House of Commons
Monday 28 October 2019
The House met at half-past Two o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
Leaving the EU: Unaccompanied Child Refugees in Europe
The UK has a long and proud tradition of offering protection to vulnerable people fleeing war and persecution, and the Government take the welfare of vulnerable children seriously. We support the principle of family unity wholeheartedly, and the Government are committed to meeting our obligation under section 17 of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 to seek to negotiate an agreement with the EU on family reunion for unaccompanied asylum-seeking children.
The House of Lords Home Affairs Committee recommendation is to temporarily maintain the current rights for family reunion in the event of a no-deal exit to avoid legal limbo. Will the Home Secretary assure this House that the Government will do that to protect vulnerable families in the event of a no deal?
I would like to reiterate that the Government are committed to getting a deal and, with that, fulfilling our section 17 obligation to move forward in the right way. As I have already made clear, we are committed to ensuring that we protect those who are vulnerable and, importantly, that we continue to have high standards when it comes to unaccompanied asylum-seeking children.
I hope it is in order for me to wish everybody happy Diwali. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”]
At least one third of all unaccompanied asylum-seeking children in England are cared for in London, but London Councils has identified a £32 million funding shortfall. Will the Government commit to fully funding those unsustainable care costs and to reforming the national transfer scheme, so that local authorities can continue to provide the high quality care and support that vulnerable children need?
I, too, would like to wish a very happy Diwali to all Hindus across the United Kingdom, and to the hon. Gentleman and others.
The hon. Gentleman recognises and highlights the fact that London authorities do indeed deal with a significant number of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children. I would like him to know that I have had representations directly from London Councils and London authorities. We are looking, as we always do, at the number of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children who come through the system, but also at the pressures that that puts on local authority budgets.
I am sure the whole House welcomes the generous approach of the Government to child refugees in Europe. Will the Government apply the same generosity to child refugees who are British citizens in Syria?
My right hon. Friend highlights a current and pressing issue: child refugees in Syria. I know that other colleagues in the House, including the Foreign Secretary, have spoken about this issue recently. We review on a case-by-case basis. I should just say for the benefit of the House that every case has to be looked at individually. They are difficult cases and we have to look at all the backgrounds behind all the children.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that whatever course of action we take, we must do everything possible to discourage people from sending vulnerable young children on unaccompanied journeys through Africa, Asia and Europe?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. All hon. Members will recognise that we see far too much tragedy in relation to children fleeing war-torn parts of the world. We need to do more in-country and we have to work upstream with our international partners.
My constituent Helen Tekeste fled Ethiopia in 2015 and came to the UK. In the process, she was separated from her two children. Thankfully, her 11-year-old son was able to join her two years ago, but her 13-year-old daughter’s application has twice been refused. Will the Home Secretary meet me to discuss the case?
I will of course meet the hon. Lady. As she will recognise, everything is looked at from casework on a case-by-case basis, but I will be more than happy to discuss that case with her.
The Government have stated that they will seek to negotiate a future agreement with the EU on plans for family reunion, but that refers to separated children only. The Home Office’s own statistics show that in 2018 over 1,000 adults and children were reunited with their family members in the UK under the Dublin regulations, but the majority of those would not be covered by the Government’s commitment. What preparations, if any, have been made by the Government to ensure that safe and legal routes for refugee family reunion continue to operate to the same standards and provisions as under the EU law?
As the hon. Gentleman will know, the Government are very clear that when we leave the EU we will leave the Dublin III regulation, but we will continue to participate during the transition period if we have a deal. The fact of the matter is that discussions are under way across Government. It is important for the House to recognise that this is not just from the Home Office’s perspective, but that it is part of our ongoing negotiations with the European Union, which are, of course, led by the Department for Exiting the European Union.
Police Officer Numbers
The Prime Minister has made it one of his chief priorities to strengthen police numbers over the next three years by 20,000, starting with 6,000 by the end of March 2021.
Gwent police’s budget has been cut by 40% in real terms since 2010, so the Government’s plans to recruit will only take us back to where we were in 2010, if that. What assurances have Ministers given Gwent police that this programme and, importantly, pension costs will be funded after the first year?
I am happy to say that Gwent police is already up 42 police officers on last year’s budget settlement. A target of a further 62 has been allocated in the latest funding round. Announcements about police funding will be made as usual in early December, and I am confident that there will be smiles all round at Gwent police when we do that.
My hon. Friend is right to highlight that the excellent police and crime commissioner—I have met her several times now—for Cornwall is over in Portcullis House, demonstrating what a great job the police do in that part of the world. As I am sure my hon. Friend is aware, there has already been an initial allocation of police officers to his county force and there will be more news to come. We are in conversation with the policing community more widely about the allocation of police officers for years 2 and 3 of the uplift programme. Once that is concluded, I will let him know.
At my weekend surgery, a constituent who had phoned the police time after time about neighbours from hell living above him said that he realised, at one moment of desperation, that he had a hammer in his hand. Had he used that hammer against those neighbours from hell, the police would have turned up—no doubt very quickly—and he would have been the object of their attention, not the neighbours from hell. When I meet the Minister tomorrow to discuss extra police for Birkenhead, will he give a commitment not only in terms of numbers but that the police should stand on the side of decent citizens, not on the side of neighbours from hell?
The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right about the police standing on the side of decent citizens. When I hear distress calls from across the country about people who are not getting the response that they require from the police, I refer everybody to the police and crime commissioner for that area, who is responsible for performance and priority in the police force in question. Happily, the right hon. Gentleman will know that 200 police officers have been allocated from the uplift to Merseyside police, as a target for it to recruit over the next 12 months or so, and there will be more to come when we settle years 2 and 3. Like him, I want to see more police officers patrolling in Birkenhead, particularly in Hamilton Square, which holds fond memories for me as a child.
Police officers are on the frontline of defeating terrorism. The Minister will join me and all others here in welcoming the news of the demise of Baghdadi, the leader of the evil, vile and barbaric organisation Daesh. My question to the Minister is this: military action alone will not defeat Daesh—in 2015, I led the campaign to get the terminology right—so what step will he take to ensure that further work goes on to defeat the idea, the ideology and the appeal, which suck in vulnerable individuals from around the world and here in the UK?
I well remember my hon. Friend’s persistent questioning from the Back Benches of former Prime Ministers to get the terminology right about this mission. He is quite right that we all need to work together on a multi-stranded approach to prevent young people from being seduced into these evil ideologies and practices across the world, and the police are at the forefront of that. I hope and believe that some of the measures put in place to bind the police as closely as possible into society will assist in that mission.
In July on the steps of Downing Street, and again in his heavily criticised speech in front of new police recruits in West Yorkshire, the Prime Minister promised 20,000 new police officers for the frontline, but a leaked Home Office letter suggests that as many as 7,000 of these will not be going to local forces. With the Budget now scrapped, it is anyone’s guess if and how these officers will be recruited, so will the Minister tell us: will every one of those 20,000 officers be going to the frontline, as promised by the Prime Minister—yes or no?
The hon. Lady makes a good point about the allocation of police officers across the piece of policing, and I know that every single warranted police officer regards themselves as being on the frontline, whatever job they do. She will know that we have allocated the first 6,000 police officers to territorial policing, but there is a conversation to be had about further allocations, specifically to serious and organised crime, through the National Crime Agency, and to counter-terrorism policing, and about the balance between those and the territorial forces. I would not regard any one of those functions as non-frontline.
County Lines Drugs Gangs
We are determined to end county lines and have announced a £20 million package of initial measures to do so. This will expand the national county lines co-ordination centre, help to target the transport network and go after the profits from this crime, and support young people to exit county lines.
North Yorkshire police have had recent success arresting six people in a county lines operation in Harrogate. Breaking the gangs that operate the county lines is obviously critical, but so is supporting the addicts, who are at the end of the line, and those exploited into dealing. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is through tackling both supply and demand that progress will be made in dealing with county lines?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I gather that he was recently involved with his local constabulary in the apprehension of a drug dealer on East Parade in Harrogate—I am glad to see he is on the frontline too. He is right that we need a balanced approach to tackling the harm that drugs cause in our society. While that includes enforcement and disrupting the business model of those involved in promulgating this awful trade, we also have to provide support to young people to get them out of the habit, or even to prevent them from getting into the trade in the first place. Significant resources are being devoted to this, not least through the early intervention youth fund, which is putting hundreds of millions of pounds behind these kinds of projects.
The Home Office has a number of UK-wide initiatives to combat the range of problem drug use factors, including county lines—we might even refer to it as country lines, because it affects the whole United Kingdom, and there are people suffering from drug gangs coming as far into the north-east as Banff and Buchan. With the SNP’s stated policy of decriminalising possession and consumption of controlled drugs, what effect does the Minister think that such a differentiation in Scotland would have on these UK-wide efforts?
My hon. Friend was present at the Scottish Affairs Committee when we discussed this matter in some detail, so he will know that my view is that having a different regime in Scotland from that in England and Wales could cause significant problems for Scotland, not least because it would become a target for those wishing to promote the trade more easily and running county lines from England into Scotland. There are times when we are four nations and times when we are one country, and on drugs we should be one.
Sussex police were recently in receipt of a Home Office grant to tackle county lines drug offences. Will my hon. Friend update the House please?
My hon. Friend is a doughty defender of Sussex police and a great supporter, I know, of the brilliant police and crime commissioner there, Katy Bourne, who is doing a fantastic job. He is right that Sussex police have been in the forefront of the fight against county lines and have received significant funding of £900,000 through the early intervention youth fund and £1.3 million to support police operations in the area. I am happy to say that in the latest week of intensification of action against county lines, which I hope he noted the other week, Sussex police made 29 arrests and safeguarded 50 vulnerable individuals.
I am deeply concerned about the county lines gangs from Bradford and Liverpool which are bringing drugs into my constituency. How does my hon. Friend expect the £20 million funding package that has been announced to stop those gangs, and to support victims in Morecambe and Lunesdale?
I too am concerned about the situation in Morecambe, not least because, like Birkenhead, it has happy memories for me of my childhood. I am keen to sit down and talk to my hon. Friend about what more we can do in Morecambe, not least because we are in conversation with Merseyside police about the action that we want to take on county lines. Obviously, many of the lines into Morecambe will be run from my home town. It is a town in a particular position, because there are limited points of access, over bridges and by road, which gives the police a significant opportunity to identify and apprehend criminals before they even get there.
Our July Select Committee report warned that county lines were spreading violence and drug networks into not just cities but towns. In Castleford, in my constituency, where I called a meeting with the police, local schools and community representatives, there is a real sense that the problem is getting worse in our towns, with residents reporting overt drug dealing on the streets and in town centres. People are concerned not just about the halving of our neighbourhood police, but about the fact that the youth endowment fund that the Minister has announced is tiny by comparison with the cuts in the youth service. Does he accept that there is a real perception across the country that the Government’s drug strategy simply is not working, and that unless they invest in the youth service as well, they will not turn this problem around?
As the right hon. Lady will have heard, I did, in answer to an earlier question, talk about a balanced drugs strategy that takes into account both enforcement and youth intervention. However, there is always more that we can do. Alongside the expansion of the county lines co-ordination centre and the action that we shall be taking over the next few weeks as part of the general uplift relating to the £20 million of funding that we have received, we have established a county lines group at the Home Office which is bringing together all the partners we think can have an impact, not just in policing but beyond. We need a real push, because we are under instruction from the Prime Minister to bring this phenomenon to an end.
As I said to the Scottish Affairs Committee, my mind is open on what more we can do, but there are plenty of things that should be done and are not being done. One of the common phenomena in countries that have been successful in dealing with drug-related problems is investment in health treatment and recovery, but, sadly, that has not happened in Scotland over the last few years. As I said to the Committee, there are many things that the Scottish Government can and should be doing. Given the scale of the problem in that part of the United Kingdom, I am surprised that they are not putting more effort, and more resources, into treatment and recovery.
We have heard twice about the Minister’s early days as a youth, including in Liverpool, but the fact is that he will have to grow up fast, because the wicked people behind drugs in this country are big gangsters, and those who killed the 39 innocent people in that refrigerated van are big players. When will the Government tackle the wicked men and women who run crime in this country, and do it effectively?
I hope that the hon. Gentleman has noted some of the recent successes that we have had in dealing with some of the really big gangs who promulgate this trade—not least the National Crime Agency’s biggest ever seizure of drugs, which were being shipped in, funnily enough, in Liverpool, in fruit and veg lorries. Nevertheless, there is always much more to do. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will be encouraged by the fact that the Home Secretary and I, along with the Minister for Security, my right hon. Friend the Member for Great Yarmouth (Brandon Lewis), who is responsible for dealing with serious and organised crime, are working closely together to see what more we can do in order to do exactly as the hon. Gentleman says, and take this business out from front to back.
County lines operations have invaded every town and city across the UK, and they do not discriminate when it comes to the lives they affect. South Wales police, my own excellent constabulary, is seeing children as young as 13 arrested for involvement in county lines. We must protect the young and vulnerable from this exploitation, and no matter what the Government think they are doing, it is not enough. We need to do more to protect young people from this dreadful county lines epidemic.
The hon. Lady is exactly right. Thankfully, her local police force will have more police officers next year to help with this effort, and I know that one of the key focuses of all police forces involved in dealing with this awful phenomenon is the safeguarding of young people. Obviously, I will be working closely with colleagues from the Department of Health and Social Care and the Department for Education to see what more preventive work we can do. I believe that there is quite a lot more we can do around the disruption of the business model, to make it more difficult for people to deal drugs and to launder the money involved in the trade. That would make them less likely to promote it in smaller towns and villages and more likely to concentrate instead on urban areas, where we can get to work on the issue.
Domestic Abuse Commissioner
We were delighted to announce Nicole Jacobs as our designate domestic abuse commissioner. The role was advertised as part time because we understood from advice from recruitment advisers that that would ensure the widest range of candidates. However, we have said in our response to the Joint Committee on the Draft Domestic Abuse Bill, and in the House on Second Reading, that we have an open mind on whether the role requires a full-time position. The Bill Committee will start its deliberations tomorrow, and no doubt we will look into that question in detail.
