House of Commons
Monday 14 June 2021
The House met at half-past Two 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
Housing, Communities and Local Government
The Secretary of State was asked—
Waste Collection Authorities
We have set a national ambition to recycle 65% of municipal waste by 2035. Councils will have a crucial role in meeting that target, and my Department will continue to work with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and local authorities across the country to improve recycling rates, reduce emissions and reduce the amount of waste ultimately sent to landfill.
Will my hon. Friend join me in paying tribute to our bin men and women, who worked magnificently throughout the covid crisis, even at the risk of contracting covid during the worst times of the pandemic, to keep us safe, actually collecting a bigger volume than usual? Is he aware that in Tunbridge Wells and Tonbridge and Malling, there are growing concerns about the management of the waste contract by the company Urbaser, with collections missed and roadside litter uncollected? What can he do to put pressure on that company to meet the performance standards that it has agreed with the local authorities?
I thank my right hon. Friend for his question and for the opportunity to pay tribute to our waste collectors and the work that they have done right across the country throughout the pandemic, keeping our communities clean and helping to keep them safe, too. Of course, it is for councils themselves to decide how best to meet their commitments and how to manage the performance of their contractors, but my right hon. Friend’s voice carries significant weight. I am sure that his point has been heard loud and clear. I hope that it is resolved as quickly as possible. I know that these are extremely important issues for his constituents and for residents across the country, and of course I am happy to meet him to discuss the matter in more detail.
Covid-19 Memorial Wall
I thank the hon. Lady for her question. Like many MPs, I pass the memorial wall daily when I am in Parliament, and I am moved when I see family and friends either laying floral tributes or making an inscription on the wall to commemorate loved ones they have lost. The Department keenly understands that communities across the country will want to find ways to commemorate our collective experience. Therefore, it is critical that all those we have lost are commemorated and that families receive, as the Prime Minister himself has stated, a fitting and permanent memorial. As the Prime Minister announced on 12 May, the Government will establish a UK commission on covid commemoration. We will set out the commission’s membership and terms of reference in due course.
I thank the Minister for that thoughtful response. The covid memorial wall is an iconic, organic work of art created by bereaved families, and it should not be removed or painted over. I hope that the Minister agrees that it should be a permanent memorial and that MPs should visit. I met Fran, whose husband died three weeks after they were married. She lovingly drew 2,000 hearts, and I dedicated one of those hearts to my uncle Buck, who died. I am, however, disappointed that the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care has yet to visit. I hope that the Minister will encourage all MPs to visit like he has done, and ensure that the memorial wall is permanent and that MPs speak to bereaved families.
I believe that the memorial wall is owned by St Thomas’ Hospital. I am not sure what decision it has come to with regard to its permanency. However, as I said, having seen friends and family visiting, I would keenly encourage MPs from across the House to do that. We need to consider the most impactful and enduring way to remember those we have lost and to commemorate the service of everyone involved in this unprecedented response to the pandemic. As I say, the commission has been set up and we will report on its terms of reference and membership in due course.
Evictions and Homelessness
Although the ban on bailiff enforcement has ended, the measures that the Government have introduced mean that fewer cases are progressing to eviction. Landlord possession claims were down by 74% in quarter 1 of this year compared with the same period in 2020, and the number of families in temporary accommodation is at its lowest since 2016. For those who need more support, we are providing councils with £310 million through the homelessness prevention grant—that is an uplift of £47 million on last year—which can be used for financial support for people to find a new home, to work with landlords to prevent evictions, or to provide temporary accommodation and ensure that families have a roof over their head.
Even before the effect of the end of the evictions ban, a quarter of all homeless households in London were being accommodated away from their home areas—away from their schools, their caring responsibilities, their jobs and their support networks. Previous Ministers have condemned that but done nothing to stop it. Will the Minister condemn it and state that homeless households should be accommodated near their support networks? What will he do to ensure that that happens?
It is important that these matters are handled by the councils themselves, because they are much closer to the problem than the Government; that is not something that we should or could legislate for centrally. With regard to the hon. Lady’s own council, we have allocated £5.2 million from the rough sleeping initiative and £6.8 million of homelessness prevention grant funding. The contribution that the Government are making to support local councils is very significant.
I thank the Minister for his response to my hon. Friend the Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck), but one of the key ways to prevent homelessness is to ensure that people are not being evicted. As a result of the end of the evictions ban, many Vauxhall residents now face eviction, with no need for justification and no requirement for adjudication. The Government said in 2019 that they wanted to bring an end to section 21 no-fault evictions, yet two years down the line, tenants in my constituency still face the constant threat of eviction. Will the Minister please tell the House when we can expect to see the long-awaited renters reform Bill?
We remain committed to delivering a better deal for renters, including repealing section 21 of the Housing Act 1988. We will legislate, but it is only right that that legislation considers the impact of the pandemic and is a balanced set of reforms that improves the private rented market. A White Paper detailing our package of reforms to the private rented sector will be brought forward in the autumn.
Today marks four years since the tragedy of Grenfell, where 72 people lost their lives. Recent research published by Shelter shows that 3.2 million private renters are fearful of complaining about unsafe and unhealthy properties for fear of being evicted, and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation reports that nearly a million tenants now fear eviction due to the ending of the evictions ban. The Secretary of State promised that no one would lose their home as a result of the covid crisis. How will he honour that promise, and when will no-fault section 21 evictions come to an end?
It is important to acknowledge the amount of funds that this Government have committed to ensuring that renters are supported—over £200 billion through the furlough scheme, for example. If hon. Members want evidence of whether that has been successful, let me point out that over nine out of 10 people are not in rent arrears at all, so that has been of significant help to people. With regard to the Bill that I referred to in my previous answer, I look forward to working with the hon. Gentleman, with whom I get on very well, in the coming months to ensure that we deliver renters reform that is appropriate and helpful to all parts of the sector.
The pandemic has shown how vital our green spaces are for the wellbeing of the nation, from sharing our national parks together to inviting loved ones over to our gardens. That is why it was a priority for me and my Department to reopen our parks at the start of the pandemic—something that has offered a lifeline to many people and families over the past year. As we build back better and greener in our recovery, we will enhance our environment and provide more green spaces through our forthcoming planning reforms. They will build on and embed our already extensive protections for the green belt, areas of outstanding natural beauty and our ancient woodlands.
I welcome the Secretary of State’s commitment to protecting our green spaces and the broader Government investment in our nature recovery programme. Will he consider looking at a new “wild belt” designation as part of the planning proposals to ensure that we protect those hard-won gains for generations to come?
I would like our planning reforms to create a legacy of enhancing our environment and leaving the natural world in a better state for future generations. We are continuing to consider how best to achieve that through the ongoing detailed design of these reforms, but I am interested in wild belts, as I know my hon. Friend is. We are already bringing forward a raft of changes to support nature’s recovery, including introducing mandatory net gain for biodiversity through the Environment Bill and requiring tree-lined streets in all new developments—something that we are increasingly seeing in new housing across the country.
In Greets Green and Lyng, communities have long been promised a facelift, with quality new housing developments by Sandwell Council, but very little has yet been delivered. Residents in Newhall Street are regularly blighted by crime and antisocial behaviour and have been calling out for help and investment for years. Does my right hon. Friend agree that while these areas go undeveloped, it makes no sense for green spaces in other parts of West Bromwich East, such as Peak House farm, to be at risk of development?
I completely agree with my hon. Friend that we need local areas to make the most of existing developable land—repurpose it, revitalise unused sites and build the most beautiful homes our communities need. The west midlands, which she represents a part of, is one of the best examples of a place in the country that is meeting housing need and building homes, but is doing so with a very strong emphasis on brownfield sites. The Government are backing that with, for example, a £100 million land fund and £108 million that we provided through our brownfield fund.
There is clearly demand for more housing in the central Lincolnshire local plan area and across communities in my constituency of Lincoln, the east midlands and the country at large, but we are continually seeing local green belt being built on by large developers, and land banking is still rife on the edge of urban areas. Does my right hon. Friend agree that we must balance housing developments by big developers with the need to ensure that communities of all shapes and sizes still have the opportunity for smaller and individual housing within the curtilage of those settlements of the type and style that buyers wish to purchase and, crucially, live in?
My hon. Friend makes a number of important points. First, we have been clear that the manifesto commitment that the Government were elected upon was to protect and enhance the green belt, and that is exactly what we intend to do. Secondly, we want a planning system that is based on local plans, where local people and their communities democratically choose sites, and they will be, and should be, a mix of not only larger ones but smaller sites, particularly brownfield sites, which can be developed at pace by small and medium-sized developers. One of the litmus tests for the planning reforms that we intend to bring forward later in the year will be whether they shift the balance from the large developers who can navigate the current convoluted and complex system in favour of small and medium-sized builders, such as the local entrepreneurs that my hon. Friend represents in Lincoln, and ensure that they, too, can prosper and build more homes.
Cladding and Fire Safety Defects
We meet on a sombre day—the fourth anniversary of the Grenfell tragedy, when 72 people lost their lives—and across the entire House, I am sure that, whatever one’s political view or stripe, our hearts go out to all those people, their families and their friends who lost so much on that night four years ago.
We continue to see progress with the remediation of unsafe cladding systems. We project that 84% of high-rise residential buildings with unsafe ACM—aluminium composite material—cladding will be completed by the end of 2021. We continue to drive toward 100% and we expect those who have made a full application to the building safety fund to be on-site by the end of September 2021. The building safety Bill will bring about a fundamental change in both the regulatory framework for building safety and the construction industry culture, ensuring that those responsible for buildings make sure that fire and structural safety risks are properly managed.
Four years after the Grenfell Tower fire, survivors and the local community are still waiting for justice, and across the country people are still waiting for an end to unsafe buildings. We know from the Government’s published data that of the 469 buildings over 18 metres identified with aluminium composite material cladding, 107 still have it. However, there is no data on remediation of non-ACM cladding or on buildings below 18 metres. Will the Minister commit to publishing data next month on how many of the 1,890 buildings over 18 metres that are progressing bids with the building safety fund for non-ACM cladding have been remediated, and on how many of the 77,500 blocks between 11 and 18 metres may be unsafe?
I am obliged to the hon. Gentleman for his question. As I said, and as he knows, we have made significant progress in the remediation of ACM-clad buildings: 95% have either been made safe or had remediation begun on them. With respect to buildings that have had non-ACM but dangerous cladding put on, I can tell him that some 685 buildings have now been registered for the building safety fund, with £359 million of public funds allotted for their remediation. We are determined to go further and faster to make sure that people’s homes are safe and that this issue is finally and completely put to bed.
New Housing Developments
Local plans create the local community’s vision for where essential development such as housing should go. Our planning reforms will give communities the chance to be involved meaningfully at the start when local plans are prepared and will make it easier for local people to understand proposals and express their views. This will bring certainty that housing will come forward in areas best identified for growth by the community, while ensuring that valued countryside remains protected.
Does my hon. Friend share my concerns about the Greater Manchester spatial framework, which has twice been vetoed and has not gone ahead? The absence of that plan causes a great deal of problems with uncontrolled building in the whole of Greater Manchester, but particularly for my constituents in Bolton West. Will he do all he can to support Bolton Council in adopting and implementing its plan if the GMSF’s faults cannot be rectified soon?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend; he is a doughty champion of his constituents in Bolton West. He will know that rather than allowing suffering from speculative development, local plans give certainty both to developers and to communities in providing the homes that the country needs, and where agreed. It is essential that we get local plans in place to help to put our economy back on track; I am pleased that he recognises that. As he says, Bolton Council, along with eight other Greater Manchester councils, is committed to taking forward the Places for Everyone joint local plan. I will continue to monitor and support the progress of plan making across Greater Manchester to ensure that plan coverage is achieved by the end of 2023 and that my hon. Friend’s constituents in Bolton are best protected.
One year ago, the Secretary of State took an unlawful decision in the Westferry case to help a billionaire Conservative party donor to dodge a £40 million tax bill. Now it seems that they are at it again: The Sunday Times reports that John Bloor, a billionaire property tycoon, gave £150,000 to the Conservative party barely 48 hours after the Housing Minister had overruled the local council to approve a controversial planning application on rural land, raising fresh questions about unlawful lobbying. Will the Minister commit right now to releasing all unpublished documentation relating to the case, so the public can see whether this is indeed yet another case of cash for favours?
