All 35 Parliamentary debates on 7th Dec 2023

Thu 7th Dec 2023
Thu 7th Dec 2023
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Thu 7th Dec 2023
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Thu 7th Dec 2023

House of Commons

Thursday 7th December 2023

(5 months, 3 weeks ago)

Commons Chamber
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Thursday 7 December 2023
The House met at half-past Nine o’clock

Prayers

Thursday 7th December 2023

(5 months, 3 weeks 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

The Clerk at the Table having informed the House of the unavoidable absence, through illness, of the Speaker from the sittings of the House this week, the Chairman of Ways and Means took the Chair as Deputy Speaker (Standing Order No. 3).

Oral Answers to Questions

Thursday 7th December 2023

(5 months, 3 weeks ago)

Commons Chamber
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The Secretary of State was asked—
Andrew Selous Portrait Andrew Selous (South West Bedfordshire) (Con)
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1. What steps his Department is taking to help reduce food waste.

Steve Barclay Portrait The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Steve Barclay)
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The UK is an international leader in tackling food waste, which has fallen by 17% since 2007 or the equivalent of 26 kg per person. This year, over £2 million will go to our food waste prevention programme and we have a groundbreaking industry initiative, helping to redistribute more food than ever before.

Andrew Selous Portrait Andrew Selous
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As I understand it, a third of all food is wasted, which contributes around 9% of greenhouse emissions and costs our economy about £20 billion a year. Will the Secretary of State consider introducing policies that reduce food waste across the supply chain, such as improved food waste reporting from industry, so that we can target, measure and act on food waste for the sake not only of our economy, but our planet?

Steve Barclay Portrait Steve Barclay
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My hon. Friend raises an extremely important point. Some 60% of food waste is wasted in the home, but the Courtauld commitment includes a groundbreaking voluntary agreement with industry that has doubled the amount of food redistributed in the last two years.

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)
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As the Secretary of State rightly says, if we are going to reduce food waste, that starts with everybody participating, including people at home and retail businesses. In Strangford, Asda, Tesco and Lidl all redistribute food waste to local community groups before it goes bad and becomes unpalatable. Does the Secretary of State welcome that? It underlines the fact that everyone needs to participate in the reduction of food waste, starting with the supermarkets, people in their houses and the Government?

Steve Barclay Portrait Steve Barclay
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The hon. Gentleman is right that the issue applies to all parties, which is why we fund Love Food Hate Waste and the Food Waste Action Week campaigns to raise awareness. Food waste is down 17% since 2007 and we have doubled the amount of food redistributed since 2019, so significant progress has been made, but there is more to do and those information campaigns play a key role in getting that message across.

Eleanor Laing Portrait Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Eleanor Laing)
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Question 2 is in the name of Bob Blackman, but I see that he is not present. Will the Minister answer Question 7, which is grouped with it?

Craig Tracey Portrait Craig Tracey (North Warwickshire) (Con)
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7. What steps his Department is taking to tackle fly-tipping.

Robbie Moore Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Robbie Moore)
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The Government’s fly-tipping grants are helping councils across the country put a stop to fly-tipping at hotspots, by spending £1.2 million on the issue and a further £1 million will be awarded in the spring. In July, we increased the maximum penalty councils can issue from £400 to £1,000. From April, all income from those penalties will be reinvested in enforcement and cleaning up fly-tipping in local areas.

Craig Tracey Portrait Craig Tracey
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I welcome the Minister to his place. Fly-tipping is a huge problem across North Warwickshire and Bedworth, with thousands of incidents every year, particularly in rural areas where the farming community is left to bear the brunt of many of the costs. We are lucky to have a dedicated rural crime team, who do amazing work helping to tackle the issue, but will the Minister give an update on the progress of the national rural crime unit in tackling the scourge on our communities?

Robbie Moore Portrait Robbie Moore
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I am very happy to pay tribute to the dedicated Warwickshire rural crime team, which does fantastic work in that area, and especially to Carol Cotterill, who leads on it. The Government are funding a new fly-tipping post in the national rural crime unit to optimise the role that the police can take in tackling fly-tipping in rural areas. We have also confirmed reforms to waste carrier registration, the introduction of digital waste tracking, and the abolition of DIY local waste tips.

Barry Sheerman Portrait Mr Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op)
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Does the Minister agree that a real problem with fly-tipping is skips? Unscrupulous and dodgy skip companies allow their skips to be filled and then, mysteriously, those skips do not end up in a legitimate place for waste. Will he look at the new technology we could have? I believe that every skip should have a gizmo that tracks where it came from and where it is going. Using technology in that way would solve problems, and I know that he would get a lot of cross-party support for it.

Robbie Moore Portrait Robbie Moore
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I will, of course, always welcome innovation when it comes to dealing with waste crime. The Government are already taking action on that by awarding £1.2 million to help more than 30 councils to purchase equipment specifically to tackle fly-tipping. Our digital waste tracking system will make it easier for authorities to identify waste that does not reach the next stage. I will absolutely be happy to meet the hon. Gentleman if he has any ideas on this issue so that we can take them forward.

Dave Doogan Portrait Dave Doogan (Angus) (SNP)
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Angus is the garden of Scotland—the Minister is familiar with Angus, as we all know—but we also have a fly-tipping blight that is deeply concerning for our communities. Farmers do their best to clear up those messes, but it is not just commercial fly-tippers taking an opportunity to make a fast buck; other people are avoiding proper refuse centres. Can the Minister assure the House that £1.2 million is enough? The Barnettised share of that for Scotland does not amount to very much. Will he redouble those efforts? Let us get a grip on this blight.

Robbie Moore Portrait Robbie Moore
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I do know Angus very well. Like me, the hon. Gentleman will be incredibly frustrated when he sees fly-tipping taking place in our beautiful countryside. When it comes to rural crime, we are working with likes of the National Farmers Union, our counterparts in Scotland and others to share good practice. As I have said, we have already funded a post within the national crime unit to explore how the police’s role in tackling fly-tipping can be optimised. That will specifically help rural areas such as Angus.

Afzal Khan Portrait Afzal Khan (Manchester, Gorton) (Lab)
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3. What steps his Department is taking to reduce levels of PM2.5 air pollution.

Robbie Moore Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Robbie Moore)
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PM2.5 is the most harmful pollutant for human health. Our action to date on transport, industrial and domestic sources has seen PM2.5 fall by 10% since 2010. This year, we went further by setting new targets to drive down PM2.5 concentrates, and the Government will deliver on our air quality and net zero goals by supporting businesses to innovate.

Afzal Khan Portrait Afzal Khan
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Manchester has some of the highest air pollution levels in the country, with thousands of children being seen in A&E this year alone because of asthma and the impact of air pollution. I recently met children from St Margaret’s CofE Primary School to hear about how they are asthma-friendly and doing everything they can to reduce air pollution at their school so that all pupils are safe and healthy. Labour’s proposal for a clean air Act would establish a legal right for everyone to breathe clean air, abiding by World Health Organisation clean air guidelines. Why will the Government not commit to that?

Robbie Moore Portrait Robbie Moore
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It seems to me that no action is being taken at the moment by the Labour Mayor of Manchester. The Government take air pollution incredibly seriously, which is why we have awarded £53 million to English local authorities since 2010 to support the delivery of more than 500 local projects specifically to tackle air pollution. We have also put an additional £10.7 million—granted to 44 local authorities in 2023 alone—into tackling the negative implications of air quality specifically.

Greg Smith Portrait Greg Smith (Buckingham) (Con)
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Research shows that PM2.5 can be 3% to 8% higher in electric versions of heavier applications, such as buses and trucks, than in their internal combustion engine equivalents. Does my hon. Friend agree that, in order to get clean air and cut down PM2.5, we need an eclectic future that embraces all technology and our great innovators, not just battery-electric?

Robbie Moore Portrait Robbie Moore
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As I have said, I will always welcome innovation when it comes to improving air quality, not only in transport but in the implications of industry and commercial operators. It is clear that, through the Environment Act 2021, the Government introduced the legally binding targets to reduce PM2.5. We have a set goal to reduce exposure to PM2.5 by 35% by 2040.

Ruth Jones Portrait Ruth Jones (Newport West) (Lab)
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From Bournemouth to Bolton, Hull to Newcastle-under-Lyme, people are crying out for action to clean our air, but the air quality targets the Minister just mentioned, which were eventually set under the much-delayed Environment Act, are at twice the World Health Organisation limit and do not have to be met until 2040. So does he accept the judgment of his Government’s own Office for Environmental Protection that, on clean air, Tory Ministers are unambitious and lacking the urgency we need?

Robbie Moore Portrait Robbie Moore
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This Government, through our landmark Environment Act, have set key targets that we will be delivering on—many Opposition Members did not support all of its measures. As for supporting local authorities, as I have said, we are investing £53 million to support them in delivering more than 500 projects to specifically tackle air pollution and air quality issues.

Rachel Hopkins Portrait Rachel Hopkins (Luton South) (Lab)
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4. What recent discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on helping to ensure food security.

Steve Barclay Portrait The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Steve Barclay)
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Strengthening food security by supporting world-class farmers and food producers is a top priority for this Government. We produce 60% of the food we consume, and food is one of the UK’s 13 critical national infrastructure sectors, which we regularly discuss with Cabinet colleagues.

Rachel Hopkins Portrait Rachel Hopkins
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I recently visited Tom, a farmer from my constituency, at the family farm in Pepperstock, where we spoke about the importance of UK food sustainability—growing, harvesting and eating domestic produce. That is at risk without a well-functioning seasonal worker scheme. The National Farmers Union recommends improving the current scheme by securing it for five years, with annual reviews, and by increasing the visa period to nine months, to cover longer harvests. Does the Secretary of State agree that those potential reforms could support greater food security in the UK and mean less reliance on food imports?

Steve Barclay Portrait Steve Barclay
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I agree with the hon. Lady on the importance of food productivity and the sustainability of our farming sector, which is why we held the “UK Farm to Fork” summit in May, chaired by the Prime Minister, where we discussed food security with representatives. It is also why just in this past week we announced £45 million to support our farming and rural sector in getting innovation to farms and to help with costs, such as for solar, as part of that investment.

David Duguid Portrait David Duguid (Banff and Buchan) (Con)
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I welcome my right hon. Friend to his new role and, in particular, the experience of negotiating with the European Union that he brings to it, which will become more and more important in the months ahead. I welcome his remarks about supporting the farming industry, but I ask him not to forget the seafood industry and its importance in providing food security—I am sure he will not. As he also knows, he has an open invite, as the new Environment Secretary, to visit my constituency, which is a major fishing constituency in the UK. While he is there, if not before, through a virtual meeting, will he meet me and members of the seafood industry to discuss the way forward, because as much as we welcome the measures announced earlier this week to tackle abuse of legal migration, there are concerns as we transition away from freedom of movement?

Steve Barclay Portrait Steve Barclay
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Obviously, I am happy to give a commitment to meet my hon. Friend to discuss those important issues. He will be interested to know that just this week I had a series of meetings with fishing leaders to discuss some of the issues, including not only the 2026 negotiation, but the interaction with other areas of Government, not least in respect of the offshore wind sector and the pressure on space. We also discussed the work going on in our marine protection zones and how that interacts with the fishing industry, which I am absolutely committed to supporting.

Eleanor Laing Portrait Madam Deputy Speaker
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I call the shadow Minister.

Daniel Zeichner Portrait Daniel Zeichner (Cambridge) (Lab)
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I, too, welcome the new Minister, the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the hon. Member for Keighley (Robbie Moore), and the new Secretary of State—I believe he is the fifth during my time in the shadow Environment team. The fish our fishers catch is vital to our food security, but the recent antics of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, which is, in the name of safety, implementing new medical rules, are leaving many inshore fishers at their wits’ end. Can it really be right that a fisherman in the prime of his working life risks losing his livelihood because he was brave enough a few months ago to admit to a doctor that he felt anxious? I do not think it is, so will the Secretary of State corner his colleague the Transport Secretary in order to get him to do better than a temporary pause on this and to look urgently at exemptions for smaller boats, as other countries have sensibly done?

Steve Barclay Portrait Steve Barclay
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It is great to have Cambridgeshire so well represented on these important issues of fishing and farming. The shadow Minister raises an important point, because there have been concerns in the fishing sector. The Minister for Food, Farming and Fisheries and I have been in touch with Department for Transport colleagues on this issue. There have been amendments to the regulations as a result of those discussions, which are ongoing. However, we should not alarm people either, and the way that the shadow Minister characterised this—suggesting that someone went to their GP and raised an issue, and that prevented them from following their livelihood—is not what the regulations do. I recognise that there have been concerns in the sector. We are looking at them closely and following them up, but the situation is not as he characterised it. That would cause undue harm to those in the fishing sector.

Steven Bonnar Portrait Steven Bonnar (Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill) (SNP)
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Post-Brexit attempts to recruit domestic workers into agricultural jobs have not managed to fill existing vacancies, leaving firms unable to produce at pre-Brexit levels. New Government rules on migration now put the minimum income requirements for immigrant workers far higher than the level currently earned by an agricultural worker in the UK. In that context, what assessment is he and his Department making of the impact that his Government’s draconian immigration policies will have on the security of domestic food production and on the cost and availability of food for consumers as they continue to battle the cost of living crisis to put food on their tables?

Steve Barclay Portrait Steve Barclay
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Of course we will work with colleagues in the fishing industry to discuss the impacts of the Home Office announcement—[Interruption.] Perhaps the hon. Member would like to hear the answer, having asked the question. That is part of the discussions that we will have. It is worth reminding the House that, for farming, the seasonal agricultural workers scheme is separate and is not part of the announcement from Home Office colleagues this week. However, there will be questions from the fishing industry, and we stand ready to work with it on those.

Laurence Robertson Portrait Mr Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury) (Con)
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5. Whether he has had recent discussions with representatives of supermarkets on their proposed changes to the Red Tractor scheme.

Steve Barclay Portrait The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Steve Barclay)
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The Red Tractor assurance scheme is independent and its relationship with food retailers is a commercial matter for it. Separately, the Government will launch a review of the fresh produce sector to understand issues relating to fairness in the supply chain. It is important that consumers know about the food they buy.

