Photo of Grahame MorrisGrahame Morris Labour, Easington

What recent discussions he has had with Ofcom on the BBC's compliance with its statutory duties on local and regional news and political coverage for the English regions. 

Photo of John WhittingdaleJohn Whittingdale Minister of State

The BBC charter requires the BBC to serve audiences across all the UK nations and regions. How it does so is a matter for the BBC, but I share the concern about the recently announced cuts, and I welcome Ofcom’s intention to examine this.

Photo of Grahame MorrisGrahame Morris Labour, Easington

I thank the Minister for that response, and I assume that he agrees that local and regional news coverage and political coverage are a vital aspect of the BBC’s public sector obligation. My concern—this has been raised by the National Union of Journalists—is that the number of staff who currently work on the award-winning investigative programme “Inside Out” will be put at risk of redundancy if the BBC reduces the number of regional production centres from 11 to six. I am pleased by what the Minister said, but is he asking Ofcom to investigate the BBC’s compliance with the public sector broadcaster obligation?

Photo of John WhittingdaleJohn Whittingdale Minister of State

I completely agree with the hon. Gentleman that local and regional news coverage by the BBC is one of the core public purposes of the BBC. I have spoken to the new director-general, and I am pleased that he remains absolutely committed to that. Whether the recent cuts reduce the ability of the BBC to carry out that obligation is a matter that Ofcom is looking at, and it decided to do that without our having even spoken to it.

Photo of John WhittingdaleJohn Whittingdale Minister of State

First, I congratulate Daisy Cooper on obtaining this urgent question and demonstrating that persistence pays off.

The BBC has for decades played a vital role in this country’s cultural and civic life, and that has never been more true than during the last few months. During an unprecedented global crisis, it has helped to counter disinformation and share factual information about the coronavirus pandemic, while reinforcing important public health messaging. It has been a constant source of entertainment. It has helped to fundraise for charities through “The Big Night In”, which the Government match funded pound for pound, and it has helped countless families across the UK to educate their children from home through services such as BBC Bitesize.

The BBC has also been a source of comfort to many during this pandemic, and none more so, perhaps, than those elderly citizens who have been forced to shield and stay at home and who are sadly most at risk of experiencing loneliness and isolation as they do so. That is why we welcomed the BBC’s initial decision at the beginning of the lockdown to continue to grant the licence fee concession to the over-75s, and it is why we were deeply disappointed when the BBC board announced earlier this month that it would be ending that concession from 1 August. As a result, four out of five of those previously eligible for a free TV licence will now need to pay. That is a decision for the BBC, but the Government regret the approach that it has taken.

In the 2015 funding settlement—a settlement that was widely considered to be a generous one and which the director-general said was a strong deal for the BBC—we agreed with the BBC that responsibility for the over-75s concession would transfer to it in June 2020. The BBC agreed to have both the policy decision and the funding responsibility. That reform was subject to public discussion and debated extensively during the passage of the Digital Economy Act 2017. During those discussions and the passage of that legislation, Parliament agreed that the future of the over-75 concession and how and when it would be implemented was entirely a matter for the BBC.

The Government’s view is that the BBC should be doing more, given the generous settlement that it received. During the 2015 settlement, we gave the BBC a number of things in return for taking on this responsibility. We closed the iPlayer loophole. We committed to increasing the licence fee in line with inflation, and we reduced a number of other BBC spending commitments. To help with financial planning, we agreed to provide phased transitional funding over two years to gradually introduce the cost to the BBC.

It is now essential that the BBC, having taken the decision to end the concession, gets the implementation of the change right and is not heavy-handed in its approach. While lockdown may be easing, older people across the country still face many challenges and still rely on their TV as much as they did a few weeks ago. The BBC can and should therefore do more to support older people, and it should look urgently at how it can use its substantial licence fee income to support older people and deliver for UK audiences of all ages.

As the national broadcaster, the BBC has a duty to represent all of the nation—both its youngest and oldest citizens, no matter where they live—and I am aware that many people have expressed concerns about cuts to regional programming as well as the BBC’s recent announcement of staffing reductions. Let me be clear that both operational and editorial decisions are a matter for the BBC. It is an independent body and the Government rightly have no say over the day-to-day decisions that it makes on programming, staffing or the administration of the licence fee, but as I have said, including during a recent Adjournment debate, the Government believe that the BBC must represent all of Britain. We set clear targets for news and current affairs and the need to represent all parts of the UK and the charter as part of the BBC’s mission and public purposes. It is for the BBC to meet these and Ofcom to hold it to account on doing so. That means engaging and reporting on local issues across our diverse communities, not just reflecting the views of the metropolitan bubbles of London and Manchester.

While the BBC remains operationally and editorially independent from the Government, we will continue to push it on these issues so that we can ensure that the BBC remains closer to the communities that it serves.

Photo of John WhittingdaleJohn Whittingdale Minister of State  7:28 pm, 22nd June 2020 

I congratulate my hon. Friend Neil Parish on holding this important debate. It is certainly one of the best attended Adjournment debates that I have been present at, as well as one of the longest, but perhaps more important is the fact that there have been a large number of excellent contributions and a large degree of agreement across the House on the importance of the BBC’s regional politics and current affairs coverage. I welcome Christian Matheson, who has been in his place throughout the entire debate. I am delighted to see him in his new role as Opposition spokesman.

I will also take this opportunity to congratulate Tim Davie on his appointment as director-general, and to pay tribute to Lord Hall, who has served as director-general for seven years. He took over the position in challenging times, and I think it fair to say that they have remained fairly challenging throughout his time, but he has done an excellent job in bringing leadership to the BBC. I certainly enjoyed working with him during our debates on the renewal of the BBC’s charter.

As my hon. Friend Andy Carter said, the BBC has also played an extremely important role in the course of the past few months during this crisis. It has provided important factual information and reinforced the Government’s messaging. It has also provided great entertainment, and it has done a great job in providing programming for children unable to attend classes in schools through BBC Bitesize.

I want to start by saying that I am a strong supporter of the BBC and I also believe very strongly in the independence of the BBC. It is not for the Government to instruct the BBC how to fulfil the objectives that it is set in the charter. The Government have three roles when it comes to the BBC. It is to draw up the charter, which sets out the purposes of the BBC. However, the way in which the BBC meets those is a matter for the BBC under the scrutiny of Ofcom. The Government also have a role in the appointment of the chair of the BBC and some Members of the board and, thirdly, in the setting of the licence fee.

Photo of Andy CarterAndy Carter Conservative, Warrington South

Does my right hon. Friend agree that this is a test for Ofcom? This is the first time that Ofcom, in its role as a regulator of the BBC, will be able to look at what the BBC is doing in terms of its regional content. It will allow the Ofcom members to take a decision and a view on how the BBC will set those out going forward. This is quite an important time for the regulator to step forward and look at what the BBC is doing.

Photo of John WhittingdaleJohn Whittingdale Minister of State

My hon. Friend is right in that it has only been since the new charter was put in place that Ofcom has had the role as an external scrutineer of the BBC, and it is the role of Ofcom to ensure that the BBC is meeting its purposes. He quoted in his own remarks one of those purposes from the charter and I want to come back to that, because he is absolutely right that providing regional coverage is one of the purposes that the BBC is required to fulfil. Having made it clear in my remarks that I do not intend to instruct the BBC, because I think it is completely wrong for the Government to attempt to do so, nevertheless, I entirely understand the concern that has been expressed by hon. Gentlemen from across the House about the BBC’s decision to cancel the autumn series of “Inside Out”.

Photo of Neil ParishNeil ParishChair, Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, Chair, Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee

What tonight’s debate has shown is that, across the House, there is united support for keeping regional programmes and for making them even more local than they are now. We need to get that message across loud and clear. I understand that it not the Government’s perspective to dictate to the BBC, but it is also right that we send from this House a clear message that the BBC should maintain regional programmes and enhance them.

Photo of John WhittingdaleJohn Whittingdale Minister of State

I agree with my hon. Friend, which is why I am grateful to him for having applied for and obtained this debate, because I have absolutely no doubt that the BBC will be watching it and that it will take account of the strength of feeling that has been expressed from all parts of this House. I am talking not just about the current affairs programmes, but also about the “Sunday Politics” show. As Liz Twist pointed out, it was only last week that more than 100 of the industry’s most well-known figures, including Sir Lenny Henry, Stephen Fry, Fern Britton and Ken Loach, signed a public letter to the BBC to express their concerns over the future of these programmes and the impact that their withdrawal would have on the communities that they serve. These are programmes that have brought us first-class investigative journalism, and they are at the very core of public service broadcasting. One of the signatories of the letter was Samira Ahmed, who many of us will know having been subjected to questioning by her on the “Today” programme. She wrote:

“I was proud to be part of an Inside Out investigation for BBC Leeds that dared to tackle difficult issues around race and exploitation in the Rotherham Grooming Scandal. Now more than ever we need honest, fearless journalism that is rooted in the long-term expertise and professionalism of BBC journalists who know their local communities.”

I agree with the  hon. Member for Warwick and Leamington (Matt Western) that the BBC is one of the most recognised and trusted brands across the world and that it produces some of the best TV and radio across the globe. As the Prime Minister put it, it is an institution to be cherished. Whether it is the recent drama on the Salisbury poisonings or the documentary following the work of the north-east ambulance service, the BBC lies at the heart of our public service broadcasting system, producing world-class content that serves to stimulate our interest, broaden our understanding, and help us to engage with the world around us.

That understanding of the world, and the BBC’s role as our national broadcaster, has never been more important. As we emerge from the crisis caused by coronavirus, we find ourselves at a time of increasing mistrust and facing an almost daily battle against misinformation. In that world, where “fake news” has had to be added to the dictionary, it is vital that the BBC upholds the values and standards we have all come to expect. The public should be able to turn to the BBC for transparent, impartial, reliable news and current affairs.

That applies just as much, if not perhaps even more strongly, in regional and local coverage, which is the focus of this debate. In the past few months, UKaudiences have been turning back to television news. In the last week of March, 79% of UK adults watched the BBC network and regional news on television—up 20% on the previous month. Since the outbreak of coronavirus, the 6.30 pm regional news programme on the BBC has often been the most watched programme on television on any given day.

BBC local radio has also played a very important role. For instance, the BBC local radio “Make a Difference” campaign, which allowed a number of people to call to ask for help, support or advice and reassurance, received over 1 million calls.

Photo of Toby PerkinsToby Perkins Shadow Minister (Education)

Given the statistics that the right hon. Gentleman has outlined about the success of this output, what does it say about the BBC’s priorities that it would even consider getting rid of these incredibly popular local programmes that are of such importance to people, at a time when it continues to make the other decisions that it does about the kind of output it has?

Photo of John WhittingdaleJohn Whittingdale Minister of State

I fully understand why the hon. Gentleman regards that as a mistake by the BBC, and it is one that I personally would agree with him about. I will go on to set out why I think it is right that we ask the BBC to think again.

As my hon. Friend the hon. Member for Warrington South said, the royal charter sets out the public purposes of the BBC. One of these is:

“To reflect, represent and serve the diverse communities of all of the United Kingdom’s nations and regions”.

It goes on to say that the BBC

“should offer a range and depth of analysis…so that all audiences can engage fully with major local, regional, national, United Kingdom and global issues”.

Regional news and current affairs programmes are at the very heart of this particular public purpose. First, they fulfil a vital role in providing local content, which helps to sustain local democracy. A number of Members have made the point that that is becoming particularly important as we look at devolving more power to regions and local communities. It is essential that that takes place and that, at the same time, people who are holding that power are held properly to account. We all know that many of the issues affecting Plymouth will be completely different from those that impact on Hull, Devon or Coventry. It is important that all those different issues are aired properly and that politics does not seem to be only about Westminster—or, even, the London bubble.

People also want to know that they are heard, especially those from ethnic minority backgrounds and in diverse communities across the UK. They need to know that the issues that matter to them matter to us all, and they need the opportunity to engage in balanced debates and participate in the conversations that shape their daily lives. It is only through broadcasting those kinds of stories and conversations through regional TV or local radio that we can build the true picture of British life.

