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Westminster Hall

Volume 735: debated on Thursday 6 July 2023

Westminster Hall

Thursday 6 July 2023

[Philip Davies in the Chair]

backbench business

State Hostage Taking

foreign affairs committee

Select Committee statement

We begin with a Select Committee statement. Alicia Kearns will speak about the publication of the Government response, HC 1596, to the sixth report of the Foreign Affairs Committee, “Stolen years: combatting state hostage diplomacy”, for up to 10 minutes, during which no interventions may be taken. At the conclusion of the statement, I will call hon. Members to ask questions on the subject of the statement and call Alicia Kearns to respond to those in turn. Questions should be brief, and Members may ask only one question each. I call the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee.

Thank you, Mr Davies; it is a joy to make the statement under your chairmanship. I thank the House for making time for this important statement today.

Before I address the substance of the report, I pay tribute to all the former hostages and families who contributed to the inquiry, many of whom are here today. I know that today’s discussion will not be easy for them. Their testimonies were raw, incisive and driven by a determination to ensure that other people and families do not endure the pain that they have survived—and it is a tale of being a survivor. To constructively propose that we learn lessons was the goal of our report, and that is why the families contributed to it—because they want to ensure that we can better get our people home.

I also pay tribute to all those in this place who have worked tirelessly on behalf of their constituents who have been unfairly detained abroad. Interestingly, our report showed that, where Members of Parliament engage, a far more impressive response is received from the Government and far more attention is garnered for the individual’s case. Of course, it would be remiss of me not to thank the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office staff who do work tirelessly to try to get people home, but ultimately we are calling for change and improvements.

State hostage taking is, as we all know, the action of failing, autocratic and desperate states. We heard testimonies of how hostages were drugged, beaten, emotionally tortured and deprived of access to consular support, let alone the love of their families, which can give them the strength to continue. They are all survivors. Today, we have people who are being arbitrarily detained and held hostage for political leverage and advantage across the world. This is an opportunity for us to say as a Parliament that we urge all countries to immediately release those being held. In particular—I am sorry not to be able to list the names of all those being held—we call for the release of Vladimir Kara-Murza, Jimmy Lai, Morad Tahbaz and Jagtar Singh Johal. We call for the release of all those British citizens who are being unjustly detained.

It is really important that the Government take a zero-tolerance position on every incident of arbitrary detention, because the British citizens involved are not afforded their consular rights; they are not treated in line with international standards, and they end up being used as diplomatic pawns. That is where the Government must bring maximum pressure to bear, because the first priority of Government is to keep our people safe, and we are seeing an alarming increase in states actively pursuing the kidnapping of hostages as a form of foreign policy. State hostage taking and arbitrary detention are heinous and destructive and are stealing years and years of the lives of those held hostage and their families.

As I have said, this is about blackmail, and the Committee found that the Government’s approach is lacking. Disappointingly—I am really disappointed, because we had not seen this from them until now—the Government did not sufficiently engage with our recommendations and the evidence and experience of detainees and their families. In the past, every time we made a recommendation, they were taken in turn, one after another, and dealt with in real detail. This time, there were some recommendations where there was no response at all from the Government; it was almost as if they wanted to pretend that the recommendation did not exist. That is not the sort of response we normally see from the Government, so I was deeply frustrated by it.

We identified a number of key risks in the way the Government currently handle cases. First, we found a lack of consistency in the way information and updates are shared with the families of those being held hostage or arbitrarily detained. We found a lack of consistency in the way information and updates are shared more generally. We found that ministerial reshuffles have slowed progress on securing a hostage’s release, and there was no evidence of institutional knowledge being shared to ensure that that was not the case. Concerningly, we also found a trend of negotiations being deprioritised against other diplomatic priorities. Look, I am a former Foreign Office civil servant: geopolitics matters, but the ultimate job of the Foreign Office is keeping our people safe and getting them home. If we cannot do that, there should be a fundamental question about whether we are delivering as the Foreign Office.

Having reviewed the evidence, as well as international best practice, it became clear that handling hostage cases has to be designated to a specific senior official. We have seen that work in the US and the difference it has made to getting people home. We called for the creation of a director for arbitrary and complex detentions. That individual would have a mandate for co-ordinating responses to cases, acting as a consistent point of contact for families, organising cross-Government action and cutting through the silos that we know affect these cases, leading the UK’s response in multilateral fora and having a direct line to the Prime Minister, because that is how we get people free. I have sat in Cobra and National Security Council meetings where we, as officials, discussed what we could do to get people home, and it was only in that way that we ever made a meaningful difference and progress. We must have an individual who has that sole focus and who knows every single family, such as Roger Carstens in the US. He is an incredible individual—yes, it has to be the right individual—and he knows every single family and every single case. The fact that I am going to him to ask for help with British cases demonstrates how effective he can be and why we are so disappointed that there was a lack of meaningful engagement with this proposal.

In addition to that key recommendation, we looked at the lack of consistency and accuracy in public statements made by the Government in specific cases. Sometimes—this is deeply concerning—basic levels of consular access were not even afforded by the Vienna convention. We know that that is not always in the hands of the Foreign Office, but it should be making complaints and making sure that the host Government knows that that is unacceptable. There were cases where people said to us, “No, it's not our duty to go and stand outside a court,” while an arbitrarily detained person is being held and heard under appalling and completely illegal circumstances. If a Foreign Office official is not willing to stand outside a courthouse, no matter how dangerous that is, what does that say about their commitment to the British national who is potentially being drugged and beaten and who is most certainly terrified for their future? We have a duty to be there. When we have been, as in Mexico, where the ambassador stood outside, despite the fact that it was a Mexican individual who had murdered, we secured the first ever prosecution of a democratically elected—well, elected—individual for ordering the murder of a civilian. It makes a difference that we show up. Too many families feel that we do not show up and that they get standardised responses week after week.

It is therefore imperative that we use every means at our disposal to ensure even the most basic level of consular access for detained UK citizens. That means working with our allies—it is a shame that the Canada conference was cancelled—but the reality, as I hear time after time from counterparts, is that when we get together in multilateral fora, the first two hours are wasted on fighting about what arbitrary detention means. That was one the subject of our recommendations: let us decide what “arbitrarily detained” means. If we can have a definition that we use internally, we might have a chance of getting a multilateral definition agreed. The fact that we do not have one internally is a big problem.

State hostage taking and arbitrary detention are not the same, and the problem is that the Government’s current approach involves a poor classification of consular cases, which results in confusion and less effective management of cases. The incoherence in classification has created bureaucratic delays in a number of cases and damaged momentum on releases. We have found that several terms were being used to classify hostages, with Ministers and officials completely reluctant to clarify how they had reached each classification. Even when there were international determinations that someone was being arbitrarily detained, the Government did not recognise that. As a permanent member of the UN Security Council that stands up for multilateralism, we should be accepting international conclusions where a British national has been arbitrarily detained.

This confusion and inconsistency has actively harmed release efforts. The Committee therefore urges the Government to formalise and publish guidance outlining the exact criteria for determining whether the detention of a UK national by a foreign state should be considered arbitrary. There will be cases where that is difficult to ascertain, but ongoing assessment with the involvement of the family is recommended, because the family are advocates—they understand the individual and know what support they need. It is crucial that they feel they are part of the process and are not being treated as an inconvenience, which is something we heard time and again.

We conducted the inquiry in good faith. Our sole objective is to improve our ability to secure the release of UK nationals unfairly detained abroad. The recommendations we made were based on evidence and the testimony of those who came to speak to us about the cruel reality of state hostage taking.

I welcome the fact that the Government have accepted some of our recommendations to improve services provided to victims when they get home. When some people who had secured release came back, the Government met them, and there were an impressive first few days and a significant care and support package. What is worrying, however, is that it might be three or six months on when that traumatised individual is ready to share and say, “Actually, this is what I needed, and these were the missed opportunities. When those people who locked me in a room were saying these appalling things, which I had not done, I overheard their chatter, and this is what I took away that was a missed opportunity for you.” We need to do more of that.

I am disappointed. I have never made a statement before on one of the Committee’s reports, but I am doing it today because I am deeply disappointed by the lack of FCDO engagement in other areas. There seems to be an unwillingness to admit that improvements can be made, and there seemed, frankly, to be a bunker mentality during some of the hearings we had. Most concerning is that fact that the consular Minister is not actually responsible for consular cases—that is unacceptable. On the first day of Kara-Murza’s trial, I asked the consular Minister what he was doing and what his views were. He responded that he was not aware of the case. It is vital that we meaningfully get a grip of this.

In conclusion, communications can get better. The families in the Public Gallery are here because they experienced the unthinkable, and they deserve better. In the absence of Government action, it falls to Parliament to demand action and to hold the Government to account—we owe it to all those who are still arbitrarily detained. The Government’s first job is very simple: to keep their citizens safe at home and abroad, and to bring them home.

I wish to put on record my thanks to the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Alicia Kearns), for the work the Committee does and the recommendations it has made.

As Anoosheh Ashoori’s MP, I campaigned tirelessly for his release along with his family. When I gave written evidence to the Committee, I was reminded just how badly the FCDO handled Anoosheh’s case—and Nazanin’s case as well. It is unacceptable that the FCDO does not have a consistent, comprehensive strategy in place. Does the hon. Lady therefore agree that the FCDO must urgently deal with detainees, whether they have parliamentary representation or not?

I thank the hon. Lady for all the work that she did. As our report showed, it matters when MPs take up these cases, but it should not fall to us to take them up, and that is exactly the point she is making. We have a duty to know the families and to be reassuring, but it is difficult. When I was a Foreign Office official, I was given the duty of supporting the family of someone who was being held by a terrorist group, but we did not know whether they were alive or dead. It is difficult, and we cannot always share all the information, because we do not know whether it is 100% accurate, but we can do more than we have been doing. The harm this process causes, and the trauma it results in for these families, is something we should be working to overcome. That is why we made our recommendations.

I thank the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton for her comprehensive report, and I echo the solidarity that she has expressed with the families, particularly those in the Public Gallery today. I share her disappointment at the rather defensive tone that the Government have taken in their response to these very practical and carefully considered recommendations.

Does the hon. Member have any reflections on the fact that a number of high-profile cases have involved dual nationals? Does the Committee have any sense that the Government thought they had a slightly lesser responsibility to those people or that dual nationality was a complicating factor? In fact, dual nationality is as valid as single nationality, and the Government have the same responsibilities to those people.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question, and I want to apologise for having my back to everybody in the Public Gallery—it is parliamentary courtesy to address the Chair. The Committee did look at dual nationality very carefully. The problem is that some of the worst perpetrators of this heinous crime, and particularly Iran, do not recognise dual nationality.

For example, Morad Tahbaz is a British citizen. Yes, he does have Iranian citizenship, but he also has American citizenship. What do we see from the Iranians? They want to treat him as an American detainee. Why? So they can get what they see to be the most bang for their buck. Let us be clear: we need Morad to be released, because he is deeply unwell, and there were missed opportunities to bring him home. I place on record that the treatment, by certain Foreign Secretaries, of his family was shameful. It was one of the most shameful things I have heard, and I refer colleagues who are interested to the evidence that was given. We should never talk to a family in that way.

The reality is that it is difficult for us to tackle this issue and that, as soon as one person is released, these hostile states “fill the pool,” as some of them like to joke, with dual nationals, more than anyone else. We did not find that the Government necessarily deprioritised dual nationals, apart from in one specific case, but in terms of the lack of multilateral effort on saying that we will refuse to accept this issue as an excuse, they could be tougher.

I congratulate the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton, and I thank the Committee’s members for their support. In the almost six years that I have been challenging the Government on my constituent Jagtar Singh Johal’s arbitrary detention in India, I have been struck by the contrast between the professionalism and dedication of the consular prisoner teams and the seeming lack of strategy on the political side, especially when it comes to cases of arbitrary detention ruled on by the UN working group.

Paragraph 16 of the Committee’s report is perfectly clear that the Government’s approach

“is counterproductive and risks undermining an important tool, as well as the Government’s commitment to a Rules-Based International Order solution for ending this practice.”

I was therefore glad to read, in paragraph 17, the recommendation that

“when there is a UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention opinion that a detention of a UK citizen is illegal, the FCDO assumes that the case will not be judged in line with international standards and should respond accordingly.”

Can we do anything to bring the Government into line with what seems to be logical best practice?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question and for his long-standing and absolute commitment to Jagtar Singh Johal and his family. It is an incredibly disturbing case: a man who was arrested while on his honeymoon to a country, and who to this day has still not been charged for supposedly leading some sort of—I do not know—counter-revolutionary effort. The reality is that there are no charges; he is arbitrarily detained, and that has been determined by the UN working group. It is utterly wrong that the British Government would not accept that international determination when we are the foremost country calling and relying on the multilateral system time after time to uphold the rule of law.

We must continue to put that pressure on. I ask the Government to think again about the decision not to accept that recommendation. There is no reason for it. As I touched on in my statement, the reality is that if we cannot get definitions right and we cannot at least accept multilateral determinations, any multilateral meetings with others will fail.

Finally, I would like to thank the hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Neil Coyle), who has now joined us, for playing a significant role in this important inquiry.

Sitting suspended.

Bishops in the House of Lords

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the matter of bishops in the House of Lords.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Davies. Some people, perhaps including members of my party, might wonder why a member of the SNP has secured a debate on the House of Lords, so I want to make it clear from the outset that my principal role here today is as co-chair of the all-party parliamentary humanist group, which comprises more than 150 Members of both Houses and has representatives from all the main political parties. I moved the motion in that capacity.

As secretary of the same group, I congratulate the hon. Member on securing this debate, which is not only overdue, but timely: as he knows, yesterday in the Lords, there were amendments to the Government’s legislation. I suspect he agrees with the principle of those amendments—he and I differ on that—and he probably agrees with me that the archbishop who tabled them is a very distinguished Member of that House, but does he share my sense of unease about somebody who has not been elected or appointed, and who is merely in the Lords in his capacity as a bishop, potentially changing the law of this country?

