House of Commons
Wednesday 16 November 2022
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
Scottish National party Members may want independence, but they certainly do not have independence of thought. The UK Government are providing the Scottish Government with a record block grant settlement of £41 billion a year over the next three years. That is the highest spending review settlement since the advent of devolution, and I hope that the SNP will join me in welcoming that, although I will not hold my breath.
So much for “Jackanory”. According to the House of Commons Library, the Scottish block grant was cut by 4.1% this financial year and is set to be cut by a further 6% in the next financial year. That is a two-year real-terms cut of nearly £5 billion. The UK Government repeatedly claim to be increasing the funding for Scotland, but that is clearly not true, so why do the Minister, the Secretary of State and his Government refuse to admit that they have cut the block grant and plan to cut it even further, and when will the Secretary of State for Scotland stand up for Scotland?
This Secretary of State is standing up for Scotland. The £41 billion settlement over three years was a record figure; it is the highest figure since devolution began and the first grant was agreed in 1999. I am standing up for Scotland, but I recognise that the Scottish Government have tough choices to make. Inflation is affecting the whole world and they will have to make responsible choices. I do not believe that it is responsible for them to cut their public services by £1.25 billion.
Independent research shows that the Scottish block grant will be cut by £5 billion in real terms over the next two years. What if the Scottish Government have £5 billion less to spend and our councils have less to spend, despite cost and demand going up? Let us consider Glasgow City Council. The city treasurer, Councillor Ricky Bell, said today:
“The consequences of what looks likely to be passed on to Scotland’s public services will be catastrophic and communities, already reeling from 12 years of Tory austerity, are being pushed to the brink of destruction.”
What can he do, other than support independence, to stop those communities being destroyed?
Supporting independence will certainly not help the finances of Scotland; many independent economists have made that observation. As I said, it is absolutely a choice that the Scottish Government have to make about how they spend their budget. If they need to do so, they have tax-raising and borrowing powers. That is a decision for them, but equally, they have to choose what their priorities are. I would say that keeping £20 million in the budget for an independence referendum that no one wants is not responsible.
Thanks to Brexit, the UK has the highest inflation in the G7, which has caused an additional £1.7 billion to be knocked off the Scottish budget due to pressures such as energy increases, wage increases and the cost of living. Instead of giving a robotic answer about the biggest budget being awarded—the Secretary of State wrongly stated that Scotland has borrowing powers, which we do not for our revenue budget—will he say what discussions he has had with the Chancellor about additional revenues coming to Scotland to offset the inflationary pressures?
I must set the record straight: borrowing is available for both capital and revenue, and there is an emergency figure, as was available during covid. The hon. Gentleman raises a point about inflation. Rising energy costs and rising food prices, as a result of Putin’s illegal war in Ukraine, have affected continental Europe and the United Kingdom. This is a global issue. The Bank of England is taking steps, and the Chancellor’s statement will take further steps tomorrow, to stabilise the markets. What we are very clear about is that we have put in place support for people through the household support scheme, the energy price cap and the £37 billion that the Chancellor announced earlier this year. As we have always said, we will protect the most vulnerable in society.
Public sector pay increases are a sensible way for a Government to help their citizens with a cost of living crisis, but the UK Government are denying devolved Governments the ability to do that by cutting devolved budgets. Would a better use of public money not be to shut down the Scotland Office propaganda unit and transfer its budget to the Scottish Government to help fund pay rises for tens of thousands of people in Scotland?
The hon. Lady and I have this discussion on many occasions, because this is one of the points that she is keenest to make in the Select Committee on Scottish Affairs. She knows the answer, which is that the Scotland Office’s spending on its communications pales into insignificance in comparison with the Scottish Government’s.
The block grant for Scotland covers many of the Government spending priorities that affect the people of Scotland from day to day, such as health, education and local government. However, I am afraid that there are many areas it does not cover, from pensions and most social security to consular services for Scots imprisoned abroad, such as my constituent Jagtar Singh Johal of Dumbarton, who has been arbitrarily detained for five years by the Government of India. We know that the Prime Minister met the Prime Minister of India at the G20 summit. Does the Secretary of State know whether they discussed Jagtar’s detention? If he, as Scotland’s man in the British Cabinet, does not know, why not?
Anti-poverty groups such as the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and the Child Poverty Action Group have praised the Scottish Government for expanding and trebling the Scottish child payment—a watershed moment for tackling poverty in Scotland. Families in Scotland now get £100 every four weeks for each child up to the age of 16, which will have a significant impact. Instead of trying to hamstring such positive anti-poverty activity by cutting the block grant, will the Secretary of State increase spending for Scotland so that we can put it into the pockets of needy families hammered by Tory austerity?
There has been an increase. As a Barnett consequential, there is an extra £82 million coming to Scotland this year through the household support fund. As a result of the rates cut in England, there is an extra £296 million coming this year. We have devolved some of those benefits, so it is the Scottish Government’s choice how they spend that money.
Yesterday, Nicola Sturgeon wrote in the Financial Times that the Scottish Government’s budget this year has
“not received a single additional penny from the UK government.”
The Secretary of State will know that that is completely false. It is another example of this fibbing First Minister, who has recently been forced to correct the official record in the Scottish Parliament for false claims made there. Does the Secretary of State agree that that is a misleading and incorrect quote from Scotland’s First Minister? Will he outline what additional funding has gone from the UK Government to the Scottish Government this year?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. As I have just said to the hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss), the extra funding from Barnett consequentials that is going to the Scottish Government this year from the household support fund is £82 million; it was £41 million last year. The council tax rebate in England has generated another £296 million that is going to the Scottish Government.
The Secretary of State, or should I say Lord Jack-elect, was blindingly loyal to the former former Prime Minister, the former former Chancellor, the former Prime Minister and the former Chancellor over the summer. They crashed the British economy on the back of handing out tax cuts to the richest. The economic crisis was created around the Cabinet table in Downing Street by the people the Secretary of State sits beside, and it will be paid for by working Scots. What price does the Secretary of State think Scottish public services and Scottish working people should pay for his Government crashing the economy?
First, as I have said in previous answers, we are facing a global economic downturn as a result of Russia’s illegal war in Ukraine. On the hon. Gentleman’s final point, the Prime Minister has made it very clear that he wants to protect the most vulnerable in society.
The hon. Gentleman refers to my previous roles in Cabinet. I do acknowledge that mistakes were made. The Chancellor took immediate steps to restore market stability when he came into his new role.
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will agree about one other thing. Along with leading economists, we can all agree that the biggest risk to the economy of Scotland is the reckless—[Interruption]—I was just waiting for the temperature to rise—the reckless plans of the Scottish Government.
It is the reckless plans of both Governments that pose a danger to Scotland, but the point is—and this is what the Secretary of State denies—that it is about not just the last 12 weeks but the decisions of the last 12 years.
A few weeks ago, a constituent came to my surgery in tears. My constituent’s 1.79% five-year fixed-rate mortgage rate was expiring, and the remortgage rate was nearly 6%. That familiar story, which means going from a stable income and affordable bills to the crushing anxiety of being unable to pay for the roof over the heads of one’s family, was totally avoidable, but this Government and Secretary of State chose to ignore the experts, ignore their own officials and ignore independent bodies such as the Office for Budget Responsibility, and the result has been a Tory premium on everyone’s mortgage. Does the Secretary of State think that he and his new Prime Minister should stop refusing to say sorry and give the public an apology, which is the least that they deserve?
It is very concerning to hear the Secretary of State dispute the figures from the House of Commons Library. Let me emphasise that Scotland’s block grant is being cut, our services are being eroded by Tory cuts, the economy is being undermined by Brexit and Scotland, as part of the UK, is facing the deepest recession in Europe. This Government’s response is more austerity, despite Scotland’s rejecting that premise for more than 50 years. Will the Secretary of State and the rest of his disaster capitalist Tories get out of Scotland’s way, stop denying democracy, and allow Scotland to choose its own path out of this nightmare?
I would not be here if we had not accepted the outcome of that referendum, and I do not need any lectures on democracy from a soon-to-be-unelected baron. No matter how much this Government deny it, Scotland’s budget is being cut. Let us put independence aside for a moment. Does the Secretary of State think that it is the Tories who are causing Scotland’s demise and short-changing us, or is it this Union institutionally?
As I have said before, the Union brings a Union dividend of £2,000 per man, woman and child to Scotland. It deals with last year’s deficit of—according to the Scottish Government’s own figures—£23 billion. It is a Union that delivers jobs. As we announced yesterday, it is delivering 4,000 jobs on the Clyde for the building of five type 26 frigates. This is a Union that serves the whole United Kingdom well. At different times, different parts of the United Kingdom pull their weight in different ways, but we are all much stronger together.
Public Expenditure and the Cost of Living
Without pre-empting the details of the Chancellor’s statement tomorrow, I can say that the Government’s position is that, while tough decisions will be necessary, we remain committed to targeting support at the most vulnerable people in our communities across this land. As well as benefiting from a record block grant settlement to the Scottish Government, the people of Scotland benefit from higher levels of public spending, as is demonstrated through the Union dividend of about £2,000 a year per person.