The second area of vital importance for local news and current affairs programmes, which has been referred to by several hon. Members, is the extremely important role they play in forming the next generation of skilled journalists. Without that training ground, some of the best known names in broadcasting today would not have had a start.

I will say a few words about each of the different areas of regional programming that the debate has covered. First, on the regional political coverage, the weekly regional political show plays a vital role in highlighting issues that may be of huge local importance but will probably never make it on to the national news. As my hon. Friend Bob Stewart, who is no longer in his place, pointed out, those shows are often the only opportunity that Members of Parliament have to go on television to talk about the issues that affect them and their constituents. In my region, the “Politics East” programme, with which my hon. Friend Tom Hunt and Rachel Hopkins will be familiar—as, of course, will you, Madam Deputy Speaker—does an extremely good job in covering political developments in the region, as well as the debates that we have here on issues that are relevant to the region. If a Member from a particular region obtains an Adjournment debate on an issue that is of extreme importance to his or her constituents, we can look to the BBC’s regional political show to at least give it some coverage.

The idea that a single politics England show could somehow substitute is wholly unrealistic, as Mr Perkins pointed out. The population of the east of England—from which you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and I come—is over 6 million. That is more than the population of Scotland, yet Scotland is served by its own channel, BBC Scotland, which was launched in February 2019, and includes a huge amount of coverage of Scottish issues. That is not in any way wrong—it is as much a part of the BBC’s public purpose to provide that programming as it is for any other part—but it does seem to illustrate why it is mistaken for the BBC to provide that amount of coverage of the Scottish nation while diminishing, and almost removing, the equivalent coverage that takes place of the 11 regions of England.

I turn to the current affairs programme that the BBC provides, “Inside Out”. As has been pointed out by a several hon. Members, “Inside Out” has carried out a number of in-depth investigations of huge importance, many of which went on to become national stories, but probably would not have done so had it not been for the initial investigative journalism done by “Inside Out”. The example of the working practices of Sports Direct has already been mentioned; Samira Ahmed drew attention to the Rotherham child grooming case; and there was a recent programme about the impact of smart motorways. All are hugely important stories that, one has to suspect, would not have ever been revealed had it not been for the work of the journalists on “Inside Out”.

At a time when powers are being devolved to a more local level, it is all the more important that the scrutiny that a programme such as “Inside Out” provides is carried out. That is particularly reinforced given what is happening to other local media, as several hon. Members have mentioned. It is the case that both local newspapers and local radio are under tremendous threat. Sadly, we have seen a number of local newspapers shedding journalists or, in some cases, even going out of business, and that has made the BBC’s task of scrutinising and holding local institutions to account all the more important.

Local news production shows the BBC’s unique value compared with strong national and international competitors. The choice available to viewers is growing, with new entrants such as Netflix, Amazon, Apple and Disney. That makes it all the more important that the BBC focuses on the role of providing public service broadcasting, which will not be provided by those commercially oriented, market-driven companies. My right hon. Friend Mr Harper questioned the future of the licence fee and rightly said that one of the principal justifications for the licence fee is that it funds a broadcaster which provides programming that otherwise would not exist. That has always been at the heart of the purpose of the public service broadcasting landscape, and particularly the BBC.

The BBC is uniquely privileged in that it receives public funding. It has been protected against the hurricane that has hit the rest of commercial media as a result of the loss of advertising during the covid crisis. The BBC has a protected income, and in that climate, it is all the more important that it continues to provide public service broadcasting. My view, and the general tone of this whole debate, is that regional political and current affairs coverage is at the heart of public service broadcasting.

As I say, it is not for me to tell the BBC how it should deliver the public purposes or use the money given to it through the licence fee, but I believe that regional news and current affairs are of great importance, because they are vital for our democracy, they help to train future journalists and they help the BBC and other public service broadcasters to remain relevant in this changing media landscape. I am confident that the BBC will have been watching this debate, and I hope that it will take account of the feelings and views expressed by all Members and decide to continue—indeed, strengthen—its regional political and current affairs coverage.

Photo of Mohammad YasinMohammad Yasin Labour, Bedford

What support the Government are providing to local and regional news organisations during the covid-19 outbreak. 

Photo of John WhittingdaleJohn Whittingdale Minister of State

The Government recognise the vital role that local and regional newspapers play in the provision of reliable, high-quality information during this time. We have already put in place an unprecedented financial package to provide support to all businesses and have taken a number of steps to provide specific support to news publishers. We are continuing to work closely with publishers to fully understand the specific challenges that they are facing with the supply chain and the fall in advertising revenues and options for addressing these.

Photo of Mohammad YasinMohammad Yasin Labour, Bedford

The Government have agreed an advertising deal with the News Media Association, which has been presented to the wealthiest publishers, but have so far overlooked independents. Does the Secretary of State agree that independent publishers such as the Bedford Independent are providing a vital service to communities across the UK, and will he meet with the independent sector representative body, the ICNN, to agree an advertising deal for the local independent press?

Photo of John WhittingdaleJohn Whittingdale Minister of State

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the independent community news sector is very important and plays an essential role in continuing to provide public information alongside the NMA members in the regional and local press. The agreement that we have reached for advertising will cover 600 national, regional and local titles, which reach something like 49 million people, but I am in touch with the ICNN and we are looking to see what other measures could be put in place to support it and to see whether it could benefit from the Government’s own advertising package.

Photo of Marcus FyshMarcus Fysh Conservative, Yeovil

In Somerset, we are fortunate to have some excellent community radio stations, but, across the country, such stations are in need of financial support at this time. What more can the Government do to make sure that community radio stations are not forced to close because of coronavirus?

Photo of John WhittingdaleJohn Whittingdale Minister of State

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. I very much agree with him that community radio play an essential part in the media landscape, and I am very conscious of the pressures that many community radio stations are currently under. We are looking at ways in which we can support them, perhaps through the use of a community radio fund. That is something that I hope we can say more about very shortly. I am determined to give whatever help is possible to support community radio as well as commercial radio.

 

 

Photo of Stuart AndersonStuart Anderson Conservative, Wolverhampton South West

What discussions he has had with the Home Secretary on tackling online fraud during the covid-19 outbreak.

Photo of John WhittingdaleJohn Whittingdale Minister of State

The Government are concerned about online fraud and are very much aware that criminals and fraudsters are attempting to exploit the concern around covid-19. My officials have been working closely with the Home Office, as well as with the National Cyber Security Centre and the National Crime Agency, throughout the covid-19 outbreak. We have published official Government advice to help the public to stay safe and secure online, and we launched the new Cyber Aware campaign in April, offering the public online security advice.

Photo of Stuart AndersonStuart Anderson Conservative, Wolverhampton South West

Pre-covid, local councillors in Tettenhall Regis in Wolverhampton launched online and social media training for over-65s. What is my right hon. Friend going to do to upskill those with little or no online skills?

Photo of John WhittingdaleJohn Whittingdale Minister of State

I am happy to join my hon. Friend in congratulating the councillors in Tettenhall Regis on that initiative. It is absolutely right that during this crisis, more and more people have been carrying out tasks such as shopping, banking and keeping in touch online. We are very much aware that it has now become all the more essential to tackle the digital divide that already existed. The Government are funding the future digital inclusion programme to give people the skills that they need to participate in this increasingly digital world. Since 2014, the programme has supported more than 1.4 million adult learners to develop their basic skills. We have also delivered a £400,000 digital inclusion innovation fund, which is designed to tackle digital exclusion among older and disabled people.

Photo of Meg HillierMeg Hillier Chair, Public Accounts Committee, Chair, Public Accounts Committee

When the Public Accounts Committee last looked at online fraud, we raised serious concerns about what happens when fraud is reported and the inaction on most of the cases that are reported. The Minister has given us some warm words, but in the middle of a pandemic, with a lot of communication from Government to the people, how will he make sure that the key players, such as the banks, are sharing real-time information with each other and making sure that we catch the scammers before they raid our constituents’ bank accounts?

Photo of John WhittingdaleJohn Whittingdale Minister of State

The hon. Lady is absolutely right that online fraud is an increasing problem and there needs to be much more co-ordinated action to tackle it. However, a great deal has been done. A persistent stream of coronavirus frauds has been reported to Action Fraud—2,057 have been reported in the past few months, making up around 3% of all fraud reports. The National Cyber Security Centrehas launched a major campaign called Cyber Aware to provide practical advice to the public, and has also launched a groundbreaking suspicious-email-reporting service, which allows members of the public to forward any suspicious emails to Cyber Aware to be analysed, and if they are found to be fraudulent, the harmful sites will be taken down

Photo of John WhittingdaleJohn Whittingdale Conservative, Maldon

What steps he is taking to support political development in Ukraine; and if he will make a statement. 

Photo of Christopher PincherChristopher Pincher Minister of State

The United Kingdom is a strong supporter of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, and President Zelensky’s commitment to reform and fighting corruption. We have provided financial support to the tune of £38 million this year, across multiple areas, and we lead robust sanctions on Russia for its attacks on Ukraine’s sovereignty. We look forward to welcoming President Zelensky to the UK as soon as a date can be found.

Photo of John WhittingdaleJohn Whittingdale Conservative, Maldon

Will my right hon. Friend welcome President Zelensky’s decision to extend the visa-free regime for UK citizens for another year? Does my right hon. Friend share his ambition for Britain and Ukraine to conclude a new framework agreement as soon as possible, including possible liberalisation of the visa regime for Ukrainian citizens?

Photo of Christopher PincherChristopher Pincher Minister of State

My right hon. Friend is a doughty champion of Ukraine’s determination to look westward and be a modern European country. We will certainly welcome, as soon as we can, the ratification of such an arrangement, and I congratulate the President on his announcement on visa-free access for UK nationals. That will certainly help trade with the UK, which we want to ensure is successful, but we also need to protect our own borders. The Home Secretary is responsible for border control, but we keep our border policy under constant review, and visas to and from Ukraine is something I discuss with her regularly.

Photo of John WhittingdaleJohn Whittingdale Conservative, Maldon

Does my hon. Friend not accept the view of the surveillance camera commissioner, who has said that the guidelines are insufficient at present and there is no transparency? Do the Government plan to update the guidelines to take account of developments in technology?

Photo of Kit MalthouseKit Malthouse The Minister of State, Home Department

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his question, which points to the heart of the matter. As he knows, there is a facial recognition and biometrics board, which is soon to have a new chair. As part of that renewal of leadership, we will review the board’s terms of reference and its mission, especially in the light of technological developments. What emanates from that, and whether it is a change in the terms of the code, we will have to wait and see, but as I said at the start, I am very aware of the duty we have in this House to strike the right balance between security and liberty.

Photo of John WhittingdaleJohn Whittingdale Conservative, Maldon

What recent estimate he has made of the proportion of court proceedings covered by court reporters. 

Photo of Chris PhilpChris Philp The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice

We at the Ministry of Justice do not track or hold data on the number of reporters who report on court proceedings, but I am sad to say that anecdotal evidence suggests that in line with the general decline in local reporting, the reporting of local courts will have declined as well. When my right hon. Friend was Secretary of State at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, he was instrumental in making sure, at the BBC’s charter renewal, that the local democracy reporting scheme provided £8 million a year to get local reporters into the courts. I congratulate him on that step and hope that there is more we can do along those lines in future.

Photo of John WhittingdaleJohn Whittingdale Conservative, Maldon

I thank my hon. Friend, and I thank the Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, my hon. and learned Friend Lucy Frazer, for the work that she has done in this area. Does he share my view of how important it is that court proceedings are properly reported by trained journalists so that justice can be seen to be done? Will he continue to work with the Society of Editors, the News Media Association and others to see what further measures can be taken to achieve that?

