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Commons Chamber

Volume 722: debated on Monday 14 November 2022

House of Commons

Monday 14 November 2022

The House met at half-past Two o’clock


[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Business Before Questions

New Writ


That the Speaker do issue his Warrant to the Clerk of the Crown to make out a New Writ for the electing of a Member to serve in this present Parliament for the Borough Constituency of Stretford and Urmston in the room of Kate Green, who since her election for the said Borough Constituency has been appointed to the Office of Steward and Bailiff of His Majesty’s Manor of Northstead in the County of York.—(Sir Alan Campbell.)

Oral Answers to Questions

Home Department

The Secretary of State was asked—

Operation Deter

1. What recent discussions she has had with the Chief Constable of Thames Valley Police on the effectiveness of Operation Deter. (902154)

Before I answer, on behalf of the UK may I pass on my thoughts and prayers to all those affected by the terrible attack in Istanbul yesterday? I am sure that the whole House will join me, on behalf of the UK Government, in saying that the UK stands with Turkey in the fight against terrorism. We send our condolences to all those affected.

Last month, I visited Thames Valley police to meet the chief constable, force leaders and student officers. A number of topics were discussed, including the delivery of Operation Deter. I am always keen to discuss interventions that the chief constable and local partners believe to be effective in reducing knife crime.

The police and crime commissioner for Thames Valley, Matthew Barber, introduced Operation Deter as a zero-tolerance approach to knife crime. It started in Milton Keynes and is now being rolled out in the force in other areas. It is already delivering some very encouraging signs in reducing knife crime. Will my right hon. Friend review it further and encourage other forces to replicate it in their areas?

I have met the excellent police and crime commissioner, to whom my hon. Friend refers, on two occasions now—perhaps more—and I really welcome all initiatives that show measurable impacts against violent crime. I am determined that interventions that are proven to work are delivered across our forces. I am also a big supporter of violence reduction units. I am very keen to look at the verified results of Operation Deter, alongside all innovative approaches. I am clear that all options should be explored and that we should support operations that work.

Hate Crimes

Hate crime is a scourge on communities across the country. We expect the police to fully investigate hateful attacks and ensure that the cowards who commit them feel the full force of the law.

The Home Secretary said that the public want the police to tackle crime, yet the Home Office cut the number of police officers and left Islamophobia to increase over the last five years. Year after year, Home Office figures show that British Muslims are the victims of the highest number of hate crimes. This Islamophobia Awareness Month, will the Home Secretary take any steps to root out this insidious hatred, which impacts our British Muslim community?

There is a cheeky two-part question there. In relation to police numbers, I remind the hon. Gentleman that in his own area we have already recruited 804 new officers and there will be lots more coming in that space. On religious hate crimes against Muslims, my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary is working hard in this area. I remind him that this Government have done more than any other to tackle anti-Muslim hatred. We have provided extra money—over £4 million between 2016 and 2022—to monitor and combat anti-Muslim hatred. I remind him that, in addition, the Home Office allocated £24.5 million to protect mosques and Muslim faith schools through the Places of Worship: Protective Security Funding Scheme in May 2022. A new Muslim faith schools protective security scheme will also be delivered this year. The Government are thoroughly committed to stamping out this evil crime.

New Police Officers: Entry Pay Rates

4. What discussions she has had with (a) Cabinet colleagues and (b) relevant stakeholders on the adequacy of entry pay rates for new police officers. (902157)

The independent Police Remuneration Review Body makes recommendations to the Government on the pay and allowances for police officers. In July, we announced that we had accepted the review body’s recommendation to award a consolidated increase of £1,900 at all pay points with effect from 1 September, targeted at the lowest-paid to provide an uplift of up to 8.8%.

Police officers inform me that they have faced a 20% real-terms pay cut over the past decade, and there seems to be a particular problem with new recruits. My local federation tells me that some of its officers are using food banks and that a potential new recruit decided to continue his career with a fast food chain because he had been offered a pay rise. Does the Secretary of State admit that pay and remuneration for police officers—professionals who put their lives in danger on our behalf—is a real problem?

The Government recognise that increases in the cost of living are having a significant impact on the lower-paid. In that context, and after careful consideration, we chose to accept in full the review body’s recommendations to award the consolidated increases that I mentioned. We want to ensure that there is support for our officers, who play a vital role in this country.

Given that on the streets of London alone, entry pay rates have already attracted 4,734 more police officers to join the Metropolitan police, and given how vital it is to continue to provide the right place for those new recruits to be properly trained, does the Home Secretary agree that Uxbridge remains the most sensible place in Hillingdon to have a place station? Will she join me in passing that view to the present Mayor of London?

My right hon. Friend speaks a lot of sense, as usual. He is absolutely right and he has a huge amount of which to be proud when it comes to increasing the numbers of police officers on the frontline fighting crime and standing up for victims, which Labour has opposed at every opportunity. If I may make a humble request of him, will he give up some of his precious time to advise the current Mayor of London who is wholly failing on fighting crime, having seen a 9% increase in crime in London? The Mayor really could take some advice from his predecessor.

New statistics published today reveal that the mini-Budget cost even more than we first thought—a staggering £30 billion. That comes on top of 12 years of austerity, which has seen a real-terms pay cut for police and staff, thousands of jobs lost and prosecutions plummet. The Home Secretary was in the Cabinet and the Minister for Crime, Policing and Fire was No. 2 in the Treasury at the time of the mini-Budget. Will they both now apologise to our police for the damage they have done?

The Government are clear that policing must have a modern pay structure that recognises and rewards skills and competence, rather than time served. In line with that approach, chief constables have the discretion to pay an officer a starting salary of between £23,556 and £26,682 depending on qualifications and experience. The settlement is fair. We want our police officers to be empowered and strong in the fight against crime.

Neighbourhood Crimes: Effectiveness of Police Community Support Officers

5. What assessment her Department has made of the effectiveness of police community support officers in tackling neighbourhood crime. (902158)

The Government are determined to reduce neighbourhood crime, and I am pleased to report that, since 2019, neighbourhood crime has reduced by about 20%. It is up to chief constables to decide on the level of PCSOs that they choose to recruit, but as the House will be aware, we are in the process of hiring an extra 20,000 police officers, after which we will have a record number of uniformed officers serving.

Police community support officers have a vital role to play in tackling neighbourhood crime and building trust and confidence in policing at a community level, because they are often the most visible officers to our communities. Will the Minister therefore confirm how many fewer officers are assigned to neighbourhood roles in England and Wales today compared with 2010? How long does he expect it to take until police officer and staff numbers in neighbourhood roles reach the same number again?

I can confirm that neighbourhood crime is about 20% lower than in 2019, as I said a moment ago. I can confirm that after the 20,000 officers have been recruited in April next year, we will have a record number of uniformed officers serving in this country. I can also confirm that the Metropolitan police area, which includes the hon. Lady’s constituency, the shadow Policing Minister’s constituency and my own, already has a record number of uniformed officers.

PCSOs play a vital role in London wards’ safer neighbourhoods teams, which perform a vital function. Will the Minister ask the Mayor of London why he is starving boroughs such as Barnet of the officers needed to make up SNTs to tackle crime and antisocial behaviour?

The Metropolitan police already have more uniformed officers than at any point in their history, and in the current financial year they have had a funding increase of £170 million on last year, so I think my right hon. Friend asks a very reasonable question.

In the London Borough of Brent, 320 hours of safer neighbourhoods teams’ police time has been abstracted in the past three months. The figures are not routinely made public, but it is important for communities to have access to that information because they need to know that their safer neighbourhoods teams are there to act for them. Will the Home Secretary undertake to publish abstraction figures as a matter of routine?

Such operational matters are for the police, but I share the hon. Gentleman’s concern about the level of abstraction owing to the unjustified Just Stop Oil protests. In October and early November, about 11,000 Metropolitan police officer shifts were lost as a result of having to police those outrageous and unnecessary protests. That is a matter of concern, and that is why it is so important that we see an end to these protests as soon as possible.

I usually get very positive feedback about Chelmsford’s pubs, clubs and nightclubs, but in recent weeks there has been a flurry of emails and comments on social media about suspected spiking incidents at one establishment. I have been in touch with our excellent city centre policing team, who are among the hundreds more police we have had in Essex in the past five years. Will the Minister join me in encouraging all those who think they may have been victims of spiking to come forward and report the incidents to the police so that the perpetrators can be caught and held to account?

My right hon. Friend makes an extremely important point. I certainly join her in calling on victims to report these very serious and damaging offences as quickly as possible. The Government are committed to producing a report on the prevalence and nature of spiking and the action needed to tackle it by April next year.

Neighbourhood policing and PCSOs should be at the heart of communities, providing proactive policing to keep communities safe, yet after cutting thousands of neighbourhood police officers from our streets, the Tories have cut 8,000 PCSOs. Labour has made a commitment to hire thousands more PCSOs as part of a fully funded neighbourhood policing programme. Will the Minister match that commitment, or will further cuts be coming after Thursday’s Budget?

As the hon. Lady knows, the total funding going into policing this year is £16.9 billion, which is a £1.1 billion increase on last year. I have said it once or twice before, but I will say it again: come April next year, when those 20,000 extra officers are hired, we will have a record number of uniformed officers serving on our streets.

Families with Leave to Remain: No Recourse to Public Funds

6. When she plans to publish improved data on families with leave to remain but no recourse to public funds. (902159)

The Home Office now publishes an extensive range of data in respect of NRPF change of conditions applications, including data on age, gender and nationality. We are open to other avenues to obtaining further NRPF-related data; plans for doing so have been set out in published correspondence with the UK Statistics Authority.

At present, the Home Office does not know how many people it gives leave to remain with no recourse to public funds attached. For months, Ministers and officials at the Department have been saying that a new IT system is about to be introduced and will give us that information. The chair of the UK Statistics Authority, whom the Minister mentioned, told me in a letter in February that the new system would be operational some time this year, rather than last year as previously announced. When will the Department take back control and switch on its new system so that it can provide this completely basic information?

I understand the right hon. Gentleman’s long-standing interest in this issue. We have made it clear on a number of occasions that we also want to deepen and enrich the level of data that is available. We have been speaking to our stakeholders to see what further steps we might be able to take, and I shall be happy to keep the right hon. Gentleman informed.

Asylum Application Backlog

We are clear about the fact that the asylum system needs to do better and cases need to be processed more quickly. The aim of the asylum transformation programme is to bring the system back into balance and modernise it. Its focus is on increasing productivity by streamlining and digitising processes to speed up decision making and increase efficiency and output.

A hotel in Earl Shilton, in my constituency, has twice been identified as a way of trying to deal with the backlog, but has failed in that regard owing to health and safety concerns about fire in particular. I was therefore surprised when constituents wrote to me saying that they had seen asylum seekers in the hotel. I contacted the borough council, the county council and the police, but none of them knew anything about it, so I checked social media and found that the story had been corroborated and was true. When I contacted the Home Office, it took 72 hours for it to be confirmed that they had been placed there. This is completely unacceptable. What is the Home Secretary doing to ensure that it does not happen in other constituencies, and will she meet me to discuss the situation in Earl Shilton so that communication can be improved?

