House of Commons
Monday 13 January 2020
The House met at half-past Two o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Business Before Questions
That there be laid before this House Returns for Session 2019 of information and statistics relating to:
(1) Business of the House
(2) Closure of Debate, Proposal of Question and Allocation of Time (including Programme Motions)
(3) Sittings of the House
(4) Private Bills and Private Business
(5) Public Bills
(6) Delegated Legislation and Legislative Reform Orders
(7) European Legislation, etc
(8) Grand Committees
(9) Panel of Chairs
(10) Select Committees.—(The Chairman of Ways and Means.)
Oral Answers to Questions
Housing, Communities and Local Government
The Secretary of State was asked—
Local Government Finance
Next year’s settlement for local government responds to the pressures facing councils by providing access to the largest year-on-year increase in spending power for a decade. Core spending power is expected to rise from £46.2 billion to £49.1 billion in 2020-21—an estimated 4.4% real-terms increase.
Big-city authorities such as Manchester have been hit hardest by the cuts at the same time as they have had to deal with the extra costs of deprivation, such as high demand on social care budgets, poor health, and homelessness, with big cities being magnets for homeless people from the wider region. What guarantees can the Minister give that those pressures will be reflected properly in the new funding formula?
Manchester City Council will receive a £30.9 million increase in the provisional settlement—a 7% rise that includes 17.6% in additional adult social care grant. Decisions on the future funding formula are to be taken in the weeks ahead, but we will release some provisional figures in the coming weeks for working groups to look at.
If the Government are to deliver on their commitment to the north, combined authorities must receive fair funding. The Government have promised to level up throughout the country, so will the Minister confirm that in any new devolution deal funding for West Yorkshire Combined Authority will match that of any other combined authority, such as Greater Manchester, on a per-head basis?
Negotiations on the deal are ongoing, but we are optimistic about the future. We can confirm that Bradford Council will receive an increase of £25.6 million in the settlement—a 6.4% real-terms rise in core spending power on last year.
One local government problem that is becoming more expensive is the repair and reopening of Hammersmith bridge. On that and the reopening of Harwood Terrace, will my hon. Friend tell the London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham to get on with it so that we can get traffic moving again in west London? Will my hon. Friend or the Secretary of State agree to meet me to discuss the matter?
My right hon. Friend has been working hard on this issue on behalf of his constituents, and I am happy to meet him to discuss it in the weeks ahead.
May I welcome the real-terms increase for local authorities over the next two years, which is the result of our balanced approach to the economy? Will my hon. Friend update the House on the steps his Department is taking to make councils more efficient?
May I welcome my hon. Friend to his place in the House? He is already looking to be a champion for his community. We are of course working with local authorities to make sure that they can become more efficient, especially in respect of digital transformation. My hon. Friend’s local authority and those throughout the country will have access in the coming year to the 4.4% real-terms rise in core spending power.
Happy new year to you, Mr Speaker.
It is 173 days—almost 25 weeks or almost six months—since the Secretary of State was appointed, so it is nice that we finally have local government questions. With local government in crisis, children’s services, which are included in that, are also in crisis. According to the Tory-led Local Government Association, the number of children in care is up 28%, child protection plans are up 53%, and there has been a staggering 139% increase in serious cases. With the funding gap growing to £3.1 billion by 2025, sticking plasters will not do, so will the Minister now commit finally to fix this crisis and ensure that his Chancellor fully funds children’s services in future?
This is the best provisional local government settlement for almost 10 years: a 4.4% rise in real-terms funding and a £2.9 billion increase in local government spending. We propose to allow local authorities to set council tax increases of up to 2%, and another 2% for adult social care. It is a positive settlement and I hope the hon. Gentleman will support it in the weeks ahead.
Building Better, Building Beautiful
We want a planning system that encourages beautiful development, guards against ugliness and is based on stewardship and place- making. That is why we convened the Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission, which submitted its report to me in December.
May I take this opportunity to pay tribute to the commission’s co-chair, Sir Roger Scruton, who died yesterday? Sir Roger was an intellectual giant, a brilliant writer and a fearless fighter for freedom, not least in eastern Europe, and he made a unique contribution to public life.
I thank the Secretary of State for that answer, and I associate myself with his remarks about Sir Roger Scruton.
Will the Secretary of State confirm whether he will implement the Letwin review and whether his Department plans to capture development value to fund infrastructure as well as encourage sustainable building with very high-quality design? Will he meet me and a delegation from the Academy of Urbanism to discuss these ideas?
I thank my hon. Friend for her question. We are currently reviewing the recommendations of the commission and I shall respond in due course. I would be very happy to meet her and representatives from the Academy for Urbanism.
As regards capturing uplifts in land value, local planning authorities already use section 106 and the community infrastructure levy to pay for crucial affordable housing and infrastructure, and, as a result of changes we have made recently, there will shortly be greater transparency so that residents can see where this money is going.
I have absolutely no idea whether co-operative housing is likely to benefit from the Government’s Building Better, Building Beautiful initiative, but by my definition it certainly should. Would the Secretary of State be willing to meet me and a small delegation from the co-op housing movement to see whether there can be a replication here in the UK of the successes that co-ops have had in the US in housing veterans and other people?
I would be very happy to meet the hon. Gentleman. The recommendations of the commission that we will publish shortly speak to all forms of housing, including co-operative housing and social housing, where, of course, there have been some fantastic examples of good quality design, not least the RIBA award-winning new social homes in Norwich.
The question refers to simplifying the planning system, but one of its many complications is that there is no standard methodology for calculating five-year land supply. Will the Government look at this and please address the problem pretty quickly?
We will be giving that further thought. The Government are committed to bringing forward a new White Paper on planning reform. I will work closely with the Chancellor to draw up those proposals, and I would be very happy to speak with my hon. Friend and take his views as we do so.
May I welcome the Secretary of State back? Given the turnover of Housing Ministers, I trust that his first oral questions in the post will not also be his last. The Conservatives’ failure on planning is at the heart of their failure on housing. Their permitted development loophole lets developers sidestep the planning rules and build modern-day slum housing. It has been in place for four years now, so can he say whether the number of new affordable homes being built has gone up or down directly as a result of this planning change?
May I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his remarks? Permitted development rights are subject to a review, and we have consulted stakeholders. He is right to say that there are some examples of poor practice, and I will carefully consider the information we have received before coming forward with proposals. Those rights have led to a large number of net additions that would not otherwise have been brought forward. That is important, and it is a contributing factor to the fact that, last year, we delivered more homes than any other for 30 years. Therefore, the planning reforms taken forward by my predecessors, which I will take forward with my new White Paper, have contributed to getting the homes built in this country that we desperately need.
For the record, the number of new social rented homes is at a near record low. Rather than the net additions that the Secretary of State talks about, the Conservative-led Local Government Association says that this policy has led directly to 13,500 fewer new affordable homes. It hits at the heart of the Tory failure on housing: the rules are loosened so that big builders profit while renters and buyers on ordinary incomes lose out. Every Conservative MP should know that they have lost the argument on housing. With Ipsos MORI showing a 17 point lead for Labour over the Conservatives on housing, people know the country has a housing crisis and they know the Conservatives are failing to fix it. The Secretary of State had nothing to say on housing at the election, so what will the Government now do differently to win public confidence on housing?
The right hon. Gentleman is on dangerous ground talking about the general election. He managed to take one of Labour’s safest seats to a marginal seat, and his colleague—the other shadow Secretary of State—was the co-ordinator of the Labour party’s general election campaign. The facts speak for themselves: last year we built more homes in this country than in any other year for 30 years; we built 1 million homes in the last Parliament and will build at least 1 million homes in the next Parliament; more affordable homes were built under this Conservative Government than under the last Labour Government; and we built more council houses last year than in the 13 years of the last Labour Government.
We have delivered more than 1.5 million new homes since 2010 and last year saw the highest level of delivery in over 30 years, but there is more to do. Later this year I will publish a White Paper on planning reform, an objective of which will be a simpler and faster system for the benefit of everyone, including homeowners, and small and medium-sized builders.
Conservative-led Rugby Borough Council has ambitious plans for social housing in Rugby, replacing unpopular old tower blocks with new, traditional housing. How can the Minister help the council to get on with this as quickly as possible? In particular, what discussions has he had with Treasury colleagues about the interest rate available from the Public Works Loan Board for projects such as this, which provide a very clear social benefit?
We want to build more homes of all types. We have delivered 464,000 new affordable homes since 2010, and we have abolished the housing revenue account cap and established a five-year rent deal. Councils can secure grant funding from the existing affordable homes programme, and I am pleased to say that Rugby Borough Council is benefiting from that. In our manifesto, we said that we would create a successor to the affordable homes programme that is at least as generous. Finance from the Public Works Loan Board plays an important role in these investments. In October the Treasury made an extra £10 billion of lending available, and the interest rate remains very favourable, returning only to 2018 levels.
The housing White Paper provided that developers should start to build within two years of securing planning permission. Will the Minister update the House on what progress has been made to ensure that developers build the homes we need and do not sit on land?
I welcome my hon. Friend to the House. We want to see new homes built as soon as possible once planning permission is granted. She is right to refer to the previous housing White Paper, and this matter will be an important element of the forthcoming planning White Paper. Developers and authorities should be working closely together locally to deliver this, and I will look at whatever is necessary, including amending legislation, to ensure that we build the homes this country needs, and that we do so quickly.
The climate emergency is real and we need to tackle it. Building new homes to a net zero standard must be at the heart of the solution. What action are this new Government going to take?
The hon. Lady is absolutely right. We have committed to the future homes standard, which means that no new home will be built in this country from 2025 unless it has the highest levels of energy efficiency, and low or zero-carbon heating. We are consulting on that and further proposals will be brought forward shortly, meaning that planning applications will be made very shortly for those homes to be delivered post 2025. This will be a major change in the delivery of homes across the country, and a very welcome one.
Thousands of new homes are due to be built at Maghull in my constituency. The developers are reluctant to build an access road, which means that construction traffic will now have to use totally unsuitable residential and rural roads. The experience in Maghull is all too typical. Does this not just show the problems with the planning system that favour developers over existing communities?
I am happy to look into the instance that the hon. Gentleman raises. These matters are usually dealt with by councils in the planning conditions that they choose to set. The role in this for central Government is ensuring that infrastructure flows first—that was one of our manifesto commitments—so that GP surgeries, roads and schools flow at an appropriate time. We are going to take that forward. In the previous Parliament we created the housing infrastructure fund, which was a huge success and has delivered billions of pounds of infrastructure. We have committed to create a new version of that, which the Chancellor and I will be announcing shortly and will be larger and longer-term than its predecessor.
It is a pleasure to see you in your Chair, Mr Speaker.
I thank the Secretary of State for recently visiting Telford. It was very much appreciated that he came to a new-build development where we have been having some difficult issues. As a new town, Telford experiences a very rapid rate of house building that can be overwhelming for communities and for local services. What steps is his Department taking to ensure good practice by developers and adequate local services for residents?
It was a pleasure to visit Telford—a town that, as my hon. Friend knows, I know well. Telford is one of the fastest-growing towns in the country. While there are many examples of good-quality development —she took me to Lightmoor Village, being built with the Bournville Village Trust—there have been examples, on which she has fought for her constituents, of poor-quality development. Developers need to build high-quality, well-designed and safe homes, and we will take the steps necessary to ensure that they do. One step we are taking forward is the creation of a new homes ombudsman, which has been led in recent months by —now—my hon. Friend the Member for Dover (Mrs Elphicke). We will put that on a statutory footing in due course.
Councils built 26,185 affordable homes between 2010-11 and 2018-19, up from just 2,994 over the previous 13 years under a Labour Administration. We are giving councils the tools to deliver a new generation of council housing. In 2018, we lifted the borrowing caps for councils to deliver 10,000 new homes a year by 2021-22.
But last year 6,287 homes for social rent were built and 10,000 lost were due to right to buy and other conversions. That was a loss of 4,000 social rented homes in our country. Is it not time, first, that the Government used net figures rather than these fantasy “built” figures; and, secondly, that we really reviewed right to buy, allowing councils good conditions and restrictions where there are areas of stress and ensuring that the discount carries on rather than just being pocketed by the individual?
The hon. Gentleman will be pleased to know that we are consulting on right to buy to see what we can do with the sales receipts. Let me say what this Government have done to support councils in building. We increased to £9 billion the size of the affordable homes programme to which councils can apply. We have reintroduced social rents. We have removed the HRA borrowing caps for local authorities and given £2 billion to housing authorities to help with the ability to increase purchases and build by councils. So this Government are doing far more. Under this Government, social housing has gone up by 79,000, but in the previous 13 years under Labour it fell by 420,000.
There are currently over 20,000 people on the council housing waiting list in Cornwall, yet we are in the ridiculous situation where private pension providers can invest in business development but not in residential development. Will the Secretary of State look at making representations to the Treasury to allow pension providers to invest in social residential housing?
My hon. Friend makes a very good suggestion. That is exactly what the Secretary of State will be looking at—how we get that investment into the housing structure. Under this Government, council housing waiting lists have come down by nearly half a million.
If the Minister is keen to talk about what is happening elsewhere, she will be interested to know that in the last five years, the SNP Government in Scotland have built 80% more affordable housing per head of population than England and twice as much as Wales. When will the British Government catch on to the fact that the housing crisis will not be solved unless they invest adequately in social rented housing?
Obviously, this is a devolved matter, but I want to look at what this Government have done. We have delivered many more affordable homes—nearly 460,000. That is what this Government are all about—ensuring that people have the homes they need when they need them. We are looking to extend all types of home. We are tenure-blind, and we are delivering more homes.
That is all good and well, but there is no point when the Conservative party manifesto commits to promoting and extending the right to buy—one of Margaret Thatcher’s biggest disasters in terms of policy. In Scotland, we ended the right to buy, protecting existing social rented homes and preventing the sale of 15,500 homes over a decade. Why can the Minister not see and understand that it is totally senseless to build new social housing, only to flog it off afterwards?
We believe in home ownership. The right to buy has helped 2 million people get on the housing ladder. Since 2010, nearly 600,000 households have been helped to purchase a home through either right to buy or help to buy, and we are ensuring that the money from the right to buy is helping more homes to be built. In fact, we have sold 119,000 homes, which has helped to build 140,000 more homes. That is what we will continue to do—allow people to own their own homes and support all people at every stage of life in every home they need.
The Minister is completely right that the housing supply jigsaw has many pieces, so we will continue to pump billions of pounds into housing associations such as Walsall Housing Group in my constituency, which has an innovative partnership with Lovell to build 250 mixed tenure houses on the former Caparo engineering works, a brownfield site. Is that the future?
It certainly is. My hon. Friend hits the nail on the head, and he has a lot of expertise in this area. As I have said, our party is tenure-blind, and we help people along the steps to ownership, to get the house they need at the time they need it, knowing that most people want to own their own home.
It is the aspiration of every individual in this country to own their own home, but many local authorities that have built council housing have deliberately set up housing companies to frustrate the right to buy. Will my right hon. Friend look at outlawing that practice, so that people who are tenants in their homes get the right to buy and own their own home?
We will look closely at anybody who is frustrating people’s dream and desire to own their own home. We will continue with the right to buy. We will look at how those receipts are being used, so that we can maximise the new homes being built. Under Labour, 170 right-to-buy receipts bought one new home. Now, we are getting more homes built through the right to buy, and having sold 119,000 homes, we have built 140,000 more.
The Conservatives’ deep cuts to new council and social housing are part of the reason why homelessness has risen so rapidly over the last 10 years. Every day, hundreds of us see the increasing number of homeless people and their belongings in Westminster station and outside this building, but their plight is the same as that of thousands of others across the country who find themselves trying to find somewhere dry and safe to sleep. Does the Minister accept that, if the Tories had simply continued building social rented homes at the level left by Labour, there would now be 200,000 more social rented homes for those who need them, including those who are homeless on Parliament’s doorstep?
What we all know is that, for a long period, demand has outstripped supply. That is why this Government are building more homes, with more homes built in the last year than in the last 30 years. We have delivered 1.5 million more homes since 2010, and we will continue to do that. Of course, we have also brought in initiatives for rough sleeping and homeless people. We have to be fully aware of that, and this Conservative Government are doing a lot more to help those people.
Local Government Funding: Crime and Disorder
This Department has ongoing discussions with the Home Office on multiple issues, including tackling crime. The provisional local government finance settlement confirmed an increase of £2.9 billion in resources for local government this year. This Government are also providing targeted funding support for partnership working between the police, councils and other partners.
The front five pages of the Cambridge News today detail a series of knife crime incidents, drug dealing and general social disorder, which is causing huge concern to my constituents. When I talk to the police about it, they tell me that one of the key reasons is the cuts to all those preventive, early intervention services that have happened over the last few years. Can the Government today please look again at those cuts to local government? They are not cost-effective; they are costing us more and causing huge crime levels and misery.
