fear of being dragged before the courts.
My right hon. Friend makes an important point, from the point of view of veterans. He is absolutely right: most people who went out there served their country to protect life, in quite a contrast to the terrorists in Northern Ireland who went out every day to do harm. It is important that we deal with the issue, so that we do not leave it to another generation, and that we do so before we lose a generation who not only have information but deserve to live their final years in peace.
Every life lost in Northern Ireland matters, and we remember the two very courageous Royal Ulster Constabulary officers murdered in Londonderry 50 years ago tomorrow. As a proud former member of the Ulster Defence Regiment, I want to ensure that whatever proposals the Government bring forward do not create a moral equivalence between the brave men and women who served in our armed forces and the police service and those who took the law into their own hands, engaged in acts of terrorism and sought to bring Northern Ireland to its knees. Will the Secretary of State be clear that there will be no moral equivalence between our armed forces and police and the terrorists of the IRA and other paramilitary groups?
The right hon. Gentleman makes an important point. I can be very clear, and as a Government we are clear, that we will never accept any moral equivalence between those who upheld the law in Northern Ireland—those who, as I say, went out every day to protect life and to do their service—and those who, from any point of view, went out every morning to destroy life and to destroy Northern Ireland. They must never be allowed to win, and there can be no moral equivalence.
In bringing forward proposals on dealing with the legacy of our past, can the Secretary of State advise what discussions he has had with the representatives of innocent victims in Northern Ireland, and will he heed the very clear view, right across the community in Northern Ireland, from those innocent victims and their families that what they want out of the process is access to truth and justice? Justice must not be dispensed with.
The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. As we have said from the beginning, it is important that we engage with a wide range of stakeholders. I have done that myself, as have my Ministers. Indeed, in the last week I have been meeting with the very groups that he refers to—victims groups as well as veterans. It is clear that people have waited far too long for information. We also have to be honest with people about what is achievable and the reality of what we can do, bearing in mind the Northern Ireland (Sentences) Act 1998 that followed the Good Friday agreement, decommissioning and other things that have happened since then. We must deliver a process and a structure of investigations and information recovery that helps people to get to the truth, while being clear that, as I have said before, there are so many people who did so much to keep Northern Ireland safe.
A stable Northern Ireland needs sustainable devolved institutions. We have progressed the Northern Ireland (Ministers, Elections and Petitions of Concern) Bill to that end. Prosperity is another foundation stone of stability. We have been working with the Executive to deliver the city and growth deals, which my hon. Friend the Minister of State, the right hon. Member for Bournemouth West (Conor Burns), is taking forward, and to invest in priority areas such as skills through the new deal for Northern Ireland. We will continue to support stability and co-operation in Northern Ireland throughout this important election year.
We are absolutely right to recall David Cameron’s apology in 2010, and I send my best wishes to the families and the people of Derry/Londonderry. Will the Secretary of State confirm that the measures in New Decade, New Approach to protect sustainability and to keep Stormont running will be put on the statute book at the earliest opportunity?
Yes, absolutely. That is our focus, and we have been taking this through the House. As my hon. Friend the Minister of State said a short while ago, and no doubt he will be back here talking about it soon, taking this through is important for Northern Ireland and its people, who want a functioning Northern Ireland Executive.
The right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Julian Smith) brought forward New Decade, New Approach with commitments within it that would guarantee and protect the stability of our institutions. The Secretary of State knows that the commitment to protect the UK’s internal market has not been delivered. He knows that some of the balanced commitments in that document are now being tinkered with, be they on legacy or on language. What steps will he take in the very short term to sincerely protect the institutions?
On the cultural package, what we agreed to take forward is exactly what was agreed between the parties in New Decade, New Approach itself, and we will continue to look at that. It is important that we deliver on all of New Decade, New Approach. We have the United Kingdom Internal Market Act 2020, which is doing that work and has ensured that trade between GB and NI from the NI side is working in an unfettered way. We said we would bring forward further work to develop and deliver that, which we will do, but it is also important—this is why the work on the Northern Ireland protocol is so important—to ensure the same sort of effect in GB to NI as in NI to GB and that it is working for everyone in Northern Ireland.
My right hon. Friend knows that the thuggery and criminality of the self-styled paramilitaries add nothing to stability anywhere in Northern Ireland. What further steps can his Department take to disrupt their activity, in particular through unexplained wealth orders?
We have been making progress in this area. We work in partnership with and support the Northern Ireland Department of Justice in the devolved areas, as well as with the Police Service of Northern Ireland and other partners, who are doing phenomenal work. We have seen real success this year, and in the crackdown over the past 12 to 18 months on criminal gangs. My hon. Friend the Chair of the Select Committee is right: these groups are criminal gangs and should be treated as such. They are nothing more than thugs who threaten people and try to destroy life in Northern Ireland. I support the PSNI and partners in their work to disrupt their activity and bring the people involved to justice.
I associate myself with the Secretary of State’s important words regarding Bloody Sunday. I also pay tribute to the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Julian Smith) for skilfully negotiating the New Decade, New Approach in the first place. Part of that was legislation on identity, language and culture. When will that package of legislation be introduced?
The statement to the House last June was that we would have it by October last year. There is a theme: we did not get that by October last year; legacy was promised by autumn, then by Christmas, and it is still nowhere to be seen; and then the Secretary of State introduced double-jobbing to Parliament and, within the same week, withdrew it. A question constantly put to me by people in Northern Ireland is, “What’s the point of Brandon Lewis?” Perhaps he can tell us.
I appreciate that the hon. Gentleman has been over to Northern Ireland once and so is basing his comments on some odd conversation. I find what he just said a bit rich, bearing in mind that he is part of a Labour Front-Bench team who over the past six to nine months have called for us to bring forward dual mandates, then argued against them when we did what we said we would do. They called for us to engage widely on legacy and to take into account what people say; then they complain when we do exactly that. Labour argues that it is a party of the Union, but does not get involved in Northern Ireland and then cannot get its Front Benchers to confirm that it supports the Union for Northern Ireland on live TV. Until Labour decides that it is a party for the Union in Northern Ireland, I will not take any lessons.
My right hon. Friend makes an important point. The protocol is not working—that is clear. The feedback we get from businesses across Northern Ireland is that it is not sustainable in its current format. It needs to be dealt with. It needs to be fixed. That is what the Foreign Secretary and I are working on together to ensure we can do that and do well for the people of Northern Ireland.
Balance of Trade with Great Britain and the EU
We are committed to boosting trade in Northern Ireland with both the rest of the United Kingdom and the rest of the world. The Northern Ireland protocol has, as I just said, impacted businesses. It is creating barriers to trade and causing disruption. It is the Government’s priority to deal with those issues and make the protocol work better for business. That is essential to ensuring Northern Ireland continues to prosper as part of the Union.
Exports from Great Britain to the Republic of Ireland have crashed by more than 20% since Brexit, costing the GB economy more than £3 billion. Meanwhile, Northern Irish exports to the Republic, which are benefiting from still being in the EU market, have soared by 64% in 2021 alone. Does the Secretary of State recognise the overwhelming benefits of being in a market seven times the size of the UK market?
We are seeing 200-plus businesses in Northern Ireland stopping delivering to customers in Northern Ireland, medicines and drugs having issues and challenges getting to Northern Ireland, consumers having reduced choice on the shelves, and garden centres unable to get the plants and seeds they want from the rest of the UK. That is a farcical situation. It is not sustainable. It is not fair or right for the people of Northern Ireland and it is right that we focus on correcting that.
I wonder if I could invite the Secretary of State to actually answer the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Midlothian (Owen Thompson). The most recent quarterly economic survey by the Northern Ireland chamber of commerce shows that 70% of Northern Ireland businesses believe that their unique trading position of being both within the UK and the EU single markets and the customs union presents opportunities for Northern Ireland. Does he agree with the vast majority of businesses in Northern Ireland? If so, why did his Government not fight for remain-voting Scotland to have the same benefits of dual access as Northern Ireland?
I meet businesses across Northern Ireland representing all sectors of Northern Ireland on a regular basis, as does the Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth West (Conor Burns). They are very clear: the protocol in its current format is not working. It is not sustainable. The EU offer is not good enough. They are very clear about that. That is something we are determined to fix. The hon. and learned Lady is absolutely right that if the protocol works in the way it was envisaged, it does create opportunities for Northern Ireland. The problem is that the EU’s requirements for implementation are failing Northern Ireland and we need to see that fixed.
