House of Commons
Thursday 20 October 2022
The House met at half-past Nine o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
I wish to say something about the reports of behaviour in the Division Lobbies last night. I have asked the Serjeant at Arms and other senior officials to investigate the incident and report back to me. I will then update the House.
I remind Members that the behaviour code applies to them as well as to other members of our parliamentary community. This gives me another opportunity to talk about the kind of House that I want to see, and that I believe the vast majority of MPs also want to see. I want this to be a House in which—while we might have very strong political disagreements—we treat each other courteously and with respect, and we should show the same courtesy and respect to those who work with and for us. To that end, I will be meeting senior party representatives to seek an agreed position that behaviour such as that described last night is unacceptable in all circumstances.
Oral Answers to Questions
Digital, Culture, Media and Sport
The Secretary of State was asked—
Hate Speech Online
We will lead the world in this area, and we will bring back the Online Safety Bill imminently, ensuring that social media platforms finally prioritise protecting children, remove abhorrent illegal content quickly—including hate crimes—and keep their promises to their own users.
Online hate speech affects all and aims to sow division, yet the Government are making painfully slow progress in making online spaces less toxic. Home Office figures reveal a sharp increase in far-right activity, with Muslim and Jewish communities facing the largest number of hate crimes in the UK year after year. Along with other parliamentary colleagues, I suffer online abuse on a regular basis. What steps will the Minister take to tackle Islamophobia and antisemitism online?
Crimes such as those that the hon. Member has mentioned, including hate crimes, are not acceptable on any platform. As I have said, we will bring back the Online Safety Bill imminently. I cannot announce House business here today, but I can assure all Members that the Bill will be coming back very shortly. I share his concerns, as I am sure do all Members.
I call the Chair of the Select Committee, Julian Knight.
Let me first welcome the Secretary of State to her place, and welcome, too, the refreshing degree of engagement with the Select Committee that is now under way. I also welcome her assurance that she will be strengthening the Online Safety Bill’s protections for children, but there has been speculation, following previous comments, that she will be reviewing the duties of care for adults relating to so-called “legal but harmful content”. Can she clarify what changes she is minded to make in relation to such content?
We will be coming back to the House with this in due course, and the Bill will be coming back imminently. This is my key priority—I cannot stress that enough. Protecting children should be the fundamental responsibility of this House, and we will strengthen the provisions for children. I have given that assurance directly to Ian Russell, and I give it again now in the House. We are, however, rebalancing elements for adults’ freedom of speech, while also holding social media companies to account so that they cannot treat different races and religions differently, contrary to their own terms and conditions. Fundamentally, the Bill must be about ensuring that we are protecting children, and we will be bringing it back to the House as soon as possible.
I call the shadow Minister, Alex Davies-Jones.
Last weekend there was yet another case of vile online racist abuse being hurled at a professional footballer, on this occasion the Brentford striker Ivan Toney. Ironically, tomorrow we will all come together to recognise Show Racism the Red Card day. If the Government are at all serious about keeping people safe online, it is vital for those at the top of these multimillion-pound social media companies to be held personally accountable. The Online Safety Bill is our opportunity to do better. Can the Minister therefore tell us exactly why the Government have failed to introduce personal criminal liability measures for senior leaders who have fallen short on their statutory duty to protect us online?
I think it is about time the Opposition remembered that it is this Government who are introducing the Online Safety Bill. It is this Government who committed themselves to it in our manifesto. As I have already told Opposition Members, we will bring it back imminently. I am sure you agree, Mr Speaker, that it would not be proper for me to announce House business here today, but I can assure the hon. Member that this is my top priority. We will be coming back with the Bill shortly. I mean what I say, and I will do what I say.
I now call the Scottish National party spokesperson, John Nicolson.
I welcome the right hon. Lady—my fifth Culture Secretary—to her place. I agree with my friend the hon. Member for Solihull (Julian Knight) that there is a more constructive atmosphere on the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, on which I sit.
Last night, I was honoured to be present at the PinkNews awards, where I spoke up for trans rights with colleagues across party, including Conservatives. There has been an explosion of hate speech online. Women are targeted disproportionately and trans women are targeted especially. Edinburgh Rape Crisis Centre had to lock its door after barrages of violent online threats, and these are dangerous times. An atmosphere of hate has been fanned by too many newspapers and, sadly, politicians.
Does the Secretary of State agree that the now Prime Minister was wrong to weaponise anti-trans rhetoric during the Tory leadership campaign, as she did in attacking the now Leader of the House?
I do not think that anybody disputes the fact that hate speech and hate crime should have no place in our society, but freedom of speech, of course, is the bedrock from which all freedoms stem. I personally believe that every member of this House has a duty to protect free speech as well as protecting our citizens from illegal harms.
The UK Government have a strong record of demonstrating our commitment to minority language broadcasting, to make sure that our broadcasters serve all audiences of the UK nations and regions. My hon. Friend will recall that during his previous role at the Scotland Office we both met MG Alba’s CEO earlier this year. I am grateful to the chief executive for raising the issues of the sustainability of Gaelic language broadcasting and for providing detailed proposals for change. My officials have since been in regular contact with the organisation and I am continuing to talk to counterparts at the Scotland Office. I will have further discussions with MG Alba in due course.
I am grateful for that answer. Gaelic broadcasting is not just vital culturally and socially, but delivers a positive economic impact. Its future strength, however, requires public sector broadcast status in legislation, akin to that enjoyed by Welsh language broadcasters. I suggest to my right hon. Friend that the forthcoming Media Bill will be an ideal opportunity to provide that.
I entirely appreciate that certainty of future funding and particularly a strong partnership with the BBC are important for MG Alba to deliver for Gaelic speakers. It has legitimate concerns, and I have been examining its proposals in detail. Together with my officials, I am trying to decide whether the forthcoming Media Bill is the best mechanism to address those concerns, or whether the issues are better addressed through the future funding review of the BBC and the subsequent BBC charter review. I assure my hon. Friend that I am very engaged in these issues and want to get to a good solution.
There was a time when Gaelic was spoken in much of my far-flung constituency; that is not the case today. I regard Gaelic as not just a Scottish but a United Kingdom treasure. I respectfully suggest to the Minister that she might benefit from coming to the Gàidhealtachd, where Gaelic is spoken in the Western Isles, perhaps in parts of my constituency, to see what needs to be done to help it.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind invitation, and for highlighting the importance of Gaelic not just as a language but as a cultural asset for our country that we should be proud of. I hope that he feels assured that I have been listening to the concerns of my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes South (Iain Stewart) about MG Alba and wish to ensure that it has a sustainable future.
Channel 4 Privatisation
Channel 4 is a great UK success story, and in a rapidly changing media landscape the Government of course want it to thrive in the long term, while maintaining its distinctiveness. I am currently looking at the business case for the sale of Channel 4 and will set out further details to the House in due course.
I just want to clarify in my own mind that the right hon. Lady has no plans at present to carry on the previous policy of privatising Channel 4.
Film4 films have collectively won 37 academy awards and 84 BAFTAs—a record that any Hollywood studio would be proud of. Its films include important examples of the British Asian experience, such as “Bhaji on the Beach”. Does the Minister recognise that the privatisation of Channel 4 would jeopardise the only major private investment stream in British film?
As I said in answer to the hon. Gentleman’s first question, I am thoroughly reviewing the business case, which is the right thing to do—I am an evidence-based politician. We have a fantastic, growing creative industry in this country, which relies on platforms such as Channel 4. That is, of course, part of the decision- making process.
It is very good at covering rugby league at the moment.
Privatising Channel 4 could result in over 1,000 jobs being lost from the supply chain in our nations and regions. Ministers cannot claim to support levelling up while letting this loss go ahead. When will they finally confirm that they know privatising Channel 4 is the wrong decision for our economy, regions and culture?
As I have said, I am reviewing this business case and can assure all Members that I am doing it thoroughly. I am basing my decision on evidence. I am listening to representatives of the sector, all Members of the House and the public, and I will come back shortly with our decision.
Grassroots Sport: Funding
I share hon. Members’ passion for grassroots sport, which brings communities together. I have seen that in my own community, as I am sure the hon. Gentleman has in his. It makes people happier and healthier. Since 2019 we have worked with Sport England to invest over £1.16 million in Bradford East. Last year, Sport England received almost £350 million from taxpayers and the national lottery, which we will continue to support.
The Secretary of State is absolutely right; Bradford’s grassroots football, cricket and boxing clubs are a vital support network for many of Bradford’s young people. Yet, despite the outstanding work of the volunteers who run them, many have been forced to close their doors because of Government cuts, underfunding and, frankly, lack of support. I hear her saying that over £1 million has been put into my constituency, but I have not seen the effects in our grassroots boxing, football and cricket clubs. Will she commit to ensuring that grassroots clubs get the support they need in the forthcoming sports strategy? I invite her to come to my constituency to see for herself the fantastic work done by grassroots clubs.
