All 33 Parliamentary debates in the Commons on 14th May 2024

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House of Commons

Tuesday 14th May 2024

(2 months ago)

Commons Chamber
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Tuesday 14 May 2024
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock

Prayers

Tuesday 14th May 2024

(2 months ago)

Commons Chamber
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[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Tuesday 14th May 2024

(2 months ago)

Commons Chamber
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The Secretary of State was asked—
Marie Rimmer Portrait Ms Marie Rimmer (St Helens South and Whiston) (Lab)
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1. What recent assessment he has made of the potential implications for his policies of the number of children being remanded to custody.

Alex Chalk Portrait The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice (Alex Chalk)
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Custody is reserved for those convicted or accused of the most grave offences, and the total number of children in detention has fallen by 82% since 2010. Before a child can be remanded, the court must be satisfied that it is very likely that the defendant will receive a custodial sentence, and must have explicitly considered and rejected the option of remanding him or her into local authority care.

Marie Rimmer Portrait Ms Rimmer
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Some 44% of places in youth custody are taken up by children and young people on remand who do not go on to receive a custodial sentence. Yet children held in young offenders institutions spend most of their time locked up in their cells, amid high levels of violence. Does the Minister think that that is the best place to spend time during adolescence?

Alex Chalk Portrait Alex Chalk
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The hon. Lady makes an important and compassionate point. It is absolutely right that we should invest in the estate, and I am pleased that we are investing in a new secure school, which will open soon. She makes an important point about the decision to remand. Those decisions are made by independent judges—that is correct—but I hope that she will join me in recognising that the reduction in the overall number of children in custody by 82% since 2010 is a positive thing. When I was prosecuting, young people were going inside for being passengers in vehicles taken without consent. Now, they are inside only for the most grave offences.

James Gray Portrait James Gray (North Wiltshire) (Con)
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Will the Lord Chancellor take into consideration one of the recommendations of the Wade report on sentencing for murder? The definition of “children” should be reconsidered. At the moment, someone who is 16 or very often 17 might be tried when they are 18, but they are sentenced as if they are a child. Surely the question should be the crime rather than the age.

Alex Chalk Portrait Alex Chalk
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We have altered the sentencing regime such that the courts can take into account what can be quite significant gaps between the sentencing regime that applies to a 17-year-old and that which applies to an 18-year-old. The courts now have additional discretion to ensure that if somebody is very close to their 18th birthday, they can be treated as more mature, which can mean, in appropriate cases, that the punishment will be more severe.

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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I call the shadow Minister.

Janet Daby Portrait Janet Daby (Lewisham East) (Lab)
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Almost two thirds of children on remand in youth detention do not go on to receive a custodial sentence, and 17% are acquitted, meaning that they were freed from a criminal charge altogether. It costs between £129,000 and £306,000 per year to keep just one child on remand in youth custody. Does the Minister view that as the best use of public money, or does he feel that it could be managed in a more efficient and effective way with an alternative remand provision?

Alex Chalk Portrait Alex Chalk
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In 2010, the total number of children in custody was over 3,000; that figure is now around 500, so there has been a significant reduction. The decision of whether to remand is a matter for the judges. They can remand in custody only if there are substantial grounds for believing that, if released on bail, the child will commit further offences or indeed fail to surrender. We are also investing millions of pounds in Greater Manchester, for example, to see whether there are other options in remanding children into local authority accommodation and not necessarily into custody.

Tonia Antoniazzi Portrait Tonia Antoniazzi (Gower) (Lab)
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2. What steps his Department is taking to help ensure public confidence in the support provided to victims throughout the criminal justice process.

Gareth Thomas Portrait Gareth Thomas (Harrow West) (Lab/Co-op)
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8. What steps his Department is taking to help ensure public confidence in the support provided to victims throughout the criminal justice process.

Laura Farris Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Laura Farris)
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With the Victims and Prisoners Bill, we are putting the victims code on a statutory footing. It includes a right for any victim of crime to be signposted by the police to correct and appropriate support services. We have quadrupled victims funding since we took office in 2010 to over £150 million a year, and have recruited almost 1,000 independent sexual violence advisers and independent domestic violence advisers into the criminal justice system. In addition, we provide a range of freephone support lines, including a 24/7 hotline for rape.

Tonia Antoniazzi Portrait Tonia Antoniazzi
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Rapists, domestic abusers and stalkers cannot be convicted if trials are not going ahead, and victims are dropping out after being made to wait years for justice. Where is the Government’s plan to tackle the record court backlog, which is making victims wait years for justice?

Laura Farris Portrait Laura Farris
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We are doing a huge amount to drive down the backlog, which was principally a result of the pandemic. We have increased the fees for both solicitors and barristers by 15%; we have kept open more than 20 Nightingale courts; and we are doing everything within our power to drive down waiting times.

Gareth Thomas Portrait Gareth Thomas
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Bearing in mind that Harrow Crown court is not set to reopen for another year because of Ministers’ failure to invest in its repairs early enough, what confidence can victims of crime in Harrow have that Ministers are going to get those who are accused of those crimes to justice much more quickly than is currently the case?

Laura Farris Portrait Laura Farris
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As the hon. Gentleman will know, the issue with Harrow Crown court is that reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete was discovered in that building. We are investing more than £220 million in the court estate, because we know how much it matters, not just so that the courts are functioning, but so that the buildings convey the right sense of dignity so that people respect the process. Harrow is just one of 350 courts in England and Wales.

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

Robert Neill Portrait Sir Robert Neill (Bromley and Chislehurst) (Con)
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The Minister is right to recognise the work that is being done on the victims code, and I appreciate the Government’s taking on board a number of the recommendations made by the Justice Committee when we engaged in pre-legislative scrutiny of that Bill.

The Minister will know, however, that there is a particular issue with delays in cases of rape and serious sexual offences, where cases are taken out of the list because prosecuting counsel are not available—they simply cannot be found. She rightly referred to the increase in fees for solicitors and defence counsel. Does she agree that there is now just one piece of the jigsaw that needs to be put in place: to bring the fees for prosecuting counsel in those cases up to the same level as those for defence counsel? That would take about £1.5 million. Will she sit down with the Attorney General and talk with her about how we can do that swiftly?

Laura Farris Portrait Laura Farris
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I can reassure my hon. and learned Friend, the Chair of the Select Committee, that I spoke to the chair of the Bar Council about exactly that issue last week, but I want to provide him with further reassurance. First, there has been correspondence between the Lord Chancellor and the senior presiding judge about any case of rape that is more than two years old. That correspondence is a couple of months old, and he said that all cases would be listed by July this year—that applies to 181 cases in England and Wales. I also want to draw my hon. and learned Friend’s attention to something I know he will be aware of: that we have increased the fees for section 28 hearings, which take place in an irregular sequence in the court listing, from £670 to over £1,000.

Andrea Jenkyns Portrait Dame Andrea Jenkyns (Morley and Outwood) (Con)
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On Monday, The Daily Telegraph reported that civil servants are trying to block an amendment to the Criminal Justice Bill that would legislate for the publication of an annual report on crime stats by nationality. Does the Minister support the release of such a report, and what does she think civil servants are worried we will find out? It is time to publish a report and restore trust among the general public.

Laura Farris Portrait Laura Farris
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I thank my hon. Friend for her question. I was not aware of that, but I knew that an amendment had been suggested that was not within the scope of the Bill. My hon. Friend’s suggestion is a sensible one; we already publish the number of foreign national offenders in prison, but I understand the force of her question, and I am happy to meet her to discuss it further.

Apsana Begum Portrait Apsana Begum (Poplar and Limehouse) (Lab)
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More than 60 lawyers, campaigners, politicians and academics have written a letter in support of the anti-violence against women and girls campaigner and barrister Dr Charlotte Proudman, who is facing disciplinary action after challenging a judge for taking a “boys’ club attitude” in a ruling on a domestic abuse case. Does the Minister agree that the racial, gender and class-based bias of the justice system must be addressed and that it is right to speak up against injustice? Will she join me in paying tribute to those who are campaigning for a legal sector that genuinely represents, empowers, and is accountable to the wider public?

Laura Farris Portrait Laura Farris
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I count myself as one of the people who campaigns on violence against women, and there are many other right hon. and hon. Members across this House who do the same thing. The hon. Lady will understand, I hope, why I will not get involved in a disciplinary matter concerning a particular barrister. I know what it is said has been said, and it will be for the relevant standards committee to decide whether or not the barrister is at fault.

Mike Penning Portrait Sir Mike Penning (Hemel Hempstead) (Con)
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The Minister may be aware that I used to be the victims Minister, and when I was in that role, I tried to stand up for victims whose loved ones had been killed by road traffic incidents. It is fundamentally unfair that if someone is charged with death by careless driving, as compared with death by dangerous driving, the case is not appealable by the victim for leniency. Is that something we are still looking at, as was the case when I was in the Ministry?

Laura Farris Portrait Laura Farris
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I share my right hon. Friend’s profound concern about death caused by either dangerous or careless driving. As he knows, it was the Conservative Government who created a criminal offence of death by careless driving.

I will just make two points. First, on 28 June 2022, the maximum penalty for the offence of death by dangerous driving was increased to life—previously, it was 14 years. Secondly, we have just agreed to extend the unduly lenient sentence scheme so that the complainant will have 28 days to put in their appeal to the Attorney General and the Solicitor General, who will have a further 14 days to contact the court. We hope that that will encourage more applications, and of course, we keep the category of offences under careful review.

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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I call the shadow Minister.

Kevin Brennan Portrait Kevin Brennan (Cardiff West) (Lab)
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Victims should have the right to know who this Government are letting out of jail early. With today’s news that, despite Ministers’ protestations to the contrary from the Dispatch Box, high-risk offenders have been released early, why should the public have any confidence that this is a Government who put victims first?

Laura Farris Portrait Laura Farris
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I want to provide some reassurance to the shadow Minister. Under our scheme, no sexual offender, no terrorist offender and nobody who has been convicted of a serious violent crime or been convicted for four years or more will be eligible for early release. I would just remind him that the slight distinction between our scheme and that conducted under the last Labour Government between 2007 and 2010 is that we have a governor lock. That means that the governor of any prison can prevent an individual prisoner from being released early if they do not think that it is suitable to do so, and that was not the case under the last Labour Government.

Alan Brown Portrait Alan Brown (Kilmarnock and Loudoun) (SNP)
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3. What recent assessment he has made of the effectiveness of proposed reforms to employment tribunal panels.

Gareth Bacon Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Gareth Bacon)
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The employment tribunal panel composition arrangements are now a responsibility of the Senior President of Tribunals, and I understand that he intends to publish the responses to the consultation on proposed reforms shortly. He has a statutory duty to consult my right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor before making these arrangements, and my noble and learned Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice will be meeting the Senior President of Tribunals—I think tomorrow—to discuss his proposals as part of that duty.

Alan Brown Portrait Alan Brown
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The introduction of tribunal fees previously led to a 54% drop in the number of cases going forward, and the scheme was deemed unlawful by the Supreme Court, so it beggars belief that the Government are looking at reintroducing tribunal fees, and giving a green light to bad employers to exploit workers, who will be deterred from coming forward. What does the Minister say to the 50 organisations, including the TUC, Citizens Advice, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and Liberty, that are calling on the Government to reconsider the reintroduction of tribunal fees?

Gareth Bacon Portrait Gareth Bacon
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I thank the hon. Member for his question. Many of these issues were raised when the statutory instrument passed through Parliament. The Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Finchley and Golders Green (Mike Freer), who is the courts Minister, has written to the Senior President of Tribunals to convey those concerns, and I think that is in part why my noble and learned Friend is meeting the Senior President of Tribunals tomorrow.

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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I call the shadow Minister.

Alex Cunningham Portrait Alex Cunningham (Stockton North) (Lab)
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The wheels of justice certainly turn slowly under this Government, and hundreds of thousands of people across the country are paying the price in the Crown courts, the civil courts, the family courts and tribunals. At the end of 2023, the employment tribunal backlog stood at more than 460,000 cases. Those are cases affecting workers who have been bullied, workers who have been denied pay and workers who have been unfairly dismissed. Does the Minister think that workers, like the Government, should just give up on the justice system, roll over and accept what employers do to them, or is there a new magic formula to sort this out?

Gareth Bacon Portrait Gareth Bacon
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The one thing the hon. Gentleman did not of course mention was the impact of the pandemic on the criminal justice system, and indeed on the employment tribunal system. [Hon. Members: “Oh, come on!”] Opposition Front Benchers do not like hearing it, but they cannot deny the impact of shutting down the system, in effect, for two years. We have massively increased the resources available and we are working through the backlog, but that will take time.

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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I call the SNP spokesperson.

Chris Stephens Portrait Chris Stephens (Glasgow South West) (SNP)
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On a similar point, in a cost of living crisis, workers are now expected to pay to take their employer to an employment tribunal in cases of wage theft, unpaid redundancy pay and compensation for unfair dismissal. Quite frankly, it is outrageous that this is being levied at a time of intense pressure on family budgets. Do the Government not agree that access to justice must never be contingent on one’s ability to pay, and that these proposed changes ought to be scrapped to promote greater fairness in the system?