I thank my hon. Friend for raising this issue. We have experienced unprecedented pressure on the system recently, and responding to it has been challenging for our operational partners. We have a statutory duty to provide destitute asylum seekers with accommodation. We do inform local partners of our actions, but despite our ambitions to do that expeditiously, owing to the recent incredible pressure on the system we have sometimes fallen short. I understand that a direct communication has been sent to my hon. Friend, but I can say to him now that we want to improve our engagement to ensure that there is much better understanding and much better support for local communities that are affected.

We now know of at least four sexual assaults on children who have been left in these hotels for months because of the backlog. In a meeting with MPs last week, the Home Secretary’s officials committed themselves to providing details of the safeguarding requirements for private contractors if Ministers gave them permission. If the Home Secretary is so confident that she is doing everything she can to fulfil the duty of care for these vulnerable children, will she give that permission and will she publish those details?

I have been very straight in saying that our asylum system does need improvement. The Immigration Minister and I are working intensively and improving our processes, and the duties to those in our care and how they are discharged, whether those concerned are adults or children, or other vulnerable people. There has been unprecedented pressure on the system, but we are working apace to procure alternative accommodation, and have been doing so for several months. As I have said, we are working intensively, and we hope to secure everyone’s support in that effort.

Clearing the processing backlog is clearly one of the keys to solving the whole asylum problem, and we need to get on with it and make sure that it is done as fast as possible. The other key is, of course, controlling the source of the problem. I was pleased to learn of the measure signed by my right hon. Friend in Paris this morning, which is a modest step towards solving a much greater problem. Does my right hon. Friend agree that rather than populist policies which may grab headlines, the only way to solve this problem will be through painstaking hard work of the kind that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and Mr Macron have instigated?

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his support and input on this challenging issue, and I was pleased to visit Manston with him a few weeks ago. He is absolutely right; there is no single solution to this problem, and international co-operation is a vital part of the solution. That is why I am very grateful to French partners for their effective work to date and also for their support for the positive step forward in the new deal that I signed this morning with my opposite number in France, which will greatly deepen our co-operation and further our response to illegal migration in the channel.

In Hounslow there are more than 3,500 asylum seekers waiting for a determination on their applications in, at the last count, 12 interim or contingency hotels. They have been waiting not weeks, not months, but even years. They are existing in accommodation and eating food unfit for animals, and Clearspring Ready Homes and a network of unaccountable subcontractors are skimming off vast profits and ripping off the accommodation providers, the vulnerable asylum seekers and, of course, the taxpayer. As the Home Secretary admits, the Home Office has a challenge here, so why will she not contract with local authorities that have expertise in procuring accommodation and that will ensure the basic standards that the hon. Member for Bosworth (Dr Evans) is concerned about, and ensure safeguarding as well—

Order. That is an important point but I have to get other Members in as well. We cannot have speeches; we must have short questions. I think the Home Secretary has got the drift of this one.

There are many plans afoot to try to improve the processing of asylum claims, and one of those relates to procuring alternative accommodation for those seeking asylum. We need to reduce our reliance on hotels, improve our productivity within the asylum processing system and ensure that people stop making the journey in the first place. There are huge levels of work ongoing, and I would encourage the hon. Lady to support those plans and our work.

The Nationality and Borders Act 2022 establishes a new category of asylum seekers that the Government claim are not permitted to claim asylum in Britain and should therefore be removed, but because the Government have failed to secure a returns agreement with France, and because their Rwanda policy is completely unworkable, 16,000 people in this category have been stuck in limbo waiting an additional six months for a decision, at huge cost to the British taxpayer. Of those 16,000 waiting in limbo, only 21 have been returned since the Act came into force. Do Ministers therefore accept that their own legislation is adding further delays, cost, chaos and confusion to an already broken system while doing next and nothing to remove failed asylum seekers who have no right to be here?

I find it staggering that Labour Members seem to love complaining about the system but when we introduced laws to fix it, what did they do? They opposed them every step of the way. We wanted to make it easier to deport foreign national offenders; Labour voted against it. We wanted to fix our asylum system; Labour voted against it. We secured a ground-breaking agreement with Rwanda; Labour would scrap it. Labour Members are very good at complaining, but they have absolutely no solution at all.

Visitor Visa Applications: Potential Barriers

8. What steps she is taking to reduce potential barriers for (a) family, (b) spouse and (c) visitor visa applications. (902161)

Our immigration system allows people from across the globe to come to the United Kingdom to visit and join family here. Over 2 million entry clearance visas were issued in the year ending June 2022, but it is also right to ensure that visitors intend to leave at the end of their stay and that those coming to join their family can be supported by the family and not by the British taxpayer.

According to the Home Office’s own figures, just under 20% of the total accepted and rejected visitor visa applications ended up being rejected, yet when it comes to those of Pakistani and Bangladeshi nationality, the figure suddenly, dramatically and inexplicably rises to 30%. Does the Minister really expect us to believe that there is no racial or religious bias at the Home Office?

The hon. Gentleman is completely wrong, and he makes a baseless slur against my officials at the Home Office. All visa determinations are based on objective criteria, and I would add that 303,000 visas and permits were granted for family members in the year ending June 2022, which is 61% more than in 2019. The Home Office is granting record numbers of these visas, and we do so in an entirely objective fashion.

My constituent Mary Samuels is the legal guardian of her niece Faith, who is currently in Sierra Leone. Mary submitted a visa application for Faith as a non-British child of a parent who has permission to be in the UK, as Faith’s lack of parents or guardians in Sierra Leone is putting her at serious and substantial risk. Although I am grateful for our conversations with the Home Office, those conversations have been ongoing since July 2021. I know that the Minister cannot comment on this case on the Floor of the House, but will he commit to personally reviewing the case and to meeting me to discuss how we can ensure that this intolerable situation for Mary and Faith is concluded as quickly as possible?

My hon. Friend has been following this exceptional case assiduously. I can say that the application is in its final stages of consideration, and the applicant will be notified of the outcome as soon as a decision has been made. I am of course happy to meet him if that would be helpful.

In contrast to family, spouse and visitor visas, golden visas were available until February 2022 to all who could afford them, including the world’s super-rich, with next to no background checks. Spotlight on Corruption has found that, of all the golden visas issued, around half—that is more than 6,000—have been reviewed for possible national security risks. When he was Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, the Minister for Security called for the 2018 review of golden visas to be published. Can the Government confirm when we will finally see that review?

My right hon. Friend the Minister for Security has been clear that we will publish that report at the earliest available opportunity, but I would add that this is the Government who brought an end to golden visas and who led the world in economic sanctions in support of the people of Ukraine.

Knife Crime and Serious Violence

The Government have taken a dual approach to tackling serious violence, combining tough enforcement with programmes steering people away from crime. Since 2019, we have invested £170 million in the areas most affected by violence to boost the police response, and we have invested a further £170 million in developing violence reduction units to tackle the root causes of violent crime. These programmes together have been assessed as preventing 49,000 violent offences in their first two years.

Harrow is, generally speaking, a safe borough in which to live, but we have seen an 18% increase in knife crime this year. There were 41 major incidents last month, and only last week there was a major incident in which three people were stabbed and put into hospital. Does my right hon. Friend agree that what is needed is not just extra police officers, but apprehending people who carry knives, punishing them by taking them to court and imprisoning them so they cannot cause damage to other people?

I agree with my hon. Friend that a robust police response is essential, as is the courts making robust use of the two-strikes rule requiring a mandatory prison sentence on a second conviction for possessing a bladed article. Those are very important, and I am happy to look with him at how they are working and whether they need to be pushed a bit further. I am sorry to hear about the knife crime statistics in Harrow. Nationwide, knife crime, or knife-enabled crime, is down about 9% compared with pre-pandemic levels. If my hon. Friend feels that more needs to be done in his area, I would be happy to discuss it with him.

The two-strikes strategy is not something we have done in Milton Keynes. The Home Secretary has heard about Operation Deter, under which people caught with a knife in Milton Keynes will spend time behind bars. Along with the right legislation and the right policing strategies, such as Operation Deter, we need to work with local communities. Will my right hon. Friend join me in welcoming the Knife Angel to Milton Keynes as we work with communities to raise awareness of the consequences of knife crime?

I completely agree with my hon. Friend; the Knife Angel and other organisations do fantastic work, and I strongly commend them. It is exactly that kind of initiative that some of the funding streams I mentioned earlier are designed to support.

A couple of weeks ago, I watched film from a security camera in Stockton showing two men; one used a chainsaw to cut through the door of a house while the other set about smashing all the windows in a bid to get to the resident. Who knows what would have happened if they had got in? That is another example of terrifying attacks by dangerous, organised criminals determined to silence our communities as they fight to control their illegal drug businesses on Teesside. The Government love to spin a story about police recruitment, but will Cleveland police ever get back the hundreds of police officers cut since 2010 and the resources needed to protect our communities and catch these criminals?

I certainly agree with the hon. Gentleman that the kind of crime he describes is despicable and that those who commit it should be pursued, prosecuted and imprisoned. I met the excellent police and crime commissioner for Cleveland, Steve Turner, just a short time ago—

I also met the chief constable, Mark Webster, just a week ago. The hon. Gentleman mentions resources, and of course Cleveland this year is receiving an extra £7.8 million compared with what it received last year and it has been allocated 239 extra officers as part of the police uplift programme, 197 of whom are already in post.

In September, I asked a then Home Office Minister why it is still legal for anyone aged 18 and over to walk into a shop and buy a machete. I was told, because the incidence of the use of machetes on our streets is increasing, that the serious weapons review is looking at this matter. Will this Minister tell us when that will be concluded and when the Government will act to ban the sale of machetes in this country?

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his question and I have a lot of sympathy for the point he is making. In the two or three weeks since I have been in this position, I have met the Met’s Deputy Assistant Commissioner McNulty, who has particular expertise in this area and is the National Police Chiefs’ Council lead on this topic. He has made a number of interesting proposals that are consistent with what the right hon. Gentleman just suggested. I am studying those carefully and sympathetically, and hope to have more to say on this topic in the near future.

Biometric Residence Permits

There are currently no material delays in the physical production or delivery of biometric residence permits. We aim to deliver a BRP within seven working days of the immigration decision. All BRPs are currently being produced within 48 hours of receipt of a production request at the secure printing facility. Our secure delivery partner, FedEx, is attempting to deliver 99% of BRPs within 48 hours of their production and is successfully delivering nearly 80% of them first time.

I thank my right hon. Friend for those statistics, which appear to be somewhat at odds with the experience of my constituents: Oksana Vakaliuk, a refugee from Ukraine, has been waiting since 1 May for her BRP; Adnam Hameed was granted his tier 2 visa in May and was still waiting for his BRP last month; and Mohammed Poswall has been waiting since July for his wife to receive the spousal visa stamp in her passport. I really appreciate the work that my right hon. Friend is doing in this respect, but the challenge is that these individuals could be working in our economy, contributing to meeting our skills shortages and paying tax. Will he meet me to go through these and other cases to help understand what is causing the delays, which may be specific to my region?

