James Cleverly, Minister for Europe, responds to an Urgent Question on legislation to broaden the designation criteria for the Russia sanctions regime.
Russia Sanctions Legislation
(Urgent Question): To ask Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs if she will make a statement on the status of the Russian sanctions legislation the Government said would be put in place by 10 February.
As my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary set out on 31 January, we are now laying legislation to broaden the designation criteria for the Russia sanctions regime. As Minister for Europe, I have signed the legislation that we will lay before Parliament and intend to come into force this afternoon. We are toughening and expanding our sanctions regime in response to Russia’s aggression against Ukraine. This legislation will significantly broaden the range of people, businesses and other entities that we can sanction in response to any further Russian aggression. As the Foreign Secretary has set out, this will amount to the toughest sanctions regime against Russia that we have had and mark the biggest change in our approach since leaving the European Union.
The Foreign Secretary is in Moscow as we speak, calling on Russia to pursue a diplomatic solution to this crisis. We have made it clear, however, that if Russia continues to ignore calls to de-escalate and respect Ukraine’s territorial sovereignty, it will face serious consequences. Alongside the United States and other international partners, the UK is preparing an unprecedented package of co-ordinated sanctions that mean those who share responsibility for Russia’s actions will bear a heavy cost.
I am grateful to you, Mr Speaker, for granting this urgent question.
I do not need to remind anyone in the House of the seriousness of the build-up of Russian forces on Ukraine’s borders. We stand united in opposition to Russian aggression and in support of Ukraine’s sovereignty. We urgently want to de-escalate this crisis and we support diplomatic efforts to achieve that goal, but our diplomacy must be matched by deterrence. On 31 January, the Foreign Secretary announced to Parliament the Government’s plan to put in place what she called
“the toughest sanctions regime against Russia”.
“The package that we are putting forward in legislation will be in place by 10 February”.—[Official Report, 31 January 2022; Vol. 708, c. 56-58.]
It is now 10 February and no such legislation has been put in place. As the Foreign Secretary meets her counterpart in Moscow, media reports suggest that the plan has fallen through. The House rises today, leaving no parliamentary time for the Government to put the legislation in place until after the recess.
This raises very troubling questions about the risk that Russian action against Ukraine could take place without the necessary legal measures in place to allow Britain to respond. What is the reason for the delay? What reassurance can the Minister offer this House that without the legislation in place the Government could implement severe sanctions if they are needed?
Promises made to this House should be kept. Hon. Members deserve the opportunity to scrutinise and debate these measures, which need to be in place. I do not want these sanctions to join the long list of measures to counter Russian aggression that have been ignored or delayed, such as the economic crime Bill, the reform of Companies House, the register of overseas entities Bill, the foreign agent registration law, and the new counter-espionage laws—the list goes on. With 130,000 troops threatening Ukraine, the Opposition stand ready to work with the Government in the national interest to get the appropriate measures in place. We can only do so if the Government keep their promise to bring forth this sanctions legislation—where is it?
I welcome the right hon. Gentleman’s unanimity of voice with regard to his opposition to Russia’s aggressive actions on the border of Ukraine. He is absolutely right that in times of high tension like this it is incredibly important that our allies and others understand that there really is unanimity of purpose across the House, and I thank him for that.
As I said in my statement, I have signed the legislation that we intend to lay in Parliament to come into force this afternoon. As I have said, the Foreign Secretary is pursuing the diplomatic pressure face to face with Russia. The Foreign Secretary, the Prime Minister, senior officials and I have regular interactions with our friends and allies both in Europe and across the Atlantic, and I can assure the House that they regularly express gratitude for the robustness of the UK’s approach. We will continue to pursue a diplomatic track, but the Foreign Secretary is making it clear to the Russians as we speak that if they miss the opportunity to de-escalate, there will be repercussions.
I welcome the news that my right hon. Friend is proceeding with the long-awaited additional sanctions, and I look forward to the statutory instrument coming to the House as soon as possible. What does my right hon. Friend believe is the position in relation to the Minsk II agreements, and what has been Her Majesty’s Government’s reaction to the proposals made by President Macron? Does my right hon. Friend agree that they could in fact make the situation more perilous for Ukraine?
