House of Commons
Wednesday 22 July 2020
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Virtual participation in proceedings commenced (Order, 4 June).
[NB: [V] denotes a Member participating virtually.]
Oral Answers to Questions
Women and Equalities
The Minister for Women and Equalities was asked—
Covid-19: BAME Communities
We are concerned that covid-19 is disproportionately impacting ethnic minority communities, which is why the Government have put in place measures to reduce the spread of the virus, especially for people who may be at higher risk. In addition to a raft of specific targeted interventions, I am working with the Race Disparity Unit and the Department of Health and Social Care to act on the findings of the Public Health England review into disparities in risks and outcomes of covid-19. That work will enable us to take appropriate, evidence-based action to address the highlighted disparities.
In the light of the latest evidence from the TUC on racism and risk in the workplace, what steps will the Minister take to tackle the entrenched discrimination faced by black, Asian and minority ethnic people at work?
The Government are doing all they can to address racial disparities across all sectors. The hon. Gentleman may be aware of the commission that the Prime Minister has set up, with the commissioners announced last week, which will look at continued disparities across the board, including in the workplace.
My constituency of Kensington has a substantial BAME population. Can my hon. Friend reassure me that her follow-up work on the PHE report will take into account how comorbidities and occupations affect the outcomes of coronavirus?
My hon. Friend is completely right. It is important to remember that the PHE review findings did not take into account comorbidities or other factors such as occupations. I agree with her that it is imperative for us to understand the key drivers of these disparities, the relationships between the risk factors and what we can do to close the gap in the evidence that the review highlighted.
The recommendations in the Marmot review and the Marmot review 10 years on would be a good place to start when addressing health inequalities impacting BAME communities. Is 10 years enough time to consider the recommendations of the original review, and how long will it be before we see the recommendations of either implemented?
I had a meeting with Professor Marmot just last month, and we discussed the recommendations of his review. If my right hon. Friend has seen the report, she will know that many of the recommendations are at a very high level. For instance, the first recommendation says that we should give every child the best start in life. I am sure that that was something she took forward when she was a Minister. This Government believe that it is important, and it is reflected in all our policies across education and communities.
Transgender People: Discrimination
We are committed to tackling discrimination against transgender people. We have invested £4 million for schools to tackle anti-LGBT bullying, and we have addressed homophobic hate crime in the hate crime action plan.
Successive Conservative Equalities Ministers have repeatedly stalled on publishing the results of the Gender Recognition Act 2004 consultation. Leaked reports of a potential roll-back on trans rights have understandably caused alarm. With hate crimes against trans people up nearly 40% on last year, does the Secretary of State agree that her quibbling on this issue is fanning the flames of populist hate towards an already marginalised group?
As the Prime Minister said, we will respond to the consultation over the summer. Let me be absolutely clear: we will not be rolling back the rights of transgender people. It is important that transgender people are able to live their lives as they wish, without fear, and we will make sure that that is the case.
In July 2018, the Government announced that they were seeking views on how best to reform the Gender Recognition Act 2004 in a consultation that closed in October 2018. Nearly two years later, the Government have still not published their response. Trans rights are human rights, and updating the GRA will help to improve the lives of trans people. Today the House will rise, and the Minister has previously stated that the Government would publish their response. When will she finally publish the Government’s response and their plans for reform?
As I said, we will respond to the consultation over the summer—the Prime Minister committed to that earlier this week—and I assure the hon. Lady that I am very keen to get on with that response.
Hate Crimes: South and East Asian Communities
We have heard these concerns from the police and charities, and we are working with them to ensure that police forces are reassuring affected communities and encouraging reporting of hate crimes during the pandemic. The Government are clear that there is no place for hate crime in modern Britain. These crimes destabilise our communities and there are no excuses for them.
A petition recently created by Viv Yau has nearly 3,000 signatures already. It calls on the UK Government and media outlets to stop using stock imagery of south-east and east Asian people when talking about covid-19. The disproportionate use of images of Chinese, south-east and east Asian people in masks during the pandemic perpetuates the notion that all of us carry the virus, and it plays a significant role in the recent trebling of racist attacks, stereotyping and abuse. Will the Minister commit to working with Government and public bodies on the use of these images, and meet me to discuss the increase in hate crime during the pandemic?
The perpetrators of hate crimes targeting south and east Asian communities, and others, in relation to covid-19 are being punished. We know from the Crown Prosecution Service that it has prosecuted a number of cases involving racist abuse on the basis of perceived Chinese ethnicity. But of course the Government are always willing to work with interested parties to ensure that we are stopping hate crime, and I would happy to meet the hon. Lady to do that.
Covid-19: Women Born in the 1950s
The Government have introduced significant measures to help mitigate the financial impact of covid-19. We are committed to providing financial support for people when they need it throughout their lives, including when they are near to or reach retirement. The welfare system will continue to support men and women who are unable to work, on a low income, or under state pension age.
Research by think-tank the Women’s Budget Group shows that women are at greater risk from the economic crisis caused by the covid-19 pandemic. The current crisis is pushing more and more women, including those born in the 1950s, into poverty. What practical steps will the Minister take to relieve the impact on 1950s-born women, who are already disadvantaged by the rise in the state pension age—and may I, Mr Speaker, declare an interest as a 1950s-born woman?
The Government recognise the importance of supporting adults to effectively plan for the future. We do recognise that this is a challenging time for everyone, and we aim to support older workers, including women who may be out of work because of covid-19. Through the summer Budget, the Chancellor announced a number of initiatives that will support all claimants, including older women. The hon. Lady will be aware that there is a live Court of Appeal case as of yesterday, and I cannot comment further on this live litigation.
Covid-19: Protection of Young Workers
We have supported people to make a claim for universal credit if they have lost their jobs. We are strengthening our youth offer for 18 to 24-year-olds. This includes introducing a tailored 13-week programme, new youth hubs, and DWP specialist youth employability work coaches. Meanwhile, young people can be referred to apprenticeships or work-related training at any stage.
I thank the Minister for that answer. However, Glasgow South West constituent Caitlyn Lee, who has worked for the Blythswood Square hotel for five years, will receive only £580 in redundancy pay, which barely covers one month’s rent, because, under statutory redundancy pay law, young workers under the age of 22 are entitled to half a week’s pay whereas workers over 40 get one and a half weeks’ pay. Will the Government address this discrimination, and what will they do to mitigate the mass redundancies of young workers so that they are not disadvantaged any further?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising this issue. Young people can be at a particular disadvantage, perhaps due to their limited work experience, and they might potentially have a lower skills level. I am concerned to hear about this issue. Our jobcentres are already talking to claimants about the support they can give to young people and signposting them to places that can support them into employment, such as the National Careers Service, in giving advice on how they can look for further work. We have also announced our new kick-start scheme for Great Britain—a £2 billion fund to support young people at risk of long-term unemployment.
My fantastic god-daughter, Toniann, is 17. During lockdown, instead of studying, or even watching boxsets, she became a key worker and helped to keep the economy going. For that, she was paid £4.55 per hour. Does the Minister think that Toniann and other people her age are worth any more than that, and if so, will she stand up for the young people of these islands and urge the Chancellor to make it compulsory for employers using the kick-start scheme to top up this frankly insulting and free—to them—wage?
I am passionate about supporting our young people to get the opportunities they need, and for this, the kick-start programme is vital. My officials are engaging with the devolved authorities about how we can make the eligibility criteria attractive and wide-ranging. We are looking at the detail and will set it out so that everyone can understand how to get involved and get these opportunities at the start of August.
The Domestic Abuse Bill still does not include critical measures to protect migrant women and girls, which is a necessity for compliance with the Istanbul convention. How do the Government intend to protect vulnerable women regardless of their ethnicity, sexual orientation or immigration status if they continue to fail to ratify the convention?
The hon. Lady knows that we already protect the rights of victims of domestic abuse and other survivors through a range of measures, not just those in the Domestic Abuse Bill, but I am delighted that she raises the Bill, which is a groundbreaking piece of legislation. Alongside it, we will this year launch a pilot project to understand and measure the need of migrant women who have no recourse to public funds, because the Government are clear that they must be treated as victims first and foremost.
Socio-economic Inequality: Equality Hub
The Prime Minister has set out his vision to level up and spread opportunity across the country, and the Equality Hub will play an important part in realising that vision by rigorously analysing where the real inequality in Britain is today. It will focus in particular on areas such as geography and social background.
Rural poverty is easy to overlook in picturesque areas that other people associate with holidays and a slower pace of life, but it is every bit as hard and destructive for those affected. Can my right hon. Friend advise the House on what action the Government are taking to address rural deprivation?
My hon. Friend makes a good point. We want everybody across the country to benefit from our levelling-up agenda of investing more in transport infrastructure and dealing with educational inequality. We recognise that deprived rural areas can face additional barriers to opportunity. The Equality Hub will analyse the data and look at where that inequality of opportunity is, so that Departments can take measures to address them.
How might northern constituencies, such as my constituency of Leigh, which according to some measures is in the top 20% most deprived constituencies in the country, benefit from the plans my right hon. Friend mentioned earlier?
We want to make sure that no part of our country feels forgotten about, particularly towns and cities in the north and the midlands, such as my hon. Friend’s constituency. I can assure him that we will do everything we can to look at the roots of that geographical inequality and to make sure his constituents have the best opportunities in life.
Racial Injustices: Race Disparity Unit
The Government are committed to tackling racial disparities and levelling up the country, which is why the Race Disparity Unit continues to work across Departments and their agencies to identify and address adverse variances in outcomes across education, healthcare, criminal justice and the economy. It is also why the Prime Minister announced the new Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities, the terms of reference and membership of which were announced last week.
The Baroness McGregor-Smith review in 2017 found that the economy could be boosted by £24 billion if BAME disparities were eradicated. I am sure the Minister would agree that that boost would be really helpful to the economy right now. Will she tell me explicitly what the Government and her Department are doing directly to tackle structural racism in the workplace?
The hon. Lady references Baroness McGregor-Smith’s review, which was an industry-led review with recommendations that were mostly for the private sector to consider. Following that review, we ran a consultation on ethnicity pay reporting and received more than 300 detailed responses, which we are currently analysing. This is one of the things that the commission will look into: it will look at a broad range of issues and some of the findings will help to address the issues that the hon. Lady has just raised.
Low-income Families: Equity of Opportunity
The Government are committed to helping individuals from low-income families to progress at work and to a system to increase their incomes and level up opportunities. The aforementioned baroness, Ruby McGregor-Smith, is leading our DWP in-work progression commission, which is identifying challenges that individuals might face and finding practical solutions to help them to overcome the barriers faced across all communities.
Most likely to drop out of school with no qualifications, most likely to commit suicide and already falling behind in terms of attainment compared with all their peers by the age of five—the plight of white working-class boys still seems to be an unfashionable one, but although these young men have some of the worst life chances of any group anywhere in our country, the Equality Act 2010 does not touch on socioeconomic disparity or poverty. It seems like every other group in society, apart from these boys, has some kind of positive action in place. What can my hon. Friend do to ensure that this is the last generation of lost boys from places such as Mansfield who do not have the same opportunity in life as their peers?
The evidence is understood that early language and learning skills have a fundamental impact on a child’s education and future life chances. The Government are bringing in extra support for all disadvantaged children, including white working-class children—I know that my hon. Friend’s sees that as key to no area being left behind. The Department for Education has set up the Hungry Little Minds campaign, targeting low-income parents to support their child’s early language development, which is key to help them to set up for school and boost their life chances.
I have been clear that the Government are committed to tackling the abhorrent practice of so-called gay-conversion therapy in the UK. As the Prime Minister reiterated earlier this week, this practice has no place in civilised society. Our action will be determined by research looking at how best to define conversion therapy, the scale of the issue, where it is happening and who it is happening to. When that research is complete, I will bring forward proposals to ban conversion therapy, making sure that our measures are effective so that no innocent people have to endure such tortuous practices.
As we approach to the summer holiday recess, it looks like we all need it. With that in mind, what steps are the Government taking to tackle the effects of body-image issues on young people? Will the Minister meet me to consider the merits of a law that requires a logo to be displayed if an image of a human body or body part has been digitally altered in its proportions?
We are working closely with the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport on the issue of body image and its impact on young people. I would be happy to organise a meeting, possibly with those Ministers who are leading on the issue. I also welcome the work that the Women and Equalities Committee is doing on the subject.
Last week, the Government published details of the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities and announced its chair, who has previously said:
“Much of the supposed evidence of institutional racism is flimsy.”
Yet we know that black workers with degrees earn on average 23% less than their white counterparts. The need for action is urgent. Inaction is costing members of the black, Asian and minority ethnic communities both their livelihoods and their lives. What assurances can the Minister give the House today that her Government are serious about finally ending institutional racism?
It is important to clarify that Dr Sewell who chairs the commission has not denied that structural racism exists. However, he understands that disparities have a variety of causes, such as class and geography, which the commission will be examining in closer detail, and it is the findings of this commission that will address the issues that the hon. Lady rightly says are urgent and need addressing.
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. The national conversation on race has been distorted by some seeking to exploit racial tensions without any recognition of the progress that we have made as a multi-ethnic democracy and society. Guided by the evidence, this commission will improve and inform the conversation. It will use data to look at complex and interdependent factors in the round to better understand why disparities exist and what action can be taken to reduce them. The commission will be producing evidence-based recommendations.
Yes, as a Treasury Minister, I will be considering the findings of that report, so I thank the hon. Lady for raising that matter.
The key priority during the coronavirus crisis is to make sure that we keep women in jobs, and that has been our No. 1 focus as a Government. Of course, it is vital that we address the issues that cause the gender pay gap, and we continue to help more girls study maths and science, which I talked about earlier, and we also continue to address discrimination in the workplace.
If the Minister can answer anything, it would be good, but if not, I understand.
How about: I will take the hon. Lady’s question and give her a full response?
We are absolutely clear that alcohol is no excuse for domestic abuse or any other kind of abusive behaviour. We are acutely aware of the need to put victims at the heart of our approach to tackling domestic abuse at this time. We are working closely with domestic abuse charities, the domestic abuse commissioner and the police to understand the needs of victims of this type of abuse and how we can best support them.
The Prime Minister was asked—
This morning, I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in the House I shall have further such meetings later today.
Can I start by congratulating the Prime Minister on his one-year anniversary as Conservative party leader? As we look at our long-term economic recovery, can he assure me that Lincolnshire will receive the required funding to boost digital connectivity for all the people of Grantham, Stamford, Bourne and our local villages?
Yes, indeed I can, which is why we have pledged not only £5 billion in funding for gigabit-capable broadband across the country, including the hardest-to-reach areas but additionally a £34 million package for Lincolnshire superfast broadband, helping 135,000 households to benefit from gigabit-capable speeds.
