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Commons Chamber

Volume 711: debated on Tuesday 22 March 2022

House of Commons

Tuesday 22 March 2022

The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock


[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

I have a short statement to make. Today marks the fifth anniversary of the death of PC Keith Palmer, who died in the line of duty protecting this Parliament from terrorist attack. His sacrifice will not be forgotten. I express on behalf of the whole House our sympathy with his family, friends and colleagues on this sad anniversary.

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—

Ukraine: Potential War Crimes by Russia

1. What steps his Department is taking to support an investigation into potential war crimes committed by Russia in Ukraine. (906194)

7. What steps his Department is taking to support an investigation into potential war crimes committed by Russia in Ukraine. (906200)

8. What steps his Department is taking to support an investigation into potential war crimes committed by Russia in Ukraine. (906202)

11. What steps his Department is taking to support an investigation into potential war crimes committed by Russia in Ukraine. (906205)

14. What steps his Department is taking to support an investigation into potential war crimes committed by Russia in Ukraine. (906208)

With your forbearance, Mr Speaker, may I join the expression that you gave on the fifth anniversary of the murder of PC Palmer? I send my sympathies to the family and our total solidarity in this House with those who risk their lives on the frontline.

Vladimir Putin’s regime is responsible for an illegal invasion. There is strong evidence of war crimes and we believe that those responsible must be held to account.

I associate myself with my right hon. Friend’s remarks regarding PC Palmer. What steps has he taken to ensure that the mechanisms are in place so that the evidence of war crimes can be confidently collected by the International Criminal Court?

We are doing two things in particular. First, I have convened a cross-Whitehall group, which we have done in the past, to ensure that we can provide whatever support may be needed for everything from witness protection services to the gathering of evidence and information co-operation. Secondly, I have been to The Hague and I will be going back this week. I am working with a coalition of countries that also have unique expertise in that area to provide the support that the Court needs.

Will my right hon. Friend assure the House that our recently passed Economic Crime (Transparency and Enforcement) Act 2022 will ensure that this Conservative Government will take every step to deprive those found guilty of war crimes in Ukraine of their illegally gotten gains?

My hon. Friend will know that, because of the Sergei Magnitsky regime for asset freezes and visa bans for anyone who has committed serious human rights abuses, we already have that capacity in place. That is on top of the further co-operation that we will provide with the ICC and, I should mention, that the Attorney General will provide with the prosecutor general of Ukraine.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that, while the shelling of civilians is itself a war crime, any use of chemical or biological weapons, as predicted by President Biden today, would be a breach of the Geneva protocol and the chemical weapons convention and would most certainly be a war crime?

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. I am always careful to allow the ICC, of which both the prosecutor and the chambers of the Court are independent, to make those determinations, but the points of principle that he has set out are absolutely right. There must be no impunity for those in Moscow or the commanders on the ground who commit those atrocities.

Can my right hon. Friend outline to the House what steps the Government have taken to build the broadest caucus of support for prosecuting President Putin and his regime over their actions in Ukraine? Will he join me in applauding the role of the British ICC judge and British prosecutor in their work on the issue?

My hon. Friend is right. We secured the election of Karim Khan and Jo Korner. They operate independently on the Court but it is a sign of how well regarded this country’s legal profession is that we have two such senior figures there, as well as the registrar. Again, they operate independently, but we are working with the Ukrainian authorities, led by the Attorney General. I am also going back to The Hague to ensure that we understand the specific needs of the ICC, not just to provide support ourselves but to ensure that we bring together a coalition of countries with that unique expertise so that justice can be done.

There will not be many people watching the TV each night who think that what Putin is doing to Ukraine does not constitute war crimes. I appreciate what my right hon. Friend says about the evidence and that these things can take a while. Without going into details, therefore, can he assure the House that we have learned the lessons of previous attempts to pursue war crimes cases, so that we might bring Putin and co to justice faster?

My hon. Friend is right, although, of course, we have a war going on and we need to be realistic that that will take time and strategic patience. We had Radovan Karadžić, the butcher of the Balkans, delivered to a British jail cell last year under a sentence enforcement agreement that I happened to negotiate with the UN in 2004. These things will take time; that is the realpolitik that we are dealing with. We are ensuring, however, first, that things such as the preservation of evidence are a priority now in conduct on the ground, and secondly, that the message goes out that we and our partners in support of the ICC are being clear that, if someone commits those kinds of crimes, sooner or later they will end up in the dock of the Court and behind bars.

As the Secretary of State is a very senior member of the Government, would he ensure that this House is updated regularly on what is going on? So much has happened, even over the last weekend, in this dreadful conflict, so would he send a message that this House should be updated regularly? I started by thinking that this must be settled peacefully, but are we really going to allow injustice to rule in this country and to let Russia get away with it?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right, and I thank him for what he has said. I would be happy to update the House through oral questions or other means, and I am very happy to meet him. It is absolutely right that there will not be a peaceful settlement to this. I think we can all agree that trusting Vladimir Putin to keep his word is going to be a very tall order for anyone in the community, let alone President Zelensky, and there cannot just be a brushing under the carpet of atrocities committed now or in the future.

The Secretary of State will be aware that Russian criminality in Ukraine did not start this year; it started in 2014. Since then, there have been crimes against the people of Ukraine, including, we have to say, gross abuses of the human rights of ethnic Russians in Ukraine. Will he use his influence to ensure that any war crimes investigation is extended to the beginning of the illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014?

I thank the hon. Gentleman, who makes a really important point. Of course, I must at this point say that it will be for the ICC, which operates independently, to determine the temporal scope of its jurisdiction.

The Justice Secretary made a very important point earlier when he said that this is about not just those in Moscow, but the commanders on the ground, although in fact it is even about individual soldiers. What can we do as a nation to help the ICC get the message across that those in the field could find themselves before the Court?

I thank the hon. Gentleman, and I think he is right. Of course, one of the things Putin has done is to clamp down on all independent sources of media, but that is of course something that we are looking at trying to support so that Russians get the facts on the ground. He is also right to say that the conscripts, as well as the commanders, are at risk here. Many of those young Russian conscripts, who were told they were going in as peacekeepers, will have points at which they are not sure whether to follow essentially illegal orders either for their own welfare or for the good of Ukraine itself.

Especially perverse have been the Russian attacks on hospitals, schools and churches—on babies, children and elderly people—in Ukraine. What steps have been taken to co-ordinate with the UN to ensure that these travesties will not go unanswered in The Hague and that evidence is collected, collated and unquestionable?

I thank the hon. Gentleman, who I know has long had an interest in this area of accountability, and he is absolutely right. Of course, one of the critical issues right now is the preservation of evidence—not just that crimes were committed, but on whose orders they may have been committed. Those are all things we are looking at, and I think it is important that we work with all our allies on this. We have some unique expertise in law enforcement, with mechanisms in relation to information co-operation, witness protection, sentence enforcement and forensic evidence, but other states also have unique capabilities in those areas. What is crucial is that the early evidence—not just of crimes, but of the responsibility up the chain of command—is preserved where possible.

Bill of Rights and Human Rights Act 1998

22. What assessment he has made of the implications for his policies of the independent Human Rights Act review published in December 2021. (906216)

The Government were elected on a manifesto commitment to replace the Human Rights Act 1998, and we have launched a consultation on a UK-wide Bill of Rights. We intend to bring forward legislation in the next Session.

I am very grateful to my right hon. Friend for that answer. Does he agree with me that to ensure that the Nationality and Borders Bill we are debating later today is fully workable, especially in supporting those who desperately need our help, such as those coming from Ukraine, a British Bill of Rights is essential to close the loopholes that allow those who seek to abuse the system—and, in doing so, take away resources from our authorities helping those in need—in relying on existing human rights legislation?

I thank my hon. Friend, and he is absolutely right that the Nationality and Borders Bill is crucial for dealing with those issues—not just as a matter of the protection of our borders, but in stemming this appalling trade in misery. The Bill of Rights would make sure that we have the right balance of protecting our freedoms by ensuring that the Executive can be held to account, but also making sure, when Parliament makes difficult balanced judgments on qualified rights, that there is greater respect for that in the public interest.

The Secretary of State will be aware that the current human rights laws are not fit for purpose and are stopping us deporting foreign criminals including rapists and murderers, much to the delight of the leftie lawyers. Does my right hon. Friend agree that we should fast-track the new Bill of Rights so we can get rid of these foreign rapists and criminals as quickly as possible and send them back to where they come from?

My hon. Friend is bang on; he speaks in a very straightforward way, but I think that is what the public expect. We are not talking about undermining the fundamental freedoms—in fact, we are going to strengthen them, including free speech. We are making sure that those who do us harm or have been convicted of serious offences can be returned home without elastic interpretations of rights scuppering the process.

Contrary to the comments of the last questioner, the Law Society has said that the Government’s Human Rights Act proposals

“do not recognise the significant benefits that have been achieved…through the HRA”,

while the General Council of the Bar says that the HRA

“has worked and continues to work well.”

Given that those who work in our justice system reject the need for changes and only despots and tyrants like Putin object to human rights other than their own, why does the Justice Secretary not scrap these proposals and stop wasting taxpayers’ time and money?

We are of course familiar with the views of the Law Society and others but respectfully disagree, and in the end it is not solely our job to listen to legal practitioners, important as they are, or indeed to serve their interests, but also to stand up for victims and the public and make sure we have a common-sense approach to justice. [Interruption.] I respectfully disagree with the hon. Lady; she might want to put herself on the side of the criminals, but we will put ourselves on the side of the victims.

The Scottish Government have committed to introducing a new Human Rights Bill for Scotland by 2025 incorporating four major United Nations rights treaties—an international covenant on economic, social and cultural rights; conventions on the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women; the elimination of all forms of racial discrimination; and the rights of persons with disabilities—along with other progressive human rights. Has the Secretary of State reviewed these plans with a view to incorporating them into any future Bill of Rights?

Although I disagree with the hon. Gentleman, I pay respect to the way he has introduced this question. There is a school of thought—I have been up to Edinburgh and discussed this with the Scottish Government—that we should expand a wider range of policy issues, social and economic, and environmental goals, and turn them into judicially enforceable rights. Many of those areas involve collective issues that require finely balanced judgment calls and often require public finances to be allocated in a very sensitive way, and I think they should be decided by hon. Members in all parts of this House, accountable to the British people, not lawyers in a courtroom.

It is agreed by legal experts in areas ranging from local government to the House of Lords that the HRA is a delicate and well-tuned piece of legislation, and the organisation Lawyers in Local Government said in its response to the independent HRA review that the Government’s proposals not only risk reducing the accountability of public authorities and undermining the rules but will concretely cause further delay in reaching decisions on social housing, which is worse for all our constituents and for councils. This is not about ideology but about real-world outcomes. The HRA is working well, so will the Government accept that plans to scrap it are counterproductive?

