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Commons Chamber

Volume 719: debated on Tuesday 6 September 2022

House of Commons

Tuesday 6 September 2022

The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock

Prayers

[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office

The Secretary of State was asked—

Iran

1. What steps her Department plans to take to counter Iran’s destabilising use of proxies in the middle east. (901301)

I am sure that the whole House will accept the apologies from the Foreign Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for South West Norfolk (Elizabeth Truss), who is otherwise engaged today.

The UK maintains a range of sanctions to constrain Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps malign activity. Maritime interdictions in January and February 2022 led to the seizure of advanced conventional weapons travelling from Iran to the Houthis in Yemen. We support the strengthening of state institutions in Iraq and Lebanon, and work to end the conflict in Yemen and Syria.

Mr Speaker, you may recall that it was against considerable Whitehall resistance—it needed pressure from this House—that we got the Government to ban Hezbollah. I hope that the Minister will be more receptive to recognising that the IRGC is at the heart of destabilising proxy wars across the middle east and further afield, and that she will show more urgency in joining our allies in the United States in proscribing the IRGC.

The UK maintains a range of sanctions that work to constrain the destabilising activity of the IRGC. The list of proscribed organisations is kept under constant review, but we do not routinely comment on whether an organisation is under consideration for proscription.

The hostility with Iran has caused even greater friendship between the adjoining Arab countries and the state of Israel, so is not now the time to follow the US and some other countries by moving the British embassy from Tel Aviv to the capital of Israel, where its Parliament is, Jerusalem?

My hon. Friend is right to say that the UK and Israel share a thriving relationship, working together on bilateral priorities, as well as on regional issues of mutual concern. The British embassy in Israel is in Tel Aviv. I am aware of the possibility of a review but will not speculate further on this point.

When we are talking about the people in power in Tehran and their proxies around the world, whom my right hon. Friend the Member for Warley (John Spellar) mentioned, we are talking about clerical fascists, who would probably have been on the same side as the Nazis if they had been around 80 years ago. Why can we not just get on with it and ban the IRGC, as we banned Hezbollah?

I have been clear in response to earlier questions on the IRGC and the range of sanctions to constrain its destabilising activity. I will not comment further on the possibility of proscription of this group.

It is a mistake for the west to regard Iran’s sponsorship of proxies as somehow being a non-strategic irritant, as there is a continuous thread that links its sponsorship of terror with its ballistics programme and its march towards acquiring nuclear weapons capability. So does my right hon. Friend agree that we should not repeat the mistakes of the past and that any revised nuclear deal with Iran should be accompanied by very strong measures to discourage it from being the world’s largest sponsor of terrorism?

We have real concerns about the instability that Iran causes in the region. Its nuclear programme is today more advanced than ever. There is an offer on the table and Iran should take it urgently—time is running out and there will not be a better one. If this deal is not struck, and soon, the joint comprehensive plan of action will collapse. In that scenario, we will have to consider carefully the options with partners and allies.

Northern Ireland Protocol

2. What discussions she has had with her international counterparts on the potential impact of the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill on the UK’s international relationships. (901302)

The Northern Ireland protocol is not delivering the goals set out in it. First and foremost among those is ensuring peace and prosperity in Northern Ireland, and protecting the Belfast/Good Friday agreement. The protocol is also disrupting east-west trade, including by doubtless affecting businesses in the hon. Lady’s constituency. Northern Ireland is an integral part of the UK and we must resolve the very real problems it is facing, which is why we have introduced the Bill.

University College London’s chair of science and research policy recently said that the UK has “no pathway to association” with Horizon Europe and that

“leaving Horizon knocks us back both in reputation and in substance in terms of the UK as an international partner in research. It is fanciful to pretend anything else.”

Will the Government finally accept that as a truth? What does the Minister say to researchers and academics up and down the UK who are missing out on precious funding and collaboration with European partners in the name of the Brexit vanity project?

I am grateful for the hon. Lady’s passionate espousal of the need for us to be a member of Horizon, Euratom and the other programmes, all of which were agreed, as she will recall, in the trade and co-operation agreement. The EU has failed to implement our association with that, and there is no linkage. I would ask the hon. Lady, with the scientific community of this country, to stand up to the EU and say that inappropriate linkages should be resisted, that they are damaging them, damaging us and damaging our joint endeavours to tackle the greatest challenges facing mankind, and it is something that needs to change.

I think we can all agree that the protocol, as it stands today, has become a thorn in the side of relations between us and Ireland, and indeed a thorn in Ireland’s side as it seeks to move things forward with the rest of the EU. Is it not time that we proceeded with the humility to recognise the legitimate interests of all parties to the protocol and the fierce resolve to say enough is enough and it is time to solve the evident problems that have arisen and to evolve the protocol in a negotiated way, if possible, but in any event to a solution that can last?

My hon. Friend is right. The protocol is not delivering the main objectives set out on its face. That is why something has to be done. I was delighted to spend Friday and Saturday at the British-Irish Association with the Taoiseach and the Irish Foreign Minister and, indeed, the vice-president of the European Commission. I believe, as I am sure my hon. Friend does, that our clear preference for a negotiated solution is the right one. I would further add that the Bill includes the facility to accelerate any negotiated agreement, and that is very much our offer to the EU. We prefer a negotiated solution. It is very important to put this right.

Can the Minister assure us that in any of his discussions with his international counterparts he will robustly argue that the protocol cannot continue? Will he explain that it has ripped apart the Belfast agreement, it has undermined democracy in Northern Ireland, it has increased costs to consumers and businesses, it has disrupted Great Britain and Northern Ireland trade and displaced it with trade from the Republic, and it is being cynically used by the EU as a mechanism to punish the UK for leaving the EU, regardless of the cost to the people of Northern Ireland?

The hon. Gentleman makes very strong points. At the heart of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement is the idea of communities coming together, to have the Executive, to make sure that we put the war-torn years and all that tragedy behind us. It is clear that not just one party in Northern Ireland but the entire Unionist community has ruled out the protocol as a route to delivery of that. And, of course, there is disquiet in all communities, as can be found in the surveys of, for instance, the University of Liverpool’s Institute of Irish Studies.

I recently met a cross-party delegation of MPs from Tunisia, who are united in their opposition to the forced closure of the Parliament building with tanks by President Saied, and now his proposed rewriting of the constitution. To date, Tunisia has been the one spark of hope—

Order. That is not relevant to this question. I thought that there must be something somewhere, but I cannot spot it. Let us go to the shadow Foreign Secretary, David Lammy.

We are facing a cost of living crisis in which bills are sky-rocketing and people across the country will face the choice between eating or heating. Instead of proposing a solution, the Conservatives have spent the summer ramping up the rhetoric on the protocol, to risk new trade barriers with Europe. This Minister has had a recent elevation. Will he take this opportunity to commit to scrapping the reckless Northern Ireland Protocol Bill so that the Government can begin serious negotiations with the EU to fix the protocol and avoid hitting the British public in their pockets?

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for yet again making it so crystal clear, both to the House and to the British public, that in any dispute he and his party will always side with the EU and not with the interests of the British people. [Interruption.] As he says, I am horribly new to this brief. The first thing I did on the first weekend after my appointment was to read the protocol. It does not matter how we look at it, the protocol is not functioning and it is not working. For him and his party to suggest that it is us and not the EU that needs to change tack shows that, yet again, he betrays the British people and shows why Labour now, in the past and in the future is unfit for office.

I find myself in unexpected agreement with the right hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson): I do believe that the protocol is being cynically abused. However, I do not think that it is being cynically abused by the EU; it is being cynically abused by the future Prime Minister. The Northern Ireland Protocol Bill is wrong in international law; wrong in politics, in that most MLAs support the protocol; and wrong as a negotiating tactic, because it has put backs up across the EU. There are ways of reforming the protocol within the protocol, but that has been ignored. The only way that the Bill makes sense to me is as a vehicle for the future Prime Minister to prove how tough she is on Europe. Now is the time to get rid of it. As we have heard, it is stymieing lots of constructive relations. Will the Minister please pass that on to the future Prime Minister?

As I have said, I am new to this, but I have looked at the protocol and it is not working. There are three main priorities. One is the protection of the single market—perhaps there is a tick. On the Good Friday agreement, peace in Northern Ireland and community consent, that is required by the protocol but it is not working, and neither is the prevention of unnecessary blockage for east-west trade. I would have thought that the hon. Gentleman, and even the shadow Foreign Secretary, might have put their constituents and the businesses that they represent first, and for once been prepared to recognise that it is the British Government who are correct. We are ready to negotiate. As the hon. Gentleman said, the protocol set out the objectives and said that it might need amendment, it might need replacement, but in any event it needs consent. That is what the protocol says. I suggest that he reads it, rather than insisting on the imposition—

Pakistan: Former Prime Minister Imran Khan

3. Whether she has had discussions with her counterpart in Pakistan on the charging of former Prime Minister Imran Khan under terrorism legislation in that country. (901303)

The British High Commission in Islamabad is closely monitoring the situation regarding the former Prime Minister of Pakistan, but any decision to progress charges would be a matter for Pakistan’s judicial system. At this time of terrible tragedy for the people of Pakistan, we do welcome the call from all across the political spectrum and divide to set aside their differences and work together on the flood response.

