House of Commons
Tuesday 8 November 2022
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office
The Secretary of State was asked—
The Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary, after coming into their roles, made their first foreign counterpart calls to President Zelensky and Foreign Minister Kuleba of Ukraine, respectively. Last week, at the G7 in Germany, the Secretary of State, with other leaders, expressed solidarity with the Ukrainian people and condemned Russia’s outrageous invasion of Ukraine. Our total economic and humanitarian support to Ukraine has been more than £1.5 billion, with vital humanitarian aid helping more than one in four Ukrainians.
This week, a group of my constituents will journey to Ukraine to deliver urgently needed humanitarian support for what will be a very cold winter. They are not alone, as great swathes of the British public have done extraordinary acts of kindness to help Ukrainians in desperate need. Will my hon. Friend please commend my constituent Rob Scammell from North Walsham for what he has done, and comment on the steps his Department is taking to help Ukrainians in the light of Russian attacks that have damaged civilian heating and water supplies?
I join my hon. Friend in thanking Rob Scammell and others who are providing important aid to Ukraine. Although our strong advice is that individuals do not travel to Ukraine and find other ways to support Ukrainian civilians, I want to put on record my thanks. Such humanitarian aid is very significant, and electricity generators are also being sent to Ukraine to help people keep warm over the winter. This reflects the tremendous spirit of generosity within the British public, which my hon. Friend, who I think was the first Member of Parliament to receive a Ukrainian family into his home, also demonstrates. I thank him for that too.
Almost daily, we see Putin’s army targeting civilians: the young, the elderly and the vulnerable. I am very proud, as I am sure we all are in this House, that the UK is the European country providing the most support—from not only the Government but, as we have heard, teams of volunteers. Will the Minister welcome the work done by Bags of Joy in my Rugby constituency, which is sending bags of treats and goodies to some of those affected by this most appalling war?
I join my hon. Friend in thanking Bags of Joy for sending those products to Ukraine, which is good to see. I think the generosity from his Rugby constituents shows that Ukraine has many friends and Russia in this instance has none.
Part and parcel of our support for Ukraine is how we look after Ukrainian refugees. I know of examples in the north of Scotland of their finding the bureaucracy involved in accessing universal credit very difficult. Although Work and Pensions is not his Department, does the Minister agree that a one-point telephone number and a dedicated team in that Department would help sort out this problem?
The hon. Member is right to point out the amazing scale of the issue, with more than 140,000 Ukrainians having received visas and living in the UK, but I will take away his helpful suggestion and we will see whether that is in place.
Whatever Americans vote for today, I hope they stick with supporting Ukraine over the next few months. May I ask a question I have asked the Minister before—so I hope he knows the answer by now—about the Abramovich money? Chelsea was sold for £3.5 billion many months ago. Has that money yet got to Ukraine, and if not, why not?
I am very pleased to be able to provide an answer. The money is still frozen in a UK bank account. The administrative work is being done and a licence is being applied for, but we hope it is on the start of its journey to Ukraine to help the people where they need help.
The Minister will know the resolute support across the country, and across the House, for Ukraine. The people of Ukraine should know that and, indeed, Vladimir Putin should know that. However, there are unfortunately some siren voices suggesting otherwise, including from the far right of the US Republicans, and this is hugely dangerous. What are the Minister, the Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister doing to challenge those who would give encouragement and succour to Putin in his barbarous actions?
On all three fronts—diplomatic, economic and military—I think the whole world has come together. That was made very clear by the Foreign Secretary at the G7 last week. Looking at some of the statements about solidarity at COP today, I think Russia has a very long border and very few friends. We are stronger because we are together, and I think that is very clear.
Nigeria: Flood Relief
Nigeria is one of the world’s most vulnerable countries to climate change, and it is experiencing the worst floods in a decade. The UK is providing support through the multi-donor Start fund, which has allocated £580,000 so far this rainy season. That funding is supporting 26,288 people affected by flooding. We will continue to help Nigeria make progress towards long-term climate change adaptation and resilience.
I welcome the Minister to his place. The floods in Nigeria have already left more than 1 million people displaced, 200,000 homes destroyed and, sadly, 600 people dead. In the wake of those floods, cholera cases are skyrocketing in some areas, due to a lack of access to clean water. Will the Minister assure me that the Government will be focusing aid to help ensure access to water and sanitation, and prevent the death toll from rising further?
I thank the hon. Lady for her comments and her question. Over the past five years, Britain has provided £425 million of humanitarian support, which has specifically reached more than 2 million people in north-east Nigeria, including individuals affected by the flooding. I give her a commitment that, working with Nigerian agencies, we will seek to strengthen flood risk management. Prior to COP26 we supported Nigeria’s national adaptation work to help cope with climate change.
I welcome the right hon. Gentleman to his Cabinet role. I know that he believes in the difference that international development can make, and I wish him well in persuading his Cabinet colleagues. Asylum applications are delayed by the thousands, spending on temporary hotels is soaring, and the Home Office is in turmoil. To bail it out, the Minister has seemingly written the Home Secretary a blank cheque out of Britain’s aid budget, spending £3.5 billion that is meant to be tackling the root causes of mass displacement. Since 2008, 41 people have been forced from their homes every minute by the climate crisis, and the floods in Nigeria, where 200,000 homes are under water, surely show that the climate emergency is here, it is now, and UK aid is needed more than ever. Will the Minister agree to carry out an urgent review of all Home Office official development assistance expenditure, and consider whether it is delivering value for taxpayers’ money? Will he please tell the House how long he is happy to let the Home Secretary have free rein over his budget to mop up a domestic crisis of her Department’s own making?
Please, it is questions. Other people have to get in as well. It is not just a Front-Bench show; this is for Back Benchers.
The hon. Lady, whom I thank for her generous remarks, did not really refer to Nigeria. In so far as the budget is being spent in Nigeria, I assure her that we are very focused on the effects of those floods. There are people now in category 5 starvation in north-east Nigeria, and I assure her that we will do everything we can to help them.
I call Alyn Smith, the SNP spokesperson.
I, too, welcome the Ministers to their place, and I look forward to working constructively with them. I am glad that aid is going to the dreadful situation in Nigeria, but surely that illustrates the wider point that we cannot do more with less. Surely now is time to reinstate the 0.7% aid allocation, because these events will increase going forward.
The hon. Gentleman makes a lot of sense, and he knows where I stand on these matters. Fortunately, collective responsibility is not retrospective, and I assure him that we are focused on the issues he has raised. I hope very much that when we have the autumn statement next week, there will be encouraging news.
The humanitarian situation throughout Somalia is grave and has worsened significantly over the past 12 months. The number of people affected by drought has more than doubled since January, with more than 7.8 million people—almost 50% of the country—now in need of humanitarian assistance. More than 300,000 people are facing catastrophic levels of food insecurity.
Mortality and malnutrition are at alarming levels, with 300,000 people expected to face famine in Burhakaba and Baidoa. Sadly, children in Somalia are bearing the brunt, with half a million needing treatment for severe acute malnutrition, and they are much more likely to die of diarrhoea and measles. As families make desperate survival decisions, women and children will face gender-based violence and child marriage. Rather than continuously, callously cutting aid budgets, what will the Government do to honour their commitment to protect women and girls before it is too late?
Under the category 5 definition—those people who are on the brink of starving to death—there are nearly 1 million people in the world today, and 300,000 of them are in Somalia. There is, therefore, no question at all about the need. I hope to go to Somalia before too long to see for myself what more we can do, but I should emphasise that UK-funded programmes are ensuring that emergency cash transfers, which are very important, are reaching 310,000 people. On the hon. Member’s specific point, in terms of water and sanitation, we are helping 483,000—
Order. This also goes for the Government side of the House: we have to get Back Benchers in; it is not just a show for Ministers and their shadows.
I warmly welcome my right hon. Friend’s much overdue return to the Front Bench. His return is to the Government’s advantage but also to the advantage of millions of men, women and children who rely on Britain’s leadership in aid, which he has been singularly forthright in pursuing.
