House of Commons
Monday 11 September 2023
The House met at half-past Two o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Before we start today’s business, I want to make a brief statement about a security matter.
Members and others will have seen media reports yesterday about a security issue relating to the Chinese state and access to this House. I understand that the Metropolitan police have now confirmed that two men were arrested in March on suspicion of offences relating to espionage and that they are on police bail until early October.
As you know, we do not discuss the details of security issues on the Floor of the House, for reasons that are well understood. This is an ongoing, sensitive investigation and Members will of course understand that public discussion of it would be wholly inappropriate. However, I want to reassure Members that the House follows the same vetting procedures as the Government; that issues raised by the media stories are being addressed; and that our security are working closely and effectively with other relevant authorities. We keep our security arrangements under review at all times in order to deal with the evolving threats.
The extremely small number of people who needed to know were immediately briefed, on a strictly confidential basis, given the national security of this sensitive matter. At this stage, I do not wish to say anything further about this issue, and I would remind all Members of the importance of not discussing security issues on the Floor of the House. That is particularly important in this case, where commenting on the identities of those alleged to be involved, engaging in speculation about the case or discussing other details runs a serious risk of prejudicing any further prosecutions—the comments made in the media were unhelpful—something for which I am sure no Member would want to be responsible.
I do not intend to take any points of order on this matter. If Members have security concerns, they are, of course, welcome to raise them outside this Chamber with me or with the House security professionals, or with both.
Business before questions
That, on the fourteenth day of September 2023, Mr Speaker do issue his Warrant to the Clerk of the Crown to make out a new Writ for the electing of a Member to serve in this present Parliament for the County Constituency of Tamworth in the room of Christopher John Pincher, who since his election for the said County Constituency has been appointed to the Office of Steward and Bailiff of His Majesty’s Manor of Northstead in the County of York.—(Simon Hart.)
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
Service Personnel: Retirement Age and Conditions for Service
The thoughts and prayers of the whole House will be with the Secretary of State and his family during sitting shiva.
It is right that we record here today the anniversary of 9/11, a terrible act that changed our world. Let me also say that the UK is standing with the Kingdom of Morocco; we are engaged on the ground already and stand by to help in any way that we can.
Defence recognises the need to evolve so that we continue to attract and retain the very best. To that end, the MOD commissioned the Haythornthwaite review into armed forces incentivisation, which was published in June. I will respond formally on behalf of the Department in the coming months, but it is supportive of the recommendations. On retirement ages, I have committed to work with officials and the single services to review rigid cut-offs and to consider establishing an assessment framework to be used on a case-by-case basis.
May I associate myself with the earlier remarks of the Minister, whom I thank for his answer? As he is aware, I have already taken an interest and written in about this issue. I have a constituent who came to me recently having spent a good number of years in the armed forces. He is very proud of what he has given to keep our country safe but is concerned that the armed forces, particularly the Army, are losing institutional memory. He feels that the cut-off age of 55 for reservists is too young, certainly for more administrative roles. Will the MOD take that into account in the review and consider allowing reservists to stay longer in those roles?
We know that the Defence Secretary is with his close family today, and we in the Opposition extend our deepest condolences.
I also offer the Secretary of State our warmest congratulations. Over the years and in different roles, I have shadowed him and he has shadowed me, and we both know that the first duty of any Government is to keep our country safe. I will always look to work with him on that basis in his new job.
On personnel, levels of satisfaction with service life have plunged a third over the past 13 years. What is the plan to lift those record low levels of military morale?
The right hon. Gentleman paints an overly gloomy picture of life in the armed forces for most people. It is a rewarding career and they take with them the skills that they need into civilian life and prosper. However, we are aware of our need to compete in the workplace in the years ahead and, to that end, we have commissioned Rick Haythornthwaite’s review, which we broadly agree with and will respond to very soon.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. Let me also associate SNP Members with the words of the Minister for the Secretary of State at this sad time. We also think of Morocco and all those New Yorkers who are remembering today.
We know that the cost of living crisis is affecting us all equally. The Minister has said some fine words today, but we know that for his party, there is often an inverse relationship between rhetoric and action with regard to our personnel. Will the Minister tell the House and members of the armed forces what his Government will do to remedy the shameful reality of armed forces personnel being given the lowest pay rise among public servants—a paltry 5%?
I think the hon. Gentleman may be in error: the lowest paid members of our armed forces were awarded 9.7% by the Armed Forces Pay Review Body, a recommendation that we accepted in full. Seniors got 5.8% and those of two-star rank and above got 5.5%. That will give the best pay award to the least well paid in our armed forces.
I disagree on the numbers. Let us talk about the rhetoric from the right hon. Gentleman—unless his Government are willing to deal with pay and housing conditions for the armed forces properly. As the armed forces personnel leave the forces for better-paid jobs, could it not be time to consider the reason that the police were able to secure an almost 50% higher pay rise than our other uniformed public servants? Was it because they have a statutory body to represent them in dealing with the Government, and why do his Government not support that action?
The hon. Gentleman has ignored what I have been saying. He also did not make reference to the freezing of charges for accommodation and food, wraparound childcare and a whole raft of measures that we have introduced to help with the cost of living crisis.
RAF Quick Reaction Alert Stations
Royal Air Force pilots and ground crew are poised on quick reaction alert 24 hours a day, seven days a week, all year round, ready to scramble within minutes. My hon. Friend would point out quickly that it would be remiss of me to say that that is solely the endeavour of fast jet pilots. Equally poised are those in his constituency who crew the tankers that must also deploy rapidly to support. QRA has been launched on five occasions in 2023 with every incident resolved successfully.
I thank the Minister for his kind words about my constituents. He will no doubt have read the report from the Select Committee on Defence, “Aviation Procurement: Winging it?”, which warns of an unacceptable gap in combat air mass. With the retirement of the Hercules placing even more demands on the air mobility force, and the Voyagers—to which he rightly pays tribute—being asked to do more and more each month, what confidence does he have that, if required to do so, those forces have enough men, women and machines to defend the UK in a peer conflict?
I have complete confidence that quick reaction alert will be resourced. The highest priority of the air force is to defend the homeland. I also have complete confidence that the combat air force, as currently structured, is capable of performing a very wide range of duties around the world. I pay tribute to the work of the Air and Space Commander and his team, who, through work on agile deployment, are finding that we can deploy Typhoon and F-35 ever more quickly to ever more austere operating environments. That drives the productivity of the force even further.
There is, of course, no question over the quality of combat aircrews, but there is a big question mark over the quantity of aircraft that they can fly. I want to challenge the Minister on the confidence he has just articulated, because there are serious concerns that our combat aircrew are engaged almost universally in transit and air policing, and have very little aircraft availability to practise proper combat air. What is his assessment of that concern?
We take very seriously the work that the Defence Committee does; we enjoy reading the Committee’s reports and, as I hope members of the Committee and of the House recognise, often take the findings into policy. I do push back gently, however, because in addition to the incredible work of QRA and the support the Royal Air Force has given to NATO missions over the last 18 months, since the start of the war in Ukraine, they have also been able to support carrier strike deployments, deployment on Exercise Red Flag, and indeed the deployment of a squadron, below full strength, all the way across to Australia. That gets to exactly what I told my hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Robert Courts): that this ability to deploy air force with greater agility, further from home, in more austere settings, is a step change for the Royal Air Force, allowing it to operate from more austere environments rather than solely from its home bases.
Defence Sector: UK-based Jobs
The latest estimates suggest that Ministry of Defence investment supports over 200,000 jobs in industries across the UK. I believe that the best way to keep growing jobs in defence is to back the British defence industry. That is why I am delighted to confirm that, this week in London, we are hosting the biggest ever DSEI—Defence and Security Equipment International—showcasing the very best of the British defence industry, with companies large and small. We should remember that they provide not only prosperity in every part of our country, but the means to defend ourselves in an increasingly contested world.
The Defence Secretary’s predecessor rightly prioritised British jobs over buying off-the-shelf from America, but The Times recently exposed a difference of opinion with the Prime Minister, who insisted on buying American helicopters. Can the Minister assure the House that the Secretary of State will stand up for British jobs and research and development, or is our only hope to replace him with my right hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey)?
Debate is ongoing in defence procurement, and has been for many years, about the difference between buying off-the-shelf and having our own sovereign capability. The fact is that, until we brought out the defence and security industrial strategy in 2021, arguably the default position of the MOD was to go primarily for value for money. Since DSIS, we have a more flexible and balanced approach, seen in many specific procurements, where we give much greater weighting to social value and local content. This is illustrated in many procurements because, above all, we want to support British jobs and have our own sovereign capability.
My condolences to the Secretary of State.
Babcock is one of the largest defence employers in the country, but as reported in the Sunday press, its record on refits of surface ships is woeful. It took over four years to refit the Type 23 frigate HMS Iron Duke. Its record on submarines is even worse, taking seven years to refit a Trident boat. According to the journal Navy Lookout, which said this online, so presumably the Russians and the Chinese could have read it, a few weeks ago not a single one of our attack submarines was at sea; they were all tied up alongside. This is deeply embarrassing to the Department and to the Royal Navy, whose admirals are tearing their hair out. It is Babcock’s fault. Will Minister get the senior directors of Babcock into the Department for an interview without coffee, and ask them to raise their game for the benefit of the Navy and the defence of the realm?
I have the greatest respect for my right hon. Friend, but he will appreciate that we do not comment on the operational availability of submarines, which is a particularly sensitive matter. However, he is absolutely right that we need to focus on the time it is taking to bring ships and all aspects of our fleet back into service. I confirm that I regularly engage with Babcock, and I will visit Devonport very soon.
Thank you very much, Mr Speaker.
The Government have wasted £15 billion through the mismanagement of defence procurement, while failing to deliver vital equipment and overseeing the loss of 30,000 highly skilled jobs in the defence and aerospace industry since 2010. Does the Minister accept that preventing another 13 years of Tory failure is key to increasing the number of UK-based jobs in the defence sector, backing British industry and British military resilience?
I welcome the right hon. Lady to her new position as my ministerial shadow. We are very proud of our record, because in the past year or so we have been faced with a war on our doorstep in Europe, and procurement has risen to the occasion. Defence Equipment and Support in Abbey Wood has delivered kit to Ukraine in record speed. We have seen the acquisition of equipment such as the Archer on a quick basis, to fit our requirements. I absolutely confirm that we are committed to maximising the number of jobs that come from our procurement, while balancing that with the need to give our armed forces the best possible capability.
