I agree with my hon. Friend, and Sir Tom is right too. Traders in Scotland have accused the SNP Government of undermining the rejuvenation of high streets across Scotland with their tax hike of 6.7% through business rates. The SNP must stop attacking employers and high-street traders who are already under tremendous financial strain because of the SNP’s mismanagement of Scotland’s economy.
Despite devolution rendering it pointless, the budget of the Scotland Office, along with that of the Attorney General, has jumped by over £3 million since 2018-19—it leapt up by £1.2 million just last year—while the Scottish Government’s budget allocation suffered a real-terms cut. Around 80 people currently work for the Scotland Office in Queen Elizabeth House alone, along with around 30 civil servants from the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities. What on earth are they doing, and how does the Minister justify that to the Scottish taxpayer?
The team at the Scotland Office, both in Dover House and in Queen Elizabeth House in Edinburgh, are doing a tremendous job supporting Scotland across the United Kingdom and around the world. I would be very happy to welcome the hon. Lady to meet some of them with me, so that she can understand more clearly the important work that they do on our behalf across the UK.
I can reassure my right hon. Friend that I and both the Defence Secretary and Foreign Secretary are having those conversations. I spoke to President Sisi recently and, indeed, all other leaders in the middle east towards the end of last year. As we speak, the Foreign Secretary is engaged, together with his colleagues, in extensive dialogue to make sure our allies and partners understand what we did and why, and that we remain committed to seeing a peaceful future for everyone living in the middle east.
Inspectors of the International Atomic Energy Agency have been denied access to a Russian-occupied Ukrainian nuclear power station for two weeks and have not yet received 2024 maintenance plans for the facility. Can the Prime Minister tell me what assessment the UK Government have made of that situation?
I think that just highlights Russia’s continuing malignant activity, which serves to cause everyone alarm, particularly when it comes to the security of nuclear power. The IAEA must have free access to all the sites it needs to, and it has been a long-standing concern that it has not been able to have that. We continue to call out Russian behaviour at the UN and elsewhere, and that is what we will do to make sure that it is accountable.
Q8. While the final report of the infected blood inquiry has been postponed until March, Sir Brian Langstaff, the independent chair, has already published his recommendations on compensation for victims of that scandal. Will the Prime Minister explain why his Government insist on postponing their response until after publication of the final report, kicking it into the long grass and delaying justice, once again, for my constituents Justine, Rachel and Paul, whose fathers died as a result of that scandal, as well as thousands of others across these isles?
As I have said previously from the Dispatch Box, what happened was an appalling tragedy, and my heart goes out to all of those affected and their families. I have given extensive evidence to the inquiry, so my position on this matter is on the record. What I would say is that extensive work has been going on in Government for a long time, co-ordinated by the Minister for the Cabinet Office, as well as interim payments of £100,000 being made to those who were affected.
I had better start by declaring an interest, in that, although I am not a chair of an APPG, I am a member of a number of APPGs, several of which I am an officer for. The APPGs I am part of include the APPG on Malawi, the APPG on immigration detention, the APPG on HIV and AIDS, the APPG on Gypsies, Travellers and Roma, and the APPG on electoral campaigning transparency, to name just a few.
I agree that APPGs play a significant role in the functioning of this place. As rightly stated by the Standards Committee, they keep Members informed on a wide range of topics and provide a platform for diverse groups that might otherwise be excluded from the political system to present their arguments to engaged parliamentarians. I can think, for example, of the excellent work by the all-party parliamentary group on haemophilia and contaminated blood, which I joined after being contacted by constituents whose family lives had been devastated by that scandal.
It is important for our democracy that Members engage with broader society and address topics of wider public interest, but it is clear that the current APPG system lacks sufficient transparency and oversight. The existing rules are not stringent enough. Currently, all APPGs must be registered and provide funding details, but many do not produce or make readily available a detailed breakdown. Numerous APPGs have routinely broken transparency rules by failing to disclose their financial records or to provide them upon request. That lack of accountability can allow for undisclosed private donors to exert influence.
The SNP supports strengthening the rules at this point to prevent any undue influence from state actors, commercial entities or dark money through APPGs, and we back the proposals to do so at the earliest opportunity. It is vital that we know who funds APPGs to understand where the influence lies and who is driving the agenda.
Many APPGs operate perfectly legitimately and with clear transparency and oversight, but those with more opaque funding streams could mean Members being unduly influenced by those in the private sector or even hostile state actors, risking corruption and endangering democracy through inadequate scrutiny. Analysis by The Guardian and openDemocracy in 2022—I pay tribute to their work on this—found that more than half of the £25 million-worth of donations to APPGs since 2018 has come from the private sector. Over the past four years, for example, arms manufacturers have contributed £256,000 in cash, services or a combination to APPGs, and significant donations have been made by large companies such as Facebook, Huawei and British American Tobacco. Private health and social care companies have donated more than £1 million to several APPGs where health-related issues were discussed, with the funding increasing every year.