The Foreign Secretary, the Prime Minister and I are absolutely determined to ensure that we resolve the issues for Northern Ireland. We would obviously like to do that in a sustainable and agreed way with the EU. That is the best way to get legal certainty. That is our focus, but we do not rule out anything from the table to deliver for Northern Ireland.
Yes. My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We need to ensure that consumers and businesses in any part of the UK can access products as they would anywhere else in the UK. That is what we are determined to deliver, and that is where our focus and work is.
I take this opportunity to associate my party with the Secretary of State’s remarks about the anniversary of Bloody Sunday. Our thoughts are very much with those who continue to grieve and who continue to be affected to this day.
When it comes to trade, the Government have not so much been ambushed by cake as by reality. While the Northern Ireland economy is thriving as part of the single market, the economy of the UK is labouring. Should the UK Government not, with the opportunities presented by the possibility of a change in Prime Minister, realign Great Britain with Northern Ireland in the single market and allow businesses across these islands to flourish?
I encourage the hon. Gentleman to do a little more research. It is very good news that the Northern Ireland economy is moving forward, as is the whole UK economy. Of course, in Northern Ireland there are more factors, not least the scale of the public sector compared with anywhere else in the UK. However, it is also true that the UK is moving forward as one of the fastest-growing economies in the G7, if not the fastest, with employment going up from where it was even before covid. That is because the Government are focused on delivering for people across the United Kingdom. I am sure he understands why, as a Unionist, I support that. He should too.
Platinum Jubilee Celebrations
May I briefly associate myself with the comments of the Secretary of State on the dreadful events in the city of the hon. Member for Foyle (Colum Eastwood) in 1972, the year of my birth in Belfast?
Officials in the Northern Ireland Office are working closely with officials in the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, the lead Government Department on the jubilee. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and my noble Friend Lord Caine are working on a series of events in Northern Ireland to mark Her Majesty’s jubilee, her immense contribution to life in Northern Ireland and to peace and reconciliation on the island of Ireland.
My hon. Friend makes an important point. Everyone in every part of our United Kingdom is deeply proud of the national health service. People across Northern Ireland, whatever their allegiance, recognise the immense contribution of frontline NHS staff, whom I hope will be recognised in this jubilee year.
Her Majesty’s platinum jubilee is a fantastic opportunity to celebrate our Union far and wide, with people around the Commonwealth and the world joining us in marking the occasion. Will the Secretary of State set out the Government’s plans on using the jubilee to showcase the best of Northern Ireland?
Whatever tradition or belief they come from in Northern Ireland, everyone recognises the immense contribution Her Majesty the Queen has made to this United Kingdom. As I alluded to, Her Majesty’s contribution to reconciliation and mutual understanding on the island of Ireland has been beyond compare. This will be a fantastic opportunity to celebrate her amazing life and achievements.
This summer, Her Majesty will award jubilee medals to members of the armed forces and emergency services and to prison officers. As things stand, frontline paramedics working for ambulance services will rightly be recognised, but those working in hospital A&E departments and private ambulances might not be. Will my right hon. Friend work with ministerial colleagues to ensure that all frontline paramedics get the recognition their work so richly deserves?
As we begin the 70th year of Her Majesty’s reign, the Northern Ireland protocol still seems to threaten the free movement of goods between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Will the Minister take urgent action to stand up to the bureaucratic posturing of the European Union and ensure that oak tree saplings can be traded freely between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom for the platinum jubilee?
I am immensely grateful to my hon. Friend. He makes that point incredibly powerfully. Members from across the House will look forward to planting oak saplings in their constituencies to mark this amazing achievement of Her Majesty’s platinum jubilee. The Foreign Secretary is on the Front Bench. I know her well; I served with her in International Trade. She is on the case. There is absolutely no reason why oak tree saplings should not be planted in Northern Ireland as they are in every other part of the United Kingdom.
The Queen’s Green Canopy is a wonderful way to both celebrate the jubilee and promote the environment. Tomorrow, in Dervock, Bushmills, Ballymoney and Ballymena, a number of primary schools will plant trees to mark Her Majesty’s jubilee. I encourage the Secretary of State, the Minister and, indeed, the Foreign Secretary, who will be in Northern Ireland tomorrow, to take the opportunity to visit one of those schools and encourage young people as they promote the environment, honour Her Majesty the Queen and encourage our country to look positively to its future.
I entirely agree that all Members across the House will look forward to planting trees on the amazing anniversary of Her Majesty’s reign. I was in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency just before Christmas, at my grandfather’s former primary school in Armoy. The event is cross-community and cross-tradition, and we are all looking forward to celebrating it. I will happily accept an invitation, as I am sure my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State would, to join the hon. Gentleman in his constituency and plant a tree.
As hon. Members on the Benches behind me know, my wife hails from County Armagh. There is a tremendous link between Scotland and Northern Ireland through music; recently, the Kiltearn Fiddlers from my constituency have played in Northern Ireland as the guests of Ulster University. Would it not be splendid if we could celebrate Her Majesty’s jubilee by having musical events the length and breadth of our United Kingdom?
People in Newport West and across Northern Ireland know that Her Majesty has always led by example and demonstrated the highest standards in public life, so can the Minister confirm that this Government will be following her example as they mark her platinum jubilee?
Engagement with Businesses: Northern Ireland Protocol
My engagement with the Northern Ireland business community is extensive. Just this week I have been in Northern Ireland engaging directly with businesses, as I do every week, to discuss the impacts of the protocol as well as any wider concerns or issues.
The Government published their Command Paper last July, the European Union published four papers last October, and I understand that the Government have tabled a revised legal text in the negotiations. Does the Secretary of State recognise that there is a desire among businesses in Northern Ireland for much greater transparency around the UK Government’s negotiating objectives?
We have been very transparent and clear with businesses. The Minister for Europe and I, and indeed the Foreign Secretary, have met and engaged with businesses, as we will be doing tomorrow, and outlined exactly what our objectives are: to deliver what businesses in Northern Ireland want, which is to rectify the problems that are hampering businesses in Northern Ireland. We need to correct the protocol, and the EU needs to show some flexibility to make that work.
When it comes to negotiations with the European Union, this Government told us that we could have our cake and eat it, but we face a harsh reality: a Prime Minister ambushed by cake while businesses in Northern Ireland are crying out for certainty. When will the Government finally bake off and deliver a veterinary agreement?
I will ignore the cakeism directed from the Opposition Front Bench and just say that it is good to see the hon. Lady finally supporting the UK Government, which Labour has failed to do while we are focused on delivering for Northern Ireland, rectifying the protocol and fixing the problem. Get on board!
The Prime Minister was asked—
As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland remarked to the House earlier this morning, this Sunday marks a tragic day in our history, one of the darkest days of the troubles: the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday. I echo his call to learn from the past, to reconcile and to build a shared, peaceful and prosperous future.
This morning I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in this House, I shall have further such meetings later today.
I associate myself with the Prime Minister’s remarks on Bloody Sunday.
Did the Prime Minister agree to the Chancellor of the Exchequer writing off £4.3 billion of fraud? That is £154 from every household in the country that went directly into the pockets of fraudsters.
No, of course not. We do not support fraudsters or those who steal from the public purse, but what I can tell the hon. Lady is that everybody in this country should be very proud of the huge effort that was made by Lord Agnew and others to secure ventilators and personal protective equipment. At the time, Captain Hindsight and others were calling for us to go faster.
Yes, of course. I thank my hon. Friend, and I am pleased that so many of the volunteers and staff at George Eliot Hospital have been recognised in the Queen’s new year honours list. I have seen the medal that the hospital is proposing, and I think it is lovely. As I have told the House before, we are establishing a UK commission on covid commemoration to consider how we can commemorate everything that we have all been through, and the commission will also consider how we can recognise the courage of frontline workers.
I join the Prime Minister in his comments in relation to Bloody Sunday.
The ministerial code says that:
“Ministers who knowingly mislead Parliament will be expected to offer their resignation”.
Does the Prime Minister believe that applies to him?