Support for Veterans
The MOD delivers a range of services to veterans and their families, including the administration and payment of armed forces pensions and compensation, and tailored advice and assistance through the Veterans Welfare Service, Defence Transition Services and integrated personal commissioning for veterans. The independent reviews of those services were published in July, and we will respond in full to the recommendations later this year.
Last October my constituent, a disabled veteran who served with distinction in Afghanistan and Iraq, applied to the war pension and armed forces compensation schemes. Despite his supplying all the information required, and medical evidence, he is still waiting for the determination of his case almost 12 months on. Will my right hon. Friend look into the case as a matter of urgency and carry out a review of the waiting times for the schemes to make sure that nobody else has to wait such a long time to get their due rewards?
If my hon. Friend is able to provide further details of that specific case, I would be happy to investigate. The latest armed forces compensation scheme quinquennial review was published on 17 July 2023. The review process aims to ensure that the scheme remains fit for purpose and to identify opportunities for improvement of the sort that my hon. Friend highlighted. The review’s recommendations are currently being considered—I think timeliness is foremost among them—and a Government response will be published later this year.
The Royal British Legion’s recent report showed that only 8% of disabled veterans who applied for employment and support allowance had their service medical records considered in their work capability assessment. I extend my condolences to the Defence Secretary, but what discussions has he had with the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions about this matter, and on disregarding all military compensation awards for means-tested and income-based assessments such as for housing benefit?
Such conversations are live in the context of the work I previously described. We will take into account the hon. Lady’s points, which have been made by several people in the defence and veterans community. I know that people feel strongly about such issues. Ultimately, of course, it is a matter for the Department for Work and Pensions and the Treasury.
This House as a whole provides vociferous support for our veterans of all kinds, particularly through the mechanism of the all-party parliamentary group for the armed forces. Perhaps I can take this opportunity to pay tribute to Miss Amy Swash, who has now run the APPG for me for eight years, but will sadly leave us shortly for other jobs. I thank her for all the work she has done for a superb amount of time, in particular to raise the plight of veterans.
In July, the Government published a review of the treatment of LGBTQ+ veterans. The previous Secretary of State’s response to that won him many plaudits and his reaction was welcomed, but he did say that he would take his time to ensure we got things right. Can the Minister give us an update on when we can expect a response to the recommendations?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. He is right to raise that. At the time I said that the community should allow us time, but not too much time, and I am sure they will hold us to that. We will respond in full to the large number of recommendations, but we are broadly supportive of Lord Etherton’s work and there is much in it that we utterly agree with, plus some that we would like to add in the way of changes for the future.
On that theme, the loss of livelihoods and the long-term suffering endured by LGBT+ veterans due to the cruel and unjust ban on homosexuality in the armed forces has been enormous. The Opposition welcome the Etherton review into the ban, and its recommendations, which represent the beginning of a long-overdue healing process. The Secretary of State’s predecessor promised that the Government would provide a full response to the review’s recommendations after the summer recess, which the House would have an opportunity to debate. Will the Minister confirm when the Government will respond to the recommendations and that the House will still be provided with time to debate that response?
Clearly, we will be debating this at some length; I hope the House, when it sees the Government response to Lord Etherton’s recommendations, will be pleased with it. At the moment, we are working with the community, particularly Fighting With Pride, to ensure that what we put in place is right and is acceptable to those who have been done down by the events between 1967 to 2000.
Nuclear Test Medals
I am pleased to say that the nuclear test medal is now in production, and we are ensuring that as many as possible of the more than 2,000 veterans and families who have applied for the medal will have it in time for this year’s Remembrance events.
The Minister will know that I take an interest in the veterans issue, and I declare an interest as the president of Hinckley’s Royal British Legion. A constituent, Alfred Roy Davenport, served in the RAF medical team from November 1956 to November 1959, stationed on Christmas Island. He is 85 and concerned about the delay there has been in the awarding of these medals, so can my right hon. Friend confirm that all veterans will have these awards ready for Remembrance Sunday, so that our servicemen and women can be congratulated on and recognised for their service?
As my right hon. Friend the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs stated in the House on 7 September, the Government are doing everything possible to ensure that as many nuclear test veterans as possible receive their medals in time for Remembrance Sunday. I appreciate the importance of that. A presentation event to award the first medals is actively being considered by the Office for Veterans’ Affairs, but it is a balance between issuing the medals for Remembrance Sunday and ensuring that they are awarded in an appropriate manner to this cohort.
In a written question to the Minister, I asked whether any files had been removed from the MOD’s health records of nuclear test veterans. He assured me that the Department was “not aware” of any removal, but many nuclear veterans continue to report finding large gaps when requesting their medical records. Can the Minister therefore clarify, if the files have not been removed,
how nuclear veterans and their families can gain full access to them?
Afghan Relocations and Assistance Policy
The Ministry of Defence’s priority remains the relocation of ARAP-eligible Afghans to the safety of third countries at best pace. His Majesty’s Government continue to accommodate and support ARAP-eligible people in third countries while they await relocation to the United Kingdom.
I am proud to have an Afghan interpreter for the British armed forces as a constituent, but I was ashamed to learn from him that his brother, who worked for six years directly for the Special Air Service in Helmand province, had applied under the ARAP scheme and been rejected without a proper explanation. He is now in hiding in Afghanistan. Will the Minister take up that case as a matter of urgency, and will he explain to the House why his Government are still failing to support those Afghans who risked so much to support our armed forces?
The hon. Lady mentions a specific role about which it would be inappropriate to speculate on the Floor of the House. I will, of course, look at the particular case that she mentions. However, it is worth reminding right hon. and hon. colleagues that the ARAP scheme was intended for those who had been in direct support of the UK military—interpreters, most often—and, beyond that, there is a very narrow opportunity for those with special circumstances who have come through under category 4. When colleagues write to the Ministry of Defence to raise a case, they often do so on behalf of somebody who might have served in the Afghan national security forces, not necessarily in the direct employ of the UK military. That is not to cast any judgment on the case that she raises—I will look at that specifically and write to her.
There is a deep sense of injustice among former serving officers and other military personnel that we have forgotten the moral obligation to Afghan military personnel and others who served alongside us. Will the Minister confirm just how many Afghan former military personnel are currently presenting as homeless in the UK, and how many are currently in hotels in Pakistan?
It seems that my initial reply might have been quite useful, but the hon. Gentleman may not have heard or understood it. ARAP is not explicitly for those who served in the Afghan armed forces alongside the British military; it is for those who served in the employ of the British military in all but a very narrow number of cases. I will write to him on his precise question about Afghan service personnel who are now homeless in the UK—I suspect that they are remarkably few—but Afghan service personnel are not the main target of ARAP. As someone who served in Afghanistan, I share the sense of many of my former colleagues who would have liked to have done more, but that is simply never what ARAP was designed to do. Neither is it credible that the hundreds of thousands of people who served in the Afghan national forces could all be relocated to the UK.
In 2021, I held a public meeting shortly after the evacuation from Afghanistan. It was widely attended by worried and distressed residents, who all wanted help for their relatives’ desperate situations in Afghanistan. Over two years have passed, and there are huge problems with ARAP. Can the Minister say why the Government are allowing people and their relatives to suffer for so long?
There is a known number of people who worked in the employ of the British military during our campaign in Afghanistan. Our priority has been to work through and match the lists of people we know have worked for us with those who are applicants. It is my understanding that only about 2,000 applications are outstanding, and that 58,000 decisions have been taken in the past two months alone. Overwhelmingly, those decisions are, I am afraid, to say no to people, but we are making good progress and are nearing the end of tracking down all those we know have worked for us.
The Member for Warwick and Leamington (Matt Western) asked a very particular question about Afghan service personnel, as the record will show. I answered it, but I will need to go away and confirm, because that is not something that ARAP is intended to meet and we will need to see if we can find those statistics. The hon. Lady asks how many applicants have been removed from hotels. The plan is to remove all ARAP applicants from hotels, because they are not here illegally; they have not arrived on boats across the channel. They are entitled to be here, they have access to full universal credit and housing benefit, and much more importantly, they have the right to work immediately on arrival. Our priority, unapologetically—I hope she agrees that this is the right approach—is to get people out of hotels and into houses where they can get on with the life that they so deserve here in the UK as legal citizens.
It is hardly in the spirit of Operation Warm Welcome that, as the second anniversary of the evacuation of Kabul passed, Afghans who supported our armed forces were still left crowded into hotels at the taxpayer’s expense, or expected to move hundreds of miles from where they have managed to find employment and their children have settled into schools. When does the Minister now expect all Afghans in the schemes to be moved out of hotels and given suitable offers of accommodation?
I actually agree with the hon. Lady—her question stands in contrast with the previous one, because it was about the need to get people out of hotels, not suggesting that they should somehow be staying in them. The Minister for Veterans’ Affairs has been leading on this task around Government. Few in this House have more emotional energy to drive that mission than he does. He sees it as of huge importance that people are moved out of hotels and allowed to get on with their lives as quickly as possible. I will ask his office to write to the hon. Lady with the exact detail of when he hopes to see the job done.
I commend to the Defence team and, indeed, the House the new book by Larisa Brown, “The Gardener of Lashkar Gah”, which outlines in great detail the sort of debt we owe to the people who tried to help our forces. My specific question is not about people serving with the Afghan forces; it is about whether we have a proper database of all those who served with the British forces and are eligible under the scheme, and whether the Minister can guarantee that the scheme will not be closed while some of those people—probably a large number of them—are still in hiding in Afghanistan and thus unable to apply for it.
It will not surprise my right hon. Friend to know that the people who worked for the British armed forces over our extended period in Afghanistan appeared on many different lists, and part of the job of work over the past 18 months or so has been to consolidate those into an authoritative list of those whom we know to have worked for us. However, we do have very good records, as one would expect the military to have kept. That allows us to focus our search on people whom we know to be eligible within the pile of applications, and of late, to make rapid progress in informing those who are ineligible. We will, of course, keep the scheme open for as long as it takes to find all of those whom we know worked for us.
I thank the Minister for his considered remarks. Will he join me in thanking both Colchester City Council and Essex County Council for their work in supporting many Afghan nationals locally who have been in hotels since last autumn? The councils have aided those people to get into housing; however, we still have six families and 40 individuals who need to be supported in temporary accommodation. As such, can the Minister give assurances to the House about the cross-Government work that is taking place to ensure that those families come out of hotels and become settled, and in particular the work that his Department is leading on, helping to get Afghans into employment so that they can settle in the United Kingdom?