I would be happy to meet my right hon. Friend. As I said in answer to her initial question, the data suggests that the vast majority of customers are receiving their BRPs within seven days and the system is working in an acceptable fashion. But if cases are falling through the cracks, it is of course right that we aim to fix that, and I would be pleased to meet her.

Biometrics are obviously important, but going back to spousal visas, which have also been mentioned, the wife of my constituent is an Afghan citizen who is stuck in Iran. As we know, Afghan refugees are not being treated well in Iran, but the Home Office, in reply to me, says that it will not particularly expedite this case. Will the Minister afford me the same courtesy that he did to the right hon. Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes) and look into the case that I have mentioned if I write to him after this session?

Ingredients Scheduled under Drug Legislation: Review

11. Whether she is taking steps with Cabinet colleagues to ensure that the potential health benefits of ingredients scheduled under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 and the Misuse of Drugs Regulations 2001 are kept under review. (902167)

Drug control seeks to strike a balance between preventing criminality on the one hand and allowing access for legitimate use, such as medicines development, on the other. The Government are guided in their decisions by the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs as a well-established process for taking these decisions, and of course we follow the expert advice.

Psilocybin should never have been designated a schedule 1 substance, but this position by the Home Office has become even more untenable following publication this month of the largest multi-site phase 2b trial of psilocybin for treatment-resistant depression. The study found rapid and enduring reductions in depression symptoms on a 25 mg dose. The further, very promising research in the UK is being severely hindered by psilocybin’s schedule 1 status and the prohibitive associated costs for our academic researchers. Will the Home Secretary finally commit to rescheduling psilocybin and related compounds to schedule 2, to allow more research into mental health treatment paradigms that could see a happier, healthier and more productive country and a growth boom for our science, innovation and pharmacology sectors?

The drug to which the hon. Lady refers is an MDMA-based medicine. The Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs is currently considering the barriers to legitimate research that are posed by controlled drugs. Once we have had its advice on the topic, including the implications for psychedelic drugs, such as MDMA and psilocybin, we will obviously take an appropriate decision in relation to research. In relation to more widespread availability, we will follow the decisions made by the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency and the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence before reaching any such decision ourselves.

Illegal Cross-channel Movements: Discussions with French Counterpart

12. What recent discussions she has had with her French counterpart on illegal cross-channel movements. (902168)

The Prime Minister and I are committed to reducing dangerous illegal migration into the UK, which is why I was in Paris today with my French counterpart, Gérald Darmanin, to agree a new joint strategy and operational plan, which will drive forward our next phase of co-operation and make this route unviable eventually.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on her agreement in Paris today but, as she herself has said, there is no silver bullet. Given that there are so many hundreds of miles of French coastline to be policed, will this agreement be a game changer?

As my hon. Friend says, on its own, this agreement will not fix the problem—it is important that everyone is clear about that. However, I am very proud of the co-operation that the UK and France have led in recent years. This deal represents a step change and a big step forward in our joint challenge. For the first time under this new integrated approach, UK officers will join law enforcement colleagues in France as embedded observers to share real-time information relating to small boats. The deal will include significant investment in intelligence capability and information sharing that all agencies will use, including the National Crime Agency and Europol. I believe that this is a big step forward and I encourage everyone here to get behind it.

The Home Affairs Committee’s report on small boat crossings, published in the summer, made a series of recommendations, one of which was more engagement with the French, so we very much welcomed the announcement this morning. Of course, it is the fifth announcement on arrangements with the French in four years, and there is not a single one thing that will solve this problem. That is why we made a series of recommendations, including: securing an agreement with the EU on the return of failed asylum seekers; and piloting the provision of initial UK asylum applications at facilities within French reception centres. That would mean that individuals wanting to seek asylum in the UK could do so without having to get into those awful dinghies and make that treacherous journey across the channel. Will the Home Secretary look again at the whole suite of recommendations that the Select Committee made after two years of looking at this subject?

I read with interest the report from the Select Committee, which makes several important points about greater collaboration and deeper co-operation with our friends in France. Last year our joint efforts saw more than 23,000 dangerous and unnecessary crossings prevented, and this year to date more than 30,000 crossing attempts have been stopped by the French. Joint working has also resulted in the dismantling of 55 organised crime groups and secured more than 500 arrests since its inception in 2020. That operational collaboration is absolutely integral to solving this common challenge.

Regrettably, the modest French agreement falls short of what is needed to address the scale, impact and urgency of the channel crossings issue. We do not need more observation—we need action taken on the French side. Even today, as the ink dried on this new deal, small boats crept through the sea-mist and one even landed on a beach in a residential coastal village in my constituency. Will my right hon. Friend meet me and Kent leaders to discuss the dreadful impact on local services, which they described in a letter to her two weeks ago as being at breaking point?

I thank my hon. Friend for all her work on this issue over several years. As I said, I am not going to overplay this agreement. It is an important step forward and provides a good platform on which to secure deeper collaboration, and it represents progress. For the first time, UK officers will be on the ground in France, working hand in hand with their French counterparts. They will be working side by side in the command HQ. They will be working with intelligence and surveillance material together. They will be partners in a very material sense in the fight against this challenge. Is that going to solve the problem on its own? It will not, but I encourage everybody to support the deal we have secured.

The Home Secretary might not like it, but if I may give her some positive advice, when you answer a question you are meant to look to the Chair. That is all I will say.

The Home Secretary insists that the agreement announced today represents a step forward, but is she able to tell the House whether it will mean fewer small boats crossing the channel?

A large win from the agreement is that there will be more French gendarmes patrolling the French beaches. There is a 40% uplift to the number of personnel that the French are deploying. That must be a success, and I encourage the right hon. Lady to welcome it.

It is astonishing that the Home Secretary has not made an oral statement on this subject, given the number of people who want to ask questions. She is preventing full scrutiny of this deal. Could that be because her written statement admits that there have been only 140 smuggling-related convictions across all of Britain and France in 35 months? Can she confirm that that means there have been on average just four convictions a month for those dangerous crimes, even though last month alone nearly 7,000 people arrived in the UK as a result of organised criminals profiting from putting lives at risk? Why is the Government’s action against criminal smuggler gangs so pitifully weak?

Why is the Government’s action so pitifully weak? We introduced legislation—an extensive Bill designed specifically to deal with the problem occurring on our shores—and on every occasion, what did Labour Members do? They voted against it. If they were really serious about solving this problem, they would be supporting our proposals, not carping from the sidelines.

That is a totally nonsense answer. The Home Secretary obviously is not aware that former chief constables have warned that her Nationality and Borders Act 2022 makes it harder to prosecute people traffickers, and that in fact it is adding six-month delays to the asylum system and pushing up the costs.

Patrols and intelligence sharing are welcome but long overdue, but will the Home Secretary match Labour’s funded policy for a major expansion of additional specialist officers in the National Crime Agency as part of a proper plan to work with other countries to investigate and crack down on those gangs? Or is she actually preparing for cuts in policing and security operations on Thursday because her party’s disastrous management of the economy has let everyone down?

Of course we need to go further and faster in the fight against illegal migration. I am very disappointed and concerned by the unprecedented numbers of people arriving here illegally. We are taking steps to fix it. The reality is, as I said, that this year alone more than 30,000 attempts have been prevented by the French. I have come back today from securing a deal that will increase the number of French patrols on the French coastline, which will reinforce our collaboration and intelligence work and strengthen our joint fight, but what do Labour Members do? They criticise. They criticise because the simple truth is that this is not about the French deal or our response, but about their abject failure to speak on behalf of the British people. They do not care about illegal migration; they want an open-doors migration policy, as they always have.

Of course, we all welcome closer co-operation with the French, but the Home Secretary is absolutely right to temper her expectations given that previous deals were signed in 2010, 2014, ’15, ’16, ’18, ’19, ’20 and, indeed, ’21. What discussions has she had with the French about safe legal routes for those with clear links to the United Kingdom, linked if necessary with an appropriate returns agreement? Surely she must see that only a deal that includes safe legal routes can make a significant and lasting impact.

I am not going to repeat myself, but I think the deal is a good step forward and a great platform from which to build deeper co-operation. I say gently to the hon. Gentleman that his question would have much more credibility if Scotland stepped up further and took a better share of those who come here seeking refuge and asylum.

Topical Questions

The UK is working closely with France to reduce illegal small boat crossings over the channel. Over the past year, those efforts have produced results. Today, I was in Paris with my French counterpart, Gérald Darmanin, to agree a more integrated and strengthened approach aimed at making that lethally dangerous route unviable, with world-class law enforcement teams from both countries working even more closely together. That is a positive step forward.

For the first time, UK officers will join French law enforcement teams as embedded observers, sharing real-time information on the ground and in command HQ. We will provide investment of up to £62 million this year, supporting cutting-edge surveillance technology, the expansion of the UK-France joint intelligence cell, and more French officers patrolling the French coast. This is an international problem; it requires an international solution.

May I raise a question about the Afghanistan citizens resettlement scheme on behalf of a constituent whose father has played a prominent role in women’s education, achieving recognition and awards from the United Nations? The ACRS is a clearly structured scheme, but may I request a meeting with my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary to discuss the very special circumstances of my constituent’s father?

The Afghan citizens resettlement scheme, which commenced on 6 January 2022, will see up to 20,000 at-risk people resettled to the United Kingdom. If my hon. Friend sends me the details, I will ask the relevant teams to look at that case.

On Friday, a commission established by Refugees for Justice and led by Helena Kennedy KC concluded that the 2020 stabbings and shooting at asylum accommodation in Glasgow’s Park Inn could have been avoided, and recommended important asylum reforms. Will the Home Secretary or the Minister for Immigration agree to meet Baroness Kennedy—with whom I spoke this morning—and Refugees for Justice to discuss that important report?

I would be happy to meet the hon. Gentleman and the Baroness to discuss her report. We take safety at immigration removal centres extremely seriously. If I may, I take this opportunity to pay tribute to the immigration enforcement officers and others who responded to the recent disturbance at Harmondsworth in London. Their hard work in difficult circumstances was much appreciated by all of us.

T5. I welcome the agreement that the Home Secretary has signed with the French Government. It is a contribution to dealing with the asylum crisis and therefore allowing hundreds of hotels, including some in my constituency, to go back to doing their proper job. Does she recognise that we also need an asylum system that can process applications quickly? If the figures remain at 1.5 decisions per week per decision maker, as they are now, or at four a week, as in the Government’s latest pilot, we will never see an end to the backlogs and delays, so may I urge the Government to be more ambitious? (902182)

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his question and his advice on this matter. We want to increase the productivity of our Home Office staff so that cases are not being decided to the tune of one per person per week, but at four, five or six per person per week, as they were a few years ago. We have had a positive pilot in our Leeds office, and we now intend to roll that out at pace across the country.