I appreciate that the hon. Gentleman likes to cast himself at the court of Keir as something of a witchfinder general—a sort of weird amalgam of Lavrentiy Beria and Mary Whitehouse—but I can tell him that there are no witches to be found here today. With respect to the Sandleford Park application, that was recovered by officials, as many applications are, without recourse to Ministers; we have yet to see any advice from officials on that application.
With respect to the Ledbury application, that was a recommendation to proceed made by the independent planning inspector, not least because at the hearing the local authority reversed its position and took the view that the application should go ahead. I took the advice of the planning inspector; I accepted the planning inspector’s recommendation. Process and procedure were followed punctiliously. The hon. Gentleman has to find other witches to burn.
I am sure the Minister has had a busy weekend reading the Select Committee report on the planning system. In it, he will have seen that the Committee was supportive of the Government’s proposals to improve and enhance the local plan system, particularly through getting more public involvement by making the plans digital. That is to be welcomed. However, many people in our evidence-taking were concerned that once a local plan has been agreed, local people will lose their right to have any meaningful say in individual planning applications. That was a real concern that was expressed to us, so when the Government respond to the report and to its wider consultation, will they look again at how they can ensure that local people have a meaningful voice on individual applications, particularly those in the renewal areas, which are often very contentious?
I am grateful to the Chairman of the Select Committee for his report. We will consider it carefully, as we always do, and I am pleased that he has, with some caveats, been so very supportive of our proposals. He asks about the way in which we can better democratise our planning system. The fact is that 3% of all planning applications are engaged with by the local community, yet 90% of planning applications go through, so only a small number of people are engaging with the planning process and the overwhelming number of plans go through anyway. I do not think that that is particularly engaged or democratic, and we are seeking to bring forward the democratic element of plan making so that local people can have a real and meaningful place and decision-making role in what happens in their communities.
Environmental Protections: Development
The planning for the future consultation closed in October 2020, and it generated an enormous amount of interest, with 44,000 responses. We are analysing those responses and will respond to the consultation in due course. We are committed to planning reforms that are intended to provide better protection for environmental assets. I have worked closely with my right hon. Friend the Environment Secretary as well as with my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington (Gareth Bacon) on the measures in the Environment Bill, and the planning reforms complement and reflect these.
The Government will shortly be bringing forward their planning Bill, which I recognise is needed to bring forward much needed new housing and infrastructure. My Orpington constituency is two-thirds rural, so what guarantees can my right hon. Friend give me and my constituents that green-belt and greenfield land will be protected from inappropriate development?
We are committed not only to protecting the green belt but to enhancing it, and those protections will remain in force when we bring in planning reforms. I can assure you, Mr Speaker, that we will not be taking the advice of the Select Committee, which suggested that we should undertake a wholesale reform of the green belt. We have committed to protect it, and so we shall, because only in exceptional circumstances may a local authority alter a green-belt boundary, using its local plan and consulting local people on where essential new housing should go, and it needs to show real evidence that it has examined all other reasonable options before proposing to release the green belt. We are committed to the green belt, and we will fight for it.
The planning system is integral to addressing the climate crisis and to protecting and enhancing our environment. However, many people rightly questioned the Government’s green credentials when the Secretary of State refused to block the proposed coalmine in Cumbria. Will the Minister therefore take the opportunity to show that the Government take our environment and the climate crisis seriously, and commit to the full suite of clear and measurable environmental targets in the forthcoming planning Bill?
First, may I welcome the hon. Lady to her place as the shadow planning Minister? I think we all share a commitment to protect the environment, which is why this Government were the first Government to commit to net zero. It is why, as housing and planning Minister, I am committed to the future homes standard, to ensure that we decarbonise future homes by at least 75%, and it is why the Environment Bill will ensure a biodiversity net gain of 10%. We will bake those environmental proposals into our planning reforms to make sure that we have a planning Bill to be proud of and that we protect our environment.
Community Renewal and Levelling-up Funds
Through the levelling-up fund and community renewal fund, we are investing more than £5 billion in people, infrastructure, the regeneration of town centres and high streets, upgrading local transport, and investing in cultural and heritage assets. These funds will include high-quality evaluation, which is crucial to understanding the types of intervention that best support places to level up, right across the country.
I have tabled written parliamentary questions on this, which the Minister is yet to answer, but he also knows that I support the levelling-up fund, in that it is the only available funding on the table. Therefore, I want to work with the two local authorities in my constituency to ensure that we put forward the best bids for Ogmore constituents. Will he set out when the second and third funding round deadlines will be announced by him, or by the Secretary of State, so that local authorities can plan and ensure that they put the best possible bids forward for communities, because for many local authorities the 18 June deadline is simply too tight? I want to work with the Minister, and I would really welcome some constructive engagement to ensure that we get the very best for my constituents.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for the way in which he has asked his question. There will be further opportunities for local authorities to submit bids into the fund through subsequent rounds, and we are publishing more details about how the levelling-up fund will operate from next year later in this year. I was pleased to understand that his local authority, which I believe is in category 1, will be submitting a bid by 18 June. I hope it will be making good use of the £125,000 capacity funding that we are providing it with, which I know will help it to work closely with us and build that strong relationship with the UK Government. I look forward to receiving its bid, and I am always happy to meet him to discuss it in more detail.
It is now nearly two years since the Prime Minister announced the towns fund, yet 30 towns have only just received confirmation of what funding they will receive, 26 towns still have not received any response to their bid, and precious few projects that have been bid for have been completed. So will the Minister commit to publishing a report on which areas are receiving funding from the towns fund, the levelling-up fund and the community renewal fund, which have missed out, and the impact of any projects that have actually been delivered?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question and welcome him to his place; representing local government on these Benches is the greatest privilege that any of us could ask for, and I look forward to working with him constructively. On the towns fund, the details are already in the public domain on all the towns we have supported and announced town deals for. He rightly says that a number are still awaiting the outcome of their deal, and their details are also in the public domain. We are still in the application process for the levelling-up fund and for the community renewal fund, so we have not got a definitive list of bids that are in, but I very much look forward to working with him. The levelling-up fund and the community renewal fund are important opportunities for our constituencies, right across the country, to invest in upgrading the critical infrastructure that is so important to our constituents.
This Government are making the dream of home ownership a reality for people across England, taking generation rent and turning it into generation buy. I am delighted that earlier this month we launched our First Homes scheme, with the first properties ready for sale in Bolsover, providing homes discounted by at least 30% for first-time buyers, priority local people and key workers. Our new 95% mortgage guarantee has already given lenders the confidence to help families and young people get on to the property ladder, without the burden of a large deposit.
I am in my first home—I moved in only in May—and I want to see more of my constituents in exactly the same position. Will the Secretary of State outline what support North West Durham constituents in particular can access through the new schemes—particularly the First Homes scheme, in which so many of my constituents are interested in getting involved—and when they will be fully available and rolled out throughout the country?
I am pleased to tell my hon. Friend that the Government are committed to making sure that young people have the opportunities that they need to live and work in their local community, both in North West Durham and right throughout the country. I encourage my hon. Friend’s constituents to go to the Government’s ownyourhome.gov.uk website to check out the brilliant schemes that are available. I am also glad to let him know that later this month we will launch the first set of first homes in County Durham.
Today, on the fourth anniversary of the terrible fire at Grenfell, we first and foremost remember the 72 people who lost their lives. Our thoughts are with the bereaved, as well as the survivors of that terrible night.
The Grenfell community has steadfastly campaigned for justice and for change, but it has come too slowly. Hundreds of thousands of people are living in buildings that we now know to be unsafe, with some even still wrapped in the same flammable cladding as Grenfell. Many of those people are first-time buyers who have watched their dream of home ownership become a living nightmare, in unsellable, worthless homes.
I welcome the building safety fund, but funds alone are not enough, not least because of the extremely slow progress in allocating them. We need active intervention and leadership, so will the Secretary of State commit that all buildings will be made safe—and not just in respect of aluminium composite material cladding—or at least be in the process of being made so, by this time next year? Will he free homeowners from the burden of the costs and anxieties of being trapped in unmortgageable, unsafe homes?
I join the hon. Lady in giving my sympathies, thoughts and prayers to the survivors, the bereaved and the community of north Kensington. We all want to support them to ensure that their quest for justice continues and reaches its conclusion, as a result of the public inquiry and the police investigations. Of course, we will do everything in our power to ensure that it never happens again.
Earlier this year, I set out the next steps in our plan to ensure that homes in this country are safe. We are providing £5.1 billion to ensure that unsafe materials, such as cladding, are removed from people’s homes as quickly as possible. Some 95% of those high-rise flats that have the same ACM cladding as was on Grenfell Tower have either now been remediated or have workers on site as we speak, and the work on 65% of them has been completed. I want to see that work finished by the end of this year and we will do everything we can to ensure that that happens.
We are also working with lenders, insurers and surveyors to ensure that they also play their part and we have a proportionate, sensible approach to risk, so that those who do not need to be trapped because of this issue are not unduly trapped and those who created this situation in the first place—the builders and the developers—pay their fair share. We are currently consulting on an industry levy and we will encourage, as we have done throughout this process, those developers that have not already stepped up to do so, because it is unconscionable that leaseholders are having to pay for the faults of an industry that has profited at their expense.
Levelling-up and Shared Prosperity Funds
The levelling-up fund and the UK shared prosperity fund are core parts of our levelling-up agenda. I regularly speak to my ministerial colleagues about both funds, and those discussions will inform our levelling-up White Paper and the UK shared prosperity fund investment framework, which we plan to publish later this year.
I thank the Minister for that answer. Like many other Members, I have been involved in discussions with my local authority regarding the levelling-up fund; however, it occurred to me last week that there was something of a democratic deficit in the process. Given that the fund can be used in a number of policy areas that are devolved to the Scottish Parliament, why is there no mechanism for councils to formally consult their Scottish Parliament representatives on the issues? Will the Minister advise what his Government are doing to ensure that projects associated with the fund are realised with as much collaboration as possible with the democratically elected Government of the people of Scotland?
The hon. Gentleman is clearly working hard on his bid for the levelling-up fund. There is absolutely nothing at all to stop his council consulting with or speaking to the Scottish Government before it submits its bid; it is absolutely welcome to do that. At the heart of these funds is localism. It is about local authorities and communities working directly with the UK Government and building that strong relationship with communities in Scotland, which we think is a key part of this process. We are investing billions of pounds and want to work closely with his community. I absolutely encourage his council to engage with the relevant Government.
While the Minister claps himself on the back at the munificence of these various funds that he is talking about, he may wish to reflect on the fact that there is not one new penny of money available, so let us not pretend.
The EU structural funding allocations in the devolved nations and the spending in the areas covered by the levelling-up funding and the strategic priorities fund previously had the direct involvement of Ministers from the devolved nations. How can the Minister now justify cynically insisting on a centralised Whitehall-led approach, cutting out the directly elected Governments of the devolved nations from spending decisions in their own countries in devolved areas of responsibility?
I must point out this continued factual inaccuracy. There is new money going in this year through the UK community renewal fund. Some £220 million is being invested to trial new priorities and projects ahead of the introduction of the UKSPF. As I just said to the hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire (Martin Docherty-Hughes), the local authorities in Scotland are absolutely able to consult with the devolved Administrations. We will be speaking to the devolved Administrations at the shortlisting stage of the bids to seek their advice and to see whether the bids conflict with anything that they are delivering, or with any of their policies. We are investing billions of pounds in these projects: in infrastructure; in community renewal; in transport; in regeneration; and in high-street refurbishments. This is something that the nationalists should be welcoming, rather than trying to find unfair grievances.
The Public Accounts Committee delivered a damning verdict on the towns fund, saying that the Minister’s Department had
“not been open about the process it followed and would not disclose the reasoning for selecting or excluding towns”—
for funding. In view of that, what specific measures will the Minister announce today to ensure that the distribution of the levelling-up fund and shared prosperity fund will be both transparent and free from political bias, unlike the towns fund?