I welcome the Minister’s words, because this is a moment of real political upheaval amid one of the worst humanitarian disasters in Pakistan’s history—more than 30 million people are now displaced or impacted. I would like us not only to press all diplomatic channels for a fair and transparent process regarding the former Prime Minister of Pakistan but, more importantly, to increase the paltry £1.5 million of aid that we have committed to help Pakistan at a time of such disaster, given that we have such strong bilateral relations between our countries, and not just in constituencies such as Ilford South but right across the country.

This is a terrible tragedy with massive humanitarian consequences for the people of Pakistan. The UK was the first country in the world to announce its own financial assistance, and of course we increased that significantly in our announcement of a further £15 million on Friday. This means that the UK is already supplying more than 10% of the immediate assistance that the Pakistan Government and the United Nations have called for, and a further appeal by the Disasters Emergency Committee was launched on Friday.

Following on from the point that the hon. Member for Ilford South (Sam Tarry) made about flooding, as the Prime Minister’s trade envoy to Pakistan—

Order. Although flooding matters, this question really is about terrorism. I know that we will have other questions on that, when I think Members will wish to catch my eye.

Global Food Security

Putin is using food and fuel as weapons of war. The UK has helped to facilitate the release of Ukrainian grain through technical advice, military assistance and practical equipment, as well as diplomatic efforts led by the Foreign Secretary, which I am sure she will continue as Prime Minister. We are supporting the vulnerable globally, both directly and through our influence in multilateral institutions, particularly in the Horn of Africa, where droughts are driving humanitarian catastrophe. We are also investing in research, development and innovation, as well as sustainable agriculture, which is boosting crop yields and improving food production in many vulnerable countries.

Now then, we have a chap in Ashfield whose name is Wade, who runs the only independent cheese counter in Ashfield. He tells me that Putin’s war in Ukraine is increasing food prices all over the country and affecting his prices so that he cannot keep the prices down. Does the Minister agree that instead of blaming the Government for food prices increasing, the Labour party should get behind us and help us get that grain out of Ukraine to reduce the price in the UK and the rest of the world?

My hon. Friend is spot on. It is Putin’s war that is driving up food prices right across the world, and this UK Government have been rolling up our sleeves to help, especially on getting the grain out of Ukraine. We have put in military assistance and practical equipment, for example to mend the railroads, and technical advice. There has been a massive diplomatic effort, which I know our new Prime Minister will continue. Some 90 ships of grain have left Ukraine since 1 August, and more is needed; 3 million tonnes are estimated to have been moved by land routes last month, which is 10 times as much as was moved last March. The grain is coming out, and the UK will continue in our work to support those food-vulnerable people across the world.

The recent floods in Pakistan are devastating millions and having a severe impact on their food security, especially for women and girls. My Committee’s recent report found that, internationally, 50 million people in 45 countries are on the edge of famine. Climate change, fertiliser costs and conflict all pose a serious threat to food production and distribution globally. I welcome the Government’s reallocation of the £15 million of existing aid to Pakistan, but how will that contribute to the long-term food insecurity it faces, and what programmes were cut as a consequence?

The Government are very focused on the food vulnerable across the world. For example, we committed an extra £130 million to the World Food Programme, which was announced at the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting earlier in the summer. We are also a major investor in research and development, especially in sustainable agriculture. The “Room to Run” guarantee, for example, which I signed with the African Development Bank earlier this year, will enable it to raise up to $2 billion, which it is investing in improving agricultural systems, including more advanced seed, across the continent of Africa. That is how we are helping to boost food production in those very vulnerable countries, as well as supporting humanitarian needs.

I pay enormous tribute to the United Nations Secretary-General and all those who have been working on opening up the ports in southern Ukraine, and to the British Government for the work they have been doing alongside the Turkish Government to ensure that those shipments have flown. However, what work is the Minister doing with sub-Saharan Africa? Many of the countries we are talking about—not just Pakistan, which the hon. Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) rightly named, but many other countries in sub-Saharan Africa—are suffering very severely from the rise in food prices. The World Food Programme has done an enormous amount to make sure that food gets out there, and I pay tribute to its Nobel prize-winning efforts, but Her Majesty’s Government can do more too.

As ever, my hon. Friend is absolutely correct, and I thank him for raising the situation in sub-Saharan Africa. The ship that arrived in Djibouti last week with grain from Ukraine going to Ethiopia was welcome, but the situation in east Africa in particular is catastrophic, affecting more than 40 million people. We are a major donor to east Africa: we are expecting to spend £156 million this year, and we have already spent half of that. That money is going into the most urgent priorities, providing food, water, shelter and medicines for millions of people, but we are also leading efforts to bring in other donors, such as the $400 million that we helped to raise through the UN, and pushing the World Bank and others to do more too.

Many people in Malawi experience nutritional deficiencies, such as insufficient protein. Indeed, 37% of children there experience stunting. What further action will the Government take to support nutritional programmes in Malawi?

I visited Malawi earlier this year. We are a major donor to the country. There has been some fantastic work on the polio situation there, with more than 3 million children—all those in the target population—having been vaccinated. It is a very fragile country, which we continue to support closely.

Earlier this summer, it was reported that the Treasury had blocked aid payments for the duration of the summer while the Conservative leadership contest ran. I immediately wrote to the Chancellor and Foreign Secretary, asking what that would mean for the world’s poorest and most vulnerable, and requesting an urgent response; 42 days later, I have heard nothing back. This at a time when someone reportedly dies every 48 seconds in the horn of Africa hunger crisis. By my estimation, that means that more than 75,000 may have died. Last night the World Food Programme issued a stark warning, saying that famine is “imminent” and Somalia has run out of time. Can I please finally get some answers today, and seek the Minister’s reassurance that the new Foreign Secretary will stop the block on aid payments as an urgent priority?

The UK remains one of the largest donors of official development assistance in the world. In Somalia in particular, the situation is tragic. We have been leading the way with our aid and to bring in other donors. The hon. Member knows that I announced further advancements of funding into Somalia from the UK just last week. We continue to prioritise Somalia, but it is important that we bring in other donors, which is why we have worked with the World Bank, encouraging it to accelerate the $30 billion that it is sending out across the world into the horn of Africa, which it is now doing.

Illicit Finance

The UK has one of the strongest systems for combating international illicit finance—a system that, since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, we have further strengthened under this Government through the Economic Crime (Transparency and Enforcement) Act 2022. Through the Russian elites, proxies and oligarchs taskforce, we work closely with international partners to ensure that there is nowhere for dirty money to hide overseas. For more detail on our approach to illicit finance, I refer the hon. Gentleman, who seems to be looking at his phone, to the Government’s response to the Foreign Affairs Committee’s recent report, which will be published shortly.

I accept the Minister’s apology.

It should be a source of national shame that it took a full-scale invasion of Ukraine for the Government to take our illicit finance problem seriously. Of course we welcome the sanctions against the Kremlin, but they do not address the UK’s serious and entrenched illicit finance problem. Will the Minister advise the new Foreign Secretary and Chancellor, whoever they may be—although it has been pretty well leaked—to establish an independent anti-illicit finance commissioner, who is tasked with strengthening the UK’s financial infrastructure in the interests of national security, to whom the Government are accountable?

I find it slightly difficult to accept the premise of the hon. Gentleman’s question, because the Financial Action Task Force’s previous review, which looked at 60 different countries, found that the UK had one of the strongest systems for combating money laundering in the world. We have introduced the Economic Crime Act, and will take further action through corporate transparency reform and the introduction of the economic crime levy. We are working in partnership with many countries across the world to tackle illicit finance, to hold those who have been part of this terrible crime to account and to restore the money.

AUKUS

6. What recent steps she has taken with Cabinet colleagues to strengthen AUKUS—the Australia, UK and US partnership. (901306)

Cabinet Ministers regularly meet their US and Australian counterparts to progress our landmark AUKUS partnership, including recently in the margins of the G20 and Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting, and in outbound and inbound ministerial visits. Last month, I visited Australia and met Assistant Foreign Minister Watts, who reaffirmed Australia’s full support for AUKUS.

I thank my right hon. Friend for her response. I was pleased last week to welcome to Barrow the Prime Minister and the Defence Secretary, alongside the Australian Deputy Prime Minister, for the commissioning of HMS Anson, in an important sign of the strength of our AUKUS partnership. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the future requires much more close working between like-minded countries to counter authoritarian regimes, not just in the physical domain but in cyber-security and intelligence sharing too?

I completely agree. The Government have been clear that we must build a network of like-minded countries and flexible groupings if we are to protect our interests globally. I was really pleased when last week the Defence Secretary hosted Australian Deputy Prime Minister Marles at the commissioning ceremony for HMS Anson in my hon. Friend’s constituency, demonstrating our deep defence ties, including through AUKUS.

The Minister’s response makes clear the importance of all of us in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland working together, and we in Northern Ireland want to be part of that, contributing soldiers, sailors and airmen. Can the Minister give some indication of whether our soldiers, be it the Irish Guards or the Royal Irish Regiment, will be part of this new security policy?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making sure that Northern Ireland has a voice in this. I am sure that my colleagues in the FCDO and the MOD have heard his pitch.

