All 36 Parliamentary debates on 7th Dec 2022

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Wed 7th Dec 2022

House of Commons

Wednesday 7th December 2022

(1 year, 6 months ago)

Commons Chamber
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Wednesday 7 December 2022
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock

Prayers

Wednesday 7th December 2022

(1 year, 6 months ago)

Commons Chamber
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Prayers mark the daily opening of Parliament. The occassion is used by MPs to reserve seats in the Commons Chamber with 'prayer cards'. Prayers are not televised on the official feed.

This information is provided by Parallel Parliament and does not comprise part of the offical record

[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Wednesday 7th December 2022

(1 year, 6 months ago)

Commons Chamber
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The Attorney General was asked—
Vicky Foxcroft Portrait Vicky Foxcroft (Lewisham, Deptford) (Lab)
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1. What steps she is taking to increase the proportion of cases relating to violence against women and girls that are prosecuted.

Kate Osborne Portrait Kate Osborne (Jarrow) (Lab)
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8. What steps she is taking to increase the proportion of cases relating to violence against women and girls that are prosecuted.

Geraint Davies Portrait Geraint Davies (Swansea West) (Lab/Co-op)
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10. What steps she is taking to increase the proportion of cases relating to violence against women and girls that are prosecuted.

Michael Tomlinson Portrait The Solicitor General (Michael Tomlinson)
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The Government are committed to tackling violence against women and girls, and we have enacted a multitude of new offences designed to target predatory behaviour and to ensure that perpetrators are brought to justice. That includes stalking, coercive and controlling behaviour and upskirting. Further, in the year ending June 2022, prosecutions for rape offences were 49% higher compared with pre-covid levels.

Vicky Foxcroft Portrait Vicky Foxcroft
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Lewisham has some of the highest domestic abuse-related crime levels in London and that appears to be increasing. One of the main challenges in capturing accurate pictures of the levels of violence against women and girls in Lewisham is due to under-reporting by victims. A critical issue for my constituents remains the lack of trust in the system, so what are Ministers doing to restore public trust and increase prosecution rates? The low levels of prosecutions cannot continue.

Michael Tomlinson Portrait The Solicitor General
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I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her question, and she is right that we need to see an increase in prosecution rates. The rape review action plan is looking at three key metrics: referrals, charge volumes and Crown court receipts. In each case, she will be pleased to know that the figures are up and moving in a positive direction. She is also right about the issue in relation to victims, and independent sexual violence advisers will help in that regard.

Kate Osborne Portrait Kate Osborne
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The commitment to introducing specialist rape courts has not been met. Instead, there is a pilot scheme in just four locations, yet survivors cannot select where their cases are heard. Each day in the UK, there are around 300 rapes, of which around 190 are reported. Of those, only three rapists will see the inside of a courtroom, never mind a prison cell, and the rest will be free to abuse and rape again. Over the Christmas period, the number of rapes rises, so will resources be put in place to ensure that cases reported to the Government’s new 24-hour hotline are actually prosecuted?

Michael Tomlinson Portrait The Solicitor General
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I am grateful to the hon. Lady for mentioning the new hotline. It is right that, overall, prosecutions are up 49% and convictions for rape are up 41%, but she is right in what she says. There are three pilot areas for rape courts, but each and every Crown court can take on rape cases, and I am determined to see prosecutions and convictions rise.

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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I call Geraint Davies—not here. I call Dr Caroline Johnson.

Caroline Johnson Portrait Dr Caroline Johnson (Sleaford and North Hykeham) (Con)
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For women who have been raped, the time that that takes to come to court, when it does come to court, is too often long and traumatic. What is my hon. Friend doing to ensure that the time is shorter for all concerned?

Michael Tomlinson Portrait The Solicitor General
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I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that issue. Timeliness is clearly important in ensuring that victims stay with and continue to support prosecutions—she is absolutely right. As for the number of days between police referral and Crown Prosecution Service charge, that has been moving in the right direction and was 29 days faster in the last quarter. However, to strike a note of caution, it is important to ensure that the evidence is right and, on occasions, that can take time.

James Daly Portrait James Daly (Bury North) (Con)
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I acknowledge the progress that the Government are making on this issue, but at the heart of the matter is the lack of referrals from the police to the CPS, especially in rape cases. At present, we have a charge-out rate of around 1.7%, and that has to change.

Michael Tomlinson Portrait The Solicitor General
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I pay tribute to my hon. Friend, who brings considerable experience to the Chamber and to the Justice Committee. As he will have heard, charge rates are one of the key metrics. The overall figure is 72.8%. In comparison, the figure for all crime is 78.8%, which is not that far off. He will be pleased to know that, in his local area, the charge rate is increasing.

James Duddridge Portrait Sir James Duddridge (Rochford and Southend East) (Con)
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Although I welcome the absolute increase in the number of rape prosecutions in Essex, the percentage of prosecutions is still pitifully low. What more can the Attorney General do to help excellent police and crime commissioners such as Roger Hirst and Members of Parliament across Essex to improve the situation?

Michael Tomlinson Portrait The Solicitor General
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I thank my hon. Friend for his question and for championing his local area, and he is right. One thing that we can do is to support victims, and we are doing that, not least through the ISVAs. When victims have that help and support, they are 49% more likely to stay with the programme and to continue to support and progress through the criminal justice system.

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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I call the shadow Attorney General.

Emily Thornberry Portrait Emily Thornberry (Islington South and Finsbury) (Lab)
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I believe that the Solicitor General is now an old hand at this, but may I welcome the new Attorney General to her place?

As the Solicitor General will know, an estimated one in five women in this country have experienced the daily misery of being stalked and the constant fear that their stalker may one day attack them. In the year ending March 2022, almost 120,000 stalking offences were reported to the police, but less than 6,000 of those reports resulted in a charge. That is a charge rate of just 5%, compared with 7% the year before. Does the Solicitor General think that is good enough?

Michael Tomlinson Portrait The Solicitor General
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I am grateful to the right hon. Lady for her warm welcome to me and to the Attorney General. She is right to raise the issue. I would gently point out that stalking was created an offence under this Government; I pay tribute to my predecessor, my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk), for all his work in the area.

The right hon. Lady is right to highlight that prosecution rates and charge rates are not high enough. She will have seen from the action plan that I have referred to that we are determined to see them increase. The Attorney General and I keep a very close eye on the matter.

Emily Thornberry Portrait Emily Thornberry
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I appreciate the seriousness with which the Solicitor General approaches these issues but, as he will know, a formal complaint has been submitted by the Suzy Lamplugh Trust and 20 other members of the National Stalking Consortium, asking for an investigation into the overall handling of stalking cases. Whatever the outcome of that process, may I ask him to take on board the recommendations that the consortium has submitted alongside its complaint and to ensure that, at every level of the criminal justice system, stalking is treated with the seriousness it deserves?

Michael Tomlinson Portrait The Solicitor General
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I pay tribute to the right hon. Lady for the tone that she is striking. She is absolutely right to highlight this issue. The Attorney General and I will look at it incredibly closely, of course, and we will do exactly as the right hon. Lady says.

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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We now come to the SNP spokesperson.

Angela Crawley Portrait Angela Crawley (Lanark and Hamilton East) (SNP)
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May I also take the opportunity to welcome the Attorney General to her place? A commitment to protecting women and girls should mean protecting all women and girls. Safeguards protecting against gender-based violence must be extended to migrant women. What representations has the Attorney General made to the Home Office to ensure that migrant women are offered the same protections as other women in the UK, and to ratify the Istanbul convention fully and without reservation?

Michael Tomlinson Portrait The Solicitor General
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I know that my right hon. Friend the Attorney General will be very grateful for the hon. Lady’s welcome. The Attorney General works incredibly closely with the Home Office on the issue; more broadly, in relation to victims, she works incredibly closely with the Home Office and with the Ministry of Justice. It is not in isolation, but with our three Departments, that we can make progress.

Sally-Ann Hart Portrait Sally-Ann Hart (Hastings and Rye) (Con)
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2. What steps she is taking to increase prosecution rates for (a) small boat gangs and (b) other people traffickers.

Andrew Lewer Portrait Andrew Lewer (Northampton South) (Con)
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3. What steps she is taking to increase prosecution rates for (a) small boat gangs and (b) other people traffickers.

Tom Randall Portrait Tom Randall (Gedling) (Con)
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12. What steps she is taking to increase prosecution rates for (a) small boat gangs and (b) other people traffickers.

Victoria Prentis Portrait The Attorney General (Victoria Prentis)
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Since we enacted the Nationality and Borders Act 2022 at the end of June, prosecutions for illegal entry and facilitating illegal entry have increased by 250%. We are working across Government to ensure that we can stop the life-threatening crossings and prosecute the gangs behind them.

Sally-Ann Hart Portrait Sally-Ann Hart
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Organised illegal immigration crime is transnational, making collaboration across Europe vital to tackling people-smuggling from source to transit to destination. What steps is my right hon. Friend taking to work with partners across Europe to share intelligence and resources, to ensure that more prosecutions are successfully brought against these reprehensible criminals?

Victoria Prentis Portrait The Attorney General
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My hon. Friend is a great champion for beautiful Hastings and Rye. The Government routinely work with international partners to disrupt organised crime groups. The CPS has deployed a criminal justice adviser in France who supports prosecutions on both sides of the channel. We also collaborate with other jurisdictions, for example through Eurojust—the European Union Agency for Criminal Justice Cooperation—on sharing evidence-gathering where that is appropriate.

Andrew Lewer Portrait Andrew Lewer
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To protect increasingly stretched capacity in places such as Northampton for genuine asylum seekers, what steps is the Attorney General taking to increase prosecution rates for those behind the exploitative people-trafficking in relation to migration from high-volume but safe countries in particular?

Victoria Prentis Portrait The Attorney General
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The rate of prosecutions for people trafficking has increased enormously: in 2021-22 it rose by 48%, owing to intensive collaboration between the police and prosecutors.

Tom Randall Portrait Tom Randall
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I share the anger and frustration felt by many people in Gedling about the small boats issue and the traffickers behind it. What assurance can my right hon. Friend give me that frontline operatives are collaborating on the investigation and prosecution of pilots of small boats?

Victoria Prentis Portrait The Attorney General
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My hon. Friend has asked an excellent question, but I hope I can reassure him by saying that the Crown Prosecution Service is working closely with Border Force and immigration colleagues to tackle this dangerous offending. The Solicitor General, the Immigration Minister and I recently met a group of those colleagues, and were very impressed by their determination to work together.

Gregory Campbell Portrait Mr Gregory Campbell (East Londonderry) (DUP)
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A few weeks ago, I received an answer to a parliamentary question which indicated that over the past seven years we had paid the French authorities £300 million to try to stop people coming from France to this country illegally. Does the Attorney General think that that was value for money?

Victoria Prentis Portrait The Attorney General
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As I said earlier, it is important that we work closely with the French authorities to ensure that prosecutions can take place on both sides of the channel, and that we stamp out this illegal activity.

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)
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In November, the Police Service of Northern Ireland raided 27 brothels in Northern Ireland in what it described as the biggest operation against people trafficking that it had carried out so far. An organised crime group was smuggling people into both Northern Ireland and the Republic. What discussions has the Minister had with the PSNI about trafficking in Northern Ireland, and will she devote time to tackling this UK-wide problem with the PSNI?

Victoria Prentis Portrait The Attorney General
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The hon. Gentleman always asks important questions, as he has done on this occasion. The prosecutors have been working closely with all law enforcement agencies to provide early advice in modern slavery cases, which has itself led to an increase in evidence-led prosecutions, and I look forward to working more closely on this issue with the hon. Gentleman in the future.

Scott Benton Portrait Scott Benton (Blackpool South) (Con)
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4. What assessment she has made of the effectiveness of the Crown Prosecution Service in reducing the backlog of cases in the criminal justice system.

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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Scott Benton is not here, but can someone answer the question?

Michael Tomlinson Portrait The Solicitor General (Michael Tomlinson)
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I recently met frontline prosecutors in Bristol, Devon and London to see at first hand the work being undertaken to tackle the backlog. The CPS has created a national surge team that could be deployed to any region in England and Wales to relieve casework pressures.

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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I call the shadow Solicitor General.

Andy Slaughter Portrait Andy Slaughter (Hammersmith) (Lab)
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I welcome the new Attorney General to her position. However, the backlog is still going up. Last week a solicitor was jailed for 12 years for a £10 million fraud after a private prosecution that was brought because the CPS had taken no action. Last year the prosecution rate for fraud, the most commonly experienced crime, was 0.5%, and for the past five years the average number of prosecutions initiated by the Serious Fraud Office has been four. Is the Attorney General’s solution to the backlog not to prosecute cases at all, and is this not a pathetic record of inaction by a Government who have gone soft on crime?

Michael Tomlinson Portrait The Solicitor General
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I disagree with the hon. Gentleman’s last two points. We all want to see the backlog reduced as quickly as possible, and the Ministry of Justice is leading the development of a cross-Government Crown court recovery plan. It is through, for instance, technology, sentencing blitzes and pre-trial case resolution hearings that we can help to reduce the backlog.

Daniel Zeichner Portrait Daniel Zeichner (Cambridge) (Lab)
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The police in Cambridge have raised with me the time that they spend on preparing cases for the CPS, but it has also been suggested that simple tweaks to data protection laws and the information recorded on the Registry of Judgments, Orders and Fines could make a real difference. Has the Attorney General considered any of these simple steps?

