All 26 Parliamentary debates in the Commons on 25th Jan 2023

Wed 25th Jan 2023
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Wed 25th Jan 2023
Britishvolt
Commons Chamber
(Adjournment Debate)

House of Commons

Wednesday 25th January 2023

(1 year, 4 months ago)

Commons Chamber
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Wednesday 25 January 2023
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock

Prayers

Wednesday 25th January 2023

(1 year, 4 months ago)

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

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

[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Wednesday 25th January 2023

(1 year, 4 months ago)

Commons Chamber
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The Minister for Women and Equalities was asked—
Carol Monaghan Portrait Carol Monaghan (Glasgow North West) (SNP)
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1. What steps the Government are taking to tackle (a) gender and (b) racial inequality in the workplace.

Stuart C McDonald Portrait Stuart C. McDonald (Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East) (SNP)
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13. What steps the Government are taking to tackle (a) gender and (b) racial inequality in the workplace.

Kemi Badenoch Portrait The Minister for Women and Equalities (Kemi Badenoch)
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As part of our strategy to tackle violence against women and girls, we have committed to strengthen the protections against sexual harassment in the workplace. That includes taking forward two legislative measures as part of the Worker Protection (Amendment of Equality Act 2010) Bill, introduced by the hon. Member for Bath (Wera Hobhouse). Furthermore, in our landmark inclusive Britain strategy we committed to publishing guidance on ethnicity pay reporting for employers. That will be published soon and will support employers to identify and tackle unfair pay gaps in their workforces.

Carol Monaghan Portrait Carol Monaghan
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New data published by the Ministry of Defence earlier this month showed that in the year to September 2022, more women left the armed forces than joined. Given the string of sexual abuse and harassment allegations that we have heard, that data is concerning but hardly surprising. What is the Minister doing to ensure that women are safe in the armed forces and that the pervasive attitude of misogyny in the armed forces is tackled?

Kemi Badenoch Portrait Kemi Badenoch
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The hon. Lady is right to raise that serious issue. My colleagues in the Ministry of Defence take it very seriously and have a strategy and a plan to tackle it. As I mentioned in respect of sexual harassment in the workplace, we have many measures to look into what is going on. We are concerned about women leaving the workplace, and this Government will do everything we can to make sure that women are encouraged to stay and thrive in their workplaces.

Stuart C McDonald Portrait Stuart C. McDonald
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The Scottish Government are encouraging employers to report on ethnicity pay gaps—a policy supported by the Women and Equalities Committee—but the Scottish Government do not have the powers to enforce that policy. Is the Minister willing to have a conversation about the transfer of those powers, so that we can all learn lessons from the results?

Kemi Badenoch Portrait Kemi Badenoch
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We have no plans to devolve equal opportunities policy. Quite a lot of work is being done on ethnicity pay reporting. It should not be made mandatory. It is different from gender pay gap reporting, because it covers more than two separate categories. I am happy to write to the hon. Gentleman with more detail on the work that we are doing, but we will publish guidance for those companies that want to carry out ethnicity pay reporting in due course.

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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I call the Chair of the Women and Equalities Committee.

Caroline Nokes Portrait Caroline Nokes (Romsey and Southampton North) (Con)
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Gendered abuse, harassment and bullying in the workplace is wrong, but it can happen anywhere. Does my right hon. Friend agree that when there is gendered abuse, bullying and intimidation in this Chamber, we should make sure that action is taken to stamp it out?

Kemi Badenoch Portrait Kemi Badenoch
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I completely agree. This is a very serious issue. We are all aware of allegations that have been made against Members in this House. I know that you care very much about this issue, Mr Speaker. This is a place where we have freedom of speech and freedom of expression. We condemn any Member who tries to intimidate, harass or abuse other Members of Parliament when they are simply representing their constituents.

Rehman Chishti Portrait Rehman Chishti (Gillingham and Rainham) (Con)
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On racial inequality and discrimination, a previous Home Office report looked at hate crime in terms of Islamophobia and antisemitism. The statistics and figures were absolutely appalling, with a high number of incidents. The Government removed the independent adviser on Islamophobia, Qari Asim. He apparently did not have any terms of reference for two years. Given the Government’s commitment to tackle Islamophobia and intolerance, what is their strategy?

Kemi Badenoch Portrait Kemi Badenoch
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The Government have a strategy to tackle anti-Muslim hatred. I recommend that my hon. Friend raises this issue with the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, who is responsible for that portfolio as part of the communities strategy.

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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I call the Scottish National party spokesperson.

Kirsten Oswald Portrait Kirsten Oswald (East Renfrewshire) (SNP)
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This week, the UK Government rejected outright five recommendations of the Women and Equalities Committee on menopause and the workplace, and they are not committing to any new work in response to the report. The Chair of the Committee, the right hon. Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes), described the Government’s progress as “glacial” and their response as “complacent”. She pointed out the missed opportunity to protect vast numbers of talented and experienced women from leaving the workforce. Will the Minister change tack? Will she commit finally to acting on menopause and the workplace? If she will not, will she commit to look again at why devolving employment law in Scotland matters so much, so that we can do that work?

Kemi Badenoch Portrait Kemi Badenoch
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I would ask the hon. Lady to read the women’s health strategy, in which she will see that the menopause is a priority area. The Select Committee has made recommendations, which we have considered carefully, but there is no point in the Government having a strategy if they are simply going to accept recommendations from elsewhere that do not conform to it. The best thing for her to do would be to work with the Government and look at the good work we are doing on tackling issues around the menopause.

Emma Hardy Portrait Emma Hardy (Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle) (Lab)
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2. If she will hold discussions with her Cabinet colleagues on NHS waiting lists for gynaecological care.

Maria Caulfield Portrait The Minister for Women (Maria Caulfield)
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Tackling NHS waiting lists, including for gynaecology, is a priority for the Government, which is why we are spending £8 billion on clearing our backlog. For gynae procedures specifically, we have opened 90 surgical hubs, 90 community diagnostic centres and women’s health hubs, which will all help to tackle gynaecology backlogs.

Emma Hardy Portrait Emma Hardy
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Some vaginal mesh-injured women have been left waiting four years for mesh removal, and I have already highlighted women’s concerns that the surgeons they go to for mesh removal are trained only in implanting the mesh and not in removing it. These women fear that, once again, they are being used as test subjects. When will mesh-injured women get the redress that was recommended in Baroness Cumberlege’s review, “First Do No Harm”?

Maria Caulfield Portrait Maria Caulfield
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I thank the hon. Lady for her work in this space. I recognise that while we have set up nine specialist mesh centres to tackle mesh removal and seen a number of women come forward and receive their surgery, there are still a number on the waiting list. I am meeting some of the campaigners on mesh removal next week. We were at the Health and Social Care Committee hearing just a few weeks ago, and I heard some of their concerns then. I recognise that there is still progress to be made in this space.

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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We now come to the shadow Minister, Anneliese Dodds.

Anneliese Dodds Portrait Anneliese Dodds (Oxford East) (Lab/Co-op)
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NHS England figures show that in October 2012, 15 women had been waiting over a year for gynaecological treatment. Can the Minister tell the House how many women had been waiting for that long in October last year?

Maria Caulfield Portrait Maria Caulfield
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As the shadow Minister will know, there is a backlog of procedures in all four devolved nations of the United Kingdom for clinical reasons, rather than political reasons. We have made huge progress in clearing the two-year backlog, with the majority of those patients now having had their treatments. We are on track to meet the target for the 18-month backlog in April, and we will then focus on those who are waiting a year.

Anneliese Dodds Portrait Anneliese Dodds
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I regret that the Minister did not directly answer my question—perhaps it was because she is aware of the appalling scale of the backlog. As of October last year, 38,000 women had been waiting over a year for treatment. That is 2,500 times more than 10 years ago. On top of that, less than half of women are up to date with cervical screening in some areas. Do women suffering in pain now just have to accept long waiting times and low screening rates under the Conservatives?

Maria Caulfield Portrait Maria Caulfield
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Isn’t it sad that this is turning into a political football, when there are clinical reasons why backlogs have accumulated over the two years? Perhaps the shadow Minister will look at Wales, where Labour has been in charge for 20 years and where the performance is worse than in England.

Taiwo Owatemi Portrait Taiwo Owatemi (Coventry North West) (Lab)
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3. What steps the Government are taking to reduce disparities in maternity outcomes for migrant women.

Maria Caulfield Portrait The Minister for Women (Maria Caulfield)
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The MBRRACE report shows that women from black, Asian and mixed ethnic groups have worse maternity outcomes. That is why NHS England has published the equity and equality guidance for local maternity services, supported by £6.8 million of investment to focus on actions to reduce the disparities.

Taiwo Owatemi Portrait Taiwo Owatemi
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Last year, the Government’s maternity taskforce pleaded with the Government to provide better maternity care for migrant women, but eight in 10 refugee and migrant women are still waiting more than 10 weeks to get their first antenatal care. That is compounded by the fact that black women in this country are still four times more likely to die from childbirth. Can the Minister let us know when the taskforce will finish its inquiry and when the Government will start delivering better maternity care for women in this country?

Maria Caulfield Portrait Maria Caulfield
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I thank the hon. Lady for highlighting the work of the maternity disparities taskforce, which this Government set up. I have been working with its co-chair, Professor Jacqueline Dunkley-Bent, and our next meeting will focus on some of the actions to tackle this issue. From October last year, each local area has produced a local maternity equity and equality action plan, targeting specific communities within the area to try to improve outcomes. I encourage all Members to look at their local action plan, and if they have concerns that it will not meet those needs, they should please come and see me. I am very happy to work with Members on this.

Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi Portrait Mr Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi (Slough) (Lab)
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4. What steps she is taking to help close the gender pay gap.

Ellie Reeves Portrait Ellie Reeves (Lewisham West and Penge) (Lab)
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15. What steps she is taking to help close the gender pay gap.

Kemi Badenoch Portrait The Minister for Women and Equalities (Kemi Badenoch)
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It was a Conservative Government who introduced gender pay gap reporting in 2017, to motivate employers to look at their pay data and improve workplace gender equality. To accelerate progress, we are supporting legislation that enhances flexible working, extends redundancy protection for those on maternity leave, introduces carer’s leave and strengthens protections against harassment in the workplace.

Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi Portrait Mr Dhesi
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The gender pay gap for full-time employees was 8.3% in April 2022, which was sadly up from 7.7% the previous year. Worse still, Labour’s analysis has uncovered that the gender pay gap for black African women is an appalling 26% when compared with the average male worker, and the figures for Bangladeshi and Pakistani women are 28% and 31% respectively. Rather than watch as the situation deteriorates, what urgent steps are the Government taking to deal with these dreadful disparities?

Kemi Badenoch Portrait Kemi Badenoch
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I do not recognise any of the hon. Gentleman’s statistics. With all due respect, I have seen all sorts of Labour analysis that misuses and abuses statistics to the point where we honestly cannot take it seriously. If he does have real evidence, I am keen that he sends it for the equality hub to analyse. Those figures do not represent anything we have found across Government.

Ellie Reeves Portrait Ellie Reeves
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Closing the gender pay gap would add £600 million to the UK’s economy by 2025. Labour has a plan to do this by requiring large firms to publish gender pay gap plans, permitting equal pay comparisons, extending statutory maternity and paternity leave, and strengthening protections for pregnant women. Will the Government finally accept our proposals?

Kemi Badenoch Portrait Kemi Badenoch
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I am afraid that the Government will not accept those proposals. The hon. Lady conflates equal pay and gender pay gap reporting, which are not the same thing. This is an area that has a lot of nuance, and Labour needs to do a little more homework.

Robin Walker Portrait Mr Robin Walker (Worcester) (Con)
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Does my right hon. Friend agree that one of the most effective ways to close the gender pay gap is to support women who are returning to work after pregnancy? Will she therefore use her good offices to encourage cross-Government work to improve the affordability and availability of childcare for new mothers?

Kemi Badenoch Portrait Kemi Badenoch
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Both sides of the House can agree that more support and more work is needed on this issue. Childcare is one of the reasons why women leave the workplace, and we are doing everything we can to support women to have appropriate childcare arrangements.

Chloe Smith Portrait Chloe Smith (Norwich North) (Con)
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5. What recent progress she has made in implementing the British Sign Language Act 2022.

Mims Davies Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mims Davies)
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I thank my right hon. Friend for her important work in delivering the Act. Work continues across Government to ensure that the Departments named in the schedule to the Act are aware of their reporting duty. They will report on their use of BSL in public communications at the end of the first reporting period on 28 June.

Chloe Smith Portrait Chloe Smith
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I welcome that update. Will the advisory board be on track ahead of that first statutory reporting date? When will the statutory guidance be commenced? Furthermore, will my hon. Friend commit to the Government’s major public broadcasts being fully accessible?

Mims Davies Portrait Mims Davies
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My right hon. Friend will be pleased to know that the first meeting of the Departments driving the Act is due to take place in mid-February. It is vital that the 20 Departments listed in the schedule deliver the commitments. The advisory board will be the first dual-language board advising His Majesty’s Government, which demonstrates our commitment to the deaf community. It will form the vital guidance on the Act, and it will rightly look at BSL for major public broadcasts, which many of our constituents want to see and have asked for.

