House of Commons
Tuesday 13 December 2022
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office
The Secretary of State was asked—
British Indian Ocean Territory
I can confirm that negotiations have begun. Officials from the UK and Mauritius met at the end of last month and had constructive discussions. The UK and Mauritius have reiterated that any agreement will ensure the continued effective operation of the joint UK-US defence facility on Diego Garcia, and we will be meeting again to continue negotiations shortly.
I recognise my hon. Friend’s championing of the Chagossian community in his constituency. He will recognise that there is a diversity of views in the various Chagossian communities in Mauritius, the UK and the Seychelles. We will of course take those views seriously, but the negotiations are between the UK and Mauritius. We will ensure that we continue to engage with those communities through this negotiating process.
Do the UK Government now accept the finding of the International Court of Justice that the process of the decolonisation of Mauritius was not lawfully completed in 1968 and that the UK’s continued administration of the Chagos archipelago constitutes a wrongful act?
The UK has expressed regret about the manner in which the Chagossians were removed in the late 1960s and the 1970s, but we are working constructively with the Mauritius Government and, as I say, one of the strong principles that underpins the negotiation is the reiteration that the UK and US defence facility on Diego Garcia will continue.
LGBTQ+ Rights: Qatar World Cup
Ministers and senior officials have raised the UK’s position with regard to LGBT+ football fans and the status of those fans in Qatar. I raise these issues regularly in my direct engagement with the Qatari authorities, and on my recent visit to Qatar it was again restated in the conversation between myself and my opposite number in the Foreign Ministry.
I am grateful to the Foreign Secretary. Qatar has brought into focus the denial of people’s basic rights over their sexuality and gender. Around 70 countries still criminalise homosexuality, with 10 or more still using the death penalty. We are seeing a regression for LGBT rights in many parts of the world. Last week in Russia, Putin criminalised any act of public mention of same-sex relationships. In parts of eastern Europe, LGBT people are facing aggression, with violence in Bulgaria, new anti-LGBT laws in Hungary and so-called LGBT ideology-free zones continuing to operate in Poland. What is the Foreign Secretary doing to ensure that we do not see a pink curtain descend across Europe?
The hon. Gentleman raises incredibly important points. My position on the importance of promoting and defending the rights of LGBTQ+ people is well known, and that absolutely reflects the British Government’s position. We do not shy away from raising these issues in the conversations we have with those relevant countries where there are issues and where we are seeing a slip backwards, and I can commit to him and the House that we will continue to do so.
A proportion of the gay and lesbian community in Qatar will statistically also be part of the Christian minority, and Qatar has one of the worst records in the world for persecution of Christians. What is the Foreign Secretary going to do about that?
Again, the British Government have a long-standing commitment to the protection of freedom of religion or belief, and we report on it regularly. The Prime Minister has in the past appointed a special envoy for this issue. My ministerial friend Lord Ahmad in the other place champions it when he has conversations in the region. The protection of minorities is an issue that is brought up regularly in the conversations that I have in the region.
Ukraine: War Crimes
The UK has led diplomatic efforts to refer the situation in Ukraine to the International Criminal Court. With the US and EU, we established the Atrocity Crimes Advisory Group. We are working closely with our international partners to ensure that our sanctions are effective, and that those who are responsible for atrocities and breaches of international humanitarian law, at whatever level, are ultimately held accountable for their actions.
I thank the Foreign Secretary for his answer. In her recent visit to Parliament, the first lady of Ukraine highlighted that Russian soldiers had carried out sexual violence, including rape, against Ukrainian women with the consent of their commanders. As the Foreign Secretary will be aware, under UN international law the use of rape in combat is a war crime. Will he set out specifically what he will be doing on the diplomatic stage to ensure that when the war is over, or indeed before then, the soldiers who committed those crimes and the officers who authorised those disgusting and heinous rapes are dealt with in the International Criminal Court?
The hon. Gentleman raises an incredibly important point. I had the privilege of speaking to the first lady at the Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict Initiative conference that we hosted in London recently. I can inform him and the House that this morning we designated 12 more Russian military officers who were in command of Russian troops when atrocities took place. We work closely with the Ukrainian chief prosecutor, the International Criminal Court and our international allies to ensure there is an accountability framework that is effective, from the people on the ground who are perpetrating these crimes directly, to the officers who are ordering them to do that, right up to and including Vladimir Putin himself, who is ultimately responsible for these vile acts, which have taken place because of his invasion of Ukraine.
Does the Foreign Secretary agree that prosecutions and sanctions for atrocities in Ukraine should also be extended to those in Russia who perpetrate violence against women and girls, such as the Russian police officer Ivan Ryabov, who tortured courageous Russian women for speaking out against the brutality done in their name but against their will in Ukraine?
My hon. Friend makes an incredibly important point. There are many, many Russians who are deeply opposed to the invasion that Putin initiated against Ukraine. Their bravery is legion. We have sanctioned more than 1,200 Russians and more than 120 entities as a direct result of Putin’s invasion. I will make note of the name he raised. He and I have discussed this previously, and he will understand that we do not comment on specific designations that might have been brought about.
Labour has been calling for a special tribunal to prosecute Putin personally since March. This is a necessary part of securing justice for the victims of Putin’s war crime, and would add to the legal basis for confiscating frozen Russian assets. The EU has already set out a plan to shift frozen assets into a fund to help rebuild Ukraine, and Canada has already passed laws to do that. Why are the Government not doing the same?
The Government and I have committed to exploring ways of ensuring that those individuals who supported Vladimir Putin—the kleptocrats and oligarchs who have helped to fund this aggression against Ukraine—are not just sanctioned; ultimately, we will look at legally robust mechanisms to seize assets as part of the reparations, rebuilding and reconstruction phase. Of course, we work closely with the Canadian authorities. Canada has a similar legal system to ours, for obvious reasons, and we will explore what it has done to see what we can learn to ensure that whatever vehicle we put in place has the desired effect and is robust.
Northern Ireland Protocol
Fixing the Northern Ireland protocol is a top priority for this Government. Since September I have been in regular contact with Vice-President Šefčovič. We last spoke on 1 December and I will be seeing him for further talks this week. My officials have also been working with our counterparts in the EU on a regular basis to try to resolve the issues, which we recognise—and we are impressing this upon them—are causing serious, genuine and damaging friction in relationships between the various communities in Northern Ireland.
I am grateful to the Foreign Secretary for that answer. It was reported recently that the Prime Minister has assured President Biden that an agreement will be reached with the EU in time for the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday agreement. We also read that the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill is on ice while the negotiations continue. Can the Foreign Secretary assure the House that if an agreement with the EU is reached—and we all hope that will happen—the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill will be dropped?
The Northern Ireland Protocol Bill exists for a reason. The commitment that I made to Maroš Šefčovič in the conversations that I had with him and others was that we would not either artificially accelerate that process or artificially hinder or retard it. We have always said that our preferred option is through negotiations. We speak regularly, the tone is positive, and I think that there is now an understanding that the concerns that we have raised, and that have been raised particularly by the Unionist community in Northern Ireland, are not confected but real, and that any agreement would need to address them.
Is it not the case that there has not been one hour of actual negotiations, because the EU has not extended its mandate to allow for any changes whatsoever in the operation of the current protocol? That being the case, does the Foreign Secretary not believe that the EU will smell weakness in this Government if they take their foot off the pedal with the protocol Bill in the other place? I encourage him to press on with the Bill.
I can assure the hon. Gentleman that the UK negotiating team are very conscious of the frustrations, particularly in the Unionist community in Northern Ireland. But we have also made the point to our interlocutors in the EU that, across communities in Northern Ireland, there is a recognition that the protocol is not working, that it needs to be addressed, and that the relationships between Northern Ireland and Ireland, and between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK—of which Northern Ireland is a part—all have to function properly. That is the underpinning of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement and that is what we seek to achieve through our negotiations.
One needs only to visit the port at Belfast and see the potential for new facilities there to realise the interruption there could be to the vital east-west trade routes that Northern Ireland relies on. Does the Foreign Secretary agree that it is vital that the Government are clear that we do not take anything off the table in getting to an agreement? Even though we want an agreement, we still need all the options to be on the table, to ensure that we get what we need for the United Kingdom.
The United Kingdom’s position has been consistent. We recognise that the way the protocol is working is undermining community cohesion in Northern Ireland and disrupting business flows, particularly east-west between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. These issues have to be addressed. That is, I think, something that the EU negotiating team understand, and we will continue negotiating in good faith. However, as I say, the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill exists for a reason, and we want to ensure that we get a good working resolution that is sustainable for all the communities in Northern Ireland.
