House of Commons
Tuesday 26 October 2021
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office
The Secretary of State was asked—
Losing Loved Ones Overseas: Support
Losing a loved one is always extremely difficult, particularly if it happens overseas. The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office supports about 4,000 families affected by death abroad annually. Consular staff work tirelessly to provide information on local laws and systems, and offer tailored support to British people and their families in order to make arrangements.
In my constituency, we have sadly had two recent and high-profile cases of families losing a loved one abroad, including Susan and John Cooper in Egypt, and more recently Kelsey Devlin in Pakistan. Will my right hon. Friend look into those two cases to see whether there is anything further that the Foreign Office can do in order that the families can finally get the answers they need so that they can grieve?
May I first offer my deepest sympathies to my hon. Friend’s constituents following the deaths of their loved ones? Officials continue to support Mr and Mrs Cooper’s family and are working with Her Majesty’s Coroner and Egyptian authorities to enable the inquest to take place as soon as possible. My officials are also supporting Ms Devlin’s family, and will assist them in reporting their concerns surrounding this tragic case to the police in Pakistan. I would also like to offer to meet my hon. Friend to discuss these two cases.
Does the Minister agree that although charities such as the Kevin Bell Repatriation Trust in Northern Ireland do a tremendous job in assisting with complex repatriation, there is a greater role and need for a Government-led repatriation section to be established?
Palestinian Authority: ODA
Development programmes in the Occupied Palestinian Territories work to preserve the prospect of a negotiated two-state solution and simultaneously to improve the lives of Palestinians, in line with the UK’s long-standing approach to the middle east peace process. Although the UK will no longer provide direct funding to the Palestinian Authority, we understand the importance of capacity building of Palestinian institutions.
Earlier this year, the long-awaited EU review into the Palestinian Authority’s school curriculum was published, and it confirmed numerous examples of antisemitism. I note the Minister’s recent announcement that the UK is no longer funding Palestinian teachers to draft and deliver this curriculum, but will he ensure that any further UK support to Palestinian education is conditional on a zero-tolerance approach to antisemitism, and that that is shown at the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East?
I assure my hon. Friend that the UK Government take a zero-tolerance approach to anti- semitism, wherever it is. The reduction in funding to the Palestinian Authority was in direct response to the official development assistance prioritisation review, which was itself in response to the economic constraints driven by covid. We do, however, continue to support the Palestinians through the UNRWA. We will ensure that, as we have done, we continue to press for that education curriculum to be devoid of any examples of antisemitism.
I obviously totally agree with bringing pressure to bear on issues such as antisemitism. Nevertheless, the humanitarian crisis that exists in Gaza in particular ought to shock the world, with a lack of access to clean water and of proper education, particularly for young girls and women in Gaza. As a country, we still ought to support the provision of those things. Can the Minister give us a clear understanding of when that assistance will return, because it matters?
As I said, the UK continues to support UNRWA, which does fantastic work in both the west bank and Gaza. On my recent trip to Egypt, I spoke with Egyptian officials about the work that they had done to help to support Gaza after the conflict. The best thing that we can all do for the people of Gaza, the OPTs and the wider region is to push for a sustainable, peaceful two-state solution. That will remain the foundation stone of the UK’s policy in the region.
I welcome the new Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs and I hope that she has a long and welcome time in that place.
How can this Government be serious about supporting the peace process and striving for reconciliation when they are cutting aid spending by 71%? With further deeply damaging cuts expected in tomorrow’s Budget and spending review, does the Minister not see that slashing the aid budget fundamentally undermines our national security as well as being against our national interest?
I remind the House that because of covid this country experienced the worst economic contraction in three centuries, and it was absolutely right that we responded to that. We remain, in both absolute and percentage terms, one of the most generous aid donors in the world. We are proud of that record, as I and my right hon. Friends in Government have said. We aim to return to 0.7% as soon as the fiscal situation allows.
Economic and Security Ties with Allies
We are deepening our economic and security ties with allies, including the United States, members of the comprehensive and progressive agreement for trans-Pacific partnership, and India. We need to win the battle for economic influence through free enterprise and economies based on democracy.
I completely agree with my hon. Friend. I was in New Delhi and Mumbai last week doing just that. India is a key strategic partner for the United Kingdom. It is the world’s largest democracy. There are huge opportunities. We are shortly about to launch trade talks with India and we are working to increase two-way investment flows.
I welcome the Foreign Secretary to her role and congratulate her on becoming the second woman in history to hold the post. I think I speak for Labour Members when I say that we look forward to welcoming the third. The Foreign Secretary is right to make delivering build back better a priority. COP26 will fail without a commitment to clean and reliable infrastructure in the developing world. We will never be taken seriously in Beijing if we do not claw back some of the influence we have lost in the world. She is right to identify that being a pushover with the Treasury does nothing for our national interest and nothing for our national security. However, the non-official development aid budget has been halved—ODA spending is down by £4 billion—and the Treasury’s accounting tricks will leave her coffers almost empty. With just days to go until the most important climate summit in a generation, has she clawed back some of that funding in tomorrow’s Budget, or will we see the same story playing out of a Foreign Secretary who is not taken seriously in Beijing because she is not taken seriously around her own Cabinet table?
I thank the hon. Lady for her warm welcome to the Dispatch Box. I look forward to working with her over the coming years—many, many years. I do not think the Chancellor would be very happy if I announced the spending review today—and I am not sure you, Mr Speaker, would be very happy either. However, I assure her that we are absolutely prioritising our humanitarian aid budget. We are prioritising women and girls as part of our development budget, and we are prioritising investing in honest, reliable infrastructure in developing countries, particularly clean, green infrastructure.
If the Foreign Secretary is still the only person in this country who has not seen the contents of the Budget, may I refer her to the Daily Mail, which has the entire read-out for her and for the rest of us?
When the Foreign Secretary’s budget has been devastated over the past 10 years of Tory Government, can she not see the problem with no new money being announced in the Budget tomorrow? The Department she inherited was hollowed out under her predecessor and everything that she says she plans to do depends on her ability to reverse that. This House needs not more words but a serious plan. Only a few months ago, Members of this House made clear our view that what has been happening in Xinjiang constitutes genocide. She is an enthusiastic supporter of the UK’s application to join the trans-Pacific partnership, which she mentioned in relation to an earlier question. However, China’s application leaves open the very prospect that this House sought to avoid and that her predecessor blocked. We should not be entering into preferential trade arrangements with countries that commit genocide. If she cannot give the House guarantees that she has won the battle for resources, can she at least guarantee that she will veto China’s membership if the application is successful?
I completely agree with the hon. Lady about the terrible atrocities that are taking place in Xinjiang, and I raised that with the Chinese Foreign Minister, Wang Yi, on the phone last week, as well as our concerns over Hong Kong, which I have also raised publicly. It is important that we trade with China, but we need to ensure that it is reliable trade, that it avoids strategic dependency and that it does not involve the violation of intellectual property rights or forced technology transfer. I urge China to respect the rules of the World Trade Organisation. Of course, the United Kingdom is not yet a member of the CPTPP, so we do not have rights over decisions, but I am clear that any country that enters the CPTPP needs to follow its high rules and standards, including high environmental and labour standards.
I very much welcome my right hon. Friend to her place at the Dispatch Box. Given her past experience and her former jobs, can she tell us how she will build on the economic power of the United Kingdom to develop our strategic influence around the world? This country grew rich not on the force of arms, but on the force of law and the different ways in which we have traded and travelled around the world. It would be fantastic to hear from her how she will use the office she now holds to defend the place of law both at home and abroad and to shape our alliances to promote our interests.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that developing our economic ties with like-minded allies is vital to developing our influence in the world and also the influence of free enterprise, freedom and democracy. That is why we are pursuing trade deals with the likes of the CPTPP, India and the United States, which are all democratic and free enterprise-based. We now have a unique opportunity, as post-Brexit Britain, with all the tools at our disposal—development, trade, diplomacy and security—to build those links that I describe as a network of liberty across the world.
I know the Foreign Secretary will agree that the sharply reducing ice in the Arctic is producing huge environmental challenges and serious economic and commercial opportunities, but also therefore an increase in security risks and the possibility of militarisation of one kind or another. Does she agree that the Arctic is an area worthy of intense diplomatic activity in the years to come?
I also welcome the Foreign Secretary to her place. Like many other Members, I look forward to seeing many more glossy pictures of her in exciting places around the world doing her job looking fabulous. Perhaps she should sign them for Members keen to have more images of her.
We will get a signed copy for you.
That would be most kind, if the Minister can arrange that. Consistency in international law is vital for credibility and for building trust, none more importantly than in Cyprus, where part of the island remains under illegal occupation. Does the Foreign Secretary agree that the only basis for peace in Cyprus is a bizonal, bicommunal federation and that any speculation —we have heard some speculation—to the contrary would be deeply unhelpful and a retrograde step?
I am pleased to hear about the hon. Gentleman’s reading material. What I would say on the subject of Cyprus is that the UK supports a comprehensive settlement based on previous parameters set out in the UN Security Council resolution, so I do not agree with the premise of his question.
The security situation in Afghanistan remains fragile and volatile. Islamic State has launched deadly terror attacks, including at Kabul airport and a number of Shi’a mosques. The situation for women and girls has become even more difficult since the Taliban took power. Women are now largely absent from public life and barred from many roles in the workplace. We continue to press the Taliban to allow secondary education for girls to ensure full and equal access to education for all. Between April and 18 October, we disbursed nearly £35 million of life-saving humanitarian support to Afghanistan.
Before the Taliban took control, more than 3.5 million girls were in school, and many more were in university and vital roles across the Afghan economy. Taliban spokesmen say that girls can go to school, yet in many areas they are permitted only up to grade 6 or 7, and in some areas they are not permitted at all. There is a growing gap between the Taliban’s promises and the reality. To those girls and women, it must feel that the doors that opened over the last two decades are slamming shut in their faces, and those who have stood against that have been met by violence. What are our Government doing to give them hope?
I thank my hon. Friend for her question about this incredibly important issue. This year, we are doubling our humanitarian and development assistance to Afghanistan to £286 million, including for women and girls. We continue to press the Taliban to ensure that women play a full and equal role in life and that girls of all ages can go to school, holding the Taliban to the commitments that they have made. On 5 October, the Prime Minister’s high representative for the Afghan transition, Sir Simon Gass, travelled to Afghanistan and held talks directly with the Taliban in which they discussed the humanitarian crisis and we pushed for improved rights for women and girls.
I thank my right hon. Friend for grouping my question. Many colleagues on the Government Benches and across the House have made representations to the Department regarding specific individuals in Afghanistan whose lives, or whose families’ lives, are at risk and would benefit from UK support similar to that given in previous years to our country’s agencies and armed forces while in Afghanistan. If former UK special forces members can vouch for certain individuals, why has the Minister’s Department not acted quickly to patriate these individuals to the safety of the UK? Would it help if they played football?
The Afghan relocations and assistance policy is designed to allow Afghan nationals who served alongside Her Majesty’s armed forces and wider Government in Afghanistan, and those whom we judge to be at serious risk because of that service, to settle in the UK. We continue to assist those who were called forward under that scheme during Operation Pitting. Sadly, we were not able to evacuate all, but we continue to seek to evacuate those who can be evacuated.
My hon. Friend referred to football—I take it that he means the Afghan junior women’s football team. As we have just discussed, the situation for women in Afghanistan is particularly acute and we are prioritising those people who are at serious risk of reprisals.
Further to the question from the hon. Member for Lincoln (Karl MᶜCartney), the Minister will know that hundreds of people, including men who I served alongside, remain stranded in Afghanistan. Many are being hunted by the Taliban, and some have already been murdered, all because of their association with us. Will the Minister say a bit more about what the Government are doing to ensure that those who risk their lives for us are afforded safe passage out of Afghanistan?
I am grateful to the hon. and gallant Gentleman for the question. He is right that many people in the House—himself included—have served alongside incredibly brave members of the Afghan armed forces, translators and others who supported our work while we attempted to support the Afghans. The ARAP scheme is designed specifically to facilitate their evacuation from Afghanistan. He, perhaps more than most, will understand the practical difficulties in executing that on the ground.