I genuinely thank the hon. Gentleman for raising this issue. I know that he raises crime in his constituency regularly in the House, including in his Westminster Hall debate late last year. The real-terms increase in the funding settlement for next year does recognise the critical services that councils are delivering, including keeping communities safe. As part of the Government’s drive to recruit 20,000 police officers across the country, 62 are already being recruited in his force area. I am very happy to work with him and discuss it with him in the weeks ahead.
It is with great regret that Humberside’s Labour police and crime commissioner allowed Winterton police station to close. In contrast to that, Conservative-run North Lincolnshire and East Riding of Yorkshire Councils have funded a very innovative safe and sound grant to help elderly residents to stay safe in their home with free security. Is not the real challenge that simply not enough councils and police forces are working closely enough together to share resources, and will the Minister do more to ensure that they do?
I thank my hon. Friend for that question. He raises a really important point about the need for councils and police forces to work together. I commend the work that his Conservative police and crime commissioner is doing, and I highlight the Government’s commitment to recruit 20,000 police officers across our country, with 6,000 police officers being recruited in the next year.
We are committed to reforming the leasehold market so that it is fairer for consumers and the abuses that we have seen in recent years are addressed. To achieve this, we have a comprehensive programme of reform, and we are moving forward with legislation, beginning with the Bill set out in the Queen’s Speech banning new leasehold houses and reducing ground rents on future leases to zero.
The Secretary of State says he is committed to reform. Since 2015, I have come across countless cases of people trapped on iniquitous terms in relation to ground rent, cladding—you name it—and unable to extend without paying through the nose. In that same time, however, the Government have had seven consultations, and there is no concrete legislation about anything they are actually going to do. Can he tell us when he will end this feudal hangover, which is unique to England, once and for all?
The hon. Lady is incorrect. The Queen’s Speech made it clear that we will be bringing forward legislation. We intend to publish a draft Bill shortly, which will take the first steps that I have just described. We are also awaiting the next report of the Law Commission. We have just received one on enfranchisement. It is a very important issue, and I certainly want to take forward its recommendations to ensure a simpler and fairer system. The next report of the Law Commission will be on commonhold. Again, we will be paying close attention to that. At our encouragement, the Competition and Markets Authority is now looking into the mis-selling of leaseholds, which is another important issue. Be under no illusion: we will be taking forward leasehold reform, and soon.
I thank the Secretary of State and his predecessors for the work they have done in commissioning work from the Law Commission that will provide a guide to the way forward. May I put it to the Secretary of State that, as his representatives at the all-party group meeting last week will confirm, there is a whole range of strong issues—the hon. Member for Ealing Central and Acton (Dr Huq) mentioned them—and that the Government, the Select Committee and the whole House need to make sure there is action, not just good intentions?
I thank the Father of the House for the work he has done over many years on this issue. I campaigned on this before I became a Minister. I have seen a number of abuses with respect to leasehold properties, and we want to take action. Now is the time for action. We have the first report from the Law Commission. There will be a further one. There will then be the report from the CMA. Together with the evidence, we will take this into careful consideration and move forward to reform leasehold and put it on a more sustainable footing for the future.
As many of us heard at a meeting here on Thursday night and many of us know from our caseload, so many people are caught in really difficult circumstances because of the issue of cladding. Those leaseholders are mortgage prisoners or their properties are valued at zero. Will the Secretary of State give them some assurance that the Government are taking this seriously and will act fast, because people’s lives are unable to move on while they await a decision on the second type of cladding?
I appreciate the issue the hon. Lady has raised, and I read about the meeting of the all-party group the other day. This is a very serious challenge; I am aware of a number of leaseholders who are struggling to find the finance required to make the necessary changes to their homes. We are giving this careful consideration. We have already provided £600 million for those living in high-rise buildings with ACM cladding so that that work can now proceed at pace, and I will certainly meet with any of the hon. Lady’s constituents who might wish to discuss what further steps the Government can take to unblock this important issue.
May I press my right hon. Friend: will he reassure leaseholders in North West Leicestershire and across the country that the Government will set up a mechanism for them to seek proper redress for their genuine grievances?
Yes, we will.
The Secretary of State rightly refers to action, but when? That is the key question my constituents are asking in the Winnington part of Weaver Vale and Sandymoor. We have had consultation upon consultation; when will there be action? We need action now, not careful consideration.
I appreciate the hon. Gentleman’s remarks, and the north-west has been particularly badly affected by this. The statistics suggest that new-build homes in the north-west peaked at as high as 71% of all new homes being built in 2017—in the first quarter of that year. That has now fallen very considerably as a result of the actions and the statements of this Government and the general anger across this House and across the country at the abuses; that has now fallen to as low as 8%, but we will be legislating and we will outlaw such practices.
This Government are committed to supporting high streets and local leaders up and down the country, and we are doing that through our £1 billion future high street fund, which is part of our larger £3.6 billion towns fund.
As this is our first questions after the festive season I want to take this opportunity to thank all the shopworkers who worked so hard over the Christmas period to enable us to deliver our Christmas presents—and particularly, if I may, Mr Speaker, the workers in the RSPCA shop on Bank Street who sold me the very natty tie I am wearing for 50p only last Friday.
You ought to make a donation.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his reply—and I think his tie is very blue.
My constituency, Cities of London and Westminster, is home to Oxford Street, often referred to as the nation’s high street. Given that local authorities rely heavily on business rate receipts to help encourage more investment into the high street, what plans do the Government have to give councils greater fiscal powers to invest business rates locally?
What an excellent question; I would like to start by welcoming my hon. Friend to her place, and her question is a sign of the expertise that can be brought into this House when we have people with long experience in local government. She will know that local government can currently retain 50% of business rates revenue growth, and councils are able to work with those retained business rates and see what they can do to improve their local areas. I know that as a new and robust Member of this House my hon. Friend will continue her work with Westminster City Council to make sure that that happens.
Towns like Brierley Hill in Dudley South have struggled to compete with nearby retail parks, and also now increasingly with more shopping moving online. Will my right hon. Friend do everything he can to help towns like Brierley Hill adapt to modern economic challenges and also make those town centres places where people want to be?
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State visited Brierley Hill, I am sure to celebrate the fact that it is one of the first 100 places under our future high street fund to receive £150,000 revenue funding to work on the exciting plans to ensure our high streets are fit for the future. My hon. Friend, who is, I think, still the chairman of the all-party group on beer, will be working very hard to make sure our pubs are protected, and we can have micropubs up and down the land.
In recent years Wolverhampton city centre and, in my constituency, local centres such as Wednesfield high street have struggled. I am delighted that Wolverhampton city centre will benefit from the Government’s stronger towns fund, but will the Minister work with me so that local traders and retail businesses all over Wolverhampton North East, including market traders in Wednesfield high street—
Is Wolverhampton a city?
It is a city. Will the Minister work with me so that they feel confident that the Government will support their hard work and further local regeneration?
I am sure that, like me, my hon. Friend is looking forward to playing an active role both in her high street and stronger towns fund bid. The idea behind this is to bring together leaders and communities—Members of Parliament, council leaders, business leaders and third sector groups—to come up with a long-term plan for the improvement of their towns. Whichever side of the House Members sit on, that is absolutely something they will want to see for the area they represent. I look forward to working with my hon. Friend as she takes that role forward.
Speaking to traditional retailers during the election campaign, it is clear that future business rates is a massive issue for them. There is, in particular, a sense that there is not a level playing field between them and the increasingly dominant and massive digital retailers. Will the review of business rates, which we promised in our manifesto, be looking at that?
I welcome my hon. Friend back. He has been a redoubtable campaigner in the area of business rates in his time in Parliament. Working with him and through him, the Government have, since 2016, introduced a £13 billion cut in business rates over the next five years. Should we in this Parliament seek to go further and faster? Yes. We are going to review business rates and I am sure my hon. Friend will play an active role in that review.
Leading on from the issue raised by my fellow colleague from Suffolk, Beales has stores in both Lowestoft and Beccles in my constituency. It is clear that the crippling impact of business rates has been a significant contributory factor to the difficulties it is currently facing. I acknowledge the rates relief the Government have provided to smaller businesses, but may I urge my right hon. Friend to ensure, in the review of business rates that is due to take place, that the Government not only consider root and branch reform but the replacement of rates, too?
My hon. Friend, as a chartered surveyor, is an expert in this area and, like our parliamentary colleague, he has campaigned vigorously and continuously. In terms of the review, everything is going to be reviewed. It will be a joint review between my Department and the Treasury. All ideas, from all sides of the House, about how we improve the health of our high streets and our business community more generally, will certainly be taken on board.
I want to return to the question from the hon. Member for South Suffolk (James Cartlidge), which I do not think the Minister really answered. In the previous Parliament, a unanimously agreed Select Committee report—I think it was generally well received, apart from the response from the Government which was a bit lukewarm—recommended that we address the fundamental imbalance whereby Amazon pays 0.7% of its turnover in business rates and high street shops pay between 2% and 6%. That unfairness needs to be addressed. Will the Government now commit, as part of their business rate review, to look at that unfairness and at how we can rebalance tax, so that digital sales pay more and high street sales pay less?
I am sure the hon. Gentleman will not complain if I just take the opportunity to wish him a happy birthday. What a great question to ask on his birthday. If he listened to the answers I gave, I was absolutely clear that this will be a fundamental and wide-ranging review of business rates. All arguments, including those set out in the report by the Select Committee he chaired in the previous Parliament, will be taken into account. Perhaps, if he gets a spare moment this evening in between blowing out candles, he can read the relevant passage of the Conservative manifesto, which is pretty clear on this point.
I spoke to the previous Secretary of State to ask for Knottingley in my constituency to be included in the towns fund, because the high street is under great pressure and has been heavily hit by public service cuts and Government spending cuts in the last few years. We have lost not only the last bank and local shops, but the sports centre, the library, the Sure Start centre, much policing and local youth services. Knottingley has not been included and, frankly, that means that it is not getting a fair deal. Will the Minister ask the Secretary of State to meet me and see what can be done to make sure that Government investment can go back into Knottingley town centre and that we can get a fair deal for the town?
I will happily meet the right hon. Lady.
I remind the Minister that it is not only high streets but our town centres that are under pressure and in decline all over our country, and this is not just about business rates, but about notable buildings. Mr Speaker, you will know about the George hotel, where rugby league was founded 125 years ago—the anniversary is coming up next year. It cannot be renovated and has lain empty and idle for years. Surely the compulsory purchase order system could be improved to give local authorities the ability to take a significant building in any town centre and do something about it.
The planning White Paper will come out after the conclusion of the debate on the Queen’s Speech, and, looking at how CPO works in our town centres and other parts of the country will be part of the consultation. On the specific issue that the hon. Gentleman raises, it would seem to me a crying shame if this issue could not be dealt with, as we head towards the rugby league world cup. If he would like to come to see me, I will certainly make it my job to do so.
Mr Speaker, it was a pleasure to see your journey down here with Patrick the cat and Boris the parrot a couple of days ago—a preening, repetitive, attention-seeking Boris; I am sure he will fit in quite well here.
Our high streets and town centres are in crisis, with more shops closing than opening. The Government keep falling way below what is needed to take real action that will make a difference. When will they take real action to address the fundamental weakness of our business taxation system to give our high streets and town centres a fighting chance? As a practical suggestion, why not look at enterprise-type zones for our town centres with incentives to make sure that they have a future?
In terms of practical action, the £3.6 billion towns fund seems to be a good place to start. When we add to that the £13 billion that we are saving for businesses in business rates, we are certainly making some progress, but I will go away and look at the hon. Gentleman’s suggestion about high street enterprise zones.
From Kensington to Sedgefield, and from Workington to Wrexham, this Government were elected to represent all parts of the country. My Department is focused on repaying that trust by levelling up every community with a renewed focus on those areas that have been overlooked and undervalued for too long. We will ensure that local government is properly supported to deliver the services that we all rely on with the best financial settlement in a decade. We will keep building the homes that this country needs with investment in infrastructure and affordable housing, while making the dream of home ownership a reality for everyone, and we will redouble our efforts to bring about the biggest change in building safety for a generation.
This year, we commemorate the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the world war two concentration camps. I ask the Secretary of State, in his communities role, what is being done to mark the occasion, and furthermore, what is being done to tackle antisemitism more generally wherever it occurs?
On 23 January, I will accompany His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales to the holocaust forum at Yad Vashem, Jerusalem, to mark the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the concentration camps, which brought an end to the murder of 6 million Jewish men, women and children, but as we know, did not bring an end to the cancer of antisemitism. The Government have provided an additional £2.2 million for schools to teach lessons from Auschwitz and £1.7 million for visits to Bergen-Belsen, the camp liberated by British troops. I will continue to champion the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of antisemitism, including requiring all councils to adopt it forthwith.
Council funding cuts under this Government have created a shortage of safe accommodation for vulnerable children, and now thousands of at-risk young people are being placed in care homes that are illegal, miles from their school or unregulated. Does the Secretary of State agree that responsibility for this injustice lies at the feet of his Government?
We have recently published, and will be debating shortly, the most generous settlement for local government for a decade. It will provide a 4.4% real- terms increase in funding for local government and will include a £1 billion grant for social care. These are important issues that we need to take forward. I am aware of some issues with supported housing, for example, and the Under-Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Thornbury and Yate (Luke Hall), is taking that forward, but as a result of the economic renewal that the country is undergoing, after almost a decade of economic growth, we are now able to invest more in local government. I hope that the hon. Gentleman and all Members of the House will support the local government settlement next month.
I welcome my hon. Friend to her place. I know that she, together with the Centre for Social Justice, has been active in this area for many years, which is why I am delighted to tell her that we have a £3.6 billion towns fund, which will support an initial 100 town deals across England, together with the £1 billion future high streets fund. We are working with local government up and down this land to ensure we fight for the future health of our high streets.
As I have already said in previous answers, the Government want to build more homes of all types. If we are to tackle the housing crisis, we will need to spend more on infrastructure, which we are doing; further reform the planning system, which I intend to do; and invest more in affordable housing, and we have already invested £9 billion through our affordable housing programme and made a manifesto commitment to introduce another one that is even larger. But do I believe that people in this country fundamentally want to own a home of their own? Yes, I do, and we will do all we can to help more people on the housing ladder.
My hon. Friend, who has campaigned on this issue for many years, speaks for the whole House. I will of course be signing the book. I am informed by the Leader of the House that there will be a debate in the House on or around Holocaust Memorial Day in the usual way. We must all continue to fight the cancer of antisemitism, in all its forms, on every occasion, and this Government will always do that.
I am sure that, like me, the hon. Lady is delighted that one of the first policy commitments of our new Prime Minister before the general election was to say that we should have devolution—mayoral at that—across the whole of the north of England, and I am delighted to report that we are not only proceeding well with negotiations in West Yorkshire but having good discussions with South Yorkshire—[Interruption.] The rest of Yorkshire is in discussions with us as well. [Interruption.] As I do not think the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Lloyd Russell-Moyle) knows, given that he represents Brighton—though he is chuntering from a sedentary position about One Yorkshire—proposals have been submitted to the Government, but the area did not meet the requirement to having a coherent economic geography. I am pleased, however, that we are able to forge ahead with all forms of devolution in Yorkshire. What happens in Brighton we will have to wait and see.
I welcome my hon. Friend to these Benches. She will be a terrific addition to this place, and I am delighted that she is dedicated to the green belt and supporting her constituents. That is only right, and the Government, too, are committed to that. Planning inspectors are appointed to independently examine plans. Given my quasi-judicial role in the planning system, it would not be appropriate for me to speak on this matter, but I cheer my hon. Friend on in all she does for her constituency.
The Government’s consultation on closing the loophole that allows second home owners to avoid paying any council tax whatever by pretending to be a small business ended 12 months ago. Will the Government take action to protect communities in south lakes and elsewhere, or have they decided not to bother?
We will absolutely help communities like the hon. Member’s. The Government have removed the requirement to offer council tax discounts on second homes amounting to 75% of the full rate. He is quite right: the consultation closes on 16 January, and then we will make decisions on it. If he would like to discuss his suggestions with me, I will gladly meet him.
I welcome my hon. Friend and parliamentary neighbour to the House. I think she is the first new Member of Parliament for Rushcliffe for 49 years. She has a lot to live up to, but I look forward to working with her as we power up the midlands engine. I think her constituency was the only Conservative constituency in the county of Nottinghamshire in 1997. Today, all the constituencies are Conservative. One area that we will of course work on together is delivery of the new development co-operation at Ratcliffe power station, which is a brilliant opportunity for the whole country.
Across the country, children’s care is in crisis. The Secretary of State made welcome reference to the funding settlement, which provides some relief, but that is for the next financial year. Can the Minister confirm that the extra funding will be provided in every year of this Parliament? Will the Government also continue to work with councils to ensure that funding settlements reflect the escalating demand for, and cost of, these services?
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his question; I know how important this issue is in his constituency. I can certainly confirm that the social care grant will continue every year, including the additional £9.2 million for his local authority into the next year. I am very happy to meet him to discuss this further.
