House of Commons
Wednesday 9 March 2022
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Business Before Questions
Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority
The Vice-Chamberlain of the Household reported to the House, That the Humble Address of 31 January, praying that Her Majesty will appoint Lea Paterson to the office of ordinary member of the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority for a period of five years with effect from 14 March 2022, was presented to Her Majesty, who was graciously pleased to comply with the request.
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
Northern Ireland Protocol
I begin with some brief remarks regarding the public apology to be delivered on Friday 11 March by the Northern Ireland parties to victims and survivors of historical institutional abuse.
The Hart report into historical institutional abuse in Northern Ireland was published in 2017. I particularly thank and note the hard work of the Northern Ireland Office, the Northern Ireland civil service and my predecessors, my right hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire Moorlands (Karen Bradley), who put so much time and focus into this, and my right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon (Julian Smith), who delivered the Historical Institutional Abuse (Northern Ireland) Act in December 2019, securing a key recommendation of the Hart report to establish a redress system for victims who suffered abuse while resident in these institutions in Northern Ireland.
It is only right that victims and survivors are now receiving a formal apology for the abhorrent abuse they suffered while residing in institutions that were meant to care for them. This is another key recommendation of the Hart report, and it is to be welcomed. For too many years, the voices of victims and their appeals for help went unheard, and on 11 March they will receive a full and unconditional apology that is so deserved.
In answer to Questions 1 and 9, I regularly meet Cabinet colleagues to discuss Northern Ireland matters, including the Northern Ireland protocol. The situation in Northern Ireland is serious, and the Government are keeping all options available to make sure we achieve a positive outcome.
I am pleased to hear the Secretary of State’s statement.
The Russian war of aggression against Ukraine threatens to undermine global food security, including for people across these islands, by cutting the world off from 30% of all grain supplies and undermining global production of fertiliser for other foodstuffs. Unbelievably, recent media reports suggest that senior Brexiteers are pressing the Government to trigger article 16 and proclaim unfinished business with the EU. Such action would be reckless and unnecessary even without a war raging on the European continent. Will the Government take triggering article 16 off the table once and for all?
Absolutely not. We are very clear that we have to keep all options on the table. Article 16 is part of the protocol and, if we cannot resolve these issues, it is the proper legal process to take things forward. Ultimately, the right result, and the result on which we and the Foreign Secretary are focused, is getting a resolution by agreement with the EU. Be in no doubt that we are determined to make sure Northern Ireland can access goods from Great Britain in the way it should, which we should all support.
Many of us in this House are deeply concerned about the lack of progress in these negotiations. Does the Secretary of State recognise that the sovereignty issue for Northern Ireland still remains on the table with regard to EU lawmaking? Although the context is quite different, it is worth remembering that we are also dealing with the Ukrainian situation, which is also an issue of sovereignty.
My hon. Friend makes an important and accurate point. The reality is that we have not seen enough progress, and are not yet seeing enough flexibility and pragmatism from the EU. What is positive is that there is a recognition now, including in the conversations I have had with Vice-President Šefčovič, that issues with the protocol need to be resolved. We all want to see that happen at a much faster pace, and to see more flexibility on all these issues, both on trade and, as he rightly says, on remembering that Northern Ireland is an integral part of the United Kingdom and its internal market.
We know that viruses and many infectious agents do not stick to international, let alone domestic, borders, as we have seen in both the human and animal health settings. With that in mind, does my right hon. Friend agree that if the UK and the EU were to agree a veterinary and SPS—sanitary and phytosanitary—agreement, that would not only protect the biosecurity of the UK, but facilitate trade and the movement of plant and animal produce between Great Britain and Northern Ireland?
My hon. Friend gives an example of one area where we are keen to see flexibility from the EU, so that we can see some resolution. We have put forward a range of constructive proposals to meet the objectives—respecting the single market of the EU while making sure that we achieve our prime priority, which is protecting all aspects of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement—such as the green channel proposals, which can deal with east-west customs and those SPS burdens that he mentioned. We have to make sure that we find a resolution that works, and that means goods can flow from Great Britain to Northern Ireland—the goods that are not at risk of moving to the EU—in the way they always have done.
I am not sure I am in a position to give betting odds in terms of percentages. The experience we have had with the EU so far, in the past six to nine months, has shown us a lack of the pragmatism and flexibility that we need to see. We have not seen the EU move in a way that allows us to resolve the issues of the protocol, either the trade issues or the wider issues of identity and sovereignty. It is important that we do that. We have to be realistic about the reality of that lack of progress and flexibility, which is why I am clear that we take no options off the table.
The reason the Secretary of State cannot give a direct answer to the question is because Ministers and the Prime Minister have been telling so many people informally so many different answers. That is a reason why there is such a lack of trust in the Government at the moment. Queen’s University Belfast has just carried out a poll, which found:
“The UK government is by far the most distrusted…of all actors”.
That is because so much is happening in the shadows; Ministers are telling people different things behind closed doors. Since the Executive collapsed, there has been no statement to the House. Following five rounds of negotiations between the UK and the EU Governments, there has not been a single statement to the House. Will the Secretary of State promise to bring discussions out of the shadows and start making statements to the House, so that we can have things on the record and not behind closed doors?
I think the hon. Gentleman misunderstands how negotiations need to work. We have been clear that it is right and appropriate that we have the space to have those private negotiations with the EU, which is why we have not gone out and publicly outlined some of the specific details we have put. But we have been very clear, and I am very clear publicly as well as privately, that we take no options off the table. We do need to resolve this. There is a point at which there is a judgment call for the UK Government to make on whether those negotiations are able to progress in a way that gives us confidence that we can get to a positive resolution. We have not seen that flexibility from the EU yet, but we will continue to strain every sinew, and the Foreign Secretary continues to talk to Maroš Šefčovič, to do everything we can to get a resolution that works. But we have to be very clear: this is about a resolution that respects all aspects of the Good Friday agreement and protects the best interests of the people of Northern Ireland.
The period of purdah in the run-up to the Northern Ireland Assembly election is fast approaching. Does my right hon. Friend acknowledge the need to make real, serious progress before that period commences? Does he anticipate that such progress will be made?
It is important that we get progress as quickly as possible, regardless of the pre-election period in Northern Ireland, because every day that we are not seeing that flexibility from the EU is another day when consumers in Northern Ireland cannot access products; when the Jewish community cannot access, technically, under the EU provisions, kosher food; when businesses cannot get access to the products they need; and when more than 200 Great Britain businesses are not supplying Northern Ireland. That affects the economy of both Northern Ireland and the wider UK, and we need to resolve that as quickly as we can.
Further to that answer, may I draw to the Secretary of State’s attention the situation of my constituent from Dromore who is disabled and confined to a wheelchair? Three weeks ago, the ramp on the back of her disability-adapted motor vehicle broke. When she went to order the spare part from the supplier in England, she was told it could not be sent to her because she was not registered with Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs to trade with the rest of the United Kingdom. That is precisely the kind of difficulty that the protocol is causing for ordinary people in Northern Ireland and the idea that we just ignore it, sweep it under the carpet and forget about article 16 ignores the rights of my constituents.
The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. There are multiple examples out there, whether it is the issues for the Jewish community that I just outlined or the individual case he has. Both he and I have heard of cases of other people who are unable to access products and goods, some of which are very important so that they can continue to live their lives in the way that any other UK citizen could. That is not good enough. We need to be clear with the EU that its current lack of flexibility puts at risk the very thing that the protocol was there to protect: the Belfast/Good Friday agreement and peace and prosperity in Northern Ireland. It is right that we keep the pressure on. We will strain every sinew, and I hope the EU will show flexibility and pragmatism to resolve the issue that it now recognises, which is that the protocol is not working and is, I have to say, just not sustainable in its current form.
At this time, households throughout the United Kingdom, including in Northern Ireland, are struggling because of rapidly increasing home-heating costs. In Northern Ireland, we are subject to European Union VAT rules, which means that if the Chancellor of the Exchequer sought to reduce VAT on home-heating oil, he would need the permission of the EU and all 27 member states. Surely, it cannot be right that my constituents are being deprived of the support they need from the Government because of the protocol.
In February this year we put a further £250 million into the Executive to allow them more flexibility, on top of their underspend, to support people at a time when there are such pressures. The right hon. Gentleman is quite right to highlight another of the many areas where the protocol is creating real problems on the ground for people in their everyday lives. We must remember that the protocol itself says it will not disrupt the everyday lives of people in their communities; the right hon. Gentleman has given yet another example of how the implementation of the protocol is doing exactly that. That has to stop.
I associate myself and my party with the Secretary of State’s remarks at the outset about victims of historical abuse and the forthcoming apology.
Another important part of the Northern Ireland protocol is article 3, which says:
“The United Kingdom shall ensure that the Common Travel Area and the rights and privileges associated therewith can continue to apply…in particular with respect to free movement to, from and within”—
the island of Ireland—
“for Union citizens and their family members, irrespective of their nationality.”
Does the Secretary of State recognise the potential economic and political strain that the introduction of an electronic travel authorisation system could put on freedom of movement across the border? What engagement does he plan to have with the Government of Northern Ireland and the Government of the Republic and their partners in the EU in respect of how to make sure such frictions do not take effect?
I am sure the hon. Gentleman will be aware that throughout the pandemic we have made sure we have kept the common travel area flowing and open. That has not necessarily been the case on the part of the Irish Government at certain points, but we have done that; we think it is important and we will continue to do that. I am looking to have further talks with the Irish Government. My officials have been talking to them about all these issues this week and last week, and I will continue to do that myself as well.
Her Majesty the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee
Next month marks 75 years since the young Princess Elizabeth made her famous pledge:
“I declare before you all that my whole life whether it be long or short shall be devoted to your service”.
My Department is working closely with colleagues across Government, and we will play our full part in celebrating the achievement of Her Majesty the Queen on the occasion of her platinum jubilee. It will be the nation’s opportunity to recognise all that she has given to the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth, to express to her all she means to us, and to say to her with gratitude and in unity: long may she reign over us—God save the Queen.
I very much associate myself with the Minister’s remarks. I know the celebration of the platinum jubilee will be a cross-Government effort, but will he assure me that he is working with the devolved Administrations to ensure it is an entire-UK event, with all parts of the United Kingdom joining together to celebrate this momentous occasion?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right: this is an occasion that should unite the whole of the United Kingdom—all regions and all nations of the United Kingdom. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I are working closely with local authorities and the Government in Northern Ireland to make sure that this is something that brings communities together. We will want to remember some of the 25 occasions that the Queen has visited Northern Ireland: three of them as Princess Elizabeth and 22 of them as Queen. We want to involve young people and we want to use the opportunity of the jubilee to celebrate the best of Northern Ireland.
I recently was proud to join colleagues from across the House in setting up the all-party group for the Queen’s platinum jubilee. Can the Minister tell us what steps he is taking to ensure that the celebration extends across the United Kingdom and that it is used to showcase the benefits of our UK, with Northern Ireland as an integral part of it?
This occasion should bring us all together. In that light and specifically with reference to Northern Ireland, I would like to welcome the comments of the Leader of Sinn Fein who said that she wanted to
“extend to the British Queen a word of congratulations because 70 years is quite some achievement.”
“That is what you call a lifetime of service.”
Those comments have made it easier for us in Northern Ireland to celebrate this in all communities across the whole of Northern Ireland.
The platinum jubilee presents a great opportunity to celebrate and reaffirm the place of all parts of our United Kingdom, especially in Northern Ireland, which, this year, has celebrated its centenary year. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the celebrations will include UK-wide events, including in Northern Ireland, to celebrate all 70 years of Her Majesty’s service? Will he also encourage all primary school-aged children in North West Durham to take part in my competition to design a platinum jubilee card for Her Majesty?
