House of Commons
Tuesday 10 January 2017
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
Foreign and Commonwealth Office
The Secretary of State was asked—
Happy new year to you, Mr Speaker.
The humanitarian situation in Yemen is one of the most serious crises in the world. The UN estimates that 19 million people are in need of help. The UK is providing support, and we are spending more than £100 million to provide assistance. We all agree that a political solution is the best way to end this conflict. I met foreign Ministers from Saudi Arabia, Oman, the United Arab Emirates and the United States on 18 December in Riyadh, along with Ismail Ahmed, the UN envoy, to advance the UN road map, which I hope will bring all parties back to the table.
The humanitarian situation in Yemen is deteriorating, and the UN estimates that 80% of the population are in need of humanitarian aid—about 21.2 million Yemenis. According to the Government’s own figures, British aid, although welcome, has reached less than 5% of the people in Yemen who need it—obviously nowhere near enough for a major emergency that is affecting people not only in Yemen, but in my constituency. What plans does the Minister have to increase the number of people in Yemen who can directly benefit from British support?
The hon. Lady raises an important aspect of this very sad conflict: we are denied a political solution, but it is the people of Yemen who are suffering. The cause of the problem is the inability to get aid into the country. The port of Aden is used as a conduit, but the main access to the majority of the country is through the port of Hodeidah, which unfortunately is currently in Houthi hands. The cranes are out of action, but we must ensure that we can gain greater access through. I spoke with Ismail Ahmed about what we can do to repair the cranes so that bigger ships can get in with equipment and support, which can then be distributed across the country.
I wholly endorse the remarks of the hon. Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Luciana Berger). The UN reports that there might be up to 370,000 starving children in Yemen, so in addition to our own aid what discussions has my hon. Friend had with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states about providing significant humanitarian aid themselves?
It is fair to say—this is an important question—that while the headlines are about the military campaign Saudi Arabia and other members of the coalition are doing huge amounts to provide support and humanitarian aid for refugees in their countries. This is often done outside the auspices of the United Nations. During the United Nations General Assembly, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development held a conference to bring further countries together to support Britain’s work to get aid into and across the country.
I thank the Minister and the Foreign Secretary for their personal efforts in trying to broker a ceasefire. That is the key: we need a ceasefire in the same way as Turkey and Russia managed to achieve one for Syria. Have there been any further discussions with the United States about getting this back on to the agenda of the Security Council? I know that the Foreign Secretary was in America at the end of last week, so was this issue raised? When can we get this back for discussion at the UN?
A later question on the Order Paper focuses on a UN Security Council resolution, but to touch on it now, yes, it is our ambition to gain a resolution along the lines of what the road map sets out. We met on 19 December and confirmed the direction of travel in which we want to go. The right hon. Gentleman will know from his understanding of the country that it is not so simple as suggesting this is all about the Houthis versus President Hadi and forces on his side. The complex tribal structures that are involved require the buy-in of many parts of the country to ensure that the ceasefire and cessation of hostilities can last.
I can confirm that Yusuf bin Alawi, foreign Minister for Oman, was at the discussions on 19 December, along with Adel al-Jubeir, the Foreign Minister for Saudi Arabia, and Abdullah bin Zayed from the United Arab Emirates. These are the key nations providing support, and I pay tribute to the work that Oman has done through its discussions, bringing the Houthis to the table so that we can get something secure for the ceasefire that we are all searching for.
Inaccurate information has been provided to Parliament a number of times on Yemen and Saudi Arabia. The Minister has said previously that he acted immediately. However, a new freedom of information request reveals that not only the Minister but the former Foreign Secretary knew as early as 28 June last year that Parliament had been misled, but this was not corrected until 21 July. Does the Minister believe that the ministerial code was complied with?
I can only guess that the hon. Gentleman’s question relates to the sale of cluster munitions, because he did not explain its context. Perhaps we can meet later so that he can ask me a fuller question. Alternatively, he can attend the debate on Thursday, when we shall doubtless discuss Yemen in more detail.
Last month the Defence Secretary informed the House that the Saudi Government had given assurances that they would no longer use UK-manufactured cluster bombs. Has the Minister received confirmation from the Saudis that they have now disposed of their stocks of those weapons?
They have confirmed that that is their intention, and I hope to be able to ensure that it has actually happened in time for Thursday’s debate. I can go further, and tell the House that, before the Prime Minister’s visit to Manama for the Gulf Cooperation Council conference, I invited all the GCC nations to sign the convention on cluster munitions so that they could join other countries around the world in condemning those horrific weapon systems.
What the hon. Gentleman has said returns us to the original question. It is vital for us to gain full access to Sana’a, but again, unfortunately, that is in the hands of the Houthis. We are unable to utilise the airport, which would be the best way to get aid into the country, because of disagreements that are taking place. The sooner we can get all parties back around the table—including supporters of Saleh—the sooner we can bring about a cessation of hostilities and get that important aid back into the country, including the capital.
Let me begin by saying that I think it fitting for the House to welcome the fact that, whatever else 2016 brought, it was the first year in nearly four decades in which no member of our armed forces was killed in operations. Sadly, however, that is not because we live in a more peaceful world. In Yemen the conflict remains as fierce as ever, and the suffering of its children is worse than ever. As the Minister himself has said, it is the worst crisis in the world. One child is dying every 10 minutes from a lack of food.
I have here a copy of the United Kingdom’s draft United Nations resolution, which could bring an end to that conflict and allow the delivery of humanitarian relief. There is not a single word in that draft resolution with which any reasonable party could possibly disagree. Let me ask the Minister a simple question. Three months after the resolution’s first appearance, why is the UK still sitting on it?
A UN resolution must be drafted in a way that makes it workable. That means that all parties must sign and agree to it, because otherwise it is just a piece of paper. If we are to ensure that the resolution can stand on the basis of what we are saying and can be enforced, the parties must get round the table and bring about a cessation of hostilities. The hon. Lady is right: we work towards the drafts, but we do not implement them until we are sure that the resolutions can work in practice.
I thank the Minister for his answer, but I must tell him that we have heard all this before. I know that the Ministers do not listen to their ambassadors any more nowadays, but this is what our UN ambassador, Matthew Rycroft, said back in November when he was asked what it would take to achieve a permanent ceasefire:
“The UK will continue to support efforts…including through the use—if necessary—of our draft Security Council resolution.”
That was 50 days ago—50 days of continuing fighting—and we are still seeing the same old delaying tactics on the Government’s part. Let me ask the Minister again: when will the Foreign Secretary pull his finger out, present the resolution, and end what even he has acknowledged is a terrible proxy war?
I am sorry to use these words, but the hon. Lady has just illustrated that she has no grasp of the United Nations process itself, or of what is taking place on the ground in Yemen; and to suggest that any member of the Government does not listen to our ambassadors is to disingenuously mislead the House. I invite—
I think the point has been made, Mr Speaker, and I am sorry to test your patience, but it is important to understand that we take the words of, and work with, our ambassadors very seriously indeed. I spoke to Matthew Rycroft only a few days ago. We are the penholders on this matter at the UN Security Council, and I will make sure there is a phone call between him and the hon. Lady. He can explain the processes of the United Nations so that she becomes aware that we will not get a Security Council resolution passed until we get the cessation of hostilities in place.