The number of food bank parcels handed out by the Trussell Trust has doubled since 2015 as a direct consequence of austerity. Can the Minister assure the House that there will be no further return to austerity so that we can tackle the root causes of food poverty and the cost of living?
I hope that, as the Member of Parliament representing Govan, the hon. Member will join me in welcoming the £4.2 billion defence investment in Glasgow’s shipyards for the building of those five Type 26 frigates, which will support hundreds of jobs in his constituency.
The UK Government will always act to help the most vulnerable people in our society. The Government are helping to protect households from significant energy bill rises through the energy price guarantee, holding down inflation, and that is on top of the targeted support for the most vulnerable, including £1,200 in direct payments this year. As for other measures, I encourage the hon. Member to wait for the Chancellor’s statement tomorrow.
Last week I hosted a cost of living event in Hamilton, and every day I am inundated by people contacting me about the potential loss of the triple lock on pensions. My constituents were just getting by before the cost of living crisis, but they are now avoiding supermarkets, struggling to pay heating bills and fearing starvation and hypothermia this coming winter. Will the Minister act now to prevent pensioner poverty and call on the Chancellor today to guarantee the triple lock on pensions and to ensure that they rise in line with inflation?
As I said earlier, the focus of this Government is on supporting the most vulnerable people in our society, and we will always take this responsibility seriously. The Government will act, as they always do, to take the action necessary to support the constituents that the hon. Lady has mentioned. She mentioned the potential effect of Government spending decisions. I will gladly tell her about the very real effect that the SNP Government’s spending decisions are having in Scotland: they have wasted hundreds of millions of pounds on ferries that do not float; a fortune has been wasted on malicious prosecutions at Rangers football club; their mistakes have cost hundreds of millions of pounds to fix Edinburgh Sick Kids and the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Glasgow; and, worst of all, they have spent millions of pounds pushing for another independence referendum that does not match with the priorities of the people of Scotland.
Trust in the UK Government
There are no current plans to do so. However, trust is important, and I hope that Members opposite share my concerns at the use of inaccurate or misleading statistics covering energy and health by the SNP Government in Edinburgh.
This year’s Scottish social attitudes survey has revealed that 66% of people trust the Scottish Government to work in Scotland’s interests just about always or most of the time, which compares with only 22% who trust the UK Government to behave in the same way and 46% who consider that they can never trust the UK Government to work in Scotland’s best interests. That is a quite remarkable set of findings. Does the Minister have any useful insights into why the people of Scotland might feel this way?
The Prime Minister has been clear about the need to rebuild trust and to put the public above politics. We will act with integrity, professionalism and accountability at every level of Government. The hon. Member refers to the social attitudes survey, but I would suggest that the figures from the survey that should cause that the SNP most concern are the falling levels of satisfaction with the SNP-run NHS in Scotland. Two thirds of Scots, 66%, believe that the standard of the NHS has fallen in the past 12 months. The priority of the SNP should be the NHS, not another independence referendum.
Allowing former Prime Ministers to fill the Lords with their friends, funnelling public funds to cronies during a pandemic, crashing the economy and debasing and embarrassing this Parliament by allowing a sitting Member to appear in a reality TV programme—is it any wonder that the people of Scotland do not trust the Conservative Government? Does the Minister think that trust in the Government is low because of this, or is it distrust in the Westminster system itself?
I struggled to hear parts of that question, but the people of Scotland can always trust this United Kingdom Government to be upfront and honest about the challenges that we face, unlike the SNP Government in Edinburgh, who refuse to come clean about the huge economic impact of their plans to divide Scotland with another referendum.
I say to the Minister that his Government will never regain the trust of the Scottish people as long as they do not respect the democracy of our Parliament. [Interruption.] The Secretary of State might have his bolthole in the House of Lords, but the Minister and all his other Scottish colleagues will have to face the wrath of the electorate, so what representations has the soon-to-be Baron Jack made on behalf of him and his colleagues to make sure that they are safely ensconced in the House of Lords? [Interruption.]
I struggled to hear the end of the hon. Gentleman’s question.
We remain committed to Scotland remaining at the heart of the United Kingdom. We respect the result of the 2014 referendum, and I encourage the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) and his colleagues to do the same.
When the Prime Minister was anointed, he stood in Downing Street and said he would put integrity at the heart of his Government. That was just three short weeks ago. Since then, one of his key Ministers has had to resign for threatening to slit someone’s throat; his Home Secretary is clinging on to her job—the one she resigned from a week before being reappointed; his predecessor has appointed his old mates and cronies to the House of Lords; and the old but newly appointed Deputy Prime Minister has been outed as a bully. Does the Under-Secretary think that speaks to integrity at the heart of Government?
The Prime Minister has been crystal clear about the need to put integrity at the heart of his Government. It is also certain that the people of Scotland can trust this United Kingdom Government to deliver for Scotland, whether through the covid-19 vaccines or the record £41 billion budget for the Scottish Government. This is what really matters to my constituents in the Scottish Borders and to people across Scotland.
Floating Offshore Wind
The Government recognise the important role that infrastructure plays in supporting the commercialisation of floating offshore wind at scale across the United Kingdom, including in the Celtic sea, and are committed to building capacity in infrastructure and supply chains to support the growing offshore wind industry.
My hon. Friend will no doubt be aware of the Kincardine floating wind farm off the coast of Aberdeen, but he might not be aware that the fabrication of its turbines took place in Rotterdam because UK ports do not have the capacity to do that work. Does he agree that, to realise the potential of this industry, investment in port infrastructure is crucial and that the lion’s share of this investment should be in the Celtic sea?
I commend my hon. Friend for raising this issue, as it is an important part of the Scottish economy. Scotland is a world leader in floating offshore wind, and it is home to both the world’s first and the world’s largest commercial floating wind projects—Hywind Scotland and Kincardine. The ScotWind leasing round, announced earlier this year, includes nearly 18 GW of potential floating wind capacity, underlining the scale of the opportunity.
What discussions has the Secretary of State had with his colleagues and with his Scottish Government counterparts about the number of jobs created in Scotland through greater investment in offshore wind?
Energy Bills: Support for Households in Scotland
The UK Government’s energy price guarantee will reduce the unit cost of electricity and gas so that typical households across Great Britain, including in Scotland, save around £700 this winter, reducing bills by roughly a third.
When people face energy price increases, it is important that they have confidence that the bills they receive from their provider are correct. After an intervention from my office, we have sorted out my constituent’s bill, but she has now had another invoice. This seems to be a growing trend, as I am now dealing with seven cases. What discussions has the Scotland Office had with Ofgem? With rising prices and higher energy costs in Scotland, it is critical that we address this issue.
Scotland’s Role in UK Defence and Security
I have regular discussions with the Ministry of Defence on matters relating to defence in Scotland. This includes the crucial role of the armed forces presence at our strategic bases in Scotland. RAF Lossiemouth and His Majesty’s Naval Base Clyde are vital to maintaining the security of the United Kingdom and our NATO allies. The defence industry is also vital to Scotland’s economy, and I am delighted to see that the new Type 26 frigates, costing £4.2 billion, will be built by BAE Systems on the Clyde in Govan. This will secure thousands of Scottish jobs for years to come.
The British armed forces are the pride of our nation and represent every corner of our beloved United Kingdom. I am proud that our nuclear deterrent is based at Faslane, with our brave submariners working to keep Britain safe. It is highly regrettable, however, that some would strip us of our nuclear deterrent in Scotland. In an ever more dangerous world, and facing threats from Russia and China, what assurances can my right hon. Friend give me that our base on the Clyde and all other military bases in Scotland are not going anywhere?
The Prime Minister was asked—
I have been asked to respond on behalf of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, who is attending the G20 leaders’ summit in Bali.
After the missile strike in Poland yesterday, we reaffirm our solidarity with Poland, we express our condolences to the victims and we are working with our allies to determine precisely what happened. The Foreign Secretary will be making a statement shortly.
I begin by associating myself with the Deputy Prime Minister’s comments. I am sure the whole House will want to reaffirm our complete support for Ukraine and for Poland in the face of Russian aggression.
When he got the job, on his first day, the Prime Minister promised “integrity, professionalism and accountability”. I assume that the Deputy Prime Minister agrees with that promise and would expect all Ministers to follow such principles. Therefore, does he also agree that the Prime Minister should ensure, in line with his promise, that no Minister who has a complaint of bullying upheld against them should continue to serve in his Government?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his shared solidarity on the issue in Poland. He is right to quote what the Prime Minister said, and I take it as an article of personal faith that we behave with absolute integrity and accountability. I am confident that I have behaved professionally throughout, but immediately on hearing that two complaints had been made—I believe they were made yesterday; I was notified this morning—I asked the Prime Minister to set up an independent investigation, and of course I will comply with it fully.
I thank my hon. Friend. At this important time of year for the Sikh community and the Sikh faith, I join her in what she has said. The Sikh community make an outstanding contribution in her constituency, with the Midland Langar Seva Society and the Guru Har Rai Gurdwara, but they also make an amazing contribution to the whole country, and we are grateful for it.
