House of Commons
Thursday 10 March 2022
The House met at half-past Nine o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
The Secretary of State was asked—
Air pollution is at a record low. However, we need to do more to protect the vulnerable, in particular, and drive cleaner air for all. Last year, more than £1 million was awarded to local authorities under the Department’s air quality grant for projects specifically aimed at children. Yesterday, we announced more than £11 million-worth of grants, across 40 local authorities, to improve air quality; several of these projects were focused on schools and their monitoring.
Vortex, a company in Swansea bay, manufactures high-quality, low-cost digital monitors—it has 500 across Hammersmith—which help to deliver local air quality schemes, with public support. Given that half a million children in schools are suffering from toxic levels of air pollution, will the Minister undertake to provide monitors across the country, to drive public opinion and better air quality, in accordance with World Health Organisation standards?
The hon. Gentleman is a very assiduous campaigner on this topic. Local authorities can choose to monitor outside schools, but it is often better to target resources at improving air quality generally. As I say, we gave £11.6 million yesterday, of which more than £1 million was also for education, following the coroner’s report on Ella Kissi-Debrah. I would, of course, be happy to meet the hon. Gentleman to discuss the issue further.
The Government have a world-leading target to halt nature’s decline by 2030, and recovering urban biodiversity is an important part of that work. Through our local nature recovery strategies, we will identify local priorities for nature recovery, including of course in urban areas, such as creating, connecting and restoring habitat to form part of our nature recovery network. We are investing £750 million through the nature for climate fund, and I urge my hon. Friend to look at the range of funding we have available, including the local authority treescapes fund and the urban tree challenge fund.
Local urban communities such as Southport benefit enormously from trees, shrubbery and other green spaces that promote biodiversity and rewilding, but there are strong concerns among my constituents that Sefton Council is planning to cut back the greenery along Southport’s pavements and replace it with concrete blocks for cycle lanes. So will my hon. Friend support my attempts to fight this nature crime—a potential tree massacre—by Labour-controlled Sefton Council?
My hon. Friend is a great advocate for this, as Members can tell, and he has regularly bent my ear about the green spaces in his constituency. Through our Environment Act 2021, we have a strengthened duty on local authorities to assess what they can do to further conservation and biodiversity, and we have placed a duty on designated authorities to produce these local nature recovery strategies. We also have that world-leading target to halt the decline in nature. So I urge him to work with the council and get it to do more, but it could replace those concrete blocks with hedges. The air pollution Minister, the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St Edmunds (Jo Churchill), would be grateful for that, as there are some views that that would help to tackle air pollution as well.
How bio- diversity and renaturing is undertaken in the UK will be guided by the convention on biological diversity. Biodiversity has experienced a catastrophic collapse globally. The United Nations biodiversity COP15 is shortly to resume. What are the Government’s strategic goals at COP15? What equivalent headline target is there to the net zero target at COP26, which is well understood in local urban communities and across the UK?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that and for his shared interest in biodiversity. He is right: we must not just do this at home—we have to deal with it abroad as well. Biodiversity loss is a global problem and the forthcoming COP15 on the convention on biological diversity will be really important in furthering our work to bend the curve on the loss of biodiversity. That was agreed at the G7, and the aim of the CBD is to get as many as countries as possible to sign up to that.
Extended Producer Responsibility
The Government consulted on the introduction of extended producer responsibility for packaging last year, and the response will be published shortly. We will then consult on reforms to extend schemes to batteries and waste electronic and electrical equipment this year, and to end-of-life vehicles in 2023. I am keen for industries to step up and come forward with schemes themselves, just as the paint-manufacturing industry has done. My door is always open to ways to drive EPR forward.
I commend the Minister for moving forward with the extended producer responsibility scheme, which has the potential to significantly increase recycling rates for a number of products, but she will be aware of the potential impact on household budgets. She has opened the door to speak to industry; will she also listen to industry about the pace of change, so that we can get it right at an affordable cost?
Many of the companies local to my hon. Friend have articulated their concerns and worries—indeed, during a trip to Viridor last week to look at polymer recycling, I spoke to Unilever, which I believe has a plant local to him. The forthcoming response to the EPR consultation will show businesses that we are listening and working with them. Our initial analysis indicates that EPR will not result in a significant uplift to prices, but we will keep things under review and I am happy to talk to my hon. Friend further.
UK-New Zealand Free Trade Agreement
Over the past 18 months, I have held regular discussions with both the current Secretary of State for International Trade, my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Anne-Marie Trevelyan), and her predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for South West Norfolk (Elizabeth Truss), regarding the negotiating mandate for the free trade agreement with New Zealand, which includes protections for British agriculture. Tariff liberalisation for sensitive goods, including beef and lamb, will be staged over time.
The Secretary of State’s decision to seek advice from the Trade and Agriculture Commission is welcome, but the questions on which he seeks advice all seem to revolve around standards. Important though standards are, they are not the full story as far as the crofters and farmers in my constituency are concerned. Will the Secretary of State encourage his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Trade to take a more farmer and crofter-focused approach? This week the Government’s own figures indicated that that trade deal risks taking £150 million out of British agriculture.
It is important to recognise that New Zealand has always had access to the UK market under an existing World Trade Organisation schedule of around 114,000 tonnes, but in recent years New Zealand has used only half its quota, because long before the quota is filled it is unable to compete with the great UK producers, including those in the right hon. Gentleman’s constituency.
Livestock production is important for food production, the capture of carbon in pasture and the preservation of some of our most iconic landscapes. Our new policies—including the new animal health and welfare pathway and the newly increased farming investment fund—will support livestock farmers.
What progress has my hon. Friend made on examining the Welsh compensation scheme for cattle destroyed because of suspected tuberculosis? I understand that the Welsh model pays the value of the animal that is destroyed. What plans does she have to replace the standardised valuations in England, particularly in respect of prize-winning high-quality breeds?
The Welsh Government intend to move away from their current practice of individual animal valuation. They are considering and have recently consulted on moving to a practice of table valuation, such as we use in England. I understand that my hon. Friend recently met the Secretary of State, with her constituent Andrew Birkle, to discuss this important issue.
Most livestock farmers want to follow the best animal welfare standards, and consumers need to have confidence in that. I do not know whether the Minister saw the recent “Panorama” episode, “A Cow’s Life”, but it shows yet another Red Tractor farm that is not meeting those standards. What is she doing to ensure better consumer confidence and to make sure that livestock farmers live up to the standards that they profess to adopt?
The hon. Lady is a great campaigner for animal welfare and she and I have discussed these issues many times previously. She is right to raise the important issue of animal welfare again and I would be delighted to talk to her about our recently published animal health and welfare pathway. An annual vet visit to every farm and direct discussion between the vet and the farmer will really help at a granular and practical level to bring about the increases in animal welfare that we all want.
As with the pandemic, the dreadful situation in Ukraine has brought food security into sharp relief. Currently, the pig sector in the UK is still in crisis, with thousands of animals dammed back on farms and more than 40,000, sadly, having been culled on farms and not going into the food supply chain, creating huge health and welfare issues. I know that the Government have put measures in place and that the Minister is chairing summits, but can she update the House on what the Government are doing to avert this human and animal welfare crisis?
It is fair to say that the dreadful situation in Ukraine means that food security in the broader sense is uppermost in all our minds. We must feel very fortunate in this country that we grow almost all our own grain and are able to be so self-sufficient—74% self-sufficient in the food that we grow. That is not to say that we should be complacent. The Government are working very closely with industry at all levels, with processors and retailers, and not just in the pig sector.
The £150 million impediment to livestock farmers as a consequence of the New Zealand trade deal is a direct consequence of Brexit, as are the lack of Northern Irish animals at Stirling bull sales; the lack of an ability to export seed potatoes to Northern Ireland and the EU; the tariffs on jute sacks for seed potatoes; and the nightmare of exporting shellfish. These are direct consequences of Brexit. Can the Minister give my Angus farmers just one single benefit of Brexit and make sure that it is not some nebulous opportunity that has not been realised?
I wish—and I am sure that some of the hon. Gentlemen’s farmers wish—that the Scottish Government were going with the real benefits that we are able to make as a result of Brexit in the agricultural space. In England, we will be able to move towards a system of paying people for producing public goods. In Scotland, that option is not yet available to farmers. I will be meeting NFU Scotland later today to discuss further issues to do with Scottish farming.
I note that the Minister did not address the question about the pig crisis. Pig farmers have been in crisis month after month after month, and, frankly, the Government’s response has always been too little and too late. As was said, more than 40,000 pigs already culled on farms have been completely wasted. It is becoming apparent that one problem is the failure of the processors to honour the contracts to farmers. How much more suffering has to be endured before the Minister does as she has hinted that she might do and passes this to the Competition and Markets Authority, so that we can find out what has been going wrong in what increasingly looks like a broken market?