Photo of Chris PhilpChris Philp The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice

I strongly concur and can certainly give my right hon. Friend the commitment he asks for. Certainly from the perspective of Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunal Service, staff are given training to facilitate access by journalists, and the Ministry is currently giving very active and relatively imminent consideration to ways of making sure that court decisions and proceedings are brought more directly to the public.

Photo of John WhittingdaleJohn Whittingdale Conservative, Maldon  5:03 pm, 13th January 2020 

I am most grateful to be called so early in this debate, Madam Deputy Speaker, and to follow Emily Thornberry, who raised some important issues. I wish her success in the campaign she is about to embark on, and I hope her candidacy lasts a little longer than that of Barry Gardiner, who has just left the Chamber.

It is good to see so many hon. Members in the Chamber for this debate, particularly new Members, a number of whom intend to make their maiden speech during the course of it. They bring expertise and knowledge that I have no doubt will be immensely valuable in our deliberations, and I look forward to hearing their contributions.

As my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary knows, I was an enthusiastic supporter of the Vote Leave campaign. I welcome the emphasis placed by the Queen’s Speech on delivering Brexit, which people voted for more than three years ago. I support Brexit not just because I believe in the economic opportunities, but because I believe there is a real role that this country can play in international affairs. We are not little Englanders; we want to look beyond the shores of the European Union. Indeed, many of our greatest opportunities now lie in countries beyond Europe. It is likely within the next 10 years that the five biggest economies in the world will be America, China, Brazil, India and Indonesia. None of them have trade agreements with the European Union, but I hope we will have trade agreements with them as soon as possible within the next decade.

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Photo of John WhittingdaleJohn Whittingdale Conservative, Maldon

My right hon. Friend raises an important point. There is an essential democratic process that needs to be conducted before a general election, which is the selection of candidates. I suspect quite a large number of constituencies have not yet selected candidates. Members of local associations need these extra few days to have time to go through that process, and to avoid having candidates imposed from the centre.

Photo of Desmond SwayneDesmond Swayne Conservative, New Forest West

We have had two Divisions in recent weeks on whether there should be an election, so I would have thought that those associations ought properly to have attended to the question of getting on with selecting candidates. I am sorry to hear that they have not, but there is not much that we can do about that. Certainly, the additional days would be of some assistance.

Photo of John WhittingdaleJohn Whittingdale Conservative, Maldon

Will my right hon. Friend work closely with Ministers from the other countries that lost citizens on Ukraine International Airlines flight 752? Will he perhaps attend the joint investigation group meeting in London on Thursday, which will be attended by the Ukrainian Foreign Minister? Does he agree it is essential that Iran not only allows full investigation of what happened but organises the repatriation of the bodies and pays full compensation to the families of those who were lost?

Photo of Dominic RaabDominic Raab The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. Of course we will be fully plugged in and, indeed, a driving force in the international effort to make sure we get the right answers in terms of the investigation. This point is even stronger now that the Government of Iran have accepted at least a measure of responsibility, but it is crucial that the investigation is fully independent and has an international component so that people can feel confidence in the outcome and the answers. We will work with all our international partners on all the issues he raises, and I certainly want to see justice for the incredible number of people who are still mourning and grieving this terrible loss.

Photo of John WhittingdaleJohn Whittingdale Conservative, Maldon

May I congratulate my right hon. Friend on persuading the mobile operators to do what they resisted and told us was completely impossible for them to do? When she comes to address the final 5%—the notspots—will she ensure that lessons are learned from the previous attempt, which was the mobile infrastructure project? Unfortunately, that was able to deliver only a fraction of the number of miles promised, given the numerous obstacles that it ran into.

Photo of Nicky MorganNicky Morgan The Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport

I thank my right hon. Friend. As a former Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, he will understand the significant challenges that there have been to bring everyone together to work on this. He is right to point out that there will always be a final 5%, but there are other proposals such as the roll-out of broadband, all of which have to be taken in the round. We are talking about 4G today, but there are also the 5G proposals and broadband. We know that this is a challenge and that it is in the most rural areas that connectivity is most important.

John Whittingdale Conservative, Maldon

I strongly welcome my right hon. Friend’s continued championing of the cause of media freedom, on which Iran’s record is one of the worst in the world. In particular, will he continue to press Iran to cease the persecution of families of members of the BBC Persian service, who have faced arbitrary arrest, asset freezes, passport confiscation and surveillance?


Dominic Raab The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs

I thank my right hon. Friend. This week at the UN General Assembly, the UK will be hosting an event on media freedom and a separate event in relation to Iran’s human rights record, so I can give reassurance that in both those key areas we are championing, not only on a bilateral basis but on a multilateral basis, all those issues that he is concerned about.

Photo of John WhittingdaleJohn Whittingdale Conservative, Maldon  4:08 pm, 22nd October 2019 

It is a pleasure to follow Jo Swinson, the leader of the Liberal Democrats. I give her and her party credit for consistency. No one has ever been in any doubt about where they stand on Europe. Unfortunately, that is not the case for the Labour party, whose leader, as my right hon. Friend Mr Duncan Smith has already pointed out, supported leaving the EU for a long time, fought an election on the wish to respect the result of the referendum and said consistently that a second referendum was out of the question.

Members will be aware that Kevin Brennan was forced to abandon his 60th birthday party as a result of the House sitting on a Saturday. The House may not be aware that he and I were born on precisely the same day and that, as a result of the programme motion, I have now postponed my own 60th birthday party. However—unlike, I suspect, the hon. Gentleman—I regard that as a small price to pay, and one that I am very willing to pay, if the result is that we get Brexit done.

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John Whittingdale Conservative, Maldon

Is my right hon. Friend aware that many good schools, such as William de Ferrers School in my constituency, had made heroic efforts to find savings in recent years in order to eliminate budget deficits, and were now, very reluctantly, having to consider increasing class sizes and dropping subjects? May I therefore thank him for recognising the need for extra funds? Will he confirm that in areas such as mine where substantial development is taking place, these funds will allow pupils who are moving into the constituency to enjoy a good education?


Gavin Williamson The Secretary of State for Education

An important element of the funding settlement that we have agreed with the Treasury is a recognition of demographic change that different parts of the country are experiencing, so that we can ensure that enough school places are provided. More than 1 million places have been created in the last nine years, and there is no doubt that more will be needed in the future.

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that there is a judgment that is superior to that of any court’s? That is the judgment of the British people. It has once been given on the question of whether this country should remain a member of the European Union, but it has twice been prevented from being expressed in a vote of this House. Is it not now time that we allow them to give their judgment on this Parliament?

Photo of Geoffrey CoxGeoffrey Cox The Attorney-General

I could not agree more with my right hon. Friend. The time has come. The fact is that this Parliament has no further point. There is no possibility of our governing while this Parliament continues to block everything we do.

John Whittingdale Conservative, Maldon

Will my right hon. Friend confirm his determination to keep up the pressure on Russia, which continues to illegally occupy Crimea, and whose involvement in the occupied territories in east Ukraine led to further deaths this weekend? I strongly welcome his statement at the Dispatch Box that he agrees that it is not appropriate for Russia to rejoin the G7. Will he continue to give every support to the newly elected President Zelensky and the members of the Ukrainian Parliament?


Boris Johnson The Prime Minister, Leader of the Conservative Party

I know the great interest that my right hon. Friend has taken in Ukraine and the fortunes of that wonderful country. I assure him that President Zelensky rang me before the G7 particularly to insist on his continued concerns about the Russian activities. I am sure that those concerns are shared across the House.

Photo of John WhittingdaleJohn Whittingdale Conservative, Maldon

I commend the Government on the organisation of last week’s excellent global media freedom conference, but does the Minister agree that the UK needs to do a lot more to improve on our present ranking of 33 in the world press freedom index? Does he also recognise that the concerns expressed by my right hon. Friend Mr Davis make that harder to achieve and that these concerns risk being exploited by other countries who do not protect media freedom and are only too keen to lock up journalists?

 

Photo of Nick HurdNick Hurd The Minister of State, Home Department

I accept all that, coming from the authority of a highly distinguished former Secretary of State. I am entirely sincere, as are my colleagues, in taking this opportunity to reassert the importance of the freedom of the press and the protection of media freedoms, but we cannot in that process allow any sense that there is a blanket protection for legitimate investigation simply because of someone’s chosen profession. The processes need to be robust and open to criticism and debate, but the primacy of the free press and freedom of expression in this country is absolutely central to our democratic processes.

Photo of John WhittingdaleJohn Whittingdale Conservative, Maldon

Given the welcome, strong statements by the European Council about Russia’s behaviour, does the Prime Minister share my concern about Russia’s possible readmission to full voting membership of the Council of Europe? Does she agree that it sends entirely the wrong message, coming just days after the filing of charges against Russian military officers for the downing of MH17, and when Russia remains in illegal occupation of Crimea?

 

Photo of Theresa MayTheresa May The Prime Minister, Leader of the Conservative Party

My right hon. Friend has spoken up on the illegal annexation of Crimea on a number of occasions. We do not and will never recognise Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea. As my right hon. Friend will be aware, there has been this difference in Russia’s position in the Council of Europe. Russia has not been paying its contributions to the Council of Europe, but its membership of that body is one of the few ways available to the international community to hold Russia to account for its human rights violations.

Photo of John WhittingdaleJohn Whittingdale Conservative, Maldon

Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that this is not the first time that a DCMS measure has had to be reintroduced because of a failure to notify the EU Commission? I hope that that problem will soon be removed, but while it exists, will he use this extra time to ensure that we get the measure right? There are still concerns on the grounds of freedom of speech and privacy, and about the ease with which measures can be circumvented through the use of virtual private networks. Will he raise similar concerns with the Information Commissioner to ensure that the age appropriate design code is right? It is much more important that it is properly designed than that it is rushed into place.

 

Photo of Jeremy WrightJeremy Wright The Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport

I suspect that my right hon. Friend knows from experience that this is not the first time that such a thing has happened, but I am doing my level best to ensure it is the last. It is important that we have new mechanisms to ensure that such oversights are not repeated, and that is exactly what I am doing at the moment. He is correct that we should use the time we now have to get this right and to work through some of the additional challenges that I described a moment ago—we will do that. It is important that we understand these technological changes and, if I may say so, that validates our approach in the online harms White Paper, which was not to be prescriptive about technology, but to ensure that we adapt our systems as technology moves. We will seek to do the same on this point.

My right hon. Friend mentioned the age appropriate design code which, as he rightly says, is produced by the Information Commissioner, not the Government. He is right that it is important that we do not to rush this and that the Information Commissioner takes full account of the responses to the consultation. Having spoken to the Information Commissioner, I know that she will take full account of all the comments before taking the matter any further.

Photo of John WhittingdaleJohn Whittingdale Conservative, Maldon

Is my hon. Friend aware that online piracy of video and music content is still doing considerable damage to our creative industries? In particular, beoutQ, based in Saudi Arabia, is stealing content from a wide range of UK rights holders. Will he see what further measures can be taken to tackle this problem? Will he consider including economic harms in the scope of the measures set out in the Government’s Online Harms White Paper?

 

Photo of Chris SkidmoreChris SkidmoreVice-Chair, Conservative Party, Minister of State (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) (Universities and Science) (Joint with the Department for Education)

Online piracy of any content is a key concern for the Government. We are aware of the specific issues with beoutQ and raised the matter with the Saudi Arabian Government. We will continue to make representations about its alleged infringement of UK creative content and support efforts to tackle piracy, wherever it occurs. However, the White Paper is to have a targeted approach that focuses on harms to individuals; it is not about economic harm to businesses.

Photo of John WhittingdaleJohn Whittingdale Conservative, Maldon

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the separation of powers is an important element of our constitution, and that as a general rule the involvement of the courts in matters of political argument or debate may threaten that principle and create a dangerous precedent?

 

Photo of David GaukeDavid Gauke The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice 

This country has a robust tradition of political free speech, and the electorate can and should hold politicians to account. We also have a robust tradition of the courts being capable of determining whether a case is meritorious or unmeritorious.

