House of Commons
Thursday 26 May 2022
The House met at half-past Nine o’clock
The Chairman of Ways and Means took the Chair as Deputy Speaker (Order, 23 May, and Standing Order No. 3).
Oral Answers to Questions
Digital, Culture, Media and Sport
The Secretary of State was asked—
I thank my hon. Friend for his question and pay tribute to his tireless work campaigning on behalf of the horse-racing industry. The Government recognise the contribution that racing makes to our sporting culture and to the rural economy. We equally understand the critical importance of being able to move racehorses across international borders. We are aware that the industry has provided proposals to HMRC and the Treasury regarding the VAT arrangements, and I can tell the House that the Treasury is actively considering those proposals at the moment.
I thank the Minister for that encouraging answer. As he knows, the owners of racehorses coming to this country to race have to deposit a VAT-equivalent security, returnable when they leave, whereas the owners of horses coming to this country for what are classified as work purposes do not. Given that it would not cost the Exchequer anything to correct this anomaly, and that it would help cash flow and reduce the administrative burden on racehorse owners, I hope that the Minister will continue to speak to the Treasury with a view to correcting it.
I thank my hon. Friend for his clear articulation of the issue and his powerful expression of it. I will certainly convey that to Treasury colleagues who are currently considering the matter.
Can I just say, Madam Deputy Speaker, that I really enjoyed the different tradition we had this morning when we entered the Chamber? It is the first time I have seen it, and I would like to say how well the House does it.
Racehorses are very important to my constituency; they are an integral part of some of my constituents’ lives. The Northern Ireland protocol has obviously complicated things, so can the Minister tell me how my constituents in the racehorse industry in Strangford and in Northern Ireland can get through the minefield of bureaucracy and red tape?
The Government are extremely mindful of the challenges that the way the Northern Ireland protocol is being applied is imposing on communities across Northern Ireland. It clearly affects the horse-racing industry as it affects others. I know that my colleagues across Government are working extremely hard as we speak to find practical ways of fixing those problems, and I am sure that my colleague the Foreign Secretary will keep the hon. Member and the House updated on her efforts.
The anomaly on VAT, which ridiculously argues that a racehorse coming here to race or a brood mare coming here to breed is not coming for work, needs to be sorted.
Can the Minister also please ensure that the horserace betting levy is increased and reformed far sooner than is currently proposed? Although horse-racing is doing great at the moment, there is a significant challenge with the low level of prize money, which is leading to fewer runners and too many horses running overseas rather than here. We need to make sure we support the industry.
I thank the former Secretary of State, who is a representative of a horse-racing constituency, for his question. Clearly quite a lot of money is going into the horse-racing industry via the levy. It is on track to raise about £100 million this year, most of which ends up in prize money. However, my right hon. Friend has made a number of powerful representations, both in this House and privately, about the need to review that levy earlier than was planned, and his powerful representations are being actively considered as we speak.
We are making excellent progress on delivering the biggest broadband upgrade in UK history, so that we have fast, reliable digital infrastructure for decades to come. In the past three years, national gigabit coverage has rocketed from 6% to 68%, we are investing £5 billion so that people in hard-to-reach areas can get ultra-reliable speeds, and we have already upgraded more than 600,000 premises. We also have £500 million-worth of contracts out for tender covering areas from Cumbria to Cornwall.
Under this Government, broadband speeds are anything but levelled up. For example, the average download speed in North Shropshire is just 49 megabits per second. In Tiverton and Honiton it is just 43 megabits per second, which is half the national average of 86 megabits per second and 60% slower than the average speed in London. The Prime Minister reportedly cracks jokes about this behind closed doors, but if the Government truly care about rural Britain, why are they leaving it in the digital slow lane?
I thank the hon. Lady for her question, but I do not share her characterisation of what is happening. I am pleased to say that there is almost 99% superfast coverage in her North Shropshire constituency, which is above the national average. Shropshire is also included in lot 25 of Project Gigabit, so those areas that are not covered by the very fast commercial roll-out of our gigabit scheme will be out for procurement—we expect it to happen in the next year—in order to build to those harder-to-reach premises.
In the meantime, if there are any premises in North Shropshire that can receive vouchers, I recommend that the hon. Lady’s constituents apply for them. I am also pleased to say that Shropshire Council is supporting a local top-up fund to supplement our voucher subsidy and has invested £2 million to date. As I say, I do not agree with her characterisation of the progress we are making.
I know that my hon. Friend shares my and my constituents’ frustration at the failure of the Scottish Government and their ironically named Reaching 100% scheme to deliver for people in Scotland. [Interruption.] It is six years late and millions of pounds over budget, notwithstanding the protestations of the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands). What is the Department doing to help level up broadband connectivity for my constituents in rural Scotland?
The situation in Scotland is, admittedly, tricky. I have talked to my counterpart in the Scottish Government, and the Scottish Government’s strategy prioritises some of the islands and seeks to have greater spend in some of those hard-to-reach areas than we have in parts of England. I cannot ask people in other parts of the country to suffer for decisions made by the Scottish Government on the areas they are prioritising. I am keen to continue working with the Scottish Government on trying to get connectivity to Scotland, because I share my hon. Friend’s passion for that, but we are also looking at what we can do for the very hardest-to-reach premises, a number of which are in Scotland.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair this morning, Madam Deputy Speaker.
A staggering 1.1 million people struggle to afford the most basic broadband and mobile services, and the pandemic has only reinforced the fact that broadband is now truly the fourth utility. Our day-to-day lives cannot function without it. Inflation is now running at 9%, and broadband packages have risen by 12%. With the roll-out stagnating, prices rising and household incomes being squeezed, why did the Government and Ofcom allow Openreach and other providers to raise network prices above inflation, hitting consumers and raking in profits, without real investment in full fibre?
I completely agree with the hon. Gentleman that such services are now key utilities. As he will know, we debated the Product Security and Telecommunications Infrastructure Bill yesterday, in which we are seeking to bring down rents to reduce prices for operators and, therefore, for consumers.
The hon. Gentleman will also be aware of the great work we did on social tariffs with providers throughout the pandemic. The Secretary of State recently wrote to providers to understand what more the Government can do to promote those social tariffs. We have also been working with the Department for Work and Pensions to roll out social tariffs to even more people, particularly those on universal credit.
It is pleasing, week on week, to see more and more villages in my constituency getting fibre-to-the-premises broadband, but many small operators tell me that the “Equinox” Openreach discount on the wholesale price is having a distorting effect on the speed of roll-out from those smaller operators, particularly to rural communities. Has my hon. Friend modelled the impact that that discount is having on the market? What can her Department do to fix it?
I thank my hon. Friend for raising that important regulatory issue, which is actually led by Ofcom. It has been raised with me by altnets, and it is of concern. The Government want as much competition in the market as possible, as we think that is speeding up roll-out. The commercial sector is going great guns on this. I appreciate his concerns, and this week I met Councillor Martin Tett in the Buckingham constituency to talk about what more we can do to speed up the roll-out to my hon. Friend’s constituents.
My Department is playing an active role in delivering the national cyber strategy 2022, backed by £2.6 billion of public money. That includes a focus on enhancing the nation’s cyber-skills. The UK Cyber Security Council was launched by the Department last year and received its royal charter in early 2022. It will play a key role in building world-leading skills architecture for the cyber profession. We are also ensuring that tech is designed in a secure way, and our new Telecommunications (Security) Act 2021 is helping to protect the most vulnerable parts of UK networks and services.
Given that fraud is one of the main purposes of cyber-attack, will the Government take the advice of the Royal United Services Institute to make cyber-security and tackling fraud a national security priority, so that the full apparatus of our security establishment can be brought to bear against overseas fraudsters?
My hon. Friend raises an important issue. Tackling fraud needs a co-ordinated response from Government, so although policy on fraud is led by the Home Office, I assure him that the Government as a whole are taking significant action. I mentioned our national cyber strategy. We have also secured funding so that the UK intelligence community can set up a dedicated anti-fraud mission, and later this year we will publish a new strategy to address the threat. The Department recently introduced the Online Safety Bill, which will tackle some forms of online fraud and fraudulent advertising, and that will be built on by a wider online advertising programme.
Cyber-threats come in lots of guises, ranging from spreading misinformation to undermining democracy, stealing data and intelligence, and fraud, as we have just heard from the hon. Member for Wycombe (Mr Baker). Perhaps the most serious threat is the downing of critical infrastructure. What assessment has the Minister made of both the threats on downing critical infrastructure in the UK and how we overcome and challenge the people who seek to do it?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for taking this issue so seriously. We, as a House, need to give great consideration to it. We have a number of new powers in place, including the National Security and Investment Act 2021, which gives us greater powers to look into some of the investments being made in this area. On critical national infrastructure, he will understand that I cannot go into great detail, but I simply wish to assure him that I spend a great deal of time on that issue. The more that consumers and businesses depend on our critical national infrastructure, the greater attention the House needs to pay to it, and I assure him that I am doing a lot of working in that space.
Online Harm: Women and Girls
The Online Safety Bill, which went into Committee on Tuesday, rightly has extremely strong protections for women and girls. The hon. Lady will have noticed that, in schedule 7, crimes such as harassment, stalking, revenge porn and extreme porn are designated as “priority offences” , and those measures protect women in particular. They are offences where social media firms have proactively to take steps to prevent that content appearing online. We have also added cyber-flashing as a new criminal offence to the Bill.
Will the Minister consider what penalties can be brought against social media companies that fail in their duty to protect young girls and women, given that the number of eating disorders have risen exponentially in the past few years and, sadly, young women and girls are having suicidal thoughts owing to the way these automatic artificial intelligence practices work? What action will the Minister take on that?
The hon. Lady is raising an incredibly important issue. Both girls and boys are covered under the provisions that protect children from harms. When we designate the list of harms, I expect that it will include eating-related matters and suicide and self-harm content, mindful of the terrible case of Molly Russell, who committed suicide after being bombarded on Instagram. We will also be publishing, in due course, the list of harms applying to adults. The penalties that will be applied if companies breach these duties include fines of up to 10% of global revenue, which tends to be about 100% of UK revenue. In extreme cases, if they persistently fail to comply, there are denial of service provisions, where these platforms’ ability to—[Interruption.] This is an important question. Their ability to transmit into the UK can be completely disconnected.
Will the Minister consider amending the Online Safety Bill in the light of the Financial Conduct Authority’s recent warning that there has been an 86% increase in screen-sharing scams in just the past 12 months?