Sanctions on Russia

UK sanctions are aimed at undermining Putin’s war effort, inflicting cost at scale, and demonstrating strong support for Ukraine. Our response is in lock-step with allies and has inflicted a significant economic cost to the Russian economy. The IMF predicts that by 2026 the Russian economy will be 16% smaller compared with pre-invasion trends.

I know the sanctions have strong support across the House and in communities in the United Kingdom, but will the Government consider going further to ensure that additional pain is inflicted on President Putin and his cronies?

I thank my hon. Friend and parliamentarians in all parts of the House for the united approach we have taken in applying maximum pressure on Putin for his aggression in Ukraine. We will continue to put pressure on Putin and his regime until Ukraine prevails, or Putin ends his war of choice. Nothing and no one is off the table. Although it is not appropriate to speculate on specific future designations, lest their impact is reduced, Russian aggression cannot and must not be appeased.

One of the people sanctioned in the UK is Roman Abramovich. His football club, Chelsea, was sold on 30 May, but the billions of pounds are sitting in his bank account because the Foreign Office still has not set up the fund to enable the money to be given to the people of Ukraine. Why is the Foreign Office taking so long, and when is it going to be sorted?

Although I cannot comment on specific cases, I point out that measures have been taken against 1,100 individuals, including 123 oligarchs and their family members with a global net worth of £130 billion, more than 120 entities and all the subsidiaries owned by them; and against 19 Russian banks with global assets of about £940 billion—more than 80% of the Russian banking sector. In addition, acting in conjunction with partners, over 60% of Russia’s central bank’s foreign reserves have been frozen. That demonstrates our commitment to do everything we can, applying our criteria set by this Parliament, to bring these people to account.

COP27

8. What diplomatic steps the Government are taking ahead of COP27 to work with partners in the global south to tackle the climate emergency. (901308)

The catastrophic floods in Pakistan and appalling droughts across the horn of Africa are just two examples of where a destabilising climate is threatening the lives and livelihoods of tens of millions of people. In this context, the COP26 President, my right hon. Friend the Member for Reading West (Alok Sharma), Whitehall teams and our diplomatic network are working with Egypt as COP27 host, and with partners across the global south, to accelerate global climate action ahead of COP27.

The Minister references the deadly drought in the horn of Africa and the catastrophic floods in Pakistan, which clearly show the reality and urgency of the climate emergency. Last November, at COP26, developing countries across the global south were promised further discussions on loss and damage climate compensation. In the context that she has described this morning, why was the UK backtracking on the promises made at COP26 in the Bonn talks this summer? What message does she think that failure of leadership sends to our allies and partners in the global south?

At COP26 in Glasgow, we led a global commitment that kept 1.5° alive, and it is vital that countries across the world hold up the promises that they made there. We in the UK, and Ministers from across this Government, always raise climate change on every single diplomatic visit. I do not accept the premise that we are backtracking: just before recess, I went to South Africa to work on the just energy transition partnership, which is the landmark deal for the entire world in helping developing countries. We are leading that work and we are focused on that as a priority. As regards the work on the $100 billion delivery partner, our friends in Germany and Canada are also helping to lead that work, including on how to scale up on adaptation. It is a priority and we will continue to lead.

As has been said, the appalling floods in Pakistan, which have affected more than 30 million people, show that the climate crisis is not a future problem—it is here and it is now. Despite the Minister’s bluster a moment ago, it is incredibly concerning that the new Conservative Prime Minister has said that she will impose a temporary moratorium on the green levies that we need to reach net zero. Will the Minister commit to doubling our commitments to net zero, so that the UK can lead from the front to build a green and secure future?

We have doubled our commitment to climate to £11.6 billion. That is helping people across the world to access clean energy, to reduce deforestation, to protect oceans and to build clean infrastructure. As the right hon. Gentleman is aware, when the new Prime Minister comes in, she will be announcing plans to help to tackle the issues with food prices and fuel prices in this country as a top priority, and also to look at the long-term needs of our energy security. He will need to wait, with the rest of us, for those announcements—but she has promised them as a top priority.

According to the UN Secretary General, people are 15 times more likely to die if they live in a climate crisis hotspot, which is what we see unfolding right now in Pakistan, with more than 6 million people in dire need of humanitarian aid and already more than 1,000 people dead. Last year, at COP26 in Glasgow, Scotland became the first developed economy in the world, led by our First Minister, to pledge dedicated loss and damage funding. Ahead of COP27, will the UK Government finally commit to establishing a similar loss and damage policy in line with the 2015 Paris climate accord?

We are working with countries across the world to ensure that everybody holds up the promises that they made at COP26. We understand the challenges that many countries are facing, including the terrible situation in Pakistan, where we have already donated more than 10% of what the UN and Pakistan have asked for to meet their emergency need. I think, however, that the hon. Gentleman should focus on the work that the COP26 President, my right hon. Friend the Member for Reading West (Alok Sharma), has been doing with more than 50 missions working across the world to ensure that we get action before the next COP in Egypt.

Central to our battle against climate change must be our relations with the Arctic countries and the Arctic circle in general. I understand that the Foreign Office Arctic policy update document is ready to be published. Can the Minister update the House about when that document will be published and perhaps even about what might be in it?

My hon. Friend is a true supporter of the Arctic region. Several of the Arctic states have published new Arctic strategies. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Asia and the Middle East, who is the Minister responsible, was able on her visit to the region very recently to talk about the UK’s intention to publish a UK Arctic policy. We are looking forward to publishing a refreshed UK Arctic policy later this year. That will be an evolution of the existing framework, which is called “Beyond the Ice”.

Global Britain

20. If she will make an assessment of the potential impact of the Government’s policy on uprating UK state pensions overseas on delivering the Government’s global Britain agenda. (901321)

The integrated review of foreign policy, defence and security sets out the Government’s vision for global Britain. We are delivering this though our diplomatic, economic, development and security partnerships, prioritising Euro-Atlantic security and the Indo-Pacific tilt. We have become an Association of Southeast Asian Nations dialogue partner, and we have provided £2.3 billion-worth of military support to Ukraine, published a new international development strategy and agreed the AUKUS deal.

The United Kingdom state pension is payable worldwide and uprated where there is a legal requirement to do so. This has been the policy of successive Governments for over 70 years.

Do these Ministers actually understand? Do they read the world’s media? Do they not understand that we are alienated and isolated from all our traditional allies in Europe and from the United States? Do any of them think that the new Prime Minister’s comments about France and President Macron helped anyone?

On what the hon. Member says about alienating the world, we should look at what really happened in practice. The United Kingdom led the world on stepping up and supporting the people of Ukraine. Whether militarily, economically, diplomatically or on a humanitarian basis, we have stepped up to the plate at every level in that regard. Whether with COP26, the summit on freedom of religion or belief, or the summit coming up on the preventing sexual violence initiative, the United Kingdom is leading the world and standing up for our values of democracy, liberty and open societies.

The job interviews have taken a long time today.

I cannot believe I am actually having to ask this question, but over the summer thousands of UK pensioners living in Canada had their pensions stopped as a result of proof of life forms not being sent to them and therefore not being able to be returned, pushing many of them into debt and having to borrow for basic bills. To reinstate their pension, they have had to phone an international number, with calls lasting up to an hour. What does it say about global Britain if we cannot even pay our pensioners living abroad? What support can the Department and the British high commission give to pensioners in Canada to ensure that their pensions are reinstated as quickly as possible, and can the Minister confirm that this issue—this debacle—has yet been sorted out with the Department for Work and Pensions?

I thank the hon. Member for that question. I know he has had a written response from the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, who leads on this matter, and had a conversation with a Minister at the DWP.

Let me answer specifically about pensions in Canada. I was recently in Canada, and this pensions matter was raised with me by my parliamentary counterpart in Canada, so let me answer that point specifically for the hon. Member. State pensions are uprated where there is a legal requirement to do so. The United Kingdom and Canada have two arrangements concerning social security, neither of which includes state pension uprating. The Government continue to take the view that priority should be given to those living within the United Kingdom when drawing up expenditure plans for additional pensioner benefits. That has been the position of successive Governments for the past 70 years.

Implementing the Truro review is a manifesto commitment. The recent independent review on progress, which the Foreign Secretary has fully accepted, has confirmed that there is still much to do to implement Truro in full; will the Minister meet me to discuss taking this forward?

I will be delighted to do that—and, as a previous envoy, I appreciate my hon. Friend’s brilliant work.

Brazil: Presidential Elections

10. What assessment she has made of the adequacy of election observation arrangements for presidential elections in Brazil in October 2022. (901310)

International observers will monitor Brazil’s elections in October, including from the Organisation of American States. They are experienced and well regarded. The independence of Brazil’s supreme electoral court is recognised internationally and its electronic voting machines have been widely recognised for speed, efficiency and security, but, as in many elections around the world, there are concerns about how disinformation online can threaten the integrity of the democratic process so we welcome the supreme electoral court of Brazil’s efforts to call out disinformation online ahead of the elections.

On the importance of defending democracy, I want to express, as I am sure many others do, my best wishes to the Argentinian Vice-President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, on whom there was an horrific assassination attempt last week.

I thank the Minister for her answer. The election in Brazil is the biggest election in the world this year and it is important that it takes place in free and fair conditions. Sadly, in recent months there has been targeted violence from supporters of President Bolsonaro against members of the main opposition party, including fatal shootings. Will the Government make a public statement ahead of next month’s vote that political violence and threats of coups have no place in this election?