May I bring my hon. Friend back to the issue raised by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Preet Kaur Gill) about the resources available for aid? Yesterday, the front page of The Times told us that millions if not billions of British money is being diverted from aid, saving the lives of children in north-east Africa, to the Home Office—
Order. It is not just about shadow Ministers and Ministers; it is also about ex-Ministers. [Laughter.]
I thank my right hon. Friend very much for his kind remarks. He knows a great deal about this area, and the House benefits from his judgment and experience on it. In respect of The Times yesterday, all I can tell him is that these matters are very much the subject of discussions between the Foreign Office and the Treasury.
I also welcome the Minister to his post. Across east Africa, somebody is dying of hunger every 36 seconds. One hundred people will die in the time that Ministers are at the Dispatch Box. At COP, countries such as ours are urged to cover the cost of adapting to global heating in extremely vulnerable nations, but, despite soundbites from No. 10 about helping countries with the existential threats that they face, our Government are cutting support for countries such as Somalia. Will he demonstrate that he understands the real human cost of climate change by promising immediate assistance for food and climate support in Somalia?
I thank the hon. Lady for her kind remarks. The international community is scaling up in Somalia and in Ethiopia. The World Bank and the African Development Bank have announced more than $35 billion of funding for food security across the region.
Relations with China: BNO Visa Scheme
We warmly welcome all those who have taken up the BNO visa route. This route is about our relationship with Hong Kong and its people. The BNO visa scheme was introduced in response to China’s breaches of the Sino-British joint declaration, including its imposition of the national security law, which has been used to undermine rights and freedoms in Hong Kong.
I deeply commend the Government on implementing the impressive, tailor-made British national overseas visa and standing up for the Hongkongers in the face of growing repression from Beijing. British nationals overseas are Britons, and it is important that we defend them at home and abroad. In the light of the recent assault on a Hongkonger inside the Chinese consulate in Manchester and the increasing harassment of Hongkongers by the Chinese state all over the world, will my right hon. Friend commit to protecting the British Hongkongers?
We are steadfast in our support of the Hong Kong BNO community. Those who choose to live their lives in the UK should enjoy the same freedoms that are afforded to any nationality. As British nationals, BNO passport holders are entitled to consulate assistance from our diplomatic posts overseas.
For years, the Conservative Government have failed to act strategically on China. Most recently, the Foreign Secretary ducked responsibility by letting officials meet the Chinese embassy over the Hongkonger beaten in Manchester and gave no answers about the troubling reports alleging that Chinese police stations are operating in the UK. Our allies and partners around the world are taking major strategic steps on China. Last month, the US announced the CHIPS and Science Act 2022. Last week, the German Chancellor got Xi Jinping to publicly oppose the use of nuclear weapons. The UK has not even published a long-promised strategy. Do the Government still plan to publish a China strategy and, if so, by what date?
The UK is clear that China remains in an ongoing state of non-compliance with the Sino-British joint declaration. We have also been clear that the imposition of the national security law and the overhaul of Hong Kong’s electoral system have undermined the rights and freedoms promised to Hongkongers. We continue to work with our international partners to hold China to its obligations. We will continue to work across Government on the question of a China strategy.
The UK is committed to working in partnership to deliver on the global AIDS strategy and ending the epidemic of AIDS by 2030. We provide substantial funding to the World Health Organisation, UNAIDS, the Robert Carr Fund and the Global Fund. Together, we are working towards ensuring that all can access the prevention and treatment services needed to ensure progress on HIV/AIDS.
I welcome the Minister back to his place. Globally, the number of new infections dropped by only 3.6% between 2020 and 2021, which is the smallest decline since 2016. The data shows that it disproportionately impacts adolescent young women and girls. We must do and can do more to help those girls if we are truly to end new HIV transmissions. What plans does the Minister have to ensure that the Global Fund receives a pledge, so it can carry out vital programmes if we are to end new transmissions of HIV by 2030?
The hon. Lady is absolutely right about the critical importance of the Global Fund’s work. The Global Fund has saved more than 50 million lives. It was very heavily reformed in 2010. Two thirds of the money goes towards the Commonwealth and it is brilliantly effective. She can rest assured that we are looking very carefully at the pledge we are going to make.
I welcome the Minister for Development to his place. As a Back Bencher, he spoke passionately and frankly in holding his party to its manifesto commitments on international development, and I applaud that. Indeed, in July he said:
“I urge the Government to ensure that we are as generous as possible on the replenishment of the fund”.—[Official Report, 6 July 2022; Vol. 717, c. 922.]
Yet today, under his ministerial role, not a single penny has been pledged to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. I just heard him say on the record that it will continue to be supported substantially, so he may wish to correct that. Words are deeds, so will the Minister put money where his mouth is and join the other G7 countries by making a late donation to the Global Fund and delivering what his party promised?
I can assure the hon. Gentleman that our support throughout the whole House for the Global Fund is absolute and intense. Discussions are ongoing on the subject of money. I hope very much it will not be too long before I can come before the House and answer his very specific questions on both the money and the results that that money will achieve.
I call Dr Jamie Wallis. Not here, but can the Minister answer as though he was?
The UK puts human rights at the heart of what we do. That includes: leading efforts to hold Russia to account over its actions in Ukraine and at home; leading on United Nations Human Rights Council resolutions, including on Syria, Sri Lanka and Somalia, and a joint statement on Xinjiang; and sanctioning officials involved in human rights violations in Iran.
Thousands of my constituents are concerned about the ongoing human rights abuses in Indian-administered Kashmir. What steps are the British Government taking to raise those concerns with the Indian Government and ensure that human rights are protected and respected for all throughout the region?
I thank my hon. Friend for his comments. Any allegations are deeply concerning and must be thoroughly investigated. We raise concerns with both Governments, and we can do so because relations are so close and mutually beneficial.
I welcome the right hon. Gentleman, my constituency neighbour, to his place. Our ability to act as human rights defenders around the world would be much stronger if we collectively hit the G20 target of lending $100 billion of the special drawing rights issued last year. To date, the UK has committed to sharing only 20% of its special drawing rights. That fraction is much lower than France and China. What is he doing to get a grip of the Government achieving the aim of sharing a much higher proportion?
The right hon. Gentleman, my constituency neighbour, has raised with me privately the issue of SDRs. I agree that there is much more that the international community can do to use those SDRs for the benefit of the poorest people in the world, whom we wish to help. All I can say today is that those discussions with the Treasury are ongoing.
I welcome the Minister back to his place. Today will be the third day that Alaa Abdel Fattah—a pro-democracy activist and British citizen—has not consumed any water. The Minister will know that he has been in prison in Egypt for nine years and that he has been on hunger strike for more than 200 days. With the eyes of the world on COP27, will the Minister confirm that the Government will not allow Egypt to get away with using the summit to paper over human rights atrocities and that every UK channel is being used to secure Alaa’s release? And will he make really clear the consequences if Egypt were to allow Alaa to die in prison?
I thank the hon. Lady for her kind remarks, her question and her concern. That matter was raised specifically by the Prime Minister at Cabinet this morning. He spoke to the Egyptian authorities and I have no doubt that the arguments that she put were strenuously emphasised by the Prime Minister in those discussions.
Iran has one of the worst human rights records in the world, and I am sure that is one reason for the extensive protests. Will the Government ensure that if the joint comprehensive plan of action is revived or replaced, it will place strong obligations on Iran to repair its appalling and shocking human rights record?
My right hon. Friend raises a most important subject. What is going on in Iran is of immense concern to the Government. I will ensure that her comments are carefully recorded for the Foreign Secretary.
The Minister will be aware of the tremendous work done by the charity Open Doors over a number of years. Will he ensure that when cases are brought to him about human rights abuses against Christians and other religious believers across the globe, they will receive his attention and that appropriate action will be taken in respect of the nations that carry out those abuses?
The hon. Gentleman raises a most important point, and the answer is yes.
I call the shadow Secretary of State, David Lammy.