Margaret Ferrier Portrait Margaret Ferrier (Rutherglen and Hamilton West) (Ind)
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What discussions has the Minister had with her colleagues in the Government Communication Service about ensuring that BSL interpretation is provided for Government announcements and media events, and about the importance of not relying on written documents as an adjustment for deaf people?

Mims Davies Portrait Mims Davies
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I thank the hon. Lady for her interest. The British Sign Language advisory board is being established to advise the Government on that implementation. Among the people giving advice will be BSL signers, and the majority of the members will be deaf BSL users who have lived experience and want Government communications to be accessible. I am proud that the Department for Work and Pensions has accessible jobcentres, and the same is needed for major Government announcements.

Catherine West Portrait Catherine West (Hornsey and Wood Green) (Lab)
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6. If she will make an assessment of the implications for her policies of trends in child poverty levels for black, Asian and minority ethnic children.

Mims Davies Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mims Davies)
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The Government are committed to a sustainable long-term approach to tackling poverty and supporting families on lower incomes. To help people progress, the Department for Work and Pensions provides a range of support for anyone at any age, career stage or background to move forward and be better off. As well as one-to-one support with their work coach, jobseekers can access sector-based work academies, the restart programme and the Work and Health programme.

Catherine West Portrait Catherine West
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The Jesuits said, “Give me a child until he is seven and I will show you the man.” That means that the impact of what we do in helping children under the age of seven will create a more just future. What urgent action will the Government take to address deep poverty affecting 46% of black, Asian and minority ethnic families? Is there extra funding that can be given to schools and put into our teaching to support children under the age of seven in black, Asian and minority ethnic communities?

Mims Davies Portrait Mims Davies
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I thank the hon. Lady for her question. As an MP who has won an award for focusing on disadvantaged groups, there is no doubt that she has interest in this area. At 70%, the ethnic minority employment rate is at a record high. We know that work is the best route out of poverty, and that mentoring, support and being able to see role models are absolutely key. I commit to continuing to work across Government with those disadvantaged groups to make sure that that focus is rightly on them.

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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I call the shadow Minister.

Yasmin Qureshi Portrait Yasmin Qureshi (Bolton South East) (Lab)
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My hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West) asked about deep poverty among minority children. I shall repeat the point again: black, Asian and minority ethnic households are twice as likely to be in deep poverty, struggling to afford everyday basics such as food and energy. That is 46% of ethnic minority children living below the breadline. Is the Minister proud of her Government’s record, and will she answer the question that was put by my hon. Friend?

Mims Davies Portrait Mims Davies
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I refer the hon. Lady to my previous answer. We do know that work is the best route out of poverty and the best way to tackle those deep-rooted disadvantages. I recently joined a No.10 roundtable on a mentoring and support pipeline to help understand what is holding people back. No one should be left behind because of their postcode or their background. Mentoring circles at the DWP can make a real difference, particularly to young people who are looking to progress from that deep disadvantage.

Patricia Gibson Portrait Patricia Gibson (North Ayrshire and Arran) (SNP)
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7. What recent assessment she has made of the implications for her policies of the gender pension gap.

Mims Davies Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mims Davies)
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The primary causes of the gender pension gap are due to the historical inequality of the labour market. This includes differences in working patterns and earnings for men and women. The Government have taken key steps, such as the introduction of shared parental leave, mandatory gender pay gap reporting, and an effort, as we have heard already today, to tackle the root causes of this problem for women. I know that the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks (Laura Trott) is looking directly at this issue for women as well.

Patricia Gibson Portrait Patricia Gibson
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It is bad enough that women born in the 1950s were robbed of their pensions, but, more generally, the gender pension gap is significantly larger than the gender pay gap and applies to a significantly large proportion of women in the UK, with retired women more likely to be poorer and more likely to rely on pension credit. That is a problem that persists. Will the Minister urgently address the issue, particularly the injustice suffered by WASPI women, or will her Government just ignore women being poorer in retirement?

Mims Davies Portrait Mims Davies
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I assure the hon. Lady that we will not be doing that. We monitor pension contributions and participation by gender, and publish data regularly through our workplace pension participation and savings trends publication. Key to this matter is our funding of returner programmes, which supports those who have taken time out of the labour market for caring responsibilities. Finally, pension sharing on divorce is an option that can help women if a marriage or civil partnership has broken down. As I have said, this is a focus for us all.

Cat Smith Portrait Cat Smith (Lancaster and Fleetwood) (Lab)
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T1. If she will make a statement on her departmental responsibilities.

Kemi Badenoch Portrait The Minister for Women and Equalities (Kemi Badenoch)
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The Government will publish a draft Bill setting out our approach to banning conversion practices, which will go for pre-legislative scrutiny in this parliamentary Session. We are committed to protecting everyone at risk of those practices from harm and we are clear that the legislation must not affect the ability of parents, teachers or counsellors to have open, exploratory and even challenging conversations with young people.

Cat Smith Portrait Cat Smith
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Has the Minister had sight of the Health and Social Care Committee’s report into the Independent Medicines and Medical Devices Safety Review and, particularly on paragraph 53, what conversations might she be having with Treasury colleagues to support women seeking redress?

Kemi Badenoch Portrait Kemi Badenoch
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I thank the Health and Social Care Committee for its IMMDS follow-up report. Our sympathies remain with all those women affected by sodium valproate. Patient safety is our top priority and we are committed to improving how the system listens to people, which is why I have asked the Patient Safety Commissioner, Dr Henrietta Hughes, to look into redress schemes. I am not committing to any specific next steps today, but the Minister for Women will provide an update in due course.

Bob Blackman Portrait Bob Blackman (Harrow East) (Con)
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T5. Does my hon. Friend—[Interruption.] Cheers from the Opposition? That does not happen very often. Does my right hon. Friend agree that, whether they live in Land’s End or John O’Groats, it is important for every citizen to know their rights and for those rights to be implemented on a clear and consistent basis so that no one is discriminated against?

Stuart Andrew Portrait The Minister for Equalities (Stuart Andrew)
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My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The United Kingdom has some of the strongest equality legislation in the world, and rightly so. We continue to ensure that all those rights are protected. Under the Equality Act 2010, any person who is subject to discrimination can personally take their case to court to seek a remedy.

Carolyn Harris Portrait Carolyn Harris (Swansea East) (Lab)
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T2. [R] Despite the 11th-hour response to my letter about the hormone replacement therapy repayment certificates, which arrived in my inbox just an hour ago, there still appears to be some ambiguity about what the certificate will cover. In her letter, the Minister says that changes to the drug tariff are being finalised to add “eligible items”, with no indication whether that will cover all HRT products. For the benefit of women across the country and as a matter of urgency, can the Minister please provide a comprehensive list of eligible products?

Maria Caulfield Portrait The Minister for Women (Maria Caulfield)
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I thank the hon. Lady for her work in this space. I responded to her letter last week as quickly as possible and I am glad she has received the response. I just want to confirm that from April the HRT prepayment certificate will be available to women—at £18.70 for a whole year—saving women hundreds of pounds on HRT prescriptions every year.

Laura Farris Portrait Laura Farris (Newbury) (Con)
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T6. I am pleased that the Government are reinstating protection against third-party harassment in the workplace, but employers are frequently confused when confronted with conflicting views on sex and gender. Can my right hon. Friend confirm that the Equality and Human Rights Commission will be publishing detailed guidance to explain how employers should treat protected beliefs on sex-based rights?

Kemi Badenoch Portrait Kemi Badenoch
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The Government will be supporting the Equality and Human Rights Commission in developing a statutory code on workplace harassment. We will be working closely on that. The Government are also preparing their own practical guidance for employers on preventing sexual harassment in the workplace, which should address the very issues my hon. Friend just raised.

Clive Efford Portrait Clive Efford (Eltham)  (Lab)
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T3.   A Citizens Advice report published in the past two weeks shows that 600,000 households were moved to prepayment meters. There are bound to be many vulnerable and disabled people who have been moved on to prepayment meters in that time. Can the Minister say what she has been doing to ensure that that practice ceases and to protect those people in future?

Mims Davies Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mims Davies)
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I believe that issue is going to be discussed further between the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and the Department for Work and Pensions, which provides support. I am very proud to be bringing forward the next stage of the household support fund and the cost of living payments. I urge anybody who is concerned about making payments to contact their energy supplier, to use the benefits calculator on gov.uk and to look at the support for the cost of living from the household support fund through their local authority.

Nicola Richards Portrait Nicola Richards (West Bromwich East) (Con)
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The Wagner Group is reported by the UN and others to be committing atrocities, including rape, against women and girls in Ukraine on behalf of its Russian paymasters. Will the Secretary of State raise that with Cabinet colleagues and urge the Government to proscribe the group as a terrorist organisation?

Anne-Marie Trevelyan Portrait The Minister of State, Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (Anne-Marie Trevelyan)
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The UK condemns Russia’s use of Russian-state proxies such as the Wagner Group in Ukraine and globally. While the mercenaries operating in Ukraine in support of the Russian invasion are present in other conflict settings, including Mali and the Central African Republic, and are continuing to bring us huge challenges, we continue to work with the Ukrainian Government on tackling conflict-related sexual violence, including through UK expertise to support the investigations through the Atrocity Crimes Advisory Group. We will not stop providing that support.

Rushanara Ali Portrait Rushanara Ali (Bethnal Green and Bow) (Lab)
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T4. The average cost of a full-time nursery place for a child under 2 when there is no Government support is about £14,000 a year, and it is much more in London. Can the Minister get her Government to put in the investment needed to fix the broken childcare system so that more mothers can return to work, particularly those who are single parents and struggle to return to work because of the lack of affordable childcare?

Kemi Badenoch Portrait Kemi Badenoch
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This is, as I mentioned earlier, an issue that the Government are working very hard on. I will raise it with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education, who can write to the hon. Lady and address those concerns more fully.

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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Order. Before we come to Prime Minister’s questions, I point out that a British Sign Language interpretation of proceedings is available to watch on parliamentlive.tv.

The Prime Minister was asked—
Margaret Ferrier Portrait Margaret Ferrier (Rutherglen and Hamilton West) (Ind)
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Q1. If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 25 January.

Rishi Sunak Portrait The Prime Minister (Rishi Sunak)
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Can I start by wishing everyone a happy Burns night, especially those celebrating in Scotland?

As we prepare to mark Holocaust Memorial Day, I am sure the whole House will join me in paying tribute to the extraordinary courage of Britain’s holocaust survivors, including 94-year-old Arek Hersh, who is here with us today. This Government will legislate to build a holocaust memorial and learning centre next to Parliament so that the testimonies of survivors such as Arek will be heard at the heart of our democracy by every generation to come.

This morning, I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in the House, I shall have further such meetings later today.

Margaret Ferrier Portrait Margaret Ferrier
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Shockingly, one in six women in the UK has experienced economic abuse. This is not just about money, but about restricting access to other resources such as food, housing or work. It is a lesser known aspect of coercive control that affects my constituents, the Prime Minister’s constituents and those of every Member across the House. What plans does the Prime Minister have to review in detail the way that Government Departments and policies can be exploited by abusers, and to ensure that those loopholes can be closed?

Rishi Sunak Portrait The Prime Minister
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The hon. Lady raises an important point. Let me assure her that the Government are committed to tackling violence against women and girls. That is why we passed the landmark Domestic Abuse Act 2021, introducing new offences such as coercion and coercive control, stalking and others. We will continue to do everything we can to ensure women and girls feel as safe as they deserve and rightly should be.

Marco Longhi Portrait Marco Longhi (Dudley North)  (Con)
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Q2.   Although I was disappointed that Dudley did not make the final cut in the latest levelling-up funding round, I am of course pleased that we received the £25 million towns deal, the brand new Duncan Edwards leisure facility, and a transport interchange project that has been secured since my election in 2019. But our high street is on its knees, so will the Prime Minister meet me and Dudley Metropolitan Borough Council to discuss our levelling-up bid and how we can ensure success in the next round?

Rishi Sunak Portrait The Prime Minister
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My hon. Friend is a great advocate for his constituents. I am delighted that, thanks to his efforts, Dudley has received £25 million from the towns fund. I know that there will be disappointment about the levelling-up fund, but all bids, including that made by Dudley Council, can receive feedback to be strengthened for future funding rounds. I would be very happy to meet him to discuss it further.

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

Keir Starmer Portrait Keir Starmer (Holborn and St Pancras) (Lab)
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This week, we will remember the 6 million Jews murdered in the holocaust and all those scarred by genocide since as we mark Holocaust Memorial Day. We must all commit, across this House, to defeat prejudice and hatred wherever we may find it. To work for a better future, we must find light in the darkness.

May I also join the Prime Minister in wishing everyone a happy Burns night?

Zara Aleena was walking home from a night out with her friends when she was savagely attacked, assaulted and beaten to death. Zara was a brilliant young woman; a trainee lawyer with a bright future. Her killer is a violent, racist, woman-hating thug, not fit to walk the same streets. But that is precisely the problem: he was free to walk the same streets. The inspectorate report into her case says that opportunities were missed by the probation service that could have prevented this attack and saved her life. Does the Prime Minister accept those findings?

Rishi Sunak Portrait The Prime Minister
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This was a truly terrible crime. As the chief inspector has found, the failings in this case and others were serious and unacceptable. In both of the cases that are in the public domain, these failures can be traced to failings in the initial risk assessment, and that is why immediate steps are being taken to address the serious issues raised.