Laurence Robertson Portrait Mr Robertson
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I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. As he will be aware, although farmers in this country want to comply, they are a bit concerned that they may be disadvantaged compared with foreign producers who do not work to the same standards. What assurance can he give to British farmers that he will do everything he can to make sure that supermarkets do not disadvantage them?

Steve Barclay Portrait Steve Barclay
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I can give my hon. Friend a very strong assurance on that front. Supporting British farmers is my No. 1 priority. Indeed, with the Minister for Food, Farming and Fisheries in the Department, we have someone who has a lifetime’s experience of working as a farmer. We should be proud of the Red Tractor scheme, which is known around the world for being a high-quality mark of British produce. I recognise, however, that concerns have been raised and we will launch a review soon into fairness in the horticulture supply chain, but if necessary, I will not hesitate to use the powers in the relevant Act to introduce legislation to tackle contractual unfairness, wherever that exists.

Kerry McCarthy Portrait Kerry McCarthy (Bristol East) (Lab)
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6. What discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Energy Security and Net Zero on the impact of climate change on food prices.

Steve Barclay Portrait The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Steve Barclay)
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Food prices depend on a range of factors, which have recently included Russia’s war in Ukraine and the subsequent energy price rises. Supporting our world-class farmers and food producers and driving down inflation are top priorities for the Government.

Kerry McCarthy Portrait Kerry McCarthy
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I thank the Secretary of State for his response. The Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit reports that energy costs and climate change have pushed up food bills by an average of £605 over the past two years, with climate change driving 60% of that increase. We already import £8 billion-worth of food from countries struggling with extreme weather. Obviously, we want to support those countries on an international level with climate adaptation. In terms of our food security here, will the Secretary of State review his predecessor’s decision to secretly scrap the horticulture strategy, which could have helped domestic growers and made us more resilient to the impact of climate change on food security and food prices?

Steve Barclay Portrait Steve Barclay
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The hon. Lady raises an important point about the impact of climate change on food prices in the future. That is exactly why the Government passed the Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Act 2023 to help to unlock innovation and strengthen food security by enabling our leading scientists to develop crops that will best resist climate change. It is why the Government published the third national adaptation programme as recently as July, and it is why we have our farming innovation programme—with £270 million of funding—which is focused on driving productivity and ensuring that there is sustainability in the environmental and farming sectors.

Patrick Grady Portrait Patrick Grady (Glasgow North) (SNP)
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8. What recent assessment he has made of trends in the level of food prices.

Mark Spencer Portrait The Minister for Food, Farming and Fisheries (Mark Spencer)
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October’s consumer prices index price inflation was 10.1%, down from 12.1% in September and the lowest figure since June 2022. Industry analysts expect food price inflation to continue to decrease, and the Government are providing an average of £3,300 per household to help with the cost of living this year and next.

Patrick Grady Portrait Patrick Grady
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The Minister, like the Secretary of State before him, forgot to mention one of the biggest drivers of food inflation in this country. I will give them a clue: it starts with “Br” and ends in “exit”. The reality is that the UK is the only G7 country where food price inflation remains above 10%, and the average across OECD countries is 7.4%. If this Government are not going to follow the SNP’s proposals for price controls on food, what are they going to do to finally get a grip on increasing food prices?

Mark Spencer Portrait Mark Spencer
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I think the hon. Gentleman is mistaken. If we compare prices in the European Union with prices here in the UK, we see that the price of a basket of goods here in the UK is substantially lower than it is for our friends in the European Union. If Brexit were the problem here, surely those prices would be higher in the UK than they are in the European Union. I think he is barking up the wrong tree.

Rob Roberts Portrait Mr Rob Roberts (Delyn) (Ind)
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10. What steps he is taking to support British food producers.

Mark Spencer Portrait The Minister for Food, Farming and Fisheries (Mark Spencer)
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The Government are committed to supporting British food producers. We are investing £2.4 billion a year in England’s farming sector, and we will also look to support more growers through the replacement of the fruit and vegetables aid scheme for England in 2026. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs also sponsors small and medium-sized enterprise masterclasses to signpost and support those businesses.

Rob Roberts Portrait Mr Roberts
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I thank the Minister for his answer. Having gone through a difficult time during covid, in which it had to reduce staffing numbers, the Oscar Mayer factory in my constituency has now taken on additional product lines and is looking to expand and create significant new employment opportunities. It uses traditional methods and fresh ingredients to make healthy and affordable meal options. I know it is watching these proceedings and would be delighted if the Minister confirmed that he will visit the factory in Flint to see the huge improvements it has made in changing the ready meal sector, which has historically been poorly regarded?

Mark Spencer Portrait Mark Spencer
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The hon. Gentleman will be surprised to know that I would be delighted to visit a food factory. I am also delighted to hear about the success of Oscar Mayer. North Wales has a strong food and drink footprint, represented by many large and small businesses. Should my diary allow, I would be delighted to visit. I will make sure that my colleagues in the Wales Office also know that they have an open invitation.

None Portrait Several hon. Members rose—
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Eleanor Laing Portrait Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Eleanor Laing)
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Question 11 is in the name of Sir Edward Leigh, who is not in his place. I would be grateful if the Secretary of State answered the question, as the shadow Minister has indicated that he would like to ask a supplementary question.

Edward Leigh Portrait Sir Edward Leigh (Gainsborough) (Con)
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11. What steps his Department is taking to manage waterways to help reduce the risk of flooding.

Steve Barclay Portrait The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Steve Barclay)
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The Government are investing £5.2 billion in flood protection between 2021 and 2027. This builds on the previous six-year investment of £2.6 billion, showing the increased investment that the Government are making in flood protection.

Eleanor Laing Portrait Madam Deputy Speaker
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I call the shadow Minister.

Toby Perkins Portrait Mr Toby Perkins (Chesterfield) (Lab)
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I am grateful for your generosity, Madam Deputy Speaker. We are just grateful that at least some Conservative Members have turned up.

On 20 October over 500 homes in Chesterfield, like hundreds across the UK, were flooded, leading to the tragic death of Mrs Gilbert on Tapton Terrace. Less than a month later, with the impeccable timing that only this accident-prone Government are capable of, the National Audit Office announced that the Government had cut by 40% the number of homes that will be protected from floods by 2027. Will the Secretary of State at least promise the House that he will never again say to a flood victim that the Government are doing all they can?

Steve Barclay Portrait Steve Barclay
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I am sure the whole House extends our condolences on the sad loss of Mrs Gilbert. Our investment in flood asset maintenance is up by £220 million. As I said, the previous six-year investment was £2.6 billion. Between 2021 and 2027, we are now investing £5.2 billion. Yes, there have been pressures on the programme through inflation and covid, as the National Audit Office report shows, but what is not in doubt is the increased funding that this Government are putting into flood protection—the £5.2 billion indicates that—alongside the increased funding for flood maintenance.

Dan Jarvis Portrait Dan Jarvis (Barnsley Central) (Lab)
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12. What steps he is taking to tackle raptor persecution.

Robbie Moore Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Robbie Moore)
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The Government take raptor persecution very seriously. It is a national wildlife crime and there are strong penalties in place for offences committed against birds of prey. In 2022, DEFRA more than doubled its funding for the national wildlife crime unit to £1.2 million over three years, in part to target crimes of raptor persecution.

Dan Jarvis Portrait Dan Jarvis
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I thank the Minister for his response. There are many long-standing traditions that are worth preserving in our countryside, but raptor persecution is definitely not one of them. It is a vile practice and we need to do much more to protect our majestic birds of prey. Have the Minister and the Department considered whether introducing vicarious liability would act as a deterrent to rogue landowners who direct their gamekeepers to commit wildlife crime?

Robbie Moore Portrait Robbie Moore
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As I said, the Government take raptor persecution very seriously, and those found guilty of wildlife crimes should be subject to the full force of the law. DEFRA is working with the national bird of prey crime priority delivery group, which brings together the police, the Government, local authorities and stakeholders to make sure we are doing as much as we can to tackle this type of crime.

Lisa Cameron Portrait Dr Lisa Cameron (East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow) (Con)
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T1. If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities.

Steve Barclay Portrait The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Steve Barclay)
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May I begin by thanking and paying tribute to my predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey), for her work as Secretary of State? Having represented for over 13 years a rural constituency that, with the Cambridgeshire fens, is well known for its farming and water management, I am delighted to be appointed as Secretary of State at DEFRA and to be working with a strong ministerial team, including the new Under-Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Robbie Moore).

In the next few days I will be travelling to COP28 to continue the work that was put centre stage at Glasgow on ensuring that nature is at the heart of our approach to tackling climate change. My priority for the Department is to back British farming and fishing, champion rural communities and protect our environment for generations to come.

Lisa Cameron Portrait Dr Cameron
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I welcome the Secretary of State to his place. My constituents are particularly keen that the UK has the best possible animal welfare standards internationally, and they wrote to ask the Secretary of State what progress is being made, particularly on livestock and equine welfare.

Steve Barclay Portrait Steve Barclay
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Animal welfare is an extremely important issue. That is why we introduced the Animal Welfare (Livestock Exports) Bill in the King’s Speech. We were only able to do that because of our exit from the European Union. It is right that we put in place a ban to stop the export of livestock and horses for slaughter. My hon. Friend will also be aware of the two private Members’ Bills that are being taken forward to tackle the important issues of pet smuggling and pet theft, which I know are concerns to Members on both sides of the House.

Steve Reed Portrait Steve Reed (Croydon North) (Lab/Co-op)
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I welcome the Secretary of State to his place. He will have seen the BBC “Panorama” investigation that exposed how this Conservative Government have turned a blind eye to corruption and cover-ups at the heart of the water industry. Consumers are left facing higher water bills, while water bosses profit from pollution. Will the Secretary of State now back Labour’s plan to let the regulator block any bonuses for water bosses who are responsible for the tidal wave of sewage pouring into our rivers?

Steve Barclay Portrait Steve Barclay
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We can go one better than that, in that we have already brought forward measures that allow the regulator, Ofwat, to take action, alongside tougher penalties, now with unlimited fines. In addition, all storm overflows will be monitored 100% by the end of this year, and there will be a much tougher approach on regulation, as the House heard in the strong response to the debate earlier this week.

James Daly Portrait James Daly (Bury North) (Con)
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T2. The Mayor of Greater Manchester’s proposal for a 493 square mile clean air charging zone would have been a disaster for businesses in my constituency. Can my right hon. Friend provide an update on the Government’s response to the current Greater Manchester clean air proposal?

Steve Barclay Portrait Steve Barclay
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I can try, but the task of finding clarity in the position of the Mayor of Greater Manchester in this regard is somewhat confusing. First he says he is in favour of tackling the issue of air quality—and, indeed, we have heard from Opposition Members how important that is—and then, when he has powers to take action, he seems to look to Westminster and expect us to act on his behalf. Of course I will follow up my hon. Friend’s request and seek clarity from the Mayor, but the ability to do so has, to date, been rather limited.

Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi Portrait Mr Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi (Slough) (Lab)
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T3. Why have the Secretary of State and this Conservative Government allowed water companies to increase my constituents’ bills substantially and pay out millions in executive bonuses, while failing to regulate the industry’s rampant pollution and the dumping of raw sewage in our waterways, in stark contrast to Labour’s commitment to hold those companies accountable?

Steve Barclay Portrait Steve Barclay
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Let us look behind the rhetoric. Given that the Leader of the Opposition keeps telling us that he wants the Labour Government in Wales to be his blueprint, it is probably worth our taking a look at Labour’s record in this respect. [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman asked the question, but he does not seem to want to hear about Labour’s record, which is not surprising. Under Labour in Wales, the average number of spills from storm overflows last year was 66% higher than the average in England. We have introduced unlimited fines and tougher regulation, and we have set strong targets in legislation. We can see what Labour in power would deliver—we can see it in Wales: a 66% increase in storm overflows.

Neil Hudson Portrait Dr Neil Hudson (Penrith and The Border) (Con)
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T5. Can the Minister give me an update on the investigation by the Department and the UK Health Security Agency of the recently confirmed human case of influenza A(H1N2)v, which is similar to influenza viruses currently circulating in pigs in the UK? Does he agree that infectious diseases such as this with a zoonotic potential underline the importance of the Animal and Plant Health Agency to our national biosecurity and public health, and that we should definitely be investing in the long-term redevelopment of its headquarters in Weybridge?

Mark Spencer Portrait The Minister for Food, Farming and Fisheries (Mark Spencer)
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Swine influenza is endemic in the UK pig population. It generally causes only mild illness, but the Health Security Agency’s investigation, with support from DEFRA, is ongoing. We are committed to upholding the UK’s high level of biosecurity, and work is under way, with £200 million in the current spending review, to safeguard the long-term future of Weybridge as a centre for scientific excellence in tackling high-risk diseases such as this.

None Portrait Several hon. Members rose—
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Eleanor Laing Portrait Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Eleanor Laing)
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Order. We have not much time, so could we go a bit faster, with shorter questions and shorter answers?

Mary Glindon Portrait Mary Glindon (North Tyneside) (Lab)
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T4. What steps has the Department taken to deliver the measures proposed in the national food strategy to encourage the reformulation of food and drink products?

Steve Barclay Portrait Steve Barclay
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That is one of the issues that I look forward to dealing with in the weeks ahead, and I shall be happy to drop a note to the hon. Lady.

Bob Blackman Portrait Bob Blackman (Harrow East) (Con)
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I apologise for not being here earlier, Madam Deputy Speaker.

Fly-tipping is the No. 1 issue in my constituency. Will my hon. Friend join me in praising Conservative-run Harrow Council for introducing free bottle waste collections and 24-hour notice of fly-tipping clear-ups, and indeed increasing the number of fines for fly-tipping from 60 per year—under Labour—to 600 last year?

Robbie Moore Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Robbie Moore)
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I commend the great work that Conservative-run Harrow Council is doing, and I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for bringing those points to our attention. The new fly-tipping league tables allow central and local government, and indeed members of the public, to identify councils that are taking a proactive approach to enforcement—instead of simply cleaning up after fly-tippers—at fly-tippers’ expense.

