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Prime Minister

Volume 710: debated on Wednesday 16 March 2022

The Prime Minister was asked—


Mr Speaker, I have been asked to reply on behalf of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. As the House will know, he is travelling in the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia to discuss energy security, diplomatic action on Russia in Ukraine and regional issues, including Iran.

Mr Speaker, with your forbearance, may I also say that I understand that four Members of the Ukrainian Parliament are here with us in the Gallery today? I am sure I speak for the whole House in saying that we stand in total solidarity with them. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”]

Camelot is one of the largest employers in Watford and for Watford, and its employees have worked tirelessly to run the national lottery successfully for decades, playing an important role in communities across the UK with many local projects and good causes, including in my constituency. I obviously declare an interest in the Gambling Commission’s decision yesterday not to appoint the licence to Camelot, but given the current situation in Ukraine, does my right hon. Friend consider it appropriate that the next licensee of the operator of the national lottery is known to have a joint venture with Gazprom?

Can I thank my hon. Friend, and just say what an incredible job the national lottery has done delivering £45 billion to good causes? He is right that the fourth licence will ensure operator profits are better aligned with returns to good causes. I would also say, on the specific points he makes, that I understand that Allwyn’s owner, Mr Komárek, who has long criticised the Putin regime, is in discussions with the Czech Republic Government regarding the joint venture with Gazprom and removing its involvement.

I also welcome the Ukrainian MPs to this House today.

Can I start by wholeheartedly welcoming the positive steps towards returning Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Anoosheh Ashoori to the UK? I am sure Members across the House want to show their support for their families and them. I know the Deputy Prime Minister would agree that this devastating situation must never be repeated, and other British nationals still trapped in Iran need to be brought home. So will he commit to a review of these cases to understand what more could have been done by the British Government to secure releases and whether the lazy comments of the Prime Minister worsened the situation?

I should first say that I cannot yet confirm the reports we have seen in the media, but of course it feels like positive signs. No one wants more than me—although I am sure all Members of the House want this—to see Nazanin and all the arbitrarily detained nationals reunited with their loved ones. I can tell the right hon. Lady, having worked for two years with the concerted diplomatic effort led by the Prime Minister, that we have done absolutely everything that we can. She should not give succour to the despotic regime that detained our nationals in Iran, or those around the world, by suggesting it is anyone else’s responsibility other than theirs.

It is exactly for that reason that I asked for the review. It is important to learn from our mistakes so that other innocent families do not face this ordeal again. I hope that the Deputy Prime Minister will consider my comments.

I would like to thank all the people who have been working tirelessly to bring British nationals home from Iran, our diplomatic staff and our world-leading British intelligence agencies. The role of British intelligence today is critical in the face of Putin’s aggression. The Deputy Prime Minister oversaw our foreign intelligence services as Foreign Secretary, so can he confirm if at any time he overruled or ignored direct advice from the British security services?

What the right hon. Lady suggests is nonsense. She is talking about the House of Lords Appointments Commission, and it has a vetting process. I have never overruled intelligence advice, and I would not comment on the details of it. I do agree with her on the strength and agility of the British diplomatic service, who time and time again are the unsung heroes in returning British nationals, often in less celebrated cases. Now is a great opportunity to recognise the heroic work that they do.

I agree with the Deputy Prime Minister’s comments on the diplomatic service’s heroic work. He was Foreign Secretary on 17 March 2020 when British intelligence reportedly warned against granting a peerage to the Prime Minister’s close friend who is now Lord Lebedev of Hampton and Siberia. Forty-eight hours later, the Prime Minister visited Lebedev at his home in London. Details of that meeting have never been released. In July 2020, Lebedev’s appointment as a peer was announced. Can the Deputy Prime Minister tell the House what changed between the security warning and the appointment?

As the right hon. Lady knows full well, all individuals are nominated for a peerage in recognition of their contribution to society. I should say that that includes those of Russian origin who contribute brilliantly to our nation—many of whom in this country are critics of the Putin regime. Life peerages are vetted by the House of Lords Appointments Commission for matters of probity. Frankly, she should know better.