Absolutely, and that goes to the core of the argument I am about to make, but I start by thanking all the members of the all-party humanist group, many of whom wanted to participate in this debate but could not make it today. I say that so that the public watching know that the interest in this question in Parliament is much wider than they might think from the number of people able to make it here on a Thursday afternoon. I refer Members to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I place on the record my thanks to Humanists UK, which supports our group in Parliament, for the work that it has done, particularly with our patron, Sandi Toksvig, in trying to raise the debate more generally among the press and public.

There are only two countries in the world where clerics are automatically guaranteed a place in the legislature. One is the United Kingdom, and the other is the Islamic Republic of Iran. The question before us is whether we wish to be able to make that same comparison in future.

The hon. Member is broadly accurate, but I am sure he would want to be complete in what he says. They might be small jurisdictions, but the Tynwald, which is older than this Parliament, last month reinstated the cleric who sits in that Parliament. Also, the Dean of Jersey is a member of the States Assembly in Jersey. I say that for completeness. Within these islands, what happens here is not unique.

I am talking about national Parliaments and legislatures, so it is only the United Kingdom and Iran to which this applies. The question before us is about an arrangement made in pre-democratic, feudal times, under which the Church of England is, at the heart of our constitution, guaranteed automatic representation. Does that have public legitimacy in the 21st century, in a country that aspires to be open and democratic, and in which a clear majority of citizens do not identify with that Church? Is it appropriate that we should continue with that? I submit that it is not.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for giving way again. I apologise for intervening, but I have to leave for a Bill Committee in a moment and I want to get these points on the record; I am grateful to him for letting me. Does he agree that there is a way in which religious people could be represented in the Lords, and indeed are already? We already put the Chief Rabbi and the Chief Iman into the Lords through appointments. If we are to continue to have an appointed Lords—opinions differ in this place on that—people in the Church of England could be appointed to the Lords in the same way. It just should not happen as of right.

Absolutely. The hon. Member again pre-empts what I will say. I shall come on to that, because I want to be clear that I am not suggesting that people of faith, or faith leaders, should not play a major role in our public life and public discourse and be representatives in Parliament. What we are concerned about here is the automatic right of one Church—one institution—to a privileged position and guaranteed representation at the heart of power.

I thank the hon. Member for securing this debate, and for his really good speech. The UK is an increasingly diverse place when it comes to religion and belief. I speak as a humanist —I declare that as an interest. That is my belief, but I champion the rights of all religions and beliefs. On the point about one particular branch of one particular belief being represented, does he agree that that is not really where we should be in a pluralistic society?

I do; again, the hon. Lady pre-empts what I will say. I am coming on to exactly that point. However, I wanted to say, just in case anyone thinks otherwise, that we are not talking about a ceremonial arrangement; there is nothing cosmetic or decorative about the situation of the bishops in the House of Lords. We are talking about real, effective, political power. The bishops vote on matters in the legislature, and there are plenty of occasions when their votes have been decisive. It does not really matter—in answer to the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Aaron Bell)—whether I agree or disagree with the position that a bishop takes in any vote; the question is whether they should have an automatic right to that vote.

Generally, of course, the bishops’ influence is what one might call socially conservative, particularly when it comes to controversial and passionate arguments about equalities, same-sex marriage, assisted dying and many other issues that have a moral dimension. That element of the legislature tends to create an in-built conservative majority, which places the legislature and Parliament at odds with the attitudes of the general public.

Also, of course, in the House of Lords, the bishops are effectively a group. They have their own chair, and they are treated as a political party, in terms of the information and consultation that they get on the framing of legislation. Some people probably do not know that they even have priority and privilege over other Members of the House of Lords. By convention and protocol, when a bishop stands up to speak, whoever is speaking must shut up, sit down and give way, whereas in the House of Commons, a speaker has discretion to decide whether to take an intervention. That is not the protocol in the House of Lords.

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is right in saying that the bishops have that right, but if he observes debates in the Lords, he will find that the bishops are very generous and gracious in giving way to other speakers. It may be a right that they have, and he may be right that it is old-fashioned—I would perhaps agree with him on that—but in practice, I think he will find that the bishops are generous and gracious about having their arguments and points tested in debate.

But there are plenty of occasions when it has happened, much to the chagrin of Members of the House of Lords who contributed to the Humanist Society’s report on the matter.

The final thing that I want to say about the way that the bishops operate is that the code of conduct in the House of Lords, and particularly its strictures on conflicts of interest, does not apply to the Lords Spiritual. In effect, it is accepted that they would not have a conflict of interest, or if they did, that it should be ignored. In effect, one Church—the Church of England—has 26 paid professional advocates, right at the heart of the constitutional arrangements of this country, who are there to protect and advance the interests of that institution. That gives the Church of England an unfair advantage in this democratic system.

In preparing for this debate, I looked at what happened in deep history, because the relationship between Church and state, and the history of bishops in the Lords, is very old. I read about a controversy in the time of Richard II, centuries before the country that I represent in this place was even part of governance arrangements. At that time, a majority of Members of the legislature were Church representatives. In fairness, no one would claim that was democratic, but a bunch of people took decisions, and the majority of them were representatives of the Church.

That changed with the dissolution of the monasteries, after which Church representatives became a minority in the upper Chamber, and in 1847 the number of bishops in the House of Lords was capped at 26. The situation has not been reviewed since. Some on the conservative side of the argument will say that the fact that the arrangement is so old is reason in itself to protect and not challenge it, but we are talking about our democratic constitution; it is not good enough to leave untouched and unreviewed an arrangement that is so obviously out of touch with our times.

The time is right for a review. We first need to identify the mores, attitudes and norms of the society in which we live and which our Parliament is meant to govern. Everyone will admit that they have changed remarkably, even in our lifetime. In the 1950s, one might have been able to describe England or Scotland as a Christian country, but that is no longer the case. In the last British social attitudes survey, 52% of the population identified themselves as non-religious, and a further 9% did not answer the question, so the number of people who identify as religious is getting towards a third of the population these days. Within that, only 12% of people say that they identify with the Church of England—and the Church says that only 1% of the population are active in the Church, in the sense of attending services and being part of it in any normal sense. Clearly, there is a great disjunction between the type of country we are and whether the Church should continue to have this privileged and separate representation at the heart of our constitution.

I am not saying—I repeat this point—that it is wrong for people of faith to be involved in our public life and public discourse, and to be representatives in Parliament. I am saying, however, that it is clearly wrong that one Church and one institution in our country has guaranteed and automatic representation at the heart of our governing arrangements. After all, we do not apply that to any other section of society. We do not say that university vice-chancellors, representatives of the royal colleges of medicine or any other part of society should appoint Members to the House of Lords, and we certainly do not say that any other Church or religious group should, so why is this anomaly allowed to persist?

In this debate, we will necessarily engage with the wider context, on two fronts. First, we will invariably get into a debate about the general role of Church and state, and whether the time has come to disestablish the Church of England and have a proper separation of powers, so that we have secular arrangements for our governance. Some time ago, there were plenty of examples of established Churches—indeed, the Anglican Church was established in many other countries—but over time disestablishment has taken place, and I submit that it has been to the benefit of both Church and state. Demonstrably, the state has continued to be there, without being subject to partisan interests, and the Church has been freed from the responsibility, and has been better able to play the role it should in debates taking place among the population: the role of our social and moral conscience.

We can point to no example of the disestablishment of a Church being anything other than beneficial. No one would consider going backwards to re-establish a Church that has been disestablished. That said, there are plenty of examples of established Churches that do not have privileged or guaranteed representation in the legislature. Again, the UK is exceptional in that regard. We need a wider debate about the role of the Church of England in our diverse, multi-ethnic, multi-religious, non-faith society, but that is not germane to the argument about representation in the House of Lords. We could remove the Church of England’s representation in the House of Lords without disestablishing the Church of England.

The other argument that we get into is the general question of Lords reform. I took part in a radio discussion on this issue this morning, and one caller asked why we were even talking about bishops in the House of Lords, because we should have been talking about having an unelected second Chamber. To some extent, I agree, but I think the bishops’ presence in the House of Lords is a good place to start, because in many ways it is a double affront to the notion of democracy. Not only are the bishops not elected by, or accountable to, the public; they are not even scrutinised and subject to the normal appointment mechanisms for the House of Lords. They are completely separate from that, so if we want to talk about the balance between elected and appointed representatives, and about the role of scrutiny and transparency, the bishops are the best place to start.

Lords reform has been talked about for so long—certainly for all the time I have been in Parliament, and for many decades. I think it was 113 years ago that the Labour party committed to the abolition of the House of Lords. I say that not to have a go; I simply point out that it has been an intractable debate for a very long period. It is useful to have this debate, and to see whether we can engage on the subject. An electoral contest in the United Kingdom is coming, and parties will have to frame propositions on this matter. I wait to be educated by the shadow spokesperson, the hon. Member for Nottingham North (Alex Norris), about His Majesty’s Opposition’s thinking with regard to the upper Chamber, but I note the report published by the Labour party at the end of last year, which talked about having a second Chamber. It did not say how the second Chamber would be elected or appointed, but it talked about a Chamber of the nations and regions of the United Kingdom. I think the presumption is that representatives would be elected in some way. Even within that model, however, there is simply no role or logical place for the Lords Spiritual, so on those grounds, they would have to go.

Hon. Members will hear from the SNP’s Front-Bench spokesperson, my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady), about our party’s thinking on this issue, but I should explain why I am engaged in this debate. Of course, my colleagues and I want Scotland to become a politically independent, self-governing country in these islands, and we want a much better, co-operative relationship between the national Governments of Britain. That is something we aspire to, and there is not really any conceivable place for the House of Lords in that arrangement. In many ways, there is a particularly Scottish aspect of this issue, because the bishops represent the Church of England; they do not even represent the Anglican community throughout these islands.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. He is making a very interesting speech. On a point of curiosity, if the worst were to happen and Scotland became independent, would there be an upper Chamber in its legislature? Is that in the SNP’s plans?

That would be a matter for the people of Scotland. My party’s proposal is that if we had consent to move forward and become an independent country, a modern, democratic constitution would be written. We would spell out the rights of each citizen and the process of government. That would be when to debate whether it was necessary to have a bicameral Parliament, or whether a single legislative Chamber would suffice. I note that part of the argument in this place is that we need an upper Chamber because the House of Commons makes so many mistakes. That seems an argument for reform of the House of Commons, rather than justification for an unelected Chamber.

There is a particular attitude in Scotland; people look at the House of Lords, and at the role of the Lords Spiritual within it, and see this very much as another country. They see this as part of the rationale for doing something different, and moving forward to become an independent country.

I will wind up in a moment because I want others to have a chance to contribute, but I want to say that we need to continue this debate. It is very much overdue in this place, and I know that the public are with us on that. I gave some figures about how many people identify as non-religious. When we ask people whether the Church of England should have automatic and guaranteed representation in Parliament, we find that the majorities against that arrangement are phenomenal: 68%, including a majority of Conservative voters, say that it cannot and should not continue.

This is a debate whose time has come. We should make time for it in the main Chamber as we go through to the end of the year, in a time slot that I hope—with all respect to the Backbench Business Committee—will allow more colleagues to participate and engage in the discussion. This is something that gives our democracy a bad name, and it does not do any favours for the Church of England.

I will finish by repeating this point: it is so important that people of faith are engaged in public life. I say that as a humanist and an atheist, but I respect everyone’s right to practise their religion and to have their own belief system. I want to see a pluralist, tolerant society where everyone is respected, so, of course, I want people and faith leaders such as bishops to be involved in our public discourse. I agree with many of their statements and arguments and the way in which many of the bishops vote on many topics of the day. I am not saying in any sense that they should be excluded from our parliamentary system, but they should be there on the same basis as every other citizen. They should be subject to the same rules as everyone else. At the end of the day, surely that is what democracy means: everyone is treated fairly and everyone has the ability to hold others to account.

I commend this discussion to the House and I look forward to it continuing as the months go by. Perhaps we will actually see the framing of some policy on this matter, with will feed into the political debate at the election, and we may even see some change. Or perhaps Scotland will become an independent country first—I do not know.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I had an email from one of my humanist constituents a few days ago asking me to speak in this debate. I told him that I would do so and that I would take an alternative view, but come with a listening ear, and I hope that will be the same for everyone who speaks.

I get the passion that the hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard) has for this issue. However, having had the privilege of being a Member of this House for 22 years, I can say that it is not regularly at the top of my constituents’ lists of demands. The good people of South West Bedfordshire are not short of things they want me to get done in this place, but this issue probably does not make the top 50 or even the top 100. I also gently observe that in a House with 650 Members of Parliament, there are only six MPs here this afternoon who do not have to be because of their Front Bench or Parliamentary Private Secretary responsibilities. I know that there are other important debates in the Chamber, and that we may even be on a one-line Whip now and other considerations may call, but it is worth putting that on the record.

I, too, will start with some history—it is important that we remember our history, because if we do not remember where we have come from, we are in danger of repeating the failures of the past. The hon. Member for Edinburgh East is right. In 1301, in addition to the two archbishops and 18 bishops, there were 80 abbots and priors entitled to sit in the House of Lords, but the temporal peers rarely exceeded 50. The hon. Member, who introduced the debate very well, would indeed have a point if anything like those numbers and proportions were the case today. However, bishops today make up just 3% of the House of Lords. I think that it is the second biggest legislature in the world, after that of the People’s Republic of China, and that it tops 850. Of those 26 bishops, it is usual for just one or two to vote. I am told that a large number would be four or five, and six would be right at the top of the scale. I am unsure of how many votes the bishops have swung because they tend to come down on a rota system. They have a pastoral and a spiritual role, and they say Prayers like our Chaplain does in the House of Commons.