I can absolutely give my right hon. Friend the assurance she asks for. Given her previous role in Government, she knows better than anybody that those men and women who have come here have every legal right to start work and to settle in the UK. They deserve their journey here on the back of what they did in support of our armed forces, so we will support them while they are in hotels, and better still, once we have got them settled in more permanent accommodation, we will support them into employment. I will make sure that the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs briefs my right hon. Friend on his work on that matter.
UK Obligations to NATO
Our commitment to NATO is unwavering. We have strengthened our force posture in Estonia, stationed a light cavalry squadron in Poland, provided the NATO mission in Kosovo with personnel, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities, and provided specialist personnel to the NATO mission in Iraq. The national flagship, HMS Queen Elizabeth, sailed over the weekend, and will shortly fly the NATO flag as the NATO flagship while on operations in the Euro-Atlantic. We contribute to every NATO mission, declare our nuclear deterrent to NATO, and consistently spend at least 2% of gross domestic product on defence. We will maintain our leading position in NATO over the decades ahead.
I place on record my condolences to the current Defence Secretary, and my thanks to the former Defence Secretary, whom we wish well in whatever he undertakes to do.
I thank the Minister for his full response. He will know that NATO’s obligations are to work with partners, so can he say what discussions he has had with his counterparts in NATO about working with the African Union to ensure stability and security in that region?
Colleagues have rightly offered their condolences to the new Secretary of State, and remarked on the anniversary of 9/11, but the thing that has maybe fallen through the cracks is for us to send our regards to the former Secretary of State, with whom I had the great pleasure of working for three and a half years. His effort and contribution to defence was quite extraordinary, and I think he will be remembered in history as one of the great Secretaries of State. He should be very proud of everything he achieved.
The right hon. Lady is absolutely right that NATO’s southern flank, Africa, is of enormous importance to Europe and the security of the Euro-Atlantic. It will not surprise her to know that, in the wake of the coups over the summer in both Niger and Gabon, conversations among European Defence Ministers and NATO Defence Ministers have been regular and urgent as people seek to understand what the response could be. It does not look like it is one in which NATO would be to the fore, but it is clearly in NATO’s interests that a European response in Africa to these coups is forthcoming.
I send my condolences to the Secretary of State.
As my right hon. Friend knows, membership of NATO requires an expenditure of 2% of GDP. This is an arbitrary and paltry figure bearing in mind the threats that we all face. What discussions is he having with other NATO partners, many of which are not even spending the 2%, to increase their spending on defence?
I steer my hon. Friend to the communiqué from the Vilnius summit, which was very clear that NATO countries that are not yet spending 2% need urgently to increase their spending to do so. Our Prime Minister has gone further and indicated his willingness to spend 2.5% on defence once the economic circumstances allow. I think that that is the right order, because we cannot have physical security without economic security.
After 13 years of Tory Army cuts, serious and senior military figures are now questioning the UK’s ability to deliver our NATO obligations. While NATO is boosting the size of its high-readiness forces from 40,000 to 300,000 following Putin’s illegal invasion of Ukraine, UK Ministers plan to cut the Army further to the smallest since the Napoleonic era. The last Conservative Defence Secretary told this House that the Government had “hollowed out and underfunded” our armed forces. Is that still the position of the Ministry of Defence, and will the Tory Army cuts still be forced through by this latest set of Ministers?
The former Secretary of State’s comment, which the shadow Minister conveniently quotes in a limited way, was that successive Governments had failed to invest in the enablers that underpinned our war-fighting capability. It is to the credit of this Prime Minister and the two Conservative Prime Ministers who went before him that commitments have been made to grow our defence budgets, including under Prime Minister Johnson a £19 billion increase to the defence budget and under this Prime Minister another £5 billion in the last year or so. The shadow Minister also ignores this: when he says that NATO is increasing its rapid reaction force, that does not mean that in NATO armies are growing; it just means that the armies in NATO are committing ever more of the forces they have to NATO’s high-readiness formations. The British Army is to the fore in that.
Afghan Relocations and Assistance Policy
I said in May to the House that we aim to process all outstanding initial ARAP applications by the end of August. I can report that we have just 2,000 complex cases remaining from more than 93,000 principal applications that we received. We have issued over 58,000 decisions to applicants in the past three months, giving them the clarity they deserve, and we continue to move at best pace to process the remaining applications.
I thank my right hon. Friend and his ministerial colleagues for the work done over the summer, including with Hillingdon and Harrow councils in my constituency, on support for those who have served in support of our armed forces. In future, as Afghan bridging operations come to a close, can he commit to work with local authorities to ensure that those who have put their lives on the line supporting our military operations continue to be supported in their new lives here in the UK?
What liaising does the Minister do with the Home Office? I have an Afghan special forces interpreter who came here having done valiant work during Operation Pitting. His mother, father and siblings left Afghanistan and ended up in Ukraine of all places, and they moved to the UK last year. The Home Office gave them temporary leave to remain, only for them to receive a letter in the past couple of months saying that they would have to be deported back to either Afghanistan, Ukraine or Rwanda. In that case I interceded and the Minister’s office helped, but what is going on between his Department and the Home Office?
From the question, I can see all sorts of ways in which that might present quite a confusing case to colleagues in the Home Office, especially if those in Ukraine proceeded to the UK under a mechanism other than the Afghan relocations and assistance policy. May I look at the detail of the case and come back to the right hon. Gentleman, rather than speculate?
The Government continue to invest significant sums to improve the quality of UK service family accommodation, with £337 million invested over financial years 2020-21 and 2021-22 combined, and £163 million in 2022-23. The forecast for this financial year is £312 million.
Ofsted chief inspector, Amanda Spielman, has repeatedly said that she has “deep concerns” about the “continued failures” to improve service accommodation for armed forces recruits over the past seven years. Will the Minister explain why those concerns from neutral Ofsted inspector Amanda Spielman have fallen on deaf ears, and why those improvements are yet to be made?
This is an extremely important subject, and we care immensely about improving our estate. Such concerns do not fall on deaf ears. If that were the case we would not have put on the table a further £400 million for SFA in the defence Command Paper refresh. Precisely because of that additional funding, this year our spend will be almost double that of last year.
The Prime Minister said he was going to lead by example, and that when it came to the military base at Catterick, he was going to ensure that illegal migrants were housed there. We now understand that the generals have said they do not want a bunch of Afghans and Iraqis next to their squaddies, so nothing is happening with regard to illegal migrants being put there, although the Ministry of Defence is so determined that its soldiers should not be placed near migrants that it is moving them out of RAF Scampton. When will illegal migrants be placed in Catterick, as promised by the Prime Minister? I want a date and I want it now.
I visited Catterick on Friday and I discussed precisely that matter with senior members of the armed forces based at Catterick. The characterisation that my right hon. Friend uses is not correct. These matters are being considered objectively and carefully, but that work is ongoing.
Defence Infrastructure Organisation: Service Accommodation for Injured Veterans
The Defence Infrastructure Organisation provides additional needs and disability adaptations to service family accommodation. Those provide changes to SFA to meet a family’s needs, as set out by a suitably qualified healthcare professional. Once the scope of any adaptation has been agreed with all parties, works will be delivered as quickly as possible. That gives service personnel reassurance that their families’ needs can be met wherever they are assigned, regardless of the length and number of postings they have within their service career.
The Minister will remember that in June I asked about a badly injured veteran in my constituency. He has written confirmation from the former Defence Minister in 2021 that he would receive extensive adaptations to his home. Those adaptations have not happened, and the situation is so serious that Op Courage has instigated safeguarding proceedings against the Ministry of Defence to protect my constituent. In June the Minister requested that I write to him. I did so yet again, but I still have not received a reply. Will the Minister meet me finally to sort this out? In doing so, will he reassure the House that a Conservative Minister’s word is worth the paper it is signed on?
I was privileged to attend the Invictus games this weekend in Düsseldorf. It was truly humbling to meet inspiring individuals who have triumphed in adversity. I took the opportunity to discuss with my Ukrainian counterpart the care and rehabilitation of veterans and the UK’s unwavering support for her country.
There are more than 265,000 former members of the armed forces in the south-west, many of whom reside in my constituency of East Devon. We must ensure that every veteran can access the services they need when they leave the service. Can my right hon. Friend update the House on the progress being made towards delivering ID cards to all veterans by Remembrance Day this year?
My hon. Friend will be aware that phase 1 of this project is already completed, which is to say that as people leave the armed forces, they are issued with their veterans cards. Those who left before December 2018 should get their cards by the end of this year. A veteran does not require a card to prove their status; there are several ways to verify service, and the lack of a card should not act as a barrier to accessing support, but I recognise the importance of this card for many, in particular as a form of proving their identity and accessing services.
As Ministers know, UK unity on Ukraine stays strong and the Government will continue to have Labour’s fullest support on military aid. Ukrainians are now urgently asking for more to help their current counter-offensive to succeed, and since January, the Prime Minister has repeatedly pledged to accelerate Ukraine’s support. When will this happen?
The right hon. Gentleman will know full well that the United Kingdom is probably the lead nation on many fronts among our European peers— financially, in terms of kit and in supporting the people who are conducting the fight against Putin’s aggression. We will continue to do that, and at the weekend in Düsseldorf, I reiterated that to my Ukrainian counterpart. I do not think anybody could be in any doubt that the United Kingdom is leading Europe on this front, and we will continue to do so.
But I fear UK leadership on Ukraine is flagging. The UK Government have committed £4.6 billion, yet Germany has now committed €17 billion. The UK’s 14 tanks have now been dwarfed by 324 from Poland, and last week’s decision to proscribe Wagner as a terrorist group was taken by the European Union 10 months ago. Will the Minister accept that we must accelerate UK military support and redouble the UK’s defence diplomacy to maintain western unity and solidarity?
The UK Government prefer action rather than words, and I point to the 20,000 Ukrainians we are training, to Storm Shadow and to the fact that kit is going out the door right now and being used on the ground. Rhetoric is one thing; action is another. In that way, I am afraid that the right hon. Gentleman has to admit that the UK is continuing to lead Europe. We will certainly do so going forward, and there can be no doubt that Ukrainians themselves appreciate the strength and rigour of UK—
My hon. Friend asks an excellent question. It must be clear to everyone just from what is available on social media that uncrewed air systems, as they are called, have an extraordinary impact in theatre. I reassure him that we are working on a strategy to look at how we can make the most of this capability to ensure that, above all, we have our own cutting-edge sovereign capability.
I did give a statement to the House—I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman was present—in which I confirmed that we would learn the lessons of the Sheldon review, but, above all, confirmed the good news that Ajax was with the field Army for regular training. I hear that that training is going extremely well.