I welcome the appointment of Nicole Jacobs to the role of championing the needs of survivors of domestic abuse. As a social worker, I know that children are at serious risk of long-term physical and mental health problems as a result of witnessing domestic violence, so what steps is the Minister taking to ensure that the commissioner is given the necessary powers and resources to properly support the one in seven children and young people under the age of 18 who have lived with domestic abuse at some point?
I am extremely grateful to the hon. Lady for raising this matter. We know that domestic abuse is one of the primary adverse childhood experiences that can have such a terrible knock-on effect on a young person’s future life as well as on their own relationships. That is one of the many reasons why we are giving the commissioner powers to require information from public authorities and to oblige public authorities and central Government to respond to her recommendations within 56 days of her making them.
I like the Minister a great deal, but what she has just said about being advised by the recruitment agency that she would get the widest range of candidates only if the position were part time is hogwash. We know that abusers and those who exercise coercive control do not do that on a part-time basis. This needs to be a full-time position, and I hope that when this is discussed in Committee, the Minister will see sense and the position will become full time.
I thank the hon. Lady; the feeling is mutual, and I look forward to working with her on the Bill Committee. The decision was made in the best of faith, and the joy of appointing the designate commissioner ahead of the House’s scrutiny of the Bill is that these issues can be teased out. As I say, we are approaching this with an open mind, and we will see what the evidence says.
EU Settlement Scheme
The EU settlement scheme is designed to be simple and straightforward for people to apply to. The Government are also putting in grant support for a wide range of voluntary and community organisations, as well as digital and telephone support through the resolution centre.
As a remainer, I wish that the EU citizens in my constituency had not been put in this position. As the Minister has mentioned, applications can be made by phone or iPad, but connectivity in parts of my constituency is absolute mince, to use a Scottish expression. I have raised this time and again—we would be better off with two cans and a length of string. Cannot the Government see that this lack of connectivity militates against the EU citizens who want to remain in my constituency?
People do not have to do things digitally. They can speak to people or they can send things in. We also have several hundred centres that people can go to. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman could join us in encouraging the Scottish National party to support the Prime Minister’s work to see broadband rolled out more widely across the country, so that Scotland can benefit just as the rest of the UK can.
I am delighted that the settlement scheme is progressing at pace, with 2 million or so people signing up. However, some individuals in my constituency really benefit from face-to-face contact, so what steps are being taken, through pop-up shops or whatever, to ensure that they can get the vital hands-on support they need?
Stone followed by Chalk seems apposite.
The Home Office is undertaking a programme of work through voluntary organisations, and the £3.75 million scheme includes working with people at pop-up events. I visited one in Great Yarmouth that is doing excellent work with communities so that people can see how simple the system is and are able to apply, and we encourage more people to do so. We have now reached 2.2 million applications, and I look forward to that number growing quickly.
From Stone to Chalk to Cherry—I call Joanna Cherry.
Thank you, Mr Speaker.
Introducing digital-only proof of status will cause many problems for EU citizens, and low digital users in particular. The Home Office’s own assessment of creating a digital-only “prove your right to work” service said that there was
“very strong evidence that this would cause low digital users a lot of issues”,
so does the Minister agree that the same will apply to the EU settlement scheme? Will he reconsider the provision of physical documents?
People applying through the settlement scheme obviously get an email confirming that the application has been processed and dealt with. The process is being done digitally as we are moving to a digital system more generally. It is the right way, it works for employers, and the fact that 2.2 million people have already applied through the scheme in just a few months confirms that.
In Scotland, the Scottish Government have taken a number of steps to reassure EU citizens, and the First Minister has launched a “Stay in Scotland” campaign, which provides practical advice and support to EU citizens during this uncertain time. The Scottish Government have also announced funding for a new programme in Scotland called Settled, which is designed to target vulnerable EU citizens and offer them help with applications to the scheme. Does the Minister welcome that initiative by the Scottish Government? Will he be doing anything similar in England?
The hon. and learned Lady should not be using that kind of language. There is no reason for anybody to have any concerns or be unsettled. We have been clear that we want EU citizens to stay, and that is why we introduced a scheme to ensure that we protect their rights and put £9 million into work with voluntary groups in addition to the £3.75 million to ensure that we get the message out. I am happy to work with anybody who wants to ensure that we are spreading the message positively and properly. Some 2.2 million people have already applied through the scheme, and I look forward to seeing all 3.5 million people processed as quickly as possible.
The money that the Minister has made available for voluntary groups is welcome, but does he recognise the specific concern around hard-to-reach groups, such as elderly people in care homes and people working in rural areas, in agriculture and in construction? Does he agree that there is a need for real outreach to ensure that all EU citizens have a chance to clarify their position in law?
My right hon. Friend makes a good point. We are working with voluntary groups and through the EU settlement resolution centre to ensure that we reach all those vulnerable and harder-to-reach groups, particularly in rural areas. For example, we are working with local communities by holding pop-up events, such as the one that I saw in my constituency, to reach out to as many as possible. People have until December 2020 to apply to the scheme, and it would be good to get 3.5 million through as quickly as possible.
The Minister will be aware of the genuine concern among EU nationals, their families and their employers about the workings of the EU settlement scheme. He will also be aware, as will Members on both sides of the House, about the general problems with delays at the Home Office. For instance, the proportion of leave to remain applications taking more than six months doubled between 2014 and 2017. The Minister correctly said that more than 2 million applications to the EU settlement scheme have now been made, but 18% of them have not been resolved. The Minister caused concern recently when he said that EU nationals who fail to apply before 2020 could be deported. Will he give the House an assurance that every effort will be made to reach out to those who have yet to apply and that applications will be processed promptly?
The short answer is yes. Just to give a bit of flavour to that, there are no delays with the EU settlement scheme; the right hon. Lady conflated two completely different schemes in her question. People’s status under the EU settlement scheme is decided very quickly, and 2.2 million people have now applied through that process. In the whole of the process, only two people out of the set of figures that she gave have been refused, on grounds of criminality, which is absolutely right.
Marriage: 16 and 17-year-olds
We have listened carefully to the debate on the legal age of marriage and continue to keep it under review. Tackling forced marriage is one of this Government’s priorities, and I am proud that we made it an offence in 2014.
The Minister is aware that 350 children a year are married in this country. We do not know how many of those are forced marriages, nor do we know how many unregistered or overseas marriages there are. The Minister can change this instantly, and change the culture around it, by making the legal age of marriage 18. Will she do it?
I thank the hon. Lady for her question, knowing as I do the work that she is doing on this. We are very much looking at the evidence. In 2016, the last year for which we have figures, 179 people aged 16 to 17 entered marriage, out of nearly half a million who got married that year. In a way, the hon. Lady’s question demonstrates the complexities of this difficult subject, but I am very keen to work with her and other Members to look at the evidence on this important issue.
Does the Minister really believe that it is still appropriate for children to marry, with parental consent, before they have completed mandatory education or training up to the age of 18?
My hon. Friend has rather demonstrated the paradox in age legislation in our country. I take some comfort from the fact that marriages under the age of 18 are on the decline in this country. We know that that is sadly not the case elsewhere in the world, but I am happy to work with her and other Members from across the House on this difficult and thorny but important topic.
Place-based Crime Prevention
There is strong evidence that place-based approaches can be an effective means of preventing a wide range of crimes, including acquisitive offences such as burglary and theft. That is why, on 1 October, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary announced the £25 million safer streets fund, which will support the communities worst affected by such crimes to implement effective situational prevention, such as street lighting and home security.
Old Market Place and Rutland Street in Great Grimsby have both experienced incredibly violent knife crime, including the on-street killing of a homeless man. Will Operation Galaxy, launched by Humberside police today, look at what changes need to be made to the built environment so that my constituents can feel safe again? Can the Minister also say how much money Humberside police will be getting out of the £25 million announced?
The hon. Lady is quite right that, as I said in my previous answer, small design changes or equipment such as CCTV can have a huge impact on crime. We know, for example, that alley gating can result in a 43% reduction in burglary—I was sorry to read that she was burgled earlier this year. We will encourage applications to the fund from the areas that are most significantly affected, particularly by acquisitive crime, on the basis that the worst affected 5% of areas account for 23% of all offences. I look forward to entertaining a bid from Humberside police.
The Minister will be aware that there is a plethora of evidence that we can design out crime, both in the built environment and through the design of objects. The Secretary of State for Health and Social Care recently launched the national academy for social prescribing, to link healthcare with the arts and creative industries. Can the Minister update us on the work that the Home Office is doing with our world-beating creative and arts industries to help to combat crime?
In typical fashion, the right hon. Gentleman poses an intriguing challenge, which I shall have to research in the Department to find out whether there has been any impact. However, one area that I know we could do more work with, and that is a significant contributor to the cultural life of the nation, is the architectural profession, which often does not make crime prevention a top requirement when putting in place developments, but very often should.
One of the greatest casualties of a decade of cuts to policing has been seen in the breakdown in partnerships between local authorities and mental health trusts. So what discussions is the Minister having with those departments to ensure that there is investment in those services and shared funding to move them forward?
The hon. Lady is right that the rise in the incidence of mental ill health has caused significant problems across the country, not least to the police. The frontline response teams I have met in the past few months in this job have all highlighted to me the problems they have in dealing with mental health cases. However, the problem has been sorted in some parts of the country, not least in my county of Hampshire, where there is a good relationship between the organisations, such that they are functioning well. I would like to take that best practice and spread it.
The Minister mentioned being able to design out crime. What more can be done by linking up with local councils to ensure that not only buildings but the landscaping around them are designed to try to minimise crime and make places more pleasant to visit?
My hon. Friend raises an extremely good point. A well functioning local criminal justice partnership, which will involve the local authority as well as the police and other bodies involved in crime fighting, will often look at exactly these kinds of issues. I hope that as we move forward in the police uplift programme one areas of focus will be a regional approach to problem solving in policing. I would be more than happy to meet her to discuss this if she has any specific ideas.
We are confident that fire and rescue services have the resources they need to do their important work. Operational decisions are for each fire and rescue authority to make as part of the integrated risk management planning process, and it is for individual fire and rescue services to make decisions on the number of firefighters they employ.
Since Grenfell, London Fire Brigade has undertaken focused and enhanced visits to high-rise buildings, using both station-based crews and fire safety inspecting officers. Inspecting officers are highly skilled individuals who ensure that those with responsibility for buildings are taking the necessary steps to uphold fire safety standards. What is the Minister doing to support brigades in recruiting and retaining officers in these essential specialist roles?
Obviously the Grenfell inquiry is due to publish shortly, and we will all have to learn lessons from its conclusions. The hon. Lady is right to point towards prevention as a key part of the mission of the fire service, and one in which there has been enormous success in the past decade or more in driving down the number of fires attended to, in particular, and incidents across the board more generally. We have secured an extremely good financial settlement for the fire service across the country this year, and I have urged fire chiefs, not least in the light of the first set of inspections for some time, to invest in prevention.
I certainly support the Government in recruiting an extra 20,000 police officers, but may I ask the Minister to look again at the resources for the fire service? In West Yorkshire, and I suspect in other parts of the country, they are extremely stretched at the moment. The number of people on a fire engine is going down to try to mask over those stretched resources. Will he look at that again, because the fire service needs extra resources, just as the police do?
I would expect nothing less than a challenge from the champion of Shipley on my portfolio, just as he has challenged me in my previous portfolios. I would be more than happy to look at particular problems in his local fire service if he believes there are any, but we have recently instituted and had the results of the first inspection regime of fire and rescue services for some time. It has been reassuring in parts, but it does point towards particular areas we need to address. As I say, we had a good settlement from the Treasury this year from the financial point of view, and it will be for local fire and rescue chiefs to decide how they invest that extra money.
Police Officer Numbers: Sussex
The Government are committed to recruiting 20,000 new police officers over the next three years, with energy and pace. This reflects the biggest recruitment drive in decades, and I know my hon. Friend will welcome the recent announcement that Sussex police have been allocated another 129 officers in the first year of the programme.
I thank the Home Secretary for her answer. Will she join me in welcoming the announcement from Sussex police that they intend to use their extra funding to reintroduce PCSOs across towns and villages in Lewes?
My hon. Friend is right—and yes, the Government are more than supportive of police plans to increase the number of PCSOs and their presence across towns and villages, in her constituency in Sussex and across the country. This is all about how, through our new police recruitment drive, we can do more to keep the public safe and increase police visibility.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and I know that he will welcome the increase in police numbers—more than 1,300 for the Metropolitan police service. Of course, the issue is now all about local police presence and ensuring that more officers are on the beat. That is exactly what will happen in his borough.
It is crucial that our security and law enforcement organisations have the tools needed to keep our people safe. A review of powers was undertaken as part of Contest, our updated comprehensive counter-terrorism strategy. In February this year, the Counter-Terrorism and Border Security Act 2019 received Royal Assent. It ensures that our security and intelligence agencies, prosecutors and the judiciary have the powers they need to counter the threat.
Identifying indoctrination by Islamists and similar fanatics is essential to providing the good order that Edmund Burke characterised as the hallmark of good government. As the Minister will know, the Prevent duty on local authorities obliges them to play their part in that effort. Mindful of the fresh guidance that has been published—I have it here—will the Minister now review the practice of those public bodies, identify what is going well and sanction those who are not doing their duty?
My right hon. Friend makes an important point. He was instrumental in the introduction and delivery of the Prevent duty, to the benefit of everybody. There is obviously work for us to do on extremism, including the unwanted growth in right-wing extremism, which we want to bring down. We are therefore always reviewing how the programmes work, to ensure that everybody is kept as safe as possible.