What I do know better is that a central duty of any Government is to keep the British people safe. There are now widespread reports that the Prime Minister did not accept warnings from our own intelligence services about granting a Russian oligarch—the son and business partner of a KGB spy—a seat here in this Parliament. It should not matter if such a warning was about a close personal friend of the Prime Minister. It should not matter if he gave the Prime Minister thousands of pounds of gifts. It should not matter how much champagne and caviar he serves. There are no ifs or buts when it comes to the safety of the British people. So I ask the Deputy Prime Minister: can he guarantee that the Prime Minister never asked anyone to urge the security services to revise, reconsider or withdraw their assessment of Lord Lebedev of Hampton and Siberia?

The suggestion that the right hon. Lady is making is sheer nonsense. But if she wants to talk about national security, I remind her that not so long ago she and her shadow Cabinet colleagues wanted the right hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) to be Prime Minister—a man who wanted and talked about abolishing the Army and pulling out of Trident. She voted for that. Has there ever been a more ridiculous, reckless, naive moment to call for unilateral nuclear disarmament and to pull out of NATO? A Labour Government would put at risk our security. We are doing everything that we can to protect it.

Labour Governments increased support for our Army. Labour is committed to NATO. I remind the Deputy Prime Minister that it was his Prime Minister who said in 2015 that he was not sure if it was morally irresponsible to work with Putin. I do not think the Deputy Prime Minister is on safe ground there.

Last week, my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the Opposition said that Britain should never again be at the mercy of a foreign dictatorship for our energy and fuel security. This week, the Prime Minister has gone cap in hand from one dictator to another, on a begging mission for the Saudi prince to bail him out. The Government have had 12 years to end their reliance on foreign oil and to invest in home-grown energy to secure our supplies. Their failure has left us all vulnerable, reliant on another murderous dictator to keep the lights on and the pumps open. [Interruption.]

Order. I am going to hear this question. If some people do not want—[Interruption.] If someone wants a little argument, I am more than happy to argue outside the Chamber, but for the moment I need to get on and I want to hear the question.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. The Government Benches have a choice. They could accept Labour’s plan to save working families hundreds of pounds on bills, funded with a one-off levy on the soaring profits of big energy companies. So I ask the Deputy Prime Minister, is their only plan to keep on begging?

Can I just gently say to the right hon. Lady that when she was campaigning, as the rest of them were, to make the right hon. Member for Islington North Prime Minister, this Prime Minister was the Foreign Secretary leading the response to the nerve agent attack.

Order. I hate to say it, but the Deputy Prime Minister cannot keep going back 12 years as a defensive mechanism. What we want to do—[Interruption.] I will decide, thank you. What I want you to do, Deputy Prime Minister, please, is to try to stick to the general rules without talking about history. I have a lot of people ahead of me who are desperate to get in. How far we want to go back, in passing, is one thing.

Order. Sir Desmond, the Deputy Prime Minister is not responsible for the Opposition’s policies. This is about the Government and questions to the Deputy Prime Minister. I will decide which questions are right.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. I wanted just to point out, and I hope it is not ancient history, that the Prime Minister was, as Foreign Secretary, galvanising the response to the nerve agent attack in Salisbury at the time when the right hon. Member for Islington North, the former leader of the Labour party, was siding with Putin against the UK. What did the right hon. Lady have to say on Sky News? That he was a very strong leader and she could not wait for him to become Prime Minister. [Hon. Members: “More!”]

There is a war in Europe. There is a fuel energy crisis in Britain. Democracy is at risk. We must support the courageous efforts of President Zelensky and the Ukrainian people. These uncertain times require leadership with integrity, a leader who works with the security services, can be trusted to say the right thing for British diplomacy, and provides security for the British people. Instead, we have this sorry excuse of a Government sat before us. They hike tax on 27 million working people, while the super-rich increase their wealth. They watch energy prices rise by over 50% while companies enjoy profits they did not even expect. They cavort with Russian oligarchs in luxury villas while neglecting the security of the British people. Remember, they partied while the country was in lockdown and unable to see their dying loved ones. Can the Deputy Prime Minister look the British people in the eye and really say that this Government are doing their best in their interests?