I am afraid that I will not, and I respectfully disagree. I will side with the local authorities of whatever political colour or composition who are trying to serve their constituents. They of course need to be held to the rule of law and be accountable, but I am not on the side of the lawyers suing local authorities.

In their consultation response the Scottish Government highlighted that in the initial UK Government approach to Windrush:

“No amount of evidence or reasoned argument proved able to persuade the Home Office of the catastrophic errors which had occurred.”

The HRA was instrumental in securing justice for the Windrush victims, and the UK Government later said they would learn lessons from those failings. Should they not start by ditching plans to overhaul the legislation that was instrumental in securing justice for the Windrush victims?

It is really important that the hon. Lady raises the question of the Windrush scandal. Hon. Members across the House would agree that that should never have happened, but of course it happened throughout the entirety of the entry into force of the Human Rights Act and there was nothing about the Act that led to the situation being addressed in this House—that was down to hon. Members who became aware of what had happened because of members of our communities who had been affected. Frankly, the Human Rights Act did not stop Windrush and had absolutely no role in remedying it.

I call Angela Crawley for her second question. No, she does not want it, so let’s try somebody else. I call Gavin Newlands.

Sanctions: Assets Seizure

4. What recent discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on seizing the assets of sanctioned Russian oligarchs. (906197)

12. What recent discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on seizing the assets of sanctioned Russian oligarchs. (906206)

19. What recent discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on seizing the assets of sanctioned Russian oligarchs. (906213)

I am pleased to report that the Ministry of Justice is working closely with colleagues across Government to look at how we can go further to crack down on illicit money in British property, including considering temporary asset seizures beyond the freezing regime that we already have in place. I am not yet in a position to present the details of this to the House. It is a complex issue involving important policy and legal considerations. What I can say is that unlike the Putin regime, the Government will always preserve the rule of law and act against kleptocratic wealth.

When concerns about Russian interference in UK politics were raised by the Intelligence and Security Committee a couple of years ago, the Prime Minister laughed them off, saying that they were driven by “Islington remainers” unable to accept Brexit. What confidence should we have that the Government are taking the threat seriously, particularly given the slow approach to sanctioning oligarchs that saw Putin’s cronies handed two weeks to rush their wealth out of the UK before the rules came into force?

Everybody can be incredibly confident that the UK has acted swiftly to execute the biggest package of sanctions ever imposed against a G20 nation. Let us be clear that the UK has designated more than 1,000 individuals, entities and subsidiaries under the Russia sanctions regime since the invasion, including President Putin and Foreign Minister Lavrov. More than 3 million Russian companies are barred from raising money on UK capital markets. We will also target more than 500 members of the Duma and Federation Council. That makes up the largest and most severe package of economic sanctions Russia has ever seen.

Given the rushed nature of legislation as the Government play catch up with EU states, for example, there have been reports that further measures will be required to close remaining loopholes exploited by oligarchs. What discussions have taken place around that, and will the Minister confirm that further legislation should be expected in this coming year?

The hon. Gentleman is right that we need to legislate effectively and that is why we will take time to get the detail right on property while prioritising further action as far as we can. To be clear, in the past week the Government have passed the Economic Crime (Transparency and Enforcement) Act 2022, established a register of beneficial ownership, and sanctioned more than 1,000 individuals and entities. The Deputy Prime Minister explained in answer to the first set of questions the action he is taking at the International Criminal Court to ensure that it can fully investigate Russian war crimes, but I accept that more might need to be done.

The international corruption unit and the international anti-corruption co-ordination centre have operated for some time now in the National Crime Agency. Why was it necessary to set up a third kleptocracy unit and how will this new body’s work differ from that of the existing bodies? Were they not already investigating the behaviour of oligarchs?

I do not think that anybody should doubt that we have the measures in place. Our sanctions regime is bold and we have taken swift, comprehensive measures. I also remind the hon. Lady that only last week the Deputy Prime Minister announced further measures on strategic lawsuits against public participation, or SLAPPs. When we talk about powerful oligarchs in this country, that is important. Judge us by the actions. I am sure we all agree that these measures are swift and comprehensive and, most importantly, will have an impact on the Putin regime.

Does the Minister agree that the international sanctions causing such hardship to the Russian people are totally the responsibility of one man, and his name is Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin?

My hon. Friend puts it perfectly. Of course, the sanctions will have and are having an economic impact. We have no quarrel with the Russian people. The blame for that impact lies squarely at the door of the Kremlin, and I think the whole world knows that.

First, Mr Speaker, let me associate myself and my party with your comments earlier about PC Keith Palmer and others who died five years ago today.

The Intelligence and Security Committee’s Russia report states that under this Government, some UK law firms became “de facto” Russian state agents and played a role in

“promoting the nefarious interests of the Russian state”,

including oligarch’s assets. Will the Minister tell the House what he has done to stop UK law firms such as Debevoise & Plimpton, Cleary Gottleib Steen & Hamilton and Steptoe & Johnson acting as enablers of Russian criminals and the Kremlin?

As I set out very recently in my written answer to the hon. Gentleman, the rule of law means that everyone has a right to access legal representation. Legal advice is often necessary to ensure that those who are subject to sanctions fully understand and comply with the restrictions, but as I said to him, lawyers are required to follow strict procedures when transacting with sanctioned individuals. Those individuals are required to obtain a licence from the Office of Financial Sanctions Implementation to make payments for legal services, and lawyers should carefully consider whether their advice is helping the client to comply with the sanctions or is participating or facilitating a breach of those sanctions. To be clear, there are severe penalties for breaches, including fines and potential imprisonment.

Given what is happening in Ukraine, there is an urgency about going further than the Minister outlined. Will he consider imposing sanctions on law firms that continue to act for the Kremlin and Putin’s cronies, whose looted wealth is funding Russia’s murderous war machine?

It was only on 20 January that the Backbench Business Committee brought before this House a debate on SLAPPs lawfare. I responded to that debate, and at the end I said the Government would be responding. Less than two months later, the Deputy Prime Minister came before the House with detailed proposals. Of course, a key part of this is the behaviour of law firms. Any action we take—we have to be clear on this; we are the Ministry of Justice—must be subject to the rule of law and must take a balanced approach, recognising that while we want to take action, it is a fundamental right to be legally represented.

Violence Against Women and Girls

6. What steps he is taking with Cabinet colleagues to tackle violence against women and girls in (a) Newport West constituency and (b) Wales. (906199)

20. What steps he is taking with Cabinet colleagues to tackle violence against women and girls. (906214)

The Government set out in the summer their ambitious tackling violence against women and girls strategy to fundamentally change attitudes, support women and girls who are victims of crime and relentlessly pursue perpetrators. This focus includes plans to roll out to all Crown courts pre-recorded cross-examination for complainants of sexual and modern slavery offences, and giving victims of domestic abuse more time to report incidents of common assault. Last month, we launched the tender for the first ever national 24/7 helpline for victims of rape and sexual assault.

Last week, I met Cyfannol Women’s Aid Newport, whom I thank for all the work they do to keep women and girls in my community safe and supported. Labour has published a full Green Paper with serious and common-sense measures to end violence against women and girls. Will the Minister now commit to working with the Labour party to implement those important and long overdue proposals? After all, this is a matter of life and death.

I thank the hon. Lady for her kind invitation. I note that throughout the passage of the Domestic Abuse Act 2021, I was delighted to work with colleagues across the House. I think we all recognise the vital importance of that legislation brought forward by the Government. I am particularly pleased that we are helping the police and crime commissioner in Gwent to support victims in the hon. Lady’s constituency and elsewhere in the police area. There is more than £6 million to help victims across Wales. We are absolutely determined to tackle violence against women and girls in a way that looks after victims, but also, importantly, changes some of the behaviours and attitudes that sadly lie behind so many of these crimes.

The backlog of court cases means that victims of rape are facing years fighting for justice. Rapists are walking free because victims are dropping court cases due to the trauma caused by delays. Will the Minister carry out an immediate review into setting up specialist rape courts, as recommended by the joint inspectorates, so that justice can be done and the public, including my constituents in Prestwich, Radcliffe and Whitefield, can be kept safe?

I do hope the hon. Gentleman in his, I imagine, copious free time now that he has crossed the Floor, is able to read the rape review, because had he done his homework he would have seen the forensic examination we have conducted of the investigation and prosecution of offences of rape. We have seen tentative first steps toward increases in convictions for rape, but we are clear that through the rape review and working with the police, the Crown Prosecution Service and victims, we will make progress. I very much hope he will support the Government in our measures to do so.

After women spoke out about feeling exposed to physical aggression and sexual harassment when travelling on our regional north-east public transport system, the Northumbria police and crime commissioner, Kim McGuinness, launched the free Safer Transport Northumbria app, which takes people through a series of simple steps that allows them to raise safety concerns and report crimes. Does the Minister agree that that is a brilliant initiative from our Northumbria PCC, and will she commit to providing more funding for our region to tackle violence against women and girls?

I welcome local initiatives such as the one that the hon. Member describes. I hope that she also welcomes the national efforts that we set out in the tackling violence against women and girls strategy, particularly on public transport, because we know that that can be a place of harassment and very unwelcome behaviour by perpetrators. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Fay Jones), who led a campaign to outlaw cyber-flashing. I trust that when provisions to outlaw that crime on public transport and elsewhere are introduced in the Online Safety Bill, they will have the hon. Lady’s support.

I wish my hon. Friend a very happy birthday. In June, after three years’ work, the Law Commission will publish recommended changes to the criminal law to stop the publication of intimate sexual images online without consent, which is one of the worst forms of violence against women and girls. Will the Minister include those changes in the Online Safety Bill through Government amendments before it reaches the Lords, or will she look for others to do that on her behalf?

I thank my right hon. Friend; I can think of no better way in which to celebrate one’s birthday than by receiving questions from her.

We absolutely understand that the law must keep pace with society, which is why we are taking action to address some of these 21st-century crimes, such as cyber-flashing, and making efforts in the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill to tackle breastfeeding voyeurism and to extend the so-called revenge porn offence to include those who threaten to post or disclose such images. We have asked the Law Commission to advise us on that very complicated area of law. We await the results of that advice in the summer and we will look carefully at implementing or acknowledging any such changes that the commission may advise.

Ministry of Justice figures show that between 2015 and 2020, 17% of rapists sent to prison received sentences of less than five years. Does the Minister agree that that is incredibly lenient for one of the worst crimes? Will she back Labour’s call for minimum sentences of seven years for rape, or will the Government continue to be tough on victims and soft on crime?