Yes. The Bill is technology-agnostic, meaning that it does not refer specifically to technology because, obviously, technologies evolve all the time. My hon. Friend touches on fraud; the Bill was amended before its introduction to include in the scope of its duties advertisements that promote fraud, but I am happy to meet him to discuss further the particular issue he has raised.
Violence against women and girls is a systemic problem online, but the Government have failed even to name it in the Bill. The Minister knows that there is widespread support for tackling this issue in the sector and among his own Back Benchers, and I know that Members from all parties would welcome it if he went further. I ask once and for all: why have the Government failed to tackle violence against women and girls online in its most basic form and not included misogyny as a priority offence in the Bill?
I strongly dispute the suggestion that the Bill does not protect women and girls. I have already said in response to the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West) that we have created a new cyber-flashing offence and that we have named offences such as harassment, stalking and revenge porn as priority offences—
Have you got it in the Bill?
Those things are already priority offences in schedule 7 to the Bill. The Bill went into Committee on Tuesday and I look forward to discussing with the shadow Minister and other Committee members ideas to improve the Bill as it goes through Parliament.
I warmly welcome what we are doing with the Online Safety Bill to protect people from harm, because tech companies have been far too lax at doing so for far too long, but there is concern in some quarters that we will unintentionally end up restricting freedom of speech by conflating opinions that people do not like to hear with actual harms that are done online. Will my hon. Friend reassure me that we will ensure that we stay on the right side of that line and protect freedom of speech in the Bill?
Yes, I can categorically give that assurance. There has been some misinformation around this issue. First, there is nothing at all in the Bill that requires social media firms to censor or prohibit speech that is legal and that is harmless to children. Reports to the contrary are quite simply untrue. In fact, there is express provision in the Bill: clause 19(2) expressly provides for a new duty on social media firms to have regard to free speech. Such a provision does not currently exist.
Fan-led Review of Football Governance
The fan-led review of football governance identified financial sustainability as a core issue affecting the game, which is why the primary focus of the new independent football regulator will be to improve clubs’ financial sustainability, to protect them now and in the future. Further details will be set out in the White Paper in the summer.
Newport County AFC is a leading Fair Game club and a great example of how supporter ownership can bring about sustainable financial and governance structures and excellent community engagement; it is certainly true in the County’s case. With that in mind, will the Minister meet Fair Game to discuss its proposal for a sustainability index, which would overhaul the parachute-payments system and reward responsible clubs that demonstrate that they put their supporters first?
The regulator will be tasked with improving how clubs are financially and operationally run. Improving corporate governance and financial oversight will greatly reduce the likelihood of financial distress and make football much more resilient and sustainable for the long term. [Interruption.] The Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Worcestershire (Nigel Huddleston), who is the Minister responsible, has just whispered to me that he would be happy to meet the hon. Lady.
I think the whole country is looking forward to the women’s European football championships being held in England this summer. That will provide a further boost for one of the fastest growing sports in the country. Will my right hon. Friend join me in welcoming the agreement that the FA has reached to redistribute money from the Premier League to the women’s game, and the fact that that will support grassroots football for women and girls?
I am absolutely delighted to endorse my hon. Friend’s comments. It will be a fantastic summer, with not just the Euro 22 women’s finals, but the Commonwealth games; it will be a summer of sport. It is a fantastic decision. Women in sport do not get enough sponsorship, enough time on television, enough support, or enough money. Pushing women in sport is a key priority of my Department, and this is a great decision. We want to see more decisions like that moving forward.
We operate hybrid working, whereby staff are expected to spend, on average, two days a week in the office, recognising that some roles require more office-based work than others. This is designed to maximise the use of our office capacity, as we currently have 800 desks for 2,000 staff in London. There are huge advantages to working in the office, but also to working at home, including fostering a sense of community and belonging. I am fully supportive of the hybrid approach.
Figures released in April showed that 43% of staff in the Department were working on departmental premises. Can the Secretary of State tell me what proportion of staff in her Department were working from home before the pandemic; what the proportion is now; and what steps she is taking with the Minister for Brexit Opportunities and Government Efficiency to encourage more civil servants to work in the Department?
Before covid-19, the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport followed a “smarter working” operating model where occasional working from home was an option. This enabled us to reduce our desk capacity to save money, and, typically, we expected about 40% of staff to be working from home, or from another location, on any given day. Since covid regulations were relaxed, staff in my Department have been returning to the office as part of a hybrid working operating model, with an expectation of some working from home. As I said, we have 800 desks for 2,000—well, 2,180—staff in our London office. The occupancy levels continue to increase, with an almost 80% occupancy on some days, but those figures are of the capacity that we have available to actually sit staff down in the Department. Due to our desk ratio, we now expect about 60% of our London-based staff to be working from home, or from another location, such as Manchester, on any given day.
Privatisation of Channel 4
The Government consulted extensively on the future of Channel 4, and the views from a broad range of industry stakeholders informed our policymaking and final decision. As a Scottish MP, the hon. Member may be particularly interested to know that I met STV and MG Alba about the broadcasting White Paper, which included the proposal to privatise Channel 4. My officials also recently met representatives from the Scotland Office and the Scottish Government. We are at a unique turning point in public service broadcasting. We think we have the chance to make Channel 4 bigger and better, while preserving what makes it so special.
When the Secretary of State was asked by the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee why she wanted to privatise Channel 4, she said that it was because it was costing the taxpayer too much in subsidies. I think she was the only person in the room who was labouring under that particular delusion. Given that that excuse has gone, is it not time to come clean and say that the Secretary of State’s mission against Channel 4 is to do not with making it a better broadcaster, but with trying to shut down a broadcaster that has a nasty habit of broadcasting the truth, in particular truths that the Secretary of State might prefer not to be made known?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question, but I know the Secretary of State’s reasoning for this decision better than he does. He also mis-characterises what was said at the Select Committee. He will be aware that Channel 4 is uniquely dependent on linear advertising, that it cannot own its own content, and that its borrowing sits on the public balance sheet. We think we have an opportunity to free it from some of those constraints to allow it to invest more in content to get private sector capital into the business, and we think that that will help to grow Channel 4, so that it can invest more in the businesses that he purports to care about.
The Secretary of State said that she wanted to remove the straitjacket from Channel 4. Except for the opportunity to borrow, which I did not know Channel 4 had asked for, the only straitjacket is the public service remits. Will those be reduced in any way?
Can the Minister kindly tell the House why the aim to compete with Amazon and Netflix should be one of the purposes of Channel 4, especially if either Netflix or Amazon, or a similar-sized foreign-owned organisation, might buy Channel 4?
This is not necessarily about allowing Channel 4 to compete in exactly the same way as Netflix and Amazon; it is about understanding the changing market dynamics that those companies are creating. As I said in my previous answer, Channel 4 is uniquely constrained. Its borrowing would sit on the public balance sheet, but it also cannot own its content. We believe that in today’s market, it needs to be able to own its content in order to have much greater flexibility in how it runs its business, and getting private capital into the business would help it to do that. While people can bury their heads in the sand about the fundamental dynamics in the market, we are taking some difficult decisions, which we think are the right decisions to secure not only the future of the business, but the future of the kind of content that audiences in this country love.
I call the shadow Secretary of State, Lucy Powell.
Yet again, the Secretary of State fails to come to the Dispatch Box herself to defend one of her own flagship policies, despite publishing a media White Paper and the Government consultation and tweeting over recess that she was selling Channel 4 off without coming to this place. Perhaps the Minister can clear up some of the confusions about the level of support for the Government’s plans. Despite the impression the Secretary of State gave at her recent Select Committee hearing, is it not the case that according to the Government’s own report, even when the 38 Degrees responses are removed, only 5% of respondents agreed that Channel 4 should be privatised? What is more, the majority of stakeholders are also against the sell-off. So can the Minister tell us who, apart from a small coterie around the Prime Minister, actually supports their plans?
I think the hon. Lady has been living in a different world. Only last week or the week before, the Secretary of State was grilled for three hours in Select Committee and took endless questions on Channel 4’s future, and—[Interruption.] I have to answer the questions that are put to me. We do not have advance sight of which ones the hon. Lady will come on to. I will simply say that the fundamental facts of the market dynamics that I have set out remain. In the consultation that she cites, a huge number of responses were to the 38 Degrees redrawing of the questions we set. We have the responsibility as a Government to look at the long-term trends in this business and to make a decision about what is best for the business, for the taxpayer and for UK audiences and creative industries. That is the sole thing driving the decisions we make in this space.
Sorry, but I thought it was Ministers who decided which questions they responded to, not the other way around. It was their decision to do it this way. [Interruption.] The question about Channel 4 is on the Order Paper.
Is it not the truth that the Secretary of State made up her mind long, long ago, based not on the evidence or the responses, but on her own ideology and a petty vendetta against Channel 4’s news coverage? The evidence is compelling: privatisation is bad for levelling up, bad for the skills pipeline, bad for the independent production sector and bad for our world-beating creative industries. Just like the forthcoming BBC licence review, is not this process just a sham? She does not listen to evidence, the industry, the public or many of her own Back-Benchers. Why does she not drop the ideology, support British jobs and British broadcasting, and stop the sell-off?
I would simply say that that is not the truth. This is not a decision driven by ideology; it is about what is best for our creative sector, what is best for audiences and what is best for the taxpayer. I am sure the hon. Lady will have plenty of opportunities to have ding-dongs with the Secretary of State on those issues in the forthcoming media Bill debate.
Oh, there she is!
I am here. We are investing almost £600 million in Birmingham and the west midlands for the 2022 Commonwealth games, which will deliver a world-class event and provide a wide range of services, including safety and security, health services, traffic management, visas, customs and inspection provisions, creating 30,000 games-time employment opportunities in the process. We are working hard to ensure that the games leave a lasting legacy for the city, the region and the country.
In this platinum jubilee year, the Birmingham Commonwealth games will give us the perfect opportunity to celebrate Her Majesty’s enduring and dutiful commitment throughout her reign to maintaining relationships throughout the Commonwealth. I have had first-hand experience of that through my work with the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association. Does the Secretary of State agree that the Commonwealth games will give us a global stage to remind our friends and allies of the continued importance of strong relationships between like-minded nations?