May I start by welcoming reports this week of significant progress in the vaccine trials in Oxford? We all know that there is a long way to go, but I want to record my thanks and admiration for everyone involved in this huge effort.
Under my leadership, national security will also be the top priority for Labour, so I want to ask the Prime Minister about the extremely serious report by the Intelligence and Security Committee, which concludes that Russia poses
“an immediate and urgent threat”
to our national security, and is engaged in a range of activities that include espionage, interfering in democratic processes, and serious crime. The Prime Minister received that report 10 months ago. Given that the threat is described as “immediate and urgent”, why on earth did he sit on it for so long?
Actually, when I was Foreign Secretary, for the period I have been in office, we have been taking the strongest possible action against Russian wrongdoing, orchestrating, I seem to remember, the expulsion of 130—153—Russian diplomats around the world, while the right hon. and learned Gentleman sat on his hands and said nothing while the Labour party parroted the line of the Kremlin, when people in this country were poisoned on the orders of Vladimir Putin.
I stood up and condemned what happened in Salisbury, and I supported the then Prime Minister on record. I would ask the Prime Minister to check the record and withdraw that—I was very, very clear. The report was very clear that until recently the Government badly underestimated the Russian threat and the response that it required. They are still playing catch-up. The Government have taken their eye off the ball—arguably, they were not even on the pitch. After the Government have been in power for 10 years, how does the Prime Minister explain that?
I think the right hon. and learned Gentleman’s questions are absolutely absurd. There is no country in the western world that is more vigilant in protecting the interests of this country or those of the international community from Russian interference. In fact, we are going further now, introducing new legislation to protect critical national infrastructure and our intellectual property. I think that he will find if he goes to any international body or gathering around the world that it is the UK that leads the world in caution about Russian interference. I do not wish to contradict him, but he sat on his hands and said nothing. The previous Leader of the Opposition parroted the line of the Kremlin that the UK should supply—[Interruption.] I did not hear him criticise the previous Leader of the Opposition. If he did so, now is the time for him to set the record straight.
I was absolutely clear in condemning what happened in Salisbury, not least because I was involved in bringing proceedings against Russia on behalf of the Litvinenko family—that is why I was so strong about it. I spent five years as Director of Public Prosecutions, working on live operations with the security and intelligence services, so I am not going to take lectures from the Prime Minister about national security. [Interruption.]
Order. I think someone wants to go for a cup of tea—we do not want an early bath. Keir Starmer.
The Prime Minister says that he will introduce new legislation. I want to make it clear to him that we will support that legislation and work with the Government. It is not before time. The Prime Minister says that the Government are vigilant. Eighteen months ago, the then Home Secretary said that we did not have all the powers yet to tackle the Russian threat. He said that the Official Secrets Acts were completely out of date. Other legislation has been introduced in that 18-month period. This is about national security. Why have the Government delayed so long in introducing that legislation?
This Government are bringing forward legislation—not only a new espionage Act and new laws to protect against theft of our intellectual property, but a Magnitsky Act directly to counter individuals in Russia or elsewhere who transgress human rights. Let us be in no doubt what this is really all about: this is about pressure from the Islingtonian remainers who have seized on this report to try to give the impression that Russian interference was somehow responsible for Brexit. That is what this is all about. The people of this country did not vote to leave the EU because of pressure from Russia or Russian interference; they voted because they wanted to take back control of our money, of our trade policy, of our laws. The simple fact is that, after campaigning for remain, after wanting to overturn the people’s referendum day in day out, in all the period when the right hon. and learned Gentleman was sitting on the Labour Front Bench, he simply cannot bring himself to accept that.
Can I just gently say to the Prime Minister, as I did last time, he may have to go to Specsavers? The Chair is this way, not that way. If he could address me, we would be a lot better.
I see the Prime Minister is already on his pre-prepared lines. This is a serious question of national security. He sat on this report for 10 months and failed to plug a gap in our law on national security for a year and a half. One of the starkest conclusions in the report is that the
“UK is clearly a target for Russia’s disinformation campaigns”.
The report also highlights that this is being met with a fragmented response across Whitehall and across the Government. The report refers to this as a “hot potato” with no one organisation recognising itself as having the overall lead. That is a serious gap in our defences. This is not about powers; it is about responsibility, Prime Minister. So, how is he going to address that gap and make sure the UK meets this threat with the joined-up, robust response it deserves?
There is no other Government in the world who take more robust steps to protect our democracy, to protect our critical national infrastructure and to protect our intellectual property, as I have said, from interference by Russia or by anyone else. Frankly, I think that everybody understands that these criticisms are motivated by a desire to undermine the referendum on membership of the European Union that took place in 2016, the result of which the right hon. and learned Gentleman simply cannot bring himself to accept.
There is a serious gap in our Official Secrets Act, laying bare for 18 months, and that is all the Prime Minister has to say about it. One way the Government could seek to clamp down on Russian influence is to prevent the spread of Kremlin-backed disinformation. Obviously, social media companies have a big role to play, but the report also highlights
“serious distortions in the coverage provided by Russian state-owned international broadcasters such as RT”.
The High Court has ruled that Russia Today broadcasts pose actual and potential harm. Does the Prime Minister agree that it is time to look again at the licensing for Russia Today to operate in the UK?
I think this would come more credibly from the Leader of the Opposition had he called out the former Leader of the Opposition when he took money for appearing on Russia Today. He protested neither against the former Leader of the Opposition’s stance on Salisbury nor against his willingness to take money from Russia Today. The right hon. and learned Gentleman flip-flops from day to day. One day he is in favour of staying in the EU; the next day he is willing to accept Brexit. The Leader of the Opposition has more flip-flops than Bournemouth beach.
I certainly can give my hon. Friend that assurance. That is what the people voted for and that is what we will deliver.
I am going to bring Keir Starmer back for one more question. Keir Starmer.
Pre-prepared gags on flip-flops. This is the former columnist who wrote two versions of every article ever published! In case the Prime Minister has not noticed, the Labour party is under new management. No Front Bencher of this party has appeared on Russia Today since I have been leading this party.
Finally, I want to ask the Prime Minister about the appalling persecution of the Uyghur Muslims in China. We have all seen the footage of the Uyghurs being herded on to trains and heard the heartbreaking stories of forced sterilisation, murder and imprisonment. We support the Foreign Secretary, the Prime Minister and the Government in their strong and clear condemnation of China for that in recent weeks. What further steps will the Prime Minister take? In particular, will he consider targeted sanctions against those responsible? Will he lead a concerted diplomatic action with our international partners to make it clear that this simply cannot be allowed to stand in the 21st century?
That is why the Foreign Secretary, only this week, condemned the treatment of the Uyghurs. That is why this Government, for the first time, have brought in targeted sanctions against those who abuse human rights in the form of the Magnitsky Act. I am delighted that the right hon. and learned Gentleman now supports the Government, but last week, of course, he did not support the Government. I am glad he is with us this week. I do not know how many more questions he has got since you allowed him to come back, Mr Speaker, throughout this session.
We have been getting on consistently with delivering on our agenda. A year ago, this was a Leader of the Opposition who was supporting an antisemitism-condoning Labour party and wanted to repeal Brexit. I represent a Government who were getting on with delivering on the people’s priorities: 40 new hospitals, 20,000 more police, 50,000 more nurses. And, by the way, we have already recruited 12,000 more nurses, 6,000 more doctors and 4,000 more police. We are delivering on the people’s priorities. We are the people’s Government. And, by the way, we are the Government who support the workers of this country as well, with the biggest ever increase in the living wage.
Yesterday, the Tory party held a political Cabinet, with the Prime Minister in a panic about the majority and increasing support for Scottish independence. Apparently, their great strategy amounts to more UK Cabinet Ministers coming to Scotland. Can I tell the Prime Minister that the more Scotland sees of this UK Government, the more convinced it is of the need for Scotland’s independence? A far better plan for the Tories would be to listen to the will of the Scottish people. Before his visit tomorrow, will the Prime Minister call a halt to his Government’s full-frontal attack on devolution?
I really do not know what the right hon. Gentleman is talking about. The only Bill I can think of that is before the House, or will be coming before the House, and which I know enjoys cross-party support, is the UK internal market Bill. Although that is a massively devolutionary Bill, which gives huge powers straight back from Brussels to Scotland, its principal purpose is to protect jobs and protect growth throughout the entire United Kingdom to stop pointless barriers of trade between all four parts of our country. Anybody sensible would support it.
Anybody sensible would realise from that answer that the Prime Minister simply does not get Scotland. In 2014, the people of Scotland were promised devolution-max, near federalism and the most powerful devolved Parliament in the world. Instead, we got a Tory Trade Bill that threatens our NHS, an Immigration Bill that will devastate our economy, and a power grab that will dismantle devolution. Scotland’s powers grabbed by Westminster, workers’ rights attacked, the rape clause and the bedroom tax, our NHS up for sale—the overwhelming majority in Scotland’s Parliament, its MPs and its people oppose all those measures. How can the Prime Minister claim that this is a Union of equal partners when his damaging policies will all be imposed upon Scotland against its will?
I hesitate to accuse the right hon. Gentleman of failing to listen to my last answer, but it is clear that the UK internal market Bill is massively devolutionary, with 70 powers passed from Brussels to Scotland. It is quite incredible. Of course, its purpose is very sensible, which is to protect jobs and growth throughout the entire UK, but just on a political level it seems bizarre that the Scottish nationalist party actually wants to reverse that process and hand those powers back to unelected and unaccountable bureaucrats in Brussels. Is that really the policy? I do not think it is sensible.
My hon. Friend makes an extremely important point. As I have said repeatedly at this Dispatch Box, it is very important that we wait until the conclusion of this epidemic and have a proper statistical assessment of where we are. That is the course I would recommend to him.
No, and I think that is a pretty lamentable way of looking at it—it is a lamentable question. If the right hon. Gentleman thought there was genuinely something in the ISC report that showed that, for instance, the Brexit referendum had been undermined by Russia, he would now be saying it, but that does not appear. I am afraid that what we have here, as I have told the House several times, is the rage and fury of the remainer elite finding that there is in fact nothing in this report—no smoking gun whatever, after all that froth and fury. Suddenly, all those who want to remain in the EU find that they had no argument to stand on. They should simply move on.
I do indeed agree with that. It would be a fantastic thing to hear the Labour party stand up to their friends in the unions and issue the same instruction—that would be a wonderful thing.
We have already given the East Riding of Yorkshire more than £21 million to deal with the pressures of coronavirus. We have supported 90% of caravan manufacturers, whom the hon. Lady rightly supports, with the furlough scheme. As she knows, we have not only the £2 billion kick-starter fund to help young people into work, but the furlough bonus scheme to retain people in their jobs, as part of a massive package—£640 billion overall—to get our country moving again and make sure that we bounce back stronger than ever.
Yes, and I am proud that we have fulfilled our manifesto promise. We are levelling up school funding across the country so that every primary school pupil receives at least £4,000 per head and every secondary school pupil £5,150, and I pay tribute to all the teachers and all the schools in my hon. Friend’s constituency for the excellent work that they have done in the last few months.
I thank the hon. Gentleman very much for his question. As he knows, we have removed VAT from all PPE, including VAT on face masks that, as everybody knows, can protect from infection. That removed the burden of VAT in care homes, NHS trusts and for key workers. For home-made face masks, those that meet the Public Health England guidance will be covered, and will continue to be covered, by the zero rate, but I am happy to ask the relevant Minister to write to him to clarify the entire position.
I thank my right hon. Friend, and I can absolutely give her that guarantee. In the current circumstances, now is the time to double down on levelling up and that is what we are going to do. That is why we are rolling out a colossal programme of investment in infrastructure, massive investments in our public services and fantastic new technology, because that is the way to give every part of our country the opportunity to realise its potential.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. I well remember Bethany and her question, and I know how difficult this problem is for many people. I can certainly commit to him to look at it in detail and see what we can do, and I will write back to him.
I thank my right hon. Friend for the extreme tact with which she expressed her question. She makes a very important point, because I am afraid that there are significant comorbidities associated with covid, and we do need as a country to address obesity and the sad fact that we are, I am afraid, considerably fatter than most other European nations apart from the Maltese, as far as I can tell—no disrespect to Malta; that is what the statistics told me—and we will be bringing forward a strategy, which I hope will conform with my right hon. Friend’s strictures.
I was proud as Mayor of London to change the London plan to ensure that we went for Parker Morris plus 10% for our space standards. We will ensure that we not only build back better and more beautifully, but that we give people the space they need to live and grow in the homes that we will build.
That is wonderful advice, which I will take to heart. I look forward to joining my hon. Friend for a game of Poohsticks in the Hundred Acre Wood. Would it not be a wonderful thing if the Labour party abandoned the spirit of Eeyore that currently seems to envelop it?
Yes indeed. I thank the local authorities and people of Luton, who are obviously working very hard to ensure that they contain the epidemic, as are other local authorities around the country. We are supporting them, as the hon. Lady knows, with £3.7 billion of investment, as well as £600 million for the infection fund and a further £300 million to support local track and trace. Of course, if local communities do have to go back into lockdown, we will take steps to support them as well.
I wholeheartedly support this Government’s plans to level up our country and build, build, build. Many of my constituents are concerned, however, about a proposed housing development in Chorleywood. Although it is important that we build more affordable homes, this cannot come at the expense of our beautiful countryside. Can the Prime Minister tell me how the Government will balance local authority obligations to build housing under local plans with protection for the green belt?
Of course, and I thank my hon. Friend very much for his question because it allows me to point out that there is massive opportunity to build back better on brownfield sites. That is what we should prioritise, and that is certainly what we will be telling local authorities.
Let us head to Scotland, to the deputy SNP leader, who is audio only.
As the hon. Lady knows, we already have in place the job retention scheme and the bonus of £1,000 for employers keeping on furloughed workers. She also knows about the £2 billion kick-starter fund that we have instituted, the “eat out to help out” programme, the VAT cut and the many other things that we have done, on top of the £160 billion that we have invested in incomes, jobs and livelihoods throughout this crisis. But of course we will continue to do more as the economic ramifications of covid unfold; of course we are preparing for that. As the Chancellor has said, we must be clear with the country that we cannot protect every job, but no one will be left without hope or opportunity, and this country will bounce back stronger than ever before.
St Mawes in my constituency was recently placed first in the Which? survey of the best coastal destinations in the UK and the coastal town of Falmouth constantly punches above its weight with very little. Can my right hon. Friend confirm that the Government are looking at further financial measures to help the coastal towns that have been hardest hit in their time of need?