The example that my hon. Friend gives of the competition that he is running in his own constituency will, I am sure, be replicated across the House. I can give him the assurance that Northern Ireland will participate in all of the national events around the jubilee: the platinum pudding competition; the big jubilee lunch. This is a great celebration for us all to enjoy in a spirit of unity.
The Minister was right to reflect on the comments from the Leader of Sinn Fein. They are rare and he will know that, in Northern Ireland, there still pervades a lack of generosity about the huge commitment and dignity that Her Majesty has shown our United Kingdom. He will also know that there is a stark contrast between the Northern Ireland Office’s position on celebrating the centenary last year, with the construction of a forum and the allocation of funds, and the tame approach when it comes to the platinum jubilee. Will the Minister outline whether he will dedicate significant resource, so that we can celebrate this historic achievement in style?
I do not totally agree with the characterisation of the hon. Gentleman around the centenary programme that the Northern Ireland Office ran. I thought that it was bold, that it was inclusive and that it recognised the unique circumstances—[Interruption.] Oh, the hon. Gentleman said that he welcomed it. Sorry, I misheard him. Mr Speaker, I apologise to the hon. Gentleman. I am so used to criticism from the Democratic Unionist party that that rare outbreak of consensus passed me by. I can give him my total assurance that we will be marking this jubilee with full throttle, joy and celebration, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will be coming forward with some very innovative ideas about how we will mark it, especially in Northern Ireland.
Promoting Trade and Investment
May I say to my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Greg Smith) that it is particularly good to see him in his place today?
I recently attended the Northern Ireland Day at the Dubai Expo, where I met many Northern Irish businesses already exporting globally, including White’s Oats, Kiverco and Greenfields. We also had the opportunity to meet with two sovereign wealth funds, which, I am pleased to report to the House, have accepted our invitation to come to Northern Ireland and look at the opportunities to invest in Northern Ireland as part of their programme of investing in the United Kingdom.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that answer. Thanks to our exit from the European Union, the United Kingdom is able to strike trade deals around the world without being constrained by the bureaucrats in Brussels. Can he assure me that he is working with his colleagues in the Department for International Trade to ensure that businesses in Northern Ireland which export their products are given full and due consideration in all trade deal negotiations?
I can assure my hon. Friend that, as a former Minister of State for Trade Policy, I bring that worldview to my role as Minister of State in Northern Ireland. The short answer to his question is yes; I am delighted that we have now opened a new Department for International Trade hub in the heart of Belfast. I recently met the Economy Minister, Gordon Lyons at the Northern Ireland Showcase and we introduced him to the President of the Board of Trade before Christmas. We have put £8 million into Invest NI to help it to promote Northern Ireland abroad. Northern Ireland is an integral part of the United Kingdom’s offer to the world and will benefit fully from our international trade agreements.
While it is obviously important to bring investment into Northern Ireland, my constituents in Derry are struggling right now with soaring energy bills. A mile across the border, the Irish Government are cutting vehicle excise duty by up to 20% for petrol and diesel. This Government are very keen and very quick to raise national insurance contributions and to cut universal credit. Will they be quick to cut vehicle excise duty to save people from the soaring costs that are crippling home budgets?
On 3 February this year the Government announced that the Northern Ireland Executive will receive an additional £250 million to help them to support households with the cost of living. He mentions tax changes, but it would be imprudent of me as a junior Minister to comment ahead of the Chancellor’s making statements to the House.
I can. We did extensive work with the Department for the Economy and the hon. Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley) was heavily involved in lobbying on that. We think it would be a great thing to bring to Northern Ireland and we are determined to build on the work we have already done to see whether that is possible next year.
Last week, I was in Northern Ireland with members of the UK Trade and Business Commission, where we heard from a major supermarket about the impact that the protocol could have in future if the grace periods no longer exist. I listened carefully to the Secretary of State’s answer to the hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Dr Hudson) earlier, when he suggested an SPS agreement as a way forward. Can we be clear that the Government are seeking an SPS agreement with the EU that differentiates the goods that are at risk of going into the EU, and those that are not?
I must say to the right hon. Gentleman, whom I hold in high regard, that I was delighted that he was in Northern Ireland to hear first-hand some of the challenges Northern Ireland is facing. What we are seeking, as the Secretary of State, the Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister have all made very clear, is to take the protocol back in its application to how it was intended. It says in the protocol that,
“the application of this Protocol should impact as little as possible on the everyday life of communities in…Northern Ireland”.
It also refers to,
“the importance of maintaining the integral place of Northern Ireland in the United Kingdom’s internal market”.
The disruption that the implementation of the protocol is having in Northern Ireland is not sustainable. That is why the Government are committed to finding a negotiated solution.
On inward investment, the realisation of the redevelopment of Casement Park, a third sporting stadium in Belfast, would give Northern Ireland the opportunity to host sporting events on an international stage and bring communities together. What input or influence, if any, have the Secretary of State and his Minister on that? Could the £1.2 billion that the Northern Ireland Executive have returned to the Treasury since 2016 be used to realise such projects for Northern Ireland?
I welcome the comments from the Labour Front Bench. We look at a whole range of opportunities for investment in Northern Ireland, to give it the opportunity to attract inward investment and to host international events. That will be a core part of what we are able to do through levelling up, and it is a key thing that the Secretary of State and I have been driving through our city and growth deals to help Northern Ireland and communities in Northern Ireland to attract investment that creates jobs and prosperity, which is the best way to underpin peace.
Northern Ireland (Ministers, Elections and Petitions of Concern) Act 2022
The Northern Ireland (Ministers, Elections and Petitions of Concern) Act 2022 was specifically designed to improve the sustainability of the Northern Ireland institutions. The benefits include allowing more time and space for the formation of an Executive following an election or the resignation of the First or Deputy First Minister.
I was pleased to serve on the Bill Committee for that legislation, and it is now clear that it was timely, given the recent resignations of Northern Ireland’s First Minister and Deputy First Minister. Can my right hon. Friend assure me that he is emphasising to Northern Ireland’s political parties that they all need to play their part and work together to achieve stable devolved Government?
Yes, I can give my hon. Friend that assurance. He is absolutely right. I continue to speak to a range of stakeholders, including the party leaders in Northern Ireland, about the importance of having a strong, functioning Northern Ireland Executive. A couple of them are in the Chamber now, and I have expressed to them my desire to have a First Minister and Deputy First Minister nominated now and after the May elections.
The Government have been clear that they want to legislate for the language and culture package of New Decade, New Approach before the Assembly rises for the elections, which is only two weeks away. Is that pledge going to happen in the next two weeks?
The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point. I am absolutely committed to ensuring that we deliver on our promise, as is the Prime Minister, as we set out last summer, and indeed that we deliver on all our commitments in the New Decade, New Approach deal, which brought Stormont back.
The Prime Minister was asked—
Never before has this House listened to an address such as the one given yesterday by President Zelensky. I want to tell the House that, working with our friends and allies across the free world, we will be doing even more in the coming days to protect the people of Ukraine. My right hon. Friend the Defence Secretary will set out more details for the House later.
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.
My son Ben died of an aortic dissection at age 44, leaving a wife and two young children. It is a condition that kills 2,000 every year needlessly—more than those who die on the roads—yet most people do not know anything about it until it devastates their family, as it did mine. So many of these cases are preventable by identifying those at risk and through early and accurate diagnosis. Will the Prime Minister commend the work of the Aortic Dissection Charitable Trust in working with all aspects of the patient pathway for this condition? In particular, will he commit to public funding for research into the diagnosis of aortic dissection and into genetic screening for it?
May I first say to my hon. Friend how very sorry I am, as I am sure the whole House is, for the loss of her son Ben? She is a passionate advocate for this work, and I also thank the Aortic Dissection Charitable Trust. She is completely right that accurate and fast diagnosis and treatment is crucial, which is why I am pleased that the National Institute for Health Research is looking to do further work in this area, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care will meet her at his earliest convenience.
The typical energy bill is going up by £700 next month, and that is because of pressures before Russia invaded Ukraine. What is the Chancellor’s solution? A forced £200 loan for every household, to be paid back in mandatory instalments over five years. The big gamble behind that policy was that energy costs would drop quickly after a short spike. That bet now looks certain to fail. When will the Prime Minister force the Chancellor into a U-turn?
My right hon. Friend the Chancellor has set out plans to help families with energy costs and unprecedented measures to abate council tax by £150, in addition to all the other schemes that we are putting forward. Yes, the right hon. and learned Gentleman is absolutely right that we need to meet the long-term impacts of the spike in energy prices, which is why I will be setting out an energy independence plan for this country in the course of the next few days, to ensure that we undo some of the damage of previous decisions—not least the Labour Government’s decision not to invest in nuclear—and so that we prepare our people for the long term, with a sustainable, cost-efficient energy supply.
I do not think the Prime Minister understands the mess he is in. Working families are facing a £700 spike in April. They will not even receive their £200 loan from the Chancellor until October. The wholesale price of oil and gas is now ballooning, so by October when the loan finally comes in, household bills are set to shoot up by another £1,000. It is a total mess, so I ask again: when is the Prime Minister going to force the Chancellor to U-turn?
If the right hon. and learned Gentleman is asking for the Chancellor to U-turn on the support we are giving families and households, I think that he is absolutely out of his mind. We are going to continue to give people support throughout this difficult period, as we did throughout the coronavirus epidemic, with unprecedented levels of support. We have a £200 discount on bills, a £150 non-repayable reduction in council tax, and £144 million extra to help councils support vulnerable families with their energy bills. Altogether, there is a £20 billion package of financial help that we are giving the British people, and we will continue to do more. A U-turn is the last thing we want.
We will see how long that position lasts. Let me try to help the Prime Minister by coming at this from a different angle. Before Russia invaded Ukraine, North sea oil and gas companies were making bumper profits. BP made £9.5 billion, Shell made £14 billion—in their own words,
“more cash than we know what to do with.”
Since then, the international price of oil and gas has skyrocketed, and so will their profits. When will the Prime Minister admit he has got this badly wrong, put a windfall tax on those super-profits, and use the money to cut household energy bills?
The net result of that would simply be to see the oil companies put their prices up yet higher and make it more difficult for them to do what we need them to do—which, by the way, I think they are doing very responsibly at the moment—which is divesting from dependence on Russian oil and gas. That is the way forward for this country: to take a sober, responsible approach to end our dependence on hydrocarbons altogether, particularly Russian hydrocarbons. We are taking steps to rectify some of the mistakes made by the Labour Government and have a long-term, sustainable, independent energy supply policy. That is what this country needs.
Protecting energy profits, not working people—doesn’t that say it all? Britain cannot afford another crisis like this. We need to improve our long-term energy security. That starts with supporting new nuclear and renewables, but the Conservatives have effectively banned new onshore wind. As a direct result of this short-sighted approach, we are using more gas every year than we import from Russia. That is ludicrous, so will the Prime Minister relax planning laws, end the block on onshore wind, and stop supporting policies that make us so dependent on foreign gas?
It is thanks to the policies that this Government have pursued that we are dependent on Russian gas for only 3% of our gas needs, unlike virtually every other European country. It is thanks to the massive investment we have made in renewables that we are—as I have said many times in this House—the Saudi Arabia of wind power, producing more offshore wind than virtually any other country in the world. By the way, this may be news to some of his party, but I think the right hon. and learned Gentleman just committed to supporting more nuclear power. Great news! There is more joy in heaven over one sinner that repenteth than over a hundred others. Those were the people who cancelled our nuclear efforts during the time they were in power—they did completely the wrong thing. I am delighted to now welcome them into the fold.
