House of Commons
Tuesday 2 February 2016
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Business Before Questions
City of London Corporation (Open Spaces) Bill
Bill read a Second time and committed.
Oral Answers to Questions
Business, Innovation and Skills
The Secretary of State was asked—
Automotive Industry: Evolving Technologies
The UK automotive industry is already a great success, but we want to make sure that it stays at the cutting edge. We are committing almost £l billion to help develop next-generation technologies. This will make the UK the go-to location for connected and autonomous vehicles, for example, and it will facilitate automotive research and development.
I am glad that the hon. Gentleman has raised the issue of driverless cars. Britain already leads in that area, and yesterday I announced some £20 million of awards. Green energy and greener cars are also important. That is why, in the spending review recently, we announced more funding for research from Government.
20. Will the Secretary of State confirm that since 2013, when the Prime Minister announced his intention to hold a referendum on our EU membership, foreign direct investment in the British automotive industry and new technologies has been at record levels, because foreign companies are confident that British cars will be well made, whether we are in the EU or outside? (903390)
Actually, I can confirm to my hon. Friend that not only has foreign investment continued across British industry, including the car industry, but the auto industry has just had a record year, with more than £64 billion of turnover and 80% of cars being exported. [Interruption.]
That was a very funny joke, Mr Speaker.
The Environmental Protection Agency in America is suing Volkswagen for installing defeat devices that cheat emissions testing in millions of cars. What work is the Secretary of State doing with manufacturers in Britain to ensure that such devices are not installed, so that we can look forward to a future of greener cars where all cars are properly tested at MOT and the public are safe in the knowledge that more and more people will not die unnecessarily from pollution?
That is a good question. It should be very clear to all companies that if they engage in such cheating or bad practices, the Government will crack down hard on them. We will work with our colleagues in the European Commission and elsewhere to make sure that all rules are applied. We in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills are working on introducing real emissions testing, with the Department for Transport and colleagues in the European Union.
In the mid-’90s, I stood up in this Chamber and said that some day, there would be self-drive cars, and everyone thought I was mad. I am reliably told that by 2020, autonomous-drive cars will be available in the United Kingdom and elsewhere. Much of that work is being undertaken in Paddington by Nissan. When will my right hon. Friend visit Nissan and other British manufacturers, such as Jaguar Land Rover and Toyota, if he has not already done so, to talk to them about autonomous-drive cars?
I have had a lot of thoughts about my hon. Friend, but madness was not one of them.
I agree with my hon. Friend about the new technology of driverless cars, in which Britain is a world leader. Yesterday at MIRA, a world-class facility in Nuneaton, we announced £20 million of funding. That will fund some eight research and development projects in areas across the country, including in the midlands, and 14 feasibility studies. With work like that, his dream of a driverless car to carry him wherever he wants to go will come true by 2020.
Floods: Effect on Businesses
We have made £50 million available to support flood recovery across the north of England following Storms Desmond and Eva, and we have already allocated £11 million to local authorities to support the 4,500 businesses impacted. Local areas also have the discretion to provide grants to any local businesses that have been affected.
Floods have an impact on the entire local business community, which is calling for more support. At my business flood meeting in York, it called for a business recovery package, including help to maintain a customer base and to trade expediently. Will the Secretary of State look into that, and will he attend a roundtable with flood victims so that a full business recovery package can be put in place for the entire business community, not just businesses that were flooded?
The hon. Lady is right to raise this matter. Many businesses have been affected, and when something like this happens it affects the whole community. We are already looking into that. She will know that the money already made available can be used to support businesses in creative ways. On top of that, there is a £2,500 grant to help all businesses affected, and they can apply for a further £5,000.
A large number of businesses in Carlisle were affected by the floods. However, they affected not just businesses but the rugby club, the squash club, the tennis club and the cricket club in my constituency. Will the Secretary of State look at providing support for those organisations as well as for businesses?
My hon. Friend makes an important point about how such a disaster can affect the whole community, and he gives some excellent examples of that. Money has been made available to local authorities to provide such support for both businesses and others, and I will look further at the suggestions he makes.