That is a very good point and reiterates what I said earlier. This is the year of the Queen’s platinum jubilee as well as of the Commonwealth games and the women’s Euro 2022. It is a year for the whole of the UK to come together to celebrate everything that the UK has to offer and to enjoy events such as the Commonwealth games. In this year of all years, at such a difficult time in the world, upholding the Commonwealth’s shared values, the development of free and democratic societies and the promotion of peace and prosperity are more important than ever.
My Department has a wide-ranging and comprehensive legislative programme announced as part of the Queen’s Speech. The Online Safety Bill and the Product Security and Telecommunications Infrastructure Bill are making great progress on digital connectivity across the UK. Our data reform Bill will reduce the burdens on scientists and businesses and will truly take advantage of Brexit. Our draft digital markets Bill will rebalance power from big tech to business and consumers and we will shortly set out our plans to legislate for an independent regulator of English football. We will boost our public service broadcasters through our upcoming media Bill.
I am also planning to announce today that we will publish the terms of reference for the BBC mid-term charter review, setting out our plans to review the governance and regulation of the BBC.
The House of Commons Library confirms that the majority of my Delyn constituency is in the worst 30% for connectivity in the UK, with more than 10% of my constituents still receiving less than 10 megabits per second broadband speeds. It is not a devolved matter and should be delivered by DCMS, so I hope that my right hon. Friend can confirm what the UK Government specifically are doing to help my constituents out.
Responses to the recent Welsh market review are being assessed to determine which premises require Government subsidy through Project Gigabit. We will then work out with the Welsh Government how to provide gigabit coverage to as many premises as possible. Further support is available through our gigabit broadband voucher scheme and those unable to access at least 10 megabits per second may be able to request an upgrade through the universal service obligation. As of January, Ofcom reported that 0.3% of premises in Delyn may be eligible for a broadband universal service obligation connection.
I congratulate St Johnstone on their emphatic premiership play-off win last week and wish Scotland good luck next week against Ukraine, for if we win we will move on to Wales the following weekend when we will surely cuff them. That game next week, which I am sure you are looking forward to, Madam Deputy Speaker, will be broadcast live on Sky Sports. With the awarding of Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish TV rights to Premier Sports and Viaplay, Scottish fans will have to subscribe to four different platforms to follow the game. England fans are able to watch their men’s national team free to air through ITV and now Channel 4. Will the Secretary of State meet me to discuss how we can address this inequity without harming Scottish football’s financial situation?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that question. The Minister for Sport, the Under-Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Worcestershire (Nigel Huddleston), and, I think, probably the Minister for Media, Data and Digital Infrastructure would be happy to meet him to discuss that. As the hon. Gentleman may know, the broadcasting White Paper has just been published and the media Bill is coming forward shortly. I am sure his comments can be considered, and he may want to contribute to the process.
We are in regular contact with Ofcom and the radio industry on these issues, and I would be happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss the matter further, so that I understand the interest driving his question.
Some 53% of people in a public poll actually thought that Channel 4 was already privately owned. They did not realise—[Interruption.] As my hon. Friend the Minister for Media, Data and Digital Infrastructure has already said, we have to address a rapidly changing broadcasting landscape in the UK at the moment. It is a bad business model for any organisation to depend on one form of revenue. As we know, linear advertising is decreasing and Channel 4 is dependent on that advertising. It is a decision we have to take for the benefit of Channel 4. As I have already said, Channel 4 itself—[Interruption.]
Order. Stop shouting at the Secretary of State, because we cannot hear her answer these important questions.
As Channel 4 highlighted in its own document, “4: The Next Episode”, it wants to raise investment and invest in more content, and we are setting Channel 4 free to be able to do that. If Channel 4 does that while state-owned, it is offset against the public balance sheet. We cannot allow that, because Governments do not own money—we only have taxpayers’ money—so we have to enable Channel 4 to be set free to raise investment and to continue to make the amazing and distinctive British content and edgy, diverse programmes that it does.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his question and his long-standing interest in this area. Clause 50 of the Online Safety Bill already exempts recognised news publishers from the provisions of the Bill, and in clause 16 there are particular protections for content of journalistic importance. As we committed on Second Reading, I think in response to one of his interventions, we will be looking to go further to provide a right of appeal in relation to journalistic content. Work is going on to deliver that commitment right now, and we will bring forward further news as soon as possible. I will make sure that my right hon. Friend is the first to hear about it.
We have targeted in the Online Safety Bill the platforms that create the most harm and where the most harm happens. We have done that in consultation with a number of stakeholders, including the Children’s Commissioner, but we do understand the problem that the hon. Member talks about. The Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South (Chris Philp), is taking the Bill through Committee. We are looking at other platforms where harm exists and the practices that the hon. Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi) talks about. What I will say is that the Online Safety Bill cannot fix absolutely everything on the internet—we cannot fix the internet, but we can do as much as possible within that Bill to reduce as much harm as possible, because keeping children safe is at the heart of the Bill and is the core principle that runs through it. We are open to discussions about anything we can do to improve the Bill, but we think we have gone as far as we can in protecting freedoms of speech and democratic content and protecting children, who are the most important part of the Bill. I am sure my hon. Friend will have discussions with the hon. Member.
Like the hon. Member for Edinburgh West (Christine Jardine), I have worked in the broadcast industry. Subject to certain conditions, I support the sale of Channel 4. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that any sell-off will be subject to requirements to make minimum British content, news content and the innovative programming that we so much enjoy on that station?
I thank my hon. Friend for enabling me to lay out some important points. Channel 4 is being sold as a public service broadcaster and the criteria that he has outlined will absolutely be in there. If anybody cares to read the broadcasting White Paper, we have put a number of things into the media Bill—not just the sale of Channel 4—that will help Channel 4, including provisions on prominence and the introduction of a code that will put all public service broadcasters and streamers on a level playing field in terms of what they can broadcast in the UK. It will be sold as a public service broadcaster and there will be a requirement to continue to make distinctive British content, such as “Derry Girls”, “Gogglebox” and all those programmes that are distinctly British. There will be a requirement to do that, as well as what he has listed.
There is always overwhelming demand from our fantastic sports facilities around the country to host those amazing events. That is why we are aggressively pursuing many international and other sporting events so we can make sure that the love is spread across the whole country. I am sorry that the hon. Lady is disappointed on this occasion. Those decisions are not made directly by Government, but we work with all the organising authorities to try to ensure that we level up sporting opportunities across the country. I am happy to speak to her about future opportunities.
The Attorney General was asked—
CPS: London North
Before I answer my hon. Friend, I inform the House that my friend and close partner, the Prosecutor General of Ukraine, is in the Gallery. It gives me great pleasure to welcome her to London to watch Attorney General questions this morning. I recently visited Ukraine to witness first hand the indomitable and inspiring work that she is leading in Ukraine to bring to justice those Russian soldiers suspected of war crimes. The UK is proud to stand shoulder to shoulder with our friends in Ukraine. Slava Ukraini.
The Government are, of course, committed to holding the criminal justice system to account for its performance, which is why we are now publishing criminal justice scorecards that focus on regional performance, which make a crucial contribution to our understanding of how the system is working. CPS London prosecuted nearly 39,000 cases in 2021, with almost 29,000—74%—ending in a conviction. That is a 15.2% increase from 2020. The inspectorate recently completed an inspection of CPS London North and I am pleased to report that it found commendable improvements in the prosecution of rape and serious sexual offences.
The whole House joins the Attorney General in welcoming our colleagues from Ukraine.
I associate myself with the Attorney General’s remarks to our friends from Ukraine.
Clearly, one of the most important aspects of CPS performance is how it deals with witnesses and victims, particularly of violent crimes. Can she update the House on how CPS London North has performed against those criteria?
I was pleased that the inspectorate report that looked specifically at performance in CPS London North found that 81.3% of responses to witnesses fully met the standard for being timely and effective. There is always more we can do and I know that the CPS is committed to improving the quality of its communication with victims. I would say, however, that CPS London North was also successful in securing convictions very recently for serious offences and we should record our thanks and gratitude to its team of prosecutors.
I am a co-chair of the all-party group on miscarriages of justice, and we are all conscious that we want the Crown Prosecution Service to be as good as it possibly can be. However, up and down the country—in London and elsewhere—there are serious worries about recruitment and the performance of many members of staff. Could there be a thorough look at the performance of the CPS at the moment?
I regularly visit CPS teams around the country, and there is a huge amount of dedication and commitment to improving performance. No one is under any illusion about the scale of improvement needed. However, we are seeing huge measures, with investment and resources being ploughed into the system nationwide—whether that is Operation Soteria, or the pilots in the south-east and in Avon and Somerset. All around the country, we are seeing better practices, focusing on closer collaboration between the police and the prosecutor, earlier investigative advice and more support for victims. We now have some changes to the disclosure guidelines, which are going to focus on supporting victims. I think that, cumulatively, we are going to see improvements and the early data gives me grounds for optimism.
Violence against Women and Girls: Prosecutions
I have seen at first hand the horrendous damage that these crimes do to victims, particularly when I was honoured to visit the Havens, which is a sexual assault referral centre, and that is why tackling violence against women and girls is a central mission of this Government. Supporting victims from the report to the police right through to trial and sentencing is a service that all victims deserve. I am working very closely with the Lord Chancellor and the Home Secretary so that we get a whole-system response to this challenge. I am very pleased to see that there has been a notable change in the volume of prosecutions, which has increased by more than 10% from quarter 2 to quarter 3 in 2021-22.
I thank the Attorney General for her response. In 2020, one in 20 victims of sexual assault reported being drugged or spiked by the perpetrator responsible for their assault, and that was before the terrifying reports last year of young women being injected. Given the scale and seriousness of this spiking epidemic, does the Attorney General regard it as acceptable that just 102 people were convicted for spiking offences in the whole of 2021? What more is being done to tackle this?
I know that the Home Office is looking very closely at the issue of spiking. There will be movement on this because we take it very seriously, and we are very concerned about the increasing number of incidents relating to the spiking of victims as a way of attacking and sexually assaulting them. In the data we are beginning to see on how the system is responding—whether that is the number of referrals the police are making to the CPS, the number of charges that the CPS is passing on to trial and for prosecution, or the actual conviction rate—we are seeing improvements. We want to go further, of course, but we are seeing early signs of improvement.
The Attorney General rightly talked about a whole-system approach, but over the past year I have seen an increasing number of extremely concerning cases involving domestic violence in which, specifically, the CPS, the probation service, the courts and the police all seem to be operating in silos when trying to protect women from abusive ex-partners who continue to abuse and harass them. What is the Attorney General doing to ensure that the various parts of the criminal justice system work together to increase prosecutions and protect these women?
