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Easter Recess: Government Update

Volume 821: debated on Monday 25 April 2022

Statement

The following Statement was made in the House of Commons on Tuesday 19 April.

“With permission, Mr Speaker, I will update the House on the Government’s response to events at home and abroad during the Easter Recess.

I will come to Ukraine in a moment, since I have just left a virtual meeting with President Biden, President Macron, Chancellor Scholz and eight other world leaders, but let me begin in all humility by saying that, on 12 April, I received a fixed penalty notice relating to an event in Downing Street on 19 June 2020. I paid the fine immediately and I offered the British people a full apology, and I take this opportunity, on the first available sitting day, to repeat my wholehearted apology to the House. As soon as I received the notice, I acknowledged the hurt and the anger, and I said that people had a right to expect better of their Prime Minister, and I repeat that again in the House now.

Let me also say—not by way of mitigation or excuse, but purely because it explains my previous words in this House—that it did not occur to me, then or subsequently, that a gathering in the Cabinet Room just before a vital meeting on Covid strategy could amount to a breach of the rules. I repeat: that was my mistake and I apologise for it unreservedly. I respect the outcome of the police’s investigation, which is still under way. I can only say that I will respect their decision-making and always take the appropriate steps. As the House will know, I have already taken significant steps to change the way things work in No. 10.

It is precisely because I know that so many people are angry and disappointed that I feel an even greater sense of obligation to deliver on the priorities of the British people and to respond in the best traditions of our country to Putin’s barbaric onslaught against Ukraine. Our Ukrainian friends are fighting for the life of their nation, and they achieved the greatest feat of arms of the 21st century by repelling the Russian assault on Kyiv. The whole House will share my admiration for their heroism and courage.

Putin arrogantly assumed that he would capture Kyiv in a matter of days, and now the blackened carcasses of his tanks and heavy armour litter the approaches to the capital on both banks of the Dnieper, and are smouldering monuments to his failure. Having pulverised the invaders’ armoured spearheads, the Ukrainians then counterattacked. By 6 April, Putin had been compelled to withdraw his forces from the entire Kyiv region. Britain and our allies supplied some of the weaponry, but it was Ukrainian valour and sacrifice that saved their capital.

I travelled to Kyiv myself on 9 April—the first G7 leader to visit since the invasion—and I spent four hours with President Volodymyr Zelensky, the indomitable leader of a nation fighting for survival, who gives the roar of a lion-hearted people. I assured him of the implacable resolve of the United Kingdom, shared across this House, to join with our allies and give his brave people the weapons that they need to defend themselves. When the President and I went for an impromptu walk through central Kyiv, we happened upon a man who immediately expressed his love for Britain and the British people. He was generous enough to say—quite unprompted, I should reassure the House—‘I will tell my children and grandchildren they must always remember that Britain helped us.’

But the urgency is even greater now because Putin has regrouped his forces and launched a new offensive in the Donbas. We knew that this danger would come. When I welcomed President Duda of Poland to Downing Street on 7 April and Chancellor Scholz the following day, we discussed exactly how we could provide the arms that Ukraine would desperately need to counter Putin’s next onslaught. On 12 April, I spoke to President Biden to brief him on my visit to Kyiv and how we will intensify our support for President Zelensky. I proposed that our long-term goal must be to strengthen and fortify Ukraine to the point where Russia will never dare to invade again.

Just as our foreign policy must look to the long term, the same is true of this Government’s domestic priorities. As we face the economic aftershocks of Covid and the consequences of Russian aggression, that is above all about tackling the impact on British energy prices, on consumers and on family bills. That is why we are spending over £9 billion to help families struggling with their bills and we are helping families to insulate their homes and reduce costs. To end our dependence on Putin’s oil and gas and to ensure that energy is cheaper in the long term, we published on 7 April a new strategy to make British energy greener, more affordable and more secure. We will massively expand offshore wind and—in the country that split the atom—we will build a new reactor not every decade but every year.

This Government are joining with our allies to face down Putin’s aggression abroad while addressing the toughest problems at home, helping millions of families with the cost of living, making our streets safer and funding the NHS to clear the Covid backlog. My job is to work every day to make the British people safer, more secure and more prosperous, and that is what I will continue to do. I commend this Statement to the House.”