I know that the hon. Lady and I share a determination to crack down on the perpetrators of vile crimes. It is with some regret, therefore, that I note that the Labour party declined the opportunity to support the Government on the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, in which we require serious sexual and violent offenders to spend more time in prison when they receive sentences of between four and seven years. I also gently remind her that the average sentence for rapists is around 10 years, so rather than putting different proposals forward, it would be very nice if Labour Members supported the Government’s real-time work to ensure that rapists spend longer in prison.

That is precisely what Labour’s proposals would have achieved. The Government are not just letting victims down on sentences for rape; the Government have failed to act despite Labour’s call for a review into sentences for spiking offences and the introduction of minimum sentences for stalking. The Minister has an opportunity to show that the Government are serious about tackling violence against women and girls by backing Labour’s proposals. Will she do that today?

Forgive me, but the hon. Lady seems to have misunderstood how legislation happens in this place. Labour Members had the chance to vote for rapists to spend longer in prison through the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill; they did not just abstain, but voted against that. I entreat the Labour party to consider acting and putting real pressure behind their warm words and to stand with the Government to ensure that rapists spend longer in prison. That is what the Government are doing, and we will achieve that through the good work of Conservative colleagues.

Prison Leavers: Employment

The Government will deliver a presumption in favour of offering offenders the chance to work in prison, on release on temporary licence, and on release.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that getting offenders into employment is vital to reducing reoffending? Will he therefore outline to the House what steps his Department is taking to refocus on the key performance indicators that it measures, to ensure that offender employment is a priority for this Government?

My hon. Friend, in his usual manner, has put his finger on the button of part of the solution to the reoffending cycle. We firmly believe that there are three pillars for success in rehabilitating offenders: the first is a home, the second is a job, and the third is a friend. We are committing to providing all three to those who leave the secure estate. With all other Departments, we will publish our outcome delivery plan in the new financial year. I can reassure my hon. Friend that our right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister is setting extremely challenging and ambitious targets for the Department, particularly in regard to housing and employment.

Court Cases Backlog

We are taking action across all jurisdictions to bring backlogs down and improve waiting times for those who use our courts by expanding physical capacity, introducing new legislation and ramping up judicial recruitment. We are already seeing the results of our efforts. In the Crown courts, the outstanding case load has reduced from approximately 61,000 in June 2021 to approximately 59,000 at the end of January 2022; in the magistrates courts, the case load is close to recovering to pre-pandemic levels; and for most of our tribunals, the outstanding case load is either static or already beginning to reduce.

The Minister will be aware that a recent report by the Public Accounts Committee revealed that the number of rape and sexual assault cases waiting to be tried increased more than 400% in the first year of the pandemic. Delays in such cases were already over 18 months pre-pandemic. The toll that those delays take means that the victims of sexual assault are much more likely to withdraw their case. Will the Minister support greater investment, as the Committee and indeed the rape review recommend, in independent sexual violence advisers, whose support for victims halves the likelihood of their withdrawing from the process?

The hon. Member makes a very good point. We sympathise with those whose cases are backlogged. Our aim is to increase capacity across all our courts so that we can continue to bring the backlog down. On her specific point about funding, I am pleased to say that investment in the advisers will increase to £185 million by the end of the spending review.

I welcome the £477 million that the Government have committed to dealing with the backlog, but we know that it is an acutely regional issue. Will the Minister assure my constituents in the Black Country that as the Government roll out the £477 million, they will take a regional approach to its operational delivery? One way he could do so might be to visit the Black Country and see how he can ensure it gets the maximum delivery from that £477 million.

I would be absolutely delighted to come and visit. I should say, of course, that the biggest Crown court in the midlands is Birmingham’s, which was the first that I visited after getting this job. My hon. Friend is right that we have to look at the issue regionally. There are significant variations, but the most important thing we can do is have wider capacity across the country. Alongside the almost half a billion pounds of funding that my hon. Friend mentions, key measures include increasing magistrates’ sentencing powers so that we can free up almost 2,000 days in the Crown court, where the most serious cases can be heard.

Last week, the roof of Sheffield magistrates court fell in, delaying countless cases. A rape case was delayed when toilet water leaked into a courtroom at Maidstone Crown court in Kent. Survivors of rape already wait three years for their case to come to trial. How many cases have been delayed in total over the past five years because the Government have failed to fix crumbling courts?

I have given the hon. Gentleman a written answer detailing these points, but I am happy to write to him again. As I just said—it is crucial to stress this—not only is the backlog falling, but we want to go further. The key measures include legislation to increase magistrates’ sentencing powers; funding, with almost half a billion pounds in the spending review; and increased court capacity, with renewed Nightingale courts where appropriate. Increasingly, the biggest challenge is judicial capacity, but I am pleased to say that we are recruiting more full-time judges and allowing more part-time recorders to sit for more days. Importantly, having launched our £1 million recruitment campaign for our volunteer judiciary, the magistracy, we have had in excess of 20,000 expressions of interest.

Aylesbury Crown court was the first to fully reopen after covid, thanks to the determined leadership of His Honour Judge Francis Sheridan, who steps down as resident judge this month. Will my hon. Friend join me in paying tribute to all the court staff in Aylesbury for their progress in clearing the backlog, and in thanking Judge Sheridan for his constant innovation to make his court more efficient and much more strongly focused on victims?

My hon. Friend, as a former magistrate with much additional knowledge of probation issues, speaks about these matters with huge expertise. I do pay tribute to the resident judge, and indeed to all members of the judiciary. They are, of course, independent from Government, and they have huge responsibilities. As I said during my first appearance at the Dispatch Box, we owe a huge debt to all our judiciary as well as all our clerks and all those who work in our courts for keeping justice going during the pandemic, and we can repay them by taking every possible measure to reduce the backlog.

Preventing Reoffending: Youth Custody Centres

The number of children entering the youth justice system has fallen by 81% in the last decade and the number of children on the secure estate has fallen by about three quarters. We are, however, developing a more specialised workforce focused on rehabilitation, because we accept that that is how to help these young people to move away from a life of crime. Every prison officer on the youth estate is now funded to take up a qualification in youth justice by next year. We have also created specialist youth justice worker officers, who are trained to work with children, and we already have 284 in post.

I hope that the Minister has been talking to her colleague the Housing Minister about his plans to regulate supported housing, which were announced last week and which we very much welcome. Will she now talk to him about the need to ensure that if 16 and 17-year-olds are released from custody and it is not appropriate for them to go back to their family home, they are not placed in unregulated housing?

Very much so. As I said in answer to previous questions, home is a vital part of rehabilitation and cutting reoffending. We know about some of the particular pressures that young people can face if, for example, they have been drawn into county lines gangs, and the geographical location of their home may be a pertinent element in their reoffending or their vulnerability to reoffending. I am happy to confirm that I will be speaking to the Housing Minister. I am also drawing together a cross-Whitehall group of Ministers to discuss how we can tackle youth offending at the earliest stages, not just when a child reaches the justice system.

Domestic Abuse Offences: Prosecution Rate

The Domestic Abuse Act 2021 will ensure that more perpetrators are brought to justice. The Act creates new offences such as non-fatal strangulation, and extends the coercive and controlling behaviour offence to include former partners. Through the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, we are also giving victims more time to report domestic abuse-related assaults so that they can seek justice.

My constituency sits in the London Borough of Sutton, which, while having relatively low levels of violent crime, has higher domestic abuse rates than the London average. Surely poor police conduct only serves to undermine the efforts to increase prosecution rates. What work is my hon. Friend undertaking to encourage domestic abuse victims to come forward and to ensure that there is confidence in the criminal justice system and protection for victims and their children?

Trust is the fundamental bond between us, the public, and the police, prosecutors, the courts and the criminal justice system. Given recent events, it is right that Members ask difficult and scrutinising questions of those agencies, but it is also right that we support the Home Secretary’s review through the Angiolini inquiry into police attitudes and conduct, as well as the review carried out by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire and Rescue Services. Let me also draw my hon. Friend’s attention to the success of the Domestic Abuse Matters training. There is real evidence of improvement in the rates of charging people with coercive and controlling behaviour offences in police forces in which that training has been undertaken. Some 32 police forces have undergone the training. and we expect the rest to follow so that victims of domestic abuse can be supported.

The lack of reporting, understanding and prosecution of domestic abuse at child contact centres is creating a potential risk at those venues. Happily, the Domestic Abuse Act committed the Government to producing a report on this. Is the Minister willing to meet the all-party parliamentary group on child contact centres and services to discuss the matter further?

I am happy to take up the hon. Gentleman’s kind invitation. As he knows, we are very concerned about evidence from the family harms panel review about how some perpetrators use the family courts to continue their abuse. I hope the hon. Gentleman will be comforted by the news that in February we launched an integrated domestic abuse courts pilot in courts in Dorset and north Wales, which is testing a more investigative and less adversarial approach to family court proceedings.

Equality Act 2010: Time Limits for Claims

23. If he will consider the potential merits of extending the time limits for claims under the Equality Act 2010 from three to six months. (906217)

The Government continue to look closely at extending time limits for these Equality Act cases. However, these decisions must take account of wider impacts across the justice system. The pandemic has put additional pressure on the entire Courts and Tribunals Service, and restoring existing service levels needs to be prioritised before additional loading is added.

I thank the Minister for his answer. The Government have committed to considering extending the time limits for Equality Act claims in employment tribunals. Currently, a three-month time limit means that pregnant women have to bring a case in the first months after birth, and sexual harassment victims have to do so while they are still incredibly traumatised. That is unconscionably restrictive, and because it forces people down the litigation route before mediation is finished, it is probably also very inefficient. Will the Department deliver an extension so that those who are subject to workplace harassment and discrimination can access justice?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising this issue. The tribunal already has the discretion to provide the extension that she is seeking, where it considers it to be just and equitable to do so. This is a Government Equalities Office lead, and as the Ministry of Justice we are happy to engage with the GEO and to look at this closely.

Topical Questions

Last week, I went to The Hague to offer British assistance to the International Criminal Court in bringing those responsible for war crimes in Ukraine to justice. Russian commanders carrying out war crimes should know that they cannot act with impunity and that, like Karadžić and Charles Taylor before them, their actions risk landing them in a jail cell. I also set out proposals to tackle strategic lawsuits against public participation—SLAPPs—to stop oligarchs using our libel laws to muzzle journalists and academics.

My constituency has strong links to Ukraine. Can my right hon. Friend reassure my constituents that this Government will do everything to support the investigation of war crimes potentially committed in Ukraine?

We are looking at a package of measures including financial assistance and also technical assistance, which is crucial to the preservation of evidence. The kinds of things I am analysing with colleagues across Whitehall include specialist IT capabilities and other expert areas such as police and military analysis—all the things that the ICC will need.