Keir Starmer Portrait Keir Starmer
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I am glad the Prime Minister accepts those findings. The report also says that staffing vacancies and excessive workloads contributed to those fatal failures. It makes it absolutely clear this was not a one-off. As the report says, these are “systemic issues” in the probation service. They are clearly ministerial responsibilities. Does the Prime Minister accept those findings as well?

Rishi Sunak Portrait The Prime Minister
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Let me outline for the right hon. and learned Gentleman exactly what steps we are taking, and that is to ensure that mandatory training to improve risk assessments is being put in place. We are mandating checks with the police and children’s services before a probation officer can recommend to the court that a convicted offender be given an electronically monitored sentence, and we are implementing new processes to guarantee the swift recall of offenders. The action we are taking is already making a difference, as we see, for example, in the reduction of the number of electronically monitored curfews being given by the courts.

Keir Starmer Portrait Keir Starmer
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It was Barking, Dagenham and Havering that tragically and fatally let Zara down, but across the country, probation services are failing after a botched then reversed privatisation and after a decade of under-investment. It is yet another vital public service on its knees after 13 years of Tory Government. I spoke to Zara’s family this morning. It is hard to convey to this House the agony that they have been through. They say that the Government have blood on their hands over these failings. The Prime Minister has accepted the findings of the report. Does he also accept what Zara’s family say?

Rishi Sunak Portrait The Prime Minister
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My heart of course goes out to Zara’s family. The right hon. and learned Gentleman mentioned accountability. The probation service has taken action where failings have been found and where that has been appropriate. With regard to the overall service, there is now £155 million a year of extra investment that we are putting in to the probation service so that we can deliver better supervision of offenders. There has also been an increase in the number of senior probation officers, but one of the other things we must remember, if we do want to increase the safety of women and girls on our streets, is that we need tough sentencing, and that is why this Government passed the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022, which he and his party opposed.

Keir Starmer Portrait Keir Starmer
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In the light of the case of Zara, I really do not think the Prime Minister should be boasting about the protection he is putting in place for women. I am not going to take lectures from him about that.

Does the Prime Minister agree that any politician who seeks to avoid the taxes they owe in this country is not fit to be in charge of taxpayer money?

Rishi Sunak Portrait The Prime Minister
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I am pleased to make my position on this matter completely clear to the House. The issues in question occurred before I was Prime Minister. With regard to the appointment of the Minister without Portfolio, the usual appointments process was followed. No issues were raised with me when he was appointed to his current role. Since I commented on this matter last week, more information has come forward, which is why I have asked the independent adviser to look into the matter. I obviously cannot prejudge the outcome of that, but it is right that we fully investigate this matter and establish all the facts.

Keir Starmer Portrait Keir Starmer
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The Prime Minister avoided the question. Anybody watching would think it is fairly obvious that someone who seeks to avoid tax cannot also be in charge of tax, yet for some reason, the Prime Minister cannot bring himself to say that or even acknowledge the question. Last week, the Prime Minister told the House that the chair of the Tory party had addressed his tax affairs “in full” and there was “nothing” to add. This week, after days of public pressure, he now says there are serious questions to answer. What changed?

Rishi Sunak Portrait The Prime Minister
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I know the right hon. and learned Gentleman reads from prepared sheets, but he should listen to what I actually say. Since I commented on this matter last week, more information, including a statement by the Minister without Portfolio, has entered the public domain, which is why it is right that we do establish the facts. Let me take a step back. Of course, the politically expedient thing to do would have been for me to say that this matter must be resolved by Wednesday at noon, but I believe in proper due process. That is why I appointed an independent adviser and that is why the independent adviser is doing his job. The Opposition cannot have it both ways. The Leader of the Opposition and his party chair, the hon. Member for Oxford East (Anneliese Dodds), both urged me and the Government to appoint an independent adviser, and now he objects to that independent adviser doing their job. It is simple political opportunism and everyone can see through it.

Keir Starmer Portrait Keir Starmer
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We all know why the Prime Minister was reluctant to ask his party chair questions about family finances and tax avoidance, but his failure to sack him, when the whole country can see what is going on, shows how hopelessly weak he is—a Prime Minister overseeing chaos, overwhelmed at every turn. He cannot say when ambulances will get to heart attack victims again. He cannot say when the prison system will keep streets safe again. He cannot even deal with tax avoiders in his own Cabinet. Is he starting to wonder if this job is just too big for him?

Rishi Sunak Portrait The Prime Minister
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The difference between the right hon. and learned Gentleman and me is that I stand by my values and my principles, even when it is difficult. When I disagreed fundamentally with the previous Prime Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Boris Johnson), I resigned from the Government, but for four long years, he sat next to the right hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) when antisemitism ran rife and his predecessor sided with our opponents. That is what is weak: he has no principles, just petty politics.

Edward Timpson Portrait Edward Timpson (Eddisbury) (Con)
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Q4. For our most vulnerable children, school is often their principal place of safety as well as education, but as reported in my review of school exclusions for the Government in 2019, the unacceptable and illegal use of off-rolling is still shutting a worrying number of children out of the classroom, out of learning and out of the protection they need from gangs, violence and domestic abuse. The Department for Education has done some impressive and excellent work to address this terrible practice, but what more can my right hon. Friend do to ensure that we permanently exclude off-rolling from our schools?

Rishi Sunak Portrait The Prime Minister
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My hon. and learned Friend raises an important issue. The Government are clear that off-rolling is unlawful and unacceptable in any form, and the Department for Education continues to work with Ofsted to tackle it. Where Ofsted finds it, it will always be addressed in the inspection report and it could also lead to a school’s leadership being judged inadequate.

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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We come to the SNP leader.

Stephen Flynn Portrait Stephen Flynn (Aberdeen South) (SNP)
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Let me start by echoing the sentiments of the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition in relation to Holocaust Memorial Day—truly horrific crimes that we must never forget and endeavour to ensure are never repeated.

May I send my heartfelt thoughts, and indeed I hope those of all across the Chamber, to the firefighter who is in a serious condition following the blaze in Edinburgh just a few days ago?

May I ask the Prime what advice he would have for individuals seeking to protect their personal finances? Should they seek out a future chair of the BBC to help secure an £800,000 loan, should they set up a trust in Gibraltar and hope that HMRC simply does not notice, or should they do as others have done and simply apply for non-dom status?

Rishi Sunak Portrait The Prime Minister
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Let me share in the hon. Gentleman’s expressions of sympathy to the families concerned and to the firefighter who is currently in hospital. I am sorry to hear that, and I wish him a speedy recovery.

I am proud of this Government’s record of supporting the most vulnerable in our society: this winter, helping all families—£900—with their energy bills; raising the national living wage to record levels; and ensuring that our pensioners get the support they need. That is what this Government are doing to ensure financial security in this country.

Stephen Flynn Portrait Stephen Flynn
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I am not sure what question the Prime Minister thought I asked, but that certainly was not it. Let us be clear about this: this is now a matter of the Prime Minister’s own integrity and accountability. After all, when there were questions about the Home Secretary and concerns about her role in relation to national security, he chose to back her. Now, he is choosing to back the chair of the Tory party, despite a £5 million penalty from HMRC, and of course he is seeking to protect the former Prime Minister despite his cosy financial relationship with the chair of the BBC. Is it little wonder that people in Scotland may well consider the Tory party to be a parcel of rogues?

Rishi Sunak Portrait The Prime Minister
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What I am standing up for is proper due process. That is why we have an independent adviser. It is right that the independent adviser conducts his investigation. That is how we will ensure accountability, and that is what I will deliver.

Rob Roberts Portrait Rob Roberts (Delyn) (Ind)
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Q9. Despite having less than 5% of England’s population, Wales has almost 40 times more people waiting more than two years for NHS treatment—a sad case of “devolve and forget”, unfortunately, which does a disservice to my constituents in Delyn. Will the Prime Minister confirm that the UK Government remain concerned about the healthcare of the people in Wales, and with north Wales health board having been in “special measures” for eight years, can he come up with a way of putting the Welsh Labour Government in it too?

Rishi Sunak Portrait The Prime Minister
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As the hon. Gentleman highlights, the NHS right across our Union is facing pressure because of some of the challenges of flu and covid in particular causing high bed occupancy this winter. We are focused on delivering on the people’s priorities and bringing down the backlog. We have currently already eliminated waits of over two years and, as the hon. Gentleman says, there is more to go. That is why our investment this week into mental health treatment will ensure that we can ease the pressure further in A&E, and I continue to deliver that across the country.

Jeffrey M Donaldson Portrait Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson (Lagan Valley) (DUP)
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I echo the comments of the Prime Minister in relation to Holocaust Memorial Day, and as we think of the situation in Ukraine, we also extend our best wishes to President Zelensky on his birthday.

Freedom of religion or belief is important in this country. Isabel Vaughan-Spruce was praying silently outside an abortion clinic in Birmingham when she was arrested and questioned by the police, not about her written or spoken words, but about her thoughts. We value freedom of religion or belief in this country. Will the Prime Minister commit himself to examining the laws of the United Kingdom to ensure that this country remains a beacon for freedom of religion or belief across the world?

Rishi Sunak Portrait The Prime Minister
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Of course we believe in freedom of religious expression and belief in this country, but we are also balancing that with the rights of women to seek legal and safe abortions. That is currently being discussed in this Parliament. These are always matters of a free vote, and I know that Members will treat them with the sensitivity they deserve.

Liam Fox Portrait Dr Liam Fox (North Somerset)  (Con)
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Q11.   Innocent civilians are being murdered in Ukraine on Putin’s orders as we speak, and as we sit in a warmed House of Commons, families are freezing because their electricity has been cut off by Russian forces. Putin believes that Ukraine is more important to him than to the free world, and is moving to a full war footing. Ukrainians must make gains on the battlefield, and the next six months are crucial. They need a full range of weapons—air defence, artillery, longer-range missiles, and tanks—and enough to make a real difference. The UK has shown great leadership on this issue, so may I ask my right hon. Friend to use every means at his disposal, domestic and international, to honour the courage of the people of Ukraine, and to defend the whole world order, because ultimately that is what we are talking about?

Rishi Sunak Portrait The Prime Minister
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I have made it clear that the UK and our allies must accelerate our efforts to ensure that Ukraine wins this war and secures a lasting peace. Last year the United Kingdom provided £2.3 billion in military aid to Ukraine, the largest package of support of any European nation, and we will at least match that again this year. As my right hon. Friend knows, last week I announced that we would gift many battle tanks as part of the next major package of UK support to Ukraine, and I am pleased that our friends and allies are preparing to follow our lead.

Rupa Huq Portrait Dr Rupa Huq (Ealing Central and Acton) (Ind)
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Q3. Mr Speaker, London has it all: prime property, shopping, schools, and even the perfect time zone for money laundering. While there has been movement with Russian oligarchs, it is not just them, and we know that there are relatives of regimes that Members across the House condemn that are running bogus Islamic centres as fronts to stash their dirty cash, among other things. When will the National Crime Agency be adequately financed, so that we can be a world leader in anti-corruption, as we promised in 2016? Or is there a lack of political will to upset the apple cart?

Rishi Sunak Portrait The Prime Minister
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The hon. Lady should know that we are currently in the process of legislating the Economic Crime and Corporate Transparency Bill, which puts in place many more measures to allow us to tackle some of the issues she raises. It also introduces the economic crime levy, which will provide considerably more funding to tackle economic crime in the UK.

Jason McCartney Portrait Jason McCartney (Colne Valley) (Con)
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Q12. The trans-Pennine rail upgrade is under way, which is good news, with stations in Slaithwaite and Marsden getting improvements. Not such good news are the dozens of daily rail service cancellations by TransPennine Express, which are causing absolute misery for my constituents who are trying to get to work, to college, or to visit family and friends. The franchise is up in May. Does the Prime Minister agree that enough is enough, and that if TransPennine Express does not get to grips with this we need to strip it of the franchise and get in somebody who will deliver reliable rail services for my constituents?

Rishi Sunak Portrait The Prime Minister
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We have been clear that the current service is simply not acceptable. Rail North Partnership is working with the company on a service improvement plan, and my hon. Friend the Minister of State, Department for Transport, (Huw Merriman) is having weekly meetings with them. As my hon. Friend points out, the TransPennine Express contract expires in May, and while there are currently discussions about that new contract, if Ministers conclude that the operator cannot be turned around, other decisions may be made.

Olivia Blake Portrait Olivia Blake (Sheffield, Hallam) (Lab)
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Q5. Refugees and campaigners are gathered today outside Parliament to highlight the impact of the hostile environment—from Rwanda, to deaths in the channel and the latest scandal of missing children—on people in the migration and asylum system. Rather than cruel gimmicks such as Rwanda, is not the best way of deterring child crossings, saving lives and breaking the business model of criminal gangs the introduction of safe and legal routes to claim asylum?

Rishi Sunak Portrait The Prime Minister
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This is about fairness. It is about fairness for those who seek to come here legally, and it is about fairness for those who are here and our ability to integrate and support those we want to. What we will do is break the cycle of criminal gangs who are causing untold misery and leading to deaths in the channel. That is why we will introduce legislation that makes it clear that if you come here illegally, we will be able to detain you and swiftly remove you to a safe third country. That is a reasonable and common-sense approach that the vast majority of the British public support.