Gareth Bacon Portrait Gareth Bacon
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I thank the hon. Member for his question. We have introduced a regional virtual court to safeguard access to justice, and we will always make that available as far as it is possible to do so. As I say, we are working through the backlog at pace.

Alison Thewliss Portrait Alison Thewliss (Glasgow Central) (SNP)
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4. If he will issue guidance to lawyers on the potential implications for the criminal justice process of the Safety of Rwanda (Asylum and Immigration) Act 2024.

Alex Chalk Portrait The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice (Alex Chalk)
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The hon. Lady asks about the implications for the criminal justice system of the Safety of Rwanda (Asylum and Immigration) Act 2024. To be clear, that Act relates to immigration and potentially administrative law. It does not substantially impact on the criminal law, and accordingly no specific guidance is required.

Alison Thewliss Portrait Alison Thewliss
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I thank the Secretary of State for that response. May I praise the quick response from solicitors and the community in Glasgow to Rwanda removals, very much in the spirit of the Glasgow Girls and the Glasgow Grannies and Kenmure Street three years ago? Is there a deliberate policy to remove people from Scotland to England to prevent them from accessing legal aid, as they would be able and fully entitled to do in Scotland? What guidance has been issued to lawyers in this respect? Lastly, what right do MPs have to intervene in cases of removal, because I have been told that MPs have been asked for wet signatures from people who have been taken to immigration removal centres in England.

Alex Chalk Portrait Alex Chalk
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There are several questions in there but the answer to the first question is no, that is not correct. The point about legal advice is very important: people should get legal advice so that they can make their points. That is why we are investing heavily: when the Illegal Migration Act 2023 comes into force there will be a 15% uplift; we have invested £1.5 million to reaccredit senior caseworkers; and we are also paying for travel time. We recognise that; the legislation is necessarily robust and we are also ensuring people get the legal advice they need.

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

Chris Stephens Portrait Chris Stephens (Glasgow South West) (SNP)
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I listened with great interest to that answer. My hon. Friends the Members for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) and for Glasgow North East (Anne McLaughlin) and I have constituents who have been removed from Scotland to England and threatened with deportation. Can the Secretary of State answer this question: why are MPs being denied access to their constituents? It seems outrageous. Does he not agree that this is unacceptable and that lawyers and their elected representatives should not be impeded by arbitrary barriers when accessing constituents who are threatened with deportation?

Alex Chalk Portrait Alex Chalk
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I would be more than happy to discuss that point with the hon. Gentleman. Of course MPs should have access in appropriate circumstances, but the critical point is for individuals to get legal support—I say that with no discourtesy to him as a constituency MP. That legal support is important. As I have said, when the IMA comes into effect we will increase funding by 15%, pay for travel time and ensure the reaccreditation of senior caseworkers. That is what individuals need: support through legal advice, and that is what we are providing.

Jessica Morden Portrait Jessica Morden (Newport East) (Lab)
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5. What recent assessment he has made of the welfare of prisoners at HMP Parc.

Edward Argar Portrait The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice (Edward Argar)
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I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her question and also for her typically measured and sensitive contribution to yesterday’s urgent question on this issue. Ensuring our prisons are safe and secure for both staff and prisoners remains our top priority. His Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service has been working closely with G4S, the operator of HMP Parc, to ensure the welfare of prisoners, and I visited last month to see the work for myself. I am particularly conscious of the importance of that in light of the nine deaths in HMP Parc since March.

Jessica Morden Portrait Jessica Morden
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As the Minister mentioned, yesterday I had the opportunity to raise in the House the very real concerns of parents with sons at Parc, particularly in relation to drug use. When I contacted the prison two months ago it replied that in the year to September 2023 there had shockingly been 1,600 incidents of self-harm in a prison of 1,800 inmates. Does the Minister accept that parents have been asking particularly for mental health support for years and it has not been happening?

Edward Argar Portrait Edward Argar
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I am grateful to the hon. Lady again for her question. The provision of mental health support is absolutely vital; it is obviously something that needs to be done hand in hand and in partnership with the local health board in Wales. We continue to work closely with the health board both on the issue she has raised and more broadly on the issues underpinning some of the challenges faced in Parc.

Vicky Ford Portrait Vicky Ford (Chelmsford) (Con)
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The Minister will be aware of the dire, indeed dangerous, situation we faced at Chelmsford Prison three years ago, when the prison was placed in special measures. He may have seen the latest inspection report which praises the improvements, especially in being a safer and more productive place and the work done to take drugs and contraband out of the prison. I thank the Justice Secretary personally for the focus he gave this issue when he was prisons Minister, and congratulate the governor and the staff. Does the Minister agree that the lessons from Chelmsford could help other prisons such as Parc and that, with the right approach, even the worst prison can be turned around?

Edward Argar Portrait Edward Argar
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I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for her dexterity in asking her question. She makes a very important point in paying tribute to the work that has been done at Chelmsford prison by my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State, working with the team and all the staff there. I also note the close interest she has taken and how much that means to the staff and the team at her local prison. She rightly points out that there are opportunities to learn lessons from that which may well benefit prisons such as Parc.

Lilian Greenwood Portrait Lilian Greenwood (Nottingham South) (Lab)
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6. What recent assessment he has made of the potential implications for his policies of reoffending rates among children and young people.

Edward Argar Portrait The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice (Edward Argar)
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Over the 10 years to 2022, proven reoffending rates, cautions and convictions for children and young people have fallen from 40.4% to 32.2%. Although there has been a slight uptick over the past year, the fact remains that reoffending by children and young people has fallen significantly under this Government.

Lilian Greenwood Portrait Lilian Greenwood
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Last week I saw the powerful new play “Punch” by James Graham. I cannot recommend it highly enough to all right hon. and hon. Members, who are welcome to come to Nottingham Playhouse to see it. It raises important questions about young men and their offending behaviour and shines a light on the potential power of restorative justice. What role does the Minister believe restorative justice can and should play in tackling reoffending, which, as he said, has risen for the first time in a decade among adults and children?

Edward Argar Portrait Edward Argar
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I am grateful to the hon. Lady not just for her question, but for her kind invitation to visit Nottingham Playhouse—it is just up the road from my constituency in Leicestershire, so I might take her up on that. In answer to her substantive question, although decisions on restorative justice are a matter for judges—there are relevant considerations to take into account—I see restorative justice as one element of a package that can help to reduce reoffending and get children and young people who commit crime back on to the straight and narrow.

Beth Winter Portrait Beth Winter (Cynon Valley) (Lab)
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7. What assessment he has made of the potential implications for his policies of trends in the number of drugs found in prisons over the last five years.

Edward Argar Portrait The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice (Edward Argar)
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The Government take a zero-tolerance approach to drugs in prison, as is reflected in our policy approach, which has seen £100 million-worth of investment into measures to tackle the smuggling of contraband, including drugs, into prisons. In the year ending March 2023, there were 19.7% fewer incidents where drugs were found than in the year to March 2019, reversing that pre-pandemic trend. There remains more to do, but it is important to note that progress has been made.

Beth Winter Portrait Beth Winter
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The most recent report by HM inspectorate of prisons into HMP Parc in 2022 found that almost half of prisoners had easy access to drugs, and our current Welsh Affairs Committee inquiry into prisons has received evidence regarding drug use, as well as the fact that Parc is understaffed and staff are inexperienced. In light of that evidence, and the recent deaths and surge in recorded violence in Parc Prison, would the Minister welcome a new inspection by the chief inspector? Given the £400 million cost of the contract for G4S to run the prison, has he given consideration to the Prison Service stepping in to manage it, as it has done with Birmingham Prison?

Edward Argar Portrait Edward Argar
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The hon. Lady made a number of points. In terms of tackling drugs, in Parc we have X-ray body scanners and the Rapiscan system, and we have handheld devices being rolled out. In respect of her two specific questions, any inspection is a matter for the chief inspector of prisons. In terms of the overall performance of Parc, it is important to remember that although there are challenges, which were addressed in the urgent question yesterday, Parc is rated as performing well and its contract is performing well. In the 2022 inspection, it got one measure of “good” and three of “reasonably good.” There is more to do, and we will continue to work with the prison, but the contract continues to perform well.

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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I call the shadow Minister.

Ruth Cadbury Portrait Ruth Cadbury (Brentford and Isleworth) (Lab)
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The Government boast, as they have done just now, about their investment in new body scanners to detect drugs on everyone entering a prison each day, yet a damning report in The Times found that the body scanners at HMP Bedford were not even staffed. What is the point in spending £100 million on scanners if they are not even used?

Edward Argar Portrait Edward Argar
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Before turning to the substance of the hon. Lady’s question, may I take this opportunity to wish her a happy birthday? [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”]

It is important to remember that this investment is across the estate. I was in HMP Wandsworth yesterday seeing the work being done there. In the context of Bedford, the body scanners were used at appropriate times in an appropriate manner.

Richard Graham Portrait Richard Graham (Gloucester) (Con)
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9. If he will make a comparative assessment of the effectiveness of short custodial sentences and sentences served in the community.

Gareth Bacon Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Gareth Bacon)
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Ministry of Justice reoffending statistics show that those serving a sentence of six months or less have a 59% reoffending rate. For offenders punished with suspended sentences or community orders, the reoffending rate is 24%. The Department’s 2019 analysis of a matched cohort of over 30,000 offenders showed lower reoffending rates for those serving sentences in the community when compared with immediate custody of less than 12 months, avoiding tens of thousands of potential crimes.

Richard Graham Portrait Richard Graham
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I agree with the Bishop of Gloucester that community payback schemes are often far more appropriate than short-term custodial sentences, particularly for women prisoners. If my hon. Friend agrees with that, does he also agree that we could expand the range of community payback activity to include, for example, helping at good local charities such as the Nelson Trust and the Family Haven, and, especially during this summer season of litter picking across the country, keeping Britain tidy?

Gareth Bacon Portrait Gareth Bacon
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I thank my hon. Friend for that sensible question. I agree that community payback offers offenders an opportunity to make visible reparations to their local communities, with millions of hours being delivered each year. As an example, this March, for the great British spring clean, offenders spent thousands of hours clearing litter across the country. We are trialling a new way to deliver community payback through the rapid deployment pilot, which was launched last year. Community payback teams are working in partnership with local authorities to see incidents cleaned up within 48 hours’ notice, and we are now expanding that to all 12 probation regions.

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)
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Restorative justice in Northern Ireland has been an effective method of ensuring that victims and perpetrators can at least come together and perhaps try to find a solution. It is also a way of ensuring lesser sentences. Has the Minister been able to look at the community restorative justice that we have done in Northern Ireland to ensure that those on the mainland who offend can have a new life as well?

Gareth Bacon Portrait Gareth Bacon
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I personally have not, but I gather that Minister of Justice officials are abreast of that. I would like to meet the hon. Gentleman to hear more about that from him personally.

Jeff Smith Portrait Jeff Smith (Manchester, Withington) (Lab)
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10. What progress his Department has made on delivering 20,000 new prison places.

Mary Robinson Portrait Mary Robinson (Cheadle) (Con)
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13. What steps he is taking to increase prison capacity.

Alex Chalk Portrait The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice (Alex Chalk)
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Thanks to funding from the Prime Minister when he was Chancellor, we are delivering the largest prison building programme since the Victorian era, with 10,000 additional places on track to be delivered by the end of next year. To secure the pipeline of further prisons, last October I announced an investment of £30 million to acquire land even further in advance to mitigate the risk of planning delay. We are also delivering an additional 460 rapid deployment cells across the estate.

Jeff Smith Portrait Jeff Smith
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The National Audit Office warned the Government over four years ago that prisons would run out of space by 2023. Of the promised 20,000 places, it has been revealed that only just over a quarter have been delivered, so as a result we see the Government spending £50 million renting out police cells, grim conditions in overcrowded prisons and a chaotic early release scheme. Why have the Government proved incapable of averting this crisis?

Alex Chalk Portrait Alex Chalk
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As a result of the record amount of investment in prisons, we brought on HMP Fosse Way, and we have HMP Five Wells. I invite the hon. Member to visit them, because these are excellent, modern prisons with fantastic rehabilitative conditions, providing an excellent opportunity to keep the public secure and prisoners rehabilitated. We will also be rolling out HMP Millsike. We have planning permission for HMP Gartree. We are also rolling out houseblocks at Stocken, Rye Hill and Guys Marsh; and there will be further ones at Gartree. This is a Government who believe in building, and we are getting on with the job.

Mary Robinson Portrait Mary Robinson
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Managing prison capacity is in part about ensuring that we have enough prison officers, but being a prison officer can be both demanding and dangerous, with 70% of prisoners between the ages of 25 and 49—at the peak of their physical fitness. My prison officer constituent told me that, despite that, the officer retirement age is 68, meaning that staff well into their 60s are dealing with young and often aggressive people. While it is important to retain experienced prison officers and recruit to the service, what consideration has my right hon. and learned Friend given to reducing the retirement age in line with policing?