My Lords, I am sorry, I thought that the noble Baroness would be repeating the Statement, as it was made over a week ago in the Commons. I was rather surprised not to have it repeated, so I apologise for my delay in standing up.

For those who did not hear the Statement, they may not realise that it was several Statements rolled into one. I must say that many of us felt quite uneasy that the Prime Minister decided to merge his promised Statement following the police investigation into parties and events at Downing Street with a report about his visit to Kyiv and, at the end, just a few words on the crisis closer to home of soaring costs and prices.

In some ways, it was the tale of two leaders: on one hand, a President who, in facing the most difficult and challenging of circumstances that any leader could possibly face, has been resolute and inspirational and, at all times, has put his country and its people first; and then a Prime Minister who was forced into a humiliating apology for breaking the very rules and laws that he said others had to obey because they were essential.

Across the country, the accounts of personal sacrifices from those who obeyed the rules because it was the right thing to do are heartbreaking. It was not always easy, and for so many, the hurt and sadness remain. Yet even in his apology, Boris Johnson still pleaded that it “did not occur” to him, “then or subsequently”, that he was breaking the rules. In making the Statement last week, the Prime Minister sounded genuinely contrite. Yet following his appearance at the 1922 Committee that evening, Mr Johnson’s former ally, Steve Baker MP, said:

“You couldn’t have asked for a more humble and contrite apology … The problem is the contrition didn’t last much longer than it took to get out of the headmaster’s study. By the time we got to the 1922 Committee meeting that evening it was the usual festival of bombast and orgy of adulation. It took me about 90 seconds to realise he wasn’t really remorseful.”

I want to move on to the other issues in the Statement. On Ukraine, it was mostly about the Prime Minister’s visit to Kyiv, which we welcomed. At every point, it needs to be clear, both to the Ukrainian people and to the Kremlin, that we are united across this House, across Parliament and across NATO in our support for Ukraine. Putin has been forced into a change of tactics after humiliating losses and Ukraine’s extraordinary military determination. Despite their herculean efforts, as Putin continues his illegal, unprovoked and unjustifiable war, each day seems to bring greater tragic consequences for Ukraine and its people.

I think the whole House will welcome the Prime Minister’s engagement with world leaders, the message of solidarity essential. But tonight, I would like to press the noble Baroness further on ensuring that the Government move faster and harder on economic and diplomatic sanctions. This is as urgent as providing military support. Failure to take the necessary actions only helps the Kremlin. Against the backdrop of war crimes, Ministers are still failing to close loopholes on trusts, proxies and ownership thresholds, and the Government have yet to enforce the ban on the export of luxury goods. Can the noble Baroness confirm whether any further sanctions will be laid before Prorogation? Despite so many promises, we are still waiting for the much-needed, urgent reform of Companies House. The issue of stopping oligarchs shielding their ill-gotten gains has been raised in your Lordships’ House on numerous occasions. I know the noble Baroness is not going to give away secrets from the Queen’s Speech, but in some ways, it would be helpful to give an indication of whether this will be a priority in the new Session of Parliament.

The response of the public in support for those seeking sanctuary from the war has been amazing. Yet despite the Home Office telling us that thousands of visas are being processed, the accounts of those struggling refugees lend credibility to the whistleblower working on the scheme who said it has been “designed to fail.” Many in the UK have been daunted by having to make contact themselves with refugees. In other cases, the bureaucracy seems designed to be as difficult as possible.

I do not know whether the noble Baroness read the comments in the press over the weekend or saw anything of the Statement today in the other place, but there are numerous examples of delays and some quite tragic cases of visas not being issued. A university professor, Olga Kolishyk, applied to come to the UK with her two children. One is 11 years old and the other is a baby of six months. Despite being told there would be no problem, as the baby was on her passport, she has now been told by the Sheffield office that both children must have biometric scans in Warsaw, which is 800 miles away from where she is. Another 11 year-old had been waiting so long that his passport expired, and he is now having to start the process all over again; and he also has to go to Warsaw for biometrics. The Government promised to approve applications in 48 hours, yet families who first applied more than five weeks ago are still waiting or have heard nothing.