Only time constraints prevented me from setting out in full what we are doing with the pig industry. We have been careful to work with the pig industry in lockstep at all stages and have brought into play actual schemes that are helping them today. I agree that the supply chain in pigs is in trouble. I have said that frequently, and I have started a review of that supply chain—a serious and systematic review—which may well result in regulatory change. In the collection of the evidence, we will certainly refer matters to the Competition and Markets Authority at the appropriate time, when we have the right evidence. In the interim, I would be most grateful if any pig farmer or producer sent me a copy of a contract, which has been very, very hard to find, as I would very much like to see that.
International commodity prices are heavily influenced by factors such as energy costs and exchange rates. Recent pressures have been sustained and we have seen food price inflation rise to 4.4% in January, up from 4.2% in December. Events in Ukraine and the effect of that on energy prices are likely to have further impacts, which we are monitoring closely. Our UK food security report, published in December, included analysis of food security at household level.
The cost of living is rocketing and the price of food has risen by 3.9% year on year. Food banks such as Hebburn Helps and Bede’s Helping Hands in my constituency tell me that they are as busy as ever, as more and more people are being driven into poverty, having to choose between eating and heating. Does the Minister agree that the time has now come for the Chancellor to commit to ending food poverty in the UK by including in his forthcoming spring statement all the measures set out in the “Right to Food” campaign of my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Ian Byrne) to achieve the permanent eradication of hunger in the UK?
The hon. Lady will be aware that the Government have put in place a number of measures to help households, particularly with the sharp increase in energy costs that they face. The Chancellor and the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy have set those out previously. In addition, we have other schemes such as the holiday activity programme to support those suffering from food insecurity and additional food costs, and we have given local authorities additional measures to help them with those struggling to afford food.
With Putin’s murderous regime wreaking havoc on Ukraine and murdering innocent women and children, there is a direct impact on food and grain prices. Ukraine has stopped exports, as have many other countries. What will the Secretary of State do to protect grain supplies in this country? Secondly, what talks will he have with the retailers to ensure that we can share some of the pain of the costs, which pig and poultry just cannot stand? Thirdly, how are we going to create greater food security and grow more grain in this country, which we are in need of?
On my hon. Friend’s final point, we published a highly comprehensive analysis of our food security, including a focus on the production to supply ratio, which showed that we produce roughly three quarters of the food that we are able to grow and consume here. On his specific point, we were aware of the risk of these events in Ukraine and set up a dedicated group within DEFRA at the beginning of January to do contingency planning for the possible impacts on food. We do not import wheat from Ukraine, or only very small quantities; we are largely self-sufficient in wheat and we import the balance from Canada. However, we are looking at the cost of inputs, particularly for the livestock sector, such as poultry.
The Secretary of State will be aware of widespread concern that the rising cost of fertiliser will add further inflationary pressures to the price of food. Indeed, I have been told by one farmer of a quote for £930 a tonne plus VAT for a shipment that last year cost about £280. What steps can the Government take to address this crisis and ensure that our food security is not undermined?
The hon. Gentleman raises an important point. Fertiliser prices had spiked even before current events in Ukraine, because the cost of ammonium nitrate is heavily dependent on the cost of gas, as he knows. We have been working closely with our own domestic producer in the UK to ensure that it maintains production. Most farms will now have purchased their fertiliser and have it on farm for the current growing season or the beginning of it, but we are setting up a special group with industry to work on this challenge and to identify better long-term solutions that rely less on the price of gas.
Price rises are having an adverse effect on the household budgets of people across my constituency, perhaps none more so than those people who are off the gas grid and must buy heating oil or gas in bulk. They are not protected by the Government’s energy cap. Can my right hon. Friend tell me what he is doing and what work he is doing with BEIS and the Treasury to help to protect my constituents from bills that may have more than doubled?
I have had conversations with the Business Secretary on this matter. The disruptions we are seeing, particularly following events in Ukraine, are having some impact on the supply of household heating oil for those who are not on the grid. I know he is well aware of these issues and his Department is working closely on it.
Russia’s appalling invasion of Ukraine clearly drastically affects Ukraine’s ability to produce grain and many other foodstuffs, threatening not only price increases, but global famine and disease spread. Domestically, our farmers are experiencing increased seed, fertiliser and transport costs, and the UK, lacking the leverage it once had as part of the EU, is now a small player on the global market. The Secretary of State mentioned a food security review and summits. Exactly what actions is his Department taking to ensure food security in the UK and stabilise food prices, and what plans are the Government making to assist developing countries to meet their needs?
Tomorrow, I will attend a special session of the G7 where, with other like-minded countries, we will discuss some of those issues and the impact on international commodity prices. It is inevitable that when a country such as Russia under Putin takes such steps, there will be some turbulence in the market. It is essential that the world community shows solidarity in taking tough action on sanctions, which we will do. It is inevitable that there will be some collateral damage to our own interests and prices, but nevertheless we must see that through and impose those sanctions where they are needed in order to bring the regime to its senses.
Coastal communities are key to our levelling-up agenda, supported by the UK shared prosperity fund, the coastal communities fund and the £100 million UK seafood fund. Up to 2027 we are investing a record £5.2 billion in coastal erosion risk management. That will be invested in about 2,000 schemes and approximately 17% of it is expected to better protect against coastal and tidal flooding. It includes a £140 million coastal project on defences at the Eastbourne and Pevensey coast. We are putting coastal communities right at the heart of this flood protection landscape.
I welcome my hon. Friend’s comments. In Southend, we are blessed with a wonderful coastline, and I am sure she agrees that the best support coastal communities can have is a healthy marine environment allowing our fish and marine life to flourish, thus supporting Southend West’s fishing industry. I would therefore be very grateful to know what is being done to monitor and improve the water quality around the English coast, particularly regarding the reduction of heavy metals, sewage and other pollution, especially around the north Thames coast adjacent to Southend West.
I thank my hon. Friend for that question and welcome her to her seat. How wonderful that she has chosen DEFRA orals to ask her first question. That is very fitting, because I think the wonderful Sir David Amess never missed DEFRA questions. She is going to be a great spokesman for her area on this front. She makes a good case for the importance of keeping our waters healthy. In terms of fishing, an inshore survey programme of the outer Thames and the south coast is under way so that we can get data on the fishing stocks to better inform and help our fishermen. A recent survey showed that, remarkably, the Thames estuary, having been declared virtually dead not very long ago, has made a fantastic ecological recovery to the point that we can now see seahorses, eels and seals there.
Who knew we had seahorses off the coast of Eastbourne? This is my perfect moment. I thank my hon. Friend for her answer on the excellent work that is being done on water quality—that is clearly of massive significance to me—and on the coastal defence scheme; Eastbourne is set to potentially receive £100 million to protect the town for 100 years. But my question is about sewage and waste treatment. The sea, and all it affords, is our greatest visitor asset in Eastbourne and highly valued by local people. I recently met my local swimmers—a very hardy crew that includes one cross-channel swimmer. They are concerned about waste treatment because they so enjoy their swimming. What reassurance can my hon. Friend give them about the new powers in the Environment Act 2021 that will address this, but equally about Government-sponsored local action that will improve storm overflows and surface water, and help to take us from “good” to “excellent” status for our bathing water?
I am tempted to ask whether my hon. Friend joined the swimmers with her bathing costume on. I thank her for her work in campaigning on this matter, which she constantly talks about with me. I am delighted that we recently confirmed funding for East Sussex County Council’s Blue Heart project, which she was very proactive about, to help to reach “excellent” bathing water status. That very much focuses on what to do about the surface water and how to separate it from the sewage. That fits fully with all the work we are doing, as a Government, to make a game-changing difference on improving our water quality.
In the past, central Government have helped the Northern Ireland Assembly to address some of those issues, through finance but also through physical help. Has consideration been given to undertaking a UK-wide survey of coastal erosion with a view to taking a UK-wide approach and reinforcing coastal roads and homes on those roads that are unable to withstand these storms, which appear to happen more regularly than ever?
We take coastal erosion extremely seriously, which is why 17% of our flood protection budget is going to be devoted to coastal areas and coastal erosion. We work very closely in advising and liaising with the devolveds, which we are always happy to do. We are updating our shoreline management plans, which will help inform us, and we are happy to share information with our colleagues in the devolveds.
We are the first Government to set out our expectation that water companies must reduce storm sewage overflows, and our Environment Act includes a raft of powers to support that expectation. We have almost doubled the funding available for our catchment farming advisers and have taken action to ban microbeads and microplastics in personal care products. We are currently seeking views on further actions we could take in relation to wet wipes, and will shortly be setting targets under the Environment Act to further improve water quality and drive action in the coming years.