I join the Deputy Prime Minister in his remarks regarding the Sikh community and, most importantly, the incident in Poland last night. I know that the whole House stands united in our support for the Ukrainian people and sends condolences for the tragic loss of life. Britain has an unshakeable commitment to NATO and our allies, including Poland. The Government have rightly requested that we establish the facts and avoid unhelpful speculation, so I understand that the Deputy Prime Minister might not be able to go further today, but does he agree that, last night’s events aside, the fact that Russia is launching missile attacks on Ukrainian civilian infrastructure while world leaders meet shows the utter contempt that Putin has for international order?
I thank the right hon. Lady. I entirely agree with what she said. President Putin started this war, and whatever determination is made in relation to the events yesterday, they result whether directly or indirectly from the unlawful aggression perpetrated by the Russian Government. That is why the Prime Minister is out at the G20 rallying support, making sure that we wean ourselves off energy dependence on Russia, and making sure that our energy supply is from other parts of the world. I agree 100% with what the right hon. Lady said.
It is right that we condemn Putin in the strongest terms. The G20 is also an opportunity to work together to tackle the economic challenges that we all face, yet, as our international allies race to crack down on multinationals using tax havens to stash profits abroad, this Government are dragging their feet to protect their profits. We have a Budget tomorrow, and it has been briefed that tough choices will be impacting families across Britain. Does the Deputy Prime Minister accept that every pound hidden in tax havens is a pound lost from the pockets of working families?
We want people to come to this country to create the jobs and to generate the tax revenue—whether that is through non-dom status, which, given the changes that we have made, is stricter under this Government than under the last Labour Government; or whether it is the Prime Minister’s approach to big-tech companies, where he has led the charge with the G7 presidency in making sure that there is an international approach, delivering global minimum corporate tax rules. We have lowered the tax gap—the difference between the tax owed and the tax raised—to its lowest level, certainly lower than under the last Labour Government, and we will continue to do so.
I notice that non-dom status has not been abolished, Mr Speaker. The Conservatives would have us all believe that the economic problems are out of their hands, when the truth is that it is working people paying the price for their choices. They have chosen to protect corporate profits and not household incomes. There are 38 countries in the OECD’s two-year growth league table. Where does the UK rank in that table?
The right hon. Lady will know that, on the latest data, unemployment remains at a 50-year low. [Interruption.] The shadow Chancellor says that it has gone up. It is half the level left by the last Labour Government. When it comes to GDP, she will know that the IMF has said that we will have the strongest growth in the G7.
I think the economic situation that families face speaks for itself. I will answer the question for the Deputy Prime Minister. The answer is 38th out of 38 on growth. If there were a World cup for growth, we would not even qualify. Working people are paying the price for 12 years of Tory failure—the wrong choices by the wrong people.
After days of dodging and denial, this morning, the Deputy Prime Minister finally acknowledged formal complaints about his misconduct, but his letter contains no hint of admission or apology. This is Anti-Bullying Week. Will he apologise?
On the economic challenges, which are global and caused by covid and the war in Ukraine, we have got a plan to grip inflation, balance the books and drive economic growth. If we listened to the right hon. Lady, debt would go up, unemployment would go up and working Britons would pay the price.
The right hon. Lady asked about the complaints. I received notification this morning and I immediately asked the Prime Minister to set up an independent inquiry into them. I am confident that I behaved professionally throughout, but of course I will engage thoroughly, and I look forward, may I say, to transparently addressing any claims that have been made.
Let me get this straight: the Deputy Prime Minister has had to demand an investigation into himself because the Prime Minister is too weak to get a grip. We have a Prime Minister, who has been in office less than a month, with a disgraced Cabinet Minister who resigned with his good wishes; the Home Secretary, who breached the ministerial code and risked national security, still clings on; and now the Prime Minister defends his deputy, whose behaviour has been described as “abrasive”, “controlling” and “demeaning”, with junior staff too scared to even enter his office. And that is without mentioning the flying tomatoes. The Deputy Prime Minister knows that his behaviour was unacceptable, so what is he still doing here?
I am here, and happy to address any specific points the right hon. Lady wishes to make. [Hon. Members: “Flying tomatoes?”] That never happened. I will thoroughly rebut and refute any of the claims that have been made. She has not, in fact, put a specific point to me. If she wishes to do so—and this is her opportunity—I would be very glad to address it. [Interruption.]
Maybe the Deputy Prime Minister just does not think there is a problem, or maybe he is suggesting that civil servants are liars. Now he is reportedly banned from meeting junior staff without supervision, while we await an inquiry that the Prime Minister has not even instigated from a watchdog that he has not even appointed. In the Prime Minister’s letter, he did not say how and when this will be investigated, or by who—no ethics, no integrity and no mandate. And still no ethics adviser. When will the Government appoint an independent ethics adviser and drain the swamp?
The recruitment of the new ethics adviser is already under way and taking place at pace.
There is a reason that the right hon. Lady has come to the Dispatch Box with her usual mix of bluster and mud-slinging: it is because Labour does not have a plan. We are helping people into work; she is in hock to the unions. We are protecting our borders; she voted against every single measure to control illegal immigration to this country. We are delivering cleaner growth and energy security; she wants to send billions in reparation payments abroad. The British people want a Government who can deal with the real challenges, and Labour Members are not up to it.
I thank my hon. Friend, and congratulate her and Hope House Children’s Hospice on the amazing work they do. I have been working very closely with Shooting Star Children’s Hospices, a similar organisation in my constituency. If my hon. Friend ever gets bored of the trains, I should say that I jumped out of an aeroplane at 15,000 feet to raise money for Shooting Star, and she would find it a thoroughly enjoyable experience.
I associate myself and my colleagues with the remarks made about the immense contribution of our Sikh communities.
SNP Members extend our full support and condolences this morning to Poland, following the death of two civilians last night. While a full investigation is ongoing, we reiterate our calls for Russia to end its brutal war of aggression against Ukraine.
Yesterday, the Prime Minister was asked six different times to apologise for the disaster of the Tory mini-Budget and the financial crisis it caused, and all six times, he refused to say sorry. This morning, people are waking up to the news that this Christmas, they will be hit with the worst inflation in 41 years, so will the Deputy Prime Minister stand up today and do what his boss would not? Will he say sorry?
May I thank the hon. Lady for what she said about both Poland and the importance of our solidarity with the international community against the appalling illegal invasion by Russia of Ukraine?
Inflation is clearly a problem. As Chancellor and now as Prime Minister, my right hon. Friend has for months been making clear that it is the No. 1 economic challenge we face. We have a plan to grip inflation, to balance the books and to drive economic growth. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor will make the autumn statement tomorrow, setting out our plan to take the Scottish people, and everyone across the United Kingdom, through these challenges.
If the Government cannot even say sorry for the mess that they have made, what hope do we have of them fixing it? Let us be clear: tomorrow’s Budget is imposing austerity 2.0 on all our constituents. That is the political choice that the Tories are making. But there are always different and better choices. Only this week, the Scottish child payment rose to £25 a week—a 150% increase in eight months—and it will help 400,000 children. If the Tories will not say sorry for the mess that they have made, will they at least make the right choice for once? Will the right hon. Gentleman’s Government join the fight against child poverty tomorrow, follow the lead of the Scottish Government and match the Scottish child payment?
The hon. Lady will know that we are facing challenges that are faced all around the world, because of covid and the war in Ukraine. We have seen rising inflation in Germany, the eurozone and the US. The reality is that this Prime Minister and this Chancellor have a plan—more detail will be set out in the autumn statement—but of course, the UK Government will continue to work collaboratively with the Scottish Government to safeguard and protect the most vulnerable right across the United Kingdom. I think that is what the Scottish people expect.
I thank my hon. Friend for her campaigning on this. Yes, we will of course continue to monitor the condition of Belper Mills and the planning applications. The best I can say is that we strongly encourage all the local bodies—whether it is the council or the applicant—to continue to work together because, above all, her constituents will want to continue to celebrate the proud and rich tradition represented by Belper.
I am sure that the Deputy Prime Minister will join me in welcoming the comments made yesterday by the Foreign Secretary to the European Scrutiny Committee—that securing Northern Ireland’s place within the Union will be the priority of the Government in the negotiations with the European Union on the Northern Ireland Protocol. One of the benefits of the Union is the support that the Government of the United Kingdom are providing to households and businesses across the entire country to tackle the cost of living crisis. Will the Deputy Prime Minister assure me that the £400 energy support payment that is due to be made to households in Northern Ireland will be announced as soon as possible?
I thank the right hon. Gentleman. What he said about securing Northern Ireland’s place within the constitutional and economic integrity of the UK is absolutely vital. The Prime Minister has been very clear on that, as has the Foreign Secretary. Of course, the Chancellor will say more tomorrow on the economic measures and, in particular, on the fiscal measures that the right hon. Gentleman referred to.