T3. We have 8,000 fewer PCSOs, 6,000 fewer neighbourhood police officers, and people can see for themselves that there are fewer uniformed officers on our streets. No doubt the Home Secretary will deny yet again that the Government have cut police. In the vain hope that the public might be reassured by something that this Government say, I will ask again: will she commit to matching Labour’s plan to recruit 13,000 more neighbourhood police officers? No more smoke and mirrors: yes or no? (902180)

There is no need for smoke and mirrors when the police budget this year is £1.1 billion higher than last year, and there is no need for smoke and mirrors when on completion of the police uplift programme in just a few months’ time, there will be more uniformed police officers on our streets than at any time in this country’s history.

T7. What steps are the Government taking to increase charging rates for offences of rape, serious sexual offending and harassment against women and girls? (902184)

I thank my hon. Friend for his serious question, and I know he works hard in Bury North to talk about the issue. The Government are committed to tackling violence against women and girls. We are taking action through the rape review and the tackling violence against women and girls strategy and tackling domestic abuse to improve the police’s response to these crimes. Charge volumes for rapes are up 8%. It is not enough, and there is a lot more to do, and we are working hard with schemes such as Operation Soteria in the hope that these good practices will progress throughout the country.

T6. We have cases marked urgent not responded to within two months and weekly phone calls with MPs’ offices being cancelled at short notice. When will Ministers get a grip of officials and make sure that Members of this House are treated with respect, so that we can represent our constituents? (902183)

The hon. Gentleman and I have already spoken about this matter, and it is absolutely right that officials at the Home Office treat Members of Parliament and their staff with the respect they deserve and that we ensure they get the relevant meetings and decisions. Anything I can do to facilitate that—for him or any other colleague—of course I will do.

T9. Having completed the course, I thank Sergeant Richard Neeves and West Yorkshire police for organising my participation in the parliamentary police and fire service scheme. Does the Minister agree that Members from across the House should be encouraged to take part in the scheme if they want to gain a greater understanding of the pressures and challenges our police officers face day-to-day? (902186)

I join my hon. Friend in thanking Sergeant Richard Neeves for the work he did in encouraging and helping my hon. Friend to participate in the parliamentary police and fire service scheme. Yes, I do agree: Members from right across the House should engage in that scheme.

T8. When 172 men, women and children who were asylum applicants in Acton were bussed suddenly to Ashford in Kent, 80 miles away from their schools, NHS networks and faith communities, it made the TV news. It happened because the private provider of hotel accommodation wanted it back. Will the Home Secretary look into that case, because there is a human cost to uprooting families at the drop of a hat, as well as the waste of taxpayer money in shifting people from hotel to hotel when they could be contributing and paying in if they were processed faster? (902185)

The reality is that the accommodation pressure that we are seeing today is a symptom of the broader problem of unprecedented numbers of people arriving here illegally, at a level that we have not seen before. That is putting pressure on the system to find and provide accommodation for these people, as we have a duty to accommodate them. We need to stop the crossings, which will ease pressure on accommodation.

I recognise the agreement reached this morning with the French to stop illegal migrants crossing the English channel in small boats, but what else will my right hon. Friend do to take lessons from other European countries? Germany and Sweden, for example, do not recognise refugee applications from Albania. Countries such as Italy and Poland are physically stopping people from crossing their border illegally. What more will be done to tackle this problem?

My hon. Friend is right that there is a real need for a multi-pronged approach. It is not quite right that countries like Germany or Sweden do not accept asylum applications; rather, they may have higher burdens of proof or thresholds that need to be met. We need to change some of the regimes that govern asylum and some of the rights being claimed, in a large number of cases, unmeritoriously. We will make an announcement on the measures that we are taking in due course.

T10. I welcome the Minister for Immigration to his place. Will he meet me to discuss an Afghan spousal visa case that I have been dealing with for over a year? Pakistan will not grant her a visa so that she can travel to her biometrics appointment. (902187)

Of all the issues that the Home Secretary has to deal with, few are more harrowing than child sexual abuse. The independent inquiry into child sexual abuse recently reported that there were 8.8 million attempts to access such imagery online in the UK in a single month. May I ask my right hon. Friend whether the Online Safety Bill will include a provision for UK companies to report such content to the National Crime Agency? Will she work with her colleagues to bring forward the Bill this year?

This issue is very close to my right hon. Friend’s heart and to mine. The Government are committed to tackling all forms of child sexual abuse to keep children safe at home, outside and online. There is a lot of good work being done by the NCA and GCHQ. In relation to timing, I am hopeful that we will have some news imminently.

When it comes to immigration policy, it is “Oui, oui, oui” to working with the French Republic, but when it comes to bespoke policies for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to deal with demographics and labour shortages, it is “Non, non, non.” What is the difference? Why are we not allowed bespoke policies in his Government, working with the Scottish Parliament, to enable us to do that?

Because we are all blessed to live in one United Kingdom. There is no material difference: Scotland’s unemployment rate was 3.3% and its economic inactivity rate was 21% in recent figures, compared with the UK average of 3.5% and 21%, respectively. It is more important that we work together as one UK. Those are exactly the terms on which my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has just concluded this very important agreement.

While co-operation with the French is no doubt welcome, is it not the case that since 2015 the British taxpayer has subsidised the French police force to the tune of £200 million? Since then, a record number have been intercepted but an even higher record number have made it across the channel. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that there is nothing in the agreement that obliges the French police to detain and arrest anyone they intercept and that, therefore, they are free to come back the following night and try again? Are we not throwing good money after bad?

I do not believe that this is throwing good money after bad because, as I said, this year alone we have seen 30,000 successful interventions by the French to stop attempts to leave France and come here illegally. That is a very impressive record but is not enough, because it is not fixing the problem. Increasing the number of gendarmes as agreed under the deal, the embedded observers, and joint working at a real level on the ground between the UK and the French, will, I believe, take us forward in combating the scourge.

There is a huge problem with the over-policing of black children due to adultification, which is where minors are treated as adults. Some 799 children aged between 10 and 17 were strip-searched by the Met between 2019 and 2021 without any being arrested. We need an urgent independent investigation into the over-policing of black children. Will the Minister commit to one?

I know this issue is dear to the hon. Member’s heart. The police must use their powers carefully to target the right sort of offenders. It is of concern that that can sometimes appear to be disproportionate. Nobody should be stopped and searched because of their age, race or ethnicity. There are codes of conduct in the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 and there is the use of body-worn video data. About 40% of stop-and-searches that take place in London are of young men—

The announcement today is clearly a good thing, but is the Home Secretary entirely confident that she will have sufficient aerial surveillance assets in place so that we can do our half of the job properly?

I have visited our clandestine command and control team, headed up by Dan O’Mahoney and Border Force officials, and we have a military presence. Some very impressive technology is being used, such as surveillance drone technology, to enable and facilitate better co-operation with the French.

Why do the Government continue to extend the temporary offshore wind workers concession? The industry is not even asking for it. Will the Minister meet me to discuss the issue?

I would be happy to meet the hon. Gentleman. The extension was reviewed by the Government and, on the basis of the representations made to us by the industry, we extended it to April 2023. If he has heard other representations, I would be pleased to hear about them.

On Friday, we found out that Ipswich Borough Council’s temporary injunction to prevent the Novotel being used for up to 200 economic migrants was unsuccessful. More to the point, the owners are now saying they might have them for 12 months not six months. I heard in the media that the Government might move away from hotels to temporary accommodation such as Pontins. Can the Minister give me an update on the plan for moving away from hotels to much more basic and cheaper accommodation?

We want to exit hotels as soon as possible, including in my hon. Friend’s constituency, and move to simple but decent accommodation that does not provide an additional pull factor to the UK. The challenge is considerable, however, as 40,000 people are making that perilous crossing every year, which places immense pressure on our asylum system and prevents us from providing the kind of humane and compassionate response that we want to provide to people coming here in genuine peril.

Last week, the new Met Police Commissioner Sir Mark Rowley came to Twickenham to meet community representatives. He said that one of the biggest pressures facing his officers is dealing with large numbers of mental health cases; sometimes, multiple officers are spending entire shifts with people in mental health crisis because the NHS does not have a bed for them. Will the Minister outline what his Department is doing to work with the NHS to ensure that provision is in place so that officers can be out dealing with burglaries and catalytic converter theft, which is what my constituents are worried about?

The hon. Lady makes an important and valid point. I had a similar conversation with Sir Mark a couple of weeks ago and I was out with officers in my borough of Croydon the week before last where the emergency response team told a similar story. Sir Stephen House is looking at this topic as part of his review into police productivity, but I also plan to have discussions with colleagues across Government, including in the Department of Health and Social Care and NHS England, to find out what more we can do. The issue that she raises is certainly real.

It is vital that our police forces draw on the best talent in our communities, including people who excel outside the classroom. Following our discussions, can the Home Secretary update the House on future plans for entry routes into policing?

I thank my hon. Friend and other honourable colleagues for their important campaigning to ventilate this issue. He speaks not only with passion, but with a deep understanding of the issue. I very much agree with him. I think that there are people from all walks of life who do not necessarily have a degree or want one who can be very good police officers. That is why I have asked the College of Policing to consider options for a new non-degree entry route to complement the existing framework. The current transitional arrangements will be extended in the meantime, and I am very clear that the police force must be open to those who neither have or want a degree.

In Batley and Spen, we continue to face serious problems of antisocial behaviour, reckless driving and dangerous parking. Ultimately, behaviour change is key, but in the short term, neighbourhood police and local councils need the resources to catch and punish those who show no respect to our communities. When will the Government properly invest in neighbourhood policing, and when will they stop cutting already stretched council budgets so that councils can use their power to tackle dangerous parking?

Council budgets are obviously a matter for the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, and they will be set out in the local government funding settlement in a few weeks’ time. When it comes to police budgets, which are the Home Office’s responsibility, as I have said once or twice already, the budget this year is £1.1 billion higher than it was last year—it stands now at £16.9 billion—and by April next year, when the police uplift programme is complete, we will have more uniformed police officers recruited than at any time in our country’s history.

Mali: UN Peacekeeping Mission

West Africa is an important region for the United Kingdom and our allies across Europe, and the UK is strongly committed to supporting the UN to deliver its peacekeeping commitments around the world. That is why, since 2018, we had been supporting the French-led counter-terrorism mission in Mali with CH-47 Chinook helicopters under Operation Barkhane, and more recently, since 2020, through the deployment of a long-range reconnaissance group as part of the UN’s MINUSMA—multidimensional integrated stabilisation mission in Mali—peacekeeping mission.

The House will be aware, however, that in February President Macron announced the drawdown of French troops in Mali, and was joined in that announcement by all other European nations, as well as Canada, that were contributing to the French-led Operations Barkhane and Takuba. In March, Sweden announced that it would be leaving the UN’s MINUSMA mission. Today, I can announce that the UK contingent will also now be leaving the MINUSMA mission earlier than planned.