Oliver Heald Portrait Sir Oliver Heald (North East Hertfordshire) (Con)
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Q13. The Prime Minister will be aware of my concern that mental health patients should not be forced into accident and emergency departments when what they really need is specialist care. Will he say more about the extra money that is being made available for urgent mental health care facilities and what impact he thinks that will have on the treatment of mental health patients and the general situation in A&E departments?

Rishi Sunak Portrait The Prime Minister
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My right hon. and learned Friend is absolutely right. People in mental health crisis deserve compassionate care in a safe and appropriate setting. Too often, they end up in A&E when they should be receiving specialist treatment elsewhere. This week’s announcement on mental health ambulances, crisis cafés, crisis houses and mental health urgent treatment centres will ensure that patients get the vital help that they need while easing pressures on emergency departments and freeing up staff time. He is absolutely right to highlight the issue. Our announcement will make a major difference.

Tulip Siddiq Portrait Tulip Siddiq (Hampstead and Kilburn) (Lab)
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Q6. This week, as a trustee of the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust, I was honoured to hear from Lia Lesser, a holocaust survivor who came to this country by herself at the age of eight because her parents believed tat the UK was a safe haven for vulnerable children. I also read the Government’s own statistics that say 200 unaccompanied asylum-seeking children were missing from hotels in the UK. Ministers have admitted that they have no idea about the whereabouts of those children. Does the Prime Minister think that the UK is still a safe haven for vulnerable children?

Rishi Sunak Portrait The Prime Minister
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Over the last few years, the United Kingdom has opened up its hearts and homes to hundreds of thousands of people from Syria, Afghanistan, Ukraine and Hong Kong and provided refuge and sanctuary to many children in that process, but the reports that we have read about are concerning. Local authorities have a statutory duty to protect all children regardless of where they go missing from, and in that situation they work closely with local agencies, including the police, to establish their whereabouts. That is why it is so important that we end the use of hotels for unaccompanied asylum seekers and reduce pressure on the overall system. That is what our plans will do.

James Duddridge Portrait Sir James Duddridge (Rochford and Southend East) (Con)
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Constituents in Southend and Rochford very much welcome the energy bills support scheme, which has helped 99% of households around the United Kingdom with rising fuel prices despite Putin’s barbaric war in Ukraine. Will the Prime Minister assure my constituents and the House that he is committed to continuing to help with the cost of living not only this winter but next winter?

Rishi Sunak Portrait The Prime Minister
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My hon. Friend is right about the Government’s commitment to support all families with the cost of living: this winter, about £900 of support. Next year, as the energy price guarantee evolves, it will still be there with about £500 of support for families. That comes on top of record increases in the national living wage, worth about £1,600, and supporting our pensioners and the most vulnerable by inflating their benefits and pensions with inflation.

Clive Efford Portrait Clive Efford (Eltham) (Lab)
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Q7. In 2021, the Government enabled Yevgeny Prigozhin, the former chef to Putin and founder of the Wagner Group, to dodge UK sanctions to pursue a case in London against British journalist Eliot Higgins, who had exposed his link to the Wagner Group. Prigozhin believed that silencing Higgins would get his sanctions lifted. The overriding of UK sanctions was approved by the Treasury when the Prime Minister was Chancellor. Prigozhin’s English lawyers wrote that serving notice on Higgins “will require Treasury approval”. What values did the Prime Minister apply when he allowed a Putin warlord to use our courts to try to silence a British journalist and undermine UK sanctions?

Rishi Sunak Portrait The Prime Minister
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I am proud of our record in leading when it comes to sanctioning those people connected with the Putin regime. I think, at last count, we have sanctioned over 1,000 people and frozen tens of billions of pounds of assets. I am aware of the case the hon. Gentleman has raised, and we are looking at it. There is, as he knows, the Office of Financial Sanctions Implementation, which deals with the licensing situations in these matters, but I am happy to get back to him on the specific case that he raised.

Nicola Richards Portrait Nicola Richards (West Bromwich East) (Con)
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May I echo my right hon. Friend’s comments on the importance of Holocaust Memorial Day and welcome his renewed commitment today regarding the holocaust memorial and learning centre? Will he join me in encouraging Members from across the House to sign the Holocaust Educational Trust’s book of commitment, which will be in Parliament today and tomorrow, and pledge to remember the holocaust, fight antisemitism and support the important work of the Holocaust Educational Trust?

Rishi Sunak Portrait The Prime Minister
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I thank my hon. Friend. As I said earlier, we will legislate to help build the holocaust memorial and learning centre next to Parliament to serve as a powerful reminder of the holocaust, its victims and where prejudice can lead if unchallenged. I also join her in thanking the Holocaust Educational Trust for its fantastic work and in encouraging all Members to sign the book of commitment, as I will be doing later today.

Andy Slaughter Portrait Andy Slaughter (Hammersmith) (Lab)
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Q8. A week ago my constituent Alireza Akbari was executed by order of the regime in Iran. In the three years preceding and the days following his murder, the UK Government made little effort to protect the life or protest the death of a British national. Tomorrow Mr Akbari’s family and I meet the Foreign Office Minister, Lord Ahmad. They want to hear what help the Government can offer them at the time of their greatest suffering. Today this House wants to hear from the Prime Minister what sanction he will impose on the regime beyond the trifling steps taken so far. First and foremost, will he show some courage, follow the lead of the United States and the European Parliament and proscribe the entire revolutionary guard corps as a terrorist organisation?

Rishi Sunak Portrait The Prime Minister
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The regime is prolonging the suffering of the family, and it is sadly typical of its disregard for basic human dignity. I spoke about my views on Iran when I was before the Liaison Committee, and Iran must now provide answers about the circumstances of Alireza Akbari’s death and burial. We have actually pressed the Iranian regime formally through their chargé d’affaires in London and the Foreign Ministry in Tehran, and we will continue to do so until the family get the answers they deserve. We have also sanctioned several people connected with the case.

Sara Britcliffe Portrait Sara Britcliffe (Hyndburn) (Con)
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I thank the Prime Minister and the Chancellor for visiting Hyndburn and Haslingden last week to hear about the transformative difference that the levelling-up funding will make. This is a historic investment, with over £40 million secured. Does he agree that we are delivering on exactly what was promised in 2019 to the areas that were most forgotten, such as Hyndburn and Haslingden? Will he visit once works are completed to see the difference himself?

Rishi Sunak Portrait The Prime Minister
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My hon. Friend is a fantastic champion for her local community, and the results showed when the Chancellor and I were lucky enough to visit her last week. As she and many of the people we spoke to pointed out, this was an area that had been forgotten and neglected for decades, but it is this Government who are putting in the investment, spreading opportunity, making jobs and making sure that people can feel enormously proud of the place they call home.

Barry Sheerman Portrait Mr Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op)
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Q10. Does the Prime Minister realise that most people in my constituency think it is his role to keep our country safe? Is he aware that in all the years I have been in Parliament, I have never heard of a situation where our Army and armed forces are so run down that the Chairman of the Defence Committee and the Secretary of State for Defence both say that our armed forces have been hollowed out and are unfit to put a division into active service? What is he going to do about that?

Rishi Sunak Portrait The Prime Minister
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The hon. Gentleman seems to forget the fact that we have invested an extra £24 billion in our armed services. That is a record uplift in defence spending and ensures that we are one of the leading spenders on defence in NATO. We will continue to ensure we have one of the best-equipped fighting forces anywhere in the world. As we can see from the recent announcement on tanks, we continue to lead the world when it comes to standing up for not just our safety, but the safety of our allies around the world.

Mike Penning Portrait Sir Mike Penning (Hemel Hempstead) (Con)
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As a former firefighter, I am sure the whole House will pray for the firefighter in Scotland who is today fighting for his life. Our emergency services go one way, into the danger, while we go the other way. Our thoughts and prayers should be with them.

Dacorum Borough Council, the Conservative-led council in my constituency, has done a fantastic job of building new houses, including social housing and council houses. Can the Prime Minister assure me that we will not be pushed into the green belt any more than we already have been and that we can protect the Chilterns in my constituency?

Rishi Sunak Portrait The Prime Minister
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I join my right hon. Friend in praising his local council for ensuring we build homes in the right places so that our young people can fulfil the dream of home ownership. He is also right to say that this Government will always protect our precious green spaces. The recent changes in our planning reforms will ensure that we can protect the green belt everywhere. His local community and others will benefit from those protections as we keep our local areas beautiful.

Martyn Day Portrait Martyn Day (Linlithgow and East Falkirk) (SNP)
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Q14. UK in a Changing Europe reports that, at the end of 2022, 60% of voters said their cost of living had increased and 38% said that their personal finances had been negatively affected by our not being a member of the European Union. The Office for Budget Responsibility forecasts a 4% reduction in GDP, only two fifths of which has already happened, so surely the Prime Minister will agree with me, the electorate and the experts that Brexit has served only to exacerbate the cost of living and economic challenges facing these islands?

Rishi Sunak Portrait The Prime Minister
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Russia’s illegal war in Ukraine and the impact it has had on energy supplies has nothing to do with Brexit. What we are doing is ensuring that we can support families with those cost of living pressures. That is why we provided £900 of support this winter for energy bills, and that is why we are increasing the national living wage to record levels. We will continue to stand behind Britain’s families until we can bring inflation back down to where it belongs.

Virginia Crosbie Portrait Virginia Crosbie (Ynys Môn) (Con)
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I know the Prime Minister will share my concern at the news this morning that 730 people may lose their jobs at the 2 Sisters chicken factory in Llangefni, one of the largest employers on Ynys Môn. What support can the Government offer both to my constituents who are affected by this devastating news and to the wider the community at this difficult time?

Rishi Sunak Portrait The Prime Minister
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I am very sorry to hear about the job losses my hon. Friend raises. My thoughts are with those affected and their families. I know how distressing that will be for them. I am pleased to say that the Department for Work and Pensions has procedures in place to support communities when situations like this arise. We will work very closely with her to do what we are doing everywhere across the country, which is providing good well-paid jobs for everyone, because that is the best way to build a happy and secure life.

Carolyn Harris Portrait Carolyn Harris (Swansea East)  (Lab)
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Q15. Exercise is essential for both physical and mental wellbeing, but with spiralling energy costs many venues, such as the Freedom Leisure centres in my constituency, are struggling to cope. While some sectors will receive extra support, the sport and leisure industry will not. If the Prime Minister agrees with me that the sector is vital to the long-term health of our communities, why are his Government not providing it with the financial support it needs to thrive?

Rishi Sunak Portrait The Prime Minister
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Of course I agree with the hon. Lady that exercise and leisure centres are important. That is why we provided significant support to them during covid and beyond. With regard to energy prices now, the Chancellor set out the new relief scheme that will run after the current one expires. It provides considerable support to all sorts of organisations up and down the country. I am sure it will benefit many businesses and organisations in her constituency.

None Portrait Several hon. Members rose—
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Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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Order. I understand that the case referred to by the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson) is currently before the courts. It is therefore covered by the House’s sub judice resolution and should not be referred to in this House. It is, of course, open to any Member to ask that I waive the resolution in a particular case, but that has not happened in this case and therefore it should not be discussed at all. I will leave it at that.

Olivia Blake Portrait Olivia Blake
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On a point of order, Mr Speaker.

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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Does it relate to Prime Minister’s questions?

Olivia Blake Portrait Olivia Blake
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Yes, Mr Speaker. My apologies: I forgot to refer the House to my declaration in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests on the support that I receive from RAMP—the Refugee, Asylum and Migration Policy project—and my co-chairship of the all-party parliamentary group on migration.

Wagner Group: Sanctions Regime

Wednesday 25th January 2023

(1 year, 4 months ago)

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

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

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

12:40
David Lammy Portrait Mr David Lammy (Tottenham) (Lab)
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(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs if he will make a statement on reports that the UK Government assisted Wagner Group head Yevgeny Prigozhin in circumventing the UK sanctions regime.

James Cartlidge Portrait The Exchequer Secretary to the Treasury (James Cartlidge)
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The war in Ukraine, as we all agree, is a barbaric, illegal incursion into a sovereign nation by another. It has resulted in tens of thousands of deaths, mass displacement and an ongoing humanitarian catastrophe.

We will always stand up for our friends and allies, and we are proud to have led the world’s response, in partnership with our allies, in supporting Ukraine in its fight against Putin’s aggression. We will deliver tanks to roll back any Russian advance, we continue providing aid to help Ukrainians as they defend their homeland, and we have unveiled the most stringent sanctions on any country at any time in our history. We want to use economic sanctions to starve Putin’s war machine and put direct pressure on every individual involved in the decision to go to war and continue to make war on Ukraine.

In response to the question that has been asked today, I should say that it is a long-standing custom that the Government do not comment publicly on individual cases. It would not be appropriate to break that custom, even in a case as serious as this one, in which there is obviously public interest. However, I want to outline the general approach taken to date by the Treasury’s Office of Financial Sanctions Implementation in cases in which persons designated under sanctions seek licences for legal fees, and how that has been followed, and the strong constitutional reasons for that.

Within the sanctions regime broadly, because everyone has a right to legal representation, it is possible for frozen assets to be used to pay for that legal representation. OFSI grants licences to allow sanctioned people to cover their own legal fees, provided that the costs are reasonable. To be absolutely clear, decisions on the issuance of licences for legal fees are largely taken by OFSI officials in line with standard practice. The principles and guidance for assessing these applications are long-standing and have been published for a number of years. Applications are assessed solely on a costs basis.

