House of Commons
Wednesday 10 April 2019
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
Leaving the EU: No Deal
Today is the 21st anniversary of the Belfast agreement. Our commitment to the agreement and its successor agreements remains steadfast. It has been instrumental in bringing peace and stability to Northern Ireland and remains the bedrock of the significant progress that has been achieved since 1998.
We want and expect to leave the European Union with a negotiated agreement. However, as a responsible Government, we have been working intensively to ensure that all parts of the UK, including Northern Ireland, are as prepared as possible in the event of a no-deal exit. We have been clear that the unique social, political and economic circumstances of Northern Ireland must be protected.
May I echo the Secretary of State’s words about the Belfast agreement?
Organised crime does not stop at the border, and the European arrest warrant is a vital tool in modern policing. What discussion has the Secretary of State had with the Home Secretary to ensure that we retain this crucial means of tackling crime in all circumstances of leaving the EU?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right: the European arrest warrant is vital, and it is used in Northern Ireland perhaps more than in any other part of the United Kingdom. It is a very important tool that the Police Service of Northern Ireland and the security services need to have access to. There is, of course, a way to make sure that they have access to it, and that is to leave with a deal.
As the Secretary of State has said, the Good Friday agreement was signed 21 years ago today, and it was a landmark achievement of the Labour Government. It ensured ongoing equality between those in Northern Ireland who consider themselves British or Irish. In the event of a no-deal Brexit, those rights will need additional protection. What plans does the Secretary of State have to ensure that those vital rights are undiluted and protected for all in Northern Ireland?
The Belfast/Good Friday agreement was a landmark achievement. It took many years and many people take credit for it, and quite rightly so. We have been clear that there will be no diminution of rights when the United Kingdom leaves the European Union. That is set out very clearly in the Northern Ireland protocol to the withdrawal agreement, which means, as I said earlier, that the answer is to vote for the deal.
Does my right hon. Friend agree with the Northern Ireland Department for the Economy that cutting corporation tax to the level enjoyed by businesses in the Republic of Ireland would more than compensate for any loss of attractiveness of Northern Ireland to foreign direct investors and the associated job losses?
This House gave the Northern Ireland Executive the power to cut the corporation tax rate. That is an achievement of this Government, and we believe it would help the economy of Northern Ireland. We need a functioning Executive—we will come on to that issue later—for that power to be used, and that is what we all want to happen.
Will the Secretary of State confirm that there are already differential rates of duties and VAT between Northern Ireland and the Republic and that, whether we leave with a deal or no deal, co-operation and ensuring that there is no hard border is in everyone’s interests?
I agree that it is in everyone’s interests that we co-operate with all our friends in the European Union, and in particular with Ireland. My hon. Friend is right. Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom—a separate jurisdiction and a separate sovereign country—and therefore there are differences. As I have said, the best way for us to leave the European Union—the way that will protect so many of the things that have been achieved in the past 21 years—is to leave with a negotiated agreement.
Of course everybody wants to get a deal that can get through this House of Commons. I remind the Secretary of State that she, along with us and Members from her own party, voted for an amendment saying that the backstop had to be replaced with alternative arrangements. Will she confirm that she still stands by that, and will she encourage her right hon. Friend the Prime Minister to adopt that approach, which the Leader of the House referred to yesterday?
The right hon. Gentleman is right to point out that there was a majority—the only majority in this House for anything—for the Brady amendment. I was one of those who voted for it, because I want to see changes to the backstop. Of course, that is something we have achieved through the agreement that alternative arrangements could be part of the way in which the backstop is replaced. As I have said, we all want a negotiated exit that works for the whole United Kingdom, including Northern Ireland.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State for confirming on the record in the House today that she agrees that changes do need to be made to the backstop—it is important to recognise that. With regard to a no-deal outcome, she will have heard the Irish Taoiseach, and indeed Michel Barnier, say that in the event of no deal there will not be any hard border on the island of Ireland and that arrangements will be made to ensure that checks and controls are made operationally away from the border. Does she understand the frustration, therefore, with people who say that, in the event of no deal, there will be no hard border, but who are insisting on a backstop, which could actually bring about the conditions that they say they want to avoid?
I understand the many frustrations that there are around this process. I voted for the withdrawal agreement—I voted for it three times. I believe that it is a fair and balanced way for the whole United Kingdom to leave the European Union in a way that respects fully the Belfast agreement and its successor agreements, and that is what I want to see us deliver.
On 26 March, I laid before Parliament a statutory instrument that extends the period for Executive formation until 25 August. This follows the recent engagement that I have had with the five main political parties in Northern Ireland and the Irish Government. On the basis of those conversations, I have proposed a short, focused set of five-party talks aimed at restoring devolution and the other institutions at the earliest opportunity.
I think it is fair to say that the Secretary of State has lost the confidence of many political leaders in Northern Ireland over recent months, so will she at least concede that she is probably not the best person to be chairing those talks? Will she repeat the best practice of previous Secretaries of State and appoint an independent chair to lead those talks on restoring devolution in Northern Ireland?
In the absence of local rule and the absence of direct rule there remains a vacuum. Will the Secretary of State now look at the possibility of Members of this House asking written questions about issues of devolved responsibility to give some accountability to the local civil service?
The right hon. Gentleman, who has considerable experience in this field and who will, I am determined, remain the last direct rule Minister, knows that there are some constitutional arrangements. The Northern Ireland (Executive Formation and Exercise of Functions) Act 2018 was very carefully drafted so that it respected the separation and independence of the Northern Ireland civil service, and we mess with that at our peril.
I would like to see talks resume as soon as possible, but I am acutely aware that there are issues, including the fact that local government elections are now being fought in Northern Ireland and that we are in purdah, that create difficulties for what can be achieved, but I do want to see as soon as possible a short, focused set of five-party talks.
The Secretary of State has previously said that formal talks could not take place until after the local elections on 2 May, which she has just referred to, but given the Brexit developments, or a lack thereof, is she now proposing that all-party talks will now not happen until after the European elections at the end of May, which would bring us into the heart of the marching season? How can she possibly justify yet another delay in attempting to restore the Assembly that nearly 80% of the Northern Irish public are crying out for?
The hon. Gentleman refers to a number of issues that may be making it more difficult for parties to find an accommodation to enable them to restore devolution. I know that he is a supporter of devolution, and therefore I suggest to him that the best way that we can all help on that is to vote for the deal.
More than two years ago, Sinn Féin collapsed the Northern Ireland Assembly. Since then, rather than looking for its restoration, it has been fixated on getting a border poll and on stirring up sectarian tensions in Northern Ireland at the expense of people who want decisions made on education, health, infrastructure, job promotion and so on. In the face of Sinn Féin opposition to setting up the Assembly again, what plans has the Secretary of State considered to get decisions made in Northern Ireland?
The right hon. Gentleman knows that the best thing for the people of Northern Ireland is devolved government in Stormont, with local politicians making decisions for the people who elected them. That is what we are all determined to see, and I am as determined as anybody to make sure that I put the conditions in place so that we can enable that to happen.
May I join the Secretary of State in commemorating the 21st anniversary of the signing of the Good Friday agreement? One of the casualties of the lack of devolved governance is the compensation scheme recommended by Sir Anthony Hart some five years ago. In the time since that report, 30 victims of historical institutional abuse have died. Only one person can now resolve the issue, rather than pushing it further down the road. Let me make a heartfelt plea to the Secretary of State. Will she now announce to the House that she will take the power to ensure that compensation is paid and announce a date when those compensation payments will begin?
I do not wish to correct the hon. Gentleman unnecessarily, but the recommendations of the Hart inquiry came two years ago, just after the Executive collapsed. Since that time, the head of the Northern Ireland civil service, David Sterling, has completed a consultation, and we await its results; that would need to be done in any event. I stand ready to look at the appropriate action that needs to be taken when the consultation recommendations are brought forward and I hear from David Sterling.
As I set out previously, the statutory instrument that I laid before Parliament on 26 March extends the period for Executive formation until 25 August. I have proposed a short, focused set of five-party talks aimed at restoring devolution at the earliest opportunity.
We have tried on a number of occasions to bring the parties together. My hon. Friend will know that we had an intensive period of talks last year that were very close to a successful outcome, but it has just not been possible to do that. I would not wish to say to the people of Northern Ireland that we were able to do something if I did not genuinely believe that we could. I therefore need to ensure that the conditions are right to have the best chance of success, because that is what the people of Northern Ireland deserve.
I was delighted to co-sign the heads of terms for the Belfast region city deal with partners last month. It is a significant milestone, which will ultimately deliver the first city deal in Northern Ireland. Let me be clear that there is no room for complacency. I have committed to delivering a comprehensive and ambitious set of city deals right across Northern Ireland, and I am now working hard with local partners and colleagues across the Government to make progress on the Derry and Strabane city deal. Negotiations are progressing well, and I am hopeful that Cabinet colleagues will be in a position to agree a deal following the conclusions of local council elections in May.
As the Secretary of State outlined, the statutory instrument that extends the period for Executive formation in Northern Ireland runs out on 25 August. What steps will she take if we get closer to that deadline and do not see any devolved government being restored?