My hon. Friend will forgive me if I do not know off the top of my head what those recommendations relate to. I can say to him that Defence is very fortunate in having him and his colleagues as co-authors of the report on the armed forces family strategy steering group, acting as critical friends and holding Defence to account against the strategy action plan. I would be more than happy to meet him to go through those recommendations one by one.
At the moment, we are not releasing specific details because the work is ongoing, but I assure him and the House on two points. First, the Defence Infrastructure Organisation has been undertaking a huge amount of work—in fact, there has been work on RAAC in the MOD context since 2019. Most importantly, we are not aware of any impact from RAAC on service family accommodation.
It is good news on both fronts for my hon. Friend. First, yes, a lot of work is going on to improve the speed of procurement. I am also pleased to confirm that I have already a visit planned to her part of the world in a couple of weeks. I will liaise with her office about meeting those companies.
Today marks the anniversary of 9/11, and while our focus now has returned to state aggression, does the Minister agree that the threat of Islamic extremism—whether home-grown or from abroad—remains and that our defence posture should reflect that?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. Although the focus of the MOD and so many other parts of the Government has increasingly been on hostile state actors over the last few years, today more than any is a reminder of the threat of violent extremism. I pay tribute to the hundreds of men and women around the UK armed forces who are deployed on missions countering violence and extremism as I speak.
Will the Minister update the House on the progress being made to settle the claims of thousands of veterans and their families for what is commonly called Gulf war syndrome?
The hon. Member is right to raise that. The armed forces compensation scheme is up and running for them. I am afraid that there have been delays in some of those applications; I referred to that earlier on. On the science behind it, obviously, we in Defence comply with the best available, as assessed by the independent medical expert group, and we will make policy accordingly. I understand the point he is making and would be happy to discuss it with him further.
Ukrainian and UK defence companies are going up against barriers and bureaucracy when trying to set up joint working and joint projects. Could my hon. Friend update the House on how he is reducing that, so that bilateral collaboration can be made easier and quicker?
My hon. Friend has been an absolute champion of all matters relating to our relationship with Ukraine. We have seen very rapid procurement, particularly in relation to urgent requirements going into Abbey Wood in his constituency. I understand that he will hold a meeting shortly with some major Ukrainian defence industrialists, which he has kindly invited me to, and I look forward to engaging with him and those companies soon.
Last September, the right hon. Member for South West Norfolk (Elizabeth Truss) announced £2.3 billion to be made available for Ukraine in this financial year. We are now in another September, with a new Secretary of State. When can we expect that sum of money to be made available to Ukraine?
The Prime Minister engages with world leaders all the time to discuss what is needed in Ukraine, and he has an extraordinarily close relationship with President Zelensky. Both my right hon. Friend the Member for South West Norfolk (Elizabeth Truss) and Prime Minister Johnson delivered on their commitments. The Prime Minister continues to do exactly the same; he will be at the Dispatch Box in about an hour and perhaps Ukraine might be mentioned.
The previous Secretary of State promised that he would come to David Brown Santasalo in Huddersfield to see the wonderful work that the company does producing the defence equipment that we need. Will one of the team be able to fulfil that promise?
It is always a pleasure to engage with the hon. Gentleman. If I cannot visit that specific company, I intend to hold forums for small and medium-sized enterprises around the country—the next one is in Wales, but we will certainly hold them in his part of the world—and I will let him know the details.
While Ukraine continues to combat Putin’s aggression on the battlefield, there is no let up in Russia’s nefarious campaign of espionage and subversion against western democracies. That threat, and the so-called grey zone, spans the public, private and defence sectors, aiming to continually challenge our critical national infrastructure capabilities. What work is the MOD doing across Government Departments, and the private and public sectors, to combat hybrid threats?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It is helpful that the Deputy Prime Minister is sitting on the Front Bench as I answer her question, because he leads the necessary cross-Government effort, of which defence plays an enormous part. The National Security Act 2023 has been passed, as has the National Security Investment Act 2021, and there is £2.6 billion of investment through the national cyber strategy 2022. Defence supports His Majesty’s Government’s activities, applying defence levers to protect UK crucial interests from state threats by denying and deferring adversary attack.
One of the greatest problems that my veteran constituents have is housing accommodation. It is as scarce as hen’s teeth, as we would say back home. What discussions has the Minister had with the Housing Executive in Northern Ireland to secure funding and housing for veterans who have just finished service or are retiring?
Clearly, we want to improve service accommodation all the time. However, 97% of service accommodation meets or exceeds the decent home standard. That is admirable compared with the record of many local authorities. We are investing in accommodation, and it is improving all the time. I very much regret the occasional report of accommodation that falls short of the mark, and we seek to rectify it as soon as we can.
We have heard this afternoon how important the continuity of education allowance is for service families. Does the Minister assess that Labour’s proposed attack on private schools will make it easier or harder to educate service children?
It would certainly make it far more expensive. It would also threaten small schools like Warminster School in my constituency, which relies very much on service families. I just reflect on the sacrifices made by all people I know who choose to send their children to independent schools, and in particular members of the defence community who are of course required to make a substantial contribution to their children’s education in the event that they choose to educate them in the independent sector.
With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement on claims relating to an ongoing counter-terrorism police investigation that were reported in The Sunday Times yesterday, Sunday 10 September. The story alleged that two individuals, including a parliamentary researcher, had been arrested on charges of conducting espionage on behalf of China.
These are serious allegations, and it is right that they are being thoroughly investigated by the police and relevant agencies. We must not hamper their work or prejudice any future legal processes by what we say today—as I believe, Mr Speaker, you said at the beginning of today’s proceedings. As you would expect me to say, it would therefore be inappropriate for me to comment on any specific aspect of the active investigation itself. I would, however, point the House to what the Metropolitan police said in their own statement:
“The investigation is being carried out by officers from the Met’s Counter Terrorism Command, which has responsibility for investigations relating to allegations of Official Secrets Act and espionage-related offences”.
Of course, any decision on whether to proceed with a prosecution under the Official Secrets Act, and related legislation, would be a matter for the Crown Prosecution Service.
It remains an absolute priority for the Government to take all necessary steps to protect the United Kingdom from any foreign state activity which seeks to undermine our national security, prosperity and democratic values. The Government have been clear that China represents a systemic challenge to the United Kingdom and to our values. That has been evidenced in China’s continued disregard for universal human rights and international commitments in Xinjiang, its erasure of dissenting voices and stifling of opposition under its new national security law in Hong Kong, and disturbing reports of Chinese coercion and intimidation in the South China sea. We are clear-eyed about that challenge, and we must be able to look the Chinese in the eye and call out unacceptable behaviour directly, just as our Prime Minister was able to do this with Premier Li at the G20 summit in New Delhi this weekend—an approach that has also been taken consistently by our Five Eyes allies.
Actions speak louder than words, and that is why I took the decision to instruct Departments to cease deployment of all surveillance equipment subject to China’s national intelligence law from sensitive Government sites in November last year. It is one of the reasons why I banned TikTok from Government devices; the Government investigated and called out the so-called Chinese overseas police service stations and, as the Minister for Security, my right hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat), set out in a statement to this House in June, instructed the Chinese embassy to close them; we significantly reduced Chinese involvement in the UK’s civil nuclear sector, including taking ownership of China’s stake in the Sizewell C nuclear power project; and, as Digital Secretary, I took the decision to ban Huawei from our 5G networks.
This afternoon the Procurement Bill is being debated in the other place. The Bill will include national security debarment provisions that will enable us to act when we see malign influence in our public procurement. In taking this approach, we are aligned with our Five Eyes allies and other G7 partners—indeed, every single G7 partner.
The UK will deploy, again, an aircraft carrier to the Indo-Pacific in 2025; we have announced AUKUS, a new security partnership that will promote a free and open Indo-Pacific that is secure and stable; and we will work with Italy and Japan through the global combat air programme to adapt and respond to the security threats of the future, through an unprecedented international aerospace coalition.
These Houses of Parliament stand as a monument to the freedoms of expression and belief that underpin our values, but just as these institutions have provided the paradigm for so many modern democracies, there are still those who fear such freedoms, and who seek to undermine them and to interfere in our society. We maintain constant vigilance in our efforts to understand and root out that interference, and we will always take action to address it, whatever its source.
In 2022, the Government established the defending democracy taskforce, a group that works to co-ordinate across Government to protect the integrity of our democracy from threats of foreign interference. It is engaging across Government, with Parliament, the UK’s intelligence community, the devolved Administrations, local authorities, the private sector and civil society on the full range of threats facing our democratic institutions. Those threats include foreign interference in the electoral process, disinformation, physical and cyber threats to democratic institutions and those who represent them, foreign interference in public offices, political parties and our universities, and transnational repression in the United Kingdom.
Earlier this year, the Government passed the National Security Act 2023, which has overhauled legislation applicable to espionage, sabotage, and any persons acting for foreign powers against the safety and interest of the United Kingdom. The measures in the Act will enable our law enforcement and intelligence agencies to deter, detect, and disrupt the full range of modern-day threats, including threats from China. New offences in the Act will enable the disruption of illegitimate influence conducted for, or on behalf of, foreign states, whether designed to advance their interests or to harm the United Kingdom. The United Kingdom Government will do whatever it takes to protect our national security and this nation's democratic institutions, which have stood for centuries as a beacon of liberty—wherever the threat may come from.
I commend this statement to the House.
I thank the Deputy Prime Minister for his statement, and for advance sight of it.
Maintaining national security in the face of threats to our values and our democracy is the first duty of any Government, in respect of which Labour stands ready always to work on a cross-party basis to keep our country safe. I pay tribute to all those in our intelligence and security services and police, and those across Government and beyond, who work to protect our national security on the anniversary of the awful attacks of 9/11. As we remember those lost, we are in no doubt about the seriousness of the work that they do.
We recognise, too, the seriousness of the allegations involving espionage on behalf of China at the heart of our democracy. It is essential that the police, the intelligence agencies and the justice system are able to do their jobs, and we must support them as they do so. However, we need to know more about what action the Government are taking against attempts by other states to interfere in our democracy and undermine our security. MI5 issued an interference alert about the Chinese Communist party attempting to influence Parliament 20 months ago. The Security Service and others have also raised wider concerns. The Minister referred to the Prime Minister raising strong concerns with China about unacceptable interference. Did the Prime Minister do so at the time of those arrests, or has he only done so now, since they have been made public?
The Government set up the defending democracy taskforce to look at foreign interference, but what has it actually done? Is the Minister on it? Has it produced a report for the National Security Council as was promised? Has it looked at vetting levels and delays? The Government opposed the Lords amendment to the National Security Bill that was put forward to introduce stronger checks on donations to political parties, to ensure no foreign influence, and they opposed Labour’s proposal to close the loophole on shell companies. Has the taskforce looked at those measures? Why is it not acting in that area?