Of course, but let me tell the House that I think the right hon. and learned Gentleman is inviting a question about an investigation on which, as you know, Mr Speaker, I cannot comment, and on which he, as a lawyer, will know that I cannot comment. What I am focused on is delivering the fastest recovery from covid of any European economy, the fastest booster roll-out, and 400,000 more people on the payrolls now than there were before the pandemic began. We are launching a policy tomorrow. The right hon. and learned Gentleman talks about people being out of work—in my case, I understand why he wants it. We are launching a plan tomorrow to get half a million people off welfare and into work. It is a fantastic idea, and I hope he supports it.
I think the Prime Minister said yes, he agrees that the code does apply to him. Therefore, if he misled Parliament, he must resign.
On 1 December, the Prime Minister told this House from the Dispatch Box, in relation to parties during lockdown, that
“all guidance was followed completely in No. 10.”—[Official Report, 1 December 2021; Vol. 704, c. 909.]
He looks quizzical, but he said it. On 8 December, the Prime Minister told this House that
“I have been repeatedly assured since these allegations emerged that there was no party”.—[Official Report, 8 December 2021; Vol. 705, c. 372.]
Since he acknowledges that the ministerial code applies to him, will he now resign?
No. But since the right hon. and learned Gentleman asks about covid restrictions, let me just remind the House and, indeed, the country that he has been relentlessly opportunistic throughout. He has flip-flopped from one side to the other. He would have kept us in lockdown in the summer. He would have taken us back into lockdown at Christmas. It is precisely because we did not listen to Captain Hindsight that we have the fastest-growing economy in the G7, and we have got all the big calls right.
This is the guy who said that, in hindsight, he now appreciates it was a party. We have discovered the real Captain Hindsight, have we not? Let me spell out the—[Interruption.] They shout now, but they are going to have to go out and defend some of this nonsense. Let me spell out the significance of yesterday’s developments. Sue Gray reported the matter to the police, having found evidence of behaviour that is potentially a criminal offence. Prime Minister, if you do not understand the significance of what happened yesterday, I really do despair. The police, having got that material from Sue Gray, subjected it to a test to decide whether to investigate. That test was whether it was the “most serious and flagrant” type of breach in the rules. The police spelled out what they meant by that: that those involved knew, or ought to have known, that what they were doing was an offence and that there was “little ambiguity” about the
“absence of any reasonable defence”.
Does the Prime Minister—[Interruption.]
Having got the material from Sue Gray, the police had to take a decision as to whether what they had before them were the “most serious and flagrant” types of breaches of the rules—[Interruption.] If Members want to laugh at that, they can laugh. The police spelled out what they meant. They decided, from the material that they already had, that those involved knew, or ought to have known, that what they were doing was an offence, and that there was “little ambiguity” around the
“absence of any reasonable defence”.
Does the Prime Minister really not understand the damage his behaviour is doing to our country?
I hope the right hon. and learned Gentleman understands that, although the issue he raises is important, there is simply no way—as he knows, as a lawyer—that I can comment on the investigation that is currently taking place. He talks about the most serious issue before the public and the world today. It is almost as though he was in ignorance of the fact that we have a crisis on the borders of Ukraine. I can tell him that in the Cabinet Room of this country, the UK Government are bringing the west together. Led by this Government and this Prime Minister and our Foreign Secretary and Defence Secretary, we are bringing the west together to have the toughest possible package of sanctions to deter President Putin from what I think would be a reckless and catastrophic invasion. That is what this Government are doing. We are getting on with the job, and I think he needs to raise his game, frankly.
Order. I say to both sides that our constituents are watching this. Tensions are running high, but we need to allow the people out there who are bothered about their futures to hear what is said on both sides. Please, let us give our constituents the respect they deserve.
The Prime Minister’s continual defence is, “Wait for the Sue Gray report.” On 8 December, he told this House:
“I will place a copy of the…report in the Library of the House of Commons.”—[Official Report, 8 December 2021; Vol. 705, c. 374.]
His spokesperson has repeatedly stated that that means the full report—not parts of the report, not a summary of the report and not an edited copy—so can the Prime Minister confirm that he will publish the full Sue Gray report as he receives it?
What I can tell the right hon. and learned Gentleman is that we have to leave the report to the independent investigator, as he knows. When I receive it, of course I will do exactly what I said. In the meantime, the people of this country want to hear what we are doing to tackle the issues that matter to all of us: fixing the cost of living; helping people across the country by lifting the living wage; helping people with their fuel costs, as this Government are doing; and cutting the tax of people on universal credit by £1,000. The party opposite is committed to abolishing universal credit. That is their policy.
Cutting the tax? [Laughter.]
The police say the evidence meets the test. Frankly, the public have made up their minds. They know the Prime Minister is not fit for the job. That is what really matters here. Throughout this scandal, the Tories have done immense damage to public trust. When the leader of the Scottish Conservatives said that the Prime Minister should resign, the Leader of the House called him “a lightweight”—English Conservatives publicly undermining the Union by treating Scotland with utter disdain. How much damage are the Prime Minister and his Cabinet prepared to do to save his skin?
Well, I think the right hon. and learned Gentleman was offering yet more general criticism of what has been going on in Downing Street, so let me just remind the House of what has been going on in Downing Street. We have been prioritising the covid backlogs, investing massively in 9 million more scans, so that people get the treatment that they need and that they have been waiting for, and making sure that we have 44,000 more people in our—[Interruption.] They say it is rubbish, but they did not vote for it; they do not support it. We have 44,000 more people in our NHS now than in 2020, and we are fixing social care, which Governments have neglected for decades, with Labour doing absolutely nothing. They have no plan at all to fix the NHS or to fix social care. Vote Labour, wait longer.
The reality is that we now have the shameful spectacle of a Prime Minister of the United Kingdom being subject to a police investigation, unable to lead the country and incapable of doing the right thing. Every day his Cabinet fail to speak out, they become more and more complicit. What is utterly damning, despite the huff and puff, is that this is all happening when petrol prices, the weekly shop and energy bills are going through the roof. Three months ago, Labour suggested cutting VAT from energy bills. Still the Government have failed to act. Instead of getting on with their jobs, they are wheeled out to save his. Whatever he says in his statement later today or tomorrow will not change the facts. Is this not a Prime Minister and a Government who have shown nothing but contempt for the decency, honesty and respect that define this country?
No, we love this country and we are doing everything in our power to help this country. Of course he wants me out of the way. He does, and—I will not deny it—for all sorts of reasons many people may want me out of the way, but the reason he wants me out of the way is that he knows that this Government can be trusted to deliver, and we did. We delivered on Brexit. He voted 48 times to take this country back into the European Union. We delivered the fastest vaccine roll-out in Europe, and we will deliver on our plan to unite and level up across the whole of the UK.
Crime down 10%, job vacancies at a record high, colossal investment—we are delivering, and Labour has no plan. Tech investment in this country is three times that in France, and twice as much as Germany. We have a vision for this country as the most prosperous and successful economy in Europe, because we are going to unite and level up. The problem with the Labour party today is that the right hon. and learned Gentleman is lawyer, not a leader. That is the truth—
I thank my hon. Friend very much, and what pleasure it gives me to address the Member for Clwyd South, where I tried unsuccessfully so many years ago. I am delighted that a Conservative Government are now investing so massively in levelling up in Clwyd South and across the whole of Wales.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. May I associate myself with the remarks of the Prime Minister about Bloody Sunday?
I am sure that you and the entire House will want to commemorate tomorrow Holocaust Memorial Day, when we remember the 6 million Jews who lost their lives at the hands of the regime of Hitler, and of course, we remember other genocides, not least more recently in Bosnia—we all pray for continued peace in that country.
At the heart of this matter, we have a Prime Minister who is being investigated by the police for breaking his own laws—it is absolutely unprecedented. This is a man who demeans the office of Prime Minister. This is the latest in a rap sheet that is already a mile long: illegally proroguing Parliament; misleading the House; decorating with dodgy cash; and partying while the public suffered. Every moment he stays, he is dragging out the agony for families who remind him of the sacrifices they made and dragging his party further through the dirt. The public know it, the House knows it, even his own MPs know it—when will the Prime Minister cop on and go?
I want to join the right hon. Gentleman and echo his sentiments about Holocaust Memorial Day, where I think he is completely right.
I must say that the right hon. Gentleman made the same point last week, and he was wrong then and he is wrong now. It is precisely because I enjoy co-operating with him so much, and with all his Scottish colleagues, that I have absolutely no intention of doing what he suggests.