Marion Fellows Portrait Marion Fellows (Motherwell and Wishaw) (SNP)
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T6. A successful healthy and sustainable food system requires a number of factors, including a consumer base that can afford it. Recent surveys show that 25% of people have removed healthy and organic food from their diet to save money. How does the Secretary of State plan to cultivate a consumer base that will enable people to buy good, healthy food?

Steve Barclay Portrait Steve Barclay
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My right hon. Friend the Chancellor has set out a whole range of methods to support consumers with the cost of living—[Interruption.] Just as the hon. Lady raises her hands on that, it is also worth remembering that, under the Barnett consequentials, Scotland receives more per head than those consumers in England. So those in Scotland are better able to meet those cost-of-living pressures—[Interruption.] SNP Members do not seem to like the facts, but it is a fact that under Barnett consequentials the funding in Scotland is higher per head that the funding in England, which allows consumers to meet those cost of living pressures and to make those choices, should they so wish.

Peter Aldous Portrait Peter Aldous (Waveney) (Con)
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Over the past six weeks, the Suffolk and Norfolk coast has taken a real battering. Homes have tragically been lost to the sea, not least in Pakefield in my constituency. Will my right hon. Friend review the support provided to such households and businesses, to ensure that they receive parity of support with those impacted by pluvial and fluvial flooding?

Steve Barclay Portrait Steve Barclay
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As a fellow east of England MP, I know what a fantastic champion my hon. Friend is for his constituents and how rigorously he will ensure that those points are made. He, as an experienced parliamentarian, will also know that many of those fiscal issues are for colleagues within the Treasury, but I am very happy to have discussions with him and to make representations where required.

Layla Moran Portrait Layla Moran (Oxford West and Abingdon) (LD)
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T7. Oxford was proud when Port Meadow was given bathing water status, yet just last week the water quality was again rated poor. With the Secretary of State meet me to discuss how we can hold Thames Water to account for its continual failure over dumping raw sewage in Oxfordshire?

Robbie Moore Portrait Robbie Moore
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I am happy, as the Minister responsible for water quality, to meet with the hon. Lady, but I will also say that, from the bathing water classifications we saw this week, 95.7% of bathing waters in England are rated good or excellent. That is up from 2010, when just 76% across England were rated good. This Government are taking water quality seriously, and I will endeavour to make sure that we go even further.

Eleanor Laing Portrait Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Eleanor Laing)
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That concludes questions to DEFRA Ministers. We all welcome the new DEFRA team.

The Attorney General was asked—
Emma Lewell-Buck Portrait Mrs Emma Lewell-Buck (South Shields) (Lab)
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1. What steps she is taking to help ensure the effective prosecution of perpetrators of fraud and economic crime.

Alex Cunningham Portrait Alex Cunningham (Stockton North) (Lab)
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4. What steps she is taking to help ensure effective prosecution of perpetrators of fraud and economic crime.

Michael Tomlinson Portrait The Solicitor General (Michael Tomlinson)
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The Crown Prosecution Service and the Serious Fraud Office play a critical role in bringing economic criminals to justice. Just yesterday, the SFO announced a new investigation into fraud at AOG Technics Ltd, an aircraft parts supplier. That is the third new investigation launched since Nick Ephgrave became director of the SFO.

Emma Lewell-Buck Portrait Mrs Lewell-Buck
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Members of the Conservative party used the pandemic as an opportunity to make money for their friends and donors totalling £3.5 billion. When will they face justice?

Michael Tomlinson Portrait The Solicitor General
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I completely refute what the hon. Lady has said. I was looking forward to her question, but I was disappointed with the tone and substance of it. It is right to say that this Government are taking economic crime seriously, and fraud as well. I hope she has seen the new fraud strategy and, importantly, the report commissioned from Jonathan Fisher KC and his review on disclosure, which is due out next summer.

Alex Cunningham Portrait Alex Cunningham
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The Government’s fraud strategy in May was billed as a comprehensive plan to tackle fraud against the public and business, so can the Attorney General explain why it contains no details of the number of offences suffered by business, no estimates of the losses that result, no targets in relation to business, no measures specific to business and not a single mention of the two biggest types of business fraud: procurement and payroll?

Michael Tomlinson Portrait The Solicitor General
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I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman has seen the full strategy—that is good news. I repeat my point about Jonathan Fisher KC, who has some important work to do. The hon. Gentleman will understand the volumes of crime and the volumes of digital material in the Serious Fraud Office. Jonathan Fisher is looking at that and at disclosure, and that will help businesses, help individuals, help the country and help the SFO to get on with its job.

Eleanor Laing Portrait Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Eleanor Laing)
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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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The Solicitor General will recall that back in 2022 the Justice Committee produced a report on fraud in the justice system and the steps needed to improve the way we tackle it. I welcome a number of the changes that have been made, including the appointment of Mr Fisher KC, but will the Solicitor General reflect that one of the areas of concern is the type of fraud that is significant, causes real loss to businesses and individuals, but falls below the level dealt with by the SFO? There is real concern about the capacity and expertise within police forces and the Crown Prosecution Service to tackle that level of fraud, which falls into the gap. What is the fraud strategy and, more broadly, what are the Government going to do to empower the police and prosecuting authorities to tackle that sort of fraud?

Michael Tomlinson Portrait The Solicitor General
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I am grateful to the Chair of the Select Committee for his question. We take all his reports seriously, especially in this area. The CPS charges 76% of all fraud matters placed before it and has a conviction rate of more than 84%. I will commit to reflecting further on this matter.

Tim Loughton Portrait Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham) (Con)
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The Solicitor General will be aware that the Home Affairs Committee has launched a review of fraud. Last week, we heard fascinating testimony on romance fraud from the victim of the Netflix series “The Tinder Swindler”. Remarkably in her case, she was treated as a perpetrator, investigated by the police and threatened with prosecution, even though she had been defrauded out of hundreds of thousands of pounds, and was led a merry dance by that chap, who is still doing what he did then. Is there not a case for bringing together Law Officers, Ministers, the police and the social media companies to ensure that we deal with the victims and the perpetrators accordingly?

Michael Tomlinson Portrait The Solicitor General
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My hon. Friend always raises serious points and brings to bear his expertise from the Home Affairs Committee. There is a case for cross-Government working. In my role as a Law Officer I work across all Departments, including the Home Office, and I look forward to continuing to do so.

Nick Smith Portrait Nick Smith (Blaenau Gwent) (Lab)
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Greensill Capital is subject to criminal investigation in the UK, Switzerland and Germany. In Duncan Mavin’s book “A Pyramid of Lies,” he subtitles the saga

“The Prime Minister, the Banker and the Billion-Pound Scandal”.

Amazingly, the company was not regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority. Will the Attorney General please look into this massive loophole? The scandal could have been stopped if the FCA had been able to step in earlier.

Michael Tomlinson Portrait The Solicitor General
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The hon. Gentleman will understand that the Attorney General and I superintend both the Crown Prosecution Service and the Serious Fraud Office, but that does not mean that we direct how they conduct investigations, and nor should we. It is right and proper that both organisations conduct their matters independently of Government, and that will continue.

Bob Blackman Portrait Bob Blackman (Harrow East) (Con)
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Further to the question by my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Sir Robert Neill), what guidelines are given not only to the police but to the Crown Prosecution Service about the level at which fraud will be investigated? As chair of the all-party parliamentary group on personal banking and fairer financial services, I have referred a number of cases that have come to me to the police and to the CPS, and they say that they do not have the resources to investigate them. Could my hon. and learned Friend update the House on the position?

Michael Tomlinson Portrait The Solicitor General
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My hon. Friend is diligent in these matters, and he raises an issue that affects us all as constituency MPs, as we have all had cases brought to us that need to be investigated. I work very closely with both the police and the Home Office, and I will continue to do so.

Eleanor Laing Portrait Madam Deputy Speaker
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I call the shadow Minister.

Karl Turner Portrait Karl Turner (Kingston upon Hull East) (Lab)
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In January 2022, the then Chancellor said that, clearly, criminals have sought to exploit our covid support schemes, and

“We’re going to do everything we can to get that money back and go after those who took advantage of the pandemic.”

What proportion of that money has been recovered so far? How many of those who took advantage have been sent to jail?

Michael Tomlinson Portrait The Solicitor General
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First, I warmly welcome the hon. Gentleman to his place or, rather, back to his place, as I understand that this is his third outing in the shadow ministerial team. It is pleasing to see his predecessor, the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter), whose name is on the Order Paper. We look forward to his question.

The shadow Minister will be interested to know that I recently visited the Insolvency Service, which is conducting investigations into the bounce back loan scheme and the like. We must remember that the covid lending schemes delivered just under £80 billion of finance in almost record time. It was called for from across the House and should be supported, but he is right that those who have committed fraud should be investigated.

Kevin Foster Portrait Kevin Foster (Torbay) (Con)
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2. What assessment she has made of the effectiveness of the Unduly Lenient Sentence scheme.

Michael Tomlinson Portrait The Solicitor General
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In 2022, my office received 819 requests to review unduly lenient sentences. Of those, 139 were referred to the Court of Appeal, and the sentence was increased in 68% of cases.

Kevin Foster Portrait Kevin Foster
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I welcome much of the work being done. As the Solicitor General will be aware, a serving Royal Navy sailor was the subject of a violent attack in Torquay when he attempted to stop a group of yobs stamping a bird to death, but the unduly lenient community sentences and small fines handed down did not reflect the gravity of the offence or provide any deterrent. What steps will the Government take to review the unduly lenient sentence scheme to cover cases such as that?

Michael Tomlinson Portrait The Solicitor General
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I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for his question. I know he has had a long-standing interest in this subject since even before he was a Member of the House, and I am grateful to him for holding the Government to account. He knows that the ULS scheme—the unduly lenient sentence scheme—is reserved for the most serious matters. It is right to say that we keep the scheme under review. I cannot promise or guarantee to my hon. Friend any imminent changes to it, but I am very grateful to him for raising that important case.

Barry Sheerman Portrait Mr Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op)
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Could the Solicitor General make it clearer what the scheme is about and spread the message more broadly? I regularly write to him to say that a sentence has been too lenient. I recently wrote to him about Bernie Ecclestone, who I thought should have been severely punished for his behaviour. I have also sometimes written to the Solicitor General and his predecessors about too severe sentences, often involving women who have not conducted any violent crime but get long sentences. Can we have a balance, please?

Michael Tomlinson Portrait The Solicitor General
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Well, it is a Thursday, and I think we have heard a call for a Backbench Business debate or, indeed, for an Adjournment debate, and I would warmly welcome that. There have been such debates on the unduly lenient sentence scheme. It is not a mystery—there are further details online—but I would seriously welcome a further debate to air these matters, because they are important. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that the balance between, on the one hand, unduly lenient sentences, and on the other hand, manifestly excessive sentences is important, and I look forward to his application for a debate.

Rachael Maskell Portrait Rachael Maskell (York Central) (Lab/Co-op)
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3. If she will hold discussions with Cabinet colleagues on consulting the International Criminal Court on potential breaches of international law in the conflict between Hamas and Israel.

Victoria Prentis Portrait The Attorney General (Victoria Prentis)
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I know that the hon. Lady cares deeply about the region. She and I—and, indeed, you, Madam Deputy Speaker—visited the region together some years ago, and I know that at the current time all of us will be thinking about the places we visited and the people we met. In answer to her question, the ICC started an investigation into the situation in Palestine in March 2021.

Rachael Maskell Portrait Rachael Maskell
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I thank the Attorney General for her response. In the light of the brutality and sexual violence perpetrated against Israeli civilians by the terrorists of Hamas, and the scale of the indiscriminate bombing of tens of thousands of Palestinians, including children, in Gaza, how is she urging the UK Government to advocate for the end of the killing to ensure that the International Criminal Court can gather the most detailed evidence to weigh the actions of all parties against international law at the earliest opportunity?

Victoria Prentis Portrait The Attorney General
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The Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary and, indeed, the whole of the UK Government have consistently urged that international humanitarian law must be followed in this case. The ICC prosecutor, who is a British-born barrister—Karim Khan, with whom I have had a number of extremely helpful meetings over the course of my time as Attorney General—has said that the investigation is

“ongoing and extends to the escalation of hostilities and violence since the attacks that took place on 7 October”.

Eleanor Laing Portrait Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Eleanor Laing)
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I call the spokesman for the Scottish National party.

Brendan O'Hara Portrait Brendan O'Hara (Argyll and Bute) (SNP)
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Article 86 of the Rome statute says that, in relation to the work of the International Criminal Court, state parties shall “cooperate fully with the Court in its investigation and prosecution of crimes within the jurisdiction of the Court.”

Given that in 2022 the UK referred Russia to the ICC, can we assume that the UK will comply with any request from the ICC for footage from the reconnaissance flights operating over Gaza? If not, what would be the legal basis for refusing an ICC request?

Victoria Prentis Portrait The Attorney General
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As I said, the UK supports the ICC and its chief prosecutor Karim Khan. We do have surveillance flights operating in the region. The primary purpose of those is to help with the hostage situation. We will say once again that we very much hope that the hostages will be released immediately. It is absolutely the case that we will continue to urge all parties to continue to abide by international humanitarian law.

Jeff Smith Portrait Jeff Smith (Manchester, Withington) (Lab)
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5. What recent steps has she taken with Cabinet colleagues to uphold the rule of law within Government.

Andy Slaughter Portrait Andy Slaughter (Hammersmith) (Lab)
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6. What recent steps has she taken with Cabinet colleagues to uphold the rule of law within Government

Victoria Prentis Portrait The Attorney General (Victoria Prentis)
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As I emphasised to the House of Lords Constitution Committee in June, the rule of law is fundamental to our constitution, and it is the duty of the Law Officers to uphold it.

Jeff Smith Portrait Jeff Smith
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I will not ask the Attorney General to comment on specific legal advice that she has given to colleagues—I know she cannot do that—but, as a general point of principle, does she agree that the inclusion of a notwithstanding clause in legislation cannot magic away the international laws to which it refers, especially if an individual claimant can still assert their rights under those international laws?