Either the Sports Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey (Stuart Andrew), or I would be delighted to come to Bradford East. I think that £1.16 million is a substantial amount for one constituency, and I will remain committed to ensuring that we invest in grassroots sports because they are vital in bringing communities together.
Child Protection Online
The inquest into Molly Russell’s tragic death further highlights that the No. 1 priority of the Online Safety Bill has to be protecting children and young people. I commit to strengthening that aspect and getting it back to this House imminently.
I welcome what my right hon. Friend says about the imminent return of the Online Safety Bill. She knows that children and their families have already waited far too long for the Bill to progress. Will she apply a similar sense of urgency to what will happen once the Bill has passed? As she knows, a series of actions are required of Ofcom and the Government to bring this regime fully into force. Will she undertake to ensure that the Government’s part in that happens swiftly?
My right hon. and learned Friend has been a huge advocate of this Bill, on which he has worked personally. He is absolutely right that it is not just about getting the Bill through this place and the other place; it is also about ensuring the Bill works on the ground and makes a tangible difference in protecting children and young people, day in and day out. I will commit to looking at this and ensuring that we go as fast as possible.
I recently had the privilege of meeting a group of Carshalton and Wallington mums who brought to me the very sad case of their children who had accessed illegal drugs through social media companies such as Instagram and Snapchat, which sadly resulted in their taking an overdose and dying. These mums are inspirational in sharing their story. Can my right hon. Friend assure me that the Online Safety Bill will provide the protections they need to ensure that no other children go through the same thing?
I completely concur with my hon. Friend, who is a fantastic advocate for his constituents. Selling illegal drugs is a priority illegal offence in the Online Safety Bill. Platforms will need not only to take content down, but to take proactive steps to prevent drug dealers from abusing their services. If platforms do not remove this content quickly, they will face tough enforcement measures, including huge fines, and the same goes for any other illegal content.
One thing the coroner highlighted was the effect of harmful algorithms that directed harmful content towards Molly Russell. Will the Minister undertake specifically to look into that issue and deal with that sort of harmful content, because the owners of Meta describe those as not being specifically harmful. It is worrying when the people who run these platforms do not see this as a problem.
My Ministers and I have been looking at this area. One fundamental problem relates to the accountability of these companies and who is ultimately responsible for these algorithms. We have been looking at that and I look forward to updating the House as soon as we bring the Bill back.
Are we not playing a wonderful game at the moment, guessing who the Ministers are, Mr Speaker? I shall miss it when everything is stabilised. I chaired the Education Committee and looked at this area. The fact is that sophisticated, mendacious and quite evil people are involved in this; they are clever—they move. Minister, please do not underestimate what you are taking on.
I do not think anybody is underestimating the scale of the challenge. We will be the first country in the world to really tackle this head on to the extent that we will be doing. I have committed in the House to bringing this Bill back imminently, and that it will be one that will deliver, especially for children and young people, which is vital.
The Secretary of State will have seen the research last week from Ofcom on children’s online ages, which showed that because children routinely sign up for social media before the supposed minimum age of 13, using a false date of birth, they then continue to get older in how they appear online, as well as getting older in their actual age. That means that by the time they reach 14 or 15 huge swathes of teenagers appear to the social media platforms to be over 18. So how can we ensure that protections that are meant to protect children online do in fact protect them?
I know that my right hon. Friend is passionate about this Bill and has played a leading role in helping to shape it to this point. I agree that unless social media platforms manage to assess the age of their users, they will fall foul of the Bill. Let us face it: for too long social media companies have got away scot-free. That will end with this Bill, because we will put in place protections for children that will be even stronger.
I thank the Secretary of State very much for her determination to change things for the better, which is what we all want. In four out of five cases of online grooming the victims are girls. Recent studies have shown that to be factual. So what discussions has she had with the Department for Education about online awareness in schools? It is very important that this starts there, because if we start it there, we can stop these things later on.
My ministerial team and I, as well as the Department, work closely with the Department for Education. Media literacy is of course essential, and the Online Safety Bill will strengthen Ofcom’s media literacy functions. I look forward to further discussions about this with that Department.
I call the shadow Secretary of State, Lucy Powell.
I welcome the new Secretary of State to her post. She and I have worked together before and I look forward to working with her again in future.
Molly Russell’s death was an avoidable tragedy and serves as a further call to action to regulate social media. We owe it to her family and countless others to do this without delay—this is beyond party politics. The coroner found that much of the self-harm and suicide material that Molly saw was not content she sought, but was pushed to her by engagement algorithms. That goes to the heart of what the Online Safety Bill was seeking to address. Although it was not perfect, the Bill had almost completed its passage here before the summer, and it was already long overdue. Does the Secretary of State accept that these delays are costing lives? Will she take up the offer that I have made to her in private to work together to do whatever it takes to get this Bill on the statute book as soon as possible?
I would be delighted to meet the hon. Member. I have worked with her extensively over the years and I have a great deal of respect for her. I absolutely share her commitment to protecting children. That is why the Online Safety Bill really is my No. 1 priority. As I said, I cannot announce the business of the House today, but I can assure the House that the Bill will be brought back very soon—a commitment I also gave to Ian Russell. We must protect children from being allowed to be subjected by social media companies to the type of content that Molly Russell was subjected to, and the horrendous tragedy that followed. For too long, social media platforms have shirked their responsibilities for protecting children. It is time that we all worked together to put an end to that.
I very much welcome the Secretary of State’s commitment and look forward to working together. To be fair to the previous Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Mid Bedfordshire (Ms Dorries), she committed to the very difficult task of getting the Bill through, with all the vested interests and internal differences. The current Secretary of State says she is rewriting it, but I fear that will lead to further delay and disagreement. She is never going to satisfy those who dogmatically view this only through the lens of free speech. They do not understand that the issue is not the views expressed, but the power of the platforms to cause harm, which Ian Russell described as “monetising misery”. Does she agree that sticking to the important principles of duty of care and regulating business models, algorithms and their impact is the best way of squaring this circle?
I want to be absolutely clear: my intention is not to appease everybody; my intention is to ensure that we bring the Bill back as soon as we possibly can and that we prioritise protecting children and young people. The hon. Member will see that happen very shortly.
We are investing £5 billion in Project Gigabit so that hard-to-reach areas can get ultra-reliable gigabit speeds. We have already upgraded over 740,000 premises. National gigabit coverage has therefore rocketed to 71%, up from just 6% in January 2019. We have already launched procurements with a value of over £700 million to deliver gigabit connections to hard-to-reach homes and businesses across the UK. We recently signed our first contracts in north Dorset and Teesdale, with more coming soon.
My constituents in Throwley and Wichling were incredibly disappointed to find that their bids for gigabit vouchers were unsuccessful, especially after they worked so hard to gather community support. While most people are able to use their broadband to do video calls, work from home, and stream movies and matches, those constituents cannot. Can my hon. Friend assure me that they will be getting fast broadband soon?
I thank my hon. Friend for raising this case and for all the work that she and her team did to help those villages. I asked officials to look into this case, and they told me that the broadband supplier responsible for the projects in those villages did not put them forward for consideration as a voucher priority area, on the basis that they were not expected to deliver a gigabit-capable connection faster than our own Project Gigabit procurement in Kent. In good news, I can assure my hon. Friend that we are making very good progress on that procurement and we hope to be able to launch it in the coming weeks.
Technology Platforms: Transparency and Accountability
The Government are driving forward a digital regulatory approach that unlocks growth and boosts trust. As part of that, we are taking steps to improve transparency and accountability, including through the Online Safety Bill; data protection legislation that maintains rules for responsible usage; and digital markets legislation, which will promote competition in digital markets.
Does my hon. Friend share my concern at the recent behaviour of PayPal in arbitrarily removing certain accounts of campaigning and journalistic organisations without any warning or explanation? Will he consider how the Online Safety Bill can give greater protection for free speech by increasing the accountability of PayPal, Facebook and the other giant tech platforms?
Absolutely. I agree with my right hon. Friend: it is really important that big tech platforms are transparent and accountable to their users in their terms of service for how they trade. That is important in the principle of how the Online Safety Bill works, both in protecting freedom of speech and in ensuring that companies enforce their platform policies correctly. In terms of digital markets, it is also important that customers know what fair access they have to markets and that they will be treated fairly by platforms, and that the platforms make clear what their terms of service are.
We will create a new bespoke British data protection system that will give people around the world world-class data rights and control over their data, and greater ability to benefit from its responsible use, as well as maintaining data advocacy. For example, our Bill will create a better complaints system and provide the framework for the delivery of smart data schemes that will empower individual consumers and business customers to access and share their data simply and securely with trusted third parties, enabling innovative services.