The Secretary of State and his team are a very nice bunch of people, and we have heard a lot of warm words this morning, but what my constituents want is action on clean water. My constituents want clean air and clean water. I spoke to Thames Water yesterday. Leading academics from the University of Reading tell us that the cuts to the Environment Agency mean that the agency is no longer measuring how much pollution is in our rivers. That is a shameful fact. Not one river in our country is safe to swim in—that is the truth. What is the Minister going to do about it?
Action is happening on this side of the House, and if the hon. Gentleman followed it, he would know exactly how much we are doing. Through our Environment Act, we have taken a game-changing move to cut down on the harm caused by storm sewage overflows. Your party, in fairness, never did any of these things. I have inherited—.
The harrowing events following the invasion of Ukraine have touched us all. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has received inquiries from many farmers, food producers and water companies that want to offer help to the people of Ukraine. We are co-ordinating with the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office and aid agencies to ensure we target those offers through the right channels.
There has also been some turbulence in international commodity markets, with agricultural commodity prices strongly correlated to the price of energy. My Department established a dedicated team to plan contingencies for this eventuality early in January. While the UK is largely self-sufficient in wheat and imports some, predominantly from Canada, we do import certain vegetable oils from Ukraine. Tomorrow, I will attend a special meeting of the G7 to discuss these issues further.
The amount of meat imported to the UK as a result of the trade deals with New Zealand and Australia will vary considerably, depending on whether it is in carcass form or deboned. Are there any nuances in those trade deals stipulating that the meat coming in should be in carcass form, which will not only limit the amount of meat imported but ensure that the added value of the produce is obtained here?
There is a convention in the sheep meat sector that these international agreements are based on something called the carcass-weight equivalent. That does not always apply to beef. However, the special agricultural safeguard that operates from years 10 to 15 will be based on a carcass-weight equivalent mechanism.
The Animal Welfare (Kept Animals) Bill was introduced in June and completed Committee stage in November. We continue to work on the Bill, and have added a new pet abduction offence and extended the primates measures to Wales. We have also consulted on puppy smuggling. Work continues and I will keep my hon. Friend posted.
It has been two weeks since I submitted this parliamentary question. Russia and Ukraine account for 29% of global wheat exports and are significant in fertiliser supply. Cereal, bread and pasta are household staples for millions of homes across this country. Even before the war in Ukraine began, we were in the midst of a supply chain and cost of living crisis, with gaps on the shelves and food left rotting in the fields. Labour has a plan to buy, make and sell more of our great British produce, but what is the Secretary of State’s plan to address our weakening food security?
As the hon. Gentleman will know, we are working on a food strategy that will address all these issues across the food supply chain and some of the other challenges around the food industry, too. On his specific question, as I have said, we are largely self-sufficient in wheat production. We import some wheat from Canada. Most of our bread manufacturers therefore have British or Canadian wheat in their bread. We have modelled the impact of the increase in commodity prices on the price of a loaf of bread, and because wheat only represents about 10% of the cost of a loaf of bread, the impact is actually quite modest. A much bigger impact is likely to be the increase in fuel costs, since the cost of delivering bread is the biggest cost they face.
Many food banks have raised concerns that they may face having to turn away hard-working families struggling to get by. Some have reported that donations are down as families feel the cost of living squeeze, but demand for services is rocketing. It cannot be left to charities and retailers such as the Co-operative and others to fight this alone. What will the Government do to step up and deliver food justice, especially given that this cost of living crisis originated in Downing Street?
The big drivers of household financial insecurity are energy costs, housing costs and so on, and that is why the Chancellor and the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy have already announced schemes to try to help households with the cost of energy. When it comes specifically to food, we have a household support fund worth around £500 million, and at a DEFRA level we support projects such as FareShare.
I could not agree more with my hon. Friend. It is a basic right to have clean air. That is why yesterday we announced more than £11 million in grants across local authority projects to improve air quality. We have made £880 million in funding available to support local authorities to tackle their nitrogen oxide exceedances and to get compliance. That is on top of the £2 billion investment in cycling and walking and a further £4 billion for making the switch to cleaner vehicles, showing a cross-Government approach. The Environment Act 2021 ensured that local authorities have the powers necessary to tackle this issue.
According to Southern Water’s own figures, between 27 December 2021 and 6 January 2022, for 236 hours untreated wastewater was discharged from the Lidsey sewage treatment plant into the Lidsey Rife en route to the sea. That is 24 hours a day for 10 consecutive days. The final draft of “The government’s strategic priorities for Ofwat” states that the Government expect water companies to
“significantly reduce the frequency and volume of sewage discharges from storm overflows.”
Can the Minister confirm—
Ofwat is legally required to act in accordance with the policy statement that my right hon. Friend referred to, and the Government expect Ofwat to take serious action against water companies. He might be aware that Ofwat called in five water companies just yesterday to look at what they are doing and their data, and our new system will tackle the issue.
We will be hearing the response to the extended producer responsibility consultation very shortly. I also highlight that, within a week, we have the Keep Britain Tidy and Clean for the Queen campaigns. That is about everyone taking on part of the responsibility and the extended producer responsibility scheme will help everyone to do that.
I know that the Minister gets regular updates on the situation at Walleys Quarry in Newcastle-under-Lyme. She knows that the problem is not yet solved and people are still having to live with it. What update can she give me? What hope can she give to my constituents? Can she update me on the work of the chief scientific adviser’s team?
DEFRA’s chief scientific adviser has been talking to independent external scientific experts about Walleys Quarry and site capping, gas management, air dispersal and leachate. My officials keep me regularly updated and my hon. Friend knows that I take it very seriously. I get weekly updates and I will keep on applying the pressure to ensure that we get the result.
Electoral Commission Committee
The hon. Member for City of Chester, representing the Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission, was asked—
Donations: Political Parties
Voters deserve to know that elections in the UK are free and fair and that laws are in place to safeguard them from unlawful influence. The law sets out what constitutes a permissible donor, including qualifying foreign donors from whom parties and hon. Members can accept donations. It requires the recipient to take reasonable steps to confirm the identity of the donor and check permissibility, and charges the commission with publishing the larger donations to parties so that voters can see them. The commission has recommended introducing new duties on parties to enhance due diligence and risk assessment of donations based on existing money laundering regulations, which would protect parties and build confidence among voters that sources of party funding are thoroughly scrutinised.
The hon. Gentleman will have seen reports at the weekend surrounding concerns with regard to the awarding of a particular peerage, something on which there has been, as yet, no credible denial. Does he agree that, when we see such stories, we realise that we need a stronger not a weaker Electoral Commission? For that reason, the Government should not be proceeding with the measures in the Elections Bill.
If the right hon. Gentleman will permit me, I will not be drawn on specific cases from the commission. The commission has said, however, that it would like to see enhanced due diligence to require political parties to assess and manage the risk of unlawful foreign funding and would support the adoption of a “know your donor” culture when making decisions on donations. It will also check and audit some of the donations that are made known to it to make sure that they comply. I am sure that, if he has concerns about individual donations, he will let the commission know of them.
The hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire, representing the Church Commissioners was asked—
Global Summit: Freedom of Religion or Belief
The Church is making every effort to support that important summit to promote freedom of religion or belief. A debate was held on the lack of global religious freedom at last month’s General Synod and I am pleased that my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce), in her capacity as the Prime Minister’s special envoy for freedom of religion or belief, was able to brief Synod members on the huge cost of following Jesus in many parts of the world.
Has my hon. Friend seen the 2021 research report, “Defeating Minority Exclusion and Unlocking Potential: Christianity in the Holy Land”, which reflects the significance of that community’s contribution to public value and welfare but also the vulnerability of its position? Does he agree that the forthcoming ministerial summit presents an excellent opportunity to discuss and debate its findings and recommendations?
I have seen the report and I share my hon. Friend’s concerns about its findings, which show the political and economic instability and the social intimidation that people are facing. The international ministerial meeting in July will provide an opportunity for that research to be widely shared and for the report’s concerns to be addressed.
At the summit coming up this year, it will be really important to have individual stories from the countries where persecution is rife, whether that is China, India, Pakistan, Iran or other parts of the world. Will that be part of the conference?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, who takes a very serious interest in these matters. He is absolutely right. The Archbishop of Canterbury has just been in Pakistan, including Peshawar, where Pastor William Siraj was horrendously murdered on 30 January this year. Those stories must be heard, and he is absolutely right.
The Church is responding through prayer, giving and action. Parishes across the country prayed for peace on 27 February and are supporting humanitarian appeals. Chaplaincies across Europe are providing support to refugees now. The Church has sold its investments in Russian firms and there were no investments, I am pleased to say, in Russian sovereign debt.