Photo of John WhittingdaleJohn Whittingdale Conservative, Maldon  2:46 pm, 8th May 2019 

I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in this debate. As the Minister pointed out, I was the Secretary of State at the time when the licence fee settlement was agreed with the BBC, so I would like to set out some of the reasons why those decisions were reached.

As the Opposition spokesman said, the concessionary TV licence for over-75s is not a fundamental pillar of the welfare state—it was actually introduced by the previous Labour Government. It was introduced to address an anomaly that elderly people living in sheltered housing did not have to pay the full licence fee whereas others did. However, the Labour Government did not introduce free TV licences for all pensioners, on the basis that it was far too expensive to do so—they restricted it to those aged over 75 at a cost, at that time, of £365 million. It is important to realise that that money was not removed from the BBC—it was given to the BBC by the Department for Work and Pensions. It has always been the case, since then, that the cost of exemption from the TV licence is met out of the Government’s budget. The cost to the Government of doing so has risen steadily, so that by last year it had already reached £660 million.

I had the task of negotiating both the new BBC charter and the licence fee settlement. Personally, I would have much preferred that the licence fee had been included within the charter negotiations, since the licence fee settlement, to some extent, pre-empted decisions that we took as a result of the charter review process. However, as the Minister rightly pointed out, we were in very difficult financial circumstances thanks to the profligacy of the previous Labour Government, and we had to take a lot of very difficult decisions. The then Chancellor was clear that we should seek to achieve savings from the BBC, as a publicly owned institution funded by the Government, in the same way that all other public institutions were being asked to find savings. So we agreed with the BBC that it would take over the cost of funding the licence fee concession. However, we were also clear that we had given a pledge that the concession would be maintained until 2020, and therefore the agreement with the BBC was that it would take it over in 2020.

I have to say to the House that the negotiations with the BBC over that were indeed robust. I remember sitting down with the then Prime MinisterDavid Cameron, with George Osborne and with Lord Hall, the director-general of the BBC, and we had some good discussions in which Lord Hall argued forcibly that this would have a detrimental impact on the BBC. Therefore, in recognition of that, we also included, as part of the licence fee settlement, agreement to address some of the things the BBC raised as its principal concerns. One was the freeze in the licence fee. The licence fee had not gone up at all for a number of years, and therefore the BBC was looking at a real-terms reduction every year. We agreed that the licence fee should be unfrozen. Secondly, a growing number of people were avoiding paying the licence fee by watching the BBC on catch-up, through the iPlayer. Under the law as it then stood, if someone watched the BBC a mere two minutes after the live transmission, they did not have to pay the licence fee. The licence fee was therefore extended to close what was called the iPlayer loophole.

Photo of Bim AfolamiBim Afolami Conservative, Hitchin and Harpenden

Does my right hon. Friend agree with the director-general of the BBC, Lord Hall, that the funding arrangements put in place with the BBC by my right hon. Friend and the previous Prime MinisterDavid Cameron, represented a fair deal?

Photo of John WhittingdaleJohn Whittingdale Conservative, Maldon

I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend, because he allows me to quote the director-general. As I say, our negotiations were robust, but we emerged from them with the director-general issuing a public statement saying that it was

“the right deal… in difficult economic circumstances”.

He went on to say:

“Far from being a cut, the way this financial settlement is shaped gives us, effectively, flat licence fee income across the first five years of the next charter.”

Photo of Ed VaizeyEd Vaizey Conservative, Wantage

I do not know whether my right hon. Friend will mention this part of the licence fee deal, but it is worth making the point that the last Labour Governmentimposed on the licence fee a levy to fund broadband roll-out, and because of the success of the broadband roll-out under our Government, we removed that levy from the BBC. While there was a stick with free TV licences, there were carrots with the removal some of the subsidies the last Government had asked the BBC to provide.

Photo of John WhittingdaleJohn Whittingdale Conservative, Maldon

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend, who was also a key player at that time as a Minister in the Department. He is absolutely right. I mentioned two of the BBC’s requests at the time—the unfreezing of the licence fee and the closure of the loophole—but he is correct to point out that the BBC had always been unhappy about the top-slicing of the licence fee to fund broadband, which it saw as far removed from the purpose of the licence fee. That was another agreement we reached with the BBC, which I think was why the BBC felt that it was a fair and proper settlement.

Photo of Pat McFaddenPat McFadden Labour, Wolverhampton South East

The right hon. Gentleman is implying that the BBC was happy with all this at the time, but in the press statement announcing the consultation, the BBC said:

The BBC could copy the scheme… but we think it would fundamentally change the BBC because of the scale of service cuts we would need to make.”

That is not the statement of an organisation that thinks it can easily absorb this.

Photo of John WhittingdaleJohn Whittingdale Conservative, Maldon

The agreement with the BBC was that it would have responsibility for maintaining or amending the licence fee concession. The right hon. Gentleman quoted the BBC’s view about the cost of maintaining the concession as it stands, and that view is understandable, since the cost next year will be £745 million, rising to £1.06 billion by 2029-30. I am not at all surprised that Tom Watson was unable to give any commitment that a future Labour Governmentwould maintain the concession at the cost of the taxpayer, since that would be a £1 billion public expenditure pledge.

In recognition of that, the BBC has put forward three different options. It has talked about continuation, which, as Mr McFadden said, it feels is not realistic, as that would amount to the current cost of BBC 2BBC 3BBC 4, the news channel, CBBC and CBeebies all put together. It has also suggested some amendment to the concession, or discontinuing it altogether. Each of the three possible amendments to the licence fee concession that the BBC has suggested has some attraction. It has talked about raising the age limit to 77 or 80, which to some extent would reflect the ageing population and maintain roughly the same proportion. A second possibility is to introduce a discounted fee, so that people over 75 would not have to pay the full cost.

Photo of Vicky FordVicky Ford Conservative, Chelmsford

My right hon. Friend, who is an excellent neighbour, is making an excellent speech. Many of my constituents who are over 75 have emailed me to say that they want to continue to watch the TV with a free licence, but they are not necessarily also watching the BBC on multiple other devices, as many younger people are. Can my right hon. Friend see a case for older members of the public still being able to watch the BBC via a single device, while younger people watch on multiple devices? Would that sort of system work?

Photo of Rosie WintertonRosie Winterton Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

Order. I reiterate that there is pressure on time, and interventions need to be short.

Photo of John WhittingdaleJohn Whittingdale Conservative, Maldon

I will of course take account of your guidance, Madam Deputy Speaker, but my hon. Friend raises an interesting point, which I want to touch on as I conclude my remarks.

The third possible amendment would be to limit the concession to those in receipt of pension credit. That would address many of the concerns expressed by Opposition Members about those on very low incomes finding it hard to afford and would introduce an element of targeting, to ensure that those who will struggle to afford the television licence do not have to do so.

There is another change that I ask the BBC to consider, which is not included in its options. At the moment, households are entitled to a free television licence if a member of the household is over 75. It is ridiculous that a household might have four adults of working age who are all bringing in an income, but because they happen to have their grandmother living with them, they do not have to pay for a television licence. I ask the BBC to consider a simple change, to restrict the concession to households that only consist of people aged over 75.

I want to end by saying that this raises fundamental questions about the future of the licence fee. Viewing habits are changing, as my hon. Friend Vicky Fordindicated. Evasion of the TV licence is rising. It has gone up from 5.2% in 2010 to an estimated 7% now, with the advent of new services such as Netflix and Amazon, and soon possibly Apple and Disney. The old argument that every household needs to pay the licence fee because everybody watches the BBC is, I am afraid, beginning to break down, and we are reaching a position where many households watch the huge range of programmes available and never turn to the BBC.

That is why I have always believed that, in the long term, the licence fee is not sustainable. We addressed that at the beginning of the charter review. It is recognised by the director-general, who has said that the BBC needs to look at alternative models and has mentioned the possibility of introducing subscription services on iPlayer. At the moment, there is no alternative to the licence fee because we do not have a system where people who choose not to pay it can be cut off; that was why we reached the conclusion that the licence fee had to be maintained. But in the longer term, that will not be true. There will come a time when the licence fee cannot be sustained, but that will be the task of the future Secretary of State who has the job of undertaking the next charter review.

Photo of John WhittingdaleJohn Whittingdale Conservative, Maldon  7:02 pm, 29th April 2019 

It is a pleasure to hear that the importance of rolling over these sanctions is supported on both sides of the House. My right hon. Friend Alistair Burt spoke with considerable knowledge and authority about the sanctions against Syria. I will concentrate on another of the three countries on whom this set of sanctions will be maintained: Belarus.

I chair the all-party parliamentary group on Belarus in this place, and last year led an Inter-Parliamentary Union delegation to Minsk. Later this year, we will be inviting Belarus to pay a return visit and send a delegation to visit the UK. The explanatory memorandum to these sanctions regulations refers to the need for respect of “democratic principles and institutions” in Belarus; but one has to say that there is still some way to go. The Parliament in Minsk and the parliamentary institutions of Belarus are not quite as we would recognise in this country. Those who do sit in Parliament have been largely appointed by the President, and those who were not appointed directly have certainly been approved by the President in taking up their position. The President himself first took office in 1994. He has won several elections since then, usually by over 90% of the vote, and the bodies that have observed those elections—not least the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe—have raised considerable concerns about their validity.

Belarus is also undoubtedly still firmly within the Russian orbit, and one has to accept that its room for manoeuvre is severely limited by what the Kremlin allows. Having said that, there are some signs of progress. Belarus did not recognise the Russian occupation of South Ossetia, of Abkhazia or of Crimea, and there are signs that it wishes to edge away and that some progress is being made. It was for that reason that the IPU decided that it was worthwhile to send a delegation to encourage further steps of progress, and I pay tribute to our excellent ambassador in Minsk, who is pressing for reform while also seeking to ensure that we have relations with the Government and institutions of Belarus.

There are also economic opportunities in Belarus, as Douglas Chapmanpointed out. The UK is a considerable market for Belarus exports. I have to say that Belarus is a rather smaller market for UK exports, but nevertheless there is an opportunity there. However, when it comes to human rights, it is worth noting that Belarus is still, I think, the only country in Europe that institutes the death penalty. The number of people executed actually doubled last year—to four. Assurances that Belarus is seeking to have a moratorium on the imposition of the death penalty have been rather disproved by its recent actions, and that too is a considerable stain on its record and prevents it from joining the Council of Europe among other things.

The explanatory memorandum for these sanctions names four individuals. The first three—Yury Zakharanka, Viktar Hanchar and Anatol Krasouski—were all opposition politicians who were previously quite close to President Lukashenko, but found themselves in opposition to him and then died in 1999. Some were abducted, and the courts have now ruled that they were almost certainly murdered. Quite exactly what happened, we still do not know.

The fourth individual named on the explanatory memorandum and the regulations is Dzmitry Zavadski, and I mention him specifically because although he was President Lukashenko’s personal cameraman, he also practised widely as a journalist. As the Minister and others may know, I am a very strong supporter of media freedom. I strongly welcome the initiative that the Foreign Secretary has taken to make media freedom a priority of this Government to the extent of organising an international conference on it in July. The IPU, which I have the honour to chair, will be following that up.

The death of Mr Zavadski is a terrible blot, but it is worth mentioning another individual who worked alongside him—Pavel Sheremet. Pavel Sheremet was another Belarusian journalist who fell out with the President. He was also a critic of President Putin and a great friend of Boris Nemtsov in Russia. He was assassinated in a car bomb in Kiev in 2016, and his murder is another example of the risks that journalists take and how they sometimes pay a price with their lives. We should always raise the issue of Pavel Sheremet. Quite who was responsible for his death is unclear—he made a number of enemies among people who could well have been responsible—but he was a Belarusian journalist. He was also one of the founders of Charter 97, which is a human rights organisation that operates in Belarus. I met representatives of Charter 97 just a few weeks ago. Its founder was also killed, the editor-in-chief fled and is now in Poland, and access to its website is blocked in Belarus.