On 1 October, the Government announced that they would be collecting, processing and storing all British smart meter data. This is despite assurances given over many years that that data was under the control of households and that only they could decide who accessed it, and that, without express permission, it would be used only for billing purposes. Indeed, in 2016, the then Home Secretary told me that smart meter data is protected and not under the Government’s control. Will the Secretary of State set out to me how households in this country can control their smart meter data in the face of this chaotic and dysfunctional Government?
I am more than happy to meet the hon. Member and discuss this further and also take this away to discuss with hon. and right hon. Members across Government.
He is not here. The Secretary of State can continue with business.
I want to start by paying tribute to my Department for its role in Her late Majesty’s funeral and the Lying in State. At the same time, we have also been getting on with delivering the Government’s priorities. In the coming weeks, we will, among other things, be announcing a new package of measures to assist broadband roll-out, bringing back the Online Safety Bill, providing an update on Channel 4 after reviewing the business case and updating the Gambling Act 2005 and the fan-led reviews.
The hon. Lady is right to highlight the importance of museums. Our Department is aware of the situation that she has raised and the Arts Council has been in direct contact, but I will keep a close eye on this and will keep her updated on any progress.
I thank my hon. Friend for highlighting her particular concerns in West Worcestershire. We obviously share her desire to get great connections to everybody as quickly as possible. We are reviewing the voucher scheme and checking that it is working correctly at the moment and seeing whether it can be enhanced. I see from the figures that her West Worcestershire constituency is lower than average on gigabit connections, but we have an active procurement review under way and hope to be able to give her more details on that soon because we will be mopping up all the hard-to-reach areas of her patch.
I am happy to take the matter away and come back to the hon. Member.
I understand the importance of and the attachment that many fans have for the fan-led review and recognise that this is a very important sport nationally. Obviously, as a new Minister, I want to take the time to look at it in detail, which is what I am doing at the moment. I am pleased to say that my first meeting was actually with the fans’ groups to hear their views first.
It seems, following the earlier question from the hon. Member for Bradford East (Imran Hussain), that I am going to have a day trip to Bradford, which I am more than happy to do, considering that it is right next door to my constituency. I was pleased to be at the launch of the men’s tournament; it is fantastic that we are hosting the rugby league world cup, and the hon. Lady rightly highlights Bradford’s ambitious plans, particularly given its city of culture status. I would be more than happy to come and see her.
I will be there on Saturday to watch England.
We need more full-fibre and gigabit-capable broadband in the Kettering constituency. Can we have it sooner rather than later?
I welcome my hon. Friend constantly holding my feet to the fire on Kettering’s gigabit capability. He is actually above the national average, with 88% of premises in his seat having gigabit-capable broadband, but I am glad to say that we are doing more. We will be awarding a procurement next year to try to tackle all those bits we have not yet reached.
My understanding is that some of the main challenges come from the Scottish Government’s R100 programme, which is making the roll-out rather challenging. His colleagues in Scotland have asked for Scotland to have more than the per premises cap, basically asking us to give more money to Scotland than we are giving to other parts of the country. I do not think that is fair, and I do not think we should be paying for the mistakes of the regime.
A year ago, I and a number of colleagues from across the House had to intervene when, due to poor governance, Derby County football club went into administration and came within a few days of going out of business before being rescued by local supporter David Clowes. Can the Minister assure the House and all football fans that the recommendations of the fan-led review will be implemented in full, so that we can get better governance in this important industry?
Sadly, my hon. Friend’s example demonstrates the need for reform within football. I can tell him that I am taking this matter incredibly seriously, which is why I want to take the time to review and ensure that we are getting this right. We want to give confidence to all the fans who enjoy this great sport.
I confess that, as the Minister for the creative industries, I share some of the hon. Lady’s concerns. I will be meeting my ministerial counterpart who has the Intellectual Property Office in his portfolio to look at this matter, because I appreciate some of the issues the hon. Lady raises.
What steps is the Minister taking to ensure that UK radio listeners are able to find British broadcasters, including the BBC and commercial radio, in a world where access through smart speakers is controlled by global tech companies?
The media Bill was announced in the Queen’s Speech in May 2022 and the Government will introduce it when parliamentary time allows. We have been looking at including radio.
Charities in my constituency face the double whammy of more people needing urgent help and fewer people able to donate, given this Government’s calamitous handling of the cost of living crisis. Just last month, Slough food bank reported a 66% increase in annual usage, with a staggering 888 food parcels handed out each month. As we approach the winter months and the situation inevitably worsens, what steps will the Government take to ensure that such organisations can operate throughout the winter?
As the hon. Member will know, we introduced the energy price guarantee to help organisations with the cost of living, and are working with all sectors through the current challenging time. I am happy to meet the hon. Member to discuss the matter further.
Mr Speaker, I apologise to you and my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Front Bench for my discourtesy in not being here at the beginning of topical questions. Earlier this week, I met representatives from the creative industry. They would warmly welcome the media Bill if the Channel 4 provisions were dropped. Will my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State meet me to discuss this issue?
I would be more than delighted to meet my hon. Friend.
I want to push the Minister a little bit further, as he might appreciate. There is widespread support for the fan-led review. Okay, have the discussions about how it is going to be done, but can we have a commitment from the Front-Bench team that they are going to implement the principles of the review—an independent regulator, fairer distribution of funding, and an end to parachute payments?
The hon. Gentleman is very good at pushing me on points, but I am sure he would accept that it is only right that I check all the details before making commitments. I assure him, though, that we will be publishing the White Paper very soon.
Is the Minister able to update the House on any discussions he has held with the premier league and the English Football League to encourage a fairer distribution of money throughout the Football League pyramid?
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has met both organisations; as I say, my first engagement was with the Football Supporters’ Association. It is right to listen to all those views, and we are aware of discussions that are happening across the various groups, but I recognise that reform is needed. That is the firmest commitment I can give at this stage.
The Secretary of State will, I hope, have been made aware that in the early hours of this morning, the main telecommunications cable to Shetland was cut. As a consequence, this morning, my constituents in Shetland have very limited access to telephone or broadband services, with all the implications that has for the emergency services, let alone local families and businesses. First, can the Secretary of State give me an assurance that we will get a full statement on what is happening? I am told at the moment that it could be two days before services are replaced. Secondly, in the longer term, can we have a proper look at the resilience of that service? It is just not acceptable for a community the size of Shetland to be left without telecommunications for this long.
We can commit to get the right hon. Member an update before the end of play today. Of course, our roll-out is important, but resilience is equally important.
The Attorney General was asked—
Disclosure of Evidence
It is an honour to serve as Attorney General for the second time, and to lead a legal profession that is the envy of the world and a Government Legal Department whose integrity is an example to multiple jurisdictions. I am very proud to hold that position. I also welcome the Solicitor General, my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Michael Tomlinson), to his place.
In May, this Government published the review of disclosure and amended the disclosure guidelines to deliver improvements for police, prosecutors and the victims of crime. The new guidelines feature an annex on data protection that will ease the burden on police, leaving them with more time on the beat and to investigate crime.
Within Northumberland, there has been a review that highlights multiple failings in multi-agency communication, and states that lessons have been learned. However, I have been contacted by constituents, and it appears that similar failings are still happening. Will my right hon. and learned Friend please reassure me and the people of Blyth Valley that steps are being taken to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of disclosure?
My hon. Friend is quite right: disclosure is a very important issue, whether in Northumberland or any other part of this jurisdiction. Updated principles on accessing third-party material have strengthened privacy protections for victims, and mandate that officers must have clear written reasons in place before accessing any material such as, for example, therapy notes. My hon. Friend has made an important point about communication between the criminal justice agencies, and we are ensuring that that continues to improve apace.
The Minister will know that this is a very important matter in terms of miscarriages of justice. The Chairman of the Justice Committee, the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Sir Robert Neill), and I chair the all-party parliamentary group on miscarriages of justice. Will he look at other countries’ good practice on this, especially the United States?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. We are always looking and willing to look at how other jurisdictions practise in this sphere. Of course, it is a problem across western jurisdictions, because people now carry on their person so much more data capacity than ever before, which opens up a wide array of questions as to disclosure. The amended disclosure guidelines unequivocally state that indiscriminate access to personal records should never occur, and it is worth noting that the volume of suspects charged has continued to increase quarter on quarter, with a rise from 526 to 550 in quarter 3. That is an increase of 4.6%, so we are moving in the right direction on charges.