What is being done about national security prisoners? It beggars belief that Daniel Khalife was charged with national security offences but was able to escape under a van. Can the Minister confirm that even though this individual had already evaded arrest for three weeks when the police first tried to apprehend him, he still ended up in a category B prison? Can he also confirm reports that in 2019 another prisoner was able to escape from Wandsworth prison, also by hiding underneath a van? Has the review been completed of all national security prisoners—those on remand and those convicted —to see what level of prison security is in place? If not, why not?
I want to ask the Minister about the wider issue of the risks to our national security from other states. He has rightly taken action on sensitive surveillance equipment and I am glad that Ministers have accepted Labour’s proposals on procurement. In his statement, he rightly talked of the systemic challenge that China poses, including on human rights, but the statement says nothing about the work of the investment security unit. What is it doing? Nor does the statement say anything about the comprehensive approach we need to the risks to our critical national infrastructure, even though the head of MI5 has given a series of warnings and the Intelligence and Security Committee was extremely critical in its report in July, warning of the lack of a proper strategy on China and of short-termism. We need to engage with China on climate change and global issues, but we also need to be robust about defending our national security. That is why the shadow Foreign Secretary has called for a full audit of China’s relationship and why we have supported the National Security Act 2023 but also raised concerns about Iran pursuing kidnap and murder threats and Russia pursuing cyber-attacks.
We recognise that after 9/11 and the appalling terror attacks on 7/7, the country came together. The then Labour Government worked on a major counter-terror strategy—the Contest strategy—involving everyone across Government, the police, the intelligence agencies, local government and the private sector. The Contest strategy has endured and has strong cross-party support, but the Government have been warned for years about rising state challenges, so where is the Contest strategy for state threats? We will support the Government in producing one, and a Labour Government would work cross-party to produce one, but where is it? We need a Contest strategy on state risks, state challenges and state threats to protect our national security. National security is too important to ignore warnings; we need urgent action to defend our national security.
I thank the shadow Home Secretary for the overall constructive approach with which she has addressed this issue. It is important that we treat issues such as this on a cross-party basis in defence of our democratic institutions, and it is timely that this statement should be made on the anniversary of 9/11. I will endeavour to address the points that she has raised, and I will be happy to write to her on any points that I inadvertently miss out.
The Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary regularly raise with their Chinese opposite numbers Chinese interference in democratic institutions. This is an ongoing approach that has been going on for some time.
The right hon. Lady asked about the defending democracy taskforce, which is led by my right hon. Friend the Minister for Security. It reports into the National Security Council, on which I sit, and we receive regular updates on the work that he is doing, working with Departments across Government, not least the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, which is responsible for large elements of electoral integrity, the devolved Administrations, local authorities and other matters. The purpose of the taskforce is to bring together all those different elements to pursue a whole-of-Government and whole-of-society approach when addressing those threats.
The principal purpose of the investment security unit is to provide advice to me, as the quasi-judicial decision maker, in respect of acquisitions that may invoke national security questions. I take advice from the unit on whether the Government should intervene, and we have issued 15 directions in respect of acquisitions in the past year. That is to say we are asking companies to take action, the hardest being to block the acquisition, but it could be some other remedial action. More than half of those directions are in respect of Chinese companies.
The right hon. Lady is entirely right to raise the question of critical national infrastructure, on which I have worked very closely with the head of MI5 and others. Countries around the world are looking again at their critical national infrastructure, particularly in relation to the threat of cyber-crime, which often has a blurred link with hostile states. I take cyber-crime very seriously, and I chair regular meetings on it. We are constantly upping the work we do, against a background in which the external threat continues to rise.
The Government will very shortly respond to the ISC’s report. The draft is with Ministers, and it is about to be signed off. I hope it will be with the House this week.
The right hon. Lady rightly raises points about Iran and Russia, particularly in relation to cyber but also across a whole range of issues. As part of our overall approach, we have done two things. First, we have tried to give the agencies a public face with which to interface with businesses and private citizens in a whole-of-society approach. For example, GCHQ now works through the National Cyber Security Centre to advise businesses and individuals on cyber-risks. Equally, we have just created the National Protective Security Authority, which essentially enables MI5 to interface with businesses and individuals on protective security. Those agencies, working through the Cabinet Office and particularly with the Home Office and the Foreign Office, work across the range of issues that particularly arise in relation to Iran and Russia.
Although we take this investigation very seriously, and it clearly should be conducted independently, I reassure the right hon. Lady and the House that the Government are taking a whole-of-society approach across all these issues to strengthen our defences against rising threats.
Without referring to any specific case, may I gently remind the Government that their initial response to the ISC’s substantial and wide-ranging report on the national security threat from China, published just two months ago, was to suggest that our findings might be out of date? Will the Deputy Prime Minister therefore confirm that the full Government response, when it comes—we gather it is coming very soon—will set out specific steps to address the threat of Chinese interference, particularly within our democratic system?
It is timely that we are having a security update today. My thoughts and the thoughts of my colleagues are with all those impacted by 9/11 on its anniversary.
I am glad the Deputy Prime Minister mentioned the issues relating to sensitive Government sites and cameras, but Members on both sides of the House had to ask questions on Hikvision for months before the Government took any action. Will they commit to acting more quickly in future, and will the Procurement Bill, as he states, allow that to happen?
I am glad to hear that the response to the ISC report is coming. Will the Government also commit to implementing the recommendations of the ISC report on Russian interference in British politics? Hopefully that response will also come soon.
To turn to some specific questions, when did the Deputy Prime Minister himself learn of these allegations and arrests? Why did MPs only learn of this from The Times? Will the Government institute, as soon as possible, a review into the decision-making process that led to MPs not being told, in order that such critical updates are given to MPs in future and that this decision-making process is never allowed to happen again?
Order. We have to be very careful here. This is a major security issue and it would be wrong to expect to break all that in order to brief MPs. The MPs who needed to be told were told and worked very closely on this. Please, be very careful. I think my earlier statement addressed some of the points, but, if need be, we can re-address things.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. On the first point that the hon. Lady raised, we take an evidence-based approach to action. It is right that Ministers take action not on a hunch or an intuition, but on the basis of detailed analysis provided to us by the agencies and by others. That is precisely the approach we took in relation to Hikvision and other China-based companies subject to China’s national security laws.
On when I or others learned about this, as Mr Speaker said in a number of the points he made, Members would not expect me to give the House a running commentary on intelligence briefings that I have received, but the House would expect me to be briefed on all matters.
In conclusion, I will make a broader point about parliamentary security. We have the Parliamentary Security Department and it works very closely with the agencies to support Members of Parliament, including with general advice. If Members have specific concerns, they can raise those with the PSD. That is the correct approach, which respects the division between Parliament and Government, and the independence of the House.
These are extremely worrying reports about the level of infiltration of Chinese-supported forces into our democracy. Does my right hon. Friend agree that we need to recognise that China is the largest threat, both to the world and to the UK, on freedom and democracy? Does he not agree that the Government should designate it as such?
May I begin by paying tribute to my right hon. Friend for all the work she did in this space, particularly when she was Foreign Secretary? She is absolutely right to say that China represents a systemic challenge to our interests and values, and it is also, for example, the No. 1 state-based threat to our economic security. The Government are absolutely clear-eyed about the threats that this nation faces and we are robust in taking action. Indeed, that is why I personally took the decisions in respect of banning Huawei from our 5G networks, and in respect of Chinese CCTV technology and TikTok. We will continue to take whatever steps are necessary, based on appropriate advice, to provide that protection for our nation and our democratic institutions.
A key part of democracy is the ability to scrutinise the Executive. As the Chair of the Intelligence and Security Committee said, No. 10’s response to our China report was to pooh-pooh it and say that it was out of date. I understand that the Government response was due today but has now been put off. The defending democracy taskforce has been mentioned. We have asked for an update on that but are met with radio silence. The Prime Minister has on his desk our report on international partnerships. He has had it on his desk for nearly 10 months now. He usually has 10 days in which to respond, so when will we get that signed off? May I just say to the Deputy Prime Minister that if he is talking about security and democracy in the terms he has, that has to include proper scrutiny? There is a long list of examples of where this Government are trying to avoid it.
Proper scrutiny is provided by the Intelligence and Security Committee. I certainly take the reports produced by the ISC very seriously—[Interruption.] I am fully aware of the membership of the Committee, to reassure Opposition Members. It is precisely because we take the recommendations so seriously that the Committee will receive a comprehensive response addressing all these points, including an update on the defending democracy taskforce.
It is appalling news that we have a potential espionage cell operating in and around Westminster. As a sanctioned individual alongside many of my colleagues, I am particularly perturbed by the news. Notwithstanding that, this should not perhaps come as a surprise, as the ISC, chaired by my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Sir Julian Lewis), has warned that the Government were ill-prepared and that the necessary security measures were not available.
I ask the Secretary of State a specific question: when was the Foreign Secretary told about the investigation? Was it before he went to Beijing? If he went to Beijing with this knowledge, did he raise it with his counterpart there? It is important to know that. With respect, it is no good coming to the Dispatch Box and telling us that we do not talk about such matters; the Prime Minister did so yesterday, and the investigation is not complete. What did the Foreign Secretary do?
I say to the Secretary of State that the problem lies in the mess we have got into over whether we define China as a threat or not? If it is a threat, why do we not call it that, take the action that is necessary to deal with it on that basis, and sanction some people?
My right hon. Friend, who is a former Cabinet Minister and current Privy Counsellor, knows full well that the Government do not provide a running commentary on updates and intelligence received by Ministers. I can assure him that the Foreign Secretary regularly raises electoral interference and interference with our democratic institutions with his Chinese opposite number. Specific cases, particularly those that are subject to an ongoing police investigation, would not, as is generally the case, be raised. On the wider principle, we have been robust and clear-eyed in addressing and raising these points with our Chinese opposite numbers.
On the action we have taken, I set out the steps that I took in respect of TikTok and Huawei, and I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend’s support for the Telecommunications (Security) Act 2021, which we got to a very good place. There is not just that Act, but the National Security Act 2023, the National Security and Investment Act 2021 and the deployment of the carrier fleet. All those things have happened in the past short number of years. They are evidence of the seriousness with which the Government take this threat.
The Deputy Prime Minister said that he holds the Intelligence and Security Committee in very high regard. On that basis, will he commit to the recommendation that it made in its recent report on China about updating the guidelines of the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments in relation to intelligence and security, particularly referencing China? How will he ensure that they are enforced?