The record in Belarus is not good. I therefore certainly would not argue that sanctions should necessarily be lifted. However, I would say that we should keep them under review and that we should encourage where there are signs of progress. I hope that there is some movement towards greater liberalisation and away from the alliance with Russia. On that subject, I will not bore the Minister by repeating what has come up regularly in these debates but merely say that the sanctions against Russia remain of huge importance. We await the Government’s announcement of the implementation of the Magnitsky sanctions following the passage of the necessary legislation in this House. If ever we needed an example of why those sanctions against Russia remain of huge importance, it was the Minister’s excellent response to the debate that we had last week on the Russian annexation of Crimea. He will know that within hours of that, the Russians announced that they were going to make passports available to people living in Donbass. I am very pleased that the Foreign Officemade clear our condemnation of that further provocation by Russia against the people and Government of Ukraine.

I strongly support these sanctions. However, I was keen to take this opportunity to put it on the record that although the sanctions against Belarus are justified, there are nevertheless small signs of progress.

Photo of John WhittingdaleJohn Whittingdale Conservative, Maldon  10:09 am, 24th April 2019 

I congratulate my hon. Friend John Howell on securing this debate at an extremely important time for Ukraine, and on doing an excellent job of setting out the facts about the Russian occupation of Crimea.

Like Angela Smith, three weeks ago I spent my Sunday sitting in a polling station in Desnianskyi district, a poorer suburb of Kiev, and this Sunday I was in a polling station in Bucha, watching democracy in action. It is always inspiring to see a democratic election in a country that has only recently become free.

One of the striking things about the Ukraine election was that there was absolutely no question about the people’s desire for change. As overseas observers, we had some criticisms about access to the media, financing and resources, but there can be no doubt that the result—the election of President-elect Zelensky—reflects the will of the Ukrainian people. I pay tribute to President Poroshenko, who I think achieved many things, but there is a real and deep-seated wish for change, and it was undoubtedly a genuine election.

One of the first things that President-elect Zelensky will have to do is decide how best to confront the Russian aggression and the occupation of parts of his country. The war in Donbass gets a lot of attention—it is a hot war and people are dying there; I went last year to Avdiivka, which is right up against the frontline and is regularly subject to shelling—but we must not overlook Crimea, which has spent five years under occupation.

President-elect Zelensky has not yet said a great deal about his policy, and we must wait to see who he will appoint to key positions such as Foreign Minister, but he has referred to the Budapest memorandum. The signatories to that memorandum—my hon. Friend the Member for Henley rightly drew attention to the fact that the UK is one—have said that they will protect the territorial integrity of Ukraine. The Ukrainians have an expectation that that commitment will be honoured, even though one of the signatories is responsible for the invasion and occupation of their country. I know that our Government want to pursue the existing dialogue with Russia through the Normandy agreement and the Minsk process, but President-elect Zelensky has said that he sees a role for the Budapest signatories, so if he approaches the UK Government to assist in resolving the situation, I hope that they will respond positively.

My hon. Friend made several points about the invasion of Crimea five years ago; I do not want to repeat them, but I will make a couple of observations. One of the reasons given for the invasion was that, following the revolution of dignity in the Maidan, Kiev was under the control of a fascist and antisemitic Government. Ironically, not only is there no evidence of that Government ever being fascist or antisemitic, but as of Sunday, Ukraine will be only the second country in the whole world, after Israel, to have a President and a Prime Minister who are both Jewish.

The second reason given for the invasion was the referendum in which the occupants of Crimea expressed a wish to rejoin Russia. It is true that in 1990, when there were genuine plebiscites across Ukraine to determine its future, the biggest minority in favour of joining Russia was in Crimea, although it was only 41%. However, the so-called referendum that took place five years ago did so under the barrels of Kalashnikovs after all media from Ukraine had been cut off. There was a relentless barrage of Russian propaganda, including footage that showed thousands of Ukrainians allegedly fleeing from what the Russian Foreign Ministry described as threats of a massacre—I say “allegedly” because it subsequently emerged that it was footage of a traffic jam of Ukrainian vehicles heading across the border to Poland to do some weekend shopping.

The referendum offered a choice between joining Russia immediately, and retaining independence with the right to join Russia after a specified period. Remaining part of Ukraine was not on the ballot paper. Just imagine if a similar question had been asked in our EU referendum three years ago. As my hon. Friend said, the referendum on joining Russia rightly received international condemnation, including by the United Nations General Assembly; resolutions have been passed that point out that the annexation and occupation continue to be illegal.

My hon. Friend was right to highlight the relentless abuse of human rights in Crimea since the Russian occupation. I draw particular attention to the events of 27 March, less than four weeks ago, in which 23 Crimean Tatar civic journalists were arrested, beaten by the Russian FSB and taken out of Crimea. It is not clear where some of them are being held; I am afraid that they are just the latest in a long list of people, particularly Tatars, who have been subjected to torture, abuse, kidnapping and imprisonment.

My hon. Friend rightly referred to the military build-up in Crimea since the Russians took over. There was already a naval base at Sevastopol, of course, but before the occupation there were only 12,500 Russian troops there, whereas there are now estimated to be 32,000. There has also been a build-up of aircraft, naval forces and military vehicles; indeed, it is now reported that there may well be nuclear weapons in Crimea, which is ironic given that the Budapest memorandum was signed specifically in return for Ukraine’s agreement to give up its nuclear weapons.

My hon. Friend also spoke about the situation in the sea of Azov. Just before Christmas, I travelled to Berdyansk and Mariupol, which are both on the sea of Azov, to see the effect of the blockade across the Kerch strait. The bridge that was built prevents a large number of larger ships from entering the sea of Azov, and since the blockade Russian warships have imposed checks on all ships going in. That has had the effect of delaying passage and rendering the businesses of Mariupol and Berdyansk almost uneconomic. Those two cities are subject to economic warfare and must be relieved.

My hon. Friend was right to say that the Ukrainians have done a fantastic job of raising these issues in every international forum. He spoke about his and his colleagues’ work in the Council of Europe; at the annual Inter-Parliamentary Union Assembly some 10 days ago, I listened to a very powerful address by Mr Parubiy, the Speaker of the Ukrainian Rada. It was then countered by the Russians, who said that of course there were no Russians whatever in Donbass and that there never had been—it was an entire fiction. There is an absolute denial of reality by Russia, despite overwhelming evidence.

I pay tribute to the representation of Ukraine in this country. It is a great pleasure to see the Ukrainian ambassador, Her Excellency Natalia Galibarenko, listening to this debate. She is an assiduous attender of such events and does a fantastic job.

My hon. Friend spoke about the need to increase the pressure on Russia, particularly through sanctions. I agree absolutely that it was very important that we passed the Magnitsky amendment. We eagerly await its implementation; I know that the Government intend to move forward, but we would like them to do so somewhat quicker.

I hope that the message that comes out from this debate, and the number of speakers in it, will demonstrate that across the House of Commons there is unanimous support for Ukraine against the illegal occupation of part of the country and the aggressive action of the Russian Federation.

 

Does my right hon. Friend agree that although any death is a tragedy, the murder of a journalist is particularly abhorrent? Is she aware that Lyra McKee’s death came on the very same day when the world press freedom index was published, which showed the UK rising by seven places? At a time when the Government are rightly championing the protection of journalists, this terrible act is a dreadful stain on our record.

 

My right hon. Friend and I share the honour of having served in the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport; it perhaps did not have the “Digital” at the time he was there, but we have both been Culture Secretaries and both of us were charged with ensuring that press freedom was respected. The work he did as Secretary of State, which I was fortunate enough to follow on from and take up the mantle of, helps us to be in the position where our status on the press freedom index is improving, but he makes a powerful point about what we have seen in Londonderry and the murder of Lyra McKee.

 

Is my right hon. Friend aware that, already, another seven journalists have been killed in the course of their work this year, coming on top of the 80 who died last year? Two of those were in Mexico, which is one of the deadliest countries in the world for journalism. Will he say what more can be done to press the Mexican Government to take action?

 

 

 

I thank my right hon. Friend for raising this issue, and indeed for raising it consistently. He is absolutely right: Mexico is the most dangerous country in the world in which to be a journalist. The Mexican Government have taken action, and we are in touch with them closely about what they are doing. However, we need to draw the world’s attention to this issue. According to the latest figures I have seen, 348 journalists were arrested or detained last year for doing their job. That is why this summer, jointly with Canada, we will be hosting the first ever international conference on media freedom at ministerial level.

Thank you, Mr Hollobone; I will be very brief. I was first elected to the House to represent a part of Colchester, so I fully endorse the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Will Quince) in promoting its many attractions, which I can vouch for.

 

I now represent the Maldon district. We are all part of the east of England, which does not always get the attention it deserves—people talk about the Lake district and the west country—but has many attractions. My right hon. Friend the Member for Witham (Priti Patel) mentioned some of the attractions in her constituency—indeed, I used to represent some of those as well. We share what is known as the saltmarsh coast, which is an extraordinary asset for recreation, wildlife and sailing.

 

The other great asset I represent is a place that should be nationally famous but is not: the Stow Maries great war aerodrome, the last remaining first world war aerodrome. It is being restored, with the help of the National Heritage Memorial Fund and the Heritage Lottery Fund, but it does not attract nearly as many visitors as it should because it is not well enough known.

 

In Maldon and elsewhere we recognise that digital marketing is key—perhaps the Minister will touch on that—and that people now look online to see where there are attractions, but there is not enough co-ordination. The Maldon district promotes things in the Maldon district, and Colchester borough promotes things in Colchester, but there needs to be more co-ordination so that we can demonstrate all of the region’s attractions to people who are thinking of visiting the east of England. I am thinking not just of Essex; I am very happy for the hon. Member for Ipswich (Sandy Martin) to participate as well to promote Suffolk. We sit on this great asset, and I do not believe we are yet doing enough to exploit it.

 

I welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement, and I strongly agree that the tech companies need to do more to stop the spread of hate and incitement to violence. However, does he also recognise that the internet is a force for good and that many authoritarian countries—China ​and, now, particularly Russia—are attempting to impose censorship on it for their own repressive political purposes? Does he therefore agree that any measures we take need to be proportionate and targeted, and must not allow other countries, such as Russia, to claim somehow that they are acting for reasons similar to ours?

 

It is tempting to say that my right hon. Friend is asking the wrong person. As Security Minister, I see daily how paedophiles, organised crime, groomers and terrorist recruiters use the internet as not a force for good. As we speak, the internet is being used to undermine our own democracy.

 

My right hon. Friend makes a valid point that, in places where there is no democracy and no rule of law, the internet is sometimes people’s only hope to engage with free thought and the outside world. We have to be very careful about how we balance that but, nevertheless, we know these companies can remove extremist content very quickly when they put their minds to it.

 

There are certain areas on which we all agree. I cannot find anyone in the world who would support allowing child sexual exploitation images to exist on our internet. Violent extremism, beheading videos and bullying online cannot be acceptable in any society. We can all agree that a number of activities should not be allowed or available on the internet without someone taking responsibility for preventing the broadcast or spreading of it. All of us in this House have to try to navigate that fine line, and we will debate it when the online White Paper comes before us.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that five years ago today Russian special forces seized the Government building in Crimea and raised the Russian flag? Will she confirm that the UK Government remain committed to the restoration of Ukrainian sovereignty over Crimea, and will she look at strengthening sanctions against Russia until that can be achieved?

 

I am happy to give my right hon. Friend that confirmation. This was an illegal annexation of Crimea by Russia, and we have been doing everything we can to ensure that the appropriate sanctions are imposed that will have an impact. We have been one of the voices around the EU Council table that has been advocating the roll-over of sanctions at every stage and ensuring that, as we look at the actions of Russia here and elsewhere, we enhance those sanctions and rightfully put pressure on those who are responsible.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the whole history of the European Union has shown that time and again, when there are intractable disputes, agreement is obtained, often late at night, with about an hour to go before the clock runs out? Will she therefore stick to her deadline, and will she impress on the European Union that there is a majority in the House for her agreement if the necessary changes to the backstop can be made?