As the UK is a country with checks and balances, it is right that the relevant court, rather than the Government, should decide the outcome of a case on the substantive merits. However, I can confirm that in the light of recent cases, and related to this question, the Treasury is now considering whether this approach is the right one and whether changes can be made without the Treasury assuming unacceptable legal risk, while ensuring that we adhere to the rule of law. In advance of that, I know that the entire House shares the same goal: to support Ukraine and see all those behind the invasion punished for their complicity. The Government will continue to take a hard line on all those responsible.

David Lammy Portrait Mr Lammy
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I think the whole House will be shocked at the evasiveness that we have just seen from the Minister, given the seriousness of this case.

For years, the Labour party has been calling for the Government to clean up the London laundromat effectively and stop London homes being used as bitcoins for kleptocrats. For months, the Opposition have stood shoulder to shoulder with the Foreign Office in co-ordinating sanctions against Putin and his inner circle. But yesterday we found out that the Treasury, which was then under the leadership of the current Prime Minister, issued special licences that allowed Yevgeny Prigozhin to circumvent sanctions issued before Putin’s illegal invasion of Ukraine.

The Government appear to have granted a waiver for a warlord that enabled him to launch a legal attack on a British journalist. This is a perfect example of a SLAPP—a strategic lawsuit against public participation, designed to silence critics through financial intimidation.

Prigozhin is one of the most dangerous and notorious members of Putin’s inner circle. The Wagner Group, which he leads, is responsible for appalling atrocities in Ukraine and around the world. If the now Prime Minister’s Treasury had any hand in alleviating pressure on Prigozhin, I am sure every hon. Member would agree that that would be absolutely unconscionable. I ask the Minister to answer these questions for the benefit of the whole House. Did a Minister authorise the granting of a licence or exemption to Prigozhin? When did Ministers become aware of this incident and what actions have they taken? Will the Minister commit today to an independent investigation of this controversy? Will he commit to urgently review the law regarding SLAPP suits so that oligarchs and warmongers cannot bully and harass journalists and critics? When will the Government introduce restrictions on the provision of legal services to Russia, as the European Union already has?

James Cartlidge Portrait James Cartlidge
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I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman: he takes us back to when I stood opposite him in our Ministry of Justice days.

I am not being evasive: I am standing in front of the House of Commons to answer the question. The right hon. Gentleman mentioned the Prime Minister, and he is right that my right hon. Friend was Chancellor of the Exchequer at the time. I shall explain the process. I am not going to comment on the individual case, but without prejudice to it and talking about the general situation that pertains to how OFSI considers such cases, there is a delegated framework whereby decisions on legal fees for persons designated under all the sanctions regimes are routinely taken by senior civil servants. I want to be clear on that. We are not aware of any case of legal fee decisions under any of the sanctions regimes being taken by a Minister. I want to be clear with the House on that.

The point about SLAPPs is really important. I was at the Ministry of Justice when it was a live issue. It was first raised in a Backbench Business Committee debate by my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis), in conjunction with the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Liam Byrne), and I responded to that debate for the Ministry of Justice. Let me set out what we are doing. We have been clear as a Government that SLAPPs represent a clear abuse of the legal system, as they rely on threatening tactics to silence free speech advocates who act in the public interest. That is why it is often called lawfare. We ran a call for evidence on strategic lawsuits against public participation and libel reform from March to May 2022 in light of reports that Russia and its allies might be funding litigation against free speech in the UK. We published our response to the call for evidence on 20 July 2022, having closely analysed 120 responses from media, legal and civil society professionals, and we are committed to tackling SLAPPs.

I can confirm that targeted anti-SLAPP reforms will include a statutory definition of SLAPPs, an early dismissal process and costs protection for SLAPPs cases. The Government have committed to primary legislation to make those reforms a reality as soon as parliamentary time allows.

Alicia Kearns Portrait Alicia Kearns (Rutland and Melton) (Con)
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I understand that the decision was made by civil servants. Will my hon. Friend commit to considering whether we need to introduce ministerial oversight and how quickly that should be done? It is gravely concerning that no civil servant thought that this might need political oversight or some sort of political intervention. Will my hon. Friend also consider the proscription of the Wagner Group, which is a state terrorist organisation responsible for war crimes around the world?

Finally, I have been disappointed by the Government’s response to my multiple written questions about the Wagner Group and the new centre it has set up in Serbia—it is an enormous installation. We are seeing heinous activities in the Balkans, especially around the illegal Republika Srpska day that took place. So my asks are introducing ministerial oversight; looking at the Wagner group in Serbia and putting pressure on the Serbian Government; and finally proscribing that organisation.

James Cartlidge Portrait James Cartlidge
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My hon. Friend the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee speaks with great expertise on these matters. She makes some points that are for other Departments to consider, but I will ensure that they are fed back. On the point about the specific process in relation to OFSI, I will not comment on the individual case, but there is a general point about seeking clarification. I can confirm that we will undertake an internal review to see how such cases are considered in the future, and we will say more on that in due course.

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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I call the Scottish National party spokesman.

Drew Hendry Portrait Drew Hendry (Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey) (SNP)
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Despite the Minister’s gymnastics on this issue, it is clear that there are still serious and systemic links between the UK Government and Russian political elites. In 2021 the operations, tactics and human rights abuses of the Wagner Group were well known, and the EU and the UK imposed sanctions on Yevgeny Prigozhin, as the Wagner Group leader, for that reason. These revelations present a serious and immoral disregard for human rights obligations and due process at the heart of the Minister’s Government, and all this took place on the current Prime Minister’s watch, as he was Chancellor at the time.

Will the Minister tell us what advice, legal or otherwise, prompted the Treasury to make Prigozhin’s activities possible? It is not beyond his capability—legal or otherwise—to tell us who made the decision to override that. What actions will his Government now take to ensure, as a result of these revelations, that the Prime Minister’s promised

“integrity, professionalism and accountability at every level”

will be followed through?

James Cartlidge Portrait James Cartlidge
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I think that the hon. Gentleman submitted a similarly worded urgent question this morning, and obviously I respect that point, but there are no gymnastics here; I am merely setting out the position.

The hon. Gentleman asked about legal advice and so on. Within the sanctions regime broadly, because we are a country with the rule of law and everyone has a right to legal representation, it is possible for frozen assets to be used to pay for that legal representation. This is about sanctioned individuals. The Office of Financial Sanctions Implementation grants licences to allow sanctioned people to cover their own legal fees provided that the costs are reasonable. I should make it clear that decisions on the issuance of licences for legal fees are not, and should not be, political, and are largely taken by officials in line with standard practice. As I said a few moments ago, we are not aware of a case relating to legal fees under any of the sanctions regimes in which a Minister took the decision.

David Davis Portrait Mr David Davis (Haltemprice and Howden) (Con)
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I welcome the Minister’s assertion that there is to be a review of this approach, but I ask him to make it quick. Even the Treasury’s press release today indicates a level of misunderstanding on the part of the officials, claiming a fundamental or absolute right to legal representation. Of course you have a right to representation if you are defending yourself in court, but there is no fundamental right to use legal representation to destroy someone else and shut down free speech.

James Cartlidge Portrait James Cartlidge
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As my right hon. Friend knows, I responded to his Backbench Business debate. He has been incredibly consistent in calling for actions on these points, and I respect that very much. However, I do think that the right to legal representation is a fundamental tenet of our democracy, which can mean—I am not commenting on the specific case—that individuals whom we find distasteful have a right to legal representation. Let us not forget that even at the Nuremberg trials, people who had committed the most heinous crimes in the history of the western world were legally represented.

Margaret Hodge Portrait Dame Margaret Hodge (Barking) (Lab)
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I have to say that I had never seen such a case of lack of professionalism, lack of integrity and lack of accountability as this one. It absolutely astounded me: I thought it was unbelievable.

Let me say to the Minister that in terms of the way in which such matters are decided, this is not an isolated case. Petr Aven, for instance, has been given a licence, and according to the press it is thought that he will be able to spend up to £600,000 a year on so-called household expenses which include buying and selling Bentley cars and other luxuries. That is just outrageous. By the time the sanctions stop, the resources—the sanctioned assets—will have disappeared.

Let me also say to the Minister that this issue of individual confidentiality does not play here. The Foreign Office publishes a list of the names of the individuals concerned. I therefore think that we have the right to know what went wrong in this particular case, and that the Minister should report to Parliament. I welcome the fact that a review of the OFSI regime is taking place, but that too should be reported to Parliament.

Finally, may I ask the Minister for a commitment that the legal fees general licence will not be rolled over beyond its expiration date of 27 April 2023?

James Cartlidge Portrait James Cartlidge
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I have previously answered an urgent question, tabled by the right hon. Lady, on a matter relating to dividends in Russia, and—again—I respect her consistency in respect of a range of points that relate to this issue in one way or another. However, as she knows, I cannot go into the details of the specific case that she has mentioned. There are all kinds of reasons for that, and I think it important that we preserve it. I may be wrong, but I suspect that it would continue under any future Government, because there is very good reason for it. That is why we talk about the sanctions regime in aggregate rather than discussing individual confidential cases.

If we take the overview, we see that this country is doing everything possible. Our position on Ukraine is that we are not directly deploying our armed forces into the theatre, so we have to use every other lever at our disposal, including sanctioning more than 1,200 individuals and 120 entities and freezing assets worth £18 billion. It is a very ambitious sanctions regime, and we should be proud of what we are doing as a country to support Ukraine. We have played a key role in helping it to withstand the Russian invasion, although of course we recognise there is more to do.

Bob Seely Portrait Bob Seely (Isle of Wight) (Con)
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I am not going to talk about any individual case. I know that the Government are doing very good work on the Economic Crime and Corporate Transparency Bill and the Bill of Rights, and—certainly on this side of the House—we all support that and recognise its importance.

I want to talk specifically about the SLAPPs primary legislation and where it will be. If it is to be in the Bill of Rights—as has now been indicated to me—rather than being a separate law, that may limit the scope of what we can do about SLAPPs. It may not cover all the stuff that is needed to cover the SLAPPs and the lawyers who engage in this practice, the SLAPPers. We need separate primary legislation, a SLAPPs Bill like the ten-minute rule Bill that I introduced yesterday. A gold-standard, best-practice SLAPPs Bill has been written for me, which the Government can take on or allow me to introduce. It covers a little bit of privilege, it covers the private investigator market, and it is broad enough to cover all the abusive SLAPP practices that will not be covered in the Bill of Rights. Will the Government please consider this course of action, as the most sensible course to ensure freedom of speech and a free media ?

James Cartlidge Portrait James Cartlidge
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My hon. Friend speaks with huge passion about these matters. Only yesterday, as he said, he presented a ten-minute rule Bill relating to this issue. He will appreciate that there are issues relating to parliamentary time, and that this is above my pay grade. I feel very strongly that we have done as much as we can on SLAPPs, but we want to go further, because we need legislation. I said at the end of the Backbench Business debate—my hon. Friend, of course, spoke in it—that I had heard what was said, and that we would now act. The Ministry of Justice took that forward; we had the call for evidence, and we have responded to it. At present, however, our position is, I am afraid, that we will commit ourselves to primary legislation as soon as parliamentary time allows. I cannot say more than that at this moment, but I am aware of how strongly my hon. Friend feels about the issue.

Chris Bryant Portrait Sir Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab)
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I am sorry, but this is so complacent, and the Government have been systematically complacent about the issue of sanctioning individuals for the last three years. The Foreign Office was not prepared: it did not have a proper sanctions regime in place. We are sectioning only 20% of the people who have been sanctioned by the United States of America, although I have no idea why. Then we allow people to sidestep sanctioning. What the Minister is saying today is basically endorsing what the Treasury did in relation to this particular case, which gives a green light to those people to do it again and again and again. Alisher Usmanov, for instance, is sidestepping sanctioning by a completely different process.

It is time the Government decided as a whole that we are going to do this, and we are going to do it properly. I actually think that we should listen much more to our Back Benchers, because the whole House is united around this and the Government are too complacent.

James Cartlidge Portrait James Cartlidge
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The hon. Gentleman is wrong to say that I am endorsing any particular action. I have made it very clear that I am not commenting on a specific case. What I have said relates to the general regime that pertains, and is without prejudice in respect of any specific case. The hon. Gentleman also said that we were not prepared. He may not be aware of Operation Orbital, but we have been training Ukrainian soldiers since 2015: 22,000 Ukrainian soldiers.

Chris Bryant Portrait Sir Chris Bryant
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We are talking about sanctions.

James Cartlidge Portrait James Cartlidge
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Well, I am talking about Ukraine, because I think that that is the key issue here. It shows we were preparing for what happened, although, obviously, the situation was unprecedented when Ukraine was invaded. We are clear about the fact that our officials and Departments worked as fast as possible to bring forward an ambitious range of sanctions—which of course happened in March last year when the Prime Minister was Chancellor—and they are having a significant impact on Russia and its economy.

