House of Commons
Wednesday 10 March 2021
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Virtual participation in proceedings commenced (Orders, 4 June and 30 December 2020).
[NB: [V] denotes a Member participating virtually.]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
New Free Trade Agreements
I regularly discuss with my Cabinet colleagues opportunities for Scotland arising from the signing of trade deals. This Government have already struck deals with more than 65 countries around the world worth £217 billion a year, including with Canada, Japan and Singapore, with many more to come. This will create new markets for Scotland’s exporters, including for our world-leading food and drink sector.
I congratulate the Government on the recent agreement with the US Administration on suspending tariffs on a number of key quality UK goods, in particular Scotch. May I ask the Secretary of State how much that will be worth to the Scottish economy, and will he confirm that this benefit for Scotland would not have happened if the UK were still in the EU or a customs union, as the SNP has advocated, rather than having become an independent trading nation?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. This is brilliant news for the Scotch whisky industry, in the same week that the Chancellor announced a freeze on alcohol duty. The UK Government have fought incredibly hard on this issue, petitioning the highest levels of the US Administration to remove these tariffs, which were harming our Scottish exports.
During the comprehensive economic and trade agreement talks between the EU and Canada, little Wallonia, as part of Belgium, managed to block the agreement until the concerns of its Parliament were resolved. Meanwhile, the Canadian state legislatures were in the next room to the Canadian federal delegation during those negotiations, putting their case. Will Scotland, with the most powerful Parliament in the world, as we are always told by the Secretary of State, have similar powers? If not, what will be the role of the Scottish Government in these trade talks?
It is a pity that the hon. Gentleman could not bring himself to welcome the suspension of the US tariffs, in the same way that the Scottish National party has not welcomed any of our trade deals, but maybe he and his colleagues have other things on their mind at the moment. I also noticed that he did not raise separation, for the first time in my almost two years at the Dispatch Box—always separation, but not today. I think he has finally thrown that broken record away. We consult the Scottish Government on these trade deals, but they are a reserved matter and they are for the whole United Kingdom. As I stressed in my earlier answer, they will be very beneficial for the Scottish agrifoods industry.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend and, particularly, the Secretary of State for International Trade on their relentless efforts to remove the unjustified and penal US tariffs on whisky and cashmere, which have been so damaging. Does my right hon. Friend agree that, whatever now happens in relation to the Airbus-Boeing dispute, there can be no return to arbitrary retaliatory tariffs on unrelated industries, and that the decoupling of whisky and other products from that dispute must be permanent?
I absolutely agree with my right hon. Friend. The UK Government will continue to engage with the US to agree a fair settlement to the dispute and permanently remove these punitive tariffs, and that will be a deal that works for the whole United Kingdom. This agreement just shows that the UK and the US are determined to work together, and I look forward to seeing us strengthen that partnership.
The Secretary of State knows how welcome the suspension of tariffs has been in Moray, with its many malt whisky distilleries and, of course, Johnstons of Elgin, which produces outstanding cashmere products. Will he outline what the Scotland Office and, indeed, the whole UK Government will do to ensure that this four-month suspension becomes a permanent removal of those damaging tariffs?
I know that my hon. Friend has more distilleries in his constituency than any other Member of Parliament—47, I think—and I also know that he has been a great champion for the industry and has pressed very hard for the removal of the 25% tariff. We are very pleased to have negotiated an agreement that suspends the tariffs. We now have a space of four months to find a resolution on what has been a 16-year-long dispute. The Secretary of State for International Trade is ready to engage with the US trade representative, Katherine Tai, to agree something that is fair and balanced just as soon as the Senate confirms her appointment.
As a proud Scot and one of the Prime Minister’s trade envoys, I was delighted by last week’s announcement that the Secretary of State and the Department for International Trade have secured a deal to remove export tariffs on Scotch whisky and a whole number of other products for sale to the United States. What estimate does my right hon. Friend make of the trade and investment benefits resulting from Scotland’s continued membership of the Union?
This deal will be welcomed by businesses on both sides of the Atlantic because it will hopefully bring an end to harmful tit-for-tat tariffs. I agree with my hon. Friend, but to add to the point, the rest of the United Kingdom continues to be Scotland’s largest market for exports. It accounts for more than 60% of all Scotland’s trade.
The Secretary of State has regular discussions with Cabinet colleagues on the opportunities COP26 offers Scotland, including through the COP26 Devolved Administrations Ministerial Group. The group brings together the COP President, territorial Secretaries of State and Ministers from the devolved Administrations to support the delivery of an inclusive and welcoming COP26 summit in Glasgow.
Over the past year, many of our national celebrations have been curtailed due to covid. Companies that have accrued decades of specialist event management skills have been severely compromised and risk collapse. However, COP26, with its opening and closing ceremonies, offers the opportunity to showcase the splendour, heritage and culture of our four nations, our one Union. Does my hon. Friend agree that events companies and charities, such as the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo, have all that is required to show the world what a good Scottish hooley looks like?
I completely agree with that last point. Certainly, the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo, if you have not seen it yourself, Mr Speaker, is a sight to behold. We are working closely in partnership with the Scottish Government and a range of partners to assess the implications of covid-19 for COP26. We want to showcase the best of the UK at COP26 and have recently concluded a process for stakeholders to express their interest in being involved in UK Government-managed spaces to support our objective of making COP26 inclusive and representative of the whole United Kingdom.
Last week’s Budget showed how we will build back greener from this pandemic, delivering a green industrial revolution that benefits every single corner of every single nation in our awesome foursome of the United Kingdom, including millions to transform Scotland into a green energy hub. Does my hon. Friend agree that COP26 is the ideal opportunity for the Government of the UK and the Government of Scotland to work together to showcase our green credentials?
Of course I agree with my hon. Friend. COP26 will be the moment that we secure our path to global net zero emissions by 2050 and define the next decade of tackling climate change. We are working with the Scottish Government and other devolved Administrations to ensure an inclusive and ambitious summit for the whole of the UK. All parts of the UK will have important roles to play in ensuring the summit’s success: not just the devolved Administrations and the constituent nations, but my hon. Friend’s constituency; the town of Milton Keynes has the largest number of electric vehicle charging points, if I am not mistaken. So it is truly a UK-wide initiative.
Dear me, Mr Speaker. Scotland is already a world leader in climate change policy, be it with renewables providing over 90% of supply, home energy efficiency, take-up of electric cars and an impressive charging network, or continuous investment in electric buses and rail electrification. In fact, the RAIL magazine editor said:
“Scotland’s admirable rolling programme of electrification rolls on…well done Scotland. DfT please note this is how it’s done.”
Does the Minister not therefore agree that Scottish representatives should be given a key place at COP26 to share our experience, or are they just too embarrassed by UK policies by comparison?
I agree that Scottish stakeholders, Scottish businesses and a lot of the renewable energies being developed in Scotland are world-leading. I could not possibly disagree with that, but it is important to recognise as well that all parts of the United Kingdom have an important role to play in ensuring the success of the summit. I am sure the hon. Gentleman is as delighted as I am that the summit is to be held in Glasgow, representing the whole of the UK around the world.
Covid-19: Support for Scottish Businesses
Last week’s Budget provides continued UK-wide support and security to manage the ongoing impacts of covid-19. One in three jobs in Scotland have been supported by the UK Government’s unprecedented employment support package. Scottish businesses have benefited from more than £3.5 billion of loans and support, driven by UK Government schemes. We have also provided a much-needed boost by extending the reduction of VAT for our tourism and hospitality sectors.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the benefits of the Union of four nations have really come to the fore over the last 12 months, in that the strength of the UK Government’s balance sheet has meant not only that families, businesses and individuals in all parts of the UK have been able to benefit from that strength, but that the devolved Administrations have received the resources that they need to support people in all parts of the country?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely correct and, more importantly, the majority of people in Scotland agree with him. Not only did they emphatically reject independence in 2014, but the most recent opinion polls show that they have realised that neither the Scottish National party nor its leader can be trusted, and that independence would make everyone in Scotland significantly worse off.
I am sure that the Secretary of State would like to join me—I am sure he accidentally omitted it—in congratulating Anas Sarwar on becoming leader of the Scottish Labour party, the very first ethnic minority leader of any UK political party. I am sure that his positivity and optimism will transform Scotland when compared with what we have at the moment.
Business covid support in Scotland has been sporadic at best, and I hope that the Government will tell us how we will get a full transparent audit from the Scottish Government, following the Audit Scotland report last week that estimated that £2.7 billion was unspent, not including the £1.2 billion from last week’s Budget. Every penny needs to be spent now.
This Government talk a lot, as we have heard already, about a post-covid levelling-up green agenda, yet they are pursuing a policy in offshore renewables that benefits its business solely in the south-east of England. The Government’s fourth contracts for difference auction at the end of this year actively disadvantages viable Scottish offshore renewable projects, as the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy includes out-of-date and expensive transmission charges in auction bids. What is the Secretary of State doing to ensure that the Government ditch this unfair renewables policy that advantages south-east England at the expense and detriment of perfectly viable offshore renewables projects off our Scottish coasts?
May I begin by agreeing with the hon. Gentleman in welcoming Anas Sarwar as leader of the Scottish Labour party? I also completely agree with the hon. Gentleman that we need more transparency on the spending of the £9.6 billion of covid support and business support that the Scottish Government have received. On the transmission issue, as he will know, by law, transmission charging is a matter for Ofgem, which is an independent regulator. However, Ofgem is currently considering some aspects of the transmission charging arrangements through its access and forward-looking charges review, and I encourage all Scottish generators to engage with that review at the earliest opportunity.
I accept the Secretary of State’s answer, but it will disadvantage projects. BEIS has said that it will not change the auction requirements and, therefore, unless the wind blows in the south-east estuary of England, renewables, including in Scotland, will be significantly disadvantaged.
Given the mess that the Scottish Government are making of business and industry in Scotland, from steel to airports, to ferries, to aluminium smelters, I hope that the UK Government deliver on their promise to protect the Scottish financial services sector post-covid and post-Brexit. Financial services have done very well from Brexit, as long as they are in Amsterdam or Frankfurt. In Scotland, the sector employs 162,000 people and is nearly 10% of the Scottish economy, but despite its importance, it was not included in the Brexit deal at all. Will the Secretary of State guarantee today that the sector will get a much needed post-covid boost by ensuring that the memorandum of understanding on financial services, which is due to be signed in a matter of days with the EU, gives this critical industry the equivalence and access to EU markets that it was promised by this Government?