For 18 months we have been at an impasse on the Northern Ireland protocol. Instead of negotiations, we have had cheap rhetoric and threats to break agreements. With a UK Government showing determination and diplomatic skill, and an EU willing to be flexible, these problems would be easily resolvable. Is the real problem that the Prime Minister is in the pocket of the European Research Group, too weak to stand up to his Back Benchers, and putting his party before Northern Ireland?
The right hon. Gentleman needs to keep up. We have had very well-tempered negotiations between the UK and EU negotiators. He will find in our public reporting of those negotiations that there has been a high degree of mutual respect. He says that there is an easy resolution. If he believes that, all I would say is that we are waiting to hear it. If it were easy, it would have been done already.
I say to the Foreign Secretary that if politics goes wrong for him, he has a great career in stand-up ahead of him.
This discussion is not happening in a vacuum. The Foreign Secretary will be aware of a poll in The Irish Times yesterday that showed that 54% of the people of Northern Ireland are in favour of EU membership. I want to see a negotiated outcome over the protocol; we all do. There are things with the protocol that need to be addressed, and we all agree on that, but the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill is not the way to do that. Surely he must recognise that it is the biggest block to progress in these talks, and that now is the time to scrap it.
I am the one who has been in the conversations with the EU. I know that it does not particularly like the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill, but, nevertheless, the conversations that I have had with my direct interlocuters and that our officials have been having with their opposite numbers in the EU system have been progressing. As I have said, there are still a number of serious issues that need to be resolved, but we are working in good faith. The Bill exists for a reason and it is important that it is there.
I welcome the hon. Gentleman highlighting the fact that there is pretty much universal agreement now that the protocol needs to be changed, because that is what is driving an increased degree of community tension and disruption in Northern Ireland.
While I am on my feet, let me welcome the hon. Gentleman resuming his place.
We want to see a Commonwealth that delivers greater benefits to all member states across a range of policy priorities, including climate, human rights, health, education and security. We are building long-term partnerships on shared priorities, such as on trade, where we have secured free trade agreements with Australia and New Zealand and are presently negotiating further FTAs with Canada and India.
The Commonwealth is a family of nations that shares the UK’s great values, culture, history and language, and I passionately believe that it is a force for good in an ever more uncertain world, and acts as a bulwark against intolerance and authoritarianism. In the wake of our departure from the EU, what steps is my right hon. Friend taking to deepen our engagement with Commonwealth on matters to do with the economy, foreign policy, culture and security, because they truly are our brothers?
In an increasingly uncertain world, where sovereignty is challenged, the UK believes that the Commonwealth provides an important network of prospering free nations of brothers and sisters. At the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in June, we agreed funding of £270 million to support girls’ education across the Commonwealth and £15 million to help the Commonwealth countries defend themselves against cyber-attacks, and we are supporting small states through our international climate fund.
One way the Minister could help to support the Commonwealth is to support the Chair of the Public Accounts Committee in Montserrat who has been trying to investigate spending under the Deputy Governor’s Department, but has been told that, constitutionally, that is not allowed, even though a significant amount of taxpayers’ money in Montserrat goes into that budget. Perhaps we could have a conversation about that so that we can support proper financial scrutiny of Government spending wherever it happens in the Commonwealth.
One way that we strengthen relations with the Commonwealth is through the work of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, which the Government work with in the UK. You, Mr Speaker, are an extremely supportive co-president and I am proud to be chair. The status of the CPA headquarters as a UK charity is creating significant problems, as the Minister knows from conversations with my predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater and West Somerset (Mr Liddell-Grainger). The noble Lord Goldsmith has met me to hear the importance of changing the status of the CPA, so that our headquarters can remain in the UK, but we need to move quickly to a resolution. Will my right hon. Friend agree to meet me and Lord Goldsmith to effect that change?
The Commonwealth is an incredibly influential body across the whole world and we recognise the good work it does, but we must also recognise the issue of human rights abuses and the persecution of Christians and other ethnic minorities in Commonwealth countries. What discussions has the Minister been able to have with those Commonwealth countries that do not allow freedom of religion or belief and that do persecute people about human rights?
The hon. Gentleman is a stalwart champion on this matter. I can assure him that in all our conversations with the Commonwealth countries within my regional portfolios and those of other Ministers, we always have on our agenda the question of human rights issues. We are a strong and critical friend where we need to be, and that will always continue.
In the Commonwealth we have a unique vehicle with which to engage on the global stage. I welcome the Foreign Secretary’s comments in his speech yesterday, but while Foreign Office budgets are under continual strain and the Department is beset by strategic incoherence, does he accept that under the current approach, his vision is simply unachievable?
I thank the hon. Lady for her comments on the Foreign Secretary’s speech yesterday, which I thought set out very clearly the patient diplomacy that we consider the Commonwealth to be at the heart of. These are long-standing relationships, where we work together to build, to help economies to grow and on mutual security issues. I was out in the Pacific recently, where six of our Commonwealth family are. Working together on maritime security, on climate and on helping them to support their populations for the future is at the heart of what we do.
Saudi Arabia: Human Rights and Death Penalty
Saudi Arabia remains an FCDO human rights priority country, particularly because of the use of the death penalty and restrictions on freedom of expression. We strongly oppose the death penalty in all countries and circumstances. We regularly raise our concerns with the Saudi authorities and will continue to do so. The Minister for the Middle East raised the death penalty and freedom of expression with the Saudi ambassador on 24 November.
I am afraid that recently it feels as if the Government are frightened of saying boo to Saudi Arabia on human rights abuses. The Minister himself, only a few days ago, said that Hussein Abo al-Kheir had been abhorrently tortured by Saudi authorities. He withdrew the remark; as I understand it, the Saudi authorities asked the Foreign Office to withdraw that remark. The truth is that Hussein Abo al-Kheir has been tortured and he has been on death row since 2015. The Saudi Government executed 81 people on one day earlier this year and are intending to execute a large number more later this year. They have already reneged on all of their promises on ending the death penalty for non-violent crimes. Will the Minister please go back to Saudi Arabia and make it clear that this country abhors torture and the death penalty?
I corrected my answer to the right hon. Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn) to clarify that those were allegations of torture, as I underline again today. That is consistent with the line I used in my opening remarks on this issue in the urgent question on 28 November. I also contacted the right hon. Gentleman to ensure that he was aware of the correction. Notwithstanding that, of course it is vital that we continue to raise these issues, as Lord Ahmad has done and will continue to do.
I am sure the Minister would agree that, in moving away from any possible reliance on Russian energy supplies, the UK should not simply choose further dependency on a different authoritarian regime. It has been reported that the former Chancellor, the right hon. Member for Spelthorne (Kwasi Kwarteng), when he was Business Secretary, held undisclosed meetings with Saudi Arabian firms. Will the Minister tell us what was discussed—and if he cannot, why can he not?
These protests in Iran are a watershed moment. After years of repression, the Iranian people have clearly had enough. They are standing up to the authoritarian regime under which they live. Sadly, the regime has responded in the only way it knows: with violence. The UK is committed to holding Iran to account, including with more than 300 sanctions—including the sanctioning of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in its entirety. We will continue to work with partners to challenge the regime’s aggression at home and its disruptive behaviour in the region.
I thank the Secretary of State for his answer. Iranians are being hanged from cranes with black bags over their heads and their hands and feet bound while Iranian weapons are being used to perpetrate Putin’s illegal war murdering Ukrainians. Will the Secretary of State join me in condemning those human rights violations and tell me exactly what sanctions he will bring forward against Raisi’s abhorrent regime?
I personally and the UK Government have regularly condemned the abuses in Iran. Of course, I recognise that that tone is reflected right across the House. We have sanctioned the morality police; we have sanctioned the Iranian judges whom we know to be involved in those secret trials. We will continue to work with our international partners, and directly, to sanction the members of the Iranian regime who continue to abuse the human rights of the people within that country.
The Minister has rightly identified that the clerical fascist regime in Tehran is increasingly using violence and terror in trying to crush the popular protests there, while also destabilising the region through proxies, as well as further afield. He knows that a vital underpinning of this dreadful regime’s activities is the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. He mentioned working with other parties; he knows that the United States has already taken action to proscribe the IRGC. Will that finally persuade him to sanction to the IRGC?
We already sanction the IRGC in its entirety. We will continue to work closely with our friends in the international community to prevent the point that the right hon. Gentleman raises: the exporting of attack drones and other munitions to Russia, which are then being used by Vladimir Putin’s troops to attack civilians and civilian infrastructure in Ukraine. We will continue to sanction individuals, and as I say, the IRGC is already sanctioned in its entirety.