Harriett Baldwin Portrait Harriett Baldwin (West Worcestershire) (Con)
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Although we cannot discuss a specific case, “Wagner Group” is written on the Annunciator and I wanted to add a further question about the regime that we are operating within the Treasury. I urge the Minister to go further than he committed to doing in response to my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Alicia Kearns), the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, because the Wagner Group is clearly such an evil organisation and what it is doing in Ukraine and across north Africa is so evil. Will the Minister today, from the Dispatch Box, ask OFSI officials to have a red flag system whereby anything related to the Wagner Group is flagged up individually to the Minister responsible?

James Cartlidge Portrait James Cartlidge
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My hon. Friend speaks with the expertise of her position as Chair of the Treasury Committee, and I hear what she is saying. I have said that the internal review will take place. She is more than welcome to write to me in her capacity as Chair about that, and I will reply in due course.

My hon. Friend makes the point that this question is about the Wagner Group but that we are saying that we are not commenting on the cases of specific individuals. As a Government, we are absolutely clear:

“The Wagner Group is a Russia-based private military company”.

It has organised the recruitment, co-ordination and planned operations of mercenaries participating in military operations in Ukraine. It is responsible for engaging in and providing support for actions that destabilise Ukraine and undermine or threaten the territorial integrity, sovereignty or independence of Ukraine.

That is why the most important question is: what are we doing to support Ukraine? Opposition Members have mentioned the Prime Minister, so let us talk about what he did as Chancellor. He was the one who put in place £2.3 billion of military support for Ukraine, which helped the Ukrainians to defend themselves against Russia so that the fight is still being fought to this day.

Liam Byrne Portrait Liam Byrne (Birmingham, Hodge Hill) (Lab)
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This is outrageous. The Minister has just confessed to the House that sanctions implementation is out of ministerial control. The result is that a waiver was issued for a warlord to sue an English journalist in an English court.

Let us just be clear about the sanctions indictment that this Government issued on 31 December 2020. We sanctioned Prigozhin because he was operating

“a deniable military capability for the Russian State.”

Ten months later, civil servants under the Minister’s control signed off £3,500 for business-class flights, £320 for luxury accommodation at the Belmond Grand Hotel Europe, £150 for subsistence and more. Let us be clear about what the leaked emails from that conversation show. They show that Prigozhin’s lawyers wanted to sue Eliot Higgins and Bellingcat because

“public rebuttal of the article…is one of the reasons for his sanction designation”.

The Minister signed off money for a warlord to prosecute an English journalist in an English court, to undermine the sanctions regime that he is responsible for. This is outrageous and it has to change now.

James Cartlidge Portrait James Cartlidge
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The right hon. Gentleman knows perfectly well that I did not, in any way, confess that Ministers have no control over the sanctions regime. What I stated very clearly is that in respect of OFSI consideration of legal fees under the sanctions regimes, these decisions are routinely taken by senior civil servants under a delegated framework. That is simply a statement of fact. On the claims for travel and other expenses, let us be clear: under the legal expenses derogation, OFSI is only permitted to issue a licence where the costs, including those relating to disbursements, have been deemed to be reasonable. OFSI therefore scrutinises the hourly fees charged by fee earners, the hours incurred and any other associated costs. It is the responsibility of the applicant to demonstrate to OFSI’s satisfaction that this statutory reasonableness test is met. If it is not satisfied, OFSI will not be able to issue a licence.

John Whittingdale Portrait Sir John Whittingdale (Maldon) (Con)
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Does my hon. Friend agree that this is just the latest example of a dodgy Russian oligarch or similar using legal action to attempt to shut down legitimate journalism? I strongly welcome what he has said about the Government’s intention to act against SLAPPs, but will he commit to publishing the detail of that legislation as soon as possible? Will he look for a means by which it can be introduced, as my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Bob Seely) said, as a stand-alone Bill, which would be preferable? If that is not possible, will he look to use other vehicles, possibly relating to human rights? The media Bill might well provide a vehicle for acting to protect journalism. We need this legislation as fast as possible.

James Cartlidge Portrait James Cartlidge
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I absolutely hear what my right hon. Friend is saying. He is another colleague who has spoken consistently on these points. He knows that when I was at the Ministry of Justice we acted quickly to bring forward measures on SLAPPs; first, we had the call for evidence and then we gave our response. He will appreciate that the parliamentary timetable is above my pay grade, but I hear what he says and I will ensure that, in considering the passage of that legislation, the appropriate stakeholders will respond to him. In the meantime, I want to be clear that SLAPPs are something on which we want to see progress.

Layla Moran Portrait Layla Moran (Oxford West and Abingdon) (LD)
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Let us remind ourselves who we are talking about here: the head of the Wagner Group, which is responsible for egregious human rights abuses not just in Ukraine, but in Mali, Sudan and Syria. Absolutely it should be proscribed, and quickly; today is President Zelensky’s birthday and what better gift could we give him? This review is going to take time, so will the Minister assure the House that in the interim a Minister will look at every case until the regime is cleared up? Will the results of this review come to this House so that parliamentarians can scrutinise it? Clearly, the Treasury and the Ministers have not been getting this right, have they?

James Cartlidge Portrait James Cartlidge
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I say to the hon. Lady that she has many ways at her disposal to scrutinise the Government: as she knows, we have Treasury questions coming up; there are Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office questions; we have recently held debates on Russia, including the one on Russia’s strategy; and a number of statutory instruments have been passed in relation to the sanctions regime. I am sure there will be many other opportunities to scrutinise the Government. As I say, we have only recently taken the decision to hold this internal review, but I will say more on it in due course.

Philip Hollobone Portrait Mr Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con)
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I am sure that all my constituents would regard the Wagner Group as an evil organisation, and its activities in Ukraine, the middle east and Africa are abhorrent. I am sure that my constituents would also support its proscription. In the meantime, will the Minister tell my constituents how many Russian individuals and entities have been sanctioned, what is the value of those sanctions, and what is the value of the economic sanctions that have been imposed against Russia?

James Cartlidge Portrait James Cartlidge
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I totally agree with my hon. Friend, as we all do, about the nature of the Wagner Group. That is not the point. We do have to have due process, because of the right to legal representation. I believe that, to date, we have sanctioned about 1,200 individuals and 120 entities, and the latest figures show that more than £18 billion of Russian assets have been frozen by our sanctions and that three quarters of foreign companies have reduced operations in Russia. Of course we have no quarrel with the Russian people, although this will have an economic impact. As I said, we are not taking a direct military posture in Ukraine, but we are doing everything else we can, which is why we have to use every tool at our disposal, including a strong economic sanctions package.

Holly Lynch Portrait Holly Lynch (Halifax) (Lab)
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The Minister has said that it is officials who would routinely take these types of decision, but I hope he will agree that we cannot ever allow it to become routine for us to allow some of the very worst sanctioned individuals to weaponise British laws to go after British journalists. He said that we are going to have a review

“in the light of recent cases”.

Will he confirm whether he is looking into others?

James Cartlidge Portrait James Cartlidge
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Although I cannot comment on individual cases, I absolutely agree with the hon. Lady that we should be looking at lawfare. We will be bringing forward that legislation. I do think we have acted quickly on that, but of course it is a complex area of law that we need to get right. She reinforces the point that many colleagues in all parts of the House want to see that legislation come forward, and I have very much noted it.

Rehman Chishti Portrait Rehman Chishti (Gillingham and Rainham) (Con)
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As a former Minister for sanctions, I agree with the Minister that the UK had led the world in taking a firm, decisive, co-ordinated sanctions approach with our international partners to bring individuals to account for what is going on in Ukraine. This case highlights an issue relating to the granting of licences for legal fees, so how many such cases are there overall? We have sanctioned more than 1,000 individuals, but how many legal licences has the UK granted overall? We co-ordinate our sanctions approach with the United States and the European Union, so how many licences have they given? In this case, was there any co-ordination input from our counterparts in the US? I agree with the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee that things should be referred back to the Minister for decision, rather than having it delegated to an official. What exact date are we looking at for the review?

James Cartlidge Portrait James Cartlidge
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My hon. Friend has expertise as a former sanctions Minister. Obviously, I cannot speak for the United States Government but only for ours. I do not have the exact figures, but I will look into it and write to him. To be absolutely clear, I stated a fact when I said that decisions specifically on legal fees under the sanctions regimes are routinely taken by senior civil servants. I said that I was not aware of any case where the Minister had taken a decision. But under our constitution, I am standing here because, ultimately, Ministers are responsible for Department and Government policy. Nevertheless, it is entirely right to make a point about how these things work operationally. As I said, that is correct. It is a delegated framework for decision making.

Martin Docherty-Hughes Portrait Martin Docherty-Hughes (West Dunbartonshire) (SNP)
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It seems that the Wagner Group is yet another example of the litany of disaster that sustains what seems to be Londongrad. On the back of this appalling situation, can the Minister update the House on when the British Government will not only introduce legislation on limited partnerships but bring about the review that he talks about?

James Cartlidge Portrait James Cartlidge
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The hon. Gentleman talks about Londongrad; he knows that we are taking extensive measures on economic crime. Let me say to the Members of the Scottish National party who come every time and lecture us on the sanctions regime and so on that the greatest gift we could give to Putin would be for this country to engage in unilateral nuclear disarmament. It is the most extraordinary position to be lectured by the SNP on standing up to Russia, because if we took its advice and adopted its policy, we would undermine NATO and all our efforts to defend ourselves.

James Duddridge Portrait Sir James Duddridge (Rochford and Southend East) (Con)
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Unfortunately, the Government’s response to the Wagner Group has been inadequate, in part because the matter falls between the FCDO and the Treasury. A number of colleagues, including the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Alicia Kearns), have called for that organisation to be proscribed. Others, including me, have done so for different reasons, whether it be Serbia, Africa or another conflict area. Will the Minister bring together the two Departments, and look at proscribing the organisation and at the impact that will have on the efficiency of the sanctions regime?

James Cartlidge Portrait James Cartlidge
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My hon. Friend has considerable experience as a Foreign Office Minister. He will be aware of how these things work. I am happy to give that reply. I believe that the decision would be for the Foreign Office, but he is right that we must work across Government, and I will write to him on that point.

Chi Onwurah Portrait Chi Onwurah (Newcastle upon Tyne Central) (Lab)
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As well as the Wagner Group’s murderous activities in Ukraine, I am aware, as chair of the all-party parliamentary group for Africa, of its activities across that continent. It has mercenaries in Mali, the Central African Republic, the Republic of Mozambique and Libya. It is targeting civilians, actively spreading disinformation and propping up autocratic regimes, all to defend Putin’s footprint and ambitions in the continent. Is the Minister saying that it is acceptable for someone to make money from those evil activities, be sanctioned and then get a licence from the British Government to evade those sanctions in order to defend themselves legally? Regardless of what he is saying, what message does that send to our allies across the world?

James Cartlidge Portrait James Cartlidge
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Of course we are not saying that. We are saying that, whether we like it or not, there is a principle under democracy and the rule of law of the right to a defence. Therefore, we have a system in place under the sanctions regime to consider applications for legal fees to be paid from frozen assets. That is a statement of fact on how the system works.

Anna McMorrin Portrait Anna McMorrin (Cardiff North) (Lab)
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We are continuing to sidestep sanctions. It is disgraceful that the Minister continues to defend that at the Dispatch Box. What message does it send to Ukraine and our allies that our own Treasury is helping one of Putin’s notorious warmongers evade sanctions? If he cannot tell us the number of exemptions and waivers that have been given to individuals, can he find out and commit to come to this House and publish those numbers?

James Cartlidge Portrait James Cartlidge
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The message to Ukraine is that this is a country that believes in the rule of law and democracy. That is why we support Ukraine. That is why the Prime Minister was in Ukraine recently, confirming that we will do everything possible to support them. That is why this country has made a greater contribution to support the brave people of Ukraine than any other country, bar the United States.

Alison Thewliss Portrait Alison Thewliss (Glasgow Central) (SNP)
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I do not know if the Minister has had the chance to read Oliver Bullough’s book “Butler to the World”. There is a copy in the Library if he has not. I recommend it to him because it lays clear Britain’s role in facilitating this kind of lawfare. Oliver Bullough has asked:

“What chance have British journalists got when even our own government is prepared to roll the pitch for oligarchs keen to sue us?”

James Cartlidge Portrait James Cartlidge
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I repeat my earlier point about the actions we are taking on SLAPPs. We have already had the call for evidence and we will bring forward primary legislation.

Andy Slaughter Portrait Andy Slaughter (Hammersmith) (Lab)
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Are the Government serious about tackling the use of SLAPPs? Threats of libel action by the Conservative party chairman over his tax affairs, use of the non-disclosure agreement by the Justice Secretary to silence journalists, and the Home Secretary’s attempt to stop the BBC reporting serious domestic violence by an agent of the security services when she was Attorney General, suggest that they prefer concealment over transparency.

Clive Efford Portrait Clive Efford (Eltham) (Lab)
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The approach the Government are taking, case by case they will not deal with specifics, is just an excuse not to answer questions on specific examples that we raise in this House. I know that the bar is very high, but there can be few of Putin’s allies more notorious than Yevgeny Prigozhin. How can the Minister come to the Dispatch Box and say that the decisions were made by a civil servant? How can there be no red flag on the file of someone of such notoriety to say, “Speak to a Minister”? When are you going to get on and do the job you were put there for?