International action is, of course, required to tackle terrorism. Paragraph 78 of the political declaration, as it stands, refers to a “balanced security partnership” after Brexit. But the reality is that, three years on, the Government are no further forward in agreeing the security treaty promised by the former Prime Minister and have not put forward any ideas about how to reconcile the UK’s position as an EU third country with the level of security co-operation that we have now. Given the continuing risk of no deal, is not the Government’s attitude to our future security arrangements little short of negligent?
I am disappointed that the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues did not vote for the programme motion the other day, so that we could actually have got on with the withdrawal agreement Bill, to get towards delivering on a deal with the EU and ensure that we get a good outcome. The Government’s work to prepare for no deal has continued, with meetings on a daily basis, to ensure that we are ready for when we leave. We have excellent agencies and good working across Europe—and, indeed, globally: the work we do for Interpol also plays an important part as we go forward.
We expect all crimes reported to the police to be investigated appropriately. Chief constables and police and crime commissioners are responsible for ensuring that cases are investigated properly. Together with the Crown Prosecution Service, they must make sure that charges are brought in cases where there is sufficient evidence and it is in the public interest to do so.
I thank the Minister for that answer, but section 176 of the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014 makes theft from a shop of goods worth £200 or less a summary-only offence. According to the National Federation of Retail Newsagents, shoplifting crime has increased since then. Will the Minister have a look at what is going on and what can be done to reduce retail theft?
My hon. Friend has been a persistent champion for those in the retail trade who are subject to crime. I will be more than happy to look at the point that he raises—not least because if the data shows that there is a problem, we have to do something about it.
I would just say to my hon. Friend that when Westfield shopping centre opened in west London, there was a concern about crime. I recommended that all employers there gave time off to some of their shop staff so that they could become special constables, on the basis that there would then always be a police officer on duty.
I am sure the hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr Robertson) is greatly gratified to know that he is not merely a champion, but a persistent one at that.
It feels, unfortunately, as though the police and the Crown Prosecution Service still think that an assault on an emergency worker is a low-level crime and that, frankly, magistrates often say, “Well, a little bit of violence is just in the way of doing your job.” Surely, we must reverse this trend. When there is an assault on an emergency worker, it is an assault on us all.
I think that the hon. Gentleman speaks for us all. In my view, anyone who raises a hand in malice against an emergency worker should face the severest possible penalties.
I would like to begin by remembering the 39 people who died in horrific circumstances last week trying to reach the United Kingdom. The thoughts of the whole country are with them and their families, and I would like to pay tribute to the emergency services who responded with such professionalism. Our focus now is to bring the perpetrators to justice.
May I welcome the recent increase in police numbers across Warwickshire, which will see 191 new officers recruited? My constituents will particularly welcome the creation of a rural crime team in north Warwickshire. Will the Secretary of State join me in congratulating our excellent police and crime commissioner, Philip Seccombe, and chief constable, Martin Jelley, on this fantastic initiative, which will make our local area even safer than it already is?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to praise his chief constable and his police and crime commissioner. I wish to extend thanks to them for everything they have been doing with regard to making a difference in the local community. That also means being part of our scheme and initiative to recruit 20,000 more police officers, and so I absolutely welcome that.
We are more than two years on from the Grenfell Tower fire and insufficient regulatory reforms and continued cuts to fire services have not given the local community any reason to trust this Government. There must be scrutiny of processes and resources, not just blaming of individuals. Advice to residents on the night was to stay put as part of a strategy of containment. We need to be absolutely clear here that this is Government policy; not fire brigade policy or a policy dreamed up by firefighters. As promised after the Lakanal House inquest in 2013—that is six years ago—will the Minister commission a review into the stay-put policy as a matter of urgency?
As you may recall, Mr Speaker, I had some responsibility for the enormous changes that are required in building regulation and fire safety procedure when I was Minister for Housing. I dispute the hon. Lady’s representation that nothing has happened. A huge amount of work is going on under the auspices of the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government to ensure that that kind of thing can never happen again. Having said that, the inquiry will be announcing shortly, and no doubt there will be implications for us all about what more lessons can be learned.
I thank my hon. Friend for going out on patrol and obviously supporting Essex police in everything they do locally. He is right, and we are working with the Department of Health and Social Care to consider recommendations from the Mental Health Act 1983 review so that people in mental health crisis can receive the right support that they need. We should stop criminalising these individuals and make sure that we are working across all institutions and local communities to ensure that they have the right kind of help and support.
I have had the privilege of meeting Claire. Indeed, her Member of Parliament also set out Claire’s case and the names of Jack and Paul on Second Reading of this important Bill. We very much take on board the points that Claire and others make about the workings of the family courts. There are already measures in the Bill to address some of those concerns, but we are very much looking for the Bill Committee and the House to scrutinise our proposals so that we can ensure that the family courts are a place of justice for victims of domestic abuse and their children.
My hon. Friend is right. Rural crime blights rural communities and harms the rural economy. The National Police Chiefs’ Council’s rural affairs strategy is intended to address exactly this issue, by supporting rural communities and providing a greater focus for policing. I urge West Yorkshire police to invest in rural crime prevention through the new funding for police recruitment, training and engagement.
The hon. Gentleman will know that the advice, issue reporting and eligibility service provided by Migrant Help was set up to help applicants with their applications and to provide guidance through a single, nationally operated, end-to-end service. I very much take on board his point and would be happy to meet him to discuss this issue. We want to ensure that applicants get the help they need while making their application so that the right decisions are made as promptly as possible.
I can reassure my hon. Friend that we are working with MHCLG colleagues. The Government believe that no one should be criminalised simply for sleeping rough. We committed to reviewing the Vagrancy Act in the cross-governmental rough sleeping strategy. Rough sleeping is obviously a complex issue, and we are looking closely at all the options, including retention, repeal, replacement and amendment of the Act.
I am sorry to hear that that pump is going, but presumably that was an operational decision by the local fire chief and fire board. We did get a 2.3% settlement, which in the great scheme of things was good for the fire service, but more investment can always be looked at. One area of investment that I have talked to the fire service about and that is of interest to me is technology—the question of what more we can invest in to make the fire service more efficient and its ability to fight fires better, and to ensure that all forces are wetter; Mr Speaker, did you know that there is a chemical that can be added to water to make it wetter and therefore more effective in putting out fires?
What an extraordinarily helpful nugget of information the Minister has vouchsafed to me and other Members of the House; he really is an encyclopedia of arguably useful information.
My hon. Friend has hit upon one of the most common experiences of victims and survivors—namely, the trouble they feel they experience in the family courts. We want to sort this out, which is why the Home Secretary and I are bringing this Bill forward along with the Ministry of Justice and the Lord Chancellor. In fact, we will also be looking at the conclusions of the expert panel commissioned by the Ministry of Justice to examine exactly this point, to ensure that the family courts and private law courts are places of justice for all.
As the hon. Gentleman knows, immigration is an issue for the whole United Kingdom, now and after we leave the European Union.
My hon. Friend will know that the deployment of Tasers is an operational matter for chief constables, and it is obviously for them to determine the number of Tasers for officers. However, we have introduced a £10 million Taser fund, and that funding will mean that over 10,000 more officers in England and Wales will have the opportunity to carry a Taser.
Rural and agricultural communities are significantly affected by a rise in such crimes. Will the Minister confirm that there will be no significant reduction in funding to rural police forces, which in fact need more funding?
Rural police forces in England will receive the same uplift funding as the other police forces do. As somebody who represents a large and very beautiful rural constituency, I have a particular interest in making sure that rural crime does not become a Cinderella part of the service.
As my right hon. Friend develops a new immigration system, will she ensure that she pays particular attention to its design to facilitate the movement of scientists, researchers and technicians in and out of the country to protect our world-class science base and maintain our position as a global science superpower?
My hon. Friend makes a very good point. Yes, the Home Secretary has commissioned the Migration Advisory Committee to look at a future points-based immigration system that is intended not to be geographical but based on the skills that this country needs so that we continue to be globally leading but also globally open.
Does the Minister have any plans to bring in legislation to provide that all specialist housing and registered care accommodation, both new and existing, be fitted with sprinklers?
This policy area actually falls within the purview of the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government. I know, having been Minister for Housing until recently, that as part of the review of building regulations, the matter of sprinklers is under consideration.
Shropshire has suffered widespread and dangerous flooding over the past few days, affecting thousands of people. Would the Home Secretary like to join me in putting on record her thanks to West Mercia police and all the people from Shropshire fire and rescue services?
I would absolutely like to put on record my thanks and gratitude. Flooding is a dreadful issue that has an appalling impact on people’s lives, livelihoods and homes. Of course, our fire and emergency services, the Environment Agency and police officers have done a great deal of work to provide a great deal of support and comfort to local residents.
I have a constituent whose mother is in her 90s. She came to the UK from Poland after the second world war as a refugee. She now has dementia, and she needs to apply for settled status. She has very few documents proving her residency over the past five years. Will the Minister advise me on what she and people in her situation have to do to acquire settled status?
I would be delighted to look at that application directly with the Home Office. We also have 57 voluntary organisations that have been resourced by the Home Office to reach out to individuals who will not necessarily be able to access technology easily. But, as I say, I will be very happy to look at that individual case.
May I welcome the confirmation of additional funding for counter-terrorism in the spending review and ask my right hon. Friend what steps she is taking to counter terrorist content online?
My hon. Friend makes a very good point. We are determined and focused in making sure that we do everything we can to ensure that we keep all our citizens safe. He rightly highlights the threat to us all of the online environment and the work that we need to do with our agencies right across the board. Great work is being done not just by the National Crime Agency but by other agencies to ensure that we are continually working to make sure that this is a safe environment. However, we all have a part to play in that, and we will continue to be focused on it in terms of finance and of policy and legislation.
As a direct result of Government cuts, some fire brigades have cut the crew per pump from five to four and even four to three. That is not just an operational decision; it is a direct result of cuts. How sustainable is it?
The exact disposition of the number of firefighters on each appliance is an operational decision. [Interruption.] It is. It is not my job to sit in Whitehall and decide how each fire service should run its operation. We have instituted the first inspection regime of fire and rescue services for some time, which specifically looks at a service’s effectiveness, efficiency and ability to perform its function. Lessons will be learned from the first round of inspections, which I hope and believe will improve the service.
Having called the hon. Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke (Jack Lopresti), to avoid marital disharmony, I must call the hon. Member for Morley and Outwood (Andrea Jenkyns).
Thank you, Mr Speaker.
A few weeks ago, a young girl got stabbed in my constituency. The family are quite rightly frustrated, as the suspect is walking free while awaiting charges, and their young daughter has had to be put in foster care for her own safety. Will my right hon. Friend meet me to discuss how we can reunite that family?
I would like to express my sympathies to the family. That is a dreadful tragedy, and I would of course be delighted to meet my hon. Friend and the family to hear much more about that case.
Is it still the Government’s aspiration for the UK to be a member of Europol?
We have an ambitious programme of work for our future security arrangements. Other countries, such as the United States, have a relationship with Europol —in fact, I think the United States has the biggest attendance there at the moment. Europol is still an important part of our future as part of our future negotiations.
Order. We must move on from questions to the Home Secretary to the statement by the Home Secretary.
Major Incident in Essex
I would like to update the House on the investigation into the tragic deaths of the 39 migrants discovered last Wednesday in Essex. This morning, the Prime Minister and I visited Thurrock in Essex, to sign the book of condolence and pay our respects to the 39 individuals who died in the most appalling circumstances in trying to reach the United Kingdom. These were people’s sons and daughters, friends and family. As victims of brutal and unscrupulous criminal gangs, they have paid the ultimate price. We have been confronted with a stark reminder of the evils of people smuggling and human trafficking. This trade is a blight on the modern world. For the sake of these victims, and for millions like them, we must do all we can to stamp it out.
I would like to pay tribute once again to the outstanding professionalism shown by all our emergency services—in particular, the swift and professional response from the East of England ambulance service, Essex County Fire and Rescue Service and Essex police, who are leading the ongoing criminal investigation—and our operational partners who are working round the clock to assist the investigation, including the National Crime Agency.
The families of the victims, at this incredibly difficult time, are in all our thoughts and have my full sympathy. Nothing can ever undo the loss that they have suffered. We owe it to them to identify those responsible and ensure that they face the full force of the law. I want to work with those families to ensure that they can bring forward any evidence they have to help solve this appalling crime. With their help, we can bring the perpetrators to justice.
I would like to remind colleagues that this will be a long and meticulous investigation. As I heard today and last week from Essex police, it will involve working with partners overseas and foreign law enforcement agencies and unravelling a threat of criminality that could stretch halfway across the world. We are already working with a range of operational partners to piece together information. The police themselves—Essex police—will need to be given the time and space to do just that, while respecting the dignity of those who have died and of course the privacy of their families. The process of identifying the victims is continuing, and I would like to stress that their nationalities have still not yet been confirmed at this stage.
On Friday, three further people were arrested in connection with the incident. A 38-year-old man and a 38-year-old woman from Warrington were arrested in Cheshire, while a 46-year-old man from Northern Ireland was arrested at Stansted airport. All three were questioned on suspicion of manslaughter and conspiracy to traffic people, and have now been released on bail.
The driver of the vehicle was 25-year-old Maurice Robinson from Northern Ireland. This morning, he appeared at Chelmsford magistrates court via video link, charged with 39 counts of manslaughter, conspiracy to traffic people, conspiracy to assist unlawful immigration and money laundering. He has been remanded in custody and is next due to appear at the Old Bailey on 25 November.
Following the devastating discovery of the lorry at Tilbury, the Home Office has set up a dedicated team to co-ordinate an immediate response and a long-term response to this tragedy. I can confirm that Border Force is increasing its presence in Purfleet. It is working alongside Essex police to gather further information regarding this incident. The Home Office will now accelerate our joint intelligence-led operation between the police, the National Crime Agency and immigration enforcement, which aims to disrupt and deter organised crime gangs using refrigerated and hard-sided lorries to smuggle clandestine migrants.