Michael Tomlinson Portrait The Solicitor General
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I have had several meetings with both the CPS and the police. It is important for them to work together. When it comes to, for example, prosecutions for rape and serious sexual offences, it is important for early advice to be sought and for co-operation to be seen between the police and the CPS. As for disclosure issues more widely, the Attorney General and I are looking at those very closely.

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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I call the Chair of the Justice Committee.

Robert Neill Portrait Sir Robert Neill (Bromley and Chislehurst) (Con)
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May I, both personally and on behalf of the Committee, warmly welcome the Attorney General to her place? Everyone who saw her sworn in will know how positive the reaction of Bar and Bench was to the appointment of someone who takes her responsibilities so seriously, and we look forward to working with her.

When the Director of Public Prosecutions gave evidence to the Justice Committee last month, she stressed that the pressures on the CPS must be seen in the context of the justice system as a whole, and that the solution to those pressures required consistent support for the system, but in particular support for CPS staff—

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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Come on! Somebody answer the question!

Michael Tomlinson Portrait The Solicitor General
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That pleasure falls to me, Mr Speaker. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his kind words, as I know the Attorney General is. He is right to highlight the words of the Director of Public Prosecutions, and he will know that the Attorney General and I work closely with the director and listen carefully to what he says.

Kevin Foster Portrait Kevin Foster (Torbay) (Con)
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5. What assessment she has made of the effectiveness of the unduly lenient sentencing scheme.

Michael Tomlinson Portrait The Solicitor General (Michael Tomlinson)
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In the vast majority of cases, judges get sentencing right. The Court of Appeal grants permission to refer a sentence only in exceptional circumstances, and over the last five years the Court of Appeal has increased the sentence in around 70% of cases.

Kevin Foster Portrait Kevin Foster
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My hon. Friend will be aware that the recent publication of statistics regarding the operation of the unduly lenient sentencing scheme during 2021 indicated 151 referrals to the Court of Appeal. How many of those referrals under the scheme followed representations from the victim of a crime to the Attorney General’s Office about the sentence given, and what is being done to ensure that victims are aware of their ability to do that?

Michael Tomlinson Portrait The Solicitor General
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My hon. Friend knows a lot about the scheme and has long-term interest in it. Of those 151 cases, only eight were referred by victims and a further nine by a member of a victim’s family, and that is not just an aberration for that year; it is a consistent trend. We regularly publish updates on the outcome of these sentences, and the revised victims code includes details of the ULS scheme.

Gavin Robinson Portrait Gavin Robinson (Belfast East) (DUP)
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Would the Solicitor General recognise that whenever people in this country try to have a debate around mandatory minimum sentences there is an automatic superficial reaction that talks about the need for judicial discretion, yet there are crimes for which we as a Parliament should be clear as to the appropriate sentence that people ought to expect? [Interruption.]

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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Order. I just want to remind Members not to walk in front of other Members—[Interruption.] Mary Kelly Foy, you walked right in front of the Member who was asking the Minister a question. Please can we all wait, to help each other?

Michael Tomlinson Portrait The Solicitor General
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The hon. Member for Belfast East (Gavin Robinson) always raises a serious point in relation to these issues. It is right to acknowledge that in the vast majority of cases the sentencing judges get it right, but when Parliament sets down the guidelines and the ambits, they should be followed closely.

Alan Brown Portrait Alan Brown (Kilmarnock and Loudoun) (SNP)
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6. Whether she has made an assessment of the implications for her policies of the findings of the Supreme Court on the reference by the Lord Advocate of devolution issues under paragraph 34 of schedule 6 to the Scotland Act 1998.

Allan Dorans Portrait Allan Dorans (Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock) (SNP)
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7. Whether she has made an assessment of the implications for her policies of the findings of the Supreme Court on the reference by the Lord Advocate of devolution issues under paragraph 34 of schedule 6 to the Scotland Act 1998.

Victoria Prentis Portrait The Attorney General (Victoria Prentis)
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I would like to take this opportunity to thank the Opposition Front Bench and the Chairman of the Justice Committee for their extremely kind comments. I welcome the ruling of the Supreme Court. The Court was very clear—it was a unanimous decision—that a Bill legislating for a referendum on Scottish independence is not within the legislative competence of the Scottish Parliament.

Alan Brown Portrait Alan Brown
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That might be the case in the Supreme Court, but if we look back, we see that John Major said of Scotland that

“no nation could be held irrevocably in a Union against its will”,

so will the Attorney General confirm that Scotland is in a voluntary Union, and if so, what is the legal mechanism to affirm that or, more importantly, the legal means by which Scotland can voluntarily leave the Union?

Victoria Prentis Portrait The Attorney General
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The UK Supreme Court was very clear that an independence referendum was related to reserved matters, and the Government welcome the Court’s confirmation of this point. What the people of Scotland want is to see the Government working with them to solve the issues that matter to them.

Allan Dorans Portrait Allan Dorans
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Following the recent Supreme Court judgment, the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Scotland have been asked on numerous occasions what is the democratic route available to Scotland to leave the Union. Neither has been able to provide an answer. If the people of England wanted to leave this alleged voluntary Union of equals, what democratic process would be available to them?

Victoria Prentis Portrait The Attorney General
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I believe that I have answered this question already, and I have heard the Prime Minister answer it several times in the course of Prime Minister’s questions. The Supreme Court rejected the Lord Advocate’s submission that an advisory referendum would have only an indirect and consequential effect on the reserved matter. This matter is reserved.

Michael Fabricant Portrait Michael Fabricant (Lichfield) (Con)
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Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Supreme Court’s judgment will also have an unexpected side effect in that it will force the Scottish Government to concentrate on domestic policy for once?

Victoria Prentis Portrait The Attorney General
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I agree that the people of Scotland want us to work together to fix the challenges we face collectively. Now is the time to make sure we work together, and that is what this Government will do.

David Duguid Portrait David Duguid (Banff and Buchan) (Con)
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9. What steps she has taken to support the investigation of potential war crimes in Ukraine.

Victoria Prentis Portrait The Attorney General (Victoria Prentis)
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The Government stand with Ukraine as it defends itself against Russia’s invasion. I am personally extremely committed to this and, frankly, my home life would not be worth living if I were not. We are working closely with the Ukrainian prosecutor general, Andriy Kostin, as he prosecutes Russia’s crimes in the Ukrainian courts. The UK, US and EU Atrocity Crimes Advisory Group is helping him, as is Sir Howard Morrison. We have provided a package of financial support for the International Criminal Court, and we stand ready to do whatever else is required.

David Duguid Portrait David Duguid
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I join others in welcoming my right hon. Friend to her post. What is her assessment of the international community’s response to the alleged war crimes being committed in Ukraine?

Victoria Prentis Portrait The Attorney General
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The international community is determined to support Ukraine’s search for justice. Last week I attended a meeting of G7 Justice Ministers in Berlin, which focused on this. These are difficult issues to address, and it will take time and careful international working to overcome the perspectives and preferences of individual states.

Jamie Stone Portrait Jamie Stone (Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross) (LD)
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It is clearly hugely important that those who commit war crimes are brought to justice. Does the Attorney General agree it is hugely important that maximum publicity is given, perhaps via social media, to shame those who have committed these crimes?

Victoria Prentis Portrait The Attorney General
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The hon. Gentleman makes an important point, and this is a very unusual situation. The Ukrainians are prosecuting war crimes in real time, and we hope the news of those prosecutions, and of the 13 Russian soldiers who have already been convicted and imprisoned as a result, will permeate through the Russian ranks and stop them committing war crimes in this terrible war.

Liz Twist Portrait Liz Twist (Blaydon) (Lab)
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11. What steps she is taking to improve the effectiveness of the (a) Serious Fraud Office and (b) Crown Prosecution Service in prosecuting cases of fraud and economic crime.

Virendra Sharma Portrait Mr Virendra Sharma (Ealing, Southall) (Lab)
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13. What steps she is taking to improve the effectiveness of the (a) Serious Fraud Office and (b) Crown Prosecution Service in prosecuting cases of fraud and economic crime.

Michael Tomlinson Portrait The Solicitor General (Michael Tomlinson)
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Last year the Crown Prosecution Service prosecuted 7,200 defendants where fraud and forgery were the principal offence, and the conviction rate was 84.1%. This financial year, the Serious Fraud Office has successfully prosecuted four fraudsters, as well as Glencore, which resulted in the highest ever order in a corporate criminal conviction in the UK.

Liz Twist Portrait Liz Twist
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There were almost 940,000 fraud offences in the latest Home Office data, but only around 4,800 of those offences resulted in charges or summonses. The exact charge rate was just 0.51%, which is even lower than the rate of the previous year. Why does the Attorney General think the charge rate for fraud is so abysmally low? What does she plan to do about it?

Michael Tomlinson Portrait The Solicitor General
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The figures show that, last year, the CPS prosecuted 7,200 defendants where fraud and forgery were the principal offence, and the conviction rate was 84.1%. In April 2022, the CPS launched a united team, and a new serious economic, organised crime and international directorate has been set up to help in that regard.

Virendra Sharma Portrait Mr Sharma
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It is a simple fact of life that we cannot tackle a problem if we do not know the scale and nature of that problem. Does the Attorney General agree that the Government need urgent answers to three basic questions, “What is the total scale of fraud in the UK? How much of it is perpetrated from overseas? And how much of it is perpetrated by organised crime?”? Can we have an answer to any of those questions today?

Michael Tomlinson Portrait The Solicitor General
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Both the CPS and the SFO play a significant role in tackling fraud and economic crime, and we should not gloss over the successes that there have been. Once again, I pay tribute to the SFO for its successful prosecution of Glencore, which resulted in a £280 million total payment, the highest ever that has been ordered in a corporate criminal conviction in the United Kingdom.

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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His Majesty the King is visiting Parliament next Wednesday. Between 3.15 pm and 3.45 pm, the sitting of both Houses will be temporarily suspended. His Majesty will be unveiling a plaque in Westminster Hall, and then unveiling and switching on the platinum jubilee gift from Members of both Houses in New Palace Yard. Members wishing to attend either location should email Black Rod’s office by 4 pm tomorrow.

Before we come to Prime Minister’s questions, I would like to point out that the British Sign Language interpretation of proceedings is available to watch on parliamentlive.tv.

The Prime Minister was asked—
Philippa Whitford Portrait Dr Philippa Whitford (Central Ayrshire) (SNP)
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Q1. If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 7 December.

Rishi Sunak Portrait The Prime Minister (Rishi Sunak)
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This morning, I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in this House, I shall have further such meetings later today.

Philippa Whitford Portrait Dr Whitford
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Yesterday, the United Kingdom in its current form turned 100 years old, but neither the Prime Minister nor the leader of the Labour party seemed to recognise the challenge of the Supreme Court ruling as to the very nature of the Union. The Prime Minister did not answer me two weeks ago, so will he clarify whether he still believes the UK is a voluntary Union? If so, can he explain the democratic route by which the people of Scotland can choose whether to stay in it or not?

Rishi Sunak Portrait The Prime Minister
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We fully respect the decision of the Supreme Court and believe strongly in the United Kingdom. As I said to the hon. Lady last time, we will work constructively with the Scottish Government to deliver for the people of Scotland.

Anthony Browne Portrait Anthony Browne (South Cambridgeshire) (Con)
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Q2. Financial scams are the most common form of crime, causing immense emotional and financial distress to millions of people. Government efforts in this matter have tended to focus on making sure that scammers cannot launder their proceeds of crime and that victims get compensation. Both of those things are really important, but they are acting after the scam has happened. Does my right hon. Friend agree that Departments, regulators and industry, perhaps guided by an anti-scams taskforce, could do far more to prevent scams from happening in the first place? Will he meet me to talk about this?

Rishi Sunak Portrait The Prime Minister
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My hon. Friend is right to highlight the hurt that scammers and fraudsters can cause. We are working closely with industry to block more fraudulent calls from reaching the public and, importantly, our new Online Safety Bill will place duties on the largest internet companies to tackle scam ads. I would be happy to meet him to discuss this further.

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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We now come to the Leader of the Opposition.

Keir Starmer Portrait Keir Starmer (Holborn and St Pancras) (Lab)
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Let me start by welcoming the new Member of Parliament for the City of Chester, my hon. Friend the Member for City of Chester (Samantha Dixon), to her place in this House. This was the best result for Labour in the 105 years we have been fighting that seat, and I look forward to working with her to build a better future for the people of Chester.

The Conservative party promised the country that it would build 300,000 houses a year. This week, without asking a single voter, the Prime Minister broke that promise by scrapping mandatory targets. What changed?

Rishi Sunak Portrait The Prime Minister
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Let me start by also welcoming the hon. Member for City of Chester (Samantha Dixon) to her place. The right hon. and learned Gentleman comes here every week, and I know he is focused on the process and the politics, but I do not think he has actually taken the time to read the detail of what we are doing to improve our planning system. So let me just explain what we are doing. We are protecting the green belt, we are investing millions to develop brownfield sites, and we are providing support and protection for local neighbourhood plans. Just this morning, the shadow Housing Secretary said, “Communities should have control over where homes are built and what sort of homes are built.” That is my position and that is her position. What is his position?

Keir Starmer Portrait Keir Starmer
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Does the Prime Minister really expect us to believe that the right hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers) and the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Bob Seely) are cheering him on because he is going to build more homes? Pull the other one! I shall tell him what changed: his Back Benchers threatened him and, as always, the blancmange Prime Minister wobbled. He did a grubby deal with a handful of his MPs and sold out the aspirations of those who want to own their own home. Was it worth it?