Churches throughout my constituency, including St James’s in Norlands, and indeed other faith institutions have been at the forefront of the humanitarian appeal for Ukraine. Can I ask my hon. Friend specifically if the Church Commissioners have plans to sponsor refugees as part of the upcoming humanitarian sponsorship scheme?
Again, I am very grateful to my hon. Friend. I can tell her that the Church of England has been one of the major partners in the community sponsorship of refugees in the past and stands ready to do so again. We are urgently awaiting further details from the Home Office and the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities on how the sponsorship route will work, and we certainly intend to be fully involved.
The Bishop of Durham chairs the multi-denominational Church works commission, which is engaging with the Government on how churches can best participate in family hubs, as we believe that churches, other faiths and the voluntary sector all have a very important role to play in the successful delivery of family hubs.
Church groups have been supporting excellent 12-step programmes, including Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous, for many years. The all-party parliamentary group on the twelve steps recovery programme from addiction, which I chair, is very keen to hear how the Church Commissioners are supporting mental health and addiction issues, including linking with 12-step programmes in family hubs.
Well, I would be delighted to arrange a meeting with the hon. Lady’s all-party group on this important subject. I can tell her that the Church works commission is already working with Government Departments and leading Christian charities on proposals to tackle mental wellbeing and loneliness. The diocese of Manchester, for example, runs a large-scale project to support young people’s mental health and has a mental health wellbeing youth worker. The Bishop of St Albans leads on our addictions work and has done particular work on gambling.
The Warroch Hill tree planting scheme will sequester carbon, protect water courses and reduce incidents of flash flooding. Local jobs have been created, and the biodiversity of the site is being significantly increased in comparison with its former use as an upland hill farm.
I very much welcome that response, and I also welcome the investment that the Church of England is making in Scotland, but what progress is the Church making to ensure that all of its investments—not only in Scotland, but across the UK—are contributing positively to the environment?
That is a very good and welcome challenge from my hon. Friend, and I can reassure him that the Church Commissioners are committed to the long-term stewardship of our land and seek to adopt best practice in meeting the global challenges of combating climate change and reducing biodiversity loss. Our forests are managed in accordance with the UK forestry standard and the UK woodland assurance standard, which also protect water resources and enhance soils. The Church, along with other major landowners, has also signed the National Trust’s nature-based solutions compact.
We are currently delivering 29,000 new homes, of which around 9,000 will be affordable. These can be small, edge- of-village developments, or major master-planned new communities with, for example, country parks, sporting and community facilities, allotments, schools, shops, healthcare facilities, libraries and cafés.
I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. Clearly, there is a desperate need for social rented housing in this country, and the belief is that we need between 90,000 and 100,000 homes a year. The Church has enormous amounts of land. Will he encourage the Church to give up more of its land for social rented accommodation?
I thank my hon. Friend for that important question, and his passion for this issue is shared by the Archbishop of Canterbury, no less. The Church Commissioners’ land portfolio has the potential to deliver around 30,000 new homes across England, and the Church is determined to play its part in tackling the housing crisis. Developments will have a mixture of market rate and affordable homes, and we are committed to building vibrant communities, learning from best practice in the Duchy of Cornwall and elsewhere. In the village of Shepherdswell in Kent, for example, 10 of the 13 new village homes will be affordable.
Electoral Commission Committee
The hon. Member for City of Chester, representing the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission, was asked—
The Commission is statutorily accountable to the Speaker’s Committee for the economical, efficient and effective discharge of its functions. The Committee scrutinises the Commission’s financial, operational and strategic planning on an ongoing basis. Yesterday, it took evidence from the Commission in public on its annual estimate and five-year corporate plan. As of yesterday, the Committee has no plans to make an assessment, and the Commission has impartiality.
I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s response. This week the former Speaker of the House of Commons got his comeuppance for being mean and unfair to a number of people, by bullying them and by using his power. The Electoral Commission was also mean and unfair to a number of people, by using its power to bully them. Mr Speaker, you have changed the position of the Speaker, and it is widely regarded across the House that you are fair and impartial. Does the hon. Gentleman believe that the new chair of the Electoral Commission can get the same widespread support for the impartiality and fairness of that Commission?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. He is a regular attender and participant in these question times. I was part of the panel that appointed the current chair, and his appointment was endorsed unanimously by the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission. There is confidence that he understands the challenges that the hon. Gentleman, and others, have laid down for the Commission to meet. The Commission will also soon have a new chief executive, and I am little concerned that the hon. Gentleman should not look at the Speaker’s Commission a bit like Trigger looked at his broom in “Only Fools and Horses”. It has a new chair, a new chief executive, and it largely has completely new commissioners. They all understand the challenges that are laid down, and I hope that they will rise to them.
The hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire, representing the Church Commissioners was asked—
The Columba Declaration has led to regular contact between the Churches, and the strengthening of both in serving their nations by co-operating on issues of public policy and promoting Christian life. One example of that is the Thy Kingdom Come partnership for nationwide prayer, adopted in November 2018. In Cumbria the Churches work together to form mission communities made up of all the churches in a locality.
The Columba Declaration set out where the Churches of England and Scotland could allow close and growing co-operation in a multitude of areas, including where mutually supported work between the Church of England’s Mission and Public Affairs, and the Church of Scotland’s Church and Society Council, could work to support refugees. In light of what is happening in Ukraine, has there been any discussion or co-operation about that, under the terms of the Columba Declaration, meaning that the two Churches might pool resources and effort to support refugees who are fleeing that terrible situation in Ukraine?
I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s question, and I reassure him that the two Churches have already been in touch with each other about supporting Ukrainian refugees. They will continue to share experience, and consider carefully whether joint action may be more effective as the situation develops.
Her Majesty the Queen is the supreme governor of the Church of England and a supreme example of a life of public service, inspired by her hope in the Christian gospel. There will be a national service of celebration at St Paul’s cathedral and special services and prayers across the country. The Church of England is an enthusiastic participant in the Queen’s green canopy initiative across all of its 42 dioceses.
In celebration of Her Majesty’s platinum jubilee, St Mary’s church in Princes Risborough wishes to do something practical and expand its community initiatives such as community outreach, mother and toddler groups and over-70s’ lunch clubs. What can the Church of England do practically to support that great ambition?
I am delighted to learn about the excellent work that St Mary’s in Princes Risborough is already doing in the parish, and it would be a fitting tribute to Her Majesty to build on that good work. I suggest that, in the first instance, St Mary’s should get in touch with the director of mission and ministry in the Oxford diocese, who I am sure will have a number of practical suggestions of interest.
May I say in passing how wonderful it is when we have a question session in which the people who reply are succinct and to the point. Perhaps we should get Ministers here for a lesson in how it is done. Will the Second Church Estates Commissioner tell us more about the plans to let this House know what the Church of England is doing in regard to the celebrations?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that compliment. I repeat that there will be a national service of celebration at St Paul’s cathedral organised by the Church of England. That will probably be the focal point, but I know that there will be enormous celebrations in his constituency, in mine and, indeed, in every constituency across these islands, and I hope that the Church of England, churches and all faith groups will be at the heart of them.
Parliamentary Works Sponsor Body
The right hon. Member for Alyn and Deeside, representing the Parliamentary Works Sponsor Body, was asked—
Restoration and Renewal: Impact on Roads and Air Quality
The restoration and renewal programme is committed to sustainability and meeting its environmental obligations. It had been working on developing a detailed and costed plan for restoration and renewal of the Palace, which would have included an environmental assessment on both the construction phase and the operations of the restored building. That work is currently paused following the decisions of both House Commissions in February.
Following what the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone) said, I thought that John Bercow as Speaker made some really good, radical reforms in this place.
The project of construction works that we will carry out in renewing this estate will be the biggest since its reconstruction after the second world war. Is my right hon. Friend aware that we could put much of the work on the river rather than on the roads, which will pollute the atmosphere, destroy lives and ruin London’s transport system? Unfortunately, for the first scheme—the new museum and learning centre—a contract has been given to put all its materials on the road rather than on water. Will he look again at contracts that include transport on the river?
The sponsor body had been looking at using the Thames, and I agree that anything we can take off the roads is a positive thing. As I said, the work is currently paused. My hon. Friend may want to take the issue up with the Leader of the House in business questions to get some clarity.
I agree that a lot of work has gone into the project and, whatever the direction of travel is, it is important that we do not lose the valuable work already done. I have been involved in the project for many years and can certainly say that the people involved have worked incredibly hard on it and done incredible work. Whatever direction is taken, it is important that we value their work and use it to ensure that the scheme is improved as well as to protect this place. At the end of the day, whatever individuals’ views are on the project, it is about saving this Palace.
