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.