We should be clear that responsibility for all of this sits in Bamako. Two coups in three years have undermined international efforts to advance peace. On my most recent visit last November, I met the Malian Defence Minister and implored him to see the huge value of the French-led international effort in his country. However, soon afterwards, the Malian Government began working with the Russian mercenary group, Wagner, and actively sought to interfere with the work of both the French-led and UN missions. The Wagner Group is linked to mass human rights abuses. The Malian Government’s partnership with the Wagner Group is counterproductive to lasting stability and security in their region.

This Government cannot deploy our nation’s military to provide security when the host country’s Government are not willing to work with us to deliver lasting stability and security. However, our commitment to west Africa and the important work of the UN is undiminished. We have been working closely with our allies to consider options for rebalancing our deployment alongside France, the EU and other like-minded allies.

On Monday and Tuesday next week, I will join colleagues from across Europe and west Africa in Accra to co-ordinate our renewed response to instability in the Sahel. This will be the first major gathering in support of the Accra initiative, which is a west African-led solution focused initially on preventing further contagion of the insurgency into Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Togo, Benin and Niger, and tackling the growing levels of violence in Burkina Faso as well as in Mali, making this a very timely conference, indeed.

Of course, it is not just the UK military that will remain committed in west Africa—the UK will continue its commitment to Mali and the Sahel through our humanitarian, stabilisation and development assistance, working in close co-ordination with partners—nor is this a reduction in our commitment to the United Nations. The UK remains an important contributor of troops through Operation Tosca in Cyprus and of staff officers across several missions, and provides training to around 10,000 military, police and civilian peacekeepers from a range of countries annually. We remain the fifth largest financial contributor and will continue to drive reform in New York. Indeed, we are working with New York on developing a pilot, to be delivered through the British peace support team based in Nairobi, to develop the capacity of UN troop contributing nations across Africa. We will, of course, co-ordinate with allies as we draw down from Gao and have been sharing our plans with them over recent months. The Army will be issuing orders imminently to reconfigure the next deployment to draw down our presence.

We are leaving the MINUSMA mission earlier than planned and are, of course, saddened by the way the Government in Bamako have made it so difficult for well-meaning nations to remain there. The work of our troops has been outstanding, and they should be proud of what they have achieved there. But through the Chilcot report and our wider experience in Iraq and Afghanistan, we, like so many allies, are clear that the military instrument should not be deployed on counter-insurgency or countering violent extremism missions unless there is a clear and compelling commitment towards political progress.

We will work quickly with allies in the region and across Europe to support the Accra initiative to deliver security, stability and prosperity in west Africa. Our commitment to the region is undiminished.

I thank the Minister for the advance copy of his statement—he always treats this House with great courtesy—but I have to say that I was disappointed, Mr Speaker, as you will be, that nearly three hours before I received a copy of the statement I was reading about his decision on The Times online.

MINUSMA is the UN’s deadliest peacekeeping mission, with 281 fatalities to date, so I want to start by paying tribute to all those British troops who have been deployed with the UN in Mali since 2020 and all the RAF air and ground crew who have been deployed in Mali since 2013.

The UN Security Council only renewed the Mali mission’s mandate, which Britain strongly supported, in June. What now for the UN’s MINUSMA force without the UK’s long-range specialised reconnaissance? What now for the UK’s contribution to stabilising the Sahel, which experts say has become the new epicentre of terrorism? What now for the neighbouring states of Mali, which look to the UK for support in the face of increasing activity from Islamic extremist groups? And what now for the west’s capacity to balance the Russian Wagner Group mercenaries in the region?

Will the Chinook deployment continue to support the UN mission? The Times reported that this has already been withdrawn, although the Minister has not mentioned it this afternoon. And when exactly will the current Royal Scots Light Dragoons on the ground in Mali be withdrawn?

This statement is long overdue. France announced the withdrawal of troops from Mali back in February, and when I asked the Defence Secretary about this days later he said the UK was

“now reviewing our next steps.”—[Official Report, 21 February 2022; Vol. 709, c. 17.]

I got the same answer when I asked again nearly four months later. Now, fully nine months after France, and eight months after Sweden, why has it has taken Britain so long to make the same decision? We need strategic planning and foresight from Ministers for this region, not a tactical silence while they work out what on earth to do.

President Macron marked the end of the French Operation Barkhane last week by pledging a new strategy within half a year for working with African countries. Is the UK working with France on this new strategy? Will the Government produce a similar UK strategy?

In the Government’s 2020 integrated review there was just one passing reference to the Sahel and two short factual statements about Mali. Will the current IR update make good the Sahel-shaped gap in UK strategic security thinking?

Finally, ahead of the autumn statement, today’s decision on reducing our commitment to UK United Nations peacekeeping is a reminder of the importance of clarity over UK defence spending. The Defence Secretary agreed the current spending settlement, giving the Ministry of Defence back in 2020 a £1.4 billion real cut in day-to-day spending. He now says, as he told the Select Committee on Defence, that

“the inflationary pressure on my budget for the next two years is about £8 billion”.

How much does Defence actually need from the Chancellor on Thursday to plug the Defence Secretary’s budget black hole?

Order. Just before the Minister comes in, I have seen what has been given to The Times, and I am disappointed. I have the greatest respect for the Minister, but it is pretty appalling that somebody decided to hand to The Times, for it to put online, exactly what he has just given to the House. I hope that he will look into that and that whoever in the Department passed it to The Times will be reprimanded and reminded that Members of this House come first, not the media.

Mr Speaker, I could not agree more. You know that the Secretary of State and I are not the sort of Ministers who play these games. There was no deliberate briefing, and we are angry that the discourtesy of someone within our organisation means that you have read about this in The Times rather than heard it from the Dispatch Box. That was not the plan.

The right hon. Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey) had a long list of questions, which I will do my best to rattle through. I think that I covered some of them in the statement. On what is next for the UN force, the UN was already in a process of reconfiguration, given the changes in troop-contributing countries that it was facing and the reality of the situation on the ground. The insurgency has moved from the tri-border area of Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso to further south in Burkina. The challenge in the north of the country is no longer the insurgency against the al-Qaeda affiliate JNIM or Islamic State Greater Sahel, but the same competing tribes as five or six years ago. In the south of the country, the Malians are mostly focused on the survival of the junta that came to pass. There is an incoherent set of security challenges that the UN is trying to navigate, and I think it would be the first to admit that MINUSMA as a mission is struggling as a consequence of those three different challenges within the country.

That leads to the right hon. Gentleman’s absolutely correct question about stabilising the wider Sahel. It would be erroneous to think that MINUSMA, which was a UN mission struggling to match the excellent military endeavour of troop-contributing countries with any meaningful political progress, was really doing anything to stabilise the Sahel. The centre of mass of the insurgency has moved south into Burkina, where the competition is acute. Prigozhin has recently been in Ouagadougou offering Wagner’s services. I think that everybody is concerned that this is now about avoiding contagion from Burkina and ensuring that we work with the Burkinabé armed forces to get after the insurgency where it now is, because that is at the heart of the challenge in the Sahel. That is what the Accra initiative—a west-African designed solution to a problem in west Africa—is aiming to get after, and the UK, France, the EU and others are seeking to get behind it, because we think that is the most credible option for restoring stability in the Sahel.

The right hon. Gentleman asked, “Why now? Why wasn’t there a rush to make a decision back in February when the French left?” He knows that other countries from Europe have continued, and we have been in discussion with them about what we should do and what looks like the most sensible route forward. To have rushed to a decision back then, before we were sure what the right solution was in west Africa, would have been knee-jerk. The right thing to do, as I have been doing, is to travel around the region. I have been in Mali, Ghana, Côte d’Ivoire and Togo, and my counterparts from France have been visiting Niger, Benin and other countries extensively, and between us we have been able to map out what we think the best solution is.

The CH-47 commitment to Barkhane was already drawn down, and I believe that that was the subject of a written ministerial statement when the decision was made. Although the Chinooks were left to help the French move out of Mali, they have not been actively participating since Barkhane ended. The casualty evacuation capability for MINUSMA remains for as long as MINUSMA is patrolling.

The IR’s relevance is borne out by the conclusion that we have come to, because its decision was around capacity building upstream and recognising that, often, our presence can be the catalyst to insurgency. That is very much what the western African nations feel: they do not want us on their borders physically fighting the insurgency as they think that accelerates things. They want us to be working with them to support them in generating capability. Finally, on defence spending, we all wait for Thursday.

As ever, my right hon. Friend shows a mastery not only of defence, but of the very complicated politics in Mali. Clearly, after Operation Barkhane closed and the French left, it was only a matter of time before there was a withdrawal. In particular, the Chinooks were providing the heavy lift for the French, but it simply did not make sense if the French were not there. He touches on the Wagner Group, which has a pervasive influence across the Sahel into west Africa and further south. Does he think that the situation could be a lot worse after Ukraine? A lot of armed combatants from the Wagner Group have been sucked into the Ukraine conflict. If there is a resolution to that conflict, I suspect that the Wagner Group will flood back into west Africa, causing problems not only in the countries he mentioned but further south in places such as Zimbabwe.

I very much enjoyed working with my hon. Friend when he was the Minister for Africa. It is a shame, however, that his collection of African ties has been put out to retirement—they were quite something.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The role that the Wagner Group is playing in Africa is very different from the one it is playing in Ukraine. In Ukraine, it is effectively generating a force, apparently conscripted from Russian prisons, to augment the Russian frontline as a manoeuvre element. In Africa, the role is somewhat different. In Mali, it is there principally at the invitation of the coup leadership to ensure the survival of the coup. In the Central African Republic, it has been doing something broadly similar, but has in the process been engaged more widely in the security in that country. Nobody should pretend that the Wagner Group is up to any good—it is universally up to mischief—but across Africa it is doing different things depending on what the Governments who have brought them in have asked them to do. But it remains a bunch of murderous human rights-abusing thugs and there is not a country on the planet that is any better for its presence.

Thank you, Mr Speaker, and thank you for your comments on the leak to The Times online.

We commend the bravery and dedication of the UK armed forces personnel serving with the UN peacekeeping mission in Mali. Picking up on the theme of the Wagner Group, will the Minister detail fully what diplomatic steps have been taken to address the presence of Wagner Group combatants in Mali and elsewhere in the world? Is he considering individually sanctioning Wagner Group fighters present in Mali? Will he present to the House the work that the recently announced office for conflict, stabilisation and mediation, and the conflict and atrocity prevention hub, will undertake, and the exact funding and staffing levels? Given that he says his commitment to the Sahel region is undiminished, are the Government considering reversing the cuts to aid in the Sahel region, including cuts to the conflict, stability and security fund?

Mr Speaker, there was a bit noise behind me and I did not catch the middle part of the hon. Gentleman’s question, which was about an office that is being set up. I will check the record and write to him on that.

On the wider effort in west Africa, it goes without saying that the military instrument alone will not be the answer to any of west Africa’s problems. There has to be a political and economic track that sits alongside the military. I suggest that the vehicle through which that economic and political track will most effectively be delivered is the Economic Community of West African States. The EU has very strong relationships with ECOWAS, so it is likely to be in the lead on that, but when I was in Abuja, I also met ECOWAS officials. Obviously, the UK will engage with ECOWAS on the wider development, economic, political track, as well as the stuff we are doing militarily with Ghana and the Accra initiative.