Indeed I can. We are funding 178 projects throughout England through our £180 million coastal communities fund, and Truro will receive at least £500,000 from the towns fund this year to support the high street and local community.
I chair the new all-party parliamentary group on coronavirus, and we are leading a cross-party rapid inquiry to ensure that we have learnt the lessons from the UK Government’s handling of this pandemic before a second wave. We have had over 900 submissions so far, including from bereaved families, from people who have long covid and from professional bodies such as the British Medical Association and the NHS Confederation. We will be releasing recommendations as we go, throughout the recess. I simply ask: will the Prime Minister take our recommendations seriously, with a view to acting on them when we come back in September?
Of course, I would be very happy to look at whatever the hon. Lady’s group produces.
I have a short statement to make about Select Committees. On Tuesday 24 March, the House passed an order allowing for virtual participation in Select Committee meetings, and giving Chairs associated powers to make reports. I was given a power under the order to extend it if necessary. On Monday 8 June, I announced an extension until Thursday 17 September. I can notify the House today that I am now further extending the order until Friday 30 October.
In order to allow the safe exit of hon. Members participating in this item of business and the safe arrival of those participating in the next, I am suspending the House for three minutes.
Intelligence and Security Committee: Russia Report
(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department, if she will make a statement on the Intelligence and Security Committee’s report into Russia.
This Government will not tolerate any foreign interference in the running of our sovereign state. We have long recognised the threat posed by the Russian state, including from conventional military capabilities, espionage, cyber-attacks, covert interference and illicit finance. We have been clear that Russia must desist from its attacks on the UK and our allies, and we have been resolute in defending our country, our democracy and our values. We categorically reject any suggestion that the UK actively avoided investigating Russia.
The UK has a record of taking strong action against Russian wrongdoing. This is demonstrated by our responses to the Salisbury attack, the ongoing illegal annexation of Crimea and, just last week, cyber-attacks on research and development facilities in the US, the UK and Canada. Our world-class intelligence and security agencies continue to produce regular assessments of the threats posed by hostile state activity, including any potential interference in past or current UK democratic processes. Our 30-year Russia strategy is designed to move us to a point where Russia chooses to work alongside the international community.
Since the Committee took evidence in January 2019, much more has been done. We have established the Defending Democracy programme and strengthened our cross-Government counter-disinformation capability. In March, we formally avowed the existence of the joint state threats assessment team. Earlier this month, we launched the UK global human rights sanctions regime to target serious human rights abuses, with 25 Russian Government officials already sanctioned.
We have committed to bring forward legislation to counter hostile state activity and espionage. This will modernise existing offences to deal more effectively with the espionage threat, and consider what new offences and powers are needed. This includes reviewing the Official Secrets Acts and considering whether to follow our allies in adopting a form of foreign agent registration.
We are taking action at every level. We have stepped up our response to illicit finance through the introduction of new powers by the Criminal Finances Act 2017, including unexplained wealth orders, and the establishment of the multi-agency national economic crime centre within the National Crime Agency. The rules on investment visas have already been tightened, but we will continue to consider whether any further changes are required to ensure that they cannot be abused. Let there be no doubt: we are unafraid to act wherever necessary to protect the UK and our allies from any state threat.
I thank the ISC past and present and all involved in producing the Russia report:
“until recently, the Government had badly underestimated the Russian threat and the response it required.”
Not my words, but the damning indictment of deep systemic failings in the Government’s approach to security that the Russia report sets out. It is not so much that the Government studied what was happening and missed the signs. The truth is that they took a conscious decision not to look at all, as in the case of the 2016 referendum. If there is any doubt about the failure of Ministers to look, let me tell the House what the report says:
“The written evidence provided to us appeared to suggest that HMG had not seen or sought evidence of successful interference in UK democratic processes”.
Who provided the written evidence? If we check the footnote, it was the Government themselves. No wonder the Government were so desperate to delay the publication of the report. Sitting on it for months and blocking its publication before a general election was a dereliction of duty.
We have no issue with the Russian people. It is the Russian state that is involved in a litany of hostile activity, cyber-warfare, interference in democratic processes, illicit finance and acts of violence on UK soil. The report finds a failure of security departments to engage with this issue to the extent that the UK now faces a threat from Russia within its own borders. Does the Minister accept that that is in a situation when the UK is, as the report says, a top target for the Russian regime? Does he also accept, on defending the UK’s democratic processes and discourse, that no single organisation was offering leadership in government? Instead, it was, in the words of the report, “a hot potato” passed from one to another, with no body taking overall responsibility.
I thank our security services for the work they do, but they need help, and the report makes it clear that they have not received the strategic support, the legislative tools or the resources necessary to defend our interests. The report concludes that
“recent changes in resourcing to counter Russian Hostile State Activity are not (or not only) due to a continuing escalation of the threat—but appear to be an indicator of playing catch-up.”
When will the Government stop playing catch up? Anyone who saw the Prime Minister’s failure to engage on this at Prime Minister’s questions will be extremely worried. When will the Government treat this matter with the seriousness it deserves, act on the findings of the report and put the security of our country first?
The one thing I agree with in what the hon. Gentleman said is the threat we face from Russia, as I made clear in my opening statement in terms of all the different varieties in which that threat presents itself. We recognise and have always recognised the enduring and significant threat posed by Russia and Russia remains a top national security priority for this country. However, in terms of the other assertions that he makes, I reject them. It is a bit rich for those on the Labour Front Bench to lecture this Government on our stance in relation to Russia, given that the shadow Foreign Secretary herself even said at the weekend that the Labour party had got its position wrong.
The hon. Gentleman highlighted the issue of strategy and again I point to the Russia strategy that was implemented in 2017. Indeed, a cross-Government Russia unit is focused on all this and brings things together across Government with accountability through the National Security Council. He highlights the issue of the protection of our democracy. Unlike the Labour party, I am proud that we stood on a Conservative manifesto that committed to defend our democracy, highlighting that we will protect the integrity of our democracy by introducing identification to vote at the polling station and stopping postal vote harvesting, and through measures to prevent any foreign interference in elections. I look forward to the Labour party supporting those measures, which it did not in its own manifesto at the last general election.
Our approach to the threat Russia poses is clear-eyed. That is why we have taken the steps that we have, and, as I outlined, all the different measures we have implemented over the last months and years. Indeed, we have set out the message to Russia that, while we want to maintain a dialogue with it, there can be no normalisation of our bilateral relationship until Russia ends the destabilising activity that threatens the UK and our allies and undermines the safety of our citizens and our collective security.
We take the issue of our national security incredibly seriously. As I have said, I will take no lectures from the Opposition on putting the interests of this country first.
Given that the Minister has so much to say on this subject, it is really rather sad that it is having to be said in the context of an urgent question rather than a voluntary statement by the Government.
The Russia report could not have been produced to this high standard without the dedication, the expertise and, above all, the objectivity of the ISC’s brilliant staff, some of whom I have worked with previously, yet according to the journalist, Tim Walker, some people within Government tried to sack the secretariat and make political appointments. Will my right hon. Friend, as I still regard him, resist the temptation to fob us off with clichés about not believing everything we read in the media and give this House now a categorical commitment that no party political special advisers will be allowed anywhere near the ISC?
I thank my right hon. Friend for his comments on the work of the Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament. He will recall that he and I served on the Bill Committee establishing the ISC so he will know the weight and consideration I give to it, and indeed to the work of its officials and those who work to support its activities, inquiries and investigations. He can certainly have my assurances on the weight and support I give to his Committee.
I commend the work of the previous Committee, which produced the report that is the subject of this urgent question. I also commend all members of the Committee on the robust and rigorous work that I know they will do in the course of this Parliament.
Unlike the Minister, I will at least have the grace to congratulate the right hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) on his election to the chairmanship of the Intelligence and Security Committee, and he will have our backing in making sure he stays there because he is an independent-minded person and the right person to chair that Committee. Like him, I thank the Committee for publication of the report.
There is a lot of stuff in the report; this is a cow that is going to give us a lot of milk for quite some time, and it deserves to be taken seriously and considered objectively. The issues it raises in relation to actively looking the other way on interference in the Brexit referendum needs to be addressed objectively by both Government and the Opposition.
That also applies to what the report has to say about the Scottish referendum. I have banged on more about this than any other MP or politician in Scotland; in fact in Scotland, my party has a stronger record on this than any other political party. So let us have the inquiry into Brexit and the 2014 referendum campaign; let us bring that forward, and be clear that that is something only the United Kingdom Government can do—and if they do, the Minister will have my support in that.
When do the Government intend to bring forward the legislation that the Minister mentioned, for example on foreign agents, and can he clarify that there will be ample time to debate the rather confused and obscure effort across Government to counter this threat seriously?
We have produced our response to the Committee’s report, and I commend it to him. He highlights the issue about an inquiry, which underlines the fact that it is the work of the intelligence and security agencies to assess any new evidence as it emerges. Given that long-standing approach, we do not believe that it is necessary to hold a specific retrospective inquiry. If evidence were available to be found, it would emerge through our existing processes. We have seen no evidence of successful interference in the way that has been described by some. Indeed, that leads many people to think that it is more about re-arguing some of the issues of the Brexit referendum, not respecting and reflecting the outcome of that referendum. We are working at pace on the legislation and I am sure that there will be plenty of opportunities in the House to debate that, as well as other issues related to the report.
The report highlights concerning aspects of Russian interference in UK affairs with a sinister combination of 21st-century technology and tactics that are reminiscent of the cold war. Much of the report is redacted for obvious reasons, but can the Minister assure the House that he is satisfied that, where mistakes were made or threats were underestimated, they are already being put right to ensure that our democracy and economy are protected from nefarious influence, now and in future?
We keep all of our response under review, which is why I have highlighted all the different measures and steps that are in place to guard against the risk from action, interference or espionage by any hostile state or hostile state activity and what that requires. That is why, for example, in 2017, we established the NSC-endorsed Russia strategy. My hon. Friend has my assurance on the steps that we have taken and will continue to take to guard our national security. We will ensure that it is absolutely at the forefront.
It was not lost on the House that the Minister did not answer the question of the Chair of the Intelligence and Security Committee. Will he do so now, please?
I was clear about the weight and importance of the independent scrutiny that the ISC provides and why, from my perspective and the Government’s perspective, we will always examine and reflect carefully on its incredibly important work. I was also clear about the importance of that being conducted in the independent way in which it has always fulfilled its role and responsibility. I am quite clear that that will continue into the future.
The ISC report suggests that the SNP has questions to answer about Russian interference. Does the Minister agree that, given that Scotland and the independence referendum are at the centre of the allegations, it is right that the SNP explains what it knew about the issue and when?
My hon. Friend has made her point clearly and firmly. We wait to see how the SNP responds to the various points that have been flagged. Obviously, our priority is the national security of our whole United Kingdom, and the Government firmly continue to do that work.
I wish that the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Jo Gideon), or the special adviser who wrote that question, had actually read the report, because clearly she has not.
One of the Committee’s main recommendations was the need for a Bill to reform the Official Secrets Act and for an espionage Act. I welcome what the Minister has announced today and, more broadly and more informatively, what was in The Times this morning. The former director of MI5 and the right hon. Member for Bromsgrove (Sajid Javid) when he gave evidence to the Committee supported that.
In 2017, the Law Commissioners set off a consultation process about that, which is yet to report. I ask the Minister when it will report. I also urge him to make sure that we get the legislation in place, because it is needed. Let us hope that it is not just some spin to take the headlines the day after the report was announced. Let us get it into action.
I agree with what the hon. Gentleman said about legislation. He will note that in the Queen’s Speech, we committed to introduce legislation to counter hostile state activity and espionage. It is right that we put in place steps that reflect things like the foreign agent registration-type processes that exist in other countries, as well as receiving the Law Commission report on the Official Secrets Act. I can say to the hon. Gentleman that the commitment of this Government is to act at pace and speed to get this right, to ensure that we do our utmost to strengthen powers where they need to be strengthened and, in the interim, to take all necessary action to call out and highlight Russian activity and take further action as appropriate.
As a Select Committee Chair, may I welcome this report? Scrutiny is good. It helps to raise the bar and it is healthy for democracy. However, for those who follow such events, it has long been recognised that Russia poses a national security threat. It regularly buzzes our airspace with its MiGs, and the Foreign Affairs Committee “Moscow’s Gold” report highlighted many of the same issues as this report. Does the Security Minister agree that Russia’s cyber and disinformation actions are a reflection of the changing character of conflict, with calibrated state-sponsored attacks designed to interfere with our politics and economy, but beneath the threshold of any military response? Does he agree that we need to adapt quickly to that new form of political competition?
I agree with my right hon. Friend. I commend the ISC and his Committee for their work, for their reports, and for the way in which they have put this into focus. I hope to assure him that offensive cyber capabilities are now a critical part of our work, and we will ensure that we integrate that within our military and in some of our broader response to the issues as well—appropriately bounded, obviously, by legal and policy oversight. He is right to highlight the changing nature of conflict and activities against states, and that is why, through our National Cyber Security Centre and other initiatives, we continue to enhance and be vigilant against the threat outlined.
I have been warning about Putin’s Russia for 19 years now, and calling for the Magnitsky sanctions for 10 years. What mystifies me is that Government Ministers still give out golden visas to dodgy Russian oligarchs, that Government Ministers still grant exemptions to dodgy Russian oligarchs so that they can hide their ownership of businesses in this country, and that Government Ministers still take millions of pounds from dodgy Russian oligarchs. We have to clean up our act, and it has to start with the Government.
I recognise the work of the hon. Gentleman over a number of years on Magnitsky sanction-type regimes, as he rightly pointed out, and I hope that he will recognise and welcome the steps that have been taken in that regard. Equally, I highlight our work to tighten tier 1 visas and the retrospective examination that continues into visas granted before 2015. I assure him of our continued review of and vigilance about the abuse of our immigration system and, if further action is required, we will carry it out. I also assure him of the transparency of the workings of support for politics, which the Government underlined with their manifesto commitment.
I fully accept what the Minister says about this Government acting, and I give credit where credit is due. I have met folks in the Russia unit, and I thank them for their work. However, from 2007 to at least 2014, as the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) said so eloquently, we were hugely complacent and it damaged us. My question is about a foreign agent registration process, because I am unclear about it. Is the Minister talking about spies—making it illegal for the GRU to have people here—or is he talking about foreign lobbying? I have been calling for a foreign lobbying Act for two years now, and the foreign agent registration process in the US is about foreign lobbying, on which we badly need new and updated laws.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his question. We have been examining the laws in different countries that govern foreign agent registration. We are drawing that together into something that will be effective from a UK standpoint, learning whether that has been effective and applying that to our law as we prepare for the introduction of legislation countering espionage and hostile state activity. I look forward to continuing that discussion with him.