The hon. Member is absolutely right that a whole-system approach is required. That is why the end-to-end rape review was announced last year and we have seen updates on how particularly the CPS is doing in relation to its responsibilities. The CPS recently published a rape strategy and the update to that, which sets out the improvements it has continued to see in every aspect of how it is managing rape prosecutions: better collaboration, as I mentioned; supporting more specialist units; and ensuring more support is given to victims. But I would just gently say that the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022, which I was proud to support as a great initiative by this Government, set out provisions to increase the sentences to be served by rapists and others convicted of sexual assault and I am only sorry that Labour voted against those measures.
We will have to go a little faster. I appreciate that the Attorney General has complicated questions to answer, but we have a lot of business ahead of us today. We are supposed to have only another five minutes. We will obviously take longer, but can we go a little faster—short questions, short answers?
I am sure the Attorney General will have read the damning conclusions, and indeed the horrendous case studies, set out in last month’s joint inspectorate report into post-charge handling of rape cases. Does she accept the report’s findings when it comes to the way the system is failing survivors of rape and will she give us both a commitment and a timetable to implement its recommendations?
We are of course always concerned about the need for more improvement and no one is denying that challenge. However, the CPS is committed to driving up the number of rape prosecutions and I am pleased with the green shoots of progress, which is notable from the recent data. If we compare performance —[Interruption.] This is not to be dismissed or laughed at. Since quarter 4 of 2018, the volume of CPS rape charges has increased by 24%. We have also seen that the rape conviction rate is 70%. Those are grounds for optimism. I do not deny that there is more to do, but we are seeing movement in the right direction.
Nowhere is there worse violence being committed against women and girls than that by Russian soldiers in Ukraine. Can the Attorney General assure the House that she will give every assistance to the Ukrainian prosecuting authorities to ensure that prosecutions will one day take place?
I thank my right hon. Friend for raising that important issue. That is exactly the subject for discussion today and tomorrow with my friend the Ukrainian Prosecutor General, who has come to London at my invitation. I was honoured to go to Ukraine to see at first hand some of her work. What is remarkable about the leadership and fortitude the Ukrainian Prosecutor General is demonstrating is that she has already brought and led some charges and prosecutions of Russian suspects and one Russian soldier has already been sentenced for a war crime. That is remarkable, given the circumstances in which she and the Ukrainians are working.
In England, modern slavery victims are helped by victim navigators to get the criminals to trial. Unfortunately in Wales, in the last seven years, there have only been two successful prosecutions under modern slavery legislation where people have been put in prison. Will the Attorney General look at expanding the victim navigator scheme to Wales in association with the great charity Justice and Care?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that issue. He is a doughty campaigner on this subject and I commit to looking more into what can be done.
May I add my welcome to our friends from Ukraine?
In January, the Attorney General told the House:
“This Government take tackling domestic abuse and hate crime extremely seriously”.—[Official Report, 6 January 2022; Vol. 706, c. 142.]
Why, therefore, has she spent the months since then taking the BBC through the High Court to protect an MI5 informant who attacked one partner with a machete and another partner predicted will kill a woman if he is not challenged and exposed? One of his victims is now taking her case to the Investigatory Powers Tribunal, but does this not demand a fuller investigation? Rather than disregard the interests of domestic violence victims where the security services are involved, will the Attorney General support an inquiry by the Intelligence and Security Committee into the handling of this case and whether it raises wider concerns that agents are able to use their status to evade criminal responsibility?
Of course, any allegation of domestic abuse or sexual assault on victims is horrendous. On no account does anyone in this Government condone that behaviour. I was very pleased with the result at court of our application for an injunction, because there are national security interests, and it is vital that those are balanced in any matter.
The Government are taking huge steps to support victims of domestic abuse. We passed a landmark piece of legislation, the Domestic Abuse Act 2021, which brought in key measures, key duties and investment to support those who are victims of this heinous crime. I hope the Labour party will get behind that ongoing work.
Serious Economic Crime
In the past five years, the Serious Fraud Office has secured reparations for criminal behaviour from organisations it has investigated totalling over £1.3 billion. That sum is over and above the cost of running the SFO itself. In addition to recent convictions leading to fines and confiscation orders totalling more than £100 million, just this week Glencore Energy has indicated that it intends to plead guilty to seven bribery counts brought by the SFO in relation to its oil operations in Africa.
Serious fraud is too often conducted by the powerful and the rich, which makes it hard to investigate, difficult and complex. That is equally the reason why we must focus on this area above all to demonstrate equality before the law. Will my hon. and learned Friend say how many fraud trials the SFO will conduct this year, and the estimated value of those fraud cases? Does he have a plan to increase that number?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We cannot have a situation where, just because the fraud is complex, it is beyond the reach of the law. That is why I am pleased that this year the SFO is taking forward seven prosecutions involving 20 defendants on a total of 80 counts, comprising alleged fraud valued at over £500 million. The alleged frauds include investment fraud, fraudulent trading and money laundering.
The Solicitor General will be aware that the Serious Fraud Office has recently suffered a series of humiliating defeats in the courts and received heavy criticism from judges, not least in the ENRC case last week, in which the High Court criticised a former SFO director for
“gross and deliberate breach of duty”.
Given that the taxpayer now faces a significant bill, will my hon. and learned Friend ensure that the report commissioned from Sir David Calvert-Smith is published in full so that this House can consider his recommendations?
My hon. Friend has raised two points: ENRC and the Sir David Calvert-Smith review. Those are, of course, separate matters, because the Unaoil matter is distinct. In respect of ENRC’s civil case against the SFO, it is important to note that the judge found against ENRC on the overwhelming majority of its allegations against the SFO. My hon. Friend is correct about the review being led by Sir David Calvert-Smith, which is focusing on the findings of the Court of Appeal in the Unaoil case. The Attorney General has committed to publishing the findings of the review, and I am happy to restate that commitment today.
Since 2016, the Serious Fraud Office has convicted just five fraudulent companies, but it has negotiated deferred prosecution settlements with another 11. Does the Solicitor General share my concern that when the SFO detects corporate fraud, its instinct is to negotiate instead of prosecuting and convicting those responsible?
The hon. Lady is right that it is always important to be vigilant about the point she raises, but I would make two points. First, in looking at the deferred prosecution agreements, we should just consider what has been achieved over the past five years: £1.3 billion has been taken off companies that have acted in a fraudulent way, in agreements sanctioned by the courts. As I have indicated, this year there will be seven trials in respect of 20 defendants on 80 counts, in respect of fraud worth more than £500 million. It is good news that just this week, Glencore has indicated that it will plead guilty to serious fraud, and it will be sentenced accordingly.
I call the Chairman of the Select Committee, Sir Robert Neill.
May I, on behalf of my fellow members of the Justice Committee, echo the welcome that has been given to the Prosecutor General for Ukraine?
The prosecution of serious fraud has had significant success and I am glad that the Solicitor General recognises that. I have written to him in relation to the Calvert-Smith report, as many of us believe that confidence in the system demands full publication. Will he commit to looking earnestly and carefully at the concerns about gaps in substantive criminal law which sometimes create greater challenges for prosecutors in corporate fraud cases, for example the test in relation to corporate liability in criminal cases and whether there is a case for a duty to prevent, as is the case in other common law jurisdictions?
As always, my hon. Friend makes an absolutely critical point. Yes, there are convictions taking place. We can talk about Glencore, Petrofac and others, but he is absolutely correct that we must consider whether the law is there to meet the changing circumstances. The point he makes about corporate criminal liability is one that we are looking at very closely, not least in light of the Law Commission’s conclusions. If there are gaps in the law, we will fill them.
Stalking and Coercive Behaviour
Stalking and coercive and controlling behaviour are serious crimes which disproportionately harm women. Prosecutions for both have increased in the years since the offences were created. In the case of coercive and controlling behaviour, they have risen from just five in 2015 to 1,403 in 2020-21. I am pleased to say that the conviction rate for domestic abuse cases in the last quarter for which data is available was 76%.
The Government first legislated to deal with stalking and coercive behaviour in 2012 and 2015 respectively. Can my hon. and learned Friend assure me that the Government will continue to prioritise tackling violence against women and girls?
My hon. Friend is right. Those are just two elements of violence against women and girls. I am pleased that in the last decade the Government have: outlawed upskirting; criminalised sending revenge porn images; created a standalone offence of non-fatal strangulation; passed the Modern Slavery Act 2015; introduced the Domestic Abuse Act 2021; banned virginity testing and hymenoplasty; and reversed the decision to automatically release sexual offenders at the halfway point of their sentences. Those who commit crimes against women should expect condign punishment.
Northern Ireland Protocol
I cannot comment specifically on any advice that I may or may not have received. It is not uncommon or inappropriate for Law Officers to seek advice, both from their officials and external specialist counsel. The Foreign Secretary’s statement to the House last week set out the Government’s proposals. She will be introducing primary legislation to address elements of the Northern Ireland protocol. I refer the hon. Member to that statement.
I thank the Attorney General and I appreciate the constraints within which she has to work on this matter. The Government are, of course, well within their rights to bring forward legislation to protect the integrity of the United Kingdom’s single economic market and protect the Union. Will the Attorney General take the opportunity today, from the Dispatch Box, to spell out to the misinformed US Congress delegation visiting Northern Ireland that defending, upholding and protecting the Union is consistent with the New Decade, New Approach agreement and consistent with the Belfast agreement? Will the Government move expeditiously—that is, before the summer recess—on bringing forward legislation?
The Bill that is proposed will take vital steps to protect the integrity of the United Kingdom, our precious Union, and protect peace, which is cemented by the Belfast agreement. It will include provisions which will ensure the security of the common travel area, the single electricity market and north-south co-operation. It will propose that goods moving and staying within the UK are freed of unnecessary bureaucracy through our new green channel, underpinned by data-sharing arrangements, including a trusted trader scheme, to provide the EU with real-time commercial data. All those measures are consistent with the Belfast agreement and consistent with Northern Ireland’s place within the United Kingdom. I urge all Members here and parliamentarians abroad to support them.
The Attorney General said again today that there is a long-standing convention that prevents her from discussing either the fact or the content of her legal advice on the Northern Ireland protocol, which makes it all the more remarkable that, on Wednesday 11 May, The Times newspaper and BBC “Newsnight” not only disclosed the fact of her legal advice, but actually quoted from its contents. Let me ask her a very straightforward question that requires only a yes or no answer: did she personally authorise the briefings to The Times and “Newsnight” regarding her advice on the protocol—yes or no?