My noble Friend Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon speaks regularly with the countries in the neighbourhood to facilitate the evacuation from Afghanistan. I assure the hon. and gallant Gentleman that the UK Government take incredibly seriously the debt of honour that we owe to those brave Afghans who are currently in danger because of their support for our work in the country.
I realise that the Government can do much more for at-risk Afghan women who have managed to cross the border and are outside the country. One thing they can do for at-risk Afghans who are still in Afghanistan is link the provision of extra aid with their not being persecuted. How explicit are we making that link? How strongly are we exploiting that leverage?
My right hon. Friend makes an incredibly important point. I assure him that we hold the Taliban to their word. They will be judged on their actions, rather than just on what they have said. Clearly, they now find themselves the de facto Government of Afghanistan. We have made it clear that the support from us and the wider international community will be contingent on their behaving in a way that they have said that they intend to behave. We will always base our decisions on Afghanistan on the facts on the ground, not just on the words of Taliban spokespeople.
Like the shadow Foreign Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy), I welcome the Foreign Secretary and her team to their places.
It has emerged that our ambassador in Kabul sent a series of diplomatic cables to the former Foreign Secretary, the right hon. Member for Esher and Walton (Dominic Raab), in July and August, warning him that Kabul would fall at pace and with little resistance. The former Foreign Secretary’s response to those urgent telegrams was to go on holiday. Will the new Foreign Secretary assure the House that she is putting early-warning systems in place across her Department to ensure that such a catastrophic failure of decision making is never allowed to occur again? Will she commit to coming to the House within the shortest possible timescale to make a statement outlining our political, diplomatic, economic and security strategy for Afghanistan, as opposed to making policy on the hoof, as her predecessor did?
The hon. Gentleman takes the opportunity to talk about things that have been widely discussed in this House, rather than about the future. That is of course up to him. The former Foreign Secretary explained his actions and there is nothing much more that I can add. I assure the hon. Gentleman that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary and the ministerial team that she leads remain entirely focused on ensuring that where we can exert influence to bring about peace and stability in Afghanistan, we will continue to do so.
G20 Rome Summit
The G20 Rome summit is an opportunity to rally the most powerful nations to tackle the ongoing covid-19 crisis and to secure a sustainable, inclusive recovery. The summit this weekend is immediately before the UK hosts COP26. We will work to build a consensus on climate objectives and to drive forward priorities on health, girls’ education and the economic recovery to build back better.
The Minister mentioned in her answer tackling the covid-19 pandemic. Last week, WHO’s ambassador for global health financing, Gordon Brown, shared that 240 million doses of covid-19 vaccine are lying unused. Will the Minister set out what will be prioritised at the G20 to ensure that the poorest nations around the world can gain access to those unused vaccines? As has been said many times, we are not all vaccinated until everyone is vaccinated.
This is a global pandemic and we need to get the global population vaccinated. That is why we led the way at the G7 summit earlier in the year, where the Prime Minister committed to sharing 100 million doses by June 2022, 80% of which will go to COVAX. We need to ensure that the global population gets vaccinated.
One of the best ways to ensure a global recovery from the covid pandemic is to enable northern businesses to trade freely across the world. One of the biggest challenges is the non-tariff barriers that they face in advance of any trade deal. Will my right hon. Friend the Minister confirm to the House what support is available through our embassy network and how do businesses access it?
My right hon. Friend is a real campaigner for the north of England. Having lived there for 15 years, I know that it is very important. I have just come back from a visit to the Philippines, Singapore and Japan, and one of the things I saw was posts doing everything they can to promote British business on the ground to ensure trade links in exports and in foreign direct investment.
I welcome the Minister to her place. She mentioned her visit to the Pacific, but the G20 also includes one African representative, and it usually invites the African Union and the New Partnership for Africa’s Development. I hope that the specific economic health climate and the humanitarian crises affecting some countries in Africa will be discussed, not least because we heard yesterday about the terrible events in Sudan. I also hope that the UK will raise the worsening situation in Ethiopia, which is a past G20 invitee, given the resumption of attacks on Mekelle, human rights atrocities, and the humanitarian crisis affecting people in Tigray and beyond. What will the Government be doing specifically on that issue at the G20, other than cutting our assistance to Africa?
As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, there was an urgent question yesterday about the situation in Sudan. The situation in northern Ethiopia is dire, and the UK condemns the ongoing violence and the spread of the conflict into Afar and Amhara, as well as the airstrikes impacting civilians and the ongoing human rights abuses and violations. We call on both sides urgently to implement a ceasefire and for the Eritrean forces to depart, and to seek a solution.
Pakistan: Maira Shahbaz
We strongly condemn forced marriage and the forced conversion of women and girls, including in Pakistan. We regularly raise our concerns, including individual cases, at a senior level with the Pakistani authorities. We fund projects in Pakistan to address child and forced marriages, gender-based violence, and discrimination and intolerance, especially against minorities.
At the age of 14, Maira Shahbaz was abducted, forced into a marriage against her will, and raped. She managed to escape, and she is living in fear for her life in one room with her entire family. We have now been campaigning for over a year, 12,000 people have signed a petition, and we saw the Home Secretary. Can the Foreign Office not do more? Is it for fear of alienating the Pakistan Government, to whom we give £300 million a year? Can we have action this day to move the court case on, get her out, and get her to safety in the United Kingdom?
My right hon. Friend will understand that it is difficult and sometimes counterproductive to discuss individual cases in detail, as to do so could put individuals and their families at risk. The House, and indeed hon. Members, will have heard his points, and I assure him that requests for asylum will be considered on their merits.
Child marriage is an abhorrent practice wherever it is found, and I urge the House to support the hon. Member for Mid Derbyshire (Mrs Latham) in her Bill to ban it in this country. I welcome the Foreign Secretary to her place, and particularly the fact that she has kept the women and girls brief. Will she explain why, in her first week in the job, she signed off £183 million in cuts to education for women and girls, when such funding is one of the key drivers to prevent child marriage?
I assure the Chair of the International Development Committee, and the whole House, that my right hon. Friend, the Department, and the wider Government take the rights of women around the world incredibly seriously. Education for girls remains a priority for the Prime Minister, and we will continue to advocate for that internationally, and fight for that as a priority within Government.
Development: Promoting the Rule of Law
The UK is committed to being a force for good in the world, which includes upholding the rule of law. We promote the rule of law through our policy and programme engagement, which includes the UK’s Rule of Law Expertise Programme. That engages with stakeholders across the legal, judicial and development sectors, and is currently working in Nepal, Nigeria, Uganda, Malawi, Kenya, Rwanda and Tanzania.
For many poor people around the world, lack of access to justice is their biggest issue. If someone is too frightened to go to school because they think they will be raped on the way, or too scared to develop their smallholding because they think someone will steal the land, it will be much more difficult to escape poverty. What proportion of our development spending goes on ensuring easy access to a robust criminal justice system for the global poor?
My hon. Friend is a true campaigner for freedom, human rights and, as we have heard, access to justice. Many of the UK’s programmes contribute directly or indirectly towards access to justice, and we therefore do not quantify the exact proportion of our development spending in that area. The UK remains a world leader in international development, and we use our aid budget to strengthen democratic institutions, defend human rights, champion free media, and promote effective governance.
I am sure the Minister agrees that reports that the Turkish Government are to expel many of our allies’ ambassadors from the country, after they rightly raised concerns about the ongoing slide in civil liberties and freedom of expression, are extremely worrying. We simply must not hang our allies out to dry. Given that Turkey is a key NATO ally, will the Minister join us in finally making clear, as she has not publicly in the past, that the UK will not accept any further attempts to undermine civil liberties, and that we stand with the 10 countries whose representation in Turkey has been affected by such a provocative act?
We are very pleased that Turkey and the 10 countries concerned have found a way to resolve this diplomatic crisis. We will continue to work closely with Turkey, which is a very important NATO ally, and we will continue to work with other key partners to strengthen the productive ties with Turkey from which we all benefit.
Indo-Pacific Region: UK Relations
We are strengthening our relationships to promote a free and secure Indo-Pacific. That includes working with like-minded allies to build strong economic partnerships, to undertake joint military exercises as part of the carrier strike group, which I was fortunate to visit this week, and to secure our accession to the comprehensive and progressive agreement for trans-Pacific partnership.
In recent weeks, there has been an alarming increase in the number of Chinese military jets staging incursions into Taiwan’s air defence identification zone. Given China’s repeated statements that reunification with Taiwan must happen, which of course the Taiwanese do not want, and China’s recent record in Hong Kong, will my right hon. Friend tell the House what diplomatic efforts are being made to strengthen UK relations in order to ensure the stability of that region?
The large number of Chinese military flights that took place near Taiwan at the beginning of October are not conducive to peace and stability in the region. We need peaceful resolution through constructive dialogue, and the work that the United Kingdom is doing through the carrier strike group and our security partnerships is contributing to peace across the region.
We have the deepest sympathy for Harry’s family. I have spoken to them about the case. I raised the case with Secretary Blinken, and we also raised it with President Biden when we were over in the United States. I am very clear that justice needs to be delivered for Harry and his family.
I pay tribute to Harry’s mum, Charlotte, and Harry’s dad, Tim, for their incredible courage in determining that they will achieve justice for Harry one way or another. They have already been striving for that for more than two years. Does my right hon. Friend agree that we have to do everything possible with our great allies around the world to ensure mutual respect, and that abiding by the rule of law and achieving justice in a harrowing situation such as this is vital to those relationships?
I praise my right hon. Friend for the huge support that she has given to the family of Harry Dunn. I had the opportunity to speak with them; of course, the situation they find themselves in is absolutely terrible. I am determined that we should deliver justice for Harry and his family, and I am pushing the United States. Of course it is a key ally of the United Kingdom, but we must see justice delivered.
Safe Passage from Afghanistan
The Government continue to do all they can to ensure safe passage of eligible individuals who wish to leave Afghanistan. The UK has had constructive engagement with near neighbours, led by my noble Friend Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon. British nationals continue to be facilitated and supported in their exit from Afghanistan, including through Qatar Airways flights. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary met Afghan evacuees and the Qatari authorities on this very issue on her recent trip.
I thank the Minister for that answer and the Secretary of State for her recent update on this issue. It is important to acknowledge the considerable efforts that are being made, but concerns persist for those who remain and are seeking refuge or safe passage from Afghanistan. Members will understand that I cannot name my constituents for fear of putting their relatives in a deeply perilous state, but what more can the Government do to assist hon. Members to alleviate the anguish and distress of constituents with loved ones in Afghanistan? Will the Government commit to working with Members to secure safe passage from Afghanistan, removing their constituents from immediate risk?
The situation in Afghanistan is painful for us all. Three routes have been set up: for British nationals, through the Foreign Office; for Afghan nationals, through the Home Office; and for those who have supported us directly, through the Afghan relocations and assistance policy scheme. We continue to engage directly with the Taliban. The Prime Minister’s High Representative for Afghanistan, Simon Gass, and the Chargé d’Affaires of the UK mission to Afghanistan based in Doha, Dr Martin Longden, travelled to Afghanistan on 5 October to have direct talks with the Taliban, and to hold them to the commitments they have made about respecting and protecting people within Afghanistan.
Outside the ARAP scheme and within Operation Pitting, a number of other people were called forward for evacuation. Can the Minister give the House full transparency in terms of how many people were actually called forward, how many people were evacuated, and how many of that cohort still remain in Afghanistan?
Since 28 August, over 500 more individuals eligible to come to the UK have been able to leave Afghanistan, as well as more than 400 British nationals and their dependants. We have assisted over 135 British nationals and their dependants to leave Afghanistan on Qatar-chartered flights. The total number of people who may be eligible is almost impossible for us to assess with clarity.
Bahrain: Political and Human Rights
We continue to monitor the political and human rights developments in Bahrain. Bahrain is a Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office human rights priority country. We publish our assessment of the situation, including on areas of concern and areas of improvement in Bahrain, in the annual FCDO human rights report, most recently published on 8 July 2021. The details the hon. Lady requires are available in that document.