I dispute the figures that the hon. Member for Edinburgh East quoted. My reading of the 2021 census is that a majority of people in England and Wales declared a faith. I counter the notion that is put about sometimes that faith is dying; I think that is a myth, and it is unhelpful for the positive development of a modern society. It leads to a disconnect between people of faith and others, and it can lead to problems in the delivery of services. In fact, it is nearer to the truth to say that, in many parts of our country, faith is not just alive, but thriving. That is particularly true in London, where 62% of people identify as religious compared with 53%, which is still a majority, outside London.

The census produces different data from the social attitudes survey, but does the hon. Gentleman not accept that there is much concern about how the faith questions on the census are asked? It asks about affiliation, rather than belief. There are many people who answer “C of E” or whatever to that question because that is what they were born into. It is not what they believe and who they are now.

The hon. Gentleman is right in that how a question is asked can determine the answer, but it was a free choice and plenty of people put down, “No faith”. In the last census, a majority of people in England and Wales declared a religious faith, and it is important to put that on the record.

The Church of England, as the established Church, takes its responsibility to uphold religious freedom for all extremely seriously. No one put this better than the late Queen. At Lambeth Palace in February 2012, she said:

“The concept of our established Church is occasionally misunderstood and, I believe, commonly under-appreciated. Its role is not to defend Anglicanism to the exclusion of other religions. Instead, the Church has a duty to protect the free practice of all faiths in this country.

It certainly provides an identity and spiritual dimension for its own many adherents. But also, gently and assuredly, the Church of England has created an environment for other faith communities and indeed people of no faith to live freely. Woven into the fabric of this country, the Church has helped to build a better society—more and more in active co-operation for the common good with those of other faiths.”

Those were wise words from Her late Majesty the Queen, and we would do very well to heed them 11 years after they were spoken.

I thank the Second Church Estates Commissioner for the Church of England for giving way. The established Church of Scotland, which is really a national Church, not an established Church, takes its role of creating a better society very seriously—we can look at the role of the Committee on Church and Nation in the development of the Scottish Parliament—but it does not sit in an unelected Chamber to create a better society.

I accept that there are different arrangements in different nations around the world, but if the hon. Gentleman will bear with me as I develop my argument, he will understand why I am making it.

No other major denomination or faith argues for the removal of bishops from the House of Lords. In 2012, other faiths argued for their retention in evidence to the Joint Committee on the Draft House of Lords Reform Bill, which scrutinised the coalition Government’s Lords reform plans. Indeed, I have spoken to Muslims, for example, who would much rather live under a benign and welcoming established Christian Church of England. What they fear more is a sort of dominant secularism, which they think would cause problems for them as Muslims and for people of all faiths.

I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman seems to be touching on very dodgy ground. What is he trying to allude to here—if there is a Government led by a Muslim in this country—because there happens to be one in Scotland? And in London.

I did not deny that was the case. I am just pointing back to what actually happened when evidence was being taken by the relevant Bill Committee under the coalition Government for Lords reform. Other faiths argued for the retention of bishops in the Lords, and that is a matter of fact and is on the record.

I suspect that the intention of some Members present would not be to stop with the bishops. I think that some here would like to eradicate the whole footprint of the Church of England across their country. They are entitled to that view—I do not have a problem with that—but it is not a view that I agree with and share, and we argue these things out in this place.

Another important point is that the bishops—

Order. Before the hon. Gentleman pursues his next point, I am slightly alarmed by the number of pieces of paper he has in front of him. I aim to get to the Front Benchers by 2.40 pm. The hon. Gentleman has had almost 10 minutes, and there are three other people who want to speak, and they will already have to have substantially less time than that. In the interests of fairness, it would be welcome if the hon. Gentleman perhaps curtailed what he had intended to please us with.

I will do that, Mr Davies—my apologies. You did not give any guidance on time, and I was not sure whether everyone here had stood up to speak. I accept what you say, and I shall certainly speed up.

We have a big footprint. We have a lot of social action from our churches. A million children are in Church of England primary schools, and the Church of England is the biggest provider of academies. Some 27% of charities are faith-based, and the number of faith-based charities has increased in this country, from one in four to one in five. Those voices need champions here in Parliament. There are wider benefits in terms of the life chances of children in faith schools. There are lower rates of attempted suicide and better health outcomes. That is all in the Bloom review, which was published earlier this year.

You will be pleased to hear me say that I am moving to my conclusion, Mr Davies. I want to make a broader point about values and culture in our public discourse. We have an angry and divided public square, social media lynch mobs, and so on. The world view that we pick up from the Church, however imperfectly demonstrated by the bishops, is one of love, forgiveness and grace, and we have never needed that more in our public life than we do at the moment. We need humility and hopefulness, and that is part of what the bishops point to. That is very necessary and extremely important in a troubled and hurting world. If it’s not broke, don’t change it.

I am grateful to Mr Selous. Three Members are standing, and I want to get to the Front Benchers by no later than 2.40 pm, so we are talking about five or six minutes maximum for each remaining speaker. I call Neil Coyle.

Thank you, Mr Davies, for calling me in this debate. To make it clear, I speak in a personal capacity as someone who would welcome the formal extension of invitations to sit in the House of Lords to representatives of other faiths: imams, rabbis and representatives of other Christian denominations. I serve a community with two cathedrals and was proud to attend the 175th anniversary of St George’s Cathedral, which is a Catholic cathedral, just this week.

I support reform of the House of Lords, but just targeting bishops for removal would leave the House full of Tory donors and political patronage, and that is not a House I would be happy to see. This debate puts form before function. Frankly, the composition of the upper House is less of an issue than its role. I would prefer an upper Chamber with regional representation, elected council leaders and directly elected Mayors, whether or not I agree with their politics.

I am mindful that a bishop at least represents a diocese, which gives them—more than others they sit with—a constituency, of sorts, to reflect in the House of Lords. I am also mindful that bishops are seen as the spring chickens—the upstarts and whippersnappers—of the House of Lords, because they are forced to retire at 70, which is younger than some of their peers, who, of course, are also peers. The bishops’ contributions come from their expertise and experience, are based on years of service, and are underpinned by values that are integral to what they bring to our upper Chamber. The Bishop of Durham yesterday described the Government’s Rwanda plans as “horrifying” and “immoral”, and I share that sentiment. Although there are so few bishops in the Lords, they have been crucial to narrow recent wins. Their votes have been decisive—I thank them for their service—including on the Government’s plan to sack nurses for daring to strike in favour of their employment rights and pay, which their union voted for. Lords should be commended for serving until 4 am, rather than being told that their contribution is unwelcome.

I also believe that Parliament should be on top of issues facing our constituents. I am sure that, in Edinburgh, they talk of nothing other than Church of England bishops sitting in the House of Lords, but I have had three requests to be here today. I represent an extremely diverse, vibrant central London community, which includes at least five mosques, and this is a non-issue for the vast majority of the people I serve. Week in, week out, I deal with issues to do with housing, the cost of living and Home Office failures. I am proud to work with peers and bishops on my constituents’ top concerns, which the bishops see reflected in their congregations. They share those values, and I respect that.

I speak in unity with the other representatives of Southwark: my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman), my hon. Friend the Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Helen Hayes) and Bishop Christopher of Southwark, who sits in the House of Lords. I am proud to share a platform with them in representing and serving Southwark.

I welcome Bishop Christopher of Southwark’s work here in Westminster and in Southwark, where the cathedral was integral to the rebuild after the horrific terror attack at London Bridge and Borough Market. The work of the cathedral, Bishop Christopher and Andrew Nunn, the dean, who is now retired, was fundamental in ensuring that we rebuilt quickly. The love and strength with which they served was commendable, and I am glad to have seen it and been part of it.

The Bishop of Southwark has recently spoken about the 1 million people waiting for council homes. He has supported the Bishop of St Albans’ plan to prevent leaseholders from paying fees to remove dangerous cladding, and the Archbishop of Canterbury’s call for a 10-year plan in partnership with other countries to tackle the refugee crisis and human trafficking. The Bishop of Southwark has spoken about children detained under Home Office plans that he called “most alarming” and “unedifying”, the Home Office’s failure to tackle sexual exploitation and modern slavery, and other issues. It is hard to disagree with those contributions; I welcome them.

One backer of this debate said that bishops have been intervening pointedly in politics. I would be disappointed if the Church were not standing up on these issues and did not take a view on the Government’s devaluing of human life. I would be disappointed if it did not request that, rather than crossing the road, we should be the good Samaritan and intervene to help others where we can.

It is disappointing that this debate is focused on one group in the House of Lords, based on their faith, rather than their role. We can compare them with some of the other contributors in the other Chamber, including Lord Lebedev, whom the intelligence services said should not be there; Lord Archer, who has never spoken and never bothered to turn up; Lord Bamford, who has made five contributions in a decade—one contribution for each £1 million contribution he has made to the Conservative party—and the Earl of Rosslyn, who has spoken once since—

Order. I gently say to the hon. Gentleman that this is not an opportunity to make personal attacks on individual Members of the House of Lords. I would be grateful if he refrained from doing that. In the House of Commons, we do not pick out particular individuals. We must stick to the subject of the debate.

Certainly, Mr Davies. I will move on. The point I was making is that there are others I feel should be a more legitimate target for removal from the House of Lords. The bishops should not be targeted purely because of the denomination they represent, their understanding of British values, how they demonstrate that through their faith, the communities they serve and their experience working in churches and dioceses.

I stood for election to help to tackle the real problems in my community and those that the country faces, not to bash bishops—Members can do that in their own time—or get consumed in an academic political debate that makes no meaningful difference to the people I serve. I would sooner hear more from the Bishop of Southwark and the rest of the Lords Spiritual from the Church of England here and elsewhere, rather than the Prime Minister’s shameless hypocrisy yesterday in quoting from Matthew, chapter 25, at the service for the NHS’s 75th anniversary.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests as churchwarden for my home parish in my constituency of West Dorset. I have had more constituents getting in touch with me about the matter than my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) may have. I congratulate the hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard) on securing this debate.

As I have told my constituents, I do not necessarily agree with them in principle, but it is important to have an objective, clear and frank debate about why there are constituents and even members of the Church who feel increasingly strongly about the issue. Although I may disagree in principle with the hon. Member for Edinburgh East, we should understand why increasing numbers of people feel strongly about the role of the bishops in the House of Lords.

The Church of England has an incredibly important role to play throughout the land in unifying people with different views. It has a critical role to play in bringing people together and finding ways to have more in common than that which divides us. We need to reflect on that when we start to hear very clear political views from bishops in the House of Lords.

I did not intervene on the hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Neil Coyle), but I suspect one reason that I disagree in principle is that I disagree wholly with what he says about why bishops should be in the House of Lords. It is not right that bishops, who have an important role to play in unifying their communities and who have the cure of souls, regardless of political view, are in effect being made to feel alienated from their own parishes and their own church communities.

I am delighted to have the Bishop of St Albans here in the Gallery. I was delighted to be in his congregation at the St Alban’s day festival not 10 days ago. It was very clear from the sermon at the lectern in that service that a very pro-immigration message emanates from his cathedral. That is his decision, but I am afraid we have to recognise that not everybody agrees with that position. We are increasingly seeing bishops in the Church of England becoming politicians who wear mitres. That is a decision for the Church of England and for individual bishops, but I think it is a damaging thing for the Church of England to do.

I have been a member of the Church of England for 30 years; if we were counting from baptism, it would be 41. I remember vividly that in my younger years I thought, “Why is the Church not being stronger on the issues that I feel strongly about?” I made representations to my priest at the time. It was probably part of the reason why, at an earlier point in my life, I had to discern whether I had a calling to the priesthood.

I will give way in a moment.

Many members of the Church of England, and not just residents of my constituency, have been in touch with me about this debate. That is not because they agree with the hon. Member for Edinburgh East, who thinks that bishops should be taken out of the House of Lords, but because a good number of them wholly disagree with what some bishops have to say—I recognise that the Archbishop of Canterbury was in Portland only a few weeks ago—and believe that they have spent their life supporting a Church from which they now feel wholly alienated, based on what the bishops have been saying. I am sorry to say that that includes a good number from the diocese of Truro. Everyone ought to note that the bishop, who is being translated to Winchester and will therefore have a seat in this place by default, has had many issues within his own diocese, not least the fact that the future of a good number of parishes is in question. It is important to consider whether bishops should focus on political matters of the day or on the cure of souls and taking care of their own diocese.

I am sorry; I wanted to give way to the hon. Member, but I think you are prompting me to finish, Mr Davies. I will happily speak to the hon. Member afterwards.

It is good to see you, Mr Davies, and solidarity to the Bishop of Salisbury. I might not think he should be sitting in the House of Lords, but the Christian message of love and charity should be heard loud and clear from pulpits across the length and breadth of these islands.

I am a doubting Thomas, as I said in the main Chamber the other week. In some ways I agree with the hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Neil Coyle) when it comes to certain Members of the House of Lords. Some of us tried to raise the matter at Prime Minister’s questions last Wednesday, but I am afraid the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland failed to answer the question of whether he agrees with MI5 or with the former Prime Minister about that appointment.

I am going to speak as a Scottish constituency MP. There are 59 Members from Scotland. I have been looking at evidence in the House of Commons Library about the way in which bishops of the established Church of England have participated since 2013 in legislation that has not only affected England and Wales. I am mindful that the Anglican Church is disestablished in Wales and that the Kirk is the national/established Church in Scotland; there is the Episcopal Church, but it is not the national Church.

The bishops of the Church of England participated in 615 Divisions between July 2013 and July 2023, on 187 pieces of business. Parliamentary research has identified 22 pieces of business on Scotland, based on the subject index—basically, those that cover all of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. During those 22 pieces of business, 49 Divisions took place. Twenty-three bishops participated in 31 of those Divisions, casting 91 votes on 11 different pieces of business.