The Association of British Insurers puts the average cost of flood damage at £50,000 per business property, yet the average pay-out under the repair and review scheme has been just £1,666. That is well down on the £5,000 promised, with many businesses yet to receive a penny. In an Adjournment debate last week, we heard about the damage caused in Leeds during the last Parliament and the promises that have not been kept in relation to that. Will the Secretary of State make sure that the Prime Minister keeps his word that “money is no object” when it comes to support for businesses that have been hit hard by the recent floods?
Of course the Prime Minister will keep his word. It is partly for that reason that the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster recently met the Association of British Insurers to discuss this issue, understand the scale of the problem and find out what more can be done. BIS officials have also met the ABI, which will make a difference. The hon. Gentleman may also be interested to know that, in the Enterprise Bill, we will bring forward measures later today to make sure that all businesses are paid on time by insurance companies.
Many of the businesses in my constituency that were flooded are lessees and do not own their own property. They would like to avail themselves of the generous support available from the Government, but landlords may not want to engage with that system. I know one particular landlord who is not interested in Government support. What support can the Government offer to lessee businesses that are looking to them for such help?
My hon. Friend is right. In such circumstances, those businesses should of course be helped as well. We know that many of them are already applying directly to councils, to which we have provided funding. They are eligible for the £2,500 grant, and they can apply for the further grant of £5,000. They will also benefit from the three-month business rate holiday.
In particular, our start-up loans scheme has provided more than 35,000 loans, worth over £192 million, and we are now putting support into growth hubs. Those are just two of the many things we are doing to encourage small businesses and give them the support they need.
We all take the very firm view that the 39 growth hubs we have created are a really good way of making sure that small businesses get the support they need at the local level. We also take the view that the people who know best how to advise and assist businesses are business people themselves. We think that is done much better the more locally it is done, rather than doing it all from Whitehall.
Most of the lending from banks is going to medium-sized firms, but a lot of smaller firms—particularly those with fewer than 50 employees, which include start-up firms—are struggling to get long-term loans. What discussions will the Minister have, or has she had, with banks to ensure that we get better lending for small businesses?
Under our terms, any business that employs fewer than 250 people is a small business, but that does not matter, because the hon. Gentleman makes a good point. Obviously, we meet the banks and encourage them. One interesting thing is the number of businesses that are looking at alternative sources of funding, such as crowdfunding and angels. Those sources are growing as businesses begin to see the benefits of them.
Small businesses in my constituency very often start up in rural areas. What steps is the Minister taking to co-ordinate with the Department for Culture, Media and Sport on broadband connections, particularly in rural areas, which allow businesses to market themselves online?
I very much agree that this is a big problem, and not just in rural areas. The lack of superfast connectivity concerns many businesses. It has been raised by the Federation of Small Businesses, and properly so. We have put aside £1 billion to assist the programme, but I absolutely agree that more can be done. My hon. Friend can be sure that this matter is at the top of Business Ministers’ priorities. We are working hard to ensure that every business quickly gets access to superfast broadband.
What additional funding and support will be made available to encourage persons with disabilities to start small business enterprises? Will the Minister meet the all-party parliamentary group for disability to discuss the matter?
Is the Minister aware that one of the biggest sources of capital for start-up businesses is the bank of mum and dad? Given that, will she seek in her Budget submission to have the restrictions on family investment in companies under the enterprise investment scheme and the seed enterprise investment scheme lifted?
Goodness me, it would be very dangerous for me to promise that I could deliver on that, but my hon. Friend certainly makes a very good point. Many people would not be able to start up small businesses without support not just from their parents, but from other members of the family. He makes a good point, and we are very happy to take it up.
A lot of start-up businesses in Merseyside are either in manufacturing or use buildings on former manufacturing sites, which are very large. I rarely visit such a start-up without it mentioning business rates. What representations has the Minister made to the Treasury in that regard ahead of the Budget? Will we see some relief for all the start-ups in Merseyside that are working hard in manufacturing?
As the hon. Lady knows, a full review of business rates is being undertaken. She can be absolutely assured that I and other Ministers make the case for businesses. My views are very much on the record—I think that we really do need to look at investment in plant and machinery. Everybody can be absolutely assured that we do not hesitate in putting forward our very strong views about business rates on behalf of all businesses.