Over a decade after pro-democracy protests were crushed and oversight mechanisms, which the UK helped to fund, were adopted, cosmetic reforms have failed to remedy Bahrain’s deep-rooted problems. Will the Government show their commitment to Bahrain and publicly call for meaningful and inclusive political dialogue there, and for the unconditional release of all political prisoners, including Dr al-Singace, Hassan Mushaima, Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, and Sheikh Ali Salman?
The United Kingdom enjoys a constructive relationship with Bahrain, which means that where there are areas of concern we are able to bring them up directly. I myself have done so in bilateral meetings I have had with Bahraini officials, both here in the UK and on my trips to Bahrain. We continue to monitor the cases the hon. Lady raises, and others as necessary.
Iran: Middle East Terror Groups
The UK has long condemned Iran’s regional destabilising activities. We regularly raise our concerns at the United Nations, most recently doing so on 9 August. We support the security of our allies in the middle east, including defence partnerships and capability building. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary discussed continued security collaboration with her Saudi counterparts on 20 October and her Israeli counterparts on 19 October.
I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. Iran remains the world’s leading sponsor of terror groups, including those committed to the destruction of Israel, and continues to enjoy impunity for its actions. Does my right hon. Friend share my concern that having a nuclear weapon would give Iran the ultimate protection to spread its malign influence in the region? Will he confirm that the UK will keep all options on the table to stop Iran becoming a nuclear power?
I can assure my hon. Friend that our priority remains to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons capability. Sadly, Iran’s nuclear programme has never been more advanced, and it is more worrying today than perhaps it has ever been. We regularly call strongly on Iran to halt all activities in violation of the joint comprehensive plan of action without delay and take the opportunity in front of it at the Vienna talks to restore the JCPOA. The current offer cannot remain on the table indefinitely.
AUKUS: Shared Security Priorities
To protect freedom and democracy around the world, it is vital that we deepen our security relationships with friends and allies. AUKUS represents a long-term commitment to deeper co-operation on future defence capabilities with Australia and the United States, and we want to build on it, including with other partners.
My hon. Friend is right; we must ensure that technology standards and advances are shaped by the free world, whether that is the free flow of data, cyber, artificial intelligence, 5G or quantum computing. In India this week I agreed a partnership on future technology, especially on 5G. We are also working with the US and other partners to shape the future of technology.
I thank my right hon. Friend for her earlier answer. She recently spoke of building
“a network of liberty across the globe.”
Beyond Australia and the United States, can she advise the House of any other nations with which she would like to deepen our security relationship, to improve our position and security across the globe?
Alongside AUKUS and of course NATO we are building partnerships with other allies. I recently hosted the Baltic three to talk about increased co-operation in the area, we have agreed enhanced co-operation with Greece and we are in talks with Japan about future security co-operation.
India is a very strong ally of the United Kingdom and we want to work more closely together across a range of security and defence issues. While I was in Mumbai, the UK carrier strike group was stationed off the coast; we have just conducted the UK’s largest ever joint exercise with Indian armed forces, and we are now deepening that co-operation.
As Foreign Secretary, I will work to deepen our economic and security partnerships, to challenge malign actors from a position of strength. In our development budget, I will prioritise investing in honest, reliable infrastructure in developing countries, providing life-saving humanitarian aid and supporting women and girls across the world. We are pursuing a positive, proactive foreign policy that delivers for people across our great country.
I am sure my right hon. Friend shares my grave concern at Iran’s escalation of uranium enrichment to 60% and production of uranium metal, which has no credible civilian purpose. Will the Government therefore seek a resolution of censure at the next International Atomic Energy Agency board of governors session, so we can ensure that we hold Iran to account?
Iran has no credible civilian justification for its nuclear escalation. As I made clear to my Iranian counterpart, Iran urgently needs to return to the negotiating table and, if it does not engage meaningfully in negotiations, we will reconsider our approach. All options are on the table.
I welcome the Secretary of State to her place. Yesterday, it emerged that the Prime Minister’s pleading at the G7 and the United Nations to deliver £100 billion of climate finance has failed. With that, we had another example of the waning global influence of this Government in retreat. I had hoped that the new Foreign and Development Secretary would have put a stop to that, but her first act was to sign off on savage aid cuts to climate programmes and climate-vulnerable countries, disproportionately impacting women and girls, weeks before the most important climate summit of our lifetime. Does the Secretary of State agree that cuts to programmes such as the green economic growth initiative to preserve Papua’s 90% forest cover, and cuts to the aid budget, have actively undermined the UK’s ability to deliver not only at the conference of the parties, but on the world stage, exposing global Britain as little more than a slogan?
I do not agree with the hon. Lady’s analysis at all. We are making very positive progress on COP26; only this morning, we heard Australia’s announcement about its commitment to net zero. I am looking forward to attending COP in Glasgow next week and presenting a very ambitious finance package. Only a few weeks ago, when we were in the United States, we saw it commit to over £11 billion of climate finance. There are trillions available in the private sector that we will be unlocking to deal with the climate crisis.[Official Report, 27 October 2021, Vol. 702, c. 2MC.]
I know that my right hon. Friend takes a keen interest in the topic of nutrition. The prevention and treatment of malnutrition remain important for the UK as part of our work on global health humanitarian response and in support of our goals on girls’ education. I assure him that the Government are actively considering our approach to the Nutrition for Growth summit, including any commitments on nutrition, and we will update the House following the conclusion of the spending review.
The UK committed more than £500 million to the COVAX facility and helped it to deliver more than 81 million doses to 44 African countries. In addition, we are providing UK emergency medical teams to 10 African countries. We have put a public health rapid support team into Nigeria, Gambia, Tunisia and other countries in Africa. At the World Bank annual meetings the week before last, I raised the importance of ensuring longer-term vaccine financing for Africa and that all programmes work together. We are strengthening the support that we give in African countries, to help them to have the health systems they need to continue providing essential health and getting those vaccines out.
I was delighted that yesterday the Foreign Secretary met the Greek Foreign Minister, Minister Dendias, and signed a new strategic bilateral framework that will build on the co-operation between our countries. It will open up new opportunities for trade and investment in both countries, allowing us to build on the £4.5 billion-worth of annual trade that we already have. It will also enable better co-operation among our businesses, investors and industry, and will promote even stronger security and defence co-operation, both as NATO allies and in enhancing Europe’s resilience in the face of security threats.
My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary engages regularly with the leadership of both Israel and the Palestinian Authority. It remains a foundation stone of UK foreign policy in the region to pursue, support and, where possible, facilitate a two-state solution based on 1967 lines with agreed land swaps and Jerusalem as a shared capital of both states.
My hon. Friend is right: we absolutely must stop Iran securing those nuclear capabilities, and we are working closely with our allies across the world. I have chaired a meeting of the five permanent members of the Security Council to discuss this very issue.
I completely agree with the hon. Gentleman about the terrible situation in Afghanistan. I travelled to the region this week—I went to Qatar, where I met evacuees from Afghanistan—and we are working very closely with our international allies. We have increased our aid for Afghanistan to £286 million, and we are working to hold the Taliban to account to ensure that they live up to the promises they have made.
Pakistan is a significant, important and close partner to the UK. Travellers from Pakistan can come to the UK freely provided that they adhere to the relevant covid-19 restrictions, the details of which are on the gov.uk website. We will continue to work with our Pakistani colleagues to reopen international travel safely.
The UK’s relationship with Israel is strong and important, and the strength of that relationship allows us to raise sensitive issues such as this. I assure the right hon. Gentleman that we will be speaking to our friends and colleagues in the Israeli Government about the reasons why they felt that they needed to designate those organisations.
The Foreign Secretary referred in her opening remarks to the work that her Department was doing, but did not mention the support that she is providing for environmental projects, particularly the valuable projects in the Congo basin. May I ask her to ensure that the work she does on land, in forests, is matched by support for marine projects, where the loss of habitats is equally serious and the benefits for tackling climate change can be enormous?
I assure my right hon. Friend that this Government are determined to protect the ocean. We are leading international efforts to protect 30% of the world’s ocean by 2030, and are substantially increasing our investment to support that. Our £500 million blue plant fund will protect mangroves and coral reefs, tackle ocean plastic pollution, and reduce coastal poverty.
The UK is deeply concerned about what is happening in the north-western regions of Myanmar, particularly the significant troop movements by the Myanmar armed forces, and about reports of multiple civilian casualties and displacements. On 15 October, the UK released a statement urging the military to end their campaign of violence. We are monitoring developments closely, and are in discussion with our international partners in the UN Security Council.
I warmly welcome my successor’s successor to her place, although saying that makes me feel rather old. She will know that Richard Ratcliffe, Nazanin’s husband, has restarted his hunger strike this week. She will also know that Nazanin is not going to come home until we pay the debt that we owe Iran for the Challenger tanks, which the Defence Secretary has accepted that we owe Iran. When are we going to repay that debt, and what will the Minister do to ensure that hostage taking never pays?
I have huge sympathy for Nazanin and Richard Ratcliffe. I have spoken to both of them about the terrible situation that Nazanin faces. It is imperative that she is not put back into jail in Iran, and I am working as hard as I can, both directly with the Iranian authorities—I have had a meeting with Iranian Ministers—and with our international allies to bring Nazanin and the other UK detainees home.
We absolutely condemn violence across Nigeria. These attacks have devastating effects on all communities. Religious identity is a factor in some incidents of intercommunal violence, but the root causes are very complex. When I met African heads of mission in London on 21 September, I emphasised that democracy, human rights and the rule of law are all core UK values and that those values also include the freedom of religion or belief.
We know that 2,763 Yazidi women, girls and children are still missing, seven years after they were abducted by Daesh in Iraq. Many were taken as sexual slaves and child soldiers. Will the Minister meet me and members of the all-party parliamentary group for international freedom of religion or belief to review what action the UK can take to support the call to assist those people by members of the International Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance this week?
I thank my hon. Friend for her important question and for all the work she does in this area. This Government and I are committed to freedom of religion or belief and to the protection of women and girls, and I would be happy to discuss with her this issue and the wider issues of concern in this area.
Can the Foreign Secretary and former Lord Chancellor impress upon her counterparts in Poland the importance of a judiciary that is free from political interference, as that seems to be under threat there? Can she also reiterate that, post Brexit, Her Majesty’s sovereign Government control their own border policy, which totally entitles them to exclude hate speakers such as the polemicist Rafał Ziemkiewicz, as happened the other day at Heathrow airport?
In relation to Poland, we are aware of the recent European Court of Human Rights ruling, which found that recent Polish constitutional court rulings involving controversially appointed judges did not constitute a tribunal established by law. It is for each country to decide on its constitutional arrangements, but here in the UK we expect alignment with international law.
Budget: Pre-announcement of Provisions
Before we come to the urgent question, I have a short statement to make. I have repeatedly stated in the clearest possible terms that important announcements should be made by the Government first in this House rather than outside it. I did so again yesterday in relation to the briefings issued to the media about the Budget. I was therefore disappointed to see more stories in the media today with apparently very well-briefed information about what will be in tomorrow’s Budget. The Government do not just have to take my word for this; their own ministerial code says:
“When Parliament is in session, the most important announcements of Government policy should be made in the first instance, in Parliament.”—
in this House.
As I said yesterday, I do not have to give a reason for my decisions about urgent question applications, but in this case I want the House, and especially the Government, to be clear that if the Government continue to treat this House in this discourteous manner, I will do everything in my power to ensure that Ministers are called here at the earliest opportunity to explain themselves. I personally have nothing against the Minister and I feel sorry for the person who has to answer at the Dispatch Box but, once again, this House will not be taken for granted. It is not right for everybody else to be briefed. It is not more important to go on the news in the morning; it is more important to come here. Let us get the message across that these elected Members represent this United Kingdom. It is not done through Sky TV.
(Urgent Question): To ask the Chancellor of the Exchequer for a statement on the details of all the provisions in the upcoming Budget that have been made public in advance of the Chancellor’s statement.
Mr Speaker, I have the deepest respect for you, this House and all its processes. It is a pleasure to be with you this afternoon. The ability of Parliament to scrutinise the Government, including the Budget, is clearly crucial, which is why we have five days of parliamentary debate ahead of us this week and next, and it is why my right hon. Friend the Chancellor will, in addition, be appearing before two Select Committees of this House next week.