The Metropolitan police have warned about threats described as an “imminent, credible risk” to life against British-Iranian journalists in the United Kingdom. The Iranian regime has also threatened BBC Persian journalists. I ask the Foreign Secretary again to set out what further targeted sanctions the Government will be taking against the whole Iranian regime and, more importantly, to ensure that the Government act against any threats to individuals in the United Kingdom.
The hon. Gentleman will understand that it is counterproductive to detail what future sanctions designations might be brought in—we want to ensure that the targets of those sanctions do not in any way try to evade the sanctions before they are brought in. The UK remains absolutely determined to ensure that Iran does not intimidate people within this country. We will always stand up to aggression from foreign nations. We will absolutely not tolerate threats, particularly towards journalists who are highlighting what is going on in Iran, or indeed towards any other individual living in the UK. On 11 November, I summoned the Iranian chargé d’affaires to highlight the UK’s position on this; and, working with our colleagues in the Home Office, we ensured that the Iranian journalists who were under threat according to our information were protected by the British police.
Recognition of Genocide
The long-standing position of the UK Government is that genocide recognition is a matter for competent courts, rather than Governments or non-judicial bodies. Our position in no way detracts from our recognition that the Holodomor is an appalling tragedy and an important part of the history of Ukraine and Europe. Similarly, although the massacres committed against Armenian people in the early 20th century were a tragic episode in that country’s history that should never be forgotten, the Government have no plans to recognise these appalling events as genocide.
November’s Holodomor Memorial Day to remember Stalin’s enforced starvation of millions of Ukrainians with the intended purpose of wiping out their entire culture and society particularly resonated in this 90th year, given what Putin is doing at the moment in that country. Every March, the Armenian diaspora solemnly commemorates the systematic extermination of more than 1 million of their forebears over an eight-year period, and there is also trouble in that region now in Nagorno-Karabakh. Our closest ally, the US, recognises both of these as genocide. Given the painful reverberations today, why can’t we?
As I have said, our consistent view across successive Governments—not just this one—is that the recognition of genocide is a matter for judicial bodies, not Governments. However, we take allegations seriously, and we work hard to end violations of international human rights law, to prevent escalations of such violations and to alleviate the suffering of those affected.
Officials have assessed the merits of establishing an FCDO centre of expertise to support democratic governance around the world; and, funding permitting, we fully intend to establish one to address the democratic deficit that the world is facing.
I am encouraged to hear that, because as Ministers know, democracy is in decline globally—not everywhere, but in aggregate—and therefore, drawing on 30 years of experience, the Westminster Foundation for Democracy’s proposal is to help the FCDO build a democracy strategy, which includes this centre of expertise designed to help our embassies and high commissioners abroad. Will my right hon. Friend therefore agree to meet with the WFD as soon as possible to discuss how best we can take these proposals forward?
I certainly will, and I congratulate the Westminster Foundation for Democracy on its 30 years. Across the House, Members have advanced democracy and accountability and, despite huge pressures on our budget, there will be no reductions in the Westminster Foundation’s budget this year. May I finally commend the tremendous work being done on LGBT+ rights around the world, specifically in 20 countries?
Israel and Palestine
As a friend of Israel, we have a regular dialogue on human rights and all matters relating to the occupation. That includes encouraging the Government of Israel to abide by their obligations under international law. We are concerned by instability on the west bank and call on all sides to work together to urgently de-escalate the situation.
In the past year, we have had three compelling reports, produced by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the Israeli organisation B’Tselem. All of them accuse the Israeli authorities of committing the crime of apartheid. We have had plans published recently to effectively annex the west bank into Israel, and we now have the appointment of violently racist Ministers into the Israeli Government. Is it not time to step up the diplomatic pressure on Israel to ensure that it abides by international law and upholds the rights of Palestinians?
First, we do not recognise the terminology about apartheid. Any judgment on serious crimes under international law is a matter for judicial decision, rather than for Governments or non-judicial bodies. We do work closely with the Israeli Government. We condemn any incidents of violence by settlers against the Palestinians.
Africa: Sovereign Debt
The significant debt vulnerabilities in many sub-Saharan African countries create risks for their growth, development and stability.
I thank the Minister for his reply. We have seen crippling crises affect various parts of Africa this year, from drought in the horn of Africa to floods in Nigeria. The debt burden of many low and middle income countries impacts the state’s capacity to cope, and the crisis only worsens the economic outlook further. As the charity Debt Justice has proposed, will the Government commit to supporting a universal framework for debt cancellation when an extreme climate event strikes, to prevent that double whammy?
We look at every way of helping to address the problem that the hon. Lady sets out. We are providing bilateral technical assistance to help many countries better manage their public funding, and we are working with partners in the Paris Club and the G20 on how to address international debt issues together. We have already seen the progress that results from that in Ghana, where I am going today, and in Malawi.
Is my right hon. Friend concerned, as I am, that Chinese sovereign debt is perhaps understated in countries such as Zambia, where banks lend directly to the Government but are effectively controlled by the ministry of finance in China? Will he do more to understand the totality of the debt and the indebtedness of specific countries to the Chinese Government?
Yes. My right hon. Friend makes a very good point, and we need to show through what we do that there is a much better alternative. In 2020, we provided debt relief on repayments to the International Monetary Fund for 23 countries and contributed £150 million to the IMF catastrophe containment and relief trust. It is by doing such things that we show that there is a better way than the one the Chinese are using.
The IMF says that three out of five of the world’s poorest countries are now in debt distress. The last Labour Government cancelled billions of pounds of multilateral debt. Any solution now depends on China, which receives 66% of all bilateral payments, and private creditors such as BlackRock. The future of millions of the world’s poorest depends on halting debt defaults, so what steps will the Government now take to engage seriously with China and bring forward the incentives, regulation and education needed to force private creditors to the table?
The shadow Minister makes a good point. I think she is referring specifically to vulture funds, which we will certainly address. I want to make it clear to the House that we are working very closely with the international financial community. We understand absolutely the risks of instability that the situation creates, and the hon. Lady will have seen the work on stabilisation that has been done by both the Africa Development Bank and the World Bank.
Ukraine: Energy Supplies
We are supporting Ukraine on air defence to help to protect its critical national infrastructure against Russian attacks, and providing support to repair and restore energy infrastructure. We have provided £22 million to Ukraine’s energy sector and a $50 million financial guarantee to their electricity operator.
Fully 40% of energy infrastructure in Ukraine has been damaged or destroyed since Putin’s illegal invasion. After one strike in October, 1.5 million households were without electricity, and a winter of freezing days and dark nights lies ahead for many in Ukraine. I welcome the aid that my right hon. Friend mentions, and the £10 million that has been donated to the Ukraine energy support fund, but does she back the Business Secretary’s calls to UK business to help the UK Government and make donations of emergency energy equipment to Ukraine?
My hon. Friend is right that the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and the Department for International Trade are mobilising UK industry. The DIT held an event in Manchester yesterday with UK supply chain companies to encourage them to find ways to supply Ukraine with energy equipment and services. High-voltage transformers and more generators—the UK has already provided 850—will continue to be needed through the winter.
Afghan Citizens Resettlement Scheme
The UK has already resettled more than 6,300 people through various resettlement schemes. In the first phase of the Afghan resettlement scheme pathway 3, we will offer up to 1,500 places. We have received 11,400 expressions of interest and we are working through those quickly. We have disbursed £228 million since April 2022, on top of £286 million in aid for Afghanistan last financial year.
The Foreign Secretary says that he is working quickly, yet we know that zero Afghans have been resettled under the ACRS. No wonder yesterday the Minister of State, the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell), admitted that we must do better when confronted with the staggering delay. I am in touch with Chevening alumni, for example, who have been living in fear of their lives for more than 16 months now. By the Government’s own admission, pathway 3 in its first year will help only 400 applicants and their families—a tiny number—out of more than 11,000. Will the Foreign Secretary and the Home Office urgently supercharge the scheme, increase the number of people working on it in the Department and, crucially, allow the 20,000 people Ministers say they want to help over five years to come now? They cannot wait for another four or five years; they are in fear of their lives now.
I have to correct the hon. Lady. She says that we have not made any resettlements under the ACRS. As I said in my answer, we have granted indefinite leave to remain to 6,300 eligible people. I think that she was making specific reference to pathway 3, which we are working on, but the House ought to recognise that we have already given indefinite leave to remain to more than 6,000 eligible people.