I welcome another hon. Friend to these Benches. She is quite right: we have to ensure that we have the right infrastructure. We pledged in the manifesto to ensure that infrastructure first, as set out in the Queen’s Speech. We have the £5.5 billion housing infrastructure fund, but we will introduce a bigger, single housing infrastructure fund to provide the infra- structure that she rightly wants for her constituency and that other Members want for theirs.
Further to the Secretary of State’s answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier), may I suggest—given that the only difference in the crisis facing many of our constituents is that they have problems with high pressure laminate or other forms of external cladding, as opposed to aluminium composite material—that it would be sensible to extend the coverage of the fund that the Government have established for the private sector to cover those blocks? Otherwise, the residents will face a very bleak future.
I am grateful for the right hon. Member’s comments, and I saw the early-day motion that he laid in the House to that effect, but we must be guided by the evidence. My predecessors chose to provide the £600 million remediation fund in relation to ACM in high-rise buildings because the expert panel which advises us had said that that was the urgent challenge that needed to be addressed. We have commissioned experts from the Building Research Establishment to carry out further tests on a range of materials, including HPL. I will publish the information shortly, and will say more at that time.
I too declare an interest, as a member of the Darwen towns fund board.
I think that we shall be hearing a bit more about that as we work with Members of Parliament, local authorities, businesses and community groups, and ask them to come forward with exciting long-term plans for the rejuvenation of not just their high streets but their towns. We must all remember, Mr Speaker, that there is a reason why you no longer have a tallow merchant in the high street in Chorley. High streets and town centres have always been changing, but with our stronger towns fund we can ensure that we are the handmaidens of that dynamic change.
To ask the Foreign Secretary to update the House on the security situation in Iran.
Further to the oral statement made by the Defence Secretary on 7 January, I will make a statement on Iran in response to the urgent question from my right hon. Friend.
Let me first express my condolences, and those of the Government, to the loved ones of those who tragically lost their lives on Ukrainian International Airlines flight PS752. Our thoughts are with all those affected during what must be a devastating time. Among the 176 passengers who tragically lost their lives were four British nationals, as well as 82 Iranians.
On 9 January we stated publicly—alongside partners such as Canada and the United States—that, given an increasing body of information, we believed that Iran was responsible for the downing of the aircraft. Despite initial denials, the Government of Iran acknowledged on 11 January that they were responsible. Now it is time for a full, transparent and independent investigation. It must be a collaborative endeavour, with a strong international component. The families of the victims—including those in Iran—must have answers, and must know the truth. The UK is also working with the Canadian-led International Coordination and Response Group, consisting of countries with nationals killed in the plane crash. The group will help with the issuing of visas and the repatriation of the bodies of the victims.
Separately, Her Majesty’s ambassador to Iran, Rob Macaire, was arrested over the weekend, and was illegally held for three hours. On 11 January, the ambassador attended a public vigil to pay his respects to the victims of flight 752. He left shortly afterwards, when there were signs that the vigil might turn into a protest. Let me be very clear about this: he was not attending or recording a political protest or demonstration. His arrest later that day, without grounds or explanation, was a flagrant violation of international law. Today, in response, we will summon the Iranian ambassador to demand an apology, and to seek full assurances that this will not happen again.
Given the treatment of the ambassador, we are keeping security measures for the embassy under review, and, as I am sure the House would expect, we updated our travel advice on 10 January. We currently recommend that British nationals should not travel to Iran or take any flights to, from or within Iran. On the diplomatic front, in the past week I have met our international partners in Brussels, Washington and Montreal, and I attended an E3 meeting yesterday in Paris. I spoke to Foreign Minister Zarif on 6 January, and the Prime Minister spoke to President Rouhani on 9 January. We welcome the overwhelming international support for Her Majesty’s ambassador to Iran, and for the rights to which all diplomats are entitled under the Vienna convention on diplomatic relations. The regime in Tehran is at a crossroads, and it can slip further and further into political and economic isolation, but there is an alternative. The regime does have a choice. The diplomatic door remains open, and now is the time for Iran to engage in diplomacy and chart a peaceful way forward. I commend this statement to the House.
I am grateful to you, Mr Speaker, for granting this urgent question. Tensions have clearly ratcheted up since the drone strike that killed General Soleimani and the Iranian reprisals. The Iranian President and the United States President have momentarily checked any further military aggression, but the wider issues relating to Iran’s destabilising foreign policy ambitions remain. It still wants to advance its sectarian regional influence by funding, training and arming paramilitaries and militias right across the middle east, it has already restarted its nuclear programme, and it shamelessly attempted to cover up the missile strike against flight 752. This weekend, as the Secretary of State has just confirmed, it breached the Vienna convention by arresting our own ambassador in Tehran. I believe that these irresponsible actions are out of sync with the views of the people of Iran, who have once again bravely taken to the streets to vent their fury against the regime, the failing economy and the regime’s international adventurism.
May I ask the Secretary of State to update the House on whether calls for full transparency in the crash investigation will be met? Will he also update us on the welfare and security of our ambassador, our diplomatic staff and their dependants in Tehran, and on how recent events will affect efforts to secure the release of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe?
I commend the Prime Minister’s efforts and those of the Foreign Secretary not to lose sight of the nuclear deal, but, as the former Foreign Minister responsible for the area, I should say that the last deal failed because no international investment could head Tehran’s way due to the legacy sanctions connected to missile procurement, which prevented any bank, particularly those with US ties, from aiding economic reform. So Iran gained little from the deal, and the release of frozen assets worth $150 billion plus new oil revenues were used not to support the ailing economy but to advance Iran’s proxy wars. For a fresh deal to succeed, any new talks must cover missile sanctions and conditional economic reform.
Finally, may I ask what talks the UK has had with the US and other allies to ensure that we remain united and engaged? I believe that there is a leading role for the UK to play in resetting our middle east strategy towards Iran, first, by being more assertive in tackling proxy interference and weapons proliferation and, secondly, by being more proactive in offering conditional but genuine economic rehabilitation for Iran.
My right hon. Friend makes a range of powerful points, and I pay tribute to him for his experience in this area. He is right to say that there is a pattern of behaviour by the regime in Iran, which is flouting the basic rules of international law and not living up to the kind of conduct we would expect from any Government who want to be a responsible member of the international community. We have seen that on the nuclear side and with the announcement in the first week of January of further non-compliance in relation to some centrifuges. We have seen it in the destabilising activity for which General Soleimani was in large part responsible when he was alive, and we have seen it in the treatment of dual nationals—in particular, but not limited to, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe. We have seen it not just in the treatment of our ambassador in Iran but, more importantly, in the downing of the Ukrainian flight.
There must be some accountability for that wrongdoing. We welcome Iran’s first step in acknowledging responsibility, but there must now be a full, thorough investigation into what happened, with an international component so that people can have faith and confidence in that process. At the same time, while we keep up the pressure and insist on accountability on the nuclear front and in relation to the airline, we also want to be clear that the diplomatic door is ajar. This is something that the US President and the French President have made clear, and this Government certainly fully support a diplomatic way through to de-escalating the tensions and seeking a long-term diplomatic resolution of all the outstanding issues.
My right hon. Friend mentioned the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. Iran has now systematically failed to comply with the JCPOA. We are clear that we still support it. We have not signed up for the doctrine of maximum pressure. At the same time, the JCPOA has effectively been left a shell of an agreement because of systematic steps by Iran, taking it out of compliance. For it to be made to work, Iran must make a choice that it wants to come back to compliance and to the diplomatic negotiating table.
Finally, my right hon. Friend asked about the conversations we have had with our partners. I have spoken to Foreign Minister Zarif and I was in Brussels last week for meetings with the E3 and High Representative Josep Borrell. Indeed, I also saw them last night in Paris for further discussion. I was also in the US last week to talk to Secretary of State Pompeo and National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien. It is very important that we maintain transatlantic unity, because while we leave the diplomatic door ajar to the regime in Iran, we want to be absolutely crystal clear that the message it receives from the UK, the Europeans and the US is the same—namely, that there is a route forward for the Iranian Government and, most importantly, the Iranian people, if Iran takes steps to comply with the basic tenets of international law.
Thank you for granting this urgent question, Mr Speaker, and may I congratulate the right hon. Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood) on securing it?
The events in Iran and Iraq that have followed the assassination of General Soleimani have been utterly appalling. They include the missile attacks on US bases in Iraq; Iran’s decisions to remove all limits on uranium enrichment; the recent attacks, in the past few days, on protestors on the streets of Tehran; the detention, as has been mentioned, of our excellent ambassador, Rob Macaire; and, of course, the unforgivable shooting down of the Ukrainian airliner, killing 176 innocent civilians, including four Britons, all of whose deaths we mourn today.
These are sure signs not only that the hardliners in Tehran are firmly back in the ascendancy in the Iranian regime, but that their actions are out of control. Nothing and no one can excuse those acts of violence. Like all of us, I fear not just for the Iranian people and the stability of the region, but especially for Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and other dual nationals who are languishing in Iranian jails. I hope that the Foreign Secretary can comment on their current health and safety. Like him, I will be raising those concerns when I meet the Iranian ambassador to London tomorrow.
The question we must all ask, and which I ask the Foreign Secretary today, is: where do we go from here? Ever since Donald Trump started to walk away from the Iran nuclear deal, we have been on a path to this point. With the strategy of engagement from the so-called moderates in Iran now discredited and abandoned, and with the hardliners firmly back in charge in Tehran and an equally unpredictable, trigger-happy President in the White House, we are just one more mistake or miscalculation away from brinkmanship tipping over into war. What action is the Foreign Secretary taking to ensure a permanent de-escalation of the tension, rather than an inexorable drift towards war?
I thank the hon. Gentleman and welcome his condemnation of the conduct of the Government of Iran, including their non-compliance with the JCPOA and their treatment of our ambassador in Tehran. As I have said, it is important to maintain transatlantic unity and solidarity, and this House must also give the regime in Iran a very clear signal that we stand together on these important issues.
As I have said, I raised the issue of dual nationals, including Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, with Foreign Minister Zarif when I spoke to him. They remain at the centre and forefront of our thinking on Iran. We constantly, consistently and at every level raise both their welfare and the need for them to be released without conditions. They should not be held. They should be back home with their families.
The hon. Gentleman asked the obvious exam question: where do we go from here? He is right to say that we need to try to defuse the situation. We have been working with our international partners in Europe, the US and, crucially, in the region, to emphasise the absolute importance of de-escalating the tensions, particularly to avoid military conflagration. That would only benefit Daesh and the other terrorist groups in the region, and I think there is consistency of agreement on that point. There must be accountability where there is wrongdoing, whether that relates to the treatment of foreign nationals or ensuring that the JCPOA is complied with, if the JCPOA is to be a credible means of dealing with the nuclear issue. We must work with all our international partners and show unity of purpose so that, given the political climate in Tehran that the hon. Gentleman described, there is no doubt about the international community’s approach to Iran’s current behaviour.
Notwithstanding all that, the diplomatic door must be left open, because the only way to de-escalate permanently, which I think was the phrase the hon. Gentleman used, is to find a diplomatic solution to all the issues, from nuclear activity to Iran’s destabilising actions in the region and, of course, the dual nationals and the many other bilateral issues. We have been clear and consistent that that choice is there for the Iranian regime to make. It can slip further into isolation, with all the ensuing consequences for the people of Iran, or it can choose to come through the diplomatic door and sit at the negotiating table, which is the only way that all the issues will be resolved over the long term.
When Iran faces a fork in the road, it chooses time and again not to take the opportunity to be a responsible member of the international community. Does my right hon. Friend agree that now is not the time to ease that pressure? One practical step that we can take here in the UK would be to proscribe the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps as a foreign terrorist organisation, which is exactly what it is.
My right hon. Friend speaks powerfully about the importance of ensuring that a consistent message is sent not just from London but from all our international partners about the wrongdoing that has been taking place in Iran, and of ensuring some accountability. While maintaining that pressure consistently and with all the means available to us—I am happy to consider his point about proscription—we must also be clear that the choice is Iran’s to make, that there is an alternative, and that we are not blindly seeking confrontation: quite the opposite. We seek de-escalation, and we want Iran to live up to the basic norms of the international community, and there is a diplomatic way through to a negotiated solution.
I commend the right hon. Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood) for his question and the Foreign Secretary for his answers. There is a great deal of cross-party unity in the House, and he can rest assured of the SNP’s support, particularly for efforts towards co-operation in the E3 format, which must be encouraged and promoted. Will he update the House on his discussions with the US authorities, particularly with a view to encouraging dialogue to persuade them to lift their apparently still in force ban on the Iranian Foreign Minister getting to the United Nations for discussions?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his support for our diplomatic efforts. I was in Washington last week and had various conversations with the National Security Adviser and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Notwithstanding that we do not agree with the US on maximum pressure, for example, the US has always been clear that there is a diplomatic way forward and that the door remains open. President Trump has said that, President Macron has said it, and the Prime Minister has said it. Again, the choice is for Iran to make.
I understand the hon. Gentleman’s point about the visa. I understand that it was not refused but, in any event, it is important throughout the process to ensure that we keep open the opportunity for dialogue and a diplomatic path forward to a negotiated solution.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that this moment marks the beginning of an opportunity, if Iran wishes to take it, for Iran to co-operate with the international community on the downing of the Ukraine International Airlines aircraft? Several nationalities were involved, including, unfortunately, a number of Britons and, indeed, many more Iranians. Will my right hon. Friend therefore tell the House precisely what discussions have been had about a proper international investigation into the downing of the aircraft, including the handing over of the flight recorders to proper international investigators?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. In fact, I was speaking with my Canadian counterpart in Montreal on Thursday. The Canadians suffered an appalling loss of life, and they are leading some work on visas and the repatriation of bodies. We are working together with them, all those affected and, indeed, our wider partners to ensure a credible, full and transparent investigation, because although we understand that Iran has accepted responsibility, we still do not know why the incident happened and all the details of how it happened. For the British victims, the Canadian victims, the Ukrainian victims and, above all, the Iranian victims, we deserve to know the answers to the questions and the truth behind why this appalling avoidable tragedy happened.
I have previously raised with Ministers in the House the harassment of BBC Persian staff and their families by the Iranian regime. I understand the regime is now citing BBC Persian Television’s alleged encouragement of unrest and violence in Iran as justification for further bullying. What is the Foreign Secretary doing to support the staff who work in this field, and their families in Iran, to make sure they are safe and secure?
I pay tribute to the hon. Lady for her work in this regard. It is important we send a clear message that BBC journalists—any journalists, and specifically British journalists—cannot be bullied in this way any more than our diplomatic staff. In fact, when I was in Canada with my Canadian opposite number, we launched a new award for those who champion and protect media freedom. Not only are we looking at this individual case, but there is an international campaign to make sure that we provide protection for journalists around the world who, in very difficult circumstances, are willing to speak truth to power.
Will my right hon. Friend work closely with Ministers from the other countries that lost citizens on Ukraine International Airlines flight 752? Will he perhaps attend the joint investigation group meeting in London on Thursday, which will be attended by the Ukrainian Foreign Minister? Does he agree it is essential that Iran not only allows full investigation of what happened but organises the repatriation of the bodies and pays full compensation to the families of those who were lost?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. Of course we will be fully plugged in and, indeed, a driving force in the international effort to make sure we get the right answers in terms of the investigation. This point is even stronger now that the Government of Iran have accepted at least a measure of responsibility, but it is crucial that the investigation is fully independent and has an international component so that people can feel confidence in the outcome and the answers. We will work with all our international partners on all the issues he raises, and I certainly want to see justice for the incredible number of people who are still mourning and grieving this terrible loss.
The Foreign Secretary will have seen reports of the demonstrations across Iran this weekend, illustrating the profound and widespread unhappiness among the people of Iran about the recent actions of their Government. That may in itself be the start of an opportunity to see a shift in Iran’s foreign policy, but if we are to maximise that opportunity, we need to engage those interlocutors in the Gulf and the wider middle east with whom we have good relations in order to see that shift executed in Iran.
I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that watching the change in the public mood in Tehran and more broadly in Iran is very striking. He is also right to say that we need to work with all our partners. In fact, I would go further and say that, beyond our partners in the middle east, we also need to work with China, Russia and those closest to them to enhance and reinforce the solidarity and clarity of the message that we are sending to the regime in Tehran.
The malign influence of the IRGC extends from the strait of Hormuz through Lebanon, Gaza and Yemen and almost anywhere, and now into Europe. Is it not time that we sent a very strong signal by proscribing the IRGC, freezing its assets and saying, “We will give you an opportunity to unfreeze them once you restore proper, normal diplomatic actions and behaviours across the world”?
My hon. Friend makes a strong point about the pernicious behaviour of not just the IGRC but the Quds force, of which General Soleimani was the head. The Quds force is the element, the component or the wing of the regime that is responsible for working with the militias, the proxies and the terrorist groups from Lebanon through to Iraq and Syria. It is absolutely right to make that point. On proscription more generally, they are subject to sanctions, but we will obviously keep the issue under very careful review.