Tomorrow my right hon. Friend will announce a Budget that delivers a stronger economy for the British people, invests in public services and levelling up, and delivers on growth and jobs with a pay rise for 7 million people— 5 million in the public sector and 2 million through an increase in the national living wage.
I will briefly summarise the headline announcements we have already made on the Budget, with the caveat that the bulk of the detail of the Budget will be delivered by the Chancellor himself at this Dispatch Box tomorrow. Importantly, that includes all market-sensitive information. Part of the Government’s objective in trailing specific aspects of the Budget in advance is to help communicate to the public what we are doing with their hard-earned money, because we believe there is merit in clear and accurate information.
I now turn briefly to just a few of the measures we have announced: an increase in the national living wage from £8.91 to £9.50 an hour, meaning an extra £1,000 a year for a full-time worker; £3 billion-worth of investment to build a high-wage, high-skill economy, with a doubling of investment in 16 to 19-year-olds and a quadrupling of the number of skills boot camps; and a multibillion-pound overhaul of local transport to help level up communities across England, with transport settlements for city regions increased to £5.7 billion and allocated directly to cities. As part of the spending review, there is a £5.9 billion deal for the NHS to tackle the backlog of non-emergency procedures and to modernise digital technology, with at least 100 community diagnostic centres to help clear most test backlogs by the end of this Parliament.
These are just a few of the measures that the Chancellor will outline to the House tomorrow as the Government continue their work to deliver a stronger economy for the British people.
Thank you for granting this urgent question, Mr Speaker.
We face an urgent cost of living crisis. Prices are up in our shops, at our petrol pumps and on our heating bills. Families and businesses are waiting and hoping for the Chancellor to take the action that they and our country desperately need. He has not even delivered his Budget yet and it is already falling apart. In recent days, we have read thousands of words about what he plans to do, but the silence is deafening on the soaring bills and rising prices facing families and businesses.
I have five questions for the Chief Secretary to the Treasury today, and I ask him to answer them clearly and simply, not through a press release but to this House. First, will he properly justify withholding from Parliament decisions that he and his colleagues have detailed in the press?
Secondly, the right hon. Gentleman just stood at the Dispatch Box and said that he believes in clear and accurate information. On that basis, will he confirm he understands that, for a full-time worker on the minimum wage in receipt of universal credit, a rise to £9.50 an hour will place far less than an extra £1,000 in their pocket?
Thirdly, will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that the public sector pay rises that Ministers told newspapers about yesterday will be real-terms pay rises, as the Under- Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully), was unable to do so on the telly this morning?
Fourthly, will the Chief Secretary to the Treasury follow Labour’s lead and confirm today, now he is with us, that he will be cutting VAT on domestic heating bills to 0% for six months? Finally, will he back Britain’s high-street firms and freeze business rates now and replace them with a better system fast?
The right hon. Gentleman can tell the newspapers; it is time for him to tell this House.
It is important that we consider all the measures that have been trailed in the round. It is clear that the wider announcements that have been made are entirely accurate. The national living wage is to rise by £1,000 a year, which will take the benefit for a full-time worker on the national living wage to £5,000 since 2016. That is a substantial increase. It beggars belief that the Labour party can stand there and say that a 6.6% increase in the national living wage is somehow not enough. It needs to be considered in conjunction with all the other announcements that have been made, including the £500 million household support fund, the energy price cap and all the action that we have taken to freeze fuel duty and to keep bills low. We are acutely conscious of the pressures that face households and we take action to modify them.
On public sector pay, which the hon. Lady asked about, I am delighted that we will be returning to the normal processes that adjust public sector pay in the light of all the pressures that exist. It will be for the relevant pay review bodies to discuss that, in conjunction with the Government, in the normal way. I am not going to pre- empt that work, but we will work closely with them to make sure that what is announced is right. The Chancellor will have further details on that in his speech.
On the cost of energy, the energy price cap is protecting households, with up to £100 a year off their bills. That is the right thing to do. We all recognise that that is a priority for all our constituents.
On business rates, we will get the upshot of the fundamental review of how we can get the future of business rates right. The Labour party has committed to abolishing business rates, without any clear idea of how it would fund that. Indeed, the disconnect between what the Labour party has committed to and what it has actually identified the funding for is somewhere in the region of £400 billion of commitments with £5 billion of savings to pay for them. That is not a responsible way to run the economy.
What you will be hearing from the Government Benches tomorrow, Mr Speaker, is a clear plan to make sure that we can not only balance the books but take our economy forward in a way that works for the benefit of all our communities. That is obviously the priority for my right hon. Friend the Chancellor and for me.
This is not the first Government who have wanted more than one day’s news out of a Budget, but the right way to do it is for all Ministers to observe complete Budget secrecy, for the Chancellor to announce the tax changes and the block totals on spending and then, in the days that follow, for Cabinet Ministers to come to the House to announce the detailed spending plans and subject them to our scrutiny. If that was right for all previous Governments, why is it not right for this one?
I thank my right hon. Friend for his question, and I completely share his assessment of the importance of this House, of which both the Chancellor and I are acutely aware. In 2013, the then Chancellor, George Osborne, asked the permanent secretary for Her Majesty’s Treasury to conduct a review of the practice of the release of Budget information under embargo on Budget day, and he set out a series of recommendations. His central conclusion was that the Treasury should introduce
“a ban on the pre-release of the core of the Budget…that is: the economic and fiscal projections, the fiscal judgement and individual tax rates, reliefs and allowances.”
We have observed that stricture in full and I am obviously totally committed to continuing to do that.
I do not know whether to congratulate the Minister on his promotion, as he has come here to give us the Budget a day early. What he has not given this House is an apology. He should not be announcing things on Twitter; we should be waiting for the Budget to see the full detail. This has been going on since September—it is not new. There have been daily announcements drip-feeding the entire Budget ahead of time. Of course, the Government hold all the cards, along with the Office for Budget Responsibility, because we cannot tell what the detail actually means. For Scotland, we cannot tell what the Barnett consequentials —if, indeed, there are any—will be.
We know what is going to be in the Budget speech and we know what is not going to be in it, because the Government have not done things such as carbon capture and storage in Scotland. Of course, none of it is what the Government and the Chancellor should be doing in the Budget speech. They should be reinstating the £20 universal credit cut; scrapping the national insurance tax on jobs; tackling the spiralling cost-of-living crisis; and supporting hospitality and tourism with a VAT cut to see them through the winter months and into next year.
If the Government cannot be responsible with the powers that they hold and if they cannot be trusted to give us the actual truth on Budget day tomorrow, all the financial powers—I call for this again—should be given to the Scottish Parliament so that we can make the decisions that are right for the people of Scotland.
I thank the hon. Lady for her remarks. I think that we are much stronger as one United Kingdom. The OECD has reaffirmed that we are expected to have the fastest growth in the G7 both this year and next and that is something that we are achieving as one country together. She asked about the Barnett consequentials. Those will be set out very clearly in the Budget tomorrow. (Interruption.) I can assure her that, of course, we consider this very closely and we will be in a position to give good news for Scotland as part of a strong United Kingdom tomorrow. I had productive conversations about the future of the fiscal framework with the Scottish Finance Minister, Kate Forbes, just last week. I can commit that I will be speaking to her in accordance with the usual Budget conventions tomorrow morning, ahead of the statement.
I am sure that my right hon. Friend accepts that the rabbit may be out of the hat. So if the Chancellor is still looking for a fluffy bunny to present on Budget day, may I advise that we make a huge announcement about the Government’s levelling-up fund? That would be welcomed by communities across the north of England and demonstrate our Government’s commitment to make sure that we level up the peoples of the north.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his question. He is absolutely right that levelling up is a core theme of this Government. It is something of which I am very proud, as a north-eastern MP, to have the chance to help deliver, and it is going to be one of the golden threads of the Budget and spending review tomorrow. I wish that I could start plucking rabbits out of the hat for him now, but he will have to wait just a few more hours to get some, hopefully, very welcome news.
Thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting this urgent question. It has taken me nearly 30 years, but I now find that I agree with the right hon. Member for Wokingham (John Redwood) in his question. This is serious. As an Opposition, we cannot look in detail at the slew—the blizzard—of Budget announcements that have been going on week after week, because we do not have the OBR report and we do not have the detail. This is treating parliamentary democracy with utter contempt and the Minister should be completely ashamed of himself. He should have come to this House and apologised. His boss should have come to this House and apologised.
I thank the hon. Lady for her points. Clearly, as a former Treasury Minister herself, she would never have engaged in any activity of this kind. The point is that there is absolutely no question of our commitment to observing all the proprieties, reflecting the Macpherson review, which was an internal review conducted by Sir Nicholas, the then permanent secretary, to work out what was sensible in advance of the Budget. We have not commented on any of the substantive tax measures and there will be a raft of full information in both the Budget documents and the documents provided by the OBR, which obviously provides a level of detail that the last Labour Government never provided in terms of their equivalent events.
There are two sides to this coin. The first is the Government broadcasting without first letting us know. The other is the information that they are trying to keep from us. Why was the leaked information on the substantial costs of winter plan B marked “Not for publication”? What are the Government trying to hide? Why are they frightened of our scrutiny?
I thank my right hon. Friend for his question. I will not comment on leaks—[Laughter.] The absolute bottom line is that we are, of course, committed to plan A, and there is no question but that he will find that plan A remains the resolute conviction of both this Government and, I believe, this House in terms of how we can most sensibly take the country through the winter ahead. We are not moving to plan B. We are committed to plan A. He should be reassured that we want to keep our economy and society open as we move through the challenges of the weeks and months ahead.
I have been here for many years and have seen many Budgets. I have seen the Order Papers being waved on the day, and then the Budgets fall apart over the following hours and the following days, but this is the first Budget that I have seen fall apart before Budget day. We have heard the announcement about public sector pay, but we have not heard whether, if it is increased, that increase will be funded, or whether it will have to come from within existing budgets. When the Government were forced to increase the pay rise for nurses from 1% to 3%, they did not fund it; they forced it to be funded from within NHS resources. Since we are into leaks, will the Minister tell us whether the Government intend to fund a public sector pay increase?
The Minister is one of the nice guys in Parliament and richly deserved his promotion. What he did not deserve was to be put in this position by an untenable policy. I have to ask him the question: why is it important, right or necessary to share Budget information with the media before it is shared with this House, where it can be subjected to proper scrutiny, and will he give an undertaking on behalf of the Treasury team to stop doing it?
I thank my right hon. Friend for his kind words. As a Treasury team—indeed, as a Government—we are all committed to ensuring that this House is fully respected. That remains at the core of our work. As a Member of this House, I take that very seriously, and so does the Chancellor. Clearly, when we set out certain announcements, we try to provide some specific information about what the Government are seeking to achieve with those measures. We have respected absolutely and in full the stricture that we should not be talking about tax measures or adjustments, and that is something that I can commit we will absolutely continue to do.
Education has been very much missing from the pre-announcements. Given the amount of learning that our children have lost due to covid, I wonder whether the Minister would give us another leak or pre-announcement by letting us know whether the full £15 billion advocated by the Government’s education recovery adviser before he resigned will be allocated to education, and what support he will be giving to the devolved nations on the same topic.
It is obviously tremendously important that we help our schools to catch up, given the impact of the months of lost learning owing to the pandemic. I have seen that in my constituency, as the hon. Member will have in hers. The Government have committed £3 billion to date to help with education catch-up. The Chancellor will be speaking more about this matter in his statement tomorrow.
Funded by taxpayers through Her Majesty’s Treasury, the NHS hospital building programme is a flagship policy and a key part of the Treasury’s medium-term forecasts. Kettering General Hospital is one of those hospitals. When NHS England approves the strategic outline case for the hospital and submits those proposals to the Chief Secretary for sign-off, will he look favourably upon it, because it is a key priority for constituents in Kettering?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to speak up for the hospital in his constituency. The Government have committed to 40 new hospitals and 70 hospital upgrades. That is a core part of our programme to ensure that the NHS is fit for the future. I will, of course, be delighted to look at the case for Kettering General Hospital, as will ministerial colleagues across the piece, including at the Department of Health and Social Care. I would be delighted to have further meetings on the subject with my hon. Friend, if that would be useful to him.