I totally agree that we need to strain every sinew to stop this appalling trade in misery. There is no silver bullet, although I think the agreement the Home Secretary made with her French opposite number will help, and we are embedding UK officials with their French counterparts for the first time. My right hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) is right to say that the Bill of Rights can also help, not least in preventing interim orders from the Strasbourg Court from being recognised in UK courts. On ID cards, we already have e-visas for people coming to visit and live in the UK, and they act as digital evidence of a person’s immigration status. What is clear, however, is that we will have to do all these things in the teeth of opposition from Labour Front Benchers.
We are very sympathetic to the challenges that all our schools face. More will be said about specific measures tomorrow, but the hon. Lady should stand assured that we are the top spenders as a percentage of GDP on primary and secondary education in the G7, and that standards, which matter to pupils and parents the most, have increased, with the proportion of schools rated good or outstanding up from 68% in 2010 to 87% today.
My hon. Friend is a fantastic champion for Torbay. The Chancellor will make a statement tomorrow and I cannot speculate on the spending decisions, but my hon. Friend will have noticed already the tourism recovery plan, which will help recovery from the pandemic and is also part of the wider levelling-up agenda.
As a former Housing Minister, I know how important these issues are. I can tell the hon. Lady that the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities is looking very carefully at the situation of renters and landlords, and legislation is to be brought forward shortly.
My constituent Mikey Akers, who has verbal dyspraxia, said a few weeks ago:
“I am not ashamed of my disability, I am ashamed of the people who judge me without knowledge or understanding”.
According to the Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists and the Dyspraxia Foundation, 5% of children are affected by speech and communication needs and more needs to be done to raise awareness in society. Will my right hon. Friend agree to convene a meeting with the Prime Minister to raise awareness about verbal dyspraxia, so that inspirational people like Mikey are never again left without a voice?
I thank my hon. Friend for being a doughty champion and highlighting Mikey’s campaign. All children and young people should receive the support they need to make the very best of all their talents and potential. He will know that in March we published a Green Paper covering a range of these issues, and I will certainly make sure that he gets a meeting with the relevant Minister.
All our constituents want to see an end to the dangerous and illegal channel crossings. One of the best ways to do that is to make sure that services are delivered in the first safe place to which refugees flee. In that context, will the Deputy Prime Minister, as a former Foreign Secretary and Development Minister, commit to backing the work of Education Cannot Wait, which delivers education in refugee camps?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right about the brilliant work that Education Cannot Wait does. She will know the importance of the campaign for girls’ education under both the previous Prime Minister and the current Prime Minister. We will certainly look at what more we can do to support that brilliant work, particularly for children growing up in refugee camps.
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities is looking at all such matters. He will have heard what the hon. Lady has said and, although I will not prejudice what further measures he is going to bring forward, I will ask him to write to her to address her specific proposals.
I wonder whether my right hon. Friend has noticed that the people who are currently criticising him—[Hon. Members: “Give him a job.”] No, thank you. The people who are currently criticising him have a record of bullying that is second to none. A Labour Member of Parliament left Parliament because of antisemitic bullying; a distinguished BBC journalist needed bodyguards at Labour party conferences; and a current right hon. Labour Member was suspended from the service of this House for bullying. Does my right hon. Friend think, as I do, that this is at the very least hypercritical, and may be a stronger word that is not necessarily parliamentary?
I thank the hon. Lady, who has been a consistent champion on this issue, for which I recognise and pay tribute to her. My understanding is that the information is available to veterans and their families, who may request details of their service and medical records, but if the hon. Lady would like to write to me, I will make sure that she gets an adequate answer on her more specific point.
I rise not to perpetuate partisanship nor parrot party lines, but merely to amplify the sentiments of the hon. Member for Salford and Eccles (Rebecca Long Bailey). The nuclear test veterans—those brave servicemen who did so much so long ago to ensure our safety—were recognised by former Prime Minister David Cameron and, in a meeting with the hon. Lady and me, by the former Prime Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Boris Johnson). Will the Deputy Prime Minister and our new Prime Minister recognise them too, not only by doing what the hon. Lady has asked for but by giving them the service medal that they so richly deserve and that we owe them?
My right hon. friend is absolutely right. We should forever be grateful to all those service personnel who participated in the British nuclear testing programme. I can reassure him that we have asked officials to look again at recognition with medals. Any recommendations will be announced in the usual way.
If migrants who crossed the channel from France illegally were immediately returned to France, it would stop illegal migration to this country, break the economic model of the people smugglers and, perhaps more importantly, stop thousands of people descending on northern French cities, which would benefit the French. When the Prime Minister spoke to the French President, was a returns policy discussed? If so, what was the President’s response?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise this issue. I cannot tell him the precise read-out from the meeting—I have not seen it yet—but I can tell him that the Home Secretary’s deal and agreement with her French opposite number means a 40% increase in officers patrolling beaches in northern France; UK officers embedded with their French counterparts for the first time; investment in port security infrastructure; more technology; and more wider European co-operation. We have taken all those measures in the teeth of the opposition from the Labour Front Bench, who have opposed every single measure that we have taken to stop illegal immigration, including things where I would have thought there would be cross-party consensus, such as life sentences for traffickers who play on human misery.
It is not a matter of blaming anyone; it is a matter of a team effort and shared endeavour, working with the Scottish Government, to make sure that we get a grip on inflation, which is the No. 1 priority. It has to be said that if the hon. Lady takes the position that we agree with inflation-busting pay rises—as difficult as these decisions are—we will only see inflation stay for longer. That will hurt the most vulnerable in our communities, whether in Scotland or across the rest of the UK.
Now then. We have a brilliant Home Secretary but the Deputy Prime Minister will be aware of the wicked and vicious bullying campaign led by the Opposition over the last four weeks or so to get her sacked. Can he reassure me and the people of Ashfield that the Home Secretary will be given all the tools that she needs to solve the migrant crisis and keep the bully boys out of No. 10?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We fully support the Home Secretary and the important measures she has taken, whether on the Rwanda scheme, implementing the Nationality and Borders Act 2022, or the new deal with France to make sure that we collaborate with our international partners on a shared issue. He can also rest assured that that will be opposed tooth and nail by the Labour party.
I thank the hon. Lady. She will know that we have extended the eligibility of free school meals to 1.9 million pupils. On top of that, there is the £200 million holiday activities and food programme and the £1,200 of direct payments to the most vulnerable. I gently say to her that we also need to keep an eye on the macroeconomic picture. The No. 1 priority is to get inflation down, and we will not be able to do that if we follow the Opposition’s plans.
Given that we have the highest burden of taxation in living memory, it is clear that the Government’s financial difficulties are caused by overspending, not due to under-taxing. Does the Deputy Prime Minister therefore agree that if the Government have enough money to proceed with HS2 at any cost, then they have sufficient money not to increase taxes; but if they have so little money that they have to increase taxes—the last thing for a Conservative Government to do—then they do not have sufficient money for HS2? So can I gently urge the Deputy Prime Minister not to ask Conservative MPs to support any tax rises unless and until this unnecessary vanity project is scrapped, because I for one will not support them?
I thank my right hon. Friend. I think I followed the various steps of logic in that question. I understand her opposition to HS2. I think we have some very difficult decisions to make. They will inevitably involve a balanced approach. I will leave it to the Chancellor to set them out in the autumn statement tomorrow.
The hon. Member raises a really important point, and we are doing everything we can to support those who may be reliant on food banks or otherwise struggling to make ends meet. He can see that with the £1,200 cost of living support that is going to the 8 million most vulnerable households, the energy price guarantee and further measures for pensioners. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor will set out further measures tomorrow. Of course, as I have said before, the No. 1 priority is getting inflation down. We will not be able to do that if we follow the spending plans of the Labour party.
My right hon. Friend is also the Justice Secretary, and everybody in this House, irrespective of party, will know that for the reputation of this House standards are important. He has said that from the Dispatch Box this afternoon. However, in response to some of the points raised by Opposition Members, am I naive to still believe in that good British tradition that one is innocent until proven guilty?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. I have said I will co-operate fully with the independent investigation. In fact, I welcome the opportunity to address these complaints. I think, though, that it is important that we have zero tolerance for any bullying and hold the highest standards in public life, and it is important for all of us to adhere to those standards.
(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department if she will make a statement on migration.
The continued rise of dangerous channel crossings is completely unacceptable. This phenomenon is not only a clear abuse of our immigration laws and deeply unfair on the British people, but puts the lives of those who attempt these journeys in grave danger. This Government are determined to put the people smugglers out of business and to make this route unviable.
This week, my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary met her counterpart, Minister Darmanin, to agree a new multi-year strategic and operational plan with France. That will be supported by UK investment of up to €72 million in 2022-23. It includes a 40% uplift, with UK-funded officers patrolling the French coast over the coming months, improved security at ports, cutting-edge surveillance technology, drones, detection dog teams and CCTV, to help detect and prevent those crossings. For the first time, reciprocal teams of embedded officers will be deployed on the ground in control rooms, to increase joint understanding of this issue. This renewed partnership will enable us to build on our joint partnership with France, which so far has seen good progress, with more than 30,000 illegal crossings prevented since the start of the year, hundreds of arrests made and 21 organised crime gangs dismantled.
