House of Commons
Wednesday 11 May 2022
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
As colleagues will know, the Chair of the Backbench Business Committee is elected each Session. Nominations are now open and will close at 5 pm on Monday 16 May. Nomination forms are available from the Vote Office, the Table Office and the Public Bill Office. Only Members from a party not represented in government may be candidates. Candidates need the support of no fewer than 10 Members from the Government side of the House, and no fewer than 10 Members from a party not represented in Government, or from no party. If there is more than one candidate, the ballot will take place on Wednesday 18 May from 11 am to 2.30 pm in the Aye Lobby.
As Neil Parish has ceased to be a Member of this House, I must declare the Chair of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee vacant and announce arrangements for the election of a new Chair. Nominations are now open and will close at 12 noon on Tuesday 24 May. Nomination forms are available from the Vote Office, the Table Office and the Public Bill Office. Following the House’s decision of 16 January 2020, only Members of the Conservative party may be candidates. If there is more than one candidate, the ballot will take place on Wednesday 25 May from 11 am to 2.30 pm in the Aye Lobby. Briefing notes with more information about each election will be made available in the Vote Office.
Ukraine: UK Military Support
The United Kingdom strongly condemns the appalling, unprovoked attack President Putin has launched on the people of Ukraine. We continue to stand with Ukraine and continue to support its right to be a sovereign, independent and democratic nation.
The United Kingdom and our allies and partners are responding decisively to provide military and humanitarian assistance. This includes weapons that help Ukraine’s heroic efforts to defend itself. We have sent more than 6,900 new anti-tank missiles, known as NLAWs—next-generation light anti-tank weapons—a further consignment of Javelin anti-tank missiles, eight air defence systems, including Starstreak anti-air missiles, 1,360 anti-structure munitions and 4.5 tonnes of plastic explosives.
As Ukraine steadies itself for the next attack, the UK is stepping up efforts to help its defence. As we announced on 26 April, we will be sending 300 more missiles, anti-tank systems, innovative loitering munitions, armoured fighting vehicles and anti-ship systems to stop shelling from Russian ships.
The United Kingdom has confirmed £1.3 billion of new funding for military operations and aid to Ukraine. This includes the £300 million the Prime Minister announced on 3 May for electronic warfare equipment, a counter-battery radar system, GPS jamming equipment and thousands of night-vision devices.
The Ministry of Defence retains the humanitarian assistance taskforce at readiness; its headquarters are at 48-hours readiness, and the remainder of the force can move with five days’ notice, should its assistance be requested. The UK has pledged £220 million of humanitarian aid for Ukraine, which includes granting in kind to the Ukraine armed forces more than 64,000 items of medical equipment from the MOD’s own supplies. We are ensuring that the UK and our security interests are secured and supporting our many allies and partners, especially Ukraine.
The Secretary of State promised to keep the House updated on Ukraine; I am grateful for your help, Mr Speaker, in ensuring that he has done so today with this urgent question. It is the 77th day of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. The United Kingdom is united in condemnation of Russia and in solidarity with Ukraine. From the outset, the Government have had Labour’s full support for military assistance to Ukraine, and we give it again today. There was no mass mobilisation from President Putin on Monday, but we must now expect this conflict to be long and slow. The UK now needs to shift from crisis management of the conflict to delivering the medium-term military support that Ukraine will need for Putin’s next offensive. This means new NATO weapons, instead of Soviet-era equipment. Can I ask the Minister whether the UK has begun supplying NATO stocks to Ukrainian fighters? Will that include artillery, training to form new brigades, and air defence systems? How many Ukrainians have so far been trained by the UK on new NATO-standard weapons?
More than two weeks ago, the Defence Secretary promised to place in the Library an update of the total number of weapons supplied to Ukraine by the UK and western allies. It is not yet there; when will that be done?
Will the Minister spell out the UK’s and NATO’s objectives in supplying this military assistance to Ukraine? For instance, are the Government considering, with allies, maritime support to help trading in and out of the port of Odesa? Who is leading the Government’s new inquiry into UK components that end up in Russian weaponry? Is it still the case, 11 weeks into the conflict, that contracts have not been signed for new UK supplies of next-generation light anti-tank weapons and Starstreak missiles, which have proved vital in Ukraine?
Finally, this week, the head of the British Army said that the Army is too small, despite Conservatives voting down Labour’s motion in this House a year ago to halt further cuts. Will the Minister accept that there was a defence-shaped hole in the Queen’s Speech, and that the Government must now rewrite the integrated review, review defence spending, reform military procurement and rethink Army cuts?
I am grateful to be here answering the shadow Secretary of State’s questions. He will know that the Secretary of State regrets not being here; he is in the United States, continuing discussions with our closest NATO ally about our collective defence. He looks forward to further opportunities to update the House in person.
I put on record that we continue to appreciate Labour’s support on all issues attendant to Ukraine. The right hon. Gentleman rightly reflects on the fact that the invasion of Ukraine is now moving to a long and slow medium-term phase—to a war of attrition in the east, which still incurs a great cost of human life to Ukrainians and the Russian armed forces. We will continue discussions with our Ukrainian allies on the weapons systems and support provided, but fundamentally and overwhelmingly, it is hugely important to meet the requests that come from the Ukrainians themselves. The provision needs to be made in accordance with what they are asking for.
We will see, over the coming years, the wholesale institutional reinvigoration of the Ukrainian armed forces, and I think the United Kingdom will have a proud role at the centre of that institutional rejuvenation. We have been proud to build on our legacy of training involvement; it started in 2014 with the hugely successful Operation Orbital, which trained some 25,000 Ukrainian armed forces. There is a good legacy of joint working that we will continue to take forward.
The right hon. Gentleman asked about providing an update to the Library. Following this urgent question, I will ensure that that is provided with all due haste. He asked about the objectives on security and trade. I think he was hinting at the requirement that the Ukrainians be able to export their hugely significant grain harvest out of Odesa and other ports. Of course, those trade questions are a matter for the Secretary of State for International Trade, but the economic component of our support and our defensive relationship with Ukraine is not lost. There will be a whole package of support that allows Ukraine to flourish as a sovereign territory. This is about not just the reinvestment in the Ukrainian armed forces but the rejuvenation of the economy and the rebuilding of the physical infrastructure of much of the country, which has been heinously destroyed since the commencement of the war on 24 February.
The right hon. Gentleman then made some comments about the size of the British armed forces, and I am happy to answer them directly. Thanks to the £24-billion uplift in defence spending, we are in good shape and in good size. We have what we need to deliver the effect that we need; we are a threat-led organisation. We are agile and mobile and we are more lethal than ever before.
The integrated review was proved right by the invasion of Ukraine, in the sense that we need a military that can project power around the globe and that can use loitering munitions, drones and other forms of munitions delivery, which are not so much about the close-quarter fight. We have more money than ever before and we are in good shape, but of course we keep all those things under review. I reiterate my expectation that the Secretary of State will be pleased to have an opportunity in the near future to keep the House informed of our discussions with our Ukrainian allies and the US.
Putin’s war has displayed the woeful inadequacy of the Russian military. However, one thing it has that we do not is hypersonic missiles, which it has used against Mykolaiv and now Odesa. Does the Minister regard that as a gap in our defence matériel, and if he does, what measures is he taking to stop that gap, perhaps with reference to the AUKUS—Australia, the United States and the United Kingdom—treaty and the possibility of a joint programme with our two great allies?
My right hon. and gallant Friend makes a very good point: we have seen the woeful inadequacy of the Russian military. I do not know whether he was able to listen to the Defence Secretary’s speech at the National Army Museum earlier this week, but it laid out the operational failings at all levels across the Russian army that have so painfully resulted in such significant casualties. He makes an interesting point about hypersonic missiles. I will not speculate at the Dispatch Box about future capabilities. However, a lot of this sort of work is done in Farnborough in my constituency by the defence industry there, and my right hon. Friend can rest assured that at the very heart of our defence proposition in the integrated review is energetic and significant investment in cutting-edge defensive technologies.
The Minister mentioned 300 additional missiles, but what can he tell us about the capability we are extending to the Ukrainians with anti-ship missiles? He deflected the grain exports issues to his colleague the Secretary of State for International Trade. Of course, we are not talking about treaties or grain prices; we are talking about the safety of ships going in and out of Ukraine. Can he expand on that a little bit more seriously?
On 3 May, the UK Government pledged an additional £300 million in military aid to Ukraine, and the Secretary of State has advised the House that the Government has given £200 million to date. Can the Minister confirm that apparent £500 million figure? It has also emerged that the Secretary of State for Defence has warned the Chancellor of the Exchequer that the UK risks falling short, as soon as 2025, of its NATO commitment to spending 2% of GDP on defence, due to the compound effect of inflation and supplying armaments to Ukraine. Could the Minister respond on that, and on the Ministry’s ambition to control that by redoubling its efforts to minimise waste?
What discussions has the Minister had with our NATO and other international allies about the worry that Putin and his regime will resort to the use of chemical weapons and worse on civilian targets in Ukraine?
The hon. Member asks a series of interesting questions. I have referred to the anti-ship systems; I take the point made on that. It is in a public source that the Brimstone capability has been deployed, and we regard that as a highly potent system. I think that will provide some security. He rightly makes the point that that links to the ability of the Ukrainians to export their not inconsiderable grain supplies. I will engage with the Secretary of State for International Trade, but this matter is firmly within the focus of the matrix of military support that we provide to the Ukrainians.
Yes, I know. This is on the economic element of the issue, and it is, of course, meeting the Ukrainians’ own request. We are not telling the Ukrainians what to do—it is their operation—but the economic side, including grain provision and the security attendant on that, is something on which we are seeking to support them.
The hon. Member mentioned our commitment to the NATO standard of spending 2% on defence, and of course that is being challenged by inflation. We keep that constantly under review. He invites me to comment, or to lobby the Treasury from the Dispatch Box, and I will resist that temptation. However, I think he can be reassured that we have shown an absolute commitment to putting our money where our mouth is when it comes to defence investment, supporting our allies and maintaining our commitment to NATO. We invested that £1.3 billion because of that, and we will keep it under review.
The hon. Member raised the question of whether President Putin might commit atrocities of a chemical nature. I will not speculate on what course of action the Russian President may choose, but the international community’s resolve since the illegal invasion on 24 February shows that he will be held to account, and that there will be no tolerance of any chemical atrocity. We hope that in due course, after this phase of operations and with our support, the Ukrainians will allow the collection of evidence of all Russian atrocities, so that Putin and his cronies can be held to account in the International Criminal Court.
As the Ukrainians retake their territory, there is an urgent need for kit to repair roads and bridges, so that they can get equipment and troops to the frontline. Can we supply any temporary bridges and other hardware to help in this important work?
My hon. Friend makes a very good point. The rebuilding challenge to be completed by our Ukrainian friends, supported by allies, will be huge. The rebuilding of infrastructure will cost billions of dollars. I think that we will be supporting that effort from the Government side, and I am sure that there will be many private sector opportunities. Bridges will be involved in that infrastructure effort.
That is an extremely pertinent question. The answer is yes. Of course, there are other centres of excellence around the world; the Estonians, for example, know a great deal about countering the Russian cyber-threat. We must understand and be aware that the collective western response is not just about positioning large, static forces of men and women in military units; it is also about ensuring that Ukraine and her allies are afforded a robust cyber-defence.
I thank the Minister for his statement and for the work that he is doing. We are fortunate to have excellent Ministers leading the Defence Department. NATO continues to be the bedrock of our collective security, and I welcome the steps to deploy more troops to eastern Europe. Does my hon. Friend agree that we must step up co-operation with our friends in NATO, as well as with other European allies? I note that today the Prime Minister is in Finland and Sweden. Does he agree that, in the face of Russian aggression, it is vital that we support our European allies?
I agree entirely with that analysis. That is why the Defence Secretary is today in the US—our hugely significant NATO ally. We have continued our work with the joint expeditionary force of amphibian, beer drinking nations of northern Europe, and we are delighted about the Prime Minister’s trip.
On the position of Finland and Sweden, they will choose their own path—NATO is an alliance that waits for people to ask to become members; it does not go around proselytising—but the way in which we have worked closely with such nations in the JEF, and their possible interest in NATO, shows the importance and resolve of the NATO alliance. We are much stronger together, because we have many friends. That is why Russia is much weaker: because it has no allies.
Decisions about military support to Ukraine are inevitably taken in the context of the state and the size of our armed forces. I am sure that the Minister is a regular reader of Soldier magazine; has he seen the Chief of the General Staff’s comments expressing concern about the size of the Army? He is right, isn’t he?
We are a threat-led organisation. As a result of the £24 billion uplift in defence spending, we are in good shape, in good size and more lethal, more mobile and more agile than ever before. Of course, we keep the situation under review but, in a nutshell, I think that the invasion of Ukraine has proved the integrated review right.
My hon. and gallant Friend the Minister will know that weapons and military equipment can only be used if troops are trained effectively to use them, so can he outline what avenues he is exploring to continue to provide the military training necessary for Ukrainian troops to counter Russian attacks, as they have been doing so admirably?
My hon. Friend makes a very good point. Those discussions are ongoing. We will be guided by what the Ukrainians themselves want, but I think we are all encouraged by the legacy of close co-operation born out of Operation Orbital, running since 2014 and training some 25,000 Ukrainian troops. So I foresee a very bright future for very close operational and training working between ourselves and the magnificent and courageous Ukrainian armed forces.
May I associate myself and my party with the strong support for Ukraine that has been expressed by the Minister and the shadow Secretary of State? Last month, I raised with the Secretary of State the issue of the deadly legacy being left by retreating Russian forces in parts of Ukraine, namely, lethal landmines. Can I press the Minister? What equipment has been sent to Ukraine at this stage and will advice be offered along with that equipment?
I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising that issue. Those discussions are ongoing and we will be guided by requests from our Ukrainian friends, but we have a significant body of unique expertise in this country primarily because of our two-decade involvement in operational soldiering in the middle east. Some third sector organisations in this country, such as the HALO Trust and others, have, often born of military experience, conducted hugely impressive de-mining operations in the far east and the middle east. I think that is a significant body of experience that we might be able to offer up to our Ukrainian friends. The mines used by Russian forces demonstrate, if anyone was in any doubt, the casual disregard for civilian life that the Russians are so regrettably and so callously displaying in Ukraine.
I strongly welcome the Minister’s update on the UK’s continued support for Ukraine with the supply of more weapons today. Can my hon. Friend confirm that the type of equipment we provide will evolve as circumstances demand, as the situation is developing, unfortunately, into a war of attrition? Can he further confirm that our commitment will continue for as long as it takes for Putin to fail, as he must?
My hon. Friend makes a very good point. I can confirm that the provision of equipment will evolve. I regard all the provision we have made as defensive, because this is absolutely a defensive war: it is a sovereign state defending its sovereign territory very courageously. I should also point out that alongside the kit it is about the provision of training and doctrine. Ukrainians are experts in how to fight, but it is the training, the doctrine and the ability to join up operations in all domains—in which the Ukrainians have displayed a remarkable facility—that are important. I foresee a long and significant defence relationship in terms of equipment, but also a very important defence relationship in terms of shared training, doctrine and mobilisation with our Ukrainian friends.
The Minister says there is sufficiency within the armed forces. However, we are in peacekeeping operations and security operations. We are not in combat in Ukraine. Therefore, if there is an escalation of risk, whether in Ukraine or as a result of food shortage elsewhere around the globe, that is seriously going to challenge our capability, is it not?
Our armed forces are more mobile, deployable and agile than ever before. That is what will meet the threats that we face, and that is what the integrated review got right. Our support to Ukraine has been very small in terms of mass, but—on the hon. Lady’s question about our armed forces’ readiness, or capacity, to react to future threats globally—she should be reassured that, thanks to the £24 billion uplift in defence spending, we are in good shape. We do not want large bodies of men and women sitting in barracks; we want them deployable, ready, lethal and agile.
I want to ask the Minister about policy resilience. We heard from him that the level of support to Ukraine will continue, but for how long will it continue, particularly if the conflict goes from months into years and becomes an attritional campaign? Also, is that view and stance shared by all our other allies?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his question; he pays close attention to these matters. We have all been clear that our support to Ukraine will, I expect, last many years. We have had a very close defence relationship since 2014. We are moving to a phase of the campaign that is attritional and will be continued at tragic and significant cost to the Russian state. We cannot speculate about how long that might last, but we must be prepared for it to last for a very long time.
We should be reassured by the fact that we and our allies across western Europe have the resolve to see this through, because apart from kit and equipment, resolve is the key ingredient to a successful military campaign. We have all observed how the Russian armed forces are completely absent in terms of the moral element. I would be reassured by the fact that, throughout NATO and our military and diplomatic alliances in western Europe, that resolve is shared, and we are much stronger because we are part of an amazing alliance. Our position is different from that of Russia because it has very few friends.
The humanitarian support that the Minister mentioned includes how we welcome Ukrainian people who want sanctuary. A constituent of mine is sponsoring a family of five. The first visa was approved on 13 April and the fifth visa took until 9 May. Those delays are inexcusable and impossible to understand for those applying or for the public in this country. Will he again raise with his colleagues across Government the importance of getting this right and offering that welcome in a timely and humanitarian way?
The Minister talks about the agility of the British Army, but do we not also need some agility in the thinking of Defence Ministers? It is clear that the integrated review was written with a very different world in mind. It almost entirely overlooked the threat of war in Europe, and we have seen in our history the danger of being complacent. I worry that the hubris of Ministers in defending that integrated review will prevent them from showing the agility to change, now that the threat has changed. Will he think again about the decision to cut 10,000 more of our troops, which the CGS is concerned about, and the decision on Challenger tanks, and make sure that we can deal with whatever threat faces us?
I contest the hon. Gentleman’s characterisation of the integrated review. He will know from reading it that Russia as a threat is, first and foremost, contained in the analysis of the integrated review, so it was alive to the threat on the European mainland. We retain agility of thought across the ministerial team. We are a threat-led organisation. We will continue to keep our defence posture under review, but thanks to the £24 billion uplift, we are in good shape.
I commend the Minister for the amount of humanitarian and military aid going to Ukraine, but what assessment has he made of the Ukrainians’ capacity to distribute that humanitarian aid effectively, and of the Ukrainian army’s ability to get that equipment into the theatre effectively, and its skills and capacity to use it effectively?
That is an interesting pair of questions. When it comes to the robustness and the organisational ability of the Ukrainian armed forces and humanitarian forces, we have been reassured and amazed by their resilience and by the extent to which they have maintained their integrity in their operational capability, so we should be confident that all support that we provide, whether it be defensive lethal aid or humanitarian aid, is reaching its required destination.
The UN has said that the Ukrainian death toll is likely to be much higher than the 3,381 so far confirmed. What support is the UK offering to help Ukraine to retrieve and count its dead and ensure that families are informed where possible?
We will, of course, afford all help that we can following requests from Ukraine. We should put it on record that we are expectant that the Ukrainians, with our support if required, will do a very thorough job of gathering all relevant evidence of Russian atrocities—especially against innocent civilians, women and children—in order that Putin and his cronies are held to account very firmly and in good order in front of the International Criminal Court.