Come off it! Labour is pro-nuclear. This Prime Minister cannot get a single brick laid of a new nuclear plant. Energy security is not just about supply; it is also about reducing demand. Our housing stock is the least efficient in Europe. That is why Labour set out a plan to upgrade the 19 million British homes that desperately need it within a decade, saving families £400 on their energy bills and cutting UK gas imports by 15%, whereas all the Government have is a failed policy. Taking all their announcements together, it will take 75 years to deliver the upgrades that we need. That is a lifetime, when we need urgent action. When is the Prime Minister going to get on with it?
I just remind the House that under the Labour Government, our nuclear output fell from about 25% to 10% of our energy needs, and as I recall, that was because of the decisions they took. We are now going to rectify that. The right hon. and learned Gentleman asked about the cost of energy bills, and we are helping households with the cost of energy bills to the tune of £9.1 billion. Why can this Government afford to do that? Why can we afford to put huge quantities of taxpayers’ money into supporting households with their energy costs? I will tell you why, Mr Speaker: it is because we have the fastest growth in the G7. Do not forget that if we had listened to Captain Hindsight, we would have stayed in lockdown and never achieved it.
Twelve years in power and that is the best the Prime Minister can do. The Ukrainian people are fighting for democracy. We must stand with them, and that means taking the toughest possible measures against Putin. Let us be honest that there will be costs here at home. We can withstand those costs, and we must, by using a windfall tax to keep bills down for working people and by starting a new era of energy policy, never again at the mercy of a dictator, by supporting new nuclear after years of neglect, sprinting on renewables, including onshore wind, and having an urgent national mission to upgrade homes, ending years of dither and delay. Why is the Prime Minister offering the same failed energy policy that cast us into the security crisis and allowed bills to rocket? [Interruption.]
What we are junking is the failed energy policies that left us without enough nuclear power, and what we will do is go forward with policies that allow this country to be independent in our energy supply, maximising renewables, making sure that we use transitional hydrocarbons and going for nuclear as well. As I say, I am overjoyed that Labour now seems to occupy that position. What we will also do, and here the right hon. and learned Gentleman has been supportive, is ensure that as a House of Commons we work together to maintain our opposition to Vladimir Putin’s vile war in Ukraine. There, together with the toughest possible economic sanctions and by maintaining our military support for the people of Ukraine, I have no doubt that although there will be dark days ahead and difficult times, we will come through it stronger. I have no doubt that Vladimir Putin will fail and we will succeed in restoring a sovereign and independent Ukraine.
I thank my hon. Friend. He is a fantastic champion for his constituents in Wantage. As I understand it, the decision on the Abingdon reservoir has not actually been made, but we would expect Thames Water to consult further on the proposal. I know that it will have heard the points that he has rightly made.
We are now 14 days into Putin’s war. In that time, I have genuinely tried to work constructively with the UK Government and I will continue to seek to do that. Nobody should support the Government, however, when it comes to their response to the refugee crisis—760 visa approvals in two weeks is disgraceful.
In that time, Poland has taken over 1.2 million refugees, Hungary has taken over 190,000 refugees, Germany has taken over 50,000 refugees, Italy has taken over 7,000 refugees and Ireland—a country of just over 5 million people—has given sanctuary to three times as many refugees as the United Kingdom. Those numbers do not lie; they tell a devastating truth. Does the Prime Minister find it acceptable that his Home Secretary has overseen one of the slowest, most bureaucratic and incompetent refugee responses in the whole of Europe?
I think everybody sympathises with the plight of refugees. The Government want to do everything we can to welcome them and that is indeed what we are doing. The numbers are almost 1,000 as I speak to the right hon. Gentleman today, and they will rise very sharply. They are uncapped and we expect those numbers to rise to in the region of hundreds of thousands.
As Vladimir Putin doubles down in his attacks, we will go further and there will be routes by which the whole country can offer a welcome to vulnerable people fleeing from Ukraine. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities will be setting out that route in the course of the next few days. This Government have a proud, proud record. We have done more to resettle vulnerable people than any other European country since 2015.
I do not think the Prime Minister understands the scale of the challenge or the urgency. These are people fleeing war crimes, torn apart from their families as their homes are shelled, and the Home Secretary is blocking them with endless paperwork. That is not just incompetence; this is ideology. In the face of the biggest refugee crisis in Europe since the second world war, the UK Government will not set aside the hostile environment. [Interruption.] By the way, we are seeing the hostile environment this afternoon—Conservative Members might quieten down a bit.
We have seen that too many times from a Tory Home Office: the Windrush scandal, the “Go home” vans, and the inhumane Nationality and Borders Bill. The UK Home Office is raising barriers and bureaucracy when we should be offering care and compassion. I say to the Prime Minister that he should not let the history of failure repeat itself. Scotland stands ready to offer sanctuary and refuge, so will he join the rest of the European continent and waive the visa restrictions for refugees fleeing war in Ukraine?
This country has an unparalleled record—[Interruption.] Just since—[Interruption.] Since I have been Prime Minister, look at the numbers we have taken from Afghanistan and Hong Kong. The right hon. Gentleman lectures the Home Secretary, but this is a Government unlike any other: the Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister and the Home Secretary are directly descended from refugees. We understand how much refugees have to give to this country and we understand how much this country has to gain from welcoming refugees. We will be generous and we are being generous.
What we are doing is making sure that, in those neighbouring countries, the UK is out in front giving humanitarian assistance and we are in every capital. [Interruption.] SNP Members laugh, they mock, they scoff, but this country is leading in every respect. We are also the single biggest donor of humanitarian aid to the Ukraine warzone—the single biggest donor—and the right hon. Gentleman should be proud of that.
I thank my right hon. Friend very much, and I thank him for all the work that he does in this area, but I hope he will have heard what I just said in my answer to the leader of the SNP, which is that this Government are I think unlike any other in our understanding of what refugees can give and the benefits to this country. We have done more than any other to resettle vulnerable people since 2015. There is a huge opportunity now for us to do even more. That is why my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Levelling Up will be setting out a route by which the British people—not just the family reunion route, which can run into the hundreds of thousands, but a route by which everybody in this country—can offer a home to people fleeing Ukraine. My right hon. Friend will be setting that out in the course of the next few days.
The Prime Minister will be acutely aware of the pressures facing households across the United Kingdom, including in Northern Ireland, with the rapid increase in the cost of heating homes and running a motor vehicle. Heating a home has more than doubled for many households in Northern Ireland in recent weeks. Will the Prime Minister commit to bringing forward a package of measures designed to help households, including a cut in VAT on home heating fuel and reducing or cutting excise duty on fuel for motorists, and will he ensure that those measures apply to Northern Ireland, where the Northern Ireland protocol once again presents a problem in this Government taking control over the affairs of all of the United Kingdom? Will the decisions that the Treasury takes apply to the whole of the United Kingdom?
We will make sure that we do everything to support the people of the whole of the United Kingdom, including Northern Ireland, and we have already extended a further £250 million to help the people of Northern Ireland with the costs of living, particularly heating. As the right hon. Gentleman knows, excise on fuel has been frozen for the last 12 years. We will ensure that the people of Northern Ireland continue to be protected, along with everybody in the UK, from the cost of living crisis, but the House should be in no doubt that the pressures on energy will continue. We need a pan-UK solution, and that is what we are going to be setting out.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right that food security is a crucial issue. It is affected of course by the cost of energy, and the energy inputs into agriculture are certainly something that we need to address. There is also a separate issue to do with childhood obesity. The House passed measures already in the autumn—the ones to which he refers—and we are giving the industry more time to adjust to the impact of those measures.
We have an overall cap, and obviously EDF is incorporated differently in the UK from its incorporation in France. We will do everything in our power to abate the costs of energy across the country, as we already are, but what is needed is a short-term, medium-term and long-term energy strategy so that we have sustainable supplies.
Yes, I am delighted that there will be a new hospital at Shotley Bridge, and I congratulate my hon. Friend on the work he has done to lobby for that. It proves that, in spite of the pandemic and in spite of war in Ukraine, this Government are getting on with the job.
I thank the hon. Gentleman very much. I think everybody understands the anguish of people who have not been able to see their loved ones during the pandemic, and as he knows, we have relaxed the restrictions in care homes. I would be happy to offer a meeting between him and the relevant Health Minister to discuss his further concerns.
Yes. I thank the House for what we have done to accelerate the economic crime measures. We will be able to whip aside the veil of anonymity. Ownership of the luxurious dwellings to which my hon. Friend refers will be exposed and, yes, we will be able to take away the ability to remain in this country.
I thank the hon. Lady very much and she raises an important issue. Clearly, the spike in energy prices is going to fall most heavily on vulnerable people such as the ones she mentioned, and we will certainly be looking at ways to abate their costs.
I thank my hon. Friend. He is a great champion for Eastleigh. The planning framework is robust and should ensure that quarries do not have an adverse impact on the environment or on health. I will ensure that he gets a meeting with the relevant Minister to discuss his concerns further.
Yesterday, President Zelensky drew on the words of Churchill in this Chamber. As we salute the courage of the people of Ukraine, it reminds us that we can meet in freedom today only because of the courage of a generation of men and women who, in the second world war, defended us from annihilation. Among them is my friend Flight Lieutenant Colin Bell DFC, who flew his de Havilland Mosquito in 50 missions over Nazi Germany. Colin Bell is with us today. On Saturday, he celebrated his 101st birthday. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear!”] Will the Prime Minister join me in wishing Colin a very happy birthday and thank him for what he did to allow us to be here today?
I really do not think that that question reflects the views of people around the world. Nor does it reflect reality because this Government have done more than any other European country to support people by way of direct bilateral humanitarian aid, and we have two very generous schemes for allowing people to come to this country. This is a Government who believe in welcoming people fleeing from zones of conflict.
We were pleased to welcome both the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities to Blackpool the day after the launch of the levelling up White Paper. Will he meet me to discuss how we can ensure that Blackpool is not just a testbed for innovation in many areas of levelling up but a showcase for the impact that it can have on the community that I represent?
I thank my hon. Friend for his wonderful work in Blackpool for the communities he represents. It was fantastic to be with him and to see the extension and upgrading of the tram network in Blackpool, which will help to drive the economy and help to bring in high-wage, high-skilled jobs, in the way we hope to do across the whole of the UK as we get on with levelling up.
In the months before world war two, the UK took in more than 60,000 Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi persecution. Over half a century ago, we took in more than 27,000 Ugandans expelled by Idi Amin. Since then, we have taken Tamils escaping civil war, Bosnians escaping genocide and Syrians escaping Assad. But this week, the Home Office turned away hundreds of Ukrainian refugees escaping Putin’s bombs because they did not have the right paperwork. Can the Prime Minister not see that that flies in the face of our country’s proud tradition of providing sanctuary? Since the Home Office is clearly not up to the task, will he send in armed forces personnel to speed up the process so that Ukrainian refugees can come here quickly and safely?
I thank the right hon. Gentleman very much. The whole House wants to do as much as we can as fast as possible, but what he says about the UK is, I am afraid, completely wrong, because we have visa centres open in Warsaw, Budapest, Prague, Rzeszów in Poland, Chi inău in Moldova, Bucharest and elsewhere. We have already got 1,000 people in under the existing scheme. That number will climb very sharply. Look at what we have done already—15,000 from Afghanistan, 104,000 applications from Hong Kong Chinese, and I think there were about 25,000 from Syria. No one has been turned away. That is simply—[Interruption.] We want to be as generous—[Interruption.] It is important to have checks. Let me make this point to the House because I think people need to understand.
There are some people who would like to dispense with checks altogether and simply to wave people through—[Interruption.] I hear the voices on the Opposition Benches, and I think that that is irresponsible and is not the approach that we should be taking. The Schengen countries have a different arrangement. We must be in no doubt, as I said in answer to a previous question, that the Kremlin has singled out this country for the approach that we are taking, and we know how unscrupulous Vladimir Putin can be in his methods. It would not be right to expose this country to unnecessary security risk and we will not do it. We are going to be as generous as we can possibly be, but we must have checks.