We have regularly called on Russia to abide by the commitments to which it has previously voluntarily subscribed, and there is no justification for the aggressive posture that it is now displaying on the borders of Ukraine. We and France, as well as other members of NATO, speak regularly; indeed, just yesterday I was on a multilateral call with French representatives. We are co-ordinating our approach and our language and ensuring that we understand and calibrate our actions in concert, and I assure my hon. Friend and the whole House that that will continue to be our approach on this very serious issue.
I call the Scottish National party spokesperson, Owen Thomson.
I echo much of what was said by the shadow Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy). I find this situation frustrating in many ways. Obviously we all want to do everything we can to counter Russian aggression, and we all want to be doing what we can to support legislation that would make that possible. But the action taken today of laying such legislation without our being given any opportunity for scrutiny or debate, or even knowing what it can achieve, makes it very difficult for us to help the Government and to approach this constructively, which is what we want to do. I must be brutally honest and say that it is a challenging task to come up with a series of questions about legislation that we have not yet seen, although we all want see that legislation work.
Can the Minister assure us that whatever the legislation does include, it will enable actions to be taken to tackle the improper use of, for instance, Scottish limited partnerships—colleagues of mine have been calling for that for years—and the multitude of other avenues through which Russian money is being used to influence and change attitudes, as well as the cyber-attacks that are carried out across these islands and in other European countries? Without seeing the legislation, it is difficult for our support to be as full as we might have wanted it to be.
I completely understand the point that the hon. Gentleman has made. Our actions are closely co-ordinated and calibrated with the actions of our international partners. The UK has made it clear, as indeed have our friends and allies internationally, that if Russia were to pursue further aggressive actions in Ukraine, that would come at a huge cost. Of course, as with all conflicts, there would be a human cost—there would be casualties and fatalities both on the Russian side and, inevitably, in Ukraine—and we are desperately seeking to avoid that. However, if Russia does not heed our call to de-escalate, there will be meaningful sanctions in response. There will be costs. As I have said, throughout all this we are co-ordinating very closely with our international allies, and ensuring that our response is in place should Russia not heed our calls to de-escalate.
The Prime Minister has been quoted as saying that we are at the “most dangerous moment” in the next few days. I do not expect a detailed answer to my question but, to bring home the devastating consequences should military aggression occur and to bring home that we will not tolerate this increased military aggression against the sovereign nation of Ukraine, will we consider taking cyber-measures against Russia, not necessarily after an invasion but now?
My right hon. Friend will be unsurprised that I am not willing to speculate on the nature or scope of the response of the Government or our allies, but Russia should understand that, if it were to attack or present further aggression towards Ukraine, there would be a meaningful response not just from the UK but from our international allies. I will not speculate further at this time.
The Minister knows full well that every single Member of this House stands foursquare with the Government alongside the people of Ukraine. We want to guarantee the territorial integrity of Ukraine. However, the Foreign Secretary told us that the legislation would be in place by 10 February, which is important because of the recess. We were also told that it would be an affirmative measure, which means that it would not come into force unless the House has voted for it.
The Minister is wrong to say that it will just happen this afternoon. It is completely autocratic for the Government to publish legislation without any opportunity for anybody to scrutinise it. Frankly, they have just been lazy. We are Johnny-come-latelies when it comes to sanctions in this area. When will we have a debate on the Floor of the House on the measure so that we can make sure the whole House sends the same message to Russia? At the moment, it just looks as if the Government are not governing anymore.
I understand the frustration that the hon. Gentleman and others have expressed, I truly do. Our actions have been, at all stages, calibrated to deter Russian aggression and to act in concert and collaboration with our international partners. I appreciate that this House has complete unanimity of purpose in its desire to dissuade Russia from aggressive actions towards Ukraine. We are moving at pace to ensure, where possible, that sanctions regimes are in place ahead of this. We will continue to take actions that dissuade Russian aggression towards Ukraine, and we will always do so in close co-ordination and co-operation with our international allies.