Alex Chalk Portrait Alex Chalk
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Prison officers are the absolute backbone of the system, and it is absolutely right that we should recruit and retain. I am pleased to say that in 2023 we recruited an additional 1,600 officers and, just as importantly, the resignation rate is coming down, from 10.5% to 8.5%. That is really positive. On my hon. Friend’s point about retirement, it is worth knowing that the employee contribution rate to pensions for prison officers is one of the most competitive in the public sector. That is exactly as it should be. On the specific point of retirement age, I will be happy to discuss that with her further.

Wera Hobhouse Portrait Wera Hobhouse (Bath) (LD)
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11. Whether he has had recent discussions with Cabinet colleagues on the use of non-disclosure agreements in sexual assault, harassment and misconduct cases.

Laura Farris Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Laura Farris)
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It is important to flag at the outset that confidentiality clauses are only ever used in the civil context, rather than the criminal. With that in mind, we are tabling an amendment to the Victims and Prisoners Bill to make any non-disclosure agreement void if it purports to restrict the right of an individual to report the same act to the police or to access any kind of medical or therapeutic support—a move that has been welcomed by many, including the Law Society and the Bar Council.

Wera Hobhouse Portrait Wera Hobhouse
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Thousands of people are silenced due to non-disclosure agreements and gagging clauses in cases of alleged sexual violence, bullying and harassment. The Legal Services Board has reported that signatories of NDAs suffer devastating impacts due to fear of retribution. Pregnant Then Screwed has said that an estimated 435,295 mothers have been gagged by an NDA or confidentiality clause. The Bill tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Layla Moran) would end the misuse of NDAs in the workplace. Why are the Government so hesitant about supporting a statutory ban?

Laura Farris Portrait Laura Farris
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As someone who spent more than a decade practising as an employment lawyer, I can tell the hon. Lady that there is a role for the confidentiality clause in any kind of compromise agreement when both sides resolve their dispute without going to court, and without admission of liability or any finding of liability on either side. We recognise that when they are used in their most extreme form, particularly in the most high-profile sexual harassment claims, victims have told us that they felt they could not go to the police or access counselling. We have righted that wrong. However, I will stand up for confidentiality clauses, and I want to correct slightly the hon. Lady’s point: they are only really encountered where there is a dispute concerning the Equality Act 2010. That needs to be immediately contextualised—it applies only in employment, education and in the provision of goods and services. We have taken the same step in relation to students through the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Act 2023.

Bob Blackman Portrait Bob Blackman (Harrow East) (Con)
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12. What steps he is taking to reduce reoffending.

Alex Chalk Portrait The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice (Alex Chalk)
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Reducing reoffending is a core mission of these Ministers and this Government. That is why we have prioritised accommodation for prison leavers and why we have invested heavily in employment, with prison employment leads and employment hubs in every resettlement prison. Crucially, the plan is working: in the two years to March 2023, the proportion of prison leavers in employment six months post release more than doubled.

Bob Blackman Portrait Bob Blackman
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Clearly, providing safe and secure accommodation for ex-offenders when they leave prison is the first and most important part of getting them on the path to rebuilding their lives. What action is my right hon. and learned Friend taking to ensure that that happens, so that people are not tempted to reoffend?

Alex Chalk Portrait Alex Chalk
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No one in this House has done more than my hon. Friend to look after the plight of people who are homeless or at risk of homelessness. I am proud to say that the proportion of offenders in homes for their first night post release is 86%. That is because we have rolled out 12 weeks of guaranteed community accommodation. I went to Luton and Dunstable and spoke to a probation officer who had worked there for 30 years, and he said that was the single most significant policy roll-out of his entire career. It is critical to ensure that prisoners and ex-offenders can be rehabilitated.

Gregory Campbell Portrait Mr Gregory Campbell (East Londonderry) (DUP)
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Does the Secretary of State agree that reoffending rates would reduce further if we had a more concentrated attack on the illicit substances that continue to go into prisons, as well as the massive use of prescription drugs, which many people in prisons tell me are causing problems for people close to release?

Alex Chalk Portrait Alex Chalk
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The hon. Gentleman raises an excellent point, and he is right. The reoffending rate is worth focusing on: in 2010 it was around 31%, and now it is 25%. The reason for that is a combination of focusing on accommodation, as we have just discussed, and employment so that people have a stake in society, as well as tackling substance abuse. We are looking at technology with great focus, to ensure that people can be treated for their substance addition on the inside by the very clinicians who will treat them on the outside. That continuity is vital to get them off drugs and rehabilitate them.

Sarah Dyke Portrait Sarah Dyke (Somerton and Frome) (LD)
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14. If he will make an assessment of the adequacy of support available to jurors who have been adversely affected by sitting on a jury.

Gareth Bacon Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Gareth Bacon)
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Juries are a vital part of our criminal justice system, and jury service is an important civic duty. We want to do everything we can to help jurors feel supported as they undertake that important role, which is why the Government have announced our intention to test counselling sessions for jurors who suffer mental and emotional strain following a trial. That pilot will commence in 15 courts this summer.

Sarah Dyke Portrait Sarah Dyke
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Currently, jurors dealing with extremely violent crimes, witnessing ever-increasingly sophisticated and graphic material, often feel that they do not have sufficient aftercare to deal with their experiences. They are advised to seek counselling only with their GP or the Samaritans. What discussions has the Minister had on increasing the amount of post-trial support for jurors when they have faced potentially traumatic levels of stress as a result of their experience?

Gareth Bacon Portrait Gareth Bacon
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I thank the hon. Lady for her question, which is extremely relevant. As she can imagine, there have been extensive discussions between the Department and the judiciary about this. The senior presiding judge has approved the test sites for the pilot that I have just discussed. Support of the type that we are providing in the pilot has not been provided before, so the pilot itself will inform an essential part of the judgment we make on whether and how we can carry on.

Steven Bonnar Portrait Steven Bonnar (Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill) (SNP)
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15. What recent assessment his Department has made of the adequacy of legal aid provision for immigration cases.

Alex Chalk Portrait The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice (Alex Chalk)
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Access to legal aid matters. We have taken action to broaden access in immigration and asylum cases by: uplifting fees for work done under the Illegal Migration Act 2023, when it commences; providing up to £1.4 million this year for accreditation and re-accreditation of senior caseworkers conducting legal aid work; allowing detained duty advice scheme providers to give guidance remotely, where appropriate; and introducing payment for travel time between immigration removal centres and detained duty advice scheme surgeries.

Steven Bonnar Portrait Steven Bonnar
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The Bar Council of England and Wales has submitted its grave concerns to the Ministry of Justice’s review of civil legal aid, citing that it is

“not sustainable in its current form”

and that it has significant concern

“in relation to future availability of counsel”

in immigration and asylum cases. It also notes that in real terms civil legal aid fees have now halved compared with what they were 28 years ago. What are the next steps to ensure the future of legal aid in immigration cases, or is justice now for only the wealthy?

Alex Chalk Portrait Alex Chalk
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I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising that important question. We are broadening access to legal aid. The means test review, when fully implemented, will put an additional £25 million into legal aid and bring an additional £2 million into the scope of legal aid. We are rolling out the housing loss prevention advice service—that is another £10 million going in. There will be up to £141 million going into legal aid. We are also rolling out the review of civil legal aid, which will report later this year. We will be issuing a Green Paper in July to look at what we need to do to have a sustainable, resilient and well-resourced system, because we want high-quality lawyers doing civil legal aid. That is vital for the kind of country we want to be.

Alistair Carmichael Portrait Mr Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland) (LD)
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18. What recent assessment he has made of the potential implications for his policies of the case backlog in the criminal and civil courts.

Alex Chalk Portrait The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice (Alex Chalk)
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We remain committed to reducing the outstanding case loads across our courts in England and Wales. To enable the courts to get through more cases, we have extended the use of 20 Nightingale courtrooms this financial year, allocated £220 million for essential modernisation and repair work of our court buildings up to March next year, and funded unlimited sitting days, including 107,700 days during the most recent financial year, the highest level since 2016.

Alistair Carmichael Portrait Mr Carmichael
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For anyone who has been a victim of crime, delays in getting cases into court add massively to the stress and anxiety they experience. What would the Secretary of State say to any Member whose local magistrates court had 1,954 criminal cases waiting to be heard at the end of December 2023? Would he say that a backlog of that scale was acceptable?

Alex Chalk Portrait Alex Chalk
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The right hon. Gentleman raises an important point about magistrates courts. It is true that case loads in magistrates courts, which of course deal with over 90% of crimes—common assault, criminal damage, non-residential burglary and so on—are significantly lower than they were during the pandemic. The particular pressure is in the Crown court. We made a decision of principle during the white heat of covid not to get rid of jury trials. Now, I know that in Scotland the SNP Government are a little ambivalent about jury trials, but we think they are a very important part of the rights of free-born Britons. We will hold fast to them and we will put in resources: more Nightingale courts; more judges, by raising the retirement age; and more legal aid. We will invest in and recover the system while holding fast to our principles.

Shailesh Vara Portrait Shailesh Vara (North West Cambridgeshire) (Con)
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When I was a Justice Minister, I introduced virtual hearings so that cases could proceed much more effectively. Will the Lord Chancellor kindly update the House on the progress of those hearings?

Alex Chalk Portrait Alex Chalk
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I am delighted to hear from my right hon. Friend, who was such a distinguished Minister in this Department. He did indeed introduce virtual hearings in our courts, and time has proved how prescient he was, because that was the right thing to do. I welcome the recent decision by the Judicial Office to make remote hearings the default arrangement for bail applications. In a wider context, a private Member’s Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington South (Andy Carter), which is currently making its way through Parliament, will amend legislation so that magistrates and judges in magistrates, county and family courts will be able to hear cases remotely when that is appropriate.

Mohammad Yasin Portrait Mohammad Yasin (Bedford) (Lab)
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19. What progress he has made on implementing the recommendations of the National Audit Office report on the Government’s management of legal aid.

Alex Chalk Portrait The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice (Alex Chalk)
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The National Audit Office report on the management of legal aid was a valuable piece of work, and we are considering its conclusions carefully. The Government hugely value the work of legal aid lawyers, which is why we commissioned a review of civil legal aid to identify options for the delivery of a more effective, efficient and sustainable system for legal aid providers. A Green Paper containing policy options is planned for July this year.

Mohammad Yasin Portrait Mohammad Yasin
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There are no providers of housing legal aid in the borough of Bedford, and the number of people living within 10 km of a provider of legal aid housing advice in England and Wales has fallen from 73% to 64% in the last decade. Does the Secretary of State agree that whatever legal redress is provided in the Renters (Reform) and Leasehold and Freehold Reform Bills will be meaningless if there is no legal aid system to enforce those reforms?

Alex Chalk Portrait Alex Chalk
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I hope that the hon. Gentleman will welcome the £10 million that is going to the Housing Loss Prevention Advisory Service, which is a revolutionary step to ensure that those who are at risk of eviction can access the legal aid they require in order to make their case. I respectfully invite the hon. Gentleman to come and see me so that I can discuss this with him further and he can be a voice for his constituents, signposting them to the support that is available, because it is important for them to be aware of the support that the Government are providing.

Caroline Nokes Portrait Caroline Nokes (Romsey and Southampton North) (Con)
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20. What steps he is taking to prevent domestic abuse perpetrators from using the justice system to extend control over victims.

Laura Farris Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Laura Farris)
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The Government have taken significant steps to prevent domestic abusers from using the justice system to extend control over their victims. Section 65 of the Domestic Abuse Act 2021 prevents them from cross-examining their victims and requires special measures to be available in court, and we have also amended prohibition orders under section 91(14) of the Children Act 1989, which can bar any individual from making a further application to court without permission when abusive partners are judged to be bringing victims back to court without reasonable purpose.

Caroline Nokes Portrait Caroline Nokes
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My hon. Friend takes domestic abuse very seriously, but is she aware that perpetrators all too frequently seek to use the civil courts to perpetrate further abuse of their victims, often with the support of legal aid and often using “experts” with no relevant qualifications to make accusations of, for instance, parental alienation or child grooming? Can she please reassure me that the Government are taking this matter seriously, to ensure that perpetrators do not continue to use our courts system to retraumatise their victims?

Laura Farris Portrait Laura Farris
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My right hon. Friend asks an excellent question, but let me first remind her that this is precisely the issue at which the section 91(14) prohibition orders are directed. Moreover, one of the changes made under the Domestic Abuse Act gave the courts themselves the power to make those orders of their own volition, rather than waiting for an application from the victim.

As for the second part of my right hon. Friend’s question, to the extent that we are making changes to legal aid, all those changes are in favour of the victim. We are removing illiquid and contested assets from consideration of means, all protective orders can be obtained without any assessment of means, and we are undertaking a legal aid means test review to make the test much more generous to victims.

My right hon. Friend’s final point concerned the so-called experts who give evidence on parental alienation. The Government do not recognise the concept of parental alienation, and do not believe that it is a syndrome capable of diagnosis. We have responded to the Domestic Abuse Commissioner on this subject in writing.

Virendra Sharma Portrait Mr Virendra Sharma  (Ealing, Southall) (Lab)
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T1. If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities.