My community in Tipton came together on Sunday to commemorate the 100 years since the devastating explosion at the Dudley Port munitions factory and the 19 girls who were recklessly murdered by the owner of that factory. In the Black Country, it is vital that we acknowledge both the pride and the pain of our industrial heritage. May I ask my right hon. Friend, therefore, to reaffirm his commitment today to the Black Country to ensure that we honour the legacy of those girls from that factory in Dudley Port 100 years ago? The one way that he can do that for my community in Tipton is to come to Tipton to see that beating heart of the Black Country, and we will welcome him with open arms.
I have a constituent whose elderly parents are seeking refuge in the United Kingdom from Ukraine. Her parents are both in their 80s. They have made it to Hungary. They went to the visa application centre, as instructed by the Home Office hotline, and they were told, “Come back on 22 March.” Then, and only then, will their biometrics be processed. That is the harsh reality—no spin, no subterfuge. Prime Minister, when will refugees from Ukraine be welcomed into the United Kingdom?
I thank the hon. Gentleman. If he would be kind enough, I would be grateful if he passed me the details of the case that he mentioned and I would be happy to give it to my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary. We are moving heaven and earth, because we understand the value to this country of refugees. We also understand the imperative of helping people fleeing a war zone in terror. That is why the people of this country want to open their arms, and we are going to help them to do it with a new humanitarian route, in addition to the family reunion route that we have already set out. That family reunion route alone could bring hundreds of thousands of people here. I think the whole House understands that; we will do even more through the new humanitarian route.
With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to update the House on the situation in Ukraine and Her Majesty’s Government’s support to the Government in Kyiv.
The situation on the ground is grave. As we can recall, on 24 February, forces of the Russian army, unprovoked, crossed into Ukraine’s sovereign territory. Along three main axes, Russian armour has attempted to occupy Ukraine. Its plan was to reach and encircle Kyiv, encircle Ukrainian forces near the border and invade from the south to link up with its forces via Mariupol.
Russian high command committed 65% of its entire land forces, which are indisputably in possession of overwhelming firepower and armour. It is estimated that at the start of the invasion they had between 110 and 120 battalion tactical groups dedicated to the task, compared with approximately 65 in Ukraine. Their missile stocks gave them even greater strength to reach Ukraine at distance. However, what they did not and still do not possess is the moral component so often needed for victory.
After 14 days of the war, according to the Ukrainian general staff, at 6 March, Russian casualties were assessed to include 285 tanks, 985 armoured fighting vehicles, 109 artillery systems, 50 multiple launch rocket systems, 44 aircraft, 48 helicopters and 11,000 soldiers, who have lost their lives needlessly. There are numerous reports of surrenders and desertions by the ever-growingly disillusioned Russian army. To be clear, those are Ukrainian figures; I have to caution the House that we have not verified them by defence intelligence or other means.
I can announce to the House our assessment that, of the initial Russian objectives, only one has been successfully achieved. While Russian forces are in control of Kherson, Melitopol and Berdyansk in southern Ukraine, they currently encircle the cities of Chernihiv, Sumy, Kharkiv and Mariupol but are not in control of them. In addition, their first day objective of targeting Ukrainian air defence has failed, preventing total air dominance. The Ukrainian armed forces have put up a strong defence while mobilising the whole population. President Putin’s arrogant assumption that he would be welcomed as a liberator has deservedly crumbled as fast as his troops’ morale.
For our part, the United Kingdom continues to play a leading role in supporting Ukraine. On 17 January, I announced to the House the Government’s intention to supply military aid to the Ukrainian armed forces. The aid took the form of body armour, helmets, boots, ear defenders, ration packs, rangefinders and communication equipment, and for the first time it also included weapons systems. The initial supply was to be 2,000 new light anti-tank weapons, small arms and ammunition.
In response to further acts of aggression by Russia, we have now increased that supply. I can update the House that, as of today, we have delivered 3,615 NLAWs and continue to deliver more. We will shortly be starting the delivery of a small consignment of anti-tank javelin missiles as well. I want to assure the House that everything we do is bound by the decision to supply defensive systems and is calibrated not to escalate to a strategic level.
Britain was the first European country to supply lethal aid. I was pleased that not long after a military aid donor conference I held on 25 February, many more countries decided to do the same. From right across Europe, the donations came. In particular, I want to highlight the Netherlands, Sweden, Finland, Denmark, Poland, Romania, the Baltic states, Belgium and Slovenia for their leadership, and we should not ignore the significance of the German Government joining us, in a change of stance, and donating such aid.
Donations are not enough; the delivery of aid to the frontline is just as important. Here, again, Britain is leading, because alongside Canada, the United States and Sweden, we have invested in building Ukrainian military capacity since 2015, and we find ourselves able to co-ordinate the delivery alongside our partners.
As the conflict intensifies, the Russians are changing their tactics, so the Ukrainians need to, too. We can all see the horrific devastation inflicted on civilian areas by Russian artillery and airstrikes, which have been indiscriminate and murderous. It is therefore vital that Ukraine maintains its ability to fly and to suppress Russian air attack. To date, the international community has donated more than 900 man-portable air defence missiles and thousands of anti-tank guided weapons of varying types, as well as various small arms. However, the capability needs strengthening, so in response to Ukrainian requests the Government have taken the decision to explore the donation of Starstreak high-velocity, man-portable anti-aircraft missiles. We believe that this system will remain within the definition of defensive weapons, but will allow the Ukrainian forces to better defend their skies. We shall also be increasing supplies of rations, medical equipment, and other non-lethal military aid.
As with any war, the civilian population is suffering horrendous hardships. According to the Ukrainian Minister of Education, 211 schools have been damaged or destroyed, and media footage shows Russian strikes hitting kindergartens. The Chernihiv regional administration reported that the Russian air force was employing FAB-500 unguided bombs against targets in the city, and according to Human Rights Watch, civilians in Mariupol have now been without water and power for almost a week. President Zelensky talked of children dying of thirst. Today the estimated number of Ukrainian civilians killed or injured stands at more than 1,000, but the true figure is expected to be much higher, and I am afraid that worse is likely to come. It is for that reason that the UK will increase its funding for Ukraine to £220 million, which includes £120 million of humanitarian aid. That will make the United Kingdom the single biggest bilateral humanitarian donor to Ukraine. We are also supporting humanitarian work with the Polish and Romanian Governments on the borders.
As I said in my last statement, we still believe that it is worth trying to build diplomatic pressure on Russia. This week, my good friend the Prime Minister met the Prime Ministers of Canada, the Netherlands and Poland. He also spoke to the leaders of France, Germany and the United States, and the Prime Ministers of Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic. The Foreign Secretary is in Washington at the G7, and also attended the NATO Foreign Ministers meeting earlier this month. I myself met the Ukrainian Ambassador just this morning. President Putin should be and can be in no doubt that the international community is united against his actions. It remains strong, and will not back down.
As well as giving direct military support to Ukraine, we continue to bolster our contribution towards NATO’s collective security. NATO Defence Ministers will gather next week in Brussels to discuss the next steps. The UK is doing its bit in giving military support and reassurance to its allies. We are currently supplying significant air power to NATO, including increased air patrols, with both Typhoons and F-35s for NATO air policing. We have also deployed four additional Typhoons to Cyprus to patrol NATO’s eastern border, and have sent an additional 800 troops to Estonia. Over the last week, Apache and Chinook helicopters were involved in exercises in Estonia. Meanwhile, HMS Diamond has sailed to the eastern Mediterranean, HMS Northumberland is taking part in a northern deployment, and HMS Grimsby is in the Norwegian sea supporting NATO mine countermeasures.
On Monday HMS Prince of Wales, RFA Tidesurge and HMS Defender joined HMS Albion and RFA Mounts Bay for Exercise Cold Response, a multinational exercise off the coast of Norway, and HMS Richmond will be exercising with our joint expeditionary force. We have put over 1,000 more British troops on readiness to support humanitarian responses in the bordering countries. Britain’s contribution to NATO is significant and enduring. It is important at this time that, in order to maximise our reassurance and resilience effect, we co-ordinate through NATO and the Supreme Allied Commander Europe.
Few of us will not have been moved by President Zelensky’s speech yesterday. His people are fighting for their very survival. His country is united against this aggression, and it is indeed his country’s darkest hour. Yesterday I saw footage of a Russian armoured train, bristling with guns, heading towards Mariupol. A single brave Ukrainian woman ran to the train and shouted “Slava Ukraini”—unmoved, unintimidated by the guns. That woman’s bravery should inspire us all.
I know that many of our constituents, and our colleagues, are fearful of what will happen next. President Putin and the Kremlin continue to threaten countries that offer help to Ukraine. Their military campaign will, I am afraid, become more brutal and more indiscriminate, but it is my firm belief that our strength to stand up to such bullying comes from our alliances. As long as we stand united, both as a House and as the international community, the Kremlin’s threats cannot hurt us. We should take strength from the peoples right across Europe who are standing shoulder to shoulder to protect our values—our freedom, our tolerance, our democracy and our free press. That is our shield.
I thank the Defence Secretary and his team for the way they have kept Members in all parts of the House updated and informed, and I thank him for his statement this afternoon. President Zelensky spoke for his country when he told us yesterday:
“We will not give up, and we will not lose.”—[Official Report, 8 March 2022; Vol. 710, c. 304.]
His address, like his leadership, was deeply moving and deeply inspiring. Ukrainians are showing massive bravery—military and civilians alike—and we must do all we can to support their resistance. The Government have Labour’s full backing for providing military and intelligence assistance to Ukraine to defend itself.
I welcome the Defence Secretary’s statement and the detail of the further weapons and equipment that Britain has been able to provide Ukraine to defend itself. I also welcome the role we are playing in co-ordinating help from other countries for Ukraine. Can I urge him to conclude the examination he is now giving to the provision of Starstreak missiles as quickly as possible? These are exactly the sort of ground-to-air missiles needed to defend against Russian air attacks. Can I ask him more broadly whether these supplies to Ukraine are coming solely from our UK stockpiles, or is the MOD also purchasing from other countries to respond to Ukrainian requests? Have other non-NATO, non-European countries with weaponry or well-trained air forces yet been involved?
It is clear that President Putin miscalculated the resolve of the Ukrainian military and the strength of his own Russian forces. He planned for a short campaign without the provision of logistics for protracted fighting and occupation. What is the MOD’s assessment of how far the Russians have now rectified this? I think the Secretary of State said 65%, but can he confirm what proportion of Russian forces that were on Ukraine’s borders and off her coast have now been deployed into Ukraine?
This is only still week two. Russia has such crushing firepower, and Putin has such utter ruthlessness, that we must expect more than one of his military objectives to be taken over the next few weeks. We must expect greater brutality, with still further civilian casualties. Our thoughts and prayers are with the residents of Kyiv and those other great Ukrainian cities as they face encirclement and bombardment from Russian forces.
Whatever the short-term gains Putin secures, we must make sure that he fails in the longer run through Ukrainian resistance, tougher sanctions, more humanitarian help, wider international isolation, justice for the war crimes being committed and, above all, lasting western unity. We must be ready to deal with the consequences of this invasion for many years to come. It is clear, however, that Putin has also miscalculated the international resolve to isolate Russia and the strength of western and NATO unity. Labour’s commitment to NATO is unshakeable, and the Government again have our full support for reinforcing NATO nations on the alliance’s eastern border with Russia. The Labour leader and I fly out tonight to Tallinn to reassure Estonia of the united UK determination to defend its security and to thank our British forces deployed there from the Royal Tank Regiment and the Royal Welsh battlegroup.