I was also shocked by the assassination attempt on Vice-President Kirchner in Argentina. I am very relieved that she was not hurt and we strongly condemn hate and violence and stand firmly with Argentina in support of democracy and the rule of law.

On Brazil, democracy is under threat in many parts of the world and it is very important that Brazil continues to set an example to others on free and fair elections. Tomorrow, 7 September, Brazil celebrates the 200th anniversary of its independence and I congratulate the people of Brazil on that important milestone, but I also want to say that we all hope those celebrations are joyous and peaceful, because peace in elections is vital.

Opposition Members join the Government in congratulating the Republic of Brazil on its 200th anniversary.

Reports that the Bolsonaro Government are attempting to reduce the number of official observers for the forthcoming presidential elections are extremely worrying. Given that the Foreign Secretary, who is shortly to become Prime Minister, has spent so much time cosying up to President Bolsonaro, rather than challenging on the destruction of the Amazon rainforest and the attack on fundamental human rights in Brazil, will the Minister use her diplomatic pressure to help ensure these elections are able to be independently observed, with all sides respecting the outcome and result afterwards?

I absolutely agree with the hon. Gentleman on the importance of free and fair elections, and I say again that it is very important that Brazil demonstrates to other countries across the world that it continues to support free and fair elections, and obviously election observers have an important role to play. I have had the opportunity to meet representatives of Brazil’s current Government and the Brazilian Workers’ party; I have discussed with them a broad range of issues, including the importance of free and fair elections. We also continue to be focused on the issue of the Amazon; indeed my right hon. Friend the Member for Reading West (Alok Sharma) the COP26 President, visited Brazil earlier this year on precisely that issue, and we—

Cyprus

I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend; she is a great champion for the reunification of Cyprus. We are determined to find a negotiated settlement for the island, which is why I met Cypriot Foreign Minister Kasoulides in my first week in office to set out the UK’s commitment to finding a just and lasting settlement.

Will the Minister condemn the actions of the Turkish authorities in reopening parts of the beachfront town of Famagusta as this is causing great distress to the Greek Cypriots who were driven from those homes 48 years ago and have never been able to return? Such provocative actions make it harder to achieve a negotiated settlement.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The fact that the suburb of Varosha within Famagusta is being fenced off underlines the importance of reaching a comprehensive Cyprus settlement. The UK strongly opposes any destabilising actions. We support the UN Security Council resolutions covering Varosha, the latest of which calls for the immediate reversal of the Turkish course of action and of all steps taken on Varosha since October 2020.

Israeli Government Proscription of Palestinian Civil Society Groups

12. Whether she has had recent discussions with her Israeli counterpart on the Israeli Government’s proscription of Palestinian civil society groups. (901313)

We have been clear about our concern over the Israeli Government’s decision in October 2021 to designate six Palestinian non-governmental organisations as terrorist organisations, and the subsequent raids on seven NGOs. We continue to engage with a number of these organisations and have raised the issue with the Israeli authorities, including, most recently, through our ambassador to Israel.

I am grateful to the Minister for her comments. What assessment has she made of the impact of the listing and raids of Palestinian civic society and human rights groups on the prospect of that much-wanted and much-needed two-state solution and an enduring peace for Palestinians and Israelis?

Civil society organisations play a really important role in upholding human rights and democracy. They must be able to operate freely in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. During my recent visit to Israel and the OPTs in June, I met human rights defenders, journalists and civil society organisations to discuss the pressures that they face in the region. I emphasise the UK’s strong support for freedom of speech and media freedom.

Last October, Israel designated six Palestinian civil society groups as terrorist organisations, which has caused widespread concern. Accusations of terrorism must be treated with the utmost seriousness and must be grounded in evidence. As The Guardian reported in August, the CIA, which is known to be assiduous in these matters, said that no evidence had been presented to support the designation. Will the Minister press her Israeli counterpart for that evidence and, in the absence of such evidence, continue to support the Palestinian civil society that is so important to democracy and the goal of a two-state solution?

I agree with the hon. Gentleman, as I just said, on the importance of civil society and the role it plays in terms of human rights and democracy. The evidence that forms the basis of the designations is a matter for the Government of Israel. The UK maintains its own criteria for designation, and we continue to engage with many of those organisations. As I said, we have been clear about our concerns.

With Iran stepping up its terrorist activities in the middle east, supporting terrorist organisations carrying out attacks against Israel and developing its nuclear capacity, what plans does my right hon. Friend have to introduce sanctions against Iran and take up further punitive measures?

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his question. I am afraid that I will not be able to talk about future sanction designations on the Floor of the House as that would undermine their role.

Pakistan: Flood Relief

19. What steps the Government are taking to help provide humanitarian support to Pakistan following recent floods. [R] (901320)

I know that the whole House will want to join me in sending our deepest condolences to the people of Pakistan as they suffer the consequences of this devastating flooding. We in the UK stand shoulder to shoulder with our Pakistani friends and will continue to provide support as they respond to and recover from this disaster. We were one of the first countries to announce funding to respond to the humanitarian need, and we have now increased that to £16.5 million to support the flood relief efforts. The UK contribution is now 10% of the joint UN and Government of Pakistan emergency appeal.

The Minister is certainly right about expressing the feelings of the whole House, but she will recognise that, in April, the International Development Committee reported that UK aid to Pakistan had been “reduced dramatically” after the Government’s overall reduction from 0.7% to 0.5% and has been cut by much more than we are now offering. Reports today suggest that a tragedy of already massive proportions appears to be worsening as attempts to stop Manchar lake overflowing have failed. What more will the Government do to help? Will she tell her new leader that tragic events such as this underline the need to prioritise action on climate change, not marginalise it?

We are one of the largest donors of international aid in the world and we focus on prioritising those most in need. As I said, we have already contributed over 10% of the joint UN-Government of Pakistan emergency appeal. We work with countries all across the world not only on immediate needs but on long-term strategy. The longer-term consequences of this terrible tragedy will become clear, but the World Bank, of which we are one of the largest shareholders, is already looking at a long-term needs assessment to help Pakistan to recover.

The recent flooding in Pakistan has plunged the country into a humanitarian and climate emergency, leaving a third of the country under water, huge loss of life and an estimated $10 billion-worth of damage. I hope the Minister will join me in applauding the diaspora community and non-governmental organisations that have already raised over £15 million to help the victims of this monster monsoon. I ask three things of the Government. First, will they urge the International Monetary Fund to review the conditionality attached to the loans given to Pakistan? Secondly, will they reverse the 75% cut to UK aid for environmental protection programmes in Pakistan? Thirdly, what further help will they provide to rebuild infrastructure in Pakistan?

I absolutely join the hon. Gentleman in praising and thanking the British people, especially the Pakistani diaspora across the UK, for the efforts they have made to support their friends and family, and those most in need in Pakistan. We worked with the Disasters Emergency Committee to get its appeal launched at the end of the last week. The UK Government are match funding the first £5 million, but I am really pleased to have heard this morning that the appeal has already raised over £11 million from public donations. That is a huge, huge effort. My hon. Friend the noble Lord Ahmad, who covers Pakistan as part of his brief, is in daily contact with Ministers, officials and those on the ground, as well as our own diplomatic team, to ensure we focus on helping with the immediate need. I hear him about the longer-term solutions. We are involved in those discussions as well.

I welcome my hon. Friend’s comments about the diaspora and the additional £15 million. In Worcester, our mosque raised £87,000 to support Pakistan after floods in 2010 and once again it is going out of its way to raise money. What more can the Government do to amplify and magnify the contribution from British Pakistani communities?

May I thank the members of my hon. Friend’s mosque in Worcester? Members of my mosque in Chelmsford have been engaged in similar activities. I encourage those who are concerned about the flooding to continue to support the DEC appeal. The response over the past few days has been absolutely outstanding. Supporting through the DEC appeal, which has match funding from the UK Government, will ensure that water, food and other emergency needs get to where they are needed most.

As trade envoy to Pakistan, I am pleased that the Government have offered aid support to the country following last week’s tragic events. Will the Minister outline what action is being taken right now to assist the flood relief effort in Pakistan and whether there is likely to be any further welcome support in future? Will she also join me in thanking the people of Dewsbury, who have rallied around in huge numbers to support the humanitarian effort?

I absolutely join my hon. Friend in thanking the people of Dewsbury, and I thank him for his work as trade envoy in championing Pakistan. The money we are giving and the money being raised through the DEC appeal is going to people’s immediate needs: water, sanitation, shelter, protection for women and girls, and supporting people to repair their homes and maintain their livelihoods. That is why giving through the DEC appeal is the best way to get to those immediate needs. As I said, the World Bank is already looking at a needs assessment for the longer term.

Catastrophic scenes of flooding in Pakistan: 1,000 lost lives, 33 million people displaced and a third of the country under water. As we have heard today, the whole House has expressed its solidarity with the community, both there and here. In advance of COP27, will the Minister undertake to produce an urgent bilateral plan with Pakistan that looks at mitigation, loss and damage, and long-term plans to avoid this sort of climate catastrophe in future?