Ukraine: Potential Russian War Crimes
The Government stand shoulder to shoulder with Ukraine as it defends itself from Russia’s invasion. I am personally dedicated to supporting Ukraine’s search for accountability and justice. I recently spoke to the Ukrainian prosecutor general, Andriy Kostin, and heard his important ongoing efforts to investigate and prosecute domestically Russia’s actions on his country’s territory, which are appalling. We discussed, among other things, UK support through the UK-US-EU Atrocity Crimes Advisory Group initiative, which will provide direct practical and advisory support to his office in Kyiv. The UK will continue to play a leading role to ensure accountability for Russia’s actions in Ukraine.
I thank the Attorney General for his answer. This abhorrent invasion is no longer focused on by the media as it should be, and there are atrocities going on every day. Does he agree that every crime committed by Russian soldiers must be taken into consideration and people must be held to account, as must their leader, Mr Putin?
I thank my hon. Friend for his question, and he is right. The Atrocity Crimes Advisory Group was launched on 25 May by the EU, the US and the UK to ensure efficient co-ordination of respective efforts. It is a very complicated area, but we want to support accountability efforts on the ground. My colleague in the other place, Lord Ahmad, has already announced £2.5 million of UK support for that initiative and for elements of that organisation, including the deployment of mobile justice teams, and training for judges is already under way.
It is obviously important that all the evidence the Ukrainians are gathering to seek out those who have carried out crimes is collated quickly. Is there any help that our Government can give the Ukrainians to do that? It is so important that those people are held accountable before the courts sooner rather than later. What can be done to expedite the process?
Justice delayed is justice denied, and that is as accurate today as it ever was. We have to move at pace, while getting it right, and collating the evidence is important. I can tell the hon. Gentleman that we are doing everything we can to support the Ukrainians in every conceivable way, including in this area.
I call the SNP spokesperson, Angela Crawley.
I welcome the Attorney General back to his place; he is providing much needed continuity amidst the chaos. Bombings of civilians, conducting executions, torturing war prisoners and sexual violence—independent investigators have concluded that Russia has committed all those crimes. I have heard what the Government intend to do, but what specific steps will they take now and in the future to ensure that perpetrators face the consequences of their actions in an international court?
I thank the hon. Lady for raising that. Of course, this is a cross-party issue. We want to see these horrific crimes brought to justice. We will do everything we can to support the Ukrainians in that effort, and we are working across the international community to do that. We have put money into mobile justice teams and training judges for the Ukrainians. We are doing everything we can and will continue to do more.
Prosecution Rates for Rape and Sexual Assault: South-west England
His Majesty’s Government are committed to improving rape prosecutions and are investing across the justice system. Through Operation Soteria, prosecutors across the south-west have helped to lead the way with a focus on joint working with the police and on early advice, and an enhanced service to victims.
Last week, Devon and Cornwall police were placed into special measures because of their failure to record crime and manage sexual offenders. Fewer than 20 people were convicted of rape in Devon and Cornwall out of 1,500 recorded offences last year. People are losing faith in the CPS and the police. Does the Minister agree that now is the time to extend the sexual offences backlog pilot from London and the north to include the south-west, with a clear focus on reducing the 1,000-day wait for rape victims to get justice in court?
Not least because I am a south-west MP, I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising the issue. Work is already under way: I mentioned Operation Soteria in the south-west. Specifically in his Plymouth constituency, I know that work is going on with the violence against women and girls commission; I have seen that work and I commend the commissioners for it. There is also a conference happening in the next few weeks and I ask him to keep me updated.
More broadly, on the hon. Gentleman’s substantive question, referrals from the police to the CPS are up for offences of rape, charges are up and prosecutions are up. I am determined that that positive work and positive trend must continue.
In North Devon, I am repeatedly told by police that the CPS requires too much information before it can decide whether to prosecute, that there are many outstanding rape cases and that the delays that victims endure result in some feeling unable to wait the months or even years for cases to progress. Can I meet my hon. Friend to see what can be done to unblock the situation?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that important issue. She is right that the workload on our police and the CPS is high. Close working between the police and the CPS is vital. Hot off the press is the refreshed joint national action plan, which was published today and shows that the CPS has seen a 58% increase in charges. I know that she takes the issue incredibly seriously. I would be delighted to meet her, whether here or in her beautiful constituency of North Devon.
Prosecution Rates for Blocking Public Rights of Way
The Government continue to ensure that the police and prosecutors have the necessary tools to tackle the dangerous and highly disruptive tactics used by a small minority of protesters to wreak havoc on people going about their lawful daily lives. In relation to the Insulate Britain protesters, for example, the CPS has so far secured no fewer than 364 convictions in the magistrates court. It continues to take those cases to trial, which shows its resolute determination to bring those criminals to justice.
On Tuesday, the House decided to criminalise grandmothers who hold prayer cards outside abortion agencies. At the same time, quite rightly, we brought in ever more new powers to deal with Just Stop Oil protesters. The difference is that the grandmothers will go away quietly, but the other protesters will keep turning up. There is no point having more and more legislation—we have so much legislation in this area—if the police do not enforce it and the CPS and the courts do not throw the book at these people and give them long custodial sentences.
Of course, the sentencing of such individuals is a matter for our independent criminal justice system, but we have an offence of nuisance on the statute books, as well as offences such as obstructing the public highway, the powers of which have been increased to 12 months’ imprisonment. The Public Order Bill is going through Parliament, which I was rather surprised that the Opposition did not support. As I have said, we are determined that those who seek to disrupt the normal lives of citizens meet the full force of the law. That is what should happen and that is what is happening. The Crown Prosecution Service and the police, as the operationally independent authorities, are working extremely hard in close partnership to bring those people to justice and see that they receive the punishment that they richly deserve.
May I welcome the latest team of Law Officers to their places? I think I missed a stray Solicitor General in the summer recess, between the incumbent and the hon. and learned Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk), but it is very hard to keep up these days.
We all know there are well-trusted laws to criminalise this type of behaviour, but is the Conservative party now opposed to all public protest and free speech? Reading its 2019 manifesto, I would have expected to see the Solicitor General and the Attorney General on the picket line opposing fracking, but last night they voted to allow fracking to go ahead, including, I presume, in their constituencies. If the Law Officers are prepared to break a clear promise in such a blatant and cynical way, what example does that set to others in upholding the rule of law?
The hon. Gentleman’s question is not of course on point to the question asked, but the reality of the matter is that the Labour party is embarrassed by the fact that it is on the side of the protesters, rather than those people who wish to go about their lawful duties, and that is why it did not support the Public Order Bill. The offence of public nuisance is available, it has a wide array of penalties available to it and we know the courts will use those powers. I think the Labour party ought to focus on supporting the British public, who wish to go about catching trains, driving along roads and going about their lawful business.
Crown Prosecution Service: Performance in Wales
The CPS inspectorate recently inspected CPS Wales and commended the area for its strong performance—for example, in disclosure and its good handling of victims and witness care. The CPS maintains excellent relationships with its criminal justice partners and is driving improvements throughout Wales.
The CPS and magistrates courts in Wales have done a terrific job. In fact, they were the first to recover from the pre-pandemic backlog. I recently met Jenny Hopkins, the excellent director of the CPS, and I would encourage and ask the Minister to come to Wales, especially a rural setting such as Montgomeryshire, and have a roundtable to discuss access to justice.
I heard about my hon. Friend’s very productive meeting with the Chief Crown Prosecutor for Wales, and he rightly raises the excellent work that is being done by CPS Wales to address the magistrates court backlog. He is absolutely right that it is the first area to recover from the impact of covid, and I would be absolutely delighted to join him on a visit to Wales.
Crown Prosecution Service: Effectiveness in Ensuring Access to Justice
The CPS is committed to ensuring that victims of crime are properly able to access justice. Last year, the CPS commissioned independent research to better understand what victims want and need, and to identify areas for improvement. On 27 June, the CPS published its response to the research findings, setting out key areas of action to improve how it engages with victims, and this includes delivering a universal service offer for all victims of crime.
I thank the Attorney General for that response, but this Government’s inability to prioritise victims is well documented. Today, the final report of the independent inquiry into child sexual abuse will be published. For these victims, their abuse is not historical; they live with it every single day, and they need justice. Will he commit to implement all the recommendations in full?
This Government have repeatedly shown, and rightly so, our support for victims and prioritising the rights of victims. The CPS publishes yearly data—for example, on the victims’ right to review scheme. Nearly 78,000 decisions were made that were eligible for the scheme, under 2,000 decisions were challenged and 270 were found to be wrong—that is 0.35%—but I want to apologise for any decisions that were wrong. Even in that tiny number, it is human lives that are involved. We have focused greatly on the rights of victims, and we will continue to do so.
Can I warmly welcome the reappointment of the Attorney General, and indeed the appointment of the excellent Solicitor General?
It is fantastic news that the number of rape prosecutions is now 30% higher than it was in the last quarter pre covid. Does the Attorney General agree that, if we are going to continue that progress, we need to widen the pipeline of referrals from the police? In that endeavour, we need to ensure that the redaction burden is reduced so that it is proportionate, so that those cases are passed to the CPS and victims get the justice they deserve.