Mr Speaker, I will tell you what this Government and this Prime Minister have done: 1,000 Russian individuals sanctioned with a combined wealth of $45 billion; the impact of the sanctions and the diplomatic effort that this Foreign Secretary and this Prime Minister have led; the rouble plummeting; the Russian stock market record lows; and interest rates doubled. We have also shown the big-hearted spirit of this Government, and indeed this nation, with 5,500 visas granted to Ukrainians to come here, and the humanitarian route, which has now got 100,000 sponsors applying to take Ukrainian families into their homes. While the right hon. Lady is in her social media echo chamber, that is what this Government are doing.

Q2. It was very good to see my right hon. Friend visiting the International Criminal Court earlier this week, but it has enduring difficulties with funding. Last year, it had a $40 million shortfall in its budget because some participating states failed to meet their annual contribution. The International Criminal Court is only as good as the sum of its parts, so what steps can the Government take to secure contingency funding to ensure that one day Russian military commanders in Ukraine can expect to stand trial for war crimes that they have committed? (906094)

My hon. Friend is bang on. The Assembly of States Parties is looking at the arrears. I was in The Hague on Monday speaking to the Prosecutor and the President of the Court. We will be coming forward with a voluntary package of financial and technical support because now, as it looks at the situation in Ukraine, we want—and I think the whole House would want—Putin and his commanders to know that if they continue with war crimes in Ukraine, they will end up not just in the dock of a court, but behind bars.

May I welcome our four colleagues from the Parliament of Ukraine who are with us today? We all stand with them.

I have spent much of the past week trying to help the Scottish charity Dnipro Kids, which was established by fans of Hibernian football club. It has evacuated 48 children from orphanages in Ukraine and is desperately attempting to provide them with temporary sanctuary in Scotland. There is a plane ready and waiting in Poland to bring these orphans to the UK on Friday, but that flight will leave empty without the necessary paperwork from the Home Office.

The Polish authorities, Edinburgh City Council, the Scottish Government and the orphans’ guardians are all working to bring these children to safety. I have worked with UK Government Ministers to try to make that happen—I commend Lord Harrington in particular for his efforts—but a week on, the Home Office is still proving to be the only obstacle in the way, and it risks leaving these children stranded. I am pleading with the Deputy Prime Minister to remove these obstructions before it is too late. Will he work with me and the Ukrainian authorities to guarantee that these 48 Ukrainian orphans will get on that plane this Friday?

May I thank the right hon. Gentleman for all he is doing? This is a heart-rending situation; we want to do everything we can. Of course, there are a range of issues in this case, including the wishes of the Ukrainian Government on where orphan children should go and should be living, and whether any necessary permissions have been sought from the Ukrainian and/or the Polish Government. This is not actually about bureaucracy—it is about genuine safeguarding issues—but I certainly want to work with the right hon. Gentleman in the best interests of those children.

I am asking the Government to do just exactly that, because we have been working with the Ukrainian and Polish authorities and we have their support. We need the Home Office to give us the paperwork that will make it happen.

This one case goes to the heart of the failure in the UK Government’s response to the biggest refugee crisis in Europe since world war two. It is deeply concerning that it has taken the intervention of several Ministers of State, letters to multiple European ambassadors and the fear of the case being exposed in the Chamber to try to force movement in this urgent case involving almost 50 vulnerable children. Even where there is the will, it seems that there is simply no way the Home Office can get involved. I should not have been sending letters to the authorities in Ukraine and Poland; the Home Office should have been doing it.

If all these powerful people cannot make it happen, what hope have all the other children fleeing this awful war of finding sanctuary in the UK? The United Nations now estimates that almost one child a second is becoming a refugee from the war in Ukraine. These 48 children will not be the last who need sanctuary and safety. Surely the Deputy Prime Minister agrees that it should not have taken this level of intervention and pressure for the Home Office to do the right thing by these children.

May I just say to the right hon. Gentleman that it is very important that the proper international practices on safeguarding are followed? I know he appreciates that. We are keen to find out whether family reunion options with Ukrainian family in the region have been considered. We also know—[Interruption.] Could he just listen for a second, because this is important? We also know that many children in state care in Ukraine have family members in the region for the safeguarding and wellbeing of the children. That must also be considered.