In considering the risks that may be associated with groups accepting financial benefits, the Committee’s suggestion of a two-tier approach appears reasonable. I also welcome the report’s recommendation that all APPGs should publish an annual income and expenditure statement. Although they are currently obligated to provide accounts on request, half of the 190 APPGs approached by openDemocracy failed to do so. The Committee’s proposed 28-day time limit for providing accounts therefore seems sensible. The additional rules applying to groups that receive outside financial benefits totalling over £1,500, which include producing the annual report at the end of the year and AGMs being chaired externally—I look forward to the Chair of the Standards Committee providing more details on the make-up of those chairs—also seem justified. The report also indicates that there are simply too many APPGs, which makes it challenging to ensure adherence to House rules.
May I suggest that membership lists should be updated far more regularly when MPs join and leave APPGs? I have experienced the frustration of trying to remove myself from an APPG and finding, months later, that my name still appeared on that list. I wonder whether thought could be given at some stage—perhaps the Standards Committee is looking at this—to a more centralised administration system, so that MPs and the public can access more accurate and up-to-date information about membership details and, indeed, how active a group is.
Parliament will always be a target for hostile foreign states, but better regulation and transparency around APPGs can ensure that they continue to make a positive contribution. Of course, country APPGs help to promote understanding, co-operation and cultural and economic partnerships between the UK and other nations, but evidence suggesting that some foreign Governments may be exploiting APPGs to promote their views should raise alarm bells across this place. That also emphasises the need for greater regulation. The Committee’s proposal that groups should not be permitted to have a secretariat either provided or funded by a foreign Government seems appropriate. It is certainly right that group officers should apply due diligence as to whether a foreign Government may be the eventual funder of a secretariat or other benefit. I note the Government’s support in particular for that recommendation. I wish that they were a little more willing to require greater due diligence on political funding from unincorporated associations but that, no doubt, is for another day’s battle.
The Prime Minister spoke about his Government’s mission to ensure integrity, professionalism and accountability at every level. APPGs perform a key role, but action in this area is clearly necessary to live up to those values and make this place more transparent. I thank the Committee—and the Clerks who support it—for all its work. I know that it has been some effort and the House very much appreciates that. I support the motion.
The thing is that I have a problem, too. We have been working on this and consulting the House repeatedly for three years now. We have been repeatedly told by Members that we have to come up with a new set of rules. The new rules that we have produced—all the individual elements that have been referred to so far—were available months ago. The Government responded to them, and we published the Government’s response to them several weeks ago, and we have the debate today. I am not convinced that, if we were to delay the decision today, we would come up with better rules, or a new version of the debate, in September.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way. I wish to start by correcting the record. Although I am not a stand-alone chair of an all-party group, I am a co-chair. I was reminded by the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) and the Father of the House of the BBC all-party parliamentary group. On the requirement for the four officers to be held jointly and severally liable for compliance with the additional rules for the groups, who will they turn to for advice and guidance should they require it?
At present, they would turn to either Philippa Wainwright, who is the registrar of the APPGs, or to James Davis. If they really wanted to, they could also turn to either Eve Samson, who is the Clerk of the Journals, or Daniel Greenberg, the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards. All of these arrangements have been agreed between the Clerks and the two registrars. Everyone stands ready to provide people with advice. I know Mr Speaker stands ready to provide chairs for AGMs or extraordinary general meetings when we get back in September. One thing that we have exceptionally allowed is that people will be able to do extraordinary general meetings virtually—online—which will make it much easier for people to comply.
I will try to stop now. I know that there is some frustration in the House and I fully understand that. As I have said repeatedly to the Leader of the House, the shadow Leader of the House and Mr Speaker, I am not sure that there is an easy consensus to be found on proceeding.
Thank you, Mr Speaker, and I associate myself with the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition’s strong support for Ukraine. Slava Ukraini.
This Government’s defence Command Paper will be published next week, I believe. Given events in Ukraine, what lessons has the Ministry of Defence learned about modern urban warfare, and how will that feed into operational strategy? I recall the former Prime Minister saying at the Liaison Committee just before the war:
“We have to recognise that the old concepts of fighting big tank battles on the European landmass…are over”.
He then proceeded to cut our tank numbers—how wrong he was. Is the Department considering future opportunities for defence co-operation with the EU that are complementary to NATO?