From Saturday until yesterday morning, I had the opportunity to be in Poland and see some of the things that the Polish nation is doing for Ukrainian refugees. It is good that, whenever we speak to Foreign Ministers there, they tell us that the people of the United Kingdom and their Government have been exceptionally helpful. I want to put it on the record that that came straight from the ministerial Department.
In the light of the suggestion from US intelligence that Putin is bedding in for the long haul, will the Minister make it clear that our military aid, including anti-tank missiles and supplies from Belfast and my constituency of Strangford, will also be available for the long haul, along with the humanitarian aid that is very important for the victims of Putin’s oppression, aggression and violence?
I can absolutely give the hon. Gentleman that reassurance. What I think is unique about the nations supporting Ukraine is their collective resolve and our absolutely firm determination to see this through for the long term, however many years that may be.
Jim Fitton: Detention in Iraq
I point out to the House that the scope of this urgent question is narrow, focusing on one particular case. I am therefore not expecting hon. Members to raise broader unrelated issues. I expect proceedings on this question to last for roughly 20 minutes. I hope that hon. Members will bear that in mind when considering whether to seek to catch my eye.
I thank the hon. Lady for raising this important case. I recognise that this is a very distressing time for Mr Fitton and his family. I would also like to reassure hon. Members that consular officials continue to maintain contact with Mr Fitton and his family—indeed, they met his family this morning—and we liaise with his lawyers to provide consular assistance. Since his arrest in March, consular officials have visited Mr Fitton on four occasions.
We understand the urgency and the concerns that Mr Fitton and his family have. We cannot, of course, interfere or seek to interfere with the judicial process of another country, just as we would not expect interference in our own judicial process. That said, the British ambassador in Baghdad has raised and will continue to raise Mr Fitton’s case with the Iraqi Government. That includes raising with the authorities the UK’s strong opposition to the death penalty, in the context of both its potential application to Mr Fitton and our in-principle opposition to it in all instances.
Thank you for granting the urgent question, Mr Speaker.
I am deeply concerned by the nature of the Foreign Office’s engagement with my constituent’s case. Jim is a 66-year-old geologist. He is sitting in a cell in Iraq, he has missed his daughter’s wedding and he potentially faces the death penalty. His family are worried sick. Nearly a quarter of a million people have signed a petition urging the Government to help Jim, whose lawyer believes that representations from the British Government could make a huge difference to his case, but I am afraid the Government give the impression that they are not particularly interested or worried. Ministerial engagement has been slow: it took 10 days for the Minister’s private office to inform me that a meeting with Jim’s family was not on the cards.
Jim is days now away from a trial. We are told that the Government will not be making crucial representations to the Iraqi Government. I understand that the German Government are making representations on behalf of one of their nationals who has been detained with Jim; why will the Foreign Office not do the same?
I hope that the Minister will be able to answer these key questions. Jim’s trial is fast approaching. Will the Minister meet me and Jim’s family before the trial, and before it is too late? Will he commit himself to making representations to his Iraqi counterpart, as the German authorities are doing? This matter has implications far beyond Jim’s case; it fits into a concerning pattern of the UK Government’s failing to do enough for its citizens abroad. Can the Minister clarify his view of the role of the Foreign Office in supporting British citizens who run foul of legal injustice and draconian laws abroad, as has happened in Jim’s case? Will he commit himself to a root-and-branch review of the way in which the Foreign Office responds to situations such as this?
British citizens deserve the help of the British Government. Jim Fitton is potentially facing the death penalty. I urge Ministers to do everything they can to stop this nightmare before it turns into a tragedy.
I completely reject the hon. Lady’s assertions about the role of the British Government in this case, and in other consular cases. Let me remind the House of the facts, with your indulgence, Mr Speaker: I do think it is worth going into this in detail.
On 23 March, shortly after Mr Fitton’s arrest, consular officials visited him in detention. On 4 April, consular officials visited him again. On 10 April, the British ambassador to Iraq raised his case with the Iraqi authorities. On 25 April, consular officials visited Mr Fitton in detention again. On 1 May, the British embassy sent a note verbale to the Iraqi Government on Mr Fitton’s case. On the same date, and on 8 May, the British ambassador again raised the issue of Mr Fitton’s case with the Iraqi Government. Also on 8 May, consular officials visited Mr Fitton in detention. On 10 May, the British ambassador again raised Mr Fitton’s case with the Iraqi officials. On 11 May—just today, as I said—the family met our expert consular officials.
We do these things not because cases are raised in the House, but because they are the right things to do. I am proud of the work done both by our officials in Iraq and by the consular team in the UK to support individuals who have been arrested and their families. We will of course continue to raise this case with the Iraqi officials, we will of course continue to liaise with Mr Fitton and his family, and we will continue to support British nationals in incarceration around the globe.
Mr Fitton is not my constituent, but a large number of his family and friends live in the village of Box, just outside Bath.
I have two caveats. First, I entirely accept the Minister’s injunction that this is not a matter for the British Government and must come under the Iraqi judicial system; that is perfectly correct. Secondly, ancient relics are extremely important to the Iraqi Government, particularly post Saddam Hussein. I also, incidentally, reject much of what the hon. Member for Bath (Wera Hobhouse) had to say about the consular service in general. In my experience it is outstandingly good, and it is quite wrong to attack it in general because of this particular case.
That said, we have here an elderly—he is a little younger than me, but none the less elderly—scientist who inadvertently picked up a couple of shards in Iraq: a very minor offence in our terms, albeit an important one with regard to Iraq. He is facing a very long prison sentence or possibly a death sentence, so I want to hear from the Minister that he will absolutely commit himself to doing whatever we can through the consular service, particularly by providing English-speaking lawyers and English-speaking support of one kind or another to try to either get him off or at least mitigate the sentence that he will have to face.
I thank my hon. Friend for his kind remarks about the professionalism of the Foreign Office’s consular team. They deal with incredibly difficult and sensitive issues regularly. I can assure him that we will continue to work tirelessly to bring this case to the attention of our opposite numbers in the Iraqi Government. As I have said, it would be wrong for us to attempt to distort their legal process but we will of course help Mr Fitton’s family to secure legal representation, including English-speaking legal representation, to give him the proper ability to defend himself in this instance.
I would like to congratulate the hon. Member for Bath (Wera Hobhouse) on securing this urgent question today and on her tireless advocacy on behalf of her constituent, Jim Fitton. My thoughts are with Mr Fitton and his family, and I would like to echo the concerns raised by colleagues across the House. In March, Mr Fitton, a British citizen and retired geologist, was arrested in Iraq on a charge that carries the death penalty. He remains detained. As we have heard, he was part of a tour group visiting Iraq on an organised geology and archaeology trip. During the tour, the group picked up some broken fragments of stone and pottery from the ground. The fragments were out in the open, unprotected, and without nearby signage warning against their removal. Members of the tour were told that they could take the fragments as a souvenir as they held no economic or historical value. Mr Fitton’s family have made it clear that, as a retired geologist, he would never in any way intend to disrespect or appropriate the rich and fascinating culture of the region; rather, he would celebrate it.
However, Mr Fitton awaits a trial date for sentencing, which is expected imminently. The window for intervention from the Foreign Office is therefore narrowing. Urgent Government action is needed, and the lack of engagement from Ministers is creating frustration for everyone who wishes to see the situation resolved. The Foreign Office needs to do everything it can to protect British citizens who are wrongfully detained abroad. I hear what the Minister has said about the consular support that has already been provided, but I would like to ask him what efforts the FCDO is urgently taking on behalf of Mr Fitton not only to secure a high-level meeting with judicial officials in Iraq regarding legal representation in order to resolve the case, but to engage with Mr Fitton’s family. Does he share my concern that dragging his feet in cases such as these is resulting in public trust in the Government’s commitment to protecting British citizens wrongfully detained abroad being profoundly impacted? As each day passes, this case becomes more serious and I urge the Government to take the necessary steps to allow Jim to be reunited with his family before it is too late.
The FCDO visited Mr Fitton in detention on 23 March. He was arrested on 21 March. The hon. Gentleman, who knows I have a huge amount of respect for him, is frankly talking nonsense when he talks about dragging our feet. We visited Mr Fitton in detention within days of his arrest, and we have visited him three times since then. As I have said, we have interacted with the ambassador to the Iraqi Government on more than weekly occasions on this issue. I completely reject the hon. Gentleman’s assertion about the British Government’s engagement on this issue. We are deeply engaged with this issue, and we will remain deeply engaged with this issue. As I have said, it would be completely inappropriate for us to seek to distort the Iraqi legal process, but we will continue to support Mr Fitton in his legal defence of the case against him, and we will continue to support his family through what we completely understand is a deeply distressing time.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Bath (Wera Hobhouse), my near neighbour, on raising the case of her constituent. I accept that the Government cannot interfere directly in matters of this sort, but will the Minister understand that the mechanics of the criminal justice systems of other jurisdictions are not necessarily the same as we would expect in the United Kingdom? Will he contrast the approach to this problem by the UK Government with that of Germany, which appears to be far more involved at ministerial level?
I previously held the brief for the middle east and north Africa, as did my right hon. Friend, and he will know that the UK enjoys a very close and strong relationship with the Iraqi Government at both ministerial and official levels. I completely understand his point about Iraq’s judicial system being dissimilar to our own, but we must respect the judicial systems operated by other countries. We completely understand the concern of Mr Fitton and his family, and we will continue to engage as intensively as we already have to ensure that he receives a fair trial and has good legal representation. We do these things not because of questions in the House but because we believe they are the right thing for the UK Government to do to support British nationals overseas.
I welcome this urgent question from the hon. Member for Bath (Wera Hobhouse) precisely because action is not happening on the ground, notwithstanding the Minister’s reassurances.
This is an unimaginably anxious and distressing time for Jim Fitton and his family, and I would like to send a message of support to them all on behalf of the SNP. Sadly, we know the FCDO does not have the strongest track record on ensuring the safe and swift release of UK nationals from foreign detention. The FCDO must intervene now, using every diplomatic avenue, to prevent the Iraqi authorities from sentencing Mr Fitton to death.
It is wholly disproportionate that Mr Fitton faces a potential death penalty for the removal of protected fragments of artefacts. His family have stated that FCDO Ministers are yet to lobby their Iraqi counterparts against issuing a death sentence. Is this true? If so, why is urgent action not being taken to safeguard a UK national? Finally, what is the FCDO doing to secure Mr Fitton’s urgent release?
I will not simply refer the hon. Gentleman to my previous answers, but when I have listed the British embassy’s intensive engagement at the most senior levels with the Iraqi Government, including through a note verbale, it is a complete perversion of the situation for hon. Members to say that the UK Government have not engaged. We completely understand the concerns of both Mr Fitton and his family. We will continue to support him and them through this incredibly difficult time, and we will continue to engage with the Iraqi Government to ensure the right outcome for Mr Fitton, but we cannot, should not and would not seek to distort Iraq’s legal system, as we would not accept that happening to us.
I pay tribute to and thank the hon. Member for Bath (Wera Hobhouse) for her work on this case. I express my support and solidarity with Jim Fitton’s family.
Nothing is more important than consular services to support those facing injustice abroad. Jim Fitton’s sister, Ruth, is my constituent, and she approached me over the May bank holiday to set out the situation that Jim and the family are currently experiencing. I wrote to the Foreign Secretary twice that afternoon, and I have yet to receive a response. I gently suggest to the Minister that his claims of urgency are certainly not reflected in the response, or lack thereof, I have experienced. I wrote to the Foreign Secretary to implore her to take action, and I have had no response, even though I made it very clear that we are in a perilous situation and that the trial date could be set for this week—I understand it will now be 15 May.
I support all the questions that have been asked by hon. Members on both sides of the House. Surely advocacy for a British citizen is not interference in another country’s legal system. The family’s lawyers are responsible for the legal case, and all the family are asking the FCDO to do is to endorse that case. Will the FCDO please give us a single point of contact—somebody that we and the family can liaise with—so that we are kept up to date on what is happening?
The family have a point of contact within the consular system. The hon. Gentleman says that he wrote to the Foreign Secretary in May. Prior to his correspondence, we had already visited Mr Fitton in detention three times, we had raised his case with the Iraqi authorities and we had issued a note verbale.
I thank the Minister for his response. What steps have been taken to assess the adequacy of the food, exercise and light to which Mr Fitton has access? What steps are the UK Government taking, if possible with the Iraqi Government, to secure his release back to the UK under some system where he can then have access to his family?
The hon. Gentleman raises a valid point. As part of our regular visits to Mr Fitton, we ensure that his circumstances remain humane and appropriate. We give advice on the remand system, on what privileges he might expect, and on social and welfare services. We also, of course, seek to ensure that he gets proper English language representation. Those are the things we will continue to do to support him through a case that, as a number of right hon. and hon. Members have mentioned, has not yet gone to trial.
I thank the Minister for coming to the Chamber today to respond to this UQ. What constructive action can the Government take to put pressure on Iraq to secure Jim’s safe release or, at the very least, to have the abhorrent threat of the death penalty taken off the table immediately?
As I say, in all our interactions with not just Iraq, but all countries that have the death penalty, we ensure that when we speak on this issue we highlight that we have an in-principle opposition to the death penalty. We will continue to make it clear to the Iraqis that we oppose the imposition of the death penalty, both in Mr Fitton’s case and more generally. On support to his legal team, ultimately it would not be appropriate for the UK Government to take on a “quasi” role as legal representatives, but we will of course ensure that Mr Fitton does have appropriate and professional legal representation, in a language that he can understand.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bath (Wera Hobhouse) on raising this matter. There is a difference between consular support and ministerial support. My question to the Minister is: what is the point in all these visits if then when there are opportunities to actually do something useful, it does not get done? For example, Jim’s lawyer sought to refer the case to the court of secession, as doing so would have, in effect, thrown the case out. At that moment, a supportive letter from the Minister would have made all the difference, yet it did not happen. Why?
The hon. Lady is fundamentally wrong in her assertion. Our consular staff are the experts in this field. It is right that, whether it be the ambassadorial team in Baghdad or the consular team here in the UK, we apply the technical experts to problems such as this. That is exactly what we have done.
The Minister mentioned in an earlier answer that there was a direct line for the family to contact officials. Will he confirm that that is an open line for the family to contact whenever they seek reassurance, as opposed to a line of reporting back on the Government’s actions?
As I have highlighted, our consular team are in regular contact with the family and had a meeting with them just today. I have no doubt that our team will continue to work with them. We recognise just how concerning this situation is and how fearful they will be because of these circumstances. Our consular team are experts in dealing with families in circumstances such as these, and I have no doubt that they will continue to liaise closely with Mr Fitton’s family.
Mr Fitton is clearly not my constituent, but his former colleague Mark Smith is, and Mr Smith is bereft at his plight. Will the Minister impress on the Iraqi authorities the fact that Mr Fitton is far from some profiteering treasure hunter but is instead a deeply respectful accredited academic who would never disrespect Iraq or its artefacts? Will the Minister confirm that the Government will use all channels to try to impress on the Iraqi authorities the need for the most expedient and increased leniency in this case?
I assure the hon. Gentleman that the UK Government, at every level, always seek to take the actions that we believe will best benefit British nationals overseas. I assure him that the level of engagement I have outlined in my answers will set the pattern for our continued engagement. We will of course seek to ensure that the legal process is conducted absolutely properly and that we support Mr Fitton and his family through our consular services throughout this incredibly concerning process.
Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill
Presentation and resumption of proceedings (Standing Order No. 80A)
Secretary Nadhim Zahawi, supported by the Prime Minister, Secretary Dominic Raab, Steve Barclay, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Secretary Priti Patel, Secretary Michael Gove, Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng, Alok Sharma, the Attorney General and Michelle Donelan, presented a Bill to make provision in relation to freedom of speech and academic freedom in higher education institutions and in students’ unions; and for connected purposes.
Bill read the First and Second time without Question put (Standing Order No. 80A and Order, 25 April); to be considered tomorrow, and to be printed (Bill 1) with explanatory notes (Bill 1-EN).
Animal Welfare (Kept Animals) Bill
Presentation and resumption of proceedings (Standing Order No. 80A)
Secretary George Eustice, supported by the Prime Minister, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Steve Barclay, Secretary Anne-Marie Trevelyan, Secretary Alister Jack and Victoria Prentis, presented a Bill to make provision about the welfare of certain kept animals that are in, imported into, or exported from Great Britain, and for connected purposes.
Bill read the First and Second time without Question put (Standing Order No. 80A and Order, 25 April); to be considered tomorrow, and to be printed (Bill 2) with explanatory notes (Bill 2-EN).
Product Security and Telecommunications Infrastructure Bill
Presentation and resumption of proceedings (Standing Order No. 80A)
Secretary Nadine Dorries, supported by the Prime Minister, Secretary Dominic Raab, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Secretary Michael Gove, Steve Barclay and Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng, presented a Bill to make provision about the security of internet-connectable products and products capable of connecting to such products; to make provision about electronic communications infrastructure; and for connected purposes.
Bill read the First and Second time without Question put (Standing Order No. 80A and Order, 26 January); to be considered tomorrow, and to be printed (Bill 3) with explanatory notes (Bill 3-EN).
Online Safety Bill
Presentation and resumption of proceedings (Standing Order No. 80A)
Secretary Nadine Dorries, supported by the Prime Minister, Secretary Dominic Raab, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Secretary Priti Patel, Secretary Sajid Javid, Chris Philp, Julia Lopez and Mr Damian Hinds, presented a Bill to make provision for and in connection with the regulation by OFCOM of certain internet services; for and in connection with communications offences; and for connected purposes.
Bill read the First and Second time without Question put, and stood committed to a Public Bill Committee (Standing Order No. 80A and Order, 19 April); to be printed (Bill 4) with explanatory notes (Bill 4-EN).
High Speed Rail (Crewe - Manchester) Bill
Presentation and resumption of proceedings (Standing Order No. 80A)
Secretary Grant Shapps, supported by the Prime Minister, Secretary Dominic Raab, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Secretary Priti Patel, Secretary Michael Gove and Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng, presented a Bill to make provision for a railway between a junction with Phase 2a of High Speed 2 south of Crewe in Cheshire and Manchester Piccadilly Station; for a railway between Hoo Green in Cheshire and a junction with the West Coast Main Line at Bamfurlong, south of Wigan; and for connected purposes.
Bill read the First time without Question put (Standing Order No. 80A and Order, 25 April); to be read a Second time tomorrow, and to be printed (Bill 5) with explanatory notes (Bill 5-EN).
Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill
Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)
Secretary Michael Gove, supported by the Prime Minister, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng, Secretary George Eustice and Steve Barclay, presented a Bill to make provision for the setting of levelling-up missions and reporting on progress in delivering them; about local democracy; about town and country planning; about Community Infrastructure Levy; about the imposition of Infrastructure Levy; about environmental outcome reports for certain consents and plans; about regeneration; about the compulsory purchase of land; about information and records relating to land, the environment or heritage; for the provision for pavement licences to be permanent; about governance of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors; about vagrancy and begging; and for connected purposes.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time tomorrow, and to be printed (Bill 6) with explanatory notes (Bill 6-EN).