Let me return to Alaa Abdel Fattah, a British citizen and democracy campaigner who was imprisoned in Egypt for sharing a Facebook post. His mother waited outside Wadi el-Natrun prison on Monday for the weekly letter from her son, but no letter came out. He has stopped drinking water and his life is now in grave danger. For too long, the Government’s diplomacy has been weak. The Prime Minister raised the case yesterday but failed to secure consular access before he did so. What diplomatic price has Egypt paid for denying the right of consular access to a British citizen? Will the Minister make it clear that there will be serious diplomatic consequences if access is not granted immediately and Alaa is not released and reunited with his family?
The shadow Foreign Secretary is absolutely right to raise that case. For that reason, the Prime Minister made a particular point of making representations to his opposite number in Egypt, and I very much hope that those representations will be heard.
British Embassy Relocation: Jerusalem
Welcome back, Minister.
There are no plans to move the UK embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv. Israel is a close friend and a key strategic partner, built on decades of co-operation. We will continue to strengthen our relationship with Israel through our embassy in Tel Aviv.
I am very pleased to hear that, as I know my constituents will be. However, why was that move ever under consideration, given that last month at the United Nations, 143 countries, including Israel and the UK, voted to reaffirm that any unilateral annexation of territory by another state is a violation of international law? Navi Pillay, the former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, has observed that unless that principle is applied equally to the Occupied Palestinian Territories, including East Jerusalem, it would become meaningless. Is this not just another example of the Conservative party’s chaotic approach to international relations that has so badly undermined the UK’s reputation on the global stage?
The Government have looked at this issue. There are no plans to move the British embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv. We will continue to work to ensure that we are in the best position possible to continue promoting peace and stability in the region and supporting a two-state solution.
I welcome the Minister’s update. Will he reaffirm that that is the long- standing position of our country; that it is the right position internationally; that the work done by our consulate-general in Jerusalem is extremely valued and complements what is happening in our embassy in Tel Aviv; and that that will continue to be the case?
My hon. Friend has real expertise on the issue. Yes, I completely agree with him.
Sudan: Humanitarian Crisis
The UK remains a committed donor to Sudan. This year, the UK has provided £10.8 million in humanitarian assistance, helping more than 300,000 Sudanese people with life-saving support including food, nutrition and safe drinking water. Furthermore, the UK and other donors have agreed with the World Bank to unlock $100 million of committed but unspent donor funds to address urgent food needs.
According to the UN, the number of people facing severe acute food insecurity in South Sudan has reached its highest level ever. Mass displacement and destruction of property and livelihoods has increased the risk of disease and famine, particularly for women and children. What assessment has the Minister made of the risk to children from malnutrition? What discussions has he had with international partners to scale up the response to this impending disaster?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. Because of the tremendous food insecurity in that part of the world, discussions are very much ongoing. Some 16 million people—nearly a third of the entire population—will require assistance next year. This is the highest level of insecurity since 2011, when I was last there as part of the troika on Sudan: the US, Norway and the UK.
The death of Mahsa Amini and of all those who have lost their lives standing up to the authorities is a tragedy that shows the regime’s shocking disregard for the rights of the Iranian people. We have made our views clear to Iran in the strongest possible terms. We have robustly condemned Iran’s actions, including at the UN Human Rights Council, and we have sanctioned the morality police and seven other officials responsible for human rights violations.
Thousands of Iranians have been arrested for just demonstrating their support for people who have been murdered. I have been supplied with a long list of people who have been sentenced to death just for protesting. Even worse, British-Iranian reporters who are now sited in the UK have been issued with credible information by the police that the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps threatens their lives. What more does the IRGC have to do before we proscribe it in its entirety?
I know that my hon. Friend feels very strongly about these issues and has raised them at the highest level with FCDO Ministers. We have been clear about our concerns about the IRGC’s continued destabilising activity throughout the region. The UK maintains a range of sanctions that work to constrain that destabilising activity. The list of proscribed organisations is kept under constant review, but we do not routinely comment on whether an organisation is or is not under consideration for proscription—I know that my hon. Friend understands the reasons.
Iran Human Rights estimates that more than 300 people, including 24 children, have been killed in Iran in the protests that followed the death of Mahsa Amini. In the words of the song “Baraye”, which has become the anthem of these protests, the protests are
“for my sister, your sister, our sisters”.
In Farsi, the protesters shout “zan, zendegi, azadi”—women, life, freedom. I am sure that the whole House shares our solidarity with all those who are protesting for freedom against this brutal regime. In the light of these brutal attacks, will the UK Government support measures to expel Iran from the UN Commission on the Status of Women to show that the UK stands firmly with the women and children of Iran and the protesters who have joined them?
The hon. Member has made some important points about the grassroots nature of the protests. As I have said, we are taking strong action against the Iranians, but I will raise her points specifically with Lord Ahmad, the Minister for the Middle East.
I recently met a group of Iranian refugees and asylum seekers at Global Link in Lancaster. They shared with me testimony and videos of the protests and the women across Iran who are daily putting their lives at risk for their fundamental rights. Does the Minister accept that the UK has a responsibility to support these remarkable women, and can he explain how the UK intends to do so?
They are indeed remarkable women, and we want to underline the fact that these are grassroots protests in Iran. We have taken strong action: we have sanctioned the morality police in its entirety, as well as both its chief and the head of the Tehran division. However, it is not our practice to speculate on future sanctions designations, as doing so would reduce the impact of those designations.
Chemical Weapons Investigation: Northern Iraq
The Government are aware of reports that Turkish forces have used white phosphorus in northern Iraq. However, we have no direct evidence to support those claims. Of course, we take all allegations of this nature seriously, and we are committed to upholding the chemical weapons convention.
A Turkish CHP opposition Member of Parliament who asked the question about the alleged use of chemical weapons has received a summary of proceedings to prosecute him for terrorism. Does the Minister agree that it is time for us to follow in the footsteps of the Belgian Supreme Court by revisiting our designation of the PKK as a terrorist organisation? Does he also agree that not doing so gives cover to Turkey’s human rights abuses against Kurds living both within and beyond its borders?
The hon. Lady mentions the PKK. We should be very clear that we regard the PKK to be a terrorist organisation—that is why we have proscribed it—and that we believe Turkey has a legitimate right to defend itself against this form of terrorism.
Sezgin Tarikulu—the Turkish MP to whom my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Kim Johnson) has referred—said: “I watched the footage of the alleged chemical weapons. Chemical weapons are crimes against humanity. Tomorrow I will submit a PQ on the accuracy of these allegations.” For saying that, and that alone, he has been indicted for terrorism and supporting PKK rhetoric, despite the fact that a Turkish Minister has confirmed that Turkey does use gas. Sezgin is a member of the CHP, the founding party of Turkey; he is not of the Kurdish party. Does the Minister not recognise that the overreach of the PKK terrorist definition is shutting down democracy in Turkey and hurting our allies in Syria, Turkey and Iraq?
As I have said, we have no direct evidence to support the allegations to which the hon. Gentleman refers, but we are of course committed to upholding the chemical weapons convention. I myself met the director general of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons last month, and we will keep these issues under review.
Pakistan Flooding: Climate Change
The UK is of course supporting Pakistan following the disastrous floods, and has committed £26.5 million towards the immediate response. The effects of that on the ground were seen by our Minister in the other place, my noble Friend Lord Ahmad. This catastrophe shows how climate change is making extreme weather events more intense, which is why we have doubled our global climate finance commitment to £11.6 billion and, in Pakistan itself, have pledged £55 million to support climate resilience and adaptation.
I refer the House to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on Pakistan.
Experts have called the flooding in Pakistan a “climate catastrophe”. Millions have been displaced, more than 1,700 people are dead, and there has been $40 billion-worth of damage to livelihoods and infrastructure. Over the summer, Pakistan experienced the hottest temperature on the planet. Pakistan and other countries are bearing the brunt of the climate crisis and will continue to do so, although they contribute the least to global warming. Can the Minister assure us that his Government, rather than cutting aid, will make a serious commitment to the long-term support of communities in Pakistan to enable them to weather the coming storms?