Victoria Prentis Portrait The Attorney General
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As the hon. Gentleman knows very well, I am unable to do away with client confidentiality and give him the specifics of any legal advice that I may or may not have given. I take very seriously my obligations to encourage the Government to act in a lawful manner and to ensure that the Government are acting in a lawful manner, both on the domestic front and on the international front.

Andy Slaughter Portrait Andy Slaughter
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While it is a pleasure to see my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull East (Karl Turner) back in his rightful place on the Front Bench, I wonder how long the Attorney General will feel able to remain in hers. How comfortable is she with the draft Safety of Rwanda (Asylum and Immigration) Bill, which seeks to oust the jurisdiction of our highest courts, denies our country’s international treaty obligations and treats our constitution and the rule of law with contempt? She has rightly said that her first duty is

“as an officer of the court”,

and she has called for a “respectful relationship” between the Executive and the courts. Is that why her name does not appear on the face of the Bill?

Victoria Prentis Portrait The Attorney General
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May I start by thanking the former shadow Solicitor General for his great work while in that post and in particular for his championing of the pro bono movement, which I know he has always taken extremely seriously? It has been and remains a pleasure to do business with him. He knows perfectly well—better than most—that I cannot give from the Dispatch Box the details of legal advice that I have been giving to the Government, or of whether or not I have been giving such advice. That remains the case. I remain very comfortable in my role, and I hope that I will remain in this role to give the Government legal advice for a long time to come.

Emily Thornberry Portrait Emily Thornberry (Islington South and Finsbury) (Lab)
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I join colleagues on both sides of the House in welcoming the new shadow Solicitor General, my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull East (Karl Turner), to his place. I am delighted to see his predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter), still contributing to our debates. It is a pleasure and a blessing to work with both of them.

As the previous questions illustrate, there is an intense level of public interest both inside and outside the House about the legal implications of the new Rwanda Bill. While I appreciate that there is a doctrine of client confidentiality, it is nevertheless right to ask the Attorney General formally if she will publish her full legal advice on the Bill, as happened with the Brexit withdrawal agreement, or a summary of the legal position, as happened with the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill. In particular, will she set out the advice given to her colleagues across Government on whether the introduction and implementation of the Bill is compatible with their obligations under the ministerial code and the civil service code?

Victoria Prentis Portrait The Attorney General
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The right hon. Lady understands, as I hope all of us in the Chamber do, the complications of the Law Officers convention, which means that I simply cannot go into the details of my advice here. On very rare occasions, either legal advice has been leaked or, more recently, I am glad to say, a summary of the Government’s legal position, which may or may not include the Attorney General’s advice, has been provided. The sort of circumstances in which we would envisage that to be appropriate would be if we were taking military action overseas, for example. It is not something that is done on a regular basis.

What I would say to colleagues, because there has been a great deal of interest in the legal position surrounding the Bill, is that the use of a section 19(1)(b) statement is not unprecedented. In fact, I remember, as a much younger lawyer, when Tessa Jowell used such a statement for the Communications Act 2003. That Act went on to be tested in the Strasbourg Court and the Government were successful in that case, so I would not read too much into the use of a section 19(1)(b) statement. It is unusual, but not unprecedented.

Neale Hanvey Portrait Neale Hanvey (Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath) (Alba)
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7. What recent discussions she has had with the Serious Fraud Office on the prosecution of covid-19 related fraud.

Michael Tomlinson Portrait The Solicitor General (Michael Tomlinson)
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The Attorney General and I regularly meet with the SFO director; however, the vast majority of covid fraud cases do not fall within the SFO’s remit, and investigations are handled by the most appropriate agency. Recently, as the hon. Gentleman will have heard, I visited the Insolvency Service and heard about its excellent work in relation to bounce bank loans.

Neale Hanvey Portrait Neale Hanvey
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Given the statement by the former director of the Serious Fraud Office that red flags were ignored, and that Parliament’s own spending watchdog estimates potential fraud of £16 billion, how much has been recovered to date and what further lessons have been learned and applied to ensure that identification and prevention of fraud is embedded across all Government Departments, and why are the UK Government not recovering that fraud with the same zeal and determination that they have for impoverishing benefit claimants who have had overpayments through no fault of their own?

Michael Tomlinson Portrait The Solicitor General
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I entirely refute and disagree with the hon. Gentleman’s final comment, but he will be pleased to know that the new director of the SFO has set off apace. He has launched new investigations. There is a new energy and a new rigour within the SFO, but I repeat that it is not just the SFO that conducts such investigations; the Insolvency Service is also involved, and is also carrying out some excellent work.

Chris Stephens Portrait Chris Stephens (Glasgow South West) (SNP)
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8. What steps she is taking to increase prosecution rates for small boat gangs and other people traffickers.

Michael Tomlinson Portrait The Solicitor General (Michael Tomlinson)
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Earlier this year, the Attorney General and I visited Western Jet Foil and the joint control room in Dover to discuss the Illegal Migration Act 2023. The number of small boat crossings is down by a third this year, and we are seeing an increase in the number of prosecutions since the introduction of the Nationality and Borders Act 2022.

Chris Stephens Portrait Chris Stephens
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Yesterday the Safety of Rwanda (Asylum and Immigration) Bill was laid before the House. It would disapply the Human Rights Act 1998 for those seeking sanctuary. That undermines the UK’s international reputation and international law. The Home Secretary said yesterday at the Dispatch Box that the Attorney General made it clear that the Bill is in conformity with international law, so can he confirm that that advice was given, and how is it meant to impact small boat crossings and prosecutions?

Michael Tomlinson Portrait The Solicitor General
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The hon. Gentleman has kindly been present throughout question time, so he will know that I cannot confirm or deny whether advice was even sought, let alone given, let alone its content. His question is about small boat crossings, which Government Members are determined to stop. I was disappointed that he did not support our Nationality and Borders Act, which prosecuted the people traffickers. That is the substance of his question. I look forward to his reading the Bill in more detail and supporting it in due course.

Refurbishing Trains: Contracts

Thursday 7th December 2023

(5 months, 3 weeks 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

10:33
Grahame Morris Portrait Grahame Morris (Easington) (Lab)
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(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Transport if he will make a statement on expediting the contract process for refurbishing existing UK trains.

Huw Merriman Portrait The Minister of State, Department for Transport (Huw Merriman)
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I thank the hon. Member for his question, which I will answer on behalf of the Secretary of State. The Department works closely with rolling stock owners and train operators to understand when new and refurbished trains are likely to be required, and to ensure a regular flow of work for train manufacturing companies. Trains are major assets, with a lifetime of 35 to 40 years, so there will naturally be peaks and troughs in procurement cycles. The average age of the current fleet is 17 years.

The Department has overseen the procurement of more than 8,000 new vehicles for the Great British mainline railway since 2012. Some of those are still being produced, including Alstom trains for South Western and West Midlands trains. Passenger travel habits have changed over the past three years, and while numbers are showing signs of improvement, we are still seeing reduced passenger revenue on the railway. We are aware that Alstom is facing difficult trading conditions. It is consulting its unions and employees on possible job losses. While it must be a commercial decision for Alstom, the Government have been working with the company to explore options to enable it to continue manufacturing at its Derby site. Officials from my Department and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport have held regular meetings with senior management at Alstom. We have also convened a cross-Whitehall group to advise on ways to support continued production at Derby and how best to support those workers who could lose their jobs.

The fact remains that the market for passenger trains is competitive. The Department cannot guarantee orders for individual manufacturers. None the less, we expect substantial continued demand for new trains. Last month, LNER confirmed an order of 10 new tri-mode trains for the east coast main line, and on Monday, a tender for new trains for the TransPennine Express route was launched. Contract awards are also expected between late 2024 and early 2025 for major orders for Southeastern, Northern and Chiltern. In the meantime, the Government will continue to work with Alstom and other UK manufacturers to ensure a strong and sustainable future for the rail industry.

Grahame Morris Portrait Grahame Morris
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Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for granting this question on a matter of some urgency. I thank the Minister for his response, and I must impress upon him and the House that the Secretary of State must expedite the contract bidding process for updating existing UK trains to ensure the survival of the UK-based train manufacturing industry. Without immediate plans to allow companies to bid for new contracts, make no mistake, thousands of skilled jobs in the UK will go. The urgency stems from the crucial role of the Alstom factory in Derby. It is the UK’s only end-to-end, design, build and test train manufacturing facility, making it integral to the UK’s rail manufacturing industries.

Some 3,000 people currently work directly at Alstom, and 15,000 jobs in the supply chain rely on the factory’s continued production. Nick Crossfield, Alstom’s managing director, gave evidence to the Transport Committee yesterday, and he was absolutely clear that the Government need to decide now on how and where they want trains to be made in the future. If this Government do not expedite the bidding process, trains will not continue to be manufactured in the UK. They will start to be manufactured in North America, South America or south- east Asia.

Alstom’s current and final contract for rolling stock is on the Elizabeth line and is due to expire in six weeks. That could mean an end to the rail manufacturing industry in the UK as we know it. Yesterday, I met Unite the union, of which I am a proud member, and rail workers from Alstom site in Derby, and they asked for our help in retaining their jobs. Also just yesterday, two of the supply chain companies that supply Alstom went into liquidation due to the uncertainty over future orders from the Alstom factory. Timing on this issue has never been more crucial.

Huw Merriman Portrait Huw Merriman
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May I again thank my friend the hon. Member for Easington for raising this important issue? This is a matter of grave concern. The site has been operating in Derby for many years. Indeed, I think he and I both went to that site when it was formerly owned by Bombardier as part of a Transport Committee delegation. That support is assured. I also make the point that I am meeting Unite the union next week. It has been in touch, and I will be pleased to work with it and everyone to see what more can be done to keep that plant open.

Eleanor Laing Portrait Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Eleanor Laing)
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I call the Chair of the Select Committee.

Iain Stewart Portrait Iain Stewart (Milton Keynes South) (Con)
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I know that the Minister is a great advocate of the work of the Transport Committee, and I strongly urge him to look at the transcript of the evidence we received yesterday from not just Alstom but others in the rail industry. The fact is that the medium and long-term prospects for the sector are positive. What we are facing is a short-term lull. I impress on him the urgency of working with the rolling stock companies—ROSCOs—and others to try to bring forward some refurbishment contracts that Alstom and others can bid for to help smooth out these peaks and troughs in the sector.

Huw Merriman Portrait Huw Merriman
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I thank my hon. Friend, the Chair of the Select Committee, for the work he does—that evidence session was particularly pertinent for highlighting the matters he allows that Committee to raise. I can assure him that the Secretary of State wrote to rolling stock owners in September to encourage them to discuss with train operators and manufacturers opportunities to ease short-term challenges in the supply chain, such as refurbishments or major overhauls. We recognise the issue, and have asked others to do their best to deliver on that.

Rachael Maskell Portrait Rachael Maskell (York Central) (Lab/Co-op)
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I declare that I am a member of Unite the union, and met with trade union members yesterday. The urgency of this matter cannot be overstated—the clock is ticking, and those jobs will be consulted on in the very near future if contracts cannot be found. The Minister wrote in September, but what has he been doing over the past three months to bring forward contracts that will enable the plant to remain open?

Huw Merriman Portrait Huw Merriman
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As I have mentioned, we have written to ask rolling stock owners what more action they can take. Just on Monday, I was up in Yorkshire for the announcement of an extra £3.9 billion in funding for the TransPennine route upgrade. That also starts the tendering process for new rolling stock—29 new trains, with an option for another 26—and as I mentioned, we are looking for the tendering process for Southeastern, Chiltern and Northern to go forward as well, so orders are being put into the pipeline for train manufacturers.

Greg Smith Portrait Greg Smith (Buckingham) (Con)
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From the generous time he has given me on this subject, my hon. Friend will know that overcrowding on the Chiltern line persists to a very serious degree, because the age of the rolling stock regularly leads to Chiltern having to run very short trains on the main line—trains that some people cannot even get on in the first place. As he looks at this important subject, will my hon. Friend do all he can to ensure that Chiltern can get trains refurbished and get new trains into the pipeline as soon as possible?

Huw Merriman Portrait Huw Merriman
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My hon. Friend is a champion for the Chiltern line, and he does indeed bend my ear on that subject—he is right to do so, because that line is getting busier now, which is a positive. That tendering process will be brought into being next year: we want to see Chiltern trains, and that process should allow them to be delivered.

Ian Mearns Portrait Ian Mearns (Gateshead) (Lab)
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We are not asking the Secretary of State to give one company special treatment over another—I should say that I am also a member of Unite the union—but I believe that the retention of British manufacturing capacity has to be regarded as strategically important for the United Kingdom. Will he allow us to go forward by granting all companies the opportunity to bid on new rail upgrade plans, such as Crossrail, Southeastern, and even the extensive Network North plans? Time is of the essence, and swift action from the Government can make a significant difference in securing the future of the UK rail manufacturing industry.

Huw Merriman Portrait Huw Merriman
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I can give the hon. Member that assurance. We will be bringing those contract tenders forward; we now have four train manufacturers, which is to be celebrated. We have CAF in south Wales, we have Hitachi up in the north-east, we have Alstom—of course—in Derby, and now we have Siemens in Goole. All those manufacturers are bidding, and the hon. Member is absolutely right that there must be a fair process for all, which will take place.

Simon Fell Portrait Simon Fell (Barrow and Furness) (Con)
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It is not that long ago that we had the hated Pacer trains on the Furness line. We were very glad to see the back of those, but of course a new, shiny train is no good if it is not running. The Minister mentioned that if we are not seeing customer demand, that is going to hurt the industry, so could he speak to what the Government are doing to improve customer service and get the level of train service back up to where my constituents hope it will be?

Huw Merriman Portrait Huw Merriman
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We are aware that performance needs to be a lot better than it is currently, not just from train manufacturers but from Network Rail. Indeed, I was due to meet with the train operators this morning to discuss that issue; obviously, I have had to move that meeting, but I am very happy to meet with my hon. Friend so that I can take his particular points into account. We need to do more.

Simon Lightwood Portrait Simon Lightwood (Wakefield) (Lab/Co-op)
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The Alstom Litchurch Lane factory in Derby has been building trains for over a century, since the dawn of train travel. It has provided high-skilled jobs for the local community for generations and helps support other local companies that form part of its supply chain, and as Britain’s biggest train-building plant, it plays a pivotal role in supporting the growth of the midlands and our country’s manufacturing sector.