National Security Bill
Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)
Secretary Priti Patel, supported by the Prime Minister, Secretary Dominic Raab, Steve Barclay, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Secretary Elizabeth Truss, Michael Ellis and Damian Hinds, presented a Bill to make provision about threats to national security from espionage, sabotage and persons acting for foreign powers; about the extra-territorial application of Part 2 of the Serious Crime Act 2007; about the award of damages in proceedings relating to national security and the payment of damages at risk of being used for the purposes of terrorism; about the availability of legal aid to persons connected with terrorism; and for connected purposes.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time tomorrow, and to be printed (Bill 7) with explanatory notes (Bill 7-EN).
Public Order Bill
Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)
Secretary Priti Patel, supported by the Prime Minister, Secretary Dominic Raab, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng, Secretary Grant Shapps, the Attorney General and Kit Malthouse, presented a Bill to make provision for new offences relating to public order; to make provision about stop and search powers; to make provision about the delegation of police functions relating to public order; to make provision about serious disruption prevention orders; and for connected purposes.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time tomorrow, and to be printed (Bill 8) with explanatory notes (Bill 8-EN).
Trade (Australia and New Zealand) Bill
Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)
Secretary Priti Patel, supported by the Prime Minister, Secretary Elizabeth Truss, Secretary Brandon Lewis, Secretary Alister Jack and Secretary Simon Hart, presented a Bill to enable the implementation of, and the making of other provision in connection with, the government procurement Chapters of the United Kingdom’s free trade agreements with Australia and New Zealand.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time tomorrow, and to be printed (Bill 9) with explanatory notes (Bill 9-EN).
Debate on the Address
Debate resumed (Order, 10 May).
Question again proposed.
That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, as follows:
Most Gracious Sovereign,
We, Your Majesty’s most dutiful and loyal subjects, the Commons of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, in Parliament assembled, beg leave to offer our humble thanks to Your Majesty for the Gracious Speech which was addressed to both Houses of Parliament.
Preventing Crime and Delivering Justice
It is an honour to open today’s Queen’s Speech debate on behalf of Her Majesty’s Government.
Keeping citizens safe is the first duty of any Government and, although it is not the only duty, meeting every other duty depends on it. Whenever fear and crime flourish, people cannot, and nor can our economy or our democracy. The Conservative party is the party of law and order. Unlike some, we understand that freedom includes the freedom of the law-abiding majority to go about their business free from harm. Those on the Opposition Benches are eager to defend the murderers, paedophiles, rapists, thugs and people with no right to be here. They cheer on selfish protestors who cause chaos and endanger lives. They back people who thwart the removal of foreign national offenders from our country.
In the last Session, opposition parties voted against the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill and the measures to stop the likes of Insulate Britain ruining the lives of ordinary working people going about their daily business.
I will not give way. The right hon. Lady will have the chance to speak shortly.
Opposition parties voted against tougher sentences for killer drivers, greater powers to monitor terrorists, and an end to the automatic release of dangerous criminals. They are much less curious about the rights of everyone else to go about their everyday business free from molestation. It amazes me that the Labour party dares to hold a debate on crime just after having voted against the PCSC Bill. If Labour Members really cared, they would have backed the Bill.
This Government and this party back the police, our intelligence and security services and the law-abiding majority. We have reformed the criminal justice system so that it better supports victims and ensures that criminals are not only caught, but punished.
I will give way shortly.
While the right hon. Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper) voted repeatedly against boosting police funding, we have given the police the investment they need. An increase of £1.1 billion has taken the spending to nearly £17 billion a year.
I am very grateful to the Home Secretary for giving way. I want to engage not in the to and fro on which she started her contribution, but on a subject where I think there is unity across the House, which is in the fight against economic crime. Does she agree that if we are to be effective in fighting economic crime, we must have measures that introduce better transparency, that properly fund our enforcement agencies, because, at the moment, they are not fit for purpose, and that also hold to account the enablers of economic crime for the actions that they take?
The right hon. Lady is absolutely right. I will come onto the forthcoming economic crime Bill, which speaks very specifically not just about how we do better and more, but how we target our resources to stamp out fraud and go after the permissive environment and the individuals who occupy that space and commit the most appalling economic crimes.
Since I became Home Secretary, an additional 13,500 police officers have been recruited. We are well on the way to our target of 20,000 more police officers by next March. Following the incredible response to our public consultation—
I am extremely grateful to the Home Secretary for giving way. May I reinforce the cross-party nature of what the right hon. Member for Barking (Dame Margaret Hodge) has just said? She will know that the right hon. Lady and I have done quite a lot in the House to support the points that she has just made. I very much hope that, when the right moment comes in the economic crime Bill, she will listen carefully to the work that has already been done to try to reinforce the very point that she has just made.
My right hon. Friend is correct on this. I know that, for many years, he has been a champion of many of the reforms, some of which have been put in place. We have had part 1—the Economic Crime (Transparency and Enforcement) Act 2022 and sanctions—but the next Bill will also tackle Companies House and many of the wider issues that have been raised.
The Home Secretary has talked about the extra 13,000 officers recruited across the UK. It perhaps helps to break the figures down. Cheshire has had 189 new officers, and we are seeing results from those additional recruits. There has been a striking improvement in the number of arrests in relation to child abuse cases. Those officers increased from 10 to 46, and last month, we saw 28 extra arrests in Cheshire. Does she agree that that sort of increase makes a significant difference? It is not just about having fluorescent jackets on the streets; it is about the work of investigators tackling terrible crimes such as child abuse.
My hon. Friend is right. There are a number of points to make on that. I know that the Minister for Crime and Policing recently visited that team. First and foremost, when it comes to the most appalling crimes of child abuse and sexual exploitation, a number of significant measures were passed through Parliament in the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, including tougher sentences, which, as I have already said, the Labour party voted against.
Let me make a bit more progress.
Following the incredible response to our public consultation, we published the violence against women and girls strategy. The Government have passed the Domestic Abuse Act 2021 and launched the multi-year “Enough” campaign to challenge and change misogynistic attitudes. These are terrible crimes that disproportionately affect women and girls, such as domestic abuse, sexual violence, stalking and female genital mutilation. Addressing them is our priority and responsibility. The Government’s rape review found a steep decline in the number of cases reaching court since 2016. One of the key reasons for this was the number of victims withdrawing from the criminal justice process, and in too many instances the criminal justice system has simply not been good enough and has failed victims. Across Government, my colleagues and I intend to transform support for victims by ensuring that cases are investigated fully and pursued vigorously through the courts.
I will come on to that as well, but first I want to speak about the rape action plan. We will increase the number of cases reaching court back to 2016 levels, which means reducing the number of victims who withdraw from the process and putting more rapists behind bars.
Crucial in how the Government will do this is not just money but investment in capabilities and the court system. The Government are investing over £80 million in the Crown Prosecution Service to tackle backlogs and recruit more prosecutors across the entire the country, because we need to start tackling this inequality. There is a significant inequality; that is in part a result of factors such as the way charges have been made and prosecutions brought, but there are other challenges as well.
No, I will not give way; the right hon. Lady will have a chance to speak. [Interruption.] The right hon. Lady will have an opportunity to speak shortly. [Interruption.] If I may finish my point, I may come to her.
The other factor in terms of policing is the increase in the volume of digital evidence, and a vast amount of work is taking place across policing and the CPS now looking at how we can have an end-to-end approach across the criminal justice system to assess digital evidence. Also, for the first time the criminal justice system is now going to be held to account through performance scorecards through the crime and justice taskforce and also through the MOJ as well as the Home Office.
I thank the right hon. Lady for giving way. Is she aware, among student victims of sexual assault, of the use of gagging clauses and non-disclosure agreements in university non-contact agreements? I am in touch with various victims, particularly from Oxford university. One college, Lady Margaret Hall, has now signed a pledge to no longer use these but none of the other colleges has. Will the right hon. Lady join me and the universities Minister, the right hon. Member for Chippenham (Michelle Donelan), in asking other colleges to do the same, and will she consider meeting me so that I can relay to her the thoughts of victims in these cases?
The hon. Lady is absolutely right. [Interruption.] I hear calls for more legislation from Labour Members, but, frankly, they also vote against all Government legislation. The hon. Lady raises a serious point. Through the crime and justice taskforce particularly, which is a cross-Government endeavour, the Education Secretary and other parts of Government are working with the MOJ to address and tackle these issues. The CPS has an important role to play here as well. I would be delighted to meet the hon. Lady and to speak to the universities Minister about this, because it is simply not right. Frankly, some of the practices being used are immoral, because they are effectively denying victims their right to have a voice.
Will the right hon. Lady give way?
I am very grateful to the Home Secretary. On the issue of convictions for rape and serious sexual assault, one of the recommendations from the Home Affairs Committee was to have RASSO—rape and serious sexual offences—units in all police forces. Will the Home Secretary ensure that all police forces now have those specialist units, because we know if that is the case, it is more likely that investigations will be more thorough, victims will be treated better and convictions will follow?
The right hon. Lady is absolutely right, and she will be aware of Operation Soteria, which does that. I will come on to wider support through the courts system and independent gender violence advocates, but the system is working now in a much more joined-up way, which I am sure the right hon. Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford will also welcome. These measures have to be integrated not only with policing, but with the CPS, so that we have an end-to-end approach on prosecution.
The Home Secretary talked about passports. Constituents are telling me that the long delays at the Passport Office could both badly affect the travel industry and ruin family holidays. We need action now. Will she ensure the backlog is dealt with in the coming weeks?
If the hon. Gentleman has a particular case, I have been speaking to other hon. Members—[Interruption.] No, please send it to me. There has been a problem with Teleperformance, the company that runs the helpline on this, but I would be happy to address his points. There is a great deal of work taking place operationally with Her Majesty’s Passport Office in dealing with passports and applications, and we are about to have yet another record month of passport delivery.
The fourth round of the proven safer streets fund is worth £50 million and will help to reclaim spaces so that people across our communities and streets are safe. Alongside that initiative, the Government have worked assiduously to combat issues such as drugs and county lines. While we know that Opposition Members are weak on combating drugs, this Government have overseen the arrest of 7,400 people as part of the county lines drug programme, and 1,500 lines have been closed. Drug seizures by police officers and Border Force in England and Wales in 2020-21 increased by 21% on the previous year. The 10-year drugs strategy is underpinned by £30 million of new investment to tackle that scourge.
The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022 backs the police with improved powers and more support for officers and their families in recognition of the unique and enormous sacrifices they make. It means tougher sentences for the worst offenders and modernises the criminal justice system with an overhaul of court and tribunal processes.
I thank my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary for the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act. When I brought to this House the Desecration of War Memorials Bill, she immediately picked it up and ran with it and included it in the policing Bill, despite the mocking from the Labour party, including the Leader of the Opposition, saying that we were trying to protect statues rather than war graves and the war memorials to our glorious dead. Thank you, Home Secretary.
I thank my hon. Friend for his support in making the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill an Act of Parliament. It is through that work that we are now able not only to protect and stand with our officers and back the police, but to have tougher sentences for the worst offenders and to modernise the criminal justice system. The most serious sexual and violent offenders will spend longer in prison. The maximum sentence for assaulting an emergency worker has doubled, and whole-life orders for those who commit premeditated murder of a child will be extended. Those are all key features of the Act.
This Government are also investing £4 billion to create 20,000 additional prison places by the mid-2020s, and the GPS tagging of 10,000 burglars, robbers and thieves over the next three years will deter further offending and support the police in pinning down criminals at the scene of their crime. That is why this Government will not stop. The beating crime plan is exactly the plan to cut rates of serious violence, homicide and neighbourhood crime.
If the Home Secretary will allow me to intervene, I co-chair with the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Sir Robert Neill) the all-party parliamentary group on miscarriages of justice. We are looking at the real problems with forensic science since its privatisation. If we are going to catch more criminals and have a more effective criminal justice system, will the Home Secretary make it a priority to ensure that forensic science in every part of the country is as good as it can be?
I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman and the work of that group. Forensic science and the investment that goes into it is absolutely crucial to making sure that justice is served, and that victims receive the justice that they deserve. I would be happy, perhaps with Ministers, to organise a meeting on this, because there is a great deal of investment and work in forensic science. That is primarily because crime types evolve, and, in terms of the way in which sexual violence cases such as rape take place, digital evidence needs to be treated in a very different way, with the time that digital downloads take and the implications for forensic use. We would be happy to meet and have further discussion, and perhaps share any information and any good practice that we are experiencing in this evolving area.
The beating crime plan includes £130 million to tackle serious violence and knife crime. This complements the improved stop-and-search powers that we have given the police so that they can do what is necessary to keep people safe. This law and order Conservative Government are introducing several Bills in this parliamentary Session that will further help to prevent crime and deliver justice. The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act was a major step forward, but elements were frustrated by the unelected other place, urged on by Opposition Members. We will not be deterred from our duty to protect the law-abiding majority from the mob rule and the thuggery that we have seen. The public order Bill will combat the guerrilla tactics that bring such misery to the hard-working public, disrupt businesses, interfere with emergency services, cost taxpayers millions, and put life at risk.
The public order Bill, as the Home Secretary knows, will be music to the ears of many residents in Ashfield. We have seen these eco whatever-they-ares with their little hammers smashing up petrol stations. Does she think it is a good idea to give them bigger hammers and other tools and put them to work seven days a week like the rest of us?
My hon. Friend, like me, believes in work, and that is effectively what we are doing in this Government—we are cracking on with the job, basically, in delivering on the British people’s priorities.
It is important to reflect on this point: the dangerous nature of these protests should not be lost on anyone in this House. We saw in particular the recent Just Stop Oil protest, and there are other sites and oil refineries where these protesters impose themselves. It really is a miracle that somebody has not been killed or injured through the tactics that are being used. To give one example, in the county of Essex, £3.5 million was spent just on policing overtime to deal with those protesters, draining the resources of Essex police so that it could not protect citizens across the county, and at the same time it had to call for mutual aid from Scotland, Wales, and Devon and Cornwall.
Despite Labour and the Lib Dems ganging up to prevent those measures from being included in the PCSC Act, we will act to support ordinary working people because we are on their side. The public order Bill will prevent our major transport projects and infrastructure from being targeted by protesters and introduce a new criminal offence of locking on and going equipped to lock on, criminalising the act of attaching oneself to other people, objects or buildings to cause serious disruption and harm. The Bill also extends stop-and-search powers for the police to search for and seize articles related to protest-related offences and introduces serious disruption prevention orders—a new preventive court order targeting protesters who are determined to repeatedly inflict disruption on the public. The breach of those orders will be a criminal offence.
Modern slavery is something that rightly exercises this House. It is a damning indictment of humanity that this ancient evil has not gone away. This Government will follow previous Conservative Governments in doing everything that we can to identify it and stamp it out. The new modern slavery Bill will strengthen the protection and support for victims of human trafficking and modern slavery. It will place greater demands on companies and other organisations to keep modern slavery out of their supply chains. The Bill will enshrine in domestic law the Government’s international obligations to victims of modern slavery, especially regarding their rights to assistance and support, and it will provide greater legal certainty for victims accessing needs-based support. Law enforcement agencies will have stronger tools to prevent modern slavery, protect victims, and bring those engaged in this obscene trade to justice.
In response to Putin’s appalling and barbaric war on Ukraine, this House passed an economic crime Bill within a day so that we could sanction those with ties to Putin. The UK is an outstanding country to do business in, in no small part because dirty money is not welcome here. An additional economic crime and corporate transparency Bill will mean that we can crack down even harder on the kleptocrats, criminals and terrorists who abuse our open economy. There will be greater protections for customers, consumers and businesses from economic crime such as fraud and money laundering. Companies House will be supported in delivering a better service for over 4 million UK companies, with improved collection of data to inform business transactions and lending decisions throughout our economy.
The Online Safety Bill will tackle fraud and scams by requiring large social media platforms and search engines to prevent the publication of fraudulent paid-for advertising. It will address the most serious illegal content, including child sexual exploitation and abuse, much of which beggars belief and is utterly sickening. Public trust will be restored by making companies responsible for their users’ safety online. Communication offences will reflect the modern world, with updated laws on threatening communication online, as well as criminalising cyber-flashing.
First, the hon. Lady and her party spend a great deal of time voting against the measures that we do bring forward on this. Secondly, the passage of the Online Safety Bill will give her and her party every opportunity to support us in keeping the public safe through some of the new offences that will be brought in.
This Government were elected with a manifesto commitment to update the Human Rights Act 1998 so that we enjoy the right balance between the rights of individuals, national security, and effective government. The UK is a global leader with ancient and proud traditions of freedom and human rights. Our Bill of Rights will reinforce freedom of speech and recognise trial by jury. It will strengthen our common-law traditions and reduce our reliance on Strasbourg case law. Crucially, the Bill of Rights will restore public confidence and curb the abuse of the human rights framework by criminals. This is a welcome and much-needed update, 20 years after the Human Rights Act came into force, and it will apply to the whole of the United Kingdom. Human rights are not something that should only be extended to criminals. In what has to be the most twisted logic I have seen as Home Secretary, I have lost count of the number of representations I have received from immigration lawyers and Labour Members begging me not to deport dangerous foreign criminals. The Conservative party stands firmly with the law-abiding majority.
The most vulnerable among us are not murderers, sex offenders and violent thugs, but their victims. Our victims Bill will mean that victims are at the heart of the criminal justice system, that they will get the right support at the right time, and that when they report a crime, the system will deliver a fair and speedy outcome. The victims code will be placed into law, giving a clear signal of what they have a right to expect. There will be more transparent and better oversight of how criminal justice agencies support victims so that we can identify problems, drive up standards, and give the public confidence. We are increasing the funding for victim support services to £185 million by 2024-25. That will mean more independent sexual and domestic violence advisers and new key services such as a crisis helpline.
I very much welcome the measures to put the victims code on a statutory footing, because these are very basic rights that need to be upheld for anyone who is a victim of crime. One of the other consequences of being a victim of crime is often the mental health fall-out from being involved in that crime and what follows afterwards—the trial or other matters. During what is Mental Health Awareness Week, I ask: what can be done to add to the victims code to ensure that those who find themselves in that unenviable position get the support they need so that they can get their mental health back as well as the rest of their life?
My hon. Friend makes probably one of the most important points about support for victims, and also about how we can help victims to rebuild their lives and live their lives with confidence going forward.
Within this work and the framework is the question of how we integrate many of our mental health service supports and the NHS more widely. The funding for victims, particularly in the areas of independent sexual violence and domestic violence advisers, is just one part of that. Legislation is only part of the solution. It is about how we deliver integrated services within our communities and also how much of the triaging takes place, whether that is through police and crime commissioners, the Victims’ Commissioner or even local policing, as well as mental health services in the community.
Many of these issues are devolved matters, but this is such important work—a lot of good work is taking place through the integrated end-to-end approach, and also through the scorecards that we are now setting up—that I would be very happy for the hon. Gentleman to speak to our Ministers about best practice, learnings and how the work can come to Northern Ireland. There is, it is fair to say, a great deal more that we do need to do in Northern Ireland, and I know we have had these conversations many times.
The data reform Bill will modernise the Information Commissioner’s Office so that it can take stronger action against organisations that breach data rules. We now have more than 490 Crown court places available for use, which is comparable to pre-pandemic levels, and more than 700 courtrooms that can safely hold face-to-face hearings are open across the civil and family justice system. An additional 250 rooms are available for virtual hearings. In March, we announced the extension of 30 Nightingale courtrooms, and we have opened two new super-courtrooms in Manchester and Loughborough. Furthermore, we are ensuring sufficient judicial capacity by expanding our plans for judicial recruitment.