The answer to that is that it is all published on gov.uk and it has been for months now. Clearly, the nationalists cannot reconcile themselves to the fact that this Conservative Government are supporting communities in Scotland that they have let down for so many years. We are investing billions of pounds in people, infrastructure, regeneration, transport, and high street refurbishments. We are delivering on the ground, building new relationships and binding together our precious Union.
Covid-19: High Street Recovery
As we embark on what we all hope will be a great British summer, this Government have announced a vital package of support for our high streets, from planning easements to funding support. Taken together, we are seeing more than £385 billion of support for our businesses and high streets. With our planning reforms, we will allow our high streets to adapt and thrive, see outdoor markets spring up, and al fresco dining flourish. I am confident that, despite all the challenges, people across this country will rediscover the delights of their local high street this summer.
Cheshire East Council continues to keep unnecessary barriers in place on the high street in Knutsford, blocking off the car parking spaces and damaging local businesses. Does my right hon. Friend agree that Cheshire East Council should be helping local businesses and not literally putting barriers in their way?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right that bringing back people to their towns and high streets is vital, including to the one that I know well in Knutsford. Local authorities should be doing everything they can to make those high streets as welcoming as possible. Covid-19 guidance and our al fresco dining revolution should not come at the cost of despoiling otherwise beautiful high streets such as that in Knutsford. With just a little imagination and creativity, it is perfectly possible for barriers to be made beautiful, even if they do need to be there. We want to see council officers apply thought and judgment, rather than being over-zealous. Put simply, if they will not take them down, they should build barriers better.
First, I thank the Secretary of State for recently visiting Accrington to discuss what a difference the levelling-up fund could make to my constituency. We know that it is important to build more houses, but on that visit we also spoke about our dilapidated housing stock both in the town centre and across Hyndburn and Haslingden. Will he agree to meet me to discuss the VAT placed on renovation and repairs for old housing stock and look at the potential for removing this as a trial in certain areas to encourage builders to rejuvenate old housing stock?
My hon. Friend will know that such decisions are for the Chancellor to make. We have in place a reduced rate of VAT at 5% for certain residential renovations to encourage development and incentivise regeneration. However, she makes an important point that of course I would be happy to discuss with her. I thank her for hosting me in April, when it was great to see the town back open for business and still producing some of the best pies in Lancashire. She will know that I got into some trouble for saying that a particular shop in her constituency produced the best pies in the county, so all I will say on this occasion is that they are all pie-oneers and there is a slice for everyone if they visit Accrington.
Our splendid market towns in fabulous Somerton and Frome are driven by their high streets. They are the engine room of the local economy and the hub of the community, as I am sure everybody saw at the fabulous eat:Castle Cary festival last month. However, the past year has obviously been extraordinarily difficult, so does my right hon. Friend agree that support for high street businesses is essential both to keep our communities strong and to achieve a swift economic recovery?
I completely agree with my hon. Friend. I urge all his constituents to get back to their local high streets to support the shops and hospitality businesses that he mentions and make the most of the sunshine in Somerset. We have seen some positive signs, with Springboard data reporting an increase of over 17% in people shopping on their high streets in the recent half-term break. He mentions the eat:Castle Cary festival. That is exactly the kind of thing we want to see across the country this summer. Outdoors is safer than indoor venues. My Department, for its part, is ensuring that through planning easement it is much easier and simpler for local communities to hold outdoor events such as markets without needing to obtain planning permission.
One of the greatest divides in our country, and one that has been thrown into sharp relief by the pandemic, is between those who own a home of their own and those who do not. That is why I was delighted to be in Bolsover earlier this month to see the very first site of our new First Homes scheme, which will provide new homes, for the first time, at a 30% discount. I was also delighted to announce sites in a further 30 towns last week, worth over £700 million in total. On Friday, I saw the real difference that this is making to local people in Doncaster, Redcar, Bishop Auckland and Hartlepool, to name a few.
Today marks the fourth anniversary of the Grenfell Tower fire. I visited the site yesterday. I am sure the whole House will once again join me in paying our respects to the 72 victims, their families, their friends and the wider community in north Kensington who suffered as a result of the tragedy. It exposed serious and systemic failings that we are determined to address through our new building safety Bill, which we will bring forward shortly.
May I also offer my condolences to those involved in Grenfell four years ago—an event that we will never forget?
I welcome the incredible work that this Government have done throughout the pandemic to support more rough sleepers, with a staggering £700 million in extra funding for local authorities. I pay tribute to the local authorities and charities involved in helping rough sleepers off the streets, day in, day out. Now we must learn from the Government’s brilliant Everyone In strategy, which saw an incredible 90% of rough sleepers taken off the streets and offered accommodation. As my right hon. Friend knows, I am campaigning to have the Vagrancy Act 1824 repealed. Does he agree that it is now time to learn from what we did with the Everyone In strategy, especially in terms of the reasons people find themselves on the streets in the first place, which are particularly around mental health and addiction issues? Does he agree that we need to learn those lessons and replace the Vagrancy Act?
I join my hon. Friend in paying tribute to councils and communities across the country, including her own council in Westminster, led very ably by Rachael Robathan. Rachael and I have walked the streets of the west end on many occasions over the past year and seen a tremendous reduction in the number of people sleeping rough. We must build on that and ensure that the progress we have made in the past year is not allowed to slip through our fingers. We will be working across Government to do that because, as my hon. Friend says, homelessness is a housing issue and a health issue. It is about mental health and it is about drug and alcohol addiction, and we need a cross-Government approach to the challenge.
Last week, we witnessed a tragic Islamophobic attack in Ontario, Canada, which sadly killed three generations of a single family. The attack reminded us all of the dangers of allowing Islamophobia to seep into society and the impact it can have on people’s lives and communities. The Conservative Government announced in July 2019 that they would appoint two independent advisers on Islamophobia. Almost two years on, can the Secretary of State even tell us who both those independent advisers are and publish their terms of reference as well as the work they have carried out, or is this Conservative Government remorselessly neglecting to tackle Islamophobia across the UK?
This Government have a zero-tolerance approach to racism and discrimination of any kind. We commissioned Professor Swaran Singh to undertake an independent review of the Conservative party. On the day of its publication, the Prime Minister unilaterally and in full accepted all the recommendations, and we will publish a plan as to how to implement them very soon.
I do think it is wrong of the Labour party to raise this issue quite in the way that the hon. Lady does. It was, after all, the Labour party that was investigated by the Equality and Human Rights Commission. It was the Labour party that was found to have breached the Equality Act 2010, and it is those on the Labour party’s Front Bench who almost to a man and a woman who were named in that report and criticised for their conduct. It is also wrong of the Labour party to publish leaflets during the Batley and Spen by-election campaign that suggest that the Conservative party does not take anti-Muslim hatred seriously.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on the tremendous vision of Cornwall that has been seen by billions of people around the world in the past few days. The beauty of Cornwall was clear for everyone to see, but I appreciate that it is the very beauty of the place that creates problems for her local people and constituents. That is one of the reasons we have created the First Homes scheme, which offers 30% discounts for local residents, and I encourage her constituents to look on ownyourhome.gov.uk to see the schemes we have available.
I would be very happy to meet the hon. Lady, as would my hon. Friends on the Front Bench. We have brought forward the community ownership fund, and we will publish details on that very soon. It will allow community groups to bid in for match funding to buy a village shop, a pub or a sports field—much-valued community assets. We have also announced the right to regenerate, which will enable people to bid in for public sector assets that are currently being neglected and bring them into better use.
My hon. Friend raises an important point. We want to see cities such as Nottingham have the investment they deserve to build more homes and to tackle the issues they face. We see having good-quality housing stock in cities such as Nottingham as a crucial part of levelling up and spreading prosperity. That is one of the reasons why we changed the local housing need formula to place a much greater emphasis on smaller cities such as Nottingham.
As a matter of fact, for ACM buildings within Greenwich and Woolwich, of the 23 that have registered, 21 have completed remediation, one building has been removed and one building has started work. For buildings with applications to the building safety fund, of the 94 registrations made, 31 have been confirmed as eligible, 27 have been assessed and 12 have been withdrawn. So great progress is being made. I am working with the insurance industry, and we should ensure that it brings forward market proposals, not simply have the Exchequer step in and subsidise it.
I am sure my hon. Friend will agree that there are occasions when a local authority may need to apply for permission to build on council-owned land—for example, a new school—but he is right that there needs to be a robust set of safeguards in place, because these applications do generate a great deal of interest and an appearance, on occasion, of unfairness. The applications must be transparently publicised, consulted on and determined in a way that is fair and open.
We have made good progress on the plan that we announced earlier this year. The extra funding is now available through the building safety fund, and we are working through the applications. For lower-rise buildings, we have said that we will bring forward a financing scheme in which no leaseholder will ever need to pay more than £50 a month. There will be long-term low-interest loans for cladding removal and remediation and associated works, and we have said that we will bring forward the details of that shortly.
As a parent of three young children, I spend a long time in playgrounds and appreciate their importance to everybody in society. I think it is really important that councils take parks and playgrounds seriously. They may be a non-statutory duty, but they are a very important one to members of the public. We have now had two years of increases in council funding, which were voted on and supported by both sides of this House, so local councils have the resources, and they should prioritise open spaces as we come out of the pandemic.
I disagree with the hon. Lady, because a number of businesses have already brought forward market solutions—Aviva, for example, and I believe that E.ON is also doing so. It is extremely important that we in this House are united in putting pressure on the insurance companies, not simply asking the Exchequer to step in and bail out some of the most affluent and successful companies in the country. That is what we are trying to do, and we are seeing signs of progress.
I agree with my hon. Friend. It is extremely important that developers, large and small, make good on their promises to local councils and local communities. There are already relevant powers in the planning system, but we are considering how to beef them up as part of our planning reforms, so that where homes have been permissioned, the builder gets on and finishes the job. We will also be legislating for our new homes ombudsman, so that where the standard of those homes falls below what people expect, a route to recourse is available to everyone.
With your permission, Mr Speaker, I wish to make a personal statement to the House. The matter I am referring to occurred on 27 April 2020. I had been trying to get online to an important Committee meeting. After many attempts throughout the day, I was still not connected and had to leave the meeting. I did not swear or raise my voice, but my behaviour led to two complaints. I have reflected on my behaviour. I accept that it constituted bullying and, as such, was entirely inexcusable. The circumstances were stressful for the staff assisting the Committee and for me. I apologised to them before, and I apologise to them again, and to the House, unreservedly. I will never repeat such behaviour.
Points of Order
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Have you received notice from the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care that he intends to make a statement on the covid-19 regulations earlier than advertised? I ask this because it is a long-standing principle of this House that major changes in Government policy are to be announced to Parliament first, and I can think of no more important policy announcement than changes to regulations that restrict the freedom of the British people. It appears that the Government are planning to hold a major news conference on the covid regulations at 6 pm, but the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care is not making his statement to the House until 8.30 pm. That is not only a clear breach of parliamentary convention; it is also a breach of the ministerial code. The code states:
“When Parliament is in session, the most important announcements of Government policy should be made in the first instance, in Parliament.”
What makes the matter even more concerning is that about 30 minutes ago the media were given an embargoed copy of the statement. So the media have the statement in advance, there will be a public press conference at 6 pm, and then the last people to know about the changes to the regulations will be Members of Parliament. That is clearly very disrespectful to Parliament, and probably a contempt of Parliament.
Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. Have you heard from the Prime Minister this afternoon, because I am astonished that he is not coming to the House to make this statement? I entirely join my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone) in what he has said. It would have been perfectly possible for the Prime Minister to come to this Chamber at 3.30 and inform Parliament of what is going on. I quite understand that it is much easier for the Prime Minister to have a few patsy questions from Laura Kuenssberg and her colleagues than to sit here for a whole hour and be grilled by MPs, but are we a presidential system or are we the House of Commons? Who runs this country? Is it the media or is it the House of Commons? I repeat what my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone) said: in future, we must make it clear that if there are any Government announcements, they are made here first, to the elected representatives of the people.