There is less than a week left until the expiration of the deal allowing Ukrainian grain exports via the Black sea—this is very important, so I hope the Prime Minister is listening. Can he speak to the discussions that were had at the summit to ensure the continuation of the current deal, which is vital for Ukraine’s remaining economy and for global food security? What steps has the Department taken, and what steps will it take, to improve the UK’s military partnership with Finland in the period since it joined NATO, and are there plans to do the same with Sweden?
Given recent reports of Russian spying on and sabotage of energy infrastructure in the North sea, and the fact that the UK’s undersea cables are worth £7.4 trillion a day to the economy, what will the UK be contributing to NATO’s establishment of its critical undersea infrastructure co-ordination cell, and will it be based in Scotland? My hon. Friend and leader the Member for Aberdeen South (Stephen Flynn) raised with the Prime Minister previously that some nations are continuing to use products from Russian oil. Did he pursue that further? Is it his impression there is genuine unity on proposed reconstruction efforts in Ukraine?
Finally, how does the Prime Minister hope to contribute to diplomatic efforts to bring on board parts of the international community, increasingly including the Republican right in America, to support what NATO is doing to ensure Ukraine’s survival?
On NATO co-operation with the EU, I agree wholeheartedly with the Secretary-General, who set three very clear conditions for supporting EU defence initiatives: first, that they are coherent with NATO requirements; secondly, that they develop capabilities that are available to NATO; and, lastly, that they are open to the fullest participation of non-EU NATO allies. That has been the established position, and it is one we fully support.
The hon. Member asked about the Black sea grain initiative, which is due to expire on 17 July. I commend President Erdoğan’s leadership on this issue, in particular over the last year. I spoke to him at the conference last week on this, and he is working to engage with the Russians on extending the grain deal, as are other allies. It is important that the grain deal is extended because, as we know, around two thirds of the grain leaving Ukraine is destined for low and middle-income countries, and we do not want Russia to inflict any more suffering than it already is.
The hon. Member also asked about undersea cables and undersea infrastructure. I agree with her that that requires attention and focus, which is why the Ministry of Defence and the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology are working collaboratively, together with industry, to make sure that everyone is doing their part to protect what is critical infrastructure. The MOD is developing particular capabilities to monitor and protect that infrastructure, and it is something that we have put on the agenda through the joint expeditionary force, which obviously comprises the northern European nations. We are hosting, in fact, as I think she alluded to, a potential headquarters for more focus on that area, and I look forward to discussing that with my JEF allies towards the end of this year.
Lastly, on galvanising international support for Ukraine, that is something I do when I am at these international summits. Particularly when I was last in the US, one of the things I did was spend half a day in Congress talking to congressional leaders from both parties to illustrate to them the importance of providing support to Ukraine not just now, but for years into the future. I am delighted that the US has played a leading role in the multilateral security guarantees, and it is important that it does so. However, as we are seeing, we are broadening the coalition of support for Ukraine, and being at these international summits and talking to world leaders shows that the UK is leading by example and leading from the front. I was very pleased that France has just announced that it will also now be providing long-range weapons to Ukraine, following the UK’s lead, and making an enormous difference to Ukraine’s counter-offensive.
T4. The Chancellor’s spring Budget announced measures to get the over-50s to return or stay in work, but did not announce any support for those experiencing menopause. The UK Government have rejected most of the recommendations in the report on menopause by the Women and Equalities Committee, whose Chair has said that it is a missed opportunity to protect vast numbers of women from leaving the workforce. Why have the UK Government not followed the Committee’s recommendations?
We have appointed a Government champion on menopause matters, Helen Tomlinson, who is doing sterling work. Our 50PLUS coaches in jobcentres are supporting women to progress, and I urge all employers to focus on supporting women, adjusting the workplace and listening to their needs so that 50-plus can be the most important, progressive and positive time of women’s working lives.
I take this opportunity to congratulate Humza Yousaf on becoming Scotland’s new First Minister. I look forward to working with him. I heard him say that he wanted to put the independence drive into “fifth gear”; I would gently remind him that most Scots actually want him to put it into reverse and to work with the United Kingdom to tackle the issues that really matter to them, such as cost of living pressures and growing our economy.
The devolution settlement gives Scotland the best of both worlds. Scotland benefits from the wide influence and economic strength of the UK, while also enjoying considerable devolved powers in vital areas such as health, education and justice to tailor policies to meet the needs of people in Scotland.