There is now a real sense of chaos, emergency and crisis in the region. What assessment has the Foreign and Commonwealth Office made of the increased risk from IS/Daesh, both in the region and here at home? What actions are being taken to counter any dangers?
The hon. Lady makes an important point. The reality is that unless we can pursue a path to de-escalation, the risk of war would benefit the terrorist groups, particularly Daesh. We are keeping the risk assessment under constant review, although we do not talk about the operational side of that. One clear aspect of all this that we have in common, whether with our European partners and our American partners or with the Iranian Government, is the desire not to allow the hard-fought and hard-won gains against Daesh to be reversed. We are working with all our partners in the middle east to make sure that we do not lose the gains that we made, or indeed allow the actions and tensions in the middle east to fuel the fire of Daesh and other terrorist groups.
The Foreign Secretary will have seen pictures of the Israeli flag being tied to the British flag and both being set alight. That hardly speaks of de-escalation. How is the attempt at de-escalation working throughout the region? What particular factors are being taken into account to protect Israel?
We work closely with all our international partners and we are engaged with Israel on the issues that we have in common with it. On de-escalation so far, after the death of General Soleimani we saw an Iranian response that was dangerous and reckless, but none the less we have not seen any major military intervention from Iran since then. Our message to all sides in the region is that we need to take baby steps towards de-escalating over time, and then, gradually, as the situation defuses, think about what positive measures can be put in place to build up confidence in the region. Until we get on that train and on that track, it is difficult to see how the wider diplomatic initiatives can bear fruit.
Does the Foreign Secretary agree that although any sensible person does not want the pressure on Iran to cease, nobody sensible wants another war in the middle east, either? He mentioned the door being slightly open; is it not a fact that if we want peace, we have to carry on speaking to the Iranians? All of us who have been campaigning for the release of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and the other prisoners believe that perhaps speaking at a level of faith, with an all-faith delegation going to Iran to speak to the faith leaders there, might help. I spoke to the Archbishop of Canterbury at a service only this time last week, and he seems to think that if the delegation was welcome—if Iran was open to a delegation—it could take place. Would the Secretary of State support such a delegation to visit Iran?
I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman’s premise: we need to keep the diplomatic lines of communication open. I have made it clear to Foreign Minister Zarif that for our part we wish to do that and to start to see how measures can be taken on all aspects, but particularly to see the Iranians come back to full compliance with the JCPOA. I sympathise very much with the spirit of the idea of an all-faith diplomatic initiative. The hon. Gentleman he will have seen that for the moment, through our Foreign Office travel advice, we advise against travel to Iran. That is probably the safest bet for the moment.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood) for asking this urgent question and to the Secretary of State for his response.
The tensions in the region are clearly incredibly high at the moment, but one of the best ways for the Iranians to help would be for them to recommit to their 2015 commitments to the nuclear deal. What practical steps can the Government take to ensure that they can roll back from the position they are in now and de-escalate the situation?
We are looking very carefully at this. As someone said from the Opposition Benches, it is about balance. On the one hand, we need to have some accountability for the systematic non-compliance, which well predates the death of General Soleimani; on the other hand, we want to make sure it is very clear that there is always a diplomatic route back. We are looking at it very carefully. One reason why I was in Paris yesterday evening was to make sure that we are co-ordinating and engaging closely with our E3 partners as well as our American friends.
Given that the shooting down of flight 752 is, sadly, the latest instance of civilian airliners being shot down in regions of conflict apparently by mistake, may I urge the Foreign Secretary, with colleagues, to see what more might be done to enable defence forces properly to distinguish between civilian aircraft and potential military threats in order to ensure that such deaths are avoided in future?
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his question. That is incredibly important. It is not clear to me whether that is what caused the shooting down of the Ukrainian airliner in this case, but I am very willing to hear his points on that and on any initiative related to it.
I welcome the efforts of my right hon. Friend and my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister in going to Amman this weekend to express condolences for the death of our partner and friend Sultan Qaboos. Does he agree that, reaching out through friends in the region, particularly Qatar, Kuwait and, of course, the new Sultan Haitham in Oman, would be a good avenue for making sure that Iran not only comes back into the fold and frees its people from this awful tyranny, but perhaps gives up the policy of hostage-taking that has taken not just Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe away from her daughter, but many, many others from their families, too?
Like my hon. Friend, I pay tribute to the Sultan of Oman for his incredible track record of service to his country, and we look forward to working with the new Sultan and the Government of Oman on all those issues. My hon. Friend is absolutely right to condemn the taking of dual nationals into detention. The taking of Nazanin and of all the UK dual nationals is groundless. Their treatment has been well below the standards that we would expect. Fundamentally, they should all be released without condition. This is part of the pattern of unlawful behaviour that Iran needs to correct if it wants to come in from the international cold.
In his conversations with his Iranian counterparts about the detention of the UK ambassador, what assurances has the Secretary of State sought about the rights of other peaceful protesters across Iran who do not have the luxury of diplomatic immunity to protect them?
I thank the hon. Lady for her question. She raises a very important point. The reality is that the international norms that reflect, recognise and call for the safeguarding of peaceful protest apply across the board. We do make those points to our Iranian partners, but, of course, there is a very clear obligation under the Vienna convention on diplomatic relations about the way that ambassadors and diplomatic staff are treated. This is crucial, not least because if we cannot have confidence that our diplomatic staff and missions are respected, we cannot engage in the kind of diplomacy that we need to charter a peaceful way forward.
I call Sir Iain Duncan Smith. [Interruption.] Sir Iain?
Sorry, I did not hear you, Mr Speaker. I will not give up that opportunity.
First, may I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood) on securing this urgent question, and my right hon. Friend at the Dispatch Box on his calm and reassuring manner throughout this period? Notwithstanding that, I would like to ask a question. From the moment that we negotiated that deal and the west offered an olive branch to Iran, our expectations have never really been met. Iran shows the face that it wishes to show to the west, but underneath it, it has gone on not de-escalating, but escalating the violence. Whether it is in Syria, all the way down to the Houthis, it has done nothing else but use its money to provoke violence and escalate trouble and war. My question to my right hon. Friend is this: at which point do we really get the idea that this regime is not displaying a peaceful nature and is not going to give up on any of its opportunities and that Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, like many others, is being held as a hostage? When do we decide that, actually, the people of Iran do not want this organisation any more and that we want to support them?
I thank my right hon. Friend for his question. He makes a range of important points. The reality is that we still view the joint comprehensive plan of action as the best means of restraining those in the regime who wished to pursue a nuclear weapon, and that is a top priority—an overriding priority—for this Government. In relation to the wider nefarious conduct of the Government of Iran, I share all of his concerns and then some. The reality is that that is why we have always supported the Macron and Trump initiatives to try to bring Iran back to the diplomatic table and deal with all of those issues in the round—if there is a choice to be made by the regime. We will continue to hold Iran accountable for its actions, while leaving the diplomatic door ajar. Ultimately, this will have to be resolved through a negotiated diplomatic route. Who knows what will happen given the current constellation of factors and the change of circumstances in Iran, but, at some point, it will have to come to the negotiating table.
Given the parallels between the ruthless and reckless behaviour of Iran, and the way in which the late and unlamented Soviet Union used to behave, does the Foreign Secretary accept that a policy of long-term containment, as worked in the one case, is probably most likely to work in the other? If he does accept that, is he satisfied that our American allies are now communicating with us to the extent that they need to so that our troops, who are their partners, are not unduly affected by sudden, dramatic initiatives without warning?
My right hon. Friend makes a series of important points, including about close consultation with our American partners. Of course, I discuss these issues regularly with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. I am not entirely sure that the analogy with the Soviet Union is quite right. There is at least the semblance of regular elections in Iran.
There was in the Soviet Union.
In fairness, not on the same level as in Iran. I think the question is the balance between containing the nefarious behaviour and ensuring—while holding Iran to account in the way in which my right hon. Friend and other hon. Members have mentioned—that there is still a route back to the negotiating table, and that is what we are seeking to pursue.
I concur with my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis); I also believe that Iran is the Soviet Union of the middle east, given what it does and the extent of its reach. My question to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is simply this: the United Kingdom and the allies supported dissidents and pro-democracy protesters in the Soviet Union at that time, so what are we doing specifically to support democracy protesters and dissidents in Iran?
We make it clear in international forums—we have done so in the UN, for example—that we support the right to peaceful protest and freedom of expression in Iran. My right hon. Friend will know of the already febrile state in Tehran, which would point to interference in domestic affairs and attempts to usurp the regime. We track a careful balance between standing up for the norms, values and human rights that he and I share, and ensuring that we do not play into the hands of the hardliners. Ultimately, we want Tehran to make the choice to take responsibility for its actions, and we have seen at least a semblance of that with its acknowledgment that it was responsible for the downing of the airliner. We then want the country to take it a step further by reversing the path towards political and economic isolation, and that will only happen if Iran comes back to the negotiating table through the diplomatic channel.
May I commend what the Secretary of State said about Sultan Qaboos, and indeed what my hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat)—the other former Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee—said about the potential role of Oman in the future? During this crisis, it was the Iranian Supreme Leader who talked about the corrupting influence of American troops stationed in the region, but what has been revealed over the past few days is the corrupting influence of the IRG on Iran itself. It is holding in place a regime that is frankly illegitimate, as we have seen through the eyes of the demonstrators on the streets against it. Will we continue to de-escalate the violence, and to escalate the competition of values in which most Iranian people are on our side?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We can see the anger in Tehran and more generally about this state of affairs, which is why the transparency in relation to the downing of the airliner is so important—not just for the British individuals who lost their lives or the wider international victims, but also for the people of Iran, who were the biggest victims when that airliner went down. We need to ensure that there is transparency and answers to questions for all the reasons that my hon. Friend outlined.
Might my right hon. Friend, and his colleagues in the G7 and other countries, consider looking at freezing the assets of the children and families of ayatollahs and Government Ministers in Iran who put so much—billions of dollars—into the west? Could we not take some action in that regard?
One of the things that we are doing and on which we will be collaborating with our international partners—indeed, I spoke to the US and the Canadians about this—is shortly introducing a new sanctions regime, following the Sergei Magnitsky model, which makes sure, as we leave the EU, that we have an autonomous sanctions regime that can impose asset freezes and visa bans for those responsible for gross human rights abuses.
May I thank my right hon. Friend for his continual calls for de-escalation, for his support for the families of the victims of the aircraft, and for his standing up for British diplomats around the world? Given that the situation would be so much more challenging were Iran to have nuclear weapons, may I also thank him for his work with France and Germany to reboot the JCPOA? Given that Brexit will happen at the end of this month, can he confirm how he sees that relationship with the E3 continuing post 1 February?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right on the various points that she made. She poses a good question, but we are absolutely clear: we are leaving the EU; we are not leaving Europe. This is a good example of where we can engage just as intensively, if not more so, with our E3 partners. I know, having spoken to my French and German opposite numbers, and indeed to Josep Borrell, that that feeling is shared on all sides. So we plan to regularise the meetings that we have on the issue of Iran but also on the wider range of foreign policy challenges that we all share.
Will my right hon. Friend assure the House as to the assistance that is being given to the families of the victims of the Ukrainian International Airlines flight and give an assurance that the Government are doing all they possibly can to help and assist them?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Our hearts go out to anyone who has come into this new year and has to face up to the loss of life of a close friend or member of their family. We are doing everything that we can, working with our international partners, to be able to repatriate the victims so that the families can have that solace of paying their last respects. We are also making sure that we work more generally to get an independent investigation with credibility, transparency and an international component so that those families get the answers to the questions that they must be going over in their heads over and over again.
Following up on the point made by the right hon. Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn), who is no longer in his place, is there a case for the Foreign Office to do some useful and valuable work on updating the Geneva conventions or, working with others, updating the rules around civilian airliners to do more to ensure that civilian airliners are not, on a semi-regular basis, being shot out of the sky using, often very improperly, poorly made Russian kit? We have had hundreds of people killed, including Britons but also from many other countries, in the past few years.
I thank my hon. Friend, but the reality is that this not about a lack of clarity around the law. Targeting a civilian airliner is clearly unlawful. There is no absence or lack of legal basis for making that point; the question is compliance. The first thing we need, which is having Iran acknowledge responsibility for this, is to get the full details—the full facts—of how it could have happened. If it is being suggested that it is a mistake, we need to know how a mistake like that could have happened and then learn the appropriate lessons from it. That is what we are absolutely committed to.
The demonstrations on the streets of Tehran in which the British ambassador was inadvertently caught up follow a large amount of similar activity across the country towards the end of last year when several hundred Iranians lost their lives. Can my right hon. Friend confirm that when considering with his international colleagues the proper response to the events of last week, he and they will be mindful of the fact that large numbers of the Iranian people deplore the actions of the regime under which they live and want nothing more than freedom and the facility to live in peace with their neighbours?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. Of course the aftermath, with the scenes that we are seeing playing out in Tehran, is testament to that. What is important is that we allow the transparency for people to come to apply the pressure that they need to apply on the regime to change its course and to adopt a course that will lead the Government out of political and economic isolation. The first and foremost beneficiaries of that will be the people of Iran.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that an extremely serious issue we now face is the safety of our armed forces, who have been described quite disgracefully by a senior commander in the Quds force as potentially “collateral damage” in attacks on the US military?
Yes, and it is good to see my hon. Friend in his place. I remember competing with him in an open primary in Esher back in 2009; I think I have aged more than he has over the last nine years in the last week. He is absolutely right. Crucially, our first priority is to ensure that UK personnel in the region are safe and that our diplomats are safe. We have changed our travel advice, because we need to protect the safety of our wider citizens too.
There has been a pattern of misinformation campaigns coming from Iran to seek to subvert the extent of its actions in the past. What assessment has my right hon. Friend made of the conflicting accounts that have come out of Tehran about this and other recent incidents?
The short and honest answer is that it is difficult to tell, but my hon. Friend asks the right question. There is clearly a range of different views, not only in Iranian society but in the Government and, indeed, around the senior leadership. As I said at the outset, there is clearly a choice, and I think Iranians are conscious of it: do they continue to contravene the basic principles of international law and the basic tenets that we expect respectable members of the international community to live up to, or do they take the path out of economic and political isolation, which would be in the best interests of the people of Iran, let alone the region and, indeed, the international community?
I want to make a quick statement to remind Members who may not be aware that, when a Member visits another Member’s constituency, except on a purely private visit, they should take reasonable steps in advance to tell the Member in whose constituency the visit is taking place. The guidance also states that
“failing to do so is regarded by colleagues as very discourteous.”
I have had examples from both sides of the House. I just want to remind everybody that we ought to ensure that we give notice.
Debate on the Address
Debate resumed (Order, 19 December 2019).
Question again proposed,
That an Humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, as follows:
Most Gracious Sovereign,
We, Your Majesty’s most dutiful and loyal subjects, the Commons of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland in Parliament assembled, beg leave to offer our humble thanks to Your Majesty for the Gracious Speech which Your Majesty has addressed to both Houses of Parliament.
Britain in the World
On 12 December, the British people had their say. They delivered a clear majority for this Government and a mandate to take Britain forward. That mandate, set out in the Queen’s Speech, marks a bold new chapter for our country, ambitious, self-confident and global in its international outlook. We are leaving the EU in 18 days’ time, but we vow to be the strongest of European neighbours and allies. We are taking back control of our laws, but we are also expanding our global horizons to grasp the enormous opportunities of free trade. While we will always serve the interests of the small businesses and the citizens of this country, we will also look to reinforce our national mission as a force for good in the world.
The UK will leave the EU at the end of this month because the House passed the European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Bill’s Third Reading with a majority of 99, which is the strongest signal to the EU and the world about our ambition and resolve as we chart the course ahead. That clarity of purpose now gives us the opportunity to be masters of our destiny and chart our course independently but working very closely with our international partners. We will strive with our European friends to secure the best possible arrangements for our future relationship by the end of 2020—a new relationship that honours the will of the people in the 2016 referendum but cherishes the co-operation we have in trade, security and all the other fields with our European friends.
As we enter this decade of renewal, the Government will engage in a thorough and careful review of the United Kingdom’s place in the world, including through the integrated security, defence and foreign policy review. It is an opportunity for us to reassess the ways in which we engage on the global stage, including in defence, diplomacy and our approach to development, to ensure that we have a fully integrated strategy. As we conduct that review, our guiding lights will remain the values of free trade, democracy, human rights and the international rule of law.
This is a very wide-ranging review. I think everybody would agree with that. How is the Foreign Secretary going to ensure that there is sufficient parliamentary scrutiny of the review as it is undertaken?
We will look at all the mechanisms—whether debates in this Chamber, or the operation and scrutiny of the Select Committees—and, indeed, we already welcome the input of individual MPs, caucuses and Select Committees in the normal way. We will make sure that there is proper scrutiny and that we can bring as many people together as possible in charting the course for the UK as we go forward.