I declare my interest as the chair of the new all-party group on technology and national security and as a member of the Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy. The remarkable insight from this report was the lack of horizon scanning, understanding, mitigation and response to modern threats in the technological frontier from hostile states. On the assumption that the Minister agrees that we need to invest in and enhance our capabilities in this technological frontier, when does he intend to come to the House with the Government’s strategy to secure our national security?
Members will have heard what I said in my opening statement about the various steps that have been taken, including on countering illicit finance, dealing with the potential abuse of visas and investing through our national cyber-security strategy to counter cyber being exploited against us in so many different ways. That work continues. We also continue to work with those involved in the internet and social media on our online harms legislation, which we remain committed to. That underlines the breadth of our response.
My right hon. Friend may be aware that I have done more than most to try to stop the return of Russia to the Council of Europe, so I recognise the enduring threat that it poses. Does he share my belief that the Russia report largely underplays the bigger picture and that there is a distinct risk to the UK through the international institutions to which we jointly belong?
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for all his work. Russia seeks to advance the sense of a state that supports the rules-based order, yet through all its other actions, we can see that there is a fundamentally different approach. I would underline his focus on the fact that we need to be clear-eyed about the threats and risks posed through multilateral organisations. I look forward to working with him and others as we continue to call that out and ensure that our interests are best reflected through those organisations in upholding the rules-based order.
The Minister still has not answered the question posed by the right hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis), who alleged that there was a political attempt to remove the secretariat of the ISC and replace it with political placemen or women. Was the Minister aware of that—yes or no?
I am happy to say that I do not have any knowledge of what the hon. Gentleman is saying; I do not recognise that at all. From my standpoint, it is important that the ISC is able to conduct its work and present its report to the House, given the mandate that this House provided it with through the legislation establishing it.
I pay tribute to all those working in the British intelligence and security services who are putting their lives at risk here and abroad, including my father, who spent 45 years working for the Government, facing the Soviet Union as the enemy during the cold war. This report highlights that, as we have always done, we need to adjust and adapt to a new battlefield. Can the Minister assure me that the intelligence services and the armed forces will get every resource and piece of legislation they need to be effective?
Like my hon. Friend, I pay tribute to the work of our world-leading and incredible intelligence and security agencies and the steps they take day in, day out to assure our security. We should all be proud and supportive of their actions. My hon. Friend will know that an integrated review and a spending review are ongoing and can be assured of the importance and emphasis we give to our national security. That will be reflected in this process. We will protect and guard our future against the range of threats out there from those looking to undermine this country. We stand firm against that.
For years, when I was campaigning for an infected blood inquiry, I was familiar with the “nothing to see here” response from Whitehall, until it was decided that there was something to see. If a chief constable played down a spate of local muggings because police chose not to investigate, any MP worth their salt would not accept that. It should not be any different when it comes to properly investigating and taking action to protect our national security and democratic institutions from those who wish to subvert those institutions, weaken or divide our country and break up our alliances. Should not any welcome measures taken to strengthen national security be taken in the full knowledge of what those weaknesses are by having an inquiry into Russian interference in 2016?
Our work is informed by regular assessments by our security and intelligence agencies to ensure that dynamic response, hence the reason we are not persuaded by this call for a separate inquiry. We have seen the ISC report and responded to it, but in defending our democracy, we are vigilant against the threats and challenges. Indeed, we have a defending democracy programme looking at further steps and legislation to underpin that. The hon. Member certainly has the Government’s commitment to standing firm on those issues and to the security work that continues to inform all our actions.
I want to pick up on the point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood). Russia poses a serious threat to this country and is changing that threat, so can my right hon. Friend confirm that the Government will continue to work with NATO and our other international allies to tackle this threat and that we will be resolute in defending our country, our democracy and our values from a hostile state?
I can give that assurance to my hon. Friend. I recognise very clearly the importance of NATO, especially its work on cyber and other support. In that context, I would cite the example of the steps we continue to take to support our allies in the Baltic with the challenges that remain there. The strength of NATO and how that guards our security remain so important to our future policy.
The Committee said that Ministers did not want to know or ask about Russian interference in elections and referendums. It seems they did not want to ask either about dark money funnelled into the Brexit referendum through the Democratic Unionist party by a former Scottish Tory vice-chair, Richard Cook. How will the right hon. Member stop foreign donations polluting our elections?
It seems as if again the issue is about trying to rerun the Brexit referendum, but I would say on the hon. Member’s broader point that through the defending democracy programme, we are taking further steps to safeguard our voting system and democracy. I hope that she supports that and all the measures I identified earlier—for example, on individual voter ID. She will also know how transparent we are. We do not accept foreign donations and are stepping up our response to illicit finance through the National Crime Agency.
I recommend to my right hon. Friend the report published yesterday by the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee into misinformation during the pandemic. It makes clear that state campaigns, including those from Russia, lay at the heart of it. Does he agree that social media companies hold great power yet have been left unaccountable for their inaction, and does he have any general reflections on the ISC report generally, which has caused great interest in the House and certain parts of the country? Does he think it might be welcomed by President Putin in Russia?
My hon. Friend makes several relevant points on the role of the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and the need for social media companies to do more. They need to step up, which is why we are introducing legislation on online harms and looking into the further role required of them.
I recognise the point about disinformation. I am sure that the important work of the cross-Whitehall counter-disinformation unit is reflected in the report that my hon. Friend references, which I will certainly look at. The important message we need to send from this House in respect of the ISC report is about that sense of vigilance and being clear-eyed about the threats posed by Russia, but equally that we are not picking an issue with the Russian people. This is about the Russian state and the Russian Government, so we are looking to them to shift their position, which is what our strategy is all about.
In order to get everybody in, it would be helpful if we could speed up the questions and the answers.
Further to the question from the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), and for absolute clarity for people watching at home, Russians who invest £2 million or more in the UK can get a visa and in five years can convert that visa into citizenship. Does that not mean that restricting political donations to British citizens makes no real defence?
On the tier 1 investor visa, to which I think the hon. Gentleman refers, work is ongoing to review past visas and, indeed, to look at further changes as needs be. If that is required in our national interest, that is what we will do.
In the context of this report, does my right hon. Friend agree that it is absolutely shameful that Alex Salmond, the former First Minister of Scotland, remains in the pay of the Kremlin as an apparatchik of Russia Today, and that so few nationalists condemn him for it?
My right hon. Friend has, in his customary and very powerful way, set out the position on Russia Today and those who have supported it and those who have been engaged in it. We all have firm questions, doubts and real concerns about the objectivity of Russia Today. It is right that we have Ofcom and other agencies that are there and the independence of Ofcom on its regulation and therefore the need to step up and make sure that that sense of—
The Minister will be familiar with the four horsemen of the apocalypse; I believe that Russia is one of those horsemen and a real danger to the free world. Will the Minister further outline what lessons we have learned from the report that will help us to counteract the very real presence of Russian interference, especially in social media? How do we balance safety with our inalienable right to hold and express our political opinions?
The hon. Gentleman wrapped a few questions into that contribution. The point is that we are taking this issue forward in relation to our legislation on online harms and working with social media and other companies to ensure that information is valid and we do not have that sense of disinformation. We are being vigilant against the threats that are posed.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that Mr Putin sees the potential weakening of our United Kingdom as a win for Russian interests and that our country is better defended, better protected and better together?
I absolutely endorse what my hon. Friend has said so succinctly and so clearly. It is in the interests of our United Kingdom to stand together and be united in that way, and we very firmly are better together.
The ISC’s report states that Russian influence in the UK has become the new normal. Individuals with close links to Putin are now well integrated into the UK’s business and social scene and accepted because of their wealth. Surrounding these oligarchs is an industry of enablers who, wittingly or unwittingly, help to extend Russian influence and the nefarious interests of the Russian state in the UK. What steps will the Minister now take to tackle the growth of this industry and the ability of wealthy individuals to influence British politicians and parties and our democracy?
Dirty money—money obtained through criminality or corruption—has no place in this country, and there should be no doubt that we will ensure that the full weight of the law enforcement regime bears down on those who look to use, move or hide the proceeds of crime. Our National Crime Agency is vigilant. We have introduced unexplained wealth orders. We will continue to enhance our legislation to ensure that corruption is rooted out, and that where dirty money is identified and seized, action is very firmly taken.
As a former special adviser at the Ministry of Defence during both the Syrian and the Ukrainian conflicts, I am well aware of the threat that Russia continues to pose to the UK and our allies. Will my right hon. Friend clarify what immediate next steps the Government will be taking to counter the disinformation and cyber-attacks—including, at the moment, against the vital work on a coronavirus vaccine?
The disinformation point is a very relevant one. Our counter-disinformation unit is led by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, bringing all this action together across Government to highlight and call out work with the social media companies over this important time. It does incredibly important work to guard against disinformation now, as it has done before. It will continue to do that, as well as leaning towards the online harms legislation that I have already spoken of.
Let’s park the lines from Mr Cummings, shall we? The Conservative party takes money from the Russians, No. 10 suppressed the report, and the Prime Minister forgot that his first duty is the security of the British people. So will the Minister go away and tell the Prime Minister to investigate the Kremlin’s role in undermining our democracy?
I will take no lectures from the Labour party, or indeed the Whips’ question that the hon. Gentleman has asked me. This Government and my party are vigilant on issues of national security, and we will remain so. We will be clear-eyed as to the threat that Russia poses, and where further action needs to be taken, as I have said, we will do so.
The report said that it was surprisingly difficult to establish who has responsibility for what. That conclusion is supported by the Government’s response, which alludes to the responsibilities of the Paymaster General, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, DCMS, the Home Office, the Defence Secretary, the Foreign Secretary, and the PM. At 10 am this morning, we still did not know who had drawn the short straw and would come to the House to defend the indefensible. Is not this report, the Government’s delay in publishing it and their reaction to it just further examples of the incompetence and arrogance that we have come to expect of this Conservative and Unionist Government?
No. I am very comfortable in underlining the Government’s commitment to defending our national security. As for the hon. Gentleman’s point about structure, this is about having a whole-Government approach, ensuring that each part of Government is engaged and working, with the concept of fusion in drawing this together. That is what we do, with our National Security Council and the accountability through that to deliver.
Will my right hon. Friend confirm for the people of Wolverhampton that our intelligence and security agencies are capable of identifying and dealing with any threat in this evolving battle space?
I can tell my hon. Friend of the support and resourcing that is given to our intelligence and security agencies and how we have such world-leading capabilities. We can be proud of the work they do for us—and therefore for his constituents in Wolverhampton, and indeed for constituents across the country—as we give them that support in defending our security.
The ISC stressed the need to ensure that our response to the threat from Russia is not solely focused on national events and organisations. So what does the Minister intend to do to protect our public sector—our NHS and local government services, which he knows all about—from malicious Russian cyber-intrusion once funding for the national cyber-security programme comes to an end in March next year?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his point, because our cyber-defences are something in which this Government have very clearly invested. He highlights the National Cyber Security Centre, and I know the work that it does with local government and the devolved Administrations in ensuring that they are vigilant against the threats. Indeed, only last week, it called out Russian activity against pharmaceutical companies and others to ensure that our knowledge remains here and that we guard it against attack.
This morning, on the radio, Commissioner Cressida Dick said that people should be concerned about “the threat from Russia”. Will the Minister assure me that our security services will work with our police services to make sure that they have the data, the information and the resources to deal with any local threats?
There is strong join-up between our security and intelligence agencies as well as our police. Indeed, when looking at the work that I do each week, I see that join up and see that work, so she can absolutely have my assurance in that regard.
The Minister has told us today that he is confident that there is no need for an investigation into any potential Russian interference in the EU referendum, because if there had been, it would have been detected by existing processes. Given that this report sets out that there was Russian interference in other referendums and that the Russians continue to be involved in British politics, why does he think that the Russians chose to sit that one out?
Again, we are certainly hearing some questions that are about trying to refight the referendum. Actually, we should respect the referendum, and that is what this Government have done, and we have been elected on a mandate to deliver on the Brexit referendum. None the less, the hon. Lady certainly has my assurance that we are vigilant against that sense of intrusion and disinformation and I have outlined the steps that we are taking to guard against that.
It comes as no surprise to me that the Russian state seeks to infiltrate and influence so many aspects of our society, but I am particularly worried by Russian cyber-activity, especially attempts to steal our secrets, intellectual property and new technologies. I know that, in recent years, more resources have been given to the security and intelligence services, particularly GCHQ and the Army’s 77th Brigade, but does my right hon. Friend agree that our offensive cyber-capabilities may well have to be enhanced further given the persistent and increasing threats from Russia?
My hon. Friend, with all of his experience, has highlighted a very important point about the need for offensive cyber-capabilities. We were the first NATO ally to offer offensive cyber-capabilities to the alliance. I am quite sure that this is an issue that will be of core interest and focus as we look at the integrated review. He sets out a compelling argument for further investment. I am quite sure that that will be reflected on very carefully.
Despite repeated requests and reminders from hon. and right hon. Members, this Government have dithered and delayed for 10 long months and tried their very best to suppress the Russia report, and now we all know why. Given the threat to our national security and the fact that it was about preserving and protecting our very democracy itself, how could this Government have been so incompetent, so asleep at the wheel, and not even asked the bare minimum obvious questions?
I do not recognise the hon. Gentleman’s characterisation at all. I welcome the fact that, speedily after its creation, the ISC report was published, shining a light on the issue of Russia and the need for vigilance, which this Government continue to demonstrate. It is that approach that we take through from this rather than the political characterisation that he sought to proffer.
The ISC report rightly thanks five Russia experts from outside the intelligence community, two of whom have done some great work with the Legatum Institute. Will my right hon. Friend join me in thanking those individuals, the institute and, indeed, its visionary founder, Christopher Chandler, for having the courage and the commitment to expend the resources and take the risks to oppose Russian wrongdoing from the private sector?
I commend Legatum and all those who have sought to assemble evidence of the impact and the effect. I think it has added to the report the ISC has produced. I look forward to that continuing as the ISC gets into its stride in this Session and I look forward to the contribution that so many people have to offer to help ensure that the ISC does its job well and can work to ensure that our response to these national security issues is as well-informed as possible.
As if it was not bad enough that we have unelected peers making major decisions for Scotland, the report raises serious questions about several Members of the House of Lords, their links to business interests in Russia and the potential for those relationships to be exploited by the Russian state. Will the Government urgently support measures to enhance scrutiny of the incomes of the Lords to the same level as the rules for registering MPs’ interests?
I agree that the transparency of information about political donations is incredibly important. I should say to the hon. Lady that the relevant code is the responsibility of the House itself and it is kept under review by the House of Lords Conduct Committee. I am confident that the Conduct Committee will give due consideration to the clear recommendations made in the ISC report.