The Nationality and Borders Act 2022 will mean that we can focus our support on those who need it most, not on those who can afford to pay the evil people-smuggling gangs to come into our country. The Act increases the sentences for those coming here illegally and means that people-smugglers face life behind bars. It also makes it easier for us to remove dangerous foreign criminals, as demanded by the British public but not by those on the Opposition Benches or those lawyers working to undermine the will of the public. The British public’s priorities are those of this Government. We are on their side, and we will continue to do everything we can by making this Act viable and workable and delivering for the British people.
We are hospitable and charitable as a country, but our capacity to support the more than 80 million people worldwide who are on the move is not limitless. Many Labour Members and others on the Opposition Benches do not seem to understand that, but we do. It is why we have developed our world-leading migration and economic development partnership with Rwanda to deter illegal entry. We are providing solutions to the global migration challenges that countries across the world are facing. As ever, we hear very little from the Opposition, who seem to support the same old broken system and uncontrolled migration to our country.
Two terrorist incidents highlight how we can never be complacent. The attack outside Liverpool Women’s Hospital last year would have been a disaster, had it not been for the incredible quick thinking and courage of the taxi driver involved on the scene. The terrible murder of our dear friend Sir David Amess was shocking, but not without precedent. We have worked closely together, Mr Speaker, to tighten security for Members, and we will continue to do so, and this Government will continue to work with our Five Eyes partners to keep the United Kingdom and our allies safe.
The “National Cyber Strategy 2022” outlines my approach to tackling cyber-crime. We have terrorist activity committed online and information circulated by terrorist individuals and organisations. Going further, the G7 forum on ransomware launched new programmes, such as our work on economic crime, to counter illicit finance and commodities. Improving our international partners’ ability to disrupt organised crime and terrorist activity is a priority to which this Government are committed.
In the past 12 months, we have completed a review of police firearms licensing procedures in response to the terrible and tragic shootings in Plymouth last August. New statutory guidance came into force in November. It improves firearms licensing safety standards and will ensure greater consistency in decision-making. The measures in the national security Bill will further protect our national security, the British public and our vital interests from those who seek to harm the UK. It delivers on our manifesto commitment to ensure that the security services have the powers they need.
The Bill represents the biggest overhaul of state threats legislation for a generation. We have world-class law enforcement and intelligence agencies, but they face an ever-present and increasingly sophisticated threat. The Bill gives them an enhanced range of tools, powers and protections to tackle the full range of state threats that have evolved since we last legislated in this area. It will also prevent the exploitation of civil legal aid and civil damage payments by convicted terrorists. The Bill enhances our ability to deter, detect and disrupt state actors who target the UK, preventing spies from harming our strategic interests and stealing our innovations and inventions.
The Bill also repeals and replaces existing espionage laws, many of which were primarily designed to counter the threat from German spies around the time of the first world war. It will introduce new offences to address state-backed sabotage, foreign interference, the theft of trade secrets and the assisting of a foreign intelligence service. The Bill will for the first time make it an offence to be a covert foreign spy on our soil. A foreign influence registration scheme will require individuals to register certain arrangements with foreign Governments, to help prevent damaging or hostile influence being exerted by them here.
Can the Home Secretary confirm whether the national security Bill will clarify whether it would have been inappropriate or unlawful for a Foreign Secretary to have met a former KGB officer, as we understand the Prime Minister did back in April 2018?
If I may, I will not comment on that specific example that has been given. Actually, I think the focus should be on the legislation that is coming forward in this House, where there are plenty of debates to be had, rather than making a point like that. I think it speaks to how the Opposition treat matters of national security, and the disdain that they show to the significance of the threats posed.
I will not, because I need to make progress so that others can come in.
The national security Bill provides us with powers to tackle state threats at an earlier stage by criminalising conduct in preparation for state threats activity. It will also mean that other offences committed by those acting for a foreign state can be labelled as state threats and those responsible sentenced accordingly. When sentencing for offences outside of the Bill, judges will be required to consider any connection to state threat activity and reflect the seriousness of that when handing down a sentence. There is also a new range of measures to manage those who pose a threat but it has not been possible to prosecute them. The use of these measures will be subject to rigorous checks and balances, including from the courts, but we cannot be passive, sitting around until someone does something awful.
The Manchester bombing tore into the fabric of our freedom. It was a truly evil act that targeted people, many of them young or children, who were doing something that should have been a simple pleasure—attending a concert. The protect Bill will keep people safe by introducing new security requirements for certain public locations and venues to ensure preparedness for and protection from terrorist attacks. It will provide clarity on protective security and preparedness responsibilities for organisations as part of the protect duty, and it will bring an inspection and enforcement regime that will seek to educate, advise and ensure compliance with the duty. We have worked closely across Government with partners and victims’ groups, and I pay particular tribute to Figen Murray and the Martyn’s law campaign team for developing the proposals and working with us.
These Bills further establish the Conservative party as the party of law and order, as do all the actions I have taken since I became Home Secretary. The people’s priorities are our priorities. Those on the Opposition Benches have only two responses, which they alternate between. Whether we hear splenetic outrage or total silence, their warped worldview means they have plenty to say about the rights of lawbreakers, but nothing to offer the law-abiding majority. We await their plan for a fair and firm immigration system that rewards those in need, not evil people-smugglers.
I will not; I am wrapping up. We await the Opposition’s plan to beat crime. We await their plan for a criminal justice system that protects victims and punishes the guilty. We will wait in vain, while the Government get on and do the job of delivering on the people’s priorities.
I have to say, that was an astonishing refusal by the Home Secretary to take interventions and questions from the shadow Home Secretary and a shadow Cabinet Minister. I have been taking part in Queen’s Speech debates for 25 years and I have never seen a Government Minister at the Dispatch Box afraid to take questions from her opposite number—I have never seen that anywhere. She took questions from a few other Members; her predecessors always took questions from me. I wonder what she is so frightened of. All my questions would have been really factual—maybe that is what she was frightened of.
When the Prime Minister opened the Queen’s Speech debate yesterday, he did not mention crime—not once. Those of us out on the streets talking to residents in different communities across the country—an experience that was probably rather better on our side of the House than theirs this time—know that crime and antisocial behaviour were raised a lot, but the Prime Minister did not mention them once.
The cost of living, soaring bills and rising prices were top of people’s list, but they were followed by crime and antisocial behaviour and a real persistent concern that when crimes are being committed, too often, nothing is done. There was nothing in the Queen’s Speech to tackle rising bills and rising prices and also no serious plan to tackle rising crime and falling prosecutions. There was nothing from the Prime Minister yesterday about the basic issues bothering people across the country.
I thank my right hon. Friend for giving way. It was a shame that the Home Secretary did not want to give way to me, because I wanted to ask her why, more than 30 minutes into her speech, there had been no mention of a public health approach to tackling serious violence, which has a long-term plan, addresses the root causes and is joined up. Perhaps the Government want to be tough on crime and not tough on the causes of crime.
My hon. Friend is right to talk about the public health approach and the need to prevent crime and work across communities to do that.
Across the country, in the last few weeks alone, I have heard from residents and victims talking often about there being no action when things go wrong; about repeated vandalism not being tackled even though there is CCTV evidence of who is responsible; and about the victim of an appalling violent domestic attack who was told that it would not come to court for two years.
I have heard about repeated shoplifting where the police are so overstretched that they have stopped coming; about burglaries where all the victim got was a crime number; about scamming, where Action Fraud is such a nightmare to engage with that pensioners have given up trying to report serious crimes; about persistent drug dealing outside a school where nothing had been done months later; and about a horrendous rape case where the brave victim was strung out for so long and the court case was delayed so many times that she gave up because she could not bear it anymore.
I have heard about police officers tearing their hair out over Crown Prosecution Service delays because they know that the victim will drop out if they cannot charge quickly; about other officers who are working long hours to pick up the pieces when local mental health services fail but who know that that means that they cannot be there to deal with the antisocial behaviour on the street corner; and about women who no longer expect the police to help if they face threats of violence on the streets or in their homes. There is case after case after case where crimes are being committed but no one is being charged, cautioned or given a community penalty and no action is being taken—and it is getting worse.
Since the 2019 general election—in fact, since the Home Secretary was appointed—crime is up by 18% and prosecutions are down by 18%. The charge rate is now at a record low of 5.8% compared with 15.5% in 2015. Cautions and community penalties are down too, notwithstanding the Prime Minister and his Downing Street staff’s attempt to make valiant personal efforts to get those numbers back up again.
The Home Secretary made an astonishing claim. She said:
“We have reformed the criminal justice system so that it better supports victims and ensures that criminals are not only caught but punished.”
Where are the criminal justice reforms that are pushing the prosecution rates up? The prosecution rates have plummeted on the Conservatives’ watch, which means that under the Home Secretary and the Conservatives, hundreds of thousands more criminals are getting off and hundreds of thousands more victims are being let down.
Will the right hon. Lady give way?
I am grateful to the right hon. Lady for giving way. I understand the picture that she is trying to paint, but I know that she will want to give the House a balanced picture overall. I am sure, therefore, that she will want to acknowledge that in the latest publication on crime statistics by the Office for National Statistics, violence was down 8%, knife crime was down 4%, theft was down 15%, burglary, which she mentioned, was down 14%, car crime was down 6% and robbery was down 9%. Although we acknowledge that the fight against crime is never linear, we should celebrate our successes, should we not?
I am hugely relieved and glad that during lockdown, while everybody was at home, there were fewer burglaries of homes. I am also hugely relieved that during lockdown, while there were fewer people on the streets, there were fewer thefts on the streets. In April, however, the Office for National Statistics said:
“Since restrictions were lifted following the third national lockdown in early 2021, police recorded crime data show indications that certain offence types are returning to or exceeding the levels seen before the pandemic… violence and sexual offences recorded by the police have exceeded pre-pandemic levels”.
On overall crime, I am sure that the Policing Minister would not want to make the mistake that the Business Secretary made of somehow dismissing fraud, which is responsible for some of the huge increases in crime, and of saying that it is not a crime that affects people’s daily life. We know that it causes huge problems and huge harms, particularly for vulnerable people across the country.
My right hon. Friend is coming up with some telling statistics. I have talked to constituents and the police, who say that morale has never been lower and their numbers have never been so small. Since 2010, Conservative Governments have diminished resources for the justice system more than for anything dealt with by other Departments. The balance is totally out, so the morale of the police and the confidence of my constituents have plummeted.
My hon. Friend makes an important point. I pay tribute to police officers across the country who are working incredibly hard in our communities to try to crack down on and prevent crime. They walk towards danger when the rest of us walk away. They are valiantly trying to hold things together, but too often, they are let down by the Government, particularly when dealing with violence against women and rape. The rape charge rate has gone down from 8.5% in 2015 to a truly shocking 1.3%. Today, in England and Wales, an estimated 300 women will be raped. About 170 of those cases will be reported to the police, but only three are likely to make it to a court of law, never mind the jail cell. Just think what that means.
That applies not just to rape, but to many other crimes. No charge are made within a year of the offence being committed in 93% of reported robberies, 95% of violent offences, 96% of thefts, 97% of sexual offences, over 98% of reported rapes and over 99% of frauds. It is a total disgrace. As one police officer said to me, “This is awful—it feels like once serious offences are effectively being decriminalised”, because there are no consequences.
My right hon. Friend is making a very powerful speech. I want to move on beyond the police to the issues she has raised about fraud. Fraud is now the biggest crime facing us, and the cost to the economy is coming on for something like £190 billion a year. Does she agree with me that, as well as funding the police, it is absolutely imperative that we fund all the enforcement agencies fighting this sort of economic crime? While the Americans are raising the amount of money spent on this, we are lowering our investment into the enforcement agencies.
My right hon. Friend makes a really important point, and we will pay the price if the law against economic crime is not enforced. The system just is not working. Everybody will know what a nightmare it is to try to report fraud; they may be passed from pillar to post, and sent between Action Fraud and the local police force. She is right, too, on some of the more serious issues, where this is also about the relationship between the police, the Serious Fraud Office and other enforcement agencies that need to take action. I hope this will be debated in our discussions on economic crime.
It is a really damning picture: crime rising while there is a shocking drop in prosecutions and action. But what is the Home Secretary’s response? Soon after she took up the job, she said:
“let the message go out…To the British people—we hear you… And to the criminals, I simply say this: We are coming after you.”
Well, to the Home Secretary I simply say this: “You’d better start running faster, because they’re all getting away.”
To be fair to the Prime Minister, yesterday his main Home Office focus was anger at the Passport Office, and that is probably something all of us can agree on, including the newly-weds who are having to cancel their honeymoon, and the hard-pressed families who face losing thousands of pounds that they had long saved up for a well-deserved holiday. Ministers told us the issue was being sorted out, but most of us can say from our constituency casework that it is getting worse. People are being badly let down, so the Prime Minister was right to be angry yesterday, although who does he think has been in charge of the Passport Office for the last 12 years?
The Prime Minister now says he wants to privatise the Passport Office if this is not sorted out. However, the immigration Minister—the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster)—told us:
“The private sector is already being used in the vast majority of the processes in the Passport Office.”
He also said:
“The bit that is not…is the decision itself.”—[Official Report, 27 April 2022; Vol. 712, c. 767.]
That leaves us back with the Home Office failing to get a grip on private sector contracts and failing to take basic decisions. It is part of the pattern of Home Office failure and the Prime Minister casting around to get someone else to step in. Ukrainians fleeing war have been waiting weeks on end for visas because the Home Office added long bureaucratic delays. So many desperate families have given up because they could not afford to wait; they have found somewhere else to live, and others to give them sanctuary instead. There have been 80,000 applications to Homes for Ukraine, but only 19,000 people have arrived.
The right hon. Member is being very generous with her time. She made a point about Ukrainian refugees; a family moved in next door to me two weeks ago. I would like to thank the Home Secretary personally: the family got in touch with me, and within minutes of my contacting the Home Secretary about them, her team had got back to me. The family is now in our village of Kirkby-in-Ashfield. They thank the Home Secretary, the Prime Minister and the people of Great Britain.
The people of Great Britain have shown that they want to help desperate families who are fleeing Ukraine. However, the facts are clear: there have been 80,000 applications, but there are only 19,000 people here. The Home Secretary says that is because they are staying where they are. Yes, a lot of them are; they gave up because it became so difficult.
Does my right hon. Friend agree with me about the really troubling reports—some of these are cases I have dealt with, but some of these I heard of through the media—of the Home Office issuing visas for only some members of Ukrainian families? The families quite rightly do not want to leave someone behind, so do not come here. That is classed as Ukrainians not taking up a visa, rather than Home Office failure. At the same time, the Home Office lines are bunged up. We cannot get through, and when we do, we are told, “I don’t even have a computer in front of me. I’m just on a phone line, and I don’t know what to say.” This is failure at the Home Office, and the Home Secretary has presided over it.
My hon. Friend is right. I have also heard of cases where one family member does not get their visa, and of course the whole family has to wait. They are not going to be separated at a time of crisis. That Home Office Ministers think it is somehow a triumph to take four weeks to issue basic visas to people fleeing war in Europe is totally shameful.
It now takes more than a year to get a basic initial asylum decision, because the Home Office is taking just 14,000 initial decisions a year—half the number it was taking in 2015. This basic incompetence means that the backlog has soared, and so too has the bill for the taxpayer. It takes nearly two years to get a modern slavery referral, which means that victims do not get support and prosecutions just do not happen. No wonder that even the Prime Minister, who is not known for his laser-like focus on delivering policies, has lost confidence in the Home Secretary and is getting other people to do the jobs instead.
The Prime Minister is looking to privatise the Passport Office; channel crossings are to be handed over to the Ministry of Defence; Homes for Ukraine is to be handed over to the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities; and visas are to be handed over to the new Refugees Minister. Decision making on asylum processing is so slow that Ministers are in the ludicrous and unworkable situation of paying Rwanda over £100 million to take decisions for us. At this rate, crime will be given to the Ministry of Justice and the fire service will be given to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. Under this Home Secretary, the Home Office has in effect been put into special measures because it cannot get the basics right. If the Home Secretary cannot get the basics done on any of those core decisions, she should get out the way and let someone else sort it out.
There is an alternative to this shambles. On crime and prosecutions, it was obvious a decade ago that this was where we were heading as a result of Government policies. I warned in 2013 of the risk of falling charge rates. I warned then about the Home Office’s failure to help the police tackle increasingly complex and fast-changing crimes, and about the risks if there was no proper, urgent plan to modernise policing, none of which has happened. I also gave a warning about what it would be like if the police were ripped out of the heart of our communities. Now, our towns, cities and rural communities are all paying the price; they all feel that the criminal justice system is not there for them when they need it.
Where is the action in the Queen’s Speech to turn this around? Where is the action to help the police modernise, so that they can keep up with fast-changing crimes? Where is the action on reform, and on raising police standards so that we improve confidence? Where is the action on getting justice and improving safety for women and girls? There is nothing on establishing specialist rape investigation units in every police force, nothing on establishing specialist rape courts to speed up cases and make sure that they have the expertise necessary, nothing on setting up the domestic abuse and stalking perpetrators register for which we have been calling for years, and nothing to establish a mandatory minimum sentence for rape—all things Labour has been calling for. There is nothing to tackle antisocial behaviour—the powers are just not being used. There is nothing to sort out community penalties, which are too often dropped, and nothing to prevent crime and antisocial behaviour There is nothing to ensure that neighbourhood police are restored to our streets or to set up neighbourhood prevention teams, which Labour has repeatedly called for.
The Home Secretary wants to boast that she is delivering the biggest increase in police funding for 10 years—well, who has been in power for the last 10 years? She has not even restored the police her party cut and she is not getting them out on to the streets. There are still 7,000 fewer police in our neighbourhoods compared with 2015. Instead, the police are weighed down by more bureaucracy, stuck back at their desks doing paperwork—the only way to improve their visibility is to move their desks nearer to the window.
To be fair, the Government have proposed a victims’ Bill, and we would support that, but it is only in draft and it was first promised in 2015. It was promised again in 2016, again in 2017, again in 2019 and, yes, again in 2021. This year, it did not even get a proper mention in the Humble Address and there was certainly nothing from the Prime Minister yesterday.
The Home Secretary rightly made a personal commitment to strengthen victims’ rights back in 2014 when she first said that she backed a new victims’ law. She was right to do so because at that time 9% of cases were being dropped because victims were dropping out of the criminal justice system as they had lost confidence. Since then, those figures have almost trebled. Last year, 1.3 million cases were dropped because victims gave up and dropped out. Yet is she seriously telling us she does not have time in this Parliament for victims again? Instead, the Government’s top priority is a rehashed Public Order Bill, even though they have just done one, because they are again failing to work with the police to sort out swift injunctions against serious disruptive protests or to help the police sensibly to use the powers that they have.
There are Bills that should command cross-party support. Labour supports a “protect” duty that could keep people safer from potential terror attacks. We remember with sadness all the victims of the Manchester attack. I ask the Government to listen to the calls from bereaved families from other major incidents, and I ask the Home Secretary again to look at calls for a Hillsborough law, which she knows have been made by Members across the House and by the families who have lost so much.