We are looking at all options, but clearly the only sustainable way forward for Northern Ireland lies in getting the institutions back up and running. The restoration of devolved government in Northern Ireland is my absolute priority, and the willingness to restore the Executive is there among the political parties. I will do everything in my power to get the Executive back up and running as soon as possible.
We remain steadfast in our commitment to the Belfast agreement and its successors, including the provisions setting out an inclusive, power-sharing Government. An approach that excludes representatives of either part of the community is not a sustainable way forward for Northern Ireland.
As I have said, I have already laid the SI to extend the period during which an Executive can be formed. We need to ensure that we are doing everything we can to get the politicians back into Stormont, running devolved government for the people of Northern Ireland, but of course I work closely with local councils and others—including on city deals, as I set out earlier.
As I said earlier, I rule nothing out. I am looking at all the options that are available in terms of getting the conditions right and getting those successful talks. If the hon. Gentleman has any suggestions, I would be very grateful to receive them. I rule nothing out. I will of course let this House know at the earliest opportunity when I do have developments in that area.
Thank you, Mr Speaker.
With all the discussions that the Secretary of State has had with the various parties, I am sure she has come to the conclusion that the only party that is holding progress back is Sinn Féin. We in this part of the House would form a Government in the morning.
You are probably not aware, Mr Speaker, that I managed to offend the hon. Gentleman in the Tea Room earlier, so I will point out that you allowed youth to win on this occasion.
Of course I have met all the party leaders and all the main parties in Northern Ireland. I do believe that there is a willingness to see devolution restored, and I want to see that at the earliest opportunity.
Thank you very much, Mr Speaker—I will always defer to my junior colleagues. The Secretary of State knows that four of the five parties in Northern Ireland would restore the Executive tomorrow, without preconditions. Sinn Féin is the only party that has allowed its political prejudice to get in the way of progress in Northern Ireland. Will she commit, at the end of the time-bound period of discussions, to call the Assembly and put the parties to the test?
As I say, I want to see devolution restored at the earliest opportunity. I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s comments about the willingness of his party. I am convinced that the other four parties are determined to see devolution restored, and we need to get the conditions right to allow that to happen.
In the absence of devolved government, the direct decisions being made by Westminster for Northern Ireland are increasing every day, whether on the Offensive Weapons Bill, the Healthcare (International Arrangements) Bill, the two-child policy, or even what will happen with the Open golf tournament. The Secretary of State tells us that she respects devolution, but these decisions are being made behind closed doors with civil servants and without the involvement of the people or representatives of Northern Ireland. If she thinks that is acceptable, will she publish in full a list of all the policy decisions she has made under this new legislation, including the legislative consent motions and who has signed them off, so that we know who is really running Northern Ireland?
The hon. Lady did very well to get through the question and still have some voice left.
The decisions that are taken by the civil servants in Northern Ireland—the permanent secretaries—are published. That is part of the conditions of the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation and Exercise of Functions) Act 2018. But to be clear, that Act does not allow new major policy decisions to be made; it allows for policy decisions taken when the Executive was still in place to be continued. As I say, no new policy decisions are being taken under that Act.
Devolution and peace in Northern Ireland are precious and hard won. That is brilliantly captured with great humour and poignancy in the latest series of “Derry Girls”, which I know the Secretary of State is a fan of. Will she join me in congratulating Lisa McGee and the entire production team on another brilliant series?
Both the Secretary of State and I were delighted by the recent announcement by the Work and Pensions Secretary that parents who had their third child before the two-child limit was introduced in April 2017 would not face the cap. This will help thousands of families across the UK, including Northern Ireland. The administration and implementation of universal credit is a devolved matter, but Northern Ireland’s Department for Communities knows of no complaints, issues or problems experienced by claimants in the operation of the two-child policy.
The cruelty of this policy, as was confirmed by the UN rapporteur, is most acute in Northern Ireland, where families are bigger and abortion is illegal, which has been condemned by the Supreme Court. Surely in the case of non-consensual conception, women who seek to exercise the already humiliating rape clause will risk the prosecution of professionals who assist under section 5 of the Criminal Law Act (Northern Ireland) 1967. Can we have some clarity on this human rights double whammy?
The hon. Lady is right to raise that concern, which has been raised on previous occasions because of the depth of worry. I would just reassure her that in the 52 years since section 5 was passed, there have been no prosecutions for failure to report a rape in Northern Ireland. I would add that an outgoing Director of Public Prosecutions in Northern Ireland said that it is very unlikely that anyone will face prosecution in future.
The Minister appears to be presenting some new legislation to us. We are not familiar with the information he has just given, and I hope we can have a bit more detail.
I rise in sorrow and in anger to say that the roll-out of universal credit has had an unmitigated devastating impact on the poorest people in Northern Ireland. If universal credit is not good enough for the Minister’s constituents or my constituents, why is it good enough for Northern Ireland, where the level of long-term unemployment is twice the national average? Does he believe that making the worst-off worse off is acceptable?
I politely disagree with the hon. Gentleman, not least because unemployment in Northern Ireland has been falling steadily, which is one of the huge success stories of Northern Ireland’s economic progress since the troubles. The previous Assembly introduced some rather important legislation, which is still in operation, that mitigates some of the local concerns about the operation of universal credit in Northern Ireland.
The threat from dissident republican terrorism continues to be severe in Northern Ireland. Our top priority is to keep people safe and secure. Vigilance against this continuing threat is essential and we remain determined to ensure that terrorism never succeeds.
It is 21 years to the day since the signing of the Belfast Good Friday agreement. I will always remember the devastating bomb that ripped through Omagh, the town of my birth, just months before. Does my hon. Friend agree that the agreement has been vital in delivering the relative peace in Northern Ireland and that it must not be jeopardised?
I do. As the Secretary of State rightly mentioned earlier, the Belfast agreement was a landmark moment for Northern Ireland and all its neighbours. The peace that it has helped deliver is the foundation of so much of the economic and social progress that has been made since. Of course, the terrorists know that, which is why it is essential that we never let them win.
Thank you very much, Mr Speaker. [Interruption.] I am very glad that the Prime Minister has just taken her seat, because the question relates to dissident republicans. Has the Minister been made aware by the Police Service of Northern Ireland that dissident republicans are responsible for the recent spate of thefts of ATMs across Northern Ireland and are intent on using the stolen money to purchase weaponry to attack police officers and others along the border in the event of a no-deal Brexit?
There has been a great deal of speculation about this matter. I hope the hon. Lady will understand that all I can say in my response here is that policing is an operational matter. There are ongoing live police investigations into this matter and therefore I cannot go any further into it. However, I am sure that everybody here will have heard her concerns and registered them clearly.
Bearing in mind that the Secretary of State made a statement saying that the threat level for January was at “severe”, will the Minister outline what efforts have been made to increase police presence in local community policing to build relationships within communities? How much extra funding has he secured for the police?
I am happy to report that there has been a great deal of extra funding for the Police Service of Northern Ireland. There was £230 million of extra security funding over the 2010 Parliament and there has been £131 million over the current spending review period, plus £25 million to tackle paramilitary activity. In December, we announced another £16.5 million to help the Police Service of Northern Ireland prepare for EU exit.
My right hon. Friend, as a former Secretary of State, will appreciate that that is predominantly a devolved matter and that many things would be on the plate of a restored Stormont Assembly and Executive. I am sure that that would be one of them, but first it is essential to get that Executive and Assembly back to work.
In these heightened times of threats against politicians, anyone standing for a council election in England this May does not need to have their home details published. In Northern Ireland, that is not the case, which has led to the Social Democratic and Labour party councillor Máiría Cahill having to withdraw from fighting her seat. Will the Minister tell the House why in England legislation changed but we did not do that in Northern Ireland? When will that change be made?
This matter has come up in the press recently and I know it is causing concern to all parts of the House and in all communities in Northern Ireland. We are tremendously sympathetic. The difficulty is that changing the laws in Northern Ireland in time for the local elections will probably be impossible. We all want to try to ensure that this is dealt with so that the law is in line as soon as we can.
Open Championship 2019
As a former tourism Minister, I am delighted that in July the Open championship is making an historic return to Northern Ireland after 68 years. Tourism Northern Ireland expects up to 190,000 spectators will attend the event at the Royal Portrush golf club and estimates that the benefit to the Northern Ireland economy will be £80 million. Tourism in Northern Ireland is going from strength to strength. During the first quarter of 2018, visitors spent an unprecedented £180 million.
My hon. Friend will know that tourism is a devolved matter, which is yet another reason for the Stormont Executive to reform quickly. I also urge businesses to use the event as a huge marketing opportunity. Portrush will be a target-rich environment for them, full of potential customers, suppliers and contacts for all sectors of Northern Ireland’s economy—not just tourism. I am sure they will grab it with both hands.
He is one of the best golfers in the world. Will the Minister meet Invest Northern Ireland, as I have, to ensure that we maximise every potential investment opportunity on the back of the Open returning to Royal Portrush after an absence of almost 70 years?