Last year my team and I heard countless harrowing, brutal stories of people and their families being murdered in Afghanistan, often while on the phone to my casework team. My team are still shocked and triggered by that awful experience; by the pictures they saw and the voicemails they heard. The FCDO really has to do a lot more to make sure that more people in Afghanistan do not die at the hands of the Taliban. I do not know whether I am going to correct my friend the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas), but my understanding is that only four Afghans have been resettled under the ACRS. Many of my constituents have lost loved ones, so I want to know just two things from the Foreign Secretary: what support is being offered to Afghan refugees currently stuck in Pakistan, and what will he be doing to speak to Home Office colleagues and ensure that this absolute mess of resettling people is sorted out promptly?
Yet again, I have to correct the hon. Gentleman. He said that only four people had been settled under the ACRS. I say again, for the third time, that around 6,300 eligible people have been granted indefinite leave to remain under the referral pathways of the ACRS. We will of course continue to work both across HMG and with our international partners to resettle at-risk Afghans, and will particularly look at the individuals who have been supportive of the UK, and those particularly at risk because they are women, academics or members of the judiciary.
Since being appointed, this ministerial team and I have criss-crossed the globe on behalf of the British people, including making visits to Somalia, Australia and Colombia. The Minister for Europe has visited more than half a dozen European capitals, I have been to multilateral events such as NATO, the G7 Foreign Ministers meeting and COP27 in Egypt. We do so to strengthen our bilateral and multilateral relationships so that we can address pressing issues such as illicit migration, climate change and the pressures being felt around the globe as a result of Russia’s illegal and unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.
I thank the Secretary of State for that response, but I am disappointed that he failed to mention the news this weekend that more than 11,000 children have been killed or maimed in the war in Yemen. As he knows, the truce has collapsed, escalation is feared and the humanitarian situation is desperate. In the past he has defended UK arms sales to Saudi Arabia on the basis of the UK’s strict arms export licensing criteria. Since the Government watered down those criteria—
I can inform the hon. Lady that I had a meeting with my Yemeni counterpart at COP27 in Egypt. I know that the plight of the Yemeni people is close to the hearts of many Members of the House. It remains a focus of the UK Government. We call on all sides involved in the conflict, especially the Houthis, to abide by the ceasefire agreement, but of course Saudi Arabia has, as all countries have, a legitimate right to self-defence.
My hon. Friend has a long track record of pursuing these important matters. We are raising this matter with the Government of Pakistan, and we will make sure he hears the outcome of those representations in due course.
Last week, the courageous Dunn family finally secured some justice for Harry, but the disrespect that they received from Ministers at the FCDO was a disgrace. Given the latest allegations that a bullying Tory Minister caused delays to Afghan evacuations, does the Foreign Secretary accept the need for an independent review of whether there has been a toxic culture at the FCDO that is undermining Britain on the global stage?
I completely reject the points the right hon. Gentleman has made. I pay tribute to my predecessor, the former Foreign Secretary, for the work that he did pursuing justice for the Dunn family, and I think it is completely inappropriate for the right hon. Gentleman to suggest anything otherwise.
My hon. Friend makes an incredibly important point. We have summoned senior Iranian diplomats to make clear the UK’s position on the brutality they are meting out on their own people, we have sanctioned judges involved in the secret courts that have imposed the death sentence on Iranian protesters, and we will continue to push the Iranian regime to do better.
My hon. Friend, who speaks with great passion and authority on this issue, knows that it is a long-standing Government policy that we do not speculate on future proscriptions. He will know that we have sanctioned the IRGC in its entirety, and we have brought specific actions against individuals who we know to be involved either with arms distributions or violations of international humanitarian law.
All British aid must be spent in accordance with the OECD Development Assistance Committee rules governing its spending. The hon. Member is talking about the expenditure on the first year of a refugee’s time in the United Kingdom, and that is absolutely legitimate expenditure under the official development assistance rules.
Last week, G7 nations imposed a cap on the price of Russian oil exports in an attempt to limit the revenue fuelling Putin’s war in Ukraine. As G7 nations have already largely ceased purchasing oil from Russia, can my right hon. Friend explain to the House how this measure will be effective?
We are working alongside the G7 to end that reliance on Russian energy and with the international community to open up alternative sources of energy, ensuring market stability. We introduced an oil price cap designed to enable countries to access the oil they need at affordable prices while undermining Russia’s ability to profit from inflated prices.
I met the President and Foreign Minister of the newly installed Iraqi Government when I was in Egypt, and we of course have a very good working relationship with both Irbil and Baghdad. It is in the interests of all Iraqis that the relationship between Irbil and Baghdad is fruitful and we will continue to invest diplomatic effort to ensure that continues.
We have heard how Putin’s henchmen in the Wagner Group are implicated in many barbaric war crimes in Ukraine, including a brutal assassination of a defector, and how they are sending Russian prisoners to their deaths as cannon fodder, and a massacre in Mali. Do we let this evil continue or should the UK proscribe the Wagner Group as a terrorist organisation?
My right hon. Friend rightly speaks with great passion about this as there has been terrible behaviour by members of the Wagner Group. She has been in my position so will recognise that we do not speculate on future proscription, but the actions of the Wagner Group are being watched by this Government and other Governments around the world.
In the south-east corner of Europe, Azerbaijan is again waging a human rights abuse against the people of Armenia. Today it has cut off the Lachin corridor, cutting off the Armenian population of Nagorno-Karabakh from Armenia, on top of the continued detention of prisoners of war, their torture, and lobbing shells into Armenian sovereign territory. Will the Foreign Secretary haul in the Azerbaijan ambassador, read him the riot act and take a delegation of the all-party group on Armenia—I declare an interest as its chair—to put a stop to this continued attempt at genocide and ethnic cleansing?
The management of the official development assistance budget has been chaotic, leading to a freeze in so called non-essential spending. Can the Minister tell us what the impacts have been and will he publish any impact assessment that has been done?
The first thing to say is that the pause has now been lifted. I know there is some concern in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency about the R&D spend, and I am very pleased to tell him that, despite the extremely difficult circumstances of the ODA budget, we do not expect there to be a reduction in that level of spend.
The backlog of academic technology approval scheme certifications means that many research projects at Durham University are being delayed. What actions are being taken to ensure that any cases my office raises with the Department are investigated and responded to immediately?
What is the Foreign Office going to do about the significant delays in the academic technology approval scheme, which is preventing professors at Edinburgh University and Heriot-Watt University from getting the top PhD candidates?
ATAS continues to be an essential tool to prevent sensitive UK technologies from reaching military programmes of concern, so we are proud of the work done by our incredible team to monitor and manage every single case. I am happy to sit down with the hon. and learned Lady if there are specific cases that she wishes me to look at.
Yesterday, I learned that I was to be sanctioned by the Iranian regime for my support for human rights and freedom in Iran. I assure the House that that support will continue unabated. What support are the Government giving to the BBC Persian service?
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will wear that sanction designation as a badge of honour, because the point that he has made in standing up for the voice of the Iranian people who are being oppressed by their own regime is an important one. We take the protection of people here in the UK, whether British nationals or Iranians, incredibly seriously, and I will work with the Home Office to ensure that that protection is meaningful and strong.
We know about the draconian restrictions faced by women and girls in Afghanistan. The new all-party parliamentary group for Afghan women and girls, which I co-chair, has written to the Foreign Secretary and looks forward to his response. Will he commit that in any conversations or negotiations that he has with the Taliban, the rights of women and girls in Afghanistan will be prioritised?
The protection of women and girls remains an absolute foundation stone of Britain’s foreign policy. We look upon the images we see coming out of Afghanistan, with humiliation and abuse meted out against Afghan women, and take our response incredibly seriously. I assure her that that will always be a firm point when we raise things with the Afghanistan Government.
Before I start, I know that the whole House will want to join me in expressing our sympathies to the families of those who lost their children in Solihull.
With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement on illegal migration. I hope that the whole House will agree that there is a complex moral dimension to illegal migration. The balancing of our duty to support people in dire need with the responsibility to have genuine control over our borders understandably provokes strong feelings. So it is my view that the basis for any solution should be not just what works but what is right.
The simplest moral framing for this issue, and one that I believe Members on both sides of the House believe in, is fairness. It is unfair that people come here illegally. It is unfair on those with a genuine case for asylum when our capacity to help is taken up by people coming through—and from—countries that are perfectly safe. It is unfair on those who migrate here legally when others come here by cheating the system. Above all, it is unfair on the British people who play by the rules when others come here illegally and benefit from breaking those rules. So people are right to be angry, because they see what I see, which is that this simply is not fair.
It is not cruel or unkind to want to break the stranglehold of criminal gangs who trade in human misery and who exploit our system and laws. Enough is enough. As currently constructed, the global asylum framework has become obsolete. Today, there are 100 million people displaced globally. Hostile states are using migration as a weapon on the very borders of Europe. As the world becomes more unstable, and the effects of climate change make more places uninhabitable, the numbers displaced will only grow.