One of those Divisions was on the Scotland Act 2016, which was the then Government’s response to the referendum on Scottish independence, on which the bishops of the Church of England had more of a say than the 59 Members representing Scottish constituencies, no matter what party they belonged to. This is a matter of the constitution. The Second Church Estates Commissioner, the hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous), will perhaps correct me if I am wrong, but in 1919 the convocations of Canterbury and York agreed addresses to the King that sought greater opportunities for the Church of England to discuss its own affairs and to review the legislative role of Parliament. Up until 1919, it was Parliament that dictated the governance of the Church of England, which seems absolutely ridiculous.

The point I am making is that if it is acceptable for the Church of England to review its own processes and mostly remove itself from the parliamentary process, why is it participating in the governance of the other nations of the United Kingdom? Why is it participating on issues that relate to Scotland and Northern Ireland? I have heard the excuse that Churches in those areas have asked it to participate, but there is no Episcopal national Church in Scotland; it is the Kirk.

I come back to the point about the role of religion in politics. I think it is central, because if it were not for the Church and nation committee of the Kirk, the Parliament of Scotland would most likely not exist. It was the voice of the Scottish nation itself prior to devolution, and I am extremely grateful to the Kirk for doing that work. We also need to go back to issues relating to Ireland, because the Anglican Church there covers the entire island of Ireland. If I were a Unionist in the north of Ireland, I would be asking myself, “What has the Church of Ireland got to do with the governance of Presbyterian issues specific to Northern Ireland?” I say that as a doubting Thomas Catholic.

There is also the question of replacing the bishops in the Church of England or adding to the religious ethos of the upper Chamber. I need to be very clear that I do not believe in an unelected, unaccountable upper Chamber; during our time in the Union there needs to be total, sweeping reform and a new premise on which people are elected or appointed to that upper Chamber.

The idea is also sometimes raised—it has been raised here before—that we should ask other religious leaders, such as the Chief Rabbi or imams, to go into the upper House. I have even heard cardinal archbishops of the Roman Catholic Church suggested. That will not happen, because Roman Catholic clerics are prohibited by canon law from taking up elected office: if they do, they are removed from holy orders.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard) on reminding us that the constitution and the way in which governance happens is important. It comes down to all the other issues that the hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark was talking about. I commend my hon. Friend and say to him that people like me will stand with him and continue to argue, with no personal animosity against the bishops of the Church of England, for the end of the House of Lords itself and for an elected upper Chamber to replace it.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Davies. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard) on securing the debate. My first email from a constituent asking me to participate in the debate was in February, so I congratulate Humanists UK on the effectiveness of its campaigning machinery and the passion of its members. I echo the thanks to the all-party group, and to the Backbench Business Committee for granting the debate.

My hon. Friends the Members for Edinburgh East and for West Dunbartonshire (Martin Docherty-Hughes) have a record of making interventions on the subject of the Lords Spiritual and Lords reform, and they have wide agreement among our SNP colleagues. Our position is clear: the House of Lords should be abolished. There is no place in a modern democracy for an unelected legislature, let alone one that grants membership to religious clerics as of right.

In 2005, I was proud to move the resolution at SNP conference that most recently confirmed our party’s long-held position that no SNP member would take a seat in the unelected House. It is important to be clear, as we were in the debate that I led from the Back Benches in January about reform of the Lords, that we hold the individuals concerned in the highest regard; nothing we say is meant with any personal disrespect or questioning of their sense of duty and commitment to the roles that they have accepted.

We can also appreciate the role of faith leaders more widely across society. In Westminster Hall we often have debates about the importance of freedom of religion and belief around the world, and we hear of many places where these rights are not respected, so we should be proud to live in a modern, pluralistic society where people can practise their faith and speak openly about their beliefs in the public square.

Faith communities continue to make up a significant proportion of our society, and it is right and proper that the leaders of those communities are accorded respect and, where appropriate, a voice in our national discourse. We need only look at the service in St Giles’ cathedral yesterday, where leaders from the Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist and humanist communities were invited to greet the monarch after he was presented with the Honours of Scotland. Our views on a constitutional monarchy notwithstanding, that gives an indication of the importance of faith and belief communities to our wider civic society. But providing that kind of representative role, having a platform in the media or being a statutory consultee on certain aspects of public or planning policy is very different from having an active role in a legislative Chamber of Parliament.

The unelected Chamber is already anomalous. The presence of bishops as ex officio members is more or less unique in western democracies; it is even more peculiar when we consider the special privileges accorded to the bishops in the House, which my hon. Friend the Member for West Dunbartonshire outlined. All that comes on top of the antiquated and essentially undemocratic role, and frankly existence, of the House of Lords itself. These points have been well made by my hon. Friends and do not need much more rehearsing.

Ironically, there are more people in the Lords than in the Commons who want the upper Chamber abolished or reformed, because so many Members of the Commons, particularly on the Government and official Opposition Benches, want to be appointed to the Lords at some point. That is why I concluded in my debate back in January—as the Lord Speaker concluded in his thoughtful intervention for the Hansard Society, and even Gordon Brown conceded in his latest weighty tome, which I think is already gathering dust on the shelves of the Leader of the Opposition—that the biggest barrier to reform of the Lords is that no meaningful reform of the Lords can be carried out without also reforming the Commons. And any meaningful reform of the Commons would mean taking power away from the Government. And no UK Government, of whatever colour, will readily give up that power.

Despite all the grand talk about parliamentary sovereignty, the House of Commons is essentially a plaything for the Government of the day. The Government set the agenda, control the time, and control the standing orders and rulebook, no matter what myths and conventions say otherwise. An elected Lords would challenge the primacy of the Commons. A cap on the size of the Lords would limit the powers of patronage held by the Prime Minister. The removal of the bishops would call into question the relationship between Church and state, meaning the relationship between the Church and Crown.

The Crown in Parliament and the royal prerogative are the Government’s free hand to wield Executive authority. No matter what nice words the Government use to dress up how much they value the House of Lords and appreciate the work of the bishops, the reality is that any tinkering at the edges or pulling on the thread of the UK’s constitutional tapestry risks unravelling the whole thing—and no UK Government would want to do that.

I do not have time.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh East again on securing the debate. Musing about reform of the House of Lords has been an entertaining parlour game in UK politics for more than 100 years, since the Labour party first promised and failed to deliver meaningful reform. I fear that the forces of antidisestablishmentarianism will continue to prevail. My hon. Friend and I both know that meaningful reform is not going to happen. The meaningful reform that will truly let democracy flourish in Scotland will come when the people of Scotland choose to leave the broken Westminster system and become an independent country.

Order. I want to get in before the hon. Gentleman finishes, because he may have a bit more time than he thought: he has up to 10 minutes. I did not want him to cut him off if he wanted to give way but was mistakenly thinking he did not have enough time.

Apologies, Mr Davies. I was pretty much finishing, but I will hear from my hon. Friend the Member for West Dunbartonshire.

My hon. Friend was talking about the issue of establishment and the role of Church and state. The Cecil Committee in 1935 was very clear

“that a complete spiritual freedom of the Church is not incompatible with Establishment.”

Does my hon. Friend agree with the Cecil Committee?

My hon. Friend is right. The points about the establishment of the Church of England have been well made. The point that I am trying to make is that we cannot unpick. This is the nature of the UK constitution, such as it is. Everything is so tightly interwoven that if we start picking at one part, the whole thing will fall apart. That is not in the interests of the Government, because the point of the UK constitution is to give the Government as much unlimited and unchallenged power as possible while retaining the pretence of democracy. The alternative to that, for the people of Scotland, is for us to vote to become independent.

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Davies, and to contribute to this debate on behalf of the Opposition. I congratulate the hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard) on securing the debate and on the vigour with which he pressed his case. I agree with what he said at the outset: there is a high degree of interest in the issue. Thursdays are a tricky day to get colleagues to participate in this place, but in general there is a high degree of interest in this, in the wider issue relating to the House of Lords, and in the even wider issue relating to our constitution. That speaks to his point about having a constitution that has evolved slowly. There is a beauty in this place and its conventions and norms, but when that is tried—and, boy, has it been tried over the past decade—it sometimes starts to be flimsy and a bit weak. It is right that we discuss these issues, and the hon. Member made a good start.

There has been a range of interesting contributions from all sides. I agree with the hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) that faith remains a hugely significant part of British life. Last month, my community was really tested when the awful Nottingham attacks happened and, boy, did we lean on our faith community. The right reverend Bishop Paul Williams was a huge support for our community and for its Members of Parliament. We should recognise the anchors and fixed points in the lives we lead, but it is reasonable and—I would argue—necessary to discuss the place of that in a democracy, and particularly in a legislature.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Neil Coyle), with characteristic impudence, made a point that I will return to on a number of occasions. I believe the role of the second Chamber is much more important than the constitution of its membership.

I cannot quite agree with what the hon. Member for West Dorset (Chris Loder) said. It is right we have the debate about whether the Lords Spiritual should be in the House. However, the moment we choose to have people in a political legislature, in which every question can be put to a Division if we so wish, they will take views. Asking people to be in a political environment but not be political worked for the Law Lords before we moved to a Supreme Court, because they had to not prejudge case law, but I do not think that that reads across here. We should expect people to take views. If we did not wish them to, that would be an argument for not having them here at all.

That links to what the hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire (Martin Docherty-Hughes) said. I understand the frustration. He raised a number of debates and even Divisions that might have gone another way without the bishops, just as they might have without any 26 Members. Again, however, I would argue that that is a debate about constitution. If we put those people in that place, they should choose their moments to speak and vote as they wish, and should exercise their judgment in that. I suspect that that is what happened in those cases.

To make a couple of points of my own, as we have heard, there are 26 bishops of the Church of England in the other place, sitting as Lords Spiritual, which is about 3% of the membership of the other place. They have a wide role—a wider role, I would argue, than I do as an individual. They provide spiritual and pastoral support to Members, including reading Prayers at the start of each sitting day, and like other Members they offer their perspectives on the various matters before Parliament, asking questions, speaking in debates, serving on Committees and scrutinising legislation.

There have been times in the debate when there has perhaps been a suggestion that the bishops are an homogeneous group. However, they represent a diversity of opinion within the church and a range of political views, and they have the independence to bring different perspectives to the work they do, informed by their faith and their local, national and international connections. Again, whether or not we choose to have them as part of our legislature in the future, we should recognise the contribution the bishops make to Parliament and thank them for their service. As I say, for us in Nottingham, that has been particularly important in recent weeks.

The other place does a hugely important job. I cannot agree with the point from the hon. Member for Edinburgh East that, in some way, the case for a second Chamber is that we make so many mistakes in this Chamber and, therefore, that the actual issue is us being better. I would say, and I would hope—well, I believe this extends to everybody: I am a human being and I make mistakes all the time. In fact, I have just misspoken in this contribution, and I will make other such mistakes throughout the day. Who knows what they will be?

It is right that we have checks and balances in our democracy that will either curb the worst instincts of politicians or give us the chance to think again. That is a very important thing, and that model is, of course, popular around the world. I think the other place provides exceptionally important scrutiny and balance to the work that we do and enriches the quality of debate.

I also believe that it is possible to strongly hold that view, as I do, but also to recognise the case for reform and to understand that the other place has ballooned in size, as mentioned by the hon. Member for South West Bedforsh—Bedfordshire—another mistake from me there, Mr Davies. It has 777 Members, and I would argue that it is not sustainable at that size. Having a larger unelected Chamber than elected Chamber—a larger upper House than lower House—is, I believe, unique among bicameral Parliaments.

The next Government, whoever and whenever that might be, will have to grasp this issue. It is about the second Chamber, but it is also about maintaining, developing and sustaining public confidence in our democracy in general, and that is part of my quibble with this debate.

I hope the hon. Gentleman will forgive me—I may be pre-empting what he is about to say—but what is the Labour party’s position on bishops in the House of Lords?

Well, the hon. Gentleman has not yet given me the chance to finish. I tempted him into a flourishing drive, and my slip cordon is, I suspect, better than the one the England team is operating today.

My major quibble with this debate is that we should not be pulling out a single element—in this case, a cohort of 3%—and making a single analysis of its merits or otherwise. It must be a fuller debate about the entire Chamber. However, that in itself is a smaller part of a wider conversation about our entire democracy. What are we seeking to do at what level? That is, at the national, regional, local, and parish and town council level. That cannot just be a debate among politicians; we have to let the public in.

I know that the Minister is well briefed enough to know where the Labour party stands on this matter at the moment: we have argued for a smaller second Chamber, and we have argued that we should use that as an opportunity to better recognise and involve all our nations and regions in our democracy. However, we are on a journey to the next general election; we have an important democratic staging post coming among our political parties. The Minister will see the full platform when he is ready for the general election, and I say to him gently that it can be any day he wants.

The hon. Gentleman is very generous to give way again. It is interesting to hear him talk about a big debate on the future of the constitution and about the involvement of everyone. If his party was to present plans for a reformed upper Chamber, would it be prepared to put those to a referendum of the people of this country?

The hon. Gentleman tempts me to read the future. I am afraid that I will disappoint him. We have not finished our process of policymaking. The Government are hiding from the public—it seems like they intend to do that for a long time, and we understand why—but if the hon. Gentleman wishes for a quicker answer, he can give the public what they want, which is their chance to have their say on his Government.

Another issue that is hugely important for what we can do now and today—I hope to hear a little from the Minister on it—is that we know that our communities want greater power and control over their lives. A very important and significant degree of consensus has emerged across the political parties, and across the Chambers, over greater regional devolution. At the moment, we have an asymmetric settlement whereby some are in and some are out, and I hope to hear from the Minister his desire to improve and to move at a quicker pace on that. I depart from the hon. Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady), the Front Bencher for the Scottish nationalists, in that it is not my goal to hoard power in this place so that I might one day get a chance to sit where the Minister does and get all those nice levers to pull. That is not my desire in politics at all. I am here for devolution. I am here because I want to put the tools and resources into my community so that local leaders can shape our economy, shape our place and make it somewhere where everybody has access to the best opportunities.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for giving way on the issue of decision making. The 23 Anglican bishops who sit in the upper House have no moral or theological authority in Scotland, so why are they participating in laws that impact Scotland and also Northern Ireland?