Every moment that the Prime Minister lingers, every nick in this death by a thousand cuts, is sucking attention from the real issues facing the public; Tory cuts, Brexit and the soaring cost of living have pushed millions of families into poverty. The impending national insurance tax hike hangs like a guillotine, while they eat cake. This is nothing short of a crisis, and the only route out—the only route to restore public trust—is for the Prime Minister to go. How much longer will Tory MPs let this go on for? How much more damage are they willing to do? It is time to get this over with—show the Prime Minister the door!
I once had a memorable swim in the Wye—I think at about 5 o’clock in the morning—and it tasted like nectar. I understand the problems that my right hon. Friend raises: it is important that our beautiful rivers should be clean. My right hon. Friend the Environment Minister will visit the Wye area shortly, with or without his swimming trunks, and we are urging the Welsh Government to take the matter as seriously as this Government are.
The Prime Minister will know that many families throughout the United Kingdom are struggling with the increased cost of living and rising energy costs, but in Northern Ireland that is compounded by the protocol. The cost of bringing goods from Great Britain to Northern Ireland has increased by 27%—when we can get access to those goods. It is costing business £2.5 million every day, which is almost £1 billion a year. That is the cost of the protocol. The Prime Minister talks about uniting this nation and levelling up; he could do that by removing the Irish sea border and fully restoring Northern Ireland’s place in the UK internal market.
I support passionately the right hon. Gentleman’s indignation. Yes, I never thought, when we negotiated, that it would mean 200 businesses would stop supplying Northern Ireland, foods being blocked and Christmas cards being surcharged. Frankly, the EU is implementing the protocol in an insane and pettifogging way. We need to sort it out and I completely support what the right hon. Gentleman says.
I am afraid the hon. Gentleman, in everything he said just now, plainly does not know what he is talking about. What I can tell him and his constituents is that, irrespective of what they want to focus on—and I understand why they do—this Government are going to get on with the job and deliver for the people of this country.
I am delighted that my right hon. Friend has the meeting he wanted. We have already changed the law to allow doctors to prescribe cannabis products where clinically appropriate, but we are very keen to support this, provided that the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency is happy as well.
The hon. Lady talks about racism and Islamophobia. She should look at this Government; look at the modern Conservative party. We are the party of hope and opportunity for people across this country, irrespective of race or religion. We do not care what religion people affirm. All we care about is whether they are interested in ideas of aspiration and opportunity; that is what we are about.
My right hon. Friend the policing Minister has assured me that we will be introducing a new funding formula before the end of the Parliament, but I am pleased that Bedfordshire police have already recruited 100 additional officers as part of our uplift programme. That is part of the 11,000 more officers that this Government have put on the streets.
There has never in the history of this country been such a bonanza for buses. I am personally a bus fanatic. We are putting £5 billion into buses and cycling during this Parliament, and there is £355 million of new funding for zero-emission buses—and yes of course we want to see the benefits of that funding spread right across the whole of the United Kingdom.
What a joy it is to welcome my hon. Friend to his place; the joy seems a bit confined on the Opposition Benches. I thank him for his work and support for everybody at Queen Mary’s Hospital, which he and I campaigned for, for many years. Last year Queen Mary’s received £800,000 of funding and I hope that it will benefit further from the £1 million funding awarded to Oxleas NHS Foundation Trust to improve technology services across its estate.
I do not think there was a question there. There was an invitation for me to do what of course the Labour party wants me to do, but I am not going to do it. We are going to carry on with our agenda of uniting and levelling up across the country, and they fundamentally know that they have no answer to that. We have a plan and a vision for this country; they have absolutely nothing to say, and that is the difference between our side and their side.
I thank my hon. Friend. The Chinese military flights that have taken place near Taiwan in recent days are not conducive to peace and stability in the region. What we need is a peaceful and constructive dialogue by people on both sides of the Taiwan Strait. I know that that is what my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary and all colleagues are working for.
Economic Crime: Planned Government Bill
I thank my hon. Friend for his question, but, as I am sure he will appreciate, I am not going to speculate about the content of any future Queen’s Speech, which is the correct moment for the Government to be setting out their legislative agenda for the next parliamentary Session.
However, I can confirm that the Government remain committed to tackling economic crime, which is why my colleagues in the Home Office and the Treasury take the lead on this. In recent years we have taken a number of actions, including creating the new National Economic Crime Centre to co-ordinate the law enforcement response to economic crime and establishing the Office for Professional Body Anti-Money Laundering Supervision to improve oversight of anti-money laundering compliance in the legal and accountancy sectors. We delivered the Criminal Finances Act 2017, which introduced new powers including unexplained wealth orders and account freezing orders. We are determined to go further to crack down on dirty money to protect our security and our prosperity. With the publication of the fraud strategy and second economic crime plan this year, we will further level up the response to crack down on crimes of this type.
My Department is playing its part. The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy announced plans to reform Companies House in September 2020. In 2021 we consulted on more detailed aspects of the reforms, and we will respond to the consultation soon. Investment in new capabilities at Companies House is already under way, with £20 million being invested in this financial year and a further £63 million announced in the spending review. The draft Registration of Overseas Entities Bill has undergone pre-legislative scrutiny. We are amending the Bill in line with the Committee’s recommendations, and in line with comments that the Prime Minister made to the House just yesterday. We will introduce the Bill and the broader reforms of Companies House when parliamentary time allows.
I am grateful to the Minister for his response. As he knows, economic crime costs the people of this country £100 billion per annum, according to the National Crime Agency. The Government have committed themselves repeatedly to legislation to give our agencies the tools that they need to tackle this problem, and it was therefore concerning to hear from my noble Friend Lord Agnew—who recently resigned from his role as Minister responsible for countering fraud—that a decision had been made to drop the economic crime Bill from the legislation that is due in the next parliamentary Session.
This is not a notional white-collar offence; it affects real people in very tangible ways. Terrorists and drug dealers depend on it to launder and legitimise their money through UK banks, companies and properties. Up to 50% of moneys flowing through Russian laundromats, often used for tax avoidance, for stolen public funds and to launder moneys derived from organised crime, flow through UK shell companies. UK corporate structures were involved in arms deals which breached sanctions in Sudan. HSBC and NatWest have been fined hundreds of millions of pounds for allowing criminals and Mexican drug cartels to launder their money through accounts held at their banks. An estimated £5 billion or so of taxpayers’ money, in the form of bounce back loans, has been taken fraudulently because some banks have not applied the most basic of checks. Criminals, despots and terrorists involved in people trafficking, illegal immigration, drug dealing, extortion, kleptocracy, the impoverishment of nations, and fraud—including what is taken directly from the public purse, to the tune of £30 billion per annum—are all facilitated by some of the lax rules that we have in this country.
The Government have promised to tackle this issue—as my hon. Friend the Minister has said—by means of Companies House reform; to fund regulation by applying a small surcharge to the current cost of establishing a company in the UK so that we can close down those shell companies and trusts; and to introduce a register of overseas entities to reveal the real beneficial owners of UK property, and a corporate offence of failing to prevent economic crime so that, for example, banks can be properly held to account for granting those fraudulent bounce back loans.
All this, plus more resources for our agencies and new whistleblower protections, will boost this country’s reputation, tackle crime, and help to reduce our tax burden. Every Minister I have spoken to wants us to do this. The Treasury Committee wants us to do it, all our crime agencies want us to do it, and campaigners want us to do it. I urge the Government to introduce the legislation as soon as possible.
Let me first acknowledge my hon. Friend’s work on Companies House reform, on whistleblowing, and on general economic crime. He really has a handle on this issue, and his thoughts are always well received.
My hon. Friend is right to say that economic crimes are a significant cost to the economy. It should also be borne in mind that there are victims at the end of these crimes, and that they experience significant distress. We also recognise the national security implications of allowing dirty money from overseas into our financial system. We acknowledge the need for action on economic crime, and the Government have acted. My colleagues in the Home Office and the Treasury have begun reforms to the suspicious activity reporting regime, created the National Economic Crime Centre to co-ordinate the law enforcement response, and reviewed our money laundering regulations and supervisory regime. That review will produce a report by June 2022. We are legislating for the economic crime levy in the current Finance (No. 2) Bill. We are committed to building a framework that will deter such crimes from happening and to providing a framework that will ensure that those who commit such crimes can be held to account.
I thank the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake) for his urgent question today.