Many Ukrainians want to stay close to home, as they want to return when it is safe to do so, but those applying to come to the UK are traumatised, usually leaving behind loved ones—often the men in the family who are staying to fight. It is generally older people and women with children who have had to flee their homes with whatever they could carry with them. So, travelling hundreds of miles to Warsaw for biometrics, or even having just to photocopy documents, is in many cases impossible.

Can the Minister provide an update today, and perhaps again later this week and on an ongoing basis, on the number of applications, including how many have been approved, the number who have been informed —there are cases where they have not been informed that a visa has been issued—and how many refugees have arrived here in the UK? Alongside that, it would be helpful if she could provide details of how the system will be urgently improved.

In the Statement, the Prime Minister briefly touched on the cost-of-living crisis, referencing the impact of both Covid and the war in Ukraine. Undoubtedly, these have had an impact—but so have government policies. The energy Statement before the Easter Recess provided little confidence that the Government have a grip on the issue. The quickest and cheapest way of upping energy output and taking the pressure off prices would be onshore wind, but that is not even part of the mix: why? The price of the weekly shop is escalating. Add in the predicted 40% rise in the energy price cap this coming October to dramatic increases in the cost of petrol and other household essentials, and no wonder so many of our fellow citizens are now feeling absolutely desperate. I am sorry, something just flew into my eye—but I think the fly is in a worse state than I am. To paraphrase a former Member of your Lordships’ House and of the Minister’s party, some people in our country have never had it so bad. There is more that can be done. Will the Minister agree to take back to Downing Street the need for an emergency Budget that will urgently and immediately tackle this cost-of-living crisis?

This Statement was a mix of issues that would have been better addressed separately. I hope that, moving to the next Session, more time will be given in your Lordships’ House for us to debate and consider ways forward on all these issues. For now, I hope that the Minister can answer the question that I have posed today. If she is unable to, perhaps she can do so in writing in the days ahead.

My Lords, this almost entirely vacuous Statement is in three unconnected parts. The first deals with “Partygate” and is really desperate stuff.

“I paid the fine immediately”

said the Prime Minister, as though this was somehow praiseworthy rather than a legal requirement.

“As soon as I received the notice, I acknowledged the hurt and the anger”

said the Prime Minister, as if, until he received the fine, he was not aware of what the country has been feeling for many months.

“It didn’t occur to me, then or subsequently”,

said the Prime Minister,

“that a gathering in the Cabinet Room could amount to a breach of the rules”,

as though this inadvertent thoughtlessness or straightforward ignorance was an excuse for breaking the law. We are told that there may be more prime-ministerial fines; we read that the Gray report will be excoriating about his behaviour; and we now have the prospect of a long wait until the Commons Privileges Committee decides whether he has misled the Commons. For the Prime Minister, this is death by a thousand cuts; but for the country, it is a continuing shame and embarrassment.

Over recent days, a number of Cabinet Ministers have explained that they support the Prime Minister and have set out their reasons for doing so. I was out of the country for a week, until yesterday evening, and so may have missed any such Statement from the Leader of the House, so I wonder whether she will take this opportunity to inform the House whether she believes that the Prime Minister’s law breaking is as irrelevant as many of her colleagues do, and whether the Prime Minister still has her full support.

The second part of the Statement is about Ukraine. While the Prime Minister’s travelogue, complete with random comments about people bumped into on the streets of Kyiv, is interesting, he has literally nothing new to say. We obviously support the assistance which the UK is now giving Ukraine and share the Prime Minister’s admiration for the courage and heroism of the Ukrainian people. We agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, that sanctions could be tightened in some respects.

We also agree with the noble Baroness that the asylum process is as dysfunctional as her examples proved. It beggars belief that the rules are so bureaucratic and inhumane—and that they still have not been made less bureaucratic and humane. I also look forward to hearing the noble Baroness the Leader’s figures for the number of people who have applied, have been accepted and have arrived through the asylum process.

But a lesson from this crisis that the Prime Minister has yet to draw publicly, I think, is that it is a mistake to appease tyrants like Putin, as successive British Governments did over the last decade. It is right that the UK is now prepared to offer long-term support to Ukraine to protect it from any future invasion, but the lesson here surely is that, if we had given the country more support at an earlier stage, there would not have been such an invasion in the first place.