Labour also welcomes the long-overdue economic crime Bill. We have called for years for action to strengthen Companies House and we will be pressing for stronger action on money laundering, including illicit finance used for terrorist activity. On terrorism and national security, we always stand ready to work with the Government in the national interest. We agree on the need for a register of foreign agents, which, again, has been promised for years. We need much greater vigilance and action against hostile state activity. My hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch) raised a significant issue that the Home Secretary did not answer, so I ask her to consider it and to be ready to answer it in future. There should be some transparency on the issues around contact with foreign agents. It would be helpful if she could confirm whether the Prime Minister, when he was Foreign Secretary, met the ex-KGB agent Alexander Lebedev in Italy in April 2018 and whether any civil servants were present. It would be very helpful to know that information.
Labour supports stronger action on modern slavery and hopes that the Bill will be an opportunity to go further, but the Home Secretary needs to reverse some of the damaging provisions from the Nationality and Borders Act 2022 that will make it harder to prosecute trafficking and slavery gangs, as the retiring Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner has warned. We must also ask: where is the employment Bill with the long-promised single enforcement body to crack down on forced labour and abuse? Without those measures, this is still not a serious plan to tackle modern slavery.
In the absence of any serious action in the Queen’s Speech on the cost of living or to push prosecutions up, the Government talked instead about levelling up and community pride. The trouble is, they just do not get it. There is no levelling up if people cannot afford to eat, cannot afford to pay their bills or cannot afford to go to the local shops. There is no community pride if town centres do not have police officers or see no action when there is vandalism, street drinking, shoplifting or litter—or if, too often, the windows are broken and nothing is done. How can people have that local pride if there are no neighbourhood police to help prevent crimes, solve problems or nip them in the bud, or if people feel that there are no consequences for criminals? The very communities to whom the Government keep making false promises about levelling up are towns that are being hardest hit by antisocial behaviour and persistent unsolved crimes.
Trust within our communities depends on us having trust in the law and trust in there being consequences. That is why Labour has called for the police to be getting back on the street and to have neighbourhood prevention teams and partnerships in place that work both to prevent crime but also to tackle the criminals and bring them to justice. If people stop believing that a fair and valiant criminal justice system will come to their aid if they are hurt or wronged, that is corrosive for our democracy, too. That is why it is so damaging to feel like we have a Government who shrug their shoulders as victims of crime are let down. The Conservative party in government is not a party of law and order any more. Too often, it is a party of crime and disorder, a party that is weak on crime and weak on the causes of crime, letting more criminals off and letting our communities down. Britain deserves better than that.
I remind everybody that those participating in the debate are expected to be here for the wind-ups. There will be wind-ups today and on subsequent days, unlike yesterday. I will not put a time limit on speeches at the moment, but I urge people to be at least aware of the length of their speeches.
I support the Queen’s Speech and the programme unveiled by the Government. One can see politics getting back to normal and I am sure that the contest in the House today will be watched in the next two years as we glide to the likely date of a general election. Both sides are feisty performers and I am sure that many of us appreciate that.
The Government’s programme sets out to help grow the economy. It is for safer streets and for supporting the recovery of the national health service. The economy is in much better shape than one might have thought when we had the prolonged period of lockdown. We have a growing economy—this year it will be the fastest growing of many in the G7—a budget that is moving towards balance and falling national debt. There are challenges with the cost of living and inflation, but the Government have so far put in £22 billion of support, they are monitoring the situation and I am sure that, as things unfold, there will be further support as and when needed. One could never argue that the Government have not given support to the British people over the past two or three years. We must wait and see how things unfold on energy. Gas prices have fallen in recent months. Let us all hope that that continues and that inflation is lower than some predict. That is not to say that there are not challenges out there, but I think that the Government have proven that they can rise to challenges.
Some of the measures in the Queen’s Speech are useful to help and support the growing economy, in particular those to deregulate some of the EU regulations that we put into British law when we left the EU. Logically, we need to review them now to see if we can get ourselves a more efficient, more competitive economy. So I welcome the Bills that are looking at that area.
Of course, energy is a major challenge. It is my great pleasure to commend the Minister for Energy, Clean Growth and Climate Change, my right hon. Friend the Member for Chelsea and Fulham (Greg Hands), who is doing an excellent job with his energy brief. The Government are grappling with issues such as nuclear power, oil and gas, and renewables to increase our capacity. That is to be commended. Indeed, it is sensible, even if we are heading for net zero at some point in the future, that we use the resources that God has given us and which the British economy has proved able to get out of the ground. We are going to need oil and gas for a long time and the Government are proving that they want to make use of those resources to make us a richer and more competitive country.
Nuclear power is very important. We can see the mistake the Germans made in announcing the closure of their nuclear power stations and their dependency on Russian gas. We need to replace many of the Magnox stations that are going to go offline. This is an exciting time. I hope we get a decision on Sizewell soon. I am particularly pleased that Rolls-Royce has, with its partners, come up with a scheme for smaller nuclear power stations. I think that is going to be a game changer for the United Kingdom and it could be a game changer for exports to many countries that wish to avail themselves of safe nuclear power, so I think that is good.
There is one area, agriculture, that I am still a bit concerned about. I still think we seem to spend a little too much time talking about trimming hedges and less about producing food. One thing the pandemic and the current world shortages have proven is that resilience and local production are important. I would be very disappointed if the food we were producing reduced to below 50%. If anything, we ought to be producing more. I therefore think there needs to be a rethink in this area.
I am not a great fan of Bank of England independence. I have always been a little sceptical about it.
On my hon. Friend’s first two subjects, I wonder if he would reflect on the fact that both in terms of nuclear power and agriculture we have the freedom and flexibility that come from his and my vote to leave the European Union. On nuclear power, he will recall the blood-curdling predictions that we would fail in that particular industry by departing from Euratom all those years ago. Does he agree that, along with the French now, we can position ourselves as the only two serious nuclear powers in Europe?
That is absolutely so. The original design teams for British nuclear power were taken apart. To have a productive nuclear power industry, we need continued investment in new plants. The good thing about what has happened at Hinkley C, Sizewell and Rolls-Royce is that we are getting design teams together and collaborating with other partners. That will be a major game changer in terms of Britain being able to produce the power we need in future.
Going back to the Bank of England, I am a little concerned that it has merrily gone on printing money. I am old enough to still be a monetarist in its broadest sense. One of the reasons we have higher inflation is that we have allowed for it because of monetary growth. If we had stopped printing money sooner and put up interest rates sooner, the consequences of the current spike in inflation would be less severe. Nevertheless, we are where we are. At least it is only the European Central Bank printing money at the moment and Britain can get back to a more sensible policy.
We have very low levels of unemployment and high levels of employment. There are many other measures in the Loyal Speech. We are trying to improve education and outputs in that area. We really do have to educate our population, so they become more productive and we can get productivity up. If we get the investment and education right, there is nothing we cannot do in the future.
I thank the Home Office for the hard work it put in in the last Session. My constituents are very appreciative that we now have powers to deal with Travellers, who tend to cause problems every summer in Dorset. They are also pleased that we are starting to deal with illegal immigration. Immigration has to be fair. If people follow the system, pay the fees, fill out the forms and wait in the queue, it is fundamentally unfair that people arrive in boats and try to jump the queue. The Government are therefore taking action. A lot of the action will put off some of those people from coming in an illegal way, which I think is good.
I am particularly pleased with the public order measures announced today. My constituents look at people trying to wreck petrol stations and getting on tankers—taking action that is dangerous. I have to say that my sympathy was with the woman in the Range Rover who was trying to nudge protesters. A lot of people work hard. They try to get their kids to school and keep them in school uniform. They take people to hospital. Protesters who are not demonstrators but are disrupting other people’s livelihoods need to be curtailed. The measures are therefore welcome and I am glad the Government are on the front foot when it comes to dealing with these issues. That is vital. Part of the problem and the reason we have to legislate is that we have seen examples of City banks where people outside have hit buildings and smashed windows with hammers, and, unfortunately, the judicial system has let people off. Sometimes the people who are making decisions in the judicial system do not understand the seriousness of where that leads. If we let there be some degree of anarchy, that can easily overspill and break out, so the measures are welcome.
Of course 13,500 police officers are welcome. I still think the police need some reform. It is the one area that Mrs Thatcher did not reform and sometimes the productivity we get out of the police force is not all that we need. We need some specialists in police forces, so I do not think that just the head count of police officers is important. It is important sometimes when dealing with fraud to deal with people who are experts in that, rather than people who just happen to be officers.
My final point is that we put a lot of money into the national health service. It is important we get the productivity. It is also important that it does not disappear and we cannot deal with care. We made a number of commitments. People are paying higher taxes, at least in the short term, to deal with the backlog and care. It is so important we live up to the pledges we made.
I welcome the Loyal Speech and what the Government are doing. I have one or two concerns, but broadly speaking I am supportive.
The debate today is about preventing crime and delivering justice. We heard the Home Secretary’s claim, delivered without any sense of irony, to belong to the party of law and order, but this Government’s record is one of seeking out every opportunity they can to put themselves beyond justice and above the rule of law. We have had a decade of successive Tory Governments obsessed with chipping away at any institutions or activities that constrain or hold them to account: trade unions, charities, the Electoral Commission, our courts and, obviously, our EU member-ship. Now, it is human rights and protesters yet again in the firing line. To this Government even international law is almost inconsequential, broken quite readily, whether in a specific and limited way or by a complete trashing of the refugee convention.
This is a Government too often pursuing pet obsessions and short-term headlines instead of dealing with the basics. While people struggle to heat their homes and put food on the table because of the cost of living crisis, the Government, instead of taking the action we need, imagine up a Brexit freedoms Bill. Six tortuous years after the Brexit referendum, they are still trying to scapegoat Brussels.
There were newspaper reports of a Cabinet rebellion to stop imports of foie gras being outlawed. How about a rebellion to protect workers’ rights or human rights, or to help our constituents to heat their homes and put food on the table? This is a Government who are out of touch. Those skewed priorities are just as evident in the sphere of justice and home affairs, with two Departments cut to the bone by a decade of austerity pursuing obsessions, pet projects and ridiculous headlines instead of taking the action and making the investment required to deliver the decent public services we need them to deliver. This Government are just not getting on with the job. People just want their passports delivered on time! Despite all the fuss made by Brexiteers, it does not matter what colour the passports are if they arrive too late. The Home Secretary very generously agreed to take away individual cases, but I think she will find that her inbox will be absolutely overflowing with thousands of emails if we take her up on that.
If the Government are to insist on Ukrainians applying for visas—we continue to argue that they should not—then they need to be delivered speedily and efficiently, because leaving those fleeing war in limbo is unforgivable. The Home Secretary seemed to talk up the fact that 19,000 had arrived here. I salute the generosity of the British people in opening their homes, but there are already 27,000 in Ireland, a country that is about one-thirteenth the size of this country. The bureaucracy put in place by this Home Secretary is not allowing this country to step up to the plate. In fact, the whole asylum and immigration system needs to be sped up, with decision making improved and the hostile environment ditched. For those who are victims of that hostile environment, we need an overhaul of the Windrush compensation scheme, because it is appalling that people continue to die without seeing a penny of what they are due. If the Government are serious about the lessons learned from that disaster, we need a more serious set of actions to implement Wendy Williams’ recommendations, including a migrants commissioner.
All those very basic issues need to be addressed, but instead what we get in this Queen’s Speech are further attacks on our rights. Before I turn to the main offenders in the legislative programme, let me highlight the Bills for which we will offer some support and bring some light to the Home Secretary’s afternoon. An overhaul of espionage laws is badly overdue, as we know from the Russia report, the Law Commission and various other sources. We need a more resilient state with espionage laws that are fit for the 21st century and able to keep pace with the ever-changing threats that we face. However, we will always watch out for proper oversight and mechanisms to ensure that the powers are not abused by Government, and we will press the case for a public interest defence.
We welcome the economic crime Bill. Again, that is long overdue, with my hon. Friends, including my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss), among the voices that have been calling for action for years. We have welcomed the online safety Bill and we recognise that it is now truer than ever that feeling safe requires regulation of the online as much as the offline.
We also support the ideas mentioned in relation to the modern slavery Bill, particularly around action on supply chains, but any modern slavery Bill worthy of the name should repeal some of the provisions of the odious Nationality and Borders Act 2022, which was passed just last month and which will undoubtedly make life worse, not better, for victims of trafficking, including those who face being sent to Rwanda. We will engage positively, though cautiously, with discussions about the Protect duty and that draft Bill. However, these are not the dangerous obsessions or pet projects to which I referred. Those come in the form of the legislation to meddle with the Human Rights Act and to undermine yet again the right to protest.
The Human Rights Act
“works well and has benefited many”.
The Government know this as they were told so by their independent review body, which noted that many so-called problems with the Act are more to do with perception than reality, requiring a remedy through a focus on human rights education, not a radical overhaul. The Joint Committee on Human Rights has also done excellent work in highlighting the “enormously positive” impact of the Act on the protection of human rights in the UK, concluding firmly that no case for reform had been established.
This is about people being able to have a practical means of enforcing our human rights, challenging unlawful Government policies and securing justice. It is about ensuring that people interacting with the state, whether that is the police or in care homes or hospitals, are treated with dignity and respect. Our public services are better, not worse for being fully accountable to our constituents in the courts here, instead of their having to travel to Strasbourg to vindicate their rights. That is what the Government risk undermining and damaging, not delivering justice but seeking to protect themselves from it. We will oppose the proposals every step of the way.
The proposals tell us something much more fundamental about the British constitution, because the Human Rights Act is, after all, a piece of legislation that is absolutely crucial to the devolution settlements. That has not been recognised at all in this debate. Along with the Scotland Act 1998, it is absolutely fundamental in setting out what the Scottish Parliament and Government can and cannot do. It is the same for Wales and it is pivotal, too, for Northern Ireland.
Not for the first time, here is a Tory Government fixing up the balance of powers in the United Kingdom not through negotiation, agreement and endorsement, but unilaterally, without consent and absolutely without cause. In most states and most countries, such fundamental changes would require agreement; approval in all the impacted legislatures; sometimes even double majorities; sometimes endorsement through referenda. But here in the UK, the Tories can rewrite the constitutional settlement to suit themselves in the blink of an eye, such is the lack of checks and constraints on them.
A Home Office focused on Scotland would tear up the immigration system that has served us so badly, left us without the people we desperately need for our economy and public services, and undermined the rights and security of so many of the people we already have welcomed. It would utterly reject an asylum system that is expressly and increasingly designed to make people suffer.
If we really wanted to prevent crime and deliver justice, we would overhaul the out-of-date Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, which exacerbates one of the most persistent and difficult public health challenges that we face today. This is the scourge that is inextricably linked with so much crime, overcrowded prisons, serious and organised crime groups, county lines, modern slavery, drugs deaths and ruined lives. The Misuse of Drugs Act is not working and, in too many respects, is now undermining efforts to tackle all those fundamental problems. Even very obvious evidence-based policies, such as overdose prevention facilities, remain hugely difficult because of that Act. There were some very welcome steps in the Government’s drugs strategy, but for real progress to be made, we continue to make the case for that Act to receive a radical review and overhaul.
Those are just some of the things that we desperately need from this Home Secretary and this Government, but they will never be delivered. They are a Department and a Government that deliver nothing of substance for the people of Scotland, instead undermining our rights and undermining the Scottish Parliament. This Government will not deliver. More than anything, this Queen’s Speech shows us that we in Scotland need to get on with delivering for ourselves.
Preventing crime and delivering justice—surely if we get the first bit right, we do not need the second. That is wishful thinking, I know, but it is nevertheless true. Sadly, we do not live in a perfect world, so justice is needed, and the best justice is swift justice. Justice delayed is justice denied.
The legacy of covid lives on in so many ways. In the last Session, we did much to help alleviate the pressures on the justice system, but we will have to wait and see. We made new laws to protect our borders. To me, it never made sense to spend huge amounts of money on a justice system and to continue to let people come in illegally. Am I saying that these people are all criminals? Not necessarily, but it does not look good on anyone’s CV. “How did you arrive in this country?” “Well, I gave a people smuggler all my cash and I hoped to beat the system.” That is unacceptable. It had to be dealt with and I hope that what we have put in place will do just that.
We have given tougher sentences for many crimes, and even though I do not necessarily believe that a 25-year sentence will deter people from committing some of the devastating crimes that happen, it will at least keep them off the street for a much longer period and help the poor victim to move on. I welcome the victims Bill, too. That is the right thing to do, and I hope that it will make a huge difference to how victims are treated and hopefully encourage more to come forward.
Today, I want to talk about prevention. As chair of the all-party group on issues affecting men and boys, I am fully aware of the statistics about men and crime. Men make up 95% of the prison population—just let me run that by the House again: 95% of the prison population are men. If this was a statistic for any other demographic, there would be a public outcry, so why is there not? It is because that is what we have come to expect of a large number of our population. Some say, “Men are bad”, but I say to the House: no, no, no—that is not true. Far too many men and boys are being forgotten, left behind and ignored, and they are now being increasingly vilified. We hear about toxic masculinity. Some say, “Impose a curfew on all men”—yes, that is what was seriously suggested—and “All men are bad.” We cannot let that constant vilification happen. I say here and now that this has to stop.
We need to deal with this head on and ask ourselves the simple question: why? Why are men committing so much crime? Why are so many women being murdered, attacked and abused? Why are so many men being murdered, attacked and abused? Why? Do I have the answers to those questions? No, not yet—it is not simple—but we need to get there, and I believe that we could get there a lot quicker. We need help with that, such as through a Minister for men and boys, a Minister for their health and wellbeing, a national men’s health strategy. If we are serious about fighting crime, let us tackle the causes as well as the symptoms. I believe that if we were to start asking those questions, we would protect our women and girls so much more. We would also protect our men and boys, but we must start asking the questions.
I have spoken with many people in my position as an MP and as chair of the APPG, and they agree that we cannot arrest ourselves out of all crime. Having more police is great, and we are getting many, but if every police officer were to go out on the beat, there would still be some streets without a police officer. It is great that we are lighting roads, but I am afraid that attacks will still happen on some of those roads and behind closed doors.
We have to ask why. Why is this the case? Is it drugs, alcohol, mental health or a bad childhood experience? What drove these people to drugs, alcohol or depression? Why are they not talking about their dreadful past? Is it the result of being the victim of sexual abuse or pornography? Is it the internet? Is it from being brought up in a dysfunctional family or a community that does not bring hope? Is it peer pressure or gangs? Why do young people join a gang? There are lots of questions, but there are answers. If we really want to protect one another, surely we should be finding those answers.
I wrote an article in The Yorkshire Post last week with an analogy:
“if out of every 1,000 cars we had three that were faulty…Would we ban all cars? Would we build more hospitals? Would we wrap every pedestrian in bubble wrap? No…we would try and find out what has gone wrong with the cars.”
That is what I believe we should do with that small minority of men and boys. I have been told that as chair of the APPG I may get some opposition, but I can tell the House that I have not—not yet, anyway. The reason is that if anyone really thinks about it, they will see that I am trying to help society as a whole.