Does my right hon. Friend not agree with me that there have been many security and defence reviews over the years and they have all been hampered by one thing in particular, which is that they happened at precisely the same moment as a comprehensive spending review? I very much welcome his announcement of this very extensive review—it is the right time to do it—but does he not agree that it must be done independently of the Treasury? We must decide what Britain is for and what assets we need to achieve that, and then only subsequently—a year later—should the Treasury become involved.
I am not sure it is likely to work exactly as my hon. Friend suggests, but I do take his point. We need to be very clear in our minds about the strategy we are charting and then reconcile our means, including our financial means, to those ends, so he makes an important point.
In support of what my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (James Gray) has said, may I remind the Foreign Secretary that, in 2017-18, we had a national security capability review that sought to look at both security and defence together, but it was so limited by having to be financially or fiscally neutral that it meant that extra resources for, for example, cyber-warfare would be granted only at the cost of making cuts in, for example, the Royal Marines? That is no way to conduct a review—to play off one necessary part, say security, against another necessary part, such as defence.
I think my right hon. Friend makes an important point, although at the same time we need to be mindful of the overarching financial parameters that any Government—any responsible Government—are going to be within if we are to make credible investment decisions. Certainly, on the issue of cyber and its being somehow nudged out of focus or set up as a zero-sum game with troops, I can assure him that that will not be the case. Cyber increasingly plays an important role not just in our security, but in our ability to project our foreign policy.
Will the Foreign Secretary give way?
I will give way one more time and then make some progress.
This is on the same theme. It is my right hon. Friend’s Department that has suffered the worst cuts over the last period because it has been an unprotected Department. What we must do if we are to direct defence, development and the intelligent services in the right direction is to have the capacity within his Department to do that. Will he ensure that he fights very hard for the necessary resources to be able to recreate the capacity of a Rolls-Royce Department of State?
Quite right, and I welcome my hon. Friend’s support as I make those overtures to the Treasury.
Will the Foreign Secretary give way?
Of course, and I am sure the hon. Lady is going to be supporting the Foreign Office in the next spending review.
I will, indeed, given that a comparison across all Departments shows that the Foreign Office has been cut back at least as badly as the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government. May I urge, in any review of finance, that we look carefully at the ability for human rights to be at the forefront of what the Foreign Office does? Traditionally, that has been strong; it is less so now.
I thank the hon. Lady and I think, given what I am about to say, that I will be able to give her the kind of reassurance she needs. I look forward to working with her in the weeks and months ahead to make sure that we never lose sight of our values, and human rights is a key component of that.
We will strengthen our historical trading ties as we leave the EU, while boosting British competitiveness by tapping wider global markets. We want strong trade with our existing EU partners. They are important and valuable to us as a market; I do not think anyone doubts that. At the same time, we are making good progress in paving the way for our first round of future free trade agreements with the rest of the world. When I was out in the US, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told me in Washington that the US is poised
“at the doorstep, pen in hand”,
ready to sign a deal. A free trade deal with the US would boost businesses, create jobs, reduce the cost of living and expand consumer choice on both sides of the Atlantic, so there is a huge opportunity for a win-win deal.
Will the Foreign Secretary give way?
I want to make some progress but will be happy to take an intervention from the hon. Gentleman shortly.
It is also at the same time important that we broaden our horizons to embrace the huge opportunities in the rising economies of the future from Asia to Latin America, and set out our stall as a global champion of free trade not just bilaterally but in the WTO as well.
Of course, a truly global Britain is about more than just trade and investment, important though those things are for our prosperity and the quality of life we have in this country; global Britain is also about continuing to uphold our values of liberal democracy and our heartfelt commitment to the international rule of law—values for which we are respected the world over.
Does the Foreign Secretary agree that nowhere in the world at the moment are these values under greater attack than in Hong Kong, and will he join me in condemning the refusal of the Hong Kong authorities to allow the director of Human Rights Watch entry at the weekend?
I do join with the right hon. Gentleman in making the following point. The international principles and norms and the rule of law in relation to freedom of peaceful protest and freedom of expression apply as a matter of customary international law; it also applies directly because of the joint Sino-UK declaration in relation to Hong Kong. Of course we want China as a leading member of the international community to live up to those responsibilities, and the case the right hon. Gentleman highlights is a very good example of that.
We will continue to be standing up for those values. We will continue to be a leading member of NATO, ensuring that that alliance can rise to the new challenges ahead. We will hold Iran accountable for its destabilising and dangerous actions in the region, but we will also, as we made clear in the response to my right hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood) earlier, encourage it to de-escalate and to seek a path to an alternative future through diplomatic dialogue.
We will call out those who flout international law, like the Russian Government, from its illegal annexation in Crimea and its chemical weapons attack in Salisbury to its cyber-attacks and its propensity for spreading fake news.
On Russia, and indeed to go back to what the Foreign Secretary said on the US, the United States has been vocal in its opposition to Nord Stream 2, correctly in my view, and the United Kingdom Government have taken the view that it has little to nothing to do with the United Kingdom. Can he assure me that that will be looked at properly in the integrated review he mentions, because it very much is in our interests that Nord Stream 2 does not go ahead?
I take the point the hon. Gentleman made, and he made it eloquently. We will consider all those issues as part of the review, and it is important that we get the right balance; that is the most I will say for the moment.
Will the Foreign Secretary give way?
Let me make a little progress as I have been generous, but I will be happy to give way again in the future.
We will call out those who flout international law. We will live up to our responsibilities, as the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) asked, in relation to the people of Hong Kong. That means supporting their right to peaceful protest and encouraging dialogue on all sides within the one country, two systems framework that China itself has consistently advocated since the Sino-British joint declaration in 1984, a treaty which has and holds international obligations on all sides.
We will use our moral compass to champion the causes that know no borders. This year we have the opportunity—and the honour and privilege—to host the UN climate change summit COP26 in Glasgow, and that is the UK’s chance to demonstrate global leadership on climate change. Under the Conservatives, we are the first country to legislate to end our contribution to global warming, and this Government know that we must leave the environment in a better state for our children.
I thank the Foreign Secretary for referring to the emergency that is climate change and legislation to bring about a net-zero economy, but legislation is not enough; we need to see actual implementation. Does he agree that the UK has much more to do to deliver on a green industrial revolution, which means that we can continue to be an industrial nation while having a net-zero economy, before 2050?
I agree with all of those things and pay tribute to the hon. Lady for the way in which she articulated her intervention. We need to make sure we have the legislation in place, we need to work with our international partners, and we will harness the British expertise—the technology, the innovation and the entrepreneurialism that this country is so great at—to find the creative solutions so that we leave our precious environment in a better state for the next generation.
The Government are also proud to maintain our commitment to spend 0.7% of gross national income on international development. We want to support developing countries, so that they can stand on their own two feet. We are helping them to strengthen their economies, make peace and forge security arrangements that are sustainable, so that their people are healthier and have a better standard of living.
In highlighting the importance of our 0.7% commitment with regard to international development, does the Foreign Secretary agree that, as in our manifesto, one of the most effective ways we can spend that money is to ensure that every girl in the world gets 12 years of quality education?
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. I will come on to say a little bit more about that, because it is one of the crucial campaigns we are taking forward. We should not be so shy about the incredible work we are doing. We are proud of our role in working to eliminate preventable deaths and overcome diseases such as Ebola and malaria. We will be there for those who need our help most in their hour of need, as we demonstrated with our world-leading humanitarian response capability, which was put into action in the Bahamas following Hurricane Dorian. Being a force for good in the world also means championing basic human rights. Coming on to the point raised by my hon. Friend, we are leading global action to help to provide 12 years of quality education for all girls by 2030 so that no girl is left behind, all their potential is tapped, and they can realise their ambitions individually and for their countries.
We are also proud to continue, with our Canadian partners, our work to defend media freedoms. I was in Montreal last week to talk about that with my Canadian opposite number. Led by our two countries, we are working with partners around the world to create legislative protections for journalists; support individual journalists who find themselves at risk; and increase accountability for those who threaten journalists whose work shines a light on conflicts and tyranny around the world. We are dedicated to shielding those with the courage to speak truth to power. On that note, I will give way to the SNP.
I am extremely grateful to the Foreign Secretary for that attempt at humour. [Laughter.] I thank the Foreign Secretary for what he has just said. He is entirely correct. Will he do everything in his power—this was the subject of the first debate I ever had as a Member of this House five years ago—to secure the release of the jailed Saudi writer Raif Badawi?
I thank the hon. Gentleman. The important thing, whether we are dealing with Saudi Arabia, China, Iran and all those partners with whom we have, let us say, difficult issues to address—Saudi, of course, is a very close partner—is that we are always, particularly with the closer relationships we have, such as with Saudi and other middle eastern partners, willing and able to speak very candidly. I have raised human rights issues with my Saudi opposite number and will continue to do so, including in relation to cases such as the one the hon. Gentleman highlights.
My right hon. Friend will know that for people like me who represent diverse diaspora communities, the internal and external affairs of other countries often raise issues of the most acute local importance. I do not want to draw him on to Kashmir today, but will he, in the course of his reviews, consider how foreign policy might be made more democratically accountable? The reality, particularly when foreign policy survives between Governments of successive parties, is that it does not actually survive contact with the electorates in constituencies like mine. I wonder whether foreign policy might somehow be more responsive to what voters think when they are from those diaspora communities.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. If Brexit was in part a reaction by the British people to having decisions imposed on them, I think there is a wider lesson in foreign policy that we are there to serve our citizens, including communities such as those that are very powerful and contribute a huge amount in Wycombe. More generally, we can see that with consular cases, for example the recent case in Cyprus, the Ukrainian airliner case and others where we represent individual citizens who have suffered or lost lives. There needs to be a sensitivity to individual citizens, whether they are the victims or the communities more broadly, and a strong sense that the Foreign Office is not just on a different level but is acting and serving for them.
I would just like to take this opportunity to pay a huge tribute to the consular department in the Foreign Office, which day in, day out is serving the interests of British families, British victims and British nationals. It rarely gets the credit that is due to it, but it does a superb job. I have seen that in my six months as Foreign Secretary and I am very proud of the work they do.
I welcome the Foreign Secretary’s commitment on human rights and I thank him for the fantastic work he has done—I remember serving with him on the Joint Committee on Human Rights many years ago when we first came to Parliament. Will he confirm that freedom of religion or belief will always be a key priority for the United Kingdom? Eighty per cent. of individuals around the world identify themselves as of one faith or another, and our Government have a strong track record of standing up for freedom of religion or belief. They commissioned the Truro review, and 10 out of its 22 recommendations have been taken forward. Will he confirm that that will always be a key priority? I thank him and his Ministers for their support.
I thank my hon. Friend and pay tribute to him for his extraordinary work and dedication to implementing the Truro conclusions. I confirm that we absolutely want to protect not just individual freedom of expression, but the rights of religious groups as well as the right for people to exercise their faith and conscience. One of the issues that I discussed with Foreign Minister François-Philippe Champagne in Canada on Thursday was a new global award for media freedoms that we have announced to recognise those who defend journalists and keep the flame of freedom alive in the darkest corners of the world. That is not just because we want to protect them individually, but because transparency and getting the stories out and holding regimes, and often, non-Government actors to account can happen only if we get the facts. Journalists do an incredibly brave job in getting those facts into the public domain.
Once we have left the EU and regained control of our sanctions rules, the Government will implement the Magnitsky provisions of the Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Act 2018. That will give us a powerful new tool to hold the perpetrators of the worst human rights abuses to account.
Will my right hon. Friend give way?
I will, for the last time.
In the Conservative manifesto, three conflict zones were specifically mentioned: Israel and the middle east, Sri Lanka and Cyprus. Will my right hon. Friend give us a further illustration of what action the Foreign Office will take in those three regions to help to end those conflicts and bring perpetrators of war crimes to justice?
My hon. Friend is right: those three areas remain a priority. There is a huge amount of diplomatic work. We talk to our international partners, including not only our traditional partners—the Europeans, Americans and Canadians—but those in the regions of the different conflicts, about not just the importance of getting peace, but the kind of reconciliation that can come only with some accountability for the worst human rights abuses. Bringing into effect the Magnitsky regime is our opportunity to build and reinforce that at home.
Will my right hon. Friend give way one more time?
For my hon. Friend, I will—one more time.
I am most grateful. Does the Foreign Secretary agree that one of the United Kingdom’s assets is the diversity of its population? For example, within the UK, we have some 1.5 million people of Indian origin, who provide a living bridge in terms of our contact and help to strengthen our relationship with India. Likewise, there are other communities here who provide a strong link with other countries. Does he agree that as we seek to strengthen our role on the global stage, that can only help us?
I entirely agree. The Indian community make an incredible contribution and help us to sell UK plc abroad not just in India, but around the world, as do many other communities. The point that was made by my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Mr Baker) is that we need to not just respect and safeguard the interests of those communities, but be proud of them and enable and empower them to champion the UK on our behalf. My hon. Friend the Member for North West Cambridgeshire (Mr Vara) makes an excellent point.
From our brave armed forces serving on the frontline to the diplomats nurturing our relations with nations around the world, and the aid workers providing life-saving support to those who need it most, British foreign policy will of course serve the citizens of this country, but we are also proud of our ability to make a difference to the poorest, the oppressed and the most vulnerable around the world. We will continue that effort every day of every week, because that is our calling as a country and that is the mission of this Conservative Government.
I start by welcoming my new Front-Bench colleagues, my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Afzal Khan), who brings a wealth of experience and passion on foreign policy issues, and my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Lloyd Russell-Moyle), who has been a thorn in the side of the Government over unlawful arms sales. He is now even closer to the Mace—should the urge ever take him again.
I am, however, deeply sorry to lose from the Front Bench and our Parliament our good friends Helen Goodman and Liz McInnes. They were both fabulous constituency MPs and very well liked Members of the House, and their contributions on foreign policy from this Dispatch Box and in Westminster Hall were always constructive but forceful. Whether it was Helen’s brilliant work in forcing the Government to introduce the Magnitsky sanctions or her campaigning for the Uighurs in China or Liz’s passionate efforts to draw attention to the plight of civilians being attacked by their own Governments in Cameroon and Sudan, they both made a great contribution to the public discourse and will be sadly missed from those debates.
On a personal note, may I also say how delighted I am to be facing the Foreign Secretary today? In the national hunt season, it is apt to say that both of us got away quickly in our respective party leadership stakes. I joined him in making it over the first fence. I hope that, unlike him, I do not fall at the second, but I do hope that whoever wins, the outcome on our side will be better for the country than the outcome on his. I found myself at the weekend looking through some of my old exchanges with the Prime Minister at this Dispatch Box when he was Foreign Secretary and thinking about the chance of taking him on in the future. I want to read to the House one of the responses he gave to me in March 2017 when I asked our future Prime Minister about the Trump Administration’s reported desire to withdraw from the Paris climate agreement. I say this just to reassure every Member, especially the newer ones on both sides, that our country is in the safest of hands and in the care of the most insightful of minds. This is what he said in response to my concerns about Donald Trump, the Paris agreement and other issues:
“With great respect, I must say that I think the right hon. Lady is again being far too pessimistic…. We were told that the JCPOA”—
the nuclear deal with Iran—
“was going to be junked; it is now pretty clear that America supports it.”—
“We were told that there was going to be a great love-in between the new US Administration and Russia; they are now very much…in line. As for climate change, I think the right hon. Lady is once again being too pessimistic. Let us wait and see. We have heard the mutterings of the right hon. Lady; let us see what the American Administration actually do. I think she will be pleasantly surprised, as she has been, if she were remotely intellectually honest, in all other respects.”—[Official Report, 28 March 2017; Vol. 624, c. 116.]
That was the strategic genius who is now in charge of our country, the intellectually honest politician, who, to be honest, clearly has no intellect. After all, as I have just recounted, in the space of just one answer to one question from me, he made four catastrophic and careless misjudgments on foreign policy issues—and that is before we get started on the hopeless faith in Trump’s son-in-law to negotiate a middle east peace deal, his horribly reckless treatment of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, his craven attempts to champion monsters such as Crown Prince Salman and President Sisi, his disgraceful jokes about clearing dead bodies to make way for golf courses in Libya, his leading role in the unlawful sale of arms for use in Yemen and his shameful inaction in holding Myanmar to account for its genocidal treatment of the Rohingya.
So we now have a Prime Minister in place for the next five years with no heart when it comes to human rights and civilian deaths, no brain when it comes to Donald Trump and the fate of jailed Britons and no courage when it comes to taking on tyrants overseas. When it comes to foreign policy, he is the Tin Man, the Scarecrow and the Cowardly Lion rolled into one, and he hasn’t got Dorothy to help him; he just has a pair of Dominics.
As the right hon. Lady is in full flow in criticising colleagues, will she take this opportunity to criticise the present leader of the Labour party for his antisemitism and for presiding over a party that has done very little to rectify the issue? Will she also criticise her leader for his friendship with Hamas and other terrorists who have been directly involved in attacking British citizens?