I take the convention incredibly seriously; it is a running thread through the integrity, robustness and frankness with which Law Officers can provide advice. I do not comment on media speculation, and that is the Government’s line. [Interruption.] The measures proposed there are to protect peace in Northern Ireland, to protect the Belfast agreement and to protect our precious United Kingdom—[Interruption.]
Order. The question has been asked. It is simply not right for the—[Interruption.] The Attorney General is on her feet uttering words. If the right hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry) is not happy with the answer, that is a different matter. It is not correct for her to sit there shouting. [Interruption.] No, that is it. The right hon. Lady has asked the question and the Attorney General is giving her response.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I take the Law Officers’ convention incredibly seriously and I do not comment on media speculation. That is a firm position of the Government. There are big differences between the right hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry) and myself, and I am very disappointed at her line of attack. [Interruption.] I love the United Kingdom; the right hon. Lady is embarrassed by our flag. I am proud of the leadership that the United Kingdom has demonstrated; she wants us to be run by Brussels and wants to scrap Trident. My heroes are Churchill and Thatcher; hers are Lenin and Corbyn. [Interruption.] When it comes to UK leadership in the world, Labour does not have a clue—[Interruption.]
Order. We will stick to the specific subject of the question. If the right hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury is not satisfied with the answer, that is another matter. She will have to come back and ask it again another time.
May I raise a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker?
No, I cannot take a point of order in the middle of questions.
The Attorney General’s advice to the Prime Minister was reported to have said that the Good Friday agreement takes “primordial significance” over the Northern Ireland protocol. Does she accept that the Good Friday agreement sits alongside other agreements, rather than takes precedence, and that it should not be used as a basis to walk away from the deal that the UK Government signed? Will she commit to publishing the legal advice in full?
I will not repeat my answer, but we do not comment on media speculation and I respect and take incredibly seriously the Law Officers’ convention. The Foreign Secretary has made it clear that the Government will publish a statement summarising their legal position shortly. We will not publish legal advice, if it has been given—the content or the fact of it—and our overriding responsibility is to the Belfast agreement and the peace process. The current arrangements with the EU are undermining this, which is why we have to act now.
Evacuations from Afghanistan
(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs if she will make a statement on evacuations from Afghanistan.
The Government are grateful to the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs for its inquiry and its detailed report. We will consider the report carefully and provide a written response within the timeline that the Committee has requested.
The scale of the crisis in Afghanistan last year is unprecedented in recent times. The report recognises that the Taliban took over the country at a pace that surprised the Taliban themselves, the international community and the former Government of Afghanistan. Many months of planning for an evacuation, and the enormous efforts of staff to deliver it, enabled us to evacuate more than 15,000 people within a fortnight, under exceptionally difficult circumstances. The Government could not have delivered an evacuation at that scale without planning, grip and leadership.
The evacuation involved the processing of details of thousands of individuals by Ministry of Defence, Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office and Home Office staff in the UK and teams on the ground in Kabul. In anticipation of the situation, the FCDO had reserved the Baron hotel, so the UK was the only country apart from the United States to have a dedicated emergency handling centre for receiving and processing people in Kabul International airport. RAF flights airlifted people to a dedicated terminal in Dubai, reserved in advance by the FCDO, where evacuees were assessed by other cross-Government teams; they were then flown on FCDO-chartered flights to the UK, where they were received by staff of the Home Office and other Departments, who ensured that they were catered for and quarantined. The evacuation was carefully planned and tightly co-ordinated throughout its delivery.
As it does following all crises, the FCDO has conducted a thorough lessons learned exercise. We have written to the FAC with the main findings of that exercise. Changes have already been implemented by the FCDO, for example in response to the situation in Ukraine.
We all regret that we were not able to help more people who worked with us or for us to get out of Afghanistan during the military evacuation. Since the end of the formal evacuation last summer, we have helped a further 4,600 people to leave Afghanistan. We will continue to work to deliver on our commitment to those eligible for resettlement in the UK through the Afghan relocations and assistance policy and the Afghan citizens resettlement scheme.
Last summer, Operation Pitting brought over 15,000 people to the UK from Afghanistan. We all commend those who were directly involved on the ground in that operation. However, the recent report by the Foreign Affairs Committee—whose Chair, my hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat), is sitting behind me—sets out that there was no comprehensive plan detailing who should come, how many should come and in what order. Many people who should be in this country in safety are still in Afghanistan in fear for their lives.
A key example is British Council contractors. They did not work directly for the Government, or indeed for the British Council, but they still did their bit promoting the English language, British culture and British values; the Taliban do not see or recognise the difference. We have about 170 British Council contractors and their families in Afghanistan, of whom about half are deemed to be at very high risk, according to our own definition, and a further 93 or so are deemed to be at high risk. Many of them live in constant fear for their lives, moving from house to house as they are actively hunted by the Taliban.
I had a positive meeting with the Minister for Refugees last week, but we are coming up against constant FCDO red tape and bureaucracy, which is preventing the FCDO from immediately helping those who are in the greatest danger through the ACRS. It is bureaucracy at our end; we have identified the individuals who are in danger in Afghanistan.
As somebody who opposed the morphing of the mission into nation building in Afghanistan—I think I was the only Conservative to vote against it when we had the opportunity—I feel that the Government owe these people a debt of honour. There is an obligation to help them. I appreciated the Prime Minister’s answer to my question yesterday, in which he said he would do something about the issue, but I have been raising it since November and they have been in danger since the fall of Kabul. What undertakings can the Government give that they will finally break the bureaucratic deadlock? Time is running out.
I thank my hon. Friend for his question. He has communicated to me directly his passion about this issue. I can assure him that the Government take extremely seriously their responsibility to those who worked directly, but also indirectly, with us and for us.
As I said, the ACRS was formally launched in January this year. The scheme resettled up to 20,000 Afghans, including those whom we know to be at particularly high risk of persecution by the Taliban, such as the British Council staff whom my hon. Friend mentioned, as well as female Afghan politicians, female judges and others who, during our presence in Afghanistan, attempted to promote the values about which we feel strongly. I can assure my hon. Friend that we are working, across Government, with Lord Harrington, the Minister who specialises in the resettlement process, to ensure that we can move as quickly as possible, while also ensuring at all times that we create a system that is legally robust, is right, and prioritises the people who are at risk and to whom we owe a debt of honour.
I call the shadow Minister.
The report of the Foreign Affairs Committee on the UK’s botched evacuation from Afghanistan is one of the most damning reports that I have ever read. At a time when the UK can be proud of our support for the Ukrainian mission, this report drags us back to a dark period when we turned our back on our allies. It details a disastrous tragedy of errors that fundamentally undermines the 20 years of progress that Britain and its allies helped to bring to the Afghan people.
When Kabul fell, political and senior leaders were all on holiday, despite repeated warnings from US intelligence agencies that the Taliban were in the ascendant. People who supported the allied mission or were especially vulnerable to the Taliban were left behind. Sensitive documents were abandoned in the embassy because the evacuation was rushed and under-rehearsed. There was no plan. Consular staff were withdrawn before replacements were ready to be deployed, which led to a crucial delay in processing cases. Visa schemes were led by three separate Government Departments, which utterly failed to co-ordinate, and—a year on—these problems endure, including the problem of the British Council staff. National security decisions were taken with potentially life-and-death consequences, with no clarity and with no record of which Ministers authorised what. As my hon. Friends the Members for Wigan (Lisa Nandy) and for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock) made clear at the time, the Government were asleep at the wheel at this moment of acute crisis, putting British lives at risk to clean up their mess.
The effects on the UK’s international standing are immensely damaging. Shaky senior leadership in Government not only had disastrous consequences in the short term, but has damaged the trust that others have in us in the long term. The lack of leadership and the repeated mistakes make a mockery of the notion of “global Britain”, betraying the good work of our armed services and diplomats and signalling a strategic incoherence at the heart of the Government’s foreign policy.
I will be blunt in asking two questions of the Minister. First, who has been held accountable for the clear failures in our handling of a situation in which incompetence was promoted and negligence rewarded? Secondly, will the Government get a grip and commit themselves to working with the international community to ensure that there is a coherent strategy to engage with Afghanistan in the medium to long term? In the light of impending famine in the country, we cannot afford to turn our back on the Afghan people forever. The Government must make amends for this sorry episode, and improve.
In my opening comments, I made the point that the Government had reserved the Baron hotel. Apart from the United States, we were the only country in the world to have that physical presence at the airport. We had made arrangements at Dubai to have an airhead there to facilitate the evacuation and onward passage. The report from the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat), is an important document and we will pay it the attention it deserves and respond to it in the timescale requested of us by his Committee.
I call the Chairman of the Select Committee.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron) for securing this urgent question. The points he makes about the British Council are absolutely valid, and the Minister, whose integrity is beyond question, has made the defence that his Department would expect of him. May I, however, raise just a few points?
First, the reason we reserved the hotel and others did not was that the French and Germans had pulled their people out months earlier, and they had done so because the Americans had signalled the withdrawal 18 months earlier—or, if you thought that Vice-President Biden would become President Biden, 14 years earlier. This was not a surprise. The lack of a plan was a surprise. The failure to be present was a surprise.
The failure of integrity when discussing matters with the Select Committee was a huge surprise. For us, as representatives of the British people, the real surprise—the real tragedy—is not just the hundreds of lives left behind in Afghanistan and the people abandoned in neighbouring countries but the undermining of the security of this country and the defence of our people, which has come about through an erosion of trust. Our enemies do not fear us and allies do not trust us. That has been tested in Ukraine, and we are all paying for it in every gas bill and every food shop. That is the price of the erosion of trust, and that is why we need a fundamental rethink not just of our foreign policy but of how our country engages with the world. Those who, like our most senior diplomat, are the voice of our country in the world, need to be voices that we can trust, but I am afraid that the Committee that I am privileged to chair does not.
My hon. Friend knows that when he speaks, he speaks with great authority and we listen carefully to what he says. If there are times when we disagree with him, we do so with genuine respect for his experience and knowledge. The report that his Committee has produced is important and will be considered fully and properly and responded to. He has my absolute guarantee on that, and he knows that that view is shared across the Department. Specifically with regard to the permanent under-secretary, the ministerial team has complete confidence in him. The lessons that we all need to learn will be learned. I give him that assurance from the Front Bench.