It was Labour’s post-war Foreign Secretary, Ernest Bevin, who was the principal architect of NATO and in particular of its article 5 commitment to collective defence. Today is the anniversary of Bevin’s birth in 1881, so today let President Putin be in no doubt that our commitment to article 5 is absolute. Let him not mistake NATO’s restraint for any lack of resolve. NATO’s response force has been activated, as the Defence Secretary has said, in response to this aggression. We welcome the detail of the UK’s contribution to that, but what role could the UK-led joint expeditionary force play? Is it not time for NATO to issue an initiating directive to the Supreme Allied Commander to plan future options as part of overhauling NATO, necessarily, for the decade ahead? Could the Defence Secretary also confirm what I think he said, which was that the 1,000 UK troops put on stand-by before the invasion are still in Britain and still on stand-by, and that we have received no requests for the humanitarian help that they were designed to respond to?
It is not the job of British forces to protect the failing Home Secretary or Border Force, especially at this critical time of conflict, but yesterday the Defence Secretary said that help for Ukrainians fleeing the war had “not been quick enough”. He also said that he was offering MOD assistance to the Home Office. Has this offer been accepted? Can he tell us what role military personnel will play, where, and for how long?
As we confront aggression abroad, we need to strengthen our defences at home. A national resilience strategy was promised a year ago. When will this be published? The integrated review, published a year ago, made the Prime Minister’s first focus the Indo-Pacific. It neglected the need to rebuild relations with essential European allies and the European Union, and it planned to cut the British Army still further. Will the Government now rethink such fundamental flaws in their integrated review?
Finally, if I may, Mr Speaker, we expect a big budget boost for Defence in the Chancellor’s spring statement in two weeks’ time. With Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the Government must respond to new threats to UK and European security, just as Labour in government did after the twin towers attacks on 9/11. If the Government act, they will again have Labour’s full support.
I am going to make mention of this important issue: Front Benchers have to be in line with the rules, and I have to enforce the rules. The rule says five minutes, but that was seven. If you want me to grant urgent questions and if you want me to support statements, you have to work with me to ensure that we do not take the time from other agendas. I do keep clock of the time, and I do not want to get into an argument about it—the Labour Front-Bench spokesman took a lot longer. This is an important matter and I want to keep it on the agenda, but you need to work with me. Or change the rules and make my life easier!
Maybe I should apologise, Mr Speaker. I did not give the Labour Front Benchers long enough to examine the statement; it was fairly short notice for them. I think we hear you on both sides of the House, and you would not like me to take too long either—[Interruption.] Certainly those on the Labour Back Benches would not like that.
The right hon. Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey) asked some important questions. I am grateful for Labour’s support for the position that the Government have taken on Ukraine. Our position mirrors that of the international community—not just NATO members but nations outside NATO such as Sweden and Finland. In answer to his question on the stockpile, we will currently take the supplies from our stockpile and we will backfill them from the manufacturer when and where we can. We already have some on order, so I can give him that assurance. I also ensure that we keep a basic level to ensure that we cover our own force protection as required. We will not leave our soldiers at risk in somewhere such as Estonia, specifically. Nevertheless, we will ensure that we calibrate that correctly.
On the MOD’s assessment of the Russian forces, over 90% of those forces on the border have now been committed to Ukraine and inside Ukraine. We also see media reports about Belorussian forces maybe, or maybe not, being primed. This has had an interesting effect on Belorussian forces, with reports of desertions and senior officers refusing to join the fight. There is also something very telling about Russia’s desperation at the moment. We have seen significant amounts of effort to try to bring the Wagner Group into Ukraine. The Wagner Group is the wholly unacceptable mercenary company responsible for all sorts of atrocities in Africa and the middle east. The fact that Russia is now trying to encourage the Wagner Group to take part in Ukraine is a telling sign. It does not give us any comfort but, nevertheless, it is a sign.
I went to Copenhagen last week to meet my Swedish, Lithuanian and Danish counterparts as they set off to join our enhanced forward presence in Estonia. The Danish sent a company of armoured infantry, which was escorted across the sea by a Swedish and Danish ship with air cover from Sweden. That JEF deployment is a good example of how, in the neighbourhood of the Nordics, we come together either bilaterally or multilaterally to make sure we provide greater defence.
After our meeting in Rutland a few weeks ago, we determined to have a longer programme of joint planning to make sure we maximise our capabilities, exercises and activity. We will see more of the JEF, and I am happy to continue keeping the House informed.
I am grateful for the reminder of Bevin’s birthday. As a Conservative, I will be forgiven for not knowing that date, but I always welcome being educated. I have some Labour supporters in my family, but I am not sure they would know he was born in 1881 either. Nevertheless, the commitment to article 5 is important. Yesterday I met my counterpart from North Macedonia, the newest member of NATO. Importantly, Britain is in NATO not for what we can get out of it but because we fundamentally believe in defending each other. Whether we are big or small, we all stand for the same values.
I promised to keep Members informed on Ukraine, no matter what happens. My team is available, as is the Chief of Defence Intelligence. I will happily do dial-ins and as many briefings as possible at both Privy Council and non-Privy Council level.
The right hon. Gentleman asked about the Home Office, and the offer has been accepted in principle. There is a meeting straight after this statement between Defence Ministers, Home Office Ministers and Foreign Office Ministers to make sure we co-ordinate our assistance in speeding up the visa process, which is incredibly important.
It is important not to mischaracterise the IR. The right hon. Gentleman has said this before, but the actual quote from the IR is that Russia is
“the greatest nuclear, conventional military and sub-threshold threat to European security.”
Strengthening Europe is critical to preserving our security and prosperity in the north Atlantic. The IR did not miss Russia. In fact, it squarely identified Russia as our main adversary. It would be wrong to characterise it as everyone going off to the Pacific. Looking at the balance of my investments as Defence Secretary, including in basing and expeditionary forces such as JEF, they are in Europe, and in northern Europe, too. That is incredibly important.
The Cabinet Office is in charge of the national resilience strategy, and I will pass on the details to the relevant Minister. Like the right hon. Gentleman, I look forward to reading that strategy.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend, the Government and the Prime Minister on the manner in which they have conducted themselves in relation to this dreadful invasion of Ukraine.
I have just come back from a conference in Paris, where I had the honour of leading the European Scrutiny Committee’s delegation. All the countries of Europe appreciate what the United Kingdom is doing.
My son is currently doing humanitarian work in Poland and Hungary, and I trust that others will be able to do the same. This is important not only to our constituents but to fairness and justice in the world. I thank my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for everything he has done.
I thank my hon. Friend for his kind comments. It is incredibly important that we recognise that this is not just a military response. The scale of the humanitarian crisis, which will only grow as Russia seeks to punish the innocent for having the temerity to stand up to it, means we all have to lean in as an international community. We have all received emails from constituents who want to help, and I urge colleagues to channel them in the right direction. Some of us are old enough to remember the Bosnia war, and I know from soldiers who were on the ground that lots of well-meaning people drove out there and put at risk both themselves and the forces whose job it was to protect them. We need to make sure the work is properly co-ordinated, and I will get details to hon. and right hon. Members so that they can point their constituents in the right direction.
I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of his statement. Like the shadow Secretary of State and the Secretary of State, I put on record how grateful we are to President Zelensky for taking the time to talk to the House yesterday. It is a moment that I am sure will stay with us all for a long time.
The statement says that the Secretary of State and the Ministry of Defence will explore the donation of new anti-air missiles. We urge them to conclude that as swiftly as possible and to ensure the missiles get to Ukraine as swiftly as possible. As the conflict continues, and it is now going into its third week, Ukraine’s needs will adapt and the support we give has to adapt, too. We have previously talked to the Minister for the Armed Forces about supplying satellite phones, which Ukraine identified as an urgent need two weeks ago.
As I understand it, the United States has declined to be involved in supplying jets from Poland, but the Department of Defence has said it will keep that under review. Is the Secretary of State part of that discussion? Given the new security and defence arrangements that were announced six or seven weeks ago involving Poland and Ukraine, how might we expect that to develop in the coming days?
Time is not on Ukraine’s side, and I appreciate the immense sensitivities around this. Like many others, I welcome the additional military aid, non-lethal aid, and humanitarian support. Of course, I also welcome all the efforts of our constituents up and down the land in supporting Ukrainians in their time of need.
What sort of changes can we expect to see in the forthcoming NATO strategic concept? For example, will the air policing mission be reprofiled as an air defence mission? Can the Secretary of State talk a bit more about what the House can expect?
We have tried to support the Government on Ukraine and in many other areas, and the Government have made that easy in many ways, but on refugees we stand out in Europe for all the wrong reasons. Although the Secretary of State’s Department is not responsible for refugees, I plead with him to fix it, and to fix it soon.
Like the hon. Gentleman, we are determined to fix it. My hon. Friend the Minister for the Armed Forces will have a meeting this afternoon on exactly this. We should not forget that the overall offer is generous: 200.000 places via the family route and unlimited places via the humanitarian route. The key is to speed it up to make sure that, when people arrive at the border, they are home and safe with their family as soon as possible. The Ministry of Defence will do everything to support that.
I do not have access to the discussions on jets from Poland. I have said publicly that the position of the United Kingdom Government is that it is for the Polish Government to decide on the calibration of their aid to Ukraine but, as an ally and friend, Britain will stand by whatever decision they make. Poland is, of course, on the frontline, and I hope that any consequence is positive, but we never know with President Putin.
It is important to give Poland the reassurance and the space to make this decision but, fundamentally, the Ukrainians need to be able to take action against artillery at deep ranges, which can be done with unmanned aerial vehicles, and to protect their airspace, which can be done with the missile systems we are providing. The only lag with the missile systems is that, as they get more complicated, people need training.
How and where we deliver that training is obviously sensitive, but we have to make sure it is rolled out into Ukraine. These valuable pieces of equipment need to be positioned in the right places to make a difference. One reason why I wanted to come to the House as soon as possible, although we are going to do it in principle, is so that the House has the earliest warning possible.
The hon. Gentleman made an important point about NATO’s strategic concept, and I will also be asking questions about what happens now. There are questions for NATO on both the short term and the long term. In the long term, after Ukraine, what are we going to do to contain Russia and to provide reassurance and resilience to our neighbours and fellow NATO members who will need it? At next week’s meeting, I will start the process of indicating to the Supreme Allied Commander Europe that I would like to see him start planning for containment, if that is one of the options post Ukraine. I will ask what that looks like in the 21st century.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his statement and for all that his Department and our incredible armed forces are doing at this time to help the people of Ukraine. The humanitarian crisis is worsening hour by hour. Will he assure my constituents and people across the UK that the UK is doing everything it can, on a cross-government basis, to widen and accelerate the visa system, cut through the red tape and work practically and compassionately with our partners in Europe to offer sanctuary and aid to as many Ukrainian people as we can, as quickly as we can?
My hon. Friend will have heard my answer to my Scottish National party colleague the hon. Member for Glasgow South (Stewart Malcolm McDonald), and the Minister for the Armed Forces will be happy to brief my hon. Friend once those meetings have taken place to update him on the assistance the MOD can give.