First, may I say that I am grateful to both gentlemen for giving notice of the point of order? I have repeatedly made it clear how important it is that announcements should be made in this Chamber first. As you are both aware, the Secretary of State will be making a statement at 8.30 pm on covid. That will give Members of the House an opportunity to question him on the Government’s policy. However, it is not what I would have expected, which is a statement to the House before an announcement to the press. It is not acceptable. The Government determine when Ministers make statements, but in doing so they must show respect to this House.
May I just say that we were not going to get a statement until I got involved with Downing Street? The fact is that this has been forced— to actually get a statement today; it was going to be left till tomorrow, which would have been totally unacceptable. The fact is that I understand that the Prime Minister, at the moment, is at NATO—there is a big conference going on—and he is not here. That is why I insisted that somebody come to make this statement. The timing of it is 8.30 pm. I thought that was better than waiting for the Prime Minister to make a statement tomorrow.
This House needs to know; it needs to know first. I find it totally unacceptable that, once again, we see Downing Street running roughshod over Members of Parliament. We are not accepting it, and I am at the stage where I am beginning to look for other avenues if they are not going to treat this House seriously. What I would say is that I think it is time for me to have a meeting with the Prime Minister to put on the record—here and now, but with him—that this House matters.
Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. Just in case there was any lack of clarity from your statement, may I ask whether it is at all feasible that, should the Government now have recognised the power and force of your statement and of the objections of the House, they could come to you and say that they are prepared to bring their statement forward to 6 o’clock? Would the House be able to find time for that?
If somebody is willing to do that from Downing Street, I will always ensure that this House will hear it. I was told that no decisions had been taken. That is why I am more shocked to know that there is an embargoed copy of what is going to happen to this country, without this House knowing. I was told no decisions had been taken—that no decisions will be taken until the Cabinet meets. The fact is I am being misled—this House is being misled. It is not acceptable, and I would welcome them coming here before they make the press statement, as the press have already got an embargoed copy. I am sure that the Whip is now texting the Chief Whip to let him know exactly what is being said, because this is disappointing to all of us.
I am now suspending the House for a few minutes to enable the necessary arrangements to be made for the next business.
Uyghur Tribunal: London
(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs if he will make a statement on the treatment by the Chinese Government of witnesses giving evidence to the Uyghur Tribunal in London.
We are disturbed by reports of attempts to intimidate those appearing at the recent hearing of the Uyghur Tribunal. We have previously made it clear that any attempt by China to silence its critics is unwarranted and unacceptable. The United Kingdom supports freedom of expression both as a human right in and of itself and as an essential element for the enjoyment of a full range of other rights. The freedom to speak out in opposition to human rights violations is fundamental.
The Government have repeatedly expressed our serious concerns about the human rights situation in Xinjiang, and the United Kingdom has led international efforts to hold China to account for its human rights violations in the region. Yesterday’s G7 leaders’ communiqué called on China to respect human rights and fundamental freedoms, especially in relation to Xinjiang. In March, the Foreign Secretary announced sanctions against four Chinese officials and one entity responsible for those violations, alongside the European Union, the United States and Canada. In January, we launched a package of measures to help ensure UK businesses and the public sector are not complicit in human rights violations or abuses in Xinjiang. The Foreign Secretary has consistently raised the UK’s serious concerns directly with the Chinese Foreign Minister, State Councillor Wang Yi, most recently in a phone call on 27 May.
Rather than continuing to issue denials in the face of overwhelming evidence and seeking to silence their critics, we call on the Chinese Government to address the breadth of concerns being raised internationally about Xinjiang. As a matter of urgency, China must grant the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights or another independent fact-finding expert unfettered access to Xinjiang to verify the facts on the ground.
I reiterate that the Government welcome any rigorous and balanced initiative that raises awareness of the situation faced by Uyghurs and other minorities in China. I met Sir Geoffrey Nice in April to discuss the Uyghur tribunal, and we are following its work. My officials will study any resulting report very carefully indeed.
The Uyghur tribunal is an independent investigation of alleged genocide and crimes against humanity in the Uyghur region, led by Sir Geoffrey Nice. It started its hearings between 4 and 7 June in London and will reconvene later in the year. It was set up because the Chinese Government have reservations on the genocide convention and a veto at the UN Security Council, which prevents investigation by the International Court of Justice, and China is not party to the International Criminal Court.
It is a disgrace that, on Wednesday 9 June, the Government of the Xinjiang Uyghur autonomous region held a press conference featuring relatives of Uyghur exiles abroad, who were coerced to give statements that claimed to falsify the testimony of those who had given evidence to the Uyghur tribunal. We know already that the Chinese Government monitor, intimidate and harass Uyghurs living abroad, including UK citizens. We have also seen attempts to intimidate Members of this House. An Amnesty International report collated evidence from more than 400 Uyghurs in 22 countries, including the UK, who live in daily fear of the Chinese authorities. The harassment included aggressive messages and threats.
The first question is whether the Government will give evidence to the tribunal. If not, perhaps the Minister could explain why.
Rodney Dixon, QC, has alleged that Uyghurs are deported from third countries to China, where they go on to face genocidal atrocities. What assessment have the Government made of the credibility of the harrowing evidence provided by the Uyghur tribunal, and how will they act on its findings?
Do the Government support the involvement in the UK economy of firms that are complicit in the surveillance and monitoring of Uyghurs in Xinjiang, including surveillance firms such as Hikvision and telecommunications firms such as Huawei? Why have the Government rejected the recommendation of the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee to require companies operating in Beijing to provide convincing evidence that their supply chains are not tainted by forced labour? Where are the provisions in the Modern Slavery Act 2015 to give force to those concerns?
As I said, China exerts pressure on foreign states to deport Uyghurs who have fled the country back to China—states including Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Thailand, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Will the Government immediately commit to complaining formally and publicly to those countries, and tell them to stop that process at all costs?
I thank my right hon. Friend yet again for his work in this area and for bringing this important issue to the House’s attention. As I said in my opening remarks, we welcome any rigorous and balanced initiative that raises awareness of the situation faced by Uyghurs and other minorities in China. We will follow the tribunal closely and study any resulting report carefully.
Of course, my right hon. Friend knows that it is the policy of successive UK Governments that any determination of genocide or crimes against humanity is a matter for a competent court. We are therefore not in a position to provide evidence, testimony or other official support to the tribunal.
My right hon. Friend is right to mention the press conference held by Chinese authorities. We are disturbed by reports of attempts to intimidate those appearing at the hearing. We have previously made it clear that any attempt by China to silence its critics is unwarranted and completely unacceptable. As I have said, we have engaged with Sir Geoffrey Nice. We have pointed him to some open-source information to be of assistance, which is some of the most compelling evidence on what is going on in Xinjiang.
With regard to the Select Committee report that my right hon. Friend referenced, we announced on 12 January that we will work with the Cabinet Office to provide guidance and support to UK public bodies to exclude suppliers where there is evidence of human rights abuses in any of their supply chains. That work is continuing. As he will appreciate, that is a BEIS-led approach.
All our policy towards China is agreed by the National Security Council, and detailed implementation is co-ordinated by the National Strategy Implementation Group for China. These are senior officials across Whitehall. These governance structures are kept under review to ensure that effective co-ordination at all levels is always upheld.
I have lost count of the number of times that I have stood at this Dispatch Box and urged the Government to take stronger and more robust action against the atrocities of the Chinese state as it relentlessly persecutes the Uyghur people. I have also lost count of the number of times that the Government’s response has been woefully inadequate. From the blocking of the genocide amendment, to the failure to sanction Chen Quanguo, to last week’s rejection of many of the recommendations in the BEIS Select Committee’s report on forced labour, the reality is that the Government’s response to the genocide that is taking place in Xinjiang has fallen miserably short of befitting any credible definition of global Britain, so far amounting only to sanctions on a few lower-level Chinese officials.
Five days ago in Xinjiang, we had the chilling spectacle of relatives and friends of witnesses who have so bravely testified to the Uyghur tribunal being paraded in front of Chinese TV cameras, clearly under duress, and made to discredit the evidence that their family members had presented. Having attended the tribunal myself, I can tell the House that the evidence is truly harrowing. I therefore ask the Minister: what assessment have the Government made of the credibility of the evidence presented to the tribunal? Will the Government be testifying at the tribunal and will the Minister himself be attending the tribunal? When will we see the changes to the Modern Slavery Act promised by the Foreign Secretary in his statement to the House on 12 January? How is, in the Foreign Secretary’s word, the “urgent” export control review progressing, which also began on 12 January? Do the Government support the opening of an ICC investigation into the international crimes of the Chinese officials who are orchestrating these abuses? Why are the Government not doing more in the UN to get independent human rights observers into Xinjiang? What steps are the Government taking to protect Uyghurs living in the UK from harassment and intimidation by the Chinese authorities?
The witnesses who have testified at the tribunal have shown huge courage and leadership. Let us hope that the Government will at some point start to follow in their footsteps.
I can tell the hon. Gentleman that I disagree on a large part of his thesis that this Government have taken no action. This Government led the first two statements on Xinjiang at the UN. We have used our diplomatic network to raise the issue up the international agenda. We will continue to work with our partners across the world to build an international caucus of those willing to speak out against these human rights violations, and we have seen that caucus raised from 23 countries to 39. We will increase the pressure on China to change its behaviour.
We have backed up our international action with robust domestic measures: on 22 March, under the UK’s global human rights sanctions regime, we imposed asset freezes and travel bans on four senior Chinese Government officials and an asset freeze on one entity. On 12 January, the Foreign Secretary announced measures to help to ensure that businesses are not complicit in violations or abuses in Xinjiang. Of course, we are continuously keeping our sanctions regime under review.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned the intimidation of the Uyghur diaspora. We are absolutely aware of this. We are very concerned about members of the Uyghur diaspora, including in the UK, being harassed by the Chinese authorities. This is an effort to intimidate them into silence, force them to return to China or co-opt them into providing information on other Uyghurs. This activity is unacceptable. We have raised our concerns directly with the Chinese embassy in London.
In my answer to my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith), I mentioned that we are not in a position to provide evidence, testimony or official support to the tribunal, but we have engaged: I have engaged personally with Sir Geoffrey Nice on this measure, and I understand that my noble Friend the Minister for human rights in the other place has spoken with him on no fewer than four occasions. We are following the tribunal’s work closely, and clearly we will be studying any resulting report.
I very much welcome the urgent question; my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith) is absolutely right to ask it and to focus on the Uyghur community who have been so brutally injured, tortured and, indeed, sterilised by the Chinese state.
What has my hon. Friend the Minister done to work with partners around the world, from China to Canada, the United States and indeed New Zealand, to stand together against the united front that is not just torturing and seeking to exploit the weakness of the Uyghur peoples as they seek refuge and peace, but actually seeking to undermine the freedom of the British people and other people around the world by trying to shape our universities, silence our free speech and intimidate our citizens? Is he standing up for Britain?
I thank my hon. Friend the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee. The short answer is yes, we are standing up for Britain. He is right to raise the question whether we are working with international partners on the issue. It is absolutely correct to do so; it sends the clearest possible signal of the international community’s serious concern and our collective willingness to act.
Our announcement on 22 March of sanctions against the perpetrators of gross human rights violations against Uyghurs and other minorities was made alongside the United States, Canada and the European Union. I can give the Chairman of the Select Committee some other examples in which we have worked together with partners and it has delivered: the Hong Kong visa offer, work with Canada, Australia and the EU on scholarships, export controls and extradition suspension in Hong Kong, parallel sanctions announcements on Xinjiang, and forced labour measures with Canada. We will continue to work with our international partners. He will have noticed the communiqué yesterday from the G7; we are very pleased to be able to lead that charge.
I, too, commend the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith) for securing this important question. The Uyghur tribunal is an important event and a moment of clarity for a lot of us. I express our solidarity with the brave organisers of the event and with the witnesses and their relatives.
I have a couple of concrete questions for the Minister. If we all agree that the tribunal deserves our support, will he detail what practical measures the Government are bringing forward to support the people giving evidence and their relatives? Will he at least commit to a future statement in the House and a debate on the tribunal’s recommendations when they come forward, so that we can all consider its very serious testimony properly?