I would like to stress once again that the nationalities of the victims have not been confirmed at this stage, but work is under way to co-ordinate the international response to this incident. I have already spoken to my Belgian counterpart, Minister De Crem, to invigorate the work that is taking place across both countries. I can confirm to the House that, as of today, I have received agreement from the Belgian authorities to deploy extra UK immigration enforcement officers to Zeebrugge. I have also been in contact with other international partners to offer assistance to any foreign nationals who may have been affected by this tragedy.
Last week’s tragedy was the culmination of a broad, more general rise in global migration, but also of organised criminality. This is one of the most pressing issues for the UK, as well as for all our international partners. Illegal migration fuels organised crime, erodes public confidence and, most importantly, endangers the lives of desperate people. The perpetrators conduct their activities under a cloak of secrecy. The motivations that lead people to try to cross borders illegally are broad and complex. They are often among the most vulnerable, and then of course they are further exploited.
It is clear that we and all our partners must enhance our response. All areas of Government have a role to play—whether it is in strengthening our borders and eliminating the pull factors in this country, or in addressing many of the root causes to suppress demand for illegal migration. We already have an illegal migration strategy in place, but as the tragic events last week in Essex have shown, there is much more to do. I will be working across Government and Government Departments this week to plan how we can strengthen our response to the wider migration crisis that led these victims to try to enter the United Kingdom. The organised criminals who drive this practice are dynamic, unscrupulous and highly adaptable, but failing to confront them comes at a terrible human cost. We must be ruthless now in our response.
I thank the Home Secretary for advance sight of her statement.
The events in Essex are a tragic loss of life. All death is regrettable, but this was a particularly gruesome and grotesque way to die, and an horrific experience for the first responders. Many of us in the House will have seen the images in our media over the weekend of desperate communities who are frightened that their young people may have been in that lorry. Many of us will have seen the messages from people to their families on the verge of their own suffocation. One woman said:
“I am really, really sorry, Mum and Dad, my trip to a foreign land has failed”.
I would like to thank the Home Secretary for the information about the arrests and about how some progress has been made in identifying the victims. However, as the investigation is ongoing and criminal charges are involved, I will not say more about this specific case.
As the Home Secretary said, people traffickers are particularly ruthless and simply do not care about human life. I was in Lesbos last year looking at the people trafficking from Turkey across the Mediterranean to Greece. The people traffickers not only deliberately took large sums of money off desperate people, but put those people in completely unseaworthy rubber dinghies. They gave people fake lifejackets and did not care that—as inevitably happened—many of them died in the Mediterranean. The people traffickers are greedy, ruthless and unscrupulous, and they have a callous disregard for human life.
I would, however, like to ask the Home Secretary whether the Home Office will be looking at security at some of the small east coast ports? I do not want to pre-empt the police investigation, but it seems that these small ports are being used because there is less security than at ports such as Dover.
I also want to ask the Home Secretary about the current co-operation with the European police, security and justice agencies in investigating this case. Specifically, how closely are our agencies, police forces and National Crime Agency working with Europol in this investigation? Will she also indicate the level of co-operation with the European Migrant Smuggling Centre, which is an agency of Europol? How are our agents benefiting from co-operation with what is the most sophisticated agency of its kind in the world?
Will the Home Secretary further explain how that co-operation can continue under a no-deal Brexit or the Prime Minister’s deal? As things stand, we will lose the current level of co-operation, we will not have real-time access to EU agency databases, and we will lose access to a host of criminal databases and to the European arrest warrant. The House would therefore like to know what plans the Home Secretary has to maintain and, if anything, strengthen that co-operation.
This is a very tragic event. In some ways, it has humanised the issue of people trafficking for many people in this country. Of course we have to bear down on the people traffickers—they are ruthless and have no concern for human life—but we also have to look at issues such as how we make those eastern ports more secure and how we guarantee people the same level of co-operation with EU agencies that we currently have.
I thank the right hon. Lady for her remarks. There are a number of points I would like to make.
First, the right hon. Lady is absolutely right about the first responders. They cannot unsee what they have experienced and seen through this awful crime. Secondly, she is right to recognise the scale of trafficking and the inhumanity—there is no other word that can describe it—of the perpetrators behind not only this crime but modern slavery, people smuggling and human trafficking.
The right hon. Lady specifically asked about checks at eastern ports. Those ports are not as vast as others and do not necessarily have the large amounts of freight coming through. She will have heard me remark in my statement that, with regard to Purfleet, Border Force will obviously now be increasing its presence, but it will also be working with Essex police on targeting and on the response it needs to the incident itself, providing further information about what has happened.
The right hon. Lady asked about security and the drivers in terms of working in co-operation and in partnership with other agencies. Of course, that is exactly what we are doing right now. The National Crime Agency is, rightly, taking the lead on this investigation. As I said in my statement, it is a complicated investigation, and we are working with a number of agencies across the European Union, and with others, because of the routes that have been taken. I have no doubt that, over time, we will hear much more, and a lot more information will come out in due course.
The right hon. Lady specifically asked about Brexit and security co-operation. I would just say to the House that the way in which we can absolutely ensure that we have the strongest possible co-operation is by having a deal. That is exactly the Government’s position and I would like the right hon. Lady and her party to support it.
On co-operation and security tools, there are no boundaries when it comes to our co-operation. The United Kingdom will remain one of the safest countries in the world, as well as a global leader on security.
I thank my right hon. Friend for the leadership she is showing across Government on this issue. There has been a lot of talk over the past few days about the security at our east coast ports, but does she agree that it matters nothing how much security we put in place when people are being trafficked through numerous countries before arriving here and going through continental ports? Do not all jurisdictions need to step up to the plate and deliver on this?
I thank my hon. Friend for her comments and her question as the constituency Member of Parliament. We were together this morning to pay our respects and extend our condolences, alongside the Prime Minister. She will know, with Purfleet and Tilbury in her constituency, that the challenges are absolutely vast. She highlights the fact that we could have a huge amount of port security, which we do across the country, but that the major international issue is that serious organised crime gangs exploit vulnerable individuals from across the world who seek a better life in another country. They are the ones who have fallen victim in this case.
I thank the Home Secretary for her statement and for advance sight of it. Like her, my thoughts, and those of my colleagues in the Scottish National party, are with the families of the victims, who it seems are far away and desperately trying to gather information about what might have happened to their loved ones. It is very difficult to fathom what it must be like to lose a loved one in such dreadful circumstances. I also join her in paying tribute to the response of the emergency services. I would like to express my concern for their wellbeing, given what they have seen.
I associate myself with what the Home Secretary said about the gross immorality and inhumanity of people smuggling. I will speak about the specifics rather than this case, as it is an ongoing investigation. As the shadow Home Secretary said, an international trafficking and smuggling network can only be broken up through international co-operation. I know that the Home Secretary recognises that. She will also recognise that the European Migrant Smuggling Centre, which is a part of Europol, has been at the heart of this inquiry and of other inquiries into similar tragedies. A Europol source has been quoted as saying that the investigators at Europol are:
“working around the clock trying to put together the pieces of the puzzle.”
I know the Home Secretary is keen for us to support the deal to leave the European Union, but that deal does not adequately address what plans the Government have to work with those vital EU institutions in future. It simply will not do to say that America has a relationship with Europol, because America is not in Europe—we are.
The UN’s trafficking envoy has said that withdrawing from Europol and Eurojust could curtail the UK’s ability to conduct the transnational investigations required to dismantle smuggling networks. Does she accept that leaving the European Union will make such investigations more difficult? If not, will she take this opportunity to clarify, in a way that she was unable to do before the Home Affairs Committee last week, what relationship she thinks the UK should have in the future with those institutions following Brexit?
I thank the hon. and learned Lady for her comments on the actual incident in Essex, and on the issue at hand in terms of people smuggling and the 39 deaths. On her comments about security co-operation, I re-emphasise and restate that we continue to be one of the safest countries in the world and we will be a global leader in security.
The hon. and learned Lady asks about Europol. We can continue to work with Europol when we leave the EU: it is possible for third countries to do that, and there are very good examples of third countries, including the United States, doing so.
This is indeed a terrible tragedy and, of course, our hearts go out to all the families concerned. I thank my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary for praising the outstanding professionals in our emergency services. I also thank all those at Chelmsford magistrates court, where the case has been heard this morning; the Essex coroner and her deeply dedicated team, who are based in Chelmsford; all those working on the investigation at Essex police headquarters, which is also in Chelmsford; and the staff at Broomfield Hospital, which is just outside my constituency in the Saffron Walden constituency but is nevertheless where many of my Chelmsford constituents work—I understand that the bodies of the victims have been taken there. It is very clear that this incident will impact on very many people. Will the Home Secretary confirm that all support and resources will be available in the short and longer terms?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I thank her for highlighting the wide range of local organisations across the county of Essex, in her constituency and neighbouring constituencies, that have been involved in this terrible, appalling tragedy, including those in the NHS and the coroner. We have discussed on several occasions since last Wednesday, including with the Prime Minister this morning, the type of support that will be put in place, because it is not just short-term support for the individuals that have been affected, the individuals who are now part of the investigation, and the inquiries and the post mortem that is taking place. It ranges from the TRiM—trauma risk management—process with the police and the ambulance service to the welfare service provision that will be put in place not just for today, but for the long term for everyone who has been involved in providing vital support to the police for this investigation.
The Home Secretary will be aware of the disturbing news that children were found in another refrigerated lorry yesterday, this time at Calais. They were reportedly already suffering from mild hypothermia and were, luckily, found before it was too late. The refrigerated lorries are particularly dangerous and make this such an appalling crime. Will the Home Secretary say whether it is correct that hardly any checks of refrigerated lorries are taking place at the moment at Zeebrugge, and that at Purfleet 24/7 checks are still not taking place? She still has not explained what work is being done with Europol’s European Migrant Smuggling Centre. Is she working with that centre, and does she agree that we should continue to participate in it after December 2020?
I thank the right hon. Lady for her comments. Let me be clear to the House: any form of trafficking and smuggling of individuals is completely wrong. She rightly highlights the appalling use of refrigerated lorries, which is effectively what we have seen in the case that she mentions and in what happened in Essex last week. The fact that these containers have been used and are being exploited by criminal gangs is a major issue that affects not just this country but other countries.
The right hon. Lady asks about checks; there are checks, and checks have been made when it comes to refrigerated lorries not just in the UK, but in other ports. She will appreciate, however, that, with the investigation that is taking place and the links with the Belgian authorities, there is much more information to come, specifically for the vehicle and the container that came through that particular port.
There are checks that take place in Zeebrugge as well. I said in my statement that we will escalate our work. There is a plan, working with my Belgian counterpart, to address the specifics of security issues in Zeebrugge and how we can extend more checks if required, although that is an operational decision not just at the port but with the Belgian authorities.
On the right hon. Lady’s question about co-operation, it is right that we co-operate internationally with all partners and all agencies—so, yes, that work is absolutely under way. There must be no doubt that even after we leave the EU, that co-operation will continue. As Home Secretary, I will not move away from high levels of co-operation. We will work day and night to make sure that we have the right processes and structures in place to ensure that that international collaboration continues and grows.
The heartbreaking texts and final messages underline the abject misery, terror and horror of this modern slave trader practice. Is not our hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Jackie Doyle-Price) absolutely right that we need to handle this, above all, with a new international convention, as current international arrangements are outdated, ineffective and patently not fit for today’s needs?
My right hon. Friend is right to raise that issue, as he has done previously. It is clear that this is not a UK-specific issue but an international one. While a great deal of work is done internationally, through global compacts and migration funds, there is much more we can do, working collaboratively with international partners and our friends and allies, to deal with the root causes—the upstream issues—and criminality and to put something into statute globally to stop this happening again.
Our outrage continues. The latest statistics from the National Crime Agency show that the top nationalities for potential victims of trafficking to the UK were Albanian, Vietnamese and Chinese. Given what we may or may not know, what discussions has the Home Secretary had, particularly with Albania, China and Vietnam, about what is going on and what more can be done to stop it?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. He will know, through his work on the all-party group on human trafficking and modern slavery, that there are specific source countries—he named some of them—where we see far too much trafficking and criminality. There are discussions taking place—I will not reel them all off, but I have been involved in some—and many more will follow. I emphasise, however, that, outside the Home Office, much more can be done across other Departments, and I will pursue that this week. We have seen various streams of activity by other Departments, but we need to join that up to ensure that we speak with one voice to these countries and that we ourselves have a much more coherent approach.
It has been reported that the lorry entered the UK at the port of Holyhead before travelling on to Purfleet to collect the container. Given that the UK and Ireland are part of the same common travel area, and will remain so after Brexit, can my right hon. Friend confirm that North Wales police are and will remain adequately resourced to provide a sufficient presence at Holyhead to deter and detect such activity?
Absolutely. Of course, resourcing the police to support Holyhead is just part of the process, and it is not just about this investigation; it is about ensuring we have the right level of security and the measures in place to enable police officers and others, including Border Force, to act on intelligence. It is worth reiterating something I said in my last statement: we are working with the Police Service of Northern Ireland in this investigation, which speaks to the many links between police forces.
I thank the Home Secretary for her statement. A number of the 39 victims may well have come from Vietnam. If so, may I, as chair of the all-party group on Vietnam, offer my heartfelt sympathies to the victims and families? We know that the Prime Minister of Vietnam has announced an inquiry into human trafficking in his country. May I have a commitment from the Home Secretary that her Government will fully co-operate with the Government of Vietnam to make sure that this terrible trade is eliminated?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his remarks and the work he does through the all-party group. Although the nationalities have yet to be confirmed, as I touched on in my statement, we will of course work with all our partners. I have already spoken to the Vietnamese ambassador. Many discussions are under way that, as he will understand, are very sensitive at this stage, but we will of course co-operate with any inquiries into human trafficking and people smuggling.
The Home Secretary has mentioned Northern Ireland. In that context, will she assure me that the Criminal Assets Bureau will have all the resources it requires to play a full part in the investigation? Does she agree that it is time that unexplained wealth orders were in force in Northern Ireland, as in the rest of the United Kingdom?