What happens in Ukraine, and indeed what happens in eastern Europe, matters. It matters to this House and it matters to our country’s interests. Does my right hon. Friend agree that if global Britain means anything, it must mean that we stand up for freedom, democracy and the rule of law?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I recently returned from a trip to Washington where, across the political divide, the UK’s actions in dissuading Russian aggression have been recognised, and gratitude was expressed to me. He is right that freedom, democracy and the rule of law are foundation stone principles that we will defend. We have already given support to Ukraine, including defensive weapon systems, to help it protect itself against further Russian aggression. The expanded sanctions package is part of that message of deterrence so that Russia understands there will be repercussions if it were to pursue further aggressive actions towards Ukraine.
Despite the Russia report, despite the Opposition’s calls and despite the Government’s promises, the UK remains a destination for Russian dirty money and influence. The Minister says that the promised sanctions legislation will be in place this afternoon, although it has not been published, we are rising for recess and there is no time for a debate. Will he explain to me how we will be able to demonstrate that, as he says, sanctions will be put in place should there be any incursion or action by Russia? That is of the utmost importance to our national security and our standing.
We have worked to ensure that this extension of the scope of potential sanctions is effective and that it displays a meaningful deterrent message to Russia. We are working to bring the measures into force this afternoon, so that they are in place as soon as practically possible. The message that I get back from the international community is that it massively values the UK’s very firm response on this issue. That is the message I received on my recent trip to Washington. It is the message I receive on calls with international partners, and we will continue to be very robust in our actions to dissuade Russian aggressio‘n.
I welcome the concerted diplomatic pressure that we are putting on Russia, with the Foreign Secretary there today, the Defence Secretary there tomorrow and the Prime Minister in Warsaw today. I also welcome the fact that we are laying this statutory instrument this afternoon. What is important with sanctions is not only that we have the legislation, but our willingness to use the sanctions, and quickly. Can my right hon. Friend reassure me that we are prepared to use these sanctions, and that we will do so with alacrity if needed?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The message should be heard loud and clear, and I have no doubt that as we speak my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary is doing that on her trip to Moscow. This extended sanctions package is meaningful. If Russia was to pursue its aggressive posture towards Ukraine, there would be serious consequences, and this extension of the scope of our sanctions is absolutely part of that.
The US, far from what the Minister has just said, is said to be expressing exasperation at the failure of the Government to take tough action against the flow of Russian money. On top of that, it has taken two years for the Government to take any action on the recommendations of the Russia report. This is damaging our international standing. Whatever is happening this afternoon in terms of sanctions, can he give us an undertaking that we will be tackling that Russian money and ensuring that it cannot flow?
A number of Members speak with seeming great authority on the tone or the thinking of our allies. I have just returned from Washington, where I have spoken with elected Members and senior officials in the White House, and I can tell the hon. Gentleman and the House that the United States recognises the robust position that the UK is taking through the extension of our sanctions regime and that we will ensure, if Russia pursues an aggressive posture, that there are consequences that are meaningful.
It seems to me that for the first time in my adult life, it is our values—the values of this country and the values of the west—that are being challenged in a meaningful way in Russia and, I am sorry to say, elsewhere in the world. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is in that light that we should see what is happening on the borders of Ukraine, and it is also in that light that we should respond in terms of sanctions?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. There are incredibly important principles at stake here, and the UK and our international friends and allies are making a statement to Russia in clear and unambiguous terms that we expect it to abide by the commitments that it has previously made to respect the territorial integrity of another sovereign state and to de-escalate and step back from the aggressive posture that it has taken. If it does not, my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary is making clear that there will be repercussions.
The UK is the destination of choice for Russian criminals and kleptocrats who then use their wealth to silence journalists and avoid scrutiny, including by launching endless oppressive lawsuits. Why should we have any confidence that the Minister’s Government and party, which have done nothing to counter that—indeed, the issue has grown year on year—will suddenly impose meaningful sanctions? The US said that there was “dismay and frustration” at the failure to tackle it.
I refer the hon. Gentleman to the comments that I have already made. I have just returned from Washington and I assure the House that the UK has been recognised and thanked for the robust position that it has taken, is taking and has signalled that it is willing to take.
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s commitment to having signed the legislation and I look forward to seeing it this afternoon. That is part of the Government’s clear and continuous message to Russia that any further incursion into Ukraine would be a huge strategic error. NATO must be united in calling for a diplomatic way forward, so can he confirm that the UK Government have called for NATO partners to be as vocal as the United Kingdom has been in delivering that message to the Kremlin and, further, to match our defence spending commitments?