Thirdly, the Statement makes passing reference to the most serious domestic issue facing the country: the cost of living crisis. It says that the Government are “tackling” the long-term impact on energy prices and cites as one of their main achievements that

“we are helping families to insulate their homes”.

The Government should indeed be helping people to insulate their homes, but they scrapped the green homes grant last year and, in the Chancellor’s recent Spring Statement, there was literally nothing new to insulate so much as one single additional home. This is a typical case of prime ministerial hyperbole. It would be great if what he claimed were actually true, but it is not.

Finally, the Prime Minister says that his job is

“to make the British people safer, more secure and more prosperous”.

That should indeed be his job. However, as we now see on a daily basis, Brexit is making the country less prosperous and less secure—and it remains his proudest boast.

So the Prime Minister’s record is to diminish the office that he holds, diminish the standing of Great Britain across the world and fail the British people on the core requirements of government. As I believe he will discover in next week’s elections, the British people have had enough of it. For all our sakes, the sooner he goes, the better.

I thank the noble Baroness and noble Lord for their comments. I wholeheartedly endorse the noble Baroness’s praise of the Ukrainian people and President Zelensky for the incredible courage that they are showing in their courageous fight. I obviously cite our continued support for them—I will cover a couple of points shortly.

The noble Lord, Lord Newby, asked about the fines and the Prime Minister’s approach. As he made very clear last week, the Prime Minister offered a full and unreserved apology, quite rightly, and he made clear that he fully respects the outcome of the police investigation, which is still under way. He has paid his fine, and anyone who either watched last week’s Statement or read Hansard saw that he was contrite in his apology, quite rightly.

On Ukraine, the noble Lord said that we did not do enough. To be fair, there has been an acknowledgement that there were other things that we could have done. But I point to one of the key things that we did, which is important and has been much appreciated: Operation Orbital, which we started back in 2015 and which meant that we trained 22,000 members of the Ukrainian armed forces. The commitment and solidarity that we have shown with the Ukrainian people, and the leading role that we have played in terms of providing support to the Ukrainians now, are important and have been recognised. We will continue to do this. As the noble Baroness alluded to, the Defence Secretary made a Statement today to highlight further support that we are giving, and I am sure that we will discuss that further in the House later this week.

The noble Lord and the noble Baroness talked about sanctions. So far, we have sanctioned more than £900 billion of global assets from banks and sanctioned oligarchs and their families with a net worth of approximately £200 billion. Last week, we announced a new wave of 26 sanctions on key leaders in the Russian army. We are fast-tracking a further 19 individuals and entities in alignment with global partners from the G7 and the EU. We have also announced further trade sanctions, expanding the list of products facing import bans and increasing tariffs. These include bans on silver, wood products and high-end products from Russia. We will also increase tariffs by 35 percentage points on around £130 million-worth of products from Russia and Belarus, including diamonds and rubber. I believe we are doing two SIs this week in Grand Committee on further measures around sanctions that have been agreed, so there will be further action in this area, as the noble Baroness said, before we prorogue.

In relation to refugees, I will give a few figures that I have to hand. As of 4 pm on 20 April, 107,200 visa applications had been received under both schemes and 71,800 visas issued. For the Ukrainian family scheme, 41,200 applications had been received and 32,500 visas issued. Under the Ukraine sponsorship scheme, 65,900 applications had been received and 39,300 visas issued. As of 18 April, 21,600 Ukrainians had arrived in the UK through the schemes. We are taking steps to simplify and speed up the process, including removing the need for Ukrainian passport holders to attend an in-person appointment. We have 500 staff working seven days a week to process applications and I am sure that my noble friend Lord Harrington will have taken note of the cases that the noble Baroness raised. I shall certainly draw his attention to them and I hope that noble Lords have found him very willing to engage with them, as the Minister involved. I will speak to him once again about whether there is further engagement that can be done, on top of what I have mentioned just now.

In relation to the cost of living, we are taking action worth over £22 billion in 2022-23 to deal with the cost of energy. Of course, we are constantly reviewing the measures to tackle cost of living issues facing families across the country. One thing I will point to is fuel duty, which the noble Baroness mentioned. Of course, we have cut that by 5p for 12 months, saving the average motorist £100 a year, but we are well aware and cognisant of the issues that families are facing across the country. We are continuing to work on that and will continue to take measures as and when they are appropriate.