The Foreign Secretary raised this consular case in November last year, and our high commission in Nicosia is also raising this delicate matter, including in discussions with north Cyprus. We will continue to push to see those guilty of the murder of George Low brought to justice.
I thank the Foreign Office for its hard work in trying to secure justice for both George Low and Ben Barker. Natural justice demands that people should not be able simply to walk away from custody when accused of murder, yet northern Cyprus has allowed this to happen with one of the suspects and it is feared that the second will soon follow. Please can the Minister reassure the victim’s family that every possible effort will be made to persuade northern Cyprus to allow decency to prevail and for these men to face trial?
The House will not be aware of this, but I know my hon. Friend is. It has been a delicate and difficult case and I commend the work he has done, including in working with the families, and I can assure him that the Minister with responsibility for Europe and FCO officials are fully engaged to provide the necessary support to both families. My hon. Friend will realise that because this involves north Cyprus, we cannot speak too widely about what discussions have taken place, but we are working hard to ensure justice is seen to follow.
The Minister is right that this has been a complicated case, but there have been far too many complicated cases involving British nationals in the various different parts of Cyprus. Does he agree that the truth of the matter is that until we get a proper settlement of Cyprus so we no longer have a divided island and a divided city, there will be no long-term justice either for the people of this country in Cyprus or for that matter for the people of Cyprus?
I hope the former Minister for Europe will join me in congratulating the two leaders, who are coming together this week. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary is going to Geneva to try to push forward what will be monumental discussions to finally provide that important solution. I hope that then cases such as this will be able to be resolved much faster.
Colombia: Political Prisoners
We are concerned by reports about the detention of human rights defenders and activists in Colombia, often held without trial or access to legal representation. Our embassy in Bogota closely follows specific cases. The Prime Minister raised our concerns about threats to human rights defenders with President Santos during the state visit in November.
We welcome the approval of the new amnesty Bill of course, and we believe it will lead to a benefit for all citizens and the wider region as part of the Columbian peace process. We look forward to all aspects of that law, particularly with regard to disarmament and reintegration.
Happy new year, Mr Speaker.
The transition zones are an important, if not crucial, aspect of the peace agreement, yet we are hearing reports of work on living quarters not even having started, of food being so rotten that people are suffering from severe and possibly lethal food poisoning, and of the supply of water being very scarce. Given that the transition zones are where the FARC troops are supposed to be concentrated as an essential element of the peace agreement, will Her Majesty’s Government please put absolute pressure on the Colombian authorities to ensure that the zones are properly completed?
The United Kingdom has supported the Colombian Government of Juan Manuel Santos throughout the difficult, recently concluded and very welcome peace process, and we have pledged our continuing support through the United Nations and the European Union. Will the Minister outline what specifically will be supported, and tell us whether the Colombian people and civil society will be included in the discussions on how the funds will be allocated?
My hon. Friend is right to suggest that 2016 was an historic year for Colombia. The peace deal with the FARC ended the longest conflict in the western hemisphere. He asks about the range of support that we are providing for the peace process. It includes a contribution of £7.5 million to the UN trust fund, with more than £2 million dedicated to de-mining.
According to a report from the Institute for Development and Peace Studies in 2016, there is now a paramilitary presence in 31 of the 32 Colombian departments. Will the Minister make urgent representations to the Colombian Government to ensure that the proliferation of paramilitaries and private armies is countered, and that the articles of the peace process are upheld?
I can confirm that we are concerned by reports of violence against human rights defenders, which has increased in 2016. Those attacks have increased in areas from which the FARC is withdrawing, which is disturbing. We will of course raise these matters with the Colombian Government, particularly the importance of security in conflict-affected areas.
Despite signing the partnership for peace agreement, the Houthis invaded the capital, Sana’a, placed Ministers under house arrest, took over ministerial buildings and committed extra-judicial killings. The Saudi-led military coalition was formed, following the legitimate request from President Hadi as set out in United Nations Security Council 2216. It is in this context that the UK supports the military intervention.
At a time when millions in Yemen are facing starvation, it beggars belief that the Saudi coalition is routinely targeting airstrikes at cattle markets, dairy farms, food factories and other agriculture infrastructure. Can the Minister explain why the coalition is doing that, and why we are supporting it?
We are not supporting them doing that, as the hon. Lady can no doubt imagine. We are working closely with the Saudi Arabians and the coalition to ensure that the protocols and standards that they are using in sustained warfare meet the international standards that we would expect, were we to be involved ourselves. Much of the information that comes from the battlefield is very unclear indeed, but we are enforcing transparency in a way that the Saudi Arabians and many other members of the coalition have never seen before.
My right hon. Friend knows the region well and he is absolutely right. I want to make it clear, however, that the coalition has made errors. It has made mistakes. It has not endured sustained warfare in this manner before, and it is having to meet international standards as never before. It is having to provide reports when it makes mistakes, and it has never done that before. It has no experience of even writing reports. It wants to meet those standards and to work with the international community. We need to ensure that when errors are made, the coalition puts its hand up in the same way that we do and that the Americans did in Afghanistan only a few months ago.
Given that Saudi Arabia has finally admitted to using illegal cluster bombs in Yemen, what consequence or sanction is being planned by the UK Government against Saudi Arabia for that clear breach of international humanitarian law?
If I may attempt to correct the hon. Gentleman, those cluster bombs are not illegal, because Saudi Arabia has not signed up to the convention on cluster munitions. Therefore it is in its right—indeed, any country’s right—to use cluster munitions should it wish. As I mentioned earlier, I have encouraged Saudi Arabia to make sure not only that it has destroyed all the cluster munitions that we sold it in the past, but that it gets rid of its entire arsenal of cluster munitions and signs the convention.
In all our discussions with the Saudi Arabians and other coalitions that are learning how to conduct necessary warfare to the standards that we expect, we sometimes gloss over the fact that the absence of a solution allows the incubation of extremism in the form of Daesh, which is now present in the peninsular, and al-Qaeda. Until very recently, the port of Mukalla was completely run by that extremist operation. From our security perspective, more terrorist attacks are plotted in the peninsular by al-Qaeda than by any of its wings. Yes, it is very important that we work with our coalition friends to ensure that we defeat extremism in Yemen.
May I endeavour to make a better case for Britain’s policy on the Yemen tragedy than the Minister made in his earlier replies? Will he now make clear the value to our security and to our dynamic aerospace industry of our relationship with the Saudis and the Gulf states? Will he also make clear the concern of the UK and the international community at the expansionist and subversive activities of the Iranian regime?
There is nothing in that question with which I would disagree. Saudi Arabia is an important ally in the region. Its security and the region’s security is our security, too, but as the right hon. Gentleman also articulated, Saudi Arabia is unused to conducting such sustained warfare and it needs to learn. We are standing with Saudi Arabia to make sure it is learning lessons and to make sure that we work towards peace in Yemen, for all the reasons that we have discussed in the Chamber today.
West Bank: Illegal Settlements
I spoke to the Israeli Prime Minister, Mr Netanyahu—he is also the Israeli Foreign Minister—on 23 December and raised the subject of illegal settlements. I probably spoke for a large majority of Members when I said that I am a strong and passionate supporter of the state of Israel, but I also believe that the continued expansion of illegal settlements in the west bank is by no means conducive to peace.