The flooding absolutely demonstrates how climate change is making extreme weather events more intense and more frequent. It underlines why the UK has committed to doubling the amount of climate finance that we give to support adaptation to the impacts of climate change and why the world must transition to clean energy sources as quickly as possible. That work is being led by the UK, through the COP26 President, in his endeavours to get support all across the world to tackle climate change.

Topical Questions

I will try to keep this brief, Mr Speaker.

Since our last oral questions, we have continued to stand up against Russian aggression. We have provided Ukraine with further political, military and humanitarian support. We established a sanctions directorate in the FCDO, doubling the number of staff we have working, to ratchet up the economic pressure on Putin’s regime. As we heard, we have committed to a £15 million package of support for Pakistan following the devastating floods that have hit the country. In addition, I co-chaired the UK-ASEAN ministerial meeting as an official dialogue partner, where we agreed a joint plan of action for the next five years.

Further to the comments from the right hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon), it is two years since the introduction of the Magnitsky legislation, which was designed to deal with designated persons guilty of human rights violations and other serious offences. Given the continuing abuses in Iran, why has that not been used against a single prison governor, Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps commander or senior member of the regime, and when will that be remedied?

I am afraid that I cannot speculate about future sanction designations, but as I said in answer to an earlier question, we maintain a range of sanctions that work to constrain the destabilising activity of the IRGC.

T4. It was reported last week that the US coastguard cutter, the Oliver Henry, aborted her visit to the Solomon Islands. That followed a similar aborted visit by HMS Spey. In the light of those events, what assessment has my right hon. Friend made of the current state of UK-Solomon Islands bilateral relations? Furthermore, what steps are the Government taking to counteract communist Chinese influence in the south Pacific? (901294)

The Solomon Islands Government are reviewing the protocols for receiving naval vessels into their waters. We hope that the review will be completed shortly, delivering a smooth and swift approval process. Last month, I visited Vanuatu and attended the Pacific Islands Forum. As a long-standing partner and friend, the UK is working to support peace and prosperity for the people of the Solomon Islands and across the Pacific.

T2. On behalf of the Baha’i community and the Ahmadiyya Muslim Association in Newport, which raised with me this summer the ongoing attacks on members of its faith groups, as well as those who have raised the attacks on Christian communities across the African continent, may I ask the Minister for reassurance that working with our international counterparts to tackle the persecution of religious minorities will be an important priority for the Department, whoever is in it? (901292)

We strongly condemn the detention of the Baha’i community in Iran as well as the reports of forced closures of its businesses and land seizures. The persecution of religious minorities cannot be tolerated. I confirm that my colleague, the noble Lord Ahmad, issued a statement calling out Iran’s treatment of the Baha’i community.

T6. After the second world war, the biggest moral defeat visited on Soviet Russia was the creation of a successful, democratic, capitalist free state in West Germany. It cost billions of pounds under the Marshall plan. It will undoubtedly cost hundreds of billions of pounds to rebuild Ukraine, but what better way to defeat Russian aggression than to create a model free state in Ukraine in the future with a new Marshall plan? (901298)

We must support Ukraine’s vision for rebuilding a sovereign, prosperous, democratic nation that is stronger than it was before Putin’s invasion. Significant support will be required. That is why, in early July, the Foreign Secretary presented our vision to support the Ukraine-led effort for recovery and reconstruction at the Ukraine recovery conference in Lugano. We will host that conference next year because we must not only support the Ukrainians now, but look ahead to a better future.

Order. I am going to pull stumps. People will be upset and quite angry, but I want Front Benchers and everybody who has been asking questions to think about how long their answers are and how long they are taking to ask their questions. Please, let us get it right next time.

Sewage Pollution

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs if he will make a statement on sewage outflows into our beautiful waterways and on our beaches.

As a Cornish MP, I have long been aware of the challenges created for our aquatic environment by storm overflows. When I became Secretary of State in February 2020, I instructed officials to change the strategic policy statement for Ofwat to give the issue greater priority.

This is the first Government to set a clear requirement for water companies to reduce the harm caused by sewage discharges: we have set that in law through the Environment Act 2021. We are taking action now on a scale never seen before. Water companies are investing £3.1 billion now to deliver 800 storm overflow improvements across England by 2025. This will deliver an average 25% reduction in discharges by 2025.

We have also increased monitoring. In 2016, only 5% of storm overflows were monitored. Following the action of this Government, almost 90% are now monitored, and by next year 100% of all storm overflows will be required to have monitors fitted. This new information has allowed our regulators to take action against water companies. The Environment Agency and Ofwat have launched the largest criminal and civil investigations into water companies ever, at more than 2,200 treatment works, following the improvements that we have made to monitoring data. That follows 54 prosecutions against water companies since 2015, securing fines of nearly £140 million.

Water companies should consider themselves on notice. We will not let them get away with illegal activity. Where permits are breached, we are taking action and bringing prosecutions. Under our landmark Environment Act, we have also made it a legal requirement for companies to provide discharge data to the Environment Agency and make it available to the public in near real time: within an hour. This is what Conservative Members have voted for: an Environment Act that will clean up our rivers and restore our water environment; that has increased monitoring and strengthened accountability; and that adds tough new duties to tackle sewage overflows for the first time.

The Government have also been clear that companies cannot profit from environmental damage, so we have provided new powers to Ofwat under the Environment Act to modify water company licence conditions. Ofwat is currently consulting on proposals that will enable it to take enforcement action against companies that do not link dividend payments to their environmental performance or that are failing to be transparent about their dividend payouts.

Yesterday, I laid before Parliament the storm overflows discharge reduction plan. The plan will start the largest investment in infrastructure ever undertaken by the water industry: an estimated £56 billion of capital investment over the next 25 years. It sets strict new targets for water companies to reduce sewage discharges. Designated bathing waters will be the first sites to see change. By 2035, water companies must ensure that overflows affecting designated bathing waters meet strict standards to protect public health. We will also see significant reductions in discharges at 75% of high-priority sites.

Water is one of our most precious commodities. Water companies must clean up their act and bring these harmful discharges to an end. I commend our storm overflow report, which was published yesterday, to the House.

I thank the Secretary of State for his response, but I am utterly staggered by his complacency. Following the news over the summer that raw sewage was being pumped into our waterways and along our beautiful beaches, I have received so many messages from constituents who are horrified that water companies are polluting in such a revolting way. Does the Secretary of State recognise that, after 12 years, people rightly hold his Government responsible for this risk to human and environmental health, and for allowing the twin failures of weak regulation and Government cuts, together with the continuation of a privatisation process that has lined the pockets of shareholders at the expense of investment in the infrastructure that we so desperately need?

Where is the urgency from Ministers? We have a so-called plan that allows water companies to continue polluting until 2035 in areas of significant importance to human and ecological health and until 2050 elsewhere, which means sanctioning nearly 30 more years of pollution. Is that genuinely what the Secretary of State considers to be an urgent response? Will he strengthen it to a 90% reduction in storm overflows by 2030 at the latest? Worse still, it was previously illegal for water companies to discharge sewage when there was no heavy rainfall, but under the Government’s new plan, that is now permitted until 2050. Why are this Government going backwards?

Our soon-to-be Prime Minister has claimed that she will “deliver, deliver, deliver”, but all that she did deliver when she was Environment Secretary were devastating cuts to the Environment Agency. Has the Secretary of State asked whether she regrets those cuts, and will the Government reverse them? Is the Secretary of State proud of a situation in which 24% of sewage overflow pipes at popular resorts have monitors that are faulty, or do not have monitors at all? Since privatisation in 1991, water companies have made a staggering £50 billion in dividends for their shareholders. Why does the Secretary of State’s plan include imposing costs on customers to pay for improvements—a bill that the companies themselves should be footing?

Coastal communities are still recovering from the pandemic. Local beaches are at the heart of these communities, and they are critical to our constituents’ wellbeing as well as to local economies. However, one local firm in Brighton told me that on the August bank holiday weekend, when it would normally see a 30% increase in business, it saw a 70% decrease. What compensation will there be for such businesses?

Will the Secretary of State now cut the crap, commit himself to strengthening the Government’s plan, and bring our failing system back into public hands, which is where it belongs?

Order. Let me just say that that was a good joke, but it is not what we want to start this term with. Come on—let us have the Secretary of State.

The hon. Lady delivered her comments with characteristic passion, but she was wrong to say that the Government had not prioritised this issue. Had she listened to my response to the urgent question, she would have heard that when I became Secretary of State this was one of the first things that I prioritised in changing the strategic policy statement.

The hon. Lady would like immediate action to be taken on these matters, but the truth is that long-term infrastructure changes and investments are necessary. We have to take decisions now, and invest in the infrastructure and the capacity to prevent such discharges from happening. Were we to do what the hon. Lady would like, which is to stop using these arrangements immediately, sewage would literally back up into people’s homes, and I am not sure that that is something they would thank us for. We must therefore have a programme of investment, and we are the first Government to set this out. The hon. Lady is correct in saying that down the decades, since the Victorian era, Governments of all colours have failed to give this matter adequate priority. Ours is the first Government in history to do so, and that is what our plan sets out.