We are indeed overwhelmingly committed to Pakistan. In 2020, our aid was £200 million and we have committed £55 million specifically for climate resilience. Lord Ahmad saw on his visit the life-saving impact that all this money achieves, including the £26.5 million towards the immediate response. The broad point is that tackling climate issues is now woven through the fabric of our policy making.
Sri Lanka: Human Rights
In October, the UK and our partners within the UN Human Rights Council led a new resolution—resolution 51.1—on Sri Lanka. It renewed the international framework to report on Sri Lanka and preserve evidence of past human rights abuses to use in future accountability processes. We call on Sri Lanka to make progress on human rights, justice and accountability.
As chair of all-party parliamentary group on Tamils, and also through hearing from Tamils in Carshalton and Wallington, I am clear that the economic situation in Sri Lanka is allowing human rights abuses against Tamils to continue. I welcome the UK’s efforts in the UN to bring about the peace, accountability and justice that the Tamils are fighting for, but what assurances can my right hon. Friend give me that any economic support given to Sri Lanka will be dependent on—and will be expected to come with—progress on implementing the UN resolutions?
The UK is working with international partners, including at the Paris Club, to facilitate economic support for Sri Lanka through an International Monetary Fund programme. The IMF does not have the ability to impose political or human rights-linked conditionality; it can only impose conditionality linked to economic policy or tackling balance of payments challenges. An IMF programme is contingent on progress on reforms, including a comprehensive anti-corruption agenda.
Very often, the suppression of human rights walks hand in hand with the persecution of Christians and those of other faiths; when human rights are suppressed, so too are Christians’ rights to their beliefs. Within any deals that the Minister has with Sri Lanka, will she ensure that the issues of human rights and the persecution of those with Christian beliefs and other beliefs are taken into consideration?
I am sure that my noble Friend Lord Ahmad will take note of the hon. Gentleman’s comments. Lord Ahmad spoke with the Sri Lankan President and Prime Minister in August, and he continues to highlight the importance of that inclusive approach in trying to provide the political stability needed for the country to make progress across all these issues.
BBC World Service
The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office is providing the BBC World Service with a flat cash three-year settlement of £94.4 million annually. Since 2016, the FCDO has provided over £468 million to the World Service via the World2020 programme, funding 12 language services and enhancements to BBC Arabic, Russian and English.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the BBC World Service plays an ever more important role in countering disinformation, particularly from Russia and elsewhere? Will he therefore look to increase the amount of support that his Department gives to the World Service, and does he share my concern that the BBC is proposing to reduce funding by £28 million with the loss of 10 radio services?
I recognise my right hon. Friend’s long-standing interest in this issue. The FCDO greatly values the World Service’s role in countering disinformation, particularly President Putin’s harmful narratives, and it has provided an additional £1.44 million this year to support this work on top of our annual £94 million funding. The changes reflect the BBC’s ambition to become a digital-first organisation and, as a result, audiences will still retain access to all 42 language services.
Qatar World Cup: LGBTQ+ Fans
Ministers and senior officials have raised the concerns of LGBT+ visitors with Qatari authorities at all levels, and will continue to engage on this issue ahead of, and during, the World cup. Qatar has repeatedly committed that everybody is welcome to the tournament, and we will continue to encourage equal treatment and the respect of individual rights, and to identify what action the Qatari authorities are taking to match their commitment.
I declare an interest as a massive gay. As an England-supporting homosexual, it is not safe for someone like me to watch the World cup in Qatar. Because of the human rights abuses of migrant workers and of Qatar’s LGBT population, I personally do not think Qatar should ever have been awarded a major sporting competition. Will the Minister back the home nations captains in wearing a rainbow armband when they play at the World cup? Will he also apologise for the Foreign Secretary’s remark that LGBT fans should somehow show compromise, because it is never acceptable for a Government Minister to force LGBT people back into the closet?
I respect the hon. Gentleman’s comments. He and I have worked together on many issues in the past, and I understand his campaign on this issue. Our priority is, of course, the safety of all British nationals who travel to the World cup. The UK prioritises the issue of LGBT+ rights internationally, and we continue to engage with the Qatari authorities on this issue. Many sportsmen and women use their platforms to do important work across a range of issues, which is their personal choice. The UK Government stand by our values, and our team stands by the values of our home nations.
Chinese Consulate: Violence against Demonstrators
The apparent behaviour of Chinese officials in Manchester is unacceptable. We have made it clear to China that freedom of protest must be respected. If the police determine that there are grounds to charge any Chinese diplomats, we would expect China to waive immunity. There will be diplomatic consequences should China not agree to co-operate in this way.
I do not think that is good enough. The violence by consular officials on the streets of Manchester is unacceptable, as the Minister says, but this is just the visible tip of the iceberg of secret police stations—consular activities by the Chinese to police and intimidate people in this country. To stop this unacceptable activity, will she consider reducing the number of Chinese diplomats who are allowed into this country?
This issue is with the Greater Manchester police and, because we are a country that believes in following the rule of law, we are waiting for it to complete its investigations. At that point, the Foreign Secretary will determine how to proceed.
Can my right hon. Friend assure the House that we are not making the same mistake in respect of China that we made in respect of Russia, which is to believe that increasing our economic ties and interdependence will enable an authoritarian country to mend its ways? It did not work in the case of Russia, and it will not work in the case of China either.
My right hon. Friend is extremely knowledgeable and thoughtful on these issues. I offer him this thought as we await the completion of the police investigation: our approach to China is co-ordinated across Government, and the FCDO is at the heart of the cross-Whitehall strategic approach to China in line with the integrated review, which is presently being refreshed. I know he will understand that, in due course, our position will be set out clearly.
The Foreign Secretary is at COP27 in Egypt to continue to provide UK leadership on the global transition to net zero and to help vulnerable countries adapt and build resilience to climate shocks. Since our last oral questions, the UK has continued to work with international partners and allies to address all threats to international peace and security. The Foreign Secretary held discussions in Germany with his G7 counterparts last week, including on Russia, Iran, China and North Korea. All G7 partners reaffirmed their strong sense of unity and their unshakeable commitment to upholding the rules-based international order.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Boris Johnson) has built up a fantastic relationship with the Ukrainian President, and I thank him for his lead. Has his advice and expertise been sought as we work to continue this excellent relationship into the future?
My right hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip has led the world in our collective determination to ensure that Putin’s illegal invasion of Ukraine will fail. The work led by the Ministry of Defence to provide defensive weapons to the Ukrainian army and the sanctions work led by my team at the FCDO are both part of the legacy he leaves in Government as we continue to stand alongside our Ukrainian friends. My hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall (Mrs Murray) is absolutely right that his commitment to the Ukrainians and his friendship and support to President Zelensky have been unwavering. I have every confidence that he will continue.
Order. Come on, it is topicals—let us try to help each other. Let us have a perfect example from Fabian Hamilton.
I hope the whole House will join me in congratulating Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva on his recent victory in the Brazilian presidential election. As we know, Brazil is home to the lungs of the planet, the Amazon rainforest, but because the previous Administration in Brazil turned a blind eye to deforestation, it has been systematically destroyed. Does the Minister agree that now is the time to support Labour’s call for an international law of ecocide, to criminalise the widespread destruction of the environment?
Order. This is not acceptable—I am saying it now, and I mean it. Other Back Benchers have waited and waited, and this is selfish and unfair. I expect better treatment. I have to represent the Back Benchers, and I expect the Front Benchers to show the same respect.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. I look forward to working with the hon. Member for Leeds North East (Fabian Hamilton), who raises an important point. We also welcome and congratulate President-elect Lula, and we will be working strongly with him on formal partnerships on not only trade, but climate change. I look forward to meeting the hon. Gentleman to discuss this more fully.