The UK and the EU have agreed in a joint declaration to establish structured regulatory co-operation for the financial services industry. A memorandum of undertaking will be agreed in discussions between us and the EU to establish a framework. Those discussions are currently ongoing at official level, but as with the Brexit negotiations, we cannot give a running commentary.
Union Connectivity Review
I have regular discussions with Cabinet colleagues on transport connectivity in Scotland and throughout the United Kingdom. I welcome Sir Peter’s interim report and I look forward to his final report in the summer.
As connectivity and transport infrastructure are of vital importance not only for business but for the UK’s tourism industry, does my right hon. Friend agree that taking steps such as electrifying the north Wales coast line and improving links with north-west England will not only enable my constituents in Delyn to enjoy the delights of Scotland more easily but allow our Scottish cousins to have greater access to the beauties and wonders of our fantastic north Wales area?
The Minister will know that cross-border transport routes are vital for my constituents, for educational and career opportunities as well as many other day-to-day tasks. That is why I want to see the Borders Railway extended and to see improvements to the A1; these are both vital routes for the Scottish borders. Does he share my frustration and shock that the SNP Scottish Government are failing to engage with and support the connectivity review, which could be an opportunity to accelerate these two projects?
I share my hon. Friend’s frustration, I really do. This review is part of our levelling-up agenda to improve the national infrastructure and create jobs and prosperity, and I think it is pathetic of the Scottish nationalist Government not to have engaged just because it is a “Union” connectivity review.
As an MP for a borderlands region, I know that strengthening and enhancing our Union is of huge importance to my constituency of Penrith and The Border. Does my right hon. Friend agree that projects such as extending the Borders Railway down to Carlisle are a clear example of how the UK and Scottish Governments can work together to improve transport links in the region? Does he also agree that this would be a great boost to the economies of both the north of England and the south of Scotland, and provide a gateway to unlocking the potential of both regions?
Public Spending: Budget 2021
The Budget confirmed an additional £1.2 billion for the Scottish Government in the next financial year. Taken together with the allocation at the last spending review, it means the Scottish Government will receive an additional £3.6 billion of funding in 2021-22 through the Barnett formula, on top of the baseline of £35 billion.
The A1, the east coast main line and the national grid all run through East Lothian, but as this virtual call shows, broadband is as vital as older forms of infrastructure. East Lothian has lower than average download speeds and less gigabyte capacity than many parts of the worst 10% of areas in the UK. Is this a Brexit bonus or the price of the Union? What is the Minister doing to ensure that adequate spending is there to provide the connectivity that East Lothian and Scotland require?
As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has mentioned in his answers to previous questions, we have just published the interim report on the Union connectivity review, which emphasises the need for better connectivity across all transport modes between Scotland, England and the rest of the United Kingdom. On the question of broadband speeds, of course the recent pandemic has underlined the importance of having good digital connectivity, and this Government are investing substantially in improving broadband speeds right across the United Kingdom.
Scotland is delivering a pay rise for public sector workers while the UK Government are instituting a real-terms pay cut for their public sector staff. Does the Minister not appreciate that, as well as being unjust and a real failure to recognise the hard work of the public sector, this decision also harms the Scottish Government’s ability to pay our Scottish public sector staff adequately?
I should point out that I am not responsible for public sector pay, either in Scotland or England, but I will relay the hon. Lady’s points to my colleagues who decide these matters. We will want to be as generous as we can be, while also keeping one eye on the overall state of the public finances. We have to keep that under control. As the Chancellor announced last week, if the international financial markets take fright at the state of our public finances, we will end up in a far worse financial position than we are currently in. Of course, if the Scottish Government wish to increase public sector pay more than in England, they have the fiscal powers at their disposal to do so.
The United Kingdom Internal Market Act 2020 grants UK Ministers the ability to provide financial assistance, particularly from the shared prosperity fund, to any person for purposes that are outlined in the Act. However, there is still no detail as to how this will work in practice or what conditions will have to be met to qualify for such funding. Last month, a Scotland Office Minister told the Scottish Affairs Committee that further details on this matter would be provided in the now published Budget, so could the Minister outline those details for us, please?
I point the hon. Lady to the prospectuses for the first stages of the community renewal fund and the levelling-up fund, which were published alongside the Budget last week. This is about real devolution. This is about empowering local communities, local authorities and other stakeholders to come forward with the schemes that they think are best for their local areas, to help bounce back after the coronavirus pandemic and put in place the innovation and investment that will help economies grow and secure the jobs of the future.
That Scotland Office Minister also told the Scottish Affairs Committee that there will be an opportunity to engage with stakeholders on a lot of the concerns that still exist, so could the Minister tell us what those opportunities are? When will they be made available to us?
The work we are doing will build on the very strong relationships that already exist, such as through the city region and growth deal programmes. Shortly after this session, I will be speaking to the Glasgow area policy conference on these matters. When I spoke to them a few weeks ago, the SNP leader of Glasgow City Council told me that they have developed a very effective network with the local authorities in the Greater Glasgow area, with universities and with the private sector and are putting forward exciting bids for their future growth. It is those community-led, area-led projects that we want to encourage through our different funding streams.
Last week, we finally saw the Chancellor move the cliff edge for the most vulnerable by announcing that the £20 a week cut to universal credit for millions of families will be moved by just six months. Citizens Advice Scotland has shared that removing the increase will result in nearly 60% of CAB complex debt clients being unable to meet their living costs. What steps is the Minister taking to ensure that the least well-off in Scotland are not impacted by the Chancellor’s constant dither and delay on ensuring that universal credit is high enough to support all people across Scotland and the United Kingdom?
Before I answer the hon. Gentleman’s question, may I, through him, extend my congratulations to Anas Sarwar on his election as leader of the Scottish Labour party? It is a significant moment, and he will be a doughty fighter in the upcoming Holyrood elections.
On universal credit and our route map, although all the indications are that the economy will be back up and running by the end of June, we have taken the prudent step of extending not just universal credit but furlough and some of the other support schemes to the end of September, just in case there is a delay in getting things up and running. The uplift to universal credit was always designed to be temporary, to help families through the pandemic, and the system has worked well. I take this opportunity to pay tribute to all the civil servants who have administered universal credit at a time of unprecedented demand in a very effective way.
The long-term arrangements for social security payments will be determined at the forthcoming spending review in the normal way. Of course, the Scottish Government also have the opportunity to supplement those payments with their own welfare powers.
While the UK Government are extending rates relief for only three months in England, the Scottish Government are doing so for the whole year, helping the retail, hospitality, leisure and aviation sectors. The Scottish Government want to go further still, so will the Minister support Scottish businesses by calling for the full devolution of financial powers to Scotland?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. It is not correct to say that the business rates holiday is only being extended for three months; a period beyond that is specially targeted at businesses in the tourism, hospitality and entertainment sector. In addition, for England substantial restart grants are available, the money for which is Barnettised to the Scottish Government, who are able to spend that as they see fit.
The Prime Minister was asked—
The whole House can be proud of the UK’s vaccination programme, with more than 22.5 million people now having received their first dose across the UK. We can also be proud of the support the UK has given to the international covid response, including the £548 million we have donated to COVAX. I therefore wish to correct the suggestion from the European Council President that the UK has blocked vaccine exports. Let me be clear: we have not blocked the export of a single covid-19 vaccine or vaccine components. This pandemic has put us all on the same side in the battle for global health. We oppose vaccine nationalism in all its forms. I trust that Members in all parts of the House will join me in rejecting this suggestion and in calling on all our partners to work together to tackle this pandemic.
This morning, I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in this House, I shall have further such meetings later today.
The Government are throwing a staggering £37 billion at a test and trace system that we know has made barely any difference, yet they say they cannot afford to give more than a pitiful 1% pay rise to NHS workers. The Prime Minister has said that he owes his life to them. He stood on the steps of No. 10 and applauded them. So will the Prime Minister do more than pay lip service? Will he pay them the wage that they deserve?
The hon. Lady is indeed right that we owe a huge amount to our nurses—an incalculable debt—which is why I am proud that we have delivered a 12.8% increase in the starting salary of nurses and are asking the pay review body to look at increasing their pay, exceptionally of all the professions in the public sector. As for test and trace, it is thanks to NHS Test and Trace that we are able to send kids back to school and to begin cautiously and irreversibly to reopen our economy and restart our lives.
I thank my hon. Friend for what he is doing to campaign for his local area on flood defences. I thank the Environment Agency for the tireless, imaginative and creative work it does to find solutions, and we are investing £5.2 billion to build 2,000 new flood defences over the next six years.
As I told the hon. Member for St Albans (Daisy Cooper) earlier on, we owe a massive debt as a society, and I do personally, to the nurses of our NHS. That is why we have asked the public sector pay review body, exceptionally, to look at their pay. I want to stress, however, that, as the House knows, starting salaries for nurses have gone up by 12.8% over the last three years, and it is thanks to the package that this Government have put in place that we now have 10,600 more nurses in our NHS than there were one year ago and 60,000 more in training.
The Prime Minister says nurses’ pay has gone up; I know he is desperate to distance himself from the Conservatives’ record over the last decade, but as he well knows, since 2010 nurses’ pay has fallen in real terms by more than £800. And he did not answer my question—it was a very simple question. The Prime Minister has been talking about affordability; he could afford to give Dominic Cummings a 40% pay rise. He could afford that; now, he is asking NHS nurses to take a real-terms pay cut. How on earth does he justify that?
I repeat the point that I have made: I believe that we all owe a massive debt to our nurses and, indeed, all our healthcare workers and social care workers. One of the things that they tell me when I go to hospitals, as I know the right hon. and learned Gentleman does too, is that in addition to pay one of their top concerns is to have more colleagues on the wards to help them with the undoubted stress and strains of the pandemic. That is why we have provided another £5,000 in bursaries for nurses and another £3,000 to help with the particular costs of training and with childcare. It is because of that package that this year we are seeing another 34% increase in applications for nurses. This Government of this party of the NHS are on target to deliver 50,000 more nurses in our NHS.