Alex Chalk Portrait The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice (Alex Chalk)
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Since the last session of Justice questions, I have met my G7 ministerial counterparts in Italy to discuss topics ranging from preventing illegal migration to tackling organised crime. Furthermore, we have announced a new offence—in which, incidentally, my G7 colleagues were very interested—prohibiting the creation of sexually explicit deepfakes, announced measures to remove parental responsibility from those convicted of the rape of a child, made progress with the Litigation Funding Agreements (Enforceability) Bill in the House of Lords to support access to justice for those such as the postmasters, and introduced an amendment to the Victims and Prisoners Bill to provide further protection for victims against unnecessary disclosure of counselling notes.

I have also attended the “Unlocking Investment in Ukraine” conference, which brought together Ukrainian lawyers and eminent British jurists. We in this country understand the importance of a strong legal sector to secure Ukraine’s future. The British people and this Parliament are determined to ensure that once it has won the war, Ukraine wins the peace as well.

Virendra Sharma Portrait Mr Sharma
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With more than 80,000 children caught up in private family law proceedings, what is the Secretary of State doing to ensure that the welfare of children is protected?

Alex Chalk Portrait Alex Chalk
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I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising private family law, because all too often people raise the issue of crime, but family matters too. I am really delighted that we have managed to secure funding from the Treasury to roll out early legal advice in private family law. Alongside the Pathfinder pilot scheme, it is designed to make the process of dealing with private family disputes more seamless and less painful, and ultimately ensure that children are put first.

Elliot Colburn Portrait Elliot Colburn (Carshalton and Wallington) (Con)
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T4. People in Carshalton and Wallington, particularly women, are being targeted in so-called “crash for cash” insurance scams. Could my right hon. and learned Friend outline what support is available to victims of this sort of crime?

Alex Chalk Portrait Alex Chalk
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If someone is the victim of a “crash for cash” scam, they are likely to be the victim of an offence under the Fraud Act 2006 or, potentially, under the Road Traffic Act 1988. We have quadrupled the funding for victims of crime, who are entitled under the victims code to be kept updated about the crime, to be notified about compensation and to be offered special measures if the case gets to court. Regardless of whether someone is the victim of “crash for cash”, theft or any other crime, the state should be there to provide the support they need.

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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I call the shadow Secretary of State.

Shabana Mahmood Portrait Shabana Mahmood (Birmingham, Ladywood) (Lab)
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This week the chief inspector of prisons found that, at HMP Lewes, the Government’s early release scheme is undermining safety and risk management. In one case, a high-risk prisoner was released early despite being a risk to children, having a history of stalking and domestic abuse, and being subject to a restraining order. Is this the Secretary of State’s idea of putting public safety first?

Alex Chalk Portrait Alex Chalk
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I read that report with care and will be looking very carefully at that specific case. It is important to read precisely what the chief inspector said. He said that that was an incident right at the beginning of the process, and he expected that things would bed down as we move on. The critical point is that under the Government’s scheme, if there is a concern about an individual who is proposed to be eligible, the governor can impose a veto, which gets the decision escalated to a panel. That is an important safeguard, and it was not present under the Labour scheme, as the hon. Lady well knows.

Shabana Mahmood Portrait Shabana Mahmood
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Report after report; failure after failure. At Parc Prison, nine people have died in just two months. At Bedford, cells were flooded with raw sewage. At Wandsworth, a suspected terrorist escaped last year, the prison is still not secure and the governor has resigned. She has taken responsibility. When will the Secretary of State?

Alex Chalk Portrait Alex Chalk
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The hon. Lady is right to say there are prisons where the standards are not where we want them to be. There are something like 120 prisons in the estate, and we are the party that created the urgent notification system so that these matters can be drawn to the attention of the Government, but I will make the following point. There are prisons that have failed in the past, and we have turned them around. Take HMP Liverpool, which I went to. My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Sir Robert Neill), who is Chair of the Justice Committee, will remember that in 2017 there was a scathing report about the prison, which has been turned around. It is safe, decent and rehabilitative, and prisoners are doing excellent work. Or take HMP Chelmsford, which had a UN and has been turned around. We take this issue incredibly seriously, and we are the party that is investing record amounts in our estate. In government, Labour boasted that it would bring in three Titan prisons, but it brought in one.

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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Order. Secretary of State, this is topicals. I have to get your colleagues in, and I am sure you would not want them to miss out.

Theresa Villiers Portrait Theresa Villiers (Chipping Barnet) (Con)
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T5. A number of my constituents in Chipping Barnet tell me that they continue to have problems with delays in getting court judgments implemented by bailiffs. Will the Secretary of State do everything he can to tackle delays in the courts and bailiff system, especially for possession proceedings, where there continue to be real problems, causing delays and costs?

Alex Chalk Portrait Alex Chalk
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I thank my right hon. Friend for that important point. Fewer than 1% of tenancies required court action in 2019, but for difficult cases that do escalate to the courts, the Government recognise the importance of making sure that the process is smooth and efficient. Nearly 90% of county courts are currently listing possession hearings within four to eight weeks after a claim is received. On bailiff recruitment issues, we are running recruitment campaigns and have reduced administrative burdens to free up resources for bailiffs to focus on enforcement activity.

Rachel Hopkins Portrait Rachel Hopkins (Luton South) (Lab)
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T2. The Government’s latest panic measures to deal with the prison capacity crisis, including expanding the early release scheme to 10 weeks, have simply fuelled the probation crisis instead, with staff warning that many of these releases are unsafe and result in recall in a matter of days. Can the Minister confirm what specific extra resources he has recently put into this struggling service, so that it can cope with the sharp rise in probation workloads?

Edward Argar Portrait The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice (Edward Argar)
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The hon. Lady is right to highlight the work of probation. I put on record—as I know my shadow would and I know she would—our gratitude to all those who work in our probation service. Over the long term, since 2021 we have put an extra £155 million a year into the probation service, and 4,000 more staff in training. She will have also seen the recent announcement made by my right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor in respect of the probation reset to enable probation officers to focus their time on where it makes the greatest difference and has the greatest impact.

Rob Butler Portrait Rob Butler (Aylesbury)  (Con)
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T9. We know that our prisons are extremely full, for the entirely understandable reasons that the Lord Chancellor has set out, but that often means that they cannot do the job of rehabilitation that we would all like them to. Will the Minister look again at the proposals I put forward with the Centre for Social Justice for a tough new sentence called the intensive control and rehabilitation order, to be served in the community but under strict conditions including GPS tags and compulsory courses to reduce the likelihood of reoffending?

Gareth Bacon Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Gareth Bacon)
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I can confirm to my hon. Friend that officials have reviewed and considered ICROs, which involve the use of electronic monitoring, curfew arrangements and rehabilitative requirements targeted towards offenders who would otherwise be in custody. In June last year, we began a pilot of a scheme similar to the one he proposes, involving intense supervision courts, which divert offenders with complex needs away from short custodial sentences and provide them with wrap-around, multi-agency support to target the root causes of their offending behaviour.

Judith Cummins Portrait Judith Cummins (Bradford South) (Lab)
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T3. Today, at an event organised by my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford East (Imran Hussain), I am meeting my constituents who were encouraged by the solicitors firm SSB Law to pursue no win, no fee claims against defective cavity wall insulation providers. SSB Law subsequently went into administration, leaving my constituents with extortionate legal costs from defendant lawyers. What steps is the Minister taking to ensure that the Solicitors Regulation Authority has the necessary powers to provide my constituents with the protection, compensation and justice that they deserve?

Alex Chalk Portrait Alex Chalk
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I thank the hon. Lady for raising that important point on behalf of her constituents, and I will write to her.

James Gray Portrait James Gray (North Wiltshire) (Con)
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T10. It is now five years since my constituent, Ellie Gould, was brutally murdered in her own home. Her assailant been given a paltry 12-and-a-half-year sentence. Recently, a man who killed a stranger in the street was given 25 years, but simultaneously, on the same day, someone who cut his wife up into hundreds of pieces and disposed of the parts in a river was given a sentence starting at only 15 years. The Wade review recognised the terrible disparity between domestic murders and non-domestic murders, and called for that disparity to be corrected. Will the Secretary of State now tell us when he is going to reply to the Wade review? I hope that he will take due account of it and will equal up the sentences so that people who are guilty of domestic murders pay the same penalty as those who kill someone in the street.

Gareth Bacon Portrait Gareth Bacon
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In response to the Wade review, we have increased sentences by introducing statutory aggravating factors for murders that are preceded by controlling or coercive behaviour, that involve overkill or that are connected with the end of a relationship. We have also consulted publicly on sentencing starting points for murders preceded by controlling or coercive behaviour and for murders committed with a knife or other weapon. The Government are carefully considering the responses to the consultation and will publish their response in due course.

Mohammad Yasin Portrait Mohammad Yasin (Bedford)  (Lab)
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T6. The urgent notification issued last week to Wandsworth Prison raised the same issues found at HMP Bedford six months ago. Both revealed a horror show of violence and overcrowding in filthy environments, with horrendous levels of self-harm and drug misuse. The staff try their best but lack experience. Does the Minister accept that it is his Government’s funding cuts and policy failures that have delivered a broken justice system that offers little hope of reform for prisoners or protection for victims?

Edward Argar Portrait Edward Argar
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No, I do not accept the premise of the hon. Gentleman’s question, which may not surprise him. In respect of Bedford Prison, which he and I have spoken about, we continue to put the investment into both staff and the prison to make progress following that urgent notification.

Dehenna Davison Portrait Dehenna Davison (Bishop Auckland) (Con)
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A constituent recently attended my surgery in Bishop Auckland to disclose her serious concerns about poor communications from both the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service and the family court-appointed children’s guardian in her case. This is an extremely distressing time for her and her family, so good communication is surely key. How can the Minister ensure that my constituents will receive the support and advice they need in a timely fashion?

Alex Chalk Portrait Alex Chalk
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I thank my hon. Friend for being so assiduous in raising this important matter on behalf of her constituents. We are investing heavily in the family system to deal with precisely these issues. If something has gone wrong in that specific case, perhaps she will be kind enough to come to see me so that we can discuss it further.

Bambos Charalambous Portrait Bambos Charalambous (Enfield, Southgate) (Lab)
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T7. There are 2,796 prisoners with indeterminate sentences for public protection languishing in our prisons, 705 of whom are 10 years over their original tariff and 112 of whom had a tariff of less than two years and are now over tariff by 15 years or more. The MOJ’s refreshed IPP action plan clearly is not working, so what does the Secretary of State plan to do to fix this dire situation?

Alex Chalk Portrait Alex Chalk
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The total number of IPPs is slightly higher than that but, looking into the data, the really significant factor is that, whereas there were some 6,000 IPP prisoners in 2012, the number who have not been released is down to around 1,200. Our action plan tries to address that. Our reforms are designed to ensure that, when IPP prisoners are released, they do not face a licence period of 10 years, which can lead to them being recalled at any time. Reducing it to three years is a humane and sensible way of trying to erase this stain on the conscience of our justice system.

David Davis Portrait Sir David Davis (Haltemprice and Howden) (Con)
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Yesterday, The New Yorker published a 13,000-word inquiry into the Lucy Letby trial, which raised enormous concerns about both the logic and the competence of the statistical evidence that was a central part of the trial. The article was blocked from publication on the UK internet, I understand because of a court order. I am sure that court order was well intended, but it seems to me that it is in defiance of open justice. Will the Lord Chancellor look into this matter and report back to the House?

Alex Chalk Portrait Alex Chalk
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I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for raising this. Court orders must be obeyed, and a person can apply to the court for them to be removed. That will need to take place in the normal course of events.

On the Lucy Letby case, I simply make the point that juries’ verdicts must be respected. If there are grounds for an appeal, that should take place in the normal way.

Sarah Dyke Portrait Sarah Dyke (Somerton and Frome) (LD)
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T8. Taunton Deane magistrates court had 1,027 outstanding criminal cases in the first quarter of 2023, and the Justice Secretary’s own constituency, as of the end of December, had 1,954. These delays are letting down victims, their families, witnesses and defendants, while undermining public confidence in the criminal justice system. How does he plan to tackle this backlog? Will he provide those working tirelessly in our courts with adequate support and resources to carry out their duties?

Alex Chalk Portrait Alex Chalk
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We have increased capacity in the system. We have opened 20 Nightingale courts, including Cirencester Crown court in my county of Gloucestershire. We have increased the number of judges by 1,000. We have put up to £141 million into legal aid. We have raised the retirement age. And we are ensuring there is support for victims, including through independent sexual violence advisers and independent domestic violence advisers, and by introducing a rape support helpline, and so on. We are doing everything we can to support victims, to increase capacity in the system and to heal the damage caused by covid.

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

Robert Neill Portrait Sir Robert Neill (Bromley and Chislehurst) (Con)
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The Lord Chancellor will know that there is particular concern about the growth of the remand population in our prisons, which causes great disruption. He will also know that the senior presiding judge and others are taking innovative measures to list remand cases, but will the Lord Chancellor confirm that, to support that, there will be no financial cap on sitting days in the Crown courts?