The people of Darlington voted to leave the EU in 2016. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the referendum accurately recorded the genuine will of the people, and that the Government were right to deliver on that mandate and take us out of the EU?
I am not quite sure that that fits in with our subject, so what I am going to do is move on to Yvette Cooper, the Chair of the Home Affairs Committee.
I served on the ISC in the late ’90s. We had a big Labour majority in Parliament and a Conservative Chair, the much-respected Tom King. There is a long tradition of Members of both Houses putting aside party politics to engage in independent scrutiny of the vital work that our intelligence agencies do and, crucially, to work in support of the national interest. The Government put that at risk at their peril, so can the Minister answer the question put by the current ISC Chair, the right hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis)? Will he now rule out any attempt at Government interference in the work of the ISC, any political appointments to its secretariat and any special advisers to be appointed by him? Will he rule that out now, yes or no?
I am very clear, as I have been in response to previous questions, on the need for independence by the ISC. I do not want to see its independence questioned or drawn into any doubt. It is important that the ISC is independent and rigorous. The right hon. Lady can have my assurance on the steps that I take to uphold that.
Yes, Russia is attacking our democratic structures, and internationally Russia and others are also undermining our greatest assets, our alliances and multilaterals. Does my right hon. Friend agree that we need a unit at the Foreign Office specifically focused on protecting our interests and upholding the democratic nature of elections of presidents and chairs of multilateral organisations?
I absolutely recognise the different threats and challenges. That is why we have the Government Russia unit, which brings together the diplomatic, intelligence and military capabilities to maximum effect. There is a specific lead official at the Foreign Office who is responsible for our work on Russia. Therefore, the important point my hon. Friend makes about vigilance and the need to draw that information together is absolutely in place. We will continue to ensure that the interests of this country are, through that work, at the forefront and that we defend our nation’s security.
In order to allow the safe exit of hon. Members participating in this item of business and the safe arrival of those participating in the next, I am suspending the House for three minutes.
I have to notify the House, in accordance with the Royal Assent Act 1967, that Her Majesty has signified her Royal Assent to the following Acts and Measure:
Supply and Appropriation (Main Estimates) Act 2020
Finance Act 2020
Stamp Duty Land Tax (Temporary Relief) Act 2020
Business and Planning Act 2020
Channel Islands Measure 2020.
Rented Homes: End of Evictions Ban
(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, if he will make a statement on the implications of the end of the evictions ban for people renting their home.
As the Government take steps in the next phase of the response to coronavirus, it is right that we consider how to transition from the emergency measures put in place in March in the face of the then imminent public health emergency. On 13 May, the Government took decisive steps to unlock the housing market, enabling people, whether they own or rent, to move home safely if they need to. The end of the pause on possession proceedings on 23 August is another important step towards more normal life resuming and to ensuring all people—landlords and tenants—have access to justice. Prioritising cases is a matter for the judiciary, but I consider it important that cases such as those of serious antisocial behaviour are heard again.
During this period, we are working to provide appropriate support to those who have been particularly affected by coronavirus when possession proceedings start again. As part of this, we have been engaging with a working group convened by the Master of the Rolls. An early outcome of the group’s work has been changes to the court rules of possession proceedings. These rules will apply within the current legislative framework from 23 August. They will require landlords seeking possession of their property to set out relevant information about a tenant’s circumstances, including information on the effect of the pandemic. This encourages landlords to have the right conversations with tenants before seeking repossession. Through guidance, we are also encouraging landlords to agree to rent repayment plans or rent flexibilities, where possible. Landlords will need to follow strict procedures if they want to gain possession of their property. This includes, until at least 30 September, giving tenants a minimum of three months’ notice of their intention to seek possession, as set out in the measures introduced in the Coronavirus Act 2020.
The Government have provided unprecedented financial support to renters through the job retention scheme, boosting the welfare safety net by more than £9 billion and increasing the local housing allowance rate to the 30th percentile. These measures will remain in place when the courts reopen. We are also committed to bringing forward reforms to provide greater security to tenants, alongside strengthening the rights of landlords who need to gain possession of their property when they have a valid reason to do so. Legislation will be brought forward in due course.
I thank the Minister for that response, but it really will not do, because he knows that his proposals are toothless. Eviction law remains intact, so extra information about the tenant will not prevent people from losing their home, and in the middle of a public health crisis. In a Government statement on 18 March, the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government said:
“The Government is clear—no renter who has lost income due to coronavirus will be forced out of their home, nor will any landlord face unmanageable debts.”
Labour wants to hold him to this.
The evictions ban ends on 23 August. The Government have failed to plan for what happens next. That failure looks set to lead to evictions and homelessness this autumn. Data from Citizens Advice and others indicates millions of households are struggling with rent. Current law makes evictions mandatory, with no court discretion, if tenants are in two months’ of arrears under ground 8, section 8 of the Housing Act 1988, and discretionary evictions can still be made under section 21, which the Government have promised to abolish but so far have not done so. They could have prevented people from falling into arrears by adjusting social security or bringing in emergency temporary legal changes, but they have chosen not to.
What assessment have the Government made of likely numbers of people facing homelessness? What consideration have they given to public health, with possibly thousands of households becoming homeless as we go into winter? What resources have they provided to councils for the cost of additional advisers and emergency and other accommodation? Will the Minister admit that yesterday’s practice direction will make no material difference to the outcomes for tenants with arrears, as eviction laws remain unchanged?
The Government made a promise. This is not just affecting antisocial tenants; it is affecting people struggling now. Nobody benefits from renters becoming homeless, nor mortgage payers struggling with the end of the deferral scheme. We have called on the Government repeatedly to act. It is not too late to extend the ban and sort out the legal changes in September. For the sake of everyone whose home is at risk, and everyone who cares, I urge them to act now.
The hon. Lady knows full well—the House knows full well—that this an unprecedented epidemic. In its face, we have brought forward unprecedented measures to help tenants in difficulty. We are protecting 8.6 million people as a result of the stay in court action, the moratorium on evictions and the three-month minimum notice period that landlords need to apply.
We have spent billions of pounds on the furlough scheme, which the shadow Chancellor has described as a lifeline, to make sure that people have an income and can help pay their rents. We have given local authorities £4.3 billion. We have given £500 million in council tax relief. We have spent £433 million on the Everyone In campaign to help with homelessness, which has resulted in 90% of homeless people being taken off the streets. We have committed to 6,000 new long-term homes—3,300 this year—to help anyone who suffers from homelessness. I think the House will agree that that is, by any measure, a real effort to help people who are in need.
But we are moving out of the worst of the epidemic, and we are moving through a transition phase. It is right that we normalise proceedings and procedures. To that effect, I have had conversations with the Master of the Rolls and with Sir Robin Knowles. They have been quite clear that they want to ensure that courts act properly to hear landlords’ and tenants’ concerns. They are also very clear that, should a landlord not provide requisite information to the courts about the effect of covid-19 on a tenant when the landlord brings forward an application, the courts will have power to adjourn the case, which will hit the landlord in the pocket—something that will focus the landlords’ minds.
I have been told by many stakeholders and representatives, including the National Residential Landlords Association, that this will definitely be a wake-up call to landlords. It will also be of definite support to tenants, so I am convinced that we have struck the right balance between tenants’ needs and the landlords’ rights. I am convinced that we are supporting people to the best of our ability. I am pleased that we are now moving out of the epidemic and we are supporting people appropriately.
What steps is my right hon. Friend taking to ensure that landlords follow very strict procedures if they want to seek possession of their property? What is he doing more widely to increase security for tenants?
I am obliged to my hon. Friend for his question. As I said, we will bring forward the renters’ reform Act, which will abolish section 21 of the Housing Act 1988, in due course, when we have stable terrain on which to do so. That will improve tenants’ rights. We will also ensure that there is provision for a lifetime deposit scheme in that Bill. As I have described from my discussions with the Master of the Rolls, the courts have set out strict procedures that landlords will have to follow if they want to claim repossession of their properties. That is the right and balanced course, and I commend it.
In the end, as I am sure the Minister will agree, we all want to get to a position where no tenant is evicted because of covid-related matters. I recognise that the Government have made efforts, through the statutory instrument and the guidance, to toughen up the pre-action protocol, but what happens if a landlord comes to the court with all the information about a tenant’s circumstances but still wants to go for a section 21 eviction—they do not have to give any reasons—or for a ground 8 eviction, where simply rent arrears will do? If all the information is given to the court, does the court have any discretion to refuse the eviction request?
I am obliged to the Chairman of the Select Committee for that. First, the landlord will have to bring all the information that is required before the court. The courts want to sit in order that a duty solicitor will be present, but other interlocutors may be present to mediate, even at that late stage, between the landlord and the tenant to ensure that the right outcome can be achieved. Under the section 21 rules of the 1988 Act, the courts do not have discretion in that particular circumstance, but I am sure that in those cases where egregious rent arrears predate the covid emergency, where there is domestic abuse or where there is antisocial behaviour, we want to see the landlord have their right to bring forward their repossession case. That is what they are allowed to do under the law.
My right hon. Friend will know that effective communication is often the solution to many a problem. Will he assure the House that he will do everything he can to encourage landlords and tenants, who may be experiencing financial difficulties, to come together to work out flexible solutions?
I can absolutely give my hon. Friend that assurance. I have had several conversations with the NRLA, I have had conversations with the judiciary and I have also spoken to Baroness Kennedy of Generation Rent. I have made those points to them and I make them to the House.
I dread the autumn. Even before covid, my borough of Brent had the second highest level of evictions in London; a third of households live in poverty and more than 30% of employees earn below the living wage, and many face redundancy. This will mean that after paying their rent, the average family with three children in my constituency will be left with just £38.46 a week to feed and clothe all five people, and pay all their utility bills. The Minister may say that local authorities have been given £50 million to help families in hardship, but that works out at less than £1 million per constituency, and this is not about one-off hardship; it is about structural inequality and poverty. So will he increase housing benefit to cover the real cost of average rents and will he introduce fair rent controls so that the taxpayer is not paying out to chase ever-escalating rents and ever-rising property prices, which are distorting our economy?
The best way to help the hon. Gentleman’s constituents—and all our constituents—out of this crisis is to get the economy back on track and people into work so that they can pay their bills and enjoy their lives again. As for the specifics of his constituents’ cases, in fact, we have not given £50 million—we have given £500 million in council tax relief for the most egregious cases and £63 million for the non-shielded food vulnerable to help them. We have protected, as I have said, 8.6 million people as a result of the other changes that we have made. I am confident that we have done the right thing, and we continue to do the right thing—for example, by adding a further £40 million to discretionary housing payments, bringing the total to £180 million, to help the sort of people he talked about in his question.
In my constituency, I have military families, returning from serving this country abroad, who are unable to regain access to their family homes because of the moratorium on evictions. I have neighbourhoods that are blighted because, despite the best action of local authorities to evict households that are a persistent source of antisocial behaviour, the moratorium means that those individuals are there, thumbing their noses at their neighbours and causing misery for many. May I encourage and invite the Minister to stick to his guns and ensure that we can still take robust action against those who abuse their position?
I quite agree with my hon. Friend. Those who abuse their position make everyone’s lives intolerable. Baroness Newlove, the Victims’ Commissioner, has said that antisocial behaviour is an issue for local authorities, the responsible agencies, Government—possibly even Opposition. People are being let down by antisocial behaviour, and antisocially behaving tenants need to be dealt with by the courts. I will stick to my guns—the Government will stick to their guns—and we will do the right thing by landlords and tenants.
In my constituency of Erith and Thamesmead, 1,500 people have had to sign up for universal credit, and 12,000 have been furloughed, with the risk of job losses. I am extremely concerned about my constituents. One of them has written to me to say that they have no idea what to do when the ban on evictions is lifted, as their landlord has raised their rent to more than their universal credit payment during the crisis. What can the Minister say to the thousands of people facing job losses in my constituency in response to their concerns about being evicted?
I am obliged to the hon. Lady for her question. New and existing universal credit claimants who have been in work can claim a nine-month grace period from the cap on universal credit that they received. They can apply for discretionary housing payments, and we have made more money available for that particular situation. I would say to her, as I said to the hon. Member for Brent North (Barry Gardiner), that the best way to help her constituents is to get our economy back on track and her constituents back to work. We have created more jobs in the past 10 years than ever before. We have closed the gap between rich and poor. The actions that we have taken will support her constituents, and we will continue to do so as we leave the crisis.
I welcome the measures that the Government have introduced to protect renters in Harlow during the pandemic. However, tenants living in permitted-development-rights office-block conversions in my constituency have had a rent rise from £612 a month—a little below the old housing allowance rate—to £718 this financial year, which is a little below the new local housing allowance rate and, after universal credit, that rent increase means that they are £13 a month over the benefit cap, which is recouped. While taxpayers pay more and private landlords earn more, tenants in those blocks end up £13 worse off. What steps will the Government take to ensure that landlords do not move the goalposts and that tenants get the benefit of local housing allowance rate increases?
I am obliged to my right hon. Friend for his question. He has brought the issue of office conversions to my attention before, and is a doughty campaigner on behalf of his constituents. As I said to the hon. Member for Erith and Thamesmead (Abena Oppong-Asare), new and existing universal credit claimants who had been in work can apply for the nine-month grace period on their welfare benefits being capped. There are exemptions for the most vulnerable, including the disabled, and they can apply to their local authority for discretionary housing payments, so there are tools available to help my right hon. Friend’s constituents. The biggest tool of all, of course, is the tool of work, and that is what we will work exceptionally hard to provide to everybody who either has no job or fears losing theirs.
We might or might not be out of the worst of this health crisis, but when it comes to unemployment and lost incomes, sadly there is very likely worse to come. Will the Minister at least admit that without changes in the law—for example, disapplying ground 8 of section 8 of the Housing Act 1988—landlords only need to follow procedures and renters who have lost income due to coronavirus will be forced out of their homes, quite possibly in their thousands? Why will he not give judges discretion to look at the facts of individual cases?
I have had discussions with many stakeholders, including representatives of landlords, including the National Residential Landlords Association, which tells me that, according to its research, 90% of renters say that they have been able to meet their rent liabilities. Of the 10% remaining, who either have difficulty or fear difficulty, 75% have said that they have had a good response from their landlord in negotiating flexible repayments or other payment holidays. I think that the landlord community understands the challenge that the economy faces and that tenants face, and is working proactively to support them. We will continue to work proactively to support tenants through the measures that I have described.
As the shadow Minister pointed out earlier, back in March, the Secretary of State said that no one would lose their home as a result of losing income due to covid. It is quite clear from what the Minister has said today that he cannot guarantee that, can he?