We absolutely welcome any initiative that is balanced, rigorous and raises awareness of the situation that Uyghurs and other minorities in China face. Sir Geoffrey Nice and those involved in the tribunal are distinguished figures. We will continue to engage with Sir Geoffrey and with those involved in the tribunal. We are more than happy to follow up on his work and we will study incredibly carefully the reports and any conclusions that the tribunal brings forward. As I said in my answer to my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green, we pointed Sir Geoffrey, prior to the tribunal starting, to some compelling evidence via open source information as to what is going on in Xinjiang.
I suspect that the Chinese Government do not care a damn what we say in this Chamber, but they do care about what British business is doing and if it withdraws business as a result of human rights violations. There are plenty of other friendly countries such as India that can do anything China can do, so what has the Minister done to summon in businesses, name and shame them and say that they should move their imports and exports from China? These people are no better than Bristol slave traders of the 18th century, building their businesses on the backs of misery.
We are providing businesses with the guidance that they need to understand the moral, reputational, legal and economic risks of conducting business in Xinjiang. It is for businesses to reassure themselves and their customers that their activities in no way contribute to human rights violations taking place in Xinjiang. We also know that many businesses take the egregious violations of human rights in Xinjiang as seriously as we do. Many have already acknowledged the risks and have taken action. Our guidance is clear on the risks that they face when operating in Xinjiang, and we expect all businesses to take appropriate action in response.
Listening to these reports—the latest in a series of accounts of disappearances, deportations and detentions of Uyghurs outside China—it is clear that the Chinese Communist party has no problem with coercion outside its borders. The eyes of the world will be on the Chinese Government at next year’s Beijing Winter Olympics. A diplomatic boycott by the UK would send a clear signal that this sort of transnational repression is totally unacceptable. Does the Minister agree that this boycott is necessary, as without taking meaningful action, we can expect only more of the same from the Chinese state?
I attended the tribunal and I saw images of mass crematoriums and a young mum who was incarcerated for a couple of years. Her triplets were returned with marks around their necks, and one was returned as a frozen corpse. For her bravery to give evidence to the inquiry, she had her family paraded on TV by the Chinese authorities. The right thing for the Minister to do would be to support the tribunal publicly. Otherwise, as the United Nations, we end up as a broken flush when it comes to holding China to account.
I thank my hon. Friend, again, for her dogged determination on this subject and many others surrounding human rights. I have said before during this session and during the four or five previous urgent questions on this issue that we will continue to hold China to account on its human rights abuses. With regard to the tribunal, we welcome any initiative that is thorough and balanced, and that raises awareness and provides us with detailed information of the situation that is faced by Uyghurs and other minorities in China.
It is as clear as the nose on your face that China is an authoritarian state. It has different values from our own and we are holding it to account. As I said in a previous answer, we led the first two statements on Xinjiang at the UN. We have led on this. We ensured that, in the communiqué yesterday, there was reference to what is going on specifically in Xinjiang. We will continue to work with our partners across the world. We have built the international caucus of countries prepared to call China out on what is going on in Xinjiang. We will continue to do that work. We will take all evidence that is presented before us, such as what will come out following the conclusions of the tribunal, but my hon. Friend can rest assured that we will continue to lead international efforts to hold China to account for its human rights violations.
Does the Minister agree that the G7 communiqué and our previous sanctions announcement represent a great example of the UK working with international allies to combat the Chinese rights abuses in Xinjiang and Hong Kong? They are an important step forward but do not go far enough, so will the Minister advise us of what further practical actions can be taken to bring the atrocities to an end?
Not only did the G7 communiqué call on China to respect human rights and fundamental freedoms, especially in relation to Xinjiang, but I direct my hon. Friend to the global human rights sanctions that we announced, alongside 29 other countries, in March. That demonstrated our international leadership on this issue. We are committed to working with others to hold China to account for the human rights commitments that it has freely assumed under international law and its own constitution.
At the UN, China was urged to allow unfettered access to Xinjiang, where the recent Uyghur tribunal reaffirmed that Chinese authorities are committing grave human rights violations. [Inaudible]—testimony of the horrors taking place, which include three crimes against humanity: detention, persecution and torture. As international courts cannot deal with the Chinese Government over allegations of genocide, and China holds a veto on the UN Security Council, will the Government commit to co-operating with and examining and acting on the findings of the Uyghur tribunal?
I struggled to hear all of that question, but I can pick up on a key point to which the hon. Gentleman referred: the inability of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to access the region. If China really wants to dispute the compelling evidence of systematic violations in Xinjiang, all it has to do is, as the hon. Gentleman said, allow the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights or another independent credible body urgent and unfettered access. That will allow such a body to investigate and verify the truth.
Human rights violations should always be condemned wherever they take place. The world knows that such violations are happening in Xinjiang—we know they are happening—but they are not prevalent in the public eye and so are not as effective in terms of making action take place. What steps is the Minister taking to rally further international support for action on Xinjiang?
My hon. Friend makes a good point and is right to highlight that. We will continue to work with our international partners to build that international caucus of those who are prepared to speak out—sadly, there are plenty of countries that are not prepared to speak out on this issue—and increase the pressure on China to change its behaviour. We have gone from a situation in which China was denying what was going on—denying the very existence of these o camps—to a situation in which it now at least has to acknowledge the existence of the treatment. We have led joint statements and UN human rights bodies, and most recently we were joined by 38 countries at the UN General Assembly third committee in October. We will continue to work alongside our international partners to keep the pressure on China.
At the tribunal, we heard the evidence of Tursunay Ziyadin about how beatings and internal torture in the camps had left her sterile—we in the Jewish community are all too familiar with such evidence from events 80 years ago. In China, a woman whom Tursunay did not know was presented as a good friend and claimed that infertility was why Tursunay’s husband left her, but he actually died in a car crash. How will the Minister ensure protection for those who give evidence, many of whom have sought political asylum in our country? In response to the direct witness evidence we heard, what is he going to do to ensure that fake testimony and false news are not spread in the UK or internationally?
We are disturbed by the reports of attempts to intimidate those who have been appearing at the recent hearing. Any attempt by China to silence its critics is unwarranted—it is completely unacceptable, as we saw at the press conference held in China most recently. We are aware of reports of members of the Uyghur diaspora being harassed by the Chinese authorities in an effort to intimidate them into silence. Again, we have called out that behaviour and raised our concerns directly with the Chinese embassy in London.
In order to combat the human rights abuses heaped upon the Uyghur Muslims by China, it is obviously vital that we build the broadest possible coalition of support across the world. In particular, what is my hon. Friend doing about building a coalition of Muslim-majority countries, which seem to be silent on supporting their brothers and sisters in Xinjiang, so that we can ensure that China gets the message that its human rights abuses are unacceptable to the entire world?
My hon. Friend is spot on, yet again; we wish to see a broad international caucus of countries, including Muslim-majority countries, speaking out about the widespread human rights violations in Xinjiang. He is absolutely right to point out that not enough of those countries are speaking out on this issue. I can reassure him that this has been a particular focus of our diplomatic efforts. Through our diplomatic network, and with my ministerial colleagues, we engage our counterparts regularly to set out our concern about the situation in Xinjiang, and we make sure that they are aware of the measures the UK is taking in response. We will continue our focus on building as much support as possible.
We have all been appalled at the evidence now being given to the tribunal of the experience of the Uyghur people and, specifically, of the experiences of Uyghur women, including forced sterilisation, forced abortions and repeated sexual violence. So what are the Government doing to tackle this specific issue of gender-based violence against Uyghur women?
Obviously, gender-based violence, wherever it takes place, is unacceptable. We continue to work very hard on this area internationally and commit a significant amount of our support in this regard in countries where it is an issue. We will, of course, continue to look at all options available to us for further action to address the human rights violations that are going on in Xinjiang.
It is clear from the testimonies given at the Uyghur tribunal that there are major threats to minority communities within China’s borders and, given what we have heard from my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith), threats to the Uyghurs in this country, too. For that reason, does my hon. Friend agree that the UK must uphold a clear, principles-led foreign policy, acting in line with the Government’s integrated review, which yielded its clear-eyed assessment of China as a “systemic challenge” to the UK?
Yes, my hon. Friend hits the nail on the head. The integrated review makes it clear that UK policy towards China is defined by our national interests, and the Prime Minister has said that we need to be “clear-eyed” about the challenges posed by China, but we must take an overarching, balanced approach that also seeks to manage disagreements, capitalise on the opportunity and co-operate on shared interests.
In light of the harrowing evidence presented to the UK Uyghur tribunal, what discussions took place at the G7 summit, and what discussions is the Minister having with other global leaders, to establish a special session of the UN Human Rights Council to adopt a resolution to provide for an independent international mechanism to investigate crimes under international law and other human rights violations in Xinjiang currently being blocked by China?
The hon. Lady will have seen the G7 leaders coming together yesterday. Having the presidency is a great opportunity for us to be able to put this issue forward. As I have said previously, we have led international efforts to hold China to account and yesterday’s G7 communiqué specifically called on China to respect human rights and fundamental freedoms, especially in relation to Xinjiang.
It has been reported in the past 24 hours that the EU was reluctant to specifically cite the camps in Xinjiang as part of the forced labour statement. Whether or not that is true, does my hon. Friend think that our closest allies will be united both in being disturbed by the testimony that we are seeing, and in condemning the coercion of the witnesses’ families?
My hon. Friend is right to bring that up. Of course, we condemn any intimidation of witnesses to this tribunal or to any other forums where people are giving similar such evidence. As he will have seen, yesterday’s communiqué called on China to respect human rights and fundamental freedoms, specifically in relation to Xinjiang. Additionally, in the recent communiqué of the Foreign and Development Ministers of the G7, the G7 expressed deep concern about human rights violations in Xinjiang and reiterated our call for independent experts to be given unfettered access to Xinjiang. We will continue to work with our partners to build a caucus of those willing to speak out against China’s human rights violations.
Arriving at the NATO summit in Brussels today, the Prime Minister said that nobody wants to
“descend into a…cold war with China”
and that, when people see challenges, they are things that we have to manage together with China. Can the Minister assure us that the Prime Minister will highlight the grotesque human rights abuses committed against the Uyghurs and that he recognises the importance of this matter in any dialogue with China?
The hon. Lady makes a good point. Of course, the Prime Minister is raising those issues. Let us be clear: our relationship with China remains clear-eyed. It is rooted in our values and is driven by our national interest. China is the world’s second largest economy. It is a member of the G20 and a permanent member of the UN Security Council. We have a policy of engagement with China and our approach towards China will remain consistent.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith) on securing this urgent question and on his continued work in highlighting the appalling treatment of the Uyghur people by the Beijing regime. With that in mind, can the Minister outline to the House what steps the Government are taking to ensure that no UK businesses are complicit in human rights abuses in Xinjiang?
I thank my hon. Friend for that very good question. We have been engaging with businesses on these issues for some time. On 12 January, we launched a Minister-led campaign to reinforce the need for business to take action in line with our advice and also to encourage them to act to address the risk. We are also providing support and advice to public bodies, and these build on the existing measures that we have taken to respond to Xinjiang, including research funded by the UK to help build the evidence base. There are a number of additional reports that have recently been published that the United Kingdom Government have helped to finance.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this urgent question, and I thank him for his work not only on Ethiopia, but on Zambia and Angola, where he serves as a trade envoy, and for the excellent work he does on the Business Council for Africa.
The Government are deeply concerned about the situation in Ethiopia. Our greatest concern is the rapidly growing human rights and humanitarian crisis in Tigray. We are now more than seven months into the conflict in Tigray, and there is no sight of an end. It has taken a terrible toll on the people of Tigray. More than 350,000 people are assessed to be in famine-like conditions in total—more than anywhere else in the world—and, sadly, this is expected to rise. A region-wide famine in Tigray is now likely if conflict intensifies and impediments to the delivery of humanitarian aid continue. This crisis has been caused by insecurity, an ongoing lack of humanitarian access and the deliberate destruction of agricultural equipment and medical facilities. It is a man-made crisis.