Can I bring the Minister on to a more domestic issue? Victims of domestic abuse and other serious crimes are more often than not denied justice due to the broken criminal justice system. Legal aid provides a lifeline to those who need it most, but the system is on its knees due to chronic underfunding. Sir Christopher Bellamy QC recommended a minimum fee increase not as an opening bid but as a necessary first step to nurse the legal aid system back to health. How will the Minister stop the continuing haemorrhage of criminal solicitors and barristers from the workforce in the meantime, so that further victims are not denied access to justice?

We have set out in detail our response to the Bellamy review, and indeed we matched the Bellamy recommendations on the quantum of investment and on the 15% uplift for fees. I think it was only last week that he backed those plans pretty much wholeheartedly, and I hope he still does.

Litigation or the threat of litigation should not be used to intimidate or to silence things that are in the public interest. I welcome what my right hon. Friend said last week about SLAPPs. Can he reassure me, my constituents, journalists across the country and the wider public that he will do whatever it takes to support the freedom of the press and freedom of speech more widely?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and we have set out our proposals on SLAPPs. I also want to bring his attention to the submission that we had from the media group that involves the i, The Times, Associated Newspapers, The Daily Telegraph and others, which talks about the specific proposals we have put forward in our Bill of Rights to strengthen and reinforce freedom of expression and media rights as critically important, alongside the other work we are doing. I hope that the Labour party will support it.

T2. In December, my constituent Daphne Franks and I delivered a paper to the Ministry of Justice setting out proposals to end predatory marriage, but so far nothing has been done, mainly because the review of wills has been paused by the Law Commission. Given that the elderly and vulnerable are still being targeted every day, may I ask the Secretary of State whether he will now step in and support the legislative changes set out in our proposal so that we can finally bring this appalling abuse to an end? (906229)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising this issue in the House. I am happy to have a conversation and a meeting with him to discuss his proposals in greater detail. It is important to recognise that in the marriage space we are awaiting the outcome of the Law Commission’s review, which is expected in July. Like other Ministers in the Department, I will want to have a thorough look at all these matters in the round.

T4. Today would have been Harry Dunn’s 21st birthday. Instead, his twin brother Niall faces this fabulous milestone alone and there is still no justice for Harry’s family from the tragic killing of him by an American citizen who was driving on the wrong side of the road. I know that the hearts of colleagues from across the House go out to Harry Dunn, his whole family and all his friends, particularly his brother. Will my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, who has done so much to try to help, give the House an update on what is being done to deliver justice for Harry? (906231)

So that the House is aware, let me say that this is sub judice, so please be cautious in your answer, as I would expect that you would be.

Thank you, Mr Speaker, I will be mindful of what you say. First, let me thank and pay tribute to my right hon. Friend, who has championed the Dunn family and the memory of Harry in the most remarkable way. Of course my heart goes out to Tim, Charlotte, Bruce, Tracey and all the family right now. Indeed, I was thinking about Tracey and Charlotte in particular as we prepare for Mother’s day this week. I can tell my right hon. Friend, without tripping up in the way that Mr Speaker described, that the whole Government and I wholeheartedly support the Foreign Secretary’s ongoing efforts to secure a virtual trial so that we can see justice done for Harry and his family.

T6.   Will the Secretary of State confirm clearly, for the record, that the Government will not make changes to the Human Rights Act without legislative consent from the devolved institutions? (906234)

The hon. Gentleman will know, because I have said it in the House on a number of occasions, that it would be inappropriate to consider the application of the Sewel convention until we have the text of the Bill of Rights, but he will not have to wait too much longer for that.

T5. Will my right hon. Friend look again at whether there are any opportunities to support grandchildren to have better access to their grandparents following a divorce or bereavement? (906233)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising this issue. The Government understand the important role that grandparents often play in children’s lives—I can very much relate to that through my own experiences growing up—and the stability they can provide, particularly during times of divorce, separation or bereavement. I know that she had a productive meeting with my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister recently. This matter is under active consideration at pace and we will revert to her as quickly as possible.

T8. One of my constituents, after leaving a near two-decade-long abusive relationship, reported an assault to the police, but she was then told that the statute of limitations on her case had run out, as it was not processed in time, which means that she will never see justice. What steps will the Minister take to reform the statute of limitations process for victims of assault in abusive relationships? (906236)

I hope that the House will understand that I must not comment on an individual case, but for offences that are triable either way—assault and occasioning actual bodily harm—or those that are indictable only, there are no such time limits. One category of offence—common assault charges—does have the traditional six-month time limit. Exactly the situation the hon. Lady has described is what we are seeking to change for the better through the police Bill. We are removing that six-month time limit—extending it to two years—so that cases of the sort she describes will not hit that legal barrier to securing justice for victims.

T7. I commend my right hon. Friend the Minister for the steps he has taken recently to publicise community payback to tackle antisocial behaviour. In Darlington, antisocial behaviour involving off-road bikes and quad bikes causes tremendous trouble; will the Minister outline what steps he will take to use community payback to tackle that? (906235)

I am pleased that my hon. Friend recognises that dozens of teams of offenders are fanning out across England and Wales and doing fantastic work, paying back into their community by improving the environment. My hon. Friend has been a persistent campaigner on the antisocial behaviour that quad bikes bring to his constituency and I know he will have conversations with his local police and crime commissioner about what the police can do to catch the individuals responsible. When they do catch them, it is absolutely appropriate that they pay back into the community through the kind of work that we now see on a daily basis. It might also be appropriate to GPS tag offenders so that we know where they are moving at speed off-road.

If, as the Secretary of State said earlier, he is concerned about the oppressive use of litigation costs in SLAPP cases, will he look into the same problems in respect of media cases? Will he consider introducing—perhaps in his Bill of Rights—the type of low-cost arbitration recommended by the Leveson inquiry?

I recognise the issue that the hon. Gentleman wants to deal with but we are not going to rake over the old coals of that debate.

My right hon. Friend the Minister recently met me and my constituent Donna Mooney to discuss imprisonment for public protection sentences. Will he update the House on the progress of his thoughts on the matter and whether he plans to bring forward any plans for reform?

I had a useful and informative meeting with my hon. Friend and his constituent. As he knows, we have in place an action plan for IPP sentences that we are prosecuting with, I hope, some verve and energy to drive down the numbers. My hon. Friend will know that the Justice Committee held an inquiry into IPP sentences; we await its conclusions before we look at the next steps.

My constituent Huw Davies is struggling to regain control of a home that he has owned for many years and is wondering when there will be tougher action to prevent lasting powers of attorney from being taken out fraudulently. Will Ministers set out what they are doing to toughen up the law and to toughen up the enforcement activity in respect of lasting powers of attorney?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising an issue of which we are mindful. He will know that we are soon to embark on a process to reform lasting powers of attorney, to make sure that all the processes are fit for the modern world, that incidents of abuse and fraud are tackled robustly and that all the right checks and mechanisms are there.

I welcome the work that my hon. Friend the Minister has been doing to recruit more magistrates and the changes to the retirement age to enable senior magistrates to sit for longer. Will he tell us about the plans to introduce powers to keep more cases in the magistrates court and when he expects those powers to come into effect?

My hon. Friend is, of course, a serving magistrate and speaks with great authority on these matters. As he knows, the Judicial Review and Courts Bill, which contains key parts of those powers, has not yet received Royal Assent. On my hon. Friend’s other point, I can confirm that the Public Service Pensions and Judicial Offices Bill recently received Royal Assent. The Public Service Pensions and Judicial Offices Act 2022 raises the statutory mandatory retirement age to 75. As my hon. Friend says, that is an important measure to ensure that we maximise the number of people in our judicial labour force.

Does not Mariupol alone demand that we go even further on sanctions in relation to Russia? Could we not sanction all the Russian banks, rather than just 60% of them? Should we not be taking action against the oil and gas companies? Should we not be removing tier 1 visas from people in the UK who have them and have not yet condemned the war in Ukraine? Should we not be putting more pressure on companies—such as Infosys in India—that have big investments in Russia? Should we not make sure that all the family members and apparatchiks are also sanctioned?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that we should continually challenge ourselves. The most important thing, though, is that we are focused on and targeted at those either with direct links into the Kremlin or who fund or indirectly fund, to put the squeeze on Putin’s war machine.

On 30 March last year, my constituent Tim Dack sadly passed away from covid-19. Before he passed away, he woke up from his coma and he proposed to his partner; she was then doubly saddened to find out that she could not be listed as his partner on his death certificate, despite the fact that they had lived together for multiple years. My understanding is that there are uncommenced provisions in the Coroners and Justice Act 2009 that would allow such listing to happen. Might one of my Front-Bench colleagues be able to enlighten me on when those changes will be brought forward?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that difficult and tragic constituency case. I would be grateful if he took the opportunity to meet me to discuss it in more detail, so that I can understand the circumstances and provide a full response.

Last week, I received an email from the Gwent Citizen Panel about the consultation on the Government proposals to scrap the Human Rights Act 1998. The Government produced a consultation on 14 December but did not produce an easy-read version, nor any other versions, such as one in British Sign Language, an audio version or one in Makaton. Why was that?

I will look at the various variations the hon. Lady has referred to; I will make sure to get her an answer by correspondence within the week.

Are the Secretary of State and the Minister for prisons aware of the shocking report out this morning by Ofsted and Her Majesty’s inspectorate of prisons, which describes a terrible level of reading ability in prisons and a lack of progress over recent years? What plans do the Government have to put in place the recommendations of the 2016 Coates report and to ensure accountability, so that prison governors understand the vital nature of teaching all prisoners to read? Without that skill, there can be no serious rehabilitation.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his attention to this issue and wider issues of education within the prison system. We absolutely understand the criticisms made in the report. I hope we have pre-empted some of the report’s observations through the “Prisons Strategy” White Paper, which shows the Government’s determination to cut reoffending through rehabilitation. The White Paper includes, for example, the development of personal learning plans for prisoners and the introduction of new prison key performance indicators in English and maths, so that we can hold prisons to account for the outcomes they achieve for prisoners.

On this day five years ago, our lovely friend, the policeman Keith, was tragically killed—it haunts us all.

Can I ask a question about a real crisis occurring in the criminal justice system—the failure to attract the right number of young recruits into criminal law? Civil law and commercial law are so well paid that we cannot attract young men and women into criminal law. It is a real crisis. What is the Secretary of State going to do about it?

I thank the hon. Gentleman. He is right to say that there are difficulties in this area. If he reads our response to the Bellamy review, he will see that there are a number of ways that we want to address the issue, including by increasing fees and breaking down some of the barriers, for example through the promotion of CILEX, so that we can encourage more non-graduate routes into the profession. That will help with not just the volume but the diversity of practitioners.