The hon. Lady made a point about costs. We are mindful of this. As we roll out our programme, we must prioritise the most harmful discharges in the near term, and that is exactly what we are doing. We are taking action right now, with a £3 billion investment that will reduce discharges by 25% by 2025, and we will then prioritise bathing waters and other priority sites with a target of 2035. Those measures will require that infrastructure investment, and will require some funding. As I said in my initial response, we are doing this in a way that will ensure that it is funded fairly and that companies cannot award dividends unless they are performing properly. Let me also point out that Ofwat regularly tries to drive greater value from water companies, to the extent that last year a number of them appealed to the Competition and Markets Authority to say that Ofwat was being too hard on them.

I disagree with the points that the hon. Lady has made. Ours is the first Government to prioritise this issue, but doing so requires us to make decisions now that will bring about long-term improvements, and that is what we have decided to do.

Those of us who have been around for a long time do not believe that nationalised industries would allow the necessary level of investment to be continued. Can I ask the Secretary of State whether the companies, the regulator and the Environment Agency knew the scale of the discharges?

My hon. Friend raises an important issue, and it was only when this Government required increased monitoring that we discovered the scale of the problem. The reality is that this has been a problem for some time, but successive Governments down the decades have not had the right monitoring in place to recognise it. As soon as we recognised this, the Environment Agency started to bring record numbers of prosecutions against companies that appear to have been breaching their permit requirements. We are not sure whether that was an error that those companies were making, and that they did not realise they were making some of those discharges, or whether it was deliberate. There is a moot point about why the Environment Agency did not detect this earlier, and that is now the subject of an investigation by the Office for Environmental Protection, which was set up under our Environment Act 2021.

The scenes over the summer have shown us again that the country is awash with Conservative-approved filthy raw sewage. Over the last six years, there have been over 1 million sewage discharge spill events, which on average means a spill taking place every 2.5 minutes. Just in the time that we will be in this Chamber for this urgent question, 18 sewage discharges will take place. The water companies are laughing all the way to the bank and the Government are complicit in treating our country like an open sewer, allowing raw human waste to be dumped on our beaches and playing fields and into our streams and bathing waters, where families live and holiday and where their children play.

This is the record and the legacy of a decade of decline, including from the new Prime Minister, who slashed the enforcement budget by a quarter when she was in the right hon. Gentleman’s post. There might be a new Prime Minister, but it is the same old Tories. In the Environment Secretary’s own backyard, he has subjected his constituents to 581 sewage discharges in the last year alone. The very people who voted for him and put their trust in him have been let down by him. This could have been avoided had Conservative MPs not blocked changes that would have ended sewage discharges and finally held the water companies to account.

The Government’s plan is not worth the paper it is written on. It is business as usual, giving water bosses the green light to carry out another 4.8 million discharges through to 2035. When will the Government finally step up to eliminate the dumping of raw sewage into our environment? I have a message for whoever may be in the right hon. Gentleman’s post as early as this evening: the Labour party is putting you on notice. We are taking this fight, constituency by constituency, from Cumbria to Cornwall to turn those neglected filthy brown seats into bright red.

The hon. Gentleman’s contribution is characteristically political—[Interruption.] Let me say that this is the first Government to increase monitoring so that we knew there was a problem. This is the first Government to set out a £56 billion investment plan to tackle this. No previous Government, not even Labour Governments, ever prioritised this issue in the way that we have. The hon. Gentleman mentions cuts to the Environment Agency budget, but he misunderstands how that budget works. The cost of monitoring water companies’ permits for the management of combined storm overflows is cost-recovered through the permit, and there have been no cuts to that. They can to recover those costs, and we have increased the grant in aid budget to enable them to do further enforcement action. That is why we have seen record numbers of prosecutions being brought under this Government’s watch.

We now come to the Chair of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, Sir Robert Goodwill.

Before privatisation, every single gallon of Scarborough sewage was pumped into the sea untreated. Since privatisation, we have seen investment in the Burniston water treatment works, which has been upgraded with ultraviolet treatment to increase its capacity, and in a 4 million litre stormwater tank at the end of Marine Drive that captures the majority of heavy storms. Would the Secretary of State agree that the bathing water off the Yorkshire coast has never been cleaner, and that while there is more work to be done, particularly on some of our inland waterways, private sector investment is the way to deliver that?

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. We have prioritised investments through the new strategic policy statement for Ofwat, which means that this issue is being prioritised for the first time ever. He is also right that private capital has helped to raise the money to lead to infrastructure improvements. Things were not perfect in the days of nationalisation. Indeed, we did not even understand the scale of the problem because there was not the monitoring in place, which we have now required, to recognise it.

In 2019, the River Lea suffered a discharge for 1,000 hours. That was three years ago, and the ripple effect of it will be longer than just this summer. But the Environment Agency, in response to my questions, says—as the Minister said—“Well, it is okay, we are monitoring more.” But that monitoring does not seem to deter the water companies from repeating their action. So why does he think the threat of prosecution and fines is not delivering quicker and better investment to stop this happening?

Quite simply, because this is the first Government in history to require all of these 15,000 storm overflows to be properly monitored, and now that we have that data, this is the first Government ever to bring prosecutions against those companies, and they will respond to that. This is also the first Government ever to prioritise £56 billion of investment to improve infrastructure so that these storm overflows are not needed.

May I thank the Secretary of State for his statement and his clarity on this issue? Does he agree that that is in stark contrast with the Liberal Democrats, who are pumping out alarmist, inaccurate and frankly toxic material into our constituencies through leaflets and social media? In stark contrast, this Conservative Government are the first Government ever to take action on this and hold the water companies to account and to stop these illegal and unacceptable discharges.

As a matter of interest, the hon. Member did put his name in on this urgent question, so I am taking his question and I do not need any barracking.

Thank you, Mr Speaker; impeccable timing, as always.

Look, it is obvious to everybody watching that we have a colossal problem: 6 million hours of sewage being dumped legally into our seas, lakes and rivers in the last year. These are the specifics of it: in the last 48 hours, a sewage dump on the beach at Seaford in Lewes. In my part of the world, Morecambe bay, 5,000 hours of sewage discharges on to the sands, and 1,000 hours into Windermere. Juxtapose that with £2.8 billion of profits for the water companies, £1 billion in shareholder dividend and the executives giving themselves 20% pay rises, 60% in the form of bonuses. I do not know about you, Mr Speaker, but I thought bonuses were what you got when you do a good job. And all this is done legally, on the sanction of this Government. When will they make these discharges illegal and ensure that the water companies pump their profits into ensuring that they protect homes and businesses, and our seas and lakes?

Our Environment Act addresses all the substantive points that the hon. Gentleman raised. As I said in my statement, Ofwat is currently consulting on an ability to regulate the dividends that companies pay and to link that to their environmental performance.

I would simply repeat that this is the first Government to prioritise this issue. These are long-term challenges. We could argue that the coalition Government, and Governments before them, could have acted on this issue and had a different strategic policy statement. There were Liberal Democrats in that Government. They chose to prioritise other issues, such as the alternative vote and Lords reform.

I will cry in a minute! Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is this Government who have prioritised this issue of tackling sewage discharges, with the monitoring, the reporting and the big investigation under way; and that, contrary to what we have heard from some Members, the Liberal Democrats actually voted against all those measures in the Environment Act? So they could have helped.

Crucially, would my right hon. Friend, who has himself done so much on this issue in the Department, agree that what is important now is that the regulator uses the power it has and uses its new directions; that the EA takes forward prosecutions following this intensive investigation; and that the water companies do not pay huge salaries if they cannot demonstrate that their house is in order?

I commend my hon. Friend for her role in progressing this agenda and for the work that she did on the Environment Act, which sets out all the new powers that we need to address this challenge. She is absolutely right: we introduced powers under the Act to give Ofwat new abilities to scrutinise and to change dividend awards. It is consulting on measures to do that now. It is because of the work of my hon. Friend and others in government and in the Department that we have the powers under the Environment Act to finally tackle this long-standing challenge.

Recently the Environment Agency branded Southern Water “appalling” and awarded it a one-star rating. Frankly, in the view of my constituents, that was one whole star too many, and many of them are considering not paying their bills. I have held two public meetings in Whitstable so that representatives from our sailing clubs, swimmers, fishers and residents could confront Southern Water directly. Will the Secretary of State—or one of the Ministers, because we do not know who it will be—come to my constituency and meet groups such as SOS Whitstable, and hear from them what damage this is doing to our economy on a daily basis?

Southern Water is one of the companies that were recently investigated, and was subject to a record fine of close to £90 million. That significant fine actually precipitated a change in ownership of that company. I know that the new owners are committed to addressing the historic problems that they have had. As for whether a Minister will visit the hon. Lady’s constituency, if she would like to write to me or wait and see who is around tomorrow, I am sure they will look favourably on her request.

As my right hon. Friend knows, the River Wye is a priceless national asset, threatened by phosphate pollution. He also knows that the Wye is unusual because it crosses the border between Wales and England and the majority of its phosphate does not come from sewage companies, and therefore it will not be as affected as other rivers by the thoroughly laudable measures that my right hon. Friend has taken. Will he make a note to his successor, if there is one, and to his officials now in the Box, that the next administration of DEFRA, if there is one, should take the matter up with great energy and authority, and press the cross-border issue, for the betterment of the Wye, the whole catchment and this country as a whole?