At the beginning of the pandemic, there was widespread recognition of the urgent need to get money out to support businesses as soon as possible, but what made Lord Agnew’s resignation statement this week so alarming was his criticism of how the Government are handling cases of fraud now we know about them, and the news that the Government may no longer be intending to bring forward an economic crime Bill.
Lord Agnew described the performance of the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy as “nothing less than woeful”, and added that it has
“been assisted by the Treasury, which appears to have no knowledge of, or little interest in, the consequences of fraud to our economy or society.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 24 January 2022; Vol. 818, c. 20.]
To be honest, it is one of the few times in this Parliament that the two Departments have been consistent with each other. These are very serious allegations for a serving Minister to make, and I am worried by what the Minister has just had to say about the economic crime Bill, so let me ask him however about the Government’s intentions in his area and whether its commitments still apply.
First, is it still Government policy to legislate for a register of beneficial ownership of property in the UK, so that we can find out who really owns property in this country? Secondly, will the Government still legislate to prevent abuses of Scottish limited partnerships? Thirdly, will the Government still legislate to prevent the shortcomings in the unexplained wealth order regime highlighted by the recent case in the High Court of NCA v. Baker and others? Fourthly, will the Government still reform Companies House? If the register of British companies was more rigorously checked and policed, there would not have been as many fraudulent companies as there were to engage in fraud when the crisis began. Finally, can the Minister confirm that his Department’s latest estimate of the value of fraudulent bounce back loans is £4.9 billion, and that it is the Department’s intention to write off £4.3 billion of that?
This sorry episode reveals a Government far too casual with wasting taxpayers’ money, but there is also an aspect to economic crime that relates to the probity and integrity of our financial and political systems. I hope the Minister can provide me, and the House, with some much needed reassurance today.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments. Our appetite for tackling economic crime remains undiminished, as it does with Companies House reform, which has been well trailed and well considered. We will continue to work in this area, but I cannot pre-empt what Her Majesty will say in the Queen’s Speech.
In terms of the bounce back loans, the Economic Secretary to the Treasury, my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (John Glen), made it clear in the House that HMRC did not produce the figure of £4.3 billion, and the money has not been written off. The figure was an inference by journalists, who subtracted £1.5 billion—the estimate of the amount to be recovered by taxpayer protection—from the £5.8 billion that was estimated as error and fraud in 2020-21. It was publicised before Christmas. Our Department continues to work with our fraud measures with partners in Government, the British Business Bank and all the partner banks who issued this money in the first place.
I appreciate that the Minister cannot be tempted to comment on what might or might not be in the Queen’s Speech, but based on what Lord Agnew said, if it were to be true, I please urge the Minister to consider that it will be about as popular as a cup of cold sick with anyone out there who is concerned about the fight against corruption or the fight for transparency. The well of excuses after three or four years of promising this piece of legislation or its related pieces has now run dry. This legislation is essential for the credibility of this country and this Government, particularly when we have a crisis in Ukraine and all sorts of Russian oligarchs waiting to move money into this country if they can, and when there are fundamental questions, as we heard in Prime Minister’s questions, about Westminster today. It is essential that we do not back away from this central piece of legislation, which is a touchstone issue for many stakeholders out there.
I appreciate my hon. Friend’s work in tackling corruption and encouraging further transparency, which we have had several conversations about. We remain undiminished in our approach to tackling economic crime, for the reasons that he has given, and to Companies House reform, too. We will work with the Home Office and the Treasury to make sure we can get these measures in place as soon as possible.
“Lamentable”, “woeful”, “arrogance, indolence and ignorance” were just some of the words that Lord Agnew used to describe the Government’s action on economic crime. In resigning at the Dispatch Box in the Lords, he has shown a lot more courage than anybody on the Front Bench in this place.
Some £4.3 billion was lost in the covid schemes and as-yet-unknown sums were lost in Government-backed loan schemes to crooks and fraudsters, while some in this country got no support. For example, it was deemed too difficult to redress support for parents in the self-employment income support scheme. Lord Agnew also said that it was a foolish decision to kill off the economic crime Bill, and given the evidence that I have heard at the Treasury Committee during our inquiry on it, I wholeheartedly agree.
Many cases of economic crime could be halted if the Government tightened up Companies House, because reform is well overdue. They have huge volumes of evidence on that. There is no verification, it costs only a tiny sum to set up a company and the information on the Companies House register is—politely—utter guff. If the Minister looks at Graham Barrow’s account on Twitter, he will see some of the absolute nonsense that is entered on to the Companies House register and somehow accepted. All that has led to an open door through which crooks and fraudsters have been allowed to waltz off with public money and Government-backed loans. UK corporate structures, such as Scottish limited partnerships, allow that to happen—and have done for years.
When, on what date, will we see an economic crime Bill? When, on what date, will we see the registration of overseas entities Bill, for which I sat on the Joint Committee years ago and on which the Government have failed to act? Why are the Government so unconcerned that the UK is deemed Londongrad and notorious for the laundering of dirty money? Who benefits from that—is it Tory donors and their pals?
I think the last comment is beneath the debate. The hon. Lady talks about Companies House reform. Clearly, a lot of work is already happening in Companies House and it supports law enforcement on hundreds of cases each month. We want to get the balance right to ensure that new entrepreneurs can set up businesses through Companies House easily and affordably. There is much more reform to be done, however, which is why our appetite remains undiminished. She talked about Lord Agnew, who I thank for his work on this area. I worked closely with him to put measures in place to tackle fraud in bounce back loans and other areas of Government. He was a great servant of the Government and I regret the fact that he has gone.
May I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake) on raising the matter? I point out to the Minister that, over the last 10 years, the Government have made a lot of progress on this area but many hon. Members have put a lot of time and effort into working across the House to try to advance what is an important British agenda, not least at the G8 under David Cameron’s leadership. Companies House remains a good library, but it does not have investigatory powers, and it is there that we want progress to be made. Will he agree to meet me, my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton and others who are concerned about progress in that area, together with those who run Companies House, to see whether we can make some progress?
I am sorry—the Minister is a nice chap—but we have been calling for this Bill for ages and ages. Time after time, Ministers come back to the House to say, “Yes, there’s going to be a public register of beneficial ownership,” but it still has not happened. They say they will do it in the overseas territories, but it still has not happened. They say that they will stop giving out golden visas to Russians with dodgy money coming into the UK, but it still has not happened. We in this country are a soft touch. If we want to send a strong message to Russia, particularly at the moment, we have to move swiftly and not say, “Oh, I can’t possibly comment on what legislation we might be thinking of in the future.”
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that—it was a shame he did not stop at his first sentence, but it was very kind of him. I appreciate all of those measures that he wants to put in place and, as I say, we remain undiminished on that. In the meantime, we have sanctions to tackle corruption from other countries. We already have very robust procedures in place, but we know we need to go further. That is why these measures will come, but I cannot pre-empt Her Majesty.
I associate myself with the remarks of praise for my noble Friend Lord Agnew, an outstanding Minister who asked searching questions of government at all times. It was a pleasure to work with him. May I press my hon. Friend about the work the Law Commission is undertaking on corporate criminal liability. It is due to present options early this year and I urge him, first, to use all expedition to get on with the job of legislating on economic crime and, secondly, to incorporate what I hope will be sensible recommendations from the Law Commission so that we can get corporate criminal liability in this country right? At the moment, the law is just not working and action is needed.
I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for his work in this area as well. Because there has been no consensus, it is important that the Law Commission looks at this matter, because we are dealing with a very technical crime and if we are going to get the answers to it right, we have to get this right first time. We will, absolutely, consider that report in its fullest when it comes to us.
First, I congratulate the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake) on securing this urgent question and thank him for backing my Bill, which would have brought in that register of beneficial interests. When I mentioned this to the Prime Minister just this week, he pointed to the Leader of the House and said it would be introduced as soon as possible, but now look what has happened: the vehicle we would have used to do that is gone. So I ask the Minister: how can he say that he is taking this seriously, given that this Government say one thing and do the complete opposite, do they not?
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton on securing this important urgent question. The National Crime Agency, using figures supplied by the national fraud indicator, estimates that up to £190 billion is lost to fraud, with £140 billion of that coming in the private sector and £40 billion coming in the public sector. That is a huge amount, which could be best invested in our economies. Does the Minister agree that we need to reward and protect whistleblowers who are at the forefront of this? We are talking about the informed insiders who bring these issues to light; more than 40% of this crime is uncovered by whistleblowers. Does he agree that the current legislation, the Public Interest Disclosure Act 1998, is not fit for purpose and needs to be looked at again, and that we need an office of the whistleblower, which would bring together all of these areas?