 

I thank my right hon. Friend for drawing attention to that issue in relation to the European Union. We are indeed in the process of those talks with the European Union, and have made clear to it that—as the vote in the House showed—there is support for a withdrawal agreement provided that we can see those necessary changes in relation to the backstop.

I very much welcome Dame Frances Cairncross’s report, which I believe addresses one of the greatest challenges to properly functioning democracy today. Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that the priority must be to facilitate more professional journalists to report on the proceedings of local councils, local courts and other local institutions, which are currently all too often going unreported? The BBC’s local democracy initiative at least starts to address that challenge, so will he look at ways of expanding that initiative, perhaps by bringing on board to it the technology companies that are currently distributing the content but doing nothing to help collect it?

 

I agree with my right hon. Friend. A large part of the answer is, as he says, to ensure that there are more professional journalists in the right places at the right times to provide the scrutiny that we all agree is important and necessary. As he has heard me say, the local democracy reporting scheme is a good example of how that might be achieved in the times that we currently live in. I should like to take this opportunity to pay tribute to my right hon. Friend for the part that he played in bringing that scheme into existence in conjunction with the BBC. It is a good thing, but he is right to say that there is scope for further expansion, as Dame Frances Cairncross has also pointed out. That expansion must be paid for, and I will certainly look into his suggestion and pursue further how we might persuade those who are benefiting from the current arrangements to ensure that their worst excesses are mitigated.

Q8.  Is my right hon. Friend aware that last year was the worst on record for the deaths, imprisonment and hostage taking of journalists, with 80 across the world killed in the course of their work. Does she agree that journalists fulfil a vital role in a free society, and will she ensure that every opportunity is taken to put pressure on the Governments with the worst records to respect media freedom and take action to protect international journalism? [908906]

 

My right hon. Friend raises a very important issue. I certainly agree about the important role a free press and journalists play in our democracies, and I thank him for raising an issue that I know is important to him and many Members across the House. Sadly, as he says, 80 journalists we killed in 2018; 348 are currently in prison and 60 are being held hostage around the world. We are deeply concerned because, as he said, these numbers have risen on the previous year. That is why in 2019 we are placing our resources behind the cause of media freedom. We are helping to train journalists around the world, such as in Venezuela, where we have seen an authoritarian Government suppress their critics, and this year we plan to host an international conference in London on media freedom to bring together countries that believe in this cause and to mobilise an international consensus behind the protection of journalists. This is an important issue, and the Government are putting their weight behind it.

I thank my right hon. Friend for listening to concerns expressed by a number of Conservative Members and for her recognition that there must be changes in the backstop, but will she also confirm that the aspects of our future relationship set out in the political declaration, which also cause some concern, are not legally binding, and can be addressed and changed in the course of the subsequent negotiation?

 

The political declaration sets out the framework for the negotiations in the future, but that has to be negotiated into legal text and, as I am sure my right hon. Friend knows, there are elements within that text which have not identified absolutely a particular position. In response to an earlier question, I referred to the balance between checks at borders and regulatory alignment. That is obviously a matter for the future negotiations.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that it remains highly desirable to have a diversity of providers and technologies in civil nuclear generation? Will he therefore confirm, particularly in the light of recent concerns expressed about some Chinese investments, that the Government will remain fully supportive of the proposal from China General Nuclear to invest in a new power station at Bradwell-on-Sea in my constituency, subject of course to a generic design assessment and other permissions being obtained?

 

As my right hon. Friend knows, CGN is an investor in the Hinkley Point C nuclear power station, which is being built as we speak. That is proceeding at pace. When it comes to Bradwell, CGN is again making successful strides through the approval process. All investment is subject to that process, but I can confirm that it has our full support as it goes through the regulatory approvals.

It is a privilege to be called to speak immediately after two important speeches from each of the Front Benches.

 

I campaigned in favour of Britain remaining a member in 1975. I was too young to vote, but I put leaflets through doors that clearly said we would remain a member of a common market of independent trading states and that nothing about our membership would in any way affect the sovereignty of this Parliament, of which I am proud to be a Member. Unfortunately, in the 40 years since that referendum, we have moved steadily away from that vision, with more and more power given over to Brussels. It is essentially for that reason that I voted against the Maastricht treaty when I was first elected to this place and that I campaigned to leave in the last referendum, in which I was proud to serve on the campaign committee under the chairmanship of the Secretary of State.

 

I welcome the Prime Minister’s subsequent commitments in her Florence and Lancaster House speeches on the red lines that the Government cannot breach in our negotiations, and I fought the election on a manifesto making it clear that we are leaving the European Union and that that includes leaving the single market and the customs union.

 

The many benefits of leaving the European Union are summed up—as we were reminded by the Channel 4 drama on Monday, which had an interesting portrayal of the Secretary of State—by those three words: “Take back control.” There is no doubt that one of the referendum issues that featured in my constituency is immigration, as summed up in the “Taking back control of our borders” White Paper, but I am not opposed to immigration, which has brought great value to this country.

 

The farmers and horticulturalists I represent in Essex rely on immigrant labour, particularly seasonal labour, and I understand their concern that that should continue. Equally, like most farmers, as the Secretary of State said, the majority of them voted to leave because they embrace the idea of competing in world markets, being outside the CAP and, instead of being subsidised, receiving payment on the basis of their contribution to the public good, which is a far better system.

 

The ability for my right hon. Friend to set our policy in this area, as there will be such an ability for every other Secretary of State, is one of the great benefits of our gaining our freedom. That is one reason why I am not attracted to the Norway option that some have suggested, and that I understand my right hon. Friend has occasionally thought about. We on the Exiting the European Union Committee discovered in taking evidence from Norwegian parliamentarians that Norway is still bound by European regulations, and of course freedom of movement is one of those requirements.

 

The vote was essentially about sovereignty. It was a vote to remove the overall jurisdiction of the ECJ. My Select Committee colleagues and I have been to see Michel Barnier several times, and he is very clear that the Prime Minister’s red lines rule out the UK having membership of the European economic area or an agreement similar to those of Norway and Turkey. He told us that the only way in which the UK would not breach its red lines in continuing to have a relationship with the European Union is on the basis of an agreement like the one signed with Canada. He showed us a proposal that not only had a Canada-style trade agreement but had parallel agreements covering security, law and order co-operation and data transfer. Indeed, he set out a scenario almost identical to the one I would have described had I been asked what kind of relationship I wanted with the European Union.

 

The only problem was that of Northern Ireland and what would happen at the Northern Ireland border. The Prime Minister accepted that that was an insuperable obstacle, and she therefore made the Chequers proposal. I could not support that proposal principally because it maintained the common rulebook, which would mean we still have to abide by EU regulations. The Government have shown a willingness to accept further lock-ins, and under amendment (p), tabled by the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann), we would have to continue to accept EU regulations in employment law.

 

Amendment (p), which I support, does not say that we should automatically harmonise with the EU as it strengthens protections in these areas. What it says is that, when protections are strengthened, it will come back for this House to debate and vote on those issues. That means Parliament is still taking back control.

 

As I understand it, amendment (p) would require us to accept that all existing EU regulations in this area will be maintained. I do not necessarily say that I am in favour of removing any of those regulations, although it is ironic that, when we debated the Maastricht treaty back in 1992, one of the arguments made by the then Conservative Government under John Major was that we had obtained an opt-out from the social chapter and that we would not be bound by the European employment and social regulations. We were told that we had achieved a great prize. Interestingly, of course, it was accepted that we could be part of what then became the European Union without being part of the social chapter. The indivisibility of freedoms is applicable only when it suits the European Union, and not when it does not.

 

There are many things about the withdrawal agreement and the political declaration that I do not like. I do not like the fact that we appear to be signing up to paying out £39 billion without any guarantee on what the future arrangement will look like. I do not like the fact that the ECJ will continue to have a say for a considerable period—some 20 years. I do not like the trading relationship described in the political declaration, which seems to be based on Chequers and its continuing adherence to the common rulebook. However, all those aspects could be dealt with in the subsequent negotiations during the transition period, with the exception of money, which is in the withdrawal agreement. The future arrangements can be discussed during the transition period because they are part of the political declaration, which is not legally binding.

 

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the money is not £39 billion? There is no cash limit, no agreed amount, in the agreement, and there are huge powers for the EU to keep sending us bills of an undescribed amount for decades. It will be a lot more than £39 billion.

 

I fear my right hon. Friend may well be right. He highlights the risk we run in making that commitment.

 

I am willing to accept an ongoing payment, so long as an eventual exit date is set out. I am willing to accept some continuing role for the ECJ on things like citizens’ rights. However, the problem is in the withdrawal agreement, which is legally binding and cannot be changed. I am afraid that, as the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) said, it is the backstop. It is the fact that we would be locked into a customs union without any ability to leave it unless we obtain the agreement of the European Union. That makes trade agreements essentially impossible. One of the great opportunities of leaving the European Union is the opportunity to sign trade agreements with those countries that the European Union has been trying to sign trade agreements with for decades but has still not succeeded—China, Brazil, India, the United States of America, Indonesia—the countries that will be the biggest economies in the world over the course of the next 10 or 20 years.

 

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the EU signed a trade deal with South Korea, with Japan and with Canada, before many other nations in the world? The EU has actually led progress on these bilateral trade deals.

 

I was aware of that, which is why I did not include them, but the countries whose names I just read out are likely to be the five biggest economies in the world. We know that the EU has been trying to sign a deal with China and a deal with America, and has failed so far to do so, principally because it requires the agreement of every single member state, and we have seen how difficult that can be.

 

Also, of course, the provision of the backstop creates the one thing that the Prime Minister said she could never accept under any circumstances—a border down the Irish sea. If Northern Ireland protocol and the backstop could be taken out of the withdrawal agreement and put into that basket of issues that we shall settle in the course of the transitional period, as part of the arrangement covering our future agreement for trade with the European Union, that would remove the problem. It is where it ought to be. It was always daft that the Northern Ireland border issue could be determined before we knew what was going to be in the future trade agreement. The Prime Minister herself has now accepted that, actually, over the course of the two years, it should be possible to find a solution that will allow free movement back and forth across that border, on the basis of technology, so the Government think that can be done in the next two years. If we could only get it out of the withdrawal agreement, we would then have the time in which we could demonstrate that it would never be necessary.

 

I operated a hard border in Northern Ireland for two years. We stopped every car, we searched every car, we checked every person. I absolutely believe it is perfectly possible for there to be free movement across that border, given willingness on both sides and the use of new techniques, particularly things like pre-registration and number- plate recognition. I think that border does not need to be hard.

 

 

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. Of course, when he was serving his country in Northern Ireland, we had to have controls on the movement of people because we were facing a serious terrorist threat. Nobody is suggesting controls on the movement of people now. There is no suggestion that we are going to need any measures of that kind. We are talking about the movement of goods.

 

I do not want to detain the House any longer because a lot of Members want to speak. As I said, the problem is that the backstop is in the agreement and the agreement cannot be changed once it is passed, because it is a legally binding undertaking. If only the Government could find a way of taking the backstop out and putting it into those issues that we will try to resolve over the course of the next two years, I would be happy—well, not happy, but willing perhaps—to support the motion on Tuesday. But unless that can be done, I am afraid that I cannot.

 

 

I am very grateful to have the opportunity to debate the very important issue of the international protection of journalists. I am also delighted to see so many colleagues present. We have only an hour so I will endeavour to keep my remarks brief. I thank all those who have helped me with the preparation for the debate and for the more general work they do in this field, particularly Reporters Sans Frontières, Index on Censorship, the National Union of Journalists and the International Federation of Journalists, the Committee to Protect Journalists and the BBC World Service.

 

Journalists play a vital role in a free society. Their role in exposing corruption, highlighting injustice and holding Governments to account helps to make a democracy function, but it does not always make them popular. Sadly, in authoritarian regimes, that often leads to imprisonment, being taken hostage, intimidation and sometimes even death.