My hon. Friend makes a very important point. Of course, there is always more that we must do when it comes to seizing cash and assets from the perpetrators of crime. He is right: there is absolutely much more that we can do. At this stage, we will look into everything in the light of the inquiry and investigation, but I will continue to discuss with the Ministry of Justice how we can upscale some of it.
On the question of utilising intelligence, there were reports over the weekend that people living near the Waterglade industrial park had previously reported seeing migrants being dropped off from lorries, and, indeed, had found discarded foreign passports at the site, but that their reports were not followed up. Will the Home Secretary comment on that?
We have received no formal reports of anything of that nature, but we will obviously follow up any evidence of wrongdoing or the discarding of foreign documents.
No one could fail to be moved by the terrible stories of young lives that were literally snuffed out. I appreciate that my right hon. Friend cannot say where the victims came from, but I know that in the past some victims have been identified as coming from Vietnam, and that the UK has a very strong ministerial strategic dialogue with Vietnam. Will the Home Secretary ensure that at the next meeting she discusses with her officials how we can communicate to these young people, jointly, the message that they should not make this dangerous journey?
That dialogue is already under way, and, in view of the terrible tragedy that has taken place, it is right that it is under way.
Human trafficking is indeed a terrible crime, and the perpetrators must be brought to justice. Ironically, it is some of the victims who have already arrived in this country who know most about these criminals and their methods, and it would assist us hugely if we could persuade them to turn Queen’s evidence without fear of retribution or deportation. Does the Home Secretary agree that we should look at mechanisms whereby that might happen without their being too fearful to come forward and help us?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right, and I can assure the House that in this particular investigation, that is exactly how we will be working.
These containers are not necessarily moved around on the backs of lorries, but may be parked on ferries and so on. Can my right hon. Friend assure me that the authorities, Border Force and the police—and, indeed, the drivers of the lorries—have the means and the competence to open the containers if necessary?
My hon. Friend raises some important points. There are a number of ways of providing support for lorry drivers and others. A great deal of work is done through road haulage associations in the UK and across the EU to provide information and intelligence about what to do in situations of this nature, and also about how they can protect themselves from trafficking. If there is anything else that my hon. Friend would specifically like to know about the Home Office’s and Border Force’s work and about how we collaborate with many other organisations, I shall be happy to write to him.
Hull has a long and proud tradition of fighting the evils of human trafficking and slavery. Many of my constituents have been in touch to say how shocked they are about what happened in Essex. They want to know whether additional checks will be carried out at the port of Hull, particularly on refrigerated containers, because we now know that the traffickers seem to be turning their attention to ports on the east coast.
The hon. Lady is absolutely right. She will know, with the port in her own constituency, that various challenges have now been highlighted. It is important to acknowledge that those who are trafficking people are trying to exploit any vulnerabilities in any aspects of port security, such as, as we have seen, with the refrigerated lorries. Given the work taking place specifically with Border Force right now, I would like to drop the hon. Lady a line and at least keep her updated on the changes that will be forthcoming with regard to the port in Hull.
I thank my right hon. Friend for coming to the House to make this statement, because it demonstrates how seriously the Government take this matter. Will she spare a thought for the Border Force officers in Harwich, which I represent, who will be haunted by the possibility of a similar tragedy passing through their care? I am confident that they have sufficient capability, on an intelligence-led basis, to make checks, but they cannot check every single container. Will she also bear in mind the fact that when I have alerted the Essex police and the Essex Border Force to activity on the Essex coast reported by constituents they have always been very swift to respond, and indeed have closed down one operation very effectively already?
I thank my hon. Friend for his comments and, being a neighbouring Member of Parliament, I do know Harwich. He is right to point out that all port operators and border staff around the country will be looking at what has happened over the last week with shared horror. They will be taking the right action in their own day-to-day work on risk-based checks, but at this stage I want to give the House the assurance that we are giving Border Force all the support it needs and we are working collaboratively with port operators. I also thank my hon. Friend for his work with Essex police when he has raised concerns in respect of the port of Harwich and on how to deal with those issues.
The Home Secretary will know that three years ago the Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration produced a report on the east coast ports that raised a number of concerns about their operation. Will she agree to look again at the recommendations of the Border Force inspector to see whether she can update the House on the implementation of those recommendations?
I have gone through that report and seen the recommendations. I am currently reviewing aspects of them, but in particular how we can make them more relevant, because that was a report from 2016—although the findings were published in 2017—and things have clearly moved on since then. But of course there is another factor here: the extent of the organised international criminality, as well as many of the port security features that were raised in that report that also need to be looked at.
I thank my right hon. Friend for her powerful statement and the seriousness with which she has taken this very serious matter. She will be aware that small ports and airfields have long been known to be a problem and security weakness; indeed, the former Prime Minister proposed a volunteer force to patrol them. May I urge her not to have a Dad’s Army set up like that but instead to have more investment in our Border Force, the National Crime Agency and in working internationally with our partners to combat this appalling and evil trade?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and we are speaking here about international organised criminality through various gangs, routes and countries where this facilitation is taking place. It is right that we invest, and we are investing in the NCA and through our partners, such as our Border Force, and through police and through all aspects of our homeland security, and we will continue to do that.
The Home Secretary will know that the Government asked her right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller), Lady Butler-Sloss and me to review the Modern Slavery Act 2015. During our inquiry we met Border Force staff from a large, not a small, port, and they told us that, unlike for airports where there are passenger lists, they know nothing—absolutely nothing—about the people who are coming through the ports. We asked to meet the Home Secretary urgently to talk about this. Might she speed up our meeting with her, please?
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for raising his concerns. The answer is yes, of course I would be delighted to meet him. On top of that, he is right to recognise, through his review, the difference between air and sea in terms of the data that are collected. It is clear that when it comes to goods, there are customs checks, declarations and manifests, but when it comes to people we will obviously need to continue our discussions to see what more we can do in that area.
May I offer my sympathy to the victims and their families? I concur with my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Jackie Doyle-Price) that the message today is that we need stronger borders, not weaker ones, not just here but across Europe. While I am talking about that, may I just touch on South Dorset, whose police and crime commissioner has called for more officials at Portland port? Will my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary look at that, too?
I would be more than happy to discuss port support with my hon. Friend and to talk about what more can be done in his area. He is right to identify the need to protect our ports and to ensure that we have the right checks and processes in place across the entire country—which we do as part of the risk-based system—and that they are operated in a consistent way.
Four members of an organised crime gang operating out of Govanhill in my constituency were recently convicted in the High Court in Glasgow of offences relating to the trafficking of 14 vulnerable women. That was a complex, five-year-long investigation led by Police Scotland but also involving UK police forces, Europol, Eurojust and the Slovak police force. I understand that a parallel court case is ongoing in Slovakia. Can the Home Secretary guarantee that the police in Scotland will have exactly the same access to that level of co-operation, post-Brexit? Will Brexit have any impact on ongoing cases?
The hon. Lady has just highlighted how complicated international criminal investigations are. We will expect to see exactly a similar meticulous process in the case in Essex. It is right that we continue all avenues of international co-operation, not just now but when we leave the European Union.
As the Prime Minister’s trade envoy to Vietnam, I echo the comments made by the chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on Vietnam, the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Wayne David). I should like to extend my thanks to the Vietnamese ambassador to the UK, Ambassador An, and to the Vietnamese Government for their co-operation. I also extend my condolences. I also echo the Home Secretary’s comments. As a trade envoy, I see the Department for International Trade, the Foreign Office and the Ministry of Defence in Vietnam all the time. We discuss these issues, but, as my right hon. Friend has suggested, more co-ordination between Government Departments would be very welcome.
My right hon. Friend will know from his own experience the way in which the Government work together, but there are now specific fundamental challenges. If we are going to stop countries continuing the facilitation of illegal people trafficking and migrant movements, there is more that we can do across Government. I look forward to his work and his support in trying to address some of those issues.
All too often, there is another layer of cruel injustice, which is that families in very poor districts—for instance, in Vietnam—have done everything in their power, including remortgaging their lands, to raise enough money to send a favoured son or daughter through one of these illegal routes. They then lose not only their child but their land and their means of making a living. Is there nothing we can do to try to strike down these hideous financial deals?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. In people smuggling and the trafficking of individuals, we are witnessing the worst of the worst. We are seeing perpetrators exploiting vulnerable individuals and families, more often than not putting them into debt bondage. They lose their livelihoods and they are then exploited once their children or family members arrive in another country. There is more that we can do—there is no doubt about that—but that can be achieved only through bilateral co-operation and international standards and co-operation across the board, so that we have consistency. If we are going to stop this practice happening, we have to stop vulnerable families being exploited. From the British Government’s perspective, yes we will do more, but we will also lead calls internationally to try to root this out.
As the other Member of Parliament for Thurrock, may I say that we remain shocked and appalled by the events? We can only imagine the pain that the families must be feeling. I pay tribute not only to the first responders but to council officers and councillors, many of whom are my constituents, who have stepped up to meet the challenge. To deter further attempts at moving people in this despicable way, what discussions has my right hon. Friend had both here and abroad about adopting new technology to try to tackle the issue?
I echo my hon. Friend’s words of thanks to Thurrock Council for its work. Having met the leader of the council and other staff this morning, I am grateful to them for their local support. Technology can play a significant role here. It is pretty clear that refrigerated vehicles and containers are being exploited for a range of reasons. The Home Office is investing a great deal not only in research but in new technology for enhancements in border controls. We must also do much more internationally in this area.
Shared Rural Network
With your permission, Mr Speaker, I will make a statement to the House about connectivity and our recent announcement about the shared rural network. Last month, this Government announced £5 billion to accelerate the roll-out of the highest-speed internet across the country, including in our rural heartlands. The money is being targeted towards the hardest-to-reach areas of the UK, so that they will not have to wait for their homes and businesses to be connected to fast, reliable broadband. They will be given connections capable of download speeds of 1 gigabit per second to take advantage of everything that the next generation of new technology has to offer.
Connectivity on the go is equally important. Mobile phones are revolutionising our day-to-day lives and are crucial for businesses as they compete and grow. Half of adults—I reckon this will apply to pretty much every right hon. and hon. Member—say that they missed their mobile phone the most of all their devices, with one in three saying that they never use a computer to go online.
However, too many areas of the country are still waiting for high-quality mobile coverage. Today, only 66% of the UK landmass has geographic coverage from all four mobile network operators and 9%, largely in rural areas, has no coverage at all. I am therefore pleased to inform the House that last week the Government announced support for a shared rural network programme, subject to binding legal agreement being concluded. The proposal has been brought to Government by the four UK mobile network operators—EE, Vodafone, 3 and O2—and sets out their ambition to collectively increase 4G mobile coverage throughout the United Kingdom to 95% by 2025.
Under the proposal, areas that have coverage from only some providers—partial notspots—will be almost entirely eliminated, meaning that we will get good 4G signal anywhere, no matter our provider. It also promises to deliver greater coverage in the total notspots—the areas that currently have no mobile phone signal at all. The network will result in 95% of the UK getting coverage, including additional coverage to 16,000 km roads and 280,000 premises. The biggest improvements will be felt in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
The four operators will commit up to £530 million to get rid of the partial notspots, but we recognise the difficulty of building infrastructure in remote locations. The Government are therefore sharing the cost and are prepared to provide a further £500 million to eliminate total notspots. The Government’s investment will provide new digital infrastructure in areas that are not commercially viable for operators, to ensure that this new service provision continues for at least 20 years. It will also cover the cost of upgrades to the emergency services infrastructure, making it available to commercial operators.
The announcement is great news for consumers and a big step forward by the mobile network operators. It will be underpinned by legally binding commitments from each operator to reach more than 92% UK coverage by 2026. The mobile network operators will adopt new coverage obligations within their existing spectrum licence conditions to ensure that the outcomes will be delivered. If they cannot demonstrate that all reasonable efforts have been made to comply with the obligations, there are penalties for the operators, with a maximum fine of up to 10% of annual turnover. Although 2025 is the target date, many consumers will feel the benefit of the programme long before its conclusion. Annual coverage improvement targets will be published, and Ofcom will report regularly on the shared rural network’s progress in its “Connected Nations” publication.
The UK has a vibrant telecoms industry, and we are keen that the shared rural network proposal reflects that. The programme will be jointly delivered by all four mobile network operators, but it is expected that organisations from across the industry would have the opportunity to get involved in delivering the programme at various levels of the supply chain, building the required infrastructure in an open, fair and transparent way.
The mobile network operator proposal is conditional on Ofcom removing its proposed coverage commitments, which were included in the design of the original auction. I have written to Sharon White, the chief executive of Ofcom, setting out the Government’s support for the programme, subject to a binding legal agreement being concluded. It is for Ofcom to decide how it wishes to proceed with the auction. This morning, Ofcom opened its consultation on an alternative auction design, without coverage obligations.
I have also made it clear to the mobile network operators and to Ofcom that the Government retain the right to support the original Ofcom auction if a final and legally binding agreement on the shared rural network is not reached. I have considered the shared rural network proposal carefully, along with my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and I am satisfied that it improves on the coverage obligations set out in Ofcom’s proposed auction and should deliver good value for money. However, I have made it clear to the mobile network operators that, until a final agreement is reached, the Government’s support does not make a legally binding arrangement or contract and does not create any expectation that Government will act in that way.
In the coming months, the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, Ofcom and the mobile operators will work to finalise the legal agreement so that we can get on with the important job of improving mobile coverage. The operators share our ambition. I am confident that this proposal is the answer, and I expect to be in a position to update the House early next year.
This is a world-first deal that means that consumers will be able to rely on their own provider’s network to use their mobile phones wherever they are. It will make patchy coverage a thing of the past and mean that more people in rural areas can benefit from the speed and efficiency of coverage on the go. This Government are committed to giving rural areas across our United Kingdom the digital connectivity needed to flourish and to make the UK a world leader in 5G technologies. That is what this landmark investment will do. I commend this statement to the House.