The noble Baroness asked about onshore wind and the energy strategy. Within the energy strategy, what we have said on onshore wind is that we will consult on developing partnerships with supportive communities that wish to host onshore wind infrastructure in return for guaranteed lower energy bills—so there was an element of onshore wind included in the Statement. In relation to the economic crime Bill, as she rightly says I cannot go too far, but I can reassure her that it is a priority in terms of action that we will take going forward.

My Lords, I am not surprised that the Leader of the House did not repeat the Statement orally: who would want to repeat such a Statement? I make no comment on the fact that Covid regulations were broken, because we know that the Privileges Committee in another place will reach a view on this and we will discover in the autumn what its judgment is and what will follow accordingly.

I shall raise one point about Ukraine, because the Prime Minister said in the course of his Statement that

“our long-term goal must be to strengthen and fortify Ukraine to the point where Russia will never dare to invade again.”—[Official Report, Commons, 19/4/22; col. 49.]

Other Members in the Chamber tonight were present at a meeting earlier today of the Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy, in which very interesting evidence was given to us about the current situation of a war that has lasted longer than anyone probably thought it would. What kind of condition Ukraine will be in at the end of hostilities is by no means clear. I put it to the Leader of the House that it would be very helpful if the Government could find time, in government time in the next Session, to explore the important issues that are already beginning to be raised, such as: what are the West’s war aims, to put it bluntly, in the current situation? I very much hope that the Government will see to it that we have such a debate in the next Session.

I thank the noble Viscount and will make a couple of broader comments. There will be a NATO summit in June, at which NATO will agree a new strategic concept to set the direction of the alliance for the next decade and long-term changes to our deterrence and defence posture in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. There is action at that level looking towards the future.

The noble Viscount will be aware that the international community has committed to widening its package of military support for Ukraine and exploring new ways of sustaining the Ukrainian armed forces over the longer term. I can reassure him that many conversations are going on internationally, and with President Zelensky and his Administration, to make sure we all come together and work to help rebuild Ukraine and provide it with the support it wants and is asking for. We are very cognisant of wanting to make sure we deliver what it needs at each given point. We hope that military hostilities will finish, but focus is on that element and the support we can provide there at the moment. However, we will of course move to reconstruction and helping ensure that Ukraine can get back on its feet as quickly as possible following—we hope—the end of hostilities.

My Lords, I will refer to the first part of the Prime Minister’s Statement. It will be understood how distressing it has been for those of us for whom it was the greatest privilege of our lives to work in 10 Downing Street in support of the Heads of our Governments to hear the accounts of what went on there during the regulations over Covid. I revert to a question I raised with the Leader in her initial Statement about Sue Gray’s preliminary report. In the reset of 10 Downing Street, who will have overall responsibility for staff management, both civil servants and special advisers? Despite their titles, I do not think it will be the chief of staff or even the deputy chief of staff, but it really will have to be somebody if any recurrence is to be prevented of behaviour which has been so damaging to the Government.

Samantha Jones, the permanent secretary and chief operating officer, will be in charge of civil servants in No. 10. As the noble Lord will know, the Ministerial Code states:

“The responsibility for the management and conduct of special advisers, including discipline, rests with the Minister who made the appointment.”

There is experience within No. 10 to draw on. There is specialist HR experience from the Cabinet Office’s spad HR team to support that role. I believe the chief of staff and the deputy chief of staff will also play a role in that regard.

My Lords, almost six months to the day before the Russians invaded Ukraine, the United States—and, by extension, its NATO allies—left Afghanistan. We have talked a lot already about the Ukrainian refugee scheme. In the other place, John Baron MP, chair of the APPG for the British Council, raised the issue of British Council staff who were told that they would have the opportunity to come to the United Kingdom. They are still stuck in Afghanistan. What are Her Majesty’s Government doing to ensure that the commitments they made in August are met, that the ACRS is fit for purpose and that people who have worked for the British Council actually know when they can begin to apply? Looking at Ukraine and seeing what offers the UK has made to Ukrainians, they feel that they are being ignored.