Following the Government’s chaos and indecision over HS2 and the lack of a long-term strategy, hundreds of highly skilled jobs at the plant are at risk, with no confirmed workload beyond the first quarter of 2024, and contracts to build trains for HS2 pushed back until 2026, creating a gap in orders. This news will be deeply worrying for those affected and their families in the run-up to Christmas. It will also be extremely concerning for local businesses that rely on the factory and the wider rail sector, and for the people of Derby.

The workers at Alstom have only days to get a decision out of the Minister before their livelihoods are put at risk—time is up. They deserve to hear from the Minister how this has been allowed to happen, and what action the Government are taking to pursue a deal to secure the Derby plant and ensure that as many jobs are protected as possible. What urgent clarity can the Government provide Alstom on the short-term rolling stock pipeline, including possible refurbishments?

I am pleased that the Minister confirmed that he will be meeting representatives from Unite the union, and I hope that he will commit to working with them to safeguard jobs. When can the factory finally get certainty on HS2 orders, so that it can plan for the future and secure jobs? How many more rail manufacturing jobs across the country are at risk following the Government’s recent decision on HS2?

Earlier this year, Derby was named the Government’s home of Great British Railways. Just seven months on, the future of its landmark factory is in danger. At the heart of this is the chaos and indecision of the Conservative party. The Minister owes the people of Derby and the country an explanation of what he plans to do to stop the Prime Minister’s HS2 fiasco leading to more job losses.

Huw Merriman Portrait Huw Merriman
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I will, if I may, deal with the matter of HS2 head-on. The shadow rail Minister made that same point, saying that this was somehow linked to HS2, and it has now been made from the Dispatch Box today. The Secretary of State responded to the shadow rail Minister, so I shall put this on the record. With regard to HS2, he said:

“I can assure you this is not the case. Alstom is part of a contract with Hitachi to design, build and maintain HS2 trains for Phase One only. Phase One of HS2 between Birmingham and London will continue”.

That position has been reiterated by Alstom’s chief executive. I gently point out to the hon. Member for Wakefield (Simon Lightwood) that this has nothing to do with HS2; that has been established, and it is erroneous to claim otherwise.

The hon. Member also has to bear in mind that we now have four train manufacturers. We cannot just award a contract to one manufacturer; there has to be a fair tender process for all the jobs across all four plants. The Department for Transport has won a case brought by one of the other train manufacturers, demonstrating that our tendering process is fair.

Martin Vickers Portrait Martin Vickers (Cleethorpes) (Con)
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My hon. Friend referred in his opening statement to a new order from TransPennine. He will be aware that there is severe overcrowding on the Cleethorpes-Manchester-Liverpool service, because the trains have been reduced from six carriages to three in recent months. Can he enlighten me as to when the new stock will be coming forward, as it will greatly please my constituents?

Huw Merriman Portrait Huw Merriman
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I hope my hon. Friend’s constituents will be comforted by the order, because it is not just an order for new TransPennine express trains but a complete upgrade of the TransPennine route. The UK Government are spending more money on the TransPennine upgrade than was spent on the Elizabeth line, and that will mean delivering a better service. I was with the managing director of TransPennine trains on Monday up in Yorkshire and we were discussing just that. We need to improve the service and the rolling stock.

Wera Hobhouse Portrait Wera Hobhouse (Bath) (LD)
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Upgrades to our trains must include electrification, but electrification is at a standstill, with only 101 miles of track being electrified this year. East West Rail will not be electrified as standard, and dirty diesel trains are still going through Bath. Will the Minister commit to a long-term plan for electrification?

Huw Merriman Portrait Huw Merriman
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The Prime Minister’s Network North plan did just that—electrification for Hull, between Sheffield and Manchester, and between Sheffield and Leeds. They are vast projects, not small projects. With regard to East West Rail, that is the upgrade of an existing line, which has its bridge sizes all the way through from Winslow to Bletchley, so it is difficult to put electrification on to that part. Let me remind the hon. Lady that there has been more than 1,200 miles of electrification in the past 12 years compared with just over 60 miles in the 12 years before that. I think that is a pretty good record.

Rachel Hopkins Portrait Rachel Hopkins (Luton South) (Lab)
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I, too, have met workers from the Alstom plant in Derby and, as a Unite member myself, representatives of Unite as well. It was pleasing to hear that workers, representatives and management are united in their desire to retain good, high-skilled manufacturing jobs and train production there. I want to press the Minister again about recognising the importance of retaining the only end-to-end train production facilities in the UK during this short-term blip in production, so to speak. Does he agree that this investment in public transport is vital if we want to tackle the net zero challenges we face?

Huw Merriman Portrait Huw Merriman
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The hon. Lady is correct: that is vital. The challenge, and it is a good challenge, is that we now have four manufacturers, and we need to help them with international orders. That is why I sometimes go abroad with trade envoys from those companies to export around the globe. The average age of our rolling stock is down to just under 17 years—six years ago, it was 20 years—and as it gets fresher, there is a challenge with pipelines as well. However, we are bringing contracts forward so that we can fill the order book better.

Toby Perkins Portrait Mr Toby Perkins (Chesterfield) (Lab)
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As a Derbyshire Member of Parliament, I can tell the Minister that there is huge concern about the future of Alstom. I think it is perfectly reasonable to say that the Government have lacked strategic direction on rail. They have gone from one project to another, and in the last few years there has been no sense of an industrial strategy. When we have had these debates in the past, Ministers were always blaming the EU and saying we could not support British manufacturing because of the EU. We are now out of the EU, and it seems to me that countries such as Germany are much better at supporting their manufacturing. Can we have a real sense of urgency from the Minister and an indication that the Government are going to make sure, strategically, that these jobs are saved?

Huw Merriman Portrait Huw Merriman
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I assure the hon. Member that the Secretary of State in particular has been meeting Alstom, and our officials and our director general meet Alstom, including with representatives. I will be doing so on Tuesday week. We will do everything we can to assist, but this is a commercial matter for the operator. As I have mentioned, I have been to that plant with the Transport Committee and seen what it does for the workforce and for the supply chain. We will be doing everything we can to assist Alstom in keeping that plant open.

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)
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I thank the Minister for his answers. With many of my constituents dependent on Government help and support for manufacturing industry, I can well understand union fears at the dithering and the effect on the workforce. It is necessary to refurbish a number of trains, so can the Minister outline how the Government will ensure that the much-needed refurbishment contracts can be organised to keep people in work, rather than paying out redundancy money to them only to rehire them six months later when things are arranged properly? That is the desire of every Member of this House.

Huw Merriman Portrait Huw Merriman
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Yes, indeed. As I have mentioned, we are bringing forward orders, and the Secretary of State has written to the companies that finance train manufacturing and refurbishment to ask what more they can do to bring forward that refurbishment. At the risk of repeating myself, the challenge we have, and it is a good challenge, is that we have four fine train manufacturers and we have rolling stock that is younger than it previously was. So the aim is to try to get orders out, which we are doing, but I reiterate that it is also important that we help our train manufacturers export orders across the globe so that they can manufacture not just for home but for abroad, and keep those jobs going.

Cyber Interference: UK Democracy

Thursday 7th December 2023

(5 months, 3 weeks ago)

Commons Chamber
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10:50
Leo Docherty Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs (Leo Docherty)
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With permission, I will make a statement about attempted cyber interference in British democracy. I know hon. and right hon. Members across this House will recognise the seriousness of this issue.

The Government have long highlighted the threat to the UK and our allies from malicious cyber activity conducted by the Russian intelligence services. I can confirm today that the Russian Federal Security Service, the FSB, is behind a sustained effort to interfere in our democratic processes. It has targeted Members of this House and the other place. It has been targeting civil servants, journalists and non-government organisations. It has been targeting high-profile individuals and entities with a clear intent, using information it obtains to meddle in British politics.

Madam Deputy Speaker, you and parliamentary security have been briefed on the details of that activity. We want to be as open as we can with the House and the British public. Our commitment to transparency stands in sharp contrast to the efforts of the KGB’s successors to exert influence from the shadows. What can we confirm today? I want to stress five particular points of our assessments.

First, Centre 18, a unit within Russia’s FSB, has been involved in a range of cyber-espionage operations targeting the UK.

Secondly, Star Blizzard, a cyber group that the National Cyber Security Centre assesses is almost certainly subordinate to Centre 18, is responsible for a range of malign activities targeting British parliamentarians from multiple parties.

Thirdly, using those means, the group has selectively leaked and amplified the release of sensitive information in service of Russia’s goals of confrontation. In 2020, when he was Foreign Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for Esher and Walton (Dominic Raab) confirmed to the House that Russia had done that before the 2019 elections with documents related to UK-US trade. I can now confirm that we know Star Blizzard was involved in this operation.

Fourthly, these cyber actors use a combination of targeting, tailoring their operations in a far more sophisticated way than is usually the case with, for instance, commonplace cyber criminals. They typically engage in thorough research and preparation, including via social media and networking platforms. Having thus identified ways to engage a target, they create false accounts, impersonating contacts to appear legitimate, and create a believable approach, seeking to build a rapport before delivering a malicious link to either a document or website of interest. While they have targeted business and corporate emails, the group predominantly targets personal email addresses.

Finally, the targeting of this group is not limited to politicians, but includes public-facing figures and institutions of all types. We have seen impersonation and attempts to compromise email accounts across the public sector, universities, media, non-governmental organisations and wider civil society. Many of those individuals and organisations play a vital role in our democracy. As an example, the group was responsible for the 2018 hack of the Institute for Statecraft, a UK think-tank whose work included initiatives to defend democracy against disinformation, and the more recent hack of its founder, whose account was compromised from 2021. In both cases, documents were subsequently leaked.

The Government’s assessment is based on extensive analysis from the UK intelligence community and supported by a range of close international partners. Today, allies from the Five Eyes and the Euro-Atlantic region are joining us in illuminating the pervasive nature of this threat to our shared democratic values. I pay tribute to the dedicated public servants, in our own agencies and those of our partners, whose painstaking work has allowed us to expose the reality of the threat we face.

Taken together, the UK Government judge that these actions demonstrate a clear and persistent pattern of behaviour. Russia’s attempted interference in political and democratic processes, through cyber or any other means, is unacceptable. I reassure the House that we have identified targeting of parliamentary colleagues and engaged with victims through both the National Cyber Security Centre and the parliamentary authorities.

The Government will continue to expose and respond to malign cyber activity, holding Russia accountable for its actions. To that end, the UK has designated two individuals under the UK’s cyber sanctions regime, following a thorough investigation by the National Crime Agency into the hack of the Institute for Statecraft. In doing so we send a clear message that these actions have consequences. This morning, the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office has summoned the Russian ambassador to the Foreign Office to convey that message.

We have robust systems in place to protect against the threat from foreign malign influence. The Minister for Security, my right hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat), leads the defending democracy taskforce, which drives work to improve our resilience against these threats. Our National Cyber Security Centre, alongside Five Eyes partners, today published a technical advisory to provide guidance to organisations and individuals at risk of being targeted to help defend against such attacks. We will continue to defend ourselves from adversaries who seek to threaten the freedoms that underpin our democracy. It is and always will be an absolute priority to protect our democracy and elections.

A key component of increasing our resilience is supporting the National Cyber Security Centre and parliamentary authorities to deliver an enhanced cyber-security offer to right hon. and hon. Members, and to Members of the other place, that aims to better protect them against this insidious threat and support the resilience of our lively democratic society. We hope that this statement helps to raise awareness of the threat and allows those in public life, in this House and beyond, to recognise how they may be targeted by such operations.

Russia has a long-established track record of reckless, indiscriminate and destabilising malicious cyber-activity, with impacts felt all over the world. In recent years, the Government have, alongside allies, uncovered numerous instances of Russian intelligence targeting of critical national infrastructure, for example. We have worked in close co-ordination with our intelligence partners to expose sophisticated cyber-espionage tools aimed at sensitive targets. The irony of Russia’s abusing the freedoms that it denies its own people to interfere in our politics will not be lost on anyone.

Of course, our political processes and institutions have endured in spite of those attacks, but the cyber threat posed by the Russian intelligence services is real and serious. All right hon. and hon. Members should pay careful attention to it in the course of their work and their daily lives. Many in this House may not consider themselves a potential victim. I want to underline to the whole House that the targeting can be extremely convincing. We must all play our part in exercising good cyber practices, using appropriate caution and following the good guidance of the National Cyber Security Centre and others to mitigate the threat. That is how we defend ourselves and our precious democracy. I commend this statement to the House.

Eleanor Laing Portrait Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Eleanor Laing)
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I call the shadow Foreign Secretary.

11:01
David Lammy Portrait Mr David Lammy (Tottenham) (Lab)
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I am grateful to the Minister for advance sight of his statement.

The news that the Russian intelligence service is behind an effort to target Members of this House and the other place, civil servants, journalists and NGOs is not just concerning; it is an attack—not only on individuals, but on British democracy, on both sides of this House, and on the public we represent. Labour, along with the whole House, condemns it in the strongest terms.

The news comes as we approach 2024, the year of elections not only in Britain, but in the United States, India and the EU, with more than 70 elections scheduled in 40 countries across the world. Democracy is built on trust, and trust must be built on the confidence that politicians on all sides are able to conduct the business of democracy free from interference.

Let me ask the Minister some specific questions about these revelations. First, is he confident that the Government have uncovered the full extent of the cyber-attack and every person who was affected?

Secondly, on the response, I welcome the announcement of the designation of two individuals following the hack of the Institute for Statecraft, but has any specific action been taken to respond to the cyber-attack on parliamentarians that the Minister has revealed today? If not, why not?

Thirdly, as we approach the general election, what additional steps are the Government taking to ensure the integrity of the democratic process? Will they make their officials available to ensure that Members on both sides of this House are free from interference; to train, equip and support Members and all staff to better identify and respond to the challenge; and to ensure not just that their digital communications are protected, but that their offices, staff and families are, too?