Mr Speaker, the Minister said at the beginning that he respected you and this House, but does he not accept that the reason that we are here now, having this urgent question, is precisely because the opposite has happened? When he answers that question, perhaps he can also enlighten us: has he had discussions with the Welsh Government about the UK shared prosperity fund in the way that he has with the editors of the national newspapers?
There is absolutely no doubt that we have observed all the proprieties by not talking about tax measures in any of the discussions that have been had. I am in regular contact with the Welsh Government. Indeed, I met the Welsh Finance Minister last week and will be speaking to her again tomorrow morning ahead of the Budget, in the usual way.
I welcome the announcements that have been trailed ahead of the Budget, in particular the latest announcement on the national living wage. Will my right hon. Friend outline how this national living wage will help my constituents and his in Teesside?
Ensuring that work always pays is one of the foundational principles of this Government. It is what differentiates us, frankly, from the last Labour Government, who had a series of policies that, I am afraid, did not incentivise work. That led to what the then editor of The Spectator termed,
“the most expensive poverty in the world.”
I am afraid that that was the unfortunate legacy of a series of failed policies. My hon. Friend is absolutely right in saying that the national living wage rise is the right thing to do. I am excited about that policy, and it continues our strong track record of ensuring that our plan for jobs is matched by rising living standards.
Diolch, Mr Speaker. Many of the pre-Budget announcements relate to the so-called levelling-up agenda, of which the community renewal fund is a key element. Given the delay in announcing the initial successful bidders, will the Minister press the Chancellor at this late stage to make an announcement tomorrow to extend the delivery time for those that were successful in the first phase?
Mr Speaker, you may have read in the press that the Chancellor is preparing to tell us tomorrow that the national minimum wage will increase to £9.50 next April, but that remains way below the income that a worker can live on. Worse still, the savage age discrimination will carry on, with young people in Middlesbrough, across Teesside and across the country having to suffer appallingly low pay. The current rate for under-18s is £4.62 an hour. That is an increase of just 98p since 2010, meaning that their wages have gone down in real terms. Will the Government stop treating young people with such disdain, commit to scrapping the age bands and uplift the national minimum wage to £15 an hour, so that all workers can live fully flourishing lives?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his point. Clearly, he might want to take this matter up with the leader of his own party, as I understand that it has been the subject of some disagreement. The Government are of course committed to ensuring that younger workers get fair pay. We obviously have to balance that against the wider commitment that we have to ensuring that we do not perpetuate the serious situation of youth unemployment that we inherited from the last Labour Government. There will be good news for younger workers in the Budget tomorrow.
These decisions made by the Government deeply affect people’s lives: energy bills are rocketing; inflation is up; food and petrol prices are up; furlough has ended; and universal credit has been cut. It is no wonder that Citizens Advice Scotland is predicting that my constituents and others will face a really tough winter. They then face an increase in national insurance. With that in mind, is the Chancellor really going to give his old pals in the City a tax cut in the Budget tomorrow?
The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the £500 million household support fund is being put in place precisely to ensure that we protect families through the winter that lies ahead. That comes on top of all the measures that we have put in place to ensure that we adjust for the cost of living. This Government tax people very fairly. The richest 1% and 5% are paying more tax than they did under the last Labour Government. That includes the banks, which pay their fair share as part of a wider economic settlement.
VAT receipts have been climbing, which is a good thing. Will the Treasury look at helping those with very high fuel bills—for example, those with many children, those who have to keep their heating on during the day, those who are ill and pensioners—over the coming winter? Will the Minister consider that as part of tomorrow’s package—which, of course, will be announced tomorrow?
The household support fund is specifically targeted in order to help with the cost of living. Indeed, much of it is ringfenced for families with children, reflecting the sense of what the hon. Lady is saying. The energy price cap works with that, as does the warm home discount. The warm home discount is becoming more generous next year, as the number of people who benefit from it rises from 2.2 million to 3 million, and its value rises from £140 to £150. Those are the kinds of measures that we will continue to look at. The Chancellor will speak about VAT as part of the wider Budget settlement tomorrow.
Eighteen years ago, I was deputy general secretary of the Transport and General Workers Union. I was a founder member of the drive for the living wage, when we organised 3,000 cleaners in Canary Wharf and the City of London. I agree with the Resolution Foundation that the proposed increase would “not remotely compensate” those who will lose £1,000 as a result of the cut to universal credit. With workers facing a cost of living crisis, rising energy costs, rising inflation, rising fuel costs and rising food prices, is it not the case that workers’ living standards will continue to be squeezed as the Government give with one hand and take away with another?
No, I do not accept the premise of the hon. Gentleman’s point. We remain committed to our ambitious target of the national living wage reaching two thirds of median earnings by the end of the Parliament and expanding it to include workers over the age of 21. We have done an awful lot to help with living standards—doubling the personal tax threshold, doubling free childcare, expanding free school meals for all five to seven-year-olds, and introducing the new household support fund and the energy price cap—and further measures will be announced by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor tomorrow.
I suppose the attraction of delivering a Budget by press release is that it bypasses this House, so when the Government announce billions of pounds to level up transport in the north, I do not get to say that there is nothing in that for Newcastle, where extortionate bus fares are part of the cost of living crisis that my constituents are facing; and when the Minister says that the minimum wage is going up, I do not get to point out that universal credit recipients in Newcastle will still be £800 a year worse off. Why does he think that the Government should not be accountable to the people of Newcastle upon Tyne Central?
I absolutely do believe that we should be accountable to the people of Newcastle upon Tyne Central. That is why I am here. It is why there will be a five-day Budget debate over the course of the days ahead. It is why my right hon. Friend the Chancellor will appear in front of a Select Committee. On the hon. Lady’s point about transport settlements, we need to unlock devolution in north-east England. My No. 1 ask of the Labour authorities in that part of the world would be to make sure that they get their act together and unlock a devolution settlement.
As well as knowing what the Government will be doing, we also know what they intend not to do. We know that they will not be investing in carbon capture and underground storage in Scotland, and we know that they will not be match-funding the Scottish Government’s £500 million just transition fund. Yet the Treasury has raked in some £350 billion of oil revenues over the decades, so why is the Minister’s Department now turning its back on Scotland?
Leaving aside tired clichés about our attitude to Scotland, which I am afraid is all we ever get from SNP Members, we are of course a Government committed to the success of the whole of the United Kingdom. The Budget will contain within it many things that reflect the major benefits of the Union for Scotland just as much as for England, Wales and Northern Ireland. As a proud British citizen, I would not accept the sense of what the hon. Gentleman says. On carbon capture, utilisation and storage, the Scottish project remains the first reserve, as he will know. We intend to take this project forward, alongside a flourishing North sea oil and gas sector, offshore wind and all the things that will go together to reflect the £30 billion-worth of commitments made as part of our net zero strategy.
Thank you for agreeing to this urgent question, Mr Speaker, because this is getting out of hand, as I am sure you will agree. Only yesterday, I asked the Universities Minister if she would announce the decision on the Augar review and the Government’s response publicly in the Chamber, and she would not commit to that. Perhaps, Mr Speaker, you could follow that up with the Department for Education and make sure that the announcement actually is delivered here in the Chamber. In the past few days we have had more announcements than you get on the Clapham omnibus about the Budget, much of it commercially sensitive. When were the newspapers given details of the announcements the Government were making in the Budget, and when was the advisory board of the Conservative party made aware of some of these announcements?
I really do not know what the hon. Gentleman is implying with his question, but clearly no impropriety has occurred. All announcements are made as usual through the normal Treasury and cross-Government processes to make sure that those announcements are released to the media.
Does the Minister agree that being drip-fed Budget snippets from the press rather than in this House makes it more difficult for right hon. and hon. Members to fully consider the principles without the biased slant of the media? Is he prepared to consider allowing Members access to the Budget the night before, under strict embargo, to enable consideration of the documentation rather than media presentation?
I thank the hon. Gentleman, who is of course one of the most assiduous Members of this House. Clearly we all look to make sure that the Budget documentation is as full and as frank as possible—we have the work of the independent Office for Budget Responsibility as well—to make sure precisely that the Budget debate that follows can be as fully informed as possible as to the full implications of all the measures that are announced.
Point of Order
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. You will remember that last Wednesday at COP26 questions I asked the Minister for COP if he would meet me to discuss the concerns of some businesses in my constituency that are having difficulty as a result of the COP restrictions that have been put in place, and he committed at the Dispatch Box to have that meeting with me. He now appears to be reneging on his promise to me in this House to have a meeting. Is there anything you can do, Mr Speaker, to advise what I should do in these circumstances, because the businesses in my constituency are extremely frustrated and disappointed to have this response from the Minister? I know and I accept that he is busy, but he made a promise in this House, and surely that should mean something.
I have great faith in the Minister, and I am sure that as President of COP his word is his bond. I am sure that he will be listening to this and arranging his diary forthwith. I am sure that those on the Treasury Bench will remind him of that commitment, and I would expect him to fulfil it.
Nuclear Energy (Financing) Bill
Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)
Greg Hands, supported by the Prime Minister, Mr Chancellor of the Exchequer, Secretary Elizabeth Truss, Secretary Priti Patel, Secretary Michael Gove, Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng, Secretary Anne-Marie Trevelyan, Secretary Nadhim Zahawi and Secretary Grant Shapps, presented a Bill to make provision for the implementation of a regulated asset base model for nuclear energy generation projects; for revenue collection for the purposes of that model; for a special administration regime for licensees subject to that model; and about the circumstances in which bodies corporate are not associated with site operators for the purposes of programmes relating to funding the decommissioning of nuclear sites.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time tomorrow, and to be printed (Bill 174) with explanatory notes (Bill 174-EN).
Electricity Grid (Review)
Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)
I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to require the Government and Ofgem to conduct and act on a review of the electricity transmission grid and associated charges, to include consideration of abolishing charge differentials based on geographic location, incentivising renewable energy generation to maximise energy output, and minimising the passing on of charge fluctuation risk to consumers in the form of higher prices; and for connected purposes.
The driver behind this Bill is that Scotland currently has the highest grid charges in Europe. The Tory Government shrug their shoulders and say, “It’s nothing to do with us—it’s a matter for Ofgem.” However, they are the ones who set the rules for Ofgem to implement. What is the point of the Government bragging about a net zero target for 2050 and a plan to decarbonise the electricity grid by 2035 when they do not seem capable of seeing the bigger picture? While they probably do not care about Scotland having the highest grid charges—it fits their perception that Scotland is remote, so additional cost makes sense, and that anyway it is just us Scots whingeing again—the reality is that continuing as is jeopardises their own net zero plans as well as Scotland’s own targets. It makes a mockery of their levelling up agenda—which is, in reality, just about targeting the red wall seats of north England and the midlands. That agenda was confirmed last week by the disgraceful decision to class the Scottish carbon capture and storage cluster as a reserve.
The current grid charges system was introduced in 1992 following privatisation of the electricity market. Back then, it was based on the concept that electricity is generated from coal, gas, oil or large nuclear stations. With this embedded concept, the charging system is now still geared at incentivising power generation sites close to the centres of population—or, more accurately, the closer to London the better. It is utterly absurd that the UK Government have taken the welcome step to phase out coal-fired electricity generation but are retaining a grid charges system that is based on where to build coal-fired power stations. It is completely bonkers. The obvious strategy would be to consider what a future grid will look like, where are the best locations for the generation of clean renewable energy and what grid upgrades will be required to facilitate that, and then analyse the long-term costs of the grid upgrades and devise a fair system of charging to facilitate that. That is exactly what this Bill seeks to do.
Let us be clear: having the highest geographical charges in Europe creates an uneven playing field when looking for investment. The majority of the countries in Europe do not have locational charges. The ones that do charge way less than is imposed in Scotland. If a developer built a grid-connected turbine in each of these countries—Finland, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Austria, France, Slovakia, Romania and Belgium—the combined locational charges for those nine turbines across nine countries would be less than the charge imposed on a single turbine in the north of Scotland. That illustrates the investor competition for Scotland, let alone the fact that so many other countries, such as the Netherlands and Germany, do not impose geographical charges. Worse, the UK Government are building interconnectors that allow electricity imports that are exempt from these grid charges. I am supportive of an interconnected energy market, but the system incentivises international investors to invest in other countries.