In his response to the hon. Member for Blaydon (Liz Twist) on 22 February, the Secretary of State claimed that the Scottish Government had not asked for an exemption from the UK Internal Market Act 2020 for the Scottish deposit return scheme. The Scottish Government have since published the timeline to show that that is incorrect and that the proposal has been under detailed discussion within the resources and waste common framework since last October, with the final detailed case for exclusion presented on 13 February. In the light of that, will he correct the record and apologise for inadvertently misleading Parliament?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Dame Angela. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Dame Diana Johnson) and the hon. Member for Worthing West (Sir Peter Bottomley) on securing the debate and thank them for all their work on this important issue. I pay tribute to everyone campaigning on this too.
As we know, during the 1970s and 1980s, thousands of UK patients contracted HIV, the hepatitis virus, or both from contaminated blood or blood products. I want to raise the case of one of my constituents, who was one of those patients. She has now been recognised officially as a victim of the contaminated blood scandal, but getting there has been, in her words, “a long, upsetting and depressing process”, both in an administrative sense and in terms of her health. For many years, she was denied any recognition or support due to lost medical records. She said there were times when she decided it was best for her to just admit she was beaten and move on. Thankfully, she persisted and is now rightly recognised as a victim. Despite being cured of hepatitis C several years ago, she has been left with a number of other extremely serious health issues. She still suffers today, not only medically but emotionally, due in part to the stigma attached to hepatitis C and blood-borne viruses. There can be no place for stigma in relation to health in a supportive and understanding society.
Over the years, the strain on my constituent and her family, including her children, has been enormous and their lives have been profoundly affected. She told me she often wonders how different her life would have been if she had not required a blood transfusion at birth. I am sure that she, like everyone else affected by this, just wants conclusion and closure. The Government’s written response of 5 September notes Sir Robert Francis KC’s independent study, with options for a workable and fair framework of compensation for those infected and affected by the tragedy. It also notes the recommendations by Sir Robert and Sir Brian Langstaff, chair of the infected blood inquiry, of making interim payments of no less than £100,000 to all those infected and all bereaved partners currently registered on UK infected blood support schemes, as well as those who register between now and the inception of any future scheme.
The Government have confirmed that infected individuals and bereaved partners who are registered with any of the four UK infected blood support schemes received their payments by 28 October. However, as the Hepatitis C Trust has pointed out, those are only interim payments, and this is just the start of the process of setting up the full compensation scheme.
Does the hon. Lady also support the notion of the interim scheme being extended to families and carers, such as my constituent Justine Gordon-Smith, who cared for her father, Randolph? She has experienced considerable personal trauma, and the same must be true for hundreds and hundreds of families throughout the UK. Does she agree that they deserve to have their problems and the issues they have experienced acknowledged by the Government too?
The hon. Lady makes really important points on behalf of her constituent.
Furthermore, the Government have still not responded in full to Sir Robert Francis’s report on the compensation framework. Will the Minister say today when that response will be published? The infected blood inquiry is ongoing and is due to report in mid-2023. It is vital that the Government act as swiftly as possible when the inquiry’s final report is published. That is the very least that victims such as my constituents deserve.
I must set the record straight: borrowing is available for both capital and revenue, and there is an emergency figure, as was available during covid. The hon. Gentleman raises a point about inflation. Rising energy costs and rising food prices, as a result of Putin’s illegal war in Ukraine, have affected continental Europe and the United Kingdom. This is a global issue. The Bank of England is taking steps, and the Chancellor’s statement will take further steps tomorrow, to stabilise the markets. What we are very clear about is that we have put in place support for people through the household support scheme, the energy price cap and the £37 billion that the Chancellor announced earlier this year. As we have always said, we will protect the most vulnerable in society.
Public sector pay increases are a sensible way for a Government to help their citizens with a cost of living crisis, but the UK Government are denying devolved Governments the ability to do that by cutting devolved budgets. Would a better use of public money not be to shut down the Scotland Office propaganda unit and transfer its budget to the Scottish Government to help fund pay rises for tens of thousands of people in Scotland?
The hon. Lady and I have this discussion on many occasions, because this is one of the points that she is keenest to make in the Select Committee on Scottish Affairs. She knows the answer, which is that the Scotland Office’s spending on its communications pales into insignificance in comparison with the Scottish Government’s.
The £11.6 billion is being spent over the period that was outlined at the beginning. It is right that we invest in quality projects that can make a difference, not rush to get money out of the door and waste it. I make no apology for having had to make some difficult decisions as Chancellor to ensure that our borrowing was on a sustainable trajectory. That is the right thing for this country: it is the right way to make sure that we can restrain the rise in interest rates. This country will always continue to play a leading role around the world, and I am proud that we are doing so.
I was pleased to speak to President Zelensky on my first day in office. He and I will remain in regular dialogue; I am sure that we will discuss many ways in which we can support Ukraine, first and foremost in repelling the illegal Russian aggression that it is experiencing.