Colleagues, I am pleased to announce that after a fair and open recruitment process, Her Majesty the Queen has approved the appointment of Sarah Davies as Clerk Assistant and Managing Director of the Chamber and Committees Team with effect from 29 April 2019. Sarah Davies is Principal Clerk of Select Committees and the first woman to hold permanently the position of Clerk Assistant. She is a superb servant of the House of Commons. We unite in congratulating her and we wish her well for the period that lies ahead.
Oral Answers to Questions
The Prime Minister was asked—
May I add my congratulations to Sarah Davies on achieving this position and say how good it always is to see women in high office?
The tragedy of Jallianwala Bagh in 1919 is a shameful scar on British Indian history. As Her Majesty the Queen said before visiting Jallianwala Bagh in 1997, it is a “distressing example” of our history with India. We deeply regret what happened and the suffering caused. I am pleased that today the UK-India relationship is one of collaboration, partnership, prosperity and security. Indian diaspora make an enormous contribution to British society, and I am sure the whole House wishes to see the UK’s relationship with India continue to flourish.
This morning I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in this House, I shall have further such meetings later today.
I fully agree with the Prime Minister when she has repeatedly said that we need to honour both the result of the referendum and our manifesto commitments, which mean leaving the customs union and the single market. Does my right hon. Friend agree with me that if the best way to do that, rather than delivering a diluted deal that is unrecognisable to many of those who voted to leave, is to go under World Trade Organisation rules, we should grab that opportunity and believe in the ability of the British people and a Conservative Government to make a success of it?
I agree with my hon. Friend that I believe a Conservative Government will make a success of whatever the situation is in relation to Brexit. But I still believe that the best Brexit for the UK is to be able to leave in an orderly way, to be able to leave with a deal, and I want to ensure that that Brexit does indeed honour the result of the referendum. There are Members of this House who do not want to honour the result of the referendum; I do.
I am very pleased that the Prime Minister mentioned what happened in Jallianwala Bagh and the issues of the massacre at Amritsar 100 years ago. I think that the people, in memory of those who lost their lives and the brutality of what happened, deserve a full, clear and unequivocal apology for what took place on that occasion.
I join the Prime Minister and yourself, Mr Speaker, in welcoming Sarah Davies to her appointment. I am sure she is going to be absolutely brilliant. I remember the day she started work in the House, and she has done incredibly well.
I also welcome my hon. Friend the new Member for Newport West (Ruth Jones) who is here today. I believe that she is a very worthy successor to the late Paul Flynn.
Today marks the 21st anniversary of the Good Friday agreement, a defining moment in Irish history, which allowed peace to prevail. It was a great achievement, and I pay tribute to the work done by the Labour Government at that time, as well as those on all sides in Ireland, north and south, and in this House in achieving the crucial breakthrough in the peace process, which we have to ensure is maintained.
As we continue discussions to find a compromise over the Brexit deal that could shape our future economic relationship with Europe—protecting jobs, rights and our economy—we should not forget the communities across this country that have been abandoned by this Government in the here and now. Official figures show that nine of the 10 most deprived council areas in this country have seen cuts that are almost three times the average of any other council. Why has the Prime Minister decided to cut the worst-off areas in our country more than the most well-off?
First, the right hon. Gentleman is right to reference the 21st anniversary of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement, which was indeed an important moment in Northern Irish history and which has led to the peace that we have seen subsequently. May I welcome the actions that were taken by politicians of all parties, in this House and elsewhere, to ensure that that peace was possible and that that agreement was possible as well?
May I say to the right hon. Gentleman in relation to the issue of council funding that actually councils do have more money available this year? [Hon. Members: “Ah!”] Yes, a real-terms increase. The right hon. Gentleman voted against that money being available. But what we have also done is listen to councils, and given them extra flexibility. For example, they have called for a long time to have the borrowing cap lifted so that they could build more homes, and we have done exactly that—listened to councils and given them what they wanted.
The problem is that child poverty is rising. In councils with the highest levels of child poverty, over £1,000 per household has been taken in funding cuts in the past decade. Some of the wealthiest areas of our country have lost only £5. Take Swindon, for example, where Honda recently announced 3,500 job cuts. Child poverty is over one third higher in Swindon than it is in Surrey, but Swindon will have lost £235 per household in Government funding cuts, whereas a household in Surrey will see more money from central Government. Can the Prime Minister explain why Swindon faces cuts while Surrey gets more money?
Actually, what we see in terms of spending power per home is that the average spending power per home for the most deprived local authorities is over 20% higher than for the least deprived local authorities. That is Conservatives delivering for local councils.
Homelessness is three times higher in Swindon than in Surrey. Today, we learn that two-thirds of councils do not have the funding necessary to comply with the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017. In Stoke-on-Trent, the council has lost £640 per household, yet child poverty is more than double the rate in Surrey, which has seen an increase in funding. Does the Prime Minister think that areas with the highest levels of child poverty deserve to be facing the largest cuts in their budgets?
What I think is that Members across the House who are concerned about child poverty should take action to ensure that we help families to get more money into their pockets. It is this Government that have frozen fuel duty. It is this Government that have introduced the national living wage. It is this Government that have given lower paid workers the highest increase. It is this Government that on Saturday saw 32 million households see a tax cut. If the right hon. Gentleman really wants to help people out there with money in their pockets he should be backing these measures by the Government instead of voting against them.
The reality is that under this Government 500,000 more children have gone into relative poverty. In Stoke-on-Trent alone, 4,000 food bank parcels were handed out to children last year. If that was not bad enough, it is about to get worse. Tory proposals on the new funding formula for councils will make poorer areas even poorer. They are removing the word “deprivation” from the funding criteria. In a phrase that George Orwell would have been very proud of they have called this the fairer funding formula. Areas like Stoke will lose out even more. Will the Prime Minister explain why she wants to give less funding to the most deprived parts of our country?
No, that is not what we are doing. What we are doing is ensuring that we have a fairer funding formula across local authorities. We are also ensuring that we are making more money available for local authorities to spend. Let us just see what we see from council after council up and down the country. If people want to ensure that they have good local services and pay less in council tax, that is what they see under Conservative councils. There is a clear message: if you want to pay less council tax and have good local services, vote Conservative.
Unfortunately for the Prime Minister the truth is that when Labour controls local councils, households pay on average £350 less than those living in Tory areas. The average council tax per dwelling in Labour council areas is £1,169 compared to £1,520 in Tory council areas. The Society of Local Authority Chief Executives has called the fairer funding formula decision “perverse”. Even before this new formula kicks in, councils are losing out now. A Conservative council leader said earlier this year:
“we are really, really short of money...I mean there is no money”
for him to run his services. What does the Prime Minister say to local authorities struggling to make ends meet while her Government continue to underfund the vital services they deliver?
We have over the years asked local councils to take some difficult decisions in relation to living within our means. Why did we have to do that? We had to do that because we were left the biggest deficit in our peacetime history by the last Labour Government.
A political choice to impose austerity on local government has hit the poorest and worst-off the hardest in every one of our communities across the country. Since 2010, 50p of every £1 has been stripped from local authorities by her Government. That is the reality of what life is like for those trying to deliver services.
The evidence is clear: the Tories have abandoned communities across the country. They have left towns and cities to fend for themselves after nine years of vindictive, damaging austerity: 1,000 fewer Sure Start centres—one of the greatest achievements of the last Government; 760 fewer youth centres; and a social care system in absolute crisis. Child poverty is up. Violent crime is up. Homelessness and rough sleeping are also up. This Government stand for tax cuts for the richest and swingeing cuts for the rest. Will the Prime Minister now admit that far from tackling the “burning injustices” that she talked about, her Government’s cruel and unfair policies have pushed councils to the brink and left those “just about managing” not being able to manage at all? That is her legacy.
I am proud to lead a Government who have seen more children in good schools, more doctors, more jobs, lower borrowing, lower unemployment and lower taxes—that is Conservatives delivering across the country for everyone. What would we see with a Labour Government under the right hon. Gentleman? We would see them destroying our defences and abandoning our allies, billions more in borrowing, fewer opportunities and higher taxes for everyone. That is a Labour future and we will never let it happen.
My hon. Friend has raised a very important point that matters to people up and down the country. The internet can be absolutely brilliant at connecting people and providing them with information, and connecting people not just nationally but across the world, but for too long the companies have not done enough to protect users, especially children and young people, from harmful content. That is not good enough, and that is why we have listened to campaigners and parents. We are putting a legal duty of care on internet companies to keep people safe. I congratulate my right hon. and learned Friend the Culture Secretary and my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary on the work that they have done on this issue. Online companies must start taking responsibility for their platforms and help restore public trust in their technology.
Today, as we know, is the anniversary of the Good Friday agreement—a peace accord that not only ended violence in Northern Ireland but brought stability for all of us living throughout the United Kingdom. Brexit threatens to undermine that—to drag us out of the most successful peace project in history: the European Union. What a tragedy. It is now one week since talks began between the Tory Government and the Labour party. I want to ask the Prime Minister: at any point during these talks, has a second referendum been offered on the Government side of the negotiating table—yes or no, Prime Minister?