Beyond our ever closer collaboration with France, we will also work closely with other international partners, including further upstream, to help address issues closer to their source. The UK will be joining near neighbours and other countries, to agree collective action to tackle illegal migration. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary is today discussing those issues at the G7 Interior Ministers meeting in Germany.
These are issues of the utmost seriousness, and they have been discussed at prime ministerial level. We are taking action to deter those intent on exploiting the UK’s generosity, by implementing the Nationality and Borders Act 2002, pursuing migration partnerships with safe countries such as Rwanda, cracking down on those here illegally, and expediting returns agreements. There should be no doubt whatsoever about the Government’s determination to grip this problem and deliver the strong and secure borders that the British people desperately want and deserve.
Twenty-seven lives were lost in the channel a year ago, and a criminal gang profited from sending people to their deaths. Will the Minister tell the House whether anyone has been prosecuted or convicted for that awful event? We have long called for a stronger agreement with France to stop these dangerous boat crossings. That is why it is important that there is scrutiny on this issue. Additional beach patrols are welcome, and intelligence sharing is vital—it is unfathomable that it was not happening already.
The level of convictions is pitiful: just four a month, on average. The Minister said that 21 gangs had been dismantled, but on Monday the Home Secretary said that it was 55. Which is it?
Journalists report 100 gang members operating in one small corner of Calais alone. The scale of response to the criminal gangs is tiny compared with the scale of the challenge, and the Government are simply not doing enough. This multimillion-pound criminal industry is putting lives at risk. The Minister referred to a joint intelligence cell. How many national crime agencies are currently involved in that, how many are deployed in Europe, and what will that number increase by? We need to know.
This agreement does not include anything on safe returns or safe family reunion. The number of children safely reuniting with family has plummeted since the end of the Dublin agreement, and charities warn that they are trying to go by boat instead. Asylum returns have plummeted from 1,000 people returned to the EU in 2010 to a tiny handful today. Of the 16,000 referred to the third country unit, just 21 returned. Did Ministers even try to get an agreement on returns and family reunion, and if not, why not? What is the Minister’s timescale for getting a grip on the total collapse in Home Office decisions on asylum, and at what point will they double so that we get a faster pace? The way the Home Office is handling local authorities has been disgraceful, with many of them not being told what is happening.
Finally, what is the £140 million from the Rwanda agreement actually being spent on? Too often, the Home Office talks about things but is not delivering—this is too important.
I am pleased that the right hon. Lady welcomes our agreement with France. She is right to raise the anniversary of the tragic and abhorrent deaths that occurred in the channel one year ago. I am pleased that a concerted effort with partners across Europe has led to arrests and the disruption of gangs, and to the capture and destruction of boats, directly as a result of that. The good work that our intelligence services did with respect to that incident is now being rolled out with respect to other criminal gangs right across Europe.
The agreement that we have reached with France will enable our world-class intelligence services to be directly in the room with their French counterparts, ensuring that the intelligence they are gathering, which is rich—I observed it myself on visiting the clandestine command in Dover—can now be passed on in real time to their French counterparts, ensuring that more crossings are stopped, more arrests are made and more criminal gangs are disrupted. That will make a positive impact in the months to come.
I politely point out to the right hon. Lady that she is becoming like a broken record on immigration. She opposes everything helpful that the Government have done and suggests nothing useful. She voted against the Nationality and Borders Act that created deterrents for people crossing the channel. She voted against measures that would have increased sentences for people smugglers. She would scrap our world-leading migration partnership with Rwanda. She voted against our plans to remove dangerous foreign national offenders. One of the key policy platforms on which her leader, the Leader of the Opposition, stood for the leadership of the Labour party was to close down our immigration removal centres—the very centres where we house people like foreign national offenders, murderers and rapists as we are trying to get them out of the country.
The truth is that Labour is the party of uncontrolled migration and the party of mass migration. We understand the instincts of the British people, and my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary and I will do everything to ensure that their will is implemented and we secure our borders.
The Minister knows well the problems that I have with Serco’s procurement of accommodation in my constituency and I thank him for his engagement in recent days. Given the woeful communication with MPs and local authorities in recent days and weeks, can he confirm that lessons will be learned and that communication will be stepped up?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for the productive and constructive conversations that we have had. It is absolutely essential that the Home Office and partners such as Serco treat local authorities and Members of Parliament with respect and engage with them productively. Since my arrival in the Department, I have set in place protocols so that all Members of Parliament and local authorities will be notified in good time before hotel and other accommodation is procured, and so that we move to a better procedure, whereby there is effective and constructive engagement in the days prior to taking the accommodation.
It is worth saying, however, that those are the symptoms of the problem. The core of the issue is the fact that 40,000 people have chosen to cross the channel this year alone and that places immense strain on our system. That is what we need to tackle, that is what Government Members are committed to doing and that is what the Opposition refuse to address.
The £120 million totally wasted on the Rwanda plan could have quadrupled the number of caseworkers and cleared the backlog in asylum cases urgently. Can we have a Department focused on the nuts and bolts of getting the job done, instead of crazy, brutal and counterproductive headline-chasing policies? After all, that is the root of all our problems—that and the lack of safe and legal routes. A number of months ago, I tabled a written question asking for a list of all the safe and legal routes and it would not even have filled half a page. So can we do something about that?
The revelations in ITV’s “The Crossing”, a documentary about 27 channel deaths last November, were utterly heartbreaking and horrifying. Did the Home Secretary discuss with her counterparts how best to ensure that disputes about precisely where a boat is play a distant second fiddle to saving people’s lives?
May I end by saying how disappointed I am? The Minister distanced himself from the Home Secretary’s crass comments on migrants, but today we have heard him talk about murderers and foreign offenders. We are talking about asylum seekers, and he brings up murderers as if they are one and the same thing. It is an absolute disgrace, because he knows the impact that that has on not just asylum seekers but all migrants.
The hon. Lady needs to face the facts. We on the Government Benches will always behave with decency and compassion, because those are our values. But we will not be naive. We are capable of making the distinction between genuine refugees and genuine asylum seekers fleeing persecution and human rights abuses, and Albanian economic migrants coming to this country for all the wrong reasons. We are also perfectly capable of making the distinction between good people who deserve our protection and support, and bad people who are foreign national offenders who need to be removed from the United Kingdom as soon as possible. I am surprised to see her joining in with the Opposition, who want to close down the very detainment centres where we keep those people while we try to get them out of the country.
The hon. Lady says she is disappointed that we are pursuing Rwanda. I think Rwanda is an important part of our efforts to tackle illegal migration because deterrence has to be suffused throughout our entire approach. Everything we do to create further pull factors to the UK ensures more people cross the channel in perilous ways and more pressure is put on our public services. It prevents us from helping the people who genuinely deserve our support, such as those who come from Ukraine, Afghanistan or Syria under our resettlement schemes. I will say again—I have said it before: if the SNP wanted to help with this issue, it would address the fact that proportionately Scotland, in particular SNP local authorities, takes fewer people on those resettlement schemes than any other part of the United Kingdom.
I do not envy my right hon. Friend having to do this urgent question, having done a few myself. I know he will recognise that system-wide reform of asylum is needed. The deal with France is welcome, but it is only a small part of what needs to be done overall. The particular point I want to focus on is the issue of notification and engagement with local authorities, which seems to have disappeared, as he will be aware from the situation in Torbay. Can he reassure me that that will now be restarted? At the very least, it is common courtesy to notify MPs and local authorities—we should not find out via third parties.
Yes, and I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for his good service in this role and others previously. He was highly respected and is missed by his former colleagues at the Home Office.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that we need good engagement with Members of Parliament and, crucially, local authorities. When we are bringing groups of migrants to a local area, often with complex needs, we need to ensure the local authority is involved in that, can prepare for their arrival and provide good services. One issue that has been experienced in recent weeks is that the sheer number of individuals crossing the channel has put immense pressure on the Manston facility. As the Minister responsible, my first duty and priority was and is to ensure that Manston operates legally and decently. That has meant that we have needed to procure a lot of accommodation relatively quickly and that has meant some procedures have been weaker than any of us would have wished. I hope we can move forward from that, stabilise the situation, and get into a pattern of engaging MPs and local authorities in the manner that they deserve.
Today, my International Development Committee launched an inquiry into how and why the Home Office is spending foreign aid to support refugees in this country. Does the Minister have a budget or a blank cheque? Does he have official development assistance specialists in the Home Office to make sure that that money represents value? Does he think it is morally right to be spending money, which should be going to the poorest in the world, to prop up the Treasury? Other countries are spending their own money to fund refugees in their own countries.
First, it is the Home Office’s responsibility to ensure that money is spent wisely and provides taxpayer value. How it is accounted for under overseas development aid or otherwise is a matter for the Treasury, not for me and my officials. But the point at the heart of this is that we need to ensure we stop people crossing the channel illegally. We do not want to be spending billions of pounds addressing this issue. The Opposition, I think, do because they oppose every single measure we take to try to address it. We want to get people out of hotels. We would like to move to a system that is based on resettlement schemes, such as the Ukraine and Syria schemes, whereby we choose people at source, they come to the UK and we are able to prioritise our resources on them, and we do not, frankly, waste hundreds of millions of pounds managing a problem of economic migrants who should not be in the UK.