I commend my hon. and learned Friend for his time as Solicitor General. I reiterate, as he has done, that since the last time I was a Law Officer a year-plus ago, the number has increased by 30%, as he rightly says, which is extremely impressive. The CPS has set out its priority areas under the victim transformation programme and we are going to work to those.
I congratulate the Attorney General on what is, this time, his permanent appointment to the role—as much as anything can be considered permanent under this Government. I genuinely hope that he will succeed in restoring to the role of Attorney General some dignity, stability and—dare I say it?—sanity. Will he start by giving me a straight answer to this crucial question: will it be possible to impose real-term spending cuts on the Crown Prosecution Service without making charge rates, court backlogs, and victim support even worse than they are now?
I am grateful to the right hon. Lady for her question. As she knows, this Government have prioritised crime and the victims of crime, and we are, and always have been, the party of law and order. Whatever measures we have to take, including those we had to take when we first came in in 2010 after the appalling disaster of the previous Labour Government, we are focused on dealing with crime and the victims of crime—hence thousands more police officers now being appointed.
Rwanda Relocation Policy
By convention, whether the Law Officers have been asked to provide advice, and the contents of any such advice, is not disclosed outside Government.
Will the Attorney General confirm whether he shares similar views to those of his predecessor, the now former Home Secretary, who recently said that she wanted to see a front page of The Telegraph with a flight to Rwanda, and that that was her dream? Surely it is time to dream another dream, and scrap the cruel, inhumane Rwanda scheme in its entirety.
I cannot speak to other people’s dreams. I know the Scottish nationalists have their own dreams, which I do not think will ever be realised, because the Union of this country is what the vast majority of the people of the United Kingdom want to maintain. The convention that I mentioned is important, and I intend to respect it. It protects the ability of Law Officers, as chief legal advisers to the Government, to give full and frank legal advice.
Crown Prosecution Service: Performance in North-west England
My hon. Friend will be pleased to hear that the Crown Prosecution Service north-west has consistently achieved a conviction rate that is higher than the national average. The area conviction rate was 84.4%, which is two percentage points higher than the national rate.
It is encouraging that since the CPS published its strategy on rape and serious sexual offences in 2020, the number of rape prosecutions has risen dramatically, with a 62.9% increase recorded. I know, however, that several of my constituents in Hyndburn and Haslingden are keen to see the specialist trauma training for all court staff, police and prosecutors that is being trialled. With such great interest in that scheme, will the Minister please update me on its findings?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for highlighting the importance of this issue, and more broadly for her support for victims not only in her area, but across the north-west and the country. She should look out for two further specific measures: first, Operation Soteria and its continued roll-out across the country; and secondly the victims Bill. I look forward to working with my hon. Friend on both.
Departure of Previous Home Secretary
(Urgent Question): To ask the Home Secretary to make a statement on the departure of his predecessor.
I thank the right hon. Lady for her question. My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Fareham (Suella Braverman) resigned yesterday, following a contravention of the ministerial code relating to a breach of Cabinet confidentiality and the rules relating to the security of Government business. The Prime Minister has made clear the importance of maintaining high standards in public life, and her expectation that Ministers should uphold those standards, as set out in the ministerial code. All Ministers are personally responsible for deciding how to act and conduct themselves in the light of the code, and for justifying their actions and conduct to Parliament and the public. However, Ministers remain in office only so long as they retain the confidence of the Prime Minister. She is the ultimate judge of the standards of behaviour expected of a Minister, and the appropriate consequences of a breach of those standards. My right hon. and learned Friend has explained her decision to resign, and to be clear, the information that was circulated was subject to Cabinet confidentiality and under live discussion within the Government. In the light of that, it would not be appropriate to discuss the specifics of the matter further in the House, but the Prime Minister is clear that the security of Government business is paramount, as is Cabinet responsibility.
The Prime Minister paid tribute to my right hon. and learned Friend’s service as Home Secretary, noting that her time in office was marked by a
“steadfast commitment to keeping the British people safe”
and overseeing the
“largest ever ceremonial policing operation, when thousands of officers were deployed from forces across the United Kingdom to ensure the safety of the royal family and all those who gathered in mourning for Her Late Majesty The Queen.”
The Prime Minister, having accepted my right hon. and learned Friend’s resignation, acted decisively to appoint my right hon. Friend the Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Grant Shapps) as Home Secretary yesterday afternoon. I hold the new Home Secretary in the highest regard and note that he is already getting on with the job, keeping the people of the country safe.
I notice that the Home Secretary is not in his place this morning, unless the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (Brendan Clarke-Smith), has been appointed Home Secretary in the last few hours. To be honest, nothing would surprise us at the moment, because this is total chaos. We have a third Home Secretary in seven weeks. The Cabinet was appointed only six weeks ago, but the Home Secretary was sacked, the Chancellor was sacked and the Chief Whip was sacked and then unsacked. We then had the unedifying scenes last night of Conservative MPs fighting like rats in a sack. This is a disgrace.
The former Home Secretary circulated a letter, and that seems to contradict what the Minister said. She said that the document was
“a draft Written Ministerial Statement…due for publication imminently”
that had already been briefed to MPs. Is that not true? Will he explain the answer to that? At what time did the former Home Secretary inform the Cabinet Secretary of the breach? Has a check been made of whether she sent other documents through personal emails, putting security at risk? Was there a 90-minute row about policy between the Prime Minister and the former Home Secretary? Given the huge disagreements we have seen in the last few weeks between the Prime Minister and the former Home Secretary on drugs policy, Rwanda, the India trade deal, seasonal agriculture, small boats—and with a bit of tofu thrown in over the lettuce for good measure—is anything about home affairs agreed on in the Cabinet?
What we know is that the former Home Secretary has been running her ongoing leadership campaign while the current one is too busy to come to the House because he is doing his spreadsheets on the numbers for whoever he is backing to come next. But who is taking decisions on our national security? It is not the Prime Minister, nor the past or current Home Secretaries. Borders, security and policing are too important for that instability, just as people’s livelihoods are too important for the economic instability that the Conservative party has created. It is not fair on people. To quote the former Home Secretary, this is indeed a total “coalition of chaos”. Why should the country have to put up with this for a single extra day?
I am sure that the right hon. Member is aware that breaches of the ministerial code are a matter for the Cabinet Office, not the Home Office, and that is why I, not the Home Secretary, am here to answer the urgent question. The Prime Minister took advice from the Cabinet Secretary, as we saw from her letter, and she is clear that it is important that the ministerial code is upheld and Cabinet responsibility is respected. The Prime Minister expects Ministers to uphold the highest standards. We have seen her act consistently in that regard.
These were breaches of the code. The Prime Minister expects her Ministers to uphold the ministerial code, as the public also rightly expect, and she took the requisite advice from the Cabinet Secretary before taking the decision.
I am mindful that it is not usual policy to comment in detail on such matters, but, if some background would be helpful—I appreciate that much of this is already in the public domain—the documents in question contained draft Government policy, which remained subject to Cabinet Committee agreement. Having such documents on a personal email account and sharing them outside of Government constituted clear breaches of the code—under sections 2.14 and 2.3, if that is helpful to look at. The Prime Minister is clear that the security of Government business is paramount, as is Cabinet responsibility, and Ministers must be held to the highest standards.
Can the Minister assure us that the resignation was entirely due to a technical breach of the rules and that there was no policy disagreement between the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary? Many of us had great confidence in the former Home Secretary’s determination to ensure that we meet our manifesto commitments and that we should not replace mass migration from Europe with mass migration from the rest of the world. Can the Minister assure us that the policy remains exactly the same as it was under the previous Home Secretary and that we will stop mass migration? [Interruption.]
Order. We cannot have conversations between Back Benchers and officials in the Box. [Interruption.] I know but, please, it is very distracting. Can we just make sure that it does not happen?
I thank my right hon. Friend for his question. I can reassure him that this Government stand firm in tackling illegal immigration. Again, this is not my policy area, but I am sure the new Home Secretary will highlight that. I also reassure my right hon. Friend that he will have seen the resignation letter from the former Home Secretary where she outlines her reasons and that this was for a breach of the ministerial code, which is why she took the decision to resign.
I call the SNP spokesperson, Anne McLaughlin.