Alex Chalk Portrait Alex Chalk
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As always, my hon. and learned Friend gets to the heart of the matter. Before the pandemic, around 9,000 people were in custody awaiting trial. The figure is now closer to 16,000, which plainly has an impact. It is because we did not get rid of jury trials, which was the right thing to do. I am grateful to the Lord Chief Justice and the senior presiding judge for considering remote hearings of bail applications, to ensure that more lawyers are able to do the cases. Having enough practitioners, as well as sitting days, is critical, and both will have my attention.

Fleur Anderson Portrait Fleur Anderson (Putney) (Lab)
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Last week’s letter to the Justice Secretary from the chief inspector of prisons again highlighted the dreadful conditions in Wandsworth Prison. Will the Secretary of State take urgent steps to end the overcrowding?

Alex Chalk Portrait Alex Chalk
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The hon. Lady is right to raise this hard-hitting, searing report. I was interested to note that, although there is a full complement of officers, the prison simply is not delivering the regime that it should. We absolutely accept that. Of course, the high remand population is an issue at Wandsworth, but Cardiff and Liverpool have achieved fantastic results. It can be turned around, so we are responding rapidly. We have already invested heavily, and £24 million has been spent. We have already deployed extra staff at all grades, and we will be providing support. A prison standards coaching team is offering face-to-face coaching for band 3 officers, with further deployment shortly.

Shailesh Vara Portrait Shailesh Vara (North West Cambridgeshire) (Con)
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I appreciate that an inquiry is being conducted regarding the Horizon scandal, but what is the Department doing to hold to account those lawyers who prosecuted sub-postmasters despite the evidence being to the contrary?

Alex Chalk Portrait Alex Chalk
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Anybody who appears in court, but particularly prosecutors, must be mindful of their solemn and sacred duty to disclose material to the defence that might reasonably be considered capable of undermining the case for the prosecution—that is literally the most important rule. If they failed in this case, I would expect the appropriate authorities to take robust and prompt action.

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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For the final question, I call Imran Hussain.

Imran Hussain Portrait Imran Hussain (Bradford East) (Lab)
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Since I last raised this question with Ministers, it has now been estimated that there are more than 10,000 victims of the SSB Law scandal. As my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford South (Judith Cummins) said, we are hosting an event later today to listen to those victims talk about the real impact on their lives—I extend an invitation to the Minister. Will he commit to my asks of real compensation and protection for the victims of what is now a national scandal?

Alex Chalk Portrait Alex Chalk
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I thank the hon. Gentleman for that kind invitation. I will consider it and respond in due course.

Illegal Migration Act: Northern Ireland

Tuesday 14th May 2024

(2 months ago)

Commons Chamber
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12:36
Gavin Robinson Portrait Gavin Robinson (Belfast East) (DUP)
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(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Home Department if he will make a statement on the High Court judgment in Belfast of 13 May 2024 disapplying the Illegal Migration Act 2023 in Northern Ireland.

Tom Pursglove Portrait The Minister for Legal Migration and the Border (Tom Pursglove)
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Let me start by expressing the Government’s disappointment at this judgment. We continue to believe that our policy is lawful, that our approach is compatible with international law and, specifically, that the Illegal Migration Act proposals are compatible with article 2 of the Windsor framework. The Government will take steps to defend their position, including through an appeal. We have consistently made it clear that the rights commitments in the Belfast/Good Friday agreement should be interpreted as they were always intended and not expanded to cover issues such as illegal migration.

This judgment changes nothing about our operational plans to send illegal migrants to Rwanda this July or the lawfulness of our Safety of Rwanda (Asylum and Immigration) Act 2024. We continue to work to get regular flights off to Rwanda in the coming weeks, and nothing will distract us from that or from delivering to the timetable I have set out. We must start the flights to stop the boats.

The Government have consistently applied immigration law on a UK-wide basis. It is important to remember that those who have been served a notice for removal to Rwanda are being considered under the Nationality and Borders Act 2022 and the Safety of Rwanda Act. This judgment relates to the Illegal Migration Act and so does not impact our operations or planning for Rwanda.

Preparations to begin flights within weeks are continuing at pace. As the Prime Minister made clear, “nothing will distract us” from the job of implementing the Rwanda policy. We must start the flights to stop the boats. That is the fair thing to do, it is the right thing to do for our country and it is the humane thing to do. Our conviction that the Rwanda scheme is lawful and necessary is unchanged. We are acting in the national interest and we will not be deterred.

Gavin Robinson Portrait Gavin Robinson
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I am grateful for that response, and I thank the Minister of State in the Northern Ireland Office and the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland for being present today. But we need not be here, as the issues elucidated yesterday by the High Court in Belfast were fairly and thoroughly explored in this House, and in the other place, during the passage of both the Illegal Migration Act and the Safety of Rwanda Act. When my colleagues and I raised these concerns here in Parliament, we were told by the Government that we were wrong, yet the High Court in Belfast said yesterday that we were right. The only difference between the encroachment on the application of our sovereign immigration policy in Northern Ireland, as of the rest of the United Kingdom, by the Illegal Migration Act is that a case was advanced on the basis of that Act, yet a case on the Safety of Rwanda Act has not yet been considered. However, the Government will know that the rationale outlined yesterday by the High Court for the Illegal Migration Act will similarly apply to the Safety of Rwanda Act as well.

It need not be so. Although the Government chose to dismiss the concerns we outlined in this House, and that our colleagues outlined in the other place, they had an opportunity to put this issue beyond doubt. I tabled an amendment to new clause 3, along with my colleagues, giving the Government the opportunity to put the issue to bed, in order to maintain the integrity of this country’s sovereign immigration policy and the integrity and protection of our borders, but they chose not to do so. I am grateful that the Minister has indicated his willingness to appeal, but when they had the opportunity to put the issue beyond doubt, why did they not do that? Do they recognise that in not doing so they have significantly impaired the uniformity of the UK’s immigration policy?

In 1922, long before the EU was envisaged, and long before the UK joined and then departed, the islands of Great Britain and Ireland had an integrity in immigration policy: the common travel area applied. What steps are the Government taking to get a British Isles solution to immigration, outside the control of the EU and outside, as it is, the Schengen area? Finally, what steps will the Minister and his Government take to assert Parliament’s sovereign will to protect the borders of the United Kingdom?

Tom Pursglove Portrait Tom Pursglove
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I am very grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his constructive tone as he eloquently makes his case. I note the narrative that he has advanced. The Government are considering judgment very carefully, as you would expect, Mr Speaker, and we are taking legal advice. I can reconfirm, as the Prime Minister said yesterday, that the Government intend to appeal the judgment.

We have consistently made it clear that the rights commitments in the Belfast/Good Friday agreement should be interpreted as they were always intended, and not expanded to cover reserved issues, such as illegal migration. We are equally clear that immigration is a reserved matter that has always been applied uniformly across the UK. We do not accept that the Good Friday agreement should be read so creatively as to extend to matters such as tackling illegal migration, which is a UK-wide issue and not in any way related to the original intention of the Good Friday agreement.

On the specific point about the common travel area, all immigration legislation provides a UK-wide framework for legal and illegal migration. We continue to have a constructive working relationship with the Irish Government when it comes to ensuring that abuse of the common travel area is robustly and appropriately tackled. On the specific point about asserting Parliament’s sovereign will around these matters, I would argue that the recent Safety of Rwanda Act clearly asserts Parliament’s sovereign will. While the latest judgment relates to the IMA, we are committed to appealing it.

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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I call the Chair of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee.

Robert Buckland Portrait Sir Robert Buckland (South Swindon) (Con)
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This case, together with the case a few months ago about the Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Act 2023, have a common theme: the applicability of article 2 of the Windsor framework and the direct application of EU law. What are the Government going to do about that? Will they seek to expedite the appeal directly to the Supreme Court? It seems to me this is a fundamental issue that need resolving. Further, will they seek further clarification, either from the Joint Committee on the Northern Ireland protocol or by other means, to clarify the situation and protect non-devolved matters from being dealt with in this way?

Tom Pursglove Portrait Tom Pursglove
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I am always grateful to my right hon. and learned Friend for his contribution. He speaks with real authority, given his professional background, his role in this House, and his former position as a distinguished Secretary of State and Lord Chancellor. He will recognise that the court will make its final order in two weeks, when an appeal can be brought. He made a number of observations, on which Ministers will reflect when taking decisions, but as I have said, and as the Prime Minister has made very clear, it is our intention to appeal this judgment. We think that it is right and proper to take all steps necessary to defend our position.

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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I call the shadow Minister.

Stephen Kinnock Portrait Stephen Kinnock (Aberavon) (Lab)
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The Conservative chaos continues. It truly beggars belief that just weeks after the Prime Minister negotiated the Windsor framework in February last year, he promptly brought forward immigration legislation that appears to have left Northern Ireland with immigration rules that are different from those for the rest of the UK. Concerns about the Illegal Migration Act 2023 were raised at the time by the right hon. Member for Belfast East (Gavin Robinson), as he has just pointed out; why did the Government choose to ignore his warnings? I do not believe that the Minister answered the questions that the right hon. Gentleman just put to him.

We on the Labour Benches are utterly committed to upholding both the Good Friday agreement and the Windsor framework in all their dimensions, but this Government appear to be more committed to their failing Illegal Migration Act. Can the Minister assure the House that nothing that the Government do will in any way compromise the Good Friday agreement or the Windsor framework?

For those who are understandably struggling to keep up with the never-ending stream of immigration legislation that has been flowing from this Government, the Illegal Migration Act was the second of three Bills, all of which had one goal in mind—sending asylum seekers to Rwanda—and all of which are completely failing on their own terms. It has been a shambles from start to finish. Meanwhile, we on the Labour Benches are clear about the problem that we face: large numbers of desperate asylum seekers are crossing continents, exploited by criminal smuggling gangs who operate routes across the English channel, and are being met by an incompetent and clueless Conservative Government who have lost control of our borders and are addicted to headline-chasing gimmicks.

In contrast, the Labour party would never have gone down the Rwanda rabbit hole. Instead of wasting taxpayers’ money on Rwanda, we would introduce a new border security command, with extra resource and new powers to go after the criminal gangs. Instead of using expensive asylum hotels, we will deliver our backlog clearance plan, and will have a new returns unit to remove people with no right to be in the UK. I once again urge the Minister to stop flogging this dead horse of a Rwanda policy, and to instead adopt Labour’s pragmatic plan to stop the Tories’ small boats chaos and fix our broken asylum system.

Tom Pursglove Portrait Tom Pursglove
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Different week, same rant. Week on week, we hear the same rant about the Opposition’s position, but they have no credible plan to stop the flow of people crossing the channel. I simply do not accept the shadow Minister’s characterisation of the situation. Let me be clear for him: yes, we will uphold our legal obligations—we are committed to that—but the Safety of Rwanda (Asylum and Immigration) Act 2024 does not engage the Good Friday agreement, including the rights chapter. Those rights seek to address long-standing, specific issues relating to Northern Ireland’s past, and do not extend to matters engaged by the Act. I should also reiterate for him, because perhaps he missed this, that we are operationalising the Rwanda policy on the basis of the Nationality and Borders Act 2022.

As for the Opposition Front Benchers’ very scant alternative for tackling illegal migration, which the shadow Minister today again proffered to the House, I can tell him that we have already doubled National Crime Agency funding for immigration and crime. We already have thousands of officials working on this matter in the migration and borders directorate. In practice, his policy means a migrant amnesty, and letting thousands of illegal migrants, who should not be here, stay in the UK indefinitely. He would end the Rwanda scheme—the Leader of the Opposition has been very clear that he would end that, come what may—but it is already working and deterring people from making crossings. The Opposition would allow tens of thousands of claims to be lodged from outside the United Kingdom, undoing all the progress we have made in addressing the asylum backlog. They would also do a deal with the European Union—one that will not stop the boats—taking 100,000 asylum seekers every year from EU countries. I do not think that is a credible offering to the country. The Opposition just do not get it. They are trying to take the public for fools. Fortunately, we have a plan, and we are getting on and delivering on it. We are delivering resources, and we will see our plan through.

William Cash Portrait Sir William Cash (Stone) (Con)
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Will my hon. Friend indicate the extent to which the Illegal Migration Act 2023, the Windsor framework and the European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Act 2020, as it relates to the sovereignty of the whole United Kingdom, including Northern Ireland, could have been worded sufficiently clearly and unambiguously to remove the grounds for this judgment, in line with the disapplication principles set out in paragraph 144 of the Supreme Court judgment on Rwanda from last November, which is extremely clear?

Tom Pursglove Portrait Tom Pursglove
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I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his contribution. I refer him and all right hon. and hon. Members to the position that I have set out. The Government are clear that the will of Parliament has been expressed on these issues. The position is as I have set out, and we will robustly defend it.

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

Alison Thewliss Portrait Alison Thewliss (Glasgow Central) (SNP)
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The SNP welcomes the judgment from the High Court of Belfast, and thanks the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission and the individual in the other case for taking this matter forward. It is important that these awful pieces of legislation are challenged. I note to the Minister that this judgment came from a domestic court, not the international courts that the Government seem so terribly afraid of and consistently run down. The court found that the Illegal Migration Act 2023 was incompatible with article 2 of the Windsor framework and with the European convention on human rights; sections 2, 5 and 6 of the 2023 Act lead to a diminution of rights. The court also found incompatibility between the 2023 Act and the Human Rights Act 1998 on the duty to remove, obligations to potential victims of modern slavery and human trafficking, and responsibilities to children and their best interests—all extremely serious matters that remain of concern.