That is clearly a matter for the Israeli Government, but I repeat our position that we believe—this is a long-standing view of the UK Government—that settlements in the west bank are illegal, and that the 20% expansion we have seen in those settlements since 2009 is a threat to the peace process. That was why we resolved as we did. Of course, there has been a certain amount of argument about that and a certain amount of push back from the Israeli Government, but the hon. Lady will find that there is a wide measure of international support for that view, which in no way diminishes this Government’s strong support for a Jewish homeland in Israel.
Let me repeat my point: John Kerry was completely right to draw attention to the illegal settlements and to the substance of resolution 2334. I remind the House that the UK was closely involved in its drafting, although of course it was an Egyptian-generated resolution. We supported it only because it contained new language pointing out the infamy of terrorism that Israel suffers every day, not least on Sunday, when there was an attack in Jerusalem. I was glad that the resolution identified that aspect of the crisis in the middle east, and John Kerry was absolutely right to point out the rounded nature of the resolution. May I pay tribute to John Kerry, who is shortly to step down as Secretary of State, for his tireless work for peace not just in Israel-Palestine, but across the wider middle east?
I welcome the Government’s vote in favour of UN Security Council resolution 2334, not least because it stated that
“the cessation of all Israeli settlement activities is essential for salvaging the two-State solution”.
Following the Foreign Secretary’s discussions in the past couple of days with members of the incoming Administration in the United States, does he think that that view is shared by President-elect Trump?
I think it is a widespread view in Washington, and across the UN Security Council, that settlements are illegal, which was why the resolution went through as it did, without any opposition. To answer the right hon. Gentleman’s question directly, I think it is too early to say exactly what the Administration will decide on this matter, but he can rest assured that the British Government will continue to make the points that we have, not because we are hostile to Israel—on the contrary—but because we wish to support the state of Israel.
Let me try to get this right: the British ambassador is summoned formally in Israel because of the way the UK voted at the UN Security Council; meanwhile, in the UK, an employee of the Israeli embassy is caught on film conspiring with a British civil servant to take down a senior Minister in the Foreign Secretary’s Department, the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee and other Members of this House; and the Israeli ambassador makes a couple of phone calls and all is forgiven and forgotten. Can the Foreign Secretary enlighten us on the thinking behind all this?
I certainly can enlighten the House, in the sense that, as my right hon. Friend points out, the Israeli ambassador made a very full apology for what had taken place and the diplomat in question no longer seems to be a functionary of the embassy in London. Whatever that person might exactly have been doing here, his cover can be said to have been well and truly blown, and I think we should consider the matter closed.
But if a UK embassy official had been caught on film in Tel Aviv talking about “taking down” an Israeli Government Minister, they would have been booted out of the country without any further ceremony, so why did that not happen to Mr Masot? If the Foreign Secretary showed even a teensy-weensy bit of resolve in such matters, perhaps Israeli diplomats would not talk about him in such disparaging terms.
The right hon. Gentleman seems, alas, to have been failing to pay attention to the salient point, which is that the Israeli diplomat in question is no longer doing his job in London—whatever his job is, he is no longer doing it in this city. The Israeli ambassador has made a full apology for the matter and I am happy to consider it closed.
Will the Secretary of State agree to meet me and colleagues to discuss our grave concerns about resolution 2334, which my constituents believe will make peace in the middle east harder to achieve by imposing a complex set of preconditions that the Palestinians will use to avoid serious engagement in negotiation?
I am very grateful for that question, and I am happy to offer exactly such a consultation with colleagues. I know that the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood), has already undertaken to do just that.
I am sure that the whole House will join me in condemning the horrific attack on Israeli soldiers in Jerusalem on Sunday. We will never achieve a lasting peace in the middle east until the state of Israel, its soldiers and civilians are free from the threat of terror. Nor will we achieve that lasting peace until all sides accept a two-state solution and a viable Palestinian state can be built, free from illegal settlements. In his allegedly frank discussions with the incoming Trump Administration on Sunday, was the Foreign Secretary frank about those points, too? If so, what response did he receive?
Diplomatic Relations: UK/Germany
First, let me repeat the condolences that we have offered, and that I am sure that many Members will want to join me in offering, to the people of Germany for the terrible attack that they sustained on 19 December. We continue to work with our German counterparts to strengthen security. We have superb relations with Germany, and it is vital, both as we go through the Brexit process and beyond, that we deepen and intensify that friendship.
I associate myself with my right hon. Friend’s expression of condolence to the people of Berlin. Given that Germany is a net exporter to the United Kingdom and would not want its economy to be affected through the imposition of tariffs, what extra work is being done to build diplomatic relations for the benefit of future reciprocal free trade between our two countries?
I am grateful for that question because, as my hon. Friend will know very well, a big operation is now going on. UK Trade & Investment and British diplomacy are pointing out the salient facts that German investment in this country is responsible for around 344,000 jobs here in the UK, and UK investment in Germany is responsible for 222,000 jobs. It would be the height of insanity to imperil either of those sets of investments.
The Foreign Secretary speaks of our relationship with Germany as being very good and special. Is it not a fact that many leading Germans are concerned about Britain leaving the European Union and the impact that that will have on Europe’s security, particularly in terms of our commitment to NATO, given the instability we see in Russia?
The hon. Gentleman asks an acute question. Of all the countries in the EU and the rest of Europe that care about our departure, I would say that it is certainly the Germans who have been most psychologically and emotionally affected by the 23 June referendum result. That is why the question by my hon. Friend the Member for Hazel Grove (William Wragg) is so apposite and why engagement is vital.
On NATO and our joint defence, the hon. Gentleman should not forget that we contribute 25% of the EU’s defence expenditure, and that will continue, because while we may be leaving the EU, we are not leaving Europe, and our commitment to Europe’s defence is undiminished.
Gulf Co-operation Council
Thanks to our historical connections and our shared economic and other interests, which include foreign policy, defence, security, trade and culture, we have exceptionally strong relationships with the Gulf Co-operation Council nations. That was reflected in the warm reception that the Prime Minister received when she attended the GCC summit in November and established a new UK-GCC strategic partnership.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. One reason why the Chancellor was visiting the region only a couple of weeks ago was to enforce those exact points. I am sure that once the Brexit discussions have moved forward, one of the first areas with which we will consolidate a trade agreement will be the GCC nations.
In December, the Foreign Secretary accused Saudi Arabia of “playing proxy wars” and destabilising the region. Soon afterwards, a spokesman for the Prime Minister said that that was not the Government’s view. Whose view was the Foreign Secretary expressing?
Let me expand that out further to our relationship with the GCC nations. As I said earlier, those countries are advancing, but they are still very new. Saudi Arabia became an independent country in modern terms only in 1932. It is because of our close relationship with those countries in a wide variety of sectors and the trust that we have in them that we are encouraging them to advance in their governance systems.
The diplomatic stature of the GCC has risen significantly in recent years, not least because of the wise guidance of the GCC Secretary-General, Abdullatif al-Zayani, who is a friend of the Minister and of mine. In view of the impasse in the middle east peace process and the GCC’s relationship with the Arab states and Israel, does he believe that the time is now right for the GCC and the Arab states to take some initiative to move the middle east peace process forward?