This revelation is shocking but not unexpected. It is the latest episode in a long pattern of hostile activities by Russia and other hostile states, including Iran and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, against Britain and our allies. There is more that we can do. Labour has committed to the establishment of a democratic resilience centre in Government to work with our allies to protect our democratic values, political institutions, elections and open societies. Will the Government commit to creating one? As the shadow Home Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper), has outlined, we do not yet have a robust and long-lasting equivalent of the cross-Government counter-terrorism strategy—CONTEST —for dealing with hostile states. Will the Government commit to creating one?

Labour has proposed a joint cell between the Home Office and the Foreign Office to speed up decision making, share intelligence and expertise, and remove traditional barriers between Departments. Will the Government commit to creating one? They still have not amended terror legislation to allow the Government to ban hostile state-sponsored organisations that are undermining our national security. Will they commit to doing so? The Russia report has still not been fully implemented. Will the Government urgently update the House on when that will be completed?

This is not just about cyber-attacks and direct digital interference; it is about wider malign activity, including the use of artificial intelligence and deepfakes to seed false narratives, spread lies and foment divisions. That includes the widespread use of disinformation, misinformation and malinformation to undermine our democracy, through mainstream and social media, and other means. Labour has committed to urgently introducing binding regulation of companies developing the most powerful frontier AI, which could be used to disrupt elections. Will the Government commit to doing so too? Will they also commit to ensuring adequate resourcing for the National Cyber Security Centre, the intelligence agencies and the defending democracy taskforce?

I give the Minister every assurance that the Labour party will work in partnership and full co-operation with the Government and all relevant authorities to take every necessary step to address this threat and protect the integrity of our political process from hostile interference. As politicians from different parties, we have all stood united across the House against Putin’s imperial aggression in Ukraine. That unity is a source of strength and pride. In the face of these threats, this House must remain united, Britain must remain united and democracies must remain united in defence of our institutions and against those who seek to undermine the great values that our society is founded upon.

Leo Docherty Portrait Leo Docherty
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I am grateful for the tone and constructive content of the right hon. Gentleman’s response. He is right to say that 2024 is a bumper year of elections, involving some 70 elections and billions of people across 40 countries. This is a matter of trust and confidence, which is why we have made this statement now, to ensure that its full deterrent effect is properly timed.

The right hon. Gentleman asked whether we are confident that we have uncovered the full extent of the activity. We have a high degree of confidence with regard to this specific incident, but of course it is a question and our duty is to remain ever vigilant. The lesson of this sort of activity is that a higher degree of vigilance is necessary, and that is the posture that we now maintain in terms of any future activity.

I am grateful that the right hon. Gentleman welcomed the designation. Specific action has been taken by the NCSC, in accordance and together with House authorities, to ensure that all of the individuals affected have a higher degree of preventive measures in place. The posture of the House authorities, and the security offer available, have been enhanced. However, as I have said, it is a matter of improved vigilance on all sides. As for additional steps we might take, there is the collective deterrent impact of our naming and shaming these individuals and designating them in our sanctions, as well as the diplomatic effort to call Russia out, combined with personal cyber-security measures on behalf of individuals—those important steps that all colleagues need to take.

The right hon. Gentleman asked about the Whitehall structure in this area and pointed to his own policy of calling for a joint cell. We are confident that the defending democracy taskforce, led by the Security Minister, represents a robust and cross-departmental response. On the wider picture of disinformation, the right hon. Gentleman is right to say that we need to up our game to counter disinformation, call Russia out and better resource and energise our own security posture in the cyber domain. That has been done; there is an enhanced degree of resource, organisation and political will. This public statement today is part of the hugely important deterrent effect.

Theresa Villiers Portrait Theresa Villiers (Chipping Barnet) (Con)
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The Intelligence and Security Committee was one of the first to sound the alarm on this issue in its Russia report. More recently, we have highlighted the risk that China poses through interference in democratic discourse, for example, in think-tanks and universities. Will the Minister update the House on what action the Government are taking in response to the recommendations made in those two substantial reports?

Leo Docherty Portrait Leo Docherty
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My right hon. Friend makes a very good point. Clearly, this statement is about Russia, but she draws a comparison with the activity of China. That is an appropriate reference and I am pleased that in our domestic legislation we have the ability to ensure that countries with malign intent do not use think-tanks or other fronts to influence domestic political discourse in a way that is contrary to the health of our democracy.

Rosie Winterton Portrait Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Rosie Winterton)
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I call the Scottish National party spokesperson.

Brendan O'Hara Portrait Brendan O’Hara (Argyll and Bute) (SNP)
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I thank the Minister for prior sight of his statement. It makes for disturbing reading and I absolutely agree that Russia’s actions are completely unacceptable. That Members of this House and others have had their email accounts hacked is deeply concerning, but we know that this has happened before—indeed, it is probably happening right now—and we must accept that it will almost certainly happen again.

As the Minister said, Russia’s actions demonstrate a clear and persistent pattern of behaviour. Given that, have the Government considered making cyber-security training mandatory for all MPs and their staff? He will be aware of the belief that one of our weakest links in our cyber defences is our staff, who are constantly targeted by unscrupulous external actors. Although they are not House employees, it would be a reasonable precaution for MPs’ staff to receive in-house training on exactly what to look out for, how to avoid getting sucked into a trap and what they should do if they have even the slightest suspicion that they are being targeted.

Democracy is under attack. Just last week, the Canadian Government’s Communications Security Establishment released a new report on cyber threats to elections saying that at least a quarter of national elections around the world were targeted by some manner of threat, and that China and Russia were the most active countries and were launching increasingly sophisticated influence operations by spreading disinformation and seeking to push elections in a specific direction. Perhaps most worryingly, the Canadian report states in relation to AI undermining elections:

“We assess it very likely that the capacity to generate deepfakes exceeds our ability to detect them.”

With MPs facing having their emails hacked, the democratic process being undermined and the UK general election just around the corner, what are the Government doing to proactively defend the integrity of those elections, and when can the House expect to hear about it?

Leo Docherty Portrait Leo Docherty
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I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s comments and questions. He is absolutely right about the scale of the threat. Alongside our calling Russia out and describing the nature of the threat, it is important that we point out that Russia has failed in its intent to undermine our domestic politics. It was a genuine attempt that failed, and we are now more aware and resilient. That is why we are calling Russia out, but we should also be proud that the institutions of our democracy remain resilient. Russia has failed in its efforts and it will continue to fail because we will continue to call it out.

The hon. Gentleman made a very good point about staff training. I do not think we should mandate that, but we have worked on a much-enhanced offer to ensure that cyber-security is, root and branch, part of the normal working practice of MPs and staff. That offer has radically improved. The House authorities will continue to keep colleagues up to date. A higher degree of awareness in our working practice is very important and that is part of the rationale behind today’s statement.

Bob Blackman Portrait Bob Blackman (Harrow East) (Con)
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I welcome my hon. Friend’s update. I am sure that I am not alone in having received a large number of template emails on particular subjects. When I have diligently written back to those individuals, they have said that they did not send the emails. It is quite clear that hostile actors are collecting our constituents’ email addresses and using them to subvert the democratic process. Will my hon. Friend take the message not only back to the Foreign Office, but across the House, that this needs to be investigated and stopped?

Leo Docherty Portrait Leo Docherty
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My hon. Friend makes a very good point. This practice, using emails to insert malware or to entice users to click on a malicious link, is sometimes extremely convincing. Staff have to deal with a great volume of such emails, which is why we are pleased that the House authorities have greater awareness. Staff should seek guidance from the House authorities on taking a more secure approach.

Angela Eagle Portrait Dame Angela Eagle (Wallasey) (Lab)
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The Minister contributed to a very good debate in the UK-EU Parliamentary Partnership Assembly, which met in Westminster earlier this week, and touched on some of these issues. We are clearly dealing with hybrid warfare—there is no other phrase for it.

Although I commend the Minister for coming to the House to give us this information, the response of sanctioning two people seems rather mild. Will he say more about that? Will he also say something about the co-ordination across western democracies and allies on next year’s year of elections? We must all co-ordinate so that we can spot patterns in order to deal with this threat.

Leo Docherty Portrait Leo Docherty
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The hon. Lady should be reassured that, although today’s announcement pertains to two individuals, it is indicative of a huge and sustained institutional effort to tackle this threat by way of a vastly improved defensive cyber-capability right across our nation. Our global response is working hand in glove with Five Eyes partners, and there is a huge diplomatic and security effort to make sure this activity is called out and pursued. That is not just deterrence; it is also enhanced resilience. Although the number of individuals is small, the hon. Lady should be reassured that the institutional work is tremendously well resourced and entirely determined.

Simon Fell Portrait Simon Fell (Barrow and Furness) (Con)
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I thank the Minister for his statement. I am incredibly grateful to the Speaker’s Office, the Security Minister and the House authorities for their work to increase our awareness and to improve our protection within Parliament, but we are in a very privileged position. Frankly, the fabric of our society that is most at risk are those parts that do not have access to such information, whether they are small and medium-sized enterprises that supply critical national infrastructure, whether they are the parts of the economy that keep us going or, indeed, whether they are those who protect our elections. Will the Minister speak a little about what protections and information will be offered to them so that they can support us?

Leo Docherty Portrait Leo Docherty
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My hon. Friend makes a very good point. This affects us all. It not only affects parliamentarians or those in public life; it affects those in commerce. The National Cyber Security Centre has published guidance and is available to provide guidance to those businesses that need to ensure they have a higher degree of cyber- security and resilience, particularly those involved in, for example, critical national infrastructure.

Barry Sheerman Portrait Mr Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op)
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This is a refreshing statement, but what action will be taken? This is a very serious challenge to our democracy. Indeed, it is not only a serious challenge to Members of Parliament. I know of a major takeover of a British company by a Chinese entity. The senior executives said that, when they attended meetings, the Chinese knew information about the company, its secrets and its background that they could have known only by illegal means. It is everywhere, and it is particularly coming from Russia, China and perhaps Iran and North Korea. Can we have action? Yes, we need to train our staff and Members of Parliament, but I was brainwashed as a child by the James Bond novels—maybe you were too, Madam Deputy Speaker. We have a wonderful intelligence system, but are our intelligence services up to the job? Do they need more resources?

Leo Docherty Portrait Leo Docherty
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The hon. Gentleman asks about action. It is a good question, and I can give a good answer: in terms of our domestic legislation, we are now thankfully in a position to ensure that foreign countries with malign intent cannot freely invest in critical national infrastructure without the permission and outside the purview of Ministers. Ministers have taken specific action to ensure that divestment has taken place in certain commercial entities where a national interest is at stake, and that will continue to be the case. The Government posture has altered radically in recent years, and we should all be encouraged by that.

The hon. Gentleman made a welcome reference to James Bond. Of course, it is the Government’s policy never to comment on the security services, but I can ensure the hon. Gentleman that they are up to speed and very well resourced.

Layla Moran Portrait Layla Moran (Oxford West and Abingdon) (LD)
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This is shocking, but not at all surprising. We have heard before about possible interference in the Brexit referendum, and then we had the Russia report, which was not implemented. We are on the cusp of a general election—which may come sooner rather than later—so my question to the Minister is, what conversations are being had with the Electoral Commission and the political parties, because it is not just MPs we need to think about, but candidates? Also, what plans does he have to take a whole-of-society approach so that voters can build resilience, and our democratic process and the ballot are completely secure?

Leo Docherty Portrait Leo Docherty
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The hon. Lady makes a good point and asks a good question. The threat is significant, but I should reiterate that it has failed, which I think points to the resilience of our democratic institutions. That does not mean that we should not be eternally vigilant—we will be. That work involves all parties across the House and candidates. A lot of the preventive work is being carried out by the Defending Democracy Taskforce, which is specifically looking at this issue under the Security Minister. The hon. Lady should be reassured that they have the bit between their teeth.

Nick Smith Portrait Nick Smith (Blaenau Gwent) (Lab)
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I thank the Minister for his statement. What we have seen is malevolent behaviour, and I am glad to hear some of the Government’s plans. However, Labour is committed to establishing a democratic resilience centre, so can I press the Minister to ensure that the Government consider following our lead?

Leo Docherty Portrait Leo Docherty
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That work is already in place under the Defending Democracy Taskforce and the wholly re-energised and newly founded National Cyber Security Centre, established under this Government with tremendous resource and energy. Whatever we call it, there is now a significant effort to ensure that we deter these things and that MPs and everyone across the political spectrum are in a much more secure position.

Sarah Edwards Portrait Sarah Edwards (Tamworth) (Lab)
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As a new Member of this House, I obviously find this statement concerning. Will the Minister therefore outline some of the additional support that can be offered to new Members and their staff, particularly because there is a lot to navigate? There is an induction process, which I welcome because it has helped very much, but there was about 10 minutes on cyber-security, so it definitely could do with being updated.

Leo Docherty Portrait Leo Docherty
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The hon. Lady makes a good point, and she is absolutely right. An improved and enhanced offer is being worked up together with the House authorities. Cyber-security and cyber-hygiene should be a default daily practice. All colleagues should be aware of the offer, and it should be made available to all colleagues and staff.

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)
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I thank the Minister very much for his statement. Our Government have been prepping for cyber-warfare for some time. Indeed, the rationale behind lessening investment in recruitment into the armed forces has been that cyber-warfare is a bigger threat. That being the case, will the Minister confirm that the Government are prepared to act, should these newspaper claims have even a slither of truth? How can we send the message today that the UK is prepared to face the cyber-threat as readily as any other threat?

Leo Docherty Portrait Leo Docherty
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We are well placed. The threat is significant, and the risk to national resilience is significant in the cyber-age. The Deputy Prime Minister has led a huge amount of work on national resilience. Defensive cyber is an important part of that, and the National Cyber Security Centre has an important role to play. The challenge is huge, but the Government have covered a huge amount of ground. However, there is more work to do.

Rosie Winterton Portrait Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Rosie Winterton)
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I thank the Minister for his statement.

Business of the House

Thursday 7th December 2023

(5 months, 3 weeks ago)

Commons Chamber
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11:24
Penny Mordaunt Portrait The Leader of the House of Commons (Penny Mordaunt)
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The business for the week commencing 11 December will include the following:

Monday 11 December—Second Reading of the Leasehold and Freehold Reform Bill.