The Prime Minister talks about recruitment; there are currently 40,000 nursing vacancies and 7,000 doctors’ vacancies. How on earth does he think a pay cut is going to help to solve that? Frankly, I would take the Prime Minister a bit more seriously if he had not spent £2.6 million of taxpayers’ money on a Downing Street TV studio, or £200,000 on new wallpaper for his flat. They say that charity starts at home, but I think the Prime Minister is taking it a bit too literally.
Let me try something very simple: does the Prime Minister accept that NHS staff will be hundreds of pounds worse off a year because of last week’s Budget?
No. Of course, we will look at what the independent pay review body has to say, exceptionally, about the nursing profession, whom we particularly value, but the right hon. and learned Gentleman should also know, and reflect to the House, that under this Government we not only began with a record increase in NHS funding of £33.9 billion, but because of the pandemic we have put another £63 billion into supporting our NHS, on top of the £140 billion of in-year spending. It is because of this Government that in one year alone there are another 49,000 people working in our NHS. That is something that is of massive benefit not just to patients but to hard-pressed nurses as well.
My mum was a nurse; my sister was a nurse; my wife works in the NHS—I know what it means to work for the NHS. When I clapped for carers, I meant it; the Prime Minister clapped for carers, then he shut the door in their face at the first opportunity.
The more you look at the Prime Minister’s decision, the worse it gets, because it is not just a pay cut; it is a broken promise, too. Time and time again he said that the NHS would not pay the price for this pandemic. Two years ago, he made a promise to the NHS in black and white: his document commits to a minimum pay rise of 2.1%. It has been budgeted for, and now it is being taken away. [Interruption.] The Prime Minister shakes his head. His MPs voted for it, so why, after everything the NHS has done for us, is he now breaking promise after promise?
The right hon. and learned Gentleman voted against the document in question, which just crowns the absurdity of his point. Under this Government we have massively increased funding for our amazing NHS, with the result that, as I say, there are 6,500 more doctors this year than there were last year, 18,000 more healthcare workers and 10,600 more nurses. We are going to deliver our promises—I can tell the right hon. and learned Gentleman that—and we are going to go on and build 40 more hospitals and recruit 50,000 more nurses, and we are going to get on and deliver on our pledges to the British people. We are going to do that because of our sound management of the economy and the fastest vaccine roll-out programme of any comparable country which, frankly, if we had followed his precept and his ideas, we would certainly not have been able to achieve.
The Prime Minister says that he voted for it; he did. Now he has ripped it up—2.1% ripped up. If he will not listen to me, he should listen to what his own Conservative MPs are saying about this. This is from his own side. This is what they say—behind you, Prime Minister. “It’s inept.” “It’s unacceptable.” “It’s pathetic.” These are Conservative MPs talking about the Prime Minister’s pay cut for nurses, and that was before his answers today. Perhaps the most telling of all the comments came from another MP, sitting behind him, who said:
“The public just hear ‘1 per cent’ and think how mean we are.”
Even his own MPs know that he has got this wrong. Why is he going ahead with it?
What the public know is that we have increased starting pay for nurses by 12.8% over the past three years. They know that, in the past year, this Government have put another £5,000 bursary into the pockets of nurses, because we support them, as well as the £3,000 extra for training. It is very important that the public sector pay review body should come back with its proposals, and we will, of course, study them. As I say, it is thanks to the investment made by this Government that there are 49,000 more people in the NHS this year than last year. That means that there are 10,600 more nurses helping to relieve the burden on our hard-pressed nurses. That is what this Government are investing in.
The Prime Minister says, “We support them. We’ll reward them.” He is cutting their pay. [Interruption.] “Not true”, he says. Prime Minister, a 1% rise versus a 1.7% inflation rise is a real-terms cut. If he does not understand that, we really are in trouble.
Mr Speaker, the Government promised honesty, but the truth is that they can afford to give Dominic Cummings a 40% pay rise, and they cannot afford to reward the NHS properly. The mask really is slipping, and we can see what the Conservative party now stands for: cutting pay for nurses; putting taxes up on families. He has had the opportunity to change course, but he has refused to do so. If he so determined to cut NHS pay, will he at least show some courage and put it to a vote in this Parliament?
The last time that we put this to a vote, the right hon. and learned Gentleman voted against it, as I said before. We are increasing pay for nurses. We are massively increasing our investment in the NHS. We are steering a steady course, whereas he weaves and wobbles from one week to the next. One week he is attacking us and saying that we should be doing more testing, and the next week he is denouncing us for spending money on testing. One week he calls for a faster roll-out of PPE, and the next week he is saying that we spent too much. He has to make up his mind. One week, he calls for a faster vaccination roll-out when he actually voted—although he claims to have forgotten it—to stay in the European Medicines Agency. Perhaps he would like to confirm that he voted to stay in the European Medicines Agency, which would have made that vaccine roll-out impossible. We vaccinate and get on with delivering for the people of this country. We vaccinate, he vacillates, and that is the difference.
I will look very carefully at my diary to see whether I can actually get up to Blackpool. I have many happy memories of joyful evenings spectating at the illuminations of Blackpool. I know that Blackpool will play an important part in the tourism recovery that we hope to see this summer if we continue on our road map.
Yesterday, the Prime Minister published his plans for an Erasmus replacement, without any consultation or discussion with the devolved Governments. The replacement scheme offers lower living support, no travel support and no tuition fee support. Why are this Tory Government taking opportunities away from our young people?
That was a delightfully concise question, but the hon. Member is wrong about the difference between Erasmus and the Turing project. Unlike the Erasmus scheme, which overwhelmingly went to kids from better-off homes, the Turing project is designed to help kids across the country, of all income groups, get to fantastic universities around the world.
That is just not the case. We know that we cannot trust a word that the Prime Minister says on this. He told us that there was no threat to the Erasmus scheme, but he clearly will not match EU levels of support. And it is not just us saying it; his own Scottish colleague, the hon. Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Andrew Bowie), told the BBC last week that young people will not benefit from Brexit. The Government have saddled a generation with tuition fee debt, and are now closing the door on Erasmus. It is no wonder that students are choosing the SNP and independence for a prosperous future. Prime Minister, will you think again, do the right thing, engage with our EU friends and rejoin Erasmus?
I think students should choose the Turing project because it is fantastic and reaches out across the whole country. I believe, by the way, that they should reject the SNP—a Scottish nationalist party, Mr Speaker—because it is failing the people of Scotland, failing to deliver on education, failing on crime and failing on the economy. I hope very much that the people of Scotland will go for common sense. Instead of endlessly going on about constitutional issues and endlessly campaigning for a referendum, which is the last thing the people of this country need right now, I think people want a Government who focus on the issues that matter to them, including a fantastic international education scheme like Turing.
My right hon. and learned Friend has been a great champion of the arts and culture sectors, and he is completely right about the role that they can play for young people in the recovery. That is why we hope that the massive £2 billion recovery fund that we have given to thousands of theatres, orchestras, choirs, music venues and others will be used for the benefit and the cultural enrichment of young people up and down the country.
The Prime Minister’s fantasy bridge to Northern Ireland could cost £33 billion—this, while our road and rail networks have been absolutely decimated from decades of underinvestment. The Conservative party got a grand total of 2,399 votes at the last Assembly election. What mandate does he think he has to override the democratically elected people of Northern Ireland to impose a bridge that goes through miles of unexploded munitions and radioactive waste?
If the hon. Member had read the article I wrote this morning in The Daily Telegraph, he would have seen that the things that we have set out in the Hendy review will be of massive benefit to Northern Ireland. That includes upgrading the A75, which is the single biggest thing that people in Northern Ireland wanted, by the way, and which the Scottish nationalists—the Scottish National party—have totally failed to do. The review also includes better connections east-west within Northern Ireland, which we should be doing, and better connections north-south within the island of Ireland. It is a fantastic Union connectivity review. The hon. Member should appreciate it; it is the way forward. I am amazed, frankly, by his negativity.
That is absolutely true. It is Conservative Governments who invest in Eastleigh; it is Conservative Governments putting £640 billion into an infrastructure revolution. I congratulate Jerry Hall on what he is doing to resurface the road and to make it quieter, and I hope that he will be duly elected in May.
Throughout the pandemic we have done whatever we can to look after people throughout the country, whether those on benefits or those who have lost their jobs, sadly, because of the pandemic. I am very proud of what universal credit has been able to achieve, and I think that the hon. Gentleman should perhaps take it up with his friends in the Labour party who actually want to abolish universal credit.
The fantastic thing about the lifetime skills guarantee is that in very, very tough circumstances, with many people having, I am afraid inevitably, to seek new jobs and to find ways of retraining, as will happen in a changing economy, it offers everybody—adults over 23—the opportunity of £3,000 for an A-level-equivalent qualification. I think it will be absolutely instrumental in helping young people of beyond school age to retrain and get the jobs they need. The lifetime skills guarantee: it is the first time it has been done.
Actually I think that the hon. Lady is making an important point about the discrepancy in the tax paid by some online businesses and some concrete businesses. That is an issue that the Chancellor is trying to address in an equitable way, working with colleagues in the G7 and around the world.
People like my constituent, Tessa Stevens, have had to keep their salons shut despite shrinking Government support, unchanged overheads and decreased profits. I am urgently seeking the Prime Minister’s support to protect the immediate and long-term recovery of beauty businesses and the jobs they support. Will the Prime Minister explain why his Government refuse to listen to the beauty industry, which is calling for VAT to be temporarily reduced to 5% for hair and beauty businesses, similar to what has happened to businesses in other sectors such as hospitality, tourism and culture?
The hon. Lady is absolutely right in what she says about the importance of beauty businesses. They do an amazing job, and we want them to bounce back very strongly from the pandemic. I want high-street beauty salons to be opening up in the way that they were in the past, rather than people going round and giving services and cutting hair at home. It is very important that we revive high-street salons, and that is why we are continuing with the cautious, but irreversible road map out of this, which will enable a full recovery for the entire sector. In the meantime, as she knows, the Chancellor has extended furlough and all the other provisions that are necessary.
My hon. Friend knows whereof he speaks. He is probably one of the greatest experts on railways in this House, and we are certainly determined to follow his lead and to upgrade services in the west country and in Dorset. He knows what is happening at Dawlish and elsewhere. Network Rail has identified proposals, including the improvement of the performance of the west of England line, which is currently being assessed. He is knocking at an open door.