There is much talk about the implications for the reputation of the United Kingdom internationally after this failure. I am not much moved by the reputation of the United Kingdom, but I grieve for the poor souls left behind in mortal danger in Afghanistan. They have been left to their fate after putting their trust in this United Kingdom Government. The Government said that intensive planning went into the withdrawal, but that could well be because, unlike other nations, the UK was flat-footed in its preparedness, no doubt leading to that intensity. No amount of intensive planning is any substitute for strategic or timely planning.
Just last night I was in this place commending the Ministry of Defence and its Ministers for their strategic, timely and full response to war in Ukraine, so this is not political in any analysis, much less a comparative analysis. This operation was extremely challenged for want of timely leadership and grip. We on the SNP Benches are not confused: we know a deeply flawed operation when we see it, and likewise an incorrigible lack of leadership and grip from the Prime Minister and the then Foreign Secretary. We need to be clear to the people outside that, while there were clearly severe and profound problems with Op Pitting in political and strategic terms, the operational performance and bravery of the servicemen and women working in exceptionally challenging circumstances to evacuate 15,000 terrified civilians was astonishing and a credit to their service and training. The work of the uniformed personnel is beyond reproach.
As I have said before in this place, there was clearly a failure to analyse or to act effectively on intelligence on the Taliban’s force strength, and a failure to act decisively or timeously on the explicit US decision to withdraw from Afghanistan, which was known in February 2020 at the very latest. Is the Minister aware that one in four people crossing the channel in the first quarter of 2022 was an Afghan refugee? If that does not cause the UK to dial down its vilification of these people, I do not know what will. Will he speak directly to that point, please?
The UK Government’s vilification is reserved exclusively for the evil people who prey on the vulnerable and traffic them through huge danger, putting lives at risk not just in the crossing between France and the UK but more widely. That is where our vilification rightly sits. The Foreign Affairs Committee’s important report will be considered carefully. Lessons have already been learned and implemented in relation to our response on Ukraine, as the hon. Gentleman mentioned. We know we have to take this report seriously, and we will.
I pay tribute to my former colleagues who worked on Operation Pitting, including Colonel Dave Middleton and my former boss Brigadier James Martin.
Looking at the report, does the Minister accept there are problems with how cross-Government integration works? Does he also accept that there are significant question marks about how our national security structures work, and whether they and the current National Security Adviser are fit for purpose?
The situation in Afghanistan moved incredibly quickly, and it forced a pressure on all international capitals that had a presence in Afghanistan, the likes of which we had not seen before. I hear what my hon. Friend says about the specifics, and I will not be rushed into making conclusions about our response to the report. It deserves proper consideration, and that consideration will be given.
May I return to the position of the British Council contractors—a point that was raised by the hon. Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron)? Having to move from place to place costs money, and we all know that these people are in fear of their life. What are the Government doing to support them with those costs? I know of individuals who are sending money, but are the Government doing so?
Secondly, it is all very well to say that people can be considered for the resettlement scheme if they make it out of Afghanistan, but we really owe a debt of honour to these individuals, so surely we can tell them that they will get a place on the scheme if they manage to get out.
Our desire is to protect as many people as we can from persecution by the Taliban. It is not possible for us to give blanket assurances because, of course, each application has to be taken on its merits.
My right hon. Friend rightly draws the House’s attention to the Afghan resettlement scheme, under which we have agreed to take 20,000 citizens from Afghanistan. We have rightly moved on to assisting Ukrainian refugees, but my understanding is that we still have 12,000 Afghan refugees living in hotels, without permanent or even temporary accommodation. Will he update the House on what we are doing to make sure that people for whom we have accepted responsibility have a permanent place to call home?
My hon. Friend makes an incredibly important point. Although the eyes of the world have rightly moved to the appalling situation in Ukraine following Russia’s unprovoked invasion of that wonderful country, I assure him that the Government remain committed to ensuring that we properly discharge our duty to those Afghans who worked with us, alongside us and for us in Afghanistan, including when they come to the UK.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron) on securing this important urgent question. It is not just British Council contractors whom we encouraged to be part of the nation building project; many female prosecutors and judges have been left behind. Along with Marzia Babakarkhail, a former Afghan judge living in the UK, I have been trying for some time to get the Government to take action to help these women, who are moving from house to house and relying on money that is being sent to them by friends here and elsewhere. Baroness Kennedy and the International Bar Association managed to get a significant number of female judges out of Afghanistan earlier this year, but many highly vulnerable women who worked as prosecutors and judges are still trapped in the country. Can the Minister give me a firm commitment that the British Government, who encouraged these women to take up roles in Afghanistan, will do something concrete to help them without further delay?
Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon has put a particular focus on supporting women in the judiciary, and women judges and politicians, as we recognise that they are particularly at risk, both because they are women and because they sought to promote equality, human rights and the rule of law in that country. I assure the hon. and learned Lady that we will remain focused on protecting them.
My hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) makes exactly the point I want to make: we gave many people the opportunity of a new life in this country last summer, but they are languishing in bridging hotels across the country. It is impossible to get an update on how many have been resettled. They have not been resettled; they are in hotels, and they are not part of a community and are not being integrated. I urge the Minister to do everything he can to provide regular updates to MPs who have bridging hotels in their constituencies, and to ensure that we properly integrate and resettle these Afghans whom we welcomed here.
My hon. Friend makes an incredibly important point, and I assure her that we will raise this issue with the Departments that are focused on the very point she has made.
British citizens’ relatives who are trapped in Afghanistan cannot apply for visas to come to the UK because no biometric service is available, and they have to have biometrics in order to apply for visas. For this reason, the requirement for biometrics has been suspended in the case of Ukraine, so will the Minister suspend it in the case of Afghanistan?
I will raise this issue at the next opportunity in cross-government meetings on this.
Will the Minister confirm that we left Afghanistan in such haste because our American allies decided unilaterally to leave at great speed, without sharing the timetable and plans with us, and that obviously meant we had to leave, because they had greatly superior forces? All those who did such a good job on the ground, under such time pressure, are therefore to be praised and thanked for what they managed to do.
Our presence in Afghanistan was a coalition one; this was done in close co-ordination with our international allies. When the decision was made by the US to withdraw, it was inevitable that we would also have to withdraw. The pace of advance of the Taliban took everybody by surprise, and it forced the pace of evacuation, which we had not anticipated; we had made some preparations, but we had not anticipated it fully.
My constituent queued for 20 hours to get into the Baron hotel; she was trying to protect her baby daughter from the Taliban, who were firing shots and using tear gas. She was evacuated, but her nightmare did not end there; her daughter’s emergency passport has expired, and her brother languishes in a Greek camp, seriously ill. He was a supreme court judge and he faces certain death if he goes back to Afghanistan. When I raise these issues with the Home Office, I get no response whatsoever. Can we not do better?
The hon. Lady highlights her constituent’s situation; it is reflective of the difficult situation that many Afghans face. We were presented with a uniquely difficult set of circumstances, and we are working to ensure that we are able to provide support and homes for as many people as possible. We continue to work across Departments to facilitate that.
While I am pleased that the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office has undertaken a review of the lessons learned in Afghanistan, I am particularly grateful to my right hon. Friend the Minister for the tone and contents of his response to the concerns raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat). Will my right hon. Friend set out how our diplomatic and operational response in Ukraine has already changed in response to the lessons learned in Afghanistan?
My hon. Friend makes the point that although the Select Committee’s report is important, and it will be read and assessed with seriousness, we did not want to wait before we made improvements, so we took lessons from our internal process. Some of those lessons have already been applied in Ukraine, and I strongly believe that has improved the response to the situation there. We will continue to learn lessons and to strive to improve our performance, not just in Ukraine and Afghanistan but in all circumstances in which an emergency response is needed.
We had 18 months to prepare for the US withdrawal but, as the Select Committee’s report exposes, the end to our mission was utterly chaotic, and many people to whom we owed a duty were left behind, abandoned, with their lives at immediate risk. Does the Minister not accept that this episode represents an appalling failure of planning by the Department’s political leadership? When will someone in this Government do the right thing and take responsibility?
The precise timing of the US departure from Afghanistan was not a date that was widely shared, and the pace of the Taliban’s advance was not information that was widely known. We responded as promptly as we were able to. The professionalism of our public servants—both those in uniform and those out of uniform—was exemplary. We will of course learn lessons from that situation and, as I have said, some of them have already been applied. We will continue to ensure that we amend our processes and practices, so that if such a circumstance presented itself again, we would be able to respond better and faster.
There are still 80 cases of people in Luton North trying to get loved ones in Afghanistan to safety. I have previously raised in the Chamber the case of a woman doctor who led public campaigns on women’s reproductive health and vaccination programmes, and whose estranged husband is now a member of the Taliban. In fact, Ministers and special advisers knew of her case when she was shamefully turned away from the Baron hotel. The Select Committee’s report shows what we all knew: it was chaos, and there was no plan. When will the thousands of people who have been left behind, such as the doctor I mentioned and her children, be given some hope? When will individual cases be given a meaningful response?
As I said, we envisage up to 20,000 Afghans being resettled under the Afghan citizens resettlement scheme. We will work through that. I am sure the hon. Lady will understand that I cannot comment on individual cases, but we will ensure that we discharge our duty to those Afghans who supported us when we were in that country.
My constituents and I continue to be in utter despair at the devastating lack of leadership last summer, which has been laid bare by the Select Committee’s report. We are also concerned about the ongoing lack of response to our emails and calls while the Taliban are advancing a reign of terror. This week, one of my constituents has told me about the Taliban visiting the family home and beating her mum and cousin because her mum worked in a women’s charity that was supported by the UK Government. That is one of the cases that we sent to the special cases team last summer. Yes, we need to learn the lessons for Ukraine, but we also need to learn them for the people in Afghanistan who have been left behind. The Minister will have the support of the House in doing that.
Will the Minister make two swift changes? First, will he look to assess cases with the information that the Government already have? They can make a decision based on the information that is already there. Secondly, will he make life easier for those seeking to apply for visas for which they are eligible? The English language test that is needed cannot be done in Afghanistan; will he suspend that requirement for visa applications?
The ACRS process is designed to be robust but effective. We have listened to the hon. Lady’s suggestions, and I will ensure that my right hon. and hon. Friends who are involved have also taken note of the points she raised.