I have made it perfectly clear that it is my belief that our party has not dealt with antisemitism in the way that it should have, but I know my right hon. Friend the Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) and he is not antisemitic. I have nothing—[Interruption.] If the hon. Gentleman will stop heckling me, I will move on to the second half of—
I am not giving way to the hon. Gentleman again, so he can sit down.
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I am a little unclear about the precise ruling on this matter, but a moment or two ago, the right hon. Lady, who speaks from the Front Bench for the Labour party, described the Prime Minister as a cowardly liar. Is that really within the highest standards that we use this House?
I am sure that the right hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry) will know that I was listening very carefully and my interpretation was that, had she said that any Member of this House was a cowardly lion, or words to that effect, I would have stopped her. I have given her the benefit of the doubt, in that she was drawing an allegory from a well-known work of fiction, but it is marginal, and I think she knows that.
I was talking about a pair of Dominics, which explains why we are having today’s debate on the international aspects of the Queen’s Speech, which, Brexit and extradition policy aside, has absolutely nothing new to say on foreign policy, defence or international development, at a time when the world is crying out for new initiatives and global leadership on these issues. At a time when Her Majesty has got quite enough on her plate, I ask all her supporters in the House whether it was really necessary to waste her time asking her to read out the following lines, drafted by Downing Street:
“My Government will honour the Armed Forces Covenant…and the NATO commitment to spend at least two per cent of national income on defence.”
Nothing new, no substance behind it—that is a statement that sounds all too hollow to our armed forces families living on substandard salaries in substandard accommodation.
Let me continue:
“As the United Kingdom leaves the European Union, my Government will ensure that it continues to play a leading role in global affairs, defending its interests and promoting its values.”
Nothing new, no substance behind it, and it bears no relation to reality when it comes to our role in the world under this Government. Let me continue:
“My Government will be at the forefront of efforts to solve the…complex international security issues.”
Nothing new, no substance behind it, and it is at odds with a Government who cannot even explain the strategy for Syria, Libya or Yemen, Iran, Israel or Palestine, let alone the ongoing crisis with Iran.
There is more:
“My Government…will champion global free trade and work alongside international partners to solve the most pressing global challenges.”
Waffle, waffle, waffle—nothing new, no substance behind it—[Interruption.] Unfortunately, I am quoting Her Majesty, who had those words written for her by the people at No. 10—nothing new, no substance behind any of it, and an insult, when we consider how this Prime Minister actively acquiesced when his friend and hero, Donald Trump, started ducking all those global challenges and actively making them all worse, and told me that I was being pessimistic for warning as much.
Among all those vacuous, meaningless lines that Her Majesty was forced to read out, there is one of greater interest in the foreign policy section of the speech, which I would like to highlight:
“My Government will take steps to protect the integrity of democracy and the electoral system in the United Kingdom.”
Let us bear in mind that those words were drafted by Downing Street for our sovereign to read out in front of Parliament. That was a solemn promise from the Government, in Her Majesty’s name, to protect the integrity of democracy here in Britain. Yet here we are, still waiting—still waiting!—for the Government to publish the Intelligence and Security Committee’s report on Russian interference with our democracy.
Shortly before the election, the Foreign Secretary stood at the Dispatch Box and told us that the delay was perfectly normal because it usually took six weeks for ISC reports to be published, although this report had already been cleared in full by the Committee and the intelligence services, and just needed to be signed off by Downing Street. Most important, of course, it needed to be signed off by the two architects of the leave campaign and renowned friends of Russian oligarchs, the Prime Minister and Dominic Cummings.
Six weeks, the Foreign Secretary told us, but how long has Downing Street now been sitting on the report? I will tell you how long: 12 weeks and five days. Now we are told that it has been cleared for publication, but that can only happen when the new Intelligence and Security Committee is convened. On behalf of the former Chair of the ISC, Dominic Grieve, who is sadly no longer in the House, let me read on to the record his reaction to that news. He said:
“The fact that he”
—the Prime Minister—
“has been able to sanction its publication now shows that in fact it was perfectly possible to sanction its publication before parliament was dissolved…The reasons he gave at the time for non-publication were bogus.”
So there we have it: bogus arguments, bogus timetables, bogus excuses, and still no sign of the ISC report. Yet this Government have the barefaced cheek to ask Her Majesty to announce that they are protecting the integrity of our democracy.
In the absence of anything else of substance on foreign affairs in the Queen’s Speech, let me raise some of the other issues that were not mentioned, and ask the Minister who winds up the debate to address them. First, may I ask what on earth has happened to the Trump Administration’s so-called middle east plan? Has the Foreign Office still not had any sight of that plan? Is there even a plan to look at? Now that he is in a place of greater influence, perhaps the Prime Minister will press ahead with the international summit that he promised to convene as Foreign Secretary, so that we, and our fellow allies with an interest in the middle east, can spell out our red lines on the American plan. Or will he go one better, and use such a summit to demand that if the Trump Administration keep prevaricating, we and others will resume the role of honest broker between Israel and Palestinian that Donald Trump is clearly incapable of fulfilling?
Secondly, talking of honest brokers, may I ask—for what is now the fourth year running since I became shadow Defence Secretary—why the Government are still refusing to use the power vested in them by the United Nations to draft a Security Council resolution demanding an immediate and comprehensive ceasefire in Yemen, to be observed by all parties? Yemen has just started its second year at the top of the International Rescue Committee’s rankings for the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. How many more years do its people need to suffer before the Government finally pull their finger out and do their job at the United Nations?
Thirdly—this is a related matter—it is now more than 15 months since the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. Last month, we saw the horrific spectacle in Riyadh of four junior Saudi operatives being sentenced to execution while all Bin Salman’s most senior aides were cleared of all charges. The Government have consistently asked us to have confidence that justice will be done by the Saudi authorities. Well, that was not justice. So I ask the Government, yet again, when they will publish their own assessment of who was responsible for ordering and carrying out the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, and when they will deliver the “serious consequences” that were promised from the Dispatch Box
Fourthly, it was distressing last week to read the report of the Independent Commission for Aid Impact into the Foreign Office’s prevention of sexual violence initiative, which was intended to tackle the global use of rape as a weapon of war. We welcomed that initiative at the time, but we now read in the commission’s report that “ministerial interest waned” after William Hague left the Foreign Office—[Interruption.] That is a quote from the report, which goes on to say that
“staffing and funding levels dropped precipitously”.
The commitment to the campaign in London fell and a budget of £15 million and 34 staff in 2014 has fallen to £2 million and four workers, including the intern.
First, I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the progress that she made earlier today.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that we cannot just talk the talk? This is about matching the resource to the priority, and sadly, violence against women and girls in areas of conflict does appear to have dropped down the agenda under this Government.
My hon. Friend makes a powerful point, and the report confirms that. The budget has been cut, and the group of experts who are supposed to lead overseas support to the victims of sexual violence in war zones has been cut from 70 to 40. This is a damning indictment of a Government who have steadily deprioritised the importance of human rights since the departure of William Hague and who now treat them as an afterthought next to the vital importance of doing trade deals with human rights abusers. [Interruption.] If Foreign Office Ministers reject that charge, let them stand up and explain themselves over the downgrading of sexual violence as a priority.
The right hon. Gentleman says that that is wrong. If he would like to get up and explain how it is that the budget has fallen to that extent and how that is not evidence that this is no longer being prioritised, he is welcome to intervene on me right now.
It is not true. We take issue with the report. There have been a whole series of initiatives to take this forward, and it remains a key priority and agenda item for the Government. We do not accept this, based on either the figures that the right hon. Lady has provided or the level of diplomatic work that has gone in. We will ensure that there is a fuller account, and I can write to her if that would be useful.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. I would like to know whether it is right that, for example, the number of experts has dropped from 70 to 40. Could he perhaps tell us that? Is it right that the budget has fallen from £15 million to £2 million and that, instead of there being 34 staff, there are only four including an intern? What conclusions we can draw from that? Perhaps we can particularly focus on that, because it seems to be a damning indictment of this Government.
We have committed £46 million since 2012. Our upcoming international conference in November will bring together countries from around the world to focus on justice and accountability. On that basis alone, to say that this has dropped off the radar is clearly nonsense. We hosted the global summit to end sexual violence in conflict in June 2014. We are the only Government in the world to have a special representative for taking that forward, and the only Government in the world to have a dedicated team and funding focused on tackling conflict-related sexual violence. And because actions matter more than words, our team has completed more than 90 deployments to places from Libya to northern Iraq and the Syrian borders, and we look forward to continuing that crucial work. So I am afraid that the right hon. Lady has again got her facts wrong.
It is interesting that, in answering my question, the right hon. Gentleman relies on spending that has happened since 2012. I accept that in 2014 the budget was £15 million and there were 34 staff. My point is that now, in 2020, under this Government, the budget is £2 million and there are four workers, one of whom is an intern. That is the point. We cannot just keep rolling back to previous things. My point is that this started well, but is now trailing off and is no longer a priority. That is an indictment of the current Government. This is what being held to account looks like—[Interruption.] The point is what they are doing now, today; that is what is important. They cannot rely on what happened eight years ago.
If I might move on, I have a fifth point, which is on Iran. I echo everything my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds North East (Fabian Hamilton) said in response to the urgent question earlier. As he rightly said, the rest of the world cannot sit back and wait and see what happens. As we saw with the disgraceful shooting down of the Ukrainian airliner, we are now only one misdirected missile away from not just further appalling loss of life, but an escalation of violence and brinkmanship that could finally topple all of us into war with a country that is five times the size of Iraq and nine times the size of Syria and that has a population of 83 million people. That cannot be allowed to happen.
Hard as it is, I believe that the UN and the EU need to go back to the drawing board, get all the parties around the table, and discuss how we can revive the process of engagement, starting with getting the nuclear deal back on track. What actions are the Government taking to that end?
In closing—I will not take any further interventions—I said at the outset that I have been looking at my past debates with the current Prime Minister, and I note that he is to the art of prescience in foreign policy what Basil Fawlty was to customer service. I looked back at our Queen’s Speech debate in 2017—I believe it was the only one in which he took part as Foreign Secretary—and what is so depressing is that, just like today, I had to point out that there were no new policy initiatives to discuss: a total vacuum where British global leadership should be; no solutions on Iran, Yemen, Syria, North Korea or Libya; silence on Russia, China, Iraq, Afghanistan and the middle east; and a pathetic paucity of action on climate change.
I closed my speech two and half years ago with words that I will repeat now. Unlike the current Prime Minister, every word I said has been proven utterly true and is just as depressingly relevant today. I said:
“Why is…this Tory Queen’s Speech such a blank space with regard to foreign policy?...their sole foreign policy ambition is to stay in lockstep with Donald Trump, whatever hill he chooses to march us up next. That means we are left with a Government who no longer know their own mind on foreign policy because they are beholden to a President who keeps changing his…we could have a Britain that actually has a foreign policy of its own—a Britain ready once again to be a beacon of strength and security, prosperity and values for every country around the world. This Queen’s Speech does nothing to advance that. This Government are doing nothing to advance that.—[Official Report, 26 June 2017; Vol. 626, cc. 424-25.]
Two and a half years later, as someone once said, absolutely nothing has changed.
I am most grateful to be called so early in this debate, Madam Deputy Speaker, and to follow the right hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry), who raised some important issues. I wish her success in the campaign she is about to embark on, and I hope her candidacy lasts a little longer than that of the hon. Member for Brent North (Barry Gardiner), who has just left the Chamber.
It is good to see so many hon. Members in the Chamber for this debate, particularly new Members, a number of whom intend to make their maiden speech during the course of it. They bring expertise and knowledge that I have no doubt will be immensely valuable in our deliberations, and I look forward to hearing their contributions.
As my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary knows, I was an enthusiastic supporter of the Vote Leave campaign. I welcome the emphasis placed by the Queen’s Speech on delivering Brexit, which people voted for more than three years ago. I support Brexit not just because I believe in the economic opportunities, but because I believe there is a real role that this country can play in international affairs. We are not little Englanders; we want to look beyond the shores of the European Union. Indeed, many of our greatest opportunities now lie in countries beyond Europe. It is likely within the next 10 years that the five biggest economies in the world will be America, China, Brazil, India and Indonesia. None of them have trade agreements with the European Union, but I hope we will have trade agreements with them as soon as possible within the next decade.
The gravity school of economics argues that we always trade more with those closest to us, but does my right hon. Friend agree that the history of the past 200 years suggests the opposite? We have taken beef from Argentina, we have had a closer economic relationship with the United States than with any other single country, and we have incredibly close relationships with India, to which we sold cotton, and with Australia and Canada. Does he agree with me—this is the point he is making—that the gravity school of economics is really rather flawed?
I agree with my hon. Friend. It is short-sighted to look at nearby countries only. Our history shows that we have a tradition of trading right across the globe—I am delighted to have the nod of my right hon Friend the Secretary of State for International Trade, who is in her place.
I have spent quite a lot of my life serving the country well outside of Europe, and I say in support of what my right hon. Friend says that we still punch well above our weight when we are in Asia or in Africa.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, because he brings me on to the issue that I wanted to raise—
But before doing so I will give way to the hon. Lady.
The right hon. Gentleman is being generous. I fear that the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Bob Seely) is confusing gravity with geography. Of course, it is entirely possible to trade with nations around the world, but the issue in today’s integrated supply chains is the speed with which parts can be delivered into advanced automated manufacturing. Is the right hon. Gentleman arguing that it is equally quick and efficient to get a part from Chicago as it is to get it from Munich, for example?
I understand the hon. Lady’s argument, but this is not a binary choice. I want us to have a strong trading agreement with the European Union, and I am confident that we will obtain that under this Government, but that does not exclude us from also having much stronger trading relationships with other countries around the world.
Will my right hon. Friend give way?
I will give way perhaps one last time.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend, who is making an excellent speech and many points with which I agree. On the point raised by the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah), does my right hon. Friend agree that our focus will rightly be on negotiating a good trade deal with the EU after Brexit day? However, our ability to negotiate with the US is just as important. Both are vital to increase export opportunities for UK businesses, but the US trade agreement is important so that we can increase our leverage with the EU.
I agree with my hon. Friend. I hope that we will get on with negotiating those agreements simultaneously as soon as possible.
Coming back to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) about the strength of our voice in international affairs, I understand that some of our partners in the European Union will miss our voice within the Council. We have been a strong voice on issues such as standing up to Russia and the imposition of sanctions, but there are many other opportunities for us to have a decisive influence. We are still a member of the United Nations Security Council, and we are the second biggest contributor to NATO. We will play an active role in the Council of Europe and in the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, where I am proud to be a member of the Parliamentary Assembly.
I want to highlight one particular organisation— I happen to be the chair of the British group—and that is the Inter-Parliamentary Union. I would encourage new Members to get involved in the IPU. It was founded 130 years ago by Randal Cremer, a British statesman, and Frédéric Passy, a Frenchman, and we have recently celebrated that anniversary. It now comprises 179 countries, and its purpose is to strengthen relations between Parliaments. It is possible to pursue issues through parliamentary dialogue that are sometimes impossible to raise between Governments, and I will give one or two examples. It was in 1984 that the IPU invited a delegation to the UK from the Soviet Union. The delegation was led by a then pretty much unknown Russian politician called Mikhail Gorbachev. That led to the meeting between Margaret Thatcher and Mikhail Gorbachev and, as a result, it eventually led to the reform of the Soviet Union. Indeed, it led to the collapse of communism and the break-up of the Soviet Union.
You were probably there, John.
I was not quite there.
I also point to the dialogue we have built up over a number of years between parliamentarians from the UK and those of Argentina, and the good relations that now exists between our two countries have been fostered through that dialogue. We also have dialogue with North Korea. I hope we will continue to give our full support to the IPU, which is a valuable organisation for developing relations with countries with which there are sometimes considerable tensions.
Will my right hon. Friend add the Commonwealth to his list of organisations that will be increasingly important? We have a number of very close ties with the Commonwealth, to which we need to add free trade ties. We will be able to do that once we are no longer represented by the European Union, which has not done it. In connection to that, does he think it would be a good idea for Her Majesty’s Government now to offer practical help to Australia at her time of trouble? A lot of people in this country feel we have close links with Australia and ought to show our sympathy in a more practical way.
I agree with my right hon. Friend. There are many people in this country who feel close ties with Australia, despite the geographical distance that separates us. I hope the Government, as I believe they will, will give any help to Australia that is requested.
Soft power allows us to exert a far greater influence in the world than our size would perhaps suggest. The UK is perhaps the most effective country in the world in deploying soft power. We have huge assets, perhaps the greatest of which is the English language, which is the second language of almost every country in the world. We take advantage of that, and students from all across the world want to come to study in British schools and British universities.
We use the British Council to promote UK culture around the world, and I encourage my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to continue giving full support to the British Council in its excellent work. The other organisation with which I have had some involvement over recent years is the BBC, and I am an absolute supporter of the BBC World Service. The World Service is now approaching its target of reaching 500 million people every week. It is by far the most respected media organisation internationally, and its reports are not regarded as propaganda or fake news. People across the world rely on the BBC World Service.