As I said in answer to a previous question, the full response to the ISC will be coming shortly. An important point has been raised in respect of ACOBA, for which I have overall ministerial responsibility in the Cabinet Office. I will take that away and discuss it with the chair of that committee, Sir Eric Pickles, formerly of this House.
I thank the Deputy Prime Minister for his statement and I support the action that the Government are taking. On the issue of transparency and accountability, will the data regarding the volume of prosecutions and convictions under existing legislation and the new National Security Act be collated and made available to the House so that we can track the scale of hostile state action? Also, have the Government decided on any necessary changes to the memorandum of understanding with the ISC, as they are required to at least consider under section 93 of that Act?
I do not think I have had chance from the Dispatch Box to pay a genuine, heartfelt tribute to my immediate predecessor as Deputy Prime Minister. Having done the job for a few months, I have a particular appreciation of all the work that my right hon. Friend did when he was in that post.
In respect of the volume of prosecutions and convictions, we seek to be as transparent as we can be with the House. I am sure it is something that we can take away and look at with a desire to do as my right hon. Friend asks. I cannot give him a firm commitment at the Dispatch Box, but if it is possible, I shall seek to do so.
We keep the MOU with the ISC under review. We do not have any current plans to change it, but we keep it under review.
Yet again, we are watching the horse disappear over the horizon and shutting the stable door behind it. Every time we act to take on China, everything the Deputy Prime Minister boasts about is always stated reactively. Just for once, could we get ahead of the curve and take action in relation to genomics and, as I and others have been urging for months now, designate it as part of our critical national infrastructure, so that in a few months’ time, we are not again having to explain another failure?
I say gently to the right hon. Gentleman that he did serve in government and in Cabinet for five years, from 2010 to 2015, so he and other Members of his party need to bear some responsibility for the decisions made, although I would think that they would take pride in the decisions that we took. More recently, under this majority Conservative Government, we have taken a huge range of steps, including passing the National Security Act and the National Security and Investment Act.
The right hon. Gentleman raises a legitimate point about genomics and its relevance to critical national infrastructure. It is not currently designated as such, but in my role in the Cabinet Office, I keep the register of critical national infrastructure under review, and I am exploring the matter.
May I thank you personally, Mr Speaker, for the care and support you have shown to those of us who have been sanctioned by China? We are in the frontline of this threat, but I have to say that neither before nor after these revelations has any of us been offered a briefing by the parliamentary security authorities, or by the Foreign Office or Home Office. In fact, I found out more about this character from my son, who happened to be at university with them, than from anything I have been told formally.
I do not want to mention the current incident, but do want to note that it is now a year on from when MI5 took the almost unprecedented step of issuing a security service interference alert about a character working within Parliament—for which there were no consequences. It is about a year on from the revelations about the activities of the Chinese consul general in Manchester, who thought it was his job to attack demonstrators—for which there were no expulsions, no consequences. It is months on from the recent revelations about the activities of the Confucius institutes, which the Government pledged to abolish; there have been no consequences, no abolition—again, nothing has happened. And it is just a couple of weeks since the Foreign Secretary promised that he would take up the case of the sanctioned MPs and of Jimmy Lai with the Chinese Foreign Minister, yet he came away with nothing—there have been no consequences.
Is not the problem that, for all the tough talk, there are no consequences and the Chinese know that there will be no consequences? May I ask the Deputy Prime Minister this: will China be in the enhanced tier of the foreign agents registration scheme?
May I deal with the specific question first, and then reflect on the wider points? We are currently reviewing the countries in the enhanced tier. I think there is a strong case to be made, but my hon. Friend would not expect me to make that announcement from the Dispatch Box before we have gone through the proper process.
On my hon. Friend’s wider points about the parliamentary security directorate, we as a Government stand ready to provide any further support that MPs feel they require. If my hon. Friend feels that he requires further briefing, I am very happy to help to facilitate that with the House.
May I extend my genuine sympathy to the two Conservative colleagues who appear to have been targeted by a suspected Chinese spy who was employed in Parliament and paid for out of public funds? I do know what they are feeling. The House will be aware—
Thank you, Mr Speaker. I did say “suspected”.
The House will be aware that the subject of the security alert last year, Christine Lee, was never arrested, has never been charged with spying or, indeed, any other offence, and was said by the previous Home Secretary to have done nothing criminal. However, there is a court case pending. I understand that Ms Lee has taken out a civil suit against the Government; will the Deputy Prime Minister update the House on when that case is likely to be heard and what the Government hope to learn from it?
I am not quite sure what to say in response to that question. In the light of the Lee case and others, that is precisely why we have taken enhanced powers through the new National Security Act. Although I have to hold back from commenting on individual cases, I am confident that we have much more robust powers under that legislation that will enable us to act.
In its China report, the ISC highlighted the efforts of the Chinese Communist party to influence, co-opt or coerce into silence potential critics of its regime in the UK. We acknowledged that the Government are waking up to this threat and taking it more seriously, but I highlight to the Minister the fact that we need more urgency. In particular, I highlight the fact that for years the ISC has been saying that we need a foreign agents registration scheme, and one is now on its way; does the Minister agree that it would have been helpful had it been in operation and on the statute book at the time of the relevant events we are considering today?
My right hon. Friend raises some very important points, but I just observe that—this applies to a lot of the questions—we have a relationship with China that is very different from the one that we had just a few years ago. It is important that we are not naive about China, that we are clear-eyed about protecting our national security, that we are clear-eyed about the threats that it represents and that we are robust in taking action. My right hon. Friend rightly highlights the foreign agents registration scheme; the secondary legislation under that will come before the House very shortly, which will enable us to take the relevant actions under that legislation.
Actually, the people who have been really clear-sighted about China have mostly been on the Back Benches in this House, on either side and including the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton), and some of them have been sanctioned. I have been delighted to work with two successive Chairs of the Foreign Affairs Committee, to whom I pay enormous tribute for the outspoken way in which they have pushed the Government towards a more sensible policy on China.
My anxiety is that we still flip-flop all over the place. This year already we have seen several Foreign Secretaries, apart from anything else, and we have seen them wanting to suck up to China one moment and the next wanting to have robust words with China. It simply does not work. Why oh why have we still not declared that China is a threat to UK national security? Why oh why have we still not seen even the redacted version of the China strategy which, according to the Government, the FCDO developed but which has not even been shared with other Government ministries?
I have great respect for the hon. Gentleman, as he knows, but I simply do not accept this slightly over-the-top characterisation of the Government’s approach. We have been consistent. First, we must protect our national interests in relation to China. That is why we passed the legislation that I have outlined, why I banned Huawei from our 5G networks and why we banned Chinese technology from surveillance equipment and other matters.
Secondly, it is important that we align with our allies around the world. I spend a lot of time on this and know that the Foreign Secretary, the Minister for Security and others work very closely with nations around the world, particularly but not confined to the Five Eyes, to make sure that we share our understanding of Chinese intent and take co-ordinated action to protect us, not least through the military
It is also the case, though, that we must engage with the Chinese, as we do with many other countries around the world with which we do not share a number of their values. It is not a realistic position to take to say that we should entirely cut off from engagement with China. We should engage with China but be absolutely clear about where we disagree with it and clear-eyed in protecting our national security, which is precisely the approach we are taking.
Like my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith), I cannot wait to be able to discuss the merits of this case, although I understand the situation now. I want to raise a couple of issues with the Deputy Prime Minister. The Government are moving, they have done lots of new things and we are getting more coherence, but I do not understand why they keep thinking that we either bury our heads in the sand or effectively go soft on elements of the relationship with China. We can debate with and engage with China all we like, but we can also do so in an increasingly robust way that answers the threat it presents towards us.
Specifically, the Government keep avoiding the argument about the growing economic dependency that all western nations have on China. That dependency will mean that in the case of war in the Pacific in two or five years’ time, which is what President Xi is planning for—he has said, “We are retaking Taiwan by 2027.”—we will not be in a position to do anything about it without collapsing the global economy. Effectively, in the next few years, our hands will have been tied by economic dependency. Every time I raise that issue, the Government are not even willing to produce an annual statement on it. Please can we take this issue more seriously? It is at the heart of security, and no freedom of action means we have no security.
I have a great deal of respect for my hon. Friend and he and I have discussed these issues on many occasions. I believe we are taking precisely that robust approach. The question of economic dependency is precisely why we passed the National Security and Investment Act 2021, which enables me as a Minister to take decisions to intervene where we feel that the acquiring of technology by any state could undermine our resilience and our ability to protect ourselves, or could enhance the capability of other states. I have taken the decision to intervene on a number of occasions, and more than half the orders we have issued have been in respect of Chinese-related companies.
On the resilience of supply chains, that is why the Prime Minister established the National Secretary Council resilience sub-committee, building on work by my right hon. Friend the Member for Esher and Walton (Dominic Raab), the former Deputy Prime Minister. My hon. Friend is totally right to raise this issue, but I can assure him that the Government take this very seriously and are acting.
Will the Deputy Prime Minister remind the House of December 2016, when the then Prime Minister David Cameron was in the Plough pub in Cadsden with President Xi? We were all urged to be very positive towards China. Indeed, when I expressed worries about the takeover by China of a global company based in Huddersfield, I was told to go away and be quiet. I have also consistently asked for an audit of how much of our British industry and interests are owned by the Chinese—a simple audit—but we have never had a positive reaction, or any reaction, to that suggestion. When will the Government do that?
The hon. Gentleman is right to highlight that we have a changed approach to China, because the facts on China have changed. With its conduct in relation to Hong Kong and the national security law that it has passed, the increasing evidence of abuses in Xinjiang province and the increased aggression in relation to the South China sea, there is no room for any naivety about China. We have to be clear-eyed and we are being clear-eyed. That is why we have passed a host of legislation. It is why—to answer his point about what is owned by China—for the first time, we have now taken the power to intervene on transactions, whether in relation to China or to other countries, in the interest of national security and why I have not hesitated as a Minister to do so.
I thank the Deputy Prime Minister for his statement. Does he agree that this latest episode shows clearly that it is vital that we do all we can to protect our democracy and democratic institutions? It is right that the Government continue with the “protect, align and engage” strategy, but actions speak louder than words, and the Chinese communist state needs to hear very loudly that we will do all we can to protect our democracy.
I completely agree with my hon. Friend’s comments. That is precisely what the Prime Minister did at the G20 summit with Premier Li at the weekend, and why we have introduced a wide range of legislation to address threats, including, among many other pieces of legislation, the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill in relation to academia.