As the right hon. Member for Belfast East (Gavin Robinson) said, all this was entirely predictable. The Government were warned about the implications for the Good Friday agreement throughout proceedings on the Illegal Migration Act and the Safety of Rwanda (Asylum and Immigration) Act 2024. Can the Minister say why his Government failed to heed the warnings and expert advice? Why did they ignore the status of Northern Ireland, and what now for the applicability of the Rwanda Act in Northern Ireland?

My fellow Scottish MPs and I are disturbed by the fact that our constituents, neighbours and friends are not even afforded the same rights as those in Northern Ireland. What are the implications of that decision for the Union? Human rights should be for all of us.

Tom Pursglove Portrait Tom Pursglove
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I can probably answer that question fairly rapidly. We fully understand the position of the Scottish National party, which has been consistently expressed during the passage of the various pieces of legislation. The SNP does not support the Government in our efforts to tackle illegal migration head-on. The position is as I have described; I will not give a running commentary on ongoing litigation, but we are determined to appeal this judgment. We are taking legal advice, and as I have said, I can be very clear that the judgment changes nothing about our operational plans to send illegal migrants to Rwanda this July, or the lawfulness of our Safety of Rwanda (Asylum and Immigration) Act 2024. Concerns have been expressed about migrants flocking to Northern Ireland to avoid deportation to Rwanda, but there is absolutely no benefit whatsoever to doing so. We are operationalising this policy on the basis of the Nationality and Borders Act 2022.

Suella Braverman Portrait Suella Braverman (Fareham) (Con)
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I thank my hon. Friend for coming to the Chamber; I hope he is enjoying life back at the Home Office. In the decision, the judge found that section 7A of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018, as amended by the Windsor framework, must be read as meaning that Northern Ireland is effectively to be treated as part of the European Union. I believed the assurances given to me at the time, but is it not patently clear now that the Windsor framework has operated in a way that undermines our sovereignty and Northern Ireland’s place in the United Kingdom, and has fundamentally failed on its first contact with reality?

Tom Pursglove Portrait Tom Pursglove
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I refer my right hon. and learned Friend to what I have said about our determination to appeal the judgment. As she knows from real experience, immigration is a reserved matter and policy should be applied consistently across the UK, as we have done consistently to date.

Claire Hanna Portrait Claire Hanna (Belfast South) (SDLP)
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The European convention on human rights is not just a key part of the UK’s unwritten constitution, but fundamental to the Good Friday agreement. That is where the commitment to the vindication of rights flows from. Yes, Brexit and the provisions that have followed have underpinned those rights and have allowed for the pursuance of a remedy. Perhaps those who championed the Brexit project might step through the consequences of their actions better in future. I am glad that our region has additional protection, but the ruling is very clear: the Illegal Migration Act 2023 is not compatible with human rights, and the declaration of incompatibility has implications in all jurisdictions. Is it not time that the Government developed an actual strategy that focused on safe routes, targeting people-smuggling gangs and investing in efficient processing? Is it not time we had an actual plan, instead of this £400 million performance of cruelty?

Tom Pursglove Portrait Tom Pursglove
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I profoundly disagree with the hon. Lady’s stance on Brexit, and I respectfully disagree with her interpretation and characterisation of the situation that we are discussing. We have seen over half a million people come to this country via safe and legal routes since 2015. We can all be enormously proud of that as a country, but there is a moral imperative to shut down the evil criminal gangs that are responsible for taking people’s money and bringing them across the channel in unseaworthy vessels, with no regard whatsoever for human life—for whether those people arrive safely.

We will do everything necessary within our power to put those evil criminal gangs out of business. To date, we have made progress through the plan that has been delivered, but this is the important next step in rendering the business model redundant. I urge the hon. Lady to rethink her position. It is not good enough to say, “It’s all too difficult,” and just allow unlimited numbers of people to make those very dangerous crossings, without having an alternative country to relocate people to when there is no prospect of removing them to their country of origin.

John Redwood Portrait Sir John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con)
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We voted in a referendum to end the rule of EU law throughout the United Kingdom, including Northern Ireland. Given the muddle that the courts are creating, is not the only way out of this an urgent, short piece of legislation that asserts beyond doubt that we control our own borders?

Tom Pursglove Portrait Tom Pursglove
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The Government believe that we have a legal basis for this. I recognise my right hon. Friend’s determination for us to get on and deliver on the Rwanda policy. That is precisely what we are doing, on the basis of the Nationality and Borders Act at this stage, but when it comes to the IMA, we believe that we have a strong legal basis, and that is why we are appealing the judgment.

Tim Farron Portrait Tim Farron (Westmorland and Lonsdale) (LD)
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Across the United Kingdom, including Northern Ireland, there are 90,000 of our fellow human beings who have arrived in the UK since March last year and are in limbo—their claims are not even being triaged—while they await a third country to take them. The Government know that most of these folks will turn out to be genuine refugees if their cases are ever assessed. They are nevertheless sat rotting at the taxpayer’s expense, vulnerable to exploitation and unable to move on. Even this Government admit that the majority will never go to Rwanda, so what is the Government’s plan for those 90,000 souls?

Tom Pursglove Portrait Tom Pursglove
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We are clearly committed to commencing the Illegal Migration Act as soon as possible. The hon. Gentleman will know about the work that has gone on in the Home Office over the last year or so that has dramatically improved asylum decision-making productivity—all efforts that would be out of the window, were those on the Opposition Front Bench to form a Government. We will take appropriate decisions on individual cohorts; I will not get into that on the Floor of the House today—

Tim Farron Portrait Tim Farron
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That’s your job!

Tom Pursglove Portrait Tom Pursglove
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The hon. Gentleman keeps chuntering from a sedentary position, but the fact is that we take appropriate cohort-related decisions. The message must be very clear that people should not be coming to the United Kingdom via perilous journeys on small boats. That is not an acceptable position to be advocating. We will not advocate that position, and will continue to take steps to address it. The message should go out very clearly to anyone thinking of getting in a small boat: don’t do it.

Theresa Villiers Portrait Theresa Villiers (Chipping Barnet) (Con)
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Many in Northern Ireland will want to understand the practical implications of this court case. If, as some expect, it means that Northern Ireland has become a more attractive place for someone who has arrived in Britain on a small boat, what are the Government doing to investigate, plan for and manage that, and to ensure that it does not have cost implications for the Northern Ireland Executive or local authorities in Northern Ireland?

Tom Pursglove Portrait Tom Pursglove
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What I can say to my right hon. Friend, who, of course, takes a real interest in all matters Northern Ireland, is that we are operationalising the Rwanda policy on a UK-wide basis. The legal foundation for that is the Nationality and Borders Act. As I said earlier, there is no benefit to anybody who thinks that going to Northern Ireland will lead to their not being in scope for relocation to Rwanda. That is not the case. The position is clear, and we are getting on and operationalising the policy using the legal footing that is already available to us.

Sammy Wilson Portrait Sammy Wilson (East Antrim) (DUP)
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The Government can make as many appeals, promises from the Dispatch Box, and agreements about safeguarding the Union as they want, but the fact remains that because of the pathetic handover of Northern Ireland to the European Union, EU law now extends to and must be applied in Northern Ireland, as the judge made clear yesterday. The result is that we have another hole in the Government’s immigration policy—a national immigration policy now dictated by the EU. Northern Ireland will become a back door in the United Kingdom, and that will hasten the day when we have people controls, as well as goods controls, between Northern Ireland and GB. Does the Minister recognise that unless we remove the source of the problem—namely, the commitments in the withdrawal agreement—it will continue?

Tom Pursglove Portrait Tom Pursglove
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There is no merit whatsoever in the suggestion that the UK would hand Northern Ireland over to the European Union. On the matter that we are debating today, the judgment changes nothing about our operational plans to send illegal migrants to Rwanda this July or about the lawfulness of our Safety of Rwanda (Asylum and Immigration) Act 2024. We continue to work to get regular flights off to Rwanda in the coming weeks, and nothing will distract us from that or from delivering to the timetable that I set out. We must start the flights to stop the boats. I have been consistently clear that the commitments in the Belfast/Good Friday agreement should be interpreted as they were always intended, and not expanded to cover issues such as illegal migration. We will take all steps to defend that position, including through appeal—those are the words of the Prime Minister. As I say, we are operationalising the Rwanda policy on a UK-wide basis, and we will see through the commitments that we have made.

Mark Francois Portrait Mr Mark Francois (Rayleigh and Wickford) (Con)
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On the Windsor framework, we told you so. On the judgment itself, legally, all roads lead not to Rome but, in this case, to Strasbourg and the European convention on human rights. The convention was drafted for perfectly honourable reasons in the aftermath of the horror of the second world war, but that was over 70 years ago. It has now clearly been overtaken by events and international migration flows. Has not the time now come for a Conservative Government to include in our election manifesto a clear commitment to seeking to negotiate that convention with our European partners, and, should those negotiations fail, to leave it? If we are not prepared to walk away, they will never take us seriously.

Tom Pursglove Portrait Tom Pursglove
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I refer my right hon. Friend to the Government’s stance on the legal position in relation to the Illegal Migration Act. I would also say that for illegal migrants, all roads lead to Rwanda, and for the people smugglers responsible for that evil criminality, all roads lead to prison.

Stephen Farry Portrait Stephen Farry (North Down) (Alliance)
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I strongly welcome the logical and inevitable judgment from the High Court of Northern Ireland. If the Government want to have a national immigration policy, they must repeal the Illegal Migration Act, repeal the Safety of Rwanda Act, and have a human-rights compliant policy. Back in 1998, the Governments of the UK and Ireland made the solemn pledge to the people of Northern Ireland that the rights of everyone residing in the community would be protected. Can the Minister give a cast-iron assurance that under no circumstances will article 2 of the Windsor framework, or the Good Friday agreement, be unpicked in the pursuit of this rabbit hole of a Rwanda plan?

Tom Pursglove Portrait Tom Pursglove
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I refer the hon. Gentleman to the position that I have set out in relation to the Good Friday agreement. I will not give a running commentary about the litigation, which is, as he will appreciate, ongoing. I absolutely and definitively disagree with him on the utility or sense in repealing the various pieces of illegal migration legislation that he is so vehemently against. I respectfully disagree with him on that. That legislation is helping us to make the progress that we need to put those criminal gangs out of business and ultimately save lives in the channel. I do not think that there is anything more serious for a Government than that. We place it front and centre in the work that we are doing.

Tom Hunt Portrait Tom Hunt (Ipswich) (Con)
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It is clear to me that Northern Ireland has just as much right as anywhere else in the UK to have a deterrent to illegal migration, so aspects of this concern me. A few weeks ago, the Irish Government were saying that they should be able to return some illegal migrants who may have gone from the UK to the Republic of Ireland. Does the Minister think that the Irish Government would be better off taking that up with France? If the French took the return of illegal migrants who have entered our country, we would probably not have this problem in the first place.

Tom Pursglove Portrait Tom Pursglove
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As I said from the Dispatch Box last week, the position is very clear: we are not willing to have that relationship with the Irish Government and take the return of illegal migrants. That would need to be progressed at an EU level. We think that the European Union should take back those illegal migrants. I think that goes to the heart of the point that my hon. Friend has made.

Gregory Campbell Portrait Mr Gregory Campbell (East Londonderry) (DUP)
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Thus far, the Minister has not taken the opportunity to respond to the query from my right hon. Friend the Member for Belfast East (Gavin Robinson) about why the Government declined the offer made from the DUP Benches, which would have avoided the judgment that we have heard about. Will he do so now? He has indicated that the Government plan to appeal, but if the appeal fails, what then?

Tom Pursglove Portrait Tom Pursglove
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I do not think it wise to speculate on hypothetical situations. We are determined that there is a strong legislative basis, and we will defend it through the appeal. As for debates that have been and gone, the hon. Gentleman will recognise that I was not the Minister at that time, but it is fair to say that the record will speak for itself on the debates that were had.

Kevin Foster Portrait Kevin Foster (Torbay) (Con)
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We need only look at the situation in Dublin to see what happens when illegal migration becomes an issue and is not handled correctly, and to understand the strength of pursuing our Rwanda policy. Although that policy is being dismissed by some, it is interesting that, as I am sure the Minister has noticed, others across Europe are starting to look to it for a solution to this question. The question, “If not Rwanda, where do you want to remove people to?” has never been answered by Labour.

In the light of the judgment, can the Minister reassure me on a couple of points? First, will the UK remain the UK border in terms of migration policy, so that there is no prospect of having any form of checks on people between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, which would effectively mean a border within the United Kingdom? Secondly, will the operation of the Rwanda plan be based on, as he said, the Nationality and Borders Act and on the recently passed legislation—the one-stop shop and the child age assessments—which were vital in getting a grip on this issue? Is the plan being taken forward on that basis rather than on the basis of the Illegal Migration Act, which was the core point from this judgment?