I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of her statement. May I start by welcoming her professed enthusiasm for pulling this country out of the cyber slow lane? However, having read her statement, I am afraid to say that, on close examination, it would appear that our Teletext Tories will have to do rather better than this.
Let me start, for the benefit of hon. Members, with the points on which we agree. It is surely right that we dramatically step up the efforts to pull the country into the 21st century. We were a leader once. Now the networks that we have, like the targets that we have set, are well behind the best in the world; so while today’s progress is, I suppose, welcome, it is really half of a half-measure, when what was needed was a bold 10-year national switchover plan to deliver ubiquitous gigabit per second access to every corner of the country.
At our most generous, we welcome the commitment to 95% for 4G coverage, because it is better than the 91% that we have today, but I am afraid that still leaves a 4,681 square mile area of the country where coverage will be non-existent or not good enough. As Members know, that is an area twice the size of Norfolk and much bigger than our largest county, North Yorkshire. Nor, it would appear, will progress be as rapid as was promised. In its manifesto, the Conservative party promised 95% coverage by 2022. Now the Secretary of State says it is 2025, and the industry briefing issued this morning says that will not be achieved until 2026.
Nor is the proposal as well financed as is needed. Ofcom says that the cost of sorting out all the notspots in the country is between £3 billion and £6 billion, yet just £1 billion has been announced, half from industry and half from Government. At best, it is half of a half-measure. Nor, it seems, is the deal with the industry actually done. As the Secretary of State made clear in the rapid canter through the final paragraphs of her statement,
“the Government’s support does not make a legally binding arrangement or contract and does not create any expectation that Government will act in that way.”
That is known as the small print; in this House, we call it, at best, a running commentary on what she is doing in the office this week. It is a running commentary on half of a half measure that is four years late and leaves an area of the country twice the size of Norfolk without the coverage it needs. Members will therefore forgive us for not applauding this announcement from the rooftops.
However, to take this announcement seriously for a moment, which is more than the Chancellor obviously has, I suppose we should trouble the Secretary of State with some questions on her running commentary on half of a half measure. Her Majesty’s Government have already backtracked on their commitment to full fibre roll-out by 2025. Can she reassure the House that this measure, such as it is, will not be diluted any further? Will she bless us with some interim targets? Perhaps they could be knocked together. If so, are we likely to see them any time soon? She told us today that the paperwork is not going to be signed until 2020, but she says that Ofcom has announced that it is moving ahead with a consultation on the spectrum auction, without coverage obligations. Why is Ofcom proceeding with that, given that the Secretary of State is commending this different approach to us this afternoon? Under the plans will consumers be able to access a choice of all four network operators in the 95% area that she has sketched out? Finally, I suppose the Secretary of State should be asked to tell us whether she agrees with Ofcom that £3 billion to £6 billion is going to be needed to eliminate all notspots in the country. If she does agree, will she explain why she is not bringing that proposal to us this afternoon?
Today our network ranks not as the first, second or third best in the world, but as the 26th. Some 80% of our constituencies do not enjoy 4G coverage from all big four operators. I know the Secretary of State has done her very best today to dress this up, but we should call it what it is: too little, too late, for a country that deserves far better. [Interruption.]
I thank the right hon. Gentleman—I think—for the response to the statement. The paltry support he got from those on his Benches when he sat down showed that they did not think much of it either. It was a typical grudging response from the Labour party, rather than a recognition that this is a significant step forward for consumers and for our constituents. Just to answer some of the questions he put on behalf of the Labour luddites in this House, let me say that the 95% target for 2025 is achieved by getting to the just over 92% by 2026. This is a clear commitment given by the four mobile network operators, and it is actually much better than achieving it either through the spectrum auction or through any other roaming proposals. It is right that we should see that this is delivered properly and comprehensively across the UK, rather than rushing, although we are clear about the 2025 target.
On interim targets, we are obviously going to wait for industry to say how quickly it is able to do the roll-out, but I was clear in my statement to say that many areas will see this coverage much more quickly.
On the letter from Ofcom, it is obviously a decision for Ofcom as to whether to carry on with the auction coverage. However, I suggest that the right hon. Gentleman read Sharon White’s letter, because she is very clear that by following this proposal and sharing infrastructure,
“the four operators can deliver much greater improvements in coverage at less cost than they could do individually”,
“We believe this is an efficient way of improving coverage which should provide a better experience for consumers than other alternatives like rural roaming.”
The right hon. Gentleman asked whether all four were included in the 95%, and that is absolutely the case.
This is a significant moment for improving mobile connectivity, which is absolutely essential to making sure that the UK plays its part in being able to develop, use and innovate the technologies of the future. I would hope that all those who hope for coverage in areas such as the west midlands, which is leading the charge in terms of the 5G test beds, under the brilliant mayoralty of Andy Street, could celebrate rather than offer this grudging response today.
When the previous Prime Minister rang to fire me from my position as telecoms Minister, she could not get through because I did not have a signal on my mobile phone, so this announcement today is close to my heart. May I ask the Secretary of State to update the House on any changes to planning regulations, which are often the barrier to erecting much-needed mobile phone masts in rural areas?
I thank my right hon. Friend very much for his question. As he will know, at the end of August we announced a consultation, which closes on 4 November, about how we can simplify the planning process in relation to mobile phone masts. Obviously, a balance needs to be struck between having masts and coverage right the way across the country and allowing local communities to have their say. We await the responses to the consultation and will bring forward further proposals to the House.
I call Chi Onwurah.
I apologise to the hon. Lady; I meant to call Hannah Bardell.
Thank you very much, Mr Speaker; I am glad not to be forgotten.
In the words of the author Arthur Herman, “Scotland invented the modern world”, but the reality is that Scotland is now being held back by this Tory Government. The Scottish National party welcomes the Government’s announcement about the shared rural network proposals; if they are delivered with the improvements that the Secretary of State says there will be, they will be improvements for our rural and island communities. But even with that investment, Scotland’s 4G coverage level would still be below the overall UK-wide geographic coverage figure of 95%, leaving further work to be done.
I have to say that I am pleased that the Secretary of State seems to possess a more realistic understanding of what the devolution agreement actually is than her Scottish Tory colleagues. She is aware, it is clear, that telecommunications are a reserved matter. But with Scotland receiving just 3% of UK Government funding for broadband, compared with Northern Ireland’s 91% funding, will she reassure me that the programme will be rolled out and that, when it is, we will get a fairer funding settlement than we have had thus far?
People hearing this announcement today could be forgiven for having a sense of déjà vu. The 2017 Conservative manifesto promised to end rural notspots by 2022—a target that we know will not be met. We are now being told that the target will be 2025. Can the Secretary of State give me a cast-iron guarantee that that target will be met? If not, will it really have the teeth that she is suggesting?
I thank the hon. Lady very much for her reply; at least she was a little more enthusiastic than the Labour Front Bencher—not difficult, given the low bar that he set.
The current coverage of all four operators in Scotland is 41%; under these proposals, that would get to 85% of Scotland. Of course there will be more to do—there always is. MPs have fought for this issue: I have been significantly lobbied by Scottish Conservative colleagues for this improvement. The hon. Lady and constituents across Scotland should be encouraged, given that the proposal has come forward from the operators themselves. That means, I think, that they are confident about being able to deliver it.
May I congratulate my right hon. Friend on persuading the mobile operators to do what they resisted and told us was completely impossible for them to do? When she comes to address the final 5%—the notspots—will she ensure that lessons are learned from the previous attempt, which was the mobile infrastructure project? Unfortunately, that was able to deliver only a fraction of the number of miles promised, given the numerous obstacles that it ran into.
I thank my right hon. Friend. As a former Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, he will understand the significant challenges that there have been to bring everyone together to work on this. He is right to point out that there will always be a final 5%, but there are other proposals such as the roll-out of broadband, all of which have to be taken in the round. We are talking about 4G today, but there are also the 5G proposals and broadband. We know that this is a challenge and that it is in the most rural areas that connectivity is most important.
Businesses and citizens across this country suffer the consequences of the Tories’ ideology of austerity, which prevented proper investment in our digital infrastructure. Rural broadband is not a next generation “nice to have”, but a necessity here and now. Therefore, given this agreement for shared infrastructure, will the Secretary of State say what the quality requirements are for uplink, downlink, latency and congestion; how rural areas will benefit from the infrastructure competition that there still will be in the rest of the country—will he commit to there still being an infrastructure competition in the rest of the country?—and how we can make sure that the telecoms companies are accountable for the public money that they will be given to make this happen?
I thank the hon. Lady very much for her question. In talking about the difficulties and the disappointments, she almost ran out of time to actually ask her questions. She is right to say that connectivity is hugely important for all our constituents wherever they are. There will be, as she will know if she looks at the detail, a shared rural network entity, to which all four mobile network operators will be party, and that is the way they will be held accountable by the Department for the targets they are meeting.
I suspect that, had my right hon. Friend announced a coverage improvement to 195%, the Labour party would still not have said that it was enough. Some of us can see this for what it is, which is a significant step in the right direction, for which I congratulate her. None the less, does she agree that, as she said, this is a voluntary agreement in exchange for removal of conditions on a spectrum auction, and that it is sensible to make sure that Ofcom keeps compulsory roaming on the table until the ink is dry on a voluntary agreement to make it happen?
I thank my right hon. and learned Friend very much. There appears to be a surfeit of former holders of my office on these Benches today, which is a sign of just how much time everyone in this job has had to invest in getting to this stage. He is right that it would not have mattered what we announced today, the Labour party would have found reason to disagree with it, which is unfair to the people they represent. He is absolutely right that we need to keep all the options on the table until that legally binding agreement is concluded, and that is what we will both be doing.
Well, I welcome what the right hon. Lady has had to say today, but the people I get very fed up with are those from mobile phone companies, because they will quite often say that a person in a village such as Porth has 100% coverage when, actually, nobody in Hannah Street can get any signal whatsoever. Recently, when there was arson attack on the mast, which covered several different companies, EE did not even bother to tell all its local customers that coverage would be out for four weeks and it refused to give compensation. The mobile phone companies simply must do better.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. Anybody would think that he was standing for election next week given how much he welcomed this announcement.
We might all be doing so.
That is very true.
The hon. Gentleman makes a very fair point, which is that honesty about the coverage being offered is very important. There is nothing more frustrating for people than being told that they have coverage—or it even looking like they have coverage on their phone—but they still cannot make a call. I am concerned to hear how EE handled that particular attack. I hope that Members right across the House will always know that, if they have problems such as that, they should contact me, the Ministers involved, or the Department so that we can follow it up on their behalf.
How and when will my constituents in west Berkshire and Wokingham be able to get an advantage out of this excellent initiative? Will they need to do anything?
No, they will not need to do anything. They will see the roll-out. Near, if not in, his constituency is, of course, a significant office of Vodafone, and we are grateful that it is part of these arrangements.
The Secretary of State said that we should be fair to those we represent, so, in that spirit, I ask her this. After one of my constituents on the Isle of Arran almost died owing to notspots last year, the previous Secretary of State assured me that there would be 95% coverage in each of the four UK nations by 2022. We see today that that target has now slipped to 2025, and we know that Scotland’s 4G coverage will still be less than the UK-wide numbers, as the Secretary of State set out. Will she explain to the House, in the interests of my constituents, what has gone wrong with tackling notspots so far in Scotland and when Scotland will have the same coverage as the rest of the UK?
I would ask the hon. Lady also to raise that question with the Scottish Government. She is right to say that we want to get on with this and that matters of critical importance—even life and death—can rely on having a mobile phone signal, but we need to do this in the right way so that it actually works and provides reliable coverage. As I said in my statement, although 2025 is the target date, there are many areas where shared 4G coverage will be in place much sooner. There are difficulties in the more rural areas, which is why this is going to take slightly longer to roll out in some parts of the UK. I hope that we will have more details in time so that constituents can see where that coverage is going to be achieved in their area.
First, until we change the rules in national parks, we are not going to achieve universal coverage. Secondly, Connecting Devon and Somerset has been a disaster. Will the Secretary of State please change what that project is doing? Until we do, the good burghers of Somerset and Devon are not going to get universal coverage.
I will certainly look into the issue that my hon. Friend has raised in relation to the national parks, but of course there are always going to be challenges. It is not just about throwing money at the problem. It is also often about ensuring that the physical infrastructure is allowed to be erected.
With regard to Connecting Devon and Somerset, the digital and broadband Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Boston and Skegness (Matt Warman), had a meeting with Members from the area. We know that there have been issues, and obviously the organisation is looking for alternative providers. My hon. Friend is talking about broadband connectivity, which is a slightly separate issue, but he is right because at the end of the day, constituents do not distinguish; they just want better connectivity all round.
A shared rural network is to be welcomed, as it could vastly improve coverage in Ceredigion. The Secretary of State will appreciate that rural communities will be eager to see swift progress on this proposal, so could she clarify whether recently constructed Home Office masts, in addition to any future emergency services network infrastructure, will be made available to this end where appropriate?
My understanding is that the answer to that question is yes, but I will confirm that and let the hon. Gentleman have the full details.
I welcome the Secretary of State’s announcement and decisive action on this matter. Coverage in rural areas is very dependent on the roll-out of the emergency services network, which is behind schedule and over budget. I understand that it is the preserve of the Home Office, not her Department, but will she use her best endeavours to ensure that this project is brought back on track?
I thank my hon. Friend very much indeed for his comments, and pay tribute to him for campaigning on this issue and encouraging other Members to work together to ensure that my Department was rightly put under some pressure to make sure that we delivered on it. He will be interested to know that since I have taken over the Department we have been working very closely with the Home Office and got the agreement about the emergency services network, but I accept his challenge, and the conversations with the Home Office will of course continue.
East Lothian has been let down by Governments north and south of the border, who have ended the LEADER programme, as well as the Community Broadband Scotland and R100 funding. If it were not for East Lothian Council and local companies such as Lothian Broadband that have found imaginative solutions to this problem, East Lothian—its businesses, constituents and the children who are just trying to do their homework—would be in a desperate state. Between the Palace of Westminster and East Lothian, which will win the coverage war?