Rishi Sunak Portrait The Prime Minister
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As ever, the right hon. and learned Gentleman is engaging in petty personality politics, not focused on the substance. Again, let me explain what we are doing. We are delivering what I said we would do: we are protecting the character of local communities, we are cracking down on land banking and irresponsible developers, and we are giving people a greater say in their decisions. Just this week, on Monday, the right hon. and learned Gentleman said that the Government should be giving people more power and control. Now he seems to be opposing that policy. It is only Wednesday. I know that he flip-flops, but even for him that is pretty quick.

Keir Starmer Portrait Keir Starmer
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The Prime Minister has forgotten, but last week I offered him Labour votes to pass these housing targets, because this is bigger than politics. A former Housing Secretary on the Conservative Benches said that scrapping mandatory targets would be

“a colossal failure of political leadership.”

Those were his words. No wonder he does not want to fight the next election. The author of the manifesto on which Conservative Members all stood said that this would cut building by 40%, perhaps even more. Why would the Prime Minister rather cripple house building than work with us to get those targets through?

Rishi Sunak Portrait The Prime Minister
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We are not going to work with the Labour party on housing. You know why, Mr Speaker? We will have a look at Labour’s record on housing. In London, the former Conservative Mayor, in five years, built 60,000 affordable homes. The current Labour Mayor—he has built half of that amount. In Wales, we want to build 12,000 homes. What is Labour delivering? Half of that, Mr Speaker. The Labour party talks, the Conservatives deliver.

Keir Starmer Portrait Keir Starmer
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As ever, the Prime Minister is too weak to stand up to his own side on behalf of the country.

I noticed that there was another U-turn last night; this time on wind farms. Actually, I agree with that one, but is there no issue on which the Prime Minister will not give in to his Back Benchers?

Now, Mr Speaker, how did his colleague, Baroness Mone, end up with nearly £30 million of taxpayers’ money in her bank account?

Rishi Sunak Portrait The Prime Minister
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Like everyone else, I was absolutely shocked to read about the allegations. It is absolutely right that the baroness is no longer attending the House of Lords and therefore no longer has the Conservative Whip. The one thing that we know about the right hon. and learned Gentleman is that he is a lawyer and should know that there is a process in place. It is right that that process concludes; I hope that it is resolved promptly. I shall tell him what is weak, and that is not being able to stand up to people. I know that he has taken some advice from Gordon Brown lately. Why does he not listen to a former Minister in Gordon Brown’s Government, who just said, “Why does the Labour party refuse to stand up for workers in businesses like pubs and restaurants who will lose business as a result of the train strikes?” Labour should stand up for working people. If he is strong, that is what he should do.

Keir Starmer Portrait Keir Starmer
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It may not seem like it, but he is supposed to be the Prime Minister. This morning, his Transport Secretary said that his flagship legislation on strikes—[Interruption]—this is what he said this morning; they might want to listen to this—is

“clearly not going to…help with the industrial action”

we are facing. He should stop grandstanding, stop sitting on his hands, get round the table and resolve these issues.

Everyone can see what is happening here: a Tory politician got their hands on hundreds of millions in taxpayers’ money and then provided duff PPE, and the Prime Minister says that he was shocked. He was the Chancellor. He signed the cheques. How much is he going to get back?

Rishi Sunak Portrait The Prime Minister
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It is right that the right hon. and learned Gentleman has brought up legislation with regard to strikes; I am very happy to address that. Hard-working families in this country are facing challenges. The Government have been reasonable. We have accepted the recommendations of an independent pay body, giving pay rises, in many cases, higher than the private sector. But if the union leaders continue to be unreasonable, it is my duty to take action to protect the lives and livelihoods of the British public. That is why, since I became Prime Minister, I have been working for new, tough laws to protect people from that disruption. That is the legislation he is asking about. Will he now confirm that he will stand up for working people and that he and his party will back that legislation?

Keir Starmer Portrait Keir Starmer
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The Prime Minister has obviously not heard what his Transport Secretary said about that legislation this morning. It is obvious why the Government are so opposed to Labour’s plans to clean up Westminster: they all voted for tax rises for working people while one of their unelected peers pocketed millions flogging dodgy personal protective equipment.

I want to raise something that is worrying parents across the country. Our hearts go out to the families of the children who have tragically died from the outbreak of strep A in recent weeks. I am very happy to work with the Government on this, so can the Prime Minister take the opportunity to update the country on the measures being taken to keep children safe this winter?

Rishi Sunak Portrait The Prime Minister
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My thoughts are of course with the families of the children who have sadly lost their lives. We are seeing a higher than usual number of cases of strep A this year. The NHS, which I have sat down with to talk about this, is working very hard to make sure parents are aware of the symptoms they should be looking out for, because strep A can be treated appropriately with antibiotics. There are no current shortages of drugs available to treat it and there are well-established procedures in place to ensure that that remains the case. The UK Health Security Agency is monitoring the situation at pace and has confirmed that this is not a new strain of strep A, so people should be reassured that there is no reason to believe it has become more lethal or more resistant to antibiotics. The most important thing for parents to do is to look out for the symptoms and get the treatment that is available for them.

Nickie Aiken Portrait Nickie  Aiken  (Cities of London and Westminster) (Con)
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Q4.   Airbnb-type short-term lets provide a positive experience for many holidaymakers, but too many cause real issues for local communities. In Westminster we have 13,000 Airbnb properties alone. Does my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister agree that it is now time to consider a registration scheme, managed by local authorities, so that councils can properly manage this growing sector?

Rishi Sunak Portrait The Prime Minister
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My right hon. Friend the Levelling Up Secretary has indeed said that we will deliver a new tourist accommodation registration scheme, something I know my hon. Friend has asked for. That will increase appropriate regulation of the sector and better understand and monitor the impact on local communities. We will also consult on whether planning permissions should be required for new short-term holiday lets, especially in tourist hot spots.

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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I welcome the new leader of the SNP at Westminster and thank Ian Blackford, the previous leader.

Stephen Flynn Portrait Stephen Flynn (Aberdeen South) (SNP)
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Thank you, Mr Speaker. I begin by paying tribute to my colleague and right hon. Friend the Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford), who has served us with diligence and duty for the last five years. He is a giant of the Scottish independence movement and has seen off not one, not two, but three consecutive Tory Prime Ministers—indeed, he was on to his fourth in recent weeks. To that latest Prime Minister, I have a very simple question. What does he consider to be the greatest achievement of the Conservative party in Government since 2019: leaving the single market and customs union, ending freedom of movement, denying Scotland her democracy or getting the Labour party to agree with all the above?

Rishi Sunak Portrait The Prime Minister
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Can I start by offering my genuine, warm and heartfelt best wishes to the right hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford)? I know the whole House will miss his weekly contributions. May I also join the First Minister in congratulating the hon. Member for Aberdeen South (Stephen Flynn) on his appointment as Westminster leader of the SNP? I look forward to constructive debate with him across the Dispatch Box. The answer to his question is actually very simple. The thing we are most proud of in the last couple of years is making sure that we protected this country through the pandemic with furlough and the fastest vaccine roll-out.

Stephen Flynn Portrait Stephen Flynn
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Far be it from me to offer advice to a near billionaire, but he is going to have to up his game. Here is why: in the last 15 minutes, a poll has landed showing that support for Scottish independence has now hit 56% and support for the Scottish National party sits north of 50%. In that context, does the Prime Minister consider that increasing energy bills for households in energy-rich Scotland by a further £500 will cause those poll numbers to rise or fall?

Rishi Sunak Portrait The Prime Minister
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What we are delivering for households across the United Kingdom, including those in Scotland, is £55 billion of support with energy bills—that will save a typical homeowner about £900 on their bills this winter—with extra support for the most vulnerable. That is an example of the United Kingdom and the Union delivering for people in Scotland.

David Morris Portrait David Morris (Morecambe and Lunesdale) (Con)
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Q7. Eden Project North is now getting right to the end of the process. It has gone through right to round 2 of the levelling-up fund, it has planning permission, it has land allocation, and it has everything that it is going to offer to north of England. Prime Minister, when are we going to get Eden Project North?

Rishi Sunak Portrait The Prime Minister
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I think the whole House knows that my hon. Friend has been a passionate campaigner for Eden Project North for some time. I was pleased to work with him in my previous role. He knows I cannot comment on any specific bid, but I know that the Secretary of State will be making those decisions by the end of the year, and I wish my hon. Friend and everyone involved in the project every success.

Stephen Farry Portrait Stephen Farry (North Down) (Alliance)
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Most people and businesses in Northern Ireland accept the need for the protocol and want to see negotiated, pragmatic solutions to the various challenges. Although there has been a clear improvement in the mood music between the UK and the European Union over recent weeks, there is growing frustration and concern about the slow rate of actual progress in those talks. What steps can the Prime Minister take to inject some momentum into those negotiations? Indeed, can I encourage him to visit Northern Ireland as soon as possible—preferably before Christmas—to engage with local stakeholders on the protocol and to hear views on how the Assembly can be restored via reform?

Rishi Sunak Portrait The Prime Minister
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I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question—I enjoyed meeting him recently to discuss these issues. Let me give him and the people of Northern Ireland my assurance that I want to see the issues with the protocol resolved as quickly as possible. I believe that if people enter into the talks that we are having in a spirit of good will and pragmatism, we can indeed find a way through. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary and Vice-President Šefčovič are in regular dialogue. I will take on board the hon. Gentleman’s suggestion to visit Northern Ireland to discuss these things in person.

Darren Henry Portrait Darren Henry (Broxtowe) (Con)
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Q9. We have just had Small Business Saturday, when we marked the important impact small businesses have on our local communities. I, like many of my colleagues, have spoken to such businesses and heard just how great their concerns for their future are. Earlier this year, when the Prime Minister was Chancellor, he went with me to Fred Hallam in Beeston, a business established in 1908. Small and medium enterprises such as this faced the pandemic and now face rising energy costs. Can the Prime Minister lay out how he will ensure that businesses such as Fred Hallam will be supported in the coming months so that they may thrive and continue to provide vital goods and services to my Broxtowe constituents?

Rishi Sunak Portrait The Prime Minister
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I know my hon. Friend is a fantastic champion of his local businesses. It was a privilege to visit Beeston and Hallam’s earlier this year with him. I remember that we discussed then some of the things we were planning to do, which are now going to make a big difference: saving businesses hundreds or thousands of pounds in their energy bills through our relief scheme this winter; our business rates tax cuts package worth over £13 billion, impacting retail businesses in particular; and, with initiatives such as the annual investment allowance and Help to Grow, we can take his small businesses to a whole new level. I look forward to working with him on that.

Ian Byrne Portrait Ian Byrne (Liverpool, West Derby) (Lab)
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Q3. At a recent Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee session, the author of the Government’s own national food strategy and the United Nations special rapporteur on the right to food called for universal free school meals to address the issue of the 4 million children hungry in the UK. Will the Prime Minister meet me to discuss how investment in universal free school meals will benefit children and their families in Liverpool, West Derby and the country, and at no extra cost to the taxpayer?

Rishi Sunak Portrait The Prime Minister
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I know this is an issue on which the hon. Gentleman has campaigned for some time, and he is right to highlight the importance of making sure that our children have access to food. That is why I am proud that we introduced not just an expansion of free school meals, but the holiday activities and food programme. I am always interested in more ideas of where we can go further, and I look forward to hearing from him.

Gareth Davies Portrait Gareth Davies (Grantham and Stamford) (Con)
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Q11. Whether on defence with AUKUS, trade with the comprehensive and progressive agreement for trans-Pacific partnership or diplomacy with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, I know that this Government recognise the importance of the Indo-Pacific to the UK’s security and prosperity, but the challenges that exist, whether ballistic missile tests or belt and road, are deeply interconnected. Can the Prime Minister confirm that the Indo-Pacific remains a UK priority and that he will take a holistic approach within Government to meet the challenges and capture the opportunities that exist in the region?

Rishi Sunak Portrait The Prime Minister
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Last year’s integrated review set out our Indo-Pacific tilt on foreign policy. I reaffirmed this Government’s commitment to that tilt in a speech at the Lord Mayor’s dinner just the other week, and my hon. Friend is right to highlight both the economic and security importance of the region. He should be reassured that we are pursuing not just free trade agreements bilaterally, but also CPTPP, the AUKUS partnership and hopefully a new partnership with our future combat air system—all evidence that we are delivering on the tilt.

Siobhain McDonagh Portrait Siobhain McDonagh (Mitcham and Morden) (Lab)
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Q5. Members across this House know the devastating impact of bank branch closures on our communities, but as banks flee the high streets, our free cash machines disappear with them, hitting the most vulnerable hardest. Surely it cannot be right that a quarter of ATMs charge people to access their own money. Will the Prime Minister join dozens of his own Back Benchers today in backing my cross-party amendment and ensure that everyone has free access to their hard-earned money?

Rishi Sunak Portrait The Prime Minister
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This Government are legislating to safeguard access to cash, and that is what the Financial Services and Markets Bill, which we will debate this afternoon, will do through a very significant intervention. I also am pleased that we have put in place initiatives with the industry to subsidise free-to-use ATMs in deprived areas, and that almost 50 communities are benefiting from our new shared cash facilities, because access to cash is important, and that is what our new Bill will deliver.