I thank the Secretary of State for the regular and excellent updates and briefings we have and for the hard work he is putting in on Ukraine, within the constraints he has to work within. However, I do think it is a strategic mistake that when confronting a tyrant we tell him what we will not do. If Putin remains in power, we will have to confront him at some point militarily. We should be aware of that and get it out in the open. But my question is: what level of slaughter of Ukrainians are we willing to see before NATO and the west intervene militarily in Ukraine, such as by ensuring safe areas in western Ukraine?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that. It is a difficult balance as to when we tell people. In effect, I have to come to this House to get policy permission from you before we take a different step on the weapons systems, and that is the right thing to do; we have to make sure that this is calibrated into the right process. It is important with Putin, especially as he would seek to discover things and potentially use them to escalate, that we are up front and transparent about what we are going to do, so that he cannot try to repackage it as a major strategic issue. This is not an easy line; on the one hand, I would be happy sometimes to do this, but the decision is about bringing the House with us and making sure that people understand. I do not think there will be a tactical difference on the ground because I have come to the House today to tell people in advance that this is happening. Russia now has a serious problem with the international community’s donations, which are at a large scale, whether we are talking about anti-tank or Stinger missiles. It has had to change its tactics as a result. It would be wrong for Putin to characterise this as anything other than our responding to its change in tactics, but we are making sure that he does not get impunity to bomb people from the air and kill innocent victims. On the other issue, associated with humanitarian corridors and no-fly zones, we have to be careful. We would have to enforce them and in thinking about enforcing them, we have to recognise the knock-on effects and whether we trigger a wider war in Europe.
I thank the Defence Secretary and all the ministerial team for working so hard on this, and I thank all those in the main building and those in uniform throughout our armed forces for responding so well to the war in Ukraine. He mentions just over 3,600 new, light anti-tank weapons. They have been put to very good use, as he will know. Will he reassure the House that that supply will continue, and at pace? Secondly, he mentions consideration of surface-to-air missiles and the system Starstreak. How long will that decision-making process take?
First, the decisions have been made in principle that we will provide them, which is why I came to the House. We have to make sure that we provide people with the training and capability to deliver that. I thank my right hon. Friend for the effort he put in, working with the Speaker, to deliver the speech yesterday by President Zelensky. I cannot tell the two of you how important it was to hear from a man who is clearly leading his country from the front, but who is also under tremendous personal threat from Russia.
First, I thank the Defence Secretary for the approach he takes, being the calm voice of competence that we want to hear in this crisis. He should not have to intervene in the Home Office, but I am glad that he is doing so and I thank him for stepping up where his colleagues are failing again. He will know that this is not just the right thing to do, but strategically the important thing to do, because Putin is counting on Europe not getting the refugee crisis right. That plays into his hands in the medium term and longer term. Does he agree with my concern that if we do not get a grip on the refugee crisis soon, across the whole of Europe, including in this country, we could well be playing into those fears?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her comments. One of the most important things is recognising that President Putin and, as we saw, the President of Belarus, used migrant flows deliberately to divide and put pressure on our system. That is why when they did that in Belarus, with the Belarusians literally shoving people through fences a few months ago, we sent 100 Royal Engineers to assist the Poles to manage that issue. It is incredibly important that we all think about what happened. Many of us who were warning about what Russia was going to do warned a number of countries on this. Indeed, I said to the EU, “Where you can add value is to plan for mass refugees in a way that we have not seen since the war.” That is really important. That is where the EU is at its best, in co-ordinating the non-military responses. It has done well, but it is not shielded from the criticism as well. We all have to do this internationally and do it better. We have to do the visa bit faster. My colleagues are absolutely bringing to bear those assets from the MOD, but we should also remember that we act as a team; I am not intervening in the Home Office. Government is a team and we are working together as a team to deliver that.
First, let me say that Putin has deployed some of his most modern equipment. He has “gone all-in” and played his full hand. Members will have seen only recently an SA-22 or a Pantsir anti-air medium-range missile system that has been defeated by the mud of Ukraine; it has a burst tyre and it is stuck in the mud. Putin has gone all-in and risked some of his most important equipment. He is using significant numbers of his missile stocks and he is taking a huge risk around the wider boundaries of Russia, which he is now leaving thinned out in terms of defence.
There was a report from Reuters yesterday that dozens of former Paras have signed up for the Ukrainian foreign legion and that hundreds more are expected to do so. Will the Defence Secretary give the House absolute clarity on the UK Government’s position in relation to those volunteers?
The Government’s position is: if you are a serving member of the armed forces, you will be breaking the law. There were reports in the weekend newspaper about three members who had gone AWOL over the weekend. They will be breaking the law and they will be prosecuted when they return for going AWOL or deserting. For others, as the Government’s travel advice is “Do not go to Ukraine”, we strongly discourage them from joining these forces. My experience, having been Security Minister, is that where people went off to join the YPG and other organisations it did not end well. It is also the case, as a number of these people are now discovering, that the Ukrainians are very clear in saying, “You turn up, you are in it for the whole game. You are not in it for a selfie and six weeks. You are in it for real.” I think we have seen already some people at the border decide that that may not be the right option to follow.
I understand that it would be possible, at very short notice, to reopen Manston airport in Kent to fly out humanitarian aid such as pharmaceuticals and to fly in refugees, who could then be processed at Manston barracks. That would require the co-operation and effort of the MOD and of the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities. I am not asking for a guarantee now, but will my right hon. Friend speak to the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities and Minister for Intergovernmental Relations, the right hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) to see what possibilities there might be there?
I am grateful for my right hon. Friend’s question. At the moment, we have the capacity we need, and the landing slots and landing fields we need to deliver whatever we need to do. If, however, there is greater pressure, I would be delighted to talk to both him and the Levelling Up Secretary to see whether we can take advantage of my right hon. Friend’s kind offer.
I thank the Secretary of State for all he is doing and the compassionate way he is doing it.
My question relates to a constituent, and although the issue is not necessarily the Secretary of State’s departmental responsibility, I would be grateful if he could follow it up. Four weeks ago, my constituent, who lives in the Donbas, drove across the country and managed to get through to Poland. He has been waiting for a visa for his wife and their infant daughter for the past four weeks and has heard nothing from the Home Office. He is running out of money and wants to get home with his family. Will the Secretary of State please urge the Home Office to do its job?
I thank the Secretary of State for coming to the House again to keep us informed. He was right when he said that the whole House was moved by the President of Ukraine’s address yesterday. The President of Ukraine has spoken again today and is desperate for aircraft to protect women and children from being bombed and killed by Russians. Poland has acted, but there is a hold-up because of the response from the United States. The Secretary of State touched on this earlier, but will he be clear that he supports what Poland is doing? Will he pressure America to support that action?
I shall say two things in response to my hon. Friend. First, I support the steps to allow Ukraine to continue to fly in its own airspace—its sovereign airspace—to deliver military effect against the massive amounts of Russian artillery that are indiscriminately killing and bombing places around the country. That is one reason why a no-fly zone is a problem, because it would mean that both sides do not fly. The first thing is that we need to protect Ukraine’s anti-air capability.
Secondly, what are the most appropriate tools? Obviously, the Ukrainians know and have said what they wish for. We have acted when they have asked us, which is why the new missiles we are talking about today are coming forward. It is a matter for Poland—I have said I will support whatever its choice is—and in the meantime we will continue to try to meet the outcomes that Ukraine wants with whatever methods we can.
I am sure the Secretary of State would agree that, rather than getting to the stage at which we might need to rely on MOD assistance to get refugees here, it is better to get people here to the UK while they can get here. It is the same with humanitarian aid: we have the bizarre situation in which people who are displaced in Ukraine may need to use humanitarian aid, yet they could already be here in the UK where they have family members. If the UK is not going to lift the visa requirements for Ukrainians who come here, surely under the existing scheme, which applies to the family members of British and Ukrainian people who already live in the UK, we can use the information we have here, bring the people here and then process them and do the security checks while they are safely here in the UK, rather than wasting resources in Ukraine that could be better deployed elsewhere.
Three years ago, I visited Mariupol with my right hon. Friend’s predecessor, Michael Fallon, and we heard the Ukrainian armed forces’ appreciation of the help we were already giving them then through Operation Orbital, so I strongly welcome my right hon. Friend’s announcement today. Does he agree with the Secretary-General of NATO that the sight of bodies lying unburied on the streets in Mariupol is credible evidence that Russia is guilty of war crimes?
As I have previously reported, the International Criminal Court has opened an investigation. A number of countries, including Britain, are collecting evidence—Canada is taking quite a strong lead—and it is important that we follow the evidence. The open-source reports of not only civilian bodies but Russian dead abandoned by their own forces show a crime in itself. What a disgrace that the Russian generals have abandoned those young men who have been killed. The leadership of the Russian army deserve to be in court for betraying their own soldiers and, at the same time, for what they are doing to the civilians of Ukraine. They are criminally responsible and I hope they face justice.
I thank the Secretary of State for updating us on the UK’s actions in support of the Ukrainians’ heroic defence of their country. He will have noted that his update was received much more warmly than that given by the Home Office yesterday, and with good reason—I do hope that Home Office Ministers have noted that as well. We must act on all fronts. The need for humanitarian assistance is overwhelming. Will the Secretary of State say a little more about the 1,000 UK troops who I understand from his statement are still on stand-by to provide humanitarian assistance? Where are they and under what circumstances will they be deployed?
We have not yet had any request for humanitarian support from neighbouring countries. As soon as they do request support, we will be happy to deploy those troops to help in that process. We have a NATO meeting next week, when perhaps those things will come to the fore, but that is what those troops are there for—they are earmarked to do exactly that.
On the hon. Lady’s point about the Home Office, having been a Home Office Minister and having sat in opposition across from Labour party Home Secretaries, I know that it is never an easy job in the Home Office. It is never a popular brief, and questions are never kind.
I thank the Secretary of State for his bold and forthright leadership and pay tribute to all those in the MOD, Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office and beyond who are burning the midnight oil. The level of operational detail in the statement was unprecedented, for which I am grateful. The Secretary of State will know the importance of close air support in a tactical environment. What is being done specifically to support the Ukrainian air force?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. First, there are the high-velocity missiles to assist the Ukrainian air force to fly freely in the airspace. Also, one way the Ukrainians are delivering close air support—or, actually, fires in depth—is through the Turkish TB2 unmanned aerial vehicles, which are delivering munitions to their artillery and, indeed, their supply lines, which are credibly important, in order to slow down or block the Russian advance.
I thank the Secretary of State very much for his statement, for his clear commitment to donating military equipment to the Ukrainians, and especially for the Starstreak anti-aircraft missiles that will down even more Russian aeroplanes and helicopters—we look forward to that.
On support for Odesa, which is the last Ukrainian port that is open for Ukrainians to use—they severely damaged a Russian ship just this week—will the Secretary of State outline what naval support and capability is available to keep that last Ukrainian port open for what is undoubtedly the next step in the Russian war of aggression?
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point about the southern flank. The south is the one area where the Russians have made advances, obviously using Crimea, which they illegally annexed in 2014. That part of the sea, both around Odesa and elsewhere, is heavily mined. That has helped Ukraine to defend its coastline; in fact, we can assume that the ship on which the media are reporting was hit by a mine, although that is unverified. Of course, the Russian navy is blockading those ports, which gives the Ukrainians limited capability to take on those ships. If there are ways in which we can help them to do that, we will explore them.
I have huge respect for my right hon. Friend and his team for the way they have conducted themselves in this awful situation. Understandably, my Polish constituents are incredibly worried because of Putin’s expansionism and the threat to Poland. I hope my right hon. Friend will agree that Poland is making a huge humanitarian effort, supporting hundreds of thousands of refugees and proposing military support. Will he continue to ensure that Britain throws a protective arm around Poland, given the risks that that plucky country faces? I understand the position that my right hon. Friend set out earlier, but if Putin starts to carpet bomb across Ukraine, will he and NATO reconsider the issue of a no-fly zone?
On a no-fly zone, we have set out our position, and I am not going into hypotheticals and what-ifs. Nevertheless, at the moment the balance is that I do not think it would suit the Ukrainian disposition, given the amounts of heavy armour and missiles in the Russian stocks. The Russians have a massive advantage with shells and missiles, and they would not stop in a no-fly zone, whereas the few things that the Ukrainians have to reach the Russians at depth are in the air, and one of them would be hampered.