My right hon. Friend raises an important point, in that there are sometimes cross-border issues. While we are taking leading action in England, we obviously also need other devolved Administrations, including in Wales, to play their part to address the challenge, particularly in catchments such as the Wye. I am aware of the point that he makes on phosphates. We are consulting at the moment on reducing nutrient pollution—both nitrogen and phosphates—from both agriculture and sewage treatment works, and I am sure that when the results are published they will give the impetus that he requires and requests for agriculture to be tackled.

Last week, I and 17 of my north-west colleagues wrote to United Utilities about reported significant sewage releases into the River Mersey. United Utilities has simply denied that it was responsible and cited Environment Agency estimates that it is responsible for only about 30% of pollution incidents in the river. What will the Government do, on a speedier timescale than the one that the Secretary of State’s plan sets out, to make sure that investment in infrastructure is brought forward? The companies seem to have got into a very bad habit of treating the money that they make as something to be given out in dividends and payments to senior executives, rather than invested in the infrastructure that will make sure that this stops in the future.

The next pricing review period starts in 2025, which is not soon enough for me. That is why I said to Ofwat, and to the water companies, that they should bring forward any investments that they are able to. That is why, as I said earlier, there will be £3.1 billion of investments up to 2025, on 800 overflows, which will significantly reduce discharges by about 25% by 2025—so in the near term.

Last week, I met Anglian Water to discuss the situation that had developed in Cleethorpes. Notwithstanding what the Secretary of State has just said, I was left with the feeling that we could be harder on it in the targets that we set. Whether that is through my right hon. Friend, Ofwat or the Environment Agency matters not. Could we look again at the targets that we are setting? In his earlier response, the Secretary of State mentioned 2035. That is a long way away. Traders in Cleethorpes want people to come along and be confident that the waters are clean.

My hon. Friend raises an important point. We are mindful of the impacts on bills. The average increase in bills with the measures we outlined—the £56 billion package—will be about £12 per household per year by around 2030. However, we have said that we will review this in 2027, and if it is possible to accelerate more of that investment, we will do so and the Government at that time can consider that position. I repeat that it is not the case that nothing is happening until 2035; indeed, we are spending more than £3 billion out to 2025, which will lead to a 25% reduction.

I have repeatedly raised the issue of sewage dumping on the beach in my constituency in this Chamber. The Government continually use the excuse that it would cost up to £660 billion to upgrade our sewers, but the actual cost, over 10 years, would be £21.7 billion. Since privatisation, £72 billion has been paid out in dividends, so why are the Government not making the water companies meet these costs?

We also published and laid before the House yesterday a report required under the Act on the feasibility of removing the storm overflows altogether. It is the case that the cost of completely removing them, as the hon. Lady would like, is up to about £600 billion. Reducing their use so that they are not used in an average year would, in itself, be in the region of £200 billion. We have chosen to spend £56 billion, a significant investment, to target the most harmful sewer discharges, and that will lead to significant change in the years ahead.

River pollution and sewage discharge in Wales is the responsibility of the Welsh Labour Government and last year there were more than 3,000 discharge incidents in waters around Anglesey. I have received many letters from my constituents who are concerned about the pollution of beautiful beaches such as Benllech as a result of the actions of Welsh Water. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Welsh Government need to take responsibility and urgently implement a plan?

We have set an important example with the storm overflow discharge reduction plan that we have published. We have committed to the investment and we are bringing record numbers of prosecutions in England against water companies. My hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that we need the Welsh Government and the devolved Administrations to play their part too.

We have an ecological disaster with massive numbers of dead crustaceans, porpoises and seals washing up on the beaches around the Tees bay, hammering what is left of our fishing industry. In addition to the foul sewage discharges, levels of pyridine have been detected that are off the scale and there are concerns about the dredging of the river and the bay releasing toxins. Will the Minister assure me that his Department will commit to securing a proper explanation for this disaster and insist that his Tory Tees Valley Mayor does not repeat his misleading of the public about the quantities of dredgings being disposed of at sea?

The hon. Gentleman has raised this issue before and there was a tragic case of large numbers of crabs, in particular, being washed up on beaches in his constituency. We ordered an investigation by the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture, our leading fisheries science agency, supported by Natural England. Their conclusion was that this is most likely caused by a natural algal bloom event.

My local beach, Longrock, saw the highest number of combined sewer overflow notifications in this last bathing season, so I could not agree more that South West Water needs to do more. However, the Secretary of State will know that it is not just an issue for the water companies. For example, in a combined sewerage system, water from our roads, our farmland, our roofs and our own homes will eventually overwhelm this aged system. What can he do to encourage us all to act more responsibly in the way we use water, which will eventually overflow this system and go on to our beaches?

My hon. Friend highlights an important point: the origin of this problem links back to the Victorian combined sewer system we have, where street drainage systems are linked into the foul water drainage system. Since the 1960s, new housing developments have been required to be on a different drainage system, but I am sorry to say that all too often they have ended up plumbed back into the sewer. One key thing that water companies will be prioritising is, where possible, particularly on those later housing developments, ensuring that the drainage system is genuinely separated from the sewer system.

Last year, South West Water dumped 350,000 hours of raw sewage into the rivers and seas around the south-west. It has just been handed a one-star rating by the Environment Agency and a third of its sewage monitors do not work, according to the EA. Meanwhile, executive pay is up, dividends are up and it issued a special dividend to reward shareholders with even more money. Is it not time that South West Water published a full list of each and every raw sewage outlet that it is intending to close so that bill payers, such as the Secretary of State and I, can look at what it is intending to do and how these things are going to close? This will allow us to hold South West Water to account, just as we will hold the Tory Government to account for their failure to take faster action at the next election.

The Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double) has met South West Water to discuss some of these issues. I simply say to the hon. Gentleman that in 2016 only about 800 combined sewers were properly monitored and we have increased that to 12,000. Over the next year, we will increase it to 100% coverage. It is because of the action that this Government have taken to increase monitoring, something that no previous Government had done, that we have determined that there is a problem and we are bringing prosecutions against these companies.

On the island, we have persuaded Southern Water to undertake its most ambitious pathfinder project, which should, in time, see dramatic improvements. We need them, because in the past 24 hours we have had overflows at Bembridge, Cowes, Ryde, Seaview, Freshwater and Gurnard, which is unacceptable. I pay tribute to the work done by the Secretary of State and former Ministers in bringing in these new laws that have exposed the problem. We have seen the complacency and the failure in the water industry. Because of that failure and complacency, should we not now be bringing forward the legal timescales by which we demand action? We have exposed the problem, so can we not do more to demand that those water companies take the action that we all want to see?

It is important to distinguish between the failure of water companies to abide by their permit conditions, which is an issue and is the reason for the Environment Agency bringing multiple prosecutions on this matter—we must bring that to a speedy conclusion, seek immediate rectification and bring them back into compliance with their permit conditions—and the separate issue of the permitted use of storm overflows. That issue is about long-term investment in infrastructure, which is what our discharge plan addressed.

I hope you will excuse me for being slightly political on this matter, Mr Speaker. The Secretary of State continues to talk about the discharges and how he is trying to catch up with the water companies, but the reality is that we should be surcharging the water companies for the continuous abuse of our rivers, streams, play areas, seas and everywhere that this gets into. It ruins our environment for our rivers and our streams. If he wants to deal with this, he should surcharge the companies. If they cannot pay the surcharge, he should bring this back into public ownership—that is the answer to all of this.

As I said, we have brought many prosecutions since 2015 and levied fines of about £140 million on the industry. In one case, that precipitated a change in ownership of a water company. The right thing to do is bring prosecutions where a company is in breach of its permits, and that is what the Environment Agency is doing.

Mr Speaker, thank you for granting not only this urgent question, but a 90-minute debate next Wednesday at 2.30 pm in Westminster Hall. Bexhill’s beach is red-flagged today, as it was yesterday, meaning that people should not enter the sea. It was the only beach in the area to be red-flagged and it is the only beach in the area whose bathing quality is not either “excellent” or “good”. I welcome the Secretary of State’s plan, but may I ask him to ensure that the areas that do not have good-quality bathing have a higher degree of prioritisation in the delivery of this plan?

I absolutely give my hon. Friend that assurance. Our discharge reduction plan absolutely prioritises bathing waters in those near-term investments.

While water companies such as Northumbria Water have made on average £2 billion profit a year since privatisation, filthy raw sewage is being dumped into our playing fields, our beaches and our waters. This included 1,248 sewage dumps across 48 sites in my constituency last year. Profits and shareholder dividends are up, at the expense of public health. I went to see for myself the River Don in my constituency a few weeks ago, and the stench alone made clear the scale of the issue. Will the Secretary of State and his Government act on this immediately, or is he content with this environmentally criminal behaviour?

I hope I have made it clear that we are not content with criminal behaviour, which is precisely why we are bringing record numbers of prosecutions, having discovered a problem as a result of the monitoring that the Government required. The hon. Lady mentions dividends. As I said earlier, the Environment Act 2021 gives us new powers, and Ofwat is currently consulting on new measures that will link dividend payments to environmental performance.

At the hottest part of the summer, beaches from Hastings to Worthing were blighted by the discharges by Southern Water, even though the rain after the dry period was not particularly heavy. Many of our constituents and tourists just could not use those beaches. While I welcome the extra data and monitoring equipment, which is making the problem more transparent, what we really need is better inspection and enforcement by the Environment Agency, and better explanations from the water companies when these spills occur. If they are lacking, the companies need to be penalised. We also need better information for our constituents as to whether it is safe to go back into the water.