Back in 2012, commissioning for alcohol and drug addiction treatment was taken out of the NHS and handed to local authorities, and those services are now overwhelmed after a decade of cuts and fragmentation. Last year, the UK recorded the highest number of alcohol-specific deaths since records began. Addiction is an illness that can be treated, so will the Prime Minister urgently investigate the rise in deaths and bring addiction treatment back into the NHS within mental health services and give it the funding it requires?
The hon. Gentleman is entirely right to draw attention to the importance of addiction treatment and its relationship to mental health, and that is why the Government are investing record sums in mental health—£13.3 billion—and treatment for alcoholism is of course part of that.
Yes, I am certainly very happy to discuss that with my hon. Friend, or to make sure she gets access to the relevant ministerial authority. What we are doing, in addition to the £13.3 billion I spoke of, is supporting mental health charities throughout the pandemic, and in particular focusing on the mental health needs of children and young people. That is why I appointed Dr Alex George to be our youth mental health ambassador.
This Government are failing young people. Before the pandemic, apprenticeship starts were down by 28% for under-19s and £330 million of unspent levy went back to the Treasury, falling short by 81% in creating the promised 100,000 new apprenticeships. This month, I will be holding my fifth apprenticeships and jobs fair in Bristol South. Will the Prime Minister join me in urging all young people to support that fair, and will he apologise to them for failing them so far?
I think that jobs fairs are an important thing, and I know that colleagues across the House do them, but I also think that the Government can be proud of our record in getting record numbers of young people into employment. We now face a very severe problem caused by the pandemic, which we are addressing not just with the lifetime skills guarantee that I mentioned earlier with but the kickstart funds and the restart funds, with £2 billion going into kickstart alone, to help young people into the jobs that they need.
In this House, we all know the importance of the people who have looked after our vulnerable loved ones over the past year when we have been unable to do so, so will the Prime Minister explain to me why in this country we have 375,000 care workers on zero-hours contracts?
I am proud of what the Government have done to increase the wages of care workers across the country, with record increases in the living wage. This country is unlike most other countries in the world in the speed with which we have vaccinated care home workers and their elderly charges.
Anthony Jones, a ferociously bright student at Stirling University, was looking to do a master’s degree in Amsterdam. Pre- Brexit, the course fees were £2,168. Post Brexit, the fees are £14,600. The Turing scheme will not touch the sides of what is necessary. Would the Prime Minister like to apologise to Anthony and countless hundreds of thousands of students like him for limiting their life horizons against their will?
No, because I think that the Turing scheme is fairer and will enable students on lower incomes to have access to great courses around the world. I believe it is a highly beneficial reform of the way we do this, and it is truly global in its ambitions.
Yes. I thank my hon. Friend; I know that he supported the bid for the reinstatement of the Stoke to Leek line. That is currently being assessed by the Department for Transport as one of the Beeching reversals, which are so popular around the country and so right, and he can expect an outcome in the summer.
It is indeed, Mr Speaker. The Prime Minister has twice, from that Dispatch Box, said that the Labour Opposition voted against the NHS Funding Bill and the 2.1% increase for NHS staff. This is not the case. Indeed, in the debate, as Hansard will show, I was explicit that we would not divide the House. Can you, Mr Speaker, use your good offices to get the Prime Minister to return to the House to correct the record? And do you agree that if the Prime Minister wants to cut nurses’ pay, he should have the courage of his convictions and bring a vote back to the House?
May I just say that that is not a point of order? It is certainly a point of clarification, and that part has been achieved. But I am certainly not going to be drawn into a debate, as the shadow Secretary of State well knows.
I will now suspend the House for three minutes to enable the necessary arrangements for the next business to be made.
Northern Ireland Protocol
The Government are committed to giving effect to the protocol in a pragmatic and proportionate way, one that is needed. We will continue to work with colleagues in Westminster, with the Northern Ireland Executive and with businesses to support our sensible approach.
As I announced last Wednesday in this House, the Government have taken several temporary operational steps to avoid disruptive cliff edges as engagement with the EU continues through the Joint Committee. These steps recognise that appropriate time must be provided for businesses to implement new requirements, and that action was needed in the immediate term to avoid any disruption to flows of critical goods, such as food supplies, into Northern Ireland. Since that statement, further guidance has been provided, including on parcel movements.
The protocol was agreed as a unique solution to the complex challenges that are before us. Its core aims include upholding the Belfast/Good Friday agreement in all its dimensions, north-south and east-west, and ensuring that the implementation of the protocol can be given effect in a way that minimises the impact on the everyday lives of communities in Northern Ireland, as the protocol itself pledges. The Government remain committed to meeting our obligations, and doing so in the pragmatic and proportionate way that was always intended.
Thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting this urgent question. In recent weeks, we have seen the threat of instability return to Northern Ireland. Without responsible leadership, the Brexit deal that the Prime Minister negotiated always had the potential to unsettle the delicate balance of identities across these islands. It was only on 24 February that the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster said that we are committed to jointly finding solutions
“to make the Protocol work”.
Just seven days later, the Secretary of State unilaterally undermined that commitment, sending a clear message that the Government’s word cannot be trusted, which raises serious questions about whether the Government have a strategy at all to deal with the complex realities facing Northern Ireland.
Provocation is not a strategy, and a stop gap is not a solution, so what precisely is the Government’s intention? Is it to push the protocol to breaking point, and undermine the cast-iron commitment to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland, or is it to find the solutions that businesses are crying out for? If it is the latter, can the Secretary of State give us something tangible? What kind of agreement is being sought, for instance, on common veterinary standards that would deliver the long-term solutions needed to prevent disruption? Does he think that the Irish Government saying that we are no longer a partner that can be trusted will make such solutions more likely or less? Does he think that the behaviour of Lord Frost will make desperately needed flexibility from the EU more likely or less? Does he think that that approach will make the chances of a successful relationship with President Biden more likely or less?
Will the Secretary of State confirm whether the actions taken last week breach international law for a second time? This is an extraordinary position for the Government to be in: having to break the law and trash Britain’s international reputation to remove checks that they claimed never existed. Is it not now time to show responsibility to the people of Northern Ireland, be honest about the consequences of the Brexit deal that the Prime Minister negotiated, and commit to working with the EU to find the long-term solutions that we desperately need?
I note from the hon. Lady’s comments that, from memory, she did not at any point disagree with the substance of any of the measures that we have brought forward, which are critical to protecting the flow of goods in Northern Ireland, so I assume that she inherently supports what we have done. She will be in good company, because the actions that we took last week have been backed by a range of businesses and the communities in Northern Ireland. The Northern Ireland Retail Consortium itself said:
“The retail industry welcomes the extension of the grace periods…even if it is unilaterally, to allow us to continue to give Northern Ireland households the choice and affordability they need.”
That sentiment has been echoed by many others, who have said that the action was needed in relation to the immediate grace period deadlines.
I have spent a lot of time over the last few months, and certainly in the last couple of weeks, for obvious reasons, talking to businesses that were very clear that, had we not taken that action last week, we would have seen disruption to food supplies in literally the next couple of weeks. Underlying the point that the hon. Lady made in her opening comments about stability is the fact that it was important for stability for people in Northern Ireland, and for the future of the protocol, for us not to be in a situation where, because of the way things were being implemented, we would have had empty shelves again, potentially in just a couple of weeks’ time. I am sad that she was almost arguing that that could be acceptable. It simply is not.
In terms of the hon. Lady’s questions on the action that we have taken, the measures that I announced last Wednesday are lawful. They are consistent with a progressive and good faith implementation of the protocol. They are temporary operational easements, introduced where additional delivery time is needed. They do not change our legal obligations set out in the protocol, and we will continue to discuss protocol implementation in the Joint Committee. Some of the issues that she has raised are those that we are working in through the Joint Committee.
We would have liked to be able to get this agreement with the EU. Sadly, that was not possible within the timeframe in which we had to make a decision to ensure that the people of Northern Ireland did not suffer loss of trade and loss of flow of products into Northern Ireland in the next couple of weeks. That is why we took some simple, operational and pragmatic decisions last week.
I have to say I am a bit disappointed, although I probably should not be surprised, to see a Labour Front Bencher standing here and defending the EU, rather than defending the actions of the UK Government, who are standing up for the people of the United Kingdom and, in this case, making sure that we do the right thing by the people of Northern Ireland. As a Unionist, I ask the hon. Lady whether she really feels she is in the right place on this.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. May I say to my right hon. Friend that it is not the what but the how? The Government did not reluctantly inherit the protocol; they authored it jointly with the EU, with all its modus operandi. Do the Government understand the very destabilising effect on trust that such unilateral action has in both UK-EU relations and in UK-Irish relations? May I urge the Government to desist the narrative of unilateral action and debate, to get back around the Joint Committee table and to make sure that the protocol works, that everybody understands that it is here to stay, and that it can benefit very significantly the people, the economy and the communities of Northern Ireland?
As I said, the protocol was agreed as a unique solution to complex and unique challenges, recognising the unique situation of Northern Ireland, but we wanted to work these things through in agreement with the EU. The reality is that the EU had not come to an agreement on these matters. As we see these decisions go through, I hope it will be seen that they are pragmatic, operational and temporary. Just a few weeks ago, we saw the Irish Government implement temporary flexibilities very similar to what we are talking about, without giving an end date and without anyone criticising or challenging them.
We want to continue to work with the EU. We recognise that of course the EU’s focus is on the single market. We have to make sure our focus is always clearly on our commitment to the Good Friday/Belfast agreement, which is not just north-south but east-west as well.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. I echo the words of the Select Committee Chair: it is not the publicly stated objective of protecting the flow of goods that is at issue here; rather, it is the provocative and belligerent manner in which the Government seem to be determined to go about trying to achieve that.
The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster said previously that he believed Northern Ireland was getting
“the best of both worlds”
through the protocol, and that any issues arising from the new arrangements could be resolved within the terms of that protocol, without needing to trigger the article 16 procedure. At a time when flexibility is needed, this action will ensure that the good will towards the UK Government that is needed to secure changes to the arrangement they took so long to negotiate is in shorter supply than ever before. The conduct of the Brexit negotiations came at the expense of the UK’s reputation for political stability and good governance. Is not this latest development one which will come at the expense of any lingering trust there may be in the UK Government as a trustworthy international partner, who can be relied upon to keep their word?
We are a trustworthy partner and have always been clear about what we would do and the reasoning for what we are doing. Rather like the Irish Government did a few weeks ago when they took sensible flexibilities, we have taken flexibilities. We have given a timeline for them; they are temporary, operational and the right thing to do for the people of Northern Ireland.