I congratulate my hon. Friend and thank her for the work she does in this area. We have had a number of conversations and we will always look to see what more we can do to strengthen the whistleblowing framework in legislation. We do not necessarily agree on the end result, but, again, it is a complicated area that we do want to get right, for the reasons she set out. I will continue to work with her and with my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton.
While the Minister wrings his hands, London has become the jurisdiction of choice for dirty money. The levels of fraud are soaring upwards in the wrong direction. We have waited years and years for the open register of beneficial ownership of companies and it has not appeared, and we have waited years and years for corporate liability reform. How much longer do we have to wait? How much worse are this Government going to let fraud and money laundering get before they get off their collective backside and do something?
May I associate myself with the remarks praising Lord Agnew, who has done great service in government? Will the Minister ensure that, at the same time as he develops this policy, we ensure that the UK is also home to new innovations such as fintech and the extraordinary growth of cryptocurrencies? Those innovations have the potential to disrupt finance just as social media has disrupted communications and online shopping has changed retail. Post Brexit, the UK has the chance to be the home of fintech, which not only can be an economic driver, but can help to cut fraud and financial crime because of the transparency it brings. Will he make sure that we get this right and that new legislation is fit for the future, so that Britain can be the home of this revolution?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. We have to get the legislation right, not only because we want to tackle economic crime, but because we do not want to stifle innovation and the investment in this country that makes us the highest receiver of foreign direct investment in Europe and one of the highest across the world. This is a great place to do business, to set up, grow and scale up.
The whole House would love to believe the Minister’s words, as would Northern Ireland, where paramilitary money has been turned into a vast empire, especially along the border, and economic crime is rife. The evidence is not great, though, given the casual writing off of £4.3 billion-worth of bounce back loans; the fact that Companies House is in such chaos that people can avoid paying debts by going bankrupt one day and starting a company the next; the fact that in the middle of the Ukraine crisis we have threatened sanctions on Russia yet we are not taking action on the dirty money from Russia, which flows into London and props up the Putin regime; and the fact that the former fraud Minister said this week that the Treasury has little interest in or little knowledge of fraud. The evidence is not great for the assurances that the Government are serious about tackling fraud.
As I said, the £4.3 billion figure cited is an inference by journalists; that money has not been written off by this Government. We are working with partners to ensure that we tackle the fraud that is clearly in the system, having given the money out at a crucial stage in the pandemic to enable businesses to survive. On the phoenix companies that the right hon. Gentleman talked about, that is exactly why we introduced the Rating (Coronavirus) and Directors Disqualification (Dissolved Companies) Act 2021, which tackles such directors, but there is clearly more that we need to do, and we will do it when parliamentary time allows.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake) and endorse everything he asked for. I know the Minister cannot anticipate the Queen’s Speech, but may I ask him to read the debate the House had on lawfare last Thursday, to which the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, our hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk (James Cartlidge), responded? Right now in our courts, in cases that are being investigated, litigants are outgunning the Serious Fraud Office. Oligarchs are basically waging lawfare in judicial review against our regulators and preventing these cases from being prosecuted properly. Will the Minister speak to our hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Justice and make sure that any future legislation takes into account the threat of lawfare?
The former Minister Lord Agnew said that fraud in government is rampant—it is estimated to be approximately £30 billion a year—with a complete lack of focus on the cost to society or indeed the taxpayer, yet what we have heard so far from the Minister today is complacency. We need action now, because criminal fraud and money laundering are financing organised crime, drug trafficking, prostitution and much of society’s ills. The Minister needs to step up and get on with the job, legislate and go after the fraudsters who have stolen taxpayers’ money.
The hon. Lady is right about tackling fraudsters. That is why our determination to introduce legislation in this area is undiminished. At the other end of the scale but still adding up to a lot of money, universal credit, as well as being more responsive to claimants, was itself an anti-fraud measure. One of Lord Agnew’s great qualities was his attention to detail—to the small acts that had big implications but were often missed. We will bring that learning to bear across government.
The Department uses the National Investigation Service for frauds worth more than £100,000. The National Audit Office has reported that the service received 2,100 intelligence reports last year, but only 50 were investigated. The NAO has identified that as a lack of capacity, so rather than waiting for the Queen’s Speech, why does the Minister not speak to the Chancellor and ask for some extra funding for the service to pursue those frauds?
We have invested in a number of schemes, including an investment in the National Investigation Service to boost its capacity to investigate cases of serious fraud, especially within the bounce back loan scheme. It received £5 million in the 2020 spending review and made recoveries worth £3.1 million in 2021-22, exceeding its targets. It has investigations into bounce back loan frauds and other areas, and we will continue to work with it.
I know that the Minister will agree that my constituents have the right to expect that victims of economic crime will get the same redress as for other crimes, including where the victims are taxpayers. He will also welcome the many comments that I have had from businesses in my constituency about the speed of the support that was made available to prevent failures. In respect of Government-backed loans during the pandemic, does he think it would be helpful for the British Business Bank to be required to release performance data on the lenders to provide transparency on banks’ activities at the time?
I thank my hon. Friend for all his work throughout the pandemic. In his position as a member of the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee, he has been asking probing questions. With the British Business Bank, we have tried to get the balance right between the transparency required to tackle the issue and the speed at which we can act, so that we are not consuming too much of its resources. It is early days in terms of fraud and recovery, but yes, data will become available.
How can the Minister reassure us when one of the reasons for the Government’s reluctance to act was highlighted in the Intelligence and Security Committee’s report on Russian interference in our democracy as the large amounts of Russian and other dirty money that flow into Conservative party coffers?
I come back to this point: there is no reluctance to act. What I cannot do is pre-empt Her Majesty. Our appetite, as I say, remains undiminished. It is just a shame that the right hon. Gentleman hides behind Intelligence and Security Committee papers to throw political accusations when what we are trying to do is make sure that the taxpayers of this country get value for money and are not losing money, that the number of victims of economic crime is reduced and that they get their recoveries. Let us not make it a party political issue.
Does my hon. Friend agree with the recommendation of the Joint Committee on the Draft Online Safety Bill that online platforms such as Facebook should not be allowed to profit from the advertising of known frauds and scams? As part of the online safety regime, they should be required to proactively block and withdraw advertising that promotes known frauds and scams.
The introduction of universal credit has led to a big increase in fraud. The current growth of economic crime and corruption poses an existential threat to financial services—one of our biggest and most successful business sectors—and therefore to the UK economy as a whole. Does the Minister accept that effectively tackling this scourge urgently requires an economic crime Bill?
My hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake) has very eloquently described the reason for and priority of bringing forward new legislation, but that opens the door to questions about the effectiveness of, and the force with which, existing legislation will be brought to bear on the key issue that Lord Agnew raised: fraud within the BBLS and CBILS during covid. We know from Lord Agnew that there were issues with fraudsters because of processes in the British Business Bank that were not up to scratch. We know from Lord Agnew that there were some banks—maybe two out of seven—where fraud was a priority.
The Minister has a choice to make. Will he come down on the fraudsters with a slap on the wrist or with a mighty hammer? I know which I would choose. What is he going to do?
I suspect that we have the same choice, frankly, with that mighty hammer. But what we have to do first is make sure that we have those processes in place. The British Business Bank obviously had to scale up very quickly in the pandemic, but we are working with it and the banks, which are our first port of call in this, as it is a delegated scheme. We want to make sure that the worst-performing banks scale up to the best-performing banks in tackling this, and we will continue to work on that endeavour.
The lawfare debate, which the Minister described as “interesting”, identified how money launderers use UK courts to cover up unlawful activity, so the term that he has used is a slight underestimate. The Minister responding to that debate said:
“the Government are poised to act.”—[Official Report, 20 January 2022; Vol. 707, c. 603.]
Given that they have abandoned their economic crime Bill, given that the Attorney General is investigating malpractice at the Serious Fraud Office, which she is supposed to supervise, and given that too much oligarch money flows into the Tory party, how poised are they?