The integrated review refresh was announced on 13 March this year. At the time, it was welcomed that funding would be doubled for building Government expertise on China, but we have since learned that the doubling was from a base of 170 civil servants learning Mandarin in the previous year, of whom just 20 were to attend language immersion. Given that the UK hosts more than 150,000 Chinese students learning the English language and about British culture, does that announcement of perhaps 300 training places for British Government officials not now sound a little modest?
First, the integrated review refresh was clear about China being the No. 1 state-based threat to our economic security. The hon. Gentleman cites the foreign language training; that is just one element of the action that we have taken to increase our capacity in relation to China. Clearly, he would not expect me to comment on what the agencies are doing in respect of China, but I can assure him that within the Cabinet Office and its structures, we are constantly increasing the amount of resource that we put in, as is the Foreign Office.
I have some sympathy with my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister for wanting to strike the right balance. I very much welcome his recognition that we have come a long way from the ill-fated idea of a golden age with China, which was only eight years ago. Much of what has happened has been predicable and predicted, and we continue to predict what will happen, as he has heard this afternoon. Why are the Government so squeamish not just about talking about threats from China, but about calling China a threat? What is the difference between a challenge and a threat?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for recognising the evolution and strengthening of our approach to China—I will not add to what I have said on that. We continue to enhance our capability in relation to China. I have outlined a number of the measures that we take; we continue to keep all those things under review. I want to reassure him and other Members on both sides of the House that we are absolutely clear about the threat that China represents, but at the same time, it is right that we engage with China, and that is the approach that we are taking, alongside working closely with our allies. I think that is a sensible and balanced approach that in no way underestimates the scale of the challenge in respect of China, as has been set out in numerous documents.
An attack on this place, including on Members, by any hostile Government intent on interfering with our democracy and its structures is a direct affront to British democracy itself. Given that several Members of this place have been sanctioned by China, can the Deputy Prime Minister give the House assurances that steps are in place to support and protect Members from hostile Governments, and will he make it clear that there are consequences, as the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) outlined?
Yes, I am very happy to give that assurance. Of course, we respect the independence of this House and provide support indirectly to the House through the parliamentary security directorate. I can assure the hon. Lady that we provide a considerable amount of resource to the House in respect of this threat.
I sympathise with my right hon. Friend. On this Chinese matter, he will face countervailing pressures and arguments on the economic side and on the security side. In his statement, he made great play of the six welcome measures that the Government have taken to toughen Britain’s stance towards the Chinese Government. Can he give the House any evidence that the Chinese Government have altered their behaviour in any way at all in response to that tough response from the British Government?
It is never the case that the United Kingdom Government trade off economic security for national security. National security always comes first in the approach we take, and we have seen action in response to the measures we have taken: for example, we have blocked Chinese acquisitions of companies in this country through the National Security and Investment Act 2021, so we are biting directly.
This unsavoury episode serves as a reminder for all of us in this place of the threats we face, not just from state interference but from a variety of malign actors. Can I please ask the Deputy Prime Minister whether we are doing enough to think about our physical security, surveillance and counter-surveillance, malware and IT on our phones and other Trojan viruses, and governance of MPs’ security?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise all of those points. It is the case, not just in respect of China but also of Russia—particularly in light of the Russia-Ukraine war—and, indeed, Iran and other hostile states that the threat landscape is increasing, and the Government have to continually increase their actions. Through the creation of the National Cyber Security Centre and its work with GCHQ, we are able to constantly increase our action in respect of cyber-threats, malware and the other threats that my hon. Friend highlighted, and in respect of physical security, we have a mirror in the National Protective Security Authority working with MI5. In turn, the agencies also work with the Parliamentary Security Department, which deals directly with threats to Members of Parliament and is supported by those agencies and others.
The Chinese Communist party has shown once again that it will stop at nothing to get its way. The Deputy Prime Minister has said today that he realises there are serious issues and that this is a systemic challenge, but he would not come out with a statement that it is a serious threat and being treated as such. The CCP is infiltrating our academia, and a lot of people right across these Benches feel very uneasy. Actions speak louder than words, and the Government need to back up words with actions—strong actions—and give us the impression that they are not being dragged by the heels all the time. We are constantly having to raise these things, and there is no confidence that we are treating the CCP as an absolutely serious threat, which is what it is. We are playing cricket while the CCP has the machetes out. Please, please take some urgent action.
We have been totally clear-eyed about the threats represented by China, and have been robust in the action we have taken. The hon. Lady talks about higher education: we have passed legislation in respect of higher education, the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Act 2023. That Act requires greater transparency about higher education institutions’ sources of funding, including from overseas states and hostile states. We are taking exactly the kind of action that she requests.
At what was then the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, I saw at first hand the now Deputy Prime Minister oversee an increasingly robust attitude to China in terms of economic security, and telecoms security in particular. To some extent, I wonder if that is why we see this growth in unwelcome attention from China. However, can the Deputy Prime Minister reassure the House that we will continue to take that increasingly robust approach, particularly when it comes to emergent technologies such as artificial intelligence and some of the other increasingly high-tech areas where Britain excels in the world, and where we will continue to attract even more interest from unfriendly states?
My hon. Friend has a great deal of experience from his time as a Minister, and we worked together on these issues. Telecoms security is precisely an example of the approach. First, we put national security before economic security. On a purely economic interest basis, we should not have removed Huawei’s equipment from our networks. We put national security first, and I was transparent with the House about that. We also took the powers in the Telecommunications (Security) Act 2021, which is the legislation required to provide that protection of our national security. That is yet more evidence of how the Government are taking a more robust approach and increasing the amount of activity with every passing month and year.
I thank the Deputy Prime Minister for his statement. I am sensitive to the restrictions on both the questions and the answers, but we know—these facts are in the public domain—that two individuals have been arrested on suspicion of working for a hostile power and that they were parliamentary passholders. Their passes will have been sponsored by individuals who are probably in this Chamber, and they passed the security vetting for a parliamentary pass. Does the Deputy Prime Minister agree that in due course—not today—an important question will have to be answered: were they recruited by the hostile power before or after they became passholders?
The hon. Gentleman made a number of suppositions in his question that are subject to an ongoing police investigation. When that investigation has concluded and indeed if the Crown Prosecution Service decides to take any action under the Official Secrets Act, there will be a time for this House to debate the lessons from that, and the Government will of course—with you, Mr Speaker— help to facilitate the time for that to happen.
In the statement, the Deputy Prime Minister very helpfully refers to the “erasure of dissenting voices” and the “stifling of opposition” under the new national security law in Hong Kong. In whatever dialogue now takes place with the Chinese, can I ask again that the cases of my two trade union colleagues, Lee Cheuk Yan and Carol Ng Man-yee, who were leaders of the Hong Kong Federation of Trade Unions, be raised again? They have been in detention since 2021, and are now facing lengthy prison sentences purely for standing up for democratic rights and trade union rights.
Ministers raised the general principle of China’s national security law, its application to Hong Kong and the suppression of liberties in Hong Kong in very robust terms with their Chinese opposite numbers, and will raise individual cases. I am happy to pass that on to the Foreign Secretary, if the right hon. Member has not done so already, to make sure that those individual cases are raised.
These allegations are concerning, but sadly they are not the first of their type. We have heard about the sanctions against MPs and the activity at the Manchester consulate. I have been ticked off more than once by the consulate in my own constituency because I said things it did not like, and I have been filmed by a drone speaking at a Chinese rally in the city. In July, the Intelligence and Security Committee said there was a lack of clear strategy from the Government. Does the Deputy Prime Minister accept that that might be responsible for these repeated attempts, and is it not time that the Government had that clear strategy?
First, the integrated review refresh was very clear about the approach we take in respect of China. We are clear that it represents the No. 1 state- based thread to our economic security. It also represents a range of other threats and a systemic challenge to our interests and our values. Ministers have raised Chinese interference with democratic processes, and any interference with the conduct of Members of Parliament is totally unacceptable and we will not hesitate in raising it.
Mr Speaker, the whole House will join me in sending our sympathies to the people of Morocco following the devastating earthquake. Our thoughts are with those who have lost loved ones, the injured and those bravely engaged in rescue efforts. We also remember the victims and loved ones of the terrorist attacks that took place in the United States 22 years ago today, including many British citizens.
I have just returned from the G20 summit in India. For the record, let me declare that, as is a matter of public record, I and my family are of Indian origin, and my wife and her family are Indian citizens with financial interests in India. At the summit I had three aims: first, to increase diplomatic pressure on Russia and call out its shameful disruption of global food supplies in the Black sea; secondly, to show the world that democracies such as the United Kingdom, not authoritarian regimes, are leading the fight on global challenges such as development and climate change; and thirdly, to strengthen ties and forge new partnerships to deliver jobs, growth and security for the British people.
The world faces a moment of danger, volatility and increasingly rapid change, but even as most G20 leaders came together in Delhi in a spirit of co-operation, one did not. For two years now, Putin has lacked the courage to face his G20 peers. Day after day, his actions cause horrendous suffering in Ukraine, violating the United Nations Charter, threatening European security, and disrupting global energy supplies. The spill-overs have driven up prices here at home, and they are hurting people all around the world. Russia’s withdrawal from the Black sea grain initiative exposes its willingness to spread that suffering further. While Putin stalls, making unmeetable demands, he is destroying Ukraine’s ports and grain silos. In just one month, Russia has destroyed over 270,000 tonnes of grain—enough to feed 1 million people for a year. I can tell the House today that, thanks to declassified intelligence, we know that on 24 August with multiple missiles the Russian military targeted a civilian cargo ship in the Black sea, demonstrating just how desperate Putin is.
At the G20, leaders united in calling out the “human suffering” caused by Putin’s war. Ukraine has the right to export its goods through international waters, and it has the moral right to ship grain that is helping to feed the world. The UK is working with partners to get grain to those who need it most. We will provide £3 million for the World Food Programme, building on earlier contributions to President Zelensky’s “Grain from Ukraine” initiative. We are using our intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities to monitor Russian activity in the Black sea, so that we can call it out if we see that Russia is preparing further attacks on civilian shipping or infrastructure, and so that we can attribute attacks should they happen. Later this year, we are hosting a UK global food security summit to put in place solutions for the long term.
I spoke to my friend President Zelensky just before the summit. Backed by our support, Ukraine’s counter-offensive is making hard-won progress. We will continue to stand with Ukraine for as long as it takes, until we see a “just and durable peace” that respects its sovereignty and territorial integrity. That is the only possible outcome to Putin’s illegal war, and Ukraine, with our support, will prevail.