Tom Pursglove Portrait Tom Pursglove
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My hon. Friend always speaks with authority when it comes to these issues, and he has extensive experience, having been a Minister in the Home Office. I can absolutely say that we will continue to apply migration policy on a UK-wide basis; the UK border will remain that. He is right to highlight the Nationality and Borders Act, and he should be proud of the efforts that he took forward in Government to help deliver it. Labour Members consistently opposed it. In answer to his question about where Labour would send people, which I know he asked a few weeks ago, we are still none the wiser. The truth is that the basis upon which we are able to advance the policy at this stage is the Nationality and Borders Act. He can be confident in that basis. We are getting on and delivering on it.

Joanna Cherry Portrait Joanna Cherry (Edinburgh South West) (SNP)
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Of course, this judgment has UK-wide relevance because of the declarations of incompatibility under the Human Rights Act. In our reports on the Illegal Migration Act and the Rwanda policy, the Joint Committee on Human Rights has repeatedly warned that many aspects of the Government’s asylum policy breach the Human Rights Act. That was not just our view, but the weight of the expert evidence that we heard; in fact, those with legal expertise who disagreed with our findings were decidedly thin on the ground. This judgment vindicates our position that on a number of fronts, the Government’s asylum policy breaches the Human Rights Act, particularly as regards the duty to remove. As such, will the Minister confirm that the Government will respect the rule of law and not take any steps to deport anyone under the Rwanda scheme until the relevant avenues of appeal in this case are exhausted and it is clarified that such removals would be lawful?

Tom Pursglove Portrait Tom Pursglove
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I know that the hon. and learned Lady is vehemently opposed to the Government’s position on tackling illegal migration. I believe that the Minister for Countering Illegal Migration, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Michael Tomlinson), will be in front of her Committee tomorrow, and I have no doubt that she will want to ask those questions of him. To go back to the thrust of her question, though, the basis upon which we are facilitating relocations to Rwanda at this stage is that of the Nationality and Borders Act, which is not relevant to the Illegal Migration Act judgment that we are dealing with today.

David Jones Portrait Mr David Jones (Clwyd West) (Con)
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We were already aware that the Northern Ireland protocol or Windsor framework—whichever one prefers to call it—had resulted in a customs border in the Irish sea. If this judgment stands, it now appears to be the case that it has also destroyed the ability of the United Kingdom Government to determine who should remain within our own borders. Does my hon. Friend not agree, therefore, that the framework has been proven to be inimical to British sovereignty and should be renegotiated, or failing that —as my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (Sir John Redwood) has suggested—should be disapplied by legislation of this Parliament?

Tom Pursglove Portrait Tom Pursglove
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I would not accept that characterisation. As I have confirmed for the House a number of times, we are taking forward the Rwanda partnership on the basis of the Nationality and Borders Act—that is the legal footing on which we are advancing the policy at this stage. I am confident in that legal foundation, and we will appeal this judgment, which relates very specifically to the Illegal Migration Act.

Carla Lockhart Portrait Carla Lockhart (Upper Bann) (DUP)
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What else are the Government not telling us about where the EU has overreach into Northern Ireland, and where people in Northern Ireland are once again in limbo between two regulatory entities? Will the Secretary of State and the Government do the right thing and stop stringing the people of Northern Ireland along by simply appealing the decision, and will the Secretary of State commit to legislate to get rid of the EU supremacy on human rights contained in article 2 of the Windsor framework?

Tom Pursglove Portrait Tom Pursglove
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Article 2 of the Windsor framework ensures that there is no diminution of rights under the Belfast/Good Friday agreement. We have been consistently clear that the commitments in the Good Friday agreement should be implemented as they were always intended, not expanded to cover issues such as illegal migration. Rightly, we will take all steps to defend that position, including through our appeal.

Christopher Chope Portrait Sir Christopher Chope (Christchurch) (Con)
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I think we all sympathise with the Minister for having to take a line that is manifestly absurd. Why is it that the Government are not going to directly legislate to deal with this situation? The legislation is defective, and if we go to appeal and that appeal is rejected, we will have lost a lot more time. Why do we not act now to legislate and sort out this mess?

Tom Pursglove Portrait Tom Pursglove
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As I think my hon. Friend will appreciate, we are currently taking legal advice in relation to this judgment. It would not be right to give a running commentary on the substance of that legal advice, and as he knows, as a Minister, I am not in a position to disclose that advice in any event. We will robustly defend our position, but the outcome that my hon. Friend wishes to see—the operationalisation of the Rwanda policy to facilitate these relocations—has its legislative basis in the Nationality and Borders Act. The good news is that he was one of the colleagues who was in the Division Lobby supporting that Act, something that I think his constituents would welcome.

Andrew Bridgen Portrait Andrew Bridgen (North West Leicestershire) (Ind)
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The Government were repeatedly warned about the pitfalls of the Windsor framework, and have been repeatedly warned and advised about the deficiencies of the Rwanda legislation. What is the Minister going to do to ensure that, as a result of the Government’s sloppy and defective drafting of legislation, the lawyers are not the only winners, as always?

Tom Pursglove Portrait Tom Pursglove
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We are not going to be thwarted in our efforts to ensure that people are relocated to Rwanda, with the ultimate aim of putting out of business the evil criminal gangs responsible for that heinous trade that puts lives at risk and exploits people for their money. There is a legal basis upon which we are taking the policy forward immediately, and people are being detained for the purposes of relocation, caseworkers are working on individual cases, and arrangements are in place to facilitate the flights. That is where our focus and energies are at this present time, but we are also appealing on the issue of the Illegal Migration Act.

Richard Graham Portrait Richard Graham (Gloucester) (Con)
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My hon. Friend the Minister has already confirmed that the Government will appeal against the Belfast High Court judgment and that our commitment to the Belfast agreement is unwavering, so the substantive issue is the plan to process asylum seekers’ applications in Rwanda, which Opposition Front Benchers continue to say should not, could not and will not work. Will my hon. Friend confirm that not only are they wrong on all three of those points, but events in Ireland have shown how effective a deterrent this policy is going to prove? Italy, France, Denmark and—I think—the political party of the EU President have already said that it sets a very interesting precedent, one that they will be looking to pursue themselves.

Tom Pursglove Portrait Tom Pursglove
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Opposition Front Benchers are invariably wrong when it comes to these issues. My hon. Friend is right to touch on the fact that although back in 2022 we were at the forefront in announcing the Rwanda partnership, others are now following us. As a Government, we recognise and have consistently said that this is a novel approach to tackling the issue, but such challenges require novel solutions, and it is right that we look at novel ways of tackling these migratory flows that are organised and facilitated by evil criminality—the Home Secretary is leading that effort internationally, as well. My hon. Friend’s point is becoming ever more relevant; in fact, only this morning, I saw additional reports of other countries exploring these sorts of arrangements.

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)
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Belfast City Council has the second highest number of asylum seekers in all of the United Kingdom; that indicates how important this issue is for us in Northern Ireland. Can the Minister confirm that there is still freedom of movement within the United Kingdom and that subsequently, under the policy of dispersal, we will be able to move any asylum seekers to the GB mainland to be directed, determined and dealt with as this Government see fit? Can he also confirm that this court judgment will not preclude Northern Ireland from holding its constitutional and legal position within the United Kingdom until consent given through a border poll determines otherwise, which is the very foundation of the Good Friday agreement?

Tom Pursglove Portrait Tom Pursglove
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There are various technical aspects bound up in that question. If I may, I will take that series of points away and provide the hon. Gentleman with a written response, but what I can say in top-line terms is that when it comes to the application of the Rwanda policy, we are delivering it on a UK-wide basis.

Mike Penning Portrait Sir Mike Penning (Hemel Hempstead) (Con)
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I have sat and listened to all the questions from across the House, so as I am asking the last one, can I say to the Minister that my constituents and I are very worried about immigration, and that if the Rwanda policy that this House has decided to go ahead with works, that should happen and it should be a deterrent? However, what is obvious across the House today is that there is a concern about the Union. This country is about a union of countries together, so I ask the Minister to make sure that all Government Departments understand the concern of colleagues from Northern Ireland, and from across the House, to protect the Union at all costs.

Tom Pursglove Portrait Tom Pursglove
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This Government will always, always uphold the Union both in letter and in spirit. My right hon. Friend is right to highlight the importance of this issue to his constituents in Hemel Hempstead and the importance of tackling illegal migration head-on. He can be absolutely assured that Home Office Ministers take our responsibilities to the Union incredibly seriously. The fact that I am joined on the Front Bench by Northern Ireland Office colleagues for this urgent question is very welcome. It provides an opportunity to really demonstrate the fact that we do work as one Government on this issue. It is incumbent on all Ministers to uphold the Union and its importance to our great country in every sense.

Rosie Winterton Portrait Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Rosie Winterton)
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I thank the Minister for answering the urgent question.

International Health Regulations

Tuesday 14th May 2024

(2 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

13:19
Danny Kruger Portrait Danny Kruger (Devizes) (Con)
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(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care if she will make a statement on the ongoing negotiations on the World Health Organisation pandemic agreement and amendments to the international health regulations ahead of any votes at the World Health Assembly that starts next week.

Andrew Stephenson Portrait The Minister for Health and Secondary Care (Andrew Stephenson)
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I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this urgent question, and I am grateful for the opportunity to update the House. I want to start by making three promises. First, the Government will only accept the accord and targeted amendments to the international health regulations if they are firmly in the United Kingdom’s national interest, and no text has yet been agreed. We will only accept the accord and amendments by the World Health Assembly and adopt them if it is firmly in the UK’s national interest to do so. Secondly, this Government will only sign up to measures that respect our national sovereignty. Thirdly, under no circumstances will we allow the WHO to have the power to mandate lockdowns. That would be unthinkable and has never been proposed. Protecting our sovereignty is a British red line.

Let me now dispel three myths about the negotiations. First, there is the myth that the negotiations are being led by the WHO. They are not being led by the WHO; they are entirely led by member states. Secondly, there is the idea that we would give away a fifth of our vaccines in the next pandemic. That is simply not true. Of course, we are a generous country and companies may make their own choices to donate vaccines, but that would be and should be entirely their decision. Countries are discussing a voluntary mechanism to which UK businesses could sign up, if they wish, to share vaccines in return for information they may need to develop their products.

The third point is about transparency. This is a point I take extremely seriously, as one who campaigned so hard for this Parliament’s sovereignty. It is not common practice for the Government to give an update on live negotiations, but I met some interested parliamentarians last week to discuss their concerns. I also had the pleasure of leading a Westminster Hall debate in December on these negotiations, which was attended by my hon. Friend and many others, and I will continue to meet him and other concerned parliamentarians as we act in the national interest. Effective agreements can help us to deliver smarter surveillance, swifter pathogen and data sharing, and faster development of pandemic vaccines, tests and treatments that would save lives and protect people both in the UK and around the world.

Danny Kruger Portrait Danny Kruger
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Can I say how much I appreciate the commitments that the Minister has just made? I want to acknowledge the good work that he and indeed his predecessors have been doing in Government ahead of the World Health Assembly that meets next week. I am very pleased to hear the commitments he has just made.

My concern is not with the Government’s position, but with the WHO itself. I appreciate the Minister’s point that member states are leading on these proposals, which is worrying in itself, but we know what the real agenda of the WHO is from the drafts that have been submitted in recent months. It wants to have binding powers over national Governments to introduce all sorts of restrictive measures on our citizens; it wants to be able to direct the health budgets of member states; and it wants to introduce global digital health passports and other measures.

The WHO is an organisation that aspires, in words that are still in the draft treaty, to be

“the directing and coordinating authority on international health work, including on pandemic prevention, preparedness and response”.

I appreciate that no text has yet been agreed, which is why it is important that we have a debate, but the proposals in the latest draft published last month are concerning enough. They require national Governments to agree to a whole series of commitments, which will be binding under international law if the UK signs up to them. These cover surveillance of the health of the population, commitments on funding both in the UK and abroad, emergency authorisation of new vaccines or speeded up authorisation processes, giving some vaccines to the WHO to distribute, potentially authorising national Governments to introduce the compulsory vaccination of travellers, and giving very wide discretion to the director general of the WHO to act on his own initiative.

The Government still have the opportunity to oppose the treaty and the regulations as they are currently drafted, and I appreciate that we are waiting to see the final text in the coming days, but can I ask the Minister to clarify very explicitly from the Dispatch Box what the Government’s red lines are? I heard what he said, but could he go a little further on the detail of what he means? Will the Government oppose any text that binds this or a future Government in how they respond to health threats? Finally and crucially, will the Government comply with the CRaG—Constitutional Reform and Governance Act—requirement to put the treaty to a ratification vote in Parliament?

Andrew Stephenson Portrait Andrew Stephenson
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I thank my hon. Friend for the constructive way in which he and other parliamentarians have engaged with this subject matter and the challenges it presents. As I said in my opening remarks, no text has yet been agreed. I set out some of our negotiating red lines, and I am happy to confirm from the Dispatch Box that the current text is not acceptable to us. Therefore, unless the current text is changed and refined, we will not be signing up to it.