My position on a second referendum and the Government’s position has not changed. The House has rejected a second referendum two times. When we come to a deal, we will have to ensure that legislation goes through this House. Of course, it may be that there are those in this House who wish to press that issue as that legislation goes through, but my position on this has not changed.
It was a very simple question: has a referendum been offered—yes or no? People cannot have faith in a backroom deal cooked up by two leaders who do not possess the ingredients to hold their parties together, never mind hold these islands together. Scotland will not be forced to accept what these two Brexit parties are preparing to serve up. There is no such thing as a good Brexit. There is no such thing as a good Tory-Labour Brexit deal. The Prime Minister must recognise the difference between what she believes is duty, but what the rest of us see as delusion. In her final days as Prime Minister, will she accept the EU offer of a long extension, accept that she has run out of road, and accept that the only choice now is to put this back to the people?
As I have said, I have made my position clear. I think it is a little difficult for many of us in the House to see the right hon. Gentleman, week after week, stand up and say that the UK should stay in the European Union, given that Scottish independence would have meant taking Scotland out of the European Union. [Interruption.]
I thank my hon. Friend for raising this issue, and for highlighting the fact that we are bidding to host COP26. The issue of incineration is crucial, particularly in certain local areas. We want to maximise the amount of waste that is sent to recycling rather than to incineration and landfill. Waste plants continue to play an important role in reducing the amount of rubbish that is sent to landfill, and we welcome the efforts to drive it down further. but if wider policies do not deliver our waste ambitions in the future—including those higher recycling rates—we will consider introducing a tax on the incineration of waste, which would operate in conjunction with the landfill tax and would take into account the possible impact on local authorities.
Let me say first that I am sure that the thoughts of the whole House are with Charlie and his family.
We recognise the significant concerns about access to this drug. On 11 March, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health held a meeting with the company Vertex, NHS England and NICE, and they discussed how best to reach a deal so that people with cystic fibrosis and their families could benefit as soon as possible. They met again later in March and they are continuing those discussions, but I will ensure that the case that the hon. Gentleman has raised and the importance of the issue, are once again brought to the attention of the Department of Health.
I thank the Select Committee for its report, and I thank my hon. Friend for the way in which he has championed housing issues. His Act is already having an effect on homelessness reduction.
We have committed ourselves to legislation to reduce ground rent on future leases to a peppercorn. As for current leaseholders, we have been working with the industry to ensure that existing leases with onerous ground rent terms are changed to a better deal. Leaseholders of flats have a right of first refusal when their freeholders are planning to sell the properties, and we are considering introducing a right of first refusal for house lessees as well. Last year, we made a commitment to consider a range of charges facing leaseholders and freeholders, including permission fees, and to consider in what circumstances they are justified and whether they should be capped or banned. I have asked Lord Best to chair a working group to look into the regulating and professionalising of property agents.
We are considering the Committee’s report carefully, but my hon. Friend is absolutely right: if we believe that a market is not working properly, we should act to deal with that.
We have one of the toughest regimes in relation to the export of arms across the world. The hon. Lady references the situation in Yemen. We are very clear that that cannot go on. It is four years since the beginning of that devastating conflict, and there needs to be a political settlement. We are working with and backing work that is being done by the UN special envoy, Martin Griffiths. The parties have made significant progress towards an agreement to implement phase 1 of the redeployment of forces from Hodeidah, and we are urging all parties to honour the agreements that were made in Stockholm. Our total bilateral commitment to Yemen since the start of the conflict now stands at £717 million. We are backing the UN peace process. The coalition is there, and as has been acknowledged by the United Nations, it is there at the request of the Government of Yemen. We have been backing the United Nations peace process and will continue to do so, and we will continue to provide humanitarian support to the people of Yemen.
We are obviously working to improve education for every child, regardless of what part of the country they live in or their background. As I made clear earlier, we are putting more funding into our schools through to 2020. We have recently announced an extra £250 million over two years for the high needs budget, together with extra money for children with special educational needs. My hon. Friend references the funding formula and the distribution of funds. The new national funding formula is about distributing funds more fairly, and historically underfunded schools will be receiving the biggest increases, of up to 6% per pupil, this year through the schools formula. We will also be allocating additional funding to small, remote schools that play an essential part in rural communities. We have recognised the need to introduce a fairer funding formula, and that is what we are doing.
The way to ensure that we develop a sustainable solution to poverty is to have a strong economy and a welfare system that helps people into work. That is what universal credit does—200,000 more people in work as a result of introducing universal credit. Work is the best route out of poverty. The evidence is that a child growing up in a home where all the adults work is around five times less likely to be in poverty than a child from a home where nobody works. We are making sure that we encourage people into the workplace. There are more jobs out there; more people in work; a record level of people in employment. Work is the best route out of poverty.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right that decisions about the closure of police stations across London are a matter for the Mayor of London. We have been protecting police funding. This year, there will be almost £1 billion extra available for the police, and the Metropolitan police are receiving up to £2.7 billion in funding in 2019-20—an increase on last year. We will always ensure that the police have the powers and resources that they need, but it is important that people recognise the responsibilities of the police and crime commissioners and the decisions they take. In London, that is the Labour Mayor of London.
I recognise that this must be a time of concern for staff at Dounreay. It is important that we recognise the skills that have been developed there and make sure we take every opportunity to put them to the benefit not just of local people but, as the hon. Gentleman says, of the United Kingdom. We welcome Dounreay Site Restoration’s statement of support for its staff and its intention to support them through a transition into other employment. I understand that it will develop training and support programmes to put individuals in the strongest possible position to move into another local job in one of the growing local industries, such as space, which the hon. Gentleman has referenced in previous Prime Minister’s questions, or renewable energy.
The hon. Gentleman asked about the Government’s commitment. We remain absolutely committed to supporting the region and the staff affected. We will continue to work with the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority, Dounreay Site Restoration Ltd, Cavendish Nuclear, Jacobs and AECOM during this time.
The “Access for All” programme championed by this Conservative Government is helping more disabled people, elderly people and people with prams and pushchairs to access our stations with greater ease. After my campaign in Southport, Hillside station was the successful recipient of some of that funding. Will my right hon. Friend do more in that area so more of our stations right across the country truly give access for all?
I congratulate my hon. Friend on his successful campaign to get that access at Hillside station. We need to continue the programme of opening up routes for disabled people by ensuring they have access to stations. We are moving closer to a transport sector that is truly accessible. The changes that will take place at Hillside are an example of that. If the programme continues to be delivered successfully, the Department for Transport will make submissions for further funding in due course. It is absolutely clear that we are providing extra opportunities for disabled people. I am pleased to say that 900,000 more disabled people are now in the workplace. Access is important for them. The campaigns that my hon. Friend and other right hon. and hon. Friends have run to get access to their stations are an important part of that.
Of course no year contains 53 weeks, so if somebody pays a 53rd rent payment in a year, it will cover some days in the subsequent year and mean that the following month has only four payment dates. As such, the claimant will be overpaid for their housing, and a shortfall is immediately recovered. It is about the way in which the days fall and making sure the system works for everybody.
If the Prime Minister is seeking a year-long extension to Brexit, does she not recognise that that would cost the British taxpayer over £1 billion a month in subscriptions to the EU? Does she not agree that that funding would be better spent on tackling crime, or funding schools and even tax cuts for my constituents and others up and down the country?
I am pressing the case for the extension that I wrote to Donald Tusk about last week, which was in fact endorsed by Parliament last night. We could actually have been outside the European Union by now, if we had managed to get the deal through. I am continuing to work to ensure that we can deliver Brexit in a way that works for people across the country.
I will tell the hon. Gentleman what I am proud of the Government achieving. We see more people in work than ever before. We have seen tax cuts for 32 million people. We are seeing wages rising, the deficit falling and debt coming down. We are restoring this country’s finances to build a brighter future for all our constituents.
I would like to see more women on the boards of big business, so will the Prime Minister join me in congratulating Ruth Cairnie, who has recently been appointed the chair of Babcock International, the first female chair it has ever had. Hopefully, she will improve the company’s fortunes.
I thank my hon. Friend for raising that issue. I am very happy to congratulate Ruth Cairnie on achieving that role as chairman of Babcock. The Government have been working and have done a lot since 2010 to see more women on the boards of companies, as that is very important. The greater the diversity we have on those boards, the better those companies will do.
We have been protecting police funding since 2015. This financial year, nearly £1 billion extra is available to police, and we have indeed put extra money into police. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary announced the £100 million extra that is going into key areas in relation to dealing with knife crime, and we have been protecting police funding since 2015.
The Prime Minister earlier made reference to the British Indian diaspora. Does she agree that the diaspora should be commended for the fact that, despite comprising 4% of the UK population, they contribute some 10% of taxes to the Treasury?
I am happy to welcome the contribution that the Indian diaspora make to our country. My hon. Friend has referenced the economic contribution they make through their taxes, but many of them run successful businesses that employ people up and down the country, many of them are successfully exporting from this country and supporting our economy, and they also play an important role in our society. I am very happy to welcome that and to congratulate them on it.