We have protected those tenants from eviction through the actions that we have already taken—actions that I believe have been supported across the House. We are now moving into a new stage of this crisis, where we are trying to normalise our economy and society. Of course I cannot guarantee that every tenancy will be retained, but we have taken steps to ensure that tenants are supported. We will continue to take those steps.
[Inaudible.] Sorry, Madam Deputy Speaker, can you hear me?
We can hear you now.
Ah, you can.
I thank the Minister for his answers thus far, but he will be aware of the dramatic increase in the number of people who have fallen into rent arrears during lockdown. The reality is that judges have no discretion whatever if a case is brought and a tenant is more than eight weeks in rent arrears; they have to order an eviction. Will my right hon. Friend, who is going to bring forward legislation in a major way in the autumn anyway, look at emergency legislation now to prevent unnecessary evictions and suffering on the part of people who are currently in desperate need because of their temporary rent arrears? The estimate is that this problem could affect up to half a million people by the time we come to the end of the moratorium on evictions.
My hon. Friend is rarely silenced for long. I hear what he says and he has heard what I have said. We will bring forward the renters’ reform Bill, which will be the biggest rent change and tenancy change in a generation, when it is appropriate. In the meantime, we will continue to support tenants and landlords through the measures that I have already outlined.
We know that 9% of private renters have made a claim for universal credit during the crisis and, of course, we are expecting a massive spike in future universal credit claims in the months to come. Given that the local housing allowance barely covers local rents, particularly in Warwick and Leamington, where house prices and rents are so expensive, surely the Government should adhere to and honour their promise to renters back in March to protect them for the months to come.
I am obliged to the hon. Gentleman for his question. As I have already said, his constituents will be able to take advantage of a discretionary housing payment application to their local authority if they have need. We have given half a billion pounds to local authorities to apply council tax relief to their residents where it is appropriate. Of course, we will also continue to work hard. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer made his Budget statement and a statement just a few weeks ago, and I am sure that he will make further financial announcements in due course that will be designed to stimulate the economy as we exit this crisis and to support all our people, including the hon. Gentleman’s constituents, to get back to work.
The biggest cause of homelessness is the breakdown of a private sector tenancy. I am not talking about rough sleeping but the tens of thousands of households that are invisibly homeless, including the 120,000 children every year who live in temporary accommodation, and that was long before the covid crisis.
Will the Government commit to an infrastructure project, like road building, to build at least 100,000 new social homes for rent—that is social homes, not affordable homes—to address the homelessness crisis once and for all? We will not get rid of homelessness unless we have a public sector infrastructure project to build social homes for rent.
The Chancellor of the Exchequer, in his Budget statement and subsequently, has announced a raft of infrastructure measures that will stimulate our economy. He also, of course, announced the biggest injection of cash into affordable homes in 15 years, since the 2006 to 2011 period, through the affordable homes programme. We have also taken measures to allow local authorities to act more quickly and effectively to build social homes if they wish. From memory, I think that we have built something like 150,000 homes for social rent in the last few years, and of course more will be built. We have a plan to invest in our infrastructure that will support the hon. Lady’s constituents and mine.
The support that the Government have given to small councils, such as mine in north Devon, and fabulous homeless charities, such as the Freedom Centre in Barnstaple, to help people off the streets has been welcome. With the moratorium on evictions ending, however, can the Minister assure me that all that good work and support will be backed up by long-term plans to secure affordable and sustainable housing for my most vulnerable constituents?
I commend my hon. Friend’s constituents, and the Freedom Centre in particular, for all the work they have been doing for her constituents, their neighbours, during the emergency. I absolutely commit to her that, as I just said to the hon. Member for Bath (Wera Hobhouse), we will bring forward the biggest investment in affordable housing in the last 10 to 15 years between 2021 and 2026. That builds on the £9 billion that we have invested in the existing affordable homes programme, which has helped to build 241,000 homes in the last year. That is a signal achievement; we intend to go further.
Lifting the evictions ban from 24 August is expected to put more than 200,000 people at risk of eviction, and changes introduced by the Lord Chancellor on Friday will have no teeth unless the court is given discretion in ground 8, section 8 cases. Does the Minister recognise that making a small change to introduce discretion could save many people, who have lost income due to covid, from losing their homes? Or, as my hon. Friend the shadow Minister has suggested, will he extend the ban and sort out the legal changes in September?
I respectfully disagree with the hon. Lady. The evidence I have suggests that 90% of tenants—90% of renters—have managed to beat their rental liabilities, and the overwhelming majority of those who have not feel that their landlords have responded positively to ensure that they have more flexible repayment options. I do not see this tsunami that the hon. Lady seems to suggest. I am sure she will not mind me saying so, but when I spoke to Baroness Kennedy yesterday, she also said that she did not believe that a tsunami of evictions was at all likely. We need to be very careful with the language we use, and to not spread fear among potentially vulnerable people—tenants as well as landlords—where fear should not exist.
I thank the Minister for all his Department has done to help the 8.6 million private renters during covid-19, including those in my constituency. What is the Department going to do in the future to help young professionals and working families get on the housing ladder, because owning your own home is a policy that our party believes in?
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend’s sentiments. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will announce our new First Homes policy very soon, which will provide discounts of at least 30% on the cost of buying a new home. That will help a new generation of first-time buyers to buy their own home. I am in constant contact with the lending community, to make sure that it is offering decent lending products—decent mortgages—that are affordable to the broad mass of people. I shall continue those efforts, to ensure that people who want to buy and own their own home can do so.
Where landlords and tenants can reach an agreement between them, that is clearly to be welcomed, but the point is that many cannot. Can the Minister confirm whether there is a duty on landlords to inquire as to whether tenants have a problem with their rent because of covid? If there is no duty, does that not mean, as has been pointed out on a number of occasions, that the landlord can, under section 21 or ground 8, seek possession of a property and that the courts have to go along with that and have no discretion whatsoever?
I can confirm that landlords do have, or will have, a duty to assess the effect of covid-19 on their constituents, including the financial impact and their vulnerability, should they wish to bring an application before the court to seek possession of their property. If they do not do that, or if the information they provide is not appropriate, the courts will be well within their rights to adjourn the case, which will cost the landlord time and money, and certainly focus the landlord’s mind. I am content with the thought that courts have always done what they can, and that they will continue to do so, to mediate in the execution of justice. They will also do what they can to help both parties in the case, including tenants. Landlords will have a duty as a result of the Lord Chancellor’s statutory instrument, which he laid last Friday.
I commend the Government for the support they have given to renters during a difficult pandemic, particularly protecting them from the minority of landlords who can be unreasonable at times. Of course, the future wellbeing of renters will depend on a vibrant rental market, so what plans does the Minister have to ensure that the rental market is vibrant?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right: a vibrant rental market is important to our economy and to renters. We must not act in any way, either individually or cumulatively, to drive landlords out of the marketplace. That can only mean that there will be fewer properties available to rent, which is no good for tenants, and it may also mean, of course, that the properties vacated by good landlords are taken up by less scrupulous landlords, who will not give the same good experience to their tenants. We will bring forward the renters’ reform Bill in due course, which will ensure that there is a proper balance of rights and responsibilities between landlords and tenants. The best thing we can do for landlords at the moment, however, is to make sure that renters pay their rent, because that will keep landlords in business.
Thank you. In order to allow the safe exit of hon. Members participating in this item of business—that is a cue for people to leave—and the safe arrival of those participating in the next, I suspend the House for three minutes.
With permission, Madam Deputy Speaker, I would like to give a counter-Daesh update.
I should like to begin my statement by paying tribute to the commitment and professionalism of our armed forces. They operate in a world of constant conflict in which the dangers posed by the likes of Daesh and rogue states are ever-present, but we sleep more soundly in our beds thanks to their tireless dedication and sacrifice.
Since the House was last updated on the campaign against Daesh in July 2019, RAF aircraft have continued to patrol the skies on an almost daily basis, conducting attacks on some 16 occasions, striking 40 terrorist targets. Those targets range from caves occupied by Daesh terrorists in remote areas of northern Iraq to weapons caches, bunkers and training camps, and included the destruction of two Daesh strongpoints engaged in close combat with Iraqi security forces.
With that in mind, I would like to salute the service of Lance Corporal Brodie Gillon, who was tragically killed in a rocket strike on Camp Taji on March 11 this year. Lance Corporal Gillon’s entire career was dedicated to helping and saving lives. A sports physiotherapist in her civilian life, she joined the Reserves in 2015 and volunteered to be part of the Irish Guards battle group as a class one combat medical technician. At just 26 years of age, she was fulfilling a lifelong ambition to serve her country, and her commanding officer believes she was destined for great things. Lance Corporal Gillon remains a shining example of what our armed forces and Reserves stand for. Our thoughts are with her family, and I am sure the whole House will join me in remembering her exceptional life and condemning the cowardly attack that cut it short.
When the former Secretary of State for International Development last spoke to the House on this subject, he was able to report that Daesh had lost control of the territory they once held. Thanks to the continued pressure of the 82-member coalition and partner forces in Iraq and Syria, that remains the case, but the hard fight against Daesh is by no means done. Indeed, yesterday was the third anniversary of the liberation of Mosul from its grip. Its black flag no longer flies over the great cities of Iraq and Syria. Its leader, al-Baghdadi, no longer rallies his followers with calls to war. But the threat from Daesh, I am afraid, remains. Its poisonous ideology endures, and its pernicious influence continues to spread. Conflict, economic collapse and inequality are creating new opportunities that it will continue to exploit to grow and recruit. The prospect of its resurgence should concern us all. As long as it is able to operate over there, it can hit our citizens over here. Daesh retains its intent to carry out and inspire attacks against us and remains the most significant terrorist threat to the United Kingdom and our interests.
That is why our commitment to the Global Coalition against Daesh remains unwavering. The UK will continue to play a leading role in the coalition in the often unseen fight against Daesh’s insidious propaganda. Our military support has proven highly effective, and I would like in particular to recognise the work of the Iraqi security forces. They have made huge sacrifices in the fight against Daesh and become a capable and robust fighting force. With support and training from the UK and our coalition partners, they are increasingly able to conduct independent operations. Last year more than 50,000 personnel from the Iraqi army, federal police, border guard, Kurdistan security forces and emergency response battalions completed training delivered by coalition troop-contributing countries. In 2020 so far, the ISF have conducted more than 1,200 missions to defeat Daesh.
But, as the ISF themselves acknowledge, they still require our enduring assistance to defeat the threat. That is why the UK will continue to provide training, mentoring and professional military education to the Iraqis through the coalition, NATO Mission Iraq and bilateral initiatives. That is also why we will continue to provide essential air support. The terrorists have nowhere to hide. We have destroyed bunkers and hidden bases. This is a long-running effort. Indeed, since the beginning of this year, I have authorised 10 strikes on Daesh.
As the Daesh threat changes, so the coalition response evolves. The campaign has now entered a new phase, with greater emphasis on helping the Iraqi Government to develop a strong security apparatus. The UK’s commitment to Iraq’s stability and sovereignty is for the long term. That is why I signed a memorandum of understanding on our future defence relationship with the Iraqi Defence Minister last year—the first such agreement with a western power since the territorial defeat of Daesh. I look forward to building on that work. It is also why the UK seeks to support Iraq to minimise the destabilising effects of economic crisis, which could provide an opportunity for Daesh to re-emerge. Through our funding and leadership alongside the World Bank’s Iraq reform, recovery and reconstruction fund, we have managed to help build the Iraqi economy.
But, even as we seek to strengthen Iraq, there are others who seek to destabilise it. As I made clear to the House in the days following the US drone strike against General Soleimani on 2 January, malign activity by Iranian-aligned proxies only furthers the instability in which insurgents thrive. Meanwhile, rogue militia groups continue to conduct reprehensible attacks on diplomatic premises and bases hosting coalition personnel. We urge the Iraqi Government to protect coalition forces and foreign missions and to prosecute those responsible for the attacks. The coalition is in Iraq at the request of the Iraqi Government, to help defend Iraqis and others against the very real shared threat from Daesh. Without their efforts, Daesh will only be emboldened. The US and Iraq are engaged in an ongoing strategic dialogue to shape the coalition’s future support to the Iraqis in continuing to degrade Daesh—efforts that the UK sincerely supports. The collective mission to crush Daesh remains paramount.
We should not forget that Daesh respects no borders, and as it moves between Iraq and Syria, so must our response. In Syria, Daesh continues to take advantage of a fractured and unstable country. Like the ISF in Iraq, the Syrian Democratic Forces have made huge sacrifices in the fight against Daesh, and we are deeply grateful to them. The coalition continues to support this fight through aerial missions, seeking out Daesh locations and striking when necessary.
We are also determined that those individuals who have fought for or supported Daesh, whatever their nationality, should pay for their crimes. This should occur under the most appropriate jurisdiction, often in the region where the crimes were committed. At the height of the conflict, over 30,000 foreign terrorist fighters answered Daesh’s call and travelled to the region. Around 900 of those came from the United Kingdom. Of these, approximately 20% have been killed; 40% have returned to the United Kingdom, where they have been investigated, and the majority have been assessed now to pose no risk or a low security risk; and some 40% remain in the region, either at large or in facilities managed by the Syrian Democratic Forces or others.
We are working closely with international partners to establish an effective justice mechanism to make sure that all those who fought under Daesh’s black flag are brought to justice. As part of this, we continue our strong support for the UN investigation teams, UNITAD and the IIIM, building evidence of Daesh crimes in Iraq and Syria.
Syria is one of the world’s largest humanitarian catastrophes, and the UK remains at the forefront of the response. The International Development Secretary has committed to at least £300 million of aid to Syria and neighbouring countries for 2020, bringing our aid spend more than £3 billion since 2012 in the region. We are alleviating the burden of millions of people who have been displaced. We are providing food, water and healthcare. We are supporting the education and mental health of children scarred by Daesh occupation. We are providing grants for businesses to help them to grow and crops to farmers to restore their livelihoods.
In Iraq, 7.7 million Iraqi citizens were liberated from Daesh rule, but the damage inflicted by Daesh remains. Since 2014, the UK has committed £272 million in humanitarian support, providing millions of Iraqis with shelter, medical care and clean water. We have also provided £110 million putting basic utilities in education in place and enabling Iraqis to return to their homes.
We should take immense pride in our role as a leading member of the global coalition against Daesh—a coalition that has managed to degrade and bring this terrorist organisation to the point of weakness. Our challenge is now to hold our course, strengthening the grand and unprecedented coalition, denying Daesh every inch of comfort and every ounce of hope, addressing the poverty and lack of opportunities in communities that has helped Daesh to build its ranks, and finally, giving the Iraqi and Syrian people the security they deserve to rebuild their lives in peace. I commend this statement to the House.