Tuesday 12 December— Second Reading of the Safety of Rwanda (Asylum and Immigration) Bill.

Wednesday 13 December—Second Reading of the Finance Bill.

Thursday 14 December—A general debate on knife crime, followed by a general debate on the potential merger of Three and Vodafone. The subjects for these debates were determined by the Backbench Business Committee.

Friday 15 December—The House will not be sitting.

The provisional business for the week commencing 18 December will include the following:

Monday 18 December—Second Reading of the Animal Welfare (Livestock Exports) Bill.

Tuesday 19 December—Consideration of an allocation of time motion, followed by all stages of the Post Office (Horizon System) Compensation Bill.

The House will rise for the Christmas recess at the conclusion of business on Tuesday 19 December and return on Monday 8 January 2024.

11:25
Lucy Powell Portrait Lucy Powell (Manchester Central) (Lab/Co-op)
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Let me first pay tribute to two Labour giants who have passed away in the past week.

Alistair Darling was one of the guiding hands in the last Labour Government. He was one of only three Ministers who served in the Cabinet throughout the entire period, most notably as Chancellor during the global economic crisis. His calm, decisive and comprehensive response helped to save our economy, and his leadership rightly earned him global and cross-party plaudits. Glenys Kinnock, whose later years were stolen by the awful effects of Alzheimer’s, will be remembered for her political leadership alongside Neil, but also, very much in her own right, for social justice, women's rights, and international development. Glenys was a true sister who supported and encouraged a generation of women into politics, including me, and our dear friend Jo Cox. Our thoughts are with their families.

So, Madam Deputy Speaker, what a mess: as the Home Secretary finally unveiled his Rwanda Bill, the Immigration Minister resigned in disgust. Emergency legislation, and now an emergency reshuffle—and, as we speak, an emergency press conference: it is total chaos. The Government are now in freefall, unable to govern, and all the while families are worried about paying their bills and affording Christmas. The Prime Minister is so weak that he cannot convince his own side, satisfying no one and inflaming them all. We all want to stop the boats, but many on the Government Benches now agree with us that this plan is unworkable.

Unlike the Home Secretary yesterday, perhaps the Leader of the House can tell us how the plan will work. How many illegal migrants will be sent to Rwanda? The treaty says that the number is capped, and the small print says that it is just 100 people. What is the extent of our reciprocal arrangement to take refugees from Rwanda? Will we take more from Rwanda than we are sending there, and when will this happen? The Northern Ireland Secretary did not have a clue this morning.

Will the Leader of the House confirm that anyone who loses the right to remain in Rwanda—for example, those who commit serious criminal offences—must be returned to the UK? We now learn that it was the Rwandan Government who insisted that international law must be upheld. Is it the Government’s view that international treaties did need to be overridden? The Home Secretary could not say how the treaty and the Bill deal with appeals and legal challenges. Can the Leader of the House assure us that this policy will not get clogged up in the courts all over again? The Prime Minister did not convince people just now.

Can the Leader of the House commit herself to publishing the Government’s estimates of the costs of this plan? The Prime Minister has just said at his press conference that he wants the Bill to be passed in record time, so why will it not go into Committee before Christmas? The answer is that he cannot persuade his own side.

Let me say this to the Leader of the House. The truth is that this plan will not work. I know it, she knows it, they know it. That is why the Immigration Minister resigned, and that is why he said that these measures were

“a triumph of hope over experience.”

That is why the former Home Secretary, the right hon. and learned Member for Fareham (Suella Braverman), said this morning that the truth is that

“it won’t work and it will not stop the boats”.

She also said:

“We can’t keep failing the British people.”

This is now the third piece of legislation in two years, all trying and failing to do the same thing. It is the very definition of flogging a dead horse. But it is not just the policy that is dead, but the whole sorry Government—failed, divided, defunct and incapable of governing.

Finally, in further evidence of the Government’s death throes, this week the Prime Minister suffered his first Commons defeat, over the infected blood scandal. So off is their judgment that they could not even support a measured, reasonable amendment from my right hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Dame Diana Johnson) to set up a body to administer compensation immediately, as recommended by Sir Brian Langstaff, who led the inquiry. On reflection, does the Leader of the House not think that they have just got this one badly wrong, and will she now ensure that this amendment survives the passage of the Bill? In fact, the Government’s former Paymaster General told the infected blood inquiry:

“I believe it to be inevitable that the Government will need to provide substantial compensation... I believe we should begin preparing for this now, before the inquiry reports”,

adding that it is “a moral obligation.”

That Minister wrote to the now Prime Minister, then the Chancellor, twice to press their case, never to get a reply. That Minister is now the Leader of the House, so can she tell us: does she still agree with herself?

Penny Mordaunt Portrait Penny Mordaunt
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I join the hon. Lady in paying tribute and sending my sympathies to the families of Alistair Darling and Glenys Kinnock. I did not know Glenys Kinnock, but I did know Alistair a little, and we will miss his very dry sense of humour. I am sure that all our thoughts are with their friends and families. I also wish Mr Speaker a speedy recovery.

I will also take this opportunity to wish Jewish people around the world a happy Hanukkah. It is a festival of light overcoming darkness, and that is as relevant today as it was thousands of years ago. I know the celebrations will be more difficult this year for everyone, but I also know that Jewish people across this country will celebrate over these eight days as a symbol of Jewish pride. I am sure all in this place will want to wish everyone celebrating “Chag Hanukkah sameach.”

The hon. Lady raises the important matter of the infected blood scandal, and she is right: I was the Minister who set up the compensation scheme. I felt it important that it run concurrently with the inquiry, rather than having to wait until the inquiry reported and then set up that piece of work. Sir Robert Francis has done a very good job and the Minister for the Cabinet Office is now doing the heavy lifting on putting the scheme together. I have met with him on several occasions, and I know he is completely committed to that and is working hard on it. I point out to the hon. Lady that I could not have got the compensation scheme study established without the blessing of the Chancellor at the time. That person is now Prime Minister, and I know that he is committed to delivering on it.

I want to reassure all those who are infected and affected by the scandal that this Government have not only established an inquiry, after many decades of this injustice being done, but established a compensation study. We have done that for a reason, because we wish to deliver and bring justice to this group of people. We are the first Government to have done that and, if we can do that in short order, I think that would be something to be very proud of.

It is great to see the Labour party channelling the right of the Conservative party—channelling Mrs Thatcher recently on borders, on fiscal responsibility and on her crusade for workers, wealth creators, carers and protectors. Unfortunately, the party is simultaneously plotting to destroy all that she built and stood for. I knew Margaret Thatcher, and I can tell the hon. Lady that the Leader of the Opposition is no Margaret Thatcher. It will take rather more than a light perm, pearls and a handbag for him to pull off that look. He will need to get a backbone. He will need to get some principles. He will need to rethink the Labour party’s stance on our Rwanda policy and our border controls. He will need to rethink borrowing £28 billion more. He might also like to stand up for the public and support our minimum service levels agreements. He might like to reject the demands of the TUC, which wants to repeal all the reforms that Maggie brought in. He might like to call out the British Medical Association’s cruel plans to cancel operations and cancel Christmas for thousands of elderly people in care. He might like to call out the immoral ask of unions to transport workers, who will have to forgo pay over Christmas. In fairness, the great lady did say:

“You turn if you want to”,

and Labour’s leader has jolly well done so, several times on his leadership pledges and on almost every policy announced since he became leader. If she was the iron lady, he is the ironic man.

The hon. Lady asked about Rwanda. I pay tribute to the work of my right hon. Friend the Member for Newark (Robert Jenrick). He helped the Prime Minister reduce boat crossings by a third in the last year—more than any Minister and Prime Minister have achieved. We must ensure that our asylum and immigration systems are fit for purpose, and we must protect and control our borders—the public are right in their demand that we do so. The treaty and the legislation will enable us to operationalise the Rwanda policy. Will they be enough to do all we need to do? No, but we will have other tools as well. Will they help to give us more options and to deter people from making the terrible crossing across the channel? Yes, they will.

The Opposition have put forward no alternative plan. My question to them is: what is the objection? It cannot be a legal one, because the policy does not break international law, and nor does it blur the distinction between lawmakers and those who interpret the law. It cannot be a moral objection, because it is a moral crusade to use every tool that we have to end the trafficking of human beings. It cannot be a policy objection, because the Labour party has no alternative policy. It has voted against every single measure that we have introduced to protect our borders. It voted against the last Bill more than 70 times. Labour has fought us on ending free movement and the deportation of foreign criminals, and it has said it would take an additional 110,000 people per year from Europe. As I said, ironic.

Karen Bradley Portrait Karen Bradley (Staffordshire Moorlands) (Con)
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Last night, the Labour-led administration at Staffordshire Moorlands District Council voted to increase council allowances by 44%, at a cost of £400,000 to council tax payers. Will my right hon. Friend find time for a debate about local authority spending and how we can make sure that council tax payers get value for money?

Penny Mordaunt Portrait Penny Mordaunt
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As my right hon. Friend asked her question, there were audible gasps across the Chamber. That is an incredible lack of local political leadership. Council tax payers in her district will be disappointed to hear that news. If she were to apply for a debate, I am sure that it would be well attended. I am sure that everyone would urge restraint and want to ensure the best value possible for people’s hard-earned cash.

Rosie Winterton Portrait Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Rosie Winterton)
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I call the Scottish National party spokesperson.

Deidre Brock Portrait Deidre Brock (Edinburgh North and Leith) (SNP)
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It is tempting to forestall and dismantle now any spin that the Leader of the House may be inclined to bring up on Scottish education issues, given Westminster’s shocking record. Following her outburst against Scotland’s health service workers last week, I must clear up some things. Scotland watches her “odd” weekly rants, as the Scottish press dubs them, with concern and alarm. Let me give some useful facts for her and Scotland about the Scottish NHS: health funding is at record highs; staffing levels are also at a record high, with far more staff per head than England; we have the best performing A&E units and the highest number of GPs per head in the UK, no prescriptions charges, and still not a single day lost to industrial disputes in the Scottish NHS. There is always room for improvement but, as the Leader of the House reaches for her latest penny dreadful script, she can rest assured that I will be happy to set the record straight, wherever her imagination takes her.

Meanwhile, the Government plumb new depths with their immigration panic measures, which are so damaging to Scotland in particular. The Daily Telegraph columnist Tim Stanley has written:

“A friend has messaged me in a blind panic”.

If they fall in love and marry someone from overseas, must they have an income of £38,700 to settle here? He went on to say:

“Something like 75% of us earn less than that. Is it fair to limit family formation to the rich? Is it conservative…to divide families?

Of course, it is fine if someone is rich, so maybe it is.

If we, our children or our grandchildren fall in love with someone from another country—many of us do so on our travels; I am living proof of that—they will not be able to join us here unless we have guaranteed earnings nearing £39,000. Cue a further exodus of our young people from these shores to other countries with a more enlightened approach to migration and their citizens’ human rights. Even worse, those who have already gone through the process and who thought that they had won the right to live here in peace will have to come up with that figure the next time their visa is extended. Should Parliament not have debated these extreme measures first? Can the Leader of the House defend this shameful policy, or are she and other Ministers threatening to resign?

Penny Mordaunt Portrait Penny Mordaunt
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I thank the hon. Lady. I would ask her to go and have a look at the SNP’s record on education. I have spoken about that in the last two business question sessions, so I shall not detain the House any longer on it. I think everyone in this Chamber is aware of the SNP’s appalling record on destroying the education system in Scotland—the only people who are not are those in charge of it.

The hon. Lady mentioned the NHS and pay settlements, and the theme of her question is really values and morality. Does she think it would be moral if a Government denied faster NHS treatment to its citizens post covid because they did not want to send them to an English hospital? I understand that the former Health Secretary made that offer to the First Minister and it was rejected. Is it moral to offer a pay deal, as she boasts, to public sector workers, including NHS workers, without a plan to pay for it? Come to think of it, is it moral to withhold funds designated for business rate relief from businesses? Would she describe it as moral if a Government denied their citizens the ability to have a civil partnership—she speaks of relationships—with their opposite-sex partner for a year, including those who were terminally ill, because they did not want the UK Government to legislate on their behalf?

While the hon. Lady is looking up the SNP’s record on education, I would ask her also to check how many concurrent police investigations there are into the SNP’s antics. Owing to her party’s antics, I am afraid her quest to take the moral high ground is stuck at a subterranean level. But given that she has, as is standard SNP operating procedure, played the man as well as the ball, I will set the record straight on my own record with regard to refugees. I spent time over two years looking after the most desperate and vulnerable people in the eastern bloc after the Romanian revolution. More recently, I have spent time on the water in the Mediterranean and northern Libya tracking migration and people-trafficking routes. When I was in Greece and Italy, I saw how the EU’s biometric scanners in its southern ports had not even been uncovered and unwrapped, and how Europe’s security was being failed. I have opened my home to refugees: I have been hosting a Ukrainian refugee since May last year, and before that I offered my home to Afghan refugees.

I can tell the hon. Lady that migration is one of the most critical issues facing our country and the world, and that the global rules on it are broken. I have made it my business to understand how we can fix them—that is our duty—and it will take global leadership to build the tools to rewrite those rules. If we do it, I think other nations will follow. I would ask her to really check what her duty is in this manner and consider supporting our legislation.

Alun Cairns Portrait Alun Cairns (Vale of Glamorgan) (Con)
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Yesterday the Welsh language broadcaster S4C published the most damning and shocking report about bullying within the organisation and the fear in which staff had to conduct their duties and responsibilities. That is a publicly funded organisation. May we have a debate on this issue and on the report so that we can properly consider how we can offer the best stability for the channel, as well as offering a bright future for those who work for it? It is extremely important for Welsh culture, the Welsh language, and Welsh jobs and industry in this vital sector.

Penny Mordaunt Portrait Penny Mordaunt
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I thank my right hon. Friend for raising this shocking situation. S4C is an incredibly important service to culture and education, and we want that organisation also to enshrine UK and Welsh values at its heart. Given that Culture, Media and Sport questions is not until 11 January, I will write this afternoon on his behalf and ensure that the Culture Secretary has heard of this appalling situation. I hope that it will swiftly become a happier one.