The hon. Lady asks whether I will meet and hear direct from young people about the issues they are concerned about in relation to the environment and climate change. I do that, and this gives me an opportunity to congratulate a school in my own constituency, St Mary’s Catholic Primary School, which has won five green flag awards in the past 10 years and last year won the first ever national green heart hero award. I assure her that I often hear young people tell of the importance of climate change. This Government have a fine record on climate change. One day, the hon. Lady will actually stand up in this House and welcome the efforts that this Government have made.
I thank my hon. Friend; he has been consistent in his campaigning on this issue, which I know is of great importance to his constituents. We remain committed to establishing fairer fishing policies that truly work for coastal communities. The deal that we have agreed with the European Union would see the UK leave the common fisheries policy, providing the UK with full control of its waters as an independent coastal state. We remain committed to coming out of the common fisheries policy.
I refer the hon. Gentleman to the answers I gave earlier in relation to universal credit and the importance of this system, which is encouraging people into work—200,000 more people are in work under universal credit and 700,000 people are getting money that they were entitled to but not receiving before. Universal credit is helping people into work and making sure that work pays.
My constituents Mark and Panna Wilson have a little son, Aadi, who has the terrible condition of spinal muscular atrophy. He desperately needs the life-changing drug Spinraza, which is available in many other countries. I know that the Health Secretary is working on this urgently. Will the Prime Minister intervene to create a new route to market for this important drug, so that my constituents can get the life-saving treatment that their son needs?
My hon. Friend has raised an important issue. Obviously, as he will appreciate, it is important that we ensure, first, that patients get access to cost-effective innovative medicines, but at a price that is fair and makes best use of NHS resources. That is the independent system that we have through the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence, which reviews the evidence. I understand that Biogen has submitted a revised submission to NICE in relation to Spinraza and that a meeting of NICE’s independent appraisal committee took place early in March to consider its recommendations. It is clear that everyone at the Department of Health and Social Care and in NICE recognises the significance of this drug, but we need to ensure that the decision taken is made on the basis of the clinical aspects, together with cost-effectiveness. That is what NICE will do in looking at the new offer.
When Melrose Industries took over GKN last year, it promised Ministers that it would back British manufacturing and not reduce the company’s defence capacity without the Government’s permission. Last week, GKN announced that it intended to close the Kings Norton plant, which makes windscreens for military and civilian aircraft. Will the Prime Minister tell GKN that the Government expect the company to abide by both the spirit and the letter of the undertakings given by Melrose last year?
Hong Kong: Pro-Democracy Activists
Thank you, Mr Speaker. I seem to be here to discuss either this area, the middle east or, indeed, Turkey, a debate to which I was responding in Westminster Hall earlier today.
I emphasise at the outset both to the right hon. Gentleman and to the House that the UK Government are acutely aware of our enduring responsibilities to Hong Kong. We were a joint signatory to upholding the joint declaration between the UK and China some 35 years ago, and the joint declaration is of course lodged with the United Nations. As such, we remain absolutely committed to monitoring and ensuring the faithful implementation of the joint declaration and the principle of one country, two systems. I reassure the House that we clearly and consistently raise our concerns with the Chinese and Hong Kong authorities. Parliament is updated on developments in Hong Kong through our six-monthly reports submitted by the Foreign Secretary, the most recent of which was published on 27 March. We always stand ready to comment publicly and robustly when appropriate.
Yesterday, the Hong Kong courts gave their verdict on the nine key figures in the Hong Kong Occupy movement. The protesters were arrested after large-scale protests in 2014. Each was found guilty of at least one public nuisance offence, and such offences carry a maximum sentence of seven years in prison. We shall have a better understanding of the severity of the sentence, and therefore the signal that the decision purports to send to others who choose to exercise their rights under Hong Kong’s Basic Law and Bill of Rights, once sentences have been handed down. Sentencing is due on 24 April, and the defendants have the right to appeal. It would therefore not be appropriate to comment further or in detail on the ongoing legal cases, but suffice it to say that this is a potentially protracted legal process that may take years rather than months.
I have visited Hong Kong twice as a Foreign Office Minister and have held meetings with a number of senior legal figures. On my most recent visit in November, I raised the issue of the rule of law directly with the deputy chief justice, as well as with representatives from the legal, political and business communities. All staunchly defended the independence of the judiciary and it remains our position that Hong Kong’s rule of law remains robust, largely thanks to its world-class independent judiciary. Many Members will know that Baroness Hale, Lord Hoffmann and others are part and parcel of the panel that is based in Hong Kong.
Hong Kong citizens are guaranteed the right to freedom of assembly and demonstration under the Sino-British joint declaration of 1984 and the Basic Law, and it is essential that those rights are properly respected in a democracy. Hong Kong’s success and stability depend on its high degree of enduring autonomy and its respect for the fundamental rights and freedoms enshrined in the joint declaration and the Basic Law. The Foreign Secretary recently pronounced that he was
“concerned that on civil and political freedoms, Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy is being reduced.”
It would be deeply concerning if the ruling discourages legitimate protest in future or discourages Hong Kong citizens from engaging in political activity.
I thank the Minister for that answer. I hope that he will be as robust in his tone when speaking to the Chinese Government as he has been in his remarks to the House today.
The prosecution and now conviction of nine leaders of the Umbrella movement is the latest in a series of egregious human rights abuses by the Government in China. Using the criminal justice system and public order offences in this way is an abuse of fundamental and internationally protected human rights. Amnesty International points out that the convictions all stem solely from non-violent direct actions in largely peaceful protests. As the Minister’s noble friend Lord Patten said, it is
“appallingly divisive to use anachronistic common law charges in a vengeful pursuit of political events which took place in 2014”.
Will the Minister make the strongest possible representations to the Chinese Government that these convictions are an abuse not just of the activists’ human rights but of China’s treaty obligations? This country has both a moral and a legal responsibility to pursue this matter with all vigour. We made commitments to the people of Hong Kong at the time of the handover to China and we still have those commitments under the Sino-British joint declaration.
The one country, two systems framework promised the people of Hong Kong progress towards democracy, but these convictions are not an isolated incident. Over the past five years, we have seen the abduction of Hong Kong booksellers who published titles critical of China’s rulers; a political party banned; a senior Financial Times journalist, Victor Mallet, expelled from the city; and, now, proposals to change Hong Kong’s extradition laws to enable suspected criminals to be extradited from Hong Kong to mainland China, which is something that not only political activists but businesspeople fear, as they believe they could be in danger if the change goes ahead.
Will the Government stand by the people of Hong Kong and their human rights, and will the Minister ensure that we in this country do not allow the Chinese Government to break the promises that this country made to the people of Hong Kong?
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his considered comments, and I fully accept and agree with the concerns he has raised. We take very seriously our responsibilities under one country, two systems, and we have expressed concerns in consecutive six-monthly reports that there has been a tightening of individual rights. We also feel that commerce and the independence of the judicial system have remained true to one country, two systems.
It is in China’s interest that Hong Kong continues to succeed under the framework. The joint declaration must remain as valid today as it was when it was signed three and a half decades ago. It is a legally binding treaty that is registered with the United Nations. I have raised this, and will continue to raise it, with my Chinese counterparts. Some criticism has been addressed to the FCO in relation to the idea of having a six-monthly report, which we feel is a particularly important foundation for ongoing confidence within Hong Kong that we take very seriously the responsibilities to which we have signed up.
The right hon. Gentleman raised the change to the extradition laws. We are aware that the Hong Kong Government have proposed changes to legislation. We are seriously considering the potential implications of those changes, including how the proposals might affect UK citizens and, indeed, our current extradition arrangements with Hong Kong.
The British consul general to Hong Kong, the very talented Andy Heyn, has spoken to senior figures in Hong Kong’s Administration to seek clarity on what the proposals will mean for UK citizens, for our law enforcement co-operation and for the current extradition arraignments. He has raised the potential impact of the proposals on business confidence in Hong Kong and has explained our concern that, given the sensitivity of the issues raised by these extradition proposals, considerably more time should be given for a full and wide consultation with interested parties before the Hong Kong authorities seek to put it into law.
In his excellent statement, my right hon. Friend emphasised the importance of the independence of the judiciary in Hong Kong, with judges of the calibre of Baroness Hale and Lord Hoffmann. If the Chinese Government really wish it to be believed that they are upholding the highest standards of human rights, is it not essential that the court is allowed to do its duty with full independence?
I thank my hon. Friend, who has worked hard on these matters, which he takes seriously. Indeed, he headed a delegation when I first went to mainland China some 15 years ago, and I am well aware that he keeps an eagle eye on what is happening, particularly in Hong Kong.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. When I was most recently in Hong Kong, I had a chance to speak to senior legal figures, and they do feel that the judicial system and its independence are being upheld but, clearly, the sense in which other rights are being questioned and eroded by the Chinese authorities raises some concerns in that regard. Hitherto, we have been confident that cases coming before the Hong Kong judiciary have been dealt with in a fair way and without political interference.
I am grateful to you, Mr Speaker, for granting this urgent question. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) on securing it, and I share his profound concern at yesterday’s verdict.