May I ask the Minister just how bad the level of economic crime has to be before the Government bring the Bill forward? Can he also set out to the House how well worked our legislation is? Many of the proposals have been promised for years and years. I think he will find that there is quite a lot of support across the House to bring those measures forward piecemeal. We still have three months of this Session, so why wait for the Queen? Let us bring some forward and get on with them.
I agree with my hon. Friend that we want to get this right. It is a technical and complex issue, and we will continue to work with people who are experts and knowledgeable in this field to make sure that we can get that legislation totally in place so that we can push it through in good time.
The Minister will be aware, and certainly his Treasury colleagues are aware, of the activities of Patrick McCreesh and Philip Nunn, of Blackmore Bond notoriety. Nearly five years after their dodgy and probably illegal sales tactics were first brought to the attention of regulators, those two are still allowed to continue in operation at the helm of a veritable spider’s web of companies, collecting scores of yellow cards, and some red cards, for breaches of statutory obligations. They are subject to no personal sanction, other than the occasional closure of one of the companies that they wanted to close down anyway. How much longer are we supposed to be satisfied with a regulator that, in one case, accepted the registration of a 10-year-old as a company officer? When are we going to have a regulator with teeth to drag dodgy directors out from hiding behind company nameplates in order for them to be held personally responsible, in a way that correctly reflects the fortunes that they have made and the financial misery they have inflicted on their victims?
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake) on securing the urgent question.
From migrant boats to county lines, the golden thread that runs between them is illicit money flows. Although the national cyber-security strategy and the economic crime plan, and the measures in them, are welcome, what we really need is a Bill to bring this forward. May I urge my hon. Friend to use his good offices to make that case, in order to deal with not only some of the big issues but the low-level frauds that are affecting so many of our constituents? Let us not forget that it is the No. 1 crime in this country at the moment.
I thank my hon. Friend for his work in this area and those comments. He is absolutely right: the theme in this is economic crime—county lines and those kinds of things. That is why the Business Department, the Treasury and the Home Office are working together to get this right and to tackle all of that in the round.
Fraud is a traumatic experience, which makes reports that victims are having their details collated and sold on the dark web as part of a so-called “suckers list” extremely worrying. What can be done to protect victims from being targeted a second time, and will the Minister ensure that this is a particular focus of the Government’s work moving forward?
First, we need to do lots of work on awareness of scams and those kinds of areas, which fall into my direct remit. Action Fraud is taking more and more of a position here to support victims and—the hon. Gentleman rightly referred to this—to tackle the immediacy after the event and to make sure that it cannot happen again.
Cyber-criminals prey on vulnerable people in all our communities. Yesterday’s launch of the very first cyber security strategy was an important step forward, but will my hon. Friend the Minister continue to work with Ministers on further measures that will strengthen the UK’s resistance to cyber-fraud?
I thank my hon. Friend for welcoming the Government’s cyber strategy. He is absolutely right to highlight the importance of this area, which the Government are tackling. We will continue to do more as time allows and as we get more and more information. The legislation needs to be right for the 21st century. It needs to keep up with the areas—cyber, the dark web and so on—that criminals are using.
I thank the Minister for his answers so far, but after the recent resignation of Lord Agnew following a lack of consideration for an economic crime Bill, there have been many calls for that decision to be reconsidered or reviewed. The Bill was set to protect and better manage the UK’s economic prosperity. May I gently remind the Minister of the £26 million robbery of the Northern Bank in Northern Ireland by the IRA? Experts state that moneys have been laundered through legitimate businesses. Alongside that, there is the £396 million of fuel duty that has been lost to the Chancellor. Through an economic crime Bill, we can address the issues relating to the IRA’s illegal and murderous activities. Will the Minister confirm to the House that every action will be taken to ensure the Bill is introduced as soon as possible to take on those who live off the backs of others?
I thank the hon. Member, as ever. He raises the really good point that not all economic crime is international. There is a lot of home-grown economic crime and he cites just one of a number of crimes happening in Northern Ireland and across the UK. Yes, we will ensure that we bring forward measures to this place to be scrutinised and pushed through as soon as possible.
Fraudsters, criminals and bad people take advantage of measures introduced in response to crises, whether financial or otherwise. This is an incredibly complex area. Every Member will have had constituents who have lost out one way or another through fraud over the years, so I hope the Minister will take the sentiments from across the House—I think every party in the House has spoken today—expressing concern about this issue and the delay that has come about. May I urge him to take two things into account? He says he is learning lessons. Will he learn the lessons from the response to the financial crisis, when our banks introduced measures that led to the virtual confiscation of, for example, more than 16,000 customers from the Global Restructuring Group within RBS? And can he please learn lessons to try to ensure proper corporate behaviour by lenders? Secondly, he mentions Action Fraud. The threshold for Action Fraud to investigate, or urge the police to investigate in various forces, is incredibly high. As a consequence, while we all urge our constituents to make contact with Action Fraud, invariably nothing follows.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. We recognise those constraints, which is why we are looking at replacing Action Fraud with a new organisation based with City of London police to try to tackle the areas he raises. We will also learn the lessons. He is absolutely right. We want to get the balance right, so that we are confiscating the right amount of money from the right people—the criminals.
Points of Order
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. During Northern Ireland Office questions, the hon. Member for Foyle (Colum Eastwood) made the extremely incendiary allegation that British troops went to his constituency in the ’70s with the express purpose of murdering the people who lived in Derry. We all have a responsibility in this place for the language we use. Legacy is extremely difficult to deal with. What guidance can you give me, Mr Speaker, so that when a Member repeatedly makes such claims—to generate whatever online presence he may have—that are clearly incendiary to people across the House and across the country, we can put a stop to that behaviour and behave in this place with the dignity that our offices demand?
First, I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving me notice of his point of order. These are very sensitive issues and, as I set out in my opening remarks ahead of Northern Ireland questions, Members should exercise caution in referring to historical troubles-related deaths. In this case, the details of the case and the names of those involved have not been referred to and nothing disorderly has occurred, but Members’ views are now on the record. May I take this opportunity to remind the House that good temper and moderation are the characteristics of parliamentary language? Perhaps we can learn from this point of order.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. As you will know, during the evacuation from Afghanistan many hon. Members were concerned about constituents who had loved ones stuck in Afghanistan. One issue that arose was how it came to be that Pen Farthing and Nowzad were allowed to evacuate animals while there were still people stuck in Afghanistan.
The Prime Minister said on 26 August that he had “no influence” on that particular case and nor would it be right. On 7 December, he was asked “Did you intervene to get Pen Farthing’s animals out?” He said, “No, that is complete nonsense.” And the Downing Street spokesperson said, “Neither the Prime Minister nor Mrs Johnson was involved.“ Yet today, as I think you are aware, Mr Speaker, the Foreign Affairs Committee has published a letter from Lord Goldsmith’s office saying,
“the PM has just authorised their staff and animals to be evacuated”.
How can I get to the bottom of who is telling the truth?
Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. Members will know how much correspondence we had on this. In the light of what is happening at the moment, people are very interested in the discrepancies between what the Prime Minister says to journalists versus what is revealed in this House. I seek your advice on how we can ensure that such discrepancies are clarified to Members of Parliament.
I thank both hon. Members for giving me notice of this point of order. Ministers themselves are responsible for their answers at the Dispatch Box. However, they are encouraged to correct, as quickly as possible, inadvertently incorrect statements made to the House, if such a mistake has occurred. We know the Treasury Bench will have heard this and, if what has been stated is correct, I would expect them to come to the House to put it right.
I know that for both Members this will not be the end, and quite rightly they will use their best endeavours and the different resources available within the House to ensure this is looked into. I presume the Foreign Affairs Committee may wish to do so, too.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I know that you and the House have been concerned about major Government announcements being leaked to the press. With the Sue Gray report, we think, about to be given to the Prime Minister, have you had assurances that the first that people will know about the report will be when this House has a statement? If the report is delivered on Thursday evening, will you ensure that there is a statement on Friday? The House is sitting on Friday to consider private Members’ Bills, and a statement might encourage more people to turn up.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving notice of his point of order. I have not been given notice of the date or time of any statement. However, the Treasury Bench will have heard his point of order. As I have said repeatedly, I expect all statements to be made first to this House to allow Members to question Ministers properly. As we know, the Prime Minister has promised to make a statement.