My hon. Friend asks how the treaty will be ratified if we reach a position to which the UK Government could agree. The UK treaty-making process means that the accord is of course negotiated and agreed by the Government. As he will know, Parliament plays an important part in scrutinising treaties under the CRaG process and determining how international obligations should be reflected domestically. However, it is important to remember that, because the exact form of the accord has not yet been agreed, the parliamentary adoption process will depend on under which article of the WHO constitution the accord is adopted.

Andrew Gwynne Portrait Andrew Gwynne (Denton and Reddish) (Lab)
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This country has a role and a responsibility in protecting global health. It is a part we played during the covid pandemic. British science stood tall on the world stage, and our country donated 84 million vaccine doses to help vaccinate the world. We learned from the omicron variant that, when it comes to global pandemics, none of us is safe until all of us are safe. We also benefited from researchers around the world sharing early knowledge about covid-19, collaboration that was crucial in protecting British people and ultimately in developing the vaccine. However, there is a clear principle when it comes to national security. It is the same one we follow when we get on to an aeroplane: we apply our own oxygen mask before we help others apply theirs. The Minister says the draft text is not acceptable, and I want to be clear that a Labour Government will not sign anything that would leave our population unprotected in the face of a novel disease.

We are debating a treaty that is still being negotiated by member states, and none of us knows the final content or wording, so can the Minister reconfirm for the House that the Government will not sign up to anything that would compromise the UK’s ability to take domestic decisions on national public health measures? Has he consulted the UK’s life sciences sector ahead of these negotiations, and what conversations has he had with international counterparts and our allies about this treaty and our joint pandemic preparedness? As we work with colleagues around the world to bolster our efforts to tackle novel threats, it is vital that we get the balance right between sharing knowledge and protecting intellectual property, so can he set out his approach to any requirements for time-limited waivers of intellectual property related to vaccines and therapeutics in the event of a global disease outbreak? Finally, it is vital that we are led by science and evidence when tackling the threat of global disease epidemics, so can the Minister tell us what his Department is doing to tackle misinformation about pandemics and vaccines?

Andrew Stephenson Portrait Andrew Stephenson
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I thank the shadow Minister for his remarks. I confirm that we are firmly fighting in Britain’s interests for an accord and strengthened international health regulations that fully respect national sovereignty but can save lives and protect people both in the UK and around the world. They have to fully respect national sovereignty, and that is at the heart of our negotiating position. It will therefore always be up to nation states to decide what is implemented within their own borders.

Just to answer a couple of the hon. Gentleman’s specific points, yes, I have met representatives of the life sciences sector to discuss this and some of the specific proposals—the last meeting we had was last week. With regard to dealing with international counterparts, I will be attending the World Health Assembly in Geneva myself.

My final point is that the hon. Gentleman is right to pay tribute to what this country did globally during the pandemic. Of course, in 2021 we used the G7 presidency to mobilise G7 countries to donate surplus vaccines, and by May 2022 the G7 had donated 1.18 billion doses against the target of 870 million. The UK alone donated over 80 million doses, benefiting 40 countries.

Liam Fox Portrait Sir Liam Fox (North Somerset) (Con)
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We all want better co-ordination in the face of any future pandemic risk, but it is also clear that the WHO wants supranational powers. Will my right hon. Friend guarantee that the UK Government will not accept any obligation that requires the UK to legislate to implement any element of the WHO treaty into UK law?

Andrew Stephenson Portrait Andrew Stephenson
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At the moment we do not envisage any proposal that would require changes to domestic law, and it is highly unlikely that any proposals will come forward in that shape or form. I have some sympathy with what my right hon. Friend says: most organisations such as the WHO will always look to expand their remit, and look to gain more power in order to co-ordinate things. But these negotiations are being led by member states and sovereignty is a key part of the negotiating position of the vast majority of the countries involved. It is not just the UK arguing for this; countries around the world are arguing that this needs to be a high-level agreement that helps co-ordination and information-sharing but in no way ties countries’ hands in how we respond domestically to any future pandemic.

Kirsty Blackman Portrait Kirsty Blackman (Aberdeen North) (SNP)
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We cannot have a repeat of what the WHO called the catastrophic failure of the international community to ensure that covid-19 was fought everywhere with all of our abilities. It will require give and take, with give on the part of OECD countries commensurate with our comparative economic strength and population health. Although there may be disagreements across the House, I think we all agree that pandemics should be fought on an international basis and that other countries should be assisted, where we have the strength and ability to do that. Despite that level of agreement, there has been a persistent barrage of misinformation and disinformation, not least hitting our own inboxes. As negotiations on this proceed, what steps will the UK Government be taking to ensure that the public understand what the treaty will do and to tackle and robustly rebut the misinformation and disinformation that is being spread, particularly about this treaty?

Andrew Stephenson Portrait Andrew Stephenson
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The Scottish National party spokeswoman makes a very important point. There has been a lot of misinformation and disinformation, but that is in part the result of the transparency on all the amendments being published on the WHO website, for example, as well as various other information, which has allowed people to think that that is suddenly the kind of text that would be agreed. We need to be clear that no text whatsoever has been agreed; the negotiations continue. I think most people in this House, and hopefully outside, would recognise that the working draft text most recently published on the WHO website is a significant improvement on the initial drafts. I think we all share an ambition that we will get to a text that can be agreed, but it has to put national interests and national sovereignty at its heart. I will therefore do my best to ensure that the House is kept updated as further iterations of the text emerge—the latest version was published on the WHO website on 17 April.

Will Quince Portrait Will Quince (Colchester) (Con)
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As the Health Minister who represented the UK at last year’s World Health Assembly and the United Nations General Assembly, I stood at that Dispatch Box and confirmed that we would not sign up to any IHR amendment or any other instrument that would compromise the UK’s ability to make domestic decisions on national measures concerning public health. Can my right hon. Friend confirm that His Majesty’s Government’s position on this remains unchanged and resolute?

Andrew Stephenson Portrait Andrew Stephenson
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I pay tribute to my predecessor for the work he did. Let me reiterate that the UK Government have made it clear that we will not sign up to any accord or any changes in the international health regulations that would cede sovereignty to the WHO in making domestic decisions on national measures concerning public health, such as domestic immunisation programmes or lockdowns.

Ian Paisley Portrait Ian Paisley (North Antrim) (DUP)
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Can the Minister confirm that the WHO was slow to react to SARS—severe acute respiratory syndrome—was slow to react to the Ebola crisis, was slow to react to covid-19, and steadfastly refused to criticise in any way the Chinese regime throughout that period? That being the case, will he confirm again from the Dispatch Box that no outside organisation will ever be able to take any decision to do with the internal health and wellbeing of citizens of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland?

Andrew Stephenson Portrait Andrew Stephenson
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One of the reasons why the WHO has in the past been slow to respond, and why it might be slow in future, is that it is a member state-led organisation governed by the World Health Assembly, which comprises 194 member states operating under the WHO constitution. Any decisions made by the WHO have to be agreed by all member states, including the UK, beforehand, and that does somewhat tie its hands. However, we and many like-minded countries believe that all these decisions are best made domestically depending on the domestic situation. The domestic situation in the UK will be radically different in any future pandemic from the domestic situation in other countries around the world. We have to work collaboratively on things like the sharing of data, but there are many other areas where it is 100 % right that decisions are made in this country by our Government.

Simon Clarke Portrait Sir Simon Clarke (Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland) (Con)
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I welcome confirmation from my right hon. Friend that the Government do not consider the current drafting of the proposed treaty to be acceptable; it is good to have that on the record. On a principles-led basis, I do not believe it is in the UK’s national interest to accede to this. Anything that compromises our ability to make sovereign choices is profoundly unwelcome. Can the Minister give a commitment that, regardless of the technicalities of the precise form that any treaty may finally emerge in, if the UK does decide to accede to this treaty, we will have a vote in this House? We can see, certainly on this side of the House—there is no presence on the Labour Benches—that there are real reservations about what this will mean in practice for our ability to make the right choices for our people.

Andrew Stephenson Portrait Andrew Stephenson
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I appreciate the point that my right hon. Friend makes. As I said in answer to an earlier question, because we do not know the exact form that the accord will take, at the moment it is very hard to say what the parliamentary procedure that flows out of it will be, but I certainly will provide any opportunity I can to facilitate as much debate as possible. He and I agree on many things, but here I would just say that, having looked at the detail, I genuinely believe that agreeing a meaningful accord is firmly in the UK’s national interest.

This accord is an opportunity to enhance UK health, economic and national security. An effective accord will improve disease surveillance and prevention by making sure that globally we have the information we need to raise the alarm early. It strengthens research and development to help stop pandemics in their tracks and enables a better co-ordinated global response to pandemics, including getting vaccines, treatments and tests rapidly to where they are needed most.

I genuinely believe that there is a window of opportunity here to get an accord that is in the UK’s national interest. We are not there yet—the current text is unacceptable—but we will keep negotiating, because I believe there is a window of opportunity here to agree something that is genuinely in the UK’s national interest. But if we cannot agree that, we will not sign it.

Jonathan Edwards Portrait Jonathan Edwards (Carmarthen East and Dinefwr) (Ind)
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Public health is devolved in the context of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Therefore, how often does the Minister engage with the devolved Governments on the UK Government’s negotiating positions in relation to these matters?

Andrew Stephenson Portrait Andrew Stephenson
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As the hon. Gentleman will know, international treaties are a matter for the UK Government, and therefore this is being negotiated by the UK Government. I was appointed as a Minister in the Department of Health back in November, but I am happy to reassure him that I do not see myself as purely the Minister for Health in England—I visited Wales very early on to meet some of the outstanding life sciences companies there, which are developing products that will benefit patients across the entire UK; I visited Northern Ireland to see some of the great universities and outstanding businesses there; and I also visited Scotland to meet Michael Matheson, the then Scottish Health Secretary, and also the University of Edinburgh and various other outstanding universities and businesses. So I very much see the Union, and the impact that everything has on the whole United Kingdom, as being central to these negotiations.

William Cash Portrait Sir William Cash (Stone) (Con)
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May I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Devizes (Danny Kruger) on securing this urgent question? I also congratulate those on the Government Benches—I note that there is no one on the Opposition Benches, apart from the shadow Minister—for addressing the question of whether any meaningful accord is possible. Supranationality has to be out, as I have said on countless occasions, when it is not in our national interest. Sovereignty has to prevail. I remind the Minister of the regulation brought in by the EU at the time of covid, which had to be abandoned because we put our foot down and said that we would not accept its restrictions on our ability to produce the vaccine. That is a good example. Will he please follow it and make sure we do not have any weasel words?

Andrew Stephenson Portrait Andrew Stephenson
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I thank my hon. Friend for his passionate and pertinent point. Throughout the negotiations the UK has made it clear—and we will continue to do so—that we will not sign up to any accord that fails to meet our global health and UK health security priorities. Likewise, the UK would not sign up to an accord that cedes sovereignty to the WHO over domestic decisions on national measures concerning public health, such as immunisation programmes or lockdowns. Any necessary or appropriate changes to domestic legislation or new domestic legislation would be made through the usual parliamentary process. However, because we do not yet know the exact details of the accord, I cannot be any clearer on how exactly Parliament will get to scrutinise the accord, if we get to an agreement.

Sammy Wilson Portrait Sammy Wilson (East Antrim) (DUP)
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The treaty is not just about data sharing and information gathering; it is also about setting up a system of pandemic management under the leadership of the WHO. It has a poor history of management and decision making. Can the Minister give us an assurance that he will not accept any surrendering of UK powers to an international body that can interfere with decisions that will affect the lives of ordinary people here in the United Kingdom? I listened to his response about devolved Governments, and it seems there has not been much discussion with the devolved Administrations. He will not even guarantee a vote in this House on such an important issue. Can he guarantee that we will not undemocratically hand over democratic control to a non-democratic body?

Andrew Stephenson Portrait Andrew Stephenson
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We will not be handing over any kind of control over what we do domestically; national sovereignty is a clear red line, as I made clear in my opening remarks. It is important to recognise that there are challenges with these things, which are being negotiated within the existing international health regulations. The director general of the World Health Organisation already has the ability to declare a public health event of international concern and issue temporary recommendations that provide non-binding guidance to member states. We believe that we need to stay in a situation where the World Health Organisation has an important convening role internationally to discuss issues, but the domestic response to any future pandemic is for domestic Governments to make. Anything that impinges on UK national sovereignty will therefore be unacceptable to us.

Suella Braverman Portrait Suella Braverman (Fareham) (Con)
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I want to put on the record my thanks to the Minister for his hard work and for taking the time last week to meet me and colleagues to discuss the terms of this treaty. He will know that I am profoundly sceptical about the World Health Organisation’s ability to manage a global pandemic, in the light of serious errors of judgment, poor leadership and, I am afraid, well-chronicled conflicts of interest that have subsequently emerged. Of course we can help poorer countries and collaborate with other nations, but under no circumstances must we surrender our sovereignty or sign up to a lockdown charter. I hear what he says about how the text currently on the table does not bind our hands, but he will know, as many of us do, that in the heat of an emergency during a real pandemic, irresistible pressure will mount on a Government to make decisions that may well turn out to be wholly harmful, as we found, and the wrong decisions for the good of the country. Will he agree that, fundamentally, to coin a phrase, no pandemic treaty is better than a bad pandemic treaty?