The hon. Gentleman reiterates the point that he made earlier, with great gusto. It will be heard, and it has contributed to the debate. I think that that is an important question that needs to be resolved, but the point I am making is that we have to resolve this in the round. I do not think that a debate such as the one we are having today, which takes a granular look at the issue, serves the bigger picture.

I will conclude on that point. We have a constitutional settlement that has evolved over centuries, as we have heard, and with that come things that, if we were sitting down afresh, we would not design in the same way. It behoves all of us, as custodians of this place, to renew and refresh these things, but doing that in the round and doing it with the public, rather than to the public, have to be the strongest principles.

It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I congratulate the hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard) both on initiating the debate and on the manner in which he spoke, which was non-partisan and direct to his point. Despite what I will say in the debate, I have the greatest respect for the humanists in the United Kingdom. I respect their values and the work they do. I know that there are members of the hon. Gentleman’s APPG on both sides of the House, because this is an issue that cuts across party lines, as we have seen this afternoon.

The hon. Gentleman was right in saying that we ought to be having these constitutional debates. We ought to have them in every generation. We have had them in many generations, certainly over the past 400 years. In Cromwell’s day, the bishops were removed from the House of Lords, to be brought back under the Restoration 20 years later. In the 1840s, there was a groundswell of movement to disestablish the Church of England; that then faded away. Gladstone started off as an ardent supporter of the established Church, only to change his position 20 years later, based on what he had seen in Ireland. In around 1929, the Church of England itself toyed with the idea of disestablishment, in response to the Houses of Parliament having voted down its Book of Common Prayer, which Parliament deemed to be too Catholic in its tastes. Therefore, this is a debate that we have had over and over again, and it is right that we should return to it, because nothing in the British constitutional system is automatically eternal. The case has to be made again and again for the way in which we do things. And, over time, things have changed.

[Mr Virendra Sharma in the Chair]

The hon. Gentleman referred to the pre-democratic feudal past, from which the Church emerged. Indeed it did. The Church in his country, his nation—Scotland—and in mine is older than the kingdom of Scotland; it is older than the kingdom of England. There were priests and churches before there was a king of all Scotland or a king of all England. I urge him not to be totally down on the pre-democratic feudal past. It was that past that also gave us Parliaments, law, the jury system, currency, local government and many other things. Not everything that emerges from that time is inherently bad—I used to be a teacher of medieval history.

The question that we are addressing is, how strong is the case for change? I was particularly drawn to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) about priorities. I will disappoint the hon. Member for Edinburgh East when I say that I have not come to Westminster Hall to announce that it is Government policy to disestablish the Church of England. The hon. Member will recognise that, although some people feel very strongly about this subject, their numbers are quite small, the challenges the country faces are very great and the time before the next general election is increasingly short. So this issue is not something the Government will be engaging in—certainly not in this Parliament.

The hon. Member for Edinburgh East rather cheekily raised the parallel with Iran. I say “cheekily” because, although I would share his concerns if the Archbishop of Canterbury controlled the BBC, the courts, the military and the selection of MPs, that is not the case in the United Kingdom.

I will ask the same question that I asked the spokesperson for the official Opposition. The 23 bishops of the Anglican Church sitting in the upper House have no moral or theological authority in Scotland, Northern Ireland or, indeed, Wales. Does the Minister think they should participate in legislation that impacts those three nations of the Union?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for the point, which he has made several times in the debate. The truth is that we remain the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. It remains the case that we have, on certain issues, a Westminster Parliament, which has an upper and a lower House. Members of the upper House are entitled to vote, just as, I might add, Members of the SNP are entitled to vote on certain issues that affect only England, and I have observed them so doing on a number of occasions. I know that the hon. Gentleman wishes not to recognise the Parliament of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. However, the people of his country chose otherwise in a once-in-a-generation referendum.

While we are on the subject, I have heard the hon. Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady) say a couple of times that the SNP will have nothing to do with the unelected House of Lords. That is the SNP’s prerogative, and the SNP is entitled to take that position, but I do think there is something rather sad about it, because the people of Scotland chose to stay in the United Kingdom, and the House of Lords remains part of the constitution of this kingdom. The SNP has deliberately chosen not to represent its views in the upper House, and that is unfortunate; it is a narrow view that is depriving SNP voters in Scotland of a say in the upper Chamber.

Does the Minister’s sadness on that issue extend to those who seek to gag Church leaders from speaking about immigration? I am unaware of a nativity story that includes an innkeeper telling Mary and Joseph to take their donkey to Rwanda.

The hon. Gentleman specialises in jokes of poor taste. The Government certainly do not seek to gag bishops in any way. I take the view that I think he takes, which is that Members of the House of Lords should be free to talk about any issue that comes before them—even when I disagree with them. Obviously, my hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Chris Loder) takes a different view on that. I think it is important that people who sit in the Lords can speak their minds on any issue that comes before that House.

The hon. Member for Edinburgh East raised points about how there was special pleading for the bishops in the Lords in one or two areas on privileges. As my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire pointed out, while there is a custom and a convention, these are not rules. Indeed, the customs and conventions are often more honoured in the breach than the observance.

The hon. Member for Edinburgh East mentioned party blocs. Again, what he said is not quite the case. Bishops are not consulted as a party bloc on new legislation before it is tabled, they are not recognised by officials as a party grouping and nor do they get a separate meeting with the Bill makers. That argument does not quite work.

On the code of conduct, although it is true that there is a slightly different code of conduct for bishops, that is also the case for Ministers of the Crown and Members who are employees of non-departmental public bodies. I do not quite follow the hon. Gentleman’s arguments there.

The hon. Gentleman talked, quite rightly, about how the social mores of society have changed, and they have. The position of the bishops has also changed over time. The arguments he will hear bishops advocate today are very different from those he would have heard 50 or 100 years ago. Do bishops today reflect society? I think the hon. Gentleman said 14% of people in the United Kingdom are Anglicans. Only 3% of the Members of the House of Lords are Anglican bishops. If one wanted to go down that route—I am not encouraging anyone to so do—one would say that the Anglicans were under-represented.

I know that the point the hon. Gentleman was actually making was a serious one about the ex officio status of Members of the House of Lords. Going forward, that is fertile ground for discussion, and I thought we were in the foothills of that serious discussion. However, the hon. Member for Glasgow North chose to make this a bigger debate about the House of Lords in totality, and he and I have had that debate a couple of times.

I was trying to tease out SNP Members’ position on an upper Chamber, should they get independence. I think I got three different answers. The hon. Member for Edinburgh East said that that will be decided as and when; the hon. Member for Glasgow North said we should abolish the upper House; and the hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire said he would like to see an elected upper Chamber—

The hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire says from a sedentary position that he would like to see an elected upper Chamber here. Let us address that point. From the Conservative party’s perspective, the problem with an elected upper Chamber is that all the experience that people bring to the House of Lords—people who do not wish to be part of a political group and who have perhaps come to a stage in their career where they do not want to stand for election—would be lost. That would be a terrible shame, very much to the detriment of democracy in this country. A challenging and revising Chamber needs to be a Chamber of all the talents. The best way to get that is by having the system we currently have and making sure that people who would ordinarily not find their way into an elected House can have a stake and a place in our democracy.

Mr Sharma, I think the hon. Member for Edinburgh East would like to say a few words to sum up, so I will sit down.

I am glad that this debate has at least brought to the fore in the Chamber those who wish to advocate on behalf of the Church of England, and they are right to do that. They can console themselves, perhaps, that I am not advocating a Cromwellian approach to this problem at least.

There is not sufficient time to deal with everything that has been said, but I want to stress that no one is suggesting that there is not a role for people of faith in our public life and in our Parliament. No one is suggesting that Anglicans should not be represented in the House of Lords or that bishops should not be in the House of Lords. In fact, 60% of the non-spiritual peers in the House of Lords identify as Christian, so it is hard to make an argument that that particular Church is under-represented in the upper Chamber. What we are talking about is whether this anachronistic situation of additional, guaranteed representation should exist for one Church and one institution alone, above all others.

I said earlier that I do not have a religious faith, but I want to give the last word in this discussion to someone who does: my friend and colleague Simon Barrow, the director of the Christian think-tank Ekklesia. He says—


Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered the matter of bishops in the House of Lords.

NATO Summit: Vilnius

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the NATO Parliamentary Assembly and NATO Summit 2023 in Vilnius.

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sharma. I am very grateful for this debate, because it is important that the hard work that goes on across parties gets an airing in the House. To those watching our proceedings, I want to make the point that the NATO Parliamentary Assembly is a genuine, cross-party Assembly where party politics never comes into the discussion. People seek pragmatism. As leader of the United Kingdom delegation, I have the support of the right hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones), who is the deputy leader. That will one day switch, because the Government have the leadership and the Opposition have the deputy leadership, but everybody works very closely together. I also say to those watching that it is a highly experienced delegation; it includes many former Defence Ministers, Ministers of State at the Foreign Office, Secretaries of State and, indeed, hon. and gallant Members, such as my hon. Friend the Member for Colne Valley (Jason McCartney). There is a wide spread and a lot of experience.

I should start by saying what the NATO Parliamentary Assembly is. It was established in 1955 to bring about political accountability. Above all, we are the political body of the allies. We have political discussions about how NATO should move forward, just as we have discussions about defence—most people would envisage NATO as a defence body. Overall, we contribute to several key areas of NATO policy. For instance, the Parliamentary Assembly made a large contribution to the NATO 2030 strategy, which was adopted in Madrid last year.

I chair the Defence and Security Committee, in which allied nations discuss particular defence areas. There is also the Political Committee, the Science and Technology Committee, and the Economics and Security Committee—all important Committees that look at different issues, go to various countries and deal with partner nations as well as allies. They help to form the global image of which NATO needs to be aware. From there, we can feed into and build to summits, such as that one that will take place next week.

As I said, the Parliamentary Assembly is a political body. The importance of soft power cannot be overestimated. The public will often see the high-level dealings of parliamentarians, leaders of countries and Ministers, and that is what gets reported. The leaders have civil servants with them, and everything is pre-arranged. The Assembly has, by its very nature, the advantage that we are all Back Benchers. Those Back Benchers come from all 31 allies and partner nations. That often allows us to build relationships and get into discussions about things that it may be more difficult to discuss at a higher level. For example, I have been in conversations, as have other members, about Sweden’s and Finland’s accession and Türkiye’s concerns. We were able to discuss with our colleagues from Türkiye where the concerns lay.

Does the right hon. Member agree that it was very important, post cold war, that the Assembly was able to bring in associate members from former eastern European countries, and build a political consensus in those countries to be part of the future accession to NATO?

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for raising that point. He illustrates the political nature of the Assembly, which helped guide those newly formed democracies, as they were starting to flourish and develop in the early days, to ensure that they did not fall off the path to freedom, democracy, free speech and the other things that we recognise as key planks of NATO membership.

We are able to have conversations in the background with colleagues from other ally nations, can feed those back to our Governments, cross-party, and help move discussions forward. It should be recognised that the Swedes made enormous strides in addressing Türkiye’s concerns. The soft power at play in the background at committees should not be underestimated.

I am sure that most Assembly colleagues would agree that the transatlantic relationship remains strong; there is strong support for NATO on Capitol Hill, but our Capitol Hill colleagues tell us that they have to constantly inform and make representations to new colleagues about the importance of NATO and what it does. It would therefore be wrong to say to America deals with that in a bubble. It is important that we show the importance of the relationship between north America and the Canadians, who I will speak more widely about later. This is truly still a North Atlantic Treaty Organisation. The strength of the partnership has served us well for 75 years, and that cannot be overestimated.

It is a privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sharma. My right hon. Friend is making an extremely important point. Does he recognise that a live example is the Inflation Reduction Act in the United States, through which the Administration is pursuing an “America first” agenda? The challenges of that for allied nations can be pointed out to members of Congress and Senate in the United States, so that they better understand why a partnership on supply chains and investment programmes matters. They can then challenge the Administration, so that a better position can be developed, and so that when the Government seek to make trade deals, they do not undermine those efforts.

At the transatlantic forum, which many of us with leadership positions take part in—it takes place in December, at Washington’s National Defence University—American politicians saw for the first time, at first hand, the anger that had built across many European nations about the knock-on effects that the policy might have, not least the gaps that it could lead to in defence procurement and the development of technology. All Governments will often pursue an economic policy that fits with their national agenda, and not necessarily see the impacts elsewhere. The forum is another good example of soft power, because conversations can take place and can be fed back.

The underlying reality is that the Inflation Reduction Act in the United States is recognition that they, and the rest of the west, had allowed their industrial capacity to be hollowed out and basically subverted, particularly by China, and they are rebuilding their industry. There might be discussions to be had, but should we not also recognise that industry is vital, not only for our economy but for our security? It is time for us to catch up.

I agree with much of what the right hon. Gentleman said. That is a very good example of the fact that the Assembly is not afraid of being critical of Government policy. It is not afraid to be critical of Governments of any colour. The committees have been in the building for a long time.

I was about to come to the reports produced. A report produced by Defence and Security Committee is about ensuring an industrial base for the manufacture of defence equipment and munitions. I do not think it is a state secret any more, particularly as it got leaked on the internet by somebody in America, that there is real concern about the ability to rearm. The right hon. Member for Warley (John Spellar) touched on the fact that industry has not created a constant supply line. My committee recognised that we must have that constant supply line, and industry must have the confidence to invest; I suspect that the Economics and Security Committee recognised the same. That is a good example of the work that has been done, and fed to leaders in advance of discussions that they must have at the Vilnius summit.