They are certainly not being ignored. My understanding is that they can access the schemes, but I will have to write to the noble Baroness because this has been largely focused on Ukraine. I think an answer was given, but I do not have the words to hand and do not want to mislead her. However, I am very happy to put on record what was said in response to that in the Commons.

My Lords, the Prime Minister has apologised for the fact that he was fined. However, he still seems to be of the view that an event that took place in the Cabinet Office before an important meeting could not have been a breach of the rules. You would have thought the cake and the presence of his partner might have given the game away, but he maintains that he could not believe it could be a breach of the rules.

Does the Leader of the House agree with me that if the party had been in the private flat at No. 10, such ambiguity would not be possible? A party in the flat at No. 10, if it had been attended by the Prime Minister, would be—even in his view—a clear breach of the rules and if that were the case, and was found to be the case, we would not need to wait for the result of the Sue Gray report or the committee’s investigation: it would, inevitably, be a case for resignation.

The noble Baroness’s question involved a lot of “ifs”, and I am afraid I am not going to speculate. The police investigation is under way. What I can say on the basis of what has happened is that the Prime Minister has offered a full and unreserved apology, he has made it clear that he respects the outcome of the police investigation—as I said, that is still under way—and he has paid the fine that has been issued to him and has apologised fully.

My Lords, the Leader of the House gave us the latest figures on applications and approvals for the Homes for Ukraine scheme, but I am not sure if she has seen a report from Brighton emerging today. In what is sadly an inevitable next step, a placement has broken down, the Ukrainian in question having been faced with a demand from the host to support the payment of utility bills.

Brighton council is highlighting that there is no mechanism underneath this hastily designed scheme whereby a person whose placement has broken down can be placed somewhere else. So, a Ukrainian refugee who came to this country seeking refuge was told, “Here is the scheme and here’s how it works”, and they are now being thrown into the hands of a charity. A local church is providing a home for a few days, but the problem is inevitably going to land in the council’s lap. However, it would appear that there is no provision under the scheme for a placement to be transferred or a person to be replaced. Will this be looked at and dealt with as a matter of urgency, because it is obviously likely to occur again?

I thank the noble Baroness. I was not aware of the case but obviously, she has now raised it. If she would like to send me further details or contact my noble friend Lord Harrington directly, I am very happy to facilitate that or ensure that this issue is raised with him.

As she rightly says, it is a new scheme and I suspect that other issues may arise that will need to be addressed, but as soon as intelligence is gathered, we can deal with them. As I say, if she would like to send me more details, I am very happy to pass them on, or she can speak to my noble friend directly. We have in this House a Minister responsible for such things, so we will certainly take on board these issues, which, as she rightly says, need to be addressed.

If I may I will raise another issue in this rather scattergun Statement; I believe this is within the rules. In the other place, reference was made to what the Prime Minister described as “Russia’s barbaric onslaught” on Ukraine. The Labour Member for Rhondda raised the issue of the reported involvement of mercenaries—particularly one mercenary company, Wagner—in some of the most horrific events there. He also referred to what is usually known as the United Nations Mercenary Convention, more formally known as the International Convention against the Recruitment, Use, Financing and Training of Mercenaries. The Prime Minister said that he would study the proposal because the UK has not signed up to this UN convention and has not been a proponent of it. Can the Leader of the House confirm that the Government are seriously looking at this, and will she ensure that we hear in this House—in some way or another—the outcome of that study?

I am sure that if the Prime Minister said he would study it, he will. What I can say is that we are continuing to gather evidence to assist ongoing investigations into crimes committed in Ukraine, such as the ICC investigation. We have led 41 states to refer atrocities to the ICC and we are providing additional funding to it. UK military and police are providing technical assistance to the investigations. The Metropolitan Police War Crimes Unit has commenced the collection of evidence, and we are working very closely with the Ukrainian Government. We have also appointed a former ICC judge, Sir Howard Morrison, as an independent adviser to the Ukrainian prosecutor-general, and we have welcomed the OSCE’s Moscow Mechanism report, which is the first independent report to identify evidence of potential Russian war crimes in Ukraine.

I reassure the noble Baroness that we are leading action in this area and we will continue to do so, because we want to ensure that all perpetrators are brought to justice for crimes that have been committed in Ukraine.