I will leave the hon. Gentleman to have his fight with the Scottish Government, but he makes a good case about how slow some progress has been under their ownership. I pay tribute to those in East Lothian, including businesses and local authorities, for the work done locally. We are talking about a shared rural network, but this is also a shared endeavour to ensure that we have good connectivity. I would like to think that the more we can all work together, the more likely it is that this announcement will turbocharge connectivity in East Lothian.
I congratulate the Secretary of State. The shared rural network—something I have lobbied her predecessors for on many occasions—is fantastic news, because healthcare and businesses in rural areas such as my constituency in Devon cannot survive without it. The Secretary of State has mentioned 5G. Could she perhaps look at prioritising the roll-out of 5G in rural areas, where the need is so much greater?
I thank my hon. Friend for welcoming this announcement. 5G is already being rolled out and there is no intention to stop that process, but we need 4G as well. The intention is to ensure that her constituents have the best connectivity possible, rather than picking particular technologies. There is already some 5G around her constituency in Devon, but I do accept her challenge. At the end of the day, I think constituents just want faster connectivity—in a way, regardless of how it is delivered. We want the UK to be a world leader in 5G, and it is very important that that happens.
I welcome the Secretary of State’s commitment today to the rural broadband network roll-out. She will know that through the confidence and supply agreement, certain amounts of money have already been set aside for the rural network. Perhaps, Mr Speaker, you, like me, will recall Radio Luxembourg and remember that it faded in and out. There are still parts of the Province where a rural network is not achievable. What will be done to address that issue for small and medium-sized businesses and for those who are self-employed, where it is really important to have rural broadband network roll-out?
The hon. Gentleman is right that having good broadband and good mobile connectivity is important for all of us, but particularly for our small and medium-sized businesses, many of which are run from rural, even residential, premises and need that connectivity to be fast and reliable, and not, as he says, to fade in and out. I hope he will welcome the fact that at the moment the coverage of all four operators is 78% in Northern Ireland, but once the shared rural network programme has taken effect, which we very much hope it will and as it is expected to, it will reach 91% of Northern Ireland.
I regularly survey my constituents in Brigg and Goole and the Isle of Axholme on this and produce a network by network, geographically located report. EE has been very good in responding to those surveys. A new mast in Broughton will come online on 5 November as a result of that, and changes are also being made to a mast in Reedness, so there is some good news. However, it is clear from my surveying of constituents that the maps provided by the networks do not have a great deal of reality compared with what my constituents are experiencing. May I urge the Secretary of State to look at that? Will she also look at local authorities offering up their facilities? One of my local authorities, North Lincolnshire Council, did that, but not a single one of the networks took it up on that offer.
My hon. Friend makes a good point about maps. That is really important. Now that the mobile network operators are working together, it will hopefully be easier to get that information so that our constituents will be able to see the progress that is being made. He talks encouragingly about the two masts and the changes already happening in his constituency. In relation to local authorities, we are working with the Cabinet Office and having conversations to make sure that local authority infrastructure such as hospitals and schools can also be used to increase and improve connectivity in these communities.
Will the Secretary of State straightforwardly confirm that the deadline set out in her party’s 2017 manifesto will not now be achieved? Competition between mobile providers has been very fruitful for consumers over the past 20 years, particularly in reducing call charges. How will Ministers make sure that future fruitful competition will not be blunted by this collaboration?
We are not nationalising the mobile network operators—they have come forward with a plan to work together, which is a very good sign. One of the key elements we will need to get this right and to follow the legal processes is to be compliant with competition law. The right hon. Gentleman invites me to say that earlier targets are not necessarily going to be met. Of course, we have not yet reached the end of this Parliament. Actually, I think that his constituents, like mine, are interested in what we are going to do rather than necessarily always looking at the numbers.
This is very good news for Staffordshire. Even around the Lichfield area we have notspots. What consideration did my right hon. Friend’s Department give to roaming? If roaming were permitted, as it already is for 999 calls, this could be introduced so much quicker.
I thank my hon. Friend for his welcome for this network. I am delighted that it is going to benefit Staffordshire and all parts of the United Kingdom. The mobile network operators have proposed, and we agree with them, that it will be much better for consumers because it will be much more consistent. The thing about roaming is that people get passed from network operator to network operator, so there is more risk of the signal falling out, whereas in this way they stay with their network operator as they travel across the United Kingdom, and therefore the signal is much more likely to remain consistent.
My constituency runs along the M4 corridor, and I have been raising the specific issue of the south Wales valleys with the Secretary of State’s predecessors and previous digital Ministers for the three and a half years that I have been in this House. Large areas of my constituency have no coverage, and my valleys are blamed for that. Can she set out what specific support will be available for south Wales valley communities, and will she consider using areas such as the M4 to improve connectivity?
I am happy to meet the hon. Gentleman, or the Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, my hon. Friend the Member for Boston and Skegness (Matt Warman), will be. Unfortunately, although I have many powers, moving mountains and valleys is not one of them—there is a limit to what I am able to do, but perhaps in due course, who knows? We would need to talk to the mobile network operators about their proposals in relation to the infrastructure needed for the future and for masts in particular. As I said in my statement, this proposal will deliver additional coverage to 16,000 km of roads, and I certainly hope that the M4 corridor will be one of those.
This announcement is hugely welcome for the people of Lincolnshire, who are suffering from notspots. What can I do to ensure that Lincolnshire gets access to the network earlier rather than later between now and 2025?
I thank my hon. Friend. She might want to take a leaf out of the book of my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy), by working with the mobile network operators to map where they have coverage and masts and where they think they will need new infrastructure, to ensure that this coverage can be delivered. I know that she will be very active in lobbying for that, to benefit her constituents.
I, too, welcome today’s announcement. As you know, Mr Speaker, I have said countless times in this place that connectivity in my constituency is very patchy and simply not good enough, so I am grateful for this. I want to ask the Secretary of State to do two things. First, can she ask her private office to provide a big map of Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross. Secondly, can she write to the Scottish Government saying, “Could you give us a list of all the bad parts of Jamie Stone’s constituency?” and then put them on her map, for them to be ticked off one by one?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for welcoming this announcement. I am sure that my private office will be listening with great interest to his request for a map and details of the coverage. That would be a good thing to provide, with as much detail as we can, so I will certainly ask the operators about that.
The shared rural network will be welcomed in East Hampshire, but what my constituents will most want to know is when they will see things improve in their area.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his question. He is right; this is about people being able to see improved coverage. That is why it is important that the mobile network operators conclude the binding legal agreement, so that we are able to map, have milestones for when the coverage will be delivered and understand exactly what infrastructure is needed and which operators need to share infrastructure more. I hope that he will play his part as the local MP by asking operators those questions, and we will certainly play our part in ensuring that they reveal that information to MPs.
I echo the wide welcome for my right hon. Friend’s announcement from those Government Members who represent rural constituencies, as well as from some Opposition Members, excluding those on the shadow Front Bench, who do not know what “rural” means. My right hon. Friend referred to the emergency services network and making massive improvements to coverage in the road network, which is excellent. Could she also encourage the operators to improve the signal on our rail network? Many of us are unable to work while travelling to and from this place by rail.
I thank my right hon. Friend for that challenge. He is right; improving rail connectivity remains a significant ambition. I have spoken to the Secretary of State for Transport about that. There are some other challenges, but we are working out how we can do that. I am pleased to say that in the latest franchise, there was a greater requirement for on-board connectivity, and I hope that we will be able to see that throughout the network.
I welcome this announcement. As my right hon. Friend knows, parts of Kent have worse coverage than Kabul. Will she tell me a bit about her 5G plans? I believe that there will be an announcement tomorrow about China’s possible involvement in our network. Does she agree that that poses a major danger to the Five Eyes community and that US sanctions against Huawei would leave us looking like we had just signed a long-term lease for business space with WeWork?
I thank the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee. I am not able to say much about this for very obvious reasons. A decision will be announced in due course. I just want to say two things to the House. The first is that high-risk vendors have never been and never will be in our most sensitive networks. The second is that the security and resilience of the UK’s telecoms network is of paramount importance. We will bear both of those things in our minds when making any decisions.
As an MP for one of the largest constituencies in the UK with a large number of notspots, I do welcome this announcement, but my right hon. Friend will be aware that many of the people who do not have a mobile service also do not have a broadband service. Given the abject failure of the SNP Scottish Government to deliver on any of their broadband targets, will she say today that those people who do not have broadband will be prioritised in the roll-out of this initiative?
My right hon. Friend makes the very important point that connectivity is obviously of paramount importance. Having been driven through his constituency not long ago, when I had the experience of the signal dropping out, I know how important it is. He makes a good point about prioritisation, which I will discuss with the operators, but he makes an even better point about the fact that the Scottish Government, having promised much on broadband, have not so far delivered. I hope that people in his constituency and elsewhere will be mindful of that whenever they come to visit the polls.
This is obviously great news for my constituents in North Cornwall. The issue was highlighted back in 2014 when the then Prime Minister had to cut short a holiday because of a known notspot that we have. It does not just affect tourism; it is also affecting business investment in the south-west. May I urge the Secretary of State to do all she can to avoid the two-tier system we have with urban and rural communities?
I thank my hon. Friend very much. I well remember visiting his constituency when he was seeking to be elected, and he has been a doughty champion for better connectivity across his part of Cornwall for many years since his election. He makes a really important point. One of the reasons why we are announcing this and why my right hon. Friend the Chancellor announced the £5 billion for rural broadband is that we want to make sure that our rural areas are absolutely not left behind and that the focus is not just on our urban areas. Both areas need to be better connected, and we need to do it at the same time.
May I thank my right hon. Friend and the Prime Minister for the breakneck speed at which they have turned this around following my PMQ last Wednesday on this very subject? This is obviously very welcome news to my constituents and businesses and a real boost to the local economy, and it is great to see the UK Government working with the mobile providers. It is good news for everyone in Angus. Could she make it even better news by shortening the time the project will take to be completed?
My hon. Friend asked a brilliant question at Prime Minister’s questions last week, and I am very pleased that we have been able to answer her request quite so quickly. She has asked another very good question today, and that is a real challenge. We will obviously have to see exactly how quickly the roll-out can happen, but she is a doughty champion for her constituency of Angus, and I will come back to her on exactly when it can expect to get that better connectivity.
I welcome the statement and my constituents in North Dorset will as well, probably with the caveat that it is about time. May I take my right hon. Friend back to the planning issue? Can she keep the planning team’s and Ministers’ toes to the fire on this? It is all well and good having the policies in place, and they do need updating, but their speedy implementation to get the right decisions to deliver the network are key, and local government has the key that unlocks it.
I thank my hon. Friend very much. I should just warn him and probably all right hon. and hon. Members that better connectivity may of course mean more emails and phone calls from those we seek to represent, which I know is something we will all relish. He is right about the planning system, and we absolutely will keep those feet to the fire. We are working very closely with colleagues in the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government to make sure those reforms can go through. We obviously need to have a consultation, but we also want to break through these barriers.
May I welcome enthusiastically this announcement? It really beggars belief to listen to the negativity of the SNP. Given its lack of delivery in government in Scotland, SNP Members have a nerve to talk about our Government. Since Stirling is the third worst constituency in Scotland for mobile phone coverage, may I ask my right hon. Friend why it is right that my constituents should continue to have to pay the full rate of charge for a mobile service they do not enjoy?
My hon. Friend has raised an important question about customer service. He is a doughty champion for Stirling, and he has brought the issue of better connectivity to my attention. I was happy to accept the challenge, and that is why I wanted to get this announcement out as soon as possible. I hope he will agree that this is a good day for connectivity in Scotland. Of course, Stirling is, I think, one of the first gigabit cities or first fibre cities, but we need to go further, and I know he will be at the heart of making sure that that happens.
On Huawei, will the Secretary of State accept that we need debate prior to decisions being made? On this issue, will she explain how the £500 million will improve coverage on the Isle of Wight?
I thank my hon Friend very much indeed. The issue of a debate is obviously one for the Leader of the House of Commons and the usual channels to discuss, but I know that Ministers will have heard his request.
In relation to the Isle of Wight—a place I know well from my family history—I very much hope that, if he is able, as the local MP, to work with the operators to find out what issues there are relating to masts and any other blockages there might be, we will be able to improve the connectivity. We in the Department will play our part to support him in that.
May I lobby my right hon. Friend hard on behalf of the new unitary authority, Dorset Council, which has submitted bids for better rural connectivity? Can we please have the money, because we need it to create the jobs and prosperity that we desperately need?
I thank my hon. Friend very much indeed. I accept that lobbying request. He is right to say that there are always opportunities for funding bids. He is also right to point out—which he does as a champion for Dorset and his constituency—that with better connectivity comes the opportunity for more employment, more prosperity and more productivity. That is why this Government want to introduce better connectivity right the way across the United Kingdom.
On behalf of the people of West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine—yet another vast rural Scottish constituency with its fair share of notspots—I enthusiastically welcome the announcement made today. Does my right hon. Friend agree that nobody should be punished or treated like a second-class citizen just by virtue of where they choose to live and work in our country?
I thank my hon. Friend very much indeed. He is absolutely right that this Government do not want to draw a distinction between people who live in an urban or a rural area as far as connectivity is concerned. Everybody needs greater connectivity; it is an important way to enjoy the new technologies, to prosper, to build productivity and to support small businesses and households. That is why we are taking it so seriously and why I hope, particularly in relation to Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales, that people will see this as a great announcement.
Points of Order
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. The revealing internal documents leaked to the Financial Times over the weekend go to the very heart of the issue with the withdrawal agreement Bill and give us a glimpse of the Government’s true intentions on workers’ rights. Last week, the Prime Minister stood up and said time and again that they would keep the “highest possible standards” on workers’ rights. However, in private, members of the Government are discussing the very opposite among themselves.