The right hon. Gentleman is making an excellent contribution on the BBC World Service. Does he agree that part of the current issue in Iran is the worrying pressure that BBC Persian journalists are being put under due to the current chaos in Iran?
I entirely agree with the hon. Lady. I was delighted to host an IPU/BBC World Service event at which we heard from the head of the BBC Persian service. Its journalists are all based in London, and they dare not travel to Iran. It is their families who are being harassed and persecuted, which is wholly unacceptable, and I know it is one of the issues that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has raised and, I hope, will continue to raise.
I chair the all-party parliamentary group on media freedom, and this is an excellent example. I commend the Government’s work on media freedom. It was my right hon. Friend’s predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for South West Surrey (Jeremy Hunt), who made media freedom a priority and who hosted the international conference in London last year. I am delighted that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary is continuing that work and has already told the House about his recent meeting with the Canadians, who have also led on this.
We have made some progress. Forty-nine journalists died last year, which is a historically low figure, but it is still 49 too many. Perhaps worryingly, a greater proportion than in previous years died outside conflict zones and were perhaps deliberately targeted, often by their own Government. Three hundred and eighty-nine journalists are still in prison around the world, with nearly half of them in three countries: China, Egypt and Saudi Arabia.
In her speech, the right hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury talked about the death of Jamal Khashoggi. I completely agree with her that although we are told that some people have been held responsible, the masterminds behind that murder have not yet been identified. Nor, I suspect, have the masterminds been identified in another shocking case from just a couple of years ago, which is the death of Daphne Caruana Galizia in Malta, a country in the European Union where the ramifications are still being felt. There is still work to do on media freedom, and I am pleased that that was highlighted in the Queen’s Speech and that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary gives it such priority.
I wish quickly to mention one other issue. As I think you know, Madam Deputy Speaker, I also chair the all-party group on Ukraine. I was delighted to meet the Ukrainian ambassador earlier today, and I am grateful to colleagues from all parties who came and signed the book of condolence for the families of those who died in the plane crash. It is now nearly four years since Russia illegally occupied part of the sovereign state of Ukraine—Crimea—and since the fighting broke out in the east of Ukraine. It is plain that those actions by Russia were in breach of all international law. We have taken sanctions, but they have proved ineffectual so far: the Russians are still in occupation in Crimea and the fighting in Donbass continues. Just last week, another three Ukrainians died in that fighting.
We have a responsibility: first, because we were one of the original signatories of the Budapest memorandum, which guaranteed the sovereign integrity of Ukraine in return for Ukraine’s giving up its nuclear arsenal; and secondly, because a European country has been invaded. I hope we will continue to support President Zelensky in his efforts, but the Gracious Speech also refers to sanctions. I agree with my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary that, now that we are leaving the European Union, it gives us an opportunity to impose stronger sanctions without having to reach agreement throughout the European Union.
Not only would I like to see sanctions against the people responsible for the invasion of Ukraine and, indeed, against those Ukrainians who have previously stolen money—much of which has not yet been found—from their own country, but we should also take advantage of the Magnitsky list, which the House passed yet has so far not been implemented. Media freedom is an excellent example—I commend the report of the Foreign Affairs Committee, which was chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat) —of where there is a real opportunity to add teeth to our words about the importance of media freedom by taking out sanctions against those responsible.
I commend the Gracious Speech, particularly for its in emphasis on international affairs and the attention that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary rightly gave to these issues in his contribution.
Order. Before I call the SNP spokesman, may I say to colleagues that I hope we can manage this afternoon’s debate without having a formal time limit? I would particularly like to do that because several maiden speeches are about to be made and it is a much better atmosphere for a maiden speech if the clock is not being watched for every second. We will manage to do it if everybody limits their speeches to around about nine to 10 minutes, which is quite a long time. I hasten to say that if colleagues cannot say it in nine minutes, perhaps they should think about whether to say it at all. It can be done, and if it is, it will show wonderful discipline and show those making their maiden speeches just how the Chamber can work at its best. In mentioning nine minutes, I make no particular criticism of the speeches that have already been given, particularly from the Front Bench, but also from everyone else. [Interruption.] I am digging a hole, so I am going to stop. We have been very disciplined so far; I am sure we will continue to be disciplined.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I assure you that I always try to make my words as meaningful and as brief as possible. I am also coming from the European Union Parliament where a nine to 10-minute speech is, as my good friend the hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Afzal Khan) knows, an acre of expanse, but I will certainly keep my words brief today.
I have listened carefully to the contributions thus far, and, as we approach Burns season, what strikes me is what our national poet said:
“O wad some po’er the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us.”
I look forward to the note from Hansard asking me to explain that. Global Britain is not just how Britain wants to be perceived; it is how the rest of the world judges Britain by its actions and its deeds. Warm words and sympathy are in no short supply in this place, but the world is watching, and it is watching Britain right now very carefully. I believe that we are at a crossroads—I say “we” quite deliberately, much as we have a different perspective from these Benches.
I am, as I say, new to this place, but I was elected to the European Parliament in 2004. I have served there since, lately on the European Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee, with a particular emphasis on the middle east and north Africa. I grew up in Saudi Arabia, so I have sand in my blood. I will always have a close interest in the middle east and what is going on there. That is a subject on which I look forward to engaging with colleagues.
I also bring an unashamedly European style to my politics. I believe that we get more done when we focus on where we agree, not on where we differ. I believe that we get more done when we strive for consensus, even if, perhaps, it cannot be found. When he visited the European Parliament, German Federal President Frank-Walter Steinmeier said that the European Union is based on the revolutionary idea that our opponent might have a point. That is always my politics. That is always the attitude that I bring. I do hope that the Foreign Secretary has received my email suggesting a coffee. I look forward to discussing where we do agree, and I look forward to working with colleagues across the House on where we agree. Where there is alignment of our view on Scotland’s best interests with global Britain, I will not be shy in agreeing.
Having said that, it is just possible that we might not agree on everything, because we on these Benches are not committed to Britain in the world. We wish it well, but it is not our project. We are committed to an independent Scotland in Europe. I was not always a nationalist, but I have concluded that Scotland’s best interests would be best served as an independent state in the European Union.
I said in my maiden speech back in December that I regret that Brexit is happening, but I accept that it is happening. I am not about fighting old battles; I am not about tilting at windmills. However, I do say to colleagues on the Government Benches—Members should trust me when I bring my European experience to bear on this—that leaving the European Union is the easy bit. What comes next is a quantum shift in complexity, and, because of the timetable that has been set, urgency. It is my view—others may disagree—that Brexit will leave global Britain poorer in every sense, weaker in every sense and less secure and less safe in every sense, unless we work together to get this right.
The view from the SNP Benches is that the implications of Brexit on foreign affairs and security co-operation are very far from clear. We have a number of documents in the conditional tense. They have not been agreed or signed off—at least not by the European Parliament. There is an interest in a close co-operation on the SNP Benches. We would very strongly urge Norway levels of co-operation with the EU, particularly on security issues. That will keep us safer—that will keep our citizens safer. It is in all our best interests to work towards that, and if that is where the Government are heading, I pledge the support of these Benches much as we have our difficulties and differences on other things.
It is also in the interests of democracy within these islands—we have heard mention of it already—to release the Russia report. The document exists. Grave concerns have been raised about external interference in the UK’s democracy. A document exists that has not been published for dubious reasons. It should be published now so that we can all see where things are. Surely when we are looking to be a beacon of best practice to the world, credibility begins at home.
An issue that is close to Scotland’s heart is international development. We very warmly support and welcome the 0.7% commitment on international aid, but that is not without caveats. We are concerned about the increasing politicisation of the aid budget. We are very concerned about the suggestion that the Department for International Development could be wound into the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. We think that would be an entirely retrograde step. We are pleased that it has been abandoned for the moment, but this is a continuing trend.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way. He is making an excellent speech. On the very point that he is discussing, the staff of DFID, particularly those in my constituency in East Kilbride, contribute so much in relation to providing aid worldwide and excellent programmes. Having been chair of the all-party group for disability, I particularly consider its excellent work in getting children with disabilities into school. Does my hon. Friend agree that such work must be protected? It must be protected to protect the UK’s reputation, but also in relation to jobs, the wider economy and the good that we do internationally.
I very warmly agree. My hon. Friend is of course no stranger to DFID. SNP Members want to see that work and independence protected and maintained, but the trend we have seen is concerning. In 2017, DFID managed only 72% of official development assistance, down from 88% in 2013. Given the budgets being spent by other Departments, we think that is a retrograde drift that we need to reverse. We want to see an independent DFID—not part of the FCO—and we want the budget to be focused on climate change. The world is moving fast. We need to see a strong effort on climate change, because it is a global imperative that we very strongly support. The International Development Committee has called for this, and we would welcome and support moves towards it.
We are not going to agree on everything, but, as I have said, where we do agree I will not be shy of agreeing. “Perspective” is not just another way of saying “opinion”; we see the world differently on the SNP Benches. I am a Scottish European. I wish global Britain well; where we agree, we will agree. But Scotland is a European nation, and Scotland has not yet been heard on this.
It was genuinely a pleasure to hear the hon. Member for Stirling (Alyn Smith) express himself in such fluent and consensual terms. The fact that he says his party is willing to agree with Government Members does not come as a surprise to me, because I know from my experience on the last two iterations of the Defence Committee, where I had the pleasure of serving alongside two Members of the SNP, that that is exactly true. That is how it was that, on a cross-party basis, all three parties represented on the Committee were able to agree at quite an early stage that defence expenditure is too low, and that something in the order of 3% of GDP is a more realistic target if Britain is to hold her head up in the world with safety.
Before I develop that theme, however, I want to pick up one point from the excellent speech made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Maldon (Mr Whittingdale), and that is his reference to the BBC, in which he concentrated on the World Service. In about 2011, when the then Sir Ming Campbell and I were both members of the Intelligence and Security Committee, I remember that we learned with alarm of the coalition Government’s plan to stop the ring-fenced funding not only of the BBC World Service but of the vital BBC Monitoring Service based at Caversham Park. We expressed the view at the time that the result of putting that funding on the shoulders of the BBC in return for allowing the BBC to have its usual requested rise in the licence fee would come back to bite us—and so it did, because both those budgets were badly squeezed, and I think I am right in saying that in the end the Government felt it necessary to restore separate funding for the BBC World Service, but sadly not for the BBC Monitoring Service.
The position is that the BBC continues to fund the World Service, but it now receives an additional grant from the Foreign Office that has allowed it to expand its services. I very much hope that the Foreign Office will continue—and perhaps increase—that funding.
Yes, but the trouble is that no such grant was made to the BBC Monitoring Service, which is our principal source of what is called open-source intelligence—or, as the BBC prefers to say, open-source information. The Defence Committee produced a hard-hitting report entitled “Open Source Stupidity”, because that was entirely our opinion of the effect of that cutback by the coalition Government. It led directly to the closure of Caversham Park, and although BBC Monitoring continues to do very good work, it is a shame and a disgrace that it is not specially separately funded, as it used to be.
Coming back to the main topic, this is, as we know, a debate on Britain’s future place in the world. However magnified, however static or even however reduced our future place in the world may be, we have to be able to keep our country safe. As I never tire of explaining to the House, the basis of any sensible defence policy depends on three concepts: deterrence, containment, and a realisation of the unpredictability of future conflicts. The examples I always give—I fear that people will start joining in in a chorus if I do it again, but I do so nevertheless—are the Yom Kippur war in 1973 that took hyper-sensitive Israel by surprise, the Falklands war in 1982 that took us by surprise, the invasion of Kuwait in 1990 that took everybody by surprise, and the 9/11 attacks in 2001 that took the world’s then only superpower by surprise.
What do I conclude from the fact that most wars in the 20th century—I could give many more older examples —are usually not predicted significantly in advance? I conclude that if we are going to have an adequate defence policy, we have to be able to defend flexibly against a whole spectrum of future potential threats because we do not know which of those threats is going to materialise.
My right hon. Friend is making an excellent speech and excellent points. I want to draw him back to his comments about spending at least 3%. I do not believe that it is about 3%; it is about having the capability we need. The key word he has used is “flexibility”, and that does not have a percentage price on it; it has an equipment and capability price.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. However, I have found through long experience that although it is a rather crude shorthand, this business of percentages is the one straightforward, simple and clear way of showing to the country what has been happening in relative terms, compared with other high spending Departments, to defence expenditure.
May I urge the right hon. Gentleman not to oversimplify what is actually complex, and rightly so? Should not the debate be led by capability over the simplicity of saying that we meet a certain target? We do an assessment of where the threat picture is at, we determine what capability is required to meet that threat assessment, and we spend the money accordingly. Targets, while simple and easy to understand, do not paint the whole picture.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. He came in as if on cue, because I was just about to paint what I regard as the spectrum of threats that are necessary to give us the flexibility that we need to have if we are going to prepare an adequate defence policy.
Does my right hon. Friend agree as well that in order to have flexibility, it is very important that we have the key military technologies under our own control, and the industrial capability of flexing up and greatly increasing our output of weaponry should disaster hit and we need to respond?
I do, and in this there is an important rebuttal of a point often made by those who think we can afford to cut out certain capabilities because we are members of an alliance and we can rely on other allies to supply capabilities that we ourselves do not have. That leaves out of account what happens if, heaven forbid, we are involved in a major conflict and one of our allies is knocked out and no longer able to supply us with the missing capabilities. So while we cannot do everything, we have to be able to do as many things as are possible within a reasonable financial envelope. My point about the percentages is that they give us a rough idea of what is reasonable at any given time in a country’s circumstances.
The spectrum of threats ranges from, at the most extreme end, nuclear obliteration, through conventional defeat and subjugation, to what is generally regarded in the terminology as 21st-century threats—terrorism, subversion, infiltration, disinformation, cyber and space. In the short time remaining, I want to focus on the point about which I had an exchange with the Foreign Secretary during his speech, and that is the question of the defence review.
My concern goes back to 2017, when, as I referred to in my intervention, we had something called the national security capability review. That was meant to look at defence and security altogether, but it was also meant to be fiscally neutral, which meant that if we decided that we wanted to spend more on dealing with so-called 21st-century threats—I am pleased to see the hon. Member for Glasgow South (Stewart Malcolm McDonald) nodding in recollection of and, I hope, agreement with my analysis—such as subversion or disinformation or especially cyber, we had to start cutting core conventional capabilities.
I draw the House’s attention, not for the first time, to a very revealing article in The Guardian, no less, on 26 June 2018, in which it was reported that there had been an “increasingly bitter stand-off” between the Treasury and the Ministry of Defence. It read:
“The row has its origins in July last year, when the Cabinet Office announced the national security adviser, Sir Mark Sedwill, would conduct a review of the threats facing the UK and the capabilities needed to meet them. His brief was to look at the UK security needs in the round, taking in the intelligence agencies as well as the MoD. He was also to evaluate the risks posed by terrorists and cyber-attacks as well as from conventional forces.”
That sounds rather similar to what we heard today. The article continues:
“By the autumn, it was clear the intelligence agencies had come out on top and the MoD was looking at being forced to make cuts, with options ranging from reducing the size of the army from 77,000 to 70,000, cutting 1,000 Royal Marines and decommissioning two specialist amphibious-landing ships, HMS Bulwark and HMS Albion.
There was a consensus among mandarins involved in the negotiations the UK was less likely to need two specialist amphibious landing ships than the ability to defend against a cyber-attack on its infrastructure or financial networks.
But there was a backlash from an informal coalition led by Williamson,”—
my right hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire (Gavin Williamson)—
“appointed in November, and the chairman of the defence select committee… as well as a score or more Conservative MPs (and Labour ones with defence jobs in their constituencies)...
One of the arguments from Tory backbenchers was the military were disproportionately represented”—
they mean under-represented—
“in negotiations dominated by politicians with no military background and by the intelligence agencies.
The counter-arguments were little aired in the media: that the UK should abandon its adherence to tradition and instead build a modern force, a pared-down one, with lower spending levels closer to comparable Europeans neighbours. Compared with the UK’s 2.1% of GDP spent on defence, France spends 1.79%, Germany 1.2%... Italy 1.1% and Spain 0.9%.”
The cat was out of the bag—the establishment and the Treasury wanted us to reduce our spending on what is conventionally understood as defence in favour of new capabilities. I entirely agree that we need to spend more on new capabilities, but why does that mean that we have to spend less on conventional capabilities when, as I set out at the beginning, we have no idea what the nature of a future conflict will be? As the threats are augmented and the dangers multiply, we should be spending more, not less.
I return to that rough yardstick of the percentage terms. The Defence Committee spent a lot of time trying to work out what really had happened to defence, because, as we know, the criteria were changed for calculating our GDP percentage expenditure on defence. We were able to establish objectively that
“calculated on a historically consistent basis”,
in the last four years for which figures are available, although officially we spent 2.2%, 2.1%, 2.1% and 2.1%, in reality—on the basis on which it used to be calculated —we spent 1.9%, 1.8%, 1.8% and, again, 1.8%.