A serious discussion in this House on the situation in Hong Kong is overdue. China’s erosion of the rights and freedoms guaranteed by the Hong Kong Basic Law has been growing since the pro-democracy Umbrella protests in 2014. The last few years have seen an increasing crackdown on dissent and protest, with political parties banned, pro-democracy candidates blocked and journalists expelled. The conviction of nine leaders of the Hong Kong Umbrella movement yesterday—they could face seven years in prison for organising peaceful protests—is totally disproportionate and clearly politically motivated. The proposals to change Hong Kong’s extradition law mean they could serve sentences thousands of miles away in mainland China.
The Sino-British joint declaration is a legally binding treaty registered with the United Nations, and the British Government are a joint guarantor, with China, of the rights of Hong Kong citizens. I have one simple question for the Minister: how will the Government fulfil their legal responsibilities to the citizens of Hong Kong?
I thank the hon. Lady for her contribution, and I am sorry to hear that her constituency office was attacked over the weekend, which is unacceptable in the world in which we live. It is a salutary reminder that some of the concerns we deal with across the world are becoming quite prevalent closer to home.
We take one country, two systems very seriously, and we will continue to do so. The fact that we are the guarantor is important. As I have said, the six-monthly reports come not without criticism from our Chinese counterparts, but they provide a detailed opportunity. I encourage Members who have an interest in Hong Kong, and perhaps even those who do not have a strong interest, to read the reports when they come out every six months. The reports address specific concerns and cases, including a number of those raised by the hon. Lady.
Our continuing work from London, Hong Kong and, indeed, Beijing is important as we try to maintain the one country, two systems approach. Our view is that the approach is very much in China’s interests, and China has implicitly recognised the importance of Hong Kong as a financial capital market and business centre. It is therefore equally important that we impress upon China that the uniqueness of Hong Kong will be properly maintained, with Hong Kong reaching its full potential, only if we ensure that “two systems,” as set out in the joint declaration, is every bit as important as “one country.”
Thank you, Mr Speaker. The six-monthly Foreign Office report on Hong Kong, which is circulated by the all-party China group that I have the honour to chair, recognises the close bilateral Hong Kong-UK relations on culture and trade in many sectors, but the Minister is right to highlight the continuing pressures on Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy. Will he confirm that, in relation to the pro-democracy activists found guilty of public nuisance, the appeal process is still very much open and that the higher courts including, if needed, the Court of Final Appeal must take into consideration the freedoms of assembly and speech guaranteed under the joint declaration?
I am happy to confirm that. As I said, we have highlighted our hope that a range of recent court rulings do not discourage lawful protest in the future. I stress that Hong Kong citizens are guaranteed the rights to freedom of assembly and demonstration under the joint declaration and the Basic Law.
May I express my solidarity with the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman) and in particular her constituency staff?
I also thank the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) for raising this important matter. We share his concerns about democracy and human rights. As the Minister said, the UK has a particular responsibility for Hong Kong in our ongoing commitment to democracy and the rule of law. Amnesty International has said that this case is
“a crushing blow for freedom of expression and peaceful protest in Hong Kong.”
Does the Minister agree that judicial independence is absolutely critical to commercial investment and certainty and that it is in the interests of China as well? What Hong Kong-related discussions have he and his colleagues had with regard to trade talks, and what reassurances have Ministers sought over China’s commitment to Hong Kong’s autonomy and the independence of the legal system?
I very much agree with the hon. Gentleman and thank him for his comments. We are often criticised for speaking endlessly about trade and other opportunities. Clearly, Hong Kong was very much a mercantile base for the UK from the 1840s onwards. However, we do not in any way take lightly the importance of addressing human rights issues, particularly for those living in Hong Kong.
We have made it very clear that for Hong Kong to fulfil its potential—and, indeed, for China to do so in areas such as the belt and road initiative—the independence of, dare I say it, a common law system such as the British legal system is seen as more reliable for investors than perhaps the more doubtful, or at least less orthodox, systems in Shanghai and elsewhere. Although Pudong in Shanghai is a very important financial centre for China and does a lot of domestic work, Hong Kong still enjoys the confidence of many international capital markets.
On the specifics of free trade agreements in a post-Brexit world, clearly Hong Kong would be towards the top of the list, given the strength of our relationship. We have made it very clear to China that one of the reasons we want one country, two systems to be properly promoted is that it is very much in the interests of China’s plans for its own economic development in the years to come. I thank the hon. Gentleman for his focus on that particular issue, but we should not deny that human rights issues will remain extremely important as far as our own commitment to one country, two systems is concerned.
Yesterday’s convictions are extremely concerning, involving as they do a 75-year-old pastor, Rev. Chu, who declared himself as a peaceful protester, and Benny Tai, whom I invited to a fringe event at last year’s Conservative party conference and who spoke of the erosion of academic freedoms in Hong Kong.
Does the Minister agree that Hong Kong’s proposed new extradition laws, which may result in political activists and even international business people being in danger of extradition to mainland China, would fundamentally undermine Hong Kong’s autonomy, do irreparable damage to one country, two systems, and destroy business confidence in Hong Kong as a result? Is it not in all our interests, especially business, to defend Hong Kong’s freedom, autonomy and rule of law, which underpin its status as an open, international financial centre?
I thank my hon. Friend, who speaks so knowledgably about these issues, particularly in relation to Hong Kong but also China as a whole. I reassure her that it remains the UK Government’s view that for Hong Kong’s future success it is absolutely essential that it enjoys, and is seen to enjoy, the full measure of the high degree of autonomy and the rule of law, as set out in the joint declaration and enshrined in the Basic Law, and in keeping with the commitment to one country, two systems.
In my earlier response to the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael), I referred to issues regarding the planned extradition law, which is a good example of how difficult cases make for tough law. As my hon. Friend may be aware, it has come about because of an important case where an individual was murdered in Taiwan and the accused has ended up in Hong Kong but there is no extradition treaty in place. For that reason, given that Taiwan is regarded as part of One China, the issue suddenly has far greater implications.
I believe, as I am sure my hon. Friend does, that it is important that any changes to extradition arrangements from Hong Kong to mainland China must respect Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy and cannot and must not affect the rights and freedoms set out in the joint declaration.
I am grateful to the Minister for what he has said so far, but may I press him further on the Sino-British joint declaration? How confident is he that China is respecting it as legally binding? If he feels that it is not doing so—which is my observation—what steps is the Department taking to represent the UK Government’s view that it should be legally binding on the Chinese Government?
I thank the hon. Lady for her question. I will see her later this afternoon for a Westminster Hall debate on other matters—it is one of those busy days. Obviously, we are concerned by some of the Chinese Government’s comments about the joint declaration. Our view is that it is and must remain as valid today as it was when it was signed more than 35 years ago. It is a legally binding treaty, as has been pointed out, registered at the United Nations, and it continues therefore to be in force. We are committed to monitoring closely its implementation and we will continue to do so.
Of course we are concerned. We only need to look at the last half a dozen or so six-monthly reports to recognise that we think there is a deterioration in the way in which China is looking at this particular issue, but we will stand up for the rights of all Hong Kong people. As I have said, this is also in the interests of China, and it is an important part of the process to make that very clear to ensure that one country, two systems prevails.
About 100 years after the first Chinese legation was established in London in 1877, I was at a gathering with the then Chinese chargé where he made an elegant joke in Greenwich about how east meets west. I think the same could be true about Hong Kong.
Will my right hon. Friend make it clear that if the sentence is more than nominal, and if there is no chance to appeal against the convictions, people will think that the declarations and matters of principle agreed with the Chinese are not being properly fulfilled, which will affect both the future prosperity of Hong Kong and how people see China?
I thank my hon. Friend for his comments. I am not sure what I was doing 42 years ago, but I know that he was already a Member of this House at that time. He makes a valid and fair point. He is absolutely correct that it is vital that we maintain that for the interests of all Hong Kong citizens today and in the future. We will continue to make the robust case, which is absolutely essential.
You will recall, Mr Speaker, that in 2014, at the height of the Umbrella movement protests, the Chinese embassy prevented a delegation from this country’s Select Committee on Foreign Affairs from going to Hong Kong. It is clear that the Chinese Communist authorities are extremely sensitive about any scrutiny and any questions asked by this House and its Committees. When the Minister meets his Chinese Government counterparts, will he emphasise to them that this country has a pluralistic parliamentary democracy, which is what the people of Hong Kong also wish to have?
I rather remember that the Chinese Government’s obstruction at that time was regarded across the House as thoroughly reprehensible. I also recall that the Chinese embassy had the greatest possible difficulty in grasping the concept of an independent Parliament. I think some re-education was required.
I think some of us get rather concerned by an independent Parliament, particularly members of the Executive at any one time, but that is another matter. I remember being on the Back Benches for many years, so I do not in any way criticise you, Mr Speaker.
I very much agree with the hon. Member for Ilford South (Mike Gapes). We need to do our level best to ensure that we stand up for our rights. I do not think that the Chinese are entirely unknowing of that. Of course, they know exactly what is going on and want to squeeze those rights. It is interesting, however, that in a significant number of areas they recognise the benefit of two systems, including commercially, where the idea of a settled rule of law will allow capital to go into Hong Kong. We need to do our level best to ensure that all aspects are maintained, and we shall do so.