I know that that is close to my right hon. Friend’s heart, and that he worked very hard on it when he was Minister for the middle east. He is absolutely right that, as the GCC grows in its prowess, strength and authority, it has an important role to play in what is arguably one of the longest-running concerns, which started with the occupation of the occupied territories more than 50 years ago. In the year that we mark the Balfour declaration, I hope that we will also make progress in this area.
Is not one of the biggest challenges facing the GCC countries the conflict in Yemen, where they have in excess of 100,000 troops? They are up against a rebel group that has been involved in extra-judicial killings, that is trying to overthrow the country, and that is involved in torture. The Library briefing notes put the number of child soldiers in the rebel group at 30%. Is that not a disgrace? Is it not the biggest challenge facing the GCC countries, and should we not be supporting them?
I agree that it is one of the biggest challenges for the GCC. We forget that this is its neighbourhood—its backyard. Those countries want regional security in the same way that we do—we want it near where we live, work and want to raise families. Exactly the same applies to the GCC nations, and it is something that I will explore more in the debate on Thursday.
Exiting the EU: Diplomatic Relations
We have regular consultations about the future shape of our diplomatic relations with the rest of the EU. The hon. Lady should understand that we may be leaving the EU treaties, but we are not leaving Europe. There will be plenty of ways in which we will continue to collaborate on all the issues that are vital to us, whether in the EU or out.
I welcome that answer. Free movement is a key issue in discussions with our EU counterparts. Have the Government therefore considered that in order to get the best possible access to the European single market, we should propose a managed migration system that still gives preference to EU workers, welcoming those with high skills, but limiting the numbers of low and semi-skilled workers coming here to work?
I hope that the hon. Lady will forgive me if I say that that would come under the category of our giving a running commentary on our negotiating position. We cannot do that—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry) says that Brexit means Brexit, and she is perfectly right.
Thank you very much, Mr Speaker.
Given the trade ties that my right hon. Friend has already mentioned and the fact that we are Europe’s largest defence contributor, does he agree that we should not have to make deals on immigration and free movement to secure a good trade agreement with our allies and friends in Europe?
May I begin by congratulating my hon. Friend on his well-deserved knighthood in the new year’s honours list? He speaks very good sense. I think that I can agree with him completely without in any way being convicted of giving a running commentary on our negotiations, so I thank him very much.
Never mind a running commentary, has the Foreign Secretary given any commentary at all to his own officials, such as Sir Ivan Rogers, who left the service saying that he had not been given any sense of the Government’s negotiating objectives? Will the Secretary of State perhaps speak to Sir Tim Barrow and give him a clue about what the Government intend to do?
If the hon. Gentleman consults the speeches of the Prime Minister more closely, he will discover a wealth of information about our negotiating position, but since he has not bothered to do that, I do not propose to enlighten him now, except to say that Sir Ivan Rogers did an excellent job and always gave me very good advice. I think his reasons for stepping down early were persuasive. Sir Tim Barrow, as anybody who has worked with him will know—I think that people on both sides of the House will have done so—is an outstanding public servant with long-standing experience of UK representation in Brussels, and he will do a superb job in the forthcoming talks.
I am sure my right hon. Friend will agree that not only are diplomatic relations important, but relationships between Members of this House and European partners have been important. Membership of the Council of Europe, of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly and of all-party groups has never been more important, so can he give an assurance that his Department will assist in every way in making sure that bilateral relationships that exist between Members of this House and Europe will be encouraged?
Absolutely—I am very happy to give that assurance to my hon. Friend. As he will know, there are parliamentary bodies of one party or another that have links with sister parties across the continent, and we will do absolutely everything we can to promote that in the years ahead.
On behalf of Labour Members, may I pay tribute to the long and distinguished career of Sir Ivan Rogers? He served successive Governments with great distinction, and most of the Secretary of State’s predecessors had the good sense to appreciate it; it is a pity that he could not do so until just now when my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham East (Chris Leslie) managed to press him. In his resignation letter, Sir Ivan said:
“Contrary to the beliefs of some, free trade does not just happen”.
Can the Secretary of State explain who Sir Ivan had in mind?
I have given my views about Sir Ivan, but I am happy to repeat them: I think he is, as the hon. Gentleman said, an outstanding public servant, and he always gave me very frank advice. It is vital for officials to continue to give their round, unvarnished views of matters such as the ease of negotiating free trade deals. It is not necessarily going to be simple, but there is no reason to think it cannot be done speedily, and no reason to think we cannot have fantastic free trade deals, not least with the United States of America.
Middle East Peace Talks
We are using every forum at our disposal to try to encourage both sides to get to the negotiating table. It is deeply frustrating. I join hon. Members on both sides of the House who have condemned the appalling attack on—the murder of—four Israeli soldiers at the weekend. All I can do is repeat what we have said: the only way forward has to be a two-state solution, and that is why it was important to restate the Government’s position in resolution 2334.
It is very important to recognise that Iran is a malign influence across the region, and we must be very vigilant about what it is doing. On the other hand, we have to engage with Iran. I think the JCPOA—joint comprehensive plan of action—does represent, still, a substantial and valid way forward, and it would be regrettable if we were to junk that process now.
As my hon. Friend will know, the level of violence, as we have discussed, has been down by comparison with 2015, but it is still too high. I think it was important, therefore, that the resolution, which has been so much discussed this morning, had that balance in it and that language in it pointing out the threat that Israel faces. It is important that we stress that, and that we encourage the Palestinians to understand that there can be no hope of peace unless they get their extremists under control.
I can certainly assure the right hon. Gentleman that the UK Government will be attending the Paris talks and we will be reinforcing our message, which is that we think that both sides must get round the table and negotiate. That is the only way forward. It would be folly now to abandon a two-state solution, because, in the end, a one-state solution is not in the interests of Israel.
Middle East (Persecution of Christians)
The Government regularly receive reports of sectarian attacks on Christian and other religious communities in the middle east. We want to work with all Governments across the middle east and north Africa to ensure that freedom of religion or belief is respected.
Although the genocide of Christians in the areas ruled by Daesh has rightly taken the most attention, my hon. Friend will be only too aware that the persecution of Christians across the region is way too common. Will he join me, therefore, in welcoming the work done by Open Doors to highlight that, and what plans does he have to consider its latest report, which is due to be launched in the House tomorrow?
May I briefly say that I very much welcome the work that is done by organisations such as Open Doors, and the work that my hon. Friend has done to promote them? I look forward to reading the report, which I think is due out tomorrow. Open Doors makes a major contribution to that work and the Government’s thinking to try to support Christians and other religious communities in the middle east and north Africa.
I have said in this House that I personally believe that acts of genocide have taken place, but it is not my view that counts; it is whether we can legally prove that. As we have debated here before, it is important that we collect the evidence. I am sure that the House will be delighted to know—it has been confirmed already— that the Foreign Secretary joined other countries, including Iraq, at the United Nations General Assembly to launch the work to be done to collect the evidence to make sure that we can hold those who have conducted these horrific activities to account.
I have come back this morning from the United States, where I have been discussing these matters with the incoming Administration. It was clear that there is a wide measure of agreement between us over the challenges we face. I assure the House that our embassy in Washington and the Prime Minister’s office—No. 10—and officials at all levels are engaging with the incoming team to make sure that we work in lock step to build on those areas of agreement.