I conclude by saying that it used to be the case that in the 1980s we spent roughly the same on defence, on education and on health. We now spend two and a half times on education and four times on health what we spend on defence. No one is asking to go back to the levels of expenditure, comparatively speaking, of the 1980s, but even in the mid-1990s we felt ourselves able to invest 3% of GDP on keeping ourselves safe, not the 4% to 5% that we spent in the 1980s. That is a worthwhile target, an acceptable target and a target to which the Government need to aspire.
I call Chi Onwurah.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. It is a real pleasure to speak in this, my first debate of the new decade, with you in the Chair and on such an important subject—Britain in the world. At a time when global politics seems to offer us so much to fear and as we leave the European Union, I was truly disappointed that the Queen’s Speech did not recognise the opportunities and challenges for my constituency and, indeed, for my region, as well as for the country, particularly given that the deal under which we are leaving the European Union is one of the worst possible.
Newcastle Central has a proud history of working with, trading with, acting in solidarity with and welcoming people from the world. We are not, as some would like to believe, an inward-looking region. In the 19th century, we welcomed the American abolitionist and escaped slave Frederick Douglass to Newcastle, and residents of what is now Newcastle Central paid for his freedom. Traidcraft, which supports economic development across the world through trade, was founded in Newcastle. Hadrian’s wall, which runs through my constituency, was the boundary of the Roman world. Today, Geordies are to be found all over the world, while visitors to Newcastle celebrate its beautiful streets, vibrant nightlife and warm welcome from the people who live there. And we trade with the world. The north east is the region that exports more than it imports—the only region in the country to do so—and 60% of that goes to Europe, supporting many jobs.
Before and during the election, I spoke to business leaders and owners, many of them Conservative voting, who were absolutely appalled at what they saw a Conservative Government doing to the business environment, particularly in the north-east. My job and that of MPs across the region is to improve our constituencies’ prosperity, enabling high-wage, high-skill jobs in the region. We have advanced manufacturing integrated supply chains that criss-cross the channel backwards and forwards multiple times, and we want more such supply chains as part of a green industrial revolution that will build a net zero economy by investing in green technologies and manufacturing.
And we can do it. We have the workforce in the north-east. We have 51,000 tech, engineering, maths and science students coming out of our universities every year, and we have great strengths in science, digital, energy, healthcare and business. But we need frictionless borders with our closest partners and agreed standards that define everything from the acceptable frequency of electromagnetic radiation to the atomic composition of a given chemical. Our relationship with the European Union is as much a matter of geography as it is of politics. The Prime Minister’s bad deal and the Conservatives’ recklessness over Brexit have already cost the region jobs, and I look forward to the new north-eastern Tory MPs joining me in ensuring that north-east manufacturing continues and stopping the Prime Minister as he breaks his promises on trade, standards, workers and environmental rights. We can perhaps start this by seeing the letter of reassurances given to Nissan over Brexit and asking whether the current deal meets them.
Even before the prospect of Brexit, the UK was the most regionally divided country in Europe, and that is one aspect of our position in the world that needs to change. A recent report from Sheffield Hallam University found that the Government’s industrial strategy is going to widen the divisions in our country, not bridge them. The industrial strategy’s narrow sectoral focus targets only 10% of our manufacturing base and only 1% of the whole economy. We need to see an industrial strategy from the Government that builds our regional economies, and one small step would be if the Government were to commit now to delivering the funding for the Metro’s new trains, as our dilapidated and inadequate public transport system is a barrier to the regional economic integration that we need to match our supply chain integration. We also need to secure a strategic British engineering capability through investment in skills and lifelong learning.
As the Government turn away from Europe, they turn to the US. We have great cultural and economic links with the United States, and it is a country that I love and love to visit, but I do not think I am the only one who is concerned that we should become more dependent on a US President who I think can accurately be described as, at the very least, volatile, and that raises concerns about our position in the world. We do not want, for example, to be following the United States on precarious working conditions, exorbitant health costs or chlorinated chicken, but those would clearly be on the table in any deal. Many of my constituents enjoy the beautiful countryside that surrounds Newcastle in Northumbria and County Durham, and that depends on the wellbeing of small-scale farmers, who could not stand up against the opening up of competition from the American agri-industrial machine; I was disappointed, again, that the Queen’s Speech did not include any protection for them.
I also want to say a few words as chair of the all-party group on Africa. That group exists to support mutually beneficial relationships between the UK and Africa, and also to be a voice for the African diaspora in this country. If we are to have a win-win relationship with African countries, we need to ensure that any trade agreements made post Brexit between the UK and Africa respect and strengthen African interests as well as our own, and in particular the desire and ability of African countries to industrialise sustainably. So I welcome the UK-Africa summit that the Government are holding on Monday next week. The all-party group on Africa is holding a parliamentary symposium the day after, on future UK-Africa trade after Brexit, with the president of the African Development Bank giving a keynote address. The interest in this event is testament to the importance of our economic relationships with Africa and the opportunities that are included there. However, the UK cannot take advantage of those opportunities, or indeed be an outward-looking nation that is open for business, without improving the system that allows access to people. Our inquiry of July 2019 found that African visitors to the UK are twice as likely to be refused a visa than applicants from any other part of the world, which means that many African companies working in Africa are deciding to take their businesses elsewhere.
Does my hon. Friend agree that, in the area of science, it is terrible the way that the Home Office refuses visas all the time and sets back science and the progress we can make between Africa and UK science?
I thank my hon. Friend for making that intervention, because it is absolutely true that scientific links, as well as being part of the UK’s soft power, are in the interests of ensuring that we have sustainable industrialisation in Africa. To see so many African scientists refused visas to come here really goes against the interests of both the UK and the continent of Africa. What is absolutely clear is that UK Visas and Immigration’s treatment of Africans is entirely at odds with the narrative of a global Britain post Brexit. Actions will weigh more than words. We cannot claim to be an open and global Britain if we continue to exclude so many people with a genuine need and desire to come to this country.
Britain’s position in the world has been negatively impacted by the Brexit saga and shambles, but I believe we can and will recover. We are still looked to as one of the great democracies of the world. Our scientific influence, the advantage of our language and the budget the Department for International Development spends will all ensure that we have influence in the world. We can stand up for human rights in countries such as Saudi Arabia, Russia, Iran, Burma as well as in Kashmir and Palestine and many other countries and places, and we must do so. We should be under no illusion that democracy is embattled. Populism, xenophobia and electoral interference are both driving and a consequence of the challenges democracy faces. Cosying up to regimes such as the Hungarian Orbán and not standing up to President Trump does not put us on the right side of history when it comes to our position in the world. I want to see a stronger United Kingdom: strong on principles, with regionally successful economies, making its way on the global stage.
Let us try a little bit harder on the nine to 10 minutes. The hon. Lady was not too bad, but I put out this plea to people who have made many speeches in this place and will make many more: it is not fair to those making their maiden speeches today if I have to put on a time limit to get everyone in. That should not be necessary. Nine to 10 minutes is ages.
I remember that my maiden speech was rather quicker—about four minutes—so I am glad you have given us a little bit longer, Madam Deputy Speaker.
I would like to start with some condolences. Not only do the people of Ukraine and Iran deserve our condolences, but the people of Oman. Sultan Qaboos was a great friend of the UK. His partnership with our country has enabled a peace process in the region to go on for years, very quietly and very sensitively. He has been an enormous friend. I look forward to our Government working with Sultan Haitham in the years to come.
The past two years in Parliament have, for me, been shaped by chairing the Foreign Affairs Committee. It was a huge pleasure to have had that chance. We published some 23 reports and 24 special reports. We had amazing help from the most fantastic Clerks in Parliament. I would like, if I may, to name three Clerks of the Committee—Chris Stanton, Tom Goldsmith and Chris Shaw—and thank them for their amazing work. I would also like to pay tribute to the former Member for Fife, Stephen Gethins, who was a very dear friend of ours, and to Ann Clwyd, who sat with us and was absolutely inspirational in many different moments.
The overarching area that we covered was not the academic exercise of foreign ideas; it was how we best promote the interests of the British people. How do we ensure the prosperity and happiness of these islands? What should we aim for? Who should we work with and how? We looked for solutions to the problems we face and sat patiently through hours of testimony, listening carefully to witnesses to find ideas that would help us to change the world for the better for all of us. I hope that as a Committee we served this House and our country well.
Many ideas came out of our inquiries and some, I am glad to say, have been adopted. Others are enduring and could still be adopted, should the Minister wish to do so. The top five areas of work for me were defending democracy against autocracies such as China and Russia; building bridges with partners such as India and Japan; growing businesses in new markets such as South America; our own organisation and the skills we need in our own Department to succeed; and, of course, starting afresh in Europe. We addressed the dangers to democracy in many reports, but none more so than our two reports entitled “Moscow’s Gold”, about the price of Russian money, and “A Cautious Embrace”, about the way in which some autocracies prey on our educational and cultural institutions. We argued each time that the Government must stand up for the values that make us stronger.
Those values define others, too. I am very glad that the Prime Minister is keen on bridge building, because there is a bridge that we would like him to build on: the living bridge that Prime Minister Modi speaks about—that link between peoples and between diasporas. The Home Secretary, who was an important contributor to that report, now has the power to put in place some of the recommendations she herself wrote: on simplifying the visa system; on making it easier for students, businesses and skilled workers to come to the UK from countries such as India; and on using technology to make things faster and cheaper. We must also look at new friends. Our report on South America did just that, calling for the trade commissioner’s team to be boosted and looking at how our great companies, such as JCB and Diageo, were already embedded in the continent and how much further we could go. When we look at the law, we see a platform that is being built on in those countries and could be built on elsewhere.
Closer to home, our new relationship with the European Union, and separately with the 27 sovereign nations that make it up, will be built on co-operation and friendship. I hear what the hon. Member for Stirling (Alyn Smith) says, but we must hope for the continuation of that good will and co-operation. I know that we are asking a lot of our partners. We are asking them to change when they did not choose to, but the truth is change is coming to Europe anyway. We know that there are changes within the European Union and between European states already. The world has changed, so it is hardly surprising that we must look to change with it.
The transformation that Britain is about to undergo internationally will define much of the work of this Government. Despite that, the Committee found, sadly, that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office was too often unable to bring policy together. Sadly, it is not even paying diplomats as much as other civil servants. If we are to deliver a global Britain, we need a clear direction and high morale to attract those who will shape our place in the world. That means a clear focus on the task ahead. We have an opportunity and a Government ready to set a course for ourselves and, I hope, for the world, with the kind of foreign policy that will be exciting and ambitious, and which I believe can be done.
Why am I so confident? The mandarin who was quoted in The Sunday Times last week, saying that this Administration does not care about foreign policy, is clearly wrong. The handling of the Iran crisis, leaving pressure to mount on the dictators in Tehran and not giving them an easy escape, has shown a deftness that we have been lacking for too long. Last month, the Government won the ability to deliver, and for the first in almost a decade, we have a British Government that can decide a policy, shape it and make it happen. That will change the calculations of others, and while our partners may struggle, our Prime Minister is for the moment unchallenged at home. That gives confidence to friends and focuses the minds of enemies. The word of No. 10, the Foreign Secretary and the Defence Secretary is now real and deliverable and can be relied on, so now is the moment to build new partnerships.
I was privileged as Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee to welcome delegations from around the world, and one thing that struck me was, as the hon. Member for Stirling put it, how we are seen ourselves—[Interruption.] Forgive me for waking him from his reverie. When I met groups from South Korea, Japan, Colombia and many others, I heard from them that we are a partner that they seek to join. That is important, because they see not just our departure from the European Union, but our co-operation in networks such as the UN, NATO and the Commonwealth, which my hon. Friend the Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell) champions so frequently, and many more besides—many of them born out of the imagination of British diplomats over many years.
I am proud to serve under my hon. Friend’s chairmanship of the Foreign Affairs Committee, on which I have served for the last 10 years. He would not want to end his remarks without referring to our reports on the British overseas territories and our success in persuading the Foreign Office at last to allow territories and dependencies the right to lay a wreath on Remembrance Sunday to remember those from the overseas territories and Crown dependencies who fought and died. It has taken years for that to happen and, because of our report, it has finally occurred.
I would love to claim credit for that, but the truth is that it is my hon. Friend’s work. He has championed that over a decade and has made a difference not just to the high commissioners, ambassadors and premiers who come to London, but to the hundreds of veterans and thousands of their families who are watching from around the world, seeing this home of remembrance every year.
The British Government should recognise that we have two pretty simple aims that we can, and should, go for: the happiness and the prosperity of the British people—no more than that. That is the strategic goal of any British Administration, and the question now is how we should deliver that. I think that we can build on three areas. We want an open world where the rule of law, freedom of navigation and freedom of trade, alongside the protection of our climate and human rights, work together by defending international treaties, by creating common practice and sometimes by independent action. This is what shaped our past, and although we should not try to go back there, we should certainly learn from it.
Fractures with Europe over history have seen us sail to the East and West Indies developing trading networks in ways that we would never replicate today, but that reminds of us a wider world. Today, partnering with new independent trading nations as equals, we have a new opportunity: to bring the new Indies together.
Over the past 70 years, we have heard one mantra constantly: alignment—alignment with everyone, alignment around the world. Whether it is with the European Union or others, it has seemed that the only way to get ahead is to replicate, and we must look to change that. More than ever, we need a world that dares to experiment and innovate, to get the best ideas and solutions for the challenges that we face. That requires an independence of mind. Not being part of the three great continental trading blocs—China, the European Union and the United States—this new group could focus on recognition, rather than alignment, and new ways of working together: a less rigid partnership, more Commonwealth, perhaps, than common purpose. That may be the better starting point. Many of my friends may be surprised to hear me say this, because I remain a passionate European— I would have to be with a wife who is French, and I remain still afeard of her. However, as my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Sir William Cash) put it, Britain is and will remain in Europe, but of course, Europe is not Brussels.
Europe is 450 million people. Its cultures are as diverse as the people in northern Finland and southern Italy. It is what has given us and the world amazing art and culture, science and innovation. That came not from common alignment, but from competition and experimentation that led to the natural selection of ideas. Europe’s fractured land mass allowed ideas to take root and allowed experiments to find different solutions to the problems we face. Co-operation, not unanimity, should be what we aim for, and not just with Europe. The new Indies—the new partnerships—will be a way to build that.
The hon. Gentleman has spoken passionately about many parts of the world. In terms of the horn of Africa in particular, he knows that I am long-term supporter of the cause of Somaliland, a place where not only do we have trading potential and great historical and cultural links with what was a British protectorate, but the Department for International Development plays a key role. Does he agree that such regions and countries are places where we could bring all parts of British foreign policy together?
My hon. Friend—I say that because he is a friend—is absolutely right: it is about the way that we partner with countries around the world, including Somaliland, bringing together not just foreign or aid efforts, but sometimes justice, the rule of law, policing and maybe even defence to make sure that we have a co-operative and integrated approach to delivering real change to such countries. That is exactly where we should be going.
Forgive me, Madam Deputy Speaker; I will wrap up very quickly. Our role should be to build on the insurance model that we had, and to remember that we can underwrite many of the ways that the world has traded in looking at the norms that we set out. Just as we sailed the seas, we must sail the new accountancy, looking at ways to create entities that share the responsibility that we expect of companies with aspiration and innovation. We need a revolution in thinking, and we need to experiment with regulations that promote growth and opportunity.
This will not work as long as the rules are regularly flouted. That is why China’s adherence to the rule of law is of great concern. State-owned and state-subsidised business such as Huawei not only use data from police states where human rights are regularly violated—such as Xinjiang—but seek a market dominance that we should resist. Urging South Korea’s Samsung and Japan’s Fujitsu to bid in the 5G world would make more sense than deepening our dependence on the Chinese Communist party. This is a 70th birthday gift that it does not need. Closer to home, Russia’s rhetoric and aggression are a reminder that we need to remain vigilant, and our nuclear fleet remains an essential part of our defence. It is to this world that the Government’s new foreign and defence review should respond, and it needs to be ambitious.
We want a world of opportunity and investment, where we can not only stretch our wings but partner with others. That will sometimes mean the United States, it will sometimes mean Europe, and it will sometimes mean others around the world, but as global Britain, we need global partners. As we chart a new course for our country, I am glad that we are looking forward. Too much of the past four years has been spent looking backwards and fighting battles that have been settled. I am glad that we have a Prime Minister who has set out an ambitious agenda, because that ambition matters. I am grateful that you have given me the time to explore these ideas, Madam Deputy Speaker.
It is a great pleasure to call Daisy Cooper to make her maiden speech.
It is a great honour to make my maiden speech following many other accomplished and passionate speakers. My constituency of St Albans is very proud of its contribution both to Britain’s history and to Britain’s place in the world. Alban himself is the first recorded Christian martyr and Britain’s first