The Government share my hon. Friend’s concerns about the regime’s shocking disregard for the rights of the Iranian people. I have to give him a similar answer to the one I gave my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East, and I will follow up with him later on.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right, which is why this year alone we are committing £286 million of humanitarian aid that is being disbursed through international organisations. That is all the more needed because of the deprivations of the Taliban regime.
The death of Mahsa Amini was a shocking reminder of the repression faced by women in Iran. The continuing protests send a clear message that the Iranian people are not satisfied with the path their Government have taken. We have given a robust response; we have summoned the Iranian head of mission to the UK to express our concerns and we have designated new sanctions. We will continue to monitor the situation closely.
We bring a huge amount of diplomatic pressure to bear. Clearly, it is difficult countering the deprivations of the Taliban regime, but we have a huge stake in the game because we disbursed £286 million-worth of aid this year alone. That is the right thing to do, because we know that women and children are disproportionately affected by this kind of conflict.
When Kabul fell, the Government rightly undertook to assist in the relocation of courageous Afghan judges who had taken a key role in the fight against the Taliban. Since then, however, a High Court decision has ruled against the operation of the latest resettlement schemes and there is concern that the level of support initially given is drying up. Will the Minister meet me to discuss, with members of British judiciary, schemes and ways by which we might improve and revise the system?
Of course, I am happy to meet. We have had some success extracting judges, but if my hon. Friend would like to meet me to furnish me with those specific details, I will try to try to expedite a response.
The right hon. Member raised his strong concerns about the Iranian regime’s disruptive activities in Yemen at last week’s important debate, for which I am grateful. The list of proscribed organisations is kept under constant review, but we do not routinely comment on whether an organisation is or is not under consideration for proscription.
Crown dependencies and overseas territories are an important part of the Commonwealth. The UK Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, on behalf of the Government, provides essential services, including audits, scrutiny and election observation, but there are gaps. Will my right hon. Friend meet me to discuss how we can tackle that, because those territories and countries deserve the best?
I would be delighted to meet my right hon. Friend. We are committed to deepening our ties with all our Commonwealth partners. For the past five years, the FCDO has provided funding to CPA UK to strengthen the ability of legislators in the overseas territories to hold their Governments to account. I look forward to discussing the matter with her more fully.
I am sorry the joint ministerial conference did not go ahead.
The hon. Member raises an important point. I will pick that up with our ambassador over there and follow up with him directly.
The Europe Minister will be familiar with the case of my constituent Mr Thomas Toolan and the ongoing retention of his daughter in Poland. This is a heartbreaking case that has been going on since 2018. Will the Minister meet me and other Members of this House who have similar child abduction cases in Poland, and will he please raise this case with his Polish counterpart?
I am aware of this case, and I thank my right hon. Friend for her advocacy on it. I know that she met our ambassador to Warsaw and, of course, I would be very pleased to meet her to see whether we can make some progress.
I am happy to write to the hon. Member with a specific breakdown, but I think that it is the majority, because women and children are disproportionately affected. We are proud and pleased that we have committed £26.5 million in our immediate response to the tragic flooding.
What consideration have the Government given to opening two new high commissions in the two newest Commonwealth countries, Gabon and Togo?
Mr Speaker, if I may, I will ask the noble Lord Goldsmith to write to my hon. Friend with the details.
May I attend the meeting that the Minister is going to have about judges, so that the plight of Afghan interpreters and others who helped our forces can also be considered?
It has been well reported that a very sizeable proportion of the UK’s international aid budget is being spent within the UK on the costs attributed to Ukrainian and small boat refugees. The OECD Development Assistance Committee rules on spending are clear, but the Government’s spending is less clear. Will the Minister commit to publishing a breakdown for this financial year of how the UK’s in-country refugee costs are being spent based on the DAC eligible costs guidelines?
Yes, I will, Mr Speaker. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for the work that she does through her brilliant International Development Committee. I should make it clear that this expenditure is allowed under the OECD DAC rules. We cannot pick and choose; it is either allowed or it is not, and this expenditure is allowed.
Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating Benjamin Netanyahu on his recent election victory in Israel and in wishing for Bibi to form a broad-based coalition across Israel, so that there is a proper stable Government for our key ally?
We congratulate Benjamin Netanyahu on his election victory. As one of Israel’s closest partners, the UK looks forward to working with Israel to ensure that our relationship continues to flourish.
Pakistan and Somalia are at the extreme ends of the climate crisis and face dire humanitarian consequences. Can those on the Government Benches tell me how cutting international aid will help them to help those countries—and do they have no shame?
The hon. Lady is absolutely right that those are two terrible crises, and money is important. It is not everything, but it is important. We will have to wait until the outturn from the autumn statement to see where we stand on that.
As my right hon. Friend the Member for Warley (John Spellar) has just pointed out, the IRGC has led and organised the brutal crackdown on protesters in Iran. What do those fascist thugs have to do to get themselves designated a terrorist organisation?
I understand the point the hon. Gentleman makes, and it has been made with real passion, but we are not able to add anything to the points we have already made to hon. Members on this issue.
Last week I had the immense pleasure of visiting Japan with the British Council. I put on record my sincere thanks to the ambassador Julia Longbottom, Matthew Knowles and the entire British Council team in Japan. I got to see first-hand the brilliant work that the British Council does in Japan, educating people in our English language and using our arts and culture for the greatest good. What more can the Government do to support the British Council, not just in Japan, but across the world?
It is lovely to hear that and I know the team in Japan will be very pleased to have welcomed the hon. Lady there. Our bilateral relationship with Japan continues from strength to strength in every possible area, and we will continue to work closely with them.
I was contacted by a constituent from Devon whose sister died in east Africa while working for the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation. Joanna Toole was serving humanity and our environment when Ethiopian Airlines flight ET302 crashed near Addis Ababa. Will the Minister commit to lobbying the Ethiopian Government to release the air accident report so that an inquest in the UK can proceed?
I am extremely sorry to hear that terrible news from the hon. Gentleman’s constituent. I suggest we have a meeting outside of the House to discuss the best way forward; I will be very happy to meet him to do that.
What assessment have the Government made of the role of far-right parties in Israel’s new Government, as they are Netanyahu’s principal coalition partner? Will UK Ministers be meeting representatives of those far-right parties?
As I have already highlighted, Israel is one of our closest partners and we will continue to have a close working relationship with the new Government. It would be inappropriate to comment further at this stage, ahead of the Government’s formation.
What does the Minister for Development think are the biggest challenges to the effective use of the aid budget: the fact that it is facing further cuts, the fact that so much of it is being double counted against Defence expenditure or the fact that, as the Chair of the Select Committee said, it is being increasingly spent in the UK?
The aim of the international development budget, every penny of which is spent in Britain’s national interest, is to prevent conflict and to build prosperous societies. That is the aim, and that is what we seek to do with every penny we spend. All that expenditure is completely in the interests of the British taxpayer.
Points of Order
On a point of order, Mr Speaker, yesterday the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the right hon. Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison), in response to my oral questions on the medallic recognition of nuclear test veterans, stated that I
“must not confuse commemorative coins and medallions with medals. Medals are worn on uniform; medallions and commemorative coins of the sort that other countries have issued cannot be worn.”—[Official Report, 7 November 2022; Vol. 722, c. 5.]
It is my understanding that New Zealand provided full medallic recognition in 2002 to nuclear test veterans who served in Operation Grapple and at Mururoa through the New Zealand Special Service Medal, which was established by royal warrant by Queen Elizabeth II. I am sure the Minister would not want to inadvertently mislead the House, so can you advise me how I can ensure that he clarifies his comments to the House? I might add that, if he would like to apologise to the UK nuclear test veteran community for any frustration caused, I will be meeting some of them in Parliament Square at 1.30 pm, if he would like to join us.
I am grateful to the hon. Member for giving me notice of the point of order. May I check that she has informed the right hon. Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison) of her intention to raise this matter?
Thanks for that. If the Minister wishes to correct the record, they may do so in the usual way, and I look forward to seeing them when they do.