I have to say to the House that there was a huge fund of goodwill for the United Kingdom on Capitol Hill, and a very large measure of understanding that now is the time to do a free trade deal. They want to do it, and they want to do it fast. That understanding was most vivid and most urgent on the part of the incoming Administration.
My priorities for 2017 are to renew our efforts to address the crisis in the middle east; to work towards securing the best deal for Britain in the negotiations with our European partners that will be begun by the triggering of article 50; and to build an even stronger working relationship with the US Administration. As I have said, I have just returned from furthering that ambition in the US. As this is the last FCO questions before the end of the Obama Administration, let me repeat formally my thanks to John Kerry for his tireless dedication.
Illegal trading in wildlife is now the fourth most lucrative transnational crime, and it has a hugely destabilising effect on habitats and on many communities. On that note, will the Secretary of State tell me what his Department is doing to help to combat the poaching and illegal ivory trading in Africa?
This Government have made it clear that combating the illegal wildlife trade is one of our priorities. We have a dedicated illegal wildlife trade team in London, working with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. As my hon. Friend will know, the Secretary of State recently came back from a highly successful conference in Hanoi on the ivory trade. We are supporting—[Interruption.] With our funds, we are supporting—[Interruption.] Let me tell the hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry), who mocks the elephants, that the number of elephants is diminishing by 8% every year. Thanks to the efforts of this Government, that issue is being raised up the international agenda again. We are spending considerable sums of money to support those who are combating the poachers.
When the right hon. Gentleman was a columnist, he was supportive of some aspects of President Putin’s policies. When he became Foreign Secretary, he became vehemently hostile to Russian policy. After his visit to New York, we are told he is pursuing a twin-track policy, which means that we will be supportive and hostile at the same time. At what time during his visit to Trump Tower did he decide that duplicity was the best policy?
I really must ask the right hon. Gentleman to go back and look at what I said previously. I have never been supportive of the policies of President Putin in Syria. Quite frankly, I do think it is important to understand that Russia is doing many bad things—if we look at what they have done on cyber-warfare and what they are doing in the western Balkans, there is no doubt that they are up to no good—but it is also important for us to recognise, and I think he will find that this is exactly what I said a few years ago, that there may be areas where we can work together, and that is what we should do.
My hon. and learned Friend asks a very fundamental question, because in a sense there is a cold war feel to the relationship between the Sunnis and the Shi’ites, yet the doctrinal difference is actually almost insignificant. Both agree on the absolute centrality of the Prophet Muhammad, but the big issue is about the succession—whether the successor was Ali, the cousin and son-in-law, or Abu Bakr, the father-in-law. She is absolutely right that if the two sides can be reconciled, prosperity and security will improve, and I hope Britain can have a role to play. [Interruption.]
On Sunday, the Foreign Secretary met Steve Bannon, Donald Trump’s chief strategist, a man whose website is synonymous with anti-Semitism, racism, misogyny, homophobia, the hero worship of Vladimir Putin and the promotion of extremist far-right movements across the world. May I ask the Foreign Secretary how he and Mr Bannon got on?
I do not wish to embarrass any member of the incoming Administration by describing the friendliness or otherwise of our relations. What I can say is that the conversations were genuinely extremely productive. There is a wide measure of agreement between the UK and the incoming Administration about the way forward, and we intend to work to build on those areas of agreement.
I am grateful for that question because it is important for the House to keep in mind the importance of the sanctions. The support for sanctions against Russia—for instance, over Ukraine—is not as strong as it should be in other parts of the European Union, and the UK is in the lead in keeping the pressure on.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We did not learn the lessons, or the lessons were not learnt, in 2013 when there was a failure to listen to the moderate Sunni voices. That is what allowed Daesh to develop. Extremism is flourishing across north-east Africa and, indeed, the middle east, and will do so unless we engage with those moderates to ensure that they are brought to the table. That is why planning in places such as Mosul and Aleppo needs to be done at once, before the guns fall silent.
Does my right hon. Friend share my disappointment that the Palestinian authorities did not issue a prompt condemnation of the murder of Israeli soldiers over the weekend? Does he believe that the Palestinian Authority’s glorification of violence, refusal to recognise Israel and refusal to meet face to face is one of the major obstacles to a two-state solution?
I am very grateful to my right hon. Friend for that point because it is absolutely true. Yes, resolution 2334 has been characterised as a settlements resolution. As I have explained to the House, it also contains some valuable language about terrorism. But there can be no lasting solution for that part of the world unless there is better leadership of the Palestinians and unless they renounce terror.
May I ask the Foreign Secretary what agreement there will be on policy towards Russia between the British Government and the new US Administration, given the new Administration’s indebtedness to President Putin through the leaking and hacking of emails of the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman?
I make no comment on the electoral efficacy of the hacking of the DNC emails, except to say that it is pretty clear that it did come from the Russians. The point that we have made to the incoming Administration, and indeed on Capitol Hill, is just this: as I said earlier, we do think that the Russian state—the Putin Kremlin—is up to all sorts of very dirty tricks, such as cyber-warfare, but it would be folly for us further to demonise Russia or to push Russia into a corner, so a twin-track strategy of engagement and vigilance is what is required.
The Foreign Secretary referred to the middle east process. Secretaries of State Clinton and Kerry failed in their efforts to get a bilateral agreement between Palestinians and Israelis. Is it not now time to go to the international sphere, in the sense of the Arab initiative originally introduced by Saudi Arabia in 2002?
It is very important to recognise that the Turkish state—the Turkish Government—was the victim of a violent attempted coup in which hundreds of people died. It was entirely wrong of many Governments in the EU instantly to condemn Turkey for its response rather than to see that, again, there is a balance to be struck. Turkey is vital for our collective security; the last thing we need to do is to push it away and push it into a corner.
Last month, a UK Government spokesperson told Sky News that the Government are
“aware of reports of an alleged airstrike on a school”
“using UK-supplied weapons and are seeking further information regarding the incident.”
Can the Minister update us today on progress on that?
I know the hon. Lady follows these events very closely. I do not know the details of that particular Sky report—I have not seen it. I am very happy to meet her outside the Chamber to discuss it. I can give her a reply in due course, or I can give her a public reply in the now much-vaunted and much-publicised debate we are having on Yemen on Thursday.
The Government, of course, support the Marshall scholarship programme. It is another example of Britain’s soft power, and I am delighted to say that we have made additional funding available to enable 40 scholars to study at UK universities from September this year.
The Foreign Secretary and Ministers will be aware of the deteriorating situation in Zimbabwe, economically and politically. What role can the British Government play over the next six months or so, which will be crucial to the people of Zimbabwe?
The hon. Lady knows the country very well indeed. Obviously, our relationship has been strained because of the current leadership. She speaks about six months, and who knows what will happen in those six months, but we are working closely with the neighbouring countries to provide the necessary support for the people, who are suffering more than ever before under the current President’s regime.
Does the Foreign Secretary agree that improving trust and intelligence sharing with Egypt is vital to our security efforts in Libya? Given that we have heard no security concerns over the Sharm el-Sheikh airport, does he agree that resuming flights there would be a good place to start and would have important security dividends for UK citizens here?