On my second aim, we showed at the G20 that it is the UK and our partners, not authoritarian actors, that offer the best solution to the global challenges we face. We are playing our part to stabilise the global economy, control inflation, and fuel future growth. The latest figures from the Office for National Statistics show the UK is leading the way, growing faster out of the pandemic than any other major European economy, and demolishing the false narratives we have heard from the other side of this House. We are also leading the way on development assistance. Instead of loading countries with debt, we are calling for fundamental reforms of the World Bank. When I met the World Bank president, I underlined the UK’s desire to see the Bank become more efficient and responsible, sweating its balance sheet to deliver more support where it is needed.
We are also leading calls at the G20 to safely harness new technologies to support growth and development, and we are leading action to tackle climate change. While some in Westminster denigrate the UK’s record on climate issues, out there in the world we are rightly seen as a global leader. We have cut emissions faster than any other G7 country, with low-carbon sources now providing over half our electricity. We are providing billions for the global energy transition, including through our pioneering Just Energy Transition Partnerships. And at the G20 I made a record commitment of over £1.6 billion for the Green Climate Fund—the single biggest international climate pledge that the UK has ever made.
Finally, my most important aim in Delhi was to deliver on the priorities of the British people. In a changing world, we are using our Brexit freedoms to build new relationships with economies around the world. Since I became Prime Minister, we have joined the comprehensive and progressive agreement for trans-Pacific partnership—the most dynamic trading bloc in the world. We have launched new partnerships with Canada, Australia, Japan and the US, covering trade and economic security. We have secured agreements with France, Albania, Turkey and others to stop illegal migration. At the G20, we went further. We signed a new strategic partnership with Singapore to boost jobs, growth and our security. I held warm and productive discussions with Prime Minister Modi on strengthening our relationship in defence and technology and on a free trade deal between our nations.
I also met Premier Li of China. The whole House is rightly appalled by reports of espionage in this building. The sanctity of this place must be protected, and the right of Members to speak their minds without fear or sanction must be maintained. We will defend our democracy and our security, so I was emphatic with Premier Li that actions that seek to undermine British democracy are completely unacceptable and will never be tolerated. I also emphasised the UK’s unyielding commitment to human rights, and I was clear on the importance of maintaining stability and international law as the basis for stable relations. China is a permanent member of the UN Security Council, the world’s second largest economy and the world’s largest emitter of carbon dioxide. It has growing influence on others, notably Russia. One of my messages to Premier Li was that China should use its influence to call on Russia to end its aggression against Ukraine. The G20 showed a common purpose on food security, and we need to see that in other areas.
This Government have acted decisively to improve our security, including blocking China’s involvement in critical areas such as civil nuclear power, semiconductors and 5G. I pay tribute to the tireless work of our security services. We will shortly set out our response to the Intelligence and Security Committee’s report on China. In November last year, the Government set up a new defending democracy taskforce. Its mission is to reduce the risk to the UK’s democratic processes, institutions and society, and to ensure they are secure and resilient to threats of foreign interference. The importance of that work is clear for all to see. Crucially, in taking that approach, we are aligned with each and every single one of our Five Eyes allies and our G7 partners. By speaking frankly and directly, we will ensure our messages are heard clearly and that our interests and values are protected and promoted.
In conclusion, at a time of rapid change, we are bringing British values and British leadership to bear on the biggest global challenges. As one of the fastest growing major economies, the second largest contributor to NATO and a global leader in everything from climate to tech to development, I am proud of the United Kingdom’s leadership. It is through that leadership, working with our allies and partners, that we will increase our security, grow our economy and deliver on the priorities of the British people. I commend this statement to the House.
May I thank the Prime Minister for an advance copy of his statement? I join him in sending my condolences and those of the whole House to those affected by the devastating earthquake in Morocco. I know that UK search and rescue specialists are working to help Moroccan authorities find survivors, and it is important at this time that all those in Morocco know we are thinking of them and are prepared to give the resources and support that they need.
The G20 summit in India was a real opportunity to see progress on key global issues, by condemning Russia’s illegal war in Ukraine in no uncertain terms and making solid commitments to boost growth and renewable energy capacity around the world. I am afraid therefore that the joint declaration from the weekend is disappointing. As Russian drones resumed attacks on Kyiv, it is disheartening to see language weaker than the G20’s condemnation of Moscow at last year’s summit in Bali. On this issue, the House speaks with one voice: there is no ambiguity; we all agree that this is an unjust, illegal war against Ukraine. I join the Prime Minister in saying that Britain and our NATO allies will remain committed in helping Ukraine defeat Putin.
On the matter raised in the preceding statement, the news of the arrest of a researcher here in Parliament on suspicion of spying for China is a serious breach of security conducted by the Beijing security services. Given that the arrest happened in March, can I ask the Prime Minister whether the Foreign Secretary knew about this incident before he visited China last month? If he did, did he raise it on that trip? I listened to the answers given on the preceding statement by the Deputy Prime Minister, who said that these issues are regularly raised, but my question is specific, and I ask the Prime Minister to address it directly. If, as it seems, the Government are not considering designating China as a threat to national security, will he give further details on how they will tackle the infiltration of Chinese security services into key British institutions? Incidents like this show the constant threats that we face, and the G20 shows how far we have to go.
There was some important progress at the G20 this weekend: a new partnership for global infrastructure and investment was announced between the US, the EU, India and Gulf states. It is a partnership to counterbalance China’s belt and road initiative, boost economic department, secure supply chains and connect the US, EU and trusted partners in Asia. A much welcome initiative, we might think. So when I looked at the signatories to this new partnership, I was surprised—something was missing. Where was Britain? Will the Prime Minister explain why the UK has not signed this agreement? This seems remarkable. A new agreement has been reached between major trade blocs to deliver economic security and Britain is not involved. The Prime Minister owes the House an explanation. Have we been left out or have we just decided not to sign? The race towards the future has begun. Major nations are investing in new technology, hoping to establish themselves as leaders and major global centres for green technology. The US has introduced the Inflation Reduction Act; the EU, in return, is relaxing rules to allow greater green subsidy. Where is Britain? Where is the plan?
I would also like to ask the Prime Minister about the trade deal between India and the UK. The Government promised it in their manifesto. Then they said it would be done by Diwali last year. Now, the Prime Minister says that the deal is not even guaranteed. What is going on? It really sums up their global economic approach: no strategy and no direction. We cannot be slow off the mark. The race has started. They once promised a new era of post-Brexit global trade, but instead of more investment and more trade they have erected unnecessary barriers and made Britain a more difficult country to do business in. We cannot be left on the sidelines. Britain needs a seat at the table. We have the expertise, the creativity and the ingenuity, but the Government are too distracted and too complacent, and have no plan to seize the opportunities of the future.
Let me rattle through the right hon. and learned Gentleman’s questions. With regard to the matter covered in the preceding statement, I am sure he will appreciate that, as there is an ongoing investigation —as you also said, Mr Speaker—I am limited in what I can say specifically. But I have been emphatically clear in our engagement with China that we will not accept any interference in our democracy and parliamentary system. That includes the sanctioning of MPs and malign activity such as the type of activity alleged to have taken place. I can absolutely confirm that the Foreign Secretary raised those issues on his recent visit, and I reinforced that in my meeting at the G20.
The right hon. and learned Gentleman went on to raise the announcement about the partnership for global infrastructure and investment. What he failed to mention in his criticism was that that initiative—the PGII—was created by the UK under our G7 presidency. Far from being something that we are not part of, we were the ones who made sure that we were there at its inception. Again, he is, as ever, jumping on the latest bandwagon that he can find. The PGII initiative will contain a range of different projects. This particular one was also not signed by Canada, Japan or Italy, for example.[Official Report, 13 September 2023, Vol. 737, c. 8MC.] Each and every country will participate in a range of projects. What did we do to make our contribution? As I said, we made the single largest pledge this country has ever made to the green climate fund. Why? Because it is important that we play our part in helping countries make the transition to net zero—something that we have led on previously and, because of that commitment, we will continue to lead on.
What else did we do? We decided to work with other countries to improve global food security, something that African nations in particular have called on us to do. They have welcomed our leadership in hosting a summit later this year, which will tackle the cause at its root, improving crop yields and the resilience of food supplies globally. I could go on. As ever, the right hon. and learned Gentleman tries to find something to score a cheap political point, and completely and utterly misunderstands what this country is doing. As ever, he would prefer to talk this country down than recognise the contribution we are making.
I am happy to address the right hon. and learned Gentleman’s comments on the trade deal. I thought they were telling—he asked, why do we not just sign it, why is it not done? I had a flashback to all those conversations when we were leaving the EU. His approach back then was just to sign any deal that was offered to us. We know where that would have led. The right thing to do for the British people is to fight hard for the things that we need. We only need a deal that works for the British people and delivers on our priorities. That is why it is right not to rush these things, as he would do, clearly. We do not put arbitrary deadlines on them. I take the time to make sure that they are right for the British people.
Our track record is there: we are the first European nation to accede to the comprehensive and progressive agreement for trans-Pacific partnership—something else the right hon. and learned Gentleman failed to mention. That is the most exciting, dynamic trade bloc that exists in the world. The Asia-Pacific accounts for 50% of the world’s population. Sixty per cent. of goods trade passes through that region, and it will account for over half of global growth in the coming decades. Now that we have left the EU, we are able to join that trade bloc, and it is excited to have us.
Lastly, on the right hon. and learned Gentleman’s point about Brexit, again he failed to point out that since we left the single market we have grown faster than France and Germany. I will end where I started: as ever, when it comes to these things, he is determined to talk Britain down. We are demonstrating that Britain is leading on the global stage and delivering for the British people.
Let me start by putting on record my thanks to you, Mr Speaker, and the parliamentary security and intelligence services for your personal support over the last few months.
Here today, we know that across this House a real priority for Members is the safety of British nationals arbitrarily detained abroad. The Foreign Affairs Committee has recently released a report on that matter. It cannot be right that consular access is withheld on the basis of diplomatic silence being in place. I know that my right hon. Friend raised the case of Jagtar Singh Johal with the Indian Prime Minister at the weekend, but we are not clear on the outcome of those discussions. Will the Government finally officially call for his release? The UN has accepted that he is arbitrarily detained. Does the Prime Minister believe that he has been unfairly treated or even tortured while being held?
We are committed to seeing Mr Johal’s case resolved as soon as possible. We continue to provide consular assistance to him and his family, and have raised concerns about issues including consular access to Mr Johal, the judicial process and reports of mistreatment, with the Indian Government on multiple occasions, including myself with Prime Minister Modi just this weekend.