Last month, I attended the NATO Russia council on behalf of the United Kingdom, and the unanimity of voice with which the NATO allies condemned the aggressive posture that Russia has taken towards Ukraine was striking. Defence spending is a broader point of discussion. We are incredibly proud of the fact that the UK maintains that 2% or more on defence spending. We will ensure that we are as passionate in our diplomatic attempts as we are in our passion to support our friends and allies in NATO, including the eastern NATO allies that have borders with Russia.
If, God forbid, Vladimir Putin is watching the parliamentary channel at the moment, does the Minister think that he will get the sense that the Government and the House are acting urgently? I am not getting that clearly. There is an all-party desire to reach a peaceful solution to the crisis and for us to be seen to act as firmly as possible on sanctions. I ask him to ask someone in No. 10 or elsewhere to give a sense of urgency to it. All parties support it, so the Government should get on with it.
The feedback that I get, not necessarily from the Opposition but certainly from the international community, is that it recognises and is grateful for the posture that the UK has taken with regard to Russia’s accumulation of troops on the Ukrainian border. That is the message that I have been getting loud and clear from across the international community.
Does the Minister understand that after years of delay, yet again the Government’s rhetoric on the issue does not seem to match their actions on Russian money in this country? The Foreign Secretary is in Russia today, supposedly putting a very strong message to the Kremlin, and the inaction and inability to bring forward legislation to this place so that we can scrutinise it undermines that message.
I disagree with the hon. Lady’s assessment of the situation, because in conversation after conversation that I have had, in the United States and with other friends and allies across the world, they recognise the work that the UK is doing and are grateful for it. On the expansion of the scope of potential sanctions against Russia, we are demonstrating to the Russians that we are serious in our actions as well.
Russian troops have been massing on the border for months. Meanwhile, Putin and his friends have been behaving like international gangsters and throwing their weight around for years. Why leave it until now? Why draft a measure and, hopefully—we have not seen it yet—put it before the House just a few hours before the recess, if we are lucky? From what the Minister is saying, however, because he has not really answered the question, it sounds more and more like it will come into force after the recess. In the meantime, there could be an asset flight and Russian troops going into Ukraine.
As I said, the actions that we are taking are intended to come into force this afternoon. Our posture towards Russia has been consistent. We have made it clear for some time—as the Foreign Secretary did on 31 January—that the UK intends to increase the scope of our sanctions regime so that we can take meaningful action, in co-ordination and concert with international partners. That is intended to send a clear message to Russia that its aggressive posture is unacceptable, that it needs to de-escalate and that, if it were to pursue aggressive actions against Ukraine, there would be meaningful consequences.
I really do not understand why this is all so last-minute. Is the Minister comfortable with his Government’s approach of ignoring the recommendations of the Russia report? It is important to note that the Intelligence and Security Committee—a cross-party Committee of both Houses of Parliament—made clear recommendations after taking a lot of evidence and scrutinising the issue of Russian influence on this country. Why have those recommendations not been taken up by his Government?
As I have said a number of times, in my interactions with our friends and allies both on my recent trip to the United States of America when I represented the UK at the NATO-Russia Council and on international calls, the UK’s firm posture towards Russia has been recognised, and our international partners are grateful for it. To ensure that our sanctions regime and any potential sanctions that we impose are effective, co-ordination with our international partners is incredibly important. I am intensely proud of the position that the UK has taken in support of Ukraine, in support of the international rules-based order and in support of our friends and allies around the world. The UK will continue to be at the forefront of attempts to de-escalate the situation and support the Ukrainian people.
I thank the Minister for his answers. Has he had communications with other NATO leaders regarding Macron’s lone-wolf approach to Putin and ensuing comments that demonstrate a shift from standing NATO policy towards reaction to potential attack? Will he reaffirm the Government’s commitment to NATO’s approach against Russian aggression?
The UK remains a committed member of NATO, and I assure the hon. Member and the House that the UK, France, the United States of America and other members of the Quint speak regularly. My most recent conversation with international partners was yesterday, when we had a detailed debrief of President Macron’s talks with Vladimir Putin. We work in close co-ordination with international partners, and I assure him that that close co-ordination, whether through sanctions or our diplomatic efforts, will continue.