Earlier this morning, the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, the hon. Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood), said that the Government only support UN Security Council resolutions when they know they can be enforced. So, if the Israelis continue with the settlement programme, what steps will the Foreign Secretary take to enforce resolution 2334?
The hon. Lady will know very well that we are working with our international counterparts to persuade both sides to get to the table, to persuade the Palestinians to drop their violence and recognise the existence of the state of Israel and show some leadership, and to persuade both sides to understand that a two-state solution is the only way forward. I believe that that is the best thing for the Government to do.
Many of my constituents are concerned that the recent UN vote marks a change in the British Government’s stance towards Israel. Will the Foreign Secretary confirm that that is not the case, and that we remain steadfast allies of that beacon of liberalism and democracy in the middle east?
As is well known, the state of Israel is just about the only democracy in that part of the world. It is a free and liberal society, unlike many others in the region. I passionately support the state of Israel. It was very important that, in resolution 2334, the UK Government not only stuck by 30-year-old UK policy in respect of settlements, but underscored our horror of violence against the people of Israel.
I honestly cannot speak for the response of my counterparts. The hon. Gentleman can take this in whichever way he chooses, but all I can say is that there was a wide measure of agreement on both sides of the table on some of the problems that our societies face in America and UK, on the need for some fresh thinking, and on the huge potential of the UK and the US to work together to solve those problems.
The Foreign Secretary will be aware of my constituent Billy Irving, who is wrongly imprisoned in India. As we await yet another judgment, what are the Foreign Secretary’s plans to get Billy and his colleagues home whatever the outcome? Will the Foreign Secretary reassure us and them that that remains his priority, and that it will not be derailed by his Government’s Brexit bedlam?
Our heart goes out to Billy Irving’s family and all those involved. I raised this matter with the Minister of External Affairs and the Indian Foreign Secretary when I visited India in October. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister also raised it with Prime Minister Modi. We are pressing for speedy due process to take place. As the hon. Lady knows, we await the outcome of the appeal process.
My right hon. Friend was an outstanding Mayor of London. During his time, he was the first to champion the City of London and a believer of the value of the single market. Will he assure us that, in his meetings with the incoming Trump Administration, he disabused Wilbur Ross, the incoming Commerce Secretary, of his view that Brexit is a God-given opportunity for London’s commercial rivals to take business from the City?
My right hon. Friend will find that the City of London has been through all sorts of vicissitudes that people prophesied would lead to its extinction. I remember people making exactly the same arguments about the creation of the single currency and about the economic crash in 2008, and the City of London has gone from strength to strength. Canary Wharf alone is now a bigger financial centre than the whole of Frankfurt. By the way, that opinion was shared completely by our friends and counterparts in Washington. I have no doubt that the commercial and financial dominance of the City of London in this hemisphere will continue.
Further to the question of the hon. Member for East Renfrewshire (Kirsten Oswald), my constituent Ray Tindall and the other men of the Chennai Six, who are in prison for a crime they did not commit, will be looking for a little bit more than thumb-twiddling and warm words. Does the Minister have any concrete proposals to get those innocent men home within the next six months?
As I have said, we take this matter incredibly seriously. We have raised it on a number of occasions and will continue to do so. We cannot seek to interfere in the legal process of another country, but let me assure the hon. Gentleman that we are doing absolutely everything we can to urge a speedy process and to make sure the men get help in prison.
I had the pleasure of visiting the country last year. I was very concerned about the delay to the elections, of which my hon. Friend will be aware, and President Kabila not recognising that his time was up. I am pleased that political dialogue has now been developed between the Government and the Opposition, and that we are now on a programme to ensure elections happen in 2017. I will return to the country very soon to make sure that is enforced, and to offer our support and assistance to this important country.
Two hours, the Minister chunters from a sedentary position. I certainly would not object to that. He is a member of the Executive. If the Government want to table such a proposition, I think there might be very substantial support for it. I try to expand the envelope, but there are limits: if we do not have a longer session people will have to be briefer in questions and answers.
We now come to the urgent question. I call John McDonnell.
HMRC’s transformation plans will allow it to become a more efficient and effective tax collector fit for the digital age. HMRC’s large estate is ageing and not delivering the best value for money for the taxpayer. The NAO has confirmed that savings of £80 million per year will be made by 2025.
The size of HMRC’s estate has been reducing since 2006, and the NAO report published today shows that HMRC has made some effective changes since 2010, while reducing staff numbers by a quarter and saving the taxpayer over £350 million pounds. However, HMRC wants to keep up the momentum to provide a better service at a reduced cost. As it announced in 2015, that means taking forward big reforms of how the estate works, which will see over 170 small offices consolidated into 13 larger regional offices, an approach which is used across government. This brings with it a whole range of advantages, from efficiently sharing resources and quality digital infrastructure to better support and career opportunities for the staff who can more effectively share expertise. For the public, what this really means is a better, more modern service run by fewer staff costing about £80 million a year less by the time the changes take effect.
The report out today suggests that the costs of bringing about this transformation are likely to be higher than was first forecast. Of course, certain aspects of the programme could not be definitively made at the start. There is a wide range of factors behind that, from rising property costs and changes to the programme, for example to help staff to adjust and to ensure a smooth transition for customers, so the programme costs are of course updated to reflect that. I therefore thank the NAO for its timely report.
The strategy to modernise the service that HMRC provides to taxpayers is the right approach and reflects the way taxpayers now interact with it. It is a plan to say goodbye to the days of the manual processing of tasks that can be done more easily with today’s technology. In short, we remain fully committed to taking forward the changes to the HMRC estate that will help us to bring a better tax service for the people of this country.
In reality, the report is damning of the Government’s plans to close 170 offices. We on the Opposition Benches have warned consistently that the Government’s proposals will have a detrimental impact on HMRC’s ability to provide advice and to tackle tax evasion and tax avoidance.
The NAO report confirms our fears. First, it called the original office closure plan unrealistic. The estimates of the costs of the move increased by 22%, which is £600 million extra. It forecasts a further 5,000 job losses and finds that the costs of redundancy and travel have tripled from £17 million to £54 million. It also says that HMRC cannot demonstrate how its services can be improved and has not even produced a clear programme business case for the planned closures.
As we predicted, this is an emerging disaster. Even the Government now accept that there is a tax gap of at least £36 billion, yet these plans will do nothing but hinder the effort to tackle tax evasion and avoidance. Some 73% of the staff surveyed said that the plans would undermine their ability to provide tax collection services, while 50% said they would actually undermine their ability to clamp down on tax evasion and avoidance. Will the Minister now call a halt to the planned office closures, end the job cuts at HMRC and come back with a realistic plan to resource HMRC fully in its vital tax collection role?
The shadow Chancellor is right that HMRC’s tax collection role is vital. At the heart of many of the changes made since the original estimates and planning for this part of the transformation are measures to better support staff and put more things in place to support their move. It is interesting that he makes no mention of the potential benefit to staff of the move. Of course, some will not be able to make the move, but the vast majority will live within an hour’s journey and will be supported, including through the one-to-one conversations which happen with staff ahead of any move.