Let us be clear: the idea that this Conservative Government are suddenly avid followers of the ministerial code is for the birds. What was the real reason for the Home Secretary’s abrupt departure? Was it the case that she refused to implement immigration policies that were aimed at hitting high growth targets due to her dogmatic views? Speaking of dogmatic views, she and her predecessor, the right hon. Member for Witham (Priti Patel), both supported the dangerous and immoral Rwanda policy, flying in the face of their own officials’ advice about the human rights implications. Will the Minister confirm that the old Home Secretary’s departure marks the end of that abhorrent policy? Will it be consigned to the scrap heap where it belongs? I will just end by quoting Colin Yeo, a prominent immigration lawyer noted for his comprehensive analysis of home affairs matters. Today, he posted an assessment called “Braverman’s legacy as Home Secretary”. It simply says:
“Suella Braverman was Home Secretary for 43 days.”
Does the Minister have anything to add to that?
I will not pre-empt Government policy. Work on looking at immigration as part of the growth plan is ongoing, but it would not be right for me to speculate on private discussions. That is a matter for decision by the Cabinet. We are here to discuss breaches of the ministerial code and the reasons for the Home Secretary’s resignation.
I call Home Affairs Committee member, Lee Anderson.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. The shadow Home Secretary, the right hon. Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper), makes a really good point: my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (Brendan Clarke-Smith) would make an excellent Home Secretary. [Laughter.] But that is another conversation. I am sad to see the previous Home Secretary leave. We had a conversation last week about small boats, the European Court of Human Rights and the excellent Rwanda scheme. But I am not convinced, so please convince me Minister, that the Cabinet, the Government and No. 10 were totally behind the previous Home Secretary.
I thank my hon. Friend, who is ever the champion of secure borders and will no doubt continue to push that case. The Government have shown that we are committed to tackling illegal immigration and the criminal acts going on in the channel. Again, while I would not want to pre-empt the policies of the new Home Secretary, I am sure that when he next comes to the House, he will be able to give my hon. Friend the assurance he seeks.
No Home Secretary, no Chief Whip, no Deputy Chief Whip—this truly is a hokey-cokey Cabinet, isn’t it? In and out! What I want to ask the Minister directly is this: there is a world of difference between security and embarrassment for the Government, so can he tell us the security classification of the documents he is referring to? And can he tell us whether any other Ministers are using personal email accounts to conduct Government business?
That is not information I am privy to and nor should it necessarily be in the public domain. It has been made very clear, from the statement at the start, that we are dealing with sensitive Government matters. It is important that sensitive Government documents are kept sensitive, and that is the reason the Home Secretary tendered her resignation. She recognises that the ministerial code was breached and that is why, as outlined in her letter, she resigned.
For the avoidance of doubt, will the Minister outline the Government’s current policy on immigration, and will he tell the House whether it is under review at the moment?
I thank my hon. Friend for his question, and I refer him to the previous answers given. Again, it is not for me to discuss policy today as much as it is to discuss the reasons for the resignation of the Home Secretary. However, I am sure that the new Home Secretary will come to the House at a future date to discuss that in line with the growth plan and our commitments to tackle immigration.
The fact that someone who defended Dominic Cummings and expressed her intent to break international law ever became our Home Secretary shows how broken the Government are under the Tories, but having a new Home Secretary does not solve the problem. This Government are gridlocked, endlessly U-turning and completely failing the public. Is it not clear that it is only through a general election that we can again bring stability and security to our country?
Again, I remind the hon. Lady that we do not live in a presidential system and, of course, that it is up to the Government to command the confidence of the House, which is the case. It has been made very clear that we will not be having a general election, but that is not the business for the House this morning. We are here to discuss the resignation of the Home Secretary, and I think we should stick to that, Mr Speaker, rather than trying to diverge into other areas.
I think I will decide that, though.
My constituents were informed yesterday that 200 economic migrants will be accommodated in a hotel in Ipswich town centre, at great cost to the taxpayer, putting pressure on local public services and also putting local jobs at risk. Will the Minister confirm to me that the new Home Secretary will prioritise the unsustainable practice of accommodating illegal immigrants in hotels and throw support behind things like the Rwanda scheme, which the Labour party opposes? That is potentially the only way that we can nip this problem in the bud.
I thank my hon. Friend for his question. In terms of reassurance, we have seen the Prime Minister acting swiftly to get a new Home Secretary in place yesterday afternoon. That is because the Government are committed to pushing ahead with our agenda and important issues that need attention, such as those that my hon. Friend highlighted. That is why it is so important that we have that stability and why the Prime Minister took the action that she did.
It is surely obvious that the Home Secretary resigned because it is now understood in Government that their immigration policy is a major block to economic growth. If that is the case, I welcome the change and the new Home Secretary, as we will if he ever graces the Chamber with his presence. When the Minister reports back to the Home Office, will he remind the Home Secretary that, when looking at immigration policy in relation to economic growth, we need urgent change in the law on visas for non-European economic area nationals seeking to work in our fishing industry?
Once again, I think it has been made clear that we should not respond to speculation. Private discussions are exactly that and we have come here today to deal with the facts. The facts are that the Home Secretary tendered her resignation for a breach of the ministerial code and that policy issues are something for another time.
I was very disappointed to see the previous Home Secretary leave her role. She is a tremendous loss to those of us who hope that one day—just one day—this Government might finally get a grip on the small boats crisis. It would be a huge mistake if, upon her departure, the Government were to soften their tough line on preventing illegal immigrants entering this country. Will the Minister confirm that the Government’s policy remains unchanged?
Although I may have already said that I cannot speak on behalf of other Ministers, I think my hon. Friend will have seen the Prime Minister’s letter to the Home Secretary in which she was thanked for her work. As well as the huge policing operation for Her late Majesty, there is the other work that she has been doing, such as clamping down on illegal immigration and keeping the British people safe, and I am sure that that work will continue.
It has been widely reported that a member of the Cabinet was involved in a fracas during the vote last night. Was there a breach of the ministerial code? Will it be investigated?
If the hon. Gentleman believes that such a breach has occurred, there is a set process for referring it, but I do not think that we should be commenting on speculation. As we saw in the press this morning, there are many stories about the Lobby last night. I was in the Lobby and certainly did not see what I believe other people have been saying they saw. Rather than commenting on speculation, I think we should stick to facts—and the facts are why we are here today.
There seem to be as many theories about the real reason for the departure of the former Home Secretary as there are stories about what on earth went on—we all saw it—in the fiasco over which the Government presided last night. Can we have a bit more clarity about what has really gone on and what exactly is happening?
I have noticed that the Minister is being somewhat selective in whose questions about immigration he answers. I think it is quite important that he gives us some clarity, here and now, on whether he is seriously defending the abhorrent policies of the former Home Secretary.
I thank the hon. Lady for her question, but—once again—we are not here today to discuss specific policies, we are not here to discuss gossip, we are not here to discuss rumours and we are not here to discuss what people think did or did not go on yesterday.
This is a completely different issue: we are here to discuss the resignation of the Home Secretary for a breach of the ministerial code. The Prime Minister has been very clear that she expects the highest standards in the Government and that all Ministers are expected to adhere to the ministerial code. When they have not done so—when they have breached it—they are expected to resign. That is what the former Home Secretary has done, as she outlined in her letter.
The Minister will have heard right hon. and hon. Members talking about the former Home Secretary’s comments about seeing refugees fly away. For a Member to talk in that way about people who are seeking refuge and fleeing war and persecution is deeply beneath this House. It is beneath the standards that we should have. The current Chancellor, who as we all know is probably the Prime Minister, has said that he wants to see a more compassionate conservatism. Will the new Home Secretary be outlining that compassion in dealing with and talking about people seeking asylum and refuge in our country?
Although I cannot discuss policy, I will that this Government have shown compassion. I point not just to the aid that we give abroad, but to the Homes for Ukraine scheme and to what we did before that with Syria and with Afghanistan. This country has a proud history of welcoming refugees. That will continue. The Government have been committed to it and will continue to be committed to it. I am certainly committed to it.
Appointing a Home Secretary who lasted for 43 days and a Chancellor who lasted for 38 is unprecedented and farcical. What does it say about the Prime Minister’s judgment and fitness for office? She no longer has any support anywhere in this House. Should she not follow her former colleagues to the Back Benches, pausing only to ask for a Dissolution of Parliament?
I remind the hon. Gentleman that appointments are a matter for the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister has outlined what she expects from the conduct of Ministers, and when she has changed her appointments she has done so swiftly. She has been very clear that she expects us to work together towards our growth plan to deliver for the people of this country. That is why she has taken the actions she has taken.
The former Home Secretary got her jotters because she was on manoeuvres. The Cabinet at large is on manoeuvres to find out who will replace the Prime Minister, but the de facto Prime Minister—the Chancellor—did not want anybody else’s manoeuvres competing with his own. Is that not the truth? It is nothing to do with a breach of the code.
The proof is in the resignation letter of the former Home Secretary. She herself outlined the reasons why she resigned from her position. She has been very clear about the ministerial code and about which areas of it she has breached. As we have said, other matters are to be treated separately. Once again, we are here today to discuss why the former Home Secretary resigned; we are not here to discuss other matters that involve internal party politics.