Who would a men’s Minister speak to? Lots of men, hopefully, and lots of women too, but in this place I would expect them to speak to Ministers in the Department for Education, the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, the Department of Health and Social Care, the Department for Work and Pensions, the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, the Ministry of Defence, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy—the list goes on. We need someone to see all the problems that men face, collate them all and then speak to the Home Office and say, “This is what’s going wrong.” It has to happen. We have to ask these questions, and we have to find the answers.
I have a wife, a daughter and a son. I want them all to go about their business safe and happy. We all want that, so let us use our heads. Yes, we want swift justice and long sentences where required, but let us try and prevent the crimes from happening in the first place. Let us see what has gone wrong with a small minority of our men and why they are in the criminal justice system or may end up in it. Then, when we know, we will need a concerted effort to fix the problem at source.
We need to fix the faulty cars before they head for the road. I know that the House will agree that we would find it hard to manage without cars. Well, we would find it much harder to manage without men.
I do not often get the chance to speak in the House—being shadow Minister without portfolio means having a lot to do, but often without the opportunity to say very much—so I am delighted to be able to contribute to the debate.
The Home Secretary is just leaving the Chamber. This will not do either her or me very much good—I may even get chased from this place by my own colleagues—but in her absence I want to say that I like the Home Secretary. I also like the Minister for Crime and Policing.
That will definitely not do me any good.
One thing I admire about the Home Secretary, even though I profoundly disagree with her, is that she believes in things. However, despite her virtuoso performance at the Dispatch Box today, I do not think that she believes some of the accusations that she levelled at the Opposition. I do not think for a second that the Government think that an Opposition led by a former Director of Public Prosecutions, who prosecuted terrorists and the worst sort of criminals and offenders and made sure that they were put in prison, are any sort of threat to national security. We can argue about policy, record and delivery, but let us not kid ourselves or the British public, because frankly they do not believe it either.
Before I come on to my main remarks about the Loyal Address, I want to place on record, given the topic of today’s debate, my thanks to and admiration for Merseyside police, led by Chief Constable Serena Kennedy. We have been blessed in Merseyside with good leadership using all the tools to provide a robust policing response to things that matter to people in St Helens and across Merseyside, tackle the root causes of crime and antisocial behaviour, and give no quarter to those criminals who would terrorise our communities. I stand squarely behind our police force—the men and women of Merseyside police who put themselves daily in harm’s way to keep us and our communities safe.
I turn to the wider aspects of the programme that the Government have set out, or the lack thereof. This was a gilt-edged chance for the Government to grab the cost of living crisis by the scruff of the neck. More than that, it was a chance to lay the groundwork after the pandemic, for prosperity and renewal across our communities and to set a pathway to the securer future that has never felt further away for many of our citizens, but is so badly needed.
The House will not be surprised to hear this, but I regret to say that I think the Government missed that opportunity. That matters, because this is not just about the theatre of the state opening. This is a profoundly worrying juncture for our country. Inflation is soaring and is predicted to rise further to some 10%, fuel and food prices are skyrocketing, and 15 of the tax rises imposed by this Government are hitting working people particularly. A national insurance hike—a tax on working people—is the wrong tax, at the wrong time, on the wrong people.
When I speak to residents, my neighbours in St Helens, their families, pensioners, businesses and local community groups, it is clear that this crisis is really affecting people and that they are really worrying about how they will cope. That was the stark reality that I heard from community groups in St Helens at a recent meeting that I convened with some of those who work with our community and residents who are affected. What they tell me is borne out by statistics from very reputable sources. Nine in 10 people have already seen a rise in the cost of living, are already experiencing more expensive energy bills, and are seeing more costly groceries on their weekly shop. Nearly a quarter of adults are finding it difficult to pay their usual household bills.
Worryingly, food bank use in St Helens North has risen by nearly 900 users over the past year, including 300 children—in the United Kingdom, in the 21st century, in a town like St Helens. This is not often cited, but our food banks are also wrestling with a 30% reduction in donations, because people who previously gave cannot afford to now because they have to look after themselves. Our transport costs are also rising, making it harder to get to work, see family and friends and stay connected. That has a huge impact on inequality.
Even before the crisis, a sixth of households in my constituency were in fuel poverty, so I was very pleased that a central plank of the Labour party’s offer in the local election campaign was putting up to £600 back in people’s pockets now by levelling a windfall tax on the excess profits of the oil and gas companies, which to all intents and purposes are printing money because of the increase in costs. At a time when the Government should be using every policy lever they can to deliver security, they had no answer this week.
As I have said before, our communities are resilient. We have been through a lot over the past two years—in fact, over the past 20 or 30 years—but people have come together to meet the challenges, particularly under the banner of St Helens Together, in a spirit of generosity, kindness and solidarity. Contrary to what some commentators wish to believe, communities in the north of England are not homogeneous and the challenges we face are nuanced, but our sense of place is important, as it is in St Helens. We are proud of that and remain steadfast in our ambitions for a better and securer future. That is why—this is a point that I have consistently made—it is not just about criticising the Government. Part of my job as an Opposition MP is to do that, but it is not enough.
I have agency. I am a Member of Parliament and a political leader, so just attacking the Government for what they are failing to do does not wash for my constituents in St Helens. They want to see action, so we are taking responsibility. As political, business and community leaders, we are addressing the big challenges facing our towns and villages in the Liverpool city region by regenerating our town centres through an historic, innovative £200 million partnership with the English cities fund; securing £25 million of innovative projects from the towns fund; investing record amounts in children’s services and focusing on the next generation’s educational attainment; and creating decent, secure and skilled jobs, training and opportunities through world-leading initiatives such as Glass Futures.
We are regenerating former colliery sites such as Parkside. They are not just a monument to those who worked there, proud as we are of that heritage. They are places that will create new employment opportunities for a whole new generation of people across our coalfields. We are revolutionising public transport, we are taking steps to bring buses back into public ownership, and we are seeking to “bring rail home” to where it originated, with the Rainhill trials, through our bid to host the headquarters of Great British Railways in our borough.
Our approach was endorsed again last week, when Labour increased its vote share in St Helens after its candidate stood for election on the basis of the party’s record and an ambitious manifesto. It is now back, forming a new administration in our council with a strong mandate to continue.
Disappointed as I am—as would be expected—with what the Government have, or indeed have not, included in their legislative programme, that is not an excuse for me or anyone else to abdicate responsibility. I know that I have a job to do for my community, and we are of course taking responsibility, because we are proud of our past and ambitious for our future. However, I must stress to Ministers that people are worried. There are huge fears about the cost of living and what it means for their families, and that clouds the present and makes it more difficult to be optimistic about the future. I wish that the Government would do more to help me and my constituents in St Helens, but also to help people throughout the country. I wish that they would help us to get through the cost of living crisis, but also to push on with our plans to build a better and brighter future. If they do not, however, we in Helens will, as always, just do it ourselves.
It is a great pleasure to be called. Law and order is a subject that is close to all our hearts, as has been made clear by the passionate contributions that we have heard so far.
I shall not speak for long, but I want to do two things. First, I want to provide a constituency perspective—a local perspective—which I think is relevant. Secondly, I want to explain why I feel that the crime prevention measures in the Queen’s Speech are so important.
Bracknell is the safest major town in Berkshire, and the 21st safest town in the United Kingdom. That is a great accolade. These statistics, by the way, are taken from the website crimerate.co.uk, and I urge everyone to look at them. The overall crime rate in Bracknell in 2021 was 60 crimes per 1,000 people. That compares favourably with Berkshire’s overall crime rate, being 25% lower than the Berkshire rate of 75 per 1,000. East Berkshire is a pretty good place to live, offering good schools and good roads; we also have almost full employment. I am proud to represent those who live in my constituency.
Crowthorne is deemed to be a “small town” in this analysis, although it is probably a village. In 2021 the overall crime rate was 43 crimes per 1,000 people, 76% lower than the overall Berkshire rate. In Sandhurst, the overall rate in 2021 was 45 crimes per 1,000 people, 69% lower than the Berkshire rate. Finchampstead—which is certainly a village—is categorised as one of the five safest small towns or areas in Berkshire, with a rate of 36 crimes per 1,000 people.
The most common crime recorded in my constituency is violence against the person, including, sadly, sexual violence, so we have work to do. I therefore welcome a number of the measures in the Queen’s Speech. I do not want to wax too lyrical about what we have already heard, and the Home Secretary has covered all the detail. However, I welcome the Public Order Bill, the economic crime Bill, the economic crime and corporate transparency Bill, the modern slavery Bill, the National Security Bill, the draft protect duty Bill and the Online Safety Bill.
Let me focus on three of the Bills that have been announced. The draft victims Bill will set out to restore victims’ confidence that their voices will be properly heard, and that perpetrators will be brought to justice. That is very important to my constituents. The Online Safety Bill creates a new regulatory framework that improves user safety online while safeguarding freedom of expression, making the UK one of the safest places in the world in which to be online. The Bill of Rights, which has real relevance locally, will ensure that there is a proper balance between the rights of individuals, our vital national security and effective government, strengthening freedom of speech and our common-law traditions, and—rightly—reducing reliance on Strasbourg case law post-Brexit.
There are some additional issues to focus on. For instance, 13,500 new police officers have been provided so far in this Parliament as part of the manifesto commitment to put 20,000 extra officers on the streets. We are getting there. Thames Valley alone has gained an additional 368 police officers, with a further 233 projected for this year. That is great news for Bracknell, for Berkshire and for Thames Valley. The commitment to introduce a new drugs strategy is extremely important: we need to break up county lines and criminal gangs, and help those who are struggling and are the victims of crime. So far we have seen the closure of 1,500 county lines, 600 operations against organised crime groups, and more than 220,000 drug seizures. Those are impressive figures, but we can go further. For the purpose of crime prevention, £200 million is being offered for a 10-year youth endowment fund.
I have already mentioned the Public Order Bill. It is so important for people to be able to go about their daily business and get to work, and for ambulances to get to hospitals. No one has the right to impede the way in which other people lead their lives, and those who chain themselves to railings and glue themselves to the road need to be in jail: that is a fact.
I welcome all these Bills on the basis of their inherent merits, and because they will make a difference. Let me end with three key points which are important to me locally, and to my constituents.
We need stronger powers to deal with antisocial behaviour, in terms of police response and in terms of arrest at the scene. We see a great deal of such behaviour in Bracknell, in the wider constituency area and throughout the United Kingdom. Antisocial driving is another feature locally. On Saturday evening, at Birch Hill Sainsburys in Bracknell, there was a big car meet. That is fine: I love cars. I am a motor sports fan, and I chair the all-party parliamentary group for motorsport. However, activities of that kind must be managed and controlled. People were spinning cars and doing “doughnuts”; there was tyre smoke, and there was a huge amount of noise. It reached the point at which residents were being assaulted. This cannot continue to happen. I would urge Sainsburys to lock its car parks at night when its stores are not open—that would be an easy way of dealing with the problem—but I would also urge Bracknell Forest Council, the Thames Valley police and crime commissioner and Thames Valley police to deal more responsibly with such incidents, which cause misery to all concerned. We must cut down on speed, on antisocial driving and on noise nuisance.
A constituent of mine, Luke Ings, was jailed at the age of 18 for affray. He is now 37 years old, and he is still in Durham prison. He has done his time, in my view. He is what is known as an IPP prisoner—imprisoned for public protection. He has been given an indeterminate sentence. I suggest to the Minister that we need to review IPP prisoners to ensure that we are not locking people up beyond the point at which they have be locked up. Luke Ings has done his time; let us please release him.
Young Stacey Queripel, aged seven, was found dead—murdered—in woods in Bracknell 29 years ago. I think we need to focus a bit more on cold cases and cold case reviews. I want to see more police resources given to investigating that particular crime, and all those like it. No one has been brought to justice for that murder in 29 years, and the family still live in Bracknell.
I am very happy with the announcements made yesterday, and I am very supportive of the Government. I think that the Bills will make a difference—but I also think we can go further.
I appreciate being called so early in the debate, Mr Deputy Speaker.
Many people were looking forward to the Queen’s Speech—not just Members in this House but those who have been affected by the huge problems that have arisen as we have come out of the pandemic: the hospital waiting lists, the impact on the economy, and now, of course, the cost of living increase, as well as events occurring internationally, whether in eastern Europe or further afield. We wish the Government well in seeking to address those problems.
We will be critical of many of the measures, but it is important that the Government have highlighted the right priorities to deal with the cost of living crisis, which needs to be addressed very quickly. Many people are now struggling to meet the ordinary day-to-day expenses they face, not for luxuries but for basic necessities, and the Government need to act quickly by putting money back in people’s pockets. I believe that individuals are best placed to decide how they spend their money.
I understand the problem that the Prime Minister and the Chancellor have outlined about huge debt and having to pay it back, but the inflationary pressures that have occurred over the last number of months have given the Government a windfall. They have given the Government finance that is available for tax cuts and, against a background of having imposed the heaviest tax burden on the people of this country since the 1950s, one way of dealing with this issue is to make immediate tax cuts. There is a benefit in doing that, in that it puts money in people’s pockets immediately. Also, not having complicated schemes would ensure that those benefits would be seen to come directly from the Westminster Parliament. One of my concerns about the Union is that the benefits that occur because of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland being part of the fifth biggest economy in the world are often hidden because the money is devolved down to the regions; we get complicated schemes, and the benefits are seen to come not from being part of the United Kingdom but from the actions of the devolved Administrations. The Government should consider how they can quickly address this issue and how they can ensure that people understand that the benefits have come because they are part of the United Kingdom. As a Unionist, I would advocate that the Government take that stance.
We welcome many of the law and order and justice initiatives in the Queen’s Speech. It is right that we address the issue of slavery, and I hope that that legislation will delve into the supply chains. Many of us obtain cheap goods because firms are careless as to where they source those goods. I do not want to get cheap clothes because somebody has been exploited in a third world country and the people who sell those goods have not looked into where the supply is coming from. I also welcome the initiatives on economic crime, and I hope the Government will recognise that it is not just those who engage in economic crime but those who assist them who have to be dealt with in the legislation.
As far as disruptive protest is concerned, I am not averse to protest—I have involved myself in many protests over the years of my political involvement—but we have to strike a balance between giving people the right to have their say about issues that concern them and at the same time ensuring that they do not deliberately, callously and selfishly deny others the ability to go about their business. I have witnessed at first hand the frustration of the good people of Canning Town, where I stay when I am in London, at being denied the ability to go to work. One guy said to me—I will not repeat his exact words because they were not very parliamentary—as we stood on a packed platform at Canning Town, “If I don’t get to work today I don’t get any wages, but those people sitting on top of the tube think that doesn’t matter and that their concerns are more important than my ability to go to work.” It is right that the Government should take action to ensure that those who engage in this selfish behaviour and who smugly think that their cause is more important than anybody else’s welfare are dealt with.
Of course, not all the measures will apply to Northern Ireland because many of these matters are devolved to the Northern Ireland Administration, but there are many other measures in the Queen’s Speech that will not apply to Northern Ireland because Northern Ireland is not treated the same as the United Kingdom. I looked at some of the things that the Prime Minister said yesterday. For example, he said that we were going to have measures to encourage economic growth and a bonfire of European regulations. In Northern Ireland, there will be no bonfire. There will not even be a matchstick in Northern Ireland when it comes to European regulations because we have stayed within the single market of the European Union. It would be illegal for that bonfire of regulations to apply to Northern Ireland.
That is one of the key ways in which the Government say they intend to level up economic activity within the United Kingdom, yet Northern Ireland will be exempt. The energy legislation that will be put through this House to deal with fuel bills cannot apply to Northern Ireland because Northern Ireland is part of the single electricity market, and any attempt to give support through the energy infrastructure would fall foul of the rules on state aid that apply to Northern Ireland. When it comes to support mechanisms, we have already had the example of the Chancellor being unable to fulfil the Conservative manifesto promise that when we left the EU, the Government would be free to reduce VAT on fuel bills. They could not do it. Why? Because that reduction in VAT could not apply to Northern Ireland.
I heard the former Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May), saying yesterday that we could not possibly do anything to disrupt the protocol. In this debate on crime and the threat of crime it is important to remember that Northern Ireland’s different position in the United Kingdom is due to the threats that were made by the Irish Prime Minister, by certain political parties in Northern Ireland—some of which sit here; some of which do not—and, indeed, by some Members of this House that if we did not have separate arrangements for Northern Ireland, we would face violence in Northern Ireland. The protocol is the baby of threats of crime and threats to Northern Ireland and the United Kingdom.
My right hon. Friend has just mentioned the former Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Maidenhead. Does he agree that she made an unfortunate reference yesterday that was inaccurate, in that she seemed to allude to the fact that we could have avoided this if we had backed her proposals, when in fact we would have been in exactly the same position had GB diverted from the EU regulations? That was very unfortunate, and we have an opportunity now to rectify that error.
Under the former Prime Minister’s proposals, Northern Ireland would have been subject not only to single market rules but to customs union rules, which would have meant that we could not have benefited from the 80 trade deals that the Government have now done across the world. Thankfully that is not the case; we still have access to those trade deals, and firms in Northern Ireland have benefited from them. Indeed, I can think of an example in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for South Antrim (Paul Girvan), where a firm has set up exclusively to export the machinery that it will produce to the Australian market, as a result of the deal that we now have with Australia. There are huge benefits to being separate from the EU.
It is important to highlight that, as a result of the Northern Ireland protocol, many of the measures that the Government intend to introduce for the rest of the United Kingdom cannot apply to Northern Ireland. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson) said yesterday, the Northern Ireland Assembly cannot possibly function until this issue is addressed. We are told that, without the protocol, Northern Ireland could become a hive of economic crime, because people would bring goods into Northern Ireland and smuggle them across the Irish border, contaminating the EU market. Of course, very little trade actually goes through Northern Ireland into the Irish Republic. Indeed, supermarkets that do not have shops in the Irish Republic are subject to these measures. What economic crime they will involve themselves in, I do not know. Nevertheless, that is the rationale attached to the protocol.
For the sake of good governance in Northern Ireland, this issue must be addressed. No Unionist in Northern Ireland will accept the divisiveness and economic damage of the protocol, which means there will not be consensus on the workings of the Assembly. If we do not have consensus, there will be all kinds of divisions, so the Assembly cannot possibly work. It is therefore important that this issue be addressed.
If justice is to be done for people in Northern Ireland, and if we are not to give in to the threats of criminal behaviour by those who are opposed to getting rid of the Northern Ireland protocol, the Government must take action. I am disappointed that no action was highlighted in the Queen’s Speech, but this is not solely a Northern Ireland issue.
I have already highlighted that we cannot change VAT on fuel bills, but there is another Bill absent from the Queen’s Speech. I believe there is almost universal support for improving animal welfare, as promised. Most people in the United Kingdom do not want to see the continued importation of hunting trophies from across the world. Whether Conservative or Labour, most people do not want to see the importation of foie gras, in the production of which birds are cruelly treated. I do not think most people want to see the importation of furs.
Those measures were not in the Queen’s Speech, even though the Government indicated that they would be. Why? Northern Ireland is part of the single market: those things cannot be banned in that part of the United Kingdom, because Northern Ireland would become a back door. Many of these animal welfare measures are not in the Queen’s Speech because of the Northern Ireland protocol. We have not even tested the state aid rules in the rest of the United Kingdom.