The shadow Chancellor’s comments do not accurately represent what the NAO said. It has actually recognised that HMRC’s move to regional centres is central to its strategic aim to increase tax revenue, improve customer service and make cost savings. The move to regional centres has never been just about cost savings or buildings; it is partly about how people work in those buildings. Ultimately, we will have an opportunity to change how we work. In 1982, my first job after leaving school was in an old tax office. Some of those offices are over 100 years old and some have not changed since I was working in one as a school leaver. It is absolutely right that we commit to making sure that staff can work in a modern environment.
All staff will be offered the chance to move, and for those who cannot, there will be one-to-one, bespoke support, and some of them will go to other Departments, so some of the comments we have heard are absolute nonsense. [Interruption.] There is a lot of chuntering from the Opposition Front-Bench team, but they are not listening to the facts and they have not read what the NAO actually said. This is a major programme, and it is right that the overall costs be periodically reviewed, but HMRC is not looking to make any significant changes to its overall strategy. We want its staff to work closer together in regional centres and specialist sites in a modern, flexible and high-quality working space.
Lastly, on tackling tax evasion and the tax gap, no Government have done more than this one. It is absolute nonsense to say that HMRC’s capacity to tackle those two issues is diminished; far from it—the UK’s tax gap is one of the smallest in the world and at its lowest ever level. In the summer Budget, we gave HMRC an extra £800 million to tackle tax evasion, and it has done that extremely well, such that once again we have reached record levels of compliance with regards to money from anti-tax evasion measures. I therefore rebut entirely the shadow Chancellor’s points in that regard.
Will my hon. Friend take it from me that in my experience dealing with constituents and corporations in my constituency who have made inquiries to HMRC, its response times and how it handles cases have improved immensely over the past few years, and that in respect of its seeking to deal with tax evasion and avoidance, there is absolutely no doubt that it has raised its game considerably?
I thank my right hon. Friend for his comments, and I am glad that he has put on the record his appreciation for staff. He is absolutely right. In the past six months, call waiting times have averaged less than five minutes and customer service has improved to the best levels in years. This is something that HMRC management keep under constant review. It is absolutely right that we seek to provide the best service possible, but we cannot do that in un-modernised offices. For example, we must recognise that investing in the most up-to-date digital infrastructure is unrealistic across an estate of more than 150 offices. We need to bring people together in an environment that is fit for the future both for staff and customers.
The NAO has actually said that
“HMRC’s original plan has proved unrealistic”,
“suitable property will not be available…within the time frame set out”,
“HMRC now estimates it may lose up to 5,000 staff”,
which will require recruitment while it simultaneously carries out redundancies, and that the plans were
“over-optimistic…and carried too high a risk of disruption”.
These are very similar warnings to those expressed in respect of the outturn failings in 2009 of the strategic transfer of the estate to the private sector—STEPS—programme. Given how clear and stark the warnings are, would it not make more sense to pause this, rip it up and start again?
No, that is not right; I cannot agree with the hon. Gentleman. The factors driving the programme—the reasons we want to transform HMRC into the most modern and digital tax authority in the world—all still stand. We have always been open about the fact that this is an ambitious transformation, and as with any major programme, a number of which are running at the same time, it is right that it be looked at regularly. Of course HMRC will respond in detail to the NAO report, but the principle driving the plan stands good, for all the reasons I have talked about—it is better for customers, better for staff and better for the taxpayer.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned the STEPS programme, but the NAO report noted how much better HMRC had been managing it. There were problems with the programme, which was initiated under the last Labour Government, but the report compliments HMRC on the way it is managing it and got some of the private finance initiative costs under control, and so on. It is right that we constantly re-evaluate programmes of this importance, but I do not agree with the thrust of his question. It is also worth noting that while Scotland accounts for 8% of the UK’s population, 12% of the HMRC workforce will remain there, so Scotland remains a very important part of the HMRC estate.
It is good to hear the Minister make the point that the telephone answering is improving. On the Public Accounts Committee, we have been looking at this on an ongoing basis, and we have probably had more information on it from MPs across the House than on any other issue. We support the programme, but with the digital world moving forward will the Minister set out how we will make sure that the staff on the end of the phone have the right qualifications to support businesses and individuals who need information?
I thank my hon. Friend for her comments. Given her membership of the PAC, it is important and nice to have them on the record. Much work has gone into improving customer service levels. At the moment, they are very good and improving and remain a key focus. She made a point about supporting staff with training and so on. That will be much easier in regional centres. For example, at the moment we have a large number of offices, and owing to the nature of the tasks being undertaken and the number of people working in them, it is not possible to provide easy and effective training programmes or to plan career progression in the way it is when a large number of people are concentrated together. As is reflected across both Government and the private sector, we can do a lot more for people when we can concentrate a different range of skills so that people have a chance to plot a career within the same office. That goes to the heart of how we intend to improve the service to customers.
The trouble with all this talk of regional centres is that this is exactly what has happened in every other Department. In constituencies such as mine and across the whole of the south Wales valleys, it feels as if the Government have just said, “No, we’re not interested. Everything’s going to Cardiff. Forget about it.” May I urge the Minister to think again? The Treasury and the whole of Government have a social responsibility, particularly to areas such as Rhondda and the valleys, to ensure they have a local presence.
I cannot agree with the hon. Gentleman’s comments about the motivation. As I said, there is a balance to be struck between the service to customers, how we support staff and how we serve the wider taxpayer interest. Yes, across Government there has been a move towards more modern and—in some cases, perhaps—more centralised services. There is a balance to be struck, but there is a robust programme of support in place for staff who cannot move, and to help them extra money has been put into the transitional costs associated with transport, for example. HMRC is working with other Government Departments to make sure that where we can, we take advantage of the high skills people have, to move them to other Departments where their skills can be used.
The Minister noted that there were some compliments in the NAO report on how HMRC has moved to a more realistic plan for this project, and is now managing the existing estate better than before. Will she set out how HMRC will build on this progress to make sure that the skills are enhanced as this complicated project goes forward?
Of course. My hon. Friend is right to say that. As I have said, HMRC will respond in detail to the NAO report, and I will be pleased to discuss that with him. One of the NAO’s recommendations is precisely what he has drawn our attention to—that there should be an iterative process of learning from every part of the move, ensuring for example that experience from the first regional centre to be opened is reviewed and lessons learned from it. This is a long programme of change; it is not an overnight transformation. It is absolutely right to review it at every stage so that we learn as we go along.
You are proposing to close a very modern office in Workington. The NAO report says that the average distance between offices that are being closed and the regional offices is 18 miles, with most within 50 miles. However, Workington has been paired with Liverpool, which are 142 miles apart according to Google maps—a journey of three hours. To me, the situation is completely unacceptable. The workers in Workington cannot transfer down to Liverpool, and I cannot see how they can be reskilled to work in equivalent jobs in Workington. I would love to know your suggestions on that. As I say, this is just unacceptable.
I think we all recognise that you are busy enough, Mr Speaker, without taking charge of HMRC’s regional transformation programme as well.
The hon. Lady has written to me about this matter, and I have said that I am happy to meet her to discuss it, perhaps allowing more time for discussion. She has cited the average figure that appears in the NAO report, but we of course accept that the move is going to be much less easy for some people, perhaps even impossible. We will support those people. With a view to providing suitable jobs in other Government Departments, the HMRC HR department is working closely with the Department for Work and Pensions. A lot of work is being done to support staff into other jobs, but we accept that not everyone will be able to move. I have written to the hon. Lady once on her specific points about Workington, but I will write to her again about what is happening in her area.