This weekend, a new migrant hotel was set up in my constituency. I was contacted on Sunday and told that it would be happening—future tense. I subsequently found out that it had actually happened already, on Saturday. As yet—it is now Wednesday—we still have no details on who, how long and what is in place around that facility. On Monday morning, several local people presented themselves as homeless, having been kicked out of the same hotel, which was previously used by the local authority as temporary accommodation. My right hon. Friend must surely agree that this is wrong and untenable, and will cause a huge amount of anger locally. The Government need to stop this—he knows that—but can he, at the very least, ensure that, after this urgent question, he is able to investigate in his Department to ensure that local stakeholders and councils are able to get the information they need urgently to put the support in place that they need at local level?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I believe my officials have already reached out to his council to provide it with further information. As I said earlier, this is not the situation that any of us would want to be in. It is the product of record numbers of people crossing the channel and a failure to plan in the months prior to this sudden surge. What we need to do now is move forwards and ensure, as our first duty, that Manston is operating legally and correctly. We must then ensure that any further accommodation is procured in a sensible way—simple and decent accommodation, not luxurious hotels—and that we have proper communication with local authorities. That is my objective and I am very happy to work with him to achieve it.
Unlike some of those who are criticising the Government today, the Democratic Unionist party has supported most of the measures that the Government have brought forward. We understand that there are genuine asylum seekers who need help. In my own constituency just last weekend I met many from Ukraine who are grateful for what this country has done for them. Almost every year, Ministers come with a new plan to deal with this problem, yet it gets worse all the time. The numbers are increasing, and frustration is increasing too. Does the Minister not agree that one way of stopping people coming via the dangerous route they are using at present, giving revenue to criminal gangs and stopping priorities being dealt with for real asylum seekers, would be to ensure that those who enter this country illegally are not allowed to apply for asylum in the first place?
The right hon. Gentleman makes a very important point. We have already taken action through the Nationality and Borders Act 2022. My right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary and I are reviewing our legal framework to ensure it meets the scale of the challenge we are currently facing. If we conclude that further steps are necessary, he can be assured that we will take them urgently. He makes a strong and compelling case that there should not be a route to a life in the UK if you choose to come here illegally.
I strongly support the Minister in what he said by highlighting that most of the Opposition parties—certainly the Labour party and the SNP—have zero credibility coming to this House and questioning him when they vote against and criticise absolutely every legal measure we bring in to tackle this problem, which all our constituents care deeply about. I am sure the Minister would like to know what my constituents are asking me. They want to know why we cannot turn back the small boats and dinghies when they are in the channel. Of course, we all understand we have an obligation to save lives at sea, but surely that does not extend to people who seek to undermine our generous hospitality and our asylum system, which is there for genuine refugees. Please can he change the law to do that?
My hon. Friend makes a very important point and speaks for the British public, millions of whom ask exactly the same question. We are pursuing returns agreements with safe countries and have secured one in the last 12 months with Albania. One thousand Albanians have already been removed under that agreement. Clearly, I would like that number to be significantly higher and we are reviewing what further steps we can take. We would like to secure a returns agreement with France. The agreement we reached this week is a good first step, but the Home Secretary will be meeting other northern European Interior Ministers through the Calais group shortly to discuss what the next steps might be. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister is prioritising the issue and the broader relationship with France, as we can see in the positive conversations he has had thus far. If it is possible to take the agreement further, we will certainly try to.
On Monday, as part of Parliament Week, I spoke to a group of 100 asylum seekers and refugees who are learning English at Hammersmith & Fulham College. Some had been in local budget hotel rooms with their families for a year and a half, having had no Home Office interview since they arrived. All are willing and able to work but are prevented from doing so. Does the Minister realise that, along with indefinite detention, this is a failed policy, which is not only cruel and inhumane, but hugely wasteful of public money?
I respectfully disagree about indefinite detention. There is an important role for detaining individuals, particularly foreign national offenders, while they are here in the UK and until we can remove them from our shores. If we had further capacity, we might detain more people, frankly.
As for whether migrants whose asylum claims are being processed should be able to work, there are arguments—and differing opinions—on both sides of the House. On balance, I take the view that it is not wise to enable asylum seekers to work because there are already significant pull factors to the UK as a result of the relative ease of working here, access to public services and the fact that we have relatively high approval rates for asylum seekers. I am not persuaded that it would be wise to add a further pull factor to the mix.
I thank my right hon. Friend for what he is saying and doing on this vital subject. I shall be here all next week, ready to vote for whatever legislative changes are necessary to protect people who need asylum and to defend our country from people who deliberately and wilfully break our laws. So will he please apply the toe of his shoe to the bottoms of the people who need to draft the legislation that we can all support?
I am grateful for that intervention and I will take that back to my officials in the Department. My hon. Friend can be assured that the Home Secretary and I are doing everything we can. If we can make further legislative changes in the spirit of what he said—relating to individuals who come here not for safety from persecution, human rights abuses and war, which asylum was designed to support, but from safe countries looking for a better life—we will do so and secure the borders as a result.
As we heard, on 24 November last year at least 27 people drowned while attempting to cross the channel in a dinghy, including a little girl. Five are missing and only two survived. A documentary called “The Crossing” that was shown on ITV on Monday night presented evidence that the tragedy happened in UK waters, notwithstanding multiple distress calls from the people in the dinghy while the French and UK coastguards passed the buck over many crucial hours. I understand that solicitors acting for the families of some of the deceased and one of the survivors passed evidence to that effect to the British Government in March this year. The normal political response to loss of life on that scale would be the prompt announcement of an independent public inquiry. Will the Minister tell me what it is about the people who drowned that means that no independent public inquiry has been announced into the circumstances of their drowning?
The events of a year ago were very shocking and deeply tragic, and my sympathies go out to the individuals’ families and friends. As a result of that incident, I assure the hon. and learned Member that very significant further steps have been taken by British authorities to enable those crossing the channel in dangerous crafts to be helped ashore in the UK. We are at the point where, I think, 98% of boats that attempt the crossing and pass the median line are helped ashore by Border Force, the Royal National Lifeboat Institution or the Royal Navy. I pay tribute to those British authorities; I have met them and they do that difficult work superbly. We will not be able to secure the passage of everyone who chooses to get in an unsafe dinghy at the behest of people traffickers and cross the channel. The best advice is, “Do not make that dangerous passage. It is illegal and extremely perilous.” That is key: we should not encourage people to make that crossing in the first place. We cannot assure safe passage to everyone.
Stoke-on-Trent, decades ago, voluntarily entered the asylum dispersal scheme, but enough is enough. We have done our bit for this country to protect some of the vulnerable people and illegal economic migrants who come here through safe countries such as France. I am sick to the back teeth of hotels being used in our great city and being dumped on by Serco because we voluntarily entered that scheme. The local authority is against it, as are the police and all three Stoke MPs, and for good reason. Islamic extremists such as Hizb ut-Tahrir are operating around the corner from the hotel. The far right is looking to recruit in our city. There is public anger and outrage about local services being depleted while services elsewhere are reinforced. When will the Minister tell Serco that Stoke-on-Trent has done its bit and to use it no more? If he will not, why not?
We have taken further steps during my short tenure in the Department, and while my right hon. and learned Friend has been Home Secretary, to provide a fairer distribution of migrants across the country. The Home Secretary ensured that there was the mandatory dispersal of children, so that all local authorities can play a part in ensuring that children are in safe accommodation, whether that means in children’s homes or with state or private foster carers. We are also attempting to procure accommodation in a much broader range of local authorities. Historically, the issue centred on cities, including Stoke-on-Trent. We are now seeking to procure accommodation more broadly in smaller cities, towns and, in some cases, rural areas. That means, I am afraid, that as long as numbers are so high, more parts of the country will experience this issue, but it will ensure greater fairness in how we tackle it as a country.
Is it true that the Home Secretary disagreed with the ideas of the former Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for South West Norfolk (Elizabeth Truss), on extending the seasonal agricultural worker scheme to help to provide important extra, temporary migrant labour for our farming sector?
According to Home Office figures, the 116 asylum seekers who arrived in Warrington last week can expect to spend about 400 days waiting for their cases to be dealt with. What steps is my right hon. Friend taking to speed up the process so that those who do not meet the test for asylum can be returned to the safe countries from which they came?
My hon. Friend raises an important point. Productivity in the Home Office fell very sharply during the covid period and has yet to recover in its entirety. That is wrong and we need to change it. We need to ensure that caseworkers review and decide on cases at least at the same speed as they did a couple of years ago. A pilot in Leeds on how to do that has more than doubled the productivity of caseworkers. We want to get that still higher and roll it out across the country. The Home Secretary and I will say more shortly.