Speaker’s Statement

Before the urgent question, I wish to make a short statement about the sub judice resolution. I have been advised that there are relevant active legal proceedings in the Court of Appeal. I am exercising the discretion given to the Chair in respect of matters sub judice to allow reference to these proceedings, as they may concern issues of national importance. However, I urge Members to exercise caution in what they say and to avoid referring in detail to cases that remain before the Court of Appeal.

While I do not have to give any reason for accepting or declining a request for an urgent question, I wish to be clear that one of the reasons that I decided to allow a brief exchange on the issue today is that, last night, Sky News seemed to be reporting developments on this—it was apparently well briefed—and I understand the Minister was also available for comment this morning, before this House was informed.

We have been through this issue again and again. I do not want this to happen again. Please, respect the House; respect the Back Benchers. They have been elected to hear things here—so please, Ministers, show due respect to Back Benchers. The Government know my views about telling the House policy developments first. I will continue to grant UQs if I think that has not happened.

Sub-Postmasters: Compensation

To ask the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy if he will make a statement on the steps taken to ensure that the group of 555 sub-postmasters are fairly compensated.

I fully take your words on board, Mr Speaker, and humbly apologise. I thank the right hon. Member for his question. It is really important that we discuss this matter.

Over recent weeks, the House has repeatedly returned to the subject of the Post Office Horizon scandal. Members from all parts of the House are rightly united and outraged at what the sub-postmasters experienced and at the way that they have suffered as a consequence. Some people’s lives have been unjustly devastated, losing their roles as postmasters and often their other businesses as well. Some were imprisoned, and more faced the shadow of convictions over their working and personal lives. Saddest of all, some did not live to see justice, including some who took their own lives.

The Post Office has already apologised, but we know that that is not enough. The victims rightly want the truth to be known and those responsible to be held accountable. That is why we asked Sir Wyn Williams to hold his inquiry, which has lately heard so much tragic testimony from those affected.

As well as apologies and accountability, people want proper compensation to be paid. Those people who exposed the scandal in the first place—the postmasters who won the court case against the Post Office—have not been fairly compensated. But those who were not convicted were not entitled to receive historical shortfall scheme compensation themselves, which, paradoxically, could leave those postmasters eligible for receiving the HSS better compensated than those who won the court case.

The Government recognise that this is just not right, which is why the Chancellor announced today that we are making funds available to ensure that those in the group litigation order group are not financially disadvantaged by the decision to litigate against the Post Office. The GLO group will now be able to access the same levels of compensation as its non-GLO peers.

The postmasters’ legal case was funded by litigation funders Therium. Our worry in Government has always been that any compensation that we bring forward for this group of postmasters would not be fully passed on as Therium has a right to claim a proportion of any compensation received. However, following extensive negotiations with the company, I am really pleased that Therium has agreed to waive its rights to any claim on this compensation, meaning that we can now proceed.

We envisage that the funding will support payments under a new scheme similar to the HSS to compensate those GLO members who were not convicted. Those who have convictions overturned already have access to compensation, and we want this compensation to be paid as promptly as possible. We will be writing to the Justice For Subpostmasters Alliance to consult it about the scheme’s operations, and I am meeting representatives of the JFSA on 30 March to discuss these proposals. We will set target dates for compensation awards in the light of our discussions with them. It will not be a long and formal consultation. It will aid decisions on the approach, and I will then inform the House of our plans to deliver that just compensation, which these people so richly deserve.

I thank the Minister for his statement. I congratulate him on moving this matter further than his predecessors who made pathetic attempts and showed such ignorance.

The Treasury statement this morning said that the 555 group will be fully and fairly compensated. Similar things were said by the Prime Minister, and the Minister said that before the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee. Can he outline what that means in practice? Is it just reimbursing the legal costs, or will we have a more sophisticated scheme? Certainly, my constituent Tom Brown, who paid back £84,000 that he did not need to pay, is £84,000 out of pocket. He needs that back.

I am also interested to know about interim payments. The sad fact is that there are people in abject poverty now, who are living from week to week, so the quicker we can get some interim payments to those people, the better.

On the overall historical shortfall scheme, has the Minister any idea about how many people were affected by it? I would like to reopen that, because the window given to these sub-postmasters was very short, so it needs to be looked at in detail.

The other question I would like to ask the Minister is about those who have died. He points to the fact that, tragically, some have taken their lives, but there are many others who have died. Will the scheme involve their estates? It would be a complete injustice if those families did not get any of that compensation. I urge him to take the administration of the scheme out of the hands of the Post Office. I, the 555, the hon. Member for North West Leicestershire (Andrew Bridgen) and others have no faith at all in the Post Office to administer it. It is important that it is seen to be independent of the Post Office.

The Minister talks about the 555. I am happy to meet the Minister and, I am sure, the hon. Member for North West Leicestershire and Lord Arbuthnot to talk about the details of the scheme, but I reiterate the point that we need to get this right now. I accept that this is a step forward, but this will not go away. The Minister knows that—can he tell the Treasury that? It will cost quite a lot of money, and I do not know whether he has established yet how much. Does he have an open cheque book now from the Treasury? He might need one.

Once again, I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his work and for bringing this urgent question to the House today, because it is important that we continue to press on and get this done. I really welcome his attention to this matter. I also thank Lord Arbuthnot, whom he mentioned, who has helped in the past couple of weeks to unlock the situation we have today.

The right hon. Gentleman asks how the process will work and how quickly the 555 will get their money. That is the conversation I want to have with Alan Bates and the JFSA over the next couple of weeks, to ensure that we get something that they feel confident in. I envisage its sitting alongside and being similar to the HSS scheme, which starts on the basis of looking at losses and ongoing losses. It is important that we address those in the full and fair way I have described and make the compensation meaningful. Yes, we will absolutely work with estates; the HSS already works with the estates of those who have died and with the creditors of those who may be bankrupt, to ensure that they can be restored to a far better position.

I will happily meet the right hon. Gentleman and colleagues across the House who have campaigned on this issue for so many years. I would love to say I have a blank cheque from the Treasury, but that is clearly not going to happen in this place. However, the Treasury knows that we need to sort it out. I want to ensure that the scheme has the confidence of the JFSA. The HSS has an independent panel with it, so it has a degree of independence specifically to give people confidence, but we will work on that in the weeks to come.

I welcome the announcement that the 555 sub-postmasters, including my constituents, will now at long last get the compensation they deserve. Does the Minister agree, however, that it is important that the public inquiry currently running gets to the truth of why the Post Office decided to defend the action brought by the 555 for more than four years, at huge cost to the public purse, when back in 2015, following the investigation by Second Sight and Ron Warmington and the evidence from the Fujitsu whistleblower, I knew, the right hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) knew and more importantly the Post Office knew that the Horizon system was faulty and that the convictions of the sub-postmasters were completely unsafe?

I thank my hon. Friend for all the work he has done to expose this matter. That is why the independent statutory inquiry led by Sir Wyn Williams has been listening to testimony from those so badly affected. The next stage of his inquiry is exactly to get to the bottom of the questions my hon. Friend asks: who knew what and when in the Post Office, Fujitsu and Departments across Government. We will get to the bottom of that.

The Horizon scandal has spanned decades under Labour, Lib Dem and Tory Ministers. It is a stain on the Post Office and its single shareholder the Government. This response proves that the Government do the right thing in the end, once they have done everything else. I congratulate the Minister on his work. He has been true to his word; among all the Ministers who went before him, we never had that, so I do praise him.

The Justice For Subpostmasters Alliance took on the Post Office and shone a light on it. It should be commended and properly, fully compensated for everything it has done. Many parliamentarians have already mentioned some of this, including members of the all-party parliamentary group on post offices, of which I have the honour of being chair. We need to see a firm commitment in tomorrow’s spring statement to the full compensation that has been promised by the Minister, and reassurance that there will be no impact on the post office network as a result.

I thank the hon. Member for all the work that she does with the APPG, not just on righting this wrong but on the future as well. I thank her for her kind words. This is a moment in time that I hope we can all be really pleased with, as we are moving this on, but it is only a moment in time—it is not finished. There is a lot more of the process to go. I will be judged on this only when I know that the 555 and other members have had the full and final compensation. I accept and agree with that. I want that money to go into the pockets of the postmasters, and I want to minimise legal fees. Clearly the Post Office does not have the resources to pay that level of compensation without affecting the future network, which is why it has been separated so that the Post Office has the future that we all want it to have.

I thank the Minister from the bottom of my heart for everything that he has done—I am extremely grateful. Does he agree that the conduct of the group litigation by the Post Office was shameful, that it was a war of attrition trying to grind down people who wanted to seek justice, and that it was intentionally trying to stop this coming to light? Thanks to the 555, it is now impossible to ignore. Does he join me in thanking the 555 for their tenacity and determination? Will he ensure that the Post Office apologises for what it has put them through?

I thank my hon. Friend for all the work that she has done on behalf of her constituent Tracy Felstead and the 554 other postmasters. I will not comment on the Post Office, purely and simply because having instigated the independent inquiry, I want it to remain independent. I do not want to put undue pressure on it. Clearly the Post Office has apologised, and I suspect it will not be the last time that it does so. We absolutely want to get answers. I also thank Nick Wallis, who has done amazing work—his life’s work in journalism—in setting out the stall of the 555 and telling their story.

I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) for securing this urgent question and for his tireless efforts in standing up for all those affected by the Horizon scandal. I pay tribute to all the postmasters who fought for justice, and especially to the efforts and determination of the 555 litigants whose civil case paved the way for convictions to be quashed and compensation finally delivered.

Labour has consistently called for all those affected by the Horizon scandal to be able to access the compensation they deserve. It was simply unacceptable that those who led this slow march to justice had been excluded from the historical shortfall scheme. In a week in which we have had plenty of warm words from the Government on their commitment to British workers but little by way of action, it is vital that the Government get this right. Hard-working, honest people had their lives torn apart because of a misguided belief that workers are dishonest and technology infallible.

Today’s announcement is warmly welcomed on the Labour Benches. I thank the Minister for his work on this issue; his commitment has been unquestionable throughout. However, I do want to press him in saying that speed is now vital. The Government have delayed far too long in getting to this point, and there can be no further delays for all those affected to get the compensation that will go some way towards making amends for this appalling injustice. As such, will he say how many are affected and provide a timescale for when all compensation payments will have been made? Labour has called for all those involved to be held accountable, so will he update the House on what investigations are ongoing into the role of Fujitsu? Will he commit to regularly updating the House on the progress of the scheme? This has been one of the greatest miscarriages of justice this country has ever seen. Every day’s delay only compounds that injustice. I hope the Government can finally start to right these wrongs for good.