This issue needs to be addressed, and I implore the Government not to delay. There might be divisions in the Cabinet and the Conservative party, and there might be Opposition Members who really do not care that the protocol is having an impact on the Good Friday agreement, the stability of Northern Ireland and the ability of people in Northern Ireland to share the same benefits as the rest of the United Kingdom, but I assure the House that my party will do everything it can, on a weekly basis, to raise this issue with Ministers in the House of Commons and to use whatever leverage we have back home to ensure the political institutions are not contaminated by the Northern Ireland protocol.
Nobody should feel unsafe on the streets or in their home, which is why preventing crime is probably the most important part of this Queen’s Speech. Each time we debate the subject in this place, the Labour party seems to side with the criminals. I am not sure why that is, but it seems to happen every single time. The Queen’s Speech serves as a reminder to everyone that the Conservatives are the only party that is serious about law and order in the UK.
The vast majority of decent, hard-working people in this country will welcome the new public order Bill. Every week we see mindless people who have nothing better to do than wreak havoc on our streets, motorways and petrol stations. Frankly, the hard-working people of this country are fed up to the back teeth of these people disrupting lives and destroying property.
When I have been out and about, I have seen people gluing themselves to property, digging up lawns, throwing paint and performing zombie-like dances in the middle of the road with no regard for the decent, hard-working people of this country. [Interruption.] Zombie dances, a bit like Strangers Bar at night with my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis). These people have no regard for the decent, hard-working people of this country, and their guerrilla tactics are disrupting emergency workers and putting lives at risk. The public have had enough.
We were pretty good at handing out fines during lockdown. We dished out big fines, some justified and some not, and I hope the Government will consider handing out bigger fines to these public nuisances who think it is a good idea to damage petrol stations. I suggest a £10,000 fine, going up to 20 grand. That will teach them. Going back to their mum and dad with a 10 grand fine might be the deterrent they need.
Let us remind ourselves of what the Conservative party has been up to in government. We are recruiting 20,000 new police officers, and there are already more than 13,000 new police officers on our streets, making our streets safer. We have enshrined the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022 in law, giving the police extra powers to prevent crime and keep dangerous criminals off our streets. The Act stops the automatic early release of dangerous, violent and sexual offenders, widens the scope of police powers such as stop and search, and places a legal duty on local authorities to work together with fire and rescue services, the police and criminal justice agencies. Labour voted against the Act, and I will tell the House what else Labour voted against: everything in the Act.
In Ashfield we are really benefiting from a Conservative Government. We have just had £550,000 from the safer streets fund, with which we are putting up CCTV in some really dodgy areas of my town. This will make women and young girls feel safe. There will be safe hotspots where they can reach out for help. It is wonderful news for one of the most deprived areas of my constituency. We are using the fund to put up new security gates to secure alleyways, which are antisocial behaviour hotspots. The funding is making residents feel safe in their own home. It is real action. On top of that, we have new police officers in the Operation Reacher teams in Eastwood and Ashfield, which are going out to take the most undesirable people off our streets and lock them up.
The police had always been a little frustrated that the sentencing has not been enough for these criminals, but we have sorted that with the 2022 Act. People will be locked up for longer, and so they should be. It makes people in Ashfield and Eastwood feel safer, it makes me feel safer and it makes my family feel safer. When these criminals are arrested and taken through the court system, it is only right that they should be put away for as long as possible to make us all feel safe.
Labour also has no ideas about the illegal crossings by dinghies and boats coming over the channel. Labour Members seem to be confused, as they do not know the difference between an economic migrant and a genuine asylum seeker, which is a shame. My constituents in Ashfield would put them right. If Labour Members come up to my Wetherspoons in Kirkby, my constituents will tell them the difference—they are pretty good at it.
If, as the hon. Gentleman says, Opposition Members do not know the difference between economic migrants and, as he calls them, genuine asylum seekers, the Home Office does not, either. The Home Office has concluded that the vast majority of people in those boats are refugees and should be recognised as such. What does he have to say to the Home Secretary?
I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention and I think that what she describes is the fault of the old, failing asylum system; when people get here, they know how to fill the forms out and they have these lefty lawyers who say, “Put this, this and this.” So they fill the forms out and, hey presto, about 80% get asylum status, and it is wrong. It is a burden on the taxpayer, these people are abusing the system. It is a bit like some benefit cheats—they do it, don’t they? They abuse the system, saying that they are disabled when they are not. [Interruption.] Yes, they do. Come on, let’s be right about it.
Make no mistake: if that lot on the Opposition Benches got in power, perish the thought, this Rwanda plan would be scrapped within five minutes. They want to see open borders. They want to let anybody in. [Interruption.] However, I welcome the sensible comments on food bank use made by the hon. Member for St Helens North (Conor McGinn), who is not in his place. I would welcome any Opposition Member coming to visit my local food bank in Ashfield, where I help out on a regular basis. We have a great project in place at the moment.
My hon. Friend will know that there are two elements to most sentences: rehabilitation, which is important because we can rehabilitate criminals in prisons and put them back on the streets as, we hope, reformed characters; and deterrence. Does he agree that deterrence is an important function of any sentence and that longer sentences may well have the deterrent effect of saying to people, “Think twice before you commit that crime”?
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention, as he makes a perfect point. Not only is it a great deterrent, but the longer those people are locked up in prison, the longer they cannot commit these horrible crimes.
As I was saying, the hon. Member for St Helens North made some great comments about food banks. My invitation is to every Opposition Member: come to Ashfield, work with me for a day in my local food bank and see the brilliant scheme we have in place. When people come for a food parcel now, they have to register for a budgeting course and a cooking course. We show them how to cook cheap and nutritious meals on a budget; we can make a meal for about 30p a day, and this is cooking from scratch.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, as he makes a great point. Indeed, it is exactly my point, so I invite him personally to come to Ashfield to look at how our food bank works. He will see at first hand that there is not this massive use for food banks in this country. We have generation after generation who cannot cook properly—they cannot cook a meal from scratch—and they cannot budget. The challenge is there. I make that offer to anybody. Opposition Members are sitting there with glazed expressions on their faces, looking at me as though I have landed from a different planet. They should come to Ashfield, next week or the week after, and come to a real food bank that is making a real difference to people’s lives.
I will end now, because Opposition Members are not listening; these are a generation of MPs who never listen. The bad news is that this Labour party is out of control and out of touch, but , thankfully, it is out of power. That is me done, Mr Deputy Speaker.
What I will say to the hon. Member for Ashfield (Lee Anderson) is that all of us have food banks in our constituency and we do not need to visit his, because we are perfectly well aware of the requirement for them. They are required not because people do not know how to cook, but because we have poverty in this country on a scale that should shame his Government.
Before I address the substance of today’s debate and, in particular, the Government’s plans for a British Bill of Rights, like others I would like to refer to the results of the local elections last week, because in Scotland they were a very important reminder that this British Government have no mandate in Scotland and no mandate for any of the policies they are seeking to impose on my country in their programme for government. It is no surprise that the Conservatives lost so many votes and have been reduced to third place in Scotland. When I was campaigning on the doorsteps of my constituency, I heard over and over again the contempt in which this UK Government are held, not just because of the endemic law breaking, but because of the rank lack of respect for the Scottish electorate’s frequently expressed wish for a different way of doing things, and for a second independence referendum, following the broken promises of the first.
I am particularly proud that in the Pentland Hills ward of my constituency, my colleague and friend Fiona Glasgow displaced a Tory councillor and won yet another seat for the SNP on the City of Edinburgh Council. I congratulate her on the fantastic campaign that she ran. It is always so good to see women of independent mind elected to public office.
It was suggested by the Leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition yesterday that this Queen’s Speech has no guiding principle. He is right, in so far as it abjectly fails to make meaningful proposals to reverse the cost of living crisis, which is hammering my constituents, and constituents across the UK. There is nothing in the Queen’s Speech about cutting VAT on fuel bills; nothing about taxing big companies—not only energy companies, but others with excess profits; nothing to increase benefits; and nothing to reinstate the £20 that was cut from universal credit. I heard on the radio this morning that the Cabinet met yesterday to chuck around ideas to deal with the cost of living crisis but did not come to any conclusions. The lack of urgency and focus of this Government is as insulting to my constituents as it is callous. Nor does this Queen’s Speech contain any measures to compensate my constituents for the serial incompetence of the Home Office in respect of not just the handling of immigration and asylum cases, but the issuing of passports. Lots of working-class families in my constituency have lost out on hard-worked-for holidays and it is a disgrace. Will the Government compensate them?
I might not agree with everything the Leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition says—we disagree on the right of Scotland to self-determination, and I would like him to do more to stick up for women’s sex-based rights and the rights of same-sex-attracted people—but I consider him to be a man of integrity. I do not want to live in a state where the Government, with the assistance of their little helpers in the right-wing press, are able to influence the police to reopen a closed investigation into their political enemies. It stinks, and most of my constituents can see the difference between what seems to have been a working meal and the endless parade of parties, with suitcases of booze and karaoke, that took place at No. 10 during lockdown. People are not stupid.
Yesterday, we were told in the Queen’s Speech that this Government will ensure that the constitution is upheld. I had to struggle to stop myself laughing out loud. This Prime Minister cannot even uphold the ordinary laws of the land, and in 2019 he rode roughshod over the constitution when he unlawfully prorogued Parliament. That was just the start of it, because in 2020 his Government introduced legislation designed to go back on an agreement they themselves had signed with the European Union, and they are still at it with the Northern Ireland protocol. I think this Queen’s Speech does have a guiding principle: the principle of diminishing the ability of this Parliament and the courts to hold this Government to account. We see that in the Bill of Rights, the Public Order Bill and the Brexit freedoms Bill, which will expand Executive power to amend, appeal or replace EU retained law by way of secondary legislation, so that this House cannot scrutinise it properly. So much for “taking back control”.
On the Bill of Rights, as was said by my hon. Friend the Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald), the Government’s independent review of the Human Rights Act and the cross-party Joint Committee on Human Rights, of which I am a member, have found that the case for replacing the HRA with a British Bill of Rights has not been made out. The independent review suggested only very minor changes to the HRA, noting that the vast majority of submissions to that review spoke strongly in support of our Human Rights Act. But this Government did not even bother to address the findings of their own independent review, and instead published their own consultation on the day on which the independent review reported. This is extraordinary.
Yesterday, the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis), who is not in his place and for whom I have great respect, even though I disagree with him on this issue, tried to suggest that the main reason for modifying the Human Rights Act is that it will give the Government the ability to deport foreign criminals who have been released from prison. In the recent thorough report on Human Rights Act reform by the Joint Committee on Human Rights, published on 13 April, we examined that claim in some detail and found it to be unsubstantiated by the data produced by the Government. For anyone who is interested, the arguments are set out at paragraphs 223 to 234.
The Joint Committee also found that the Government’s case that human rights legislation is in serious need of reform is not proven. This is not evidence-based policy making. We concluded that the Government are purporting to solve non-existent problems and offering solutions that will cause only confusion and detriment to those who need their rights to be protected. We said:
“If the Government wanted to strengthen human rights they would improve how they are respected in general, improve education so that everyone knows their rights and improve access to the courts for those needing to enforce them. Improving awareness and understanding of human rights and access to the courts would have a”
“the government’s current proposals.”
Our cross-party report was agreed unanimously, so the Government should listen to what it says, as well as to the conclusions of the independent review that they commissioned.
There is of course a particular Scottish angle to the reform of the Human Rights Act, as was highlighted in a previous Joint Committee on Human Rights report, in which we recommended that any proposals to reform the Act should not be pursued without the consent of the Scottish Parliament. Again, that was the recommendation of a cross-party Committee, and it is in tune with the position of the Scottish Government. The Human Rights Act itself is a reserved matter, but human rights per se in Scotland are not reserved. We have our own Scottish Human Rights Commission, which has been A-listed by the United Nations, and it is very concerned about the Government’s plans to replace the Human Rights Act with a Bill of Rights. Indeed, the Joint Committee on Human Rights is to take evidence on that this afternoon.
The Human Rights Act that we have in this country is already a Bill of Rights. Bills of Rights have two characteristics: first, they are universal, so the rights apply to everyone, not just the people to whom the Government find it convenient to give rights; and secondly, they are a higher law, which is why the existing Human Rights Act includes the section 3 interpretative obligation. If those things are taken out, as the Government propose, it will not in fact be a Bill of Rights. Everyone knows that the Tories—or some of them, at least—have wanted to get us out of the European convention on human rights for some years. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear!”] They are cheering now, but the reality is that their leader signed an agreement with the European Union when we left it that means we cannot leave the ECHR. This British Bill of Rights idea is, then, actually just a sneaky way to try to diminish people’s ability to enforce their rights under the ECHR.
So far this afternoon, nobody has mentioned the plans for a ban on LGB conversion therapy. I support such a ban, although I think the evidence for how much it is a contemporary problem is questionable. It was certainly a very serious problem in the past.
I will develop my argument before I give way. I am concerned that Members are coming under pressure to support a ban on what is described as trans conversion therapy that ignores the interim report of the Cass review and the testimonies of Tavistock clinic whistleblowers and detransitioners. There is an exponential rise in the number of girls seeking to transition. Many of those girls will be same-sex attracted; it is important that that possibility, and other explanations for dysphoria, such as autism, be explored in a respectful way with a qualified therapist before young women embark on a road to medicalisation. If someone experiences gender dysphoria in childhood or puberty, it does not necessarily mean that they are trans. Thousands of adult lesbians and gay men will, like me, know that to be true. It is really important that Members understand that “trans inclusive” means assuming that all children who say that they are of the opposite sex are transgender. It also means insisting that they do not need psychotherapy if they say they do not want it.
Hilary Cass, former president of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, has been commissioned to report on NHS gender identity services for children. Her interim report, which was published a couple of months ago, has provided worrying information about the lack of normal clinical standards being applied to children with gender distress. More work needs to be done, but the interim results show that a high proportion of cared-for children, those with autism or experience of abuse, and children who would be likely to grow up lesbian or gay are presenting for gender services. I am advocating for evidence-based policy making. Let us wait for the outcome of the Cass report, and let us not be influenced by those who want to criminalise therapists who simply want to do their job and act in their patients’ best interests. We urgently need proper, informed debate, in public and in Parliament, and it must centre on the wellbeing of children and young people.
We can have such proper, informed debates in this place and beyond only if we have free speech. The Tories say that they believe in free speech and want to better protect it as a right, but actions speak louder than words. The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022, which was passed in the previous Session, the Public Order Bill and the Online Safety Bill all contain potential threats to freedom of expression. One of the problems with the Online Safety Bill is the introduction of a “legal but harmful” category for the removal of content. It will create a situation in which people are prevented from saying things that are legal but prohibited. There is a significant danger that, as drafted, the Bill will lead to the censorship of legal speech by online platforms and give the Government unacceptable controls over what we can and cannot say online.
As a former sex crimes prosecutor, I completely applaud the desire to protect children online that underlines the Online Safety Bill, but I am worried that the “legal but harmful” category will enable vexatious complainants to exploit the lack of definitional clarity to try to shut down lawful speech on topics of public concern on the grounds that it is “harmful” and should be subject to censorship.
Will the hon. and learned Member give way?
It is my lucky day. The hon. and learned Member is making a most interesting speech. When it comes to this Bill, does she agree that the weighting of primary and secondary legislation is worrying? Some of the definitions involved, such as those relating to freedom of speech, are so fundamental that they should be considered by this House, rather than nodded through in some instrument or another, whether under the negative or affirmative procedure.
I do share that concern. I do not think it is safe to leave the setting out of definitions that will impact on free speech to a Government Minister— particularly not one in this Government—in secondary legislation. I am most worried about the online platforms, because they cannot be trusted to police speech in a way that is properly cognisant of the law—not just law on freedom of speech, but law on freedom of belief, as well as domestic anti-discrimination law.
I shall draw my remarks to a close shortly, but let me take Twitter as an example, because this is really important. Twitter’s hateful conduct policy does not include the protected characteristic of sex, so Twitter routinely censors perfectly legitimate contributions to the public debate on women’s sex-based rights while routinely ignoring threats of violence and worse to women who participate in the debate.
In October 2019, the Joint Committee on Human Rights published a report on democracy, freedom of expression and freedom of association, in which we noted that Twitter has omitted sex from the list of protected characteristics in its hateful conduct policy. We recommended that Twitter remedy that, and in May 2019 a Twitter executive promised us that she would look at the issue; nearly three years later, nothing has been done. That is a real concern in respect of the Online Safety Bill, because when women have challenged Twitter’s unfair and discriminatory moderation policies, Twitter has responded that it does not consider itself bound by the Equality Act in providing services in the UK. Twitter’s argument is that because the company is established in Ireland as opposed to the UK, it is exempt under paragraph 2 of schedule 25 to the Equality Act. I am not sure that that is right, but it is a loophole that could be closed in the Online Safety Bill. I have already had informal discussions with Ministers about closing it.
To conclude, there is no point in saying that we need a Bill of Rights to protect free speech and then handing over the policing of speech to private companies such as Twitter, whose records show that they cannot be trusted. On free speech, the Government need to put their money where their mouth is.
It gives me great pleasure, as it always does, to speak in this debate on behalf of the great people of Peterborough. This is the best job that I will ever have. Whether I have it for two more years or for 22 years, it will always be a pleasure to talk about the issues that concern the great people of Peterborough. One of their big concerns is about crime and disorder, and they would fully expect me to come to this place to talk about some of those issues.
I am very pleased to note that the number of police officers in Cambridgeshire is now at a record level. The recruitment target has actually been surpassed for the second year in a row. It is incredibly welcome that we now have more police than ever before. We have 145 new police officers this year. That is on top of the normal expected recruitment level and above the target. There are 1,671 police officers in Peterborough and Cambridgeshire. They are on the streets of Peterborough right now, patrolling, preventing crime and doing the things that the people of Peterborough would expect them to do. I think 13,570 extra police officers have been recruited so far. That is above our 12,000 target, which is obviously good news for the country.
I wish to speak about three measures included in the Queen’s Speech: the Public Order Bill; the British Bill of Rights; and the draft victims’ Bill. First, on the Public Order Bill, one of the most popular pieces of legislation from the previous Session was the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill. In a funny sort of way, I was delighted when I saw, as expected, Labour politicians opposing the Bill both nationally and locally in my constituency, because it showed them to be out of touch with the genuine concerns of the British people. Sometimes, Labour Members seem to think that Twitter is representative of public opinion. I have news for them: it is not. The people of Peterborough are hugely supportive of measures taken against those who glue themselves to roads, who disrupt ambulances and who disrupt hard-working people going about their ordinary business. Action against the mindless fools who do that is hugely popular in Peterborough, as are measures against unauthorised travel encampments, which currently blight the picturesque village of Thorney in my constituency, preventing people from using Thorney park for football games. The cubs were supposed to be using it this weekend for some activities. Unfortunately, the unauthorised encampment is preventing people from enjoying that public space, leaving rubbish, human waste and all sorts of other unspeakables in their way, and costing taxpayers thousands of pounds to clear it.