Scotland has 25% of Europe’s offshore wind potential, so future planning should be about how to maximise that, especially when the UK Government have a 40 GW target for offshore wind by 2030, which is reliant on 10 GW coming from Scotland. Scotland also has fantastic potential with floating offshore wind, especially with the Hywind project already operational. Forward thinking should be about maximising opportunities for these leading technologies.
It is not just us in the Scottish National party saying that change is required; the wider industry is saying it too. ScottishPower, SSE, Vattenfall, RWE, Red Rock Power, RenewableUK and Scottish Renewables have all called for changes to the grid charging regime. Indeed, a survey by SSE showed that 93% of industry stakeholders support reform of the current transmission charging regime. Some 84% of respondents stated that the network charging system acts as a barrier to the delivery of their renewable projects in Scotland. What does it take for the UK Government to sit up and listen?
What could be more iniquitous than suffering the highest grid charges in Europe? Well, if we look within the UK energy market, Scotland is further disadvantaged, especially in comparison to southern England. Connections to the south of England result in generators being paid to connect to the grid. It is a physical impossibility to have a negative cost of managing one area of the transmission system, so this therefore appears to be another method of levelling down, not up. The Beatrice array off the coast of Moray pays a unit electricity price of £4.50 to connect to the grid. A comparator in southern England is paid £1.50 per unit of energy. Why is the leader of the Scottish Tories not speaking up about that? Another example in numbers is that a 1 GW site off the north Scottish coast will pay £38 million a year to connect to the grid, yet the same sized offshore windfarm connecting to southern England will get paid £7 million a year. That is a £45 million a year differential between the Scottish and English sides. Over 20 years, that is nearly a £l billion difference.
Scottish offshore windfarms are now 20% more expensive than those in English waters. When the lowest price is winner takes all in the contracts for difference auctions, that becomes a major issue and puts investment in offshore renewable energy in Scotland at risk. It means less direct jobs and less supply chain work, and it potentially hampers a just transition for the oil and gas industry.
The effects of the charging burden on Scottish projects can already be seen. In the 2015 auction round, Scottish projects accounted for almost 40% of the offshore wind contract awards. By the 2019 round, it was down to less than 10%. Surely that is not an intended consequence. Worse, if nothing is done, in the next few years, Scottish grid charges will be charged at a rate equivalent to 50% of the strike rate producers achieved for selling their energy, making it impossible to compete with those bidding in English waters. It is madness to have production prices falling and some of the best sites in Europe, but a grid charging regime blocking the route to market. By default, it means Scottish projects need to have 20% greater efficiency or outputs compared with southern England sites to be able to compete. However, higher output equals higher charges, so the cycle continues.
Another point about the current charging system is price volatility. While the actual cost of maintaining and operating the grid remains stable, the charging prices vary by up to 700%, demonstrating that the system is not fit for purpose. As companies cannot predict these fluctuations, it is a risk factor they have to add to their project costs. By the end of this decade, that will be costing consumers an estimated £400 million a year in wasted costs.
In terms of the best use of billpayers’ money when considering the future energy mix, we should not be spending billions of pounds on new nuclear. At £23 billion, Hinkley Point C is the most expensive power station in the world. Despite complete market failure in the nuclear sector, the UK Government still want to spend £20 billion- plus on Sizewell. Worse, these nuclear sites will get paid under the current regime to connect to the grid—more hidden subsidies for nuclear. Instead, investment should be committed to pumped storage hydro such as SSE’s Coire Glas and the Cruachan dam extension being planned by Drax. That creates renewable energy ready to be dispatched when required and at a fraction of the cost of nuclear. An Imperial College report suggests the system could save £700 million a year.
Wave and tidal is also at the stage of being able to scale up. All that is needed for the next stage of scaling up is some ringfenced money in the forthcoming contracts for difference auction. Money has been ringfenced for floating wind, so why not wave and tidal? I urge the Minister to act urgently, before it is too late. We cannot have another Westminster decision that adversely impacts Scotland. The Orbital O2 tidal generator situated off the coast of Orkney is already connected to the grid and working. It has 80% UK content, and it was the first vessel launched from Dundee in 40 years. Surely the UK Government want to maximise this technology?
It is clear that change is required, with a rounded energy policy that maps out a route to net zero, a policy that incentivises renewable energy production where it is best suited, an end to Scotland having the highest locational grid charges in Europe and an end to the volatility of the system operational charges. This Bill seeks to do that. I hope that the UK Government see sense, but there is an alternative: Scotland having full control of its destiny.
There is nothing like using every second of the 10 minutes. Well done.
Question put and agreed to.
That Alan Brown, Alison Thewliss, Gavin Newlands, Patricia Gibson, Drew Hendry, Deirdre Brock, David Linden, Dr Philippa Whitford, Brendan O’Hara, Carol Monaghan and Stephen Flynn present the Bill.
Alan Brown accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 3 December, and to be printed (Bill 175).
Northern Ireland (Ministers, Elections and Petitions of Concern) Bill (Programme) (No. 2)
That the Order of 22 June 2021 (Northern Ireland (Ministers, Elections and Petitions of Concern Bill) (Programme)) be varied as follows:
(1) Paragraphs (4) and (5) of the Order shall be omitted.
(2) Proceedings on Consideration shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion one hour after the commencement of proceedings on the Motion for this Order.
(3) Proceedings on Third Reading shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion two hours after the commencement of proceedings on the Motion for this Order.—(Alan Mak.)
Northern Ireland (Ministers, Elections and Petitions of Concern) Bill
Consideration of Bill, as amended in the Public Bill Committee
New Clause 1
Appointment of First Minister and Deputy First Minister
‘(1) The Northern Ireland Act 1998 is amended as follows.
(2) In section 16A (Appointment of First Minister, deputy First Minister and Northern Ireland Ministers following Assembly election), in subsection 4, omit the words “of the largest political designation”.
(3) For subsection (5) of that section, substitute—
“(5) The nominating officer of the second largest political party shall nominate a member of the Assembly to be the deputy First Minister.”
(4) In section 16(B) (Vacancies in the office of First Minister or deputy First Minister), in subsection (4), omit the words “of the largest political designation”.
(5) For subsection (5) of that section, substitute—
“(5) The nominating officer of the second largest political party shall nominate a member of the Assembly to be the deputy First Minister.”
(6) In section 16C (sections 16A and 16B: supplementary), omit subsection (6).’—(Stephen Farry.)
This new clause provides that the deputy First Minister can come from the second largest political party without prescribing that the post be filled by a member from the second largest designation.
Brought up, and read the First time.
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
New clause 2—Appointment of Joint First Ministers—
‘(1) The Northern Ireland Act 1998 is amended as follows.
(2) In subsection 16A (appointment of Ministers following Assembly election), leave out subsections (4) to (7) and subsection (9), and insert after subsection (3)—
“(3ZA) Each candidate for the office of Joint First Ministers must stand for election jointly with a candidate for the other office.
(3ZB) Two candidates standing jointly shall not be elected to the two offices without support of two thirds of members present and voting.
(3ZC) The Joint First Ministers—
(a) shall not take up office until each of them has affirmed the terms of the pledge of office; and
(b) subject to the provisions of this Part, shall hold office until the conclusion of the next election for First Ministers.”
(3) In subsection (3)(a) the reference to “subsections (4) to (7)” is replaced by a reference to “subsections (3ZA) to (3ZC)”.
(4) Any reference in the Northern Ireland Act 1998 to the First Minister or deputy First Minister is to be taken as a reference to the Joint First Ministers.’
This new clause provides for the joint election of First Ministers, and further prescribes a weighted majority vote in the Assembly, without the use of designations, for this purpose.
New clause 3—First Minister and deputy First Minister to be referred to as Joint First Ministers—
‘The First Minister and deputy First Minister elected under the Northern Ireland Act 1998 are to be referred to as Joint First Ministers, and all references in that Act (other than to their election) to the First Minister and deputy First Minister are to be read as references to the Joint First Ministers.’
This new clause provides that First Minister and deputy First Minister be referred to as Joint First Ministers reflecting their identical status, powers and responsibilities.
New clause 4—Appointment of First Ministers—
‘(1) The Northern Ireland Act 1998 is amended as follows.
(2) In subsection 16A (appointment of Ministers following Assembly election), leave out subsections (4) to (7) and subsection (9), and insert after subsection (3)—
“(3ZA) Each candidate for the office of joint First Ministers, must stand for election jointly with a candidate for the other office.
(3ZB) Two candidates standing jointly shall not be elected to the two offices without one or more of the following measures of representational support—
(a) the support of a majority of members, a majority of designated Nationalists and a majority of Unionists; or
(b) the support of 60 per cent of members, 40 per cent of designated Nationalists and 40 per cent of designated Unionists; or
(c) the support of two thirds of members.
(3ZC) The First Minister and the deputy First Minister—
(a) shall not take up office until each of them has affirmed the terms of the pledge of office; and
(b) subject to the provisions of this Part, shall hold office until the conclusion of the next election for First Ministers.
(3) In subsection (3)(a) the reference to “subsections (4) to (7)” shall be replaced by a reference to “subsections (3ZA) to (3ZC)”.’
This new clause would restore the Good Friday Agreement provision for joint election by the Assembly of the joint First Ministers.
Amendment 8, in clause 4, page 5, line 22, after “Assembly” insert “users of services,”
This amendment would ensure that Ministers and Departments are accountable and responsible to users of services, as well as to the Assembly and the public.
Amendment 6, page 5, line 25, at end insert—
“(ba) actively support the adoption and implementation of a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland that is faithful to the stated intention of the 1998 Agreement”
This amendment requires Northern Ireland Ministers to support actively the adoption of a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland as envisaged in the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement 1998 and in paragraphs 5.26 to 5.29 of Annex E (Rights, language and identity) to The New Decade, New Approach Deal 2020.
Amendment 9, page 5, line 25, at end insert—
“(ba) ensure all reasonable requests for information from the Assembly, users of services and individual citizens are complied with; and that Departments and their staff conduct their dealings with the public in an open and responsible way;”
This amendment would ensure that the principles of transparency and openness, as well as a duty to comply with requests for information, as outlined in Strand One, Annex A of the Good Friday Agreement, are maintained within the Ministerial Code of Conduct.
Amendment 10, page 5, line 25, at end insert—
“(ba) seek in utmost good faith and by using their best endeavours to implement in full the Programme for Government in “The New Decade, New Approach Deal” as regards the transparency, accountability and the functioning of the Executive;”
This amendment requires Ministers to implement the Programme for Government agreed in January 2020, as it relates to transparency, accountability and functioning of the Executive.
Amendment 11, page 5, line 25, at end insert—
“(bb) seek in utmost good faith and by using their best endeavours to implement in full any future deal between the parties to “The New Decade, New Approach Deal” which may be approved by the Assembly;”
This amendment requires Ministers to implement the any future deal on the operation of devolved government in Northern Ireland.
Amendment 12, page 5, line 2, at end insert—
“(ca) abide by and implement in every respect Annex A to Part 2 of “The New Decade, New Approach Deal” as regards the transparency, accountability and the functioning of the Executive;”
This amendment requires Ministers to strengthen and enforce the Ministerial Code and other codes including the Special Adviser Code of Conduct.
Amendment 2, page 5, line 28, at end insert—
“(da) comply with paragraph 2.11 of the Northern Ireland Executive Ministerial Code in relation to the inclusion of ministerial proposals on the agenda for the Northern Ireland Executive, with areas for resolution to be recorded in the list of “Executive papers in circulation” against those papers still outstanding after the third meeting, in accordance with paragraph 62(c) of section F of the Fresh Start Stormont Agreement and Implementation Plan;”
This amendment moves from guidance to statute a commitment in the Fresh Start Agreement providing that an item may not be blocked for more than three meetings of the Executive through lack of agreement on the agenda.
Amendment 7, page 5, line 32, at end insert—
“and by supporting the establishment of the consultative Civic Forum established in pursuance of paragraph 34 of Strand One of the Belfast Agreement and by obtaining its views on social, economic and cultural matters;”
The intention of this amendment is to require Northern Ireland Ministers to support the reestablishment of a consultative Civic Forum for Northern Ireland to enable the Assembly to obtain views on social, economic and cultural matters as envisaged in the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement 1998.