As legislation rightly progresses to address the shameful sacking of UK seafarers by P&O, another injustice is arising through the Home Office’s actions. The extension of the offshore wind workers immigration rules concession 2017 means that UK seafarers are being replaced by cheap Filipino crew. That is happening 15 km from the coast of Fife in an offshore wind field operated by the state companies of France and Ireland. The contracts have largely gone abroad and the jobs are now going south. Given that this is an urgent question about migration, why is the Minister allowing that to happen? The UK crew who require that employment and have been working hard are now being replaced by workers providing cheap labour, who, frankly, are being exploited and brought in by unsavoury contractors.
We are not allowing that to happen. The Nationality and Borders Act 2022 led to a short extension in the practice until April 2023, at which point it comes to a close. Measures relating to the valid criticisms of the hon. Gentleman will be put into effect shortly.
We all agree that putting asylum seekers in hotels is not really a great policy, so we need to process their applications as quickly as possible. Is it possible for each hotel to be given a timeframe for the processing of applications? That would give confidence to the local community that the hotel will be returned to its normal activity sooner rather than later. It might also incentivise Home Office staff to improve their productivity.
I will take that suggestion back to the Home Office. Our objective is to ensure that we process claims as quickly as possible; a great deal of work is now going on in the Home Office to achieve that and to bring productivity back to where it should always have been, frankly. We want to bring use of the hotels to a close as quickly as possible. We have already set out some of the steps we will take to achieve that, such as considering larger sites and dispersing individuals in local authority accommodation and the private rented sector elsewhere in the country. The real task, however, is to prevent people from crossing the channel in the first place. We cannot build our way out of the issue; we have to reduce the numbers making the crossings.
York wants to do all it can to support people seeking asylum, but as a result of providing initial accommodation as opposed to contingency accommodation, it is not receiving the funding that it vitally needs. When will the Government provide parity in the funding that local authorities need to support people who are seeking asylum? When will the Government bring forward a homes for refugees scheme so we can ensure that people are settled in our community and are getting the support they need from families?
I will happily speak to the hon. Lady separately about the specific concerns of City of York Council. The hotel accommodation is fully funded by the Home Office, but I appreciate that there are knock-on costs for local authorities. I met London Councils earlier today; if not for this urgent question, I would have been meeting representatives of councils across the country to hear their concerns and see how we can improve the situation.
On addressing the illegal crossings, the Minister said that the new initiative would cost about £72 million. In 2019, when I was on the Select Committee on Home Affairs, we were told that the joint co-ordination centre with France would help to address individuals illegally crossing. Did that system work? How much did it cost? How will the new system work? My constituents in Kent are at the forefront of the illegal crossings. The Government consistently tell us that they will take tough, firm, decisive action, but instead the numbers have increased. How will the new system work better than the previous system?
I do not want to overstate the value of the agreement, but it is an important step forward and might presage further agreements with France in the months and years to come. It contains at least two important steps. First, there will be a 40% increase in French personnel on the beaches of northern France intercepting crafts about to enter the water and making arrests. French officers on the beaches currently intercept about 40% of craft, so increasing personnel by 40% will lead to a significant improvement. Secondly, the joint centre that we will establish with our French counterparts will ensure that the very sophisticated intelligence that the British security services are now drawing up on what is happening in northern France can be delivered to their counterparts in real time.
Diolch yn fawr iawn, Llefarydd. The Home Office is spending millions on the Rwanda scheme, on the new border scheme with France and on hotel bills, but I am told by a council with a hotel in its area that it has yet to receive any money from the Home Office. Serious concerns have been expressed by the Children’s Commissioner for Wales about the welfare of migrant children in hotels. How is the Home Office working with the Welsh Government, Welsh local authorities and Welsh health trusts to ensure that services are fully funded? How is the welfare of migrant children in Wales being monitored?
If it were not for this urgent question, I would have been meeting representatives from Welsh local authorities, including the Welsh Local Government Association. I will reschedule that meeting as soon as possible; one of its aims is to ensure that we have the best possible engagement with local authorities and support them with the broader needs of individuals, including health and education.
Senior police officers in my constituency tell me that the majority of the serious organised crime and the drugs trade in Blackpool is now orchestrated by Albanian gangs. Does the Minister recognise that some of those who cross in small boats and subsequently abscond when they arrive in this country are playing a part in fuelling a crime epidemic in towns such as Blackpool?
The evidence presented to us by security services such as the National Crime Agency shows a significant and concerning link between Albanian migrants coming to the UK and criminality. My hon. Friend and others have raised the issues with me anecdotally. We screen all migrants when they arrive illegally at Dover, and we have counter-terrorism officers and others there to ensure that we catch as many individuals as possible, but I am afraid that there is a serious problem. That is why we need to take the most robust action possible on economic migrants from Albania and remove them as swiftly as possible.
Diolch, Mr Speaker. Will the Minister inform the House whether the British Government have found an airline willing to facilitate their Rwanda policy? Privilege Style has joined Titan Airways and AirTanker in stating that it will not participate in deportation flights. Is it not the reality that commercial operators are turning their back on the Government’s immoral policy?
I do not believe that the Rwanda policy is immoral. I do not think that there is anything ethical about allowing individuals to cross the channel illegally, risking their lives and those of their children. We want to create a system that is suffused with deterrents so that people do not make the crossing in the first place and so that if they want to claim asylum, they do so in the first safe country that they enter. France, of course, is a perfect choice.
When our own citizens, never mind visitors, come to this country, they dutifully form a queue and present their passport at border control. Does the Minister agree that it makes a complete and utter mockery of our border control systems when people arrive illegally, thereby committing a crime, and are then put up in hotels across the country, where they are fed and watered and do not have to pay energy bills? My hon. Friend the Member for Warrington South (Andy Carter) spoke about cases going on for 400 days; I know of others that have gone on for years and years. When will we implement the Rwanda plan? When will we push back? When will we return people to France directly? Deterrence will be the main thing that stops them crossing in the first place.
I totally agree. Deterrence must be the test to which we hold all aspects of our immigration policy. We will implement the Rwanda plan as soon as it has passed through the courts, and I think it will make a significant impact on deterring people from making this dangerous crossing.
Does my right hon. Friend share my grave concerns about the radio chatter recorded just this week by one of my constituents? It records a high level of co-operation between the French navy and UK Border Force as the French navy escorts migrants through French waters to be picked up on our side of the median line. The new French deal is trying to stop beach launchings. Welcome as that deal is, does it include a requirement for the French navy to stop and pick up migrant dinghies while they are still in French waters?
We do not support the chaperoning of crafts to the median line to be picked up by British vessels and brought to Ramsgate, Dover or other British ports. Ultimately, that is counterproductive: it creates yet another pull factor to the UK. These are exactly the things that closer co-operation with France should enable us to resolve.
EU nations are safe. Does my right hon. Friend agree that eligible asylum seekers should claim asylum in the first safe country where they arrive and put their first foot down on safe soil? When will we be able to spend Home Office funding on fighting crime and supporting our police, rather than on dealing with illegal trafficking into this country?
Peterborough is a caring city that supports more asylum seekers than any other town or city in the east of England. In the past week, two hotels have been stood up to accommodate single men who have crossed the channel in small boats. One in particular, the Great Northern Hotel, is most inappropriate. Will the Minister outline the criteria by which the Home Office will award longer-term contracts for hotel accommodation? Will he listen to me, my local council, the local police, local health support services and local refugee charities about why the Great Northern Hotel in particular is so inappropriate?
I know that, like many other Members on both sides of the House, my hon. Friend has been campaigning vociferously on this issue and is deeply concerned about it. We want to ensure that we can move as quickly as possible—as quickly as is legally possible—to a system whereby we apply sensible, common-sense criteria. That includes ensuring that prominent business hotels such as the Great Northern are not chosen to house asylum seekers, and that instead we choose hotels that provide decent, value-for-money accommodation in appropriate places.
As if the acquisition of the Best Western Buckingham Hotel, costing hotel staff their jobs and putting unacceptable pressure on local services, were not bad enough, Buckinghamshire Council learned at third hand from a London borough just this morning that an asylum seeker who is under investigation for a very serious offence was transferred to the asylum hotel in Buckingham by the Metropolitan Police but was not escorted into the premises, and has since gone missing. Does my right hon. Friend agree that that process is wholly unacceptable, as were the lines of communication which meant that my local council learned the facts from a London borough rather than from the Home Office or the police, and will he give a commitment that everything possible is being done to apprehend that individual and ensure that until the investigation has been completed the individual is in secure accommodation?
On 23 September, when I was crossing the channel—quite legally—I spotted the French warship Athos behaving very strangely. I have here a screenshot of the warship, which I took on a navigational device. It was circling a small open boat full of people.
The warship made no attempt to pick those people up, as it should have. As a yachtsman, I can tell the House that they were in danger and should have been taken off the boat, but the warship was, as my hon. Friend says, escorting that boat to our shores.
I am pleased with the deal that the Home Secretary made, and it is, as my right hon. Friend said, a good first step, but in my view it does not go far enough. Should we not push to get British boots on the ground and on the beaches alongside their French counterparts, in joint operations, to keep people on the shores of France, or on the shores of the continent?