On the resilience and support to Poland, we put 150 soldiers out there and 100 soldiers when the Belarusian migrant crisis was happening. We have nearly 700 soldiers there now helping the country in terms of resilience and, indeed, with humanitarian issues, if needed. I spoke to my Polish counterpart yesterday, and I am hoping to visit next week. We will also look at air defence requests from Poland to protect its airfields. It has been an ally for more than 150 years. We stand absolutely by Poland, shoulder to shoulder. When it comes to military requests, it is really important that we put the military equipment where it makes a difference and where the Supreme Allied Commander Europe wants it. There is often a danger in these events that we spread our forces all around for reassurance, but do not necessarily achieve the military tasks that we need to achieve.
I, too, want to thank the Secretary of State for Defence. It is now very clear that we need to re-contain Russia, which will mean resupplying Ukrainian forces, refortifying our frontline, and, crucially, repressing the Russian economy. At the moment, nobody can recognise the 275 figure that is being used for the number of sanctions that have been issued. The Foreign Affairs Committee yesterday heard evidence that the Government simply were not ready. Even today, the family of the founder of the Wagner Group have still not been sanctioned here, even though they have been sanctioned in Europe. When the Secretary of State sees the Foreign Secretary later today, can he ask her to get her act together?
I would have to have pretty wide eyesight, as my right hon. Friend is in Washington at the moment, but if I had some massive binoculars, I would definitely pass on the message. I am happy to try to get to the bottom of all the figures. On the amount of money that has been sanctioned, the statistics that I had was that the UK has frozen more funds in London than Europe and the United States, and that matters. The construct of sanctions are different in different countries, but I would be very happy to look into that. I do not think that there should be any hiding place—and nor does the Foreign Secretary—for any of these Moscow hoods who are running around, including the dreadful Wagner Group.
In commending the Government for their robust response to this dreadful invasion and notwithstanding existing levels of support and our article 5 commitment to NATO, the Government are right to rule out a no-fly zone and also to emphasise that it is a difficult balance to ensure that any defensive support is calibrated not to escalate matters to a strategic level. With talk of Polish jets being donated in mind, what assurance can my right hon. Friend give that, whatever the outcome, this will achieve the right balance, because a wider war would not serve the interests of any population, let alone Ukraine?
My hon. Friend makes some wise observations. Just on the jet issue, and on all lethal aid issues, it is, in a sense, for each individual country to make the unique choice that it has to make. I have the duty of defending this wonderful nation, and it is those people for whom I have to answer, and we have to calibrate our action as suits. If the Polish Government feel that the security threat is so acute that it requires them to do that, I would fully understand their decision and stand by them. Let us remember that the countries that will face the direct consequence of a successful Russia over Ukraine are the bordering countries, because we know that, in Putin’s mind, some of those are not genuine countries and some of those countries are the very places that he historically feels should either be punished or, indeed, coerced into his way of thinking.
I echo the thanks to the Secretary of State and his team. Will he pass on the House’s thanks to all his teams who are making this happen? On the Polish jets issue, it is, of course, a matter for Poland. Given that we are giving man-portable air defence systems and anti-tank weapons, does he regard the gift of aircraft as a defensive system, which is the word that he has used in his statement?
I think it depends on how those aircraft are used. If they are used as close air support to Kyiv, then it is obviously defensive. If a country is seeking to enter another sovereign territory, like the Russian air force is, then it is not. That is important to recognise, but, I am afraid, as I have said, it is a deeply bilateral decision for those countries. As a friend and ally to Poland, we would stand by its decision.
How much of the MOD spending in response to the crisis will be accounted for as official development assistance? What impact has the Government’s decision to slash the aid budget and abolish the Department for International Development had on their ability to co-ordinate the humanitarian response?
I applaud the personal lead being taken by my right hon. Friend and the strong role of the MOD and our forces. This morning, the Home Affairs Committee took worrying evidence from the Ukrainian ambassador and Ukrainian support groups. May I make two requests from that? First, it is reported that there are many thousands of unaccompanied Ukrainian children across the border, who have been taken there for safety, and that the number is growing. Can he make the offer that, when the welcome humanitarian and military supplies go in in military planes, he includes personnel from the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Families Association, the largest employer of social workers, to help with the safeguarding worries that are now occurring on the border, and preferably bring the children back to the UK and do the checks that may need to be done? We do not need to change the law to grant them a six-month visitor visa at the very least.
Secondly, my Ukrainian constituents tell me that their friends in Ukraine are ordering over the internet body armour from British companies, because they are desperately short for their reserve and volunteer forces. We need to do more to help equip those people who have bravely gone to the frontline as part of the standing military and do not have the sort of kit that we would expect.
On that last point, included in the increased package is more body armour, alongside what was donated by many countries in the conference in February. I am slightly in danger of entering into Home Office questions here, although I know that they took place yesterday. Although I was a Home Office Minister, one of the greatest delights was not being the immigration Minister, but the security Minister. All I will say is that I understand the feeling in the House, so does the Home Secretary and so does the Prime Minister, and we are working to resolve that matter as quickly as possible. As for the internal details of different immigration schemes, I gently refer my hon. Friend to the Home Office.
I, too, give my thanks to the Defence Secretary for his work and that of his team and for his compassion. I am afraid that I am going to raise another visa issue with him. My constituent is trying to get his young niece to the UK after she fled her home in Ukraine. After endless bureaucratic checks and delays, they have been told today that she has to travel nearly 300 km across Poland to get the decision on her visa. The Defence Secretary will understand that refugees such as my constituent’s niece have already made long and challenging journeys from Ukraine to Poland and now have to make more journeys just to get the decision. My constituent calls the Government’s approach to people fleeing the war in Ukraine “inhumane”. Given the meeting on the visa process that the Secretary of State mentioned, can he press on the Home Secretary the need to offer a compassionate and human response to refugees fleeing the war in Ukraine?
I do not want to run the risk of making you angry, Madam Deputy Speaker, so I will say that I would be delighted to pass that case to my Parliamentary Private Secretary and press the Home Office to resolve it. If I indulge myself here, Madam Deputy Speaker will rule me out of order, because this is a question about the Ukraine situation through Defence.
President Putin was clearly counting on a quick victory, so I congratulate my right hon. Friend not only on his statement, but on the far-sighted view of training Ukrainian troops and, indeed, on supplying defensive weapons. What assessment has he made of the effectiveness of both that training and the defensive weapons in theatre, which, of course, can never be tested except in theatre?
There are two parts to that question. Whatever happens, one will be the lessons that we need to learn for our own defences and our own capabilities. It is absolutely the case that one of the other assumptions that President Putin made was that the Russian army was invincible. For all the money that was spent, it did not really matter about the people in that army and it did not matter about battle preparation and all the things that we do to prepare people to go to war. Russia did not do that, and some of those so-called invincible weapons are now being taken apart by handheld weapons, some of which are provided by Britain. That is not something to gloat about. In the end, this is about the loss of human life. None the less, we can be proud that Britain followed up its determination to stand up for its values and its allies by supporting them with hard power as well as soft.
In terms of the military response, the Secretary of State can and must be wholeheartedly commended. However, I do not necessarily share his enthusiasm for the Government’s humanitarian response. Indeed, I spoke with my constituent Mariya this morning, whose family in Poland cannot even get clarity from the Home Office on whether they should continue with pre-existing visitor visas or go for a family visa. Quite simply, it is a shambles. When the Secretary of State meets the Home Office this afternoon, can I ask him, for want of a better phrase, whether he will stick a rocket right up the Home Office?
On the immigration pathway, the overall number of 200,000 for family and uncapped for humanitarian is a good thing. The fact that Britain is the biggest single donor to humanitarian aid is a good thing. We should not underplay those two facts. I understand the frustration among both Ukrainians trying to flee and Members of this House about the speed of that processing. I said yesterday that the MOD will support the Home Office as requested; it has agreed in principle and we have work on today to make that go quicker.
Exercise Cold Response and the reinforcing of Tapa camp are welcome and will reassure our Scandinavian and Baltic colleagues, but what is being done specifically with Lithuania? It is very much at risk, since Putin’s next move might very well be an attempt to link Russia proper with the Kaliningrad oblast.
My right hon. Friend raises an important point. That is why some of these countries must take some of their decisions bilaterally, because they will face the consequences of a successful Russia in Ukraine and what will happen next. That is why we have paid extra attention to the Baltics. The right hon. Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey), the shadow Defence Secretary, is going today to Estonia; I was happy to facilitate that, and I will do likewise for Scottish National party Members they wish to visit. It is important that we work through the Balts together. There are, I think, four enhanced forward battle groups there and we must ensure they are well co-ordinated. For a time, we put some of our Apaches through Lithuania. As my right hon. Friend points out, though, we are acutely aware that the area called the Suwalki gap, between Belarus and Kaliningrad, could be exploited for Russia’s purposes.
At the risk of destroying the Defence Secretary’s career, the reason he is getting so many questions on refugees is that hon. Members on both sides of this House wish he were in charge of the Home Office. Leading on from the question by my hon. Friend the Member for Halton (Derek Twigg), how confident can the Secretary of State be that, if we do not confront Putin more directly now in Ukraine, we will not have to do so next month or next year, somewhere else in Europe?
I am afraid that is the $60 million question. We must all be mature about how we work that out, through analysis and through talking to people who understand it. There is no easy answer. Is Putin acting irrationally? Yes, he is; why would he have done this? Is he acting out of an ambition far beyond his perceived threat of NATO? Yes, he is; he has written about that himself and made speeches about it. Does he take a view that there are a number of countries in NATO that do not really belong in NATO? Yes, he does. That is very dangerous for the west, and I say with all passion that we must work at ensuring that we keep our alliances completely strong. That is the thing that makes a difference to him, plus the economic sanctions and the fact that his legacy now is that he is done. If he is going to make a mistake, it is to pretend that somehow his political reputation can survive this. If he wanted to further Russia, he has damaged it and sent it backwards. If he wanted to further his case as a great leader, he is now contained in a cage of his own making.
I will briefly join the queue of those expressing our thanks that the Secretary of State and his Department are now involved in trying to sort out the very sorry process in relation to visas. I will perhaps use the good offices he has suggested to take up a particular case.
Returning to the issue of evidence gathering of war crimes, however, is it not important for future deterrence of not only Putin, but the rest of his regime, that it is clear that we are deadly serious about the gathering of evidence on war crimes? It may take many years before we are in a position to prosecute them, and it may be necessary to look, as some have suggested, at a dedicated international criminal tribunal to deal with jurisdictional issues. Does the Secretary of State agree that it is important that we send a message that we are not going away on this—that we will amass the evidence and, however long it takes, we will pursue not only Putin, but those responsible right down the chain of command, and that when his regime falls, as Milošević’s did, the democracies of the world are coming for him?
I agree 100% with my hon. Friend. My hon. Friend the Minister for the Armed Forces met the International Committee of the Red Cross only last week to discuss exactly that. It is absolutely right that they should know that the long arm of justice will follow them forever. My hon. Friend said something else important: this cannot be swept away by one man in the Kremlin. Right down through the chain of command, right now, those commanders sending those young men to their deaths must also face justice, military or international.
I thank the Secretary of State for the calm and professional approach he has taken to this difficult issue, and for the pressure he is applying to the Home Office to speed up the fair treatment of refugees. Will he also speak to other Government Departments about the lengthy delays that some medical convoys are facing? I have had approaches from my local Ukrainian community and I understand that other hon. Members across the House have faced this difficulty. There seems to be a genuine issue of red tape created by customs declarations. If he could raise that with other Departments, it would be a huge step forward.