We have a proud history of providing sanctuary to those most in need. Britain helped craft the 1951 refugee convention to protect those fleeing persecution. My right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May) passed the world’s first Modern Slavery Act in 2015. In the last year, we have opened our hearts and our homes to people from Hong Kong, Afghanistan and Ukraine. Thousands of families will be setting extra places around the Christmas table this year. No one—no one—can doubt our generosity of spirit.
But today, far too many of the beneficiaries of that generosity are not those directly fleeing war zones or at risk of persecution, but people crossing the channel in small boats. Many originate from fundamentally safe countries. All travel through safe countries. Their journeys are not ad hoc, but co-ordinated by ruthless, organised criminals. And every single journey risks the lives of women, children and—we should be honest—mostly men at sea.
This is not what previous generations intended when they drafted our humanitarian laws, nor is it the purpose of the numerous international treaties to which the UK is a signatory. Unless we act now and decisively, this will only get worse. Already in just seven weeks since I became Prime Minister, we have delivered the largest ever small boats deal with France, with significantly more boots on the ground patrolling their beaches. For the first time, UK and French officers are embedded in respective operations in Dover and northern France. We have re-established the Calais group of northern European nations to disrupt traffickers all along the migration route. Last week, the group set a long-term ambition for a UK-EU-wide agreement on migration. Of course, that is not a panacea and we need to go much further. Over the last month, the Home Secretary and I have studied every aspect of this issue in detail, and we can now set out five new steps today.
First, our policing of the channel has been too fragmented, with different people doing different things being pulled in different directions. So we will establish a new, permanent, unified small boats operational command. This will bring together our military, our civilian capabilities and the National Crime Agency. It will co-ordinate our intelligence, interception, processing and enforcement, and use all available technology, including drones for reconnaissance and surveillance, to pick people up and identify and then prosecute more gang-led boat pilots. We are adding more than 700 new staff and also doubling the funding given to the NCA for tackling organised immigration crime in Europe.
Secondly, those extra resources will free up immigration officers to go back to enforcement, which will, in turn, allow us to increase raids on illegal working by 50%. And it is frankly absurd that today illegal migrants can get bank accounts which help them live and work here. So we will re-start data sharing to stop that.
Thirdly, it is unfair and appalling that we are spending £5.5 million every day on using hotels to house asylum seekers. We must end this. We will shortly bring forward a range of alternative sites, such as disused holiday parks, former student halls and surplus military sites. We have already identified locations that could accommodate 10,000 people, and are in active discussions to secure these and more. [Interruption.]
Order. Someone has flashed a camera. It is quite serious to take photographs in the Chamber. If the Member knew they had taken a photograph, I would expect them to leave the Chamber. It is totally unacceptable to disrupt the Prime Minister when he is speaking.
These sites will accommodate 10,000 people, and we are in active discussions to secure them and many more. Our aim is to add thousands of places through this type of accommodation in the coming months, at half the cost of hotels. At the same time, as we consulted on over the summer, the cheapest and fairest way to solve this problem is for all local authorities to take their fair share of asylum seekers in the private rental sector, and we will work to achieve this as quickly as possible.
Fourthly, we need to process claims in days or weeks, not months or years, so we will double the number of asylum caseworkers. We are radically re-engineering the end-to-end process, with shorter guidance, fewer interviews and less paperwork, and we are introducing specialist caseworkers by nationality. We will also remove the gold-plating in our modern slavery system, including by reducing the cooling-off period from 45 days to 30 days, the legal minimum set out in the Council of Europe convention on action against trafficking in human beings. As a result of all these changes, we will triple the productivity of our caseworkers and we expect to abolish the backlog of initial asylum decisions by the end of next year.
Fifthly, and most significantly, a third of all those arriving in small boats this year, almost 13,000 people, are Albanian, yet Albania is a safe, prosperous European country. It is deemed safe for returns by Germany, France, Italy and Sweden. It is an EU accession country, a NATO ally and a member of the same convention against trafficking as the United Kingdom. The Prime Minister of Albania has himself said there is no reason why we cannot return Albanian asylum seekers immediately. Last year, Germany, France, Belgium and Sweden all rejected almost 100% of Albanian asylum claims, yet our rejection rate is just 45%. That must not continue, so today I can announce a new agreement with Albania and a new approach.
First, we will embed Border Force officers in Tirana airport for the first time ever, helping to disrupt organised crime and stop people coming here illegally. Secondly, we will issue new guidance for our caseworkers to make it crystal clear that Albania is a safe country. Thirdly, one of the reasons why we struggle to remove people is that they unfairly exploit our modern slavery system, so we will significantly raise the threshold someone must meet to be considered a modern slave. For the first time, we will require a caseworker to have objective evidence of modern slavery, rather than just a suspicion. Fourthly, we have sought and received formal assurances from Albania confirming that it will protect genuine victims and people at risk of re-trafficking, allowing us to detain and return people to Albania with confidence and in line with ECAT. As a result of these changes, the vast majority of claims from Albania can simply be declared clearly unfounded, and those individuals can be swiftly returned. Lastly, we will change how we process Albanian illegal migrants with a new dedicated unit, staffed by 400 new specialists, expediting cases within weeks. Over the coming months, thousands of Albanians will be returned home, and we will keep going with weekly flights until all the Albanians in our backlog have been removed.
In addition to all these new steps, let the House be in no doubt that, when legal proceedings conclude on our migration and economic development partnership, we will restart the first flights to Rwanda, so that those who are here illegally and cannot be returned to their home country can build a new life there.
However, even with the huge progress that we will make with the changes I have announced today, there remains a fundamental question: how do we solve this problem once and for all? It is not just our asylum system that needs fundamental reform; our laws need reform too. We must be able to control our borders to ensure that the only people who come here come through safe and legal routes. However well intended, our legal frameworks are being manipulated by people who exploit our courts to frustrate their removal for months or years on end.
I said, “Enough is enough”, and I meant it. That means that I am prepared to do what must be done, so early next year we will introduce new legislation to make it unambiguously clear that, if you enter the UK illegally, you should not be able to remain here. Instead, you will be detained and swiftly returned either to your home country or to a safe country where your asylum claim will be considered. You will no longer be able to frustrate removal attempts with late or spurious claims or appeals, and once removed, you should have no right to re-entry, settlement or citizenship.
Furthermore, if our reforms on Albania are challenged in the courts, we will also put them on a statutory footing to ensure that the UK’s treatment of Albanian arrivals is no different from that of Germany or France. The only way to come to the UK for asylum will be through safe and legal routes and, as we get a grip on illegal migration, we will create more of those routes. We will work with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to identify those who are most in need so that the UK remains a safe haven for the most vulnerable. We will also introduce an annual quota on numbers, set by Parliament in consultation with local authorities to determine our capacity, and amendable in the face of humanitarian emergencies.
That is the fair way to address this global challenge. Tackling this problem will not be quick; it will not be easy; but it is the right thing to do. We cannot persist with a system that was designed for a different era. We have to stop the boats, and this Government will do what must be done. We will be tough but fair, and where we lead, others will follow. I commend this statement to the House.
I thank the Prime Minister for advance sight of his statement. I also echo his comments about the tragic loss of life in Solihull, which is unimaginably unbearable for the families, the friends, and the whole community.
Channel crossings are a serious problem requiring serious solutions. We need leadership at home and abroad, we need a Home Office that functions effectively, and we need to defeat the criminal gangs operating on the coast. Time and again, however, this Government have not provided serious solutions. The Prime Minister sat around the Cabinet table the whole time. Where there should have been solutions, we have had unworkable gimmicks.
As I listened to the Prime Minister’s statement, I thought, “All of that has been said before, almost word for word.” It was said the last time we had measures—the last time we had legislation. There have been plenty of newspaper headlines about wave machines, prison ships and fantasy islands, but there has been no effective action. It is all designed to mask failure, to distract from a broken asylum system that cannot process claims, cannot return those with no right to be here, and cannot protect our borders.
Over 40,000 people have crossed the channel this year—that is a record—but only 2% have had their asylum claim processed. What happens to the other 98%? They are placed in hotels, costing around £7 million a day. That is bad for refugees who want to rebuild their lives and bad for taxpayers. And 2022 is not just a one-off bad year; it has been bad under the Tories for years. Last year, the percentage of channel crossing asylum claims processed was just 4%. Let those figures sink in, because that is the root of the problem. Something has to be done to clear the backlog.