Rehman Chishti Portrait Rehman Chishti (Gillingham and Rainham) (Con)
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Q12. I very much welcome the Government’s commitment to their hospital buildings programme. Can the Prime Minister clarify what criteria will be applied for the allocation of those new hospitals? Will it be done in line with the Prime Minister’s personal commitment to a merit-based system of government? My hospital in Medway serves half a million people, is the busiest hospital A&E in Kent and we have some of the highest health inequalities in the country. Medway was one of the hardest-hit areas during covid-19. We need our fair-share allocation of resources in Medway. Will the Prime Minister visit Medway Maritime Hospital with me and fellow local MPs to look at our urgent need?

Rishi Sunak Portrait The Prime Minister
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My hon. Friend is a fantastic champion for his local area, but especially for his local hospital. He will know that I cannot comment on any specific scheme, but I can tell him that submissions to be one of the new hospitals are being reviewed in the Department and an announcement will be made shortly.

Mary Kelly Foy Portrait Mary Kelly Foy (City of Durham) (Lab)
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Q6. On Small Business Saturday, I was delighted to name Daisy Rose Coffee House as the City of Durham’s small business of the year 2022 after a public vote in my inaugural award. Like so many small businesses, Daisy Rose Coffee House is the beating heart of the local community and the cornerstone of the high street. So many business owners I meet feel utterly ignored by the Government as they are clobbered by outdated business rates year after year. The Government must pick a side: are they going to continue to back the online giants, or will they join the Labour party in backing small business and scrap and replace the outdated business rates?

Rishi Sunak Portrait The Prime Minister
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I congratulate Daisy Rose on winning its award and being the beating heart of its high street. I very much hope that it will benefit—I am almost certain that it will—from our discounts on business rates. Our retail, hospitality and leisure relief gives a 75% discount on business rates in the next financial year, and that comes on top of the support that we will be providing Daisy Rose and others with their energy bills, with bills being about half of what they would have otherwise been without our support.

Conor Burns Portrait Conor Burns (Bournemouth West) (Con)
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Mr Speaker, can I thank you and colleagues across the House for your kindness and encouragement in recent weeks?

I ask my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister this afternoon to recommit the Government he leads to our ambition of levelling up communities in every part of our great United Kingdom. To that end, I invite him to visit my Bournemouth West constituency to see the latest school rebuild, the multimillion-pound rebuild of Oak Academy, which will stand as a lasting tribute to opportunity for the people I have the privilege of serving in this House.

Rishi Sunak Portrait The Prime Minister
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It is very nice to hear from my right hon. Friend today. He is absolutely right: there is no better way to spread opportunity around the country than by investing in our children’s future. I am absolutely delighted that Oak Academy in his constituency is benefiting from our school rebuilding programme, and I will certainly ask my office to keep his kind invitation in mind.

Allan Dorans Portrait Allan Dorans (Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock) (SNP)
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Q8. I have raised this matter before, but despite meeting with a previous Prime Minister in 2020 the matter has not progressed. In 1984, I was a serving police officer in the Metropolitan Police when, on 17 April, WPC Yvonne Fletcher was shot in the back and killed while policing a political demonstration outside the Libyan Embassy. No one has ever been charged in connection with her murder. In November last year, delivering his judgment in a civil case, a senior High Court justice, Mr Justice Spencer, said:“I am satisfied that on the balance of probabilities the defendant”—Saleh Mabrouk—“is jointly liable for the shooting of WPC Yvonne Fletcher on the doctrine of common design.”Will the Prime Minister meet with me to see how this case may be taken forward, to finally bring those responsible for the murder of Yvonne to justice in a criminal court?

Rishi Sunak Portrait The Prime Minister
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I thank the hon. Gentleman for his continued work on this case. As he said, it is something that he has raised before. He will appreciate that, while I cannot speak in detail on any particular case, there are differences in the standard of proof required for civil and criminal proceedings. That said, the Crown Prosecution Service will consider any new information that is referred to it by the police in relation to this case. Of course, I would be very happy to meet with him.

Jackie Doyle-Price Portrait Jackie Doyle-Price (Thurrock) (Con)
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Returning to the theme of communities being able to decide where to build, in Thurrock we embrace our obligations to deliver more new homes. At Arena Essex, we have an application to deliver 2,500 new homes ready to go; however, there is a standing objection to any development of over 300 homes from National Highways because of the impact on junction 30 of the M25. What advice will my right hon. Friend give to Thurrock Council on how it can deliver its housing obligations with that national constraint?

Rishi Sunak Portrait The Prime Minister
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I thank my hon. Friend for her question. She highlights a great example of a council that is trying to do the right thing and put the right homes in the right places. It should have our support. I ask her please to write to my right hon. Friend the Levelling Up Secretary with the details of the issues so that we can give her a full response, but I praise her council for trying to make sure that we can build homes where we need them.

Diana Johnson Portrait Dame Diana Johnson (Kingston upon Hull North) (Lab)
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Q10. Why can the Government not process asylum claims within six months, thereby saving £5.6 million a day on asylum seekers’ accommodation, granting asylum to those who need it quickly, and stopping the abuse of the system, which currently has a backlog of 147,000 asylum claims?

Rishi Sunak Portrait The Prime Minister
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What we are doing is significantly increasing the number of caseworkers. We are on course to double it by next spring, with several hundred already in place. The right hon. Lady is right that the process takes longer than it should. Often that is because people are able to exploit some of the rules in our system and make sequential claims. That is exactly the type of thing that the Home Secretary and I are working on fixing, and I look forward to having the Labour party’s support when we do.

Andrew Bridgen Portrait Andrew Bridgen (North West Leicestershire) (Con)
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There have been more reported deaths and adverse reactions following mRNA vaccinations in 18 months than there have been following every conventional vaccine administered worldwide in the last 50 years. Given that mRNA vaccines are not recommended for pregnant women or those who are breastfeeding, would my right hon. Friend overturn the big pharma-funded Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency’s recent recommendation that those experimental vaccines be administered to children as young as six months of age?

Rishi Sunak Portrait The Prime Minister
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First, I believe that covid vaccines are safe and effective. No vaccine—covid or otherwise—will be approved unless it meets the UK regulator’s standards of safety, quality and effectiveness. An independent body, the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, determines in which age groups the vaccine is recommended for use as part of the vaccination programme. Of course, the ultimate decision lies with parents.

Kevin Brennan Portrait Kevin Brennan (Cardiff West) (Lab)
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Q13. During covid, we all applauded our NHS nurses, who put their lives on the line to help millions of our constituents and loved ones. We know now that, at the same time, Tory spivs were helping themselves—using their connections and covid—to millions of pounds of public money. Why is the Prime Minister on the side of the spivs and not on the side of the nurses?

Rishi Sunak Portrait The Prime Minister
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What everyone was doing at the time was working as hard and as quickly as they could to get the PPE needed for our frontline workers, including our nurses. There was an independent procurement process; Ministers were not involved in the decision making. It was right, however, that people gave their ideas about where to get PPE from. Indeed, the shadow Chancellor, the right hon. Member for Leeds West (Rachel Reeves), suggested that we should get it from a law firm and ventilators from a football agent. Everyone was trying as hard as they could. We should remember the context and stop playing politics.

Matt Warman Portrait Matt Warman (Boston and Skegness) (Con)
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Two weeks ago, more than 350 people attended a meeting in Skegness to discuss the use of five seafront hotels to house asylum seekers. They were united in their view that there was a long-term economic impact and pressure on public services. They told me loud and clear that they think, as the Prime Minister does, that hotels are the wrong place for asylum seekers. Does he agree that the Government urgently need to lay out a plan that moves beyond the use of hotels and puts asylum seekers in the right place for them and for coastal communities such as Skegness?

Rishi Sunak Portrait The Prime Minister
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I completely agree with my hon. Friend. We are now spending £6 million a day housing asylum seekers—hotels are incredibly expensive. We will urgently bring forward proposals to reduce the pressure but, as he and I know, the best way to solve the problem sustainably is to reduce the number of illegal migrants coming to the United Kingdom, and that is what the Government will deliver.

Chris Elmore Portrait Chris Elmore (Ogmore) (Lab)
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Q14. Audit Wales has confirmed that the Welsh Labour Government responded well and got on with the job of delivering value for taxpayers’ money. Can the Prime Minister tell the House what first attracted him to awarding billions of pounds-worth of covid contracts to Tory donors and supporters? What is he doing to claw back taxpayers’ money?

Rishi Sunak Portrait The Prime Minister
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Again, we delivered 32 billion pieces of PPE to the frontline at a time when there was a global shortage. As I have already said, everyone tried to do their bit. We heard recommendations from the shadow Chancellor, but it was right that her suggestions, and everyone else’s, went through an independent process where Ministers were not involved in the decisions.

Robin Walker Portrait Mr Robin Walker (Worcester) (Con)
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Josh MacAlister’s independent review of children’s social care has been with the Government since May. I understand that there has been some disappointment that the response to it will not be published before Christmas. Can the Prime Minister ensure that, given its important recommendations about some of the most vulnerable children in our society and the families and people who support them, there will be a strong and robust Government response as early in the new year as possible?

Rishi Sunak Portrait The Prime Minister
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Yes, my hon. Friend obviously knows the subject area well. He is right to highlight the importance of making sure that we provide good quality support for vulnerable children. The report has a lot of interesting suggestions in it and he is right. I can commit to him that we will respond in due course.

Claire Hanna Portrait Claire Hanna (Belfast South) (SDLP)
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Q15. Over 70% of Northern Ireland’s international tourists arrive in Dublin and travel across the land border, and the UK Government’s proposed electronic travel authorisation is likely to mean the north being struck off the itinerary of operators and many independent travellers. The last thing we need is a barrier to one of our biggest economic drivers, to say nothing of the impact on non-Irish and British people living in Ireland. Members from across the House have acknowledged that our border is not a normal one. Will the Prime Minister commit to scrapping this unworkable proposal?

Rishi Sunak Portrait The Prime Minister
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I can give the hon. Lady my assurance that we remain very committed to the common travel area, and indeed do not want to see any checks on the island of Ireland. That is why we are working very hard to resolve the issues with the protocol and ensure Northern Ireland’s place in the United Kingdom.

Russia: UK Companies

Wednesday 7th December 2022

(1 year, 6 months ago)

Commons Chamber
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Urgent Questions are proposed each morning by backbench MPs, and up to two may be selected each day by the Speaker. Chosen Urgent Questions are announced 30 minutes before Parliament sits each day.

Each Urgent Question requires a Government Minister to give a response on the debate topic.

This information is provided by Parallel Parliament and does not comprise part of the offical record

12:34
Margaret Hodge Portrait Dame Margaret Hodge (Barking) (Lab)
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(Urgent Question): To ask the Chancellor of the Exchequer if he will make a statement on continued involvement by UK companies in Russia.

James Cartlidge Portrait The Exchequer Secretary to the Treasury (James Cartlidge)
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I am grateful to the right hon. Lady for her question.

The UK and international partners have moved in lockstep since the invasion to impose the largest and most severe economic sanctions that Russia has ever faced, designating more than 1,200 individuals and over 120 entities. That includes a ban on new outward investments in Russia, and £18.4 billion-worth of Russian frozen assets reported to the Government. On Monday, in alignment with coalition partners, we banned the import of Russian oil and oil products into our markets. In conjunction with partners, we have prohibited UK ships and services from the maritime transportation of Russian oil unless the price paid is at or below $60.

The Government do not comment on individual commercial decisions. The process of divesting themselves of assets in Russia will be complicated for companies, which need to ensure compliance with financial sanctions. However, since Russia’s illegal and unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, we have seen commitments from many firms and investors to divest themselves of Russian assets.

The Government have been clear that we support further signals of intent to divest of Russian assets. In March this year, the then Chancellor—now the Prime Minister—said he welcomed

“commitments…made by a number of firms to divest from Russian assets”,

noted that he

“supports further signals of intent”,

and said that

“there is no case for new investment in Russia.”

That remains the Government’s position.

Margaret Hodge Portrait Dame Margaret Hodge
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Mr Speaker, thank you very much for granting this urgent question. I thank the Minister for his reply. However, after listening to it, I would simply say to him that the Government have constantly talked about taking back control, and if there is one issue on which they should take back control it is this: ensuring that no British company invests in Russia.

Today is the 286th day of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. In February, three days after the war started, BP said it

“will exit its 19.75% shareholding in Rosneft”,

Russia’s main oil company. Despite this promise, BP remains one of the largest shareholders. According to the excellent research by Global Witness, it is set to receive £580 million in dividends on the back of bumper profits fuelled by the war. Does the Minister agree with me that it is utterly shameful that a large, publicly listed British company profits from the sale of oil that is funding Putin’s war?

Does the Minister further agree with the words of Mr Ustenko, President Zelensky’s economic adviser? He wrote to BP and said:

“This is blood money, pure and simple, inflated profits made from the murder of Ukrainian civilians.”

BP’s claim that it is locked in as a shareholder is both laughable and easily solved. To put this into perspective, BP’s dividends are equivalent to over one quarter of the total military and humanitarian aid provided by the UK Government to Ukraine.

Does the Minister agree with Mr Ustenko that BP and any other company still invested in Russia’s fossil fuels must donate the entirety of its wartime profits to the victims of the war? Does he further agree that it is our duty to ensure that companies are not damaging Britain’s national interest? Will this Government therefore work to persuade BP to donate the entirety of its Russian dividends to the reconstruction of Ukraine, and if that fails, will the Minister commit to acting and forcing it to do so through a special windfall tax?