Amendment 13, in clause 5, page 7, line 12, at end insert—
“(5A) When a petition of concern is lodged against a measure, proposal or a decision by a Minister, Department or the Executive (“the matter”), the Assembly shall appoint a special committee to examine and report on whether the matter is in conformity with equality and human rights requirements, including the European Convention on Human Rights and any Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland.
(5B) Consistent with paragraphs 11, 12 and 13 (Strand 1) of the Belfast Agreement, a committee as provided for under subsection (3) may also be appointed at the request of the Executive Committee, a Northern Ireland Minister or relevant Assembly Committee.
(5C) A committee appointed under this section—
(a) shall have the powers to call people and papers to assist in its consideration; and
(b) shall take evidence from the Equality Commission and the Human Rights Commission.
(5D) A committee appointed under this section shall—
(a) report in terms that reflect evidence regarding human rights and equality assessments relating to the matter; and
(b) identify relevant clarification, adjustments and amendments (in the case of legislation) and/or other assurances which would address the stated concerns.
(5E) The Assembly shall consider the report of any committee appointed under this section and determine the matter in accordance with the requirements for cross-community support.
(5F) In relation to any specific petition of concern or request under subsection (5B), the Assembly may decide, with cross-community support, that the procedure in subsections (5A) and (5C) shall not apply.”
This amendment provides for a petition of concern to lead to a special procedure, described in paragraphs 11-13 of Strand One of the Belfast Agreement, whereby a special committee shall consider the stated concern(s) relating to equality requirements and/or human rights. Such a special committee could also be appointed at the request of the Executive Committee, a Northern Ireland Minister or relevant Assembly Committee.
Amendment 3, page 7, line 19, at end insert—
“(aa) make provision for the minimum period under (a) to be reduced in prescribed circumstances to be determined by the Assembly;”
This amendment gives the Assembly the discretion via its Standing Orders to reduce the timescales in relation to Petitions of Concerns in circumstances to be determined by the Assembly.
Amendment 14, page 7, line 27, at end insert—
“(ca) specify the size, timescale and terms of reference for such a committee; and
(cb) specify procedure(s) to allow for subsection (5E).”
This amendment is consequential on Amendment 13 and would further clarify how standing orders should make due provision for the working terms for the sort of special committee/ procedure in respect of stated human rights or equality concerns as outlined in paragraphs 11-13 of Strand One of the Good Friday Agreement.
Amendment 4, page 7, line 31, at end insert—
“(e) make provision to allow petitioners to withdraw a petition of concern at any stage in the process.”
This amendment would allow for a Petition of Concern to be withdrawn and to enable the affected matter of business to proceed without waiting for any statutory timetable to be concluded.
Amendment 5, page 7, line 37, at end insert—
“unless prescribed circumstances to be determined by the Assembly to reduce this period, apply”
Amendment 1, in clause 8, page 8, line 8,a leave out—
“at the end of the period of two months beginning with”
and insert “on”.”
This amendment enables the Bill to be commenced with Royal Assent.
At the outset, I take the opportunity to pay tribute to Sir David Amess and pass on my condolences to his family. I also reference his personal connection to the Bill, in that he was one of the Chairs in Committee. True to his character, he handled proceedings professionally, efficiently and with huge impartiality. May I also say, for those MPs who are still new to this place and are still swotting up on procedure, that he was very generous and understanding in that regard? I also thank the House of Commons staff, and the Bill Clerks in particular, for the rapid turnaround of amendments in the past week.
The amendments in my name fall into four broad categories: the election or nomination of First Minister and Deputy First Minister; reforms to petitions of concern; the operation of the Executive; and the commencement date. On the nomination and election of the First Ministers, frankly the current system does not work. The First Minister and Deputy First Minister are identical in terms of status, powers, responsibilities and duties. That one small distinction in wording takes on disproportionate importance—indeed it is only symbolic—and turns our elections into the politics of fear. That risks crowding out consideration of important economic, social and environmental issues during election campaigns. They are often about keeping the other side out, and yet, in the past, the so-called victorious party has gone on to share power in the same joint office with the largest party from the other designation.
There is speculation that Sinn Féin could emerge as the largest party after the next Assembly election and we have two Unionist parties unwilling to make clear whether in such circumstances they would serve as Deputy First Minister. That is hugely destabilising and a selective application of the rules of democracy as they stand. That could lead us into a difficult situation after the next election. People should clearly adhere to the rules, but that does not preclude us from seeking support for reforms to make the system work more effectively.
It is important to note that there will be issues on which we can find agreement. There will also be issues and amendments before us today on which we cannot find agreement. However, importantly for these proceedings, does the hon. Member agree that, as we discussed in Committee, the Bill fairly reflects what was agreed in New Decade, New Approach and that, unless and until we get joint agreement on a range of issues through another forum, we should not be tinkering around with too many amendments?
I am grateful to the hon. Member for his comments. I agree partially. The Bill does accurately reflect the New Decade, New Approach agreement, but it is worth referencing that that was made back in January 2020. I pay tribute to the former Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Julian Smith), for his endeavours in that regard. I also welcome formally the new Minister of State to his role in the Northern Ireland Office. I am sure we all look forward to working with him in the coming months. However, we have had many political developments since then. One of my great frustrations as a Member of this place and previously as a Member of the Northern Ireland Assembly is that we often respond to the last crisis and fix the rules to address what has already happened rather than trying to look ahead, anticipate where crises are likely to happen and put measures in place that will make the world operate more easily.
That brings me to new clause 1, in my name, which seeks to address anomalies in the current system. At present, the largest party regardless of designation is entitled to the position of First Minister. However, the Deputy First Minister must come from the largest party from the largest remaining designation. I do not want to get too far ahead of myself as a member of the Alliance party, but it is conceivable that, one day—perhaps after the next election or at some time in the future—a party that is not Unionist or nationalist may be the second-largest party in Northern Ireland and yet it would not be automatically entitled to that position. That would create a certain crisis of legitimacy in terms of the institutions and the First Minister and Deputy First Minister team. With that small measure, we could address that problem.
Secondly, I turn to new clause 4 in in the names of the hon. Member for Foyle (Colum Eastwood) and the hon. Member for Belfast South (Claire Hanna) of the Social Democratic and Labour party, which would essentially return to the Good Friday agreement model and the first iteration in the Northern Ireland Act 1998 by providing for an election of a joint team of FM and DFM. That would have two advantages: Assembly endorsement of the team; and reinforcement of the point of collective responsibility from being part of a joint office, not two individuals pursuing separate agendas.
My one reservation is that that relies on the current cross-community voting system, which is fundamentally linked to the designation system. As hon. Members will know, MLAs are required to sign in as Unionist, nationalist or other. I used to be an “other”, which is a wonderful way to describe one’s identity. The system perpetuates the two communities model in Northern Ireland rather than reflecting the diversity that existed in 1998 and that which exists today. There are people with open, mixed and multiple identities, and there are people from different backgrounds who have come to live in Northern Ireland and are not properly reflected in how we frame the operation of the Assembly. That needs reform.
Thirdly, new clause 2, in my name, would return to the Good Friday agreement model but with the distinction that we end up with a purely weighted majority vote—set at two thirds—without reference to any designations whatsoever. That is the fairest and most ideal way to address the issue. It would avoid some anomalous outcomes and inflexibility. Both new clauses on the second and third options would take the opportunity to acknowledge in law and change terminology to confirm and reinforce that the First Minister and Deputy First Minister are identical in status, powers, responsibilities and duties.
New clause 3—my final amendment in the group—would reinforce that point about the equality of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister in all those respects but outside the context of the nomination or election process. We may not be able to find consensus on that during the Bill’s remaining stages. However, we should take the opportunity outwith that to reflect in law that the FM and DFM are entirely equal, to try to take the heat out of the fairly stupid, meaningless contrast that is made and creates huge tension in our election campaigns. Unfortunately, we would need to make one exception and say that that would not apply to the First Minister and Deputy First Minister election process, because, until we change the system, someone must be put in place first, and someone else second.
I turn to petitions of concern, which have been a source of huge controversy in the past 20 years in Northern Ireland. Petitions of concern have been used and abused well beyond their original intention. They have brought huge discredit, and indeed tension, to the Assembly. It is worth noting that virtually no human rights or equality legislation has been passed by the Assembly. Instead, it has been done either through various periods of direct rule or through the direct intervention of Westminster, notably through the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2019 in recent times. I welcome the reforms in New Decade, New Approach, but the Alliance party is sceptical about whether they go far enough. People may say that there have not been any petitions of concern since the Assembly’s restoration. That is true, but we have also not had much legislation or any equality or human rights pieces before the Assembly. We must therefore remain vigilant.
I want to test two points with the Government. The first lies in the 14-day timeframe for a petition of concern to be considered, which may turn out to be a straitjacket. There may well be situations in which a matter must be considered urgently, such as a legal responsibility or some other deadline that must be met in response to a legislative consent motion. I therefore think it is worth clarifying that the Assembly has the ability within its Standing Orders to vary that 14-day timeframe if the circumstances warrant it. In a similar light, a petitioner or set of petitioners could withdraw their support for a petition if they feel that the issues they were concerned about have been addressed otherwise, rather than having the clock continue. In Committee, the Minister of State’s predecessor did give such reassurances, and I hope that the incumbent will be happy to do the same today.
I turn briefly to the operation of the Executive. Amendment 2 would move the “three meetings rule” from guidance to statute. At present, we have much concern in relation to the petitions of concern issue in the Assembly, but it is not as commonly understood that there are mutual vetoes in the context of the Executive. They must also be addressed. One such veto relates to the formation of the agenda. At times, Ministers have sought to put papers on the agenda but been blocked persistently. The three meetings rule is therefore of particular importance.
I appreciate that others are waiting to speak so, finally, I want to talk about the commencement timeframe. Comments about such timeframes may be unusual on Report, but this is an important point in this particular context. It is unusual to have a Northern Ireland Bill moving through Parliament at the normal pace of a Bill—most tend to be matters of urgency.
The ethos of the New Decade, New Approach agreement was to ensure that the institutions worked better, that we have sustainability and that we try to avoid crises, whether that is collapse of the Assembly or difficulty in forming a new Executive after an Assembly election. It is two years since New Decade, New Approach was agreed, but we are only now putting this into legislation, and we meet in the midst of a potential crisis of non-delivery of other aspects of New Decade, New Approach, with tensions emerging around the protocol and the unrealistic demands made in that regard—the Democratic Unionist party of colleagues sitting in front of me has made threats that it may withdraw its Ministers from the Executive in the near future—as well as speculation about what might happen after the next Assembly election. It would therefore be seen as absurd if we had a crisis when the measures in the Bill could to some extent have been helpful in managing that crisis. However, the Bill might still be in the process of going through Parliament or, even worse, it might have received Royal Assent but, because of the two-month commencement period, we would not be in a position to deploy the measures that might have helped the situation.
Nothing, of course, can overcome lack of trust or people’s determination not to work with the institutions, but if we have measures that can incentivise co-operation and provide space for people to reflect, granting some breathing space, we should take the opportunity, because that situation might well come into effect. The final amendment, therefore, is designed to avoid a situation in which the measures in the Bill, worthy as they may be, cannot be deployed in a real-time crisis. That would be a shame, so I urge the Government to reflect on that point in particular.
Before I call the next speaker, I should just say that this debate must finish at 2.18 pm. We then go on to Third Reading. Obviously, the Front Benchers and Ministers will want some time to wind up, so this part of the debate is limited, depending on how many people wish to speak. I ask Members to bear that in mind.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker.
I commend the debate and the discussion about the First Minister’s titles and many of the other issues raised by the hon. Member for North Down (Stephen Farry). I am particularly sympathetic about the commencement date. However, I do not believe that this is the right place or the right Bill for many of the other amendments. Even more importantly, they risk the House losing focus on the important issue at hand: the need to implement the clauses in the Bill that assert the continuation of the Executive, with Ministers in caretaker roles, should a First or Deputy First Minister exit power sharing. A number of witnesses in Committee raised the importance of those clauses.