Refugees from Ukraine
(Urgent Question): To ask the Home Secretary if she will make a statement about refugees from Ukraine.
I am grateful for this opportunity to update the House on the Government’s humanitarian response to Putin’s depraved war on Ukraine. As the House knows, the UK’s humanitarian support for Ukraine has been developed following close consultation with its Government and Governments in the region. On 4 March, I launched the Ukraine family scheme, which applies to immediate and extended Ukrainian family members, and everyone eligible is granted three years’ leave to enter or remain. Today, I want to set out further changes that I am making to the process to make it quicker and simpler.
I have two overarching obligations: first, to keep the British people safe; secondly, to do all we can to help Ukrainians. No Home Secretary can take these decisions lightly, and I am in daily contact with the intelligence and security agencies, which are providing me with regular threat assessments. What happened in Salisbury showed what Putin is willing to do on our soil. It also demonstrated that a small number of people with evil intentions can wreak havoc on our streets.
This morning, I received assurances that enable me to announce changes to the Ukraine family scheme. Based on the new advice that I have received, I am now in the position to announce that vital security checks will continue on all cases. From Tuesday, Ukrainians with passports will no longer need to go to a visa application centre to give their biometrics before they come to the UK. Instead, once their application has been considered and the appropriate checks completed, they will receive direct notification that they are eligible for the scheme and can come to the UK.
In short, Ukrainians with passports will be able to get permission to come here fully online from wherever they are and will be able to give their biometrics once they are in Britain. That will mean that visa application centres across Europe can focus their efforts on helping Ukrainians without passports. We have increased the capacity at those centres to over 13,000 appointments a week. That streamlined approach will be operational as of Tuesday 15 March in order to make the relevant technology and IT changes.
I will of course update the House if the security picture changes and if it becomes necessary to make further changes to protect our domestic homeland security. Threat assessments are always changing and we will always keep our approach under review. In the meantime, I once again salute the heroism of the Ukrainian people.
I have to ask the Home Secretary, why does it always take being hauled into the House of Commons to make basic changes to help vulnerable people who are fleeing from Ukraine?
A maternity hospital was bombed yesterday in an attack on newborn babies and women giving birth. People are fleeing for their lives and, up to now, the response from the Home Office has been a total disgrace, bringing shame upon our country. A 90-year-old holocaust survivor was left in makeshift accommodation in Poland even though her granddaughter was struggling to get here. Mums with small kids have been told that they cannot get an appointment for weeks and have had to queue for days to get biometrics in freezing weather in Rzeszów, only to be told that they then have to travel 200 miles to Warsaw to pick up their visas.
It is welcome that the Home Secretary is now introducing the online approach. We know that different ways of doing this were tried for Hong Kong visas, but why has it taken so long when she has had intelligence for weeks, if not months, that she needed to prepare for a Russian invasion of Ukraine? If we still have to wait until Tuesday for this new system to come in, what is to happen for everybody else in the meantime? Why is she not bringing in the armed forces? They have offered to help. We have had 1,000 troops on stand-by to provide humanitarian help for two weeks, so why not use them now to set up the emergency centres and to get people passported through as rapidly as possible and get them into the country?
What about the Ukrainian nurse here on a healthcare visa? Is she finally to be allowed to bring her elderly parents to the country, which we have asked for for so long? Is this still just being restricted to those with family? Are they still going to have to fill in multiple online forms, or will the Home Secretary say that all those who want to come to the UK having fled the fighting in Ukraine can now come here without having to fill in loads of online forms or jump through a whole load of hoops?
This has just been shameful. We are pushing vulnerable people from pillar to post in their hour of need. Week after week we have seen this happen. It is deeply wrong to leave people in this terrible state. Our country is better than this. If she cannot get this sorted out, frankly she should hand the job over to somebody else who can.
As ever, I am delighted to be in the Chamber. In fact, Mr Speaker, as you know, we were intending to give a statement this morning, so far from the comments from the Opposition Members, the right hon. Lady should have some perspective on all this.
If I may, I will just respond to some of the points that the Opposition party has made—of course, it is the job of the Opposition to attack the Government rather than find collective solutions and support the approach that the Government are taking. First and foremost, I have always maintained that we will take a pragmatic and agile approach to our response. We are making important changes. The right hon. Lady has asked why we are not making these changes immediately. They are subject to digital verification. There is no comparison to British national overseas schemes because 90% of Ukrainians do not have chip passports, so they would be excluded from any such scheme and approach.
Visa applications are important in this process. It is important that we are flexible in our response, and we have been. We are seeing that many Ukrainians do not have documentation. This country and all Governments, including probably a Government that the right hon. Lady once served in, will recognise that there was something known as the Windrush scandal and it is important that everyone who arrives in the UK has physical and digital records of their status here in the UK to ensure that they can access schemes—[Interruption.] Opposition Members may holler, but the process is vital in terms of verification, notification and permission to travel. It is important to give people status when they come to the United Kingdom, so that they have the right to work, the right to access benefits and digital verification of their status. That is absolutely right.
It is really important to remember again that although we have known that this attack has been coming, we have to work with the intelligence and security agencies. No disrespect to the right hon. Lady, but these checks and data—biographical and the warnings index—are important security checks that can be done through the digital process. They have been verified by the intelligence and security services, and we have to work with them in particular.
At a time of war and conflict, it is really important that we work together. I reflect on many of the comments and observations that I have heard directly from members of the Ukrainian community in this country, who I have spent time a great deal of time with this week, not just on their applications and how applications are processed but on how applications can be made both in the UK and outside the United Kingdom. There are not swathes and swathes of forms; there is a clear application process for families who undertake it.
We have been working within the Government, I emphasise to those in the House who want to listen to me rather than talk over me, and it is through that engagement, importantly, that many families have said that they want to see the country come together in the support. Rather than have misinformation about VAC appointments, which originated from the Opposition party, we should stick with the factual information about the scheme. Everybody should work together not just in promoting the scheme but in making sure that those who need our help are united in our collective approach to not only how we serve them but how we support them in getting their family members over to the United Kingdom.
Of course my right hon. Friend is absolutely right that many of the people who are fleeing from this appalling murder and mayhem, from war crimes and from breaches of the international rules of war want to remain as close as possible to the areas from which they have been driven, so that when this appalling catastrophe is over, they can return. Will she keep in touch with our European partners on both their practices and procedures so that we help these desperate people whom our constituents are rightly intent on us assisting, and so we are part of a co-ordinated and effective European response to this horrendous humanitarian crisis?
My right hon. Friend is right to refer to the need for a co-ordinated approach, and also to the response within the region. It is very clear that families want to stay there. I receive calls every day from my counterparts in the region—Ministers of the Interior—who are asking for aid to support those families who want to stay in the region because they want to go back home; and the ambassadors in the region are saying the same.
My right hon. Friend asked about the EU in particular. I am in constant contact with Commissioner Johansson to discuss how we can support the region and, specifically, countries and Ukrainian nationals in the region. The need for that co-ordinated response is so important, and the British Government, through a whole-Government effort, are supplying not only financial aid and support but practical aid and equipment to many countries in the region on the Ukrainian border that are asking us for direct help and support.
We broadly welcome the Government’s U-turn—it is a big step forward—but, as we have heard, it did not have to be this way. This war was foreseen, and the humanitarian crisis that has resulted from it was widely predicted. As I said yesterday, the Government have lagged behind the public, and I suspect that public pressure in many Conservative MPs’ inboxes has brought about this change, welcome as it is.
Yesterday, at the Home Affairs Committee, the Ukrainian ambassador was shocked to learn from my hon. Friend the Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald) that the Ukrainians who are currently here without permanent residency, namely students and workers, had absolutely no rights that would allow them to bring relatives to the UK under the bespoke system. The ambassador said that he would raise the issue with the Home Secretary. Did he do so, and is that loophole covered by the measures that she has announced? May I also ask what discussions she has had, and will have, with the devolved Administrations about how to ensure that these measures are successful?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for the approach and the tone that he has taken. It is important for us to work together, and the Immigration Minister is in touch with the devolved Administrations. As we have made clear from day one, these are important discussions about the need to work collegiately and collectively on our response. This cannot be done purely through central Government; we have to work across the country to provide the support that is needed. Yesterday I was in Manchester and Derby, meeting members of the Ukrainian diaspora community to hear about their needs and to discuss how we can work not only centrally but with local authorities to give wider support.