I hope I can show by my actions that I will keep the House updated as we go along. On where we are with the compensation, I can announce that as of 11 March, 45% of people in the historical shortfall scheme had already received offers. That amounts to 1,067 individuals. The Post Office reports that it is firmly on track to make 95% of initial offers by the end of the year. The historical shortfall scheme started slowly, as it first worked through the cases and benchmarked those that would help inform future payments, so that we know so much more about the 555. Dovetailed with the HSS information that we have gained, I want to ensure that we can start delivering that compensation very quickly. I am still aiming for the end of the year for the HSS. We need to establish, once we know what the process is, an exact timescale agreed with the JFSA.

And we will hear it first in the Chamber, and we will make sure it is done via a statement, rather than by me granting urgent questions. Lovely, Minister.

I very much welcome what my hon. Friend has said today, and there is no doubt that he has been part of the resolution of this problem, but he will know that across the House for many, many months everyone has accepted that this is a huge miscarriage of justice and a disgrace. There is an independent inquiry, which he has rightly referred to today, but will he make sure that within Government there is a lessons learned process and lessons drawn for the future, so that the role of Government, too, is placed under the microscope, to ensure that nothing like this ever happens again?

First, my right hon. Friend talked about the independent inquiry, and I want to answer the earlier question about Fujitsu. Fujitsu is not on the preferred list of Government suppliers, but it can tender for Government contracts. Indeed, when we hear from the independent inquiry, that will give us all the information we need for how we move our relationship going forward.

To speak to the point that my right hon. Friend made, we always want to learn lessons, not just on what happened with the scandal, but on how we have handled it recently. Covid has taught us how to accelerate decision making, which has given me some of the weaponry I needed to get to this point quicker than we might have done in normal times. There are plenty of lessons we will be learning in the Government.

I begin by thanking my right hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) and the hon. Member for North West Leicestershire (Andrew Bridgen) for the work they have done throughout this scandalous issue. I thank the Minister, too. It is rare for me to congratulate Ministers, but he has ploughed through real barriers in Whitehall to get where we are today. What people are asking me is this: what are we doing to get some money back from Fujitsu? This will cost the taxpayer potentially hundreds of millions of pounds. How on earth are we going to allow Fujitsu to get away with it?

I thank the hon. Gentleman not only for his kind words, but for the work he has done in representing members of the group litigation order in the first place, as well as for his work here and his determination. The frank answer is that we will not—we will push as much as we can in any avenue to tackle compensation. Wherever it comes from, it should not be the UK taxpayer who is picking up the tab for other people’s problems.

This scandal continues to shock, and I thank the campaigners and the Members in this House with greyer hair with me, perhaps caused by this horrendous situation. I echo the calls for interim payments and more information about the practical steps to manage expectations, but it is understandable that victims, such as my constituent Nichola Arch, want to see the details. They are also looking to see whether things such as mixed malicious prosecution are included. For those found not guilty, can the Minister provide some comfort from the Dispatch Box today?

I thank my hon. Friend for the work she has done representing Nichola Arch and others. I saw her on GB News the other day talking with Nichola in the constituency casebook section. They both spoke excellently on this. I can confirm that our intention is very much to allow people who were prosecuted but not convicted full access, in the same way as members of the HSS. We have to work through that detail, but I have full confidence that we will get there.

I add my thanks to the Minister for his tenacity in pushing this through some of the barriers that we have faced over a long time. I also thank my right hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) and the hon. Member for North West Leicestershire (Andrew Bridgen) for sticking with this for such a long time. It is great that we are now getting a clearer picture of the compensation. I support what my right hon. Friend said about interim payments being key, because there is real hardship in this injustice, but I want to ask the Minister about the 736 who have been wrongly convicted of misdoing. Only 72 of them have had their convictions quashed or overturned. What are the Government doing to ensure justice for all sub-postmasters?

Anyone who was convicted can apply for interim payments, and the majority of them have had their payments. The 555 will be able to have that, should they have been convicted. We are working with the Post Office to ensure that we can get to the remaining people so that they apply for their convictions to be overturned. Clearly we do not want anyone to have a conviction on their record that should not be there and is there through no fault of their own. We will ensure that we continue to push for that.

I remember my first ever job was working on the Post Office counter automation project—it was some 40 years ago, I hasten to say, and for Burroughs Machines, not Fujitsu. I congratulate my hon. Friend on the work he has done thus far, but clearly this is a case of needing to compensating people quickly. He is going to do a short consultation. Will he consider now, after that consultation, making interim payments immediately, rather than waiting to the end of the year?

First, I do not want to pre-empt anything that we may do, but when I talk about a short consultation, this is about 555 people who have a well organised group together and their lawyers. We have already started, so this is not something where we are writing out to people and waiting for answers to come back; this is a focused bit of work. What I can say is that we will start the process that is agreed with the JFSA as soon as possible—and as soon, Mr Speaker, as I have updated the House first.

The Minister will be aware of the plight of my constituent Myra, who jointly ran a post office with her mum. They begged and borrowed £70,000 from friends and families to fill a shortfall that they could not understand, but which we now know—and the Post Office probably knew at the time—was not a shortfall at all. They lost their jobs, lost their home and were branded thieves and liars. Myra’s mum did not live to see her name cleared. Myra was not allowed to claim under the historical shortfall scheme. Does the Minister agree that no matter how carefully the criteria for any compensation scheme are drawn, there will always be people who do not fit those criteria? Will he ensure that there is a catch-all clause in the compensation scheme so that nobody but nobody is left without the compensation for which they have waited far too long?

Please send my condolences to Myra and the family. Within any scheme there will always be hard edges, but please let me know if particular people are falling through the gaps and let me see what further we can do to support them through this difficult time.

I add my tribute to the Minister, who came after a long line of Ministers who did not grasp this issue, but he certainly has. Following other points that have been made, may I seek clarity on those who have died? Will their estates benefit?

Yes. In the same way as with the HSS, we can work with the estates to ensure that compensation is paid through them. That is my understanding.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) on securing this urgent question. I also congratulate the Minister, who has stuck at this and been candid with us on every occasion. This is one of many battles—it is won, and I congratulate him—but the purpose of compensation is to put people in the position they would have been in had the insult not occurred in the first place. It is essential that this scheme properly compensates people for their past and future pecuniary losses, as well as compensating for their pain, suffering and loss of amenity, including the loss of liberty. Will he ensure that those principles are adhered to in this scheme, because nothing less than that will satisfy the people who have been so badly wronged by this terrible episode?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind words. In terms of loss of liberty, that comes up with the overturned convictions. In terms of the overall losses, as I said, the HSS works by looking at the past losses as well as what is ongoing and making an assessment of that with an independent panel behind it. I envisage that there will be the same scheme for the 555 so that there will be parity in their compensation.

As Back Benchers, we often ask Ministers for action and get absolutely nowhere, but today is different. I join the tributes to the Minister for how hard and how successfully he has been working in Government to get to a solution. I also put on record my recognition of Therium’s decision not to seek its extra compensation. This week of all weeks, it is nice to have a business doing the right thing. Can he give some indication to my constituents and others of the rough timeframe for receipt of the compensation payment?

I thank my hon. Friend for his kind words. It is difficult for me to say, because it depends on what scheme we come up with. If it is the scheme that I am envisaging, which is similar to the HSS and runs alongside it, I expect those payments to be largely out of the door and in people’s pockets by the end of the year. I do not see there being a long time delay from adding the 555 to that, because we know so much about them and can include them in that scheme or something similar.

I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) and the Minister for their work in this area. I also pay tribute to the 555 for their long battle to get justice and compensation in one of the biggest miscarriages of justice in our history. I pay particular tribute to my constituent Chris Head, who is one of the 555 and a tireless campaigner on the issue. Chris would like me to ask the Minister whether the scheme will have independent oversight so that victims are fairly and independently assessed.

I, too, pay tribute to Christopher Head, who was one of the youngest postmasters involved. We often have Twitter ding-dongs, shall we say, which have mellowed slightly since we have all got to the same point. The hon. Lady asks about independent oversight. The historical shortfall scheme has independent oversight with an independent panel. None the less, I want to ensure that the JSFA is as comfortable with the scheme that we come up with as it can be, because we want to give it the confidence that there is independent oversight of it so that those people can get full and fair compensation.

I join hon. Members in welcoming the announcement and the tenacity that the Minister has shown in addressing this injustice. Will the Government look to recover the compensation costs from those responsible for the scandal—the providers of the Horizon system—and to recover the bonuses paid to those who were running the Post Office during that shameful period?

Nothing is off the table. We need to look at all those sorts of things, because the UK taxpayer should not be on the hook for other people’s mistakes and sometimes deliberate—often deliberate—approaches in that regard.

I add my thanks and I welcome the Minister’s statement. The reality is that sub-postmasters have lost enormously and compensation will go only so far. One thing that they want is to know that there is genuine accountability. I know that the Minister does not want to anticipate the inquiry, but can he make it clear that where there is individual wrongdoing, it will be properly dealt with at whatever level is appropriate?

Absolutely; I can make that clear. We want to know those answers. People want full and fair compensation, but they also want answers and accountability. We can have accountability only if we do exactly what the hon. Gentleman said.

I congratulate the Minister; there is light at the end of the tunnel for a lot of people now. My right hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) has played a blinder, but this is another example of cross-party Back Benchers in this House working hard for their constituents and making a difference. I briefly mention the Criminal Cases Review Commission, which has a very small staff who have worked really hard on the issue. The chief executive Helen Pitcher and her team have done a solid amount of work. Can we recognise that and can the Minister give Helen and her team some help, because they desperately need to retain some commissioners to finish this work?

I pay tribute to the CCRC. It is because of its resource that we want to ensure that people can go directly to the Court of Appeal to try to circumvent overloading it. I pay tribute to the work that it has done to get us this far.

I commend the right hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) for his endeavours and for his tenacity. I also commend the Minister for delivering on it; it is always good to have a Minister who does that, so I thank him. I welcome the news that payments will be equalised, but this is the second time in two days that I have come across a case where those who paid for litigation and went through the stress of a court case ended up worse off than those who did nothing. Could consideration be given to the court costs being covered as an act of good faith for those postmasters whose lives and reputations have been decimated?

In terms of the original funding, the court cases will absolutely be taken into account—that is the entire process. They will be compensated as if they were going through the HSS and as if they had not gone through the court case in the first place and had those court fees and legal fees taken away from them. I totally agree with the hon. Gentleman.

I welcome the Government’s move to ensure that the 555 sub-postmasters receive the compensation that they deserve. I thank the Minister for his work to fix this matter; he has really cared about it. Can he confirm what discussions he has had with his Cabinet colleagues about how we can ensure that future victims of such scandals do not face the same issues of accessing compensation that is swallowed up by legal fees?