More broadly, the right hon. Gentleman raises the issue of refugees and children. On top of the measures that I have already mentioned, we are making plans for the arrival of 100,000 Ukrainian children in our schools, through the Secretary of State for Education, and I pay tribute to the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care for bringing Ukrainian children suffering from cancer over to this country to receive the vital treatment that they need.

Q3.   British servicemen and women have served under Operations Cabrit and Orbital since 2015, working with the Ukrainian armed forces and helping to shore up the eastern flank of NATO, which is now more important than ever. Will the Deputy Prime Minister join me in putting on record the gratitude of the House, and will he consider what recognition we can give those people for their service and for their role in history? (906095)

My hon. Friend is right to pay tribute to the professionalism, dedication and sacrifices made by our servicemen and women every day to defend this country. As she will know, recognition for all military operations is kept under continuous review, and I know that the Defence Secretary will have heard her compelling suggestions.

May I first wish you, Mr Speaker, and the entire House an early happy St Patrick’s Day?

The Government set a 3.1% increase in universal credit and other benefits last September, but inflation is now pushing 7%. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation, the Trussell Trust and many other organisations have highlighted the real jeopardy that millions of people now face from a real-terms cut in the level of benefits, for which other measures from the Government simply do not compensate. Surely it is not tenable for the Government to stick so rigorously to a decision made six months ago, given that circumstances have changed so radically since then.

The hon. Gentleman is right about the cost of living challenges, not least given the war in Ukraine. The Government and the Chancellor have already provided a £20 billion package across this year, £9 billion to help with energy bills and the rest to deal with the wider cost of living issues. That includes raising the national living wage. As for universal credit, we are giving nearly 2 million families an extra £1,000 a year. We have introduced the kickstart scheme, and have increased the personal tax threshold by more than 50% since 2010. We are doing everything we can, and of course we will keep those cost of living issues under constant and regular review.

Q6. With multinationals scaling back Russian operations and local businesses stepping forward with jobs and equipment, once again we see British businesses responding at a time of great challenge. Will the Deputy Prime Minister join me in thanking all the Lincolnshire businesses that have offered support, and will he tell us how the Government may be able to connect those offers of support with the Ukrainians who are in most need? (906098)

I join my hon. Friend in thanking all those businesses, but I also thank all the charities and individual families up and down the country who have shown the traditional big-heartedness that makes this country so great. My hon. Friend will, of course, be aware of the new sponsorship scheme, for which 100,000 people have applied. Working with businesses is particularly valuable, not just in allowing those who come here to gain access to work but in helping them to integrate into society as confident members of our community.

Q4. I am sure the Deputy Prime Minister will agree that when it comes to judging a person, it is often done by the company they keep. When it comes to tennis, the Prime Minister enjoys both the company and the backhanders of Lubov Chernukhin. When it came to celebrating the election victory, he prioritised the party hosted by the former KGB agent Alexander Lebedev. The Prime Minister counts a great many others—such as Victor Fedotov and Alex Temerko—as friends. Can the Deputy Prime Minister tell us what first attracted the Prime Minister to the billionaire Russian oligarchs? (906096)

I was not quite sure where the hon. Gentleman was going at the beginning of his question, but I can tell him that the Prime Minister is not just a very social individual—[Laughter.] He also wants this country to be open and outward-looking to the world. We were the Government—he was the Prime Minister and I was the Foreign Secretary—who introduced the Sergei Magnitsky sanctions, which include human rights sanctions, asset-freezing and visa bans. Those have been applied not just to Russians when we have evidence of wrongdoing, but to the murderers of Khashoggi, the persecutors of the Myanmar minority, and many others. It was this Government who did that, not the Labour party.

Q7.   The eyes of the world are rightly focused on Putin’s evil invasion of Ukraine, but there is still a humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan. I welcome the fact that, later this month, the UK Government are hosting a pledging conference for that crisis. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that we also keep education for those poor children on the agenda? (906099)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We will keep the focus on Afghanistan and the many other conflicts around the world that need our support. That particular conference will provide specific support for girls to access education, which is a long-standing priority of the Prime Minister. We have doubled our humanitarian aid to Afghanistan for the financial year to £286 million.