James Cartlidge Portrait James Cartlidge
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I am grateful to the right hon. Lady and pay tribute to her for her long-standing record of holding Governments to account on issues such as sanctions and international finance—I was previously Justice Minister when we had the strategic lawsuits against public participation issue. She has been very active, including across party lines.

I entirely understand why people feel so strongly on this subject, and I feel strongly too—what Putin has done in Ukraine is appalling—but I am not going to comment on a specific UK company or taxpayer or their commercial decisions. I have set out the range of measures we are taking, and it is important to stress that while we all want companies that have committed to divesting to do so, there are of course issues. I do not say this with specific prejudice to any individual, firm or company, but, for example, should a firm divesting from Russia by selling its shares sell them in such a way that they returned to an individual entity that was sanctioned, there would rightly be condemnation of that. This is not a straightforward process—and I repeat that I do not say that in reference to any specific company.

I totally agree that we should do everything possible to support the people of Ukraine, and we can be very proud of the enormous effort our country has made. The right hon. Lady rightly talked about our duty, and I believe we have a duty to support Ukraine. We are second only to the United States in the amount of aid we have given to the people of Ukraine, now totalling over £6 million, and, as I understand it, we have been training its soldiers—22,000 of them—since 2015. This country has done its bit in relation to Ukraine. We are proud of that, and of course we want to do more and go further, which is why we work with our partners; that is why only on Monday we announced a decision in partnership with G7 states and Australia in relation to Russian oil across the piece. We have a record of taking decisive action, and in terms of the Treasury, of the most powerful sanctions against Russia on record, which is hitting its economy. We of course have no dispute with the Russian people, who will feel the impact of that, but we are doing everything possible, bar direct military action, to support the people of Ukraine.

Julian Lewis Portrait Dr Julian Lewis (New Forest East) (Con)
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I am sure the entire House agrees with the Minister that the UK has done a tremendous job in supporting Ukraine ever since it was illegally invaded, but what we want is a way for the Government to intervene to stop private companies somehow drilling a hole in the bottom of the bucket, as it were, while we are pouring in water at the top. Is there really nothing that can be done to impound, confiscate or levy a tax against money that has been raised in this unacceptable way?

James Cartlidge Portrait James Cartlidge
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I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend for his great expertise on these matters but say to him that we have to differentiate. We have taken explicit and direct action on firms within the sanctions regime—120 entities and 1,200 individuals have been sanctioned and, as I said earlier, £18.4 billion-worth of frozen assets have so far been reported to the UK Government. There has been a clear commitment from a number of important UK and indeed global businesses to divest from Russia—I am not specifically talking about any one—but we must recognise that there is complexity in that. When the Prime Minister was Chancellor back in March, he was very clear about what the Government want in terms of divestment, and we obviously support companies in taking that action, but I am happy to look at what further can be done in this space and to work with colleagues.

Pat McFadden Portrait Mr Pat McFadden (Wolverhampton South East) (Lab)
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I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Barking (Dame Margaret Hodge) for tabling this urgent question.

Right now in Kyiv, the temperature is around freezing. Putin aims to weaken the resolve of the Ukrainian people by freezing them over this winter. But with every Russian missile that falls on energy infrastructure, he does not weaken the resolve of the Ukrainian people—he strengthens it. The resounding answer to the question posed by President Zelensky—without electricity or without you?—should be heard loudly and clearly in Moscow.

To support the efforts of the Ukrainian people, many British companies have ceased their Russian operations and divested themselves of their interests. Those decisions have cost businesses money, orders and jobs, but they have made them because they want to do the right thing. And other businesses are paying higher energy costs as a result of the war. But some companies either continue to operate or have not fully divested themselves of their interests.

The excess profits made by energy companies have rightly been called the windfalls of war. Energy is the central pillar of the Russian economy and the profits from it fuel the Russian war effort. My right hon. Friend the Member for Barking has told the House today that the dividend due to BP as a result of its stake in Rosneft is worth about £580 million. Those funds may be frozen at the moment, but what do the Government believe should happen to those funds when they are eventually released? Do the Government believe that those funds should be used for the welfare and benefit of the people of Ukraine, whose country is being devastated by Russian aggression? How many other British companies are still operating in Russia and why are they still operating? What is the Government’s position on money they could be making there, which could also be described as the windfalls of war?

We are united across this House in our support for Ukraine and for the incredible bravery shown by both its armed forces and its people. The question the House poses today is how will the Government make sure that British companies are not profiting from the appalling Russian aggression we have seen in Ukraine?

James Cartlidge Portrait James Cartlidge
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The right hon. Gentleman poses a number of very important questions. On a general point, he talks about strengthening the resolve of the people of Ukraine. This country can be rightly proud of every step it has taken to strengthen that resolve, and, I must say on record, of the leadership of two former Prime Ministers, as well as the current Prime Minister. They have shown extraordinary leadership appearing in Kyiv under huge pressure and supporting President Zelensky, alongside the support we have given to the Ukrainian armed forces and our massive humanitarian aid. I know there is consensus on that, but we should not in any way be defensive about the steps we have taken to support the Ukrainian people.

The right hon. Gentleman talks about companies doing the right thing. He is absolutely right that companies are divesting and exiting from Russia. We welcome that. I explained about the statement made by the Prime Minister when he was Chancellor back in March, which is obviously something we welcome. I think there are some complexities in that process and I will not be drawn on individual firms. That is long-standing Treasury policy for very good reason.

The right hon. Gentleman mentions the windfall tax. We have a windfall on North sea oil and gas which will raise £41.6 billion—an enormous sum of money. Why are we raising that money? It is in part precisely to fund the extraordinary support we are putting in place to help British people and British businesses through this winter. He talked about the impact on companies of Putin’s war and the impact on people. Yes, of course, the harshest impact is on the people of Ukraine, not least the bereaved families, but there is an impact on our people with higher prices, including energy prices, here and throughout Europe and the world. Our windfall tax funds that support so that this winter we are doing everything possible to support our businesses and our people, alongside massive support for the people of Ukraine.

Mark Pritchard Portrait Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin) (Con)
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There is no doubt that the UK has led the Ukraine war effort with the United States, and there is no doubt that the UK has led the international sanctions regime, but this urgent question is about UK companies. Does the Minister share my concern that DP Eurasia is selling pizzas in Russia, Unilever is selling Cornetto ice creams in Russia, and HSBC is still servicing Russian corporate clients? Does he think that is acceptable? What more action can the Government take to encourage those companies to remove their services and businesses from Russia and to divest themselves fully, rather than just give interviews to corporate magazines and offer warm words?

James Cartlidge Portrait James Cartlidge
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My hon. Friend makes an important point. It is for good reason that we do not entertain specific discussions on individual companies and their commercial interests, but we have been very clear on the need to divest. We have an outright ban on investment in Russia, and I sincerely hope that companies are not abusing that. I am not going to suggest that the companies he mentioned are doing so or comment on those specific cases, but I am always happy to meet my hon. Friend, or receive correspondence from him, if he has concerns in that regard.

Alison Thewliss Portrait Alison Thewliss (Glasgow Central) (SNP)
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It seems to me to ring a little bit hollow to say that companies are still trying to unwind their various operations in Russia. If some companies can do that quite easily, can the Minister explain to me why companies such as Infosys are still working in Russia?

James Cartlidge Portrait James Cartlidge
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As I said to the right hon. Member for Barking (Dame Margaret Hodge)—I apologise if this becomes a relatively repetitive point—I am not going to comment on specific individual companies. As I say, there is very good reason for that, and it is a long-standing Treasury policy that I think any Government would follow.

We have set out our policy. In my opening answer to the right hon. Member for Barking, I read out the statement from the Prime Minister when he was the Chancellor. We have been very clear that we want to see companies divesting from Russia. There are some complexities in there—of course there are—but the direction of travel is very clear.

Mark Francois Portrait Mr Mark Francois (Rayleigh and Wickford) (Con)
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As a Member of the House of Commons Defence Committee, I visited Ukraine about three weeks ago. We were welcomed literally with open arms, so grateful are the Ukrainians for staunch British support. They know a hard winter is coming, so may I make a practical suggestion? They clearly need more weapons, but they also desperately need generators in order to keep hospitals and other critical facilities operating even if they lose main power stations to missile strikes. Is there anything the Minister and the Government can do to encourage UK companies of all types that might be able to spare even one or two generators from their stocks to get them to Ukraine, where they would be put to incredibly good use?

James Cartlidge Portrait James Cartlidge
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My right hon. Friend speaks not only with his expertise on the Defence Committee; he also served in His Majesty’s armed forces and, of course, as a Defence Minister. He makes a very important point, and I was delighted to hear about his visit. It is inspirational to me and, I think, to the rest of the country when we see leading British politicians going over to Ukraine and showing that we are not afraid to go there. We will give the Ukrainians every form of support that we can.

On the specifics of that support, my right hon. Friend makes a good point about generators. I do not know the specific answer on that, but I do know that the Foreign Secretary recently set out measures to provide ambulances. Of course, the energy network is being affected by attacks from Russia, so military support remains so important, because that is how we enable the Ukrainians to defend themselves so that they can thwart these attacks. It will be tough, and there will be further attacks—this is not going to finish tomorrow—but we are doing all we can, and it helps when people such as my right hon. Friend are going out there and showing the support of the British people.

Chris Bryant Portrait Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab)
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I am sorry, but this is just terribly complacent. It is 3,218 days since the annexation of Crimea, and there are still British companies that seem to be invested in Crimea, let alone British companies—including Infosys, from what I understand; the Minister did not refute that point earlier—that are still operating in Moscow and Russia with a staffed office. He says he will not comment on individual companies, but he does it all the time: that is what sanctions are. That is the whole point of sanctions. Some £778 million-worth of Russian oil has ended up coming into 10 British ports this year, having been transferred from one ship to another on the route here. This is complacency. We have to have a total effort from every Government Department to make sure that we stop funding Putin’s illegal war.

James Cartlidge Portrait James Cartlidge
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As ever, the hon. Gentleman makes his point with his usual passion. The point I was making was not to refute or in any way entertain points about individual companies; I am simply saying that it is long-standing Treasury policy not to comment on individual taxpayers or companies, or on their commercial activities, and I suspect that would be true of any Government.

The hon. Gentleman mentions oil. I remind him that on Monday, in alignment with coalition partners, we banned the import of Russian oil and oil products into our markets. In conjunction with partners, we have prohibited UK ships and services from the maritime transportation of Russian oil unless the price paid is at or below $60 a barrel.

Jason McCartney Portrait Jason McCartney (Colne Valley) (Con)
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As the secretary of the all-party parliamentary group on Ukraine, and as a constituency MP with a large Ukrainian community, I gently prompt my hon. Friend the Minister to urge BP, if it is unable to sell its stake in Rosneft, to take the profits and commit them to the reconstruction of Ukraine and to aiding the victims of Putin’s barbaric invasion.

James Cartlidge Portrait James Cartlidge
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My hon. Friend is right to remind us of the many Ukrainians who have made their home here and, of course, the many UK nationals who have opened their homes to them. It has been an extraordinary contribution. The reason we do not comment on individual companies’ commercial affairs is that, for a start, these are matters of commercial sensitivity. I appreciate that there are strong feelings on this point, but that is a consistent policy irrespective of the issue at hand.

We have been very clear on the need to divest from Russia. We have put in place a strong sanctions regime and banned further investment in Russia. I think that sends very strong signals, but we should not detract from the fact that this country is second only to the United States in what it is doing to support the people of Ukraine.

Darren Jones Portrait Darren Jones (Bristol North West) (Lab)
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Last week I met Andrii Zhupanyn, a counterpart of mine from the Energy Committee in the Ukrainian Parliament. His priority was to source as many generators as possible to back up the Ukrainian energy system, so may I ask the Minister a specific question? Will he, at the very least, write to the chief executive officer of BP to suggest that the moneys gained by the company be used to pay for generators for Ukraine?

James Cartlidge Portrait James Cartlidge
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I should say that we have seen a positive attitude and support for Ukraine from across the House. On the specific issue of generators, I will go away and look at it. I will write to the hon. Gentleman and my right hon. Friend the Member for Rayleigh and Wickford (Mr Francois), because I do not have the answer to hand.

I will not comment on what individual companies do. We in the Treasury are responsible for UK tax and spending decisions, and we have been extremely clear in setting out a windfall tax, which will be funding energy support for our constituents this winter and now, in fact, next year. That is very generous support, and it is ultimately connected to the impact on our country from Putin’s illegal invasion. All of this is about supporting the people of Ukraine but also helping our people with the wider shocks resulting from that invasion.

Rehman Chishti Portrait Rehman Chishti (Gillingham and Rainham) (Con)
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I very much welcome what the Minister said about the United Kingdom stepping up to the forefront in support for the people of Ukraine militarily, economically and diplomatically. As the former Minister for sanctions, I agree with him that the United Kingdom took decisive action, but may I ask him to clarify a specific point? On the oil price cap coming at $60 per barrel, that is not set in stone. It can be subject to review, taking into account implementation, international adherence and alignment, market developments and the potential impact on coalition members. When does he expect that review to take place so that we can take further decisive action, looking at the levers that are really having an impact?

James Cartlidge Portrait James Cartlidge
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I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who speaks with great expertise on these matters. The key point is that the action in relation to oil was agreed at G7 level with Australia. He talked about the review, and it is very much about the constant dialogue we have with international partners—that is where we will be reviewing these things. Obviously, it is a step we have only just taken, but I am happy to confirm that, as ever, the Treasury keeps all these matters under review.