I thank the Secretary of State for making this statement and for advance sight of it. I hope that this marks the return to Ministers fulfilling the Government’s commitment to provide the House with quarterly updates on Daesh. It has been a year and 20 days since the last statement and a lot has happened since, including that the last Secretary of State to make this statement is no longer a Member of this House or, indeed, the Conservative party.
I begin by paying tribute to the dedication of our armed forces and those from the multinational coalition, who continue the fight to counter the deadly threat of Daesh. I also salute the service of Lance Corporal Brodie Gillon. Her death is the toughest possible reminder that our troops, both full-time and reservists, put their lives on the line to defend us. Today, I want to reaffirm the strength of the commitment of my party for the UN-sanctioned global coalition and the comprehensive international approach against Daesh.
The coalition’s success so far is clear. Daesh no longer controls any territory, compared with its height six years ago, when it had sway over 8 million people and a land area the size of our own UK. However, it is also clear that Daesh is stepping up its insurgent attacks and must be at risk of gaining a foothold south of the Euphrates in the area controlled by the Syrian regime, backed by Iranian and Russian allies. The Secretary of State said this afternoon that the RAF has conducted 16 air attacks since July last year. Half of those have been in the past two months alone, so can the Secretary of State confirm how many air strikes have been carried out by the global coalition as a whole in the past two months, and is the number of such attacks rising?
In April, NATO agreed to an enhanced role against Daesh. Will the Secretary of State explain what this role will be, what additional activity will be conducted by NATO and what the UK contribution will be through NATO? In particular, will more NATO mean less US in Iraq and Syria?
A special concern arises from reports that Daesh foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq are relocating to join other jihadist frontlines around the world. Others—the Secretary of State’s 40%—are detained in poorly defended prisons and detention centres in the region. With coalition Ministers set to discuss the emerging threat posed by Daesh and ISIS affiliates in west Africa and the Sahel, what role and commitment is the UK willing to consider as part of any coalition action?
Earlier, I talked about the Labour party’s support for the comprehensive international approach against Daesh. With 1.6 million people still displaced within Iraq and 6.6 million within Syria, the need for substantial humanitarian and development aid is acute. The Government’s Iraq stabilisation and resilience programme was set to end in March 2020. Will the Secretary of State confirm whether it has indeed ended and whether such support will be extended beyond this year, especially in the light of the abolition of the Department for International Development?
More than 3 million of those displaced in the region are refugee children, the blameless victims of conflict. Since the Government voted against the Dubs amendment, what steps have they taken to allow unaccompanied refugee children in Europe to be reunited with their families in the UK?
Finally, the protection of civilians and the upholding of international law through implementation of UN resolutions remain the foundation for the global coalition’s actions further to degrade and ultimately defeat Daesh. Our challenge, as the Secretary of State said, is now indeed to see this through, so that the Iraqi people and the Syrian people may rebuild their lives and their country in peace.
I will do my best to answer all the questions. I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his support of the counter-Daesh actions.
The right hon. Gentleman asks whether the number of strikes has increased. I can write to him with the details of the total global coalition strikes, but I can say that United Kingdom strikes have increased in the past few months, although that is mainly a reflection of the functioning Government of Iraq and a better outcome that they are requiring and requesting in support. He might remember that the previous Government were in a state of paralysis and then on a number of occasions not functioning. The increase in strikes is mainly a reflection of what we have seen since then, but I am happy to write to him and clarify more the overall coalition responses.
On NATO and training, NATO has sought to see where it can step in and support specifically in the areas of training, security improvements, nation building and so on. It has not progressed as fast as needed, because of covid and the quietness at the beginning of the year, from both the threat and everything else. Also, many of the traditional partners we work with feel that their training has been completed. Therefore, we are working with NATO and the Iraqis to see where else we can assist. We stand ready to do more, and we are exploring more.
At the same time, in answer to the question whether more NATO means less US, the outcome of the US security dialogue will, I think, be the next stage where we will be able to understand what more we can do. We all recognise that the previous Iraqi Parliament passed a non-binding resolution asking the United States forces to leave. That only becomes binding if the Iraqi Government act on it. The new Iraqi Government have said they continue to require coalition support, and that is why the security dialogue is ongoing at the moment.
The right hon. Gentleman also asks about the dispersal of Daesh into other safe spaces. It is absolutely the case, as he rightly points out, that safe spaces have been identified by Daesh, such as the Chad basin in west Africa, and indeed we see Daesh active in Afghanistan and Somalia. There is definitely a terrorist threat in west Africa—not all Daesh, but certainly an extremist, radical, militant, Salafi-type threat. That is why the French mission in Mali is supported by a squadron of our Chinook helicopters. At the end of this year, 250 British soldiers will deploy as part of the UN multidimensional integrated stabilisation mission in Mali—MINUSMA—to improve the security situation in that part of the country. For us, it is not only about helping our allies, the French and other European nations there, but about ensuring that the knock-on effect of a destabilised west Africa does not end up on the shores of the Mediterranean and cause another immigration crisis, as we have seen in the past, and that is something we are working towards.
On the repatriation of child refugees, as the right hon. Gentleman will know, we took the path of identifying the most vulnerable in refugee camps—either surrounding Syria or where they were—and bringing them back and repatriating them to this country to give them the support they need. It is my understanding that we have done that for over 20,000 of them. As for his comments about Syrian children in Europe, I will have to get back to him about that. However, the Government have made our position clear that we felt the best way to help in that situation was to take refugees from in-theatre, and other European countries should stand by their obligations towards refugees and asylum seekers. In addition, the Foreign Secretary has made it very clear that if children are identified in Syria, for example, who are vulnerable or orphaned and so on, we will explore in every case, on a case-by-case basis, what we can do to help those children as well—whether by bringing them back to this country or making sure they get the help they need.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his statement to the House. The Kurdish peshmerga and the Iraqi army united with the global coalition to help destroy the brutal Daesh caliphate, but Daesh is now regrouping in territories disputed between the Kurds and the Iraqis. Does my right hon. Friend agree that this underlines the vital importance of our actively helping Baghdad and Irbil resolve their differences in military and political matters?
It is vital, for all the people of Iraq and Syria, that we get as much stability as possible. It is incredibly important that we work with the Kurds and the Iraqis to ensure that, where there are differences, they are sorted out or negotiated. Indeed, we should work with both Turkey and Kurdish forces to make sure that they both accommodate each other and that they understand there is often a common need for them to work together, or certainly that it is in their common interest to defeat Daesh and al-Qaeda.
I, too, am grateful to the Secretary of State for advance sight of his statement. Like him, I would like to put on record our condolences to the family, friends and colleagues in uniform of the late Lance Corporal Brodie Gillon. He is right to say that she was identified as having had a stunning career so far, and it is sad that her best days in that career will no longer be realised.
Madam Deputy Speaker, I would like to ask a few questions, if I may. First, is it the Government’s intention, at some point after the recess, to lay before the House an updated threat assessment, following the statement that the Secretary of State came to give in January, after the drone strike by the United States that killed General Qasem Soleimani?
On cyber-recruitment, which has affected my own constituency, and Daesh funding, I appreciate that this setting is not the place for it, but, similarly, can we get a bit more information for the House—I am not sure, but perhaps through the Defence Committee—on exactly what the Government are doing to tackle online recruitment and to strangle off the funding mechanisms that keep them going? The whole House will be concerned to hear what the Secretary of State had to say about attacks on diplomatic personnel and diplomatic infrastructure. Again, at some point, it would be useful to get more information on that.
More broadly, on Syria, which of course continues to break all our hearts when we see the ongoing war there, I have asked the Government previously why they have not taken action to remove British citizenship from the first lady of Syria and members of the Assad family, some of whom are living here in the city of London. I know the Secretary of the State will get up at the Dispatch Box and say he cannot discuss individual cases—that is entirely right—but can he at least tell us if, within the Government, serious consideration has been given to removing their British citizenship? I appreciate that that is not always simple, because sometimes having that citizenship can give us a judicial angle to pursue them in the courts.
Lastly—this is a more broad question—are we to take it that the integrated review is now fully back up and running, and when can we expect its publication?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I am happy to publish, probably in the autumn, a threat assessment—I will probably put it out as a written ministerial statement in the Library—to give him an update. If that is all right, I will do it for Iraq and the region as well, because I think it is in everyone’s interests to get a sense of the threat that our allies, and also our troops, face.
On cyber and recruitment, the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. This is the age when a terrorist in Syria can reach out to his constituents, radicalise them in their own bedrooms, and target them with everything from glamorous glossies to how to make bombs. We have, unfortunately, seen that unfold on our streets. That is why—this comes from my old days as Security Minister, so it many have changed its name; if so, I shall write to him—we set up RICU, or the research, information and communications unit, in the Home Office. Its job is potentially to spot this type of publication, working alongside the police and the counter-terrorism internet referral unit, and then go directly to the internet service providers and ask them to take down the material. If memory serves me right, it has taken down hundreds of thousands of pieces of material.
Daesh is definitely very, very clever at using that medium. That is why, some two to three years ago, one of the methods of the counter-Daesh military response that we were using in Iraq and Syria was to target the media operations as much as some of the actual fighters, because those media operations are used to radicalise people who have never been to Syria. It is also appalling that Daesh now often targets those who are the most vulnerable in our homes and our societies because they are all it can recruit. We see too many people who are displaying mental health issues as well.
On diplomatic infrastructure, it is no secret that forces linked to Iran are interested in destabilising Iraq and effectively poking the stick as provocation. That is why the Government believe that the best solution is absolutely to de-escalate the situation. We do not work with the Iraqi Government to try to escalate the problem; we work with them to try to bring people to justice. Only recently, the Iraqi Government did indeed follow up work that we had been doing, and the Americans had been doing, on some suspects, and made a considerable number of arrests. It is not straightforward for the Iraqi Government sometimes, but we do not blame them for that—we recognise that this is a difficult area. Certainly, our messaging to the wider regional actors is that destabilisation helps no one. We would definitely condemn any attacks on our diplomatic infrastructure, which is of course the same infrastructure that delivers international and foreign aid.
On the issue of Syria and citizenship, in every case that I ever dealt with in taking away citizenships, I found, first of all, that it is nearly always a last resort. It is done where we cannot find another way of bringing someone to justice, or where they pose such a threat at a certain threshold. Every case is looked at based on a whole combination of factors, including the intelligence case, the threat and so on. In a sense we are agnostic. It would not just be about people posing a threat from Daesh, but people who pose a threat around a range of characters. Sometimes it is possible to keep them out of the country through an immigration bar—by just saying, “You can’t come here.” It is sometimes necessary to strip someone of their citizenship in order to keep us safe. I can give the hon. Gentleman an assurance that when I was in the Home Office, it was, in effect, based purely on the threat that appeared before us, whether or not it was from a regime or from a terrorist organisation. The factors in that were balanced.
I, too, salute the service of Lance Corporal Brodie Gillon. May I also pay tribute to the commitment and professionalism of all our armed forces? Will the Secretary of State confirm that this Government will continue to provide our armed forces with all the support they need, not only when they are overseas but here at home?
I can give my hon. Friend that assurance and that prompts me to answer one of the other questions. The Integrated Review is back up and running. Part of the purpose of that review is to ensure that we have the right ambition funded to the right level with the right equipment. That is the best service that we can offer to our men and women of the armed forces, and that is what we are determined to do through this review.
As a former physiotherapist myself, may I pass on my condolences to the family of Lance-Corporal Brodie Gillon? Their tragic loss is a loss to us all. Since 2010, the Government have presided over a sharp decline in our regular armed forces. For example, the Regular Army has fallen from 102,000 to just 73,750—a 28% drop in personnel—and the number continues to fall. In light of the fact that NATO has agreed to enhance its role against Daesh, can the Secretary of State say how the UK will continue to play its part with such depleted armed forces?
It was going so well until the very last comment. If we stuck all our planning for the armed forces on numbers, we would end up back in the first world war. Modern armed forces need the right equipment and to be doing the right task. It is no good fighting the last war, the war before that, or the war before that. What is important is that we provide the right equipment, that we meet today’s threat—not yesterday’s threat—and that we plan for tomorrow’s threat as well. That is why this Integrated Review has started not with a discussion on the number of troops, or the numbers on the budget, but with threat, the doctrine of our adversaries and then what we need to do that job. On the point about the reduction of the regular armed forces, that was done because we recognised then that reserves, as Lance-Corporal Gillon has shown, are incredibly important in today’s world. We need specialists—specialists who do not grow on trees, specialists whom we use depending on the fight or indeed the need that we have to attend to—and reserves are playing a stronger and greater part in our armed forces and are absolutely key in being able to meet the modern hybrid threat that we face every day. I do not apologise that we have lost some regulars, but have increased our reserves. That is really important because that is why our troops remain among the best in the world.
As somebody who, while in the Royal Air Force, served on Operation Warden, the no-fly zone over northern Iraq, may I acknowledge the RAF’s operations—40 strikes against terrorist targets—in the past year?
On the Integrated Review, may I just confirm again with the Secretary of State that we will look at having well-equipped armed forces with the right numbers of personnel, because the threats are still out there, and the last thing that we want to do in this dangerous world is to reduce our military capabilities?
We have been clear that we are not in the business of reducing the potency and capability of our armed forces. We are in the business of making sure that we are modernising to meet tomorrow’s fight. The worst thing that we can do is modernise—actually not really modernise, but equip ourselves—for what happened 10, 15, or 20 years ago. That is why we are determined to invest more in autonomous areas, in new domains, such as space and cyber, which are really important. The threat against space is, regrettably, real. Our adversaries are weaponising space and we are deeply vulnerable in the west to such actions because we rely so much on space assets.
It feels like distant history now, but the vote in December 2015 on the subject of deploying airstrikes in Syria was one of the most difficult that I faced in my time in the House. I was eventually persuaded to support that, and I think that the situation that the Secretary of State describes today is one that justifies the decision that the House took in 2015, but the assurances that I and others were given by the then Prime Minister were around what would happen in addition to the military solution. It was about the reconstruction phase and the aid effort that would be made. What assessment has the Secretary of State for Defence made of the changes to the Department for International Development now being folded into the Foreign and Commonwealth Office? Will we have an overseas development operation that can meet the obligations that were taken on by the Government in December 2015?
I know that the right hon. Gentleman is a thoughtful colleague and, indeed, at the time I think we were in the same Government. We should be proud that we spent £3 billion of aid in reconstruction and investment in that region and in protecting people from the effects of poverty. That is the other half of that reconstruction that he was worried about, and I think that that is incredibly important. On the other part of his question, which related to—[Interruption.] It has slipped my mind.