I would be delighted to do that. If the hon. Gentleman would like to give me that information, I will ask after this statement and investigate what more we can do. We have helped the Department of Health and Social Care to fly in some of its medical supplies, but I know that there are also many people driving out with supplies. If the customs are on our side, we can do something about it; if they are not, I will raise it with my international counterparts.
My right hon. Friend may be aware of the reporting and, extraordinarily, the opinion polls coming out of Ukraine that show that the people and the Government of Ukraine regard the United Kingdom as foremost among their friends in western Europe. That is in no small part due to his leadership and his foresight, as others have said. We supplied them with 2,000 anti-tank missiles before the invasion, and I welcome what he said in his statement about what we are doing today. Can he assure me that all future requests for further defensive military equipment by Ukraine will be met in the same way?
We will look at every request quickly and genuinely, and do whatever we can to help Ukraine. I thank my hon. Friend for his kind comments, but I think it is what Britain stands for. Whether I work with Sweden and Finland, non-NATO countries, or with aspirant NATO countries and countries who want to belong to our values, they all value what Britain stands for and her history.
Russia’s advance has been hamstrung by logistical difficulties, defections and now freezing temperatures; the convoy advancing on Ukraine has essentially been immobile for the past few days. Does my right hon. Friend agree that President Putin has badly misjudged the effectiveness of his own military and the resistance of the Ukrainians, backed up by western military aid and training?
I think there have been two major miscalculations by President Putin. The first was that his military was invincible and that the Ukrainian people would welcome him. His other major miscalculation was that somehow the international community was not united. He is wrong on that.
Hon. Members on both sides of the House will wish the Secretary of State well in his discussions with the Home Office—it is a hard nut to crack. I spoke with a constituent of mine over the weekend who has family in Irpin. When she asked me about a no-fly zone, I explained the situation to her, but the words came with some difficulty. Much as I support the position we are taking, when facing somebody who has family in a war zone, it is difficult to explain why we cannot intervene. She responded, “We need to be able to defend ourselves,” and said that they want access to more weaponry which we can supply to them. I know the Secretary of State is providing Starstreak high-velocity anti-air missiles and that he hopes that that will fall within the definition of defensive weapons. Is that definition a difficulty in providing the support that people in Ukraine are asking for, and is it something that will have to be kept under review?
That is always kept under review, depending on the actions of President Putin. I winced when the hon. Gentleman said the town was Irpin, because they are under daily artillery and missile bombardment, being literally flattened by the Russian forces. I can only pass on my support and hope for his constituent that she gets through this. We will do everything we can. When I speak to Ukrainians, it is about the outcomes they want. They do not want to be bombed, they do not want to be shelled and they want to be able to patrol their own skies. We think there are currently other ways of doing that without risking a wider war in Europe, and that is why we think it is important. Some of the mass devastation we see comes from artillery and missiles rather than the air, so we must find other ways of dealing with those.
Providing Starstreak anti-air missiles will help Ukraine defend itself and so is very welcome. Given the situation on the ground and the practical difficulties, will the Secretary of State look at creative ways of delivering training so that this capability can be used by those brave Ukrainian forces?
I welcome the Defence Secretary’s very strong condemnation of, as he put it, the “indiscriminate and murderous” attacks on civilian areas. What will the UK Government’s position be next month on the UN-backed political declaration on restricting the use of wide-area effects explosive weapons in populated areas?
I thank the Secretary of State for his statement, and for his excellent daily briefings. With Russia repeating false allegations that the US is supporting a Ukrainian military biological programme that would release deadly pathogens such as the plague and anthrax, what new steps are the MOD and other Government agencies taking to tackle the dissemination of such false information effectively?
The hon. Lady makes an important point, because Russia has not given up its false flags and false narratives. In fact, it has shut down nearly every avenue of information for its people, which again shows the fear that it is under—I think only yesterday TikTok was stopped in Russia. We absolutely must challenge those false flags, and we do—she has heard me call them out publicly. At some stages we did that by declassifying intelligence early, which we do not normally do. We should also be genuinely worried when false flags drop breadcrumbs leading to chemical weapons, nerve agents and biological weapons, because we all worry what is behind that in the first place.
Russian Oil Import Ban
With permission, I would like to make a statement on the UK’s phase-out of imports of Russian oil in response to Vladimir Putin’s brutal and illegal invasion of Ukraine.
First, I want to say what a privilege it was for all of us to hear President Zelensky’s historic address to the House yesterday. I am sure that all Members will join me in thanking him once again for his inspiring words and great leadership. It is with those words in mind that I come here today.
The UK joins key allies, including the United States, in halting the import of Russian oil, which makes up 44% of Russian exports and 17% of the Russian Government’s revenue through taxation. This action follows the most punishing set of sanctions that the British state has ever imposed on a G20 nation. Our trade, financial and personal sanctions are having an effect on the Russian economy. As I speak, the rouble has now fallen by nearly 42%, and the Moscow Exchange’s stock trading has been shut since 25 February. The British Government have sent a clear message to Putin’s regime and to those who support him in his war against Ukraine.
It is important to remember that Russia produces only a fraction of the fuel products currently imported in the UK. In a competitive global market for oil and petroleum products, demand can be met by alternative sources of supply. As a result of international revulsion at Putin’s invasion, Russian oil is already being excluded from much of the market, and currently it is trading at quite a sharp discount from other crude oil sources.
We want to go further. Yesterday I set out that the UK will be phasing out imports of Russian oil during the course of the year. This transition will give the market, businesses and supply chains more than enough time to substitute Russian imports. Businesses should use this year to ensure as smooth a transition as possible, so that consumers will not be affected. The Government will work with companies through a new taskforce on oil to support them to make use of this period in finding alternative suppliers. Yesterday I spoke with businesses, unions and representatives from the sector, and of course I and officials in the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy will continue to engage with and support British business.
Although Russian imports account for 8% of total UK oil demand, we should remember that the UK is a significant producer of crude oil and petroleum products. We participate in a global market for those products and we have resources in place in the unlikely event of supply disruption. Over the course of the year, the taskforce that we have set up will work closely with international partners, including the USA, the Netherlands and the Gulf to ensure alternative supplies of fuel products. Last week I addressed the International Energy Agency and tomorrow we will have an extraordinary meeting of the G7 Energy Ministers to discuss further steps.
Although businesses should do everything they can to secure oil from alternative sources, it is important to emphasise that they will still be able to import Russian oil during this transition period. These measures target oil-related products imports only. The UK is not dependent on Russian natural gas, which makes up less than 4% of our supply. However, I will be exploring options to end that altogether.
I want to make it clear to the House that we must end our dependency on all Russian hydrocarbons. In the meantime, we need more investment in North sea oil and gas production as we make the move to cheaper, cleaner power. Turning off domestic production at this moment, as some are calling for, would be completely the wrong thing to do. We are not going to do that. The Prime Minister has also confirmed that the Government will set out an energy strategy to explain the UK’s long-term plans for greater energy security, including renewable and nuclear power, building on our 10-point plan.
This measure to phase out Russian oil, and those being taken by our allies, will move the west away from dependency on Russian oil. It will take us on a road to building a stronger and more resilient British energy system. It will increase the growing pressure on Russia’s economy and, ultimately, hamper Russia’s ability to impose further misery on the Ukrainian people.
I thank the Secretary of State for his statement. We are united against Russian aggression. We stand together in solidarity with the Ukrainian people. Let me echo his admiration for President Zelensky, whose bravery and eloquence yesterday were extraordinary and inspiring.
On the Secretary of State’s immediate decisions, we know that Putin’s war machine is being funded by oil and gas, which is why it is right that every country does what it can to isolate the regime, and that every company does so too. We fully support the Government’s decision to ban oil imports, which is a welcome step. It is also right to work with companies and unions on how we implement that policy. What assessment has he made of the impact of the ban on petrol and diesel prices?
We also support the Secretary of State’s decision to seek ways of ridding ourselves of Russian gas imports. On the wider energy security context, it is essential that we learn the right lessons from this crisis. Although 50% of our gas comes from the North sea and only 4% from Russia, we pay the same price for our own gas as for that which we import because we operate in an integrated gas market, so we are absolutely exposed to these rocketing wholesale gas prices, which are currently up 100% on the month and 800% on the year.
Therefore, the right lesson to learn is surely that we have to go much further and faster in developing home-grown zero-carbon power, including renewables and nuclear, which can free us from the whims of autocrats and dictators who can use fossil fuels as a geopolitical weapon. Does the Secretary of State agree this is the right lesson and that policy will need to change? In particular, does he agree that we should finally end the effective moratorium on onshore wind in the planning regulations, which since 2015 has denied us power each and every year equivalent to our gas imports from Russia? Does he agree that we should ramp up our offshore wind so we go well beyond 40 GW, and that it is time to finally get serious about energy efficiency—the best way of cutting energy demand and an area in which the Government have not succeeded in past years?
There needs to be a phased transition in the North sea, but will the Secretary of State now clarify the Government’s position on fracking? Will he confirm that the moratorium that was put in place will remain in place—no ifs, no buts—as fracking would not make any difference to the prices consumers pay, is dangerous and would take decades to come on stream? [Hon. Members: “No!”] They do not agree with me. I have a position against fracking; they support fracking. We would love to know what the Secretary of State and the Government think and I am sure they would, too.
Let me ask the Secretary of State about the cost of living crisis facing families, arising from what is happening to oil and gas prices. We have consistently warned the Government that their measures were wholly inadequate to address the rise in energy bills. Will he undertake to tell the Chancellor that, in his spring statement, he must come back with much more help for both families and businesses?
We are united in our support for the people of Ukraine. We will support the Government in everything they do that can cut off support for the evil and barbaric Putin regime, and we urge the Government to learn the right lessons for our country from this crisis, so we can achieve both energy security and energy sovereignty.
In his customary way, the right hon. Gentleman raised a large number of questions, the majority of which I hope to deal with. He spoke against Putin’s barbaric invasion and completely illegal actions. I am very pleased that he reflects our sentiments and that we have a mutual interest in making sure that Putin fails.
As far as the cost of living is concerned, the Chancellor of the Exchequer has made an extensive intervention, and it is wrong for Opposition politicians to say that the price cap that will be set in August will necessarily be higher than it is today. We simply do not know. As the right hon. Gentleman understands, the price cap will be set retrospectively, looking at the average price. It may well be higher, but there are circumstances in which it will not increase as much as he imagines. As is always the case, we take an ongoing approach to looking at the price cap. We speak to Ofgem all the time and Ofgem is engaged in work on how the price cap is calculated.
I am pleased to hear that the right hon. Gentleman is keen to support investment in the North sea, making sure that gas is a key transition fuel, something that many people on the Opposition Benches may disagree with. He is right to stress an increased focus on renewables and nuclear power—we are absolutely at one in our agreement on that.
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement. We have to brace ourselves for the greatest impact on living standards that any of us has known in our lifetime, which necessitates a more pragmatic approach to energy policy. It means accelerating investment in renewables, potentially lifting the effective moratorium on onshore wind, looking again at fracking and taking all possible advantage of our domestic supplies in the North sea as part of a transition. Does my right hon. Friend agree with that, and also that it would be perverse and dangerous to take away oil from Russia and replace it with oil and gas from Iran and Venezuela, two regimes that are just as malign and dangerous as Putin’s in Russia?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right: we have to look at all the possible technologies that can give us as much resilience as possible. We have to shrug off a lot of outdated dogma in this area, and I am pleased that the right hon. Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband) is full square behind nuclear, because as I remember, when he was Secretary of State, he was not the most supportive of the nuclear industry. My right hon. Friend is right to identify potentially hostile powers and we are keen to diversify away from providing resources to those powers.