As we are all aware, we are involved in a war. It is not a war with NATO, but allies are supporting Ukraine, and doing everything we can to let it stand up for freedom and democracy, and to let the Ukrainian people choose how they live their life and who runs them. It is an important fight; it is the fight of democracy against autocracy and dictatorship. It has, however, posed real challenges. The Assembly is not afraid to highlight those challenges and ensure they are fed into discussions.

Reports become the body of the work of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly. One issue reported on was the rapid evolution of Baltic security after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. It has led to another very important political point. Everybody recognises article 5 of the North Atlantic treaty, which says that an attack on one is an attack on all, but it has become apparent to many—this is being discussed in our Committees—that article 5 is not an emergency call. It is not a 999 call, or a 911 call, for those in America. It is about re-enforcement—the rapid reaction force, which takes three weeks to get there.

Article 3 says that a country must be able to defend itself first. That is why countries have moved forward with a forward defence presence; for example, there is the joint expeditionary force in the Baltic sea, and the 300,000 troops being lined up along the border, so that the tripwire is not tripped. That is a fundamental difference, because until the invasion of Crimea, NATO had shifted its perspective; it went from being a cold war defence organisation to being a political organisation. It was doing exceptionally important work, as the right hon. Member for North Durham pointed out, as countries from eastern Europe joined the path of democracy. After the invasion of Crimea, there was a switch to both roles being important. It is a tribute to NATO and its leadership that it was able to adapt to the change in geopolitical circumstances so quickly.

It is not just Members of the House of Commons who are members of the Assembly; five Members from the other place also make a great deal of effort. Lord Lancaster from the other place, who is on my Committee, had his report, “Troubled waters—how Russia’s war in Ukraine changes Black sea security”, published. Security in the Black sea region has changed immensely.

I will take this opportunity to thank our allies in Türkiye for their incredible work; sometimes they do not get the credit they deserve. They are looked at in different ways. They enforced the Montreux treaty, which has stopped huge amounts of Russian maritime capital equipment making its way into the Black sea and creating an issue. They negotiated the export of grain; they are constantly patrolling the Black sea to defuse sea mines that have become dislodged; and they are very much protecting that area. Indeed, there are a lot of NATO allies around the Black sea, and they are in a tough region, as we can see from looking at their geographical neighbours. It shows the strength of the NATO alliance that we have countries from so many different parts of the world carrying out very specific roles.

I turn to the work of the Defence and Security Committee. When I took on the chairmanship, I wanted to look at maritime security. The High North is coming ever more to the fore. We recently conducted a visit to Canada, which was very much based around its naval training, because Canada is surrounded by three oceans yet has not invested in its maritime capability in the way that we would. Its Halifax-class frigates are slightly different from ours, and are being refurbed at 30 years old; that is the same age as our Type 23s, which we are retiring, yet they are being refurbed to take another 20 years at sea. There are interesting comparisons to be draw in the alliance when it comes to procurement. We might consider what we are doing with the Royal Navy, and the modernisation and the technology that can be brought forward in the realm of the NATO maritime alliance.

Russia may not be able to control the oceans in the way that the Americans can, but it is exceptionally good in the arena that it operates in. That arena is increasingly becoming the High North, for them and for the Chinese, who are mapping the area, working out where they can push up and where they can exploit, and where the mineral resources lie. They are also investing heavily.

The Assembly has been able to identify and bring more to the fore the problems the Canadians face, not least permafrost. Permafrost is retreating in the High North, which is destroying military infrastructure, such as runways that have been relied on up to this time. NORAD—the North American Aerospace Defence Command—needs updating, and there are fuel supply depots that are not being used. We talk about the UK’s procurement struggles; we need to recognise that many allies have similar struggles. That again shows the strength of the alliance: we can come together to face what will become an ever-greater threat.

Russia has recognised that it needs to shift the ball, and there is an interesting conversation about the capability of its intercontinental ballistic nuclear missiles and whether it would use them. We have the policy of counterbalance, but it now has developed the Poseidon torpedo, which could by all accounts make its way underwater for six days to the coast of North America, explode a mile offshore with a nuclear warhead and create a tsunami. That changes the counterbalance, which is why, again, this alliance is so important. It is also why it is so important that the UK renews Trident and the Dreadnought fleet, to make sure that counterbalance exists. That way, even if we do not know where the silos are, we know that there would be a response, and that would reduce the threat. If the Russians want to go down that road, let them, but they still have not got a free pass to do that, because we have the counterbalance.

More positively, NATO works on interoperability, and F-35s from the UK have been landing on Italian carriers. Such steps send out important messages to our foes—to the Russians, and to the Chinese in many ways—that NATO is not just a gathering of 31 countries with their own military equipment; it is building its interoperability. The interoperability offered by the F-35 marks a fundamental change in air support in the alliance.

I will conclude, to allow colleagues to contribute. As we approach the 75th anniversary of NATO, and talk here before the Vilnius summit, I think everyone in this Room would agree that NATO is more important than at any time. Only through these alliances and partnerships will we bring about the counterbalance needed to ensure that we can carry on living in freedom and democracy, which the people of Ukraine are fighting for with their life as we speak.

Order. I will call the Front Benchers at 3.58 pm. There is no time limit at the moment, but Members should keep that in mind. I call Kevan Jones.

Thank you, Mr Sharma; what a pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Elmet and Rothwell (Alec Shelbrooke) on securing the debate. May I also say a big thank you to the Members of both Houses who serve on the UK NATO Parliamentary Assembly delegation? As the right hon. Gentleman said, I am the deputy leader of the delegation, and next year NATO will be 75 years of age. It was set up in the dark days after the second world war, with the inspiring leadership in the UK of individuals such as Ernie Bevin coming together to ensure that the horrors that faced us for two generations would never again be visited on Europe. Its fundamental aim was to protect the new rules-based order, democracy and the way of life that we have often come to take for granted.

In 1954, Dwight Eisenhower said:

“We do not keep security establishments merely to defend property or territory or rights abroad or at sea. We keep the security forces to defend a way of life.”

That is as relevant today as it was in 1954. The unprovoked Russian attack on the sovereign nation of Ukraine has brought that to stark attention. Some of the threats that we face are the same, with war sadly returning to the European mainland, but there are also new challenges that were not there 75 years ago, such as cyber, disinformation and new technological developments, which we need to keep ahead of to protect the way of life and democracy that the NATO nations strive to defend. Some people say that NATO is an aggressive alliance. It is not; it is a defensive alliance to protect the values that I have just outlined.

I have been a member of the Assembly since 2017. I am currently also a vice-president, and until recently chaired its Science and Technology Committee. I will attend the summit in Vilnius next week on behalf of the NATO Assembly in my position as one of its vice-presidents. What does NATO face today? Clearly, there is the current threat from Russia in Ukraine, and the defence of the democratic values that I outlined. We need to reiterate our support for Ukraine next week in terms of ensuring success in defeating the unwarranted invasion of a sovereign European nation, and we must focus, as the right hon. Gentleman said, on refreshing our own defence settlements, including the accession of new nations, and ensuring that we not only get security guarantees for Ukraine but have a pathway to it becoming part of NATO.

Next week will be difficult, as it always is, in terms of not only ensuring that we reiterate the arguments for why NATO is important, but, importantly, ensuring that its defence and deterrence capabilities are renewed, to deter those who wish to do us harm. I am very disappointed that we have not had the Command Paper from the UK Government prior to the NATO summit. It seems strange that we will make various commitments next week in Vilnius but will then have a Command Paper that, I am told, will be out towards the end of the month.

There are two aspects next week in Vilnius that the NATO Parliamentary Assembly agreed at its spring session in Luxembourg. The first is a united resolution to continue to support the people and Government of Ukraine, and to make sure that we have more integration between NATO, the EU and NATO partner nations on providing the political, military intelligence, financial, training and humanitarian support for Ukraine to prevail and restore the territorial integrity it needs. It is also about how we up the ante and make sure that the military equipment the Ukrainians require is speedily delivered to them.

The other resolution that we passed and sent to the conference was about the Wagner Group—which has been in the headlines in the past few weeks—highlighting that that is a terrorist and criminal organisation. We also need to look at how we can get more integration, and not just in Europe, because the threats are now wider. How do we respond to China, for example?

I notice that we have a Foreign Office Minister with us today. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the recalcitrance of the Foreign Office about proscribing the Wagner Group is disappointing?

I do. The right hon. Gentleman and I went to the Foreign Office last year, and we know well the lack of interest there in the NATO PA, which is a marked contrast with every other nation represented there.

Another important resolution we have next week follows a commitment by Congressman Gerry Connolly when he was President of the NATO PA. It is about reinforcing the idea that NATO is there to protect democracy and the rules-based order. His suggestion, which was adopted last year, was that we should have a unit within NATO to make sure not only that we talk about democratic values and the rules-based order, but that we can promote them throughout our nations, similar to the way we did that during the cold war. That will be important.

For people who do not understand the Parliamentary Assembly, we have a direct say about what NATO does. I chaired the Science and Technology Committee for four years, and we have a very good relationship with the NATO chief scientist, Dr Bryan Wells, who has taken on board some issues and the reports we did on hypersonics and new technologies, and on ensuring that we can get some of the new technologies distributed across NATO. The Parliamentary Assembly is a valuable forum, because it makes the case for NATO, as well as bringing together parliamentarians from across NATO. As I said, post the cold war, when the Berlin wall came down, the PA was vital for building important relationships between parliamentarians from the former eastern European bloc, so that they could work on their accession strategy for NATO membership, and this was about underpinning the importance of democracy.

I look forward to taking part in the NATO summit in Vilnius next week and being, as we all are on the Parliamentary Assembly, the political and democratic voice of NATO. I think we need to argue more and more for why NATO is important, because it went into abeyance after the cold war. It has now been brought into sharp focus because of what has happened in Ukraine and it is in the public’s consciousness. NATO is not just a military alliance; it is underpinned by democracy. Having parliamentarians as part of that process is an important way of showing that it is a democratic organisation that not only has, at times, difficult discussions but promotes the rules-based order and democracy, against the alternatives of those who would not only do us harm but destroy the system that we have grown to love over the last 70 years.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sharma. I congratulate my Yorkshire colleague, my right hon. Friend the Member for Elmet and Rothwell (Alec Shelbrooke)—the leader of the UK delegation to the NATO Parliamentary Assembly —on securing this important debate. As a Royal Air Force veteran, I am particularly proud to serve on the UK delegation to the NATO Parliamentary Assembly, and I am delighted to take part in this debate.

The NATO Parliamentary Assembly has a critical role in building multilateral relations across Europe and the entirety of our alliance, and it is fitting that we recognise that. The Assembly is an essential link between NATO and the Parliaments of NATO member states. The Assembly has remarkable success in achieving its core principles: fostering dialogue among parliamentarians on major security issues; facilitating parliamentary awareness of key alliance policies; providing NATO and its member Governments with an indication of collective parliamentary opinion; providing greater transparency of NATO policies, as well as collective accountability; and strengthening our transatlantic relationship.

NATO is not just the bedrock of British security but the guarantor of peace for almost all of Europe. Following the cold war, many questioned whether NATO still had a role to play in the modern world, but with British tanks in Estonia, American HIMARS donated to Ukraine and the recent accession of Finland, with Sweden soon to follow, we can clearly see just how relevant NATO remains today.

I am incredibly proud of the UK’s track record on our place in NATO. We consistently meet the 2% defence spending target and have the most advanced aircraft carriers at sea today, forming a vital part of NATO’s blue-water capacity. Our soldiers are proud to take part in the rapid response force, the joint expeditionary force, which is ready to deploy anywhere, at any time, to defend our alliance.

More widely, NATO and the Parliamentary Assembly have been resolute in our protection of British values at home and abroad. There have been repeated commitments to a NATO centre for democratic resilience over the years. I look forward to its implementation, so that democracy is defended not just militarily but socially from the disinformation campaigns of countries such as Russia, Iran and China, which seek to paint NATO as an aggressor rather than what it really is: a community of like-minded free nations that want to be defended against aggression.

It is clear that our digital and democratic resilience will be critical to our security in the years to come. Through fantastic bodies such as the NATO Parliamentary Assembly, we can work together to fight autocratic encroachment into our institutions. The upcoming summit in Lithuania is a chance for us to discuss what our vision is, not just for NATO, but for Ukraine in NATO. I believe fundamentally that we have to continue to help and support Ukraine as much as humanly possible in its heroic fight against the unwarranted and illegal Russian invasion. While being aware of the importance of not escalating things further, we have to send the clear message to anyone who would seek to start a war in Europe: “You will pay dearly, and you will not succeed.”

I am certain that in Vilnius, the British representative, accompanied by our Prime Minister, will make the case for deepening our bilateral and multilateral relations across the alliance, and keeping up the pressure among our allies to continue our support for Ukraine. Our message at this conference to our allies and Ukraine should be really clear: give them the tools and they will finish the job.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sharma. As we are dealing with defence matters, it is worth noting that your predecessor was the last serving member of the British Army to have served in this House.

I congratulate the leader of our delegation, the right hon. Member for Elmet and Rothwell (Alec Shelbrooke), on securing this debate. It has highlighted once again that, whereas in the popular mindset NATO is seen as a military alliance, it is fundamentally very much a political alliance, and was right at the beginning. It was created in response to political events.

When one reads Ernie Bevin’s justification for NATO, it is interesting to see that he stresses the extent to which they tried to secure political agreement with the Soviets for the management of Europe after the second world war, not just in Germany, Berlin or Austria, but across Europe. They were perpetually frustrated and eventually understood, particularly after all the political and military coups that took place across eastern Europe, that they needed collective security against the threat, and that they needed not only a military, but a political organisation. It is right that the Foreign Office leads the debate, because it leads in NATO. That, again, demonstrates the fundamentally political nature of the alliance. It is, of course, backed up by hard power and our nuclear deterrent, but it is underpinned by industrial and societal issues.