The hon. Gentleman asked some important questions about, for example, students. There are many others who have leave to stay in this country and can have their leave extended to 36 months, and we are making that clear across the board. I have also been clear about the agility of our response, and about our approach to enabling family members to come here as well. That work is under way in the Department, and is taking place right now. As I have said, I will come back to update the House. I am also in touch with the Ukrainian ambassador nearly every day, primarily because a range of cases inevitably arise and casework is complicated. Many Members of Parliament have been using caseworking facilities that have been provided for them in Portcullis House. As we identify challenges—not everyone has documentation, not everyone has a passport—we need to find ways in which we can work together to bring people here, which is why everything is under review and why we have that agile response.
I welcome the Home Secretary’s announcement. May I make a further suggestion—a practical one, I hope—that could alleviate the situation? According to the House of Commons Library, there are 35,000 Ukrainian citizens in the UK, and I know that they are sick with worry—worried to death—about their elderly mothers, their babies, their grandchildren and so on. Would it not be possible for us to have a hub for them here in the UK, so that everything could be done from here and they could be given provisional visas to come into the country, and we could then check the biometrics here?
I thank my hon. Friend for her suggestion and comments. We are actually doing this across the country now. Yesterday I was in Manchester, where we are working with the Ukrainian community group, and also in Derby. There is a whole network in the Ukrainian diaspora, and they have asked us not for a hub in London—we have one in the Ukrainian social club in London, and we stepped that up at the beginning of the week—but for hubs within community centres. We are establishing that and working with the community to do that.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. While I welcome the changes for Ukrainian passport holders, many Ukrainians do not have passports, as the Home Secretary has just said. I want to ask her about TLScontact, which has been subcontracted by the Home Office to carry out biometric checks. The chief inspector of borders and immigration told the Home Secretary that TLScontact was so hellbent on making profit that its use posed a risk of “reputational damage” to the UK. With Ukrainians fleeing for their lives and the chaos at the visa application centres with long waits and few appointments, can the Secretary of State tell me why that company is allowed to profit from the suffering and misery of Ukrainians by telling them that if they make additional payments, their cases will be expedited and they will get appointments more quickly? Is that right?
Let me just share the information I know about the contracted service with TLScontact. First and foremost, we have surged capacity at visa application centres, as I have said several times in the House. That is a contractual process that we have, alongside working with Home Office staff in country, and further staff have been sent out. The right hon. Lady asked specifically about the contractual arrangements with TLScontact. Our priority has been to surge its staff in country to create more appointments, and we have surged appointments. There have been 6,000 appointments available this week, and as of Tuesday 15 March, there will be 13,000 appointments for people who do not have documentation and passports. We can prioritise those without documentation and passports. Those with passports can use the digital service that will be set up and go live from Tuesday. I will come back to the Chair of the Select Committee on the contractual details, primarily because these details are organised through the Departments and there is a procurement process that goes on. I will write to her on the specifics. With regard to Ukrainian nationals coming to the United Kingdom to be reunited with their families, this is a free service. There are no charges in place whatsoever.
I welcome the measures announced today. They will be coming in next Tuesday, but could not the Home Secretary today suspend the carrier liability duty for Ukrainian passport holders presenting at Krakow or Warsaw airports to come to the UK so that they can have the checks done in a secure setting here and be granted at least a visitor’s visa? Or could she not remove Ukraine from the list of excluded countries so that they could come here in the same way as an American tourist and be granted a visitor’s visa, subject to checks being carried out in a secure setting? Am I wrong?
As ever, my hon. Friend is making practical suggestions, but I am afraid that those checks cannot be suspended. There has already been work across Government to look at the carrier liability aspect. It is the electronic authorisation to travel that we are speeding up through this digital system, so that once the individual receives the authorisation, they can go straight to a port, show they have authorisation to travel and then board a train or plane to get the United Kingdom. We cannot make any other travel changes on that basis because of the wider implications that that has for other carriers.
I think the whole House just wants the Government and the UK to be as generous and unbureaucratic as possible, and if that is where we are getting to, we are pleased, but there is something that still nags away at me. As I understand it, from what we were told in the Foreign Affairs Committee, the Government have known since October or November last year that Putin either wanted or intended to do this. So, on so many levels we have been really running to catch up, and a lot of us are asking why we did not know that we needed to put all this in place two months ago. Also, I want Putin to be in a court of law, but the International Criminal Court cannot judge a leader just on the basis of initiating a war of aggression, so will the Home Secretary work to change that law?
The hon. Gentleman is right that we knew this attack was planned. Our schemes have obviously been developed with the Governments in the region, which I must emphasise. Right now, the countries in the region have different requirements of the Home Office in how we undertake our checks and process individuals. We are trying to simplify this to make it easier across the board.
Last week, the Polish Government asked us not to process people in close proximity to the border but to use our visa application centres. The Hungarian Government have asked us for a totally different approach, and they have asked for liaison officers on the ground. The Romanian Government are asking us to come to the border. We have deliberately chosen to use the facilities of the visa application centres to give certainty and consistency of approach. Clearly, our objective throughout has been to try to streamline the process.
The digital piece is challenging; it is not straightforward. We have to change our codes, our systems and our structures, while recognising that many Ukrainians do not have electronic passports. Passports and travel documentation are not consistent around the world, hence my comment about the chip checker on the BNO scheme, under which 97,000 visas have been granted.
The hon. Gentleman asked about President Putin and war crimes, and I assure the House that significant work is taking place in this area across Government and with the police and the Crown Prosecution Service.
I am grateful for what my right hon. Friend said about the number of appointments there will be, and I am grateful to the visa application centre staff for working so hard, but I understand that the Warsaw centre closes at 5 pm and at weekends. Could she do something to extend the opening hours?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. The opening hours are because of labour laws in Poland. There have been extensive discussions with the Government, the Foreign Office and the Home Office on extensions. We would love the centres to work much longer hours, including at weekends. Believe me, we have been pursuing this. As I said, every country in the region has a different response and different laws that we have to respect and work with. We are doing everything we possibly can to get those extensions.
I do not think I have ever seen my Edinburgh South West constituents more angry than they are this week about what the Government have done, or not done, so far.
The fictional Prime Minister Jim Hacker once said:
“It doesn’t do the Government any good to look heartless and feeble simultaneously”.
Well, I am afraid this Government have for the past week. I welcome this U-turn, but will the Home Secretary take the opportunity to apologise to the Ukrainian refugees whose suffering has been needlessly exacerbated by the Home Office’s ineptitude? And will she apologise to my many constituents who have Ukrainian relatives whose suffering has been exacerbated by her Department’s ineptitude?
To correct the hon. and learned Lady, since I became Home Secretary we have welcomed 20,000 Afghan refugees and 97,000 Hong Kongers to the United Kingdom over the last two years. These numbers are unprecedented, and I will take no lectures from her about heartlessness, particularly in light of the lack of take-up of the dispersal scheme for people coming to the United Kingdom who need housing. On those fleeing persecution, she and her Government need to look at themselves.
The hon. and learned Lady has heard me tell the House a few times about the work we are doing directly with the Ukrainian community and diaspora to help their family members come over. It would be good to recognise that we achieve the right outcomes not just by working together but by supporting them through the application process.
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s announcement today, and she knows that I and others have been pushing for tech and biometrics to be used more constructively. On the repurposing of officials and their movement to the front- line, not just from within the Home Office, but from across Government, will she work with the excellent new refugees Minister to ensure that we can get that sense of co-ordination and urgency here? As Russia leaves the Council of Europe and denounces the European convention on human rights, the slide into tyranny continues. This is a crisis that will not wait.
My right hon. and learned Friend is absolutely right; we are blessed with the appointment of our noble Friend in the other place as refugees Minister, because this is about co-ordination. This is about national co-ordination, not about one Department or another Department; this is “whole of Government effort”, a phrase I have used several times in this House. The refugees Minister will be overseeing much of the community sponsorship scheme, which will come in due course, and there will be further announcements about that scheme, too.
Yes, the hon. Lady is absolutely right on that. We are seeing many dual nationals come forward, which is why we are absolutely trying to streamline the system to make it easier for them to apply. The other point to make about applications is that these applications can be made in-country— in Ukraine. Again, that will speed up the ability of these people to come to the UK.
No. This will be passports only, because of all the security checks that can be made through passport data. This shows part of the problem of the wider challenge we have had on documentation. These types of cases will need to go to the visa application centres, but, as I have said, we have just increased the capacity to more than 13,000 appointments. Of course, if any other issues arise, we can also pick up casework directly.
It is disappointing that the right hon. Lady needs to be dragged here to make the process simpler and quicker. A lot of the people in this country will not understand why it is so complicated. She has already responded to the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) on why we cannot just let people come here and have the checks done here, as we do for millions of visitors from non-visa countries. So will she at least commit to looking into whether that is possible, because Ukrainians who flee war have gone through days and weeks of trauma and exhaustion, and they deserve to be treated better?