The sustainability clauses were a key part of last year’s New Decade, New Approach agreement and they have not yet been implemented. On Second Reading, in July, my right hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper) highlighted the fact that the Government were already looking tardy. The sustainability clauses were agreed in order to avoid what happened in 2017, which led to three years of no Government in Northern Ireland. Even when the Bill progresses to the other place, I fear that there will be timetabling delays. As we heard, the Bill also has a two-month commencement date, so it will not be implemented for several months.
That is important because, should a First or Deputy First Minister leave office, only two weeks are provided to fill the slots. There is then a duty on the Secretary of State to call an election, but history shows that the election is often not called immediately and Northern Ireland is left ungoverned. The Bill will stop the political parties from thinking that there is an emergency escape hatch when things become politically difficult and will provide for up to 24 weeks to resolve things.
Currently, a number of issues could tempt political parties to use that escape hatch: the protocol, the cultural package, the UK Government’s putative changes to the Human Rights Act 1998, and the legacy proposals. A cocktail of issues are being injected, sometimes recklessly, into the fragile ecosystem of Northern Ireland. In that context, there is a clear and present danger of one Northern Ireland party or more diving for the emergency escape hatch. The Bill will slam shut that cop-out option.
The first clauses of the Bill are designed to put the ball back in the court of any party that seeks to exit the Executive and to shine the spotlight on each political party in Northern Ireland to restore government. Otherwise, the ball comes back into the UK Government’s court. The vast majority of NI citizens want continued devolved government. Yes, there are arguments for change and reforms at the right time, such as new clause 3, but the big issue today is why the Bill has not yet been implemented. More importantly, this House must be clear that the Bill needs to be implemented now.
The practical measures that will allow continued government—now 18 months late—will ensure that Northern Ireland business and citizens get the stability they crave. I therefore urge the Government to get the Bill to the Lords quickly, to remove the two-month commencement date and to ensure that they get behind keeping the pressure on all parties to maintain devolved government and maintaining the Good Friday agreement in all its parts.
First, I welcome many of the provisions in the Bill. As the previous speaker, the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Julian Smith), knows well, we had many long hours in the three-year hiatus of the Northern Ireland Assembly discussing a lot of this stuff, but it is deeply depressing that 23 years after the Good Friday agreement we are meeting today to find ways to stop political parties pulling the whole show apart.
The political context is that, a few years ago, Sinn Féin pulled the Assembly down for three full years—waiting lists got longer, schools began to crumble, the economy was not dealt with. Even as we stand here today, the DUP is threatening to bring down the very edifice of government in Northern Ireland. If it does not gets its way, it will pull down the Assembly. It has already withdrawn from a key tenet of the Good Friday agreement, which is north-south co-operation. What does that say to the people out there who are languishing on waiting lists? Is it that the DUP’s little niche issues are more important than dealing with the day-to-day, bread-and-butter problems that people face? It is a terrible indictment of our politics that we are even here discussing this.
I will speak to some of the amendments, in particular those on how the First and Deputy First Ministers are elected and appointed, what those offices do and what they are called. My view is that they have always been joint offices: the Deputy First Minister cannot send a letter without the First Minister saying it is okay; the First Minister cannot answer a question without the Deputy First Minister saying it is okay; and many decisions cannot be made without agreement between the two. Decisions are very infrequently made, it seems, because they do not seem to agree on an awful lot.
What is really concerning, all these years after the Good Friday agreement, is that as of today, none of the Unionist parties has told us what they would do if a nationalist gets enough votes to occupy the First Minister’s position. They are refusing to tell us whether they would even serve in that Government. Well, it is not 1968 anymore, and nationalists will no longer be treated as second-class citizens. People have marched in the streets and been beaten off the streets so that our votes could count just as much as anyone else’s. If Unionist politicians want to come along and lecture anybody about the sustainability of institutions and working together, they must seriously consider their answer the next time they are asked whether they would serve as Deputy First Minister if a nationalist becomes First Minister.
In reality—we have seen this before with the Justice Minister—because of a cosy agreement between a big nationalist party and the DUP, a nationalist is still not allowed to serve in the Department of Justice. In fact it is a joint office, which is why new clause 3 has been tabled, and it is about time we looked at that reality. From listening to some of the big radio shows in Northern Ireland and watching the television news, it is clear that over the next six months in the run-up to this election—if we are allowed to have an election—we will be faced with constant arguing: “Who will be First Minister and who will be Deputy First Minister? You have to come out to vote to stop these people becoming First Minister.” Even though we have had that for 20 years, the DUP still go into government with them. DUP Members used to say, “We can’t have Martin McGuinness as First Minister. He was a terrorist”, but then they went into government with him, occupied that very same office, and worked with him every day.
Let us, please, get rid of the constant division and debate about who is First Minister and who is Deputy First Minister. I sense we will not get there today, but there is an opportunity, which I ask the Government to consider, to look at new clause 3 and think seriously about how we resolve this issue. The job of the British and Irish Governments in our peace process is to see problems before they arise, and a blind man on a galloping horse can see what is coming round the corner if we do not resolve this issue now.
It suits the DUP and Sinn Féin to have constant debate about what they call each other, because then we are not dealing with the real issues. Our health service is on the point of collapse, 100 times more people are on out-patient waiting lists in Northern Ireland than they are in England, 29% of our children are living in poverty, but there is still no antipoverty strategy because they could not agree it. My constituency has the highest level of unemployment and economic inactivity anywhere across these islands, and we still do not have the 10,000 students on the Magee university campus who were promised and negotiated by me and the former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland during those NDNA discussions.
The legacy of the DUP and Sinn Féin’s 15 years in government has been failure, failure and more failure, and they want this argument. Everybody knows that. The Government know it, we know it, the Irish Government know it, and everybody in the House knows it: they want this argument so that they can get away in the smoke for not actually delivering for people. I implore the Government to think seriously about the best way to address this issue. There are a number of good ideas in the new clause, and the best way would be to get rid of the nonsense and pretence that the First Minister is more important than the Deputy First Minister. They are joint First Ministers, so let us begin properly to call them that.
In conclusion, it is a bit rich for the Government to be telling anybody about sustainability in Northern Ireland, when everything they do in Northern Ireland undermines sustainability and the stability of our institutions. That includes how they dealt with the European Union and the DUP, and what they told them about the protocol—apparently there was never going to be a border anywhere. Well, there is one now, and if we were more honest with people we would be in a much better situation.
The NDNA agreement also mentioned 90 days for implementing legacy legislation, but where has that gone? The five parties in Northern Ireland, and every victims’ group, opposes the Government’s proposals on legacy, yet they seem determined to push that forward. We are still waiting—perhaps today is the opportunity—for the Government to tell us when Irish language and culture legislation will be brought to the House, as agreed at NDNA. There is an opportunity to stop the crisis that we are looking at down the barrel—it is clear it is coming—and for the Government to step in and do something, before we end up with another three years of collapse, when more people will be languishing on waiting lists.
Let me echo what my right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon (Julian Smith) said about the need for speed to get this legislation through, which I urge on my right hon. Friends on the Front Bench, and hopefully on business managers in the other place. This Bill has dawdled for too long. I agree very much with the vast majority of what the hon. Member for Foyle (Colum Eastwood) had to say, and I shall come back to that point in a moment. [Interruption.] It is not “surprise, surprise”, and I say to the hon. Member for Upper Bann (Carla Lockhart) that when somebody speaks sense, one should usually notice and acknowledge it.
Alex Kane, who is known to many in this House, tweeted this morning:
“23 years after the GFA the government is introducing legislation to give a six month ‘life raft’ for parties (on full pay I presume)—”
I urge my right hon. Friend the Minister to give further consideration to that point when the Bill arrives in the other place—
“if one or other of the big two walks away and collapse looks likely. All it will do is nurture crises over longer periods and bolster instability.”
I know that is the last thing the Government want to do, but we must ensure that we are not bedding in the psychology of instability, if you will. As the hon. Members for Foyle and for North Down (Stephen Farry), and doubtless others, made clear, devolution is not a plaything. It is not there to support or to kick around like a football between two, three or four parties; it is the localisation of decision making. Many right hon. and hon. Members representing Northern Ireland constituencies will have had inboxes and postbags about this issue that are far fuller than mine as Chair of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee.
In the last interregnum, what has been happening on education, health, housing and infrastructure? This is about delivering prosperity and peace, lives and livelihoods. All of us who pick up the baton of public service should always remind ourselves of that. Particularly as we come out of covid, the communities of Northern Ireland need us all, whether those working in Stormont or those here, to be resolutely focused on meeting and delivering on their needs, as we will in every other part of the United Kingdom.
The hon. Gentleman is making a sensible point about the extension of a crisis period. We currently have a situation where a crisis could last for days, and we are now potentially extending that by up to six months. Irrespective of what side of the debate they are on, I ask Members across the House to contemplate whether they would tolerate in their part of the United Kingdom a crisis in statute that is allowed to perpetuate itself for up to six months before it ultimately comes to the buffer zone, or to the point at which it has to be delivered. That point needs to be considered by all hon. Members when they vote on this measure.
I agree entirely with the hon. Gentleman, who serves with me on the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee. Thank heavens this is not being dealt with as emergency legislation and rushed through in a 12-hour sitting, but once again it speaks of dealing with Northern Ireland as something other, or as something different, and with a set of circumstances and rules that none of us would find tolerable in England and my constituency of North Dorset, or in Wales or Scotland. The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point that we should all be conscious of.
I remember going through these negotiations with some of the people who are now in the Chamber. In reality—perhaps the hon. Gentleman will agree with this—it was DUP Members who pushed hardest for long periods to try to resolve some of these issues. They were responding to the issue that Sinn Féin had collapsed the institutions last time around. Of course, this time they are the ones threatening to do that, but that was largely the DUP position, and it is strange to hear the hon. Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley) now opposing it.
All I will say to the hon. Gentleman is that I was not privy to those discussions, but we are where we are. We must realise that things have clearly moved on. The operation and reform of the protocol is sitting here like an elephant in the Chamber, but it speaks to my point that the workable delivery of devolution should not be used as a plaything for other issues.
That takes me to the point that the hon. Member for North Down made about democracy. We cannot have a functioning democracy in these islands that is effectively based on the Henry Ford model of selling a car. Henry Ford used to say, “You can have any colour as long as it’s black.” We cannot say, “You can have as many elections as you like as long as I turn out as the winner. If I don’t—if the public have spoken and I haven’t been successful—I won’t accept the result. I will tear the edifice down,” in some sort of democratic political toddler’s temper tantrum. That is not how we do it. Democracy only works when all of us who win take up the weight of winning with responsibility and those who lose accept that they have lost and somebody else has won. If people do not abide by that simple equation, that is not democracy, and that should cause us all considerable concern.
My final point, echoing what the hon. Member for North Down said, is that in the system that we have for sorting these things out, the language that is used—“Unionist”, “nationalist” and “other”—may be past its sell-by date. It hard-bakes into the language and the systems a previous age. It does not reflect Northern Ireland as it is today. This is not the time for it, but I agree with the hon. Gentleman that at some point in the not-too-distant future, serious, considered, sober thought needs to be given to how these issues are addressed in order to present Northern Ireland to the rest of the world, and to the rest of the United Kingdom, as it is today and not as it was 20 years ago, or 40 or 50 years ago. We need a contemporary review of that in order to ensure that it is fit for purpose.
My cri de coeur is for all parties to understand that devolution, and its delivery of public service and improvement of life for those who live in Northern Ireland, is not something to be taken lightly. It is not a plaything to be kicked around for cheap party political points.
It is always a pleasure to speak on any issue in this House, but particularly on issues to do with Northern Ireland. I welcome the Minister of State, the right hon. Member for Bournemouth West (Conor Burns), to his new role and wish him well. He rightly came to see the No. 1 constituency in Northern Ireland, Strangford, before he had seen anywhere else. We are very pleased to have had the opportunity to have him there, and we wish him well in his role.
As always, the debate has been clear, and my party’s reasoning has been clearer. I am not enamoured with the form of government in Northern Ireland, and I do not believe that it can or does work, as has been demonstrated very clearly over the last couple of years. I absolutely believe in the right of this place to govern and legislate. However, as my colleagues have said, this is a matter that s