James Cartlidge Portrait James Cartlidge
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The reason that we do not comment on individual cases is well-established. I expect that it would be exactly the same under any other Government. To be clear, the UK sanctions regulations do not exclude payments for any particular legal services from that permission. Excluding such payments can give rise to issues about access to justice. OFSI does not consider it appropriate for HM Treasury to effectively decide whether a case has sufficient merit to be permitted to proceed by deciding whether to issue a licence permitting legal fees to be paid. Such an approach would raise considerable legal concerns.

Wayne David Portrait Wayne David (Caerphilly) (Lab)
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The Minister has been asked on a number of occasions how many exceptions and waivers there have been over the last two years. The House is united. This is not a party political issue. We just demand that he answer that question. If he cannot do it now, can he provide the House with details in writing?

James Cartlidge Portrait James Cartlidge
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I said to the former sanctions Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham and Rainham (Rehman Chishti), that I would write to him. I will be happy to share that with other colleagues who have asked what information we are able to publish. I will look into that and write to colleagues who have raised that point.

Dave Doogan Portrait Dave Doogan (Angus) (SNP)
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It is very difficult to believe that a regime exists now where civil servants can make this decision, especially in the case of Yevgeny Prigozhin. Anyone with a passing relationship with a newspaper would have realised that enabling that to happen would compromise their Ministers, yet they did not have such discussions. Can the Minister assure us that he will review that? I do not want to hang a civil servant out to dry, but somebody needs to take responsibility for the decision. Does he find it a coincidence that, when one of the worst commercial war criminals went to find access to justice, he turned up in London?

James Cartlidge Portrait James Cartlidge
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I have merely stated the fact, and it is the case, that these decisions are routinely taken by senior civil servants. I also said that we are ultimately responsible. We, as Ministers, are accountable to Parliament. That is why we will conduct the internal review.

Owen Thompson Portrait Owen Thompson (Midlothian) (SNP)
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I would be grateful if the Minister could outline to us what it is about billionaire Russians such as Yevgeny Prigozhin and others that make this Government feel that they need special licences so much that they are able to dodge sanctions.

James Cartlidge Portrait James Cartlidge
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To be clear, we do not make any of these decisions with prejudice to the legal case that the individual is pursuing. They have a right under our law to have legal representation. What we have here is a process for considering applications to use frozen assets to fund legal fees in specific cases.

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)
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I recognise that the Minister has responded and tried to address the questions. We recognise that the Government have at least made some efforts to do so. But in this urgent question the House has identified an anomaly concerning the Wagner Group, which, as everyone has said, is responsible for some of the most brutal crimes across the middle east and Africa. The House wants urgency—that is what we are all asking for. Can the Minister indicate the timescale for that to happen? When will the Wagner Group find that the loophole that it has identified can be closed?

James Cartlidge Portrait James Cartlidge
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This is not a loophole in relation to the Wagner Group. We are clear on all the issues about the Wagner Group. We have acted against it in so much as it is part of the military effort in Ukraine and we have supported Ukraine as far as we are able to, in supporting that military effort. What we are talking about here is a specific point, which is that there is a right to legal representation, so we have a process in place under the sanctions regime to consider applications to use frozen assets to fund legal fees, but as I have said, we will be reflecting on that and reviewing that process.

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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That completes that urgent question. Those who need to leave, please do so before I start the next one.

Energy Bills: Self-disconnection

Wednesday 25th January 2023

(1 year, 4 months ago)

Commons Chamber
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13:19
Kenny MacAskill Portrait Kenny MacAskill (East Lothian) (Alba)
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(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State to make a statement on the levels of self-disconnection from power sources and on Government support for energy bills.

Graham Stuart Portrait The Minister for Energy and Climate (Graham Stuart)
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As I set out to the House on Monday, the Government recognise the importance of protecting customers, including those on prepayment meters. This weekend, the Secretary of State set out a five-point plan on prepayment meters. He wrote to energy suppliers, calling on them to take every step to support consumers in difficulty, particularly those who are at risk of self-disconnection. The Government want to see a much greater effort from suppliers to help consumers in payment difficulties, including offers of additional credit, debt forgiveness or debt advice. As the hon. Member for East Lothian (Kenny MacAskill) will be aware, Ofgem, as the independent regulator, is in a position to direct suppliers in a way that the Government are not.

The Government understand that this is a difficult time for many families. That is why we have put in place unprecedented cost of living support. It is easy to take that for granted, but it is extensive. It includes the £400 discount under the energy bills support scheme, which has been appearing on electricity bills since the October bills arrived this winter, as well as the energy price guarantee, which does not need any form of application process and directly subsidises energy bills for the typical family this winter to the tune of an additional £900, with equivalent support in Northern Ireland. The Government are also committed to supporting those households without a relationship to a domestic energy supplier with a £400 discount under the energy bills support scheme alternative funding, with eligible households able to apply from 27 February.

It is critical that this support reaches consumers, which is why the Government have also urged suppliers to take action on increasing the number of vouchers being redeemed under the Government’s energy bills support scheme and why we have published a list of supplier redemption rates. We want to encourage suppliers to compare themselves with their rivals and look to do as well as the best, showing which ones are meeting their responsibilities and which need to do more.

There are also established industry rules and processes to reduce the risk of self-disconnection. Suppliers are required to have conversations with customers in arrears to set up a suitable debt repayment plan, taking account of their ability to pay. It is vital that these rules are followed. The Secretary of State wrote to Ofgem to ensure that it takes a robust approach to compliance. In response, Ofgem is reviewing supplier practice, and a key area of its review is the suppliers’ approach to self-disconnection.

But this is continuing work. This afternoon I will be meeting energy suppliers, Ofgem, Energy UK and Citizens Advice to ensure that they hear from the Government, the hon. Gentleman and all hon. Members that there is a strong urge in this House to do everything we can to protect everyone this winter, and most of all, the most vulnerable.

Kenny MacAskill Portrait Kenny MacAskill
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A parliamentary answer on Tuesday disclosed that around 66,000 households in Scotland and 660,000 across Britain had self-disconnected from smart meters in the third quarter of last year. Self-disconnection is a euphemism for simply being unable to afford to heat or power your home. It is as pernicious as the term “collateral damage” is in war. Those afflicted by self-disconnection and all its misery are also civilians, but we are at peace, not war. These figures are for a quarter before prices rose and temperatures dropped. They are also only the tip of the iceberg. The numbers are far greater, as these figures do not cover those on legacy prepayment meters, the numbers of which are substantial, with almost 2 million in the UK and 300,000 in Scotland. They apply to those that operated before smart meters were brought in and they will substantially increase the numbers so tragically afflicted.

In an energy-rich country, fuel poverty is an obscenity. Given this heartless cruelty in a cold winter, will the Minister, first, end the forced installation of prepayment meters forthwith? Secondly, will he immediately abolish the perverse higher standing charges and tariffs for prepayment meters? Thirdly, will he as a matter of urgency bring in a social tariff for the poorest and most vulnerable?

Graham Stuart Portrait Graham Stuart
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I thank the hon. Gentleman for his questions. He rightly raises the issue of those who are self-disconnecting. I think we can be proud of the fact that the numbers of people who were physically disconnected from power and heat last year were in single figures. The installation of prepayment meters has to be an absolute last resort. We must insist that people do not end up being physically disconnected from an energy supply. It is important to highlight that all suppliers are required to offer emergency credit when the meter runs out. This should give consumers enough time to top up their meters. Traditional meters have an automatic setting that allows for a set amount of emergency credit to be used after the customer is notified that the topped-up credit has been used.

As I have said, we are committed to having the right regime in place. In 2009, there were issues around the additional costs of prepayment meters. Ofgem had responsibility for supervising that at that time, as it does now, and it looked into the issues and brought in a regime to ensure that any costs and charges were commensurate with the actual costs of delivery. To a certain extent that has all been superseded by the energy price cap brought in by this Government, which limits the amount that anyone can charge for their energy.

James Duddridge Portrait Sir James Duddridge (Rochford and Southend East) (Con)
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It is excellent to have such a high-calibre Minister in such a crucial role. At Prime Minister’s questions I raised the issue of the energy bills support scheme, which has helped 99% of my constituents. I am interested in the report that identifies the worst and best performers on prepayment vouchers. The Minister said that he was going to meet some of those people today. Will he name and shame—and praise—people on that list and try to get those right at the bottom at least up to the median level, if not into the top quartile?

Graham Stuart Portrait Graham Stuart
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I thank my hon. Friend for his kind words. We are absolutely focused on that, and we all have a role to play in increasing awareness of the vouchers, which are so valuable to people. We want to see more being redeemed, and the numbers are going up consistently. We have published the list of suppliers and we have already brought them together so that they can share best practice. I wanted to publish the list so that it could be seen not only by the House but by the suppliers’ chief executive officers, who I hope will talk to their teams about why they are lower down the list. If all of them, all of us in this House and everyone in the voluntary and other sectors and in local authorities do everything possible to raise awareness, we can lift the number of people who get that help, to which they are entitled.

Roger Gale Portrait Mr Deputy Speaker (Sir Roger Gale)
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I call the Opposition Front-Bench spokesperson.

Alan Whitehead Portrait Dr Alan Whitehead (Southampton, Test) (Lab)
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One way or another, there are more than 3 million households on prepayment meters. With the rapid rise in prices and the continuing energy crisis, they are now all at risk of unseen disconnection, because they simply cannot afford the huge bills and constant meter top-ups they are facing. Energy companies know this, and they do not want to be saddled with account customers in distress, so we have seen 500,000 warrants obtained, particularly over the last year—18% up on previous numbers—to drive customers in trouble with their accounts into forcibly having prepayment meters installed in their homes, whether they want them or not. Customer disconnection is then not the problem for the energy company or the Government thereafter. For most customers, the energy companies can simply change the supply of smart meters from credit to prepay without a warrant being issued.

What are the Government doing about all this? Polite letters are not enough. Will the Minister now enforce measures to ensure that the energy companies stop issuing warrants and switching smart meters to prepay mode while prices remain high and the energy crisis continues? What are the Government actively doing to seek out and help those who have self-disconnected and are now energy destitute?

The Government have said, and will no doubt say again today, that help is on its way in the form of Government support for energy bills, yet precisely the customers most likely to self-disconnect are getting much less help than they should. As the Minister has said, 30% of the vouchers available to customers on prepayment meters remain unclaimed, for a variety of reasons. And the alternative help scheme devised for those who indirectly pay their bill, whether they live in park homes, communal buildings or district heating schemes, has simply not arrived. It was expected in December and then January, but we now hear it will not be active until the end of February—five months after account customers started to get assistance.

What are the Government doing to ensure that vouchers get through and are claimed by prepay customers, and that barriers to claiming are overcome? Why is the alternative help scheme so consistently delayed? Do the Government just not care about help for those living in park homes and other tenures, or are they incompetent in organising that help in a timely way?

Graham Stuart Portrait Graham Stuart
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Those who know the hon. Gentleman will know he is normally better than that. He knows, because we talk about it, just how hard the Department is working to make sure we get these things in place. We are proud that we got the EBSS discount out to an unprecedented 29 million people. I make no apology for prioritising getting the bulk of it out there.

The EBSS alternative funding sounds simple, but it is not. It is a novel scheme with ambitious timescales. It is a complex cohort with a range of different energy arrangements, including off grid, direct to commercial and via intermediaries. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah) chunters from the Front Bench, but she should recognise the complexity of this challenge.

When we were looking at February delivery for the portal, I challenged it. A few days ago, I met the four pilot local authorities, which are across the devolved nations of Great Britain, to talk about the situation. We must make sure that we sort out all those complexities because, if we do not get it right first time, the pilot authorities say it would delay payments to consumers. My priority is to get funding to people as quickly as possible.

Where people are not already receiving the main EBSS, we have to look after public money by making sure their bank accounts are verified and legitimate, and that they live at the address. Those records are held across Government, local authorities and banks, so a complex case-management system is required. Local authorities need to be able to access the system securely, which requires multi-factor authentication, and some local authorities do not have the ability to implement that quickly. Robust fraud checks are necessary in an application-based system, to which there is no alternative for this group. Each iteration of the application process needs to be tested.

I am confident that we will have the portal up by or on Monday 27 February. We will work with local authorities, upon which we rely, and I thank the four pilot authorities and other local authorities. We need to make sure that their staff are trained, that the complexities are dealt with and that they have a robust system, so that they can swiftly process applications and make sure families get the money they so direly need. I fully accept the point about the need for speed.

Selaine Saxby Portrait Selaine Saxby (North Devon) (Con)
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This Government have given huge energy bill support to businesses and households this winter. Although I fully understand the complexity of the situation for park homes, what reassurance can my right hon. Friend give to the multiple residents who have contacted me, from Mill on the Mole near South Molton and from Berrynarbor Park near Ilfracombe, that everything possible is being done to get energy payments to them as rapidly as possible? MPs know where their park homes are. If there is anything I can do to deliver this support locally, I would be more than happy to assist.

Graham Stuart Portrait Graham Stuart
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My hon. Friend is right that identifying the location of park homes might sound relatively simple, and I hope I have made it clear that there are levels of complexity that have to be dealt with. We are doing everything possible to ensure this is done as quickly as possible. Because of council tax bills, this is the busiest time of year for the local authority staff who deal with this. We must have a system that stands up, is robust and delivers on time.

As might be expected, I pushed back in every way possible to see if we could open the portal in January, but we could not do so without risking the confidence and support of those local authorities. We will make sure that we have it in place and that we deliver it in the right way.