Returning to the point made by the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Louise Haigh) about stability in Northern Ireland, it is undoubtedly the case—it can be seen in any engagement in Northern Ireland across the entire community—that the action the EU took when it talked about and actually started to implement article 16 on that Friday night had a huge impact on communities across Northern Ireland, and the issue still lingers. We need to recognise and understand people’s sense of identity in Northern Ireland, the impact on it and the tension created by that action.
Our actions were about making sure that we did not have a further problem, which could well have occurred in the next couple of weeks. According to the businesses we have been dealing with, if we had not taken action urgently last week, there would have been empty shelves in Northern Ireland. That is not what the protocol is about and it is not fair to the people of Northern Ireland.
I share the Minister’s determination to protect the integrity of the Good Friday/Belfast agreement in terms of both north-south and east-west. The EU’s decision in January to invoke article 16 was in complete contradiction of the spirit of the protocol. Shamefully placing the EU’s protection of its single market over the protection of the Good Friday agreement seriously undermined cross-community confidence of its operation. Does the Secretary of State agree that it is now incumbent on the EU to remedy its mistake and restore trust in the protocol in Northern Ireland?
My hon. Friend makes a very important and powerful point. He is quite right that it is important we remember that the Good Friday/Belfast agreement is about the entire community: it has a north-south and an east-west dimension, and people need to understand that.
I was very pleased that the EU Vice-President agreed to meet with businesses and civic society. We hear, from across communities and across businesses, their concerns and fears about the actions that have been taken and the fixes they need to see in the protocol, some of which the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley asked us to get on with and do quickly just a couple of weeks ago. That is what we have done, for the best interests of the people of Northern Ireland and to ensure that the protocol can work and function as it was always designed and intended to do.
We welcome and support even the limited measures that the Government have taken to protect businesses in Northern Ireland, but even an extended grace period still leaves us with a reality that, in the words of the permanent secretary of the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs, 20% of all the checks taking place on all borders across the European Union are now taking place in the Irish sea. That will increase substantially beyond the grace period, so we need a permanent solution to this problem—the sooner, the better.
The right hon. Gentleman makes an important point. I send my best wishes to his colleague, Minister Poots, who is now returning to work after his recent illness, which is really good news.
The right hon. Gentleman has highlighted the practical impact of some of these things, and the importance of our getting solutions to ensure a good, flexible flow of goods, as we have always outlined was our vision, going back to our Command Paper last year. That is why it is important that we continue the conversations, and I encourage the EU to go further with those with civic society and business organisations in Northern Ireland, which it promised to do. We are keen to see the EU engage further, which I hope it will do shortly to understand the needs and the flexibilities that are practical, both for Northern Ireland and, ultimately, the wider EU as well.
Could my right hon. Friend explain to the European Union that we are perhaps more committed to the Good Friday agreement and the avoidance of new infrastructure on the border between north and south than it has so far demonstrated itself to be, and that the idea that the Northern Ireland protocol is a work of such perfection that it is beyond improvement is a myth? Can he ask them also to explain why the sale of English sausages in Northern Ireland is somehow a threat to the integrity of the EU single market, or to the Good Friday agreement?
My hon. Friend makes a really important point, and I am determined, as the Prime Minister is, to ensure that the great British banger—the great Norfolk sausage—will continue to be enjoyed by those who wish to do so across the counties of Northern Ireland in perpetuity. However, it is important—this is why the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson) was absolutely right—that we use these grace periods to get long-term solutions.
My hon. Friend is also absolutely right that our commitment to the Good Friday/Belfast agreement is steadfast. That is why all the actions we have taken, both last year and recently, have been about ensuring that we do not have borders, and that we respect the north-south and east-west dimensions. There is another important point here, which I hope has come through in the conversations we have been able to organise with Vice-President Šefčovič recently: it is important to understand the effect on the sense of identity that people in the Unionist community in Northern Ireland have. After the actions of that Friday a few weeks ago, it is important to repair that.
It really is a new experience to be lectured by the European Research Group about the Good Friday agreement. Last week, the Secretary of State rushed out—sneaked out—an announcement unilaterally on Budget day that his Government would once again break international law. Given that Governments across Europe and politicians on Capitol Hill and in the White House are furious about this move, is the Secretary of State at all concerned that this Government’s reputation is in tatters across the world?
I am afraid that I have to contradict the hon. Gentleman on pretty much every point he has just made. First of all, I do not think it is sneaking out of the House to stand here and make these points at oral questions, as we did last week. I outlined at oral questions the measures that we were taking, and obviously colleagues asked questions on them. We published the written ministerial statement, as well as, obviously, publishing guidance and other matters more publicly after that. So I do not think that really qualifies for that.
In terms of lawfulness, these are lawful actions, as I outlined last week and I have outlined already this afternoon in answer to the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley. They are about implementing the protocol and they fit with our obligations under the protocol. We will continue to make sure that we deliver on that in a pragmatic and flexible way to work for the people of Northern Ireland. It is indeed international, but this is a lawful action.
I would just say that, bearing in mind that the Irish Government took similar action themselves just a few weeks ago and that these are temporary, pragmatic operational things to ensure that the protocol can work and to avoid further tensions and problems for people across communities in Northern Ireland, I would hope that people across the EU and our friends in the US will see that this is an important piece of work that we have done to ensure that we can deliver on the protocol, respecting the Good Friday agreement in all its strands—not just north-south but, importantly, east-west as well.
One of the key aims of the Northern Irish protocol was to prevent a destabilisation of the peace process, and we all remember how Monsieur Barnier took every opportunity to remind us how important that was when negotiating the agreement, yet the shortages that we are seeing in shops now, and the disruption to trade being caused by the EU’s insistence on heavy-handed inspections, is doing just that. What does my right hon. Friend think would have been the impact on the stability of the peace process if he had not taken this action?
My hon. Friend makes a very important point. I know that he has a huge background of experience and knowledge of issues of Northern Ireland. What I would say to him is that I understand that the EU has recognised and, to be fair, Maroš Šefčovič himself has apologised and said it was a mistake, but the action that the EU took did happen, and it had an impact. It has had an impact in terms of tensions and feelings of identity in Northern Ireland. My view, having spoken to businesses, is that if we had not taken the action that we took last week, we would have had empty shelves in supermarkets in Northern Ireland imminently. I think that would have raised tensions further and it may well have undermined the protocol fatally, in a way that is not in the best interests of the EU, the UK or the people of Northern Ireland.
I have to say that it is far from clear to me exactly what the Government are trying to achieve in relation to the Northern Ireland protocol at the moment, but whatever it is, I have to think that it can only have been damaged by what we saw happen and the continued insistence on unilateral action here. May we just have a pause and a reset, and focus on using this grace period to achieve the things that will be necessary for the long-term creation of sustainable procedures? Primary among those, surely, must be the agreement of an EU-UK veterinary protocol. Will the Secretary of State update the House on what is happening on that—what barriers remain to an agreement of that sort and when we can expect to hear of its successful conclusion?
The right hon. Gentleman makes an important point. We do want to work with the EU on a range of issues, and part of the issue around extending these grace periods was ensuring that we did not have a cliff edge and that we had that time and space for businesses to adapt and for us to work through some issues with the EU in a mutual way that works for everybody, as we have done this year. There were examples through January, on VAT on second-hand cars and other issues, where we worked through agreements with the EU that have worked to deliver on some of the issues for people in Northern Ireland, and we want to continue that way.
The reason we made the decision last week was purely that we were at this time-critical point. Because of the way supply lines and timelines work, if we had not made the decision last week, it would have been too late, even this week or next week, to prevent issues for supply lines into Northern Ireland. Going forward, we want to continue to work with the EU, including on issues such as that which the right hon. Gentleman outlined. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is working with his counterparts in the EU on those very issues now.
Article SPS.5, paragraph 3(d) of the trade and co-operation agreement obliges the EU to ensure that its sanitary and phytosanitary procedures
“are proportionate to the risks identified”.
Is it not inconsistent with that provision for the EU to seek to end the grace period and impose full SPS checks, given that our food standards are every bit as good as its and some of the toughest in the whole world?
My right hon. Friend, who has a huge wealth of experience at the Dispatch Box in this particular field, is, unsurprisingly, absolutely right. We have fantastic, very high food standards here; they are world leading. That is why I hope and, as I say, I think it is right that we will be able, ultimately, to secure a good and practical, pragmatic agreement with the EU. Again, that just outlines why it was so important for us to take that action last week in order to ensure that we have the space to do exactly that.
Previously, it was “limited” and “specific” and now it is operational and pragmatic—different words, but the net result is still the same. The Secretary of State touched on this in an earlier answer, but let me press him: can he confirm whether anything that the Government have proposed in the unilateral extension of the grace period does, or potentially might, breach international legal obligations with the arrangements that we have entered into? And given his previous record on this matter, why should any partner believe a single word that the Government say?
I think the hon. Gentleman’s question is self-contradictory. He should know from experience of the UQ last year that I will always give him a very straight answer, even if it is a difficult one. The situation, as I said to the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley, is that these measures are lawful. They are within our obligations delivering on the protocol. They are operational. They are temporary, but I also say to him that we are entirely consistent. We are consistent through all these measures that our core focus is protecting the Good Friday/Belfast agreement, the peace process and ensuring that we respect that—not just north-south, but east-west as well.
The Government have done well to postpone the bureaucratic problems of shipments into Northern Ireland and have worked hard to resolve them, but sadly, issues persist. Does the Secretary of State agree that fresh minds should be brought to bear on the conundrum? The Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, for example, could call on new help and advice from qualified business experts.
My hon. Friend makes a good point. I have been fortunate in this role to be able to engage with and have advice and recommendations from the Northern Ireland business community through the business engagement forum, which we pull together and which meets regularly. That has been invaluable. I have also welcomed the engagement via the Joint Committee structures with representatives from business and civic society in Northern Ireland, of which more has been committed to. I hope that Vice-President Šefčovič and his team will be able to engage in more of that more quickly; it has been a few weeks since the last one. I think that it is important that we continue to take those meetings forward and that it would be good to have as much business involvement and contribution to this as possible, because that is what informs a perfectly good, really solid understanding of the needs of business for those flows of supplies for the people of Northern Ireland.