Q5. Appeasing murderous despots will never be the route to security of energy supply. Would it not make more sense for the Prime Minister to be here talking to UK energy industries? Should he not be talking to renewable energy developers about what they can do to bring their product onstream quicker? Should he not also be speaking to our offshore oil and gas industry about what it can do in the here and now to improve security of supply and to assist in the journey towards net zero? (906097)

The Prime Minister did that on Monday evening, and it is now Wednesday. Yes, he is out in Saudi Arabia to close a £1 billion investment deal that will create 700 jobs in the north in renewable energy. I think the Lib Dems need to keep up.

Q9.   North Norfolk is a rural constituency. Many residents rely on their car to get around, and they heat their homes with heating oil. The price of crude oil may have come down in the last few days, but the price at the petrol pumps is still going up. I have constituents who have been quoted £2 a litre for heating oil. This affects not only working families but pensioners in rural areas who are on a fixed income. Will the Deputy Prime Minister do everything he can to make sure we address these problems in the spring statement for very rural constituencies that are getting the double whammy of these crippling costs? (906101)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. He knows we have a £20 billion package this year to deal with the cost of living, and £9 billion of it is focused on energy prices. His comments on the issues for his constituents, and for constituents across the country, are very well made, and I know the Chancellor will have heard his suggestions.

Q8. The Prime Minister is visiting Saudi Arabia and, as usual, we are told there will be frank, private discussions on the Saudis’ human rights record. In the light of the state murder of Jamal Khashoggi, and in the light of the brutal execution of 81 men at the weekend, why does the Deputy Prime Minister think the UK’s representations on human rights are so ineffective? What more will we do to make the Saudis behave ethically? (906100)

I went to Riyadh twice when I was Foreign Secretary, and I know the Prime Minister will be raising these issues again. We talked about women’s rights defenders. The hon. Gentleman says we have been ineffective, but they have all been released. We talked about Raif Badawi, the author and critic, and he was recently released.

The hon. Gentleman mentions Jamal Khashoggi, and we were one of the first to apply asset freezes and visa bans to those responsible for his murder. We are an international country, and this is Britain’s role in the 21st century, but we will never allow our moral red lines to be blurred.

Q10.   Rousseau once said, “You may swallow the Poles, but you will never digest them.” That powerful quote says so much for how the Polish people have stood up robustly and strongly against aggression over the years and about their steadfast support right now for their close and dear allies, the Ukrainian people.Three lorries have gone from Ipswich to Lviv in support of the Ukrainian people. Will the Deputy Prime Minister outline the steps the Government are taking to support our close ally, Poland, as it takes unprecedented numbers of refugees while, of course, it has its own security concerns in relation to Russia? (906102)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and I pay tribute to not only his constituents, but the Polish community in particular for their big-hearted support for the people of Ukraine. As a leading donor—I believe the second largest donor to Ukraine—we have committed a further £174 million in aid, bringing our total to £400 million. But that will also support those countries in close proximity to Ukraine—its neighbours—and first and foremost will be Poland.

Q11.   On 28 April 2018, when he was Foreign Secretary, the Prime Minister is reported to have attended a party at a castle in Italy, where he met a former KGB officer. That was just weeks after the Salisbury poisonings and immediately after he attended a NATO summit on Russia. If that is not astonishing enough in itself, it is also reported that he travelled there without any security detail or officials present. So will there now be an investigation into what sounds like a complete failure of national security? (906103)

The hon. Gentleman is talking total nonsense and I do not have anything to add to what I have already said.

In addition to having concerns for Ukraine, my constituents are also concerned about planning policy. I wrote to the Prime Minister in October 2019 about the threat to the Goring gap. It is against Government policy and against the public interest for every green field that is a strategic gap to be built on. An inspector has made a decision that would wipe away the planning powers of every local council in the country. May I ask whether the Prime Minister will see me and whether the Government will revoke this inspector’s mistaken decision?

I thank my hon. Friend for that. As someone with a massive proportion of green belt in my constituency, I empathise with the frustrations that Members from across the House feel with some planning decisions that are made. However, once a planning decision is final, it cannot be challenged unless it is successfully challenged in the courts.