I have always taken an interest in manufacturing and defence industry matters—probably because of my previous incarnation as a national officer in a major industrial union—and, interestingly, that is now very much a mainstream debate inside the NATO Parliamentary Assembly and in the various capitals of NATO countries. There is a real role for Parliaments to get engaged, as hon. Members have mentioned. Countries will be looking at rebuilding their own industrial capacity but, even within the United States, there is recognition that no one country can do that alone.

Diversity of supply from secure and trusted suppliers is enormously important. That is true about fundamental materials—even this week, countries were finding China cutting off various materials to chip makers—but it runs right the way through. Sometimes, among the less well informed, the debate has focused on the high end, such as computer chips, but basic, fundamental industrial capacity in the form of foundries and drop forging is enormously important in maintaining capacity. The struggle in Ukraine has highlighted that importance.

There is a lot of catching up to do. Our Government are doing some of it but, to my mind, they are still being so slow. There is no point in criticising Joe Biden and the Administration in Washington for rebuilding their industrial capacity. We should work with them, and we should also work across Europe. There is a regrettable tendency within the EU bureaucracy to try to make this an exclusive EU function, more as a political operation than a defence and industrial one. It is hugely important that the UK, the EU, and the United States and Canada look at how we can best co-operate to ensure that we can supply our troops not only in normal times, but in times of crisis and emergency.

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that this mindset has to be present across all Departments and all Governments at the top? There is a reason why we need warehouses full of billions of pounds’ worth of equipment, and it is not just, “Let’s get that off the accounting books.” What has been shown is just how vital it is.

I absolutely agree with the right hon. Gentleman. It is also about industrial capacity to replace that equipment. There are some real debates to be had about the associated costs and capacity, but that is much better done with proper understanding of specialisations. That should also involve our friends in Australia through the AUKUS agreement, which will be important for the UK and the role we can play with our European colleagues.

There is also the battle for hearts and minds inside Europe, which goes right the way back to the founding of NATO. Sometimes there is a misplaced focus on technology. People talk about being able to use Facebook and various parts of social media. Those skills are important, but, as Rupert Murdoch said about the entertainment industry, in the end, content is king. That is the important thing. That is where we very much need to sharpen our act, or rather recreate the capacities that we used to have. After all, in the second world war we had the Political Warfare Executive, which was probably one of the most outstanding information and disinformation operations. We seem to have moved backwards from that.

We are up against an opponent for whom politics is everything. In both Russia and China, Lenin still rules OK. Politics absolutely dominates the scene. That is where the NATO PA comes in, because we are able to bring the democratic arguments. Congressman Gerry Connolly’s work on putting the defence and advancement of democracy right at the heart of NATO was rightly referenced, but we also have to develop those capacities.

Both the EU and NATO have done some work on disinformation, but we have to up our game. We have to rediscover that. We have to create the mechanisms in Government that can co-operate with other countries in NATO, and with representatives in the NATO PA, in order to take the fight to authoritarians or their fellow travellers across the world, not to prevent the battle of machines but to win the battle of the hearts and minds. The NATO Parliamentary Assembly has a crucial role to play in that.

It is good to see you in the Chair, Mr Sharma. I thank the right hon. Member for Elmet and Rothwell (Alec Shelbrooke) for bringing forward this debate ahead of next week’s summit.

As someone who spent a brief time on the NATO PA and longer on the Defence Committee, I am no stranger to these debates. The issues of the High North and the north Atlantic were a constant litany from me when I was on the Committee, which I am sure the right hon. Members for North Durham (Mr Jones) and for Warley (John Spellar) were too aware of. One issue that I constantly raised was the north Atlantic command. It sadly did not come to the UK; it went to Norfolk in the United States, but it was welcome to see that gap being filled after some substantial time.

As ever in such debates, there is an unusual amount of agreement from all sides. I hope to continue in that spirit. Any illusion we had of living on a peaceful continent has been shattered. The conference itself is an ideal moment for us to reiterate the commitment to ensuring that Ukraine specifically has whatever economic and military aid it needs, not only to repel the Russian invasion but to restore its pre-2014 boundaries. We know that one calculation that President Putin made when proceeding with his disastrous strategy was that Europe and the western allies were too divided to really care about Ukraine and its people. I am glad to say that he not only has been proven spectacularly wrong in that regard, but he has spurred such a precipitous move away from economic dependence on Russia that with each passing day he loses the ability to divide our societies in the way he once did. Just as it will be no surprise to all those here today who have heard me opine on Ukraine over the years, so it should be no surprise to those watching the debate from the Russian embassy that although there may be innumerable subjects on which this House does not unanimously agree, this is certainly not one of them.

One thing that we will be hoping to see at the summit— I hope that Members agree—is a move towards some sort of NATO membership action plan for Ukraine. Obviously, the same caveats apply as we might see elsewhere, but a direction of travel, I think, must be established. When talking about these scenarios, it is always, of course, article 5 that is given the most attention. I think that the right hon. Member for Elmet and Rothwell mentioned it in his opening speech, but in Ukraine’s case we can clearly hope to proceed with aid and mutual assurance along the lines of articles 2 and 3. Article 2 refers to

“the further development of peaceful and friendly international relations by strengthening their free institutions, by bringing about a better understanding of the principles upon which these institutions are founded, and by promoting conditions of stability and well-being.”

Article 3 states that

“the Parties, separately and jointly, by means of continuous and effective self-help and mutual aid, will maintain and develop their individual and collective capacity to resist armed attack.”

We are moving well along the track of article 3 without necessarily acknowledging it, but we will not achieve anything if we do not ensure that Ukrainian civil society and the country’s institutions receive just as much attention as the deliveries of Storm Shadow missiles. I hope, therefore, that last month’s conference here in this city will become an annual event even after Crimea is liberated from the clutches of Vladimir Putin.

Part of the strengthening of free institutions among our NATO allies is of course the NATO Parliamentary Assembly. I am glad that it is getting the recognition that it deserves in the debate today. Multilateral institutions like NATO can often be disparaged; I think that the right hon. Member for Warley alluded to that. They can be disparaged as “parasitic or pointless”, to quote Anne Applebaum’s excellent profile of the Secretary-General, Jens Stoltenberg, in the latest edition of The Atlantic magazine. What the Parliamentary Assembly does is bring the democracies that constitute the alliance, however messy and imperfect they may be, to the leading edge of what makes NATO important and of its strength. I think that, far from its democratic nature being a drag, events such as the invasion have demonstrated how, although autocracies may notionally be able to move quicker, NATO is, to quote Applebaum’s article again, one of the

“force multipliers that function better than the autocracies run by strongmen.”

This is because when NATO and similar multilateral institutions make a decision, they tend to stick to it. The other democratic aspect of NATO that we often overlook is the fact that it is a consensus organisation: Iceland and the recent member, Montenegro, have as much say on the North Atlantic Council as the United States or, indeed, the UK.

I note that the hon. Gentleman said that he was previously a member of the Parliamentary Assembly. I am one of the newest members, but I want to pick up on what he is saying about the leadership. The UK leadership of my right hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) and the right hon. Member for Elmet and Rothwell (Alec Shelbrooke) is absolutely outstanding. We also have other members who are very experienced and people who have been Members of both Houses, such as Lord Campbell and Lord Anderson of Swansea. That makes for the extremely important soft power role that we have, and I think that the consensus is very much down to the leadership of all those members.

I certainly agree with the right hon. Member. I will not disagree—especially about the right hon. Member for North Durham, because he is sitting behind me.

There is also Lord Hamilton. I have just been corrected by my right hon. Friend the Member for Warley (John Spellar).

I will not disagree with that either. I may not be a fan of the way in which the other House is appointed, but I know that Members there certainly have a role in the parliamentary process.

As I was saying, Iceland and Montenegro have as much say in the North Atlantic Council as the United States or the UK—this is where I might disagree with some Members, because whenever I hear committed Brexiteers waxing lyrical about NATO membership, I am always tempted to ask if they would not prefer to have the qualified majority voting of the EU. The consensus approach makes the choice of a Secretary-General so fraught and unpredictable, which is why someone who has proven to be such a reliable leader of the alliance will continue to be the best choice going forward.

I am of course biased in favour of a social democratic politician from an unequivocally non-nuclear northern European state who can lead NATO with such understated authority. That is precisely the sort of multilateralism that my party and I like to see. We are not alone, however. The Secretary-General is expected to be confirmed in post for at least another year.

I will take a brief moment to break from the consensus, in particular on the recent speculation about the Secretary of State for Defence, the right hon. and gallant Member for Wyre and Preston North (Mr Wallace), being put forward for the Secretary-General role—I have ensured that he knows I am naming him, albeit in a good fashion. Being someone who has come up against him and his predecessors at first hand, I can certainly say that the Secretary of State stands head and shoulders above them as a man who has not shrunk from the myriad challenges in his Department. Although I may not have always agreed with him, he has played mainly with a straight bat when dealing with Parliament and with No. 10, who I am sure do not consider him to be one of the nodding dogs that they prefer to fill the Cabinet with.

As we were reminded just last week, the Secretary of State is the most popular Cabinet Minister among the Tory rank and file, a man who had to fend off nominations to be Prime Minister. Anyone behind a campaign that had between zero and heehaw’s chance in succeeding deserves a court martial at the very least. That is not because the Secretary of State is unsuitable—not at all—but because this is a critical moment for the issue of NATO and the EU, and there is no chance that a UK candidate could hope to succeed at this time. That is important to the overall debate about the role of the Assembly.

I read the Telegraph’s so-called exclusive this week that the White House would prefer to have the President of the European Commission succeed Secretary-General Stoltenberg, but it was hardly the shock that some people think, especially given the current US presidential Administration. I therefore make one slightly discordant plea not to put us through this every year: states that cannot—some would say—unequivocally support the twin pillars of European-Atlantic security will never find consensus behind them.

Before I get accused of being simply a petty Scottish nationalist, I have to say that that is a fact that not only the UK, but France and Germany may have to get used to as well. In various ways, each of the largest European states has demonstrated that in different ways, but they cannot rely on the weight of the past, especially with both the EU and NATO having expanded so much. In this debate, we have inevitably focused on UK contributions to Ukraine, but often it has been the countries of central and eastern Europe that have done the heaviest lifting, not least Estonia, which has spent the largest amount of per capita GDP on bilateral aid. Let me declare a non-pecuniary interest as the co-chair of the all-party group on Estonia.

We in the Scottish National party believe—as do the Government of Ukraine—that the two pillars of European security are NATO and, for us at least, the EU. I am afraid that I am the only person who is able to be so unequivocal in my summing-up speech, although having to state that is pretty incredible. Let us wish, too, for tangible progress on the future of Ukrainian membership, along with a reiteration of the fact that our support for Ukraine will last longer than the Russian invasion with its heavy losses can—the Russians will continue to experience those until they leave Ukraine.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairpersonship, Mr Sharma.

I thank the right hon. Member for Elmet and Rothwell (Alec Shelbrooke) for securing the debate and all Members for their valuable contributions, in particular members and former members of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly. I also thank the right hon. Member for his role in leading the UK’s delegation to the Assembly and all who play a role in our discussions in this place on the crucial importance of NATO.

The alliance is incredibly important to me and my family. My father and many members of my family have served in NATO operations around the world and in Europe in many different decades. The alliance of course was founded out of the horrors of the second world war. Having had a grandfather come from the United States to fight the Nazis, with my other grandfather fighting in Arnhem, it is a deep and personal commitment for me.

This is obviously a consequential moment for NATO as we approach the 75th anniversary. It is welcome to see colleagues engaging with the political aspects and intentions of the alliance so constructively and thoughtfully. I want to begin by making it clear that Labour’s commitment to NATO is unshakable, as is our resolute commitment to the nuclear deterrent, which is of course a critical part of our contribution to the alliance. I have had the honour of seeing NATO training and operations in person around the world. I visited NATO HQ last year. I saw NATO operations in Kosovo and was recently in Canada where we discussed many aspects and reflected on the points that the right hon. Member for Elmet and Rothwell brought up today, including his points around the Arctic.

Labour is a party of NATO. Labour’s values of democracy, freedom and peace are embedded in NATO’s founding treaty. One of Labour’s proudest achievements is its role as the UK Government at the time in founding the alliance and as a signatory to the North Atlantic Treaty in 1949. We have seen NATO go forward as the foundation and bedrock of our security and national interest, central to global efforts to achieve security and peace, and in the current context opposing the warped imperial ambitions of Putin’s Russia and its barbarous war in Ukraine. All of us as parliamentarians have a role to play in ensuring a united voice from this House on NATO, and that has been evident by the comments today.

As we have heard, the Assembly is critical to furthering transatlantic relations, to assisting the development of parliamentary democracy in the Euratlantic region, and to ensuring that we seek co-operation and engagement, including outside the NATO members and including areas such as the Caucasus and around the Mediterranean as well. There is a debate in the main Chamber at the moment on the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, whose annual general meeting I attended yesterday.

All of these bodies, whether it is the CPA, the NATO Parliamentary Assembly or the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly and many others, are crucial in strengthening the person-to-person ties of parliamentarians and ensuring that the values that we all share—democracy, the rule of law, conflict and atrocity prevention, the protection of human rights and the protection of our defence and security—remain at the heart of all that we do.

At a time of democratic backsliding across our own continent, the tides of authoritarianism that have been referred to by many Members today are reverberating through our direct neighbourhoods and indeed globally. With real direct threats to Britain’s national security and that of our allies posing a real and lasting risk, relations between parliamentarians are critical to ensure that we exchange the best ideas, best practice and understanding of the threats that we face. As I have made repeatedly clear when I have met NATO allies and counterparts in different countries across the alliance, our NATO allies’ borders are our borders. The commitment to the article 5 principle and the other principles of the founding treaty are absolutely unshakable and we need to understand that going forward.