My hon. Friend has made an important point. Of course we would like to have an effective returns agreement with France, and we would like to have British officers supporting their French counterparts in northern France. Those issues remain for discussion with France, but it is an important first step that we now have our officers working with their French counterparts in the control centre so that the very sophisticated intelligence that we are now gathering is being shared in real time and acted upon by the French.
Yesterday the National Crime Agency confirmed that Albanian organised crime gangs are ferrying thousands of young men to enable them to enter the country illegally so that they can set up, take over and run cannabis farms across the country. On arrival they claim asylum, and the Home Office then transports this criminality to communities up and down the country to infiltrate the local crime scene.
Once such community is Kettering, where there is a disgraceful proposal to house potentially up to 150 Albanian single males in a 50-room hotel with no kitchen facilities, slap bang in the middle of the town centre. This is the biggest night-time economy in north Northamptonshire, and it is near a family park. These young men will be milling around getting into all sorts of trouble. I cannot think of a worse location for an asylum hostel. Will the Minister meet me as a matter of urgency so I can explain to him why the proposal should not go ahead? From where I am sitting, at this present time, His Majesty’s Government is neither protecting our shores nor protecting my local community from an increase in imported crime.
Communities such as Ilfracombe, which is on my patch, are dependent on the tourism economy. What steps is the Home Office taking to support local tourism economies which are being damaged every single day? These hotels are not welcoming their normal visitors. What more will be done to expedite the return of tourist hotels to their communities?
We want to ensure that we exit the hotels as quickly as possible, and wherever we can we will do that in a prioritised fashion, so that when hotels are particularly unsuitable and particular harms are being done to local economies—including tourist hotspots—they should be at the top of the list as we exit these hotels and move to a more sustainable future.
My constituents are angry and frustrated about the present situation, and are genuinely concerned about the possibility that a local hotel might suddenly be found to accommodate asylum seekers. However, I also see the other side of the coin in my role as the Prime Minister’s trade envoy to the western Balkans. I meet many Albanians who are here legally and are working in our health service and other public services, but who are being targeted by unruly elements in our society, so there are losers on all sides. Neither the Albanians nor my constituents can understand why the Government cannot get to grips with the situation and process the applications in a seemly manner and on time. What additional resources are being put into ensuring that that happens?
We have put further staff into the processing centres, and there will shortly be 1,500 decision makers working through the claims. As I have said in answer to earlier questions, we are determined to ensure that we return to sensible levels of productivity so that we can bust the backlog. However, that is not the sole problem here. Ensuring swift approvals of applications will only create a further pull factor, so we have to take other action as well.
Along with a number of colleagues, I have studied the Australian approach to dealing with illegal immigration. It is often derided by those on the left who say that it was not successful, but it was successful. My colleagues and I met a number of officials to see what was being done. That is why we welcome the Rwanda scheme. Will my right hon. Friend give us some sense of the timescale for the scheme, and also reassure us that he is engaging with Australian officials? The Australians had a huge problem of illegal immigration, but they embraced offshore processing and no longer have a huge problem. It is very clear what works and what does not.
We are determined to bring the Rwanda proposals into force as soon as possible. Unfortunately, the matter is currently being heard by the British courts, but we are optimistic that our case will be successful, and once it is, we will of course bring those proposals into effect as quickly as we can for all the reasons that my hon. Friend has given, to ensure that there is a proper deterrence factor for those making an illegal crossing.
I suspect that that was the last question, Mr Speaker, so may I thank you for the work that we have done together? I know that you too have been very concerned about hotel accommodation in Chorley. My officials are in conversation with your local authority, and hopefully we can improve the position as soon as possible.
The news on Sunday that the Iranian regime had sentenced a protester to death was tragic. It is an act that the UK Government utterly condemn, in the strongest possible terms. Sadly, this is yet another act of desperation on the part of a regime that clearly cares more about its own survival than about the human rights of its own citizens. This is not the first time we have seen the Iranian regime use barbaric methods to clamp down on those standing up for basic freedoms. Following the 2019 fuel protests, more than 300 people were tragically killed.
The latest violence levelled at protesters has been utterly appalling. We have seen over 14,000 people detained so far, and over 300 deaths, of which 43 were children. The UK opposes the death penalty in all circumstances, but it is all the more abhorrent when those sentenced are being arrested for standing up for their rights. My fear—which I am sure my hon. Friend shares—is that the frequency of these death sentences is only likely to increase as the regime processes the thousands of arrests that have been made during the protests. The Iranian judicial system is notorious for its lack of transparency and process, and this barbarism is just one of many threatening and intimidating techniques that the regime has rolled out in response to the protests.
The repeated targeting of journalists and systematic constraining of media freedom, including restricting internet use, in Iran, which I know is important to the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Bambos Charalambous), is yet another sign of the regime’s weakness in the face of grassroots protesters. These threats have extended to journalists residing in the United Kingdom, and on Friday the Foreign Secretary summoned Iran’s most senior representative in the UK to the Foreign Office to make it clear that this would not be tolerated and that the UK would always stand up to threats from other countries.
On Monday we announced a second round of human rights sanctions against 24 Iranian security officials for their part in the violent crackdown on protesters. That is on top of the sanctions we introduced last month on the morality police and seven other individuals, and we continue to keep our sanctions list under review. The Government are also driving efforts in multilateral forums to hold Iran to account. We firmly support a special session of the Human Rights Council that will press to mandate a UN investigation into the protests. We are working closely with the US and other international partners to remove Iran from the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women.
What we are seeing in Iran is a grassroots movement from the people of Iran, who are showing outstanding bravery in the face of a brutal crackdown. Iran needs to stop trying to blame this on everyone but itself, take responsibility for its actions and instigate real change. That is what the Iranian people have been bravely calling for and it is what they rightly deserve.
I thank Mr Speaker for granting this urgent question, and I thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for presiding over it. I thank the Under-Secretary for his response.
The House will be aware that, since the murder of Mahsa Amini, there have been nationwide protests in Iran over the past six to seven weeks. Contrary to the reports that the Minister mentioned, the reports I have are that more than 60,000 people have been arrested. These are men, women and children just protesting about the murder of one young lady. The individuals who have been arrested have been tortured, they have been denied legal representation, they have been denied medication and in most cases they have been denied bail as well. When bail was first introduced, huge sums were demanded from families who simply did not have the money. We should remember that the President of Iran, President Raisi, was responsible as the prosecutor in Iran for 30,000 executions of political prisoners in 1988, so the direction from the top is very clear. As my hon. Friend has mentioned, journalists in the UK have been threatened, and indeed the Foreign Secretary called in the chargé d’affaires on Friday about those threats. We are also aware that sentencing and executions are beginning in Iran, and that many thousands of people may end up being executed.
I have a series of questions for my hon. Friend the Minister. What representations have been made to Iran directly on the treatment of the protesters? What action has been taken at the United Nations to remove Iran from positions of responsibility? He has mentioned one position but there are many others that Iran shares. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps is directly implicated in the torture of individuals in Iran. What more do we have to see before the IRGC in its entirety becomes a proscribed organisation in this country? President Macron has made it clear that progress on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action negotiations is impossible during these events in Iran, so does my hon. Friend agree that making any progress on the so-called nuclear deal with Iran is impossible in these circumstances?
Finally, will my hon. Friend join me in wishing the England team every success in beating Iran on Monday?
I thank my hon. Friend for his insightful comments, as always, on this vital issue. I join him in wishing every success to the home nations—both England and Wales, of course—in all their matches. We always want to keep sport and foreign policy separate, because our concerns are not with the Iranian people, whom we absolutely support. Our concerns are with the Iranian regime, which my hon. Friend and many others have consistently and rightly called out.
My hon. Friend has made a number of important points. I reiterate that we are utterly appalled by the detention of what we calculate to be about 14,000 people. He has come up with a much bigger number, but whichever number it is, they are most often held without due process, and that is completely wrong when they are really just protesting courageously for basic human rights. He talked about the freedom of journalists. The Foreign Secretary has rightly made sure that the Iranian chargé d’affaires understood that we would not tolerate threats to journalists based in the UK, but we are also calling out and condemning the persecution of BBC Persian staff and will continue to do so.
My hon. Friend made an important point about where things stand with the JCPOA. Quite understandably the situation that we find ourselves in now, following Iran’s recent actions, has made progress even more difficult, but I can assure him that we are actively considering next steps with our international partners. He also asked about the IRGC. He is a dog on a bone with this subject, and I know that it means so much to him. As I have explained to him before in the Chamber, we are very concerned about the IRGC’s destabilising activity. The list of proscribed organisations is kept under constant review, but we do not routinely comment on whether an organisation is or is not under consideration for proscription.
I think the last point my hon. Friend raised was about the United Nations. As I said earlier, we are pressing for support for a special session of the UN Human Rights Council and for a UN investigation. I know from Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office oral questions that there is concern about Iran’s presence on the UN Commission on the Status of Women, and we have joined the US to forcefully seek for it to be removed from that. I hope that he and all hon. Members understand that we are absolutely committed to the task of calling out these acts and taking the required action at this stage.