I welcome the commitment to fast-track clearly unfounded claims. That is what we have been calling for, and Britain is two years behind so many of our neighbours and allies, who have been fast-tracking for years. Can the Prime Minister confirm—I want to have an answer on this—that he will clear the backlog by the end of next year? That is 150,000 cases in the backlog—[Interruption.] I know he has said it, but there are 150,000 cases, including the 100,000 that have been there for over six months. We need clarity about that.
I also welcome more staff for processing. It is appalling that the Government let the backlog get this big. Nearly 100,000 cases have been waiting more than six months for a decision. That is the root cause. But processing is only part of the answer. Criminal gangs are sending these people to risk their lives, and they thrive because of a total failure of any co-ordinated response or effective deterrent to their criminal activity. For months, we have been calling for action to tackle this root cause: a specialist cell in the National Crime Agency to catch, prosecute and disband criminal gangs. We need to be working internationally to end this cross-border crime. Again, new staff are welcome, but can the Prime Minister guarantee that that will result in prosecutions of those who put lives and national security at risk?
Money is being wasted on the unworkable, unethical plan to deport people to Rwanda: £140 million has been wasted already, with not a single deportation. The most senior civil servant in the Home Office is the only one in Government to tell the truth: it does not even work as a deterrent. The Prime Minister has promised more legislation, but the last time the Government legislated to tackle the broken asylum system, they made it worse. Since the Nationality and Borders Act 2022 came into force, crossings and delays have increased, and 18,000 cases have been put through the new process, adding a further six months, with only 21 returns. That is slow track, not fast track. How can the Prime Minister have any credibility to say that new legislation is going to be the answer? The unworkable gimmicks go on, and so do the crossings. We need to bring this to an end, and that means a proper plan to crack down on the gangs, quick processing, return agreements: serious solutions to a serious problem. That is what Labour will offer.
That speaks for itself, quite frankly. We are not going to take any lectures from the Labour party on tackling immigration. The right hon. and learned Gentleman has consistently tried to block steps to strengthen Britain’s approach to illegal migration throughout his career. Since he was elected, he has failed on 36 occasions to vote for stronger laws and we heard that again today. He talks about processing and about the hotels, but the only way to stop that problem is to stop the boats. We are the only party that has a plan to tackle these issues, with a new small boats operational command in the channel, deals with Albania and France, cheaper accommodation, tougher immigration enforcement, and new legislation making it clear in law for the first time that, if you come here illegally, you cannot stay. Labour now has a choice: will it show that it is on the side of the British people and back our plans to stop illegal migration? The right hon. Gentleman may want to stand in our way. He may want to block laws. We are going to block the boats.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his reference to my passing of the Modern Slavery Act 2015. Does he agree that, in dealing with asylum claims, the onus must be on the Home Office to improve its processing; that, contrary to what is said by some commentators and, sadly, some Members of this House, people smuggling and human trafficking are distinct and separate crimes and should not be treated or spoken of as one; that modern slavery is a real and current threat, with too many people brought to this country into slavery; and that we must do nothing to diminish our world-leading protections for the victims of this terrible, horrific crime?
I know the whole House will want to join me in paying tribute to my right hon. Friend for her global leadership on that issue. She is absolutely right that it is incumbent on us to ensure our processing is swift and effective. I know she will want to join me in ensuring that our world-leading modern slavery regime actually helps the people who are most in need and most vulnerable. They are the people who need our support and that is what our reforms today will deliver.
I wish to begin by passing on my thoughts and those of my colleagues to the families and friends of those impacted by the terrible tragedy in Solihull.
I am going to start by saying something that I think many on the Benches behind the Prime Minister wish they could say. Nobody is illegal. Indeed, there is no such thing as an illegal asylum seeker. But what we all agree on is that the UK’s system is broken and we cannot escape from the fact of who has broken it. To address some of the problems that are faced, I welcome some of what the Prime Minister said. I have personally visited hotel accommodation and seen the damaging impact that those long stays have had on people within it, so I hope we can all agree on the positive words about speeding up the process.
However, I have grave concerns about the proposed legislation, about the proposals on accommodation and about the one-size-fits-all approach to asylum seekers emanating from Albania. In that regard, I ask the Prime Minister a simple question: has he consulted with the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees in respect of these proposals? If not, why not?
Ultimately, the solutions lie not in any of the above proposals but in ensuring that safe and legal routes exist. The Prime Minister made extensive reference to safe and legal routes, so let him rise to his feet and outline one single safe and legal route—perhaps for a family member of an asylum seeker in Afghanistan. The Home Secretary of course could not do so last week.
It would be remiss of all of us in the Chamber not to reflect on the independent Migration Advisory Committee’s report from this morning, which detailed how important migration is to our public sector, our private sector and indeed our economy. How on earth does the Government’s hostile approach to migration assist with that proposal?
I am happy to tell the hon. Gentleman that the Development Secretary met the UN High Commissioner for Refugees last weekend. A point of difference between us and the Opposition parties is that we believe that we should not need the permission of someone outside to control our own borders.
The hon. Gentleman also asked about Albania and our approach. I gently point out to him that what we are doing is in line with what almost every other European country already does with regard to Albanian migrants.
Lastly, the hon. Gentleman made the frankly absurd claim that we do not have safe and legal routes into the UK. In the last few years, we have made offers of over 450,000 places to welcome people from Afghanistan, Syria, Hong Kong and, most recently, Ukraine. That is because this is a compassionate, tolerant country, and it always will be.
The parliamentary leader of the SNP, the hon. Member for Aberdeen South (Stephen Flynn), can put down a debate on legal migration for next week; the subject today is illegal immigration.
The questions in front of the House and the country are: how can people be safe, how can their status be determined, will the action work, is it necessary, and is it right? I think most people listening, whether they normally support the SNP, Labour or the Conservatives, will say, “Yes, it is necessary, it will work, and it should go ahead.”
I thank my hon. Friend for his support. As he knows, this problem is complicated—it is not easy, and it will not be solved overnight—but I believe the plan that we have outlined today represents the most serious step forward in getting a grip of it. The task for us now is to deliver on it. With his support and everyone else’s, I am confident that we can.
In our report on small boat crossings published in July, the Home Affairs Committee made it clear that the No. 1 priority for Government should be to clear the asylum backlog, so we are pleased that that is now starting to be addressed. However, the backlog of 150,000 has been building since 2013, so the more recent small boat crossings have not broken the asylum system.
We noted how important it was to have sufficiently well trained, motivated and supported decision makers to make good-quality first decisions, but despite promises to increase decision-making numbers, targets have been missed, and the staff attrition rate in 2021 was a staggering 46%. In addition, the technology that staff use is creakingly antiquated and was reported by the chief inspector of borders and immigration as hampering productivity.
Will the Prime Minister ensure that he has sufficient staff to carry out what he is seeking to do? With productivity currently at 1.3 decisions per decision maker per week, with a Home Office pilot to increase that figure to 2.7, can he explain exactly how he is going to triple productivity?
I thank the Chair of the Select Committee for her excellent questions; they are the right questions to focus on. We have redesigned the entire process for caseworking on an end-to-end basis, which will take productivity from 1.2, as she says it is today, up to 4. We will do that in a relatively short period; that is how we will cut the initial asylum backlog by the end of the next year. That process is being rolled out as we speak.
The right hon. Lady talked about the reason for the backlog. It is worth bearing in mind that the number of small boat crossings has quadrupled in just the last two years. That is the scale of the challenge that we are facing, and that is leading to significant strain on the system. She also asked about numbers. We have already, in the last year, doubled the number of caseworkers to 1,200, and it will be doubling again in the next nine to 12 months.
Lastly, I will just say that a big part of the reason why our processing is slower than we would like is that, time and again, people exploit our system to make late or spurious claims. That is why our new legislation will tackle that problem, and I hope it has the support of the Labour party.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his statement and for the initiatives that he has taken with Monsieur Macron and the Prime Minister of Albania. Those are two small but significant steps forward. I also appreciate the fact that he is clearly going to take personal charge of the backlog and ensure that the lamentable performance of the Home Office to date is rectified. However, does he agree that the only way that this problem will be solved is on a pan-European basis and not domestically, and that if we are going to deal with it, we have to deal with Schengen and with countries beyond Schengen, and reach agreements? Will he use all his efforts to seek to secure that?
I thank my right hon. Friend for his excellent question and for his very constructive engagement with me and Ministers on resolving this issue. I know he speaks up very well for his local area on these matters. He is absolutely right, which why it is so crucial that, in the last few weeks, not only have we restarted meetings of the Calais group of European nations, which the Home Secretary deserves enormous credit for, but she has put that group on a permanent basis. We are making sure that we now go further, working with Frontex, the European border agency, towards a European returns agreement for the first time ever. That is the path forward. The best way to solve this problem is upstream, working with our allies in northern Europe, and the plans and progress that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has made are going to deliver exactly that.