I would expect that Members will be able to see the report, and I would hope time will be given for them to digest it. I have not had any indication of when it will be coming, but I will work with the House to ensure that Members are aware of that statement. Hopefully, good notice will be given, but I am more than happy to suspend the sitting and leave it until later tonight if the report arrives. I am happy to work with the Leader of the House to ensure that the House is treated correctly, fairly and in the right manner. I reassure the hon. Gentleman that conversations between my office, the Leader of the House’s office and Downing Street are taking place in order to do the right thing by this House.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Thank you for your direction in relation to the point of order from the hon. Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Johnny Mercer). Like him and others in this House, the DUP is deeply concerned by allegations made by the hon. Member for Foyle (Colum Eastwood), alleging that paratroopers left here to go and murder. However, he totally ignores the issue that at the same time 50 years ago two police officers were murdered by the IRA, which set out to do that. How can I make sure that there is balance in the comments in this House?
When Members name a particular person or mention a constituency, please ensure that they are given notice. It is unfair if they do not know that they will be mentioned. You have been here long enough, and I am sure that you would like to speak to the relevant Member privately.
Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)
I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to create an offence of administering or attempting to administer drugs or alcohol to a person without their consent; and for connected purposes.
The subject of my Bill today, spiking, is both an old and a new issue, and one that causes considerable anxiety among the young, particularly teenagers, and their parents. Although drinks have been spiked for a long time, and chemicals were first used to poison and kill a soviet dissident in this country almost 50 years ago, the term “spiking” is relatively new, and spiking drinks happens much more frequently than it did. The phenomenon of spiking by injection at social events is both new and still mysterious.
Let me start with the context, go on to what is known, highlight what is less well known, and then lay out what the Government, Parliament, local police forces and local authorities are already doing and might do. Lastly, I will suggest what more could be done by Government. Our aim in this House is, as always, to protect our young and reassure the public. We can also send a clear message to those who think that spiking is fun. It is not. Spiking has a deeply unpleasant impact on many lives, and it is a crime that should be punishable in its own right.
For the context, I am grateful to many people: my constituent Rosie Farmer and her daughter Maisy; my own young office; colleagues, especially the former Lord Chancellor, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for South Swindon (Sir Robert Buckland), and others here today with their own experiences and constituent cases; organisations in Gloucestershire; the Chair of the Home Affairs Committee, the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Dame Diana Johnson), who is in her place, and her Committee and team; and Dawn Dines of “Stamp Out Spiking”, who has been on this case for a decade.
Spiking is not a far-away country of which we know little. It is happening all around us, and even to us. My hon. Friend the Member for Mid Sussex (Mims Davies) was spiked not long ago, as have been several other Members over time. Of course, many of us have children who have also been spiked. One colleague’s daughter was spiked twice in a nightclub. On both occasions, she collapsed and was carried outside by a bouncer and dumped unceremoniously on the pavement. We can all agree that that is not good enough, as would licensed victuallers associations around the country. There is much good practice to recommend, as I will go on to mention, but such incidents highlight both the grisly experience for a young woman and the frustrated feelings of her mother.
We can all relate to that, too, because where neither colleagues nor anyone in our or their immediate families have been spiked, our mailboxes tell us that our constituents have been. One colleague said:
“I know from my inbox that people of all ages and areas will be very pleased that this is being highlighted as it’s awful, can be embarrassing and is often very grim”.
She speaks for us all, as does another colleague, who wrote that
“speaking to police they find that most cases are young women with an unexpected response to drinks…I really worry about the fear that our young live under, and wonder whether this is another type of control of women.”
This not just about young women, although what data we have does suggest that in the vast majority of cases those affected are females. The worst spiking offender of all so far is Reynhard Sinaga—I am sorry to say, an Indonesian national—who was sentenced to a minimum of 30 years for using spiked drinks to sexually assault at least 48 males, many of whom did not know they had been assaulted until Mr Sinaga’s videos were discovered by the police. That confirms that there are male victims, and that there may be many more serious incidents, both on men and women, that we do not know about.
Colleagues from five parties are supporting my Bill today, and I hope the whole House will share my view that this is not a party political but an all-party and all-country issue on which reaching broad consensus inside and outside Parliament is the key to future success. We know already that there have been about 2,600 reported cases over the last five years and we suspect that that is the visible part of the iceberg, which means there is work to be done.
The last case in Manchester shows that there are laws that can be used to prosecute, and they have been used successfully in some cases. The two most relevant laws are the Offences against the Person Act 1861, which covers the use of noxious substances, and the Sexual Offences Act 2003, which covers spiking for sexual gratification. They are, as it were, the two bookends of the issue, but much in between is not covered, especially where it is not clear or cannot be proved what the purpose of spiking was or where the drug used cannot be identified, including because its effects have already worn off.
Most importantly, because spiking itself is not a specific crime, no one can be arrested simply for the act of spiking itself, nor is there enough data on spiking for adequate analysis and response, and at the moment it is not mandatory for hospitals automatically to report suspected spiking incidents to the police, as the National Police Chiefs’ Council lead on drugs confirmed to the Home Affairs Committee this morning. He and I, and I suspect all of us, would like that to change.
That is the context, those are the experiences and that is the gap in the law, which I think will surprise many of our constituents, and that is the main reason for making spiking a crime and therefore for proposing the Bill. As the Chair of the Home Affairs Committee recently said:
“There is not a specific criminal offence. If a drink is spiked or if an injection takes place, it is rolled into a different criminal offence.”
We need something more.
There is a conundrum about spiking to highlight. Spiking by injection is a relatively new phenomenon, but anecdotally, it is growing. Gloucestershire constabulary estimates that its usual historical number of reported spiking incidents of 10 to 12 cases a month rose to 48 in October, of which 10 were spiking by injection. That month coincided with the full reopening of universities, and I believe that is not a coincidence.
My constituent Maisy Farmer—I hope I will not do long-term damage to her reputation by describing her as a very sensible university student of criminology and policing—was behaving manically and completely out of character when recently returning home with friends from a nightclub in Worcester, and the next morning she found a needle mark on her arm that she suspected was evidence of having been spiked. Her mother, Rosie, contacted both her surgery and the Gloucester Royal Hospital A&E, but was told it was too late for tests. Maisy was signposted to sexual health services, which took some tests, and she received preventive inoculation against hepatitis B and HIV. The police, in turn, were very supportive, but without evidence of any substance in Maisy’s body or any known secondary offence, they could not do more. The point is that all these services reacted as they could and should, but if, as seems likely, spiking by needle had taken place, that is wrong and something must be done. The emotional stress alone is considerable. The question is what should be done.
If there is no evidence of a needle or substance and nothing on CCTV to follow up, it is difficult to know exactly what is happening. I understand why my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) said this morning that he is still confused by the prevalence of needle spiking without evidence; so, I believe, is the Policing Minister, who is in his place. However, that does not mean that nothing can be done—in fact, the opposite. Some of this is best done at a local level. The Gloucestershire police and crime commissioner’s recent successful safer streets fund award has partly been used to provide testing kits in nightclubs, which can be used by victims and others.
Then there is the question of immediate medical help. Gloucester City Council’s innovation of funding street medics means that immediate paramedic help is available. The local police’s Operation Nightingale, including an increased police presence, may be responsible for a sharp drop in incidents in December. Pooling the best local practice of such examples will be part of what the new national gold command incorporates in its recommendations to Ministers. I should mention that a drug often used in drink spiking, GHB, has been reclassified by the Government as a class B drug, meaning possession can result in a maximum five-year sentence. Last, but by no means least, is the work I referred to from the Home Affairs Committee. I hope that, should our constituents have more evidence to share, the Committee will welcome it, because we need all the possible light that we can shine, especially on spiking by needles.
Spiking is already a considerable issue and is getting worse. Spiking by injection needs more research and investigation. We could send a clear message today in support of the work of all local authorities and answer student groups from St Andrews to Truro, MPs from across the country, “Love Island” contestants and parents everywhere that we want to enlist in a more open partnership with communities by saying that we care and that we will do more. I hope the Bill will have the support of the nation.
Question put and agreed to.
That Richard Graham, Sir Robert Buckland, Siobhan Baillie, Wendy Chamberlain, Wera Hobhouse, Dr Rupa Huq, Cherilyn Mackrory, Mrs Maria Miller, Robbie Moore, Liz Saville Roberts, Jim Shannon and Valerie Vaz present the Bill.
Richard Graham accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the first time; to be read a second time on Friday 18 March, and to be printed (Bill 238).