My constituent was in the Afghan special forces. She was a woman soldier supporting the west. She was evacuated in August 2021. Her 14-year-old sister is now with her in Bath. Her husband and her father were killed, and her mother, who lost a leg in a missile strike, did not make it to the airport. My constituent applied to the Afghan Relocations and Assistance Policy scheme for her mother to join her in Bath, but her application was rejected on the basis that her mother was not a dependant. The mother is highly vulnerable and alone. My constituent is deeply traumatised, and her mother’s situation distresses her even more. Will the Minister please facilitate a meeting with me and a relevant Minister in the Ministry of Defence to discuss my constituent’s case as a matter of urgency?
Many Members are trying to help their constituents. We have a system in place, and I strongly urge the hon. Lady to use it, because that is the most effective way of getting this done.
Our presence ended in August 2021, but our commitment should not. We have seen the impact on women and girls, particularly in terms of access to education. Can the Minister outline what steps he has taken to ensure commitment in the medium and long term, and what action is being taken to review our foreign policy?
As I said in my opening remarks, we will take the recommendations of the Foreign Affairs Committee very seriously. We have launched the Afghan Citizens’ Resettlement Scheme, and we envisage that it will help up to 20,000 Afghans. The hon. Lady is right: our presence in Afghanistan is no longer physical, but we are absolutely committed to discharging our duty of honour to those Afghans who supported us, including women.
The report of the Foreign Affairs Committee justifies our worst fears. It said that events could have been better predicted, things could have been better planned for and people could have been protected. Many people in Afghanistan today were given the false hope that they would find safety here in the UK, particularly people from minoritised groups, such as the LGBT community and the Hazara Muslim community, who move from house to house in fear of attacks from the Taliban. What steps will this Government take to fulfil the commitment to those people and ensure that they can find a place of safety in the UK, and do not have to wait for the Government to make up their mind?
The Government have made a commitment to prioritising those people particularly at risk from persecution by the Taliban. That includes women and girls, human rights defenders, people who promoted the rule of law, and those from minority communities, such as the Hazaras, whom the hon. Lady highlighted. As I said, the ACRS scheme envisages helping up to 20,000 Afghans, and prioritisation will be for those most at risk.
The report outlines a summer of chaos and it is absolutely shocking to read, but disappointingly, the chaos continues. I echo the concerns of other Members, as I, too, have so many constituents in danger in Afghanistan and in hotels here with no plan that they know of to move them. What is the plan?
I also wish to raise the issue of those who are in camps outside Afghanistan. A constituent in Roehampton wrote to me to say that his family had been evacuated by NATO from Afghanistan to a camp in Kosovo. He said that his sister-in-law had given birth to her baby there, and that he was really concerned about the family’s situation. What meetings is the Minister holding with UNICEF to co-ordinate work to bring relatives from those camps to the UK?
Our response to the situation in Afghanistan has always, by its nature, been international. We continue to work with our friends in other Governments and with non-governmental organisations around the world to support Afghans who have been displaced by this conflict.
I thank the Minister for his answers. The report makes for sober reading. One hundred and seventy families are still in Afghanistan. The hon. Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron), who asked this urgent question, said that these people had worked with us. He said that their lives were at risk and that they were still waiting to be processed. Willowbrook Foods and Mash Direct in my constituency are able, willing and keen to offer employment and, in some cases, accommodation and help with accommodation. How does the Minister plan to get these people to safety, make right the fact that they still do not have the refuge that they were promised months ago, and enable companies in my constituency to help him and the Afghan people to get the new lives that they want?
The generosity of the people of the United Kingdom is huge, and I think the example that the hon. Gentleman gives will be replicated in many constituencies around the country. We envisage the ACRS process helping Afghans to come to the UK, but as has been brought up by a number of right hon. and hon. Members, we also have a duty to help them to become integrated, educated and, ultimately, employed. That is the full duty we have and the full duty we seek to discharge.
Business of the House
Will the Leader of the House give us the forthcoming business?
It would be a pleasure.
The business for the week commencing 6 June will include:
Monday 6 June—Second Reading of the National Security Bill.
Tuesday 7 June—Opposition day (1st allotted day). Debate on a motion in the name of the Official Opposition, subject to be announced.
Wednesday 8 June—Second Reading of the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill.
Thursday 9 June—General debate on social housing and building safety followed by a general debate on the Government’s strategic priorities for OFWAT. The subject for the second debate was determined by the Backbench Business Committee.
Friday 10 June—The House will not be sitting.
The provisional business for the week commencing 13 June will include:
Monday 13 June—Remaining stages of the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill.
Tuesday 14 June—Second Reading of the Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Bill.
Wednesday 15 June—Opposition day (2nd allotted day). Debate on a motion in the name of the Official Opposition, subject to be announced.
Thursday 16 June—Business to be determined by the Backbench Business Committee.
Friday 17 June—The House will not be sitting.
Right hon. and hon. Members might also wish to know that, subject to the progress of business, the House will rise for the summer recess at the close of business on Thursday 21 July and return on Monday 5 September. The House will rise for the conference recess at the close of business on Thursday 22 September and return on Monday 17 October. The House will rise for the November recess at the close of business on Wednesday 9 November and return on Monday 14 November. The House will rise for the Christmas recess at the close of business on Wednesday 21 December and return on Monday 9 January. The House will rise for the February recess at the close of business on Thursday 9 February and return on Monday 20 February. Sitting Fridays will be announced in due course. I hope that that information is welcome news to right hon. and hon. Members.
I thank the Leader of the House for giving us not only the forthcoming business but the recess dates, for which members of staff have been asking me. I am very grateful: he went further even than I asked, so fair do’s—Brucie bonus time!
I start, and I am sure the Leader of the House will join me, by wishing the Queen well on her platinum jubilee. I look forward to the Chamber commemorating that historic milestone later today. She has shown remarkable leadership and dedication to public service over 70 years.
I also invite the Leader of the House to join me in congratulating Labour’s sister party in Australia on its positive campaign in the election down under. I am inspired by Prime Minister Anthony Albanese’s victory, ousting a stale Conservative Government who were out of touch and out of ideas.
Yesterday, the damning verdict on Downing Street’s law-breaking parties was published. Can the Leader of the House say whether anyone in Government received a copy of Sue Gray’s report in advance of its publication and whether they attempted to change it? Failures of leadership and judgment at the heart of Government are mentioned in the report, and it was particularly sickening to learn of the total lack of respect for and poor treatment of staff, with security staff being mocked and cleaners left to mop up. Will he clarify whether any of those who mocked staff are special advisers? If so, has the Prime Minister sacked them? If not, why not?
The report concludes that those at the top must bear responsibility for a culture that allowed such flagrant disregard for the rules. Yesterday, the Prime Minister seemed too busy focusing on saving his own skin to deal with the Tory cost of living crisis. He also said that all senior leadership in No. 10 has changed, which I found a little odd. Does he not count himself as senior leadership?
On the cost of living crisis, one in eight energy customers is already struggling to pay their bills, and that is before bills are expected to go up by a further £800 in October. We know that the Chancellor will make a statement shortly and we will of course scrutinise his proposals carefully, but why has it taken so long? It really does look as though the Government delayed their support for struggling families so that they could time the announcement as a distraction from the Sue Gray report. Every day, the Government have dragged their feet, as they continue to do, refusing to introduce Labour’s windfall tax on oil and gas producers. Hundreds of millions of pounds have been added to the bills of households across the country.
Madam Deputy Speaker, you and I agree that it is important that Members are able to hold Ministers to account in this place first, yet it has been widely trailed in the media this morning that the Chancellor will be making the inevitable screeching U-turn that we all knew he would have to make eventually. Will the Leader of the House please remind his colleagues that major policy statements should be made by Ministers in this place first, not briefed to the media?
I am sorry to have to bring this up again, Madam Deputy Speaker, and I have cleared it with the Clerk, the Table Office, and the other Madam Deputy Speaker, the right hon. Member for Epping Forest (Dame Eleanor Laing). I want to make that clear. There have been allegations made about the Conservative party’s failure to take proper action following allegations put to it about alleged child abuse by a parliamentary candidate. Will the Leader of the House now attempt to restore victims and survivors’ faith in the Conservative party’s safeguarding processes? He could do that now by committing to an independent inquiry into the party’s handling of such issues.
Months ago, we were promised fresh data on response times to written parliamentary questions and ministerial replies to MPs’ correspondence. I am glad to say that after pressure from those on the Opposition Benches, a written statement on the subject is on the Order Paper today. However, it does not solve the problem of the long wait that Members’ staff are experiencing, not only as regards Parliamentary questions but when calling MPs’ hotlines, such as those in the Home Office. Constituency offices are even starting to receive significantly higher phone bills for the office as a result. Will the Leader of the House urge the Home Secretary, just as an example, to increase capacity for the hotline so that Members and our staff—it is usually our staff—can best support constituents, such as those constituents who cannot get passports not just for a well deserved holiday but for ID for a job or somewhere to live?
With a Government too busy plotting how they will get away with it, as cited in the Sue Gray report, rather than introducing a proper plan to deal with soaring inflation, falling wages and a stagnant economy, it is now time for Tory MPs to act and remove the Prime Minister, who has lost the confidence of the British people.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Madam Deputy Speaker. I thought that you would be in Doncaster celebrating its city status, for which I know you have been campaigning for a long time.
I join the hon. Member for Bristol West (Thangam Debbonaire) in celebrating the Queen’s 70th jubilee. It will be a huge opportunity for the country to celebrate and get together to recognise a huge achievement in public service by Her Majesty. I also join her in congratulating the Australian Government on their success. We look forward to working with them on trade and international matters as we move forward.
We then got into the usual flurry of accusations and snipes. Of course, the hon. Lady started with the Sue Gray report. I am glad that Sue Gray has finally managed to get her report out there. It identifies the ongoing challenges in No. 10 but, as the Prime Ministers made clear, he has addressed the culture in No. 10 and changed the senior management team. I think he was also shocked, as many colleagues would be, by the treatment of security and cleaning staff. That is why yesterday the Prime Minister went around and apologised in person to those security and cleaning teams on behalf of those people who were rude to them. I think that was the right thing to do. The Prime Minister has made it clear that the culture has now changed within No. 10, and he is now focused on what matters to the British people: the global fight against inflation, Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and making sure that our constituents’ priorities are the Government’s priorities, as they always have been.