Our thoughts and prayers are with the families and community in Solihull who have lost their young sons.
Some 97,000 people have been waiting for a decision on their asylum claim for six months or more. That is 97,000 people trapped for months in Home Office limbo, banned from working, while the NHS, social care, agriculture and hospitality are all desperately short of staff. Last month it was revealed that even the Home Office’s own analysis shows that the right to work does not act as a pull factor for asylum seekers, so will the Prime Minister end this absurd ban on work, to save taxpayers money and help to grow our economy?
The simple answer is no. We will not do that, nor will we grant blanket amnesties, as happened in the past, to get the backlog down. We will go through it methodically and properly. The best way to reduce the pressure on the backlog is to stop people coming here in the first place, and if the right hon. Gentleman is interested in doing that, he should support our new legislation.
I warmly welcome today’s announcements. They are exactly what is needed—I cannot think of anything more articulate to say than that—but will my right hon. Friend reiterate the importance of the Rwanda flights as part of the measures to address illegal immigration? That is such an important measure.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right; the Rwanda policy is an important part of our approach to tackling this problem, because it must be the case that if someone comes here illegally we can return them either to their own safe country or to an alternative such as Rwanda where their claim can be processed. That is the system we want to move to and that is what we will deliver.
As I set out to the Chair of the Home Affairs Committee, we have redesigned the end-to-end process for asylum processing, which will triple the productivity of our caseworkers and cut through the backlog. I say the same thing to the hon. Gentleman that I have said to others: the best way to solve this problem is to stop people coming here illegally, and the best way to do that is to back our new legislation.
I strongly support these measures from the Prime Minister, particularly on the disproportionate numbers of Albanian economic migrants who are queue-jumping those genuinely fleeing danger. I heard not a single practical solution from those on the Opposition Benches—just collective amnesia about what they voted against.
The Prime Minister knows that I favour safe and legal routes as a counterbalance to tougher and swifter measures. Will he therefore, in those safe and legal routes that we need to develop, have a Dubs 2 scheme specifically aimed at unaccompanied children in peril and a proper family reunion scheme for those with close links to people legally here in the United Kingdom, so that we can control and welcome those genuinely in need of safety here?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. As our actions over the past couple of years have shown, this is an incredibly compassionate and generous country, which has offered and always will offer sanctuary and refuge to those who really need it. We need to do that through safe and legal routes, and we want to have that conversation with him and with others such as the Red Cross and UNHCR about how to design those routes, but we can only have that conversation and implement those routes once we have proper control of our borders. That is what we must deliver first.
The Prime Minister said in his statement that we will remove, “the gold-plating in our modern slavery system.” That modern slavery system is something of which we, across the Labour Benches, can be incredibly proud. It protected victims of modern slavery and also, crucially, allowed us to secure prosecutions against the abusers.
It is currently taking the Home Office 531 days on average to arrive at a conclusive grounds decision for victims. Around 90% of those decisions are positive, confirming that people were indeed victims of modern slavery. This will affect British and foreign children as well as adults, and some of those locked in county lines gangs as well as in sexual exploitation. Why is the Prime Minister tearing up the modern slavery system in this way?
That is simply not right. We are very proud of our modern slavery system and we want to make sure that it protects those genuine victims of modern slavery. It is absolutely right that they get their cases considered properly. The reason why that is not happening at the moment is that the system is being deluged with far more claims than it was ever designed to cope with. When the impact assessment on the Modern Slavery Bill was done, it anticipated 3,500 claims a year. What we are now facing is 12,500 in just the first three quarters of this year. It is right that we focus our attention on those who most need our help, and, in doing so, we can get those people the help they need as quickly as possible.
I live in a place called the real world. In the real world, people know that the vast majority of those travelling here on small boats are not genuine refugees. Even last week, at the Home Affairs Committee, the Albanian ambassador admitted that everybody coming from Albania is economic migrants. They are coming here on small boats because they cannot come through a legal route by getting visas. The public get it. Even the Albanian ambassador gets it. We all get it. I ask the Prime Minister: when will the Opposition get it and realise that the vast majority coming over are not genuine asylum seekers?
My hon. Friend is a fantastic champion on this issue. He is right: we on the Conservative Benches are on the side of the British people. It is as simple as that. The Opposition today have put forward no plans, no action. We will soon see, Mr Speaker. When we bring forward legislation to stop the boats, they have a choice: do they want to back our legislation and be on the side of the British people?
I thank the Prime Minister for the important suite of proposals that he has outlined this afternoon and say that we will constructively engage with his Ministers on any legislation that is introduced. He has rightfully highlighted Syria, Afghanistan, Hong Kong, Ukraine, and the pressures that there have been in the Home Office over the past number of years, with staff moved continually from one place to another, and to passports and back again. That is in large part responsible for the backlog, so he is right to double the number of caseworkers. Will the new Albanian team of 400 form part of that doubling—is that additional staff, or staff moved from elsewhere?
That is part of the doubling, and that unit will be specifically trained to process the Albanian migrants in line with our new system and our new policy guidance, which will shortly be issued by the Home Office. In doing that, we are confident that we can start processing Albanian claims in a matter of weeks rather than months, and, with our new agreement, we can swiftly send them back to Albania. That is what the Albanian Prime Minister thinks should happen. That is what European countries do, and that is what we will do in our country, too.
I strongly welcome the seriousness with which the Prime Minister addresses this issue, particularly his focus on stopping the Albanian gangs.
With respect to the dispersal centres, when the Home Office attempted to introduce a dispersal centre in my constituency, it ignored the local authority’s concerns about healthcare, public services and children’s services. It then also ignored the existing level of Albanian organised crime in Hull and did not even consult the local police chief before it moved on the matter. Needless to say, it did not consult any of the local MPs either. If we continue in this mode, the Home Office will face judicial review after judicial review and the policy will not work. Can we please see a radical improvement in decision making in the Home Office in this process?
First, I thank my right hon. Friend for his engagement with us and his specific suggestions on tackling the issue of Albanian migrants—I hope he is pleased by what he has heard today, which reflected much of what he suggested. On the issue of accommodation, I agree with him. As all Members know, this is a tricky issue for us to manage, but we will manage it with sensitivity and care, and with strong engagement with colleagues and local authorities. I make that commitment to him, and I will make sure that that is followed up.
The Prime Minister mentioned that he wanted to work with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and that the Foreign Minister had already met the high commissioner. Did the high commissioner support these measures and their efficacy?
As I said earlier, on the Conservative Benches we believe in sovereignty. When it comes to controlling our borders, we will of course act in line with our legal obligations, but we will do what must be done to fix the unfairness and make sure we stop illegal migration.
I commend my right hon. Friend for his practical approach to a problem that needs practical solutions. In urging him to press on with the work to improve the efficiency of the system, including the tribunal appellate system, I urge the Government to work with the tribunal procedure committee to reactivate the detained fast-track procedure, which has been suspended for seven years now. I think it could be a reasonable part of the solution to this problem.
My right hon. and learned Friend obviously has expertise on this issue. He is absolutely right about that process and the help that it can provide. He will be pleased to know that the Immigration Minister and the Attorney General met the authorities recently. We will look forward to taking forward his suggestions.
In 17 years as a Member of this House, I have never known backlogs, in every avenue of Home Office processing, to be so great and so slow. The Prime Minister asked for suggestions. If he really wants to reprocess the Home Office’s procedures, he could take out the ridiculous rule that people have to renew their indefinite leave to remain every 30 months, putting the same people back through the system to come out with the same outcome. He could, in one fell swoop, reduce the backlog. Will he do it?
I just gently point out to the hon. Lady that the backlog now, difficult though it is, is half as big as it was under the last Labour Government. Unlike then, we will not resort to giving people blanket amnesties, because that is not the right approach.
I warmly welcome this statement. Tackling the backlog is absolutely key to getting the heat out of the issue and dealing with it fairly and firmly. The same approach on Albania is welcome, too. Does my right hon. Friend agree that although Albania is the issue of the moment, this issue will move around the globe, and going upstream to tackle the criminal gangs, who have imported their dangerous business model from the Aegean to the channel, is absolutely crucial? Will he share his thoughts on that?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. That is why we are doubling the funding for Operation Invigor at the National Crime Agency, which will mean that it can disrupt twice as many organised crime gangs upstream—that is a European effort, and it has proven to be very successful in the past. It will get double the amount of resources to help to disrupt the gangs upstream in the first place.