That is the last question, so I will say that although the last three quarters of an hour have been my moment in the sun, it is not about me: it is about the 555. I thank all hon. Members on both sides of the House who have been involved in ensuring that we have reached this point. There is plenty more to do. Clearly, we will all learn from this to inform us in other situations that may arise so that we can ensure that people get compensation as soon as possible.

Points of Order

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. As you know, this afternoon we will consider Lords amendments to the Nationality and Borders Bill. One of many complaints about the Bill is that it could cost an extraordinary sum of money to achieve not very much. For that reason, some hon. Members have been trying to get hold of the Government’s economic impact assessment for the Bill for some time. The Home Affairs Committee has been told on three occasions by Ministers and staff that it will be published “shortly” and at least two written questions have had the same answer. At a Committee hearing on 2 February, however, the Home Secretary, after first insisting that she would not publish anything at all, said that she would

“happily write to the Committee Chair and provide cost estimates, and even some of the cost estimates based on future projections”

within two weeks. In subsequent correspondence, however, she has invoked prejudice to negotiations with potential partners in disclosing offshoring costs. She did say:

“When the time is right, I would be delighted to provide details on cost estimates”.

When will the time be right? Is there anything that I or you can do to ensure that hon. Members see that important document before our debate this afternoon?

I am grateful to the hon. Member for giving me notice of the point of order. There is no formal procedural requirement for the House to have access to the information that he mentions before its consideration of Lords amendments today, but if Ministers undertake to provide information, they should do so.

I have no powers to compel the Government to provide the information sought by the hon. Member, but I always encourage Ministers to provide as much relevant material to the House as possible. He has put his point on the record and it will have been heard by Ministers. I encourage them to consider whether they can give more information to the House even at this late stage. I do hope that they will listen.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. On 2 March, I tabled a named day question to the Home Office about Ukraine. It raised a policy question about visas and was relevant to my constituent and, no doubt, the constituents of many other hon. Members. It was due for an answer on 8 March. My staff chased it up twice last week but I have still had no answer. What else can we do to ensure that we get timely answers to our questions through the appropriate procedures of the House?

First, I thank the hon. Member for giving me notice of the point of order. It is important that Members receive timely answers to questions, especially named day questions—it is in the nature of the named day question that it tells Ministers when they should be answered. The hon. Member’s point is on the record, and it will no doubt be drawn to the attention of the Leader of the House, who I am sure will pursue this matter. I know the previous Leader of the House was very concerned when the Government were letting down Members of this House by not answering those questions on time—or within what we would say was the right time—which is in the nature of named day questions.

The hon. Member may also consider whether she wants to draw this to the attention of the Procedure Committee, which monitors the performance of the Government in timely responses to questions. I have to say that we seem to be going backwards again. We were doing really well, so I appeal to all Departments to treat Members with respect, because in the end they are answerable to the constituents who are asking the questions of them. Please, let us get our act together within the Government.

Shared Prosperity Fund (Wales) Bill

Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to require the Secretary of State to report to Parliament on the merits of devolving management and administration of the money allocated to Wales via the Shared Prosperity Fund to the Welsh Government.

Ahead of the spring statement tomorrow, surging energy bills and increasing costs of living are rightly making us nervous. We are at a critical juncture not only in overcoming the legacy of the covid-19 pandemic and the devastating consequences of the war in Ukraine, but in how we approach levelling up. What I advocate today through this Bill is a clear UK-wide commitment to lower energy bills and to meeting our net zero targets by improving energy efficiency in homes and businesses, delivered through a devolved shared prosperity fund.

Households and businesses across the UK are feeling not just a pinch, but a hammer blow from rising energy bills. Having already risen by 54% and likely to rise further due to our dependence on fossil fuels, the Wales fiscal analysis team has calculated that the average Welsh household on a default dual-fuel tariff will see its energy bill rise by £693 from April. Wales is particularly vulnerable in this respect. We have the highest poverty and child poverty rate of the four nations, with almost one in four people, and 31% of our children, living in poverty. Our vulnerability to energy price shocks is compounded by having the oldest, least energy efficient housing stock in the UK, with a fifth of homes in Wales built before 1900, and the lowest proportion of dwellings rated energy performance certificate C grade or above. This also affects our climate ambitions, of course, with housing responsible for about 20% of our carbon emissions.

Some will argue that the Chancellor has already helped address the energy crisis by providing a rebate to UK households. However, I would argue that this measure was insufficient at its introduction and is even less adequate now. I realise that calls on the Government to introduce a windfall tax on cash-rich oil and gas producers—we should remember that the largest producer in the North sea has just reported $1.7 billion in profit—are likely to go unheeded. Nevertheless, the Government must ensure that they do not revert to a business-as-usual approach to energy supply, or fall for the siren call of those who would have us believe that salvation can be found in greater exploitation of fossil fuel reserves. To do so would not only be to forget the calls made at COP26 in November or the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report on climate change, but grossly to overstate the short-term benefit of shale gas extraction and to underestimate its cost.

Cardiff University recently concluded that 1,016 fracking pads would be needed to replace just half of the UK’s gas imports to 2035. This would mean the construction of one shale gas pad approximately every five days over the next 15 years across our country. What is more, additional domestic gas production is unlikely to translate into lower prices for UK consumers, as our prices reflect Europe’s gas markets, with which we are intricately interconnected. Indeed, the Green Alliance cross-party thinktank offers a sobering fact for proponents of fracking: the first four days of the current gas crunch in September saw the greatest gas export from the UK to Europe on record, as domestic producers sought the best price for their product. Finally, there is the small matter that fracking is a devolved matter, and it has been banned in Wales since 2018 following a Plaid Cymru motion. Wales also joined the Beyond Oil & Gas Alliance at COP26, but, worryingly, the UK Government refused to commit this week to respecting devolved powers over fracking.

There is no solace to be found in the technologies of the past. Instead, we must commit ourselves to delivering a step change in our energy system, towards which I believe the shared prosperity fund, if managed effectively, could make an important contribution. The Government promised in 2019 to replace EU regional funding with a programme that is

“fairer and better tailored to our economy.”

So far, however, the amount of funding allocated to that end has failed to match the promise of the UK Government’s levelling-up rhetoric. Just as worrying is the lack of a joined-up approach that brings together communities, local authorities and the Welsh Government to address the unique challenges that Wales faces. Instead, we are at very real risk of seeing competition, rather than co-operation, between various groups and authorities bidding for funding, resulting in a disjointed approach to key issues such as energy efficiency and a failure to realise the promise of economic regeneration.

Instead, through this Bill, Plaid Cymru and Members from across the UK are advocating using the shared prosperity fund as a means to level up the UK through fostering greater collaboration among its nations and regions. Such an approach is far more likely to achieve the transformational change that we all desire and to realise important objectives such as a more energy-efficient housing stock. There is ample evidence in favour of a bold and extensive retrofitting scheme, and in response to last year’s Budget, Plaid Cymru echoed calls by the Future Generations Commissioner for Wales for a £3.6 billion investment programme over 10 years to improve the efficiency of the Welsh housing stock. It has been estimated that by delivering a long-term funding settlement that would leverage further investment from the private sector, guarantee green jobs and deliver much-needed energy efficiency improvements, this measure could deliver average annual savings of some £418 for Welsh households.

If we applied such an infrastructure programme—developed by, and tailored for, each of the nations and regions of the UK—we could secure real long-term energy savings for UK households. Unfortunately, that opportunity was missed in the autumn. By devolving the administration of different aspects of the shared prosperity fund to Wales, the Government will ensure the levelling-up agenda respects local democracy and harnesses the energy and focus of every tier of government towards the realisation of a coherent strategy. Failure to do so will mean that the levelling up we all hope to bring about will continue to elude us, no matter how lofty the rhetoric we employ or the number of policy documents we produce.

To end, it is only by devolving the management and administration of the shared prosperity fund that we can hope to bring about a transformational programme that will meet our societal, economic and climate action responsibilities.

Question put and agreed to.


That Ben Lake, Hywel Williams, Liz Saville Roberts, Richard Thomson, Claire Hanna, Stephen Farry, Alison Thewliss, Geraint Davies, Jonathan Edwards, Wendy Chamberlain and Beth Winter present the Bill.

Ben Lake accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the first time; to be read a Second time on Friday 6 May, and to be printed (Bill 288).

Nationality and Borders Bill (Programme) (No. 3)

Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 83A(7)),

That the following provisions shall apply to the Nationality and Borders Bill for the purpose of supplementing the Orders of 20 July 2021 (Nationality and Borders Bill (Programme)) and 7 December 2021 (Nationality and Borders Bill (Programme) (No. 2)):

Consideration of Lords Amendments

(1) Proceedings on consideration of Lords Amendments shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion six hours after their commencement.

(2) The proceedings—

(a) shall be taken in the order shown in the first column of the following Table, and

(b) shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion at the times specified in the second column of the Table.


Lords Amendments

Time for conclusion of proceedings

1, 4 to 9, 52, 53, 10 to 20, 54, 2, 3, 43 to 51, 21

Three hours after the commencement of proceedings on consideration of Lords Amendments

22, 24, 23, 25 to 27, 40, 28 to 39, 42, 41

Six hours after the commencement of those proceedings

Subsequent stages

(3) Any further Message from the Lords may be considered forthwith without any Question being put.

(4) The proceedings on any further Message from the Lords shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion one hour after their commencement.—(Michael Tomlinson.)

Question agreed to.

Nationality and Borders Bill

Consideration of Lords amendments

[Relevant documents: Seventh Report of the Joint Committee on Human Rights, Legislative Scrutiny: Nationality and Borders Bill (Part 1)—Nationality, HC 764; Ninth Report of the Joint Committee on Human Rights, Legislative Scrutiny: Nationality and Borders Bill (Part 3)—Immigration offences and enforcement, HC 885; Eleventh Report of the Joint Committee on Human Rights, Legislative Scrutiny: Nationality and Borders Bill (Part 5)—Modern Slavery, HC 964; Twelfth Report of the Joint Committee on Human Rights, Legislative Scrutiny: Nationality and Borders Bill (Parts 1, 2 and 4)—Asylum, Home Office Decision-Making, Age Assessments, and Deprivation of Citizenship Orders, HC 1007; Tenth Special Report of the Joint Committee on Human Rights, Legislative Scrutiny: Nationality and Borders Bill: Government Responses to the Committee’s Seventh, Ninth, Eleventh and Twelfth Reports, HC 1208; Letter from the Chair of the Joint Committee on Human Rights to Tom Pursglove MP, Minister for Justice and Tackling Illegal Migration, relating to Part 2 (Asylum) and Part 5 (Modern Slavery) of the Nationality and Borders Bill, HC 588, dated 17 November 2021; Letter from Tom Pursglove MP, Minister for Justice and Tackling Illegal Migration, to the Chair of the Joint Committee on Human Rights relating to Part 2 (Asylum) and Part 5 (Modern Slavery) of the Nationality and Borders Bill, HC 588, dated 25 November 2021; e-petition 601583, Remove Clause 9 from the Nationality and Borders Bill.]