Officials from our embassy in Addis Ababa have visited Tigray five times to assess the situation and guide our humanitarian response. The UK’s special envoy for famine prevention and humanitarian affairs, Nick Dyer, visited Tigray last month. Our ambassador is due to visit this week. During these visits, we have heard many harrowing reports of atrocities committed by all parties to the conflict. This includes extrajudicial killings, and widespread sexual and gender-based violence. It is simply unacceptable, it must stop and the perpetrators must be held to account.
The head of the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs, Mark Lowcock, has said the humanitarian disaster is in part due to the presence of the Eritrean troops in Tigray. He says they are using hunger as a weapon of war, and we therefore need to see the immediate withdrawal of Eritrean forces from Tigray and Ethiopian soil now. The Government of Ethiopia have said this will happen, but it has not yet happened. I am particularly shocked about reports that Eritreans are dressing up in Ethiopian uniforms and committing atrocities.
The concern of the G7 nations about the situation was set out in yesterday’s communiqué, following the leaders’ summit this weekend. The G7 leaders called for an immediate cessation of hostilities and unimpeded humanitarian access to the area. I am pleased that all G7 nations in the EU, along with a growing number of other nations, including Spain, Australia, New Zealand, Norway, Finland, Sweden, Belgium and Poland, have joined the UK’s call for an immediate humanitarian ceasefire. His Holiness the Pope expressed his concerns and also called for an end to fighting this weekend. It is vital that that happens to allow life-saving aid to reach the hundreds of thousands in need.
The international community response to this crisis needs to be scaled up urgently. That will involve co-ordination to ensure aid gets in.
Thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting this urgent question. I thank everyone who supported me in the application.
The Minister knows that the UK’s ties with Ethiopia are very close and historical. Ethiopia is the second largest recipient of UK aid—it receives about £300 million a year from the UK. As chairman of the all-party group on Ethiopia and Djibouti, I wish to see that relationship and that level of aid continue.
Since the end of the Derg in 1991, Ethiopia has been a peaceful and safe country, holding together very many groups and religions and enjoying impressive economic growth. That is why it is so sad to see the current conflict in Tigray. Is the Minister satisfied with the current level of engagement of the United Nations and the African Union, in terms of negotiations and peacekeeping?
The World Food Programme has said that 350,000 people are suffering from catastrophic levels of hunger, categorised as integrated food security phase classification 5—the highest level. That is the highest number of people classified in that way in a single country in the past decade, and it is projected to increase. The World Food Programme says that it needs an extra $203 million to scale up its response in Tigray, and that,
“unless food and livelihood assistance is scaled up”,
famine is a risk, so what else can we do to help?
More generally, is the Minister satisfied that aid is reaching people in Tigray? Have the non-governmental organisations had their access restricted? What protection is being provided to aid workers following the reported deaths of nine aid workers?
On aid, does the Minister agree that often the people in most need in the world are those living in war-torn countries? Is it therefore right for any country to be suspending any direct aid to Ethiopia at the moment? In such situations, surely the trick is to get under the radar and deliver aid to the people who need it most.
Has the Minister been able to assess whether hospitals and their equipment are being adequately protected? Has he been able to assess the living conditions of the 1.6 million people who have been displaced throughout the conflict?
We have heard about the involvement of the Eritreans in Ethiopia. That was originally denied by the Ethiopian Government. Does the Minister feel that some of the worst atrocities are being committed from that route?
Finally, what assessment has the Minister made of the likelihood of the conflict spreading to other parts of Ethiopia and the wider region? I know the Foreign Secretary has a focus on east Africa, which demonstrates that we are all concerned about that situation.
I thank my hon. Friend. This is indeed one of our largest aid programmes. He asked whether the UN and the AU could do more. Yes, always, but we are working with our UN partners very carefully. I have spoken extensively to the new political affairs, peace and security commissioner, Bankole Adeoye, about this issue. Sadly, I can confirm the World Food Programme’s analysis of famine-like conditions—IPC5. Clearly, we need to do more. My hon. Friend asked whether we could do more, and I can announce this afternoon that the UK Government will provide a further £16.7 million of aid from our regular programme elsewhere in Ethiopia and divert it towards the conflict in Tigray. He mentioned NGO access. That has improved since the early days of the conflict, but NGOs still do not have full access, and the land in Tigray is controlled by different combatants, which makes it even more difficult. He talked of hospitals. Hospital supplies were virtually at zero at one point, and from what we have seen from our five visits from the embassy and Her Majesty’s Government, only around 74 of the 264 hospitals are operating in any way, shape or form.
My hon. Friend also mentioned the Eritrean troops. They have no place in the Ethiopian conflict, and they have been asked to leave. They should leave, and we will work with all partners to ensure that that happens. Rather chillingly, he also asked whether the conflict could spread. We are concerned, with the election coming up and with the pre-existing instabilities in the Oromo region and the Amhara region on the Sudanese border, not to mention the issue of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance dam, that there are a number of flashpoints, so it is important that we deal with this conflict as it stands at the moment and ensure that it does not spread further into the region and Ethiopia more generally.
I thank the hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr Robertson) for his strong words, and the Minister for his frank response. We have also repeatedly raised this horrendous situation. Indeed, I raised it with the Prime Minister in this House eight months ago, but tragically since then we have seen a worsening and deepening of the crisis. As has been said, Ethiopia has made huge strides forward on poverty, and our aid, trade and friendly partnership has been hugely important. We all want to see a prosperous and democratic Ethiopia, but the war and famine of the 1980s are seared into the memories of the British people and the world, so it is especially heartbreaking to see the current famine and to see civilians being hacked to death, rape, the destruction of food and health capacity, tens of thousands displaced and hundreds of thousands cut off from assistance. We must now speak forcefully and frankly, and most crucially take action in the face of the growing and incontrovertible evidence. We have a clear responsibility to act and to protect and assist Ethiopian civilians.
The UN human rights chief has spoken of potential war crimes and crimes against humanity, and the G7 spoke this weekend of a humanitarian tragedy, with potentially hundreds of thousands living in famine conditions, so has the Prime Minister spoken to Prime Minister Abiy or any of the other key players, not least following the G7 this weekend? If not, when will he do so? What action are we taking at the Security Council and the Human Rights Council with the AU to bring about an end to the conflict, full humanitarian access and a full independent investigation into the allegations of human rights abuses?
There is clear evidence of a serious food crisis, as the UK envoy and the UN have said, with huge numbers of people at risk of famine and food emergency, so this is the wrong time for us to be slashing humanitarian aid, as the House has made repeatedly clear. The Minister mentioned £16.7 million being diverted. However, the UN humanitarian chief pointed out last week that the UK had provided $108 million to Ethiopia last year, but that this year we have reported only $6 million. Can the Minister clarify that, and tell us when we will be urgently increasing our total assistance? I share his concerns about Eritrean troops. Have any actually left, or are they still there? It has been claimed that they have left, but I have yet to see any evidence of that. Will he also consider targeted sanctions and measures against any individual, from whatever side, who is found to have committed human rights abuses, war crimes or other atrocities?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his long-standing interest in this issue, through oral questions in the House and through parliamentary questions as well. We share the desire for a return to a democratic and prosperous Ethiopia. That was at the centre of the east African strategy, and we will work more closely with the United Nations in particular, and with UN organisations and local organisations, to ensure that all perpetrators are brought to account. The primary relationship with Prime Minister Abiy is with the Foreign Secretary, who met him on an east African trip and who I know retains that dialogue. I do not know specifically when the Prime Minister last spoke to Prime Minister Abiy, but I will certainly let the hon. Gentleman know.
On the aid level, I thank the hon. Gentleman for welcoming the small redirection of aid moneys. I do not recognise the numbers that he talked about, but I am more than happy to have a dialogue with him around that. Obviously, multilateral spending in addition to bilateral spending makes the situation slightly more complicated, particularly as we are diverting more money into the region. I think those are the main issues that he raised. If I have missed any, I will pick them up during other answers.
I welcome the urgent question from my hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury (Mr Robertson), which could not be more important given the tragic scenes we are seeing in Tigray at the moment. May I ask my hon. Friend the Minister what work he has been doing with our American friends—notably, of course, Senator Coons, who is the representative of President Biden in the region—and what co-ordination he is doing with UN agencies, including the Nobel prize-winning World Food Programme? Is extra support going to those organisations, and are they able to raise money through the open, charitable arms of the United Kingdom? So many people in this country are looking to help, and I am sure they would give very generously.
I thank my hon. Friend for his work on this issue and on the Foreign Affairs Committee. We are very engaged with our American partners. I attended a meeting last week with Samantha Power and international organisations, discussing this issue. When I was last in Ethiopia, I met the incoming ambassador, and there has been a regional envoy travelling in the area, whom I also met last week. I have had several meetings with David Beasley of the World Food Programme, which we try to work with as closely as possible, although at key points of this conflict, access to the area, rather than actually delivering the aid, was the main problem.
Ultimately, there is no solution without political dialogue. Although the issues that my hon. Friend raises are important, several other actions need to take place as a precursor before we get that food to the people who are starving. It is particularly concerning that people are destroying hoes and farming equipment so that people cannot plant. It is a narrow point; if they do not plant in the next few weeks or months, there will be no crop at the end of the cycle.
May I first put on the record my heartfelt sympathy and condolences to the families of those murdered by terrorists last week in Afghanistan while in their line of work with the HALO Trust? The attacks were atrocious and cowardly, and the perpetrators must be held to account. These men and women bravely put their lives on the line every day by clearing landmines all over the world.
Most of the 5.5 million people living in Tigray are desperately hungry, and more than 300,000 people are suffering from famine. Starvation causes someone’s body literally to consume itself; their organs shrink, their hair falls out, they convulse and they hallucinate before death. Children are even more at risk; it is reported that 300,000 children are expected to die. Even if aid deliveries were stepped up immediately, the situation will only worsen by September, so how are the UK Government using their relationship with Ethiopia to allow aid organisations access and to alleviate this impending catastrophic crisis?
This catastrophe is unfolding as we speak, and we know the devastation it will cause if we do nothing, yet the UK Government are ignoring both UK law and their own manifesto pledge by cutting aid—including that to Africa by 66%. Will the Government reverse those life-threatening cuts and, at the very least, immediately mobilise sufficient emergency funds to get life-saving aid to the Tigray region?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments. I would like to be associated with his comments on the HALO Trust, which does excellent work in Africa and elsewhere around the world.
Sadly, the numbers are even worse than those the hon Gentleman cites. Nearly 23 million people across Ethiopia will require assistance in 2021. The vast majority of those, and the vast majority of the increase on the normal assistance, are in Tigray, with 6.2 million of the population requiring assistance.
The hon. Gentleman asks about aid getting through. The process for humanitarian assistance getting through was very convoluted. It has improved, but it is still not sufficient to get the materials through, even if we did have them to distribute. However, that is something we are working on very closely; the famine prevention and humanitarian affairs envoy talked about it, and the ambassador will talk about it when he visits Tigray this week. One of the first people to visit Tigray was our development director, looking at these very issues of gaining access.
Crucial to all this is ensuring that the Eritreans get out of Tigray, to create a situation of stability. I very much hope that the turning point of the elections will be a pivot, where the Ethiopian Government will look again at some of these issues.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury (Mr Robertson) on securing this urgent question, and I echo the comments of the Foreign Affairs Committee Chair that many responsible people throughout our country are worrying about a return to 1984 famine conditions. I urge my hon. Friend, who is a decent and humane Minister, to take two key things away from the House. The first is that 2 million people have been driven from their homes—many across the border into Sudan—and 350,000 people, according to the UN, are now in IPC phase 5, which means they are quite literally starving to death. Secondly, in 2020, the UK recorded $108 million in humanitarian money for Ethiopia; so far this year, with the cuts resulting from our broken promise on the 0.7%, the UN tracking system says that Britain has provided only $6 million—that is the figure scored against ODA so far. Will my hon. Friend bear in mind those two facts in his discussions with his Treasury colleagues?
I thank my right hon. Friend for his long-standing interest. Like him, I do not want to go back to 1984, although there are chilling similarities. He talks of the number of individuals who have gone across the border to Sudan. We have provided £5 million to refugees coming over. We also recognise the number of 350,000.