Sarah Olney Portrait Sarah Olney (Richmond Park) (LD)
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On 17 November, my hon. Friend the Member for St Albans (Daisy Cooper) asked the Prime Minister whether he agreed that

“private citizens in the UK should follow the example of several British businesses and sell any shares they have in businesses that still operate in Russia”.—[Official Report, 17 November 2022; Vol. 722, c. 837.]

For some reason, the Prime Minister was unable to give my hon. Friend an answer on that occasion, so I wonder whether the Minister might be able to answer that question today.

James Cartlidge Portrait James Cartlidge
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That is an important point and I understand why the hon. Lady asks about it. In March the Prime Minister—as Chancellor—set out our very strong position on urging companies to divest, making it clear that there was no further case for investing in Russia. As for what happens with individual shareholdings, I said that I would not comment on specific companies and, to be fair, the hon. Lady has not asked me to. However, as I hope we can all acknowledge, it is not necessarily straightforward to divest. We want companies to do that, but as I said to the right hon. Member for Barking (Dame Margaret Hodge), if firms divest their shares, they have to be clear that any new owners will comply with the sanctions regime and that they will not be sold on to an entity or individual who is part of the regime. It is not straightforward, but that does not mean that we do not want every possible step to be taken to divest.

Shaun Bailey Portrait Shaun Bailey (West Bromwich West) (Con)
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The flipside of this narrative is that companies are doing the right thing. I am concerned—I have read such reports locally—about companies that have divested their interest in Russia but are now struggling to get legal and audit services. As a result of having that previous interest, companies are reluctant to touch them. It is bizarre that companies and organisations that have done the right thing cannot access those statutory services. Will my hon. Friend ensure that he has conversations across Government, particularly with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and professional service providers, to ensure that companies that do the right thing on Russia are not penalised as a result?

James Cartlidge Portrait James Cartlidge
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My hon. Friend—I think he was a lawyer by training—gives a good example from a sector where one can imagine that might be happening. If firms are complying with the regime, other firms should have no fear of working with them. If he wants to raise specific cases with me, he is, as ever, welcome to write to me. He makes a very good point and it is on the record.

Marie Rimmer Portrait Ms Marie Rimmer (St Helens South and Whiston) (Lab)
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The French and Norwegian energy companies have successfully managed to exit Russia while BP has not. That is embarrassing, and the stain on Britain’s reputation needs removing. We appear to be undermining our efforts to support Ukraine and its people. The Treasury must ensure that the £580 million dividends that are due are used to provide aid to Ukraine and its people. Will the Minister ensure that if that does not happen, we will legislate to ensure that it does?

James Cartlidge Portrait James Cartlidge
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I understand why people make the link between what they have heard alleged about the shareholding of a particular company and how that should be spent, in an ideal world. I cannot comment on an individual company or its commercial interest and I am not going to, but I understand why people make that point. It therefore falls to us to talk about where we can act. The hon. Member talks about humanitarian assistance. We have given more than £6 billion of assistance—military aid and humanitarian assistance—and that is second only to the United States in scale. It is having a huge impact. We can safely say that the world, and least of all Vladimir Putin, did not expect Ukraine to fight back as it has done. One reason for that is the armaments and training provided by the United Kingdom.

Simon Fell Portrait Simon Fell (Barrow and Furness) (Con)
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European payments for Russian oil and gas have totalled more than €100 billion since the illegal invasion of Ukraine began. I welcome the efforts of this and other Governments to end the use of that oil and gas, but the fact remains that millions of barrels of oil a day are still being resold through third-party countries back into our markets. Can the Minister give us some detail about the efforts to stop that illegal resale, which is just giving succour to Putin and his illegal war?

James Cartlidge Portrait James Cartlidge
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My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. As I said, not only have we banned the import of Russian oil and oil products into our markets but, in conjunction with other parties, we have prohibited UK ships and services from the maritime transportation of Russian oil unless the price paid is at or below $60—in other words, the onward trade from within our respective jurisdictions. Effectively, he also makes an important wider point about the amount of money that has been spent in Europe on Russian energy historically. There has to be a long-term answer to that. Ultimately, we as a country, and with our European and G7 partners, have to wean ourselves off all forms of Russian energy. The way we do that, as he knows—he represents a Cumbrian constituency—is by investing in nuclear and UK energy production, as well as by living up to our net zero commitments and driving up even further our offshore wind capacity, which, I am proud to say as an East Anglian MP, is the largest array of offshore capacity in Europe.

Clive Efford Portrait Clive Efford (Eltham) (Lab)
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Should not the position of the Government be that UK companies must not profit from activities that sustain Putin’s war? And having said that, should the Government not say to those companies, “Where you do profit, we will use all the powers at our disposal to sequester those funds and make them available for the regeneration of Ukraine”?

James Cartlidge Portrait James Cartlidge
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We have set out precisely that with the commitments that the Prime Minister made in March, when he was Chancellor, on the desire to see businesses divesting from Russia. The hon. Member for Eltham (Clive Efford) is aware that there have been many high-profile public cases of firms divesting, and other colleagues have spoken of companies in their constituency. They all use the phrase that the shadow Minister used, which is “doing the right thing,” and I totally agree. Ultimately, that is why we have our very strong sanctions regime.

Derek Twigg Portrait Derek Twigg (Halton) (Lab)
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I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Barking (Dame Margaret Hodge) on securing this important urgent question, and I associate myself with the calls for generators for Ukraine. For Putin to be defeated, and for him to know that he will be defeated, it is essential that there remains rock-solid support for Ukraine from the UK and the west. Not only is that about defence materiel, military equipment and humanitarian aid, but it means ensuring that no British company, for whatever reason and in whatever way, benefits Putin’s regime. The Minister mentioned a desire to achieve certain things, but a desire is not enough, so will he go away and look again at what more can be done in legislation—if necessary, through new legislation—to ensure that that situation stops, and will he make a statement to the House next week?

James Cartlidge Portrait James Cartlidge
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We always keep our sanctions regime under review. In particular, we are looking with our international partners at what more can be done on illicit finance and so on. [Interruption.] The hon. Member talks about desires, but these very strong sanctions are having an impact in practice on Russia’s economy. We are sanctioning 1,200 individuals and 120 entities. We have already heard reports of frozen assets worth £18.4 billion. What matters above all—this is what he wants—is that we stand with the people of Ukraine and show that we support them. No country, other than the United States, has done more than we have, and we should be proud of what we have done. I absolutely guarantee that the Government will work night and day to keep supporting the people of Ukraine in the wake of this terrible invasion.

Gavin Newlands Portrait Gavin Newlands (Paisley and Renfrewshire North) (SNP)
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May I raise the issue of a UK company, the Lawn Tennis Association, being fined $1 million by the ATP—Association of Tennis Professionals—tour for banning Russian and Belarusian players from all tournaments, including Wimbledon, with further sanctions potentially to come? That is on top of a similar fine and ruling from the Women’s Tennis Association. Will the Minister join me in condemning the ATP and the WTA, which have both shown an extraordinary lack of empathy towards the people of Ukraine? Given that they were rightly urged by Ministers to ban Russian players from the tournaments, might the Government pay the fines for the LTA, should any appeals fail?

James Cartlidge Portrait James Cartlidge
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That is an interesting point. My colleagues have been clear on the record about where we stand on that. I will not comment on any specific appeals, but our sanctions regime, to which he referred, is very strong and is working in practice. We are always committed to looking at what more we can do as a Government and working with our international partners.

Karl Turner Portrait Karl Turner (Kingston upon Hull East) (Lab)
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Fenner Dunlop has existed in Marfleet in my constituency since the company Fenner was established in 1861. It manufactures conveyer belts for the mining industry. It refused to trade in Russia and has done the right thing. As a result, it is reviewing the business in Marfleet and 71 jobs are potentially at risk. Everybody can see that the company needs to be commended—it is an excellent employer—but the reason the Minister is having difficulty mentioning specific businesses is because one of them is Infosys. Does he want to put his finger on why he is struggling to talk about that business?

James Cartlidge Portrait James Cartlidge
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As ever, I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his question. All I will say about the company in his constituency—in Marfleet, I think—is that companies divesting their interests in Russia will undoubtedly have an economic impact at home. They will have gone into that market for a commercial reason and there will be a commercial impact if they divest. We have to do everything possible to show our resolve to the people of Ukraine. That includes strong economic sanctions, even if they have an impact here, but by far the biggest economic impact is on our economy from the enormous surge in energy prices and the resulting inflation. Global inflation will drive the economy around the world to experience a hiatus in growth. We want to see growth return, and one of the reasons that we have windfall taxes is to raise funding to support our constituents and businesses through this winter.

Andy Slaughter Portrait Andy Slaughter (Hammersmith) (Lab)
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The Exchequer Secretary cannot have failed to notice the exhibition in Portcullis House showing the gross human rights abuses committed by Russian forces in Ukraine. As well as justice, the victims of these war crimes deserve compensation, but so far that has not come from seizing and distributing the assets of Putin’s allies or the Russian state. Why can it not come from BP and others’ Russian earnings?

James Cartlidge Portrait James Cartlidge
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I always enjoyed working with the hon. Gentleman in my previous position at the Ministry of Justice. He makes an extremely powerful point. The abuses that we have seen have been horrific, and he is right to draw attention to them. A great range of activities are taking places in that regard—for example, the significant support that we have given to the International Criminal Court at The Hague so that it can look into those abuses. Of course, it will be very difficult until we get a resolution to the conflict, which is why the most important thing we can do in all these cases is to continue supporting the people of Ukraine, their armed forces and the humanitarian effort.

Jonathan Edwards Portrait Jonathan Edwards (Carmarthen East and Dinefwr) (Ind)
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I fully support the right hon. Member for Barking (Dame Margaret Hodge) in her efforts. Would not one way to dissuade UK companies from investing in Russian oil assets and to encourage disinvestment be to prohibit any such companies from benefiting from the North sea windfall tax investment allowance?

James Cartlidge Portrait James Cartlidge
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The hon. Gentleman asks an interesting question, knitting together two points. To be fair to him, I have to say that he has consistently attended all the recent Treasury debates at which I have been present. I am grateful to him for that.

We should not confuse divesting and investing. We are clear that there is an outright ban on investing in Russia: the Prime Minister said back in March, when he was Chancellor, that there was “no case” for such investment. Divestment is happening. It is a process that for some companies will take time, but I think we are all clear that we want to see it happening.

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to highlight the windfall tax. While it will raise more than £40 billion to support our economy, help us fund public services and, above all, support people with energy bills this winter, it does have a generous allowance. Let me be clear about the reason why, which goes back to my answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Barrow and Furness (Simon Fell): while we want to raise funds from the levy, we also want to incentivise investment in energy security. Ultimately, the long-term answer to the question of how to defend ourselves against being held to ransom over energy prices is by ensuring our energy security for the future.

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)
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I thank the Exchequer Secretary for his answer to this urgent question. It is clear to me and to the House that he is doing his best to address the issue in a firm way.

We have seen not only the continued involvement of UK companies in Russia, but the ongoing involvement of Russian companies and kleptocrats in infiltrating UK companies potentially to commit fraud. What steps will the Exchequer Secretary take to ensure that UK companies are discouraged from any involvement with the Russian economy and ensure that a harder stance is taken to protect our economy from the promotion of economic crime and infiltration by Russia itself?

James Cartlidge Portrait James Cartlidge
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As ever, Mr Speaker, you have saved the best till last. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his kind words. There is a legal side to protecting our economy—the sanctions regime protects it from the impact of sanctioned individuals and companies—but I think the most important way to protect our economy is by providing support this winter to our businesses and constituents, including constituents in Northern Ireland. We will be bringing forward many energy schemes with specific application in Northern Ireland; I know that he takes a keen interest in them. We are working with BEIS to ensure that we deliver those programmes in Northern Ireland, as well as in the rest of the United Kingdom. The hon. Gentleman makes an excellent point. Ultimately, we are supporting not just the people of Ukraine, but our businesses and our constituents.

Mark Francois Portrait Mr Francois
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On a point of order, Mr Speaker—

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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Order. It cannot come now. It has to come after the next statement.

Mark Francois Portrait Mr Francois
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It is just something that we wanted the Business Secretary to hear.

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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Well, we cannot change the rules. There are more Members than you with points of order—that is my problem. I would be opening a can of worms. I would love to, but I dare not.

Post Office: GLO Compensation Scheme

Wednesday 7th December 2022

(1 year, 6 months ago)

Commons Chamber
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Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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I wish to make a short statement about the sub judice resolution. I have been advised that there are relevant active legal proceedings in the Court of Appeal. I am exercising the discretion given to the Chair in respect of matters sub judice to allow reference to those proceedings, as they concern issues of national importance. However, I urge hon. Members to exercise caution in what they say and to avoid referring in detail to cases that remain before the courts.

13:14
Grant Shapps Portrait The Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (Grant Shapps)
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With permission, Mr Speaker, I should like to make a statement about Horizon and Post Office group litigation compensation.

The Horizon scandal is nothing short of a travesty. Today, I turn to those who lost everything—those who were driven to bankruptcy and lost the savings for which they worked all their lives; those who were falsely accused and lost their good name in our country’s courts; those who were falsely convicted and lost their freedom in our country’s prisons; and all those who, having lost everything possible, then took their own lives—to say that we should not be here and it should not have happened. It should have been said years ago, and I want to say it today: I am sorry. I am sorry for those years of pain, of hurt and of anguish. I apologise unreservedly for any part that my Department has played, historically, in this miscarriage of justice.