I have always made it abundantly clear in the House that our approach is always under review —it is under review for a range of issues, for example, as the situation changes or the security threat level changes. The hon. Lady has just asked why we cannot just let people through. There is a range of advice that I have to consider. Having considered all the advice and looked at the approach we can take, my priority has been to streamline the approach. Clearly, it is not appropriate to keep sending people who do not necessarily need to go to visa application centres to those centres. We can now prioritise those who are more vulnerable and do not have documentation, and we want to focus on those individuals. The final point to make is that not only are we as a country generous in our approach to people fleeing persecution, but this is how the Government’s approach has always been, in terms of safe routes, legal routes, Afghan refugees and British nationals overseas who have come to the UK. That has been at the heart of the Government’s work. For every crisis that takes place in the world there is no single solution. We have to develop bespoke solutions, which is what we have done.
As one of the top six customers of the Home Office on immigration issues, I have seen how this situation underlines the chaos in the Home Office’s immigration system. It is really struggling to keep up with the basics and when dealing with this surge it has understandably crumbled under the pressure. I am concerned that we have been waiting for all these days. We know that security checks need to take place, but what security risk is there from 90-year-old women, from people in their 60s, from mothers and small children? Has the right hon. Lady not given some thought to progressing them through faster and doing more checks on them here in the UK?
I welcome what the Home Secretary said about combining security with a generous approach, both of which are essential and must be delivered. In my experience of the Home Office, officials there who are focused on the protection of our country respond well to clear and decisive leadership, so may I check something so that it is clear? Does the Home Secretary retain overall responsibility for the whole of our refugee policy, including the humanitarian sponsorship scheme? People should know where the buck stops. When does she expect to come to the House to set out further details on that scheme?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. It is fair to say that he will be too familiar with the various processes around immigration checks, digitalisation and security, and the wider considerations that constantly have to be made. In terms of wider refugee policy, this is a whole-of-Government effort, so parts of it, particularly the community sponsorship route that I announced to the House last week, will be led by the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, which will lead on that primarily because of the local authority engagement and safeguarding that is required. There will be further announcements on that. The work of the Minister for Refugees will be split between both Departments to assist with the co-ordination effort that is required. I know my right hon. Friend will be familiar with how the Syrian vulnerable refugee scheme was created. In effect, we are trying to build on some of the previous models that have worked successfully in government.
I commend my right hon. Friend for the calm and collected manner in which she presented the statement and for the manner in which she has dealt with the really serious and complicated problems that this situation represents. Furthermore, I commend Members from both sides of the House who have shown conspicuous interest in trying to get together on this subject rather than just producing carping criticisms.
I thank my hon. Friend for his comments and his acknowledgement of the difficult work. As a country, our priority is of course absolutely to bring people over from Ukraine at their time of desperate need and give them the protection that they need. As I said, every crisis requires a bespoke response and that is what this Government have been working on.
The Home Secretary is doing a difficult job at this stressful time because of the horrible war that Putin has unleashed against these innocent people, but may I give her one tiny bit of advice? We really want to keep this cross-party support for the people in Ukraine, but will she remember that sometimes her tone is a bit aggressive? She did lose some of us on the Opposition Benches when she seemed to suggest that we could not be trusted with security information. We were also a bit disappointed when she got her facts wrong about what was happening in Calais.
I acknowledge the hon. Gentlemen’s comments. It is important that, as a country and in this House in particular, we unite against Putin and what he is doing. We must never lose sight of what President Putin is doing to Ukraine and the people of Ukraine. That is something that this entire House, particularly this week, should absolutely get behind.
I am grateful to the Home Secretary for her approach. Please forgive me, but I did not hear correctly whether it was 13,000 appointments per day or per week. She mentioned many of the countries where we have visa application centres, but a disproportionate number of people have gone to the small country of Moldova, which is not in the EU. Have we beefed up the visa application centre there?
Yes. First, on the visa applications at VACs in the region, once we launch the digital approach, those 13,000 appointments next week will primarily be for those individuals who are vulnerable, without documentation, who will need our help to get their status, and we will need to do much more work with them.
Secondly, on Moldova, I spoke to EU Commissioner Johansson on Monday. She called me specifically about assistance for Moldova, which is having a very challenging time not just in respect of the number of refugees but at its borders. Moldova is finding that a number of third-country nationals are now presenting, trying to present themselves as Ukrainians when in fact they are not, and they have border-security problems as well. We have been specifically asked to provide assistance with security equipment and help to prevent weapons from coming into the country. I have also spoken to the Minister for Internal Affairs there this week. A lot of work is taking place directly to support the Government there as they support people fleeing Ukraine.
My constituent, Gareth Roberts of Trawsfynydd, is presently travelling to the Slovakia border with his wife, Natasha, to meet her daughter and granddaughter. Gareth is a fluent Russian and Ukrainian speaker and is well able to help the family make the digital applications, but he tells me that the applications can be made only in English and that this will directly affect many vulnerable Ukrainian applicants. Will the Secretary of State confirm that it will be possible, in future, to make these applications in Ukrainian? Better still, will she waive all these restrictive visa requirements?
The applications are in English, because the checks have to be done in the UK by British people. Work is taking place to see what else we can do. In particular, we are bringing in Ukrainian and Russian speakers to help us not just with translations, but to see what more we can do to deal with getting forms in the right language and to have more staff in our centres, working directly with the Ukrainian community. That also applies in the UK in the hubs that we are creating.
I warmly welcome today’s announcement, which I and other colleagues have been calling for. As my right hon. Friend knows after her visit at the weekend, which I thank her for, the Association of Ukrainians in Great Britain is headquartered in my constituency. Given the amount of correspondence and issues that it receives, I wonder whether she would consider a direct link for it into the Home Office?
I give my thanks to the centre for everything that it has been doing. It was very humbling to spend so much time with the people there on Sunday. I was able to understand from them the issues, barriers and challenges that they face. I have said from day 1 that we should work with the community. We have to ensure that everything that we do works for the people there. We are providing direct help. We are setting up a hub specifically in the centre for the community. I have been quite struck by some of the complexities that we have seen, particularly with elderly family members and how they can come to the United Kingdom. The hub in my hon. Friend’s constituency will be replicated in some of the other locations that I referred to earlier on.
My constituent’s Ukrainian wife, Liudmyla Florence, was turned away from the UK visa office in Warsaw and told that she had to book an appointment and make an application online. The UK immigration website repeatedly stated, “Sorry, there is currently a problem with the service. Please try again later.” She eventually was given an appointment, but not until 17 March. What is Liudmyla supposed to do while the Home Secretary is getting her act together?
If the hon. Lady had listened to my statement earlier on, she would have heard what the process is. In fact, the application can be done digitally from Tuesday. If she would like to present me with the case, I would be very happy to look at it straight after —[Interruption.] Well, we do have the hub in Portcullis House, which has been working through cases. I do not know whether the hon. Lady has been using that service. If she has difficulty with that, she is very welcome to give me the case straight after the urgent question and I will make the calls myself directly.
I was shocked to hear the shadow Home Secretary imply that Labour would throw away or downplay essential security checks in its mad dash to be seen to be doing something. I know that our Home Secretary will stand firm on our borders. Will she also use this opportunity to thank the many thousands of families around this country who have stepped forward to say that they wish to give support to Ukrainian families and will she tell them—[Interruption.]
I am grateful, Mr Speaker, and if I got that wrong, I apologise to the shadow Home Secretary. My point was about the balance that the Home Secretary has to take. Will she use this opportunity to thank the many thousands of British families who have stepped forward to say that they wish to help Ukrainian families, and tell them that she will work night and day to enable them to fulfil their generosity?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right in everything he has said—there is no question whatsoever about that. The Ukrainian community across the United Kingdom has been extraordinary in its resolve and fortitude at a very difficult time to provide much-needed support and resource and, importantly, to support people coming over to the United Kingdom. I do not want to pre-empt any further statements on community support, primarily because there is a scheme under development in Government, but many members of the community have been shaping that scheme and how that help can be given.
I spoke this week in this place about a constituent of mine. Yesterday he made it to Warsaw with his Ukrainian wife and their daughters, to be told that he might get an appointment on 18 March but that they were not sure because the systems were down and they would have to wait until they came back up to check that that was possible. I do not think anything the Home Secretary has said today will help my constituent forward, because he has been told to apply yet again. The systems are not working. The only things working are the women—they are mainly women—that I have seen down in Portcullis House. They are working their butts off to try to help, but the systems do not work and online applications will make things even worse.
Sorry, but our systems have been working and they are working. I cannot comment on the hon. Lady’s particular case or the generalities she has spoken about, but, as I have said, I will happily take the matter away and look at it directly. I cannot respond to general statements about systems not working when there are thousands of applications being made on a daily basis.