Q12. Last year, 255 children and young people were admitted to Barnsley Hospital for self-harm—that is 15 times the national average. This is a public health crisis, so will the Deputy Prime Minister ask the Health Secretary to meet me and healthcare providers from Barnsley to immediately respond to this mental health crisis? (906104)

We have put a huge amount into both mental health and the wider NHS budget, not just on covid, but to respond to the wider issues. On the specific issue the hon. Lady raises, I will certainly make sure that an appropriate health Minister will see her.

I thank the Chair of the Intelligence and Security Committee for that. I think I will have to let the Foreign Secretary and the Foreign Office check carefully and respond to him in due course.

Q13. Three weeks ago, the chair of the UK Statistics Authority, Sir David Norgrove, wrote to the Prime Minister to point out that his repeated assertion that employment is now higher than it was before the pandemic is incorrect. Yesterday’s employment statistics show 840,000 fewer self-employed people now than before the pandemic and that overall employment is 580,000 lower. Does the Deputy Prime Minister agree that truthfulness is vital to trust in our democracy? Does he accept the correction from Sir David Norgrove? (906105)

Of course we listen carefully to Sir David Norgrove, but what I would say to the right hon. Gentleman is that he points to the data yesterday and it showed that unemployment has fallen below 4%, is back at pre-pandemic levels and is being termed a remarkable success by everyone, including the Resolution Foundation. He talks about the truth and there is one golden truth: whenever there has been a Labour Government in the past, unemployment has always been higher when they left office than when they started. That is the jobs guarantee you get with Labour.

We have now provided more than 3,000 anti-tank weapons, training and other military support to Ukraine, alongside crushing financial sanctions on Russia and more bilateral assistance, humanitarian assistance and aid than any other country. But can my right hon. Friend confirm that we will continue to deliver further military aid and support, and that we will supply the Starstreak anti-aircraft missiles necessary to destroy Russian jets?

My hon. Friend is right to say that we have delivered more than 3,600 anti-tank weapons. We will also be sending a consignment of the Javelin anti-tank missiles and we are indeed, as he says, exploring the donation of Starstreak anti-aircraft missiles.

Q14. It is welcome that Ukrainians seeking asylum in Britain will have the right to work and access to public services; we should always offer sanctuary to those fleeing persecution. People who come to Britain to make it their home no matter where they are from or the colour of their skin make a hugely positive contribution to our society and economy if supported to do so. So how can the Government now justify not extending the same welcome and the same rights, including the right to work, to all people seeking asylum in Britain? (906106)

The hon. Gentleman is right that we have a strong tradition, as we have shown: we have stepped up to the plate with the Hong Kong British national overseas citizens, and with Operation Pitting which brought 17,000 back from Afghanistan, and we will go further and beyond the normal rules when there is a crisis, as we have seen in Ukraine. He is absolutely right about the current scheme: those Ukrainians coming here can live, work and access benefits, and can stay for three years with leave to remain. I am proud, and the whole House should be proud, not just of the big-hearted approach of this Government, but the 100,000 British sponsors who have come forward and said they will open their homes to those refugees.

As the brilliant Ukrainian people fight and die on a daily basis for their rights of freedom and democracy, it is important that we make something very clear and I ask my right hon. Friend to do so. They have asked for membership of NATO for a significant period of time, and NATO has chosen not to give it to them. My concern now is, no matter what they decide, it remains their absolute right as a free nation and a free people to make such an application in the future, and, noticing that Finland is talking about becoming a member, we treat them in exactly the same way we would an application from Finland.

I thank my right hon. Friend and he will have heard what President Zelensky has said overnight in relation to this, but the Government have always been crystal clear that if there is a diplomatic off-ramp—although I have to say we have a heavy measure of scepticism about whether Putin could ever fulfil such a deal—it has to be done with the will and volition of the Ukrainian President and people.

Q15. A constituent of mine is a popular parish priest in Glasgow. Originally from Nigeria, he became a British citizen last year and applied for his first British passport last summer. His naturalisation certificate, issued by the Home Secretary, includes his title, reverend father, under his name. This is causing the Passport Office unexplained difficulties and seven months on he is still waiting for his passport. Will the Deputy Prime Minister look at this case as a matter of urgency? His mother is extremely ill in Nigeria; he needs to get his passport to visit her. (906107)

I thank the hon. Lady for raising that case. It sounds very sensitive and I will make sure a Home Office Minister looks at it as a matter of urgency.