I have a very, very simple question for the Prime Minister: does he agree that any proposed Bill or policy that breaches the UN refugee convention or the European convention on human rights should be rejected out of hand?
Our legislation will ensure that if someone comes to this country illegally, they will not have the right to stay here. It is a simple proposition; it is a fair proposition; and it is one that is supported by the vast majority of people across our country.
I warmly welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement. This is a huge step in the right direction. I am particularly encouraged by what he says about Albania and tighter guidance for those processing decisions. Will he extend that process of tightening guidance to other countries from which people arrive and too often simply get through the system? I am thinking particularly of countries such as Vietnam, which is a fast-growing, prosperous country, making the case for claiming asylum considerably weaker than in the past. Will he also strengthen guidance for such countries?
The Prime Minister talks about the views of the British public. I am pretty sure that the British public also think that children should not be punished for the decisions of their parents. It may be an inconvenient truth on this planet, but one in five of those coming in small boats are under 18, as verified by the Home Office, not people on Twitter.
For six weeks, I have been asking the Government for the details of the safeguarding provision. During that time we have had multiple reports of children—who are with their families in those hotels for months on end—being sexually assaulted and abused. Nothing that the Prime Minister announced today will change that situation and how we treat those children, or apply the same rules to those children as we do to other children in temporary accommodation with their families. Will he now at least do the decent thing and make the safeguarding contract public so that we can see what provision the Government have made to look after those children, and will he make a commitment that families will be housed separately from single people?
The Government take their obligations towards children extremely seriously. Of course it is right that they are treated differently, and that is why the Immigration Minister has met the hon. Lady and we continue to make sure that safeguarding is followed throughout our processing system.
My right hon. Friend is right to identify that illegal immigration and the associated people smuggling are global problems that need global solutions. May I press him to use his good offices to urge the United Nations to make this a topic for the next General Assembly and to introduce an annual Heads of Government conference that focuses on the issue?
I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend for the work she did in bringing about the Modern Slavery Act: she deserves praise and credit for that. She is right: as I mentioned, the global picture on migration has completely changed since most of these treaties were signed. It is right that countries such as ours update their approach to the modern problem that we face, and her idea is a terrific one.
Does the Prime Minister agree with Enver Solomon, the chief executive of the Refugee Council, who said in The Times yesterday:
“Instead of seeking to restrict the right to asylum the government should ensure timely and fair decisions, with access to legal advice, so that those who need protection are allowed to stay and those with unfounded claims are returned with dignity. At the same time there must be more safe routes such as family reunion visas”?
That is an issue that many hon. Members across the House have raised for several years.
I agree with all of that, and that is what the reforms I have announced today will deliver. The best way to do that is to ensure that the pressure on our system is not unsustainably high, and that is why we need to stop the flow of new illegal migrants coming here, which is why legislation is important, as well as our Albania deal. I want to see the same thing as the hon. Lady—swift and effective processing of those who come here through safe and legal routes and the return of those who should not do so.
First, does my right hon. Friend accept that the legislation that he has announced is overdue? Secondly, it needs expressly to differentiate economic and illegal migrants from genuine refugees. The only way that can be done in law is through bypassing the notwithstanding formula in the European convention on human rights to ensure that we can achieve the objectives that he has set out. That needs to be done as soon as possible.
I am confident that our legislation will deliver the asylum system that we want to see, and I can tell my hon. Friend that it will come very early in the new year. We want to crack on and solve the problem, and I look forward to having his support.
When my mother fled war and famine in Biafra in the 1960s with her three small children, the cargo plane on which we travelled—the only form of transport available—landed first in Lisbon, as Portugal was the only country that recognised Biafra at the time. Does the Prime Minister think that we should have been obliged to remain in that relatively safe country, or does he agree with my mother that it was better to travel on to Newcastle, where my grandmother lived?
This country has and always will have a proud tradition of welcoming people here. We need to ensure that we can do that, but we cannot do that if our system is under unsustainable pressure from people who should not be here. By having proper control of our borders and ensuring we create a deterrent effect for those coming here illegally, we will be in a position where people do not have to travel through other countries to get here. We can work with the UN, the Red Cross and others to provide sanctuary for them wherever they are. In the long run, that is the fairest and most sustainable solution to this problem.
I congratulate the Prime Minister on targeted and practical measures. Does he agree that what he proposes is entirely consistent with our international obligations and, in particular, entirely consistent with our obligations under the European convention on human rights and the European Human Rights Act? Is it not better to concentrate on practical measures, rather than upending our domestic human rights legislation, which frankly would be a wasteful red herring?
I thank my hon. Friend for his support. He makes a good point. As I said earlier, the vast majority of European countries already reject almost 100% of claims from asylum seekers from Albania, for example. They are all signatories to the same conventions and treaties as us, so there is no reason why we should not be able to move to exactly the same rejection rate.
I express my heartfelt sympathies to the people of Solihull following this week’s terrible disaster.
We all know what today’s announcement is: a sop to the right-wing press. It continues the Prime Minister’s obsession with scapegoating asylum seekers. Fast-tracking applications and weakening modern slavery protections directly undermine Wales’s nation of sanctuary policy, which includes an explicit commitment to prevent people seeking sanctuary from becoming victims of modern slavery. What discussions has he had with the Welsh Government to guarantee that fast-tracking will not frustrate our ambition to be a proper nation of sanctuary?
We were the first country in the world, thanks to the leadership of my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May), to pass the Modern Slavery Act 2015, with a dedicated regime that does not exist in that form in basically any other European country. We require our businesses to enforce their supply chains and we have life sentences for people who traffic modern slaves. I am very proud of our record. That record will continue, but we need to ensure our system is not abused and exploited. That is what we will fix with our reforms.
I warmly welcome the package of measures announced today, because this is the key issue on the doorstep in my constituency. It is something voters care about very deeply. The package being put together is very strong and, as my right hon. Friend says, it complements the Rwanda agreement. Can he just confirm, however, that if it is, like the Rwanda agreement, ultimately frustrated by the European convention on human rights, we will rule nothing out, including derogation, to ensure we can deliver this vital package?
Having been on those doorsteps in Middlesbrough South with my right hon. Friend, I know he speaks the truth and he is right to highlight this issue for his constituents. We will legislate to put our Albania proposals on a statutory footing. I am highly confident that those should be delivered. As I said, they are already in practice in all other European countries, so there is no reason why they should not happen here, too.
The hon. Member will remember, I am sure, that after the Windrush situation data sharing was stopped in a range of different places and has not restarted. We will be restarting data sharing with the banks, so that when someone tries to open a new bank account, and on a quarterly basis for existing bank accounts, the banks will have to check against the database of illegal migrants that we hold to ensure people cannot disappear into the black economy having arrived here illegally and then participate in a normal way. That is not right and not fair, and I am glad he will be supporting the proposals.
I am very pleased to hear about the new approach to Albanians, which is both obvious and very sensible. My question to the Prime Minister is on how we bridge the gap. We approve 76% of all asylum applications, but the EU average is just 14%. We are all ECHR signatories. They are not held out as international pariahs or as breaking any abstract of international law. The Prime Minister may be surprised to hear that I have no issue with the ambit of the ECHR as long as we have an outcome of about 14%, too. What has been going wrong with our approvals and refusals process?
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. A big part of that difference is how we are treating Albania. That will be changed as a result of our new guidance and deal. More broadly, one of the changes that we have made today is to increase the threshold that someone has to meet to be considered a modern slave. It was based on simply a suspicion that someone may be; we are changing that to make sure that there is objective evidence that they are. That change will help us to close down some of those grant rates, but there is more work to do and that is what our legislation will deliver.
The white list of countries designated safe is not new, and Albania has been on that list since 2014, so there is nothing new about this announcement. I welcome the clearing of the backlog. The Prime Minister just said that he knew that workers would be employed within the next nine to 12 months, and the whole backlog would be cleared from the current 100,000—it was 3,000 when Labour was in power—in the same 12 months. So without the immigration workers there, how will this circle be squared and how will be the backlog be cleared?
I urge the hon. Lady to go and check her figures. It was certainly a lot higher than that under the last Labour Government. As my hon. Friend the Member for South Thanet (Craig Mackinlay) said, we are currently rejecting only 45% of Albanian asylum seekers, compared to all European countries, which reject more like 98% to 100%. The changes we have made today will ensure that our rate increases up to the levels that we see elsewhere. That is as a result of the new deal that we have negotiated with Albania, which will give more comfort to our caseworkers. Combined with the new guidance that will be issued, that will mean that we should, as we want to, return the vast majority of Albanian migrants when they come here. They should not be here; Albania is a safe and prosperous country and they should go back there.