On a point of order, yesterday during Defence oral questions, the right hon. Member for Rayleigh and Wickford (Mr Francois) said
“why does it take BAE Systems 11 years to build a ship”,
“the Japs can build in four?”—[Official Report, 7 November 2022; Vol. 722, c. 2.]
Mr Speaker, you rightly and regularly remind us to use respectful language in this House, but unfortunately this outdated and crass racial slur falls well below the bar we should expect.
At the weekend, we saw an article in The Times asking why only two MPs identify as east or south-east Asian in this place, despite making up 1.2 million of the country. Perhaps it is because of such comments by the right hon. Member for Rayleigh and Wickford, or the “little man in China” trope trotted out last week by a Government Minister, or the former Leader of the House, the right hon. Member for North East Somerset (Mr Rees-Mogg) saying the words “yellow peril” from the Dispatch Box. It is an unacceptable undercurrent of othering that is rightly called out for other protected characteristics and ethnicities, but not yet for ours. Mr Speaker, can you please advise me on how we can discourage all Members of the House from using ethnic slurs such as those? Progress is not inevitable; it is something we must consistently and constantly strive for.
I am grateful to the hon. Member for giving me notice of the point of order. May I check that she has informed the right hon. Member for Rayleigh and Wickford (Mr Francois)?
The hon. Lady has done—excellent. I recognise, as she says, that the casual use of racial terms causes upset, and they should not be used. What I would say is that “Erskine May” states:
“Good temper and moderation are the characteristics of parliamentary language.”
I ask all Members to remind themselves of that principle in choosing the words they use carefully. Also, people reflect the language that we use. If we set the best of language, others might follow.
Referendums (Supermajority) Bill
Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)
Ian Paisley presented a Bill to require a supermajority of votes in favour of a proposal for constitutional change on which a referendum is being held in order for it to be decided in the affirmative.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 20 January 2023, and to be printed (Bill 182).
Employee Share Ownership (Reform)
Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)
I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make provision for a new employee share ownership scheme allowing preferential access for lower income workers; to reduce the Share Incentive Plan holding period from five to three years; to require companies to include declarations in annual reports about the type of employee share ownership plans that are operated and the level of employee take up; and for connected purposes.
This Bill has broad support across the House, as the list of sponsors will demonstrate. Politically, it fits neatly with most ideological traditions. From a Conservative viewpoint, it chimes with the ambition for the UK to become a property-owning, share-owning democracy. From Labour’s perspective, it resonates with the historical commitment to co-operation, although by different means from the traditional par value model, and it provides a means by which the relationship between capital and labour can be modestly realigned.
As I will demonstrate, the Bill has the support of nationalists and Unionists and Liberal Democrats, who see the benefits to employers and employees as being consistent with their respective political outlooks. Employee share ownership has been supported by a diverse range of organisations, including the CBI, the Social Market Foundation, the TUC and the Co-operative party. The CBI, for example, has stated:
“The moral case for financial inclusion is a compelling one—people have a right to their dignity and financial exclusion denies them that right.”
Similarly, the Social Market Foundation pointed out:
“As the UK economy emerges from the Coronavirus pandemic, now is a good time for government to push for higher rates of employee share ownership.”
The TUC has said that, subject to certain conditions—for example, a preference for collective schemes and them not being used as a substitute for collective bargaining and trade union involvement—it supports employee share ownership.
This Bill aims to update two of the current share ownership schemes—the share incentive plan, known as SIP, and the save-as-you-earn system, known as SAYE or Sharesave—and proposes a third scheme. The reason the two existing schemes need to be updated is that, over recent years, the number of such plans has been plateauing and, in some cases, falling. The Treasury’s own data acknowledge that trend. The number of firms that granted a new SAYE option in 2021 was 260, a fall from 340 in 2007. Overall, employees were awarded or purchased shares in 400 companies, compared with 570 in 2011-12.
There are several reasons for that decline. First, SIP and SAYE were introduced 22 and 42 years ago respectively. In the intervening years, employment practices have undergone significant changes, and the schemes no longer reflect those changes. For example, the length of time an employee spends at a company has markedly reduced. Indeed, young people are often encouraged to move jobs more frequently to secure career advancement. The Social Market Foundation has said:
“Among the poorest half of people aged 25 to 34, typical net financial wealth among those who are not employee shareholders was just £77. But among employee shareholders, wealth stood at £750.”
That being the case, the five-year minimum investment commitment for SIP schemes, to ensure maximum tax efficiency, is no longer realistic.
The fact that the Government offer tax advantages to employee share ownership is, of course, welcome. The risk, however, is that without updating them, they could become increasingly obsolete. For that reason, the Bill would reduce the commitment from five years to three, to achieve maximum tax efficiency, as advocated by ProShare, the industry representative body. Moreover, many employers believe that such a change would make them more likely to offer SIP schemes.
Another problem is that current plans apply only to those on pay-as-you-earn. There are now, however, some 4 million people who work in the so-called gig economy. A further provision in the Bill would create a new plan that does not depend on regular monthly contributions and is accessible to those in less regular forms of work. It would enable employers to give a free share award to their employees, to be held for a year, after which it could be realised at a discount value, as in SAYE schemes currently. That would be attractive to younger staff, who may not envisage staying at a company for three years, let alone five.
The other provision in the Bill is to require the Treasury to carry out a consultation with all the relevant bodies, including those I have referred to, with the aim of modernising employee share ownership to reflect the changes that have taken place since the existing schemes were introduced. One new idea that could be consulted on is allowing employees to access the holding built up in their share incentive plan in a tax-efficient and advantageous manner that, under the current scheme, is only available after five years, with regular contributions made over the last one year, without a penalty being applied.
Before concluding, I would like to say a few words about the benefits that such schemes bring to employees and employers. Two examples illustrate the benefits to employees. First, Pets at Home staff—mainly shop floor staff working in retail—who participated in the company’s SAYE scheme have made an average gain of £21,000. That is a healthy return on their investment and an increase in their financial resilience. Secondly, as ProShare’s annual survey shows, the average value of a participant’s shareholding at the end of 2021 was £10,295—again, a significant sum.
Employers gain too. As the CBI and the Social Market Foundation pointed out, employees having a stake in the company they work for provides important productivity gains, as well as boosting innovation and corporate long-termism. I hope this Bill will be a good starting point in encouraging and expanding employee share ownership and enabling the potential benefits to all concerned to be realised.
Question put and agreed to.
That Sir George Howarth, Margaret Beckett, Kirsty Blackman, Sir Graham Brady, Philip Davies, Mr Jonathan Djanogly, Dame Margaret Hodge, John McDonnell, Esther McVey, Sarah Olney, Jim Shannon and Gareth Thomas present the Bill.
Sir George Howarth accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 3 February 2023, and to be printed (Bill 183).
[7th Allotted Day]
State Pension Triple Lock
I beg to move,
That this House calls on the Government to commit to maintaining the state pension triple lock in financial year 2023-24 as promised in the Conservative and Unionist Party manifesto 2019.
I hope not to detain the House long, because the proposition before it this afternoon is very simple: we are asking the House to stand firm in instructing the Chancellor and the Prime Minister to honour the triple lock promise and uprate the state pension in line with inflation for the next financial year. The motion should not be controversial; indeed, every Member should be able to endorse it in the Division Lobby this evening.
The reason we have tabled this motion is that pensioners deserve certainty that the promise of protection offered by inflation-proofing the state pension will be honoured. Let us remind ourselves of the facts. Pensioner poverty is up by 450,000 since 2010. Prices in the shops are up. Energy bills are up. The Office for National Statistics found that between June and September this year 3.5 million pensioners had already been forced to spend less on food and essentials because of the soaring cost of living. Over half of pensioners are cutting back on gas and electricity in their homes, and Age UK has projected that 2.8 million older households are set to be in fuel poverty this winter—1.8 million more than in previous years.
Did my right hon. Friend read the reports in The Times that the Government are in fact going to follow our example and to confirm that they will increase the state pension in line with inflation? Does he agree that the Minister could intervene now and save us several hours debating these issues by just confirming that the Government do in fact intend to do that?