I think my right hon. Friend explained the source of another hon. Member’s figure of $6 million. I will have to check it, because that is a gross distortion. This is one of our biggest aid programmes. We are the second or third largest aid donor, so that must be a snapshot of a single programme or a very small period of time, because our programmes are many multiples of that.
Tragedy has hit many people in the region, and sadly much of the world’s media seems to be ignoring it. Children are ultimately the most horrendous victims of this kind of war, and sexual violence has been perpetrated against many women in Tigray. Two million people, as others have pointed out, are now homeless or have been driven from their homes, and 350,000 people face imminent hunger. There has to be a political solution to this situation, and there has to be a humanitarian response to it.
Is the Minister confident that the Ethiopian Government will allow unfettered access to United Nations human rights inspectors to look at the human rights situation? Is he confident that we will make sure that no further arms are supplied to Ethiopia and, indeed, that there is an arms embargo on the whole region to try to force the pace on bringing about peace for the future? Have he or the Government had any contact with the African Union on this issue, and what role is the African Union playing in trying to bring about a political settlement and a political solution so that another conflict does not break out and the many refugees who have gone to Sudan and other places are able to return home in safety?
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that question. He is absolutely right that this requires a political solution; without a political solution, all the other actions that take place will not work. That is not to say that we should not do other things, but we need to look at the backbone of the long-term political situation. This conflict has been going on too long—over eight months. During that period, we have called for “unfettered”—in the right hon. Gentleman’s words—humanitarian access. I would not describe the access we have now as unfettered; I would describe it as better than when we started early on in the conflict. We are working very closely with the UN in this regard.
The right hon. Gentleman mentions the issues around arms embargoes, which I will consider carefully. As he will appreciate, though, arms come in over many borders—porous borders—and the situation is quite complex, with regional influence well beyond just the African continent. The African Union should be, will be and is part of the solution, and we will work with it. I have spoken a number of times to my opposite number, Commissioner Bankole, and I even spoke a few weeks ago with the President of Ethiopia and briefly with the head of the African Union, Moussa Faki, about the African Union. The African Union will be part of the solution. In the 54 states of Africa, there is a diminishing conflict, but there are significant problems, and the African Union is well placed to solve them, rather than their being solved from London or New York.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury (Mr Robertson) on securing this urgent question, and thank Mr Speaker for granting it, shining a spotlight on this absolutely appalling humanitarian situation. It is particularly tragic, given how much progress Ethiopia had been making on development. The Minister said that quite clearly it is a man-made crisis. In that light, would he consider writing to the Nobel peace prize awarding committee to ask it to revoke the peace prize it awarded to Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed?
I thank my hon. Friend for her service as my predecessor in this role. She will appreciate that the awarding of a Nobel peace prize is not for the United Kingdom to determine. At the moment, our relationship with Prime Minister Abiy is one of trying to have a strong dialogue. The Foreign Secretary has a very good, honest relationship with Prime Minister Abiy. At the moment, we are better having a continued and quiet dialogue and diplomacy, rather than leaping to some of the solutions that my hon. Friend is pointing to—legitimate solutions elsewhere that might be right at a different time, but I do not think they would be constructive at this juncture.
“Never again”—that is what the international community said after the famine in Ethiopia in the 1980s. In fact, I lived there between the ages of five and eight, and I will never forget the looks in the eyes of starving children my own age: scared, desperate or, worst of all, hollow. So it is utterly horrifying to hear that history is repeating itself. In the face of this Government’s decision to abandon the 0.7% target on aid, it would be an act of extreme callousness to cut what we give to the people of Ethiopia at this time. The Minister said that he does not recognise the £6 million figure, so can he clarify how much less this country will be spending on aid to Ethiopia as a result of the aid cuts, compared with last year? He also said that the money promised today is a diversion from elsewhere, so what programmes are being cancelled or delayed as a result?
I would not want the House to get the wrong idea. Internationally we said, “Never again,” but actually things are improving across the African continent. There are still problems, but things are moving in the right direction and have been since 1984. In Ethiopia specifically, prior to this conflict, the Ethiopian Government were much more able to find their own solutions, alongside us, but aid remains part of the process. The hon. Lady pushes me to provide statistics that I do not have available, but they will be reported to the House in the normal course of business.
Does the Minister share my concerns about credible reports of child soldiers being deployed in the conflict? The UK is supporting the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights in investigating human rights violations in the conflict. Does that include looking into the involvement of child soldiers, and what more can the UK do to help prevent this abuse of vulnerable young lives in the region?
Sadly, a high level of sexual violence is being directed at children—children are being forced to commit sexual acts—and I think it is likely that people under the age of 18 are being conscripted. I will be interested to hear from non-governmental organisations with more evidence, and that should be brought before the African Union, the UN and local authorities to ensure that perpetrators are held to account, because clearly it is unacceptable.
The humanitarian crisis unfolding in Ethiopia is saddening, and we in the UK must urgently step up to help civilians via aid as well as demanding an immediate end to the violence in Tigray. What assessment have the Government made of reports of aid being cut off, health facilities being vandalised and aid workers being harassed by troops on all sides of the conflict? What about the horrific allegations of sexual torture and rape? What action is being taken against them?
Sadly, all those things are happening, it is true. To put some numbers on the sexual violence, it is over 1,000, and we fear that probably at least 26,000 people are likely to require support in the coming months. That is based on UN estimates. It is very difficult to give more precise figures on the types of atrocities and the perpetrators, given that we do not have full access. As I say, there is very strong evidence that Eritrean soldiers are dressing up in Ethiopian uniforms, and there are counter-accusations of similar behaviour from other combatants.
The vast majority of my constituents support the Government’s decision to reduce international aid, but they rightly expect us to provide funding and support to relieve the situation in Ethiopia. Does the Minister agree that moving away from the 0.7% target in no way stops us providing vital support in circumstances such as these?
I thank my hon. Friend for his support. Of course we are still contributing £10 billion of aid. That is an enormous sum of money in absolute terms. It is also enormous relative to the actual size of our economy—it is much larger than other members of the G7 and our international partners, such as the Americans, for example. Not only that, but it is not a permanent change; we are going to get back to 0.7% when the economic conditions allow. I know that there are other hon. Members in the House who want that to happen very quickly, but we will keep that situation under review and try to get it back. It certainly does not stop us helping more in situations such as that in Ethiopia.
Gang rape and brutal sexual violence against women and little girls are being used as weapons of war in Tigray. This fear of sexual violence means that women and girls are in hiding, too terrified to travel to food distribution centres. Children are literally starving because of fear of rape. What work are the Government doing internationally to remove the stigma of rape in conflict? What steps are being taken to bring perpetrators of sexual violence in conflict to justice?
This is an incredibly important issue, which was given a higher profile when Lord Hague was Foreign Secretary. It was raised up the international agenda. In fact, I was alongside him in a number of UN meetings when I was Minister for Africa under David Cameron, raising these issues. It does appear that sexual violence is being used more, not less. Some of that might be our awareness and our willingness to talk about it, rather than brushing it under the carpet, but it is really important that we flag that it is one of the worst areas of behaviour. We need to get away from it. I note that the House is discussing the issue in more detail—perhaps I will be able to provide more detail—on Thursday this week.
This urgent question underlines exactly why we should not be reducing our aid budget from 0.7% to 0.5%, but this war in Tigray is a test for the west. The conflict has resulted in widespread starvation, as the Minister points out, but a state of famine has not yet been declared. The recent G7 summit called for an immediate ceasefire, but how likely is it that either Ethiopia or Eritrea will heed those words? What is clear is that if the international community stands back and does nothing, the war, the scale of the famine and the number of civilian deaths will continue to increase.
As the UN Security Council penholder for peacekeeping and the protection of civilians in armed conflict, will the UK be calling for an emergency session of the UN Security Council, and will we be offering to send independent observers, so that we can better understand the situation, given the conflicting reports and statements made by the Ethiopian Government on the one hand and NGOs on the other?
My right hon. Friend makes very strong points, and I am reminded that if the famine-like conditions were more concentrated—were in a more defined area—they would indeed be defined as famine; this is so widespread that it is defined as famine-like conditions. We are already working with our colleagues and international observers to understand. Unfortunately, if we only do what we are doing now the situation will get worse; we must do something different. At the heart of that is finding a political solution and, hopefully, moving away from the election will be a pivot point. I am not demeaning any of the other calls for action, but without a political solution things will get worse.
I thank the Minister for his clear commitment to the job in hand. Like all the other hon. Members here today, I am deeply concerned about reports of multiple massacres in Ethiopia’s Tigray region, including the killing of up to 800 people in and around the sacred refuge of the Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion in Axum.
I am also greatly concerned about the food situation in the region. Even before the conflict over 1 million people in Tigray needed daily food assistance, including 40,000 Eritrean refugees, so will the Minister outline what discussions he has had with African counterparts about this terrible conflict and what he is doing to support those at risk of famine, in particular Christians and ethnic groups who are often at the end of the queue when it comes to getting help?
I am concerned about all the people, whether they are Christians, Ethiopians or Eritreans, as I know the hon. Gentleman is. I continue a dialogue—in fact I think this issue comes up in every single meeting I have across the continent. It is a blight on the continent; it is a problem for the continent and the world, not just for Ethiopia. So we will continue raising those issues; the Minister of State Lord Ahmad has, as Minister on freedom of religion, particularly emphasised them, and we also heard from the Prime Minister’s envoy, my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce), in this Chamber just a few moments ago.
Eritrea is effectively a dictatorship with one of the worst human rights records in the world. What pressure can my hon. Friend put on the Government of Eritrea to remove their troops from this conflict and to make sure that they abide by the human rights records we want to see right across the world?
At various points in the conflict there has been denial that troops are there, denial that they were there and committing atrocities, and so on and so on; it has been very unclear. I share my hon. Friend’s analysis of the situation. Guy Warrington, a senior member of the Foreign Office, will soon be visiting the area and taking up the post of ambassador there to work on this issue and a number of others. As I have said, my hon. Friend’s analysis, while uncomfortable, is correct.
The UN Secretary-General’s special representative on the elimination of sexual violence, Pramila Patten, said last week that 22,500 women in Tigray need access to services as a result of conflict-related sexual violence. This coming Saturday is the UN International Day for the Elimination of Sexual Violence in Conflict. Will the Minister support Tigrayan women around the world who are calling for justice for their sisters by using the UK’s position on the UN Security Council to press for urgent and immediate action to stop this violence and ensure that the perpetrators are brought to justice?
I thank the hon. Lady for the way in which she has addressed this and a number of other issues on Ethiopia behind the scenes as well as in public; that has been very helpful. I am very keen to support raising the issue, whether on the UN day or in debate. Anything we can do to call out sexual violence against women makes it harder for the perpetrator to commit the crime and easier for us to rally support for people to be prosecuted and to put others off in the future.
Reports of new atrocities in Tigray continue to emerge almost daily. Does the Minister agree that UN investigators need to be given urgent and full access to the region so that they can investigate, and will he consider further joint action with our international partners if that access is not forthcoming?
It is important that we look at the situation as an international community rather than acting on a bilateral basis. I am hopeful that the end of the elections will be a pivot point; it is difficult to see big changes happening before that, but we should call for greater humanitarian access and we must do so as a collective region or an international community. Clearly, given the deteriorating situation, we cannot just call for these things not to happen and then rest on our laurels. We will have to look again at these issues.
The Minister will have seen reports that Vodafone is paying the Ethiopian Government £850 million for a telecoms licence, as the first stage of a deal that Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed described as
“the single largest foreign direct investment into Ethiopia”.
There is widespread concern that that funding will be used to support the war in Tigray. Will the Minister therefore explain what advice the Government are giving British business on investment in the country at this time?
This is not a Government investment, but a CDC investment, although we are dancing on the head of a pin in the sense that the CDC itself is a UK Government-supported institution. We supported the bid to be a telecoms supplier; that bid precedes the Tigrayan conflict, and its successes in bringing greater mobile telephony across the area will help to transform Ethiopia. If there were any question of the money being used to support the conflict in Tigray, we would not be involved; if the hon. Gentleman has any evidence of that, he should come forward. We see this as something that will open out Ethiopia, not shut it down.