I thank the Minister for his statement. Our withdrawal is disappointing, as I suspect it will exacerbate the very reasons for our deployment in the first place, but I clearly accept the political judgment. Will he confirm to the House that the UK force protection profile will be maintained in full accordance with the threat as we withdraw?

It absolutely will. The long-range reconnaissance patrolling will stop almost immediately and, on the next rotation, the force that follows on to deliver the draw-down will have everything needed within it for full force protection.

The UK deputy permanent representative told the UN Security Council on 10 October that the UK supports MINUSMA—we should pay tribute to the bravery of those troops, given the losses to which my right hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey) referred—but said that there were questions about

“whether and how the mission can maintain a viable presence in Mali.”

Given the factors—political instability, the Wagner Group and others—that have led to withdrawal of French and UK troops and those of other nations, what is the Government’s view about the continued operation of MINUSMA in the circumstances in which it now finds itself?

That is a matter for the UN. As I said in response to the right hon. Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey), our view is that the MINUSMA mission is stagnant. The political track has not been advancing for a number of years—since the first coup or, arguably, before that—and a very successful military mission has therefore been undermined by the lack of progress in Bamako. There is also a wider point: the mandate for that UN mission—like that of the UN missions in the Central African Republic and in the Democratic Republic of the Congo—is exclusively about peacekeeping, and if there is not a peace to keep, those missions can feel rather toothless as a consequence. We are communicating all those things in New York. As I said in response to a number of colleagues, we want to be very constructive. We feel like we have some understanding of what is going on alongside the French as penholders. We want to see a more cohesive approach to security in west Africa, with the security probably being delivered by the Accra initiative, the diplomatic and economic track being done by ECOWAS and the UN being ready to keep the peace once it is made.

Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to visit RAF Odiham and see a stripped-down Chinook with the iconic red sand of Africa falling out of it. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the withdrawal is no reflection of the service of those who were in country and those who were working so hard in the UK to support them? And may I press him on what we are doing to combat the Wagner Group in Africa? As a former trade envoy, I think that the opportunities for the peoples of Africa and the UK to work together for mutually beneficial trade are enormous, but they are threatened by the instability that the Wagner Group brings.

I echo my hon. Friend’s praise for the troops who have been involved. The Chinook force has been involved for a long time and has been on an aggressive rotation of operations, particularly the engineers. It has done extraordinary work to keep the Chinooks flying in very difficult conditions.

My hon. Friend is also right about the wider challenge of Wagner. It is very opportunistic, appearing in countries where it thinks there are opportunities for it to win business, but it is deeply exploitative. It invariably asks for payment through mineral wealth or access to oil and gas. The country that we offer as an example to many African colleagues is Mozambique, where Wagner was taken in and then kicked out because of the way in which it behaved when it was there. We communicate keenly with countries across Africa about the dangers of taking Wagner in. We try to show that, when they engage with the UK, France, the US and other western allies, they get a security partnership that wants nothing in return other than the advancement of our shared interests and security in the region.

In his address to the House earlier this year, President Zelensky asked Parliament to proscribe the Wagner Group as a terrorist organisation following atrocities that it had committed in Ukraine. Reports suggest that, since the coup in Mali, the Wagner Group has been linked to massacres in which hundreds of civilians have been killed. Will the Minister commit to speaking to the Home Secretary or the Minister for Security about proscribing the Wagner Group as a terrorist organisation?

I was very interested to hear the Minister make reference in his statement to the Chilcot report. In the light of the horrors of Mali and the terrible loss of life there, I understand the withdrawal of French and British troops, but I would like the Minister to be clear about how many British troops are now going to be deployed in that region of Africa. Crucially, what is the long-term aim of this—what exactly are we getting ourselves into? That is clearly why the Minister made reference to Chilcot, which said that there had to be clear aims and objectives before British troops were deployed overseas.

The right hon. Gentleman is right to ask that question. I do not think that the situation is as binary as every soldier, sailor and aviator currently in Mali finding themselves redeployed around western Africa. My suspicion is that the Accra initiative countries will be asking for slightly different capabilities from the long-range reconnaissance group that is currently in Mali. Very obviously, however, everything that we do to increase the capacity of Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Togo, Benin and Niger to guard against further contagion, get after the insurgency in Burkina and get after it again in Mali needs to be joined up with a wider regional economic and political plan, probably delivered by ECOWAS.

I do not know whether the right hon. Gentleman heard this, but on Monday and Tuesday next week I will be in Accra, where representatives of the EU, the UN, France, the UK, ECOWAS and all the member states of the Accra initiative will be discussing exactly this issue, because we need a cohesive strategy that brings together the military, the political and the economic.

I put on record my deepest respect for the armed forces who have served in Mali. With the rising threat from extremist groups in the region, does the Minister believe that the withdrawal of troops could lead to an eventual outpouring of refugees, as we saw in Afghanistan?

No, I do not, for the simple reason that the UK troops in Gao are now somewhat north of the centre of mass of the insurgency. The argument that I am making gently is that our position in Gao is not that relevant, given where the security challenge in west Africa is. The real challenge now is getting after the insurgency in Burkina; making sure that in Ouagadougou there is enthusiasm for working with western allies, not Prigozhin and Wagner; and extending security back out from Burkina. That is where the challenge is now, and that is what everybody is meeting to discuss in Accra next week.

Message from His Majesty the King

The Vice-Chamberlain of the Household acquainted the House that she had a Message from His Majesty the King to this House, signed by His Majesty’s own hand.

The Message was presented to the House, and read to the House by the Speaker, as follows:

To ensure continued efficiency of public business when I am unavailable, such as while I am undertaking official duties overseas, I confirm that I would be most content, should Parliament see fit, for the number of people who may be called upon to act as Counsellors of State under the terms of the Regency Acts 1937 to 1953 to be increased to include my sister and brother, The Princess Royal and The Earl of Wessex & Forfar, both of whom have previously undertaken this role.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. It may help if I inform the House that hon. Members will have the opportunity to consider a response to His Majesty’s gracious message ahead of the Opposition day debate tomorrow. It may also help if I inform the House that there will be legislation relating to the message for the House to consider in due course. Should the House agree to the Humble Address as the first business tomorrow, that legislation will provide a proper opportunity to debate the matter that has been raised.

Point of Order

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I have given notice of it to you and to the Member for Ilford North (Wes Streeting).

At the conclusion of last Wednesday’s Prime Minister’s Question Time, I tried to raise a point of order to ask why the Prime Minister had not given me prior notice that he would make reference to me in the Chamber. During the few minutes that followed, you may not have heard the Member for Ilford North using what I consider to be very unparliamentary and actually quite demeaning language towards people in our society who suffer from dementia or senility. That has led to a lot of people contacting me who are very upset about this because they have loved ones they have lost to dementia.

I would be grateful, Mr Speaker, if you could just set out that this kind of language is totally unacceptable—as, indeed, is any other form of abuse of any type—that it will not be repeated in this Chamber and that you will absolutely not allow it to be repeated at any time.

Let me begin by thanking the right hon. Gentleman for giving me notice of his point of order. He has raised two issues. On the first, the House’s “Rules of behaviour” document states:

“You should notify colleagues whenever... you intend to refer to them in the Chamber (other than making passing reference to what they have said on the public record)”.

I have reminded the House of that rule on numerous occasions. However, in this context, I think that the Prime Minister’s comments can be taken as a passing reference to the public record of the right hon. Gentleman when he was the leader of the Labour party. To that extent, I am not persuaded that notification in advance was required, however courteous it might have been to give it. I would always say that it is nice if we can let people know, as general good form. In any event, the right hon. Gentleman raised the point with the Prime Minister during the statement which followed Prime Minister’s Question Time, and has once again, quite rightly, been given an opportunity to put his side of the issue on the record.

The right hon. Gentleman’s second point—with which I have the greatest sympathy—concerned the comment said to have been made by the hon. Member for Ilford North (Wes Streeting). I have to say that the right hon. Gentleman is correct: I did not hear the comment, which is not recorded in the Official Report, which I did check. Had I done so, I would have intervened because I consider it falls well short of the respectful language and tone that we should all demonstrate. However, I understand that the hon. Member for Ilford North has written to apologise to the right hon. Gentleman and has had an opportunity to put his point on the record.

This gives me an opportunity to remind all Members of the importance of good temper and moderation in the language that we use in this Chamber. Certainly it is not a good example to use it against each other and I think we should learn from this.

I am now going to move on, but I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his point of order.

Australia and New Zealand Trade Deals

[Relevant documents: e-petition 554372, Establish free movement & trade agreements with Canada, Australia & New Zealand; First Report of the International Trade Committee, UK trade negotiations: Scrutiny of Agreement with Australia, HC 444; Second Report of the International Trade Committee, UK trade negotiations: Agreement with Australia, HC 117; Third Report of the International Trade Committee, UK trade negotiations: Agreement with New Zealand, HC 78; Fourth Report of the International Trade Committee, UK trade negotiations: Parliamentary scrutiny of free trade agreements, HC 815; and the First Special Report of the International Trade Committee, UK trade negotiations: Scrutiny of Agreement with Australia and Agreement with Australia: Government Response to the Committee’s First and Second Reports, HC 704.]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the Australia and New Zealand Trade deals.

The Australia and New Zealand free trade agreements are deals that will deliver for people, businesses and our economy. These are our first “from scratch” free trade agreements since we left the European Union, and they are deals of which this country can be proud. They demonstrate our ambition as an independent trading nation. They secure commitments that, in places, go above and beyond international best practice, and put us at the forefront of international trade policy.

I was here in June 2018 when we were finalising the call for input, and I was here again as the Minister in June 2020 when the negotiations were launched. It is great to be back at the Department to see the deal having been done, and I look forward to many similar deals as the Minister responsible for trade policy. I am delighted that the Leader of the House, who was recently in this role, was sitting next to me earlier and discussing the important part played by both herself and the present Minister of State, Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Anne-Marie Trevelyan), over the past year. I should also pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for South West Norfolk (Elizabeth Truss), formerly the Prime Minister, and the International Trade Secretary throughout a large part of this process.

We negotiated these ambitious deals with like-minded partners apace but with diligence, going further and faster than, for example, the European Union has been able to. The EU has yet to get a deal with Australia over the line, and only recently concluded talks with New Zealand, after four years. The deals represent a deepening of our relationship with close allies, fellow members of the Five Eyes intelligence partnership and like-minded democracies which share our beliefs in fairness, free enterprise, high standards and the rule of law.

Last year, our bilateral trading relationship with Australia was worth £14.4 billion, and exports to Australia supported more than 100,000 UK jobs in 2016. Exports to New Zealand supported more than 16,000 UK jobs in that year. These deals will strengthen those links, supporting increased volumes of trade, jobs and wages and bringing more choice for the UK consumer.