The hon. Lady mentioned the Chancellor of the Exchequer. He will be here at this Dispatch Box very soon, and I will not pre-empt what he is about to say, for no other reason than that I do not know. I look forward to hearing what the Chancellor says. What I do know is that this Chancellor has already announced £22 billion-worth of support. He is a Chancellor who, instead of giving us knee-jerk reactions and political gimmicks, thinks through the economic and fiscal plans that he will bring forward and makes sure that in those plans he gives genuine support to those who need it, while not incentivising people away from making long-term investments to continue to pay the Exchequer the tax from their successful businesses. That is the appropriate thing to do.
The hon. Lady finished by mentioning parliamentary questions. Yesterday, I appeared in front of the Procedure Committee to answer questions. It is a challenge that I recognise; we need to do better. As a constituency MP, I understand that many across the House will certainly be frustrated by the progress or the speed of return of some answers to parliamentary questions. As I have said before from the Dispatch Box, the global pandemic affected the speed with which some Departments answered, because they were focused on dealing with the pandemic. That excuse has now passed. We need to see an improvement in the response from different Departments.
However, I gently say to the hon. Lady—I know she is in her happy place when she is sniping from the sidelines—that this week we have seen the Labour party this week vote against the Public Order Bill, putting it on the side of Extinction Rebellion, not on the side of hard-working people. Extinction Rebellion are the people who seized an oil tanker full of cooking oil. We have seen Labour vote against the Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Bill, because it has no interest in addressing the challenges that Northern Ireland faces. The shadow spokesman actually said that
“the rights of victims and veterans are equal to the rights of terrorists”.—[Official Report, 24 May 2022; Vol. 715, c. 193.]
The Labour party put itself in completely the wrong place this week. It will do anything it can to avoid taking responsibility and making the difficult decisions that this Government are having to take in the interests of the country.
I thank the Leader of the House for his kind comments about Doncaster’s city status. We are all absolutely delighted.
I was delighted to welcome the Sports Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Worcestershire (Nigel Huddleston) to Staffordshire last week to officially open the mountain biking venue for the upcoming Commonwealth games. It has been announced that our county town of Stafford will be part of the Queen’s baton relay. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is right not only to have a debate on the UK’s ties across the Commonwealth, but to ensure that we deliver a positive economic legacy for people and businesses in Stafford?
My hon. Friend is a huge champion for Stafford and Staffordshire. I know that she secured the baton coming to Stafford, which will be an opportunity for her community to celebrate the Commonwealth games. There are huge economic opportunities for the country in our hosting the Commonwealth games in the west midlands in the near future. I know that my hon. Friend will make the most of making sure the legacy of those games will be felt around her constituency, and I congratulate her on the work she is doing.
I call the SNP spokesperson, Pete Wishart.
I add to the congratulations on Doncaster being named a city. Dunfermline, my hometown in Scotland, was also added to that list. There is only one issue that our constituents want debated, and that is the fallout from the Sue Gray report, the appalling culture at No. 10 and why this Prime Minister is still in his place. The Prime Minister might think that moving on at lightning speed to do something he could and should have done weeks ago on the cost of living crisis will make this go away, but it will not. It simply will not go away.
Our constituents are utterly furious and they are simply not satisfied with the Prime Minister’s mealy-mouthed apologies and his drivel about being humbled. They want us to debate why it was okay for No. 10 to have parties to say goodbye to employees, but no other workplace in the country was offered that facility. They want us to debate why there is one rule for this Government and another rule for everybody else in the country. They want to know why things got so out of hand at those parties that people ended up being sick, fights broke out and walls were stained with wine. They want to be told why it was okay to demean and belittle the staff whose job it was to clean up that mess, and to humiliate the security staff charged with keeping the circus safe.
Mostly, our constituents want their MPs to make sure that the Prime Minister hears, in pristine detail, the sacrifices that they all made in abiding by those rules while he oversaw and was responsible for an organisation that gratuitously partied. This is not going to go away. The people of the United Kingdom want the Prime Minister gone, and in democratic countries the people usually get their way. It is up to Conservative Back Benchers to either get rid of him or go down with him. Let us have a debate led by the Prime Minister and let us hold this rotten delusional Government to account properly.
I join the hon. Gentleman in congratulating Dunfermline on securing city status, but I think that is as far as I can go in agreeing with him. He speaks of what he says is the one topic that everybody wants to debate, but my experience is that people are sick and tired of hearing about it. They want the Government to focus on what actually matters to them—the global fight against inflation and an aggressive Russian state invading Ukraine and causing huge ripples around the world in energy and food prices. The hon. Gentleman says that that is the one topic that people want to debate, but it is the only topic that he wants to talk about. I thought he might have congratulated the First Minister on becoming the longest-serving First Minister in Scotland. After seven years, he might want to accept some responsibility for the disastrous performance of the Scottish Government and what we have seen in Scotland. They have let down schoolchildren; one academic in Scotland has said that
“governing became the servant of campaigning”.
That is why their education system is in tatters and drug deaths are at their highest level, and have been for seven years in a row. That says everything about SNP Members: they are more interested in stoking division and trying to challenge the Union than delivering for their constituents.
I am obviously delighted that your campaign paid off, Madam Deputy Speaker, and Doncaster got city status, as I was born and brought up there. Next week, the Government will announce the city of culture 2025. One of the four finalists in that competition is Bradford. Were Bradford to win that accolade, it would build on the strong cultural offer it already has, including the Brontës in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Robbie Moore), the world heritage site of Saltaire in my constituency and the fact that Bradford was the first ever UNESCO city of film. Given that the House will not be sitting next week, and that winning would provide a huge boost to the whole district, which has been overlooked for far too long, and to the city, which has been punching below its weight for far too long, will the Leader of the House speak to his Cabinet colleague, the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, and join me in lobbying her to announce that Bradford is the city of culture 2025?
I trust that my hon. Friend was in his place for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport questions this morning to lobby the Secretary of State directly.
I did not get called.
Well, I cannot speak for Madam Deputy Speaker in failing to call the hon. Gentleman. We are always pleased to hear from him and I am surprised that he did not get called. Of course, I wish Bradford well and the other three cities that are bidding for city of culture. We await with anticipation the announcement of which city it will be. I am sure that whichever is the winner, it will be a great opportunity to visit and see the culture of that city.
I call the Chair of the Backbench Business Committee.
Can I, too, add my congratulations to Doncaster? I visit it every week—on the way up and on the way down—albeit briefly.
I thank the Leader of the House for announcing two weeks’ business and for the veritable flurry of recess dates. I can give advance notice that the first debate in Backbench time on Thursday 16 June will be a debate to commemorate the fifth anniversary of the dreadful Grenfell Tower fire.
I thank the hon. Gentleman, and I again congratulate him on the work his Committee does. I think the Grenfell debate will be a great opportunity to remember what was a terrible and tragic event. I know he will continue to bring such matters to the House, and I congratulate him on his work.
In November 2020, the Chancellor of the Exchequer approved the creation of another £150 billion of new money by the Bank of England and extended the guarantee against losses on all the bonds the Bank holds, making it a Treasury liability. Can we have an early statement or debate in Government time on how that has worked out, what impact it had on inflation and what impact it might have on the public finances?
I can deliver for my right hon. Friend: the Chancellor of the Exchequer will be at this Dispatch Box straight after me, and my right hon. Friend will have an opportunity to challenge the Chancellor of the Exchequer directly himself.
Next week, on 30 May, it will be the 50th anniversary of the Battersea funfair disaster, where five children died and 13 others were injured. I have been supporting the call for a permanent memorial and more support for children suffering trauma. As one survivor told me this week,
“bones are mended, physical injuries fixed but the dreadful damage to our mental health goes untreated.”
So will the Government schedule a debate in their time on improving mental health services and support for children and young people dealing with long-term trauma?
I thank the hon. Member for her question, and I join her in expressing sympathy to those who were victims of the Battersea funfair disaster. I wish her well in her campaign to get a permanent memorial. I think what she mentioned about mental health is worthy of debate, and I would encourage her to apply for a Westminster Hall debate or an Adjournment debate where she could pursue that.
Can I thank the Leader of the House for visiting the factory that makes Parliament’s magnificent encaustic tiles in my constituency this week? I am delighted that he enjoyed his visit as much as he did.
In Telford, we are getting ready to celebrate the Queen’s jubilee in style, with many fantastic events being organised by parish councils in every area of our community—bringing people together, and celebrating and giving thanks for the extraordinary service of Her Majesty. I want particularly to highlight the work of Hollinswood and Randlay parish council for its organisation of a platinum jubilee service and thanksgiving in Telford Town park on Saturday 4 June. Will the Leader of the House join me in thanking Telford’s parish councils and their clerks for their service to Telford, and may we have a debate on the important role that parish councils play in our communities?
I thank my hon. Friend for her question, and can I start by thanking the team at Jackfield for hosting me on Monday? I have turned into a bit of an art geek in that I am now walking around and looking at the tiles in Westminster to see the work they have done. Like many colleagues across the House, I rather take for granted this beautiful Palace in which we work—something that should be protected for future generations—and the art in this building is only here because of the excellent craftsmanship of companies such as those at Jackfield.
I join my hon. Friend in thanking parish councils. I think parish councils up and down the country, especially those in Telford, are doing great work. It is unpaid and it is often unrewarded, but without our parish councils our communities would be a little bit poorer. I cannot not mention Woodlands Primary School, which I also visited on Monday, where I was interrogated by those on the school council. It was a great visit, and their enthusiasm for democracy was refreshing.
We probably all saw the reports at the beginning of the week on the incarceration and torture of the Uyghur Muslims in China, which prove something we all thought was happening and has been widely previously reported. We had an urgent question the following day, but there was a time when we had regular statements on China and the conduct of the regime there. Could we have a statement again?
The hon. Gentleman is right: there was an urgent question this week, when that was considered. The Foreign Secretary will be here on 21 June to answer Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office questions, which will be another opportunity for him to raise the matter directly with her. I know that this raises concerns with a number of colleagues across the House and I think a Backbench Business or Adjournment debate would be popular.
We are all looking forward to the jubilee celebrations, but the RMT—the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers—has called a strike at Green Park and Euston stations for Friday 3 June, it has called out the whole of the underground for Monday 6 June and I understand that strike action is threatened on all rail services throughout the country. At the moment, we do not seem to have had a statement from the Secretary of State for Transport on the action the Government will take to stop the RMT paralysing the jubilee celebrations.