I have read not only The Times but the 2019 Conservative manifesto, which committed Conservative Members to maintaining the triple lock, so I look forward to their joining us in the Division Lobby this evening—[Interruption.] I look forward to the hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Gary Sambrook) joining us in the Division Lobby.
Did the Institute for Fiscal Studies not say that the 2019 Labour party manifesto would benefit high earners rather than low earners on pensions, so is the biggest threat to UK pensioners not the Labour party?
On the topic of manifestos, the new Prime Minister tells us that we do not need a general election because the 2019 manifesto gives the Conservative party a mandate. If that is the case, Conservative Members should not break their promise on the triple lock, and the hon. Member should join us in the Lobby this afternoon. Indeed, those in his marginal constituency will be watching carefully to see which way he votes later.
I am delighted that the right hon. Gentleman, who by the way—and I do not want to lower his reputation on his own Benches—is a friend of mine, has given way. He knows very well that today is not about a lasting decision by Government but about political theatre. When we vote this afternoon, we will not be voting for what happens in practice; we will be voting because Labour has chosen to try to make political capital out of a difficult issue. I simply say to him that if the Government were to propose breaking that promise, they would not have my support, and they know that, by the way. I would stand by the triple lock. But will the right hon. Gentleman just answer this: was he not the adviser to the former Labour Chancellor Gordon Brown, who awarded pensioners a 50p increase?
On the latter point, the right hon. Gentleman will recall that the state pension rose by over 50% under the last Labour Government and has risen by around 40% under this Government. I do not want to make an enemy of the right hon. Gentleman, because I know that he agrees with me; I read his comments in the Daily Express yesterday. Indeed, I suspect that he will agree with probably 90% of my speech—so much so that I was tempted to email it to him in advance of this debate, but I did not want to be removed from the Front Bench.
Let me make a bit of progress. The real-world impact in our constituencies of cutting the state pension again means more and more pensioners turning to food banks and more pensioners shivering under blankets in cold, damp homes, putting themselves at risk of hypothermia. It means more pensioners cutting back, at a time when they have already had to swallow a real-terms cut in the state pension of around £480. Breaking the promise on inflation uprating for next year amounts to a further real-terms cut in the value of the full state pension of £440. We are talking about a £900 cut, around £37 a month in the fixed incomes of Britain’s retirees; a cut in the fixed incomes of groups of the population who cannot easily earn a wage; a cut in fixed income when one in three relies solely on the state pension; and a cut that is punishing at the best of times, but is more devastating when prices are rising and energy bills are increasing.
Does the shadow Minister agree that we are talking not only about a cut, but about the uncertainty that the Government have created over the weeks, with their U-turns upon U-turns? Pensioners do not know whether to trust this Government and they have no certainty, even despite what has been reported this morning.
We have had continued mixed messaging from the Government, which is why today is an opportunity for Conservative Members to send a clear message to their constituents about their position on the triple lock.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that there is a broader point here? A couple in their 70s in my constituency have contacted me to say that they are concerned about their pensions for themselves, but that they also care for members of their extended family who have physical ailments, autism and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. As the costs of that care are increasing, the impact of reducing their pensions becomes a massive factor. Does my right hon. Friend agree that if the Government abandon their triple lock promise and inflict this real-terms pensions cut, that will have a knock-on effect on some of the most vulnerable people in our society?
My hon. Friend has described with great eloquence the real-life impact that this cut will have on our constituents. Although I do not know the particular circumstances of the family she refers to, they may well be reliant on other social security payments, and we have no clarity from the Government about whether they will also be cut in real terms.
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that those other social security payments also need to be uprated in line with inflation? If so, should Labour not have made the motion wider to include that?
Today’s debate is about the triple lock, but we do agree that payments such as universal credit should be uprated in line with inflation and not suffer a real-terms cut.
I give way to my fellow Leicester City fan.
We are on a roll: three games we have won in a row.
Some people believe that retired people live a wonderful life, but the reality is often much bleaker: less heat, less food and making the most out of a meagre income. Does the shadow Minister agree that the Government must honour those who have paid tax and national insurance contributions over their lifetimes? Now is the time to support them, when they need us.
My friend and fellow Leicester City fan makes his point with the same force and precision as Youri Tielemans putting one in the back of the net against Everton at the weekend. He is absolutely right.
Let me make a bit of progress. A cut in the pension will also disproportionately hit retired women, who rely on the state pension and other benefits such as pension credits for more than 60% of their income. This £900 cut in income is for those who have worked hard all their lives, who have paid their dues and who, as my mum would say, have paid their stamps.
I will give way to my hon. Friend from Leicester, given that I am a Leicester MP, and then let the hon. Gentleman in.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for giving way. I am sure he knows that half of all Leicester pensioners live in the most deprived 20% of the country, and one in five live in the most deprived 5% of the country. They are frightened for their future and will feel betrayed by Conservative Members if they do not walk through the Lobby with us tonight.
My hon. Friend is absolutely spot on, as she always is. May I also say what a pleasure it is to see her back defending the people of Leicester West after her maternity leave.
Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that, given that the Government are making their announcement about the triple lock next week and that it takes effect in April, it is therefore irresponsible to suggest that pensioners will face the sort of cuts that he is talking about? We should just wait for the announcement.
I do not know if the hon. Gentleman was in the House about three weeks ago, but that was when the then Conservative Prime Minister committed from the Dispatch Box to maintain the triple lock. If the hon. Gentleman wants to stand up for the 21,000 pensioners in the Wantage area who are set to lose £425 from a real-terms cut, he should vote with us in the Lobby this afternoon.
Let me make a bit of progress. A £900 cut in income, around £37 per month, is punishing at the best of times, and it is a cut for people who feel they have paid their dues—people who, like my mum, feel they have paid their stamps. It is a cut for those who have worked all their lives and who often live now with a disability or in ill health because of their hard work. Whether because of the hard, unyielding occupations that they may have worked in, they might live with chapped hands, sore backs and sore knees. They deserve a retirement of security, dignity and respect. It would be a betrayal of Britain’s almost 13 million pensioners to cut the pension a second year in a row, and this House should not stand for it.
Why has the triple lock been in the Chancellor’s crosshairs? It is because Conservative Members presented, cheered and welcomed the most disastrous Budget in living memory. It was a Budget so reckless and so cavalier with the public finances that it crashed the economy with unfunded tax cuts, sent borrowing costs soaring, gave us a run on pension funds, and forced mortgage rates to ricochet round the money markets, costing homeowners hundreds of pounds extra a month, and now they want us all to think it was just an aberration—that it was all just a bad dream; that Bobby Ewing was in the shower all along. But for the British people it remains a real nightmare, and now the Government are expecting pensioners to pay the price. Well, we will not stop reminding them of the Budget that they imposed on the British people.
In recent days, ahead of this debate, I have been inundated with messages from Britain’s retirees saying that that price is far too high. This was what Hilda wrote:
“We believed that with the triple lock in place, our state pension would keep pace with wages and inflation…This government cynically dismantled the triple lock and threw state pensioners under the bus”.
This was what Mary wrote to me:
“I am in tears of frustration and anger…Not all pensioners are well off. I for one am really struggling”.
This was from Patrick, who is aged 73:
“How can a responsible government minister welch on a promise?”
That is the crux of the matter, because every Government Member stood on a manifesto in 2019 that made a clear promise to the triple lock.
Six months ago, the Prime Minister, when he was the Chancellor, told us from that Dispatch Box that the promise of inflation-proofing the state pension would be honoured for the next financial year:
“I can reassure the House that next year…benefits will be uprated by this September’s consumer prices index”.
He went on:
“the triple lock will apply to the state pension.”—[Official Report, 26 May 2022; Vol. 715, c. 452.]
Those were the Prime Minister’s words six months ago. He tells us that we should not have a general election because that 2019 manifesto gives him a mandate, but he will not give us a straight answer to a very simple question: will he honour the promise he made from the Dispatch Box six months ago? So much for his promise to restore “integrity and professionalism” to Downing Street.