The Minister will be aware that the Australia deal in particular has created quite a lot of concern among Britain’s farmers. For example, Jilly Greed of the Suckler Beef Producers Association has said:

“This is an absolute betrayal…this is Christmas all over for Australia”.

The former chief economist of the National Farmers Union has said:

“Agriculture will bear a disproportionate cost. So desperate are the Government to do deals, they are preparing to slim down agriculture”.

How would the Minister respond to those allegations?

I am delighted to respond, because I have had extensive interaction with all the five nations’ NFUs during this process. We have delivered a deal that phases in the changes. The right hon. Gentleman might reference the fact that the trade deal we have with the European Union, which he supported, gives the EU comprehensive access from day one. This deal phases in access for Australia and New Zealand for a period of up to 15, and in some cases 20, years. I think that is worth consideration, as is the extensive interaction we have had with the NFU and with farmers. I have met MPs and their constituency farmers at some length and we will continue to interact with the NFU and the NFUs in all the nations to ensure that we are in full listening mode when it comes to Britain’s essential farming community.

Further to the intervention from the right hon. Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn), I have here a copy of “Y Tir”, the monthly publication of the Farmers Union of Wales, which states:

“There will always be winners and losers when it comes to negotiating liberalised free trade agreements, and it is clear from the UK Government’s impact assessments that UK agriculture will be one of the losers if these deals are ratified”.

Does the Minister acknowledge the widespread concern among our agricultural communities that the British Government are selling them down the river?

I disagree with that. I am just checking my records and I have had extensive interactions with representatives of NFU Cymru during the negotiation process. I met them on 19 May 2021—I met the Farmers Union of Wales on 19 May as well—and on 26 May, 16 June and 13 September. It was important for us to get the confidence of the farming community in Wales and I also did various Zoom calls at the time—this was during one of the lockdowns—with MPs and their constituent farmers. The protections we have in the deal are very considerable. For example, the tariff rate quotas carry on for 10 years in some cases, and there are product-specific measures to protect sensitive agriculture produce from years 10 to 15 as well as bilateral safeguard mechanisms. There are a lot of protections there.

I will give way in just a moment, but perhaps the hon. Gentleman will explain what his position might be and whether his party will ever support a single trade deal that has been proposed either by the European Union or by the UK Government. Will he tell us that?

It is not often that I get the opportunity to do so, and I am happy to say that when there is a good trade deal for Welsh farmers, I will be very happy to support it. Further to the Minister’s point about NFU Cymru, that union and the Farmers Union of Wales have both expressed concerns about the cumulative impact of the various trade deals. Has that featured in any assessments the Department has made, and if so, can he share with us what he makes of Welsh farmers’ concerns about this cumulative impact?

I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s support for trade deals and I look forward to him voting for one of them one day. In terms of the impact on Welsh farmers, I must point out some of the market access that we have recently gained—for example, Welsh lamb is now able to enter the US market for the first time in many decades due to the United States removing the small ruminants rule, and I was in Taiwan only last week are trying to negotiate access for Welsh lamb to the Taiwan market. When it comes to accumulation, he ought to think about the fact that there is tariff-free, quota-free access for the European Union for the UK at the moment. That has been the case from day one of the trade and co-operation agreement.

Surely one of the points we ought to be considering is the fact that about a third of the beef consumed in the UK is already imported. Some of it is imported from Brazil, where there are concerns about deforestation, and a big amount is imported from the EU, primarily from Ireland. We might not see fresh competition from Australian beef, but import substitution might be part of the equation.

The right hon. Gentleman makes a strong point. We are all in favour of competition, and of consumers being able to make their choice, but I would add that meat exports from Australia and New Zealand are much more likely to go to the far eastern markets. A big percentage of the exports from Australia and New Zealand currently go to those far eastern markets that, frankly, we would like to access by joining the CPTPP trade agreement. We want to have a piece of that action. He is right that it is more likely that exports from Australia and New Zealand will displace those from the EU, giving choice to consumers.

These are more than just deals with like-minded and long-standing partners; they are part of the UK’s new strategic approach.

Before we entered the common market, the Australia-New Zealand agricultural juggernaut centred on this country for its trade. As my right hon. Friend said, that trade is now going to 100 or more countries, so it has spread. Our farmers survived and did not complain before the common market, and that will continue.

My hon. Friend is an expert on the connections between the United Kingdom and the continent of Australasia. He makes a good point about restoring trading connections that existed prior to this country’s membership of the European Union. We should treat these two trade deals as an opportunity not a threat, which is a point he makes well.

These deals are a key part of our Indo-Pacific tilt. The Indo-Pacific region matters to the UK, as it is critical to our economy, our security and our global ambition to support open societies. Rapid economic growth in the Indo-Pacific region is shifting the world’s centre of economic gravity eastwards. In the first two decades of this century, the Indo-Pacific region accounted for 50% of global economic growth in real terms; by 2050 that is expected to be 56%. The Indo-Pacific is home to half the world’s people, and there are significant economic opportunities for the UK in trading with the region. These deals are just the start.

These two agreements are a significant step towards our accession to the CPTPP, membership of which will further open up 11 Pacific markets across four continents worth £9 trillion of GDP in 2021. Joining the CPTPP will put the UK at the heart of a dynamic group of growing nations. We negotiate deals that are tailored to the UK’s strengths, such as our world-class service industries that employ 82% of our workforce and account for 80% of our economy. These deals will unlock new markets, create jobs and drive the growth that the UK, like many other countries, needs right now. They will provide real outcomes for real businesses.

What does the Minister make of the International Trade Committee’s finding that more export opportunities and greater safeguards for the food industry could have been negotiated? How are the Government implementing the lessons learned for future deals?

I thank the International Trade Committee for its various reports on both deals, and I look forward to engaging with its Chair, the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Angus Brendan MacNeil), and indeed the whole Committee.

It can be said of any negotiated deal that something might have been better, as that is an inevitable consequence of negotiation. There is a bit of give and take. The safeguards for UK agriculture build in a very considerable length of time, of 15 or, in some cases, 20 years, for people to adjust. I contrast that with the European Union deal—the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier) voted to have no deal with the European Union—which gave instant access.

Today, I will explain to the House how these important deals will help firms in every part of the country to flourish and grow. First, these agreements will remove 100% of tariffs on all goods, most of which will come into effect as soon as the agreements are in force—that is particularly with reference to UK exports. They will reduce red tape on British goods sold to Australian and New Zealand markets, making our exports even more competitive. Our automotive sector is among the many UK industries that will reap the rewards. For example, McLaren says that these tariff reductions

“will support and facilitate customer and network growth across Australia in the coming years.”

Nissan says that removing the 5% duty on car exports will help further exports to Australian customers of the Leaf, Qashqai and Juke cars it makes at its Sunderland plant. The removal of tariffs of up to 10% on car parts and on some vehicles sold to New Zealand is good news for other vehicle manufacturers across the UK.

A range of other industries will also benefit. For example, Nairn’s, the Edinburgh-based oatcake manufacturer, says savings from removing 5% tariffs under our New Zealand deal will help offset the increased costs that have affected businesses following covid-19 and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The Food and Drink Federation believes the removal of a range of tariffs will help to give UK businesses significant growth opportunities and make them more competitive in the New Zealand market.

UK investors will benefit from more access than ever before to opportunities in Australia and New Zealand, with guaranteed rights to invest across the economy. We are maximising opportunities for British companies to invest and grow their businesses in Australia. It will be easier for UK businesses to expand into both Australia and New Zealand, because we have increased the screening thresholds in both deals, meaning that fewer UK investments will be subject to review.

We also secured outcomes that encourage further inward investment into the nations and regions across the UK. In 2020, the UK was the second most popular destination for Australian foreign direct investment, and Australia is a big global investor. In 2019, there were more than 2,000 Australian-owned local business units in the UK, employing more than 71,000 people, and in 2020 we were the fourth largest destination for foreign direct investment from New Zealand.

Our Australia and New Zealand trade deals will also give our service industries a competitive edge on data and digital. Some 80% of our economy is in services. Scotland’s financial services industry and engineering services firms in the west midlands will benefit, and new opportunities will be provided for Welsh fintech firms in Cardiff. Our Australia deal allows professionals in areas such as engineering, accountancy and architecture to get visas to work. The law firm Herbert Smith Freehills says that these measures will make it easier for its staff to work across the UK and Australia. We also have access to the £10 billion Government procurement market in Australia, putting our firms on an equal footing with Australian firms. Just last month, I visited Informed Solutions, which is headquartered in Altrincham, and its management told me how much they were looking forward to the ratification of the upcoming free trade agreements to assist their business as well.

We have world-leading digital chapters, opportunities in cyber-security trade and so on. We also have a small and medium-sized enterprises chapter, which is very important for helping these companies navigate a free trade agreement. My Department is working hard at spelling out our many advantages, to businesses large and small. The national chairman of the Federation of Small Businesses, Mike Cherry, has said that our trade deal with Australia was great news for many of its members, as the small business chapter will ensure that the needs of smaller businesses are fully catered for in the years to come. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Trade often likens trade agreements to new motorways: they are at their most useful when they are well used by cars. That is why my team is meeting companies around the country to explain how they can make full use of our deals. Of course, businesses that want to trade with Australia and New Zealand and need more personalised help can turn to our network of trade advisers.

I have reflected on the many economic advantages offered by our free trade agreements, but these deals are not just about commerce. They are also about creating deeper international partnerships that will benefit both our citizens and the wider world, as well as our wider strategic objectives.

We are discussing making sure that these deals are about not just economic benefits, but the social partnership and ensuring that workers’ hard-won rights are not undermined by doing a trade deal that could lead to a race to the bottom. Will the Minister explain therefore why the deals do not contain any commitment to the International Labour Organisation core conventions?

I thank the hon. Member for his intervention. I know that he takes a strong, keen and constant interest in these issues. Let me say to him that the UK’s commitment to human rights, workers’ rights and various social justices are not always best pursued through trade agreements; we do pursue them bilaterally as well. I do not believe that there are any widespread concerns in relation to Australia and New Zealand, but I am happy for him to write to me if he has concerns about workers’ rights in those two countries. However, it is not obvious to me how a trade deal will necessarily be the best way to pursue those objectives in any case.

Together our nations can use trade to address contemporary challenges such as economic degradation, health pandemics and threats to global security. Both of these deals support that endeavour, including the provisions that uphold high standards and foster co-operation on shared challenges. With world-leading chapters on trade and gender equality, the deals demonstrate our commitment to break down barriers that exist for women in trade, whether as workers, business owners or entrepreneurs.

The UK-Australia agreement contains an innovation chapter, which is the first of its kind in any FTA between two partners in the world. This will ensure that our trading relationship remains at the forefront of emerging technologies. I might just add that the Confederation of British Industry said that our deal with New Zealand puts us at the fore of the green trade revolution and showcases to the world that trade and climate change can go hand in hand.

The Minister talked earlier about allowing the British public the chance to purchase in a competitive environment, but competition requires information. If there is no adequate chapter in the Australia agreement about environmental standards and the use of coal, for example, can he tell the House how it is possible for an educated consumer to buy in the way that he suggests?