Following on from what you said, Mr Speaker, I was heartened by the Minister’s earlier comments about the correlation between future free trade negotiations and our continuing pressure regarding human rights. Will the Minister confirm that, when we talk about the rule of law with Chinese interlocutors, we mean our international definition of the rule of law rather than theirs?
My hon. Friend is obviously trying to get herself on to the next trip that I take to Hong Kong. We need that matter explained in a much more succinct style than I am used to doing. None the less, she is absolutely right: we do recognise that at a time when—dare I say it?—the rules-based international order is coming under increasing threat, indeed from some unexpected quarters as well, we need to work together with many of our counterparts to ensure that we make that argument as robustly as we can.
In his opening remarks, the Minister made it clear that the Hong Kong judicial system had integrity and was robust, and he evidenced that through the talks that he had when he visited the area with senior legal figures. In the same breath, though, he is saying that the system is being undermined. Will he tell me how the system is being undermined and what evidence he has for that?
The hon. Gentleman and I were on a trip to Hong Kong more years ago than I care to imagine—I think it was about 13 years ago. Obviously, it was the first time that I had been to the area as a parliamentarian. Our concerns are over the right to protest and press rights. Members have already referred to the issue of the very sudden withdrawal of the visa of Victor Mallet, the Financial Times journalist. There are a number of issues in the area that we would call civil rights, but, as far as the legal system is concerned, there is a sense that that remains independent. Equally, though, we are concerned. In relation to the judgments that took place yesterday, there is likely to be a long and winding road of appeals that will take place over some considerable time. It is one reason why we are not commenting directly on this, because, obviously, we want to read the full judgments, but we recognise that there will be appeals from virtually all the defendants.
Peaceful protest and the right of free expression are fundamental parts of democracy. Recently, China has put pressure not only on Hong Kong, but on Taiwan. Will my right hon. Friend impress on the Chinese Government that it is totally and utterly unacceptable to try to distort the position in Hong Kong and that, as Hong Kong acts almost as an investment gateway for China, it is important that they understand that we will stand up for the people whom we seek to protect?
I thank my hon. Friend for his question, and I very much agree with what he has to say. It is important to make a distinction between Taiwan and Hong Kong. Much as we are concerned about increasing pressure being put on Taiwan, the Hong Kong situation is different, as it is set out in a joint declaration. Indeed, the whole idea of one country, two systems that came into place in July 1997 absolutely protects the position of Hong Kong. There is a slight danger—dare I say it?—in trying to equate the situation in Taiwan with that in Hong Kong. It may well be in the Chinese Government’s interest so to do as we then potentially undermine the Hong Kong situation. Hong Kong’s rights are set out and it is the UK Government’s responsibility, as we have all pointed out, to make sure that they are maintained.
The Minister says that, along with our counterparts, he and we will do what we can to defend human rights, but does he accept that our ability and strength in defending our fundamental values of democracy, human rights and the rule of law, which we share across Europe, will be less in the event of Brexit? People who voted in 2016 did not anticipate the muscular, aggressive, authoritarian approach of China, which means that we are now seeing extraditions, the arrests of people engaged in peaceful protest, Canadian nationals facing the death sentence, and Britain in a much more vulnerable position, as it will have to rely on trade with China and therefore turn a blind eye to human rights. Does he not think that, in light of this emerging evidence of abuse, the people should have the right now to a public vote on the deal?
Just when we thought that we had got away from the Brexit debate, here we are. The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point in this regard: we must not take our eye off the ball when it comes to standing up for human rights as we come to make trade agreements. I am actually much more optimistic and hopeful than he is, and I say that from the perspective of a Foreign Office Minister. As we leave the European Union, we will have to work hard—and we are working hard—and redouble our efforts to make sure that the strongest relationship in a range of multilateral organisations is maintained—whether in the United Nations in New York and Geneva, or in organisations such as the World Bank, the IMF and the OECD. I am very confident that we will rise to that challenge. It is certainly important that we keep the connection open as much as we can. For example, in the UN, we are working extremely closely—and will continue to do so for some considerable time—with France, which is a permanent member of the Security Council, and with Germany and Poland, which are important partners in the European Union and also now on the Security Council this year.
It is deeply concerning that the Hong Kong Government recently rejected the renewal of the visa of the Financial Times journalist. Does my right hon. Friend agree that upholding freedom of speech and of the press is essential for Hong Kong’s way of life?
Absolutely. We were particularly concerned by the Hong Kong authorities’ unprecedented rejection of a visa extension—it was actually a small visa extension for the senior British journalist Victor Mallet who is now the Paris correspondent. It was simply a matter of the last two or three months of his time in Hong Kong that was at stake. In the absence of an explanation from the authorities, we can only conclude, as my hon. Friend rightly points out, that this move was politically motivated. I believe that it undermines the basic idea of freedom of speech and freedom of the press in Hong Kong, which, as I have said, are guaranteed by that joint declaration.
The creation of Hong Kong was a fantastic example of British-Sino co-operation in building a global city that is a massive player in the global economy. Indeed, the Sino-British joint declaration itself was a great achievement of co-operation and it was done with great sacrifice from the British side, as Hong Kong Island and Kowloon, had been part of the British territories in perpetuity. It was done for practical and diplomatic reasons. Can the Minister reassert the continuing mandate that Britain has to ensure that the Sino-British declaration is respected until July 2047? What practical steps will he take to achieve that?
The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point. In many ways, the joint declaration and the Sino-UK discussions were a fantastic template for broader co-operation and it is to our regret that that is now under pressure, and we will continue to stand up for it. I will, if I may, make this point. Obviously, there has been speculation in relation to what might happen in the broader region around Shenzhen and Guangzhou, which may be linked together as a particular region along with Hong Kong. Again, we will keep our eye on exactly what changes are being made in that regard, although one can see the importance of the interconnections economically within the broader region. I shall certainly be noting what happens in the greater bay area, which is an area that I am looking to visit later this year. I will be going to Guangzhou and Shenzhen and then to Hong Kong at the same time. Obviously, we will report back to the House after that time.
As someone who grew up in Hong Kong, I am concerned about the progression of extradition that may occur to these people who are currently seeking some kind of appeal. What can the Foreign Office do to stop any extradition from Hong Kong to China?
As I mentioned earlier, this is a live debate at the moment because of a particular case, which is very much at a preliminary stage. The lobbying that our own consul general has received from business connections makes it very clear that there is a reduction in broader confidence. On the rights of British national overseas passport holders, my hon. Friend will be aware that the right of abode in the UK is defined under the Immigration Act 1971 and only British citizens and certain British subjects have that right. However, we have ongoing responsibilities to Hong Kong citizens, and even to those who do not enjoy that right of abode, and we will continue to make the strongest of cases to ensure that, up to 2047 and potentially beyond, such rights are properly upheld.
I thank the Minister for his responses. China is guilty of some of the worst human rights abuses and religious persecution in the world. Minister, in discussions with the Chinese and Hong Kong Governments regarding the recent guilty verdict, what was done to secure the trio’s release, and what will be done to secure the release of the other six who face impending imprisonment? Their only crime was to promote democracy as part of the 50 years of autonomy and freedom that were promised by the Chinese Government when Hong Kong was handed over in 1997. China often says no, but acts in a different way.
We very much hope and understand that, given the nature of the alleged offences and the protracted legal process, any individuals will not be held in custody but have a right to a reasonable bail within short order. As the hon. Gentleman rightly points out, three people have already been released, and I very much hope the other six will be. We will be keeping an eagle eye on this matter. Above all, we trust that the Government of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region will continue to make every effort to ensure that the environment in which the media and individuals operate is conducive to freedom, including freedom from self-censorship or the like. Our officials in Hong Kong, London and Beijing—we have a number of consulates general in China that are nearer to Hong Kong—will continue to monitor these issues very closely.
I echo the concerns expressed on both sides of the House that, in the light of recent developments, the rights of citizens of Hong Kong are being eroded. What is the Government’s view of the steps that the Chinese authorities should now take to allay such concerns and to restore faith that these fundamental freedoms—and, indeed, democracy—in Hong Kong are not under threat?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his thoughtful contribution. I am working on this issue in many ways with our Hong Kong desk at the Foreign Office and with our consul general. It is rather important that we try to work through a pathway, rather than just stepping back and taking a view that we do not like what is going on; let us try to work together constructively. As I alluded to earlier, the belt and road initiative is a good example of where working together to ensure that Hong Kong’s freedoms are maintained will actually be in China’s own interests—not just in trading terms. If I were Chinese, I might also think that there is an important opportunity to utilise Hong Kong as a chance for experimental changes in freedoms that may or may not be in the mind of this regime or future Chinese regimes. There is a lot of work in progress, and I am working closely with my counterparts on the issue.
Voter ID Pilots
I should say at the outset that I am afraid my voice might give out, but I hope that everybody will bear with me.
Electoral fraud is an unacceptable crime that strikes at a core principle of our democracy—that is, that everybody’s vote matters. There is undeniable potential for electoral fraud in our current system, and the perception of this undermines public confidence in our democracy. We need only to walk up to the polling station and say our name and address, which is an identity check from the 19th century, based on the assumption that everyone in the community knows each other and can dispute somebody’s identity. Dare I say it?—if we really wanted to go back to 19th-century politics, neither I nor the hon. Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Cat Smith) would even be in this House. The voter ID pilots, which are supported by the independent Electoral Commission, are a reasonable way to ensure that voter ID works for everybody ahead of a national roll-out.