 

There are varying figures for the record over the past year, but all agree that 2018 was one of the worst years on record for journalists being killed, imprisoned or held hostage. According to Reporters Sans Frontières, 80 journalists were killed in 2018 during the course of their duties; 348 are being held in prison and 60 held hostage. The countries with the worst records are perhaps predictable: in terms of deaths, they are Afghanistan, Syria, Mexico, Yemen and India.

 

Perhaps the most high profile death was that of Jamal Khashoggi, who died in October in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. It is reported that 11 people are on trial for that in Saudi Arabia, but we have little knowledge of the evidence to suggest that they ultimately bear responsibility. That death was condemned by Turkey—the country in which it took place—but Turkey’s record inspires little confidence. Turkey has 33 journalists imprisoned. One journalist, Pelin Ünker, was sentenced only in the last few days to a year’s imprisonment for her work in investigating the paradise papers. It is for that reason that international bodies have called for an international, independent investigation into what happened to Jamal Khashoggi. The worst countries for imprisonment of journalists are China, Egypt, Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia.

 

I want to mention in particular the work of the BBC World Service, which I have a particular regard for, and the Persian service of the BBC. Its journalists have suffered a relentless campaign against not just them but their families that are still in Iran. BBC World Service journalists in Russia have also found that their data has been published online with an encouragement to hound them. The BBC has made protests against that.

 

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on securing this debate. I chair the all-party parliamentary BBC group, as he will know from his previous role. It is the case that 152 named individuals, many of whom are based here in London, working for BBC Persia have been stopped from buying or selling property, and their families have been accused of the most hideous things, which is impacting their relatives in Iran. Does he join me in calling for the Minister to do everything he can to protect those individuals?

 

I absolutely join my hon. Friend. I will call upon the Minister to make it a routine matter to raise concerns about the safety of journalists whenever we have contact with countries where, sadly, imprisonments or deaths have taken place.

 

I rise as the chair of the cross-party group of the National Union of Journalists. I was very interested in the figures the right hon. Gentleman presented. According to the International Federation of Journalists, 94 journalists and media staff were killed in work-related incidents last year. In the light of that, does he agree that the UK Government might be called on to do everything possible to support the call for a new United Nations convention on the protection of journalists and media workers?

 

It is correct that there is a small difference in the figures from RSF and the International Federation. What we all agree is that the figures are extremely worrying and have been going up. That is the reason for the debate. I absolutely join the hon. Lady in calling on the Government to do more. I know the Minister will want to set that out in due course.

 

The right hon. Gentleman is being generous with his time. I welcome this debate. Does he agree in the same vein that the Foreign Office has a very serious and important role in the protection of journalists, and that it must do all it can to protect journalists and our citizens wherever they are?

 

I agree. I was going to say and probably will say again that I absolutely welcome the Foreign Secretary’s commitment to prioritise this issue and for the UK to take a lead internationally in pressing for more to be done. The hon. Lady’s calls have been heard in the Foreign Office and I hope this will prove an opportunity for the Minister to tell us a little about what is intended.

 

The right hon. Gentleman mentioned the IFJ. Will he join me in paying tribute to the work of the IFJ and the NUJ? Does he agree that strong trade unions are a force for good in protecting democracy and freedom of expression?

 

I do not always leap to say that trade unions are a force for good, but in this instance I absolutely agree with the hon. Lady. The International Federation of Journalists does great work alongside the other organisations that I mentioned. This is a priority area for non-governmental organisations and a lot of work is being done but, unfortunately, one reason is that the record is so poor at present.

 

I talked about countries that perhaps will not have come as a great surprise—places such as China, which has the worst record for imprisonment, and Afghanistan and Syria. Sadly, it is also happening in Europe. I want particularly to mention the murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia in Malta at the end of October 2017, and the death of Jan Kuciak in Slovakia and Victoria Marinova in Bulgaria. The climate that provokes hostility towards journalism is, to some extent, encouraged by intemperate remarks from people who really should know better. I do not want to single out President Trump, but I think his attacks on journalism generally have not helped in this regard. When someone such as the President of Czech Republic holds up a mock assault rifle labelled “for journalists”, that clearly will lead to a climate in which journalists have reason to fear.

 

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that even in this country we have to be very careful what we say about our attitudes to journalists, as to politicians and everyone else. As a former journalist, I am well aware that one of the prerequisites for the job is the willingness to put yourself at risk in order to uncover public injustice in this country and abroad. Perhaps we need to be very wary in this country, as elsewhere in Europe, about the intemperate language we use.

 

I agree with the hon. Lady. Like almost everyone in this House I suspect, I have had occasion to be deeply unhappy about some of the things that journalists have done, but I recognise that freedom of the press is a vital component of a free society. Therefore, to some extent we have to take the reports that we do not like alongside those that we do.

 

Since we are talking about Europe, does my right hon. Friend welcome and support the work of the Council of Europe to protect journalists, and the new platform it has set up that makes it very public which journalists have been attacked and imprisoned unjustly?

 

I very much support the work of the Council of Europe. I am a member of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, which also highlights journalistic abuses but, unfortunately, as I just said, Europe does not have a spotless record. Indeed, the new country holding the presidency of European Union, Romania, has a poor record of intimidation of journalists.

 

The right hon. Gentleman is being very generous with interventions. He will be aware that the Council of Europe has taken up the case of Mehman Huseynov, an Azerbaijani journalist and human rights activist who has been in prison for nearly two years for the so-called crime of slander. He has been on hunger strike for two weeks. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the British Government should also take up Mr Huseynov’s case and make representations to the Azerbaijani authorities?

 

I agree entirely with the hon. and learned Lady. I have my own criticisms of Azerbaijan and regard it as a badge of honour that I am blacklisted from visiting. That is a particularly bad case and he should be added to the list of those we are pursuing internationally at every opportunity.

 

I want to allow as many people as possible to speak, so I will make just two points to finish. First, as I indicated, I am encouraged by the Foreign Secretary’s statements that he wants to prioritise this. I understand that the British Government intends to organise an international conference on the subject of the protection of journalists later this year, which is a very welcome initiative. As the newly elected chair of the British group of the Inter-Parliamentary Union, I intend to organise a parallel conference alongside the Foreign and Commonwealth Office one. While the FCO can try and reach agreement among Governments that more needs to be done on as wide a basis as possible, we can try to mobilise parliamentarians from different countries to give this priority. I look forward to working with the Minister in due course.

 

Secondly, there have been calls for a UN special representative for the safety of journalists. That would demonstrate the importance with which the issue is held by the UN. At present, it comes within a broader remit, but the specific appointment of somebody to highlight the safety of journalists would help. I understand that something like 30 countries have signed up to that proposition, so I hope the Government would consider adding our support in due course.

 

Sadly, there are a lot of cases and I could spend a great deal of time talking about them. Hon. Members have taken the opportunity to raise some of them. I am encouraged that so many of them have come to the debate, so I will deliberately keep what I say short so that as many as possible have the opportunity to contribute.

My right hon. Friend said in her statement that alternative arrangements making use of technology could be put in place that would render the backstop unnecessary. Will she therefore incorporate those arrangements and go back to the EU and ask for a free trade agreement along the lines that Michel Barnier proposed and said was the only way to ensure her red lines were not breached, and which would deliver on what the British people voted for?

 

The alternative arrangements are specifically referenced in the withdrawal agreement, and of course what we are looking for, and have set out in the political declaration and the proposals the Government have put forward, is indeed a wide-ranging free trade area; it is just a better one than the EU was proposing to us.

I thank my right hon. Friend for the Government’s support for Ukraine in the face of increased Russian aggression. Will she look at ways of stepping up pressure on Russia to release not just the 24 sailors, but the 68 other Ukrainian political prisoners held in occupied Crimea and in Russia, and to cease the blockade of Berdyansk and Mariupol in the sea of Azov?

 

 

As my right hon. Friend points out, recent events in Ukraine are not the only example of Russian aggression, and in fact they fit into a pattern of Russian behaviour. We will continue to press for appropriate action to be taken in these matters. As I said in response to a previous question, the UK has been leading in the EU in pressing for sanctions, and we will continue to do so. I look forward to discussing with EU leaders the further steps that can be taken.

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs if he will make a statement on Russian action in the sea of Azov and the subsequent declaration of martial law in parts of Ukraine.

 

I thank my right hon. Friend for his question. As my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary stated yesterday, we condemn Russia’s aggression against the Ukrainian vessels that sought to enter the sea of Azov on 25 November. We remain deeply concerned about the welfare of the Ukrainian sailors detained by Russia and call for their release urgently. Russia has again shown its willingness to violate Ukraine’s sovereignty, following the illegal annexation of Crimea and the construction of the Kerch bridge.

 

The United Kingdom remains committed to upholding the rules-based international system, which Russia continues to flout. Our position is clear: Russia’s actions are not in conformity with the United Nations convention on the law of the sea or the 2003 Russia-Ukraine bilateral agreement, which provides free passage in the sea of Azov, including for military ships. The United Kingdom ambassador reiterated that position at emergency meetings held yesterday at NATO, the European Union, the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe and the UN Security Council.

 

In response to Russian aggression, the Ukrainian Parliament agreed to impose martial law in 10 Ukrainian regions for 30 days, commencing at 09:00 local time on 28 November. We welcome President Poroshenko’s reassurances that martial law will not be used to restrict the rights and freedoms of Ukrainian citizens, and that full mobilisation will be considered only in the case of further Russian aggression. We also welcome the Ukrainian Parliament’s resolution confirming that presidential elections will go ahead on 31 March 2019.

 

Does my right hon. Friend agree that this represents a serious escalation of the ongoing conflict between Russia and Ukraine, which has already led to over 10,000 deaths in Donbass since 2014? Will he recognise that we, as signatories of the Budapest memorandum, have a special responsibility? May I therefore welcome the support we are already giving, including the announcement by the Defence Secretary, following his own visit to Donbass very recently, that we will be deploying HMS Echo to the Black sea in 2019?

 

May I also welcome the Minister’s statement that what Russia has done is a clear breach of international law? Will he now specifically seek to find opportunities for the Prime Minister to discuss this with President Poroshenko? Will he reiterate his call for the immediate release of the 23 sailors now being held by the Russians, some of whom we understand are now in Simferopol in occupied Crimea and six of whom are badly wounded?

 

Will the Minister also look at imposing personal sanctions on the military personnel who have already been shown to be involved in co-ordinating this operation, as well as at increasing the economic sanctions on Russia, at least to the level that Canada and the United States are already imposing?

 

 

Again, I thank my right hon. Friend. Yes, he refers to a serious escalation that the recent incidents have illustrated, and the UK Government absolutely agree with him on that. I am pleased that he mentioned the recent visit of my right hon. Friend the Defence Secretary. On other proposals, we have no plans to change our conduct of activity in the area.

 

My right hon. Friend asked whether this is a breach of international law. The United Kingdom’s assessment is that, under the UN convention on the law of the sea, states can require any warship not in compliance with the laws and regulations of the coastal state to leave immediately. However, Russia’s actions in ramming, boarding and seizing vessels do not conform with the law of the sea. Russia’s actions were disproportionate, particularly as the ships had left the area and were returning to the Black sea. The 2003 sea of Azov bilateral treaty between Ukraine and Russia provides for the free passage of the military and civilian vessels of both states through the Kerch strait and in the sea of Azov, so my right hon. Friend is right to suggest that this is a breach of international law. I know the Prime Minister has today received a request to speak to the Ukrainian Prime Minister and that, in her busy timetable, she will be giving that urgent consideration.

 

On sanctions, measures have been taken in the past in relation to previous activity by Russia and sanctions were recently considered in relation to both the Crimea annexation and of course the building of the Kerch bridge. Any further sanctions will be considered in co-operation with European partners and others. It is very important that there is a sense of unity in response to what has taken place. The United Kingdom was active in calling a meeting of EU partners yesterday, and the other meetings that took place also saw a very strong response from the United Kingdom and others.