The hon. Member raises a very good point. The UK-Australia deal is the first Australia trade deal that has a dedicated chapter on the environment. I recommend that he looks at the deal to see what it does for the environment, which is something we take very seriously indeed. We did it in the run-up to COP, so it is very topical as well.

I will not give way, as I am about to finish.

The country’s departure from the European Union opened up new possibilities for us to enhance our relationships with the rest of the world. Our deals with Australia and New Zealand show that we are seizing this opportunity. These deals can increase annual trade between the UK and Australia and the UK and New Zealand by £12.1 billion.

I look forward to hearing the contributions from the official Opposition, who I think abstained on Second Reading of the Trade (Australia and New Zealand) Bill, and also from the Liberal Democrats and the SNP, which I think opposed the Bill on Second Reading.

Perhaps the former leader of the Liberal Democrats can explain why he was so opposed to the deal.

I am extremely grateful to the Minister for giving way to me, however he chooses to do so. We are very strongly in favour of free trade, but we also believe that free trade has to be fair. Let me take him back to his earlier comments about the strategic value of this. Does he understand that trade deals must have strategic value when it comes to protecting our ability to feed ourselves as a country? Does he understand why those of us who represent rural communities are deeply concerned about the imbalance that exists between farm standards on this side of the world and those in New Zealand and Australia on the other? We think that might undermine our ability to feed ourselves because it will put British farmers out of business.

I look forward to the hon. Member actually supporting one of these trade deals. I have already pointed out the safeguards that exist in both deals: the long transition period and the substantial tariff-rate quotas. I am talking about all of the protections and safeguards that are in those deals for British farmers—the non-regression clauses on animal welfare, for example, which will prevent Australia or any other country from seeking to gain a trade advantage if they were to weaken their animal welfare rules. I will be frank, though; I have seen no evidence that Australia will be looking to do that, but the deal does have protection for our farmers and our consumers.

Our free trade agreements reflect the needs of modern business and play to this country’s strengths. They will create deeper friendships between our citizens and they will begin a new era of free trade between our nations. In short, these are free trade agreements for the 21st century and I commend them to the House.

Today is a significant day, and I wish the Minister a happy birthday. What better present could the Secretary of State have given him than being absent and allowing him to open this debate in her place?

I welcome this general debate on the Australia and New Zealand trade deals. Yesterday, Remembrance Sunday, was a powerful reminder of our shared history and shared past sacrifice. The UK, Australia and New Zealand have deep enduring bonds, shared values and common goals. The Opposition support AUKUS; we recognise the key and central priorities that the UK, Australia and New Zealand share on the world stage, and we will continue to support the achievement of those goals.

I also put on record my desire to see a deepening of our trade links with our friends in Australia and New Zealand through trade agreements, and ever-closer relationships on all levels. I am especially pleased to say that both countries now have very fine Labour Governments in office.

Of course, we are having this debate after the deals have been signed, but they must now be honoured and worked with for the benefit of people here and of our friends in Australia and New Zealand. Specifically on negotiations, the high commissions of Australia and New Zealand have been remarkably helpful in briefing hon. Members across the House and briefing me as shadow Secretary of State, and I express my gratitude to them for all that they have done throughout the process.

To be clear, our debate today is not about the Opposition’s commitment to our deepening relationship with Australia and New Zealand. Rather, the question for this House is whether this Conservative Government secured the best possible deals on behalf of our constituents, and let us be frank: the best possible deals were not achieved.

The Australia deal is “one-sided”—not my words, but those of the current Prime Minister, who said so absolutely clearly over the summer. In fairness to him, we can see why he takes that view. The impact assessment for the Australia deal shows a £94 million hit to our farming, forestry and fishing sectors, and a £225 million hit to our semi-processed foods industry. On the New Zealand deal, the Government’s own impact assessment states that,

“part of the gains results from a reallocation of resources away from agriculture, forestry, and fishing”,

which will take a £48 million hit, while semi-processed foods will take a £97 million hit.

Ministers know the serious concerns about the agriculture elements of these two agreements and the precedents that they risk setting. We in the Opposition are very proud of our UK farmers and the standards of excellence they seek to uphold, and we believe that British produce can be a huge success in new markets, but we must also recognise the need for a level playing field for our farmers.

The Government claim that they are trying to mitigate the impact of the two deals, with tariff-free access being phased in. In the New Zealand deal there are tariff-rate quotas and product-specific safeguards for 15 years. Similarly, in the Australia deal the phasing-in period on beef and sheepmeat is of the same period, but the quotas that the Government have set for imports from Australia are far higher than the current levels.

We only need to see what other countries achieved in trade deals with Australia. When Japan negotiated a trade deal with Australia, it limited the tariff-free increase in the first year to 10% on the previous year. South Korea achieved something similar, limiting the increases to 7%. Yet this Government have negotiated a first-year tariff-free allowance with a 6,000% increase in the amount of beef the UK currently imports from Australia. On sheepmeat, it is a 67% increase. I have a simple question for the Government: why did they not achieve the same things that Japan and South Korea did, and why have our Ministers failed to ensure that the Australian agricultural corporations are held to the same high standards as our farmers?

It is good to see the right hon. Member for Camborne and Redruth (George Eustice) in his place. As I am sure he will recall, when he was Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, he said that he faced “challenges” in getting the former Prime Minister—it is quite confusing these days; I mean the most recent former Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for South West Norfolk (Elizabeth Truss)—and the International Trade Secretary to enshrine animal welfare in deals. It is no wonder that the National Farmers Union said that it saw

“almost nothing in the deal that will prevent an increase in imports of food produced well below the production standards required of UK farmers.”

It is perhaps no surprise that Australia’s former negotiator at the World Trade Organisation said:

“I don’t think we have ever done as well as this.”

They are called trade “negotiations” for a reason, and it is a shame that the Government failed to put forward the strongest possible case for the UK. At the very least, I ask Ministers to go away and work out what more they can do now to support our food producers in the face of these challenges.

Some farmers are very concerned about the procurement aspects of the deals, which will allow producers from Australia and New Zealand to compete for UK procurement deals. UK producers, however, are unable to compete in Australia and New Zealand, likely because of the economies of scale challenges.

The hon. Gentleman raises a useful point. Our farmers are seeking a level playing field. We believe in our farmers and we want them to be able to compete on the same basis.

We also see in the Australian deal a lack of success on tackling climate change. The former COP26 President, the right hon. Member for Reading West (Alok Sharma), told the House last December that the Australia deal would reaffirm

“both parties’ commitments to upholding our obligations under the Paris agreement, including limiting global warming to 1.5°.”—[Official Report, 1 December 2021; Vol. 704, c. 903.]

However, the explicit commitment to limiting global warming to 1.5° was not in the deal, despite the fact that the Minister had said that only a matter of days before it was signed. What went wrong in those final days? Was it perhaps that Ministers simply gave way for the sake of getting a completed deal?

The current Secretary of State for International Trade, the right hon. Member for Saffron Walden (Kemi Badenoch), was sadly not here to open the debate. When she was standing to be Conservative party leader, she branded the net zero climate target “unilateral economic disarmament”. I think it is fair to say that there are worries about her commitment to delivering the progress needed on climate change, given that she has expressed that view publicly. Not only does that view misjudge the economic imperative of action to tackle climate change, but it fails to recognise the huge opportunities that the transition to net zero could provide. The question must also be asked: how broken can a party be when dabbling with climate change denial is a way to drum up support from its members?

On labour standards and workers’ rights, the Government did not push as hard as they might have done, as my hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock) said in an earlier intervention. On the Australia deal, the TUC said that the

“agreement does not contain commitments to ILO core conventions and an obligation for both parties to ratify and respect those agreements”

and that it provides

“a much weaker commitment to just the ILO declaration.”

That is a mistake. We should not set a precedent for new trade agreements across the globe to sell short our workers here or elsewhere.

I accept my right hon. Friend’s point when it comes to dealing with some countries, but in the case of the deal with Australia, where there is a strong Labour Government committed to workers’ rights and trade union rights, and a strong trade union movement, are we not slightly making a mountain out of a molehill here?

I completely agree with my right hon. Friend about the Australian Government. Having met a number of representatives of the Australian Government, I know that their commitment to workers’ rights is second to none. It is a shame that we did not see a similar commitment from this Conservative party, frankly. Of course, the issue with the Australia deal is the precedent that it sets: other countries with lower workers’ standards than Australia will look at the standards in the deal and think that they should be the starting point in negotiations. A further issue is around geographical indicators, on the cross-party International Trade Committee said:

“The Government has failed to secure any substantive concessions on the protection of UK Geographical Indications in Australia”.

We have to ensure backing for our fantastic national producers and not let them be undermined.

Is it not also the case that this trade deal does not, for example, have an investor-state dispute settlement clause, because with comparable legal systems and comparable levels of development it is not necessary? Surely we do not need one template for all sorts of trade deals with all sorts of countries in very different circumstances.

I completely agree with my right hon. Friend that we do not need a single template, but we could do with a core trade policy and a core set of objectives from the Government.

I turn to the issue of scrutiny, because for those in this House who follow trade matters closely, it will not have gone without being noticed that this debate brings a distinct change of focus from Ministers at the Department for International Trade. Ministers—I would say they are new Ministers, but I think the Minister for Trade Policy, the right hon. Member for Chelsea and Fulham (Greg Hands), is competing with Frank Sinatra in the comeback stakes—will I am sure be aware of stinging rebukes from the cross-party International Trade Committee, which has regularly and strongly raised the need for better scrutiny structures around trade deals. It called in its recent report for

“the Government to accept specific recommendations to enable better scrutiny of any FTAs”.

That is very much a cross-party matter—the hon. Member for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall) has regularly made the case to me as the shadow Secretary of State as well as to the various Secretaries of State and I hope that those criticisms and recommendations are having an impact. I hope that those recommendations, which come from right across the House, are being heard. Perhaps that is why we have at least ended up with today’s debate, although the irony is not lost on us that parliamentary time has now been allocated to agreements that were long ago signed and agreed.

My right hon. Friend is being generous in giving way. On this point about scrutiny, he is a Welsh MP like me, so does he agree that these deals have a huge impact on, for example, the Welsh farming industry? Does he share my regret that the Government have not published an impact assessment for the devolved nations, and that they have ridden roughshod over any conventions on consulting properly with the devolved nations, whose Governments are such important stakeholders in this process?

I entirely share my hon. Friend’s concern about the lack of specific impact assessments. I also share his disappointment that there is not a specific set of structures in place where the devolved Administrations can make their voices heard at a far earlier stage in the process. That would be extremely helpful.

I am sorry, but that is just not a complete representation of what actually goes on. The ministerial forum for trade, which I set up—I have not yet chaired a meeting of it since returning to the Department, but it will be meeting soon—allows all three devolved nations to meet me to discuss forthcoming trade deals, forthcoming negotiations and trade policy overall. That is exactly what it is in place for.