The Post Office is a public institution. It exists to serve the British people. That the best of us, our postmasters, could be subject to such intolerable injustice does not bear thinking about. This is a wrong that can never be put right, but I hope that the steps that we are taking today will be of some comfort to those who have fought and who continue tirelessly to fight for justice. We want the postmasters who exposed the scandal through the High Court group litigation order case to receive similar compensation to that available to their peers. That is what is right, and it is what is fair.

On 2 September, my predecessor at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, my right hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne (Kwasi Kwarteng), wrote to those in the group litigation order case to ask their views on whether the Department or the Post Office should administer the scheme, which will deliver additional compensation to those postmasters who originally brought the case to court, and what form they would like it to take. The majority view was that BEIS should deliver an alternative dispute resolution approach, using the information prepared for the GLO case, so that is the route that we will now follow. Over the past three months, a great deal of work has been done to develop the details of the scheme, drawing on comments made in the consultation. I am writing to members of the group litigation today with further information about how it will work.

For too long, our postmasters have been left to endure devastating financial hardship. I am therefore pleased to say that all Post Office and Horizon-related compensation payments will be disregarded for benefits purposes. Once the disregard is in place, payments received by postmasters will no longer count towards the capital limit for means-tested benefits and pension credits, and will therefore not affect their eligibility to claim for them. The Government will legislate to put that disregard in place at the earliest opportunity.

We are now asking claimants to work with their representatives on their claims. In parallel, we are working to engage alternative dispute resolution specialists and lawyers to deliver the scheme. Those experts should be on board in the early spring, at which point full claims can start to be submitted and assessed. I hope that compensation will start to flow before the summer and that most cases can be resolved before the end of 2023.

We have already announced that we will meet postmasters’ reasonable legal costs in claiming under the scheme, and to ensure that lawyers can get to work on preparing claims, we are announcing details today of the funding available to enable postmasters to access initial legal support. We will shortly be inviting claimants’ lawyers to make proposals for commissioning the expert evidence that they will need. I have placed a copy of my letter to GLO postmasters, together with a number of supporting documents, in the Library of this House and on the Department’s website today.

Finally, we will create an independent advisory board for the scheme, chaired by Professor Chris Hodges, an expert in alternative dispute resolution. Alongside Professor Hodges, the membership of that board will include Lord Arbuthnot and the right hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones), who are recognised by Members on both sides of the House for their many years of outstanding campaigning for the wronged postmasters.

We are honoured to have members of the GLO group with us here today, but I know that nothing we do now will ever put right the decades of wrong. There are so many who cannot be here today, some because they are no longer with us and never lived to see their dignity returned to them by those who stole it. To all of you, I say that I am sorry for these past historic injustices that you should never have suffered.

I commend my statement to the House.

13:20
Chi Onwurah Portrait Chi Onwurah (Newcastle upon Tyne Central) (Lab)
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I welcome today’s statement and apology, which represent an important step forward in the delivery of justice following what may well be the largest miscarriage of justice in our country’s history. There have been 900 prosecutions. All the postmasters involved have their own stories of dreams crushed, careers ruined, families destroyed, reputations smashed, and lives lost. Innocent people have been bankrupted and imprisoned.

Let me start by paying tribute to the Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance, the campaigning group, and to the hundreds of sub-postmasters whom no monetary amount can compensate for the injustice that they have suffered. This has been a long walk towards justice, and Members in all parts of the House have stood and spoken out in solidarity with the postmasters. I want to recognise, in particular, my right hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) and Lord Arbuthnot, who are rightly to be members of the independent advisory board.

I also pay tribute to the Minister who was previously formerly responsible for the Post Office, the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully). I do not do so lightly, but after successive Conservative Governments had sat on the scandal, he was the first to take hold of it and eventually—following much campaigning by Members of Parliament and members of the Labour party—to establish a statutory inquiry. Finally, I want to thank the journalist Nick Wallis, whose BBC Radio 4 series “The Great Post Office Trial” did much to bring this scandal to general attention.

While I am pleased that some kind of acceptable outcome for the postmasters seems finally to be in sight, I have some questions to ask. The press release refers to a compensation scheme for postmasters who helped to expose the scandal, but I remind the Secretary of State that it was his Government who spent years aiding and abetting the Post Office in targeting those self-same postmasters who were looking for justice. Nearly £100 million was spent by the Post Office to defend the indefensible as part of a campaign of intimidation and deceit. The Government are the only shareholder in the Post Office, so it is right for the Secretary of State to take responsibility.

At the core of this unforgivable scandal is the belief that workers were dishonest and technology infallible. Perhaps that is not surprising, given the Government’s track record on defending the rights of working people. Decent, honest people have had their lives torn apart, have been put in prison, and have been made to wait years for justice. Will the Secretary of State tell us how long he expects it will take for this scheme, and the other schemes, to pay the appropriate compensation, and whether the aim of these schemes is to return people to what would have been their original position had it not been for their involvement in Horizon? Will he also tell us which legal firm will be involved in the administration of this scheme, and whether that firm has previously advised either the Government or the Post Office on this matter?

Value for taxpayers’ money is a key consideration on this side of the House, even if the Government like to waste it. Having wasted tens of millions of pounds on persecuting postmasters, can the Secretary of State tell us where the money for the scheme will come from as we face a cost of living crisis made in Downing Street? Will post office services suffer, or will other budgets be cut? The press release does not mention the Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance or Alan Bates, who led its efforts. Does the scheme have their full support?

I hope the Secretary of State agrees that those who were involved in this injustice should not benefit from their involvement. Will he tell us how he intends to hold Fujitsu to account, and whether it is still being given Government contracts? Will he also tell us whether he supports the continued retention of the CBE that was awarded to Paula Vennells—who oversaw the Horizon scandal—for services to the Post Office?

The Post Office is a national institution. It is part of so many of our lives. Its reputation has been hugely tarnished by this scandal, and I hope the Secretary of State will tell us how he intends to ensure that this never happens again and that the sub-postmasters receive justice as soon as possible.

Grant Shapps Portrait Grant Shapps
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I am grateful for the hon. Lady’s comments, although I rather hoped the House would come together today and debate this matter in a non-political, cross-party way, and she sought to make a number of, I think, somewhat inappropriate political points. I should gently point out that it was her party that was in power for the first 11 years of this scandal. I am pleased that we have worked across parties to fix it, and I think we should leave it there.

Earlier today I spoke to Alan Bates, the founder and leader of the Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance, who is sitting in the Public Gallery. Obviously the members of the JFSA will speak for themselves, as they always have, about the extent to which they are satisfied with today’s statement, but we have been working closely together. The Minister for Enterprise, Markets and Small Business, my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake), has been meeting them as well, and will be keeping a close eye on the operation of the scheme.

I reiterate the hon. Lady’s comments in thanking not just the right hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) —as I did earlier—but my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully), Lord Arbuthnot, and others who have campaigned endlessly on this issue, including the BBC journalist Nick Wallis, who has played an important role in this long battle.

The hon. Lady asked about timescales. As I said in my statement, we aim to complete this part of the scheme by the end of 2023, or, I hope, sooner. The large number of documents that we are putting online this morning will enable people to get on with processing their applications before making formal applications early next year. Sir Wyn Williams, who is conducting the formal inquiry, will, I hope, be able to shed significant light on what went wrong and provide a set of recommendations to prevent it from happening again. I have no doubt that Members, certainly on this side of the House, will be anxiously awaiting those recommendations.

Julian Lewis Portrait Dr Julian Lewis (New Forest East) (Con)
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Will the inquiry which I gather is still under way ever reveal to the public how it was possible—in a modern constitutional democracy, with the presumption of innocence operating in our justice system—for hundreds of people with unblemished personal records to be prosecuted, tried and convicted because it was deemed that a computer programme could not be wrong?

Grant Shapps Portrait Grant Shapps
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The simple answer is yes, and that is the purpose of Sir Wyn Williams’s inquiry. I should remind the House that it could lead to individuals’ taking specific responsibility on the basis of his recommendations, and to the legal process that might consequently unfold.

As I said to the GLO group earlier today, anyone who has observed this from afar, watching and listening to coverage from Nick Wallis and others over the years, must feel their blood boil at the sheer injustice of a computer programme being placed ahead of people’s lives. I think that makes all of us shudder. I am only pleased that in this particular case, because of a group of people who undertook the most proactive work to try to get to the truth, we are now able to ensure that their compensation matches everyone else’s.

Nigel Evans Portrait Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Nigel Evans)
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I call the Chair of the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee.

Nigel Evans Portrait Mr Deputy Speaker
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Oh, I am sorry, Darren. I forgot; it is Marion Fellows first.

Marion Fellows Portrait Marion Fellows (Motherwell and Wishaw) (SNP)
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I do not mind being forgotten, Mr Deputy Speaker, but I am glad to be called. I hope this is not being added to my two minutes.

I want to thank the Minister for giving me advance sight of his statement. I particularly want to thank the Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance, and especially Alan Bates, who I have had the pleasure of speaking to at the all-party parliamentary group on post offices. I also stand here to say thank you so much to the right hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) and to Lord Arbuthnot. Who would have thought I would be thanking a Lord in the other place?

I stand here in the shoes of giants. I take advice from everyone as chair of the APPG, but one thing I am sure of is that there are people right across this Chamber who will be watching the progress of this new scheme carefully. We welcome it—it is long overdue—but people will be watching to make sure that it runs properly. I want to thank the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully) and also the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake), who invited me along to a meeting on this subject. It is important that people are watching, it is important that the scheme works and it is very important indeed that those who have suffered, and those who are left behind, are adequately recompensed.

Grant Shapps Portrait Grant Shapps
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I add my thanks to the chair of the all-party parliamentary group on post offices for all the work she has done with colleagues over this considerable period of time. I absolutely agree with her about the importance of making sure that this all now happens. She is right to say that Members across the House will be watching that closely, and none more so than the small business Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton, I can assure her.

Lucy Allan Portrait Lucy Allan (Telford) (Con)
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I welcome the tone and nature of the statement that the Secretary of State has just made; I am delighted to hear his approach to this. I am also pleased to see at his side the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton, who I know will keep postmasters front and centre of everything he does. Post Office workers rightly deserve compensation, but they also deserve justice, and to get justice they need those responsible for the suffering they endured for so many years to be held to account. It is possible that, within the Secretary of State’s Department, there are officials who were potentially responsible for what happened. What can he say to those sub-postmasters who are going to engage in this compensation scheme with an open mind to give them confidence that BEIS will act properly, fairly and promptly in all its dealings with them?

Grant Shapps Portrait Grant Shapps
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I can absolutely give my hon. Friend the assurance that, under my tenure, there will be no stone left unturned when it comes to this. I want to pay tribute to her for her work on bringing justice to this important cause; I know that she has had had a number of constituency cases in Telford. I can absolutely reassure her that, whether it is in the Post Office or anywhere else, we will make sure that no stone is left unturned.

Nigel Evans Portrait Mr Deputy Speaker
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Take two: I call Darren Jones.

Darren Jones Portrait Darren Jones
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Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker.

I welcome the announcements made today, which were recommended in my Committee’s interim report on compensation and by many others, and I welcome the appointments of my right hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) and Lord Arbuthnot in the other place. In respect of the benefit disregards, can the Secretary of state confirm when the statutory instrument will be tabled? It will not take long to do, and it should be done quickly. Can he also confirm that while we are waiting for the benefit disregards to come into force, the victims who suffer loss as a consequence of that will be given additional compensation to cover the deductions from their benefits and pension payments?

Grant Shapps Portrait Grant Shapps
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I am just taking advice from my hon. Friend the small business Minister on the interim payments, and I think the answer is yes. On the scheduling of the SI, it will be done as quickly as possible in terms of parliamentary business, but that will not hold anything up because the payments have to be made first. They will be well in advance of that, and the commitment is in the statement today to lay the SI. Finally, I pay tribute to and thank the Chair of the BEIS Committee for all his and his members’ work on the subject.

Andrew Bridgen Portrait Andrew Bridgen (North West Leicestershire) (Con)
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I welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement and I also thank his Department for allowing Back-Bench colleagues from across the House with a long-term interest in this topic to be involved in the formulation of the compensation scheme. Will he commit to keeping the House updated on the progress of the compensation scheme? Let us all hope that sometime in the near future he will be able to come to the Dispatch Box and tell us that all the compensation has been paid to the recipients.

Grant Shapps Portrait Grant Shapps
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I thank my hon. Friend, and yes, we will certainly keep the House fully informed. My hon. Friend the small business Minister will be providing updates as well. I want to pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for North West Leicestershire (Andrew Bridgen) for his work on, I think, at least one case in his constituency, where he has helped to keep this subject high on the agenda.

Kevan Jones Portrait Mr Kevan Jones (North Durham) (Lab)
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I thank the Secretary of State for his statement. I also thank the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake). It is nice to see a poacher turned gamekeeper in the Department. Can I also put on record my thanks to the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully)? In a long list of useless and indifferent Ministers over the years, he was the only one who actually got it and was determined to sort it out. I would also like to give my personal thanks to Alan Bates and the Justice for the Subpostmasters Alliance, because without them the truth would not have come out, and that happened in spite of the Post Office throwing a tsunami of cash—£100 million—at them to stop the truth coming out.