For months, my hon. Friend has rightly made sure that my focus has remained on this issue by reminding me of her constituents and their need for this help.

Roger Gale Portrait Mr Deputy Speaker (Sir Roger Gale)
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I call the SNP spokesperson.

Alan Brown Portrait Alan Brown (Kilmarnock and Loudoun) (SNP)
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Come April, 8.4 million households will be in fuel poverty—that is almost a third of all households—and talk of capping average bills at £2,500 or £3,000 a year means nothing to people who cannot afford to pay their bill or top up their meter. People on prepayment meters are penalised with higher standing charges, so those who either choose or are forced into not using energy build up debt from these standing charges. Imagine getting into debt despite not using energy.

These people are more likely to have disabilities or suffer ill health. They are more likely to die prematurely and to have mental health issues due to the struggles of daily life. I do not know what their life is like, and I know for a fact that the Government cannot claim to understand what their life is like. We now need a proper social tariff and a further energy bill support package as a priority.

Much more needs to be done to ensure the vouchers are redeemed, rather than the Government just asking the companies to publish data and urging them to do more. The Government need to put in place a temporary ban on the forced installation of prepayment meters. Is it not a disgrace that energy-rich Scotland’s Union dividend is people who are unable to turn on their gas when Scotland is a net exporter of gas?

Graham Stuart Portrait Graham Stuart
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The hon. Gentleman said this support has absolutely no meaning, or something close to it. The meaning for those on benefits has been £800 of additional cost of living support, on top of the £400 EBSS support and the £900 of support organised through the Treasury. This is real support. The cheap rhetoric we have heard from the Scottish nationalists might be typical, but even so it is disappointing.

The hon. Gentleman says we need to do more than just urging suppliers to do more and to publish data. There is an application. People have to take up their vouchers, and they have to use them. I am all ears to any contribution he would like to make on how to build that up, because the whole of society—families, community groups, MPs and political parties—has to get the message out to people about these vouchers. I am confident that they are being sent out by the suppliers, so we have to encourage people to cash them in at a time when they need them most. There is always a danger that the people who need it most—we do not have the data—may be the ones least likely to use it. [Interruption.]

The hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Alan Brown) can make cheap points and shout at me from a sedentary position, or he can engage seriously and properly by trying to do everything possible to get a system that makes sure people get the help they deserve. That is what I want. If he thinks there are any practical steps that we should be delivering immediately, he should say so.

We have said that we will look at a social tariff and at how vulnerable people are looked after, but we have to look at it in a considered manner. I am proud of the support that the Government have put in place, and I believe it stands up internationally. We are determined to support people, particularly the most vulnerable, so that they do not suffer at a time of extreme energy stress.

Philip Hollobone Portrait Mr Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con)
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Across the country and in the Kettering constituency, everyone should be benefiting from the energy price guarantee, which saves the average household £900 this winter on their bills. Everyone should be getting the £400 energy bills support scheme in £66 or £67 monthly payments. Those in bands A to D households should receive £150 council tax rebate. What extra are the Government doing for the 8 million lowest income households, most of whom are on universal credit, pensioners and disabled people who are most likely to have need for prepayment meters?

Graham Stuart Portrait Graham Stuart
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As my hon. Friend will be aware, there is a series of programmes to support people in those positions, and £800 for all people on benefits in addition to the sums that he has already itemised for the House.

Jon Trickett Portrait Jon Trickett (Hemsworth) (Lab)
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The Minister prays in aid the money that is being given to households across the country, and I acknowledge that that is a significant amount of money, but it is not working, is it? One prepayment meter is issued every 10 seconds. Millions of people live in fuel poverty. My constituent, for example, is disabled and trapped in his house. He had a prepayment meter imposed on him, but no voucher. He was left in freezing cold conditions in the run-up to Christmas. That just is not acceptable. I am afraid to say that polite letters from the Secretary of State or cups of tea this afternoon with the Minister will not hack it. Does he agree that it is time that the Government took legal powers to intervene directly in the energy market in order to protect the people of this country?

Graham Stuart Portrait Graham Stuart
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That kind of crude socialist intervention in the market would be counterproductive, and it would be typical of measures that come from the Labour party. Its members go in with high talk of helping the weakest and poorest and they come up with policies that have exactly the opposite effect.

Sara Britcliffe Portrait Sara Britcliffe (Hyndburn) (Con)
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I wish to follow on from some of the questions regarding the £400 payment for park homes. Although I understand the complexities of the issue, will the Minister set out how, once this scheme goes live, he will communicate with the residents of park homes so that they do access the portal? Furthermore, will there be an alternative way to access the application process rather than just through an online portal?

Graham Stuart Portrait Graham Stuart
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I thank my hon. Friend for her extremely pertinent question. We will be promoting through a whole array of groups and, of course, local authorities are key partners in that. We will be looking for support from colleagues across the House, from local authorities, and from the voluntary sector. We have also been doing a larger-scale public communications exercise than the Department has ever previously engaged with. In answer to her final question: for those who are not easily able to access the Government portal, there will be a telephone support service as well. Again, this will be an application-based system. We will not get to 100%, but I hope that we can work constructively. All ideas are welcome so that we do everything we can to maximise the take-up and make sure that people get the support to which they are entitled.

Munira Wilson Portrait Munira Wilson (Twickenham) (LD)
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My constituents living in houseboats and on heat networks have been left out in the cold for months without support or information. This is despite repeated assurances from the Minister about the vital £400 from the energy bills support scheme alternative funding. Applications for that were promised to be opened by the end of January, yet, yesterday, in a private briefing for Members, the Minister revealed that the earliest that the applications would be open is the end of February, with money not coming through until the end of March. Yesterday, he also replied to a written question in writing to a Member of this House that the scheme was still going to open in January. Does the Minister accept that his answers to Members of this House have been misleading and that he has broken promises to off-grid customers? What on earth is he doing to ensure that my constituents and people up and down this country get the support they need in the freezing cold right now?

Graham Stuart Portrait Graham Stuart
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I thank the hon. Lady for her question. I think she will find that the letter stated that the Government had announced that the scheme would open in January, which was true—we did announce that we aimed to open it in January. The pilot and engagement with local authorities has shown that we need to delay that to February, so I organised briefings yesterday afternoon to make sure that all Members of the House had heard about that. I am also seeking to notify the House as quickly as possible by writing to Select Committee Chairmen and others to let them know. We are doing everything possible to make sure that we have a robust system in place. I set out that this is a novel system: it is complex and it does rely on local authorities. It was after personally meeting representatives of those pilot local authorities that I came to the decision. I felt that this was the right thing to do to ensure speedy delivery of this support to her houseboat owners among others. It is also worth noting that they have seen support if they come through a commercial supplier of electricity through the energy bill relief scheme, but I want to see them get their £400 as well, and I want a system that works, is effective and is as quick as possible.

Hilary Benn Portrait Hilary Benn (Leeds Central) (Lab)
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The Minister appeared to say in answer to an earlier question that no one should be physically disconnected from their energy supply. If I heard that correctly, and if that is indeed the Government’s position, does that extend to people on prepayment meters who cannot connect themselves to their energy supply because they simply do not have the money to top up the meter? If that is the case, I would be interested to hear what further action he will take to prevent that happening in all cases.

Graham Stuart Portrait Graham Stuart
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The point about a physical disconnection—I think that there may have been only one in the UK last year—is that it differs from what happens with a prepayment meter. By having a prepayment meter, no matter what pre-existing debts someone may have, as soon as they have money to put credit on, they can recommence their energy supply. Physical disconnection is when a person is literally cut off and then has to re-apply to get their supply back. That is an alternative that I do not want to see. The prepayment system is an absolute last resort for those who run up large energy bills, do not engage with the supplier and show no sign that they will pay. Those people must be able to do something and the installation of a prepayment meter, if absolutely necessary, as a last resort and under warrant if they will not engage in any other way, means that household still has access to energy, so long as they put some credit on. That is a lot better than bailiffs and a total physical cut-off. We can be proud of the fact that we do not have people cut off from their energy supply, although, admittedly, as the right hon. Member says, they have to put money on the meter in order to be able to access it.

Alison Thewliss Portrait Alison Thewliss (Glasgow Central) (SNP)
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I have had many emails from people who live in Dalmarnock and are served by a communal heating system operated by Switch2, which is not currently under Government regulation. These residents have received a letter informing them that the price per kilowatt hour is going from 11p to 32p, with additional standing charges. Will the Minister tell me what support these people can expect from the Government? At the moment, with the lack of legislation and the lack of eligibility for other schemes, they are left with heating that they cannot afford.

Graham Stuart Portrait Graham Stuart
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I thank the hon. Lady for her question. If she will follow that up with some details, I will happily write to her and come back on the specific points she has raised.

Stephen Doughty Portrait Stephen Doughty (Cardiff South and Penarth) (Lab/Co-op)
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I genuinely appreciated the Minister coming to meet us yesterday to discuss these issues, but he will have seen the shock and disbelief in the room when he made his announcement, not least as he wrote to me just last week to say that the scheme would open in January, and I have been asking him about this since October on behalf of constituents in Sully who are affected. Nearly 1 million people across the country have had no form of support, in lots of different types of building, as he well knows. Can he be absolutely clear: when that portal opens on 27 February, how long will it take for those people to get the payment? Are we talking about a month, two months, or will they have to wait until the summer? What advice can he give them in the interim? Should they allow debt to build up? Should they turn off their heating? What should they actually do, and what should the management companies do, particularly in communal buildings, which potentially owe significant amounts, with residents having not paid their Bills? What is his advice to them?

Graham Stuart Portrait Graham Stuart
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The decision was made yesterday and I was able to brief colleagues, including the hon. Gentleman—I thank him for attending the meeting—yesterday afternoon, so I have tried to move as quickly as possible. Of course, until a decision is made, Government policy stays as it is until it is changed, and that explains the letter. I certainly hope that the hon. Member for Twickenham (Munira Wilson) would accept that I was not being disingenuous. We moved to communicate as quickly as possible once the decision had been made.

The payment will go through local authorities. Much as I would love to give a define date, it depends when people apply. We will be encouraging people to apply from 27 February—if that is when the scheme launches—and then local authorities will be carrying out their verification. We will triage that first, to minimise the imposition on local authorities, but they will have to go through a process to get the payment out. That means I cannot give a definitive date, much as I would like to, and much as the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) is right to suggest that it would benefit people to know when they will get the support to which they are entitled. I hope he understands that, administratively, if I gave a date there would be a risk that I would be back before the House again to explain why, in some cases, it was not delivered. We will do it as quickly as we can but, having talked to the pilot local authorities, they feel that we are taking the most robust approach with the best chance of getting the payment out as quickly as possible.

Alistair Carmichael Portrait Mr Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland) (LD)
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For those who are getting support for alternative fuels, what reach does the Minister expect the scheme to have for those whom the Government have identified as relying on alternative fuels, and how long does he expect it will take for the remainder to get their money?

Graham Stuart Portrait Graham Stuart
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Following this urgent question, I will seek an answer for those on alternative fuels who are in the majority group; it might be where we are at in our data development, but I have not seen a number on that. If I can access that, I will write to the right hon. Gentleman, and I will seek a way of sharing it with the House. Most people will be paid automatically with a credit to their energy bill, which will be ready at the beginning of February. I suppose that may not appear on the bill until March, but we will have that up and running automatically for those with an energy bill. We hope to use the same portal that is being used for the EBSS £400 alternative fuel payment, and to open it very shortly after the opening of the EBSS alternative portal. When I have further specific dates that I can share, I will do so.

Mike Amesbury Portrait Mike Amesbury (Weaver Vale) (Lab)
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A number of constituents have got in touch with me from Castle View House, where several flats are sub-metered. They are desperate, and have been for some time, for payments to get through the door. I know that right hon. and hon. Members across the House also have constituents in that situation, many in park homes. I was not at all convinced by the Minister’s answer that the portal will be open on 27 February and the scheme will be in operation. What guarantee is there?

Graham Stuart Portrait Graham Stuart
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The hon. Gentleman is quite right to highlight the residents of Castle View House and the park home residents in his constituency, who are waiting and expecting to hear that they will get the support to which they are entitled. I am confident that we will have the scheme open on or by 27 February, and I and my teams will do everything to make sure that happens. We are working through local authorities, so we must ensure that we have all the procedures—some of which I touched on—properly worked through, and that we have local authority staff trained up so that they can then process the payment. I am afraid that is as far as I can go right now. It is a novel system; those working in local authorities on council tax are used to collecting money in rather than putting it out, but we are doing everything we can and I am grateful for the work of local authorities for the commitment they have shown, at a really busy time, in Wales, Scotland and England to try to make sure the payment is delivered.

Daisy Cooper Portrait Daisy Cooper (St Albans) (LD)
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Up to 170 park home households in Frogmore Home Park, Newlands Park, Highview Park and other areas of my constituency are still waiting for their £400 energy support payment. I first raised the issue of my park homes with the Minister seven months ago, and only last night, by chance, we discovered that the scheme would not be open by the end of this month. There are freezing temperatures this week. We cannot wait another month for the Government to get around to setting up a portal, which will then take much longer to release the funds. I suggested to the Minister last night that he immediately empower local authorities to distribute emergency funds to those households. Will he do that today?

Graham Stuart Portrait