The Prime Minister is far keener to celebrate a yet-to-be-built bridge between Great Britain and Northern Ireland than to take responsibility for the barriers that he has put there. Just five weeks ago, he said that the protocol must not
“place… barriers of any kind…down the Irish sea.”—[Official Report, 3 February 2021; Vol. 688, c. 948.]
Will the Secretary of State explain, then, why he negotiated an agreement that did just that?
The hon. Lady may want to have a look at the Command Paper that we published last summer around how the protocol can work. It was very clear about making sure that we had a pragmatic and flexible approach, so that goods could flow cleanly and simply for people in Northern Ireland. We have also always been very clear about building on the SPS checks, which, in one form or another, have been there since the 19th century. That is the reality of recognising the single epidemiological unit of the island of Ireland—we have always been up front and clear about that. We are also clear that we want to make sure that there is not just unfettered access for Northern Ireland businesses to mainland Great Britain, which we have done, but this good, flexible free flow. The impact that we have seen over the last few weeks is why we had to take the decisions that we did last week to ensure that we have time for businesses to adapt and time in other areas to work with the EU to get permanent and long-term solutions.
We in the Conservative and Unionist party value Northern Ireland’s place in our United Kingdom. Indeed, we take the view that my home town of Belfast is as much a part of the United Kingdom as my Bournemouth constituency. While the protocol is an obvious recognition of the fact that there are two sovereign jurisdictions on the island of Ireland, one of which remains a member of the European Union, it is clear that at least so far, the protocol is not working as we had intended. As the Government look to the future, does my right hon. Friend agree that we need to work with businesses in Northern Ireland, all the parties in Northern Ireland, the EU and our friends in the Irish Government to ensure that the solutions are pragmatic and practical going forward, and crucially, that those solutions must recognise and acknowledge Northern Ireland’s place in our United Kingdom and the economic, social, political and trading position that Northern Ireland’s place in the United Kingdom demands?
The short answer is yes, absolutely. My right hon. Friend makes a powerful point. Northern Ireland is an integral part of the United Kingdom. The economic flows around the United Kingdom are obviously important to the whole of the United Kingdom. The United Kingdom has the strength it has because of all the parts of the UK: England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. I have to say—I know he agrees with me on this; it is something he rightly feels passionate about—that the United Kingdom is stronger because Northern Ireland is in it.
Last Friday, the Government announced some temporary—I stress the word temporary—operational measures, one of which lifted the ludicrous ban on bulbs and vegetables grown in British soil being sent from GB to NI if they still have soil attached. Does the Secretary of State agree that there was never any rational basis for the ban and that with or without European Commission agreement the Government will maintain the ability to move such products from GB to Northern Ireland not only now but in the future? Our businesses need and deserve a cast-iron guarantee.
The hon. Lady makes a very important point. She is absolutely right: businesses want certainty. They want guarantees going forward. We took the decision last week to extend some of the grace periods. She is correct that this is temporary. It is temporary because we are committed to delivering on our obligations in a pragmatic and sensible way for the people and businesses of Northern Ireland. That is why it is important we use the grace period to work with the EU to get permanent solutions to ensure that those kinds of products can continue to flow in the way that they should be able to, the way they have, and the way that the Command Paper and the protocol always envisaged they would.
I welcome these measures. Does the Secretary of State agree that it is incumbent on him and the Government to make sure that certain foods and indeed medicines reach citizens in every part of the United Kingdom, whether they be in England, Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland and that to have not taken these measures would have been irresponsible? How on earth could they therefore be seen as any breach of international law or as putting any peace process at risk?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Picking up on his last point, I ask colleagues to pause for a moment and think about where we would be if we had not taken those actions. In the next couple of weeks, we would have had empty shelves in Northern Ireland. What would that have meant in terms of tensions in Northern Ireland? I personally think that would be an untenable situation for the protocol. I think the decisions we took were important in terms of ensuring we can deliver on the protocol and show that the protocol can work in a pragmatic and sensible way that works for businesses and people in Northern Ireland. We took the decision on the advice of businesses, and that is why businesses have roundly supported the position and the actions we took last week.
I want to see extensions to the grace periods, but on a sound legal basis. If the protocol is to be sustainable, we need to see a genuine partnership between the UK and the EU to fix problems, not Northern Ireland becoming a pawn in a war of attrition with the EU. Does the Secretary of State recognise that unilateral actions undermine the constructive voices inside the EU that were working to achieve flexibilities, and therefore make finding long-term sustainable solutions more difficult, including a veterinary agreement?
I share with the hon. Gentleman the desire to work all these things through as partners and to get an agreement with our partners in the EU on issues like this. We would have liked to have done so with these issues. Sadly, the EU had not come to an agreement on some of these issues. Ultimately, we have to do what is right by the people of the United Kingdom and, of course, within the United Kingdom the people of Northern Ireland. Much as we would have liked to have had an agreement with the EU over the decisions last week, if we had not taken those decisions last week, businesses were clear with us, there would have been an impact. Even if we had taken the decisions this week or next week, it would already have been too late to prevent a detrimental impact for businesses and people in Northern Ireland. I just say to colleagues that we took those decisions last week because of the time urgency, the time-critical situation we were in. Going forward and at all times we would much rather always agree things with the EU. Of course, that needs both partners to want to agree them and sadly as of last week the EU did not want to. I hope we will be able to re-engage and make sure that these problems are solved more permanently in agreement with the EU.
I welcome the measures my right hon. Friend has taken. Can he confirm that as he continues to work with the European Union to find those lasting solutions to the protocol, he will absolutely hold them to the commitment they are reported to have made in the Joint Committee to “act at pace” and continue to further engage with the people of Northern Ireland on the issues relating to the protocol?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. There was a commitment to act at pace. As I say, we would have liked to have come to agreement on these issues, but the pace issue got ahead of us and we had to make those urgent decisions last week to avoid further disruptions and problems for people in Northern Ireland. I hope that as we go forward we can work at pace together to make sure that there are ultimately the solutions to this that work for people across the UK. Ultimately, that is in the best interests of the EU; it is also in the interests of the protocol.
First, what effect has there been since January on time-sensitive Northern Ireland food exports to Great Britain via the Republic of Ireland and Welsh ports? Secondly, what would the Secretary of State say to Neil Alcock, of Seiont Nurseries in Arfon, just 30 miles from Holyhead, who says that he has found a way to export his plants: they go through Wales, then through England, then on a sea crossing, then through the Netherlands, Belgium and France, and then on another sea crossing to the Republic, and thence onwards?
I would say that we are working to ensure that he does not have to go through that kind of rigmarole and can continue to trade in his business, for the benefit of his employees and the customers he is serving in Northern Ireland. That kind of flexibility is probably why the Irish Government sensibly put in flexibilities on security and safety declarations just a few weeks ago—it is not that dissimilar. What is surprising is to have Opposition Members criticising the UK Government for taking actions similar to those they never challenged the Irish Government on just a few weeks ago.
Can my right hon. Friend confirm that he is reassured that the EU now has no desire to block suppliers fulfilling contracts for vaccine distribution to Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK? Does he agree that it is only through international collaboration that we will beat this pandemic once and for all?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. This is a global pandemic and we need to work together globally to combat it, get on top of it and be able to move back to normal life. That is particularly the case on the island of Ireland, where that single epidemiological unit means we have people who work, live, school, shop and enjoy their lives in normal times on both sides of the border—in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland—so we want to be working together on that. I hope that that will continue. The working across between the Irish Government, the UK Government and the Northern Ireland Executive has been very strong over the past year. I have been pleased to be able to chair the Joint Committee with my sort of opposite number, Simon Coveney, where we have been bringing together our relevant Ministers to work together on the battle with covid for the benefit of people in both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland.
The Secretary of State has referred to the temporary nature of last week’s announcement, as well as the tensions that have resulted from the implementation of the protocol for some months now. Does he grasp fully the degree of resentment that exists in Unionism in Northern Ireland, where the consent from the Unionist community has now diminished to the point where radical action and radical steps have to be taken by his Government as a matter of urgency?
I appreciate that the hon. Gentleman outlines a strength of feeling that is absolutely there. The tension and palpable feeling within the Unionist community over what has happened in the past few weeks is clear, particularly following the action on that Friday night. I know he has made the case quite strongly about that. This is why it is important that we all work hard to ensure that we can find a pragmatic, flexible way to move forward to ensure that we can deliver things for the people in Northern Ireland in the way that was always intended. Ultimately, the future of the protocol will be in the hands of the people of Northern Ireland, through the consent mechanism.
Can my right hon. Friend confirm that he will continue to work with the EU, and hold it to its recent commitment in the Joint Committee to act at pace in further negotiations and in so doing always act in the best interests of the people of Northern Ireland?
Yes, absolutely. From talking in the meetings we have had with Vice-President Maroš Šefčovič, I absolutely believe his commitment to wanting not only to work at pace but to understand the sense and feeling across the entire community and businesses in Northern Ireland. We had the engagement we organised for him just a few weeks ago, and the EU has pledged to do more of that engagement, which is a good thing, so that it can fully understand the needs of both communities and the business community in Northern Ireland. That is an important thing to continue as we move forward.
I thank the Secretary of State for his actions in the last week. Is he aware that businesses on the mainland are already losing business as Northern Ireland retailers scramble to source supplies from outside the United Kingdom? An example is a nursery retailer in my constituency which, for the first time in its 75-year history, is ordering from non-UK firms. It has had to place orders outside the UK economy for the first time, to the tune of £10,000. Will the Secretary of State outline when he will draw a line, not just short-term but long-term, and end this protocol, which financially damages all the economies of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland?
I appreciate that the hon. Gentleman has been consistent in his views on the protocol more widely, and I would say to him that our work is going to be focused on working with the EU to find pragmatic, sensible, flexible solutions to ensure that the protocol can work. It is part of our obligation and commitment under the protocol to work in a way that is beneficial for the people of Northern Ireland so that they can continue to have the flow of products that they have always experienced. Ultimately, this will mean that Northern Ireland has a huge competitive advantage and a unique position in the world from which it can see its economy grow in the years ahead.
The Northern Ireland protocol is an imperfect solution to a complex problem, ensuring that we continue to protect peace on the island of Ireland and Northern Ireland’s place in the United Kingdom. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that that remains the Government’s priority, as it should be for every Member of this House?