A year ago, the House debated breaking the triple lock. The then Pensions Minister, now promoted to Minister for Employment as Minister of State—I congratulate him of course, and I am pleased that he is back in the Department after a brief period away—last year justified cutting the state pension, telling us it was only for one year. Just a year ago, on 15 November 2021, he said:
“The triple lock will, I confirm, be applied in the usual way for the rest of the Parliament.”—[Official Report, 15 November 2021; Vol. 703, c. 372.]
So what has changed?
I repeat that this is political theatre and, for those in doubt, whatever the vote is today, it will have absolutely no impact on the legislation whatever. I just want to know if the right hon. Member is aware of the very good House of Commons briefing on the triple lock, which compares the basic state pension with average earnings over the last 30 years. The low point of it was between 2000 and 2008, when it went down to 16%. That is the lowest the basic state pension has ever been compared with average earnings, and who was in power at that time? It was the last Labour Government. In fact, the previous Conservative Government and successive Conservative Governments have been more generous on the basic state pension compared with average earnings than the last Labour Government.
If we want to go down memory lane, a previous Conservative Government broke the earnings link and that is why we need to keep the triple lock, so it builds up its value. The reason those inflation upratings were so low is that we had inflation under control under that Labour Government; we had not lost control of it. We introduced the minimum income guarantee, which the Conservative party voted against, and we introduced pension credit, which the Conservative party opposed at the time, in order to improve the incomes of the poorest pensioners. We brought pensioner poverty down and it is increasing again under this Tory Government.
As I have said, the then Pensions Minister said that the triple lock would
“be applied…for the rest of the Parliament”.
I was sceptical about that. We have these debates across the Dispatch Box and he will recall my scepticism. He is always very noisy on the Front Bench and, when I was asking questions, he was shouting at me and said, “No, we’ve committed to the triple lock. You shouldn’t have to worry.” I asked the then Work and Pensions Secretary, the right hon. Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey), and she told me at the time:
“I am again happy to put on record that the triple lock will be honoured in the future.”—[Official Report, 21 March 2022; Vol. 711, c. 99.]
That was in March 2022 from that Dispatch Box, yet here we are with the prospect of another real-terms cut in the pension on the table again. Breaking such a promise two years in a row in a cost of living crisis is surely unacceptable.
That brings me to the new Work and Pensions Secretary, who of course prior to his elevation just a month ago, when real-terms cuts to the pension and other benefits were raised, led the charge at the Tory party conference. He undermined the position of the then Prime Minister and the then Chancellor, telling Sky News it was
“one of those areas where the Government is going to have to think again.”
But of course this morning, he did not repeat his line that the Government should think again, because now he is saying we have to wait until next week’s emergency Budget. So we have a U-turn on the U-turn. In fact, the Conservative Twitter account is still saying:
“We will protect the Triple Lock”.
The Conservative Twitter account is still repeating what the former Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for South West Norfolk (Elizabeth Truss), told us from the Dispatch Box three or four weeks ago. So it is a U-turn on a U-turn on a U-turn, and it makes us all dizzy just watching it.
After all this Conservative party triple lock hokey-cokey, today is a clear opportunity for Conservative Members to finally tell us where they stand. Today is an opportunity for Conservative Members to finally end the uncertainty, finally end the mixed messages and finally end the worry for millions of pensioners who have seen their state pension cut while their cost of living soars, and confirm that the pension will not be cut next year. The uprating of the state pension is crucial to millions of today’s pensioners, but it is also about protecting the incomes of tomorrow’s pensioners. It is about ensuring that the state pension recovers its value relative to wages. Given the move away from final salary schemes, it means certainty for tomorrow’s pensioners as well.
In the name of today’s pensioners and tomorrow’s pensioners, Conservative MPs should offer us certainty. Our retired constituents have worked hard all their lives, contributed to national insurance and served our communities. They deserve security and dignity. As the former Conservative Pensions Minister Baroness Altmann warned this week:
“Short-changing pensioners during a cost of living crisis should be unthinkable...Snatching protection away this year could be the biggest betrayal pensioners have ever known.”
I could not put it better myself. Ministers should stop dithering. They should reject the cut in the state pension and support our motion in the Lobby tonight.
Can I open by saying that it is a pleasure to at last stand opposite the right hon. Member for Leicester South (Jonathan Ashworth) in debate at the Dispatch Box? We have heard a lot of sound and fury from the Opposition Benches, but not much illumination and light. Indeed, the entire speech was predicated on a perceived answer to the question that he has put in the motion—namely, that we will short-change pensioners in some way—and that is far from necessarily the outcome we will see.
The right hon. Gentleman’s speech started pretty well—he read out the motion and so far so good—but it was on the intervention of my right hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Sir John Hayes), who claimed him as a close friend, that he started to go down hill and lose his politics bearings. I should just correct my right hon. Friend, who I think was being over-harsh on Gordon Brown by suggesting that, in 1999, Labour put up pensions by 50p. It was, of course, 75p—a full 50% more than he suggested.
I am immensely grateful to my right hon. Friend for correcting the record. I did say we were friends and I was trying to be generous to the right hon. Member for Leicester South, but adding the extra 25p would have come as cold comfort to the pensioners who suffered under Labour. We should remember that the triple lock was a Conservative policy, which is why we must stand by it.
I thank my right hon. Friend, and given the impact his intervention had on a speech that deteriorated very rapidly thereafter, he will now be my secret weapon in every debate now; he will be there, poised.
I am actually quite offended by the idea that this is theatre and knockabout because my constituents do not see that way. Can I bring some facts to this debate? The Labour Government took 1 million pensioners out of poverty. This Government have put half a million into poverty. Does the Secretary of State not feel that this is just outrageous, and that he needs to make it clear today that the promises of his manifesto will be fulfilled?
I will of course come on to the issue of the impact of the Government’s huge commitment to pensioners over the years on issues such as poverty that the hon. Lady has raised. However, may I begin by saying that I am slightly surprised the right hon. Member for Leicester South should have come forward with this motion at all? He was present at departmental questions just a few days ago, when the question about what the Government would do in respect of the triple lock, and indeed the uprating of benefits, was put on many occasions to me and my fellow Ministers, and we gave a very clear, rational and sound response. It is that a fiscal event will take place soon—on the 17th of this month—and, as he will know, it is completely out of order for Ministers under those circumstances to start giving a running commentary on what is expected to be included in that fiscal event. Indeed, in the event that he was in my position, stood up and pre-announced measures that were coming forward in the Budget, he would rightly be required to resign from his position. No doubt that is something that, in my case, would please him no end, but I am afraid I am not going to give him that pleasure.
On the autumn statement coming on 17 November, which is next week, it is accompanied by a full forecast from the Office for Budget Responsibility. Is that not the responsible time to talk about the uprating of pensions and benefits? It is irresponsible of the Opposition to bring this forward ahead of the full OBR forecast.
My hon. Friend is entirely right. That is precisely the point I am making. It would be entirely irresponsible for any member of the Government to prejudge or give a running commentary on anything that may appear in that statement.
Can the Secretary of State outline why it would be irresponsible to confirm that the Government are keeping a manifesto commitment and promise?
As I have set out, we are facing what is being called a Budget. It is a major fiscal event and many decisions will be taken within it. It would not be right for a member of the Government at the Dispatch Box to prejudge what may be included in it.
I welcome the Secretary of State to his first Department for Work and Pensions debate. Surely he is not suggesting that the current Prime Minister was irresponsible when he said last May that the triple lock would be honoured for next April. Will he confirm that, if the triple lock is not honoured for next April, it will be almost without precedent, going back 50 years or more, for the state pension not to be uprated at least in line with inflation?
I welcome the question from the Chair of the Work and Pensions Committee. As a former Pensions Minister, he will know that, in the situation we are in at the moment, right hard up against a major fiscal event that is about to set out major tax and spending decisions, it would simply not be right, as I have said on countless occasions, for any member of the Government to prejudge and pre-empt the measures that the Chancellor will be coming forward with.