I welcome the extra flexibility that my right hon. Friend has introduced into the system, particularly the capacity to take biometrics in this country, which she will know many of us have called for. Are these new arrangements simply for those coming on the family route or do they apply more generally? If the former, can she give some indication of when we will hear more about the humanitarian sponsorship route?
The simplifications are to the family scheme. It is the same scheme, but we are simplifying and digitalising the process. I cannot pre-empt the humanitarian scheme, which is being led by DLUHC, but there will be statements. I cannot say when, because the Department is working on the details of the scheme.
May I raise the case of Artur Nadiiev, a Ukrainian PhD student at the University of Nottingham? Artur has encountered confusion and difficulties in applying for a UK student visa. He is currently in Munich. On 5 March, UKVI advised that he needs to take a tuberculosis test to obtain a visa, even though Home Office updated rules for Ukrainian citizens travelling to the UK state that TB tests have been waived. Can the Home Secretary clarify whether Artur can now obtain his visa and come to the UK without needing to travel to a third country in order to obtain a TB test?
This country has a proud history of providing sanctuary to those fleeing for their lives, and I welcome the various routes we have made available to those displaced from Ukraine. There will always be those who seek to exploit this country’s generosity for more malicious aims, so will my right hon. Friend confirm that the integrity of the appropriate security checks will not be compromised in speeding up the visa process?
With one of the largest Ukrainian populations in the country in Westminster, I welcome this late change of heart by the Government. I hope it will work, and work considerably more effectively than the Afghan scheme did. May I seek clarification on the issue of work visas? Does this scheme mean that those here on work visas will be able to bring, for example, dependent relatives?
I welcome today’s announcement and thank the Home Secretary for listening to the House. My constituent Larry Sullivan owns a technology business in Russia and has some very able young software engineers desperate to get here. They would make a big contribution to the UK economy. They are fanatically against Putin’s war of aggression. Is there a route for them to come here before Putin slams the door shut?
Last week, I asked the Home Secretary about the arrangements for refugees when they come here. Many of them will need places for their children in schools and mental health support, and, under both schemes, many will want accommodation. She said that the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities is responsible for these arrangements through the community sponsorship scheme, but is the Home Office then responsible for people under the family scheme? In the Select Committee on Monday, we asked the DLUHC permanent secretary, who confirmed that currently there are no arrangements in place, none have been agreed, and he could not give a timetable for when they would be agreed. Will the Home Secretary update the House on what the arrangements are under both schemes, or will the DLUHC Secretary come to this House in the near future to update us?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right: the sponsorship route is led by DLUHC. As we discussed in the House last week, accommodation will be a vital part of sponsorship, as will the engagement with local authorities. I cannot pre-empt the work of DLUHC. Further statements will be made on this. He also spoke about the family scheme. The community and family members are absolutely working together on that. There is no doubt—we should be very clear about this—that access to public funds and public services is absolutely guaranteed within the family route. That is why we are working on this collectively across Government. It is a Government effort; it is not about one Department versus another, although some will lead on various details. We are working with DLUHC but also with the devolved Administrations, in particular, to give them the support they need when more members of the Ukrainian community come over to be reunited with their families.
I welcome today’s announcement, which I am sure will also be welcomed by the many Gedling residents who also want a generous approach. My right hon. Friend has spoken about the processing centres in Poland, but will she update us on the processing of visas for those Ukrainian refugees currently in northern France?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. We have surged our visa application centre capacity across the region. There are sites in France, with work in Calais and in Lille, and we are looking to expand our capacity in France based on working with the French Government, who are effectively identifying, right now, the various routes that people are using to travel through France to the United Kingdom.
My constituents have been in touch with me about this issue on many occasions, and I think that they will think it perverse that those who are considered vulnerable will still have to make these journeys to the centres. Has the Secretary of State done an assessment of how many of the people they are seeing fit into the vulnerable category, how many people this change will actually help, and what more can be done to help the vulnerable?
The hon. Lady makes an important point. It is important to restate that about 90% of Ukrainian nationals do not have chip passports, for example, whereby the digital scheme would automatically apply to them to make it easier. The reason we are clearing the VAC system now is to help those in the vulnerable people abroad category, including the elderly and those who have not travelled previously. A frequent theme that comes back from members of the diaspora community here is that many are still reluctant to leave Ukraine—they are still in Lviv and thinking about coming. We are encouraging them to engage with their family members here so that we can give them support. We do not yet have a full assessment. That is why we are working with the Ukrainian community in this country for them to share as much information with us as they possibly can.
President Putin has not only unleashed death and destruction on the people of Ukraine but is also involved in ethnic cleansing, and we should face up to that. Many of those fleeing in fear of their lives will want to go back after Putin’s forces have gone from the country. Others will want to resettle. Will my right hon. Friend make the system as flexible as possible so that those who want to resettle in the UK can do so, but those who want to come on a temporary basis will be able to return to their native country?
This is the theme that we hear constantly throughout the community—a recognition that, of course, people will want to go home. It is their country; it is the place of their birth; it is where they have lived their lives. There is no question about that. That is why we are taking a consistent approach across all schemes to the leave period that people can come here for, even those on temporary leave.
The point about ethnic cleansing is so valid. There are still people of Ukrainian origin in Russia who are subject to appalling persecution. Those people are also in our thoughts, and we want to consider how we can help them, too.
Yesterday, I spoke to a senior member of the Ukrainian community in my constituency. He wanted to know what sorts of resettlement schemes are being looked at to support orphans and unaccompanied children arriving here, and whether the Home Secretary would consider waiving all visa requirements for them.
This is a very important point. I have had similar discussions with the Ukrainian community across the country. As I may have mentioned previously in the House, there are a number of issues around safeguarding children, particularly those travelling through Europe, and even at the border, a number of safeguarding and trafficking cases are now materialising. In terms of unaccompanied children and orphans coming to the United Kingdom, we have to work across Government with the relevant Departments. Local authority work is being stood up to look at safeguarding and protection and how children can be brought over to the UK in a safe way, to ensure they come to our country and are given all the help and support they need.
I thank the Home Secretary for her statement. She will know that Simon Tagg, the leader of Newcastle-under-Lyme Borough Council, together with all the other local authority leaders across Staffordshire, wrote yesterday to the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary saying that the people of Staffordshire and the authorities in Staffordshire stand ready and able to welcome Ukrainian refugees. Will the Home Secretary work with the Communities Secretary to make sure we in Staffordshire can play our part?
My constituents, who I am not naming publicly at their request, found out in December that they were expecting a baby through surrogacy in Ukraine. I visited the hub yesterday, and they have been told that the surrogate mother does not qualify under the family visa scheme. I have been told by the Home Secretary’s officials that nothing can be done about it. After yesterday’s scenes of the bombing of the maternity hospital in Ukraine, the Home Secretary can only imagine how my constituents are feeling about their baby, who is expected in a few months’ time and who is a British citizen upon birth. Will she look again at this policy personally, with a view to making a small tweak to it for the small number of families who fall into this category?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to raise the issue of surrogacy cases—a number of those cases have been raised with me. We are absolutely looking to make changes to this: there are various requirements we need to make in the UK with those particular families who will be expecting a child through a surrogate, and we are looking at how that can all be brought together and families united. I am aware of these cases.
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s announcement this morning, and thank her for the number of times she has made herself available to engage with all Members on these important issues, in the face of rapidly changing circumstances. Given the changes she has announced this morning, can she give me an assurance that we have now reached the optimum point in the balance between her first duty, which is to protect the national security of our country, and stripping away every unnecessary piece of bureaucracy that prevents or delays us from helping, supporting and welcoming people fleeing the war at Putin’s hand?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. As I said in my statement, our No. 1 priority is to keep our country safe, while streamlining processes where we can. We will continue to do so; we will not stop here. My final point is that situations can change, and with that, threat assessments can change as well. Obviously, I will keep colleagues updated on that.
The Home Secretary has been on the wrong side of history and the wrong side of humanity. We are talking about women, children and older people. My constituent’s friend has just crossed the border into Poland, and when she went to get her visa she was told to go back to a city called Kyiv, in the middle of a war zone. There is still chaos at the borders—the Home Secretary shakes her head, but she was told that. There is chaos at the borders, so why can people not come visa free to the UK border to collect their documentation and then get the warm welcome that the Home Secretary talks about?
I thank my right hon. Friend for her statement, which will be richly welcomed by the Ukrainian families in Southend West I have been meeting. In particular, I welcome the digitalisation of the family scheme. My question is around that. The devil is not in the detail with digitalisation, but the scale. We currently have tens of thousands of applications being made. Can my right hon. Friend assure me that the scheme will cope with the scale we may have on it?