The Minister may not want to discuss immigration policy today, but I hope he will share my deep concern at the written answer that I received from the Home Office on Tuesday, which revealed that nearly 900 asylum-seeking children under 16 had been accommodated in hotels. According to a report published this week by the chief inspector of borders and immigration, some of the hotel staff do not even have Disclosure and Barring Service clearance. Will the Minister go back to the Home Office immediately after this session and urge it to take action to get those children out of those hotels and into a place of safety?
I am happy to pass that question on to those at the Home Office so that they can provide the hon. Lady with the information she seeks. Of course, we remain committed to safeguarding children, whether they are in this country or those that this country has received.
The Minister has referred to the former Home Secretary’s letter of resignation. In that letter, she said:
“the document was a draft Written Ministerial Statement...due for publication imminently. Much of it had already been briefed to MPs.”
Can the Minister confirm that that is the case? I suspect that it is the case, and if so, we all know full well what the real reason for her resignation was, do we not?
I think I covered this earlier, but I am happy to repeat what I said for the hon. Gentleman’s benefit. Having this information in a personal email account and then sharing it outside Government does constitute a clear breach of the code. Members may wish to look at sections 2.14 and 2.3 if that would be helpful, but the Prime Minister has been clear that the security of Government business is paramount. That is why we hold Ministers to the highest standards, and that is why the Home Secretary tendered her resignation.
This is a mess. I appreciate that the Minister is having a really bad time having to defend it, but may I ask whether he has asked other Cabinet Members whether they have shared sensitive documents in their personal emails? Have they been asked that question? Has this been extended to other platforms such as WhatsApp, Telegram or Signal? Will there be a full check of the former Home Secretary’s phone to ensure that not just personal email but other social networks and communication apps may have been used?
At the moment, the Minister is not reassuring the House or the public that the safety of our sensitive national security is being properly looked at by the Government. Can he give us that reassurance, and if he does not know the facts, will he come back to the House with a full disclosure of what apps were used, what documents were shared, and whether every single member of the Government has been checked?
I agree with the hon. Gentleman that it is important for documents to be kept secure. That is why such material is kept separate from personal emails and so on. This is something that Ministers—including me, as a new Minister—are always reminded of: we are given a big thick rulebook that we have to read.
We have made it clear that when there are breaches, there is a method for reporting them. We will of course take advice from the Cabinet Secretary regarding that, and I am sure that if there are further breaches, Members will be made aware of them in future.
The dogs in the street can see the chaos at the heart of this Government, and the departure of the former Home Secretary—the full truth of which we still do not know, even after what has been said today—is not even the latest example of that chaos. As we face huge economic challenges and a “cost of Tory” crisis, we have probably not needed stronger and more decisive leadership this much since world war two. Does the Minister think that the UK has the strong and decisive leadership that it needs?
I absolutely do have that strong and decisive leadership, and it was strong and decisive leadership that received the resignation of the former Home Secretary and then appointed another Home Secretary on the same afternoon.
As the Prime Minister has made very clear, she wants to move forward. She wants to move quickly to deliver for the people of this country. That is why appointments have been made, and given the breadth of the talent on the Back Benches that we currently have, there is a wide pool of talent from which to choose. I am glad that we are in that position, rather than having to send our Front Benchers on training courses as the Opposition have had to do recently.
Increased immigration would tackle labour shortages and increase the tax take and ending the hostile environment would vastly improve Government efficiency. Given that growing the economy and cutting Government spending are supposed to be Government priorities, when will we hear from the new Home Secretary about how Home Office policy is going to align with the Prime Minister’s stated aims?
If increased immigration is the SNP’s policy, that is for them. In our policies, we have been clear that we want to attract the brightest and best talent to this country while making sure that we have a firm but fair immigration system. Today is not a day for policy, but I am pleased that we have replaced the Home Secretary swiftly and that we are able to continue the good work that we are currently doing in these areas.
Chinese Consul General: Manchester Protest
(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs to make a statement on the role of the Chinese consul general, who it now appears took part in the assault of Bob Chan.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his question and deeply aware of the strength of feeling in this House and the other place about the scenes of violence at the consulate of the People’s Republic of China in Manchester on Sunday afternoon. I am happy to provide an update on our response. You have been kind enough, Mr Speaker, to indicate that you will allow me to speak for a couple more minutes to set out the position.
As the House will know, on Sunday afternoon officials were in touch with Greater Manchester police regarding the incident. On Monday, officials spoke to the Chinese embassy to express our very serious concerns at the reports and demand an explanation. FCDO officials were clear that all diplomats and consular staff based in the UK must respect UK laws and regulations. On Tuesday, I announced in this House that the Foreign Secretary had issued a summons to express His Majesty’s Government’s deep concern at the incident and demand an explanation for the apparent actions of the staff at the consulate general.
Following my statement, the Chinese chargé d’affaires attended a summons at the FCDO in his capacity as acting ambassador. For the avoidance of any doubt, I should say that the Chinese ambassador is currently out of the UK and it is standard practice in such circumstances to summon the chargé d’affaires. I should also be clear that receiving an official summons from the Foreign Secretary is not, as has been described, a light rap on the knuckles but the delivery of a stern message, well understood within the context of diplomatic protocol. It is customary for senior officials to deliver such messages. These summons are not an invitation for an ambassador to have an audience with the Foreign Secretary or Ministers; in any case, given that the chargé d’affaires was involved, it was doubly appropriate that they should be delivered by a senior official.
In the summons the official set out that peaceful protest is a fundamental part of British society and that everyone in the United Kingdom has the right to express their views peacefully and without fear of violence. He reiterated our clear expectation that diplomatic and consular staff should conduct themselves in accordance with UK law. We have made it absolutely clear to the Chinese embassy that the apparent behaviour of consulate general officials during the incident, as it appears from the footage—more of which is coming out, even as we discuss this—is completely unacceptable.
The independent police investigation is now under way. Greater Manchester police have been clear that there are many strands to what is a complex and sensitive inquiry and that it may take some time. As the Foreign Secretary has said, we await the details of the investigation, but in the meantime I have instructed our ambassador to deliver a clear message directly to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Beijing about the depth of concern at the apparent actions by consulate general staff. Let me be clear that if the police determine that there are grounds to charge any officials, we would expect the Chinese consulate to waive immunity for those officials. If it does not, diplomatic consequences will follow.
Finally, allow me to reiterate to the House the value that we place on the Hong Kong community in the UK. When the national security law was imposed on Hong Kong in 2020, this Government acted immediately in announcing the scheme for British national overseas status holders and their dependants. Since then, more than 100,000 people and their families have made the decision to move to the UK to live, work and make it their new home. I want to put on the record, here, now, again and officially, a reaffirmation of our unwavering support for them and our commitment to their safety. They are most welcome here. Recognising the interest that this issue has across the House, the Government will seek to update the House on this matter next week.
Mr Speaker, I am grateful to you for granting this urgent question, which follows Tuesday’s urgent question secured by my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Alicia Kearns).
It is worth reminding the House of what happened in the Chinese consulate’s grounds on Sunday, where there was an appalling attack on a peaceful protester. We saw appalling videos of Bob Chan being dragged into the consulate’s grounds and seriously abused, and it now appears that the consul general played a part in that physical attack.
Mr Chan is a Hong Kong refugee whom we have welcomed over here. I and others on both sides of the House are working together to help people get out of Hong Kong, and that community now feels very frightened by what the Chinese Government’s representatives are doing in the UK. Mr Chan gave a statement to the media for the first time yesterday. His wife and child were in the room, and it was a very moving statement. He spoke of how badly bruised and damaged he is, and how frightened he is. I thought it was very brave of him, because he now fears being targeted by the Chinese Communist party here in the United Kingdom.
Overnight, we discovered that the consul general has admitted that not only did he take part in the attack but that he was responsible for, in his own words, pulling Mr Chan’s hair and tearing his scalp. That is the consul general, let alone the others who were there.
I have worked with the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China and others in this House to help Hong Kong refugees, and I credit the Government for their work to get those with British national overseas passports over here. I now urge the Government to be much clearer than just using diplomatic language; I urge them to make it clear, in the light of this new evidence, that it is not just unacceptable that any consular individual should have taken part in anything like this, but that any consular individual who is proved to have been a perpetrator of this outrageous and violent attack on Mr Chan will immediately be made persona non grata and sent back to China. The Government have the diplomatic power to dismiss them. Whether or not there are criminal proceedings, the fact is we do not want them here in the UK and they must go.
I urge my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary to come to the Dispatch Box and show the resolution that is necessary to send that message to China. He should ignore what other people and officials might say about being careful of tit for tat, get to the Dispatch Box and simply say, “They will leave the United Kingdom. Anyone involved in that attack is not welcome, and the ambassador will be informed of that forthwith.”