HMRC is planning to have a regional centre in Leeds, but it has not identified a site, and any site proposed will be incredibly expensive, crowding out private sector investment in Leeds. Just a few miles up the road in the Bradford district, a site is readily available, and it would be much cheaper for the taxpayer than it would be in Leeds, and it would help the local economy in the Bradford district as well. I urge the Minister to use this NAO report to pause, look again at these proposals and make sure that a regional centre in Yorkshire is not in Leeds, but in the Bradford district where many people in HMRC already work.
As my hon. Friend knows, I am familiar with all the localities that he mentioned. I know that Bradford was disappointed not to be the site chosen for the regional centre, but it is equally true that with a railway station in Shipley, my hon. Friend’s constituents are merely 10 minutes from Leeds on the train. I hope that it will prove to be a realistic project for his constituents to move to Leeds if they want to. I shall reflect on what my hon. Friend said and will write to him if I can provide further detail. HMRC has provided detailed responses, explaining the criteria used to select locations and thus explaining why Leeds was chosen over Bradford. I know that there has already been a good deal of correspondence on this issue.
The Minister will be aware that some HMRC offices have already closed in Northern Ireland, not only causing consternation to the staff who have had to be redirected to Belfast, but preventing accessibility for local businesses and ordinary people who are trying to deal with their tax affairs. In view of the NAO report, will the Minister please pause any further closures, as they simply cause chaos and upheaval?
I am not sure that I recognise the description of chaos and upheaval, given what I have said about improved average customer service times at the moment. There are good standards now, which does not align with what the hon. Lady said. I recognise that changes of this scale can be extremely difficult for the people affected by them, but I would like to pick up one point about how people interact with HMRC. We live in a different world from the one that obtained when the estates were last looked at on this sort of scale. The vast majority of taxpayers, both individuals and businesses, interact with HMRC digitally or on the phone. We have to adjust to the way the world is now rather than what it was like some decades ago.
I want my constituents to get the best possible service from HMRC, particularly when they have a problem and things go wrong. Given that HMRC has about 58,000 employees, will my hon. Friend at least consider the feasibility of HMRC allocating at least one named employee for every constituency, so that each MP has someone permanently in place to contact within HMRC?
We have had the experience of working through recent challenges in respect of the Concentrix contract and the fallout from it. I have looked personally at how HMRC interacts with Members of Parliament. I have not looked at the specific idea that my hon. Friend mentions, but I shall reflect on what he said. I am looking to ensure that, as colleagues found while resolving issues, the resources allocated to MPs were effective in helping them to get results quickly in some of the most difficult cases. I shall reflect further on my hon. Friend’s points because I want to make sure that HMRC serves colleagues of all parties as effectively as possible.
This modernisation and improvement programme in Northern Ireland has led to the closure of offices in towns that already have high unemployment, to frustration among people who have difficult cases and to a loss of expertise, especially in border areas where criminal evasion of tax is widespread. How does that fit in with the Government’s commitment to spread economic growth, to provide better service to customers and to reduce tax evasion?
It is worth noting on the broader point that employment in our countries is at an all-time high. We would always want to retain expertise within HMRC, but there will always be people leaving any large organisation and people being recruited and trained up simultaneously. I refer the hon. Gentleman to what I said earlier: it will be much easier to support people who want to join the organisation to become highly skilled and professional and to plot a career in HMRC, so that they can have long-term, fulfilling careers in a variety of different areas, under the new modernised structures.
The Minister has said a number of times that there will be a better service for customers in these regional centres, but I note that the NAO report says that HMRC has not demonstrated that. Can she reassure me on how she has reached the conclusion that the service will be better, more efficient and more effective for customers?
I did note that point, but I am not sure that I agree with how the hon. Lady has expressed what I said. Let me provide one example. Many HMRC local offices are in very old buildings. As I said, some are over 100 years old and many are from the 1950s. Then there is the latest digital infrastructure, and many more taxpayers are interacting with HMRC digitally, through more than 7 million personal tax accounts. As anybody knows, it is difficult to bring an old office up to modern standards with the right digital infrastructure. If we want to make sure that staff can make the best use of modern computer systems and put them at the service of customers who increasingly interact digitally, it is much better to do so in newer buildings that have been bought for the purpose and where we have planned that sort of arrangement from the start.
The Minister speaks of saving money and of modern offices. The HMRC offices at the Pyramids business park in my constituency are high-tech and high-end, with highly skilled staff, and there is plenty of further space. It would save the Government £70 million to keep that estate and develop it. Will the Minister meet me to discuss the details and perhaps consider retaining the hub in West Lothian, rather than moving it to a city centre where rents will be more expensive?
I have had a number of conversations with, in particular, some of the hon. Lady’s colleagues who are based in Scotland, and I am, of course, always happy to meet any parliamentary colleague to discuss anything. No change in the plan for that regional centre is envisaged, but some of the challenges relating to West Lothian have been brought to my attention.
Sheffield staff are already commuting considerable distances to their HMRC office because of previous office closures. Does the Minister not agree that HMRC can ill afford to lose 5,000 experienced staff at this time?
Given that HMRC has struggled to find suitable property in the suggested locations, may I ask the Minister to reassess the proposed locations on grounds of cost, ability to retain experienced staff and impact on customer service? Will she reassess them on the basis of evidence, rather than simply deciding which location in each region is easiest for Whitehall civil servants to get to?
I am pretty certain that that was not the rationale for the choice of locations. Very careful discussions took place. I will, of course, read the report and reflect on it, as will we all, and, as I have said, HMRC intends to respond in detail, but a great deal of thought went into choosing the regional centres. I acknowledge that some people will not be able to move because the distances will be too far to travel, and we certainly want to retain experienced staff. Those who will not be able to move will have a number of different levels of experience, but if we can retain their skills and ensure that they are at the service of the taxpayer through other Departments, we will obviously try to do so.
HMRC Porthmadog is earmarked for closure, and in all likelihood the Welsh language unit will be centralised in Cardiff, four hours away. Will the Minister meet me to discuss how these services can best be provided in a region where 71% of the population can speak Welsh and where Welsh is the working language of a county administration?
We have considered that issue, and we intend to work on it with other Departments. As I have said, I am always happy to have a conversation with colleagues—[Interruption]—not in Welsh! I will write to the hon. Lady, because the Welsh language has been raised with me before, and I know that it has been thought about in some detail.
It is not very often that the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) and I find ourselves on the same page, but on this occasion we certainly are, because he made an excellent point in defending Bradford. In closing offices in that city, HMRC would be turning its back on a skilled and diverse workforce, access to leading universities and one of the best MBA programmes in the United Kingdom, all of which would help it to achieve its aim. Will the Minister therefore reconsider and take a more sensible approach?
I assure the hon. Gentleman and the House that, as a Bradford girl, I would never do anything to harm Bradford. Equally, however, as a Bradford girl, I make the extremely short commute between Bradford and Leeds many times a year. I do not think we would wish to lose any experienced staff or expertise from the Bradford office, but the commute from Bradford to Leeds is possibly one of the shortest that any transferring HMRC staff would have to make.