DFID. We often talk about organisations and machinery of Governments—they come around, and come and go—but the key here is the sense of purpose and the mission. The mission has not changed; the mission to invest and to help provide security and stability in Iraq and Syria has not changed and will not change. We all have an obligation to that part of the world because of events that happened perhaps 20 years ago or more, and that is not going to change. Whatever badge we put on the front of a door and whatever office someone sits in, that is not the fact; what matters to the people of Iraq and Syria is whether they are getting the aid, support, stability and security they need. I believe we are providing that, and we will continue to do that.
Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the primary role of British forces in the middle east will remain one of training, rather than of direct action, and that we will not be drawn into further significant land engagements?
My hon. Friend is right always to talk about the fear of mission creep. I believe the best way to ensure that mission creep does not happen is by Secretaries of State and Ministers making sure that they have strong oversight and that they keep a close eye on the mission, making sure that the parameters are set and communicated. His point is right; the best way to avoid a fight is to avoid a conflict. Our armed forces, sub-threshold, have a very real role to play in preventing conflicts from happening by improving security and training, and in some cases improving infrastructure—for example, in Sudan, the Royal Engineers have helped put in those types of important measures—so that a nation is strong and confident and does not need to resort to conflict.
I echo the Secretary of State’s tribute to the professionalism and commitment of our armed forces. I also wish to reinforce the point made by the hon. Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke (Jack Lopresti) about our historical allies in the Kurdistan region of Iraq, who not only feel that threat from Daesh, but feel that there is sometimes a difficult relationship with those in Baghdad. Will the Secretary of State tell us more about what we can do and what he can do to amplify the commitment of this House to our friends in Kurdistan, and about the work we can do to make that region not only safe, but prosperous in the future?
I can give the hon. Gentleman the commitment that we are absolutely determined to help those people who share our values and have a key part to play in the reconstruction of that region. He reminds me that we should not forget in this House the evil nature of the Assad regime, which rules Syria, where some of the Kurds are living. That is the regime that gassed its own people and disappeared people in the night. That has not gone away and it is currently focused on a direction towards Idlib, where the humanitarian catastrophe will only grow for as long as Assad and his regime continue.
I thank the Defence Secretary for the update on Daesh, but he will know that the world’s fastest growing Islamist insurgency is in the Sahel and west Africa. I welcome the commitment to send UK troops to be part of MINUSMA—the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilisation Mission in Mali—the most dangerous peacekeeping mission in the world. Will he reassure the House that the National Security Council is looking across government at how the UK can address the sources of conflict in the Sahel and west Africa?
When my hon. Friend was in the Foreign Office, she did an excellent job on crafting the Africa strategy, from which we still work. Just so that Members realise that I have not just announced a new troop deployment, let me say that the MINUSMA troop deployment was announced to the House some years ago. I fear it may have been so far away that people may have forgotten and thought I have suddenly announced a deployment. Africa is going to be key in the next 10, 15, 20 years. It always has been important, but the spread of Islamist terrorism, through al-Shabaab, Boko Haram and Islamists in west Africa, is a real, existing threat that we have to deal with. They undermine fragile democracies and fragile countries, often those that are very poor. We cannot turn our back on Africa on these issues. Where we can, we have to support those countries to see off the threat of Islamists and help them on the path to successful economies. I know that DFID and its strategies are working to do that, and at the MOD we are doing it through training and other such things. That is why we commit to countries such as Kenya and, indeed, now to Mali.
The hon. Member for West Worcestershire (Harriett Baldwin) made a point about foreign and defence policy in west Africa. Is not the crucial part of that whether the Secretary of State wins his own battle with the Treasury in autumn?
I am fighting. I spoke to Lord Robertson of Port Ellen about his quite excellent defence review in 1998. We have all been around that block. It is important that we fight for the correct amount of resource. It is also important that we demonstrate, both to the taxpayer and the wider Government, the utility of defence, which is often sub-threshold in the area of training, nation building or intelligence gathering, so at the very least we can make sure we help our allies. In the integrated review, one of the arguments I will be using to the other Departments is that we help to stop conflicts. We are not there to start them, but to stop them, and in the long run that is how to save money.
I warmly welcome the Secretary of State’s statement that Daesh is now a shadow of its former self thanks to the courage and professionalism of our armed forces. It is clear that Daesh and other terror groups know no borders, so can he reassure me and all my constituents that wherever the security threat comes from we will respond to protect our citizens?
The United Kingdom will follow international law and we will do whatever we have to do to keep our nation safe. Of course, it is always our preferred outcome to prevent people being radicalised, which is why I am a great supporter of the Government’s Prevent policy, and to work with our allies around the world to ensure we help them to deliver justice. Justice must be seen to be done, as well as be done, against those threats. That is why, across the world, we will examine every option we can. We will never forget that our job is to keep our citizens safe.
I am glad of today’s statement as well. I revisit a point that has been made, but not answered. Daesh is an evil that we must unite against, but the last statement to the House on these matters was in July 2019. There was a commitment in 2016 for a quarterly update on these matters. I urge the Secretary of State, given the gravity of our ongoing commitment, to make good on that commitment to provide a quarterly update to the House.
Yes, of course we should uphold that commitment. I will make sure that, subject to the covid interruption, we return to that. I put on the Government website every time a strike is authorised or happens, so that people can have an ongoing update about what we are doing in their name.
I also pay tribute to Lance-Corporal Gillon, a very brave soldier. My heart goes out to her family.
The growth of Daesh and its offshoots in Yemen depend on smuggling by sea along the Red sea and, specifically, through the port of Hodeidah. What can the Government do to ensure that the sea routes are closed to Daesh to help to bring peace to Yemen?
With our deployments in the Strait of Hormuz we participate in constabulary duties, including patrols and so on, and we work with our allies, such as the United States. Where we find intelligence or something suspicious, we try to help to ensure that that zone is not increased by weapons smuggling. Only recently, for example, the Saudis managed to interdict significant weapons supplies to the Houthi, which would have had only one effect—make the situation worse. Those supplies were interdicted and stopped.
I join with others in paying tribute to the extraordinary professionalism and dedication of our armed forces. I also pay tribute to Lance-Corporal Brodie Gillon. She will be very deeply missed and we will always remember her.
As the Secretary of State said in his statement, the recent increase in its co-ordinated bloody attacks shows that the fight with Daesh is not yet over. For our part, the UK must continue to set an example as a world leader in protecting civilians in conflict. What steps is his Department taking, as part of the integrated review, to update its protection of civilians strategy?
When we are engaged in targeting, as the hon. Gentleman will probably know, we are very, very careful to make sure that we adhere not only to international law but all the safeguards we can to ensure innocent people are not killed or put in harm’s way. At the same time, after a strike is concluded there is a wash-up, a debrief and a check back, through different methods, of what exactly happened to make sure if there are any lessons to be learned. I take incredibly seriously anything that would lead to civilians being killed. We do not help the people of Iraq by poor use of our weapons. It is appalling, and if we want to deal with Daesh we have to show we are on the side of the community, not frighten the community or indeed make mistakes that cost lives among those very people we are there to help. That is the most important thing for me. I take a very, very detailed look at it. I made sure, right from the start of being in this job, that I reviewed all the rules that we had signed up to and followed, and indeed what tolerances there were, because that is a very important obligation to any elected Member.
Order. I hope we can go just a little faster. I appreciate these are important matters—I am not trying to hurry them—but if we go a little faster, we can have proceedings concluded by 3 o’clock.
I welcome the Defence Secretary’s statement and particularly the progress that has been made on degrading Daesh. Can my right hon. Friend update the House on what steps the international coalition is taking to ensure that foreign terrorist fighters do not simply move their fighting elsewhere to locations beyond Syria and Iraq?
My hon. Friend asks a really important question. There are two areas: first, working with international partners through the UN and this investigation team to see what cases can be generated and what justice can be delivered to people either in the region or elsewhere. We are leaning into that and giving the support. In the area of intelligence collection, we collect intelligence, work with our partners and share that intelligence to make sure that we are, I hope, ahead of those people when they are choosing certain routes to where they would like to go. That is incredibly important. We do it successfully, but of course I cannot comment on the individual intelligence that we do.
May I welcome the financial support that the Secretary of State mentioned in his statement in relation to Syria and the Syrian Democratic Forces, which, as he has acknowledged, are at the forefront of defeating Daesh? He will also be aware that the Syrian Democratic Forces are looking after thousands of fighters and their families while being attacked by Turkish forces and associated militias. Does he believe that these actions are counterproductive and should be condemned? Will he say what representations have been made to the Government in Turkey to put an end to these actions, which are putting the security of the region at great risk?
I regularly speak with my Turkish counterpart and make my views known to him about what I think is the most appropriate response in that region. I understand, on the one hand, Turkey’s desire to make sure that its border security is intact. The Turks are the ones on the border of that awful war; they have lost thousands of people to the PKK, which is a proscribed terrorist organisation in this country. Therefore, from the Turkish point of view, they are deeply concerned about some of the Turkish terrorist groups. In that area, we in the United Kingdom definitely support Turkey in countering the terrorist threat, but on the non-terrorist threat, or the other threat, we make it quite clear that, in Syria, the Kurds are a key part of bringing stability to that country. It is stability in that country that will prevent further refugee flows and the unstable borders, and it is in everybody’s interest to work together, once they have got rid of Daesh and al-Qaeda, to make sure that that stability is returned.
I should also point out that there are over 3.5 million refugees from Syria in Turkey. I went to visit a refugee camp on the Turkish-Syrian border before the covid lockdown, and I heard from the head of the UN, who said very clearly that the Turks had done an outstanding job looking after their refugees. We should recognise that this is not straightforward, but the hon. Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens) is absolutely right that some of those Kurds are our allies and have helped us. We need to make sure we help them.
I thank the Secretary of State for his statement to the House. Can he provide an update, please, on the number of people who are joining Daesh as foreign fighters and what he might be doing to reduce the number of British citizens, or indeed prevent them from, joining such an evil force?
Fortunately, the flow of foreign fighters into Syria has almost dried up, but it is the case that in the United Kingdom and elsewhere we see people still aspiring to travel. When we see them, either we use the Prevent scheme to try to divert them away from that course or, if we have to, we disrupt them through other methods. The message has to be that there is no glory in going to Syria; it makes things worse. We all need to work together to prevent extreme radicalisation.
A recent King’s College report found that inaction from western Governments in dealing with their own citizens who affiliated to Daesh and who are detainees in Syria and Iraq is providing an ideal breeding ground for a revival of the terrorist caliphate. With reports of escapes from inadequately guarded detention facilities, the authors warned that this is posing a significant, long-term and strategic risk to the United Kingdom. What is the Secretary of State going to do to address this?
The hon. Lady is right to identify the concerns that we all have, but it is not as straightforward as she might think. If I were to go to Syria and take people against their will, I would be guilty of rendition. Funnily enough, the people who can be put on trial and convicted are the ones who do not want to come back. We have all suffered in this House—I am afraid I have spent money paying for the rendition that went on when her Government were in office. Millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money have been paid because of the illegal rendition of citizens. That is something we have to be careful—
The hon. Lady cannot shake her head. She is part of the Labour party, and the Labour Government cost the taxpayer tens of millions of pounds paying compensation—predominately to terrorists—for people being rendered. It is not as straightforward as she thinks. That is why we are working with the UN and why we want it to be evidence based, and that is why I introduced, in the Counter-Terrorism and Border Security Act 2019, the designated-area offence to make it easier to bring these people to justice in future.
I thank my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for his statement. I particularly welcome the contribution that British forces have made and pay particular tribute to service personnel from my constituency, Warrington South. As my right hon. Friend will know, British forces made the second largest overall contribution to the fight against Daesh, after the US: we led a 1,000-strong force. Can my right hon. Friend assure me that the UK will remain at the forefront of the response to Daesh and, of course, the rebuilding efforts that really need to follow?
Yes, I can give my hon. Friend that assurance. The assurance that I can give is that we tailor the size of our forces to the threat and the need. Currently, we have only 150 personnel in the country. We have 1,000 across the region who are engaged in providing air support and other support, but that is how far we have come down and still managed to make sure that we can support the Iraqis in dealing a blow to Daesh when they require it.
Of course, any rebuilding effort now faces the double whammy of the coronavirus pandemic, which the Disasters Emergency Committee says is at risk of spreading like wildfire in refugee camps in Syria and elsewhere. The Secretary of State spoke of the aid money that is going in, but will he say specifically what the UK Government are doing to tackle the pandemic among people displaced by the activities of Daesh? As the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) asked, what impact will scrapping DFID have on the Government’s specialist expertise in responding to this situation?
On the hon. Gentleman’s last question, no one is scrapping the expertise in DFID—they are just merging the two Departments—so I think that expertise will remain. The aid is currently delivered directly into the camps through the UN and other agencies and they do, of course, have a covid response plan. I can write to the hon. Gentleman with the details of that response. We should pay tribute to the aid workers who are still delivering aid and support in both Iraq and Syria, often in a very hostile environment.
I welcome the Secretary of State’s statement. Those who have assisted Daesh should feel the full force of the law. Does the Secretary of State agree that our duty to protect our troops, our citizens and other innocent civilians precedes all other considerations?
Yes, it does. It is in the departmental name: Defence. We have to do it and keep ourselves safe, but never forget that our allies are part of that process.
The Secretary of State has referred to UK citizens who have returned having fought alongside Daesh. Does he feel that there needs to be a change in the law to ensure that those who have offered moral support—I am thinking of women who have travelled to become wives of Daesh fighters—are dealt with in our justice system?
The hon. Lady makes a really good suggestion. I am no longer the security Minister, but I think that it is something that we should definitely look at. We changed the law to make it much easier to convict people if they go to a designated area, to make sure that if they are there and do not have a reasonable excuse such as working for a UN aid agency and so on, they could be convicted. That is one of the measures that we have taken, but I like the hon. Lady’s suggestion, and it is certainly something we should look at.
I thank the Secretary of State for his statement. Syria is one of the world’s largest catastrophes. Millions of Iraqis were held at the hands of Daesh, and we have worked hard to clear up the mess that it left behind. The job is not over. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that he will continue to help to rebuild and assist in tackling the poverty that has been left in Daesh’s wake?
As long as the Iraqi Government wish us to be there, to support them and help them in their defence against Daesh, we will be there.
I thank the Secretary of State for his statement, reminding us that Daesh has not gone away, with the insurgency continuing. In March, Daesh temporarily suspended its operations in Europe due to covid-19, warning its followers to
“stay away from the land of the epidemic.”
Like everyone else, it has continued to operate online, so what more can the Government do to eliminate that online presence and tackle the radicalisation or recruitment of terrorists among UK citizens?