Absolutely. It is important that all of us in this House continually reinforce the point—I will always do—that the UK Government’s commitment to the Belfast-Good Friday agreement is unwavering, and our recognition of that and all of its strands is important. That does not conflict with our view that Northern is an integral part of the United Kingdom and that the United Kingdom is better for Northern Ireland being in it.
Does the Secretary of State think the people of Northern Ireland are stupid? The Government said that there would never be a border in the Irish sea; then they signed up to one. Then they pretended it did not exist, but said that even if it did, they were sure it would have no impact anyway. Now they are saying that, actually, there is one, but we can just ignore it. Will the right hon. Gentleman stop taking people for fools and start showing the responsible leadership required to sort this out?
I assume that the hon. Gentleman therefore supports the moves we took last week in showing leadership to deliver for the people of Northern Ireland. We have been consistent in what we wanted to deliver, and we have delivered unfettered access for Northern Ireland businesses to the rest of the UK market. We were always clear that we recognised the single epidemiological unit of the island of Ireland, which meant that those sanitary and phytosanitary checks would be built upon and put in place, as they have been. As the Command Paper outlined, we want to see a clear, flexible ability for businesses to trade, so that consumers in Northern Ireland will not see their everyday lives disrupted. In fact, the early paragraphs of the protocol highlight that that is the intention of the protocol. That is what we have to focus on, and that is what the decisions last week were about.
Does the Secretary of State agree that the unique status of Northern Ireland means that it will not be possible for the EU to enforce its single market rules in the same way there as it can elsewhere in the EU? Does he also agree that the only way to achieve a sustainable solution is for the agencies in Ireland to work together with their UK equivalents to build trust and to work out how we can enforce the rules and tackle the key risks while leaving the border in a workable position that businesses can manage?
My hon. Friend makes an important and fair point. The Irish Government and their agencies work closely with the UK Government and our agencies and with the Northern Ireland Executive on a wide range of issues to the benefit of people in the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, and it is important that we continue to do that. He also highlights why it is important that we continue to be very clear about the needs of the people of Northern Ireland—why the protocol was put in place—recognising the unique circumstances and the complexity of the situation in Northern Ireland, and ensuring that the relationship with the Republic of Ireland can work in a smooth and effective way. As I have said before, I absolutely recognise that the EU’s core, prime focus is on the protection of the single market. We are focused not just on protecting the businesses and people of the United Kingdom but on the core determination and commitment to deliver on the Good Friday-Belfast agreement in all of its strands.
I support the aim of trying to minimise unnecessary and disruptive checks, but, on the method, can the Secretary of State tell the House under which article of the Northern Ireland protocol the Government have taken this decision, which he describes as “lawful”, to extend the grace periods? Is it article 16, which allows the UK unilaterally to take appropriate safeguard measures? If not, which other article is he citing as giving the Government the ability lawfully to take this step?
As the right hon. Gentleman will be aware, the article 16 implementation was effectively made by the EU just a few weeks ago, not by the UK Government; that is what has started and led to some of the issues and tensions we have seen in the communities of Northern Ireland. I am pleased that the EU has apologised for that, but we need to recognise that it has had a lasting impact. The measures that I announced last Wednesday are lawful and consistent with the progressive and good-faith implementation of the protocol. They are temporary operational easements, introduced where additional delivery time is needed. They do not change our legal obligations as set out in the protocol—under any of its articles—and we continue to discuss our protocol implementation with the Joint Committee.
These measures are of a kind that is well precedented in the context of trade practice internationally, and they are consistent with our intention to discharge the obligations under the protocol in good faith. As I have said before, the measures are in line with the kind of flexibilities that the Irish Government put in place, and neither the right hon. Gentleman nor any other Opposition Member has yet criticised or challenged the Irish Government for what they did. We think those are sensible measures; there are flexibilities that the Irish Government thought they needed in the same way that we do with these measures.
I am sure that my right hon. Friend welcomes the interest that is being shown by friends and partners around the world in Northern Ireland as an essential part of the United Kingdom—friends who are so interested in our status and in the work that we are trying to do to make one area of our country prosper. I am sure that he welcomes the interest that President Biden has shown, as well as many in the Irish caucus of the United States. Today, Mr Coveney and Mr Šefčovič are meeting the Irish caucus in Washington. Will my right hon. Friend tell me who is there from Her Majesty’s Government, representing the people of Northern Ireland? Is perhaps the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Wendy Morton), or one of the Northern Ireland Office Ministers going to be in that room, ensuring that the Irish voice that is represented by this House is also present?
My hon. Friend, as always, makes an important point. I welcome our friends and partners around the world taking an interest in any part of the UK. Our friends in the US have always had a very clear interest in issues and matters around Northern Ireland, and have been huge supporters of the Good Friday/Belfast agreement for many years. In this role, I have had continuous engagement with colleagues in the Irish caucus who are meeting Vice-President Šefčovič and Simon Coveney today. I look forward to talking to them again in due course myself. I do not think that we are involved as a Government in that meeting today, but I hope that Vice-President Šefčovič will continue that kind of engagement, particularly with the people of Northern Ireland—in both the business community and civic society—building on the meeting that we had a few weeks ago, as he said he would, to really understand some of the issues affecting people and businesses in Northern Ireland, and therefore work with us in a positive way to remedy any issues. I welcome any interest from people around the world and their support for all strands of the Good Friday agreement.
To be fair to the Secretary of State, he has made very little attempt to persuade the House or anybody else that the Prime Minister knew what he was doing when he signed up to the protocol, but does he recognise that he is now going to have to do a repair job to persuade not just Dublin, Brussels and Washington, but the whole of the world with which we want to work, that the UK is a reliable trading partner—and other forms of partner—because that is not there today?
I am disappointed that the hon. Gentleman did not make similar comments about the moves that the Irish Government made in January and the flexibilities they put in place. He should support the UK Government in doing what is right for the people of Northern Ireland. I hope that, working with our partners in the EU, these temporary, pragmatic measures will give us the space to be able to get permanent, long-term solutions, in partnership. Ultimately, we will do what is right for the people of Northern Ireland in respecting the Good Friday/Belfast agreement.
I support the Government in taking necessary and proportionate action to defend Northern Irish business, but the Secretary of State will know that this House should be committed to the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and that we cannot treat people in one part of the kingdom differently from those in the rest. Will he please redouble his efforts to build closer bilateral relations with our Irish friends? These things are best sorted out between Britain and Ireland, keeping the EU well away from the issue.
I am keen on making sure that we have really good bilateral relationships. I have worked with members of the Irish Government over the past year and we always have very productive and positive conversations. They are good partners to work with. The Irish Government are obviously part of the EU and our negotiation is with the EU, as I am sure my hon. Friend will appreciate. I hope we will be able to have a pragmatic and positive relationship with our partners in the EU, as together we find solutions to this issue that are in the interests of people in Northern Ireland and, yes, in the interests of the whole of the UK and, indeed, the EU as well.
Hong Kong: Electoral Reforms
(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs if he will make a statement on the planned reforms to Hong Kong’s electoral system by the Chinese National People’s Congress.
The United Kingdom is deeply concerned about the situation in Hong Kong and the erosion of rights enshrined under the Sino-British joint declaration. In response to these worrying developments, the United Kingdom has already taken decisive action. This includes offering a bespoke immigration path for British nationals overseas, suspending our extradition treaty with Hong Kong indefinitely and extending our arms embargo on mainland China to Hong Kong. The United Kingdom has led international action to hold China to account. As recently as 22 February, the Foreign Secretary addressed the UN Human Rights Council to call out the systematic violation of the rights of the people of Hong Kong, making it clear that free and fair legislative elections must take place with a range of opposition voices allowed to take part.
On the question raised by the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Layla Moran), this week meetings of China’s National People’s Congress are taking place behind closed doors. We understand that the agenda includes proposals for changes to Hong Kong’s election processes. Although the detail is yet to be revealed, these measures might include changes to the election of the Chief Executive, the removal of district councillors from the Chief Executive election committee and the possible introduction of vetting for those standing for public office to ensure that they are described as patriots who govern Hong Kong. Such measures, if introduced, would be a further attack on Hong Kong’s rights and freedoms.
Ahead of possible developments this week, the United Kingdom has raised our concerns, including with the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Hong Kong Government and the Chinese embassy in London, as have many of our international partners. The Chinese and Hong Kong authorities can be in no doubt about the seriousness of our concerns. Given recent developments, including the imposition of the national security law last year, the imposition of new rules to disqualify elected legislators in November and the mass arrests of activists in January, we are right to be deeply concerned. We are seeing concerted action to stifle democracy and the voices of those who are fighting for it.
There is still time for the Chinese and Hong Kong authorities to step back from further action to restrict the rights and freedoms of Hongkongers, and to respect Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy. We will continue working with our partners to stand up for the people of Hong Kong and hold China to its international obligations, freely assumed under international law, including through the legally binding Sino-British joint declaration.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for granting this urgent question, and I would like to thank the Minister for his reply.
This Government have a duty to the people of Hong Kong to guarantee their rights and the integrity of their democratic institutions. The proposals made at the National People’s Congress spell the end of democracy and of one country, two systems in Hong Kong, and are another blatant breach of the Sino-British joint declaration. In response to my last urgent question on this, the Minister told the House that the UK
“will stand up for the people of Hong Kong”,
“hold China to its international obligations.”—[Official Report, 12 November 2020; Vol. 683, c. 1051.]
Well, here we are again. Almost every prominent member of the democratic movement is in jail. The BBC has been banned in China. Our ambassador has been rebuked just yesterday, and now free and fair elections are being erased. Surely by now, any red line that might have existed has been well and truly crossed.
On Hong Kong, China behaves like a bully, and bullies only understand words when they are followed by concerted action. Does the Minister really believe that it is going to step back? Will the Government now impose Magnitsky sanctions and other measures on the officials responsible, such as Carrie Lam and Xia Baolong? Sanctions were applied in the cases of Belarus and Alexei Navalny. Why there and not here, when we have a direct duty of care? Will the Government take this case to the International Court of Justice? It is up to us to lead that international co-ordinated effort to hold China to account. What conversations has the Minister had with our allies to join us in any actions we take?
I hope that Members across the House will join me in putting on record how welcome all Hongkongers using the British national overseas scheme are to this country. I am distressed to hear that some are now being targeted by China for doing so. Enough is enough. I urge this Government to take immediate action to protect Hong Kong, its democracy and human rights, as they are obliged to do under international law. No more excuses—it is time for real action.