This is the only scandal I have seen where cover-up and lies ran to the top, not only of the Post Office but, I have to say, of the right hon. Gentleman’s Department. Today represents a move forward, and I welcome what is being done. Does the Secretary of State agree that what we need next, following the public inquiry, is for those individuals who were responsible for ruining people’s lives—in some cases people took their own lives; others who were innocent went to prison—to be held to account? It has to be a determination for the Department to ensure that those individuals—whether they are in the Post Office or in his Department—face the day of reckoning that should be coming to them in a court of law.

Grant Shapps Portrait Grant Shapps
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I again pay tribute, as I think the whole House does, to the right hon. Gentleman’s extraordinary work on this issue. He is right not only to highlight my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam, who I have engaged with this morning over this, but to pay tribute to Alan Bates and all the work that he and his team have done. I was talking to him earlier. It was not until he got going in 2009 that this really started to unravel for the Post Office.

To the right hon. Gentleman’s main point, he is absolutely right to say that we cannot allow an injustice such as this to not meet justice. Of course, we have a free legal system in this country, and Alan and his colleagues were saying to me earlier that if it were not for democracy and the freedom of our courts, we would never have got this far. To really get to the nub of the right hon. Gentleman’s point: I agree with him, and we will not allow any process or shyness of what it might uncover to prevent the legal process from being able to run its full course.

Richard Graham Portrait Richard Graham (Gloucester) (Con)
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As a former chair of the all-party parliamentary group on post offices, I welcome the Secretary of State’s statement, the compensation scheme announcements—particularly on the benefits disregard—and the comments on the timing of what will happen, but I think there are going to be some shocking lessons from all this that we will need to learn. These revolve around who knew what, and when, and what the role of the Federation of SubPostmasters was in standing up or not standing up for its members during this crisis. I hope the Secretary of State will agree that when the inquiry is finished there should be another debate in this House to make sure that we really do learn those lessons, including, as two or three Members have said, the crucial point about how technology cannot be wrong.

Grant Shapps Portrait Grant Shapps
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My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I had not realised that he was a former chair of the APPG, so I thank him for his work on this issue. On his central point, the lessons absolutely have to be learned. As I said earlier, anyone who has watched this just as a bystander, not having had their life turned upside down, can still feel their blood boiling, but what it was like to be involved in this must have been unimaginable. I hope this will be a salutary lesson for the idea that a computer can never be programmed in an incorrect way, or have a loophole or a problem, not just with regard to the Post Office or even Government procurement but for every walk of life and everything that computers are now involved with.

Karl Turner Portrait Karl Turner (Kingston upon Hull East) (Lab)
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I thank the Secretary of State for his work in coming up with the scheme in such a short time. As he knows, I was instructed to defend one of these sub-postmasters in criminal proceedings. She should never have been investigated, let alone prosecuted. If the Post Office had done what it needed to do to comply with the disclosure rules, she would never have been convicted.

People at the very top must have made decisions to block defence lawyers getting information that was incredibly important to the defendants’ defences. Those victims—those men and women in the Public Galley—and their families will not feel they have had justice until every single person responsible is criminally investigated, potentially prosecuted and, if convicted, sent to prison for a very long time. Will the Secretary of State assure the House that is his intention?

Grant Shapps Portrait Grant Shapps
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The hon. Gentleman is, as ever, a very powerful campaigner on this and many other issues. I know of his involvement in this subject.

Following what Mr Speaker said, I do not want to stray too far into the judicial area, other than to say, as I mentioned before, that when Sir Wyn Williams completes his inquiry and makes his recommendations, this Government will take every single proposal very seriously. Everyone, not just those directly involved but the country at large, must know and see that the overall system, both the democratic part and the courts, got to the truth in the end. Even when that happens, it will not mean the sub-postmasters get what they lost, given the misery it has caused, but it will at least demonstrate that the system can be made to work for justice in the end.

Jason McCartney Portrait Jason McCartney (Colne Valley) (Con)
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I welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement and, in particular, the apology.

Like many colleagues in this Chamber, I have got to know my constituent Maria and many others who have been impacted by this awful scandal. My right hon. Friend is right that this wrong cannot be put right, but I welcome the details provided today. Will he and the Department continue to work tirelessly not only for justice but for compensation for all the victims?

Grant Shapps Portrait Grant Shapps
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To my hon. Friend’s constituent Maria, and to everybody else involved, the answer is yes.

Alistair Carmichael Portrait Mr Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland) (LD)
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We are not quite at the end of the road, but there is a sense today that perhaps the end of the road is in sight. I echo colleagues in taking a great deal of comfort from the participation of the right hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) and Lord Arbuthnot in future proceedings.

One of the lessons we have to learn is that it is all too easy for people in Government and people in public bodies to use taxpayers’ money to defend situations where they have made mistakes. This is, by far and away, the most egregious example, but it is not the only example. As well as being involved in this issue for some time, I have been helping constituents who were defrauded by Midas Financial Solutions. They had to take the Competition and Markets Authority to court, and they eventually received compensation, but those who took the case are still out of pocket to the tune of £2 million. That is exactly the same situation in which the sub-postmasters find themselves. Why should they be treated differently?

Grant Shapps Portrait Grant Shapps
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Again, it is a dangerous and sometimes potent mixture to have the backing of essentially endless taxpayers’ money in a battle of David and Goliath. As the right hon. Gentleman knows, Ministers always have to be careful to weigh the advice to make sure that, when we wield the power of the state, we do so in the interest of society as a whole and not, as has clearly happened in this case, in a manner detrimental to individual citizens—in this case postmasters and sub-postmasters. His point is well made.

Siobhan Baillie Portrait Siobhan Baillie (Stroud) (Con)
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I pay tribute to my constituent Nichola Arch and hundreds like her who have campaigned tirelessly and constructively, despite their lives being torn apart by this scandal. There are adult children of postmasters and postmistresses who have only known their parents’ battle. It is right that the compensation scheme is generous and provides the necessary uplift to reflect the trauma of prosecution, and it is right that it is sensitively handled, but what we have seen with past Government compensation schemes, where the legal fees are covered, is that ambulance-chasing third-party organisations get involved and prey on the vulnerable, who are already exhausted. The upshot is often that the compensation is reduced to pay these third-party organisations. Will my right hon. Friend tell the postmasters and postmistresses from the Dispatch Box that the scheme has been designed so they do not need to rely on ambulance-chasing organisations and that all compensation should go into their pockets?

Grant Shapps Portrait Grant Shapps
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My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. As the right hon. Member for North Durham has also said, we do not want to see a complex and expensive legal process that costs a fortune for those who should have been compensated long ago. That is why this is going through an alternative dispute resolution process. We will also provide assistance in pulling the papers together so that people can make their applications as easily as possible.

Clive Efford Portrait Clive Efford (Eltham) (Lab)
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I also pay tribute to Lord Arbuthnot, my right hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) and the former Minister, the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully), for their tireless work on this issue.

May I press the Secretary of State a little further on getting justice for those who used the state to defend an indefensible position, which ended up putting people in prison and wrecking people’s lives, with some committing suicide? His Department was clearly involved in this. Will he guarantee full disclosure of any documents required for any future legal proceedings?

The problem is that the postmasters lack the means, and those who have been defending their position have untold means, because they are using taxpayers’ money. The Secretary of State says justice has to be done, but how does he see that being pursued? Will these people have to fund legal action again, or will the state fund criminal proceedings?

Grant Shapps Portrait Grant Shapps
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Again, I do not want to stray too much into the legal process, other than to say that Sir Wyn Williams will report and his inquiry will make a series of recommendations, and I can reveal that we are likely to look very kindly on what he has to say.

We put a number of steps in place after speaking to Alan Bates and those impacted by the group litigation, but we have not, for example, handled this stage of the process through the Post Office. Instead, there is the extra reassurance of an independent panel, which includes the right hon. Member for North Durham and Lord Arbuthnot, to make sure the same errors cannot be repeated.

The key point is about ensuring there is not a large cost. As I mentioned to my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Siobhan Baillie), there will not be a large cost in this part of the process. We then get into what will happen with prosecutions. I am probably leaping a little too far, but this significant injustice has caused misery to people’s lives, not only those who were wrongly convicted—I said in my opening remarks that some are not here to see this moment of partial justice—but the families who have been ripped apart and will never be brought back together. This damage and harm will last generations, and I very much hope our legal system will take all that into account.

Dean Russell Portrait Dean Russell (Watford) (Con)
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I welcome my right hon. Friend’s commitment today and his statement. He is right to use the word “travesty”, as this was a scandal probably unequalled in government over many decades. I am grateful for his words today and the work he is doing, and I am pleased to hear that Alan Bates is in the Gallery to hear this, given the work he has done.

My question is about what will happen with this long-term commitment on communications. One thing I have heard often during this is that a lack of communication can, of itself, cause additional stress and anxiety. So will my right hon. Friend agree to ensure that there are regular communications from the Government on this, both in the House and outside?

Grant Shapps Portrait Grant Shapps
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I pay tribute to and thank my hon. Friend for what he did as Minister responsible in this area to help to bring forward the statement I was able to make today. On his point about communication, that is absolutely our intention, both through myself and through the small business Minister—the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton.

Mick Whitley Portrait Mick Whitley (Birkenhead) (Lab)
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I too welcome the Secretary of State’s statement. However, the postmaster scandal has exposed the serious dangers inherent in using intrusive surveillance technology to monitor the activities of employees. A growing number of workplaces are adopting surveillance and artificial intelligence-assisted technology, and some employers are even reported to be delegating decisions on recruitment, promotions and even sackings to algorithms. The TUC has warned that worker surveillance is at risk of “spiralling out of control” without greater transparency and stronger regulation to protect workers. Will the Secretary of State now act to make it a statutory duty for employers to consult trade unions before introducing AI and automated decision-making systems in the workplace? Will he also ensure that every worker has the right to a human review of high-risk decisions made by technology?

Grant Shapps Portrait Grant Shapps
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The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point. We have a lot of new technologies coming along, including things such as AI and generative AI. If the Horizon Post Office scandal demonstrates anything, it is that we have to be very careful about how we implement technology. I love technology. It gives us a great opportunity for productivity, but if we get to a point where it is about, “Computer says no” or, “Computer says yes” and that is what we believe without testing the input to those machines and the way they have been programmed—this will become much more challenging with things such as AI in the future—we will have problems and we will end up with more of these sorts of scandals. He raises an interesting specific point about how that might be addressed. I would be very interested to hear more from him about it, and perhaps we will organise a meeting, either with myself or with the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton.

Duncan Baker Portrait Duncan Baker (North Norfolk) (Con)
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I believe I am still the only serving MP who used to be a postmaster, many moons ago, in a former life. So I really thank the Government for what they are doing to overturn, or make some reparations for, this injustice. But there is a problem, which gets to the heart of why this situation happened in the first place: the absolute lack of investment in and care for our beloved institution that is the post office network. Every year we lose banks up and down our high street. Last year, we even lost post offices on our high street, and that is not good enough. My community of Cromer is to lose an HSBC bank branch, so I make a plea to the Secretary of State to really invest in the post office network and to pay our postmasters properly. They cannot make a decent living at the moment out of what their payments are. We must make sure we safeguard their future by putting post office networks at the very heart of delivering banking services up and down our high streets. We must do that to safeguard our postmasters and our high streets.

Grant Shapps Portrait Grant Shapps
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I pay tribute to my hon. Friend, as someone who has actually been a postmaster and now serves in this House; he knows what he is talking about on this. He is right to say that this comes in the wider context of support for our high streets, the complexities that high streets face these days and the huge changes in the way that mail is sent and communications operate. That is why the Government have put £300 million into assisting the Post Office with running post offices in communities, and I know that there was a 4% tariff uplift most recently. But he raises a series of very good points, and I know that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary and he will be continuing this conversation.

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)
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I thank the Secretary of State very much for his statement. It has truly lifted the hearts of those in the audience, those outside and those across all the constituencies where sub-postmasters found themselves in very difficult positions. May I commend the right hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones)? I know that many have done so, but he has been incredibly assiduous. Strength of character has pulled this over the line, and I wish to put on record our thanks to him for that as well.

This morning, the media broke the news about the new compensation for victims of the Horizon IT scandal. That is very much welcome, because the cruel accusations of fraud saw sub-postmasters sent to jail, bankrupted and shunned by their communities. In some cases, suicide resulted from the impacts that this caused them, and we really feel the pain of that; the way in which the Secretary of State presented this statement has captured that very well. Will he assure this House and myself that lessons will be learned from the scandal and that accusations will not be made before full inquiries take place, as so many have lost their lives due to what have been false narratives?

Grant Shapps Portrait Grant Shapps
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That is absolutely the intention of this Government and Ministers. I hope that the lessons that will be drawn, both from what has happened so far and from Sir Wyn Williams’ inquiry when he reports, will be taken to apply not just to the Post Office, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy or Governments, but the whole of society. As I mentioned a few moments ago, the dangers are inherent in the idea that just because the computer says yes or says no, that is a definitive, unchallengeable position. As we saw in this case, not only was it not, but it destroyed lives and families along the way, as well as livelihoods.

Nigel Evans Portrait Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Nigel Evans)
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I thank the Secretary of State for his statement. I am sure the heart of the entire House goes out to the people who have had to face such trauma, and their families.

Points of Order

Wednesday 7th December 2022

(1 year, 6 months ago)

Commons Chamber