The Government have rightly identified the scale of this crisis. Will they therefore detail how the reduction from 0.7% will cut the ability for us to fund projects in Ethiopia?
May I also ask the Minister whether the preventing sexual violence in conflict team is ready to deploy into Ethiopia? It was suggested on 24 May by the special representative in the House of Lords that the team would be deploying. I would like the Minister to come to the House and tell us when they will deploy, when they will be able to provide assistance to victims of sexual violence in conflict, whether documentation of these crimes is taking place and whether we will be able to lead any prosecutions for what are the most atrocious crimes.
I cannot give my hon. Friend the detailed breakdown that he is looking for. I do recall signing off, in the past week or so, an answer to a parliamentary question about specific support in Ethiopia; I will not quote it from memory, because I do not want to introduce errors into Hansard, but when I get back to the office I will be more than happy to point him in the direction of that PQ. I point out again that the ambassador is travelling to the region this week. We will work with our UN partners to work out what specialist support, what physical kit and which individuals across the region are needed. The answer is not always sending people from London; it is about sending people regionally to support exactly the same work. I am conscious that we will have more time to discuss the matter on Thursday, and I will make sure that I can give my hon. Friend an even better answer then.
May I follow up on the question asked by the hon. Member for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall)? Because of the widespread reports of sexual violence in Tigray, can the Minister confirm whether he is expecting that the UK’s preventing sexual violence in conflict teams will be travelling to the area and working with and supporting survivors, or not? I was not clear from his last answer whether he is expecting that to happen.
I am afraid that I cannot provide the right hon. Lady with that clarity. I will do so later today in writing and address that issue in the House on Thursday. I do not want to inadvertently mislead the House with the wrong statistics, but we are very aware of the problem and very aware of the need to take action.
National Insurance Contributions Bill
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
The Bill before the House today is a short one, with just four measures: an employer’s national insurance contributions relief for employees in freeports; an employer’s NICs relief for employers of veterans; an exemption for Test and Trace support payments from self-employed NICs; and changes to the disclosure of tax avoidance schemes legislation with regard to national insurance contributions. The measures are all important, and I shall explain each of them in more detail.
I shall start with the employer’s NICs relief for employees in freeports. At the Budget, the Chancellor announced the locations of the first eight freeports. These sites, which range from Teesside to Tilbury, will become hubs for trade, innovation and commerce. They will attract new businesses and they will regenerate communities by creating jobs, boosting investment and spreading prosperity. Overall, freeports present an extraordinary opportunity to drive regional economic growth, and the Government want as many areas as possible to benefit.
An important part of the appeal of freeports for employers is undoubtedly the wide range and variety of tax reliefs that they provide. These include an enhanced 10% rate of structures and buildings allowance, an increased 100% capital allowance for companies investing in plant and machinery, and full relief from stamp duty on land or property purchases.
The employer’s NICs relief for workers in freeports contained in the Bill encourages employment while supporting regional growth. Under this measure, employers with premises in a freeport in Great Britain will be exempt from employer’s NICs on up to £25,000 of a new worker’s wages. This legislation applies to all new workers who spend 60% of their working time at a freeport tax site in the first three years of employment.
The relief will be available from April next year until at least April 2026. At that point, a sunset clause will require the Government to lay secondary legislation to extend the relief, if they wish, for up to a further five years to April 2031. Any decision to extend will only be taken upon review of the relief’s impact. However, even if the Government decided not to extend the relief, employers will be able to claim it for the full three years on new hires taken on before April 2026. While these measures relate to Great Britain, let me assure the House that it is the Government’s intention to legislate for this relief in Northern Ireland as soon as is practicable. Indeed, the Bill provides the Government with the power to set out the detail of employer NICs relief in Northern Ireland in secondary legislation once engagement with the Northern Ireland Executive is complete.
The second of our measures concerns NICs relief for employers of veterans. As colleagues will recall, this policy was announced at spring Budget 2020. It also fulfils a manifesto commitment to reduce employer NICs for a full year for every new employee who has left the armed forces. The House will know well that I am very closely connected to the astonishing work of special forces in Hereford, but the veterans of our armed forces across the United Kingdom give extraordinary service to this nation. We know that some face great challenges in obtaining secure and fulfilling employment, so it is only right that we should do all we can to change this situation. Under the Bill, employers will not pay employer NICs on earnings worth up to £50,270 in a veteran’s first full year of civilian employment. This amounts to a saving of up to £5,500 per hired veteran. I am sure that colleagues across the House will agree that this measure should give a real boost to veterans’ employment prospects, and should mean that many more businesses benefit from their often extraordinary skills and personal experience.
I now turn to the exemption of Test and Trace support payments from self-employed NICs. Last September, the Government announced the launch of a £500 support payment in England for low-income individuals who had been told to self-isolate but who could not work from home and would lose income as a result. Shortly afterwards, the Scottish and Welsh Governments announced similar schemes. These payments, which were provided by local authorities, would be subject to employee and employer class 1 and 1A and self-employed class 2 and class 4 NICs under long-standing legislation. Last year, however, the Government introduced secondary legislation to exempt payments under the support schemes from employee and employer class 1 and 1A NICs. The measure contained in the Bill will extend this exemption to the self-employed. It will ensure that these workers are treated consistently with their employed counterparts and do not have to pay NICs on support payments. The legislation will therefore retrospectively exempt Test and Trace support payments from class 2 and class 4 NICs for the 2020-21 tax year. It will also ensure that in future Test and Trace support payments will not be included in profit liable to class 2 and class 4 NICs.
The final measure in the Bill relates to changes in the disclosure of tax avoidance schemes—DOTAS—regime in relation to NICs. As colleagues will recall, the DOTAS legislation was introduced in 2004. It seeks to provide Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs with early information about new tax avoidance schemes—information on how they work and about those who use them. The provisions in the Finance Act 2021 enhanced the operation of the DOTAS regime, and the Bill includes changes to an existing regulation-making power in the Social Security Administration Act 1992. This will ensure that HMRC can act decisively over a wider range of promoters and their supply chains if they fail to provide information on suspected avoidance schemes. It will also ensure that HMRC can warn taxpayers about suspected avoidance schemes at an earlier stage than at present. In addition, the Bill places responsibility for the obligations within DOTAS and for any failure to comply with them both on promoters of these schemes and their suppliers. I am sure all colleagues across the House will welcome these measures.
The Bill supports regional growth and, with it, the Government’s levelling-up agenda; boosts employment while helping to protect those on low incomes from the financial impacts of covid-19; and strengthens the Government’s powers to tackle promoters of avoidance schemes. For all those reasons, I commend it to the House.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for the opportunity to speak about this Bill on behalf of the Opposition. We will not oppose the Bill on Second Reading. Indeed, we support the intention behind many of its measures. However, I would like to take this opportunity to raise important questions with Ministers about some of the approaches they have decided to take.
As we know, clauses 1 to 5 would introduce a new zero rate of secondary class 1 national insurance contributions for employers taking on employees in a freeport. The zero rate would apply from April 2022, and it would allow employers to claim relief on the earnings of eligible employees up to £25,000 per year for three years. As the House will recall from the Report stage of the recent Finance Bill, my hon. Friend the Member for Erith and Thamesmead (Abena Oppong-Asare) made it clear that we want every region and nation of the UK to succeed whether or not it has a freeport. We want secure new jobs with better pay to be created right across the country, and we want to support and protect British businesses and industries. Freeports may be part of the solution to increasing trade and investment across the UK, but we note that the International Trade Committee concluded in its recent report on UK freeports, published on 20 April, that
“it remains to be seen how successful freeports will be at achieving this objective.”
Just to clarify, the hon. Member says that freeports might be part of the solution—to levelling up, I guess—but does he therefore support freeports or does he agree with his colleague in the shadow Treasury team, the shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury, the hon. Member for Houghton and Sunderland South (Bridget Phillipson), who has said that they are “economically illiterate”?
I was awaiting the hon. Gentleman’s intervention—I was definitely expecting it given the recent debates we have had in this place—and if he will wait just one moment, I will get on to setting out our position on freeports in more detail.
We were concerned at the recent Report stage of the Finance Bill that the Government themselves seemed to show a lack of certainty by voting against our simple amendment to the Finance Bill that would have seen the success of each individual freeport transparently evaluated. As I am sure the hon. Gentleman will remember, we wanted each freeport to be judged against the key tests of whether, across the country, they lead to any net increase in jobs, deliver improvements in training and skills for local residents, produce tangible transport and infrastructure improvements beyond the port itself and will be adequately protected against the risks of tax evasion, smuggling and criminal activity. It is disappointing that the Government voted against the transparent evaluation of their proposed freeports. Not only would this have enabled us to judge their success, but some of the factors we highlighted in our tests would in fact make investment in freeports more attractive to businesses.
Indeed, in response to the Government’s own consultation on freeports last year, many respondents argued that
“although tax incentives can be a significant driver behind businesses investing within an area, they were not usually the sole determinant.”
The Government’s summary of responses went on to explain:
“Some respondents also indicated the success of tax incentives was partially dependent on local factors, especially the quality of transport infrastructure and the skills and availability of local labour.”
As we consider the tax relief before us today, it is therefore important to remind the Government not to ignore the other aspects of the operation of freeports that may be key to their success.
On this tax relief, I would like to ask Ministers to address three specific points that arise from the Bill. First, while relief to employer’s national insurance contributions may be a reasonable part of a tax incentive package along with other tax incentive measures, it is hard to understand why this relief is conditional on employment not commencing until 6 April 2022. As the Chartered Institute of Taxation has pointed out, with freeports expected to start operating in 2021, that would surely hamper freeport employers this year and perhaps create perverse incentives about delaying the start of an employee’s work. I would be grateful if the Exchequer Secretary set out in her response the Government’s reasoning behind this condition on accessing the relief.
Secondly, clause 8 of the Bill enables the Government to set an upper secondary threshold for employer class 1 national insurance contributions specifically in relation to freeport employees—and, indeed, for armed forces veterans, which I will turn to shortly. In practice, this means that employers do not need to pay NICs until an employee’s earnings pass that threshold. We note that the upper secondary threshold for freeport employees will, according to a policy paper published by the Government on 12 May, be set at £25,000 for 2022-23. That is substantially less than the equivalent thresholds for employers’ relief for under-21s and apprentices, which is £50,270 in 2021-22. Just to be clear, this means that employers do not need to pay any NICs for under-21s and apprentices earning up to just over £50,000 a year, but they will have to pay contributions for freeport employees next year if they earn more than £25,000. It would be helpful to understand the Government’s rationale for picking this figure. According to the Office for National Statistics, the median income in all those local authority areas where the eight freeport sites are located is greater than £25,000, with the figures ranging from £25,200 in Kingston upon Hull, within the Humber freeport, to £33,200 in Thurrock, within the Thames freeport. I therefore ask the Exchequer Secretary to explain why the relief for freeport employers is set below median pay in all freeport areas and why this rate is half of that for those employing under-21s and apprentices.
Thirdly, as the plans for freeports stand, businesses taking advantage of their tax incentives will still pay corporation tax. British businesses that pay their fair share of tax will find it very hard to understand why the Chancellor has been for so long so lukewarm about a new, global minimum corporate tax rate to stop large multinationals undercutting them by exploiting tax havens around the world. The Chancellor welcomed the rate being cut from the original 21% proposed by President Biden down to 15%, even though that would cost Britain £131 million a week and leave British businesses being undercut. When I have asked the Financial Secretary before about the Government’s position, he said he did not think
“it is appropriate for Ministers to comment on tax policy in flight”.—[Official Report, 28 April 2021; Vol. 693, c. 418.]
Now, however, the outcomes of the G7 Finance Ministers’ meeting and the Carbis Bay summit are public, so perhaps his colleague, the Exchequer Secretary, could explain why the UK Government’s position has been to back a rate of 15%.
Let me move on to other measures in the Bill. As we have heard, an important relief, covered by clauses 6 and 7—