My hon. Friend raises an important point. As I said in my statement, we are now requiring water companies to make available to the Environment Agency all the discharge data from storm overflows, and to publish it in near real time for the public. We shall continue to bring prosecutions where there are breaches of licence conditions.

Despite 12 years of Tory government and some of the tough and strong words in the Chamber today, in my constituency tonnes of sewage are discharged into the River Weaver, the River Mersey and the River Dane on a daily basis by United Utilities. The current system is not working. The future Secretary of State will need to step up, step in and get a grip of this situation. That is crystal clear right across this Chamber.

I am the first Secretary of State ever to publish a plan such as this. One of my first acts as Secretary of State in 2020 was to instruct officials to change the strategic policy statement for Ofwat, which for the first time prioritised reduction of storm overflows.

May I thank my right hon. Friend and his Ministers for all that they are doing to tackle this issue. He will be aware of the importance of water quality in areas where oysters are grown such as the Blackwater estuary. What progress is being made to require the water companies to provide additional investment to carry out microbiological treatment to prevent things like E. coli contamination?

My right hon. Friend raises an important point. One of the actions that we are requiring water companies to take in some instances will be to use techniques that will disinfect water to prevent E. coli counts in the way that he describes, which can indeed affect shellfish sectors in aquatic environments.

Is it not obvious that all these years of privatisation, all the billions that have been paid out in dividends and profits and the massive levels of executive pay have meant that not enough has been invested in the infrastructure, and that there have been excessive numbers of sewage discharges, which are getting worse? Is it not obvious that we should do what every other country in western Europe does and bring our water industry as a whole into public ownership under public control so that we do not damage our water infrastructure in order to pay profits to distant billionaires?

The original vision of water privatisation was that we would have publicly listed companies on the London stock exchange and that water bill payers would also be shareholders. In the early 2000s, most of the water companies fell into the hands of private equity operators, and that was a change. The then Government took a decision to issue licences to operate in perpetuity rather than for fixed periods, which was the case previously. There have been some changes since privatisation, but I am afraid his central charge that nationalisation is the way to get investment is wrong.

Sometimes we forget in this place how we ended up here. We ought to recognise the work of the Environmental Audit Committee, a number of members of which are in the Chamber. The Chair, my right hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Philip Dunne), highlighted for the Chamber the entire situation in his water quality inquiry. Can the Secretary of State confirm that, without our work, we would never have highlighted the improper use of storm overflows, and we certainly would not have been in a position in which the Secretary of State has put together a plan to tackle this problem, which has gone on for years and years?

I am a great believer in the role of Parliament and always have been. It has been a team effort. When I became Secretary of State, I prioritised this long before it was an issue in the media and long before people realised it was an issue. Many Members, including the Chair of the EAC, my right hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Philip Dunne), played a crucial role in making sure that we got the legislation right.

It is pretty obvious to most of my constituents that water privatisation has been a miserable failure. Most of our water companies are owned by foreign investment companies, and we have lost that link. I went campaigning for better water in the Colne, the Holme and the Calder some years ago, and Yorkshire Water said to me, “I don’t know what you are complaining about, Mr Sheerman; there is no river in England fit for humans to swim in.” That is the truth of the matter. I would not prioritise public ownership for this particular thing; I would use that for other sectors. But the fact of the matter is that the regulation has not worked, and it has got to work.

I agree, which is why the Government have changed our legal powers through the Environment Act 2021 to strengthen the regulation, and to require improved monitoring. On the basis of that monitoring and the evidence that it has revealed, we are now bringing record numbers of prosecutions. So the hon. Gentleman is right that there have been regulatory failures in the past. We have addressed those legal deficiencies through the Environment Act.

Thank you for allowing the urgent question, Mr Speaker. My right hon. Friend will be aware that Herefordshire has been under a moratorium for several years now. Herefordshire Council has spent millions of pounds of council tax money buying land around Welsh Water’s sewage works to work as soakaways, yet now I learn that Natural England wants to extend the moratorium to the rest of the county. Please will he use his time in office to stop Natural England from pursuing this pointless and ineffective policy?

This issue is linked to a separate but associated challenge around nutrient pollution. We published our proposals to make some changes to deal with this issue on a strategic level before the summer recess, and we may well indeed need some legislative changes as the challenges that he highlights are a legacy of EU law.

The Secretary of State talks as if he is the first Conservative Secretary of State under this Government. The Conservatives have had 12 years to deal with this issue. Now we are seeing images of raw sewage being pumped out into our coastal waters at the height of the summer season. We have had 12 years of freebooting, when chief execs have paid themselves unearned bonuses and billions have been paid out in dividends. It is 33 years since privatisation. We were told that privatisation was the answer to problems like this. Why has the situation got worse, not better?

I am afraid that the failure to address storm overflows goes back much further. This is a legacy of the Victorian infrastructure that we have in place, and no Government down the decades in the 20th century properly grasped it. Successive pricing reviews under the Labour Government prioritised price reductions over investments to tackle this challenge. The same was true of the coalition Government. This is the first Government ever to prioritise this issue.

Constituents of mine along Rivadale View in Ilkley—indeed all of Ilkley and I—are getting fed up with Yorkshire Water’s underground apparatus and infrastructure failing in Ilkley. We have one scenario where a manhole cover has burst nine times in the past 12 months. Every time it bursts, sewage flows into the River Wharfe. We have passed the landmark Environment Act 2021, which, dare I say it, the Opposition did not vote for. Does the Secretary of State agree that Yorkshire Water needs to get its act together and sort this out, so that my residents are not having to suffer the consequences of sewage getting into the River Wharfe from this manhole cover bursting time and again?

As I said earlier, thanks to the evidence that has been gathered as a result of the new monitoring that we required, we are now bringing investigations into around 2,200 sewage treatment works. I cannot comment on the specific manhole cover that my hon. Friend refers to, but I can reassure him that the Environment Agency is prioritising all of these sorts of challenges.

A couple of weeks ago, heavy rainfall in Sheffield resulted in sewage flowing into the garden of my constituent Perri Bradbury and on into her home, so it has damaged the carpets, the floorboards and furnishings. She has young children. I do not think that we can imagine the awfulness of this situation. When I asked Yorkshire Water about compensation, it did a bit of a clean-up and then said that, under the Water Industry Act 1991, because this was due to exceptional weather, it was not obliged to pay any compensation and would not do so. Is it not time that we changed this out-of-date legislation and made sure that the cost of the consequences of sewage overflows falls on the water companies and not on residents, who have completely no responsibly for this?

The episode that the hon. Gentleman describes is probably linked to a failure somewhere in the sewage infrastructure rather than storm overflows per se, and that is a slightly separate issue. If he would like to write to me, I will look at the specific case he raises.

On the topic of dirty waterways, more and more constituents have been getting in contact with me about the River Gipping over the summer. The river is full of algae and shopping trolleys and is distinctly unloved. Can the Secretary of State advise me and my constituents on how we can go about turning this situation around and potentially securing some extra funding? Ultimately, though, is it the Environment Agency or Ipswich Borough Council that is most responsible? Ipswich is not just about the waterfront on the River Orwell, which is lovely; it is also about the River Gipping. We have to love it and raise it up.

A number of agencies have a role in the situation that my hon. Friend describes. Typically, local authorities are responsible for most of the street drainage infrastructure and the schemes to address that, while the Environment Agency deals with fluvial flood risk, but the two often work together in partnership to tackle these challenges.

This summer, people visiting east Devon had their health put at risk by greedy water companies. Executives at South West Water have been paid £2.2 million in bonuses over the past two years. A sewage pollution alert has been issued today in Seaton, and last year South West Water discharged water for more than 1,100 hours across Beer and Seaton. How comfortable is the Secretary of State with the size of the bonuses that have already been paid to South West Water executives while that company has received from the Environment Agency a rock-bottom one-star rating?

As I said earlier, the issue that the hon. Gentleman raises has been addressed through the Environment Act 2021. We have taken new powers to give Ofwat the ability to link dividend payments to environmental performance, and we are addressing the challenge of storm overflows through the plan we set out yesterday.

I commend the Secretary of State—a fellow Cornish MP—for being the first Secretary of State so far to grasp this nettle and take robust action. As those on the Front Bench will understand, this is a serious problem in Cornwall, especially on the River Fowey, affecting our shell fishermen. It is also something that I raised more than two and a half years ago. Does he agree that enough is enough and that, if water companies are found not to be complying with their obligations, they should face unlimited fines, which I would like to see ringfenced so that we can invest back into the system to fix the problems, and even criminal penalties? If he does agree, will he set out how these will be implemented?

My hon. Friend raises an important point. As I have said, we are bringing a record number of investigations and prosecutions against water companies for potential breaches of their permit conditions. In addition, in the River Fowey, there is also a challenge around agricultural diffuse pollution, which contributes to the issue for the mussel and oyster fishery in that particular part of the world. That is something that we are addressing through our new targets in the Environment Act 2021.

That is clearly not enough. This is a public health issue. Will the Minister consider making it a strict liability offence to dump sewage anywhere and give the Environment Agency more immediate powers, such as cease and desist, because clearly it is being ignored?