The Assembly has also played a crucial role in the operation of NATO and informing the activities of the alliance going forward. For example, in relation to the summit next week, I know that the recommendations that the Assembly has come up with are both considered and thoughtful, whether boosting awareness of the systemic challenges posed by China or increasing and expediting allied support for Ukraine, and of course the very live discussions around efforts to ensure moves towards Ukrainian membership of NATO. We in the Opposition support a pathway for Ukraine to achieve that. I want to reiterate thanks to colleagues on the delegation and all those who take part in the Assembly for supplementing the operation of the alliance more broadly.

On next week’s summit in Vilnius, I have already said that on the critical issue of Ukraine, we believe that Britain should play a leading role in securing Ukraine a path to join NATO. Ukraine will rightly define many of the discussions at this year’s summit. It is welcome to see that Defence Ministers have already agreed to plans that will establish a high readiness force of 300,000 troops. The multi-year package of support for Ukraine will be offered, and there will be a new rotational model for air and missile defence. Will the Minister say a little about the number of UK troops that will be included in such a high readiness force and what part we will play in that overall multi-year package?

Of course, Vilnius will be the first summit at which Finland will be present as a full member of the alliance, and we have strongly welcomed that move since the application was made. Putin falsely thought that he could fracture NATO; instead, he brought us together. The new applications have been very welcome. As the Minister knows, questions remain over the timing of Sweden’s joining the alliance. We thoroughly support its membership, and I spoke with some Swedish colleagues in recent weeks about their hopes for Sweden to join the alliance as a full member. Where have discussions got to with our strong allies in Türkiye and in places such as Hungary, which have expressed objections? Is he optimistic about a pathway for Sweden to join the alliance? We must ensure that the UK strongly supports its application.

Let me say something about the crucial role that our armed forces play in relation to NATO operations, in terms of both training and operations on the ground. We need to ensure that our armed forces are ready and able to play the full role that they have often played in the past. The Opposition have fully supported the steps that the Government have taken regarding Ukraine and regarding many other aspects of enhancing NATO security at this time of disruption and threat on our own continent, but I share the concerns of my right hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr Jones): we have been calling for defence plans to be rebooted since March 2022, and the Government promised that there would be a defence Command Paper in June, but no such plans have been released. That means that the Prime Minister will attend Vilnius without a clear agenda and strategy for how to go forward post the developments of the last year. That surely falls short of what our allies and partners expect. I hope that the Minister can say something about that.

I also echo the comments of the shadow Defence Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey), who has made it clear that, despite the rising threat to our national security and that of our allies, our armed forces are working with fewer troops and without the equipment that they need to properly fulfil our NATO obligations. Since 2010, the Government have cut the size of the Army by 25,000 full-time troops to 76,000, and despite the proliferation of threats, Ministers will cut it further, to 73,000 troops, by 2025. That is the smallest British Army since the Napoleonic wars. I draw attention to my past declarations in that regard.

Will the Minister relay to the Secretary of State for Defence that there is an incontrovertible nexus between the strength of our conventional armed forces and our ability to contribute fully to NATO obligations, on which there is a great deal of unity in this room? We have to ensure that we are putting the troops and equipment in place to do that. There have been delays and mismanagement in a number of vital defence contracts. We have heard about Ajax again in recent weeks, and there are also the E-7 Wedgetail surveillance planes and a number of other issues. The Opposition are clear that Ministers must adopt Labour’s plan for a NATO test of major defence programmes, establish a stockpiling strategy to replenish reserves and sustain support for Ukraine.

In conclusion, I again express my sincere thanks to the right hon. Member for Elmet and Rothwell for his comments and for securing the debate, and I thank all hon. and right hon. Members present for their comments. Although there is a growing threat from other global powers and challenges in other parts of the world, the biggest and most immediate threats facing the United Kingdom remain in the NATO sphere of operations in Europe and the north Atlantic, including in places such as the Arctic. We must ensure that we are not only a leading contributor to NATO in terms of personnel and defence matériel, but a key leader in the alliance diplomatically and politically, as has been emphasised many times today. The role of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly, which includes Members of this place, will remain critical to that.

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Sharma. You and I more usually come across each other in the International Development Committee, of which you are one of the most experienced members; it is very nice not to be under your forensic interrogation today but to have you as the Chair of this debate.

I am most grateful to my right hon. Friend the Member for Elmet and Rothwell (Alec Shelbrooke) for securing this debate and for leading the UK delegation to the NATO Parliamentary Assembly in Luxembourg in May. As I think he and others pointed out, we approach the 75th anniversary of NATO at a time when we are also commemorating the 75th anniversary of the NHS. Both organisations protect and look after us, and both are hugely respected and valued.

The assembly plays a vital role in strengthening the transatlantic alliance and the values that underpin it; it is also a crucial link with the democracies that comprise it. At the outset of this debate, I express on behalf of the Government, and indeed the House, our gratitude and admiration for the hard work, vigour, intellect, skill and experience that those Members who serve on the assembly so self-evidently bring to their work.

My hon. Friend the Minister for Europe wanted to take part in this debate, but he is currently travelling on ministerial duties, so he has kindly delegated responsibility upwards to me. It is therefore my pleasure to respond on behalf of the Government. I am grateful for the contributions of all hon. Members, and I will try to respond throughout my speech to the points that have been made.

At this early point, however, perhaps I could just acknowledge the brilliant speeches that have been made. After my right hon. Friend the Member for Elmet and Rothwell, we had the right hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones), who explained why NATO is such an important organisation. He underlined the importance of parliamentarians being involved with NATO. He asked about the proscribing of the Wagner Group—a point that my right hon. Friend also made. I should perhaps explain that the Wagner Group is directly connected to the Russian state, and we have designated both the Wagner Group and its leader under our sanctions regime. I assure the right hon. Member for North Durham and other hon. Members that we keep the list of proscribed organisations under review. The right hon. Gentleman will, I know, accept that it is not Government policy to comment on whether a group is under consideration for sanctions, but he and other right hon. and hon. Members may rest assured that his points have been carefully noted today.

The right hon. Gentleman also raised the question of the Defence Command Paper refresh, and the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty), who leads for the Opposition on these matters, similarly raised the issue. Without getting into the details, which are probably not for me to talk about today, I can tell the right hon. Gentleman that it will be published before the summer recess, and I very much hope that he will approve of what it says.

My hon. Friend the Member for Colne Valley (Jason McCartney) also underlined the importance of NATO and expressed the enormous regard in which we hold for our armed forces for their great skill. He mentioned the work in Estonia, where my old regiment—the 1st Royal Tank Regiment, which is now the only royal tank regiment—has served with such great distinction. He was also eloquent in his condemnation of Russia.

The right hon. Member for Warley (John Spellar), who is my near parliamentary neighbour, spoke a lot of sense today, as he nearly always does. I will ensure that the kind comments of the hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire (Martin Docherty-Hughes) about the Defence Secretary are brought to his attention.

The Minister has been an excellent exponent of soft power during his ministerial career. Does he agree that it is good news that the Secretary-General of NATO has had his mandate extended for a further year?

In all these situations, we always want a seamless and effective arrangement for any transfers of chairmanships, and I obviously understand the point the right hon. Lady makes.

Turning to the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth, who speaks for the Opposition, I want to acknowledge, at this critical moment, the rock-solid unity of view that he expressed on behalf of the Opposition. It is important, particularly now, that our absolute identity of interest in the current situation in Ukraine is so clearly expressed, and he did that with great eloquence.

There were a number of comments about what the Defence Secretary might say about the armed forces as they stand today, and I did take the trouble to find out what he would say in these circumstances. His past response was:

“The Government have injected more than £29 billion of additional funding into defence since 2020, investing in Army modernisation, major platforms such as Type 26, Type 31, Challenger 3 and F-35, and restocking of ammunition”—[Official Report, 26 June 2023; Vol. 735, c. 4.]

to ensure that we have some of the finest armed forces in the world. I would echo my right hon. Friend’s comments in that respect.

NATO remains the cornerstone of the United Kingdom’s defence and security policy. Our unwavering commitment to the alliance was confirmed in the “Integrated Review Refresh”, which we published earlier this year. NATO leaders, at their summit in Vilnius next week, will be ensuring that it is a key and important moment as the alliance transforms to meet the changing threat from Russia.

Putin’s illegal war poses an historic challenge to Euro-Atlantic security. It is also doing huge damage to many of the nations in the global south, which are seeing a deterioration in food supplies and nutritional support, as well as rising inflation at a time when 70 million people are being pushed back into extreme poverty and 50 million are in serious danger of entering famine crisis conditions.

NATO is responding with iron-clad unity in support of Ukraine and by bolstering every flank of its operations. At last year’s NATO summit in Madrid, alliance members coalesced around the need to stand with Ukraine and to stand up to Russian aggression. We also agreed to accelerate work to transform the ability of the alliance to meet evolving threats.

The Vilnius summit will further bolster NATO’s support for Ukraine and will mark a major milestone for the alliance’s once-in-a-generation enhancement of its war-fighting plans and capabilities. Putin’s illegal war will, of course, naturally dominate talks in Vilnius, and, as my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister made clear in his speech at the Munich security conference, our priority is to ensure that NATO shows Russia and the Ukrainian people that it will stand shoulder to shoulder with Ukraine in the short, medium and long term.

Alliance members will demonstrate that commitment in Vilnius by convening the first NATO-Ukraine council, which will provide an ongoing mechanism to strengthen political and military ties with Ukraine. We will increase NATO’s practical support through the comprehensive assistance package for Ukraine, which will continue to meet Ukraine’s urgent needs, in addition to facilitating longer-term interoperability with NATO, with projects including medical rehabilitation and military interoperability. We will also send a clear political signal that Ukraine has a future place in the alliance.

NATO has undertaken a once-in-a-generation military transformation to enhance its deterrence and defence. It has transformed itself in response to the evolving threats across the Euro-Atlantic, meaning that we are better prepared for the security challenges of today and tomorrow. The alliance has developed a new generation of war-fighting plans, supported by more high-readiness forces, more pre-positioned equipment and upgraded systems, which will allow us to respond faster to all threats.

I was asked about the number of British troops who may form part of that newly announced force. We do not comment on numbers, but hon. and right hon. Members may rest assured that Britain will be fully playing its role at this vital time. Political leaders will sign off on those new plans in Vilnius and make a new defence investment pledge to make spending 2% of GDP on defence an immediate and hard floor, rather than a ceiling. Members will also agree a defence production action plan, which will increase industrial co-operation between allies and reduce barriers to interoperability in key munitions.

NATO allies will also use the summit to address NATO’s wider transformation. Allies will agree new resilience objectives, which will strengthen national military and defence capabilities across the membership. We will recommit to the cyber-defence pledge that is raising cyber-security standards across the membership. We will also agree to enhance our co-operation to secure our undersea infrastructure, including through the new maritime security centre for critical undersea infrastructure, which NATO recently agreed to establish at Northwood in the UK.

I was glad to hear the Minister mention cyber and other related capabilities. We obviously have leading capability in that area and work closely with our allies. Will he be able to say a little about what we will do with our allies on artificial intelligence, in terms of both the potential benefits and our resilience and defence? If he cannot say anything today, perhaps he could write to us.

I will come to that in a moment, because I am conscious of time.

Although Russia is the most significant and direct threat to peace and stability in the Euro-Atlantic area, it is one of myriad evolving threats on the horizon, which is partly why the hon. Gentleman just made those comments. In response to those threats, NATO has committed to a joined-up, 360-degree approach, building on the combined strength of alliance members. We remain fully committed to supporting Sweden’s NATO accession. While we may not get it over the line in the very near future, its membership will make allies safer, NATO stronger and the Euro-Atlantic more secure.

On NATO’s eastern flank, we are working to enhance support to Moldova, Georgia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina, and to equip them to tackle Russia’s malign interference. To the south, we are working with partners to understand and respond to evolving challenges, such as terrorism, co-operation on migration and increasing strategic competition. On both the eastern and southern flanks, NATO is reaching out to non-alliance members to enhance our co-operation in areas where it can bolster our mutual security. NATO also takes that approach to the Indo-Pacific, whose security is inextricably linked to that of the Euro-Atlantic.

I am pleased to report that the leaders of Japan, Australia, the Republic of Korea and New Zealand will join talks in Vilnius, and the UK Government will continue to champion such co-operation. We will also push NATO to engage more with international and regional organisations. A top priority is our work to ensure that NATO and the EU are leveraging their complementary tools, and working together effectively. We have certainly been encouraged by progress this year on joint NATO-EU work on the resilience of our critical infrastructure.

The NATO summit in Vilnius will be a shot in the arm for Ukraine’s defence of its territorial integrity. It will demonstrate to Russians and Ukrainians that NATO will support Ukraine in the short, medium and long term. The summit will be the culmination of years of work to ensure that NATO’s deterrence effect is fit for the threats that we face today, and those on the horizon. It will also provide impetus to NATO’s partnerships around the world, ensuring that the alliance and those who work with it are stronger together.

The Front-Bench spokesman, my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty), asked about AI, and I raised the question of information warfare, which is about not just technology but generating the message and understanding the environment in which that is done.

The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. He will forgive me if, in the interests of time— I suspect that my right hon. Friend the Member for Elmet and Rothwell will want a word—I do not answer that now, but I will write to him and others who have attended the debate.

The UK’s commitment to NATO is ironclad and unwavering. It is evident at every level of our engagement with our allies—in Brussels and in capitals across the Euro-Atlantic, and between our Parliaments. I reiterate our gratitude to my right hon. Friend and to all delegates from both Houses, who will continue to provide UK leadership at the Parliamentary Assembly, and who help to ensure that NATO remains the most effective and powerful guardian of collective security anywhere in the world.

I thank all right hon. and hon. Members who have taken part in the debate. I am extremely grateful that we were able to show the work of the NATO PA. Anybody who is observing our proceedings can see all the reports on, because we are a completely open body with open source material. The reports that we produce go on to form important lessons. It is important that the public recognise the work that goes on constantly at a political level to support and defend democracy and freedom.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered the NATO Parliamentary Assembly and NATO Summit 2023 in Vilnius.

Sitting adjourned.