I thank my right hon. Friend for his further remarks. We should be absolutely clear that participating in an assault, if that is what is determined to have happened, is completely outside the expectations of our rule of law. If such a thing had taken place in front of the British consulate in Shanghai—that question was raised in the House only two days ago—we would, of course, refer the matter to the local policing authorities, as we would have expected in this case. I take his point, which he makes very strongly.
My right hon. Friend is also right to insist, as he insisted during Tuesday’s urgent question, that the diplomatic channel and the legal channel are distinct. I have seen the footage he describes, and I think it looks very black and very damning, but we are going through a process and we need to make a factual determination. Once that is done, and if the situation is found to be as we fear—that is to say there has been a criminal offence of some kind—diplomatic consequences will follow.
We now come to the shadow Minister, Catherine West.
I thank the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith) for securing this urgent question, for yesterday’s interview with Mr Chan and for his work on this matter.
This is yet another complete failure by the Government. Instead of making a statement to this House, which would be the normal way of carrying on, Members have had to secure a second urgent question. What is more concerning is the outrageous admission of the Chinese consul general that he did, in fact, assault Hong Kong democracy protesters in Manchester, which he described as his duty.
The Government’s handling of this issue has been a complete mess. The Minister will know that Labour called for the Chinese ambassador to be summoned so that an explanation could be demanded, but a Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office statement confirmed that, in a stunning abdication of the Government’s duties, a civil servant held the meeting with Minister Yang, rather than the Foreign Secretary or a responsible Minister. Although I have the upmost confidence in the abilities of FCDO officials to fulfil their responsibilities, there are moments in foreign policy when only an elected Minister will do. Sadly, it appears that what this chaotic Government have unleashed upon the country through their failed economic agenda is now hampering Ministers’ ability to stand up for the most basic rights we hold dear.
The Minister has the chance to send a clear message not only to the Chinese Government, but to the Government in Myanmar and any other country that might have a repressive regime and where refugees fear for their safety in this country. He will know that on 12 May, from this Dispatch Box, we challenged the Government to come forward with a comprehensive safety plan for Hong Kong nationals and others, so I have two questions. Will he meet those from the embassy without any delay to communicate the strong message from MPs about the importance of peaceful protest in this country? Is it the case that Greater Manchester police have not yet received the CCTV footage because the consul general is refusing to hand it over?
What will the Minister do to tackle this problem? Is it possible for him to expel the individual and then for that individual to apply to return? If it were that way round, we would at least know that the Government had taken the strongest action possible.
I thank the hon. Lady for her questions. She is right to pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith) for his interview with Mr Chan. It was an important moment and my right hon. Friend deserves congratulation from across this House on that. As for what the hon. Lady said, I do not think she can have listened to what I said, which is a pity. The ambassador is not in the UK and has not been since before the beginning of this week, so he is not available for any kind of diplomatic interaction. In any case, the chargé d’affaires is the appropriate person for this kind of exchange. The last time an ambassador was summonsed to a meeting with a Minister—indeed, the Foreign Minister —was following the Russian invasion of Ukraine. That gives a sense of the way in which the diplomatic niceties work out.
On CCTV and the Greater Manchester police, I cannot comment on that as it is a matter outside the purview of the Government. However, if the Chinese consulate is not giving up any CCTV that it has, I would certainly encourage it to do so.
I call the Chair of the Select Committee, Alicia Kearns.
I welcome this urgent question from my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green. It is clear that the House is unhappy with the course that the Government have taken and I must challenge the Minister on some of the comments he has made this morning. It is not “apparent” involvement; there are no ifs or buts here. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green has said, the consul general has not only admitted that he is responsible, but praised his own role in these actions and said that he would do it again. It is a political decision to expel, not a policing one. Will the Minister therefore confirm that, as he suggested from the Dispatch Box just now, his preference is to prosecute these individuals and see them in British prisons? Secondly, what are the diplomatic consequences that he references? Are they expulsion? We need plain speaking at this time. The House is clearly united in its position and I urge the Government to listen to it.
I thank the Chairman of the Select Committee for that. She has made clear her view that a crime was committed, and that is the view that many others have taken, but it is not a determination of fact at the level we would need. She may have missed the portion of what I said earlier to my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green about the fact that we recognise that the diplomatic channel and the legal are separate, but they are not separate as regards a determination of fact. Those are the proper grounds for us to make a determination as a Government. As regards the political desire, we will be looking at the fact situation as it is brought forward and at the options. She may have missed this too, but I said that I would expect there to be an update to the House next week, as further events play themselves out. We will make a judgment in due course on that basis.
I call the SNP spokesperson.
This is a serious diplomatic incident. As others have said, the violent clash between pro-democracy protesters and officials at the Chinese consulate is disturbing and goes directly against the tenets of diplomacy, freedom of speech and protest. Bob Chan, who fled Hong Kong for his life, was pulled through the gates into the consulate and beaten by staff. He was left with cuts and bruises to his face, and video footage shows his hair being pulled by the Chinese consul general, who has already asserted that that was his “duty”.
The SNP condemns in the strongest terms this violence against peaceful protesters and calls for an urgent investigation. If the individuals responsible for such violence cannot be criminally prosecuted due to diplomatic immunity, they must be formally expelled from the UK. What action will the Minister commit to taking to hold the consul general to account, in both domestic law and international law?
I have set out the actions that we are proposing to take at the moment. Of course, as I have said in terms, we recognise the seriousness of this matter. We also recognise the seriousness with which the House takes the matter. As to the consul general’s remarks about it being his “duty”, I think they are sufficiently absurd not to require comment from the Dispatch Box.
Thank you, Mr Speaker, for the steadfast support that you have continued to show those of us sanctioned by China.
The consul general seems to have forgotten that he was in Manchester, where we allow free speech, rather than Lhasa, Hong Kong or Xinjiang, where peaceful demonstration is routinely met by violence from the authorities. This does not require “clear” messages “in due course” as the Minister has just said; it requires strong action now. That involves chucking out some of these people and posting additional police outside every Chinese Government establishment in this country to make sure that no more peaceful demonstrators are attacked in this way. Many Uyghur and Tibetan families already feel intimidated; now they can be dragged into Chinese premises and beaten up, or worse.
My hon. Friend is right to raise the contrast between our own rule of law and the deplorable, despicable experience that has been meted out to the Uyghurs in Xinjiang. He will know that only last week the UN Human Rights Council debated this matter on the back of an extraordinarily damning report by former President Bachelet of Chile, and that is now in the public domain.
As regards police support, I think it is a fact that the demonstration was notified to Greater Manchester police and it was on hand at the time, so it is not absolutely clear that police support, as such, is what is required. There clearly has been some kind of failure in this case, and we need to work out—if there was—what it was.
Yesterday, I joined Bob Chan in a press conference in which he bravely detailed his awful ordeal in my constituency. In an interview with Sky News reporter Inzy Rashid, the Chinese consul general in Manchester confirmed that the footage did show him destroying banners and assaulting a protester, which he argued was his “duty”. The hubris and above-the-law attitude of the consul general is sickening. Will the Government stop dragging their feet and take immediate action by declaring the consul general persona non grata?
Of course, the hon. Gentleman too has engaged very closely with Mr Chan, and very welcome that is too. I am sure that everyone around the House would congratulate him and thank him for his support on that. He revisits questions that I have already answered at some length. I have announced that we have put in place a series of measures, which we are going through now. In due course, we will expect to update the House on progress in this developing situation.
Thank you, Mr Speaker, for your continued efforts in helping us to hold the Chinese to account in this House.
There is another protest this weekend in Manchester. Has the Minister contacted Greater Manchester police to ensure that those protesters will have their protection, which they clearly have not had to date?
I personally was not aware of any further demonstrations, but the House has now been made aware of them. I will ensure that officials make some notification of that. This is a Home Office matter, so it will go through the Home Office. Even within the Home Office network of relationships, our police are independent of Government, and rightly so for the best rule-of-law reasons, so we will respect that. I am not sure yet that what happened here necessarily was a failure of policing. In this case, it certainly appears that way, and we expect the Greater Manchester police to be able to do whatever they can the next time round.
Frankly, this is now just ridiculous. I hope the Minister can see the force of the will of the House and that it helps him in what he needs to do next. Article 41 of the Vienna convention on diplomatic relations states that diplomats need to
“respect the laws and regulations of the receiving State.”
Article 9 states that the receiving state has the right to declare that person “persona non grata” at any time with no explanation. The Crown Prosecution Service then says that that is done when the police have sufficient evidence to justify court proceedings. Given the video and the admission, the lack of action by the Government is frankly laughable at this point. This is now a political decision. Can the Minister explain why he is not making them persona non grata now?