I am enjoying the hon. Member’s speech. This summer we were all frustrated that roads were blocked, and that ambulances and fire engines were not able to get through. However, does not he agree that the police already have the powers to deal with those things and that they should be using the powers they have, rather than adding others, which will restrict the rights of people in reasonable, fair, peaceful protest?
The hon. Lady makes a thoughtful intervention and I agree with her: often, I want to see the police act much tougher on people blocking ambulances and gluing themselves to the sides of the road. However, what these measures will do is strengthen the powers that the police have in order to get rid of those nuisance issues that she quite rightly identifies.
Does not the hon. Gentleman agree that stopping people blocking roads, sending criminals back to the country from which they come and ensuring that people are not enslaved to produce the goods that we consume are just common-sense measures that most people understand and agree with?
The right hon. Gentleman is right. He identifies that hard-working people in this country completely agree with those sentiments and I am glad to be on their side. I ask hon. Members of the Labour party to do me a favour: please oppose the Public Order Bill because that will allow me to demonstrate to the people of Peterborough that, again, the Labour party is not in touch with them, their values, or their concerns. To do us all on the Conservative Benches a favour, vote against that Bill and give us an opportunity to demonstrate again how out of touch their party is.
Secondly, on the British Bill of Rights, I remind Labour Members that introducing that was a manifesto commitment—a manifesto commitment on which I was elected and on which this Conservative Government were elected, with an 80-seat majority. We have to do this. We promised the British people that we would and I am thrilled to say that that is what we are going to do. It will rip up Labour’s Human Rights Act 1998, which enshrined the European Court of Human Rights in British law. It will stop criminals dodging deportation through vexatious and continuing legal challenges. It will stop judges from Strasbourg overriding British judges, and it will protect free speech and press freedom. More important, it will also—I understand that human rights are important—restore public confidence in the law and in human rights, which is why it is such a welcome part of the Queen’s Speech.
Thirdly, on the draft victims’ Bill, I sometimes feel that the criminal justice system is not on the side of the victims of crime. The fact that we are looking to legislate on this shows that this Government are on the side of victims. We want criminals to be scared of the law. We do not want the law-abiding majority to be scared of criminals. Putting the victims’ code on a statutory footing will ensure that victims’ voices are heard.
A constituent came to see me in one of my advice surgeries. This local mum told me about her son and how he had been beaten up very badly in a bar in Peterborough. She described the experience of the criminal justice system as almost retraumatising. She was pushed from pillar to post. The very structures and resources that she thought were in place to support her and her son were found wanting. That really stayed with me. She felt let down and that they did not have enough support when it really mattered. In some exchanges, they were made to feel almost like the criminal, rather than the victims of the crime. We really must do better. The draft victims’ Bill is designed to do just that, so it must be hugely welcomed.
As I said at the start of my speech, the people of Peterborough want us to be tough on criminals. They want us to ensure that we protect the British public and they want to see natural justice done. We had that in parts in the previous Session with the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022. As I have said, it was one of the most popular pieces of legislation in Peterborough. I know from some of the measures announced in the Queen’s Speech that, again, Conservative Members and this Government have shown themselves to be in touch with the people of Peterborough and in touch with the British public.
What the hon. Member for Peterborough (Paul Bristow) said was very revealing, because he actually put on the record that most of this package of legislation is about party political advantage, posturing, setting up straw men and trying to create divisions that do not really exist, rather than trying to address the real issues facing this country, particularly the cost of living crisis, which I do not think he referred to.
What we have is the Government wasting parliamentary time, bringing back, with the Public Order Bill, the culture wars nonsense that we saw with the worst parts of the Policing, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill. At that point, it was about attacks on statues, which was very much based on what happened in Bristol. It is interesting that the hon. Member talked about public opinion, but a jury trial acquitted some of the protesters by the Colston statue.
That was very much an attack on the whole Black Lives Matter movement. Although I did not agree with the fact that the statue was removed in the way that it was, we did not need legislation increasing the maximum sentence for damaging statues to 10 years. It was just about party political point scoring.
Now we have the measures on climate change activists. Again, the Government are trying to create a false divide. Most people, if we ask them, want to see greater action on climate change and support the right to peaceful protest, while thinking that the tactics used by some protesters are ill-judged, inconsiderate and counter-productive. People who are very much involved in the environmental movement share my opinion that some of the things we have seen do not help the cause at all. However, I am not convinced there needs to be legislation on this, rather than the Government working with infrastructure providers to obtain injunctions. Again, the reason is very much about headlines and trying to stir up antipathy. It is also interesting that the people who try to do that do not even manage to pay lip service to the need to address climate change.
I am a little confused. Is the hon. Lady saying she is content for protesters to be brought before the court and punished either with imprisonment or a fine through an injunction process—a civil process—but would not support the same through a criminal process?
No, I did not say that at all. What I am saying is I think the reason the Government are bringing forward that legislation is suspect and I am not convinced that the police need these powers. I ask the Government to prove as the Bill passes through the House that the police are calling for these powers, because they were not calling for the increased powers brought in under the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill; they said they did not feel they were necessary. It is now down to the Government to prove that the injunction system does not work but, as I have said, some of the protests are ill-judged and inconsiderate to people going about their daily lives, and I think we would all speak as one on that point.
It appears at first sight that the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill is more about spin than substance. If it genuinely gives more powers to local communities rather than developers, that is good, although the Government’s past action on this front does not inspire confidence. I hope that as we consider the Bill we can look at what has been happening. I have a case in my constituency where land originally used as meadows was designated for housing by a previous administration. The update of the local plan has been delayed, partly because the West of England has not updated its planning strategy. I think the Government rejected it. Therefore, even though we have a one-city ecology strategy that says we want to protect 30% of the land as green space, we cannot oppose the planning application on those grounds because the previous local plan is still in place. The Minister may have some experience of this sort of issue from previous roles. I hope that, when we get a chance to discuss the Bill, we can talk about how we can ensure that planning rules take into account a city’s desire to address the ecological crisis.
I would like to have a conversation with the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities about architecture. His remarks on Poundbury, the village the Prince of Wales set up, were quoted at the weekend. On aesthetic grounds, I do not like Poundbury. I do not think it is brilliant architecture, so I disagree with the Prince of Wales and the Secretary of State on that. but in his comments, the Secretary of State set up a completely artificial argument, saying opposition to new housing development comes from
“a few modernist architects who sneer at what the rest of us actually like and people who dislike anything that seems small-c conservative.”
That is not the case. The opposition to new housing developments is about people wanting to protect green spaces, thinking that infrastructure is not available and being worried about the impact on road systems and local facilities. It is not about people saying, “We would accept this new housing if the architecture was more modern.” That is just made up. It does not make for good political debate if people are constructing such straw man arguments.
The privatisation of Channel 4 is an unnecessary and spiteful move. Channel 4 is not broken and does not need the Government to fix it. Public ownership is not a straitjacket; the Government are trying to say it is. The channel invests more in independent production companies outside London—including Bristol, where it has one of its regional hubs—than any other broadcaster. Privatising Channel 4 could mean £1 billion in investment lost from the UK’s nations and regions, with over 60 independent production companies at risk of going under.
The hon. Lady is making an important point. In my previous career I worked in an organisation which supported Channel 4 to encourage independent production companies across the country and help them enter the international market. It was clear from watching Sunday’s British Academy film awards that Channel 4 is an integral part of our culture; does the hon. Lady agree that the Government should do everything they can to protect it, rather than try to change it?
I entirely agree: Channel 4 is doing a brilliant job and is financially viable, and there is absolutely no reason to seek to privatise it.
The long overdue Online Safety Bill received its Second Reading in the last Session. It is good that fraud is included; many of us will have had constituents who have fallen prey to scammers. It is disappointing, however, that, with so much of a delay in bringing forward this Bill and with its having gone through pre-legislative scrutiny, there is still so much room for improvement. The Government must focus on how harmful content can be amplified and spread, including through breadcrumbing, leading to there being more smaller sites, which often contain the worst content. As the Bill stands, such sites might slip through the net because the focus is all on the larger providers. I am also concerned that the definition of what is harmful to children will be left to secondary legislation rather than be set out in the Bill, that the Government have not accepted the Law Commission recommendations on self-harm, that misogyny is not a priority, that state disinformation from countries such as Russia will still be allowed to thrive, and about much more. I hope we can significantly improve the Bill during Committee and on Report.
I welcome the renters reform Bill and the scrapping of no-fault evictions, but, again, there has been such an inexcusable delay. The legislation was promised three years ago and in that time the number of people in Bristol evicted from private rented property through no fault of their own has more than doubled.
The Mental Health Act reform Bill is another measure that has long been promised, but it is still only being published in draft. There have been some terrible stories about people with autism and learning difficulties being detained long term without their consent and a disproportionate use of sectioning for people from the black community. But this is a piecemeal measure; it addresses only one part of the problem. We know that mental health services are not fit for purpose and that many people are waiting far too long for diagnosis and treatment or are not getting help at all. We know, too, that children who need residential services often face being sent a long way from home, as beds are not available, and that far too many people resort to turning up at A&E in mental health crisis. There is a balance to be struck between giving mental health patients control over their treatment and making sure that people who would be helped by a stay in hospital get the support they need.
It was recently reported that freedom of information requests from 22 NHS trusts reveal that between 2016 and 2021 over half the 5,403 prisoners assessed by prison day psychiatrists as requiring hospitalisation were not transferred from hospital to prison. That represents an 81% increase in the number of prisoners denied a transfer in the previous five years. There is a very high threshold for that transfer request being met, so prisoners with major psychotic illnesses or chronic personality disorders are being kept in prison rather than getting the help they need. I suspect Conservative Members will think I am being a wet liberal on this, but this is as much about preventing reoffending as supporting the prisoners themselves.
There are quite a few measures missing from the Queen’s Speech that I would have hoped would be included, including the animals abroad Bill and measures on trophy hunting. Given that we long ago accepted that the production of foie gras and fur in this country was inhumane and should be prohibited, there is no excuse now that we have left the EU for not acting to ban imports too. It just shows the warped priorities of this out-of-touch Government that they would rather give in to the demands of the pro-hunting lobby on their Back Benches—and some in the Cabinet as well—than enact one of the few genuinely popular promises they have made. Senior figures in the Conservative party have spoken out about trophy hunting and they have got lots of good publicity time and again, but where is the legislation?
Regardless of whether we are supportive of the Conservative or Labour parties, or the Liberal Democrats or whatever, a huge majority of people in the United Kingdom want these animal welfare issues to be addressed, but does the hon. Lady accept that one reason why it would be difficult to implement any such legislation is that Northern Ireland cannot be covered and will become the back door into the United Kingdom for anything we banned through legislation here?
I am thankful for the right hon. Gentleman’s support for the animal welfare measures. Given that I have already spoken for rather longer than I intended to, I do not think I can unpick the Northern Ireland protocol today, but—[Interruption.] Well, there are not many Tories here, so maybe I can speak for another half an hour. I hope that as we come to talk about the future of Northern Ireland, we can look at the impact that the ban on imports would have and whether we can still proceed with it without completely upsetting the balance of politics there.
Finally, also missing from the Queen’s Speech was any action to address the cost of living crisis. According to the Food Foundation, one in seven adults now live in homes where people have skipped meals, eaten less or gone hungry. Energy bills are skyrocketing, rising inflation is starting to bite and we have heard about the 15 Tory tax rises. It is the Government’s responsibility to mitigate that suffering, whether through measures in the Queen’s Speech or through introducing a much-needed emergency Budget. What we are seeing in operation is an active choice by the Chancellor, the Prime Minister and the Government to allow that financial pressure on households to continue.
A windfall tax on BP and Shell would hardly dent their enormous recent profits of £12 billion but, while my constituents remove items from their shopping baskets, spend their days on buses to keep warm and stress over bank balances in the red, the Government have refused to act. Even Tesco has come out in support of a windfall tax, and I think the boss of BP said that it would not stop the company from investing. Labour has been clear that the best solution to the cost of living crisis is a green one, yet this speech promised nothing to help insulate homes, which would lower bills and emissions. Nor did it promise to rectify this Government’s nonsensical ban on new onshore wind.
To conclude, I look forward to debating some of the 38 Bills in the Queen’s Speech. It is a massive missed opportunity; I hope that we see an emergency Budget soon and that the Government wake up to the real crisis they face.
I was going to confine my speech to the Public Order Bill, but I will follow up on a few comments that the right hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson) made. The more I listen to him, the more I think he speaks a good deal of common sense. I would like him to know that I for one, and a number of my colleagues, agree with much if not everything of what he says, and we have a steely resolve to make sure that we are one United Kingdom. That is what we voted for when we voted for Brexit.
My daughters, for some unfathomable reason, sometimes describe me as a grumpy old man. I really do not know why. However, there are a few things that can make me a little bit miserable, and one thing that has really grated on me in recent years is the minority of protesters who have pretty much used guerrilla warfare to disrupt the everyday lives of the vast majority of our constituents—not just mine, but everybody’s.
The good people of Dudley North are ordinary folk, working hard to make a living, a living that is increasingly harder to make in the current climate. I cannot fathom how the privileged and entitled few think it is acceptable to stop our carers and nurses from being able to get to work to care for our sick and elderly, or to blockade a fire appliance from getting to a serious fire burning a local business to the ground—or, more tragically, perhaps preventing people inside the burning building from being saved. Of course, that applies to any blue light service, not just the fire service. That minority of criminals truly disgust me. They have no concept of the real world out there. They have no concept of the misery they bring to those less fortunate than themselves.
I hope that you, Mr Deputy Speaker, and those on the Front Benches will join me in making working here more bearable for our staff, myself and my colleagues. I will not dignify his existence by tarnishing Hansard with his name, but there is a noisy man outside who dresses up as a clown and harasses and chases Members of Parliament and our staff from his little camp on the crossing island on Parliament Street. He is someone else who serves no public benefit whatsoever.
I know the character my hon. Friend alludes to, and I have witnessed some ferocious verbal attacks on my hon. Friend from that character, who patrols Whitehall like a public nuisance. May I suggest telling him that, if he is interested in changing things in this country, he should come to Dudley North and stand against my hon. Friend at the next general election?
In fact, that invitation has already been made. I am going to print off a set of nomination papers, but I wonder about the 10 people this person might need for the form to be valid.
My staff cannot hear distressed constituents on the phone through the awful racket he causes. All our staff who have offices in 1 Parliament Street suffer considerable stress and anxiety from the disruption he causes to their, and our, work. I doubt that staff in the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, the buildings opposite, would say anything different—[Interruption.] Is someone wanting to intervene? I do not know. I heard some noises. It is like a Hoover—an irritating thing in the background. I do not know what it is.
This person needs to have his loudspeaker system confiscated and to be moved on. Personally, I would like to see him locked up in the Tower with a loudspeaker playing “Land of Hope and Glory” on repeat at maximum volume. The Met Police really should deal with him. He is causing misery to hundreds of staff, he is intimidating many—
The hon. Member clearly does not know how Parliament works, but we often make sounds across the Chamber when we disagree with someone, and I disagree with him. I am happy to swap offices: I will take his office and he can have my office. Then there will be no problem and we will not need to shut down free speech either. Win-win!
I am actually very comfortable for the hon. Member to come to Dudley North and make those very arguments, because he would be out of office completely. Please do come and make those very arguments. I am not going to allow this kind of behaviour from someone outside, who is a public nuisance, to force us to have to make changes for him.
Our police, whether in Dudley, the Met or elsewhere, need the tools to better manage and tackle the dangerous and highly disruptive tactics used by a small minority of selfish protesters to wreak havoc on people going about their daily lives. Our police already have enough to be doing without the unnecessary burden of a privileged few who seek to rinse taxpayers’ money.
It will come as no surprise that I wholeheartedly support the Public Order Bill. If that disruptive minority want to glue themselves to anything, maybe the Bill should make it easier for them to have their backsides glued to a tiny cell at Her Majesty’s pleasure. They would be most welcome.
It would be customary to say that it is an honour to follow the hon. Member for Dudley North (Marco Longhi), but, without being personal in any way, it is incredibly frustrating, when we are facing a catastrophic rise in the cost of living, a war in Europe and an economy that is just starting to recover from the covid-19 pandemic, that this is the Queen’s Speech we are dealing with today. It should have been full of ambition and vision for our country, but instead we have cynicism, half measures and a total lack of vision. We have an eclectic mix of Bills that is more about stoking division and setting up dividing lines. It does not come close to tackling the issues that the public care most about—the catastrophic fall in their incomes and the cost of living soaring as a recession looms.
The very beginning of the Queen’s Speech talked about supporting the police to make our streets safer. We know the Government have no shortage of hard-line rhetoric on crime; we heard it from the Home Secretary earlier. Browsing the headlines on any given day, there is a good chance that we will see something about how harshly criminals will be punished if they get caught. But it is the “if they get caught” bit that is really crucial. After 12 years of Conservative cuts, the police, and the justice system, often do not have the resources to investigate even the most relatively straightforward crimes. The impact of this has been devastating. The antisocial behaviour that blights significant parts of our country, including my constituency, has effectively been decriminalised. The cuts to frontline policing and the criminal justice system have caused the proportion of reported crimes ending in prosecution to plummet.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady. Obviously antisocial behaviour is an important issue across the whole country, and we definitely recognise that. In my own county of Hampshire, the police and crime commissioner has established an antisocial behaviour taskforce, using the extra resources that the Government have now provided for the third consecutive year. Has she had the same conversation with her own Labour police and crime commissioner to establish exactly the same kind of assertive response in Newcastle upon Tyne?
I appreciate that the Government state their commitment to the issue, but over the past 12 years we have seen an accumulation of the impact of public service cuts right across the board, whether in education, youth services or our police, sending the message to constituents across my constituency and elsewhere that people are getting away with it and very little can be done.
The relatively small increases in police numbers are not going to change that either. Northumbria Police has lost 1,100 officers and we still need 632 more to get back to 2010 levels, but replacing police officers is not going to take us all the way. Ministers have also shown very little interest in replacing lost back-room staff, who are essential to releasing that police resource on to the street. The Minister seems to think the problem is solved, but residents in my area, and right across the country, would disagree. We need to make community safety a priority, and that means more police out there tackling crime, antisocial behaviour and dangerous drivers: the things that they came into the force to do. The Minister’s own Back Benchers have been calling for it repeatedly today. That means tackling the backlog in the judicial system—something that the Government have simply ignored and continue to ignore.
We know the distressing impact that antisocial behaviour can have on victims, destroying their mental health and impacting every part of their life. In the worst cases it can be life-ending. When I speak to people in my constituency in Lemington, Newbiggin Hall, Kingston Park, West Denton, Gosforth and Fawdon, they are very clear that what they want is greater support and protection from antisocial behaviour and crime, and greater strength and legal protection as victims. Yet victims are too often treated as an afterthought. The community trigger, which is supposedly the main instrument to support antisocial behaviour victims, is largely unused, and meanwhile support for victims remains a postcode lottery due to the lack of dedicated Government funding. It is disappointing that the long-promised victims Bill is still not enacted after being promised in no fewer than four Queen’s Speeches and three manifestos. Putting the victims code on a statutory footing is so overdue, and I urge the Government to take up the Victims Commissioner’s recommendation to include in it victims of antisocial behaviour. We must give them the same rights as victims of cri