Just to be clear, these documents talk about “binding commitments” on workers’ rights being “successfully resisted”. I want to know how we get to the truth and how working people get to the truth. I would like to know how we get either the Prime Minister or the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy to clarify this vital matter of national importance.
I have not received any indication of an intention by a Minister to make an oral statement to the House, but the hon. Lady’s words will have been heard by those on the Treasury Bench. In so far as she seeks my counsel on how best to proceed with this matter, that advice is persist, persist, persist. Use the Order Paper. Go to the Table Office. Air the concerns. As I often say in this place, repetition is not a novel phenomenon in the House of Commons. Keep going. Do not give up. Never say die.
I will come to the hon. Gentleman. I am saving him up as a delectation of the House and a special taste.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. We all come to this place to fight for our constituents. From the very first day, I have used every avenue afforded to me to fight to keep A&E and women and children’s services in Telford. I have had 25 parliamentary questions, six parliamentary debates, 15 meetings with Ministers and 29 letters. Is it in order for the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care to announce his decision on a six-year-long campaign of such importance to my constituents without meeting Telford’s elected representative to advise me of his decision, without notifying me by letter of his decision and without responding to multiple letters on the subject? Am I correct in my understanding, Mr Speaker, that all Ministers, as a matter of courtesy to the constituents we represent, have a duty to respond to and engage with Members on important constituency matters, no matter how junior the Member and no matter how important the Minister?
Well, I am certainly not suggesting that the hon. Lady is junior. She is now an experienced Member of the House. But in any case, in one very important respect—the most important respect—all Members in this place are equal: all Members have a responsibility to seek to advance the interests of their constituents. This is not, strictly speaking, a matter of order for the Chair. I am most grateful to her for ventilating her concerns and for her courtesy in giving me advance notice of her intention to do so—as well as informing me that she has given notice to the Secretary of State—but I can certainly confirm that the way in which Ministers respond to hon. Members on important constituency matters should in no way be affected by length of service of the constituency Member. I am moderately surprised by this, because the right hon. Member for West Suffolk (Matt Hancock) is a very keen Minister and he has not suffered over the years from a deficit of ambition. I think that the right hon. Gentleman would be gravely concerned to have incurred the hon. Lady’s wrath. My hunch is that a letter of concern and possibly even of apology will be winging its way to the hon. Lady, accompanied by offers of cups of tea and urgent meetings, because of the solicitous concern of the Secretary of State for the hon. Lady’s constituents, and, possibly, for his own future wellbeing. We will leave it there for now. She has done a very sensible thing in raising it in the Chamber. I congratulate her on her foresight.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. There has been much discussion about whether a general election will or will not take place in the near future. I am concerned that any general election campaign might cover the Remembrance weekend. It is enormously important to many people to pay our respects to those who gave the ultimate sacrifice and to veterans, families and others. Can you give some guidance on the position we can take, as an MP or as someone standing to become an MP, in laying wreaths on that day?
I think the safest answer to that question—I appreciate the hon. Gentleman’s concern—is that it would very much be a matter for local determination. There is, of course, a difference between a sitting Member and a selected or reselected candidate for Parliament. How that matter is treated in individual constituencies will, I think, rather depend on those organising the services. My advice to the hon. Gentleman is that, with the beatific smile for which he is renowned in all parts of the House and appropriate courtesy at local level, he should make inquiries and he may find satisfaction.
Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. That is an important point. It is in your gift I believe, Mr Speaker, to determine whether Members, or perhaps former Members in the case of an election, are allowed to use the Portcullis wreaths. Could you determine that for us, please?
I will certainly take advice on it—I am very grateful to the right hon. Gentleman—and if, having taken advice, I have something to report to him and to the House, I will.
Early Parliamentary General Election
I beg to move,
That there shall be an early parliamentary general election.
I think it is fair to say that nobody in this House relishes the idea of a general election, because nobody wants to put the public to this inconvenience—[Interruption.]—particularly, as one hon. Gentleman says, during this season. But across the country, there is a widespread view that this Parliament has run its course, and that is because I simply do not believe that this House is capable of delivering on the priorities of the people, whether that means Brexit or anything else.
Of course, I would rather get Brexit done. I share the blazing urgency of many colleagues across the House. Indeed, last Tuesday, we briefly allowed hope to bloom in our hearts when, for the first time in three and a half years, Parliament voted for a deal to take this country out of the EU, and I repeat my admiration for the way MPs came together across the House to do that. In many ways, it was an astonishing moment. They said that we would never reopen the withdrawal agreement. They said that we would never be able to get rid of the backstop. They said we would never do a new deal with the EU. We did all of them. They said we would never get Parliament to agree.
I thank my right hon. Friend for all he is doing to get Brexit done. In his preparations for a no-deal Brexit, can he make sure that there is plenty of corn feed for the election chickens on the Opposition Benches?
Elegantly put, and thanks to the work of the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, our preparations for a no-deal Brexit are very thorough indeed. But alas, as I have said, we have not been able to get Parliament to agree. There was a tantalising moment when I thought that Parliament was going to do the sensible thing, and then this House threw out the programme motion, at the urgings of the Opposition, at the final hurdle, as they intended all along. They made it inevitable that the people of this country would be retained in the EU against their will for at least another three months, at a cost of another £1 billion a month. [Interruption.] I hear cries from those on the Opposition Benches to bring the Bill back. I have offered that and I continue to offer it. I wanted, and I still want so badly, to accommodate this House.
Those of us on the Government Benches have compromised. Last week, I wrote to the Leader of the Opposition offering him more time for debate—days more in Committee, days more in the Lords, the ability to sit round the clock if necessary, and all last weekend—with only one condition: that he would agree to do what all Leaders of the Opposition are meant to yearn, crave and campaign for and have a general election on 12 December. I offered him that chance and I offer it again today. [Interruption.] He turned us down on Thursday and Friday. I offer again today to use all the hours God gives to scrutinise this Bill, provided that that scrutiny concludes in time for an election on 12 December.
Let us be clear: that is enough time to scrutinise this Bill. It was a remarkable feature of the debate last week on the new deal that not only were there no new ideas in that debate, but the Opposition actually ran out of speakers in the debate. [Interruption.] They want more time—they ran out of speakers. The people of this country can see the reality. They are not interested in scrutinising Brexit. They are not interested in debating Brexit. They just want to delay Brexit and cancel Brexit. If the House is to convince the country that it is serious about getting Brexit done, there must be a fixed term to this debate—a parliamentary terminus, a hard stop—that everybody can believe in.
To make this matter easy for those of us on the DUP Benches, could the Prime Minister confirm to the House whether, if he is successful and achieves a general election, he will seek a mandate on the basis of the withdrawal agreement that the House voted for last week, or whether he will seek to change that withdrawal agreement?
I can tell the House that we have an excellent deal for the whole of the UK and that we will campaign on the basis of that deal. If the hon. Gentleman wants more time to debate and scrutinise it, as I take it from his question he does, he can have it, but we must have 12 December as a hard stop, a parliamentary terminus, that everybody can believe in.
An election would fulfil exactly that purpose. It would allow a new Parliament and a new Government to be in place by Christmas. Without that hard stop of an election, without that moment of truth, the electorate will, I am afraid, have a sense that we are all like Charlie Brown, endlessly running up to kick the ball, only to have Parliament whisk it away yet again, only to find that Parliament is willing to go on delaying and delaying, to the end of January, to February and beyond. The frustration will go on, the anxiety will go on, and the angst and uncertainty felt by millions of people and businesses across the country will be unnecessarily and unfairly prolonged and exacerbated. That is what the Opposition’s course condemns the country to.
If I am wrong, the remedy is very simple: the Opposition—the Leader of the Opposition and all his cohorts on the Front Bench—can vote for this motion tonight. Then we can bring the Bill back and get Brexit done and then go our separate ways and make our cases to the country to reboot our politics in the way our people want. If he does not wish to take that opportunity —if he wants simply to delay Brexit and frustrate yet again the democratic will of 17.4 million people, frustrate democracy in this country—I am afraid we must have an election now. We cannot continue with this endless delay.
I don’t know about you, Mr Speaker, but I think the Leader of the Opposition has now run out of excuses for running away. First he said of the Benn Act:
“Let this Bill pass and gain Royal Assent, and then we will back an election”—[Official Report, 4 September 2019; Vol. 664, c. 292.]
The Bill passed and gained Royal Assent, but he still shrank from an encounter with the voters. Then he said he would wait until the Act had been complied with. The letter was sent over a week ago—not my letter, of course, but Parliament’s letter—and he is still coming up with ever more ludicrous excuses for hiding from the British people. Now he says we have to take no deal off the table at the end of the transition period in December 2020. I repeat: he wants to take no deal off the table at the end of the transition period in December 2020. Of course I think his so-called anxieties are absurd, because I am confident that we will negotiate a fantastic new trade deal. [Interruption.] If the Opposition vote for this motion, we will bring the Bill back. We will negotiate a fantastic new trade deal that will bring thousands of new jobs to businesses and communities across this country.
Even if the Leader of the Opposition disagrees, would it not make sense, even according to his logic, for him to agree to an election now, so that he can have the opportunity to take no deal off the table himself? Is that not the logic of his position? He can run, but he cannot hide forever. Across Parliament, his supposed allies are deserting. The SNP, I now read, is in favour of an election. The Liberal Democrats are in favour of an election. What an incredible state of affairs. There is one party tonight that is actually against a general election. There is one party that does not trust the people of this country, and that is the principal party of opposition. I hope that the Leader of the Opposition accepts tonight that he is snookered and that this charade has gone on for long enough, and that he will agree to allow Brexit to get done and then allow us to make our cases to the people.
When that election comes, the people of this country will have to make a choice between a Government who deliver, a Government who not only got a great Brexit deal when others said it was impossible but who are putting 20,000 more police on the streets, delivering the biggest hospital building programme in a generation, investing £14 billion more in our schools and levelling up education funding across the country—a great one-nation Conservative Government, which is what we represent—and a Labour Opposition who would turn the year 2020 into a toxic, tedious torture of two more referendums, one on the EU and one on Scotland. That is the choice.
It is time for the Leader of the Opposition to move his rusty Trabant from the yellow box junction where it is currently blocking progress, and it is time for us to get Brexit done by 12 December and then go to the people. It is now overwhelmingly clear that the only way to get Brexit done is to go to the people of this country, and I believe it is time that we all, each and every one of us in this House, had the courage finally to face our ultimate bosses, the people of this country.
I commend the motion to the House.
This is a Prime Minister who cannot be trusted. Having illegally prorogued Parliament for five weeks for his Queen’s Speech, he now abandons that Queen’s Speech. He got his deal through on Second Reading, then abandoned it. He promised us a Budget on 6 November, and then he abandoned that too. He said he would never ask for an extension, and he said he would rather die in a ditch—another broken promise! Every promise this Prime Minister makes, he abandons. He said he would take us out of the European Union by 31 October—[Interruption.]
Order. Let us have some measure of decorum in the debate.
The Prime Minister said he would take us out of the European Union by 31 October, do or die.
Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?
The Prime Minister spent £100 million—£100 million— on an advertising campaign to leave on 31 October, but failed to deliver. This is serious, Mr Speaker. The National Audit Office says that the campaign “failed to resonate”. I ask the Prime Minister, and I ask this House: with that £100 million, how many nurses could have been hired, how many parcels could have been funded at food banks, how many social care packages could have been funded for our elderly? The Prime Minister has failed because he has chosen to fail, and now he seeks to blame Parliament. That is £100 million of misspent public money.
At the weekend, we learned from the former Chancellor that the Prime Minister’s deal was offered to the former Prime Minister 18 months ago, but she rejected it as being not good enough for the United Kingdom. We have a rejected and recycled deal that has been misrepresented by Ministers in this House, no doubt inadvertently. The Prime Minister said, in terms, there would be no checks on goods between Great Britain and Northern Ireland; the Brexit Secretary himself has confirmed that there will be. The Prime Minister made promises to Labour Members about workers’ rights; I remember his saying, with all the concentration he could muster, that workers’ rights would be protected by him. The leak to the Financial Times on Saturday shows these promises simply cannot be trusted. He says the NHS is off the table for any trade deal, yet a majority of the British public do not trust him. And why should they? Thanks to a Channel 4 “Dispatches” programme—[Interruption.] This is actually quite an important point that the Prime Minister might care to listen to. [Interruption.] I will go through it again: thanks to—[Interruption.]
Order. The right hon. Gentleman is entirely at liberty to do so. If there are people trying to shout the Leader of the Opposition down, stop it; it is deeply low grade.
As I was saying, thanks to a Channel 4 “Dispatches” programme we learn that secret meetings—[Interruption.] Conservative Members might find this funny, but actually it is quite serious for our national health service.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I understand that the annunciators may not have been working in the offices of Labour MPs, because most of them have not chosen to turn up today. Can that be investigated?
It does not need to be investigated at all. Unfortunately, it is not even a very good try at a bogus point of order; as the smile on the face of the hon. Gentleman readily testifies, it is a very substandard attempt.
I think this section is very important, so I will go through it again. Thanks to a Channel 4 “Dispatches” programme we learn that secret meetings have taken place between UK Government officials and representatives of US pharmaceutical firms at which the price of national health service drugs has been discussed.
We have a Prime Minister who will say anything and do anything to get his way. He will avoid his responsibilities and break his promises to dodge scrutiny. And today he wants an election and his Bill. Well, not with our endorsement. He says he wants an election on 12 December. How can we trust him to stick to that date when we do not yet have legal confirmation of the extension? The Prime Minister has not formally accepted, and the other 27 have not confirmed following that acceptance. The reason I am so cautious is quite simply that I do not trust the Prime Minister.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I am afraid that the Leader of the Opposition is mistaken. As I have always said, this Government obey the law. We have complied with the law, and that has taken its course. Parliament asked for this delay, and now it is up to the right hon. Gentleman to go to the country in a general election. That is what he should do.