Rosie Winterton Portrait Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Rosie Winterton)
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I call the Chair of the Backbench Business Committee.

Ian Mearns Portrait Ian Mearns (Gateshead) (Lab)
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I thank the Leader of the House for announcing the Backbench Business for next Thursday. Before those two debates, there will be a Select Committee statement on a Home Affairs Committee report on human trafficking, which will be published tomorrow. I also thank her for our meeting earlier this week and reiterate my request that she gives us an early indication of any Backbench Business Committee time in the week beginning 8 January so that we can allocate that business prior to the Christmas recess.

In my role as Chair of the Committee, Members from across the House often ask me questions, thinking that I benefit from a level of inside knowledge or political insight. One question that I am repeatedly asked is, “Do you know the recess dates following Christmas?” On behalf of Members across the House, I ask that question of the Leader of the House; possibly she will let us know next week, before the Christmas recess.

I have been contacted by a number of constituents regarding the new proposed earnings threshold of £38,700 to be eligible for a spouse visa. Will that new threshold apply to new applicants only or to existing visa holders already resident in the UK and validly here, looking to extend their stay? It could jeopardise families who are legally here, gainfully employed and making a positive contribution if they are possibly having the rules changed underneath them.

Penny Mordaunt Portrait Penny Mordaunt
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I thank the hon. Gentleman for his always helpful adverts for future Backbench Business debates. As he knows, I will endeavour to give him early warning of when other time can be scheduled; I will endeavour to do that shortly.

I completely agree on recess dates and hope to be able to update colleagues very soon. That point is well understood not just in terms of people’s ability to organise family life but for its particular significance for those right hon. and hon. Members who are farmers. I will therefore endeavour to do that very shortly.

I had anticipated the type of questions that the hon. Gentleman would ask. I am sure that there are particular sectors on which people will want to focus, such as armed forces personnel, so I have asked the Department to produce some further briefing on this matter and to share it with all hon. Members.

None Portrait Several hon. Members rose—
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Rosie Winterton Portrait Madam Deputy Speaker
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Order. I will be prioritising those who did not contribute to the earlier urgent question and statement.

Michael Ellis Portrait Sir Michael Ellis (Northampton North) (Con)
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Can we have a debate on antisemitism in higher education? This week, the presidents of Harvard, MIT and Penn appeared before the United States Congress, and when asked repeatedly about whether calling for genocide of Jews breaks the university code of conduct and was harassment, they said that it “depends on the context” and whether the speech turned into actual genocidal conduct. It is impossible to imagine a call for mass murder of any other minority group being said to depend on the context. A call for the mass murder of black people or gay people would rightly not be tolerated for a moment. This is top-level institutional Jew hatred at the highest levels of academia, and sadly universities in the United Kingdom are also infested with antisemitism. Does the Leader of the House agree that British students must be protected from such poison?

Penny Mordaunt Portrait Penny Mordaunt
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I completely agree with my right hon. and learned Friend. The individuals from Harvard, MIT and Penn who gave that jaw-dropping evidence earlier this week have done the academic community a favour: this should be a wake-up call on how abhorrent some of these policies are and how they are being interpreted. It is amazing that it needs to be said, but if a code of conduct permits the advocation and promotion of mass murder, it might need a redraft.

There is a wider point here: we look to these academic institutions to be the guardian of the values that we hold dear. Freedom of speech and freedom of thought are very important to academic inquiry and our democratic values, but we cannot in any way tolerate the promotion of genocide and the extermination of a group of people. It is absolutely abhorrent. I commend the work of the Union of Jewish Students, which does a huge amount on our campuses. It has delivered more than 100 anti- semitism awareness training sessions to about 3,000-plus campus leaders in the UK. We should support its work, and I hope that every vice-chancellor and university board will be asking to see these policies to ensure that they are in good shape.

Kerry McCarthy Portrait Kerry McCarthy (Bristol East) (Lab)
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Sellafield is one of our most sensitive sites for energy and national security. New reports in The Guardian have revealed a damaging and potentially ongoing cyber-security breach by groups linked to Russia and China. They call into question the management and workplace culture, the performance of senior staff, who are now under investigation by the Office for Nuclear Regulation, and the response and performance of the regulator itself. Will the Leader of the House find time for a debate or ministerial statement on those deeply worrying revelations?

Penny Mordaunt Portrait Penny Mordaunt
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I thank the hon. Lady for raising the reports that have been in the press, which I know are of concern to her. As the date for the next Home Office questions has not yet been announced, I will write on her behalf to the Security Minister and ask whether he and his officials can update her.

Greg Smith Portrait Greg Smith (Buckingham) (Con)
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Sometimes there is a sporting achievement that simply cannot go without comment. Over the last year, Red Bull Racing smashed through every record in the Formula 1 season, winning 21 of the 22 races. That magic can happen on track only because of the incredible British business, based up the road from my constituency in Milton Keynes, and its innovation, excellence, skills and engineering superiority. Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating Christian Horner and the whole Red Bull team on their success this year, and can we have a debate on the value of motor sport and those skills to the wider economy?

Penny Mordaunt Portrait Penny Mordaunt
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I am sure that the whole House will join my hon. Friend in congratulating the Red Bull team. We should be proud that this country is the home of motor sport. It is not just the many businesses in his local area, but the incredible supply chain across the whole of the UK. He will know how to apply for a debate. I am sure that many Members would wish to attend. I shall borrow from the legendary Murray Walker in saying that the request for a debate on this very important topic is go, go, go!

Wera Hobhouse Portrait Wera Hobhouse (Bath) (LD)
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Moles, Bath’s wonderful grassroots music venue, was sadly forced to close its doors last week. It was an incubator for many new talents and gave many household names their first chance on stage. Without grassroots venues, there will be no music industry. More than 100 small music venues were forced to close their doors in the UK last year due to cost pressures that they could not meet. Can we have a debate in Government time about the importance of our small music venues?

Penny Mordaunt Portrait Penny Mordaunt
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I am very sorry to hear about that, and I am sure the hon. Lady speaks for many of her constituents who will miss that facility. We have managed to get a lot of organisations through the terrible few years that we have had, particularly with the pandemic, but we need to build back what we have lost and organisations that are fragile. She will know that the next questions to the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport are on 11 January. I know that my right hon. and learned Friend is very much looking at ensuring that we are disbursing all the available support right across the country, and that it reaches every constituency. I encourage the hon. Lady to raise the matter with her then.

Anna Firth Portrait Anna Firth (Southend West) (Con)
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Last week, for Small Business Saturday, I crowned the winner of my new independent shop of the year competition. On The Brakes is a fantastic bike shop in Leigh-on-Sea specialising in bike maintenance, custom builds, and education and bike repairs. It stormed to victory. Given that 98% of businesses in Southend West are small and micro, is that not living proof of the importance of independent businesses to our economy? Could we have a debate, please, in Government time, on the importance of independent businesses to our high streets and to our national economy?

Penny Mordaunt Portrait Penny Mordaunt
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I pass on my congratulations, as I am sure does everyone in the Chamber, to On The Brakes for all its work. It is clearly valued by its local community. I thank all hon. and right hon. Members who took part in Small Business Saturday last weekend. My hon. Friend is absolutely right: such businesses are the lifeblood of our economy, locally and nationally. They also provide amazing community facilities and support for so many in our constituencies. She will know how to apply for a debate, and I am sure it will be well attended.

Catherine West Portrait Catherine West (Hornsey and Wood Green) (Lab)
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Many famous people have been born at the Whittington maternity unit, including the shadow Foreign Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy). This summer, I had the joy of visiting the maternity unit with my good friend my right hon. Friend the Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry), but we noticed that the facilities are desperately old and crumbling. Does the Leader of the House agree that we desperately need a debate on maternity units across the UK and that we urgently need more funding, so that the buildings can come up to a really good standard to match our aspirations, as outlined in the Care Quality Commission reports, which say that 55% of our units across the UK are not up to scratch? We need those crucial amounts of funding, so that we can bring up the standard of those crumbling buildings to match the aspirations of women giving birth in our maternity units.

Penny Mordaunt Portrait Penny Mordaunt
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The hon. Lady will know that the quality of maternity care, which is not just about healthcare practice but about the facilities, has been a particular recent focus of the Department of Health and Social Care. We have a capital programme that is regenerating our facilities and building new ones, too. Health questions dates have not been announced yet, so I will write on the hon. Lady’s behalf and flag this matter with the new Secretary of State for Health and Social Care.

Peter Gibson Portrait Peter Gibson (Darlington) (Con)
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Every single week, I receive correspondence from and meet parents who are simply exasperated by the wait they face for a child and adolescent mental health services assessment for their children. For children to be educated properly and looked after in the best possible way, it is paramount that children receive their assessments as soon as possible and that families do not face unacceptable waits of up to three years, as many do in Darlington. Does my right hon. Friend agree that we must speed up CAMHS assessments? Can we have a debate on that important issue?

Penny Mordaunt Portrait Penny Mordaunt
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A three-year wait is a truly shocking statistic, and my hon. Friend’s constituents should not find themselves in that situation. I thank him for what he is doing to campaign on this issue. He will know that we are investing an extra £2.3 billion a year by March next year to support an additional 2 million people, which includes 345,000 children and young people. The situation in his constituency sounds acute, and I will write to the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care on his behalf this afternoon and ask that her officials and Ministers get in touch with his office to see what can be done in the interim to bring that waiting time down and ensure that every child and young person is getting the support they need.

Ian Paisley Portrait Ian Paisley (North Antrim) (DUP)
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May I draw the Leader of the House’s attention to the career of Geraldine Bradley, the catering services manager at Ballykeel Primary School in County Antrim in my constituency? Geraldine Bradley has worked there for 42 years, without a single absentee day or sick day. That is an absolutely incredible contribution to public service. She caters currently for 430 pupils in that school, and has done so with excellence. Over the years, she has fed and nourished thousands of pupils across the constituency. How can I best encourage other people in the public sector who engage in public service with such enthusiasm to look at the example that Geraldine has set and apply it to their own careers?

Penny Mordaunt Portrait Penny Mordaunt
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I am sure we will all join the hon. Gentleman in sending our thanks, congratulations and good wishes to Geraldine. What an incredible public servant, and what a life of service. She should be held up as an example to all in the public sector, and I am sure that as well as providing the nutrition that the pupils at that school need, she has provided many happy times and happy memories. We wish her well, and the hon. Gentleman has provided the answer to his own question by putting that on the record today.

Theresa Villiers Portrait Theresa Villiers (Chipping Barnet) (Con)
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The headline of Christina Lamb’s article in The Sunday Times at the weekend was

“First Hamas fighters raped her. Then they shot her in the head”.

In the light of the profoundly disturbing revelations in that article about sexual violence committed by Hamas on 7 October, may we have a ministerial statement so that the Government can set out the action they will take to raise this issue in international fora such as the UN, some of which have been far too slow to recognise and condemn that aspect of the Hamas atrocity?

Penny Mordaunt Portrait Penny Mordaunt
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I thank my right hon. Friend for allowing us to state on the record the appalling atrocities that many women—many of whom did not survive those attacks—had to endure at the hands of Hamas, including rape, but also the most horrific torture and mutilation. I think we are all very disappointed that organisations to which we look to show leadership on these matters were not swifter and more robust in their condemnation of those appalling atrocities and acts.

We spend a great deal of time thinking about our own aid allocation in this respect, and fund many schemes around the world that have had huge success in reducing violence against women and girls. I will ensure that the Minister with that responsibility in the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office has heard what my right hon. Friend has said, and we will reflect on what more we can do and what more we can say we expect from the organisations that we work with on these matters around the world.

Andy Slaughter Portrait Andy Slaughter (Hammersmith) (Lab)
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Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the Government have rightly made time in this Chamber to debate that terrible conflict. The Israel-Gaza war is equally horrific, from the killing of Israelis on 7 October to the deaths of thousands of Palestinian civilians that continue daily. No doubt the Backbench Business Committee would look sympathetically on a request for a debate, but should this not be debated in Government time? May we have a day’s debate on it as soon as possible?

Penny Mordaunt Portrait Penny Mordaunt
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I fully understand the hon. Gentleman’s request. On his first point, he will know that the Foreign Secretary has been in Washington talking with our partners both about Ukraine and the ongoing situation in Israel and Gaza. I will certainly ensure that both he and his Minister in the Commons, my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell), have heard the hon. Gentleman’s request.

Bob Blackman Portrait Bob Blackman (Harrow East) (Con)
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Our hard-pressed and hard-working police have had their leave cancelled, have been required to work overtime and are at breaking point just policing organised protests. To make it even worse, the Just Stop Oil brigade refuses to engage with the police about its protests. The Metropolitan police says that it has now cost taxpayers £20 million to deal with those Just Stop Oil protesters, so may we have an oral statement on police funding and what will be done to stop those protesters bringing London to a halt?

Penny Mordaunt Portrait Penny Mordaunt
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I join my hon. Friend in paying tribute to all the work that the police have done. Since we have given them some new powers, they have done an incredible job ensuring that activists do not disrupt traffic or stop emergency vehicles and keeping areas running, including our major motorways and, in particular, our capital city. My hon. Friend is absolutely right that those protests are costing taxpayers and using police resources—if he were to found a campaign called Just Stop It, Just Stop Oil, I think it would be very well supported. I will ensure that the Home Secretary has heard his concerns about resourcing.

Christine Jardine Portrait Christine Jardine (Edinburgh West) (LD)
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First, may I associate myself with the comments of the shadow Leader of the House about Alistair Darling? He was someone I knew. He was a huge figure in Scottish politics, and the perfect example of a public servant. I also wish to pay tribute to Lord James Douglas-Hamilton, the former Conservative MP for Edinburgh West, who was always the perfect gentleman and another example to us all of public service.

A constituent of mine recently raised the issue that he and a number of other marines had been exposed to asbestos during a training exercise. They are currently trying to pursue an adequate response from the Ministry of Defence on this potential breach of health and safety. Can the Government find time for us to discuss both this issue and the general issue of how we better protect our armed forces on training exercises?