I thank the hon. Lady for bringing this urgent question to the House. As she rightly says, we will continue to bring together international partners to stand up for the people of Hong Kong, to call out the violation of their freedoms and to hold China to its international obligations. It is worth reminding her that the National People’s Congress is currently debating electoral reform behind closed doors. We have made clear our concerns and urge the authorities to uphold their commitments to the people of Hong Kong. She mentioned this being a clear breach of the joint declaration. We declared two breaches of the joint declaration in 2020 in response to the national security law, and when the details of these proposals are published by the NPC, we will closely examine them.
The hon. Lady also referenced our new ambassador to Beijing, who was summoned by the Chinese MFA in response to an article that was posted to the embassy’s WeChat account in her name. I strongly support the work of our ambassador in Beijing and the rest of the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office on this important issue. The United Kingdom is committed to media freedom and to championing democracy and human rights around the world.
I start by saying that Caroline Wilson enjoys the support of the Foreign Affairs Committee and, I am sure, everyone in this House in championing media freedom and the right of a free press to criticise a Government—even, perhaps, this one.
The actions that Her Majesty’s Government have taken in recent months are very welcome. Despite the list that the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Layla Moran) set out, the welcoming of British nationals overseas—the correcting of a wrong that we all made in 1984—and of Hong Kong people to the UK is important in standing up for the values that we signed into international law when we signed the Sino-British joint declaration.
I must welcome one or two things that the hon. Lady said, one of which was about Magnitsky sanctions. We really do need to see greater action. I welcome what my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has said in the past in championing Magnitsky sanctions and ensuring that they come into law. We now need to see names put to those charges, because this has gone on long enough. We know that the abuses of human rights in Hong Kong have continued, and we need to stand up for those who have been targeted.
I thank the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, in particular for his work on this issue and his support for our excellent ambassador, Caroline Wilson. He mentions sanctions. As he will know, we do not speculate on who may be designated. They are just one tool in our arsenal. The UK has already offered a new immigration path for BNOs, which my hon. Friend raised. We have suspended our extradition treaty with Hong Kong and extended our arms embargo on mainland China to Hong Kong, and that is all in response to Beijing’s behaviour.
Beijing’s assault on Hong Kong’s electoral system is the latest breach of the Sino-British declaration and is viewed by experts as the final nail in the coffin of Hong Kong’s democracy. It follows the arrest and charging of 47 opposition politicians, 32 of whom were refused bail. As a signatory to the Sino-British declaration, the UK has not only a legal duty but a moral responsibility to stand up for the democratic rights and freedoms of the people of Hong Kong. As parliamentarians, we will feel a sense of profound sadness as we witness this steady suffocation of democracy. For the past few months, the UK Government have just been going through the motions, so may I ask the Minister these questions?
Labour welcomes the BNO offer, but there appears to have been very little planning, and a family of four need £16,000 up front. What steps is the Minister taking to ensure that the scheme is accessible to all BNOs, and what steps are the Government taking to support their integration into British society?
Hong Kong Watch’s latest report describes Hong Kong as being a “canary in the coalmine” of China’s expansionism, so what assessment have the UK Government made of the threats facing Taiwan, given that Chinese fighter jets and bombers buzzed Taiwanese airspace more than 300 times last year?
China’s growing presence in the UK’s critical national infrastructure clearly has implications for our own national security. What assessment has the Minister made of the role of the China General Nuclear Power group, which owns one third of Hinkley Point, but has been blacklisted in the US for stealing nuclear secrets?
The Conservative party is deeply divided over China, but we cannot afford any more dither and delay. Will the Minister work across Government to undertake an audit of the UK’s relationship with China and come back with a clear strategy to replace their failed golden era policy? What steps has the Minister taken to deliver a co-ordinated international response to China’s assaults on democracy and human rights and, finally, where on earth are those Magnitsky sanctions?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his questions. He will have heard the response that I gave to the Chair of the Select Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat), on Magnitsky sanctions. With regard to CGN’s involvement in our nuclear sector, obviously, investment involving critical infrastructure is subject to thorough scrutiny and needs to satisfy our robust legal, regulatory and national security requirements, and all projects of this nature are conducted under that regulation to ensure that our interests are protected.
As with all foreign policy priorities, the FCDO recognises the importance of cross-Whitehall collaboration, particularly on Hong Kong. The Foreign Secretary regularly chairs a ministerial group meeting attended by Ministers from across Whitehall and a number of Departments. We obviously take any threat to the joint declaration very seriously, but we need to wait and see what comes out of the National People’s Congress before making an assessment. We have already called a breach twice last year, but the hon. Gentleman will need to wait until we have seen what comes out of the NPC.
On BNOs and the integration of BNO passport holders, that is a really important question. We are working across Government and alongside civil society groups and others to support the integration of those thousands of people who will be taking up that route and arriving here. We encourage and look forward to welcoming applications from those who wish to make the United Kingdom their home. The Foreign Secretary has met the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government to discuss exactly this issue. I know that the hon. Gentleman has been in contact with one of the Ministers at the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, and we look forward to seeing the outcome of those discussions, because it is absolutely crucial that we support those individuals who are coming here from Hong Kong.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Layla Moran) on securing his timely urgent question. I say to my hon. Friend the Minister that we have heard a lot of this already before. The problem that we have in waiting for the National People’s Congress to come to a decision is that we know what will happen. The Chinese Government have already dismissed the Foreign Secretary’s comments about their failures and essentially told him to mind his own business, despite the fact that we are co-signatories to that agreement. Furthermore, we have evidence from Xinjiang, Tibet, the Christians, the Falun Gong, the entries into the South China sea, and the abuse on the border with India.
The real problem is that we sit and wait for something really substantial to happen. Other countries have moved, but we have still not come forward with Magnitsky sanctions, which were promised again and again. When will this happen? That is the only real action we can take that tells the Chinese that we have had enough of their behaviour and that they now have to step back into line with the international order or they will be sanctioned.
My right hon. Friend asks about action. Well, the action that we have taken on Hong Kong is substantial. He knows the answer on Magnitsky sanctions—we do not speculate on whom, and this is a policy area that is under constant review. Let me give him an example of our action. In response to the arrests in January, the Foreign Secretary issued a joint statement alongside his Australian, Canadian and US counterparts underscoring our concern. He also released a further statement following the charges of conspiracy to commit subversion brought against 47 of those arrested. We have made the very generous BNO offer. We have made it clear that in our view the national security law violates the joint declaration, and its use in this way to stifle political dissent contradicts the promises made by the Chinese Government as a co-signatory.
I do feel for the Minister in this discussion, and in the further ones we will have about Hong Kong. I will do my best to be constructive. We are agreed across the House that Hong Kong matters are not a domestic affair specifically and only for Beijing. They are subject to an international agreement and subject to international law. If these measures to curtail democracy come forward—let us be realistic, we are talking about how and when, not if—it will be increasingly clear that the UK Government and global Britain look increasingly toothless, powerless and, most worryingly, friendless in this discussion. I do not say that the UK has done nothing within the UN, but where is the global coalition to move beyond warm words, inaction and concern to action against the economic interests of China. There are measures that can be taken and I would be grateful if the Minister updated us on what assessment has been made of the impact of the sanctions on Chinese economic interests domestically here, however we define domestically, and in the academic community as well. There are things that can be done while we push towards the international coalition.
No, we can’t. That would be rather foolish.
As I have said, sanctions are just one tool in our arsenal. We have already offered the immigration path for BNOs, as I said, and cancelled the extradition treaty. I have an awful lot of time for the hon. Member for Stirling (Alyn Smith), who is very constructive on these issues. We are working closely with our international partners, and the work we have done with the US, with Canada and with Australia, and the statements made by the Foreign Secretary have managed to bring together the international community. As a co-signatory to this joint declaration, we have a responsibility to uphold the content and a duty to speak out when we have concerns. When we do so, it is a matter of trust, and leaders of the international community, including China, also need to live up to their responsibilities.
There seems to be no purpose in having the Magnitsky sanctions as a tool but popping them on a shelf. If the Minister or the Department feel vulnerable in applying them in a solo fashion, what work is being done with the Five Eyes countries to introduce co-ordinated Magnitsky sanctions against the Hong Kong and Chinese officials responsible for the national security laws? My hon. Friend the Minister mentioned our allies the Americans. Just this morning, the Biden Administration reconfirmed their belief that genocide is taking place against the Uyghur at the hands of the Chinese state. What work is being done with the Minister’s counterparts in America to prevent this genocide from carrying on?
I thank my hon. Friend for the assiduous way in which she pursues this matter. She knows exactly what the longstanding policy of the British Government is: any judgment on whether genocide has occurred is a matter for a competent court, rather than for Governments or non-judicial bodies. She mentioned the United States. It has a different process for determining genocide that is not linked to a court decision. Of course, given our longstanding policy over many decades that this is a matter for a competent court, she will understand the reason behind the responses that she may have heard once or twice before. I make no apologies for having to repeat myself to her.
I find this so frustrating. We come back time and again, and we hear exactly the same old words: “We’re not allowed to speculate about using the Magnitsky sanctions.” We do not want anybody to speculate; we want them to use them. It is like they are z, the unnecessary letter. It is like they are an appendix that we are never prepared to use for any bodily function. We should be using them. To be honest, it feels as if the Government are completely two-faced on this—not individual Ministers, but the Government—because one day the Government say, “Yes, it’s terrible what’s happening in Hong Kong. Yes, it’s terrible what’s happening in Xinjiang province,” and the next day the Prime Minister says that he is “fervently Sinophile”. Frankly, we should be calling this out with a great deal of urgency, and we should be using every single tool in the box, so please Minister do not give us all the old stuff all over again. Just get on and do it.
The hon. Gentleman needs to be congratulated for the work that he has done in the first place, working cross party, to allow and help the Foreign Secretary to deliver our own sanctions regime. Again, we continue to hold China to account. We lead international efforts in that regard. We work very closely with not just the US Administration. We have a huge opportunity this year through our presidency of the G7. What I will say to him—I will try to use slightly different language from that in the answer I provided to my hon. Friend the Member for Wealden (Ms Ghani)—is that we are carefully and closely considering further designations under our global human rights regime. They were introduced, as he knows, in July, and we will keep all evidence and potential listings under very close review.