 

The House is right to see this as a serious matter, and it is important that it is not escalated further. That is why we have indeed called for the immediate release of the sailors, and we ask that all parties act with restraint but certainly recognise where the act of aggression came from in the first place.

My right hon. Friend said that one of the benefits of leaving the EU is the ability to sign trade agreements with third countries, but what realistic prospect is there for that while we remain within the customs union and even after that, when we have pledged to maintain

 

“deep regulatory and customs cooperation”

 

covering goods—probably the very goods that people want to sell to us?

 

We will be able to sign free trade arrangements with the rest of the world, and we already have significant interest from various parts of the world. I take my right hon. Friend’s point about our proposal on frictionless trade with a commitment—subject to a parliamentary lock—in relation to the common rulebook on goods and agricultural products. Of course, many of those rules are international standards; they are not just EU-related standards, but standards that our manufacturers would abide by in any case. That is a key issue. We want to have good trade relations and agreements not only with countries in the rest of the world, but with the EU.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his visit to the frontline in Donbass recently. In the light of the illegal seizure of the Ukrainian vessels yesterday, will he look to see what further support we can give to Ukraine?

 

The whole world is in shock about what has happened, and I very much hope that this is something that can be looked at by the United Nations in terms of what action can be taken against Russia for displaying such aggressive behaviour against its neighbour.

Is my hon. Friend aware of the concerns expressed by a number of organisations campaigning for media freedom, such as Reporters Sans Frontières, that the Interpol wanted person alert system is being abused by countries that are opposed to a free press, to target and silence journalists? Does she agree with these organisations that there needs to be a review of the thousands of alerts currently sitting on that system and that countries that abuse the system should be held to account? Does she also share my concern that this is hardly likely to happen under the Russian candidate for the presidency?

 

I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend’s extensive work in this area and thank him very much for putting those important points before the House today. As he knows, article 3 of Interpol’s constitution forbids the organisation to undertake any intervention or activity of a political nature. Any such misuse of Interpol notices is taken very, very seriously by this Government. The UK continues to take a strongly supportive stance in relation to Interpol’s efforts to ensure that systems are in place to protect human rights—indeed, the Home Office has been highly proactive in its engagement with Interpol on this matter. I appreciate the important work that my right hon. Friend mentioned. I assure him that the UK will continue to be a staunch friend of those who are on the side of human rights and media freedom around the world.

I welcome my right hon. and learned Friend’s recognition that the economic difficulties facing Johnston Press are the same ones that are now affecting all local newspapers, and that this situation is contributing to a real threat to the proper functioning of local democracy. Will he consider that one way of addressing this is to build on the BBC’s local democracy initiative, which is already funding 150 journalists? The obvious people to make an extra contribution towards this initiative are the internet technology giants, which are responsible for at least some of the problems now affecting newspapers.

 

I will first address my right hon. Friend’s second point. He is right that we need to consider the impact on local news of the increasing transfer of particular advertising to online platforms. Of course, it is also important to consider how we ensure that content is properly paid for when it is used. He is also right that local democracy reporters have a part to play. It is important to note that the content they produce is made available to local newspapers, and I am sure that this assists those local newspapers in producing copy.

Further to that question, without in any way wishing to diminish the horror of what happened to Mr Khashoggi, is the Secretary of State aware that Mr Khashoggi is one of 72 journalists, citizen journalists and media assistants who have been killed so far this year, according to Reporters Sans Frontières? May I, therefore, very much welcome his statement about looking to see what more can be done to protect journalists and urge him to pursue that internationally?

 

I am very happy to heed the advice of my right hon. Friend on that point. I had not heard the 72 number, but it is very sobering. All I would say is that, at the moment, there is a worrying trend, almost a fashion, towards autocracy and regimes thinking that they can attack freedom of expression and media freedom with impunity. That is something that the UK could never stand aside and allow to happen.

Does my right hon. Friend appreciate the frustration felt by many of my constituents and others that it is now over two years since the referendum and we have agreed that we will not regain control of our laws, borders and money for over four years after the referendum? Does she understand that for many of them and us that is already too long?

 

I absolutely understand. Some people have said to me that we should not have triggered article 50 when we did. I think it was important that we triggered it when we did. We took time to prepare, but then triggered it precisely in order to get this process into place. My right hon. Friend will know the process within article 50 is for two years. That is why we will leave the EU on 29 March 2019. What we are working to ensure is that we get the future relationship in place at the end of that implementation period, an implementation period that I believe was right and necessary to negotiate to ensure that for both citizens and businesses there were not two cliff-edges in the changed relationship with the EU, but we have a smooth and orderly withdrawal and movement into the future partnership.

My right hon. Friend has set out very powerful evidence that a British citizen died on British soil as a direct result of a Russian assassination, but she will be aware that there have been a number of other deaths in Britain in the past few years of Russian citizens or of people with close connections with Russia. Can she say whether those cases are now being actively re-examined?

 

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise that issue. There have been a number of cases—the number of 13 or 14 comes into my head—and they have indeed been reconsidered by the police, who have looked at all the evidence in relation to those matters. I understand that a letter will shortly be going to the Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee setting out the outcome of that, but I understand that there is no cause for further consideration of those cases.

May I confirm what the Chairman of the Select Committee has just said? Mr Barnier said to us in Brussels yesterday that the Chequers proposal fundamentally undermines the single market and is unacceptable. He went on to say, however, that he was keen to negotiate a free trade agreement, with associated agreements in the other areas that the Secretary of State has described. Is not it now time, therefore, to abandon the flawed proposal that is not going to work, and instead try to achieve an agreement that delivers Brexit and preserves the fullest level of co-operation?

 

I always listen very carefully to my right hon. Friend’s advice. I do not think that, having presented our proposals, we are going to roll over for Brussels. We are going to explain them to Michel Barnier and answer the questions, practical and others, he has raised. We are confident that our proposals respect the key and core equities and core principles of the EU, but also resolve all the issues we need to see resolved around frictionless trade at the border, critically, in terms of our future relationship, avoiding any need for recourse to the Irish backstop.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the financial settlement contained in the withdrawal agreement is one of our strongest bargaining cards? Will he therefore include in the Bill provisions to ensure that its full payment is conditional on our achieving a satisfactory outcome to negotiations?

 

As ever, my right hon. Friend makes a powerful point, and as the EU says, there is no deal until the whole deal is concluded. The withdrawal agreement must come alongside a framework for the future partnership agreement—article 50 requires that—and if one party does not meet its side of the bargain, that will inevitably have consequences for the deal as a whole.

 

I begin by warmly congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard) on securing this debate, which covers a matter of considerable concern, both in this country and across Europe. I think we saw evidence of that yesterday, when the Prime Minister gave her statement following the NATO summit. In the questions that followed, five hon. Members raised the issue of Nord Stream 2 and expressed concern about its consequences.

 

That concern has been echoed in Governments across Europe. My hon. Friend said that he had spoken to the President of Latvia, the former President of Poland and to Italy. As he knows, I chair the all-party parliamentary groups on Ukraine, Moldova, Lithuania and Belarus, and when the Moldovan and Lithuanian Foreign Ministers visited London they raised Nord Stream 2 as a specific concern and potential threat to the security of their countries. Last week at the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly in Berlin, I participated in a meeting organised by the Ukrainian delegation to highlight many of the points that my hon. Friend made so forcefully.

 

When my right hon. Friend the Minister has discussed Nord Stream 2 in the past—I have raised it with him—he has suggested that it is primarily a commercial matter and, because the UK is at the far end of a long pipeline, it is of less concern to us. However, I hope he will recognise the security implications that we must take seriously. First, is this a commercial matter? It is hard to see any commercial justification for the massive investment that Nord Stream 2 will require. The existing pipeline, which crosses through Ukraine, does a pretty good job. It is highly flexible, allowing fluctuations in gas pressure, and it has spare capacity. It may need some investment to bring it up to modern standards, and that could cost an estimated $100 to $300 million a year.

 

On a recent trip to Brussels, I spoke to the Commission about its plans for a net-zero target, which would bring a significant reduction in gas demand across north-western Europe. One would think that that would revise yet further the commercial case for a new pipeline such as Nord Stream 2.

 

My hon. Friend makes a good point. The more one looks at the economic case for the investment, the harder it is to see. The cost of building Nord Stream 2 is estimated at $17 billion, and it will not add to capacity as there is spare capacity in the existing pipeline. Ukraine moved about 94 billion cubic metres of gas last year, which left 55 billion cubic metres of spare capacity. It difficult to see any significant increase in demand—in actual fact, as he points out, there may well be a reduction.

 

The commercial justification simply does not add up. In a recent analysis of the economics, Sberbank said, “The Power of Siberia”—another gas pipeline—

 

“Nord Stream-2 and Turkish Stream are all deeply value-destructive projects that will eat up almost half of Gazprom’s investments over the next five years. They are commonly perceived as being foisted on the company by the government pursuing a geopolitical agenda.”

 

We are extremely familiar with the idea that Gazprom is used by the Russian Government as an instrument to deliver their political objectives. In the last decade or so, we have seen the Russian Government use gas as a weapon on numerous occasions—particularly in 2009 and 2014—either reducing the amount or, in some cases, cutting off supply altogether.

 

The Russians use gas because they have the overwhelming supply for most of Europe, and they do not hesitate to deploy it as a political weapon. The new chairman of the Ukrainian gas company Naftogaz, Clare Spottiswoode, will be familiar to many of us here, as for a long time she was the regulator for energy markets in the UK. She did a fantastic job in the UK of fostering competition among gas suppliers, because she believes, as I do, that the way to provide the best service to consumers is by increasing competition, yet she points out that Nord Stream 2 will have a detrimental effect on competition. It is anti-competitive and it will increase the monopolistic stranglehold of Gazprom, and behind it the Russian Federation.

 

As my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin pointed out, Nord Stream 2 is essentially a political tool. The Polish Prime Minister has described it as a new hybrid weapon. If it replaces the Ukrainian gas pipeline—I think all of us believe that is the long-term objective—the consequence will be for Ukraine to lose up to 4% of its GDP, with an effect on government spending of a cut of about $2.3 billion. This is an economy that is already suffering, with Ukraine having part of its territory under occupation, notably its manufacturing heart in the east. The loss of the pipeline would be a further economic blow to a country that is already finding things difficult.

 

The consequences for Ukraine, however, are not only economic. The building of Nord Stream 2 and Europe no longer having to rely on Ukraine as a transit country for its supply of gas would remove one of the critical obstacles that stands in the way of further Russian aggression against Ukraine. The need to preserve the existing pipeline has to some extent acted as a disincentive to Russia; removing that disincentive could allow it to increase its military aggression against Ukraine.

 

As my hon. Friend said, Germany is phasing out nuclear power and, in all likelihood, we shall if anything increase our dependence on Russian gas, and yet at the same time we are engaged in hybrid warfare, as has been pointed out in debates in Parliament on a number of occasions: Russia occupies a part of Ukraine in the Crimean peninsula; it supports separatist movements in eastern Ukraine; it interferes in elections, in particular in the United States and in France; it runs a disinformation campaign through black propaganda; and of course our Government hold it responsible for the murder of a British citizen on UK soil and for the attempted murder of several others. This is not the time to make ourselves more vulnerable to Russian pressure by allowing Russia to increase its stranglehold on gas supply into Europe.

 

I therefore very much agree with my hon. Friend, and I congratulate him. I hope that the Minister will express—perhaps in stronger terms than we have heard before now—the concerns that exist in the British Government should that project go ahead.

I welcome my right hon. Friend’s support for Ukraine and the recognition of the potential threat of Nord Stream 2. Will she confirm that there is absolutely no question of any NATO member country recognising the illegal annexation of the Crimean peninsula by the Russian Federation?

 

We are very clear—as was, I think, everybody around that table—that an illegal annexation took place. Significant support was shown for Ukraine around that table. There are of course requirements on Ukraine and Georgia for their potential future membership of NATO, but we look forward to working with them to help them to meet those requirements.

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