I must draw the House’s attention to the fact that financial privilege is engaged by Lords amendments 10, 12 and 26. If they are agreed to, I will cause the customary entry waiving Commons financial privilege to be entered in the Journal.

After Clause 4

Provision for Chagos Islanders to acquire British nationality

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Government amendments (a) and (b) in lieu of Lords amendment 1.

Lords amendment 4, Government motion to disagree, and Government amendments (a) to (f) in lieu.

Lords amendment 5, and Government motion to disagree.

Lords amendment 6, and Government motion to disagree.

Lords amendment 7, and Government motion to disagree.

Lords amendment 8, and Government motion to disagree.

Lords amendment 9, and Government motion to disagree.

Lords amendment 52, and Government motion to disagree.

Lords amendment 53, and Government motion to disagree.

Lords amendment 10, and Government motion to disagree.

Lords amendment 11, and Government motion to disagree.

Lords amendment 12, and Government motion to disagree.

Lords amendment 13, and Government motion to disagree.

Lords amendment 14, and Government motion to disagree.

Lords amendment 15, and Government motion to disagree.

Lords amendment 16, and Government motion to disagree.

Lords amendment 17, and Government motion to disagree.

Lords amendment 18, and Government motion to disagree.

Lords amendment 19, and Government motion to disagree.

Lords amendment 20, and Government motion to disagree.

Lords amendment 54, and Government motion to disagree.

Lords amendments 2, 3, 43 to 51 and 21.

Mr Speaker, may I begin by joining in, on behalf of the Home Office, your tribute to PC Keith Palmer, who lost his life five years ago today? All of us who were in the House will never forget that day. It was an enormous tragedy; he died in the line of service, protecting our democracy and the people in this place. We will be forever grateful to him and his family, and our thoughts are very much with them today, and with everybody caught up in that terrible tragedy on Westminster bridge.

This country has a long and proud tradition of providing sanctuary to those in need. The British people are generous and compassionate, and we only have to look around us to see that compassion in action right now. I think I speak for the whole House in thanking everyone stepping up to support people fleeing the conflicts in Afghanistan and Ukraine.

This Bill is about delivering a long-term solution to the long-term problems that have beset the asylum system over decades. It has three central objectives: to make the system fairer and more effective so we can better protect and support those in genuine need; to deter illegal entry, breaking the business model of evil criminal trafficking; and to make it easier to remove those with no right to be here.

The reforms we are introducing through this Bill have been debated at length both in this House and the other place, and I want to put on record my thanks to all Members for the rigour with which they have scrutinised the measures we have proposed. I also want to say that as the Bill has progressed through Parliament, this Government have been listening carefully to the questions and concerns raised not only by Members but by the many organisations, communities and individuals who have been carefully following its progress.

We have amended the Bill to clarify that new measures to tackle people smugglers will not criminalise those acting under the direction of Her Majesty’s Coastguard. We have also introduced an amendment to resolve the lawful residence issue that has troubled many individuals with indefinite leave to remain under the EU settlement scheme and who wish to naturalise but have not previously held comprehensive sickness insurance.

In response to the appalling situation in Ukraine, we have added new powers to enable us to impose visa penalties on countries posing a threat to international peace and security or whose actions lead, or are likely to lead, to armed conflict or a breach of humanitarian law. We have also announced an expansion of the Hong Kong British national overseas route, which will enable individuals aged 18 or over who were born on or after 1 July 1997 and have at least one BNO parent to apply to the route independently.

Before going further, I would like to say something more about the situation in Ukraine, in particular the calls we have heard in respect of unaccompanied children. We of course recognise the deeply troubling circumstances faced by all Ukrainians who are caught up in this conflict, and we of course acknowledge calls for support to Ukrainian orphans and unaccompanied children. However, the UK cannot act unilaterally on such matters, and the views of affected Governments must be taken into account. The Ukrainian Government have been clear that children must not be taken into care without the prior agreement of their authorities; we cannot simply transfer unaccompanied minors to the UK without first securing their authorisation. It may be in the best interests of many children to remain in the region given that it is common for those labelled as orphans by the media who are in the Ukrainian care system to have living parents, and ultimately their Government, whom they are not fleeing, should have the final say on these matters.

We are working urgently, however, with the authorities in Ukraine and Poland to secure the final agreements needed to bring to the UK a group of over 50 Ukrainian children, known as the Dnipro kids, who have escaped the brutal war and are currently in Poland. I recognise that many Members are following that issue closely and have a keen interest in it, and Home Office Ministers will keep the House updated. This is a complex case, and it is absolutely right that we wait for the appropriate checks and written permissions before bringing these children to the UK. The Home Secretary and her counterparts in the Ukrainian, Polish and Scottish Governments are united in their determination to ensure these children get the right support and the care they need.

However, I remind the House that our Ukraine family scheme also provides an immediate pathway for those Ukrainians, including unaccompanied children subject to safeguarding checks, with family already settled in the UK to come to our country. We would expect most children to apply in family groups, such as a parent with a child, but I can assure colleagues that this scheme is designed to allow as many people as possible to come to the UK and to give them immediate access to the support they need. We must do nothing less.

Returning to the Bill, Members will have seen that many amendments were proposed and agreed to during its passage through the other place, including some proposed by the Government. The Government have carefully considered each of the non-Government amendments, and I would like to explain what we have concluded and why. But before doing so, I would like to offer an apology to the House for the late publication of the updated explanatory notes. Manuscript copies of the updated notes have been distributed, but I accept that they should have been published online on Friday, and I am sorry that this did not happen—for that discourtesy I genuinely am apologetic, Mr Speaker.

On amendment 1, relating to access to British overseas territories citizenship and British citizenship for Chagossians, I again place on record my sympathy with the Chagossians for how they were treated in the 1960s and 1970s. I also want to place on record my admiration for the way in which Members from across the House have championed their cause, in particular my hon. Friend the Member for Crawley (Henry Smith), who has been a consistent and tireless advocate on this issue for many years; he has run an exceptional campaign. We have listened carefully to the concerns raised in both Houses and in the Chagossian community on the difficulties faced by Chagossians in accessing British nationality. These difficulties have arisen from the unique historical treatment of those who were removed from the British Indian Ocean Territory in the 1960s and 1970s and the limited recognition of those circumstances in British nationality law. Given that, the Government have concluded it would be appropriate to take action in this Bill, consistent with our other measures designed to correct historical unfairness in nationality law, and will put forward an amendment as such. This will mean there is a new route to British nationality for direct descendants of the Chagossians removed from the British Indian Ocean Territory. In doing that, we are satisfied that the Chagossian diaspora is unique and we are not setting a precedent that would undermine the general principles governing the acquisition of British citizenship by descent. Further details will follow in due course, and I want again to say a huge “Well done and congratulations” to my hon. Friend for helping us to bring about this important change.

This is, I think, at least one small point of agreement, but can the Minister explain why the amendment passed in the House of Lords is not acceptable in that form to the Government, and in particular whether the provision in the amendment that no charge will be made for Chagossians applying for citizenship will be retained somehow?

The direct answer to the hon. Gentleman’s question is that we judged that the amendment tabled in the House of Lords is technically deficient. I can confirm, however, that this route is free and there will be no good character requirement associated with it. We think the way this is presented in response to the Lords amendment is the correct way to progress and that it recognises the broad agreement for this, delivering on precisely what this House and the other place wish to see. I think we can all come together and be very pleased about that.

Amendment 4 removes the clause from the Bill that contains our proposals regarding notification requirements for those who are subject to a deprivation of citizenship decision. Deprivation is necessary to protect the public from those seeking to do serious harm, such as terrorists, or those who acquired their citizenship by fraudulent means. I again emphasise that the underlying deprivation of citizenship power is a century old, is only used in a small number of cases, is never used to target people because of their ethnic or religious background, and always comes with a right of appeal. The changes we want to make do not change any of that. This measure is simply about how we notify someone of the intention to remove their citizenship. It is necessary in order to ensure that we are able to use this power where we cannot contact a person; for example, because they are in a warzone. When contact is made, that person will be able to appeal the deprivation decision as usual.

We have considered very carefully amendments to the deprivation of citizenship clause tabled by Lord Anderson of Ipswich and agreed to in the other place. Lord Anderson’s amendments provide more clarity on the reasons for not giving notice of a deprivation decision, as well as introducing a degree of judicial oversight of the decision not to give notice. We are content that the original intention of the clause is not altered by these amendments, and we are satisfied that the amendments will enable us to protect the rights of the individual while delivering on our security objectives.

I thank the Minister for taking the time to meet me and other colleagues with large ethnic minority communities in their constituencies, such as the Pakistani Kashmiri community that I am proud to have in Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke, and for giving that clarification and accepting the Lords amendments. They will help to ensure that it is made clear to people in that community that they should not fear, despite some of the misinformation produced by certain Members of the House outside the Chamber.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that point and for the engagement I have had with him on these matters throughout the passage of the Bill. I genuinely hope that the amendments in lieu we propose today, which draw on the sensible and reasonable suggestions made by Lord Anderson in the other place, will help to provide reassurance about oversight and the nature of the mechanisms. The way in which some individuals have sought to present the issue in the public narrative is regrettable, but I hope that people will recognise that it is about protecting the British people from high-harm individuals, some of whom are in a war zone and have no regard whatsoever for the harm that they would cause on the streets of our country. We are exceptionally mindful of that. The first responsibility of any British Government is to keep the British people safe. The amendments will help us to do just that.

I entirely support what the Minister is saying. Does he agree that citizenship of this country not only accrues rights but demands responsibilities? When people shy away from those responsibilities and ally themselves with a cultural value set so alien to ours that we cannot even recognise it, that must have consequences.

I agree with my hon. Friend’s assessment that citizenship of this country comes with rights and responsibilities, and with recognition and acceptance of important constitutional principles including the rule of law. Those are all fundamental and central to the way in which our society has developed and is crafted and on which it stands. They are important principles that we all accept are crucial.

For the record, just so that we are all absolutely clear, we on the Government Benches, as elsewhere, strongly support the full integration of every community and British passport holder. The Government amendment will make it absolutely clear above all to Muslims of all places of origin and above all those born and bred in the UK that there is no threat to them whatsoever.