Showing ID is something that people of all backgrounds already do every day—when we take out a library book, claim benefits or pick up a parcel from the post office. Proving who we are before we make a decision of huge importance at the ballot box should be no different. I can reassure the House that both last year’s pilots and the decades of experience in Northern Ireland show that voter ID does not have an adverse effect on election turnout or participation. Furthermore, the Government have consulted a range of civil society groups to ensure that voter ID will work for everybody. Crucially, local authorities will provide alternative methods of ID free of charge to electors who do not have a specified form of ID, ensuring that everybody who is registered has the opportunity to vote.
At next month’s local elections, voters in 10 diverse areas across the country will be asked to show ID before they place their vote. Let us remember that those votes will have a real effect on communities, so these elections are important. People should be confident in our democracy. If they are, they are more likely to participate in it. My message to the voters in the pilot areas is that these pilots are about protecting their vote. We want them to go out and use that vote, and to take part in these elections. I ask hon. Members here today to ask their constituents to do so. Voter ID is part of how this Government are strengthening the integrity of our electoral system to give the public confidence that our elections are secure and fit for the 21st century.
Thank you for granting this urgent question, Mr Speaker.
Next month, voters in 10 local authorities across England will be using the voter ID pilots in local elections. These schemes have been the focus of significant controversy. At last year’s local elections, where there were five pilot areas, the Minister appeared to celebrate the fact that at least 350 citizens were excluded from voting for not having valid ID. This included people who had voted legitimately for their entire lives.
The Government claim that voter ID is designed to tackle electoral fraud in polling stations. However, during an evidence session with the Select Committee on Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs, the Minister could not even say whether the pilots had had any impact on voter fraud. Given that the Minister was unable to draw any conclusions from the last set of pilots, what does she expect to gain and how will she measure success this year?
Civil society groups and the Equality and Human Rights Commission have warned that voter ID will have a disproportionate impact on voters from ethnic minority communities, older people, trans people and disabled people. Has the Minister failed to notice the Windrush scandal, which demonstrated that it can be more difficult for some communities to provide official documentation than for others? We all know that voter ID will have significant ramifications for our democracy, because 3.5 million citizens—7.5% of the electorate—do not have access to photo ID. If voter identification requirements are restricted to passports or driving licences, as they are in some areas, that number rises to 11 million people, which is 24% of the electorate.
Following last year’s pilots, it was revealed that rolling out voter ID nationwide would increase the cost of each general election by as much as £20 million. Is this an effective use of taxpayers’ money when local authorities are already on their knees? If the Minister thinks that these pilots schemes are value for money, why has she refused to tell the House how much they will cost?
Electoral fraud is a serious crime, which is why we would support any effective measures to combat it. However, this Government are not focusing on the real issues. There is no evidence of widespread voter personation in the UK. The latest figures by the Electoral Commission show that, of the 266 cases of electoral fraud investigated by police last year, 140 related to campaign offences and just eight related to personation fraud at the polling station, which is what the Minister claims this trial is designed to tackle. Does she think her Government have the right priorities when, despite most electoral offences being committed by political candidates, it is actually the innocent voters who are being excluded from our politics because of this ill-thought-out policy?
With local elections fast approaching and the Government planning a roll-out at the next general election, it is only right that Members of this House have the opportunity to scrutinise and comment on the Government’s plans. We are therefore requesting that the Government allow time for a parliamentary debate to discuss these pilot schemes ahead of local elections next month.
I am sorry to have to start in this tone, but almost everything the hon. Lady said has just been wrong. She suggested that we were unable to draw conclusions from last year’s pilots. That is simply not the case. Both the Cabinet Office’s evaluation and that of the independent Electoral Commission—which she may wish to dispute but it is, none the less, that of the independent Electoral Commission—concluded that the pilots did what they set out to do. The pilots were a success, in that the overwhelming majority of people were able to cast their vote with no impediment. What is more—here is the really important point—the evidence showed that no particular demographic group was affected by the requirement to bring ID.
The hon. Lady is shaking her head, but she knows that it is true. Perhaps this is part of the pattern we have seen from the Labour party of saying one thing and doing another. She still cannot explain why many constituency Labour parties require voter ID for their own selection meetings. She cannot explain why these were acceptable powers when they were passed by the last Labour Government; and she cannot explain why the last Labour Government did this in Northern Ireland, and why the Minister at that time said that this measure would
“tackle electoral abuse effectively without disadvantaging honest voters”—[Official Report, 10 July 2001; Vol. 371, c. 740.]
The Opposition cannot explain any of these things, and that is just not good enough.
Let me turn to the detail of what the hon. Lady has tried to put forward. Among her scaremongering and, frankly, conspiracy theorising, she made reference to the costs of these measures. I would like to make it clear to the House that, through correspondence with the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, I have been clear about how those costs will be able to be accounted for. She asks whether we can allow time for a full debate on this in Parliament. I would beg advice from the Chair, perhaps, but I suggest that this is that debate. Moreover, the powers that the previous Labour Government put in place allow for this process to be done in this way, without any such debate, so if she has that problem, she ought to have taken it up with her colleagues of that time.
The hon. Lady asks what we are expecting to see this year. We are expecting to see that voters will be able to cast their ballots in a way that is protected. She does down voters by suggesting that this is in some way an attack on them and—I think this was her phrase—some kind of privileging of the political class. That is simply not the case. We are engaged in the breadth of the work that we need to do to keep our elections safe and secure and to update them for the 21st century. If she thinks that we should not be doing that, she is welcome to live back in the 19th century, but I do not think we should be doing so. We should be making sure that voters can cast their votes in a way that is protected and means that they can have confidence that they are not being usurped in their role.
The hon. Lady asks whether we should be focusing on crime that involves small numbers. Well, really—I ask her whether she would have said that decades ago about, for example, rape. Would she have said that about a crime that was under-reported? Would she have said that about a crime that involves small numbers simply for that reason? Of course she would not. Nobody would do so, because it would of course be disgraceful. It would be disgraceful to make that argument about small numbers, and that is the argument that Labour Members are making. Crimes with small numbers should not be ignored—people should none the less be protected against them, and that is what we are doing.
I think my right hon. Friend makes the point, quite rightly, that we expect to show who we are in every walk of everyday life. It is quite fair enough that we do so at our workplace, and quite fair enough that we do so when we pick up a parcel from the post office, when we apply for benefits, or when we do many types of things that involve interacting with public services or just going about our everyday life. It is therefore right that we do that in our elections as well.
There is one instance of voter fraud in this country for every 1.6 million votes cast. It is a problem that is so minor as really not to exist at all, yet it continues to be the focus of the Government’s policy in this area. One can only conclude that it is a policy driven by suspicion based on prejudice rather than hard facts and evidence. We know that forcing people to produce ID to vote will put people off. So is it not time that the Government stopped concentrating on putting hurdles in front of people who do vote and tackled the real problem, which is the 14.5 million people who are registered to vote but do not do so? When are the Government going to prioritise measures to improve participation through public education, extending the franchise to 16 and 17-year-olds and piloting new ways to allow people to vote, including electronically?
I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman, also, is not talking on the basis of the evidence. He should be able to do so from the evaluation that we published last year, which clearly said that there was no such negative impact on people turning out and participating in voting. That is crucially important. I am very pleased to have been able to bolster that work from last year with work this year to speak to groups across civil society who may have concerns that people they represent would be less able than others to deal with this requirement. I am absolutely confident that the equalities aspects of this work have been thoroughly considered, both by us in central Government and by the local authorities that are piloting it. I am afraid that he is not speaking from the evidence when he says that we know this is not going to work. Had he read the academic literature, looked into the Northern Ireland example and looked at the evaluation, he would know that that is not the case.
We need to make sure that this work is part of encouraging people to go to vote. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right on that, of course; we should be doing it hand in hand with encouraging people to vote. That is why I am proud that we have only recently refreshed our democratic engagement plan, which is full of the ways that we will be continuing to do that work, as we have always done. We are working closely with the Electoral Commission, and all the local authorities that are relevant at these elections, to encourage people to vote. I would hope that hon. Members would join me in doing so in a way that prioritises the security of those votes alongside participation in them.
I am glad that the range of councils taking part in voter ID pilots this time is broad—more than 10—in about three or four different ways.
May I suggest that in agreeing that we should do more to get voter registration up to much higher levels, we should have a debate when the Electoral Commission has done a study on the result of these voter ID pilots, and then we can really hear what the proper policy of the Labour party and the SNP is to be?
Those are words of wisdom. I would be happy to confirm to the House what I have said in other contexts, which is that it is the intention of this Government to move from having done pilots to being able to have a nationwide policy at the next general election. We think that is important, so that is our intention for 2022. We are looking forward to the information that comes from these pilots, on top of last year’s work, to be able to inform that and to make sure that the scheme works for voters and any concerns can be addressed.