8. What recent steps he has taken to support the steel industry. (903377)
We are taking clear action to help the steel industry. We are cutting electricity costs, tackling unfair trade, updating procurement guidance, introducing flexibility in emissions regulations and reviewing business rates. That is what the steel industry has asked for and what we are delivering.
I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. The Foreign Secretary said of China the other week in this Chamber that
“it is through the prism of steel that their claims to be treated as a market economy are likely to be judged in the European Union.”—[Official Report, 12 January 2016; Vol. 604, c. 694.]
Equally, the Ministry of Defence has recognised the strategic importance of the steel industry with the support that it has given to Sheffield Forgemasters. When will the Secretary of State follow suit? In particular, when will he pull his finger out and start battling for British steel with companies such as EDF?
The hon. Lady may be interested to know that it was the Secretary of State who asked for an emergency meeting of the European Council to discuss this issue of unfair trade for the first time and to make sure that when the EU takes action, it does so appropriately and in a speedy fashion. The EU is considering the issue of market economy status. When it puts forward a proposal, we will take a careful look at it. Even if a country does have market economy status, that does not stop the EU taking action, as is shown by the examples of Russia and the US.
As you are aware, Mr Speaker, I have concerns about a written answer that I received last week from the Ministry of Defence. It stated that
“the Ministry of Defence (MOD) does not hold a complete, centralised record of steel procurement for projects and equipment, either in terms of quantity or country of origin, over the past six years.”
Why on earth should we believe the Government’s promises on procurement when they do not even keep records in the Ministry of Defence, and what will the Secretary of State do about it?
We are the first country in the EU to take advantage of new procurement rules. When it comes to defence needs and other infrastructure projects, we should use British steel whenever we can. For example, the Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers are 94% British steel—that is 77,000 tonnes. Last week I visited Crossrail, the biggest infrastructure project in Europe, and almost all of it is British steel.
22. Under current rules, steel companies pay the highest energy taxes in Europe. Those taxes are then used to subsidise wind farms, which are made from cheap imported steel. Does the Minister agree that our policy needs to change? (903392)
I agree about the importance of energy costs, and that is an issue that the steel industry has raised time and again. We had previously announced a system of compensating for part of the cost, but we went further after listening to the industry. We needed to make a change, and we have made a change, which is a full exemption.
In her letter to me about procurement associated with Hinkley Point C, the Minister said that
“there are few companies globally that have the capacity to make the ultra-large forgings required for nuclear power plants. It is widely understood and accepted in the nuclear industries that the UK does not have the capacity.”
Given that Sheffield Forgemasters says that it does have that capacity, and that it has supplied such forgings to nuclear plants elsewhere in the world, has the Secretary of State asked the Minister what evidence was used to make that statement? Does he think it appropriate to scrutinise the rationale behind such a sweeping statement that dismisses world-class British steel manufacturers?
I do not think the hon. Gentleman is up to date on his information, and if he were to speak to Forgemasters—I am sure it would be more than happy to speak to the Chair of the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee—it would admit that it has challenges meeting all orders for different types of steel. The important point that we all agree on is that wherever possible, when steel can be supplied by British companies, that is exactly what we should use.
Last year we became aware of Tata Steel’s intentions to mothball two of its sites in Scotland at Dalzell and Clydebridge, with the loss of hundreds of jobs. Those two sites have a proud history and they are far from being, as the Small Business Minister shamefully described them, “bits and bobs”. Further job losses have recently been announced at Texas Instruments, and at every opportunity I and my SNP colleagues have pressed the Government to produce a coherent strategy for an industrial plan. Once more I ask the Secretary of State to bring that strategy for our manufacturing sector before Parliament.
As the hon. Lady will know, we work with many industries. I attend industry and sector councils, and we have strategies, including the metal strategy, of which I am sure she is aware. She will also be aware of the actions that we have taken, such as cutting energy costs, providing flexibility on EU emissions regulations, changing procurement guidance and looking at business rates, all of which will help the steel industry across the United Kingdom.
If the Small Business Minister is right about Sheffield Forgemasters, why was it so furious about her words? Why did it make clear that it could supply 80% of the components necessary for Hinkley Point C? Should she apologise to the House, or can the Secretary of State do that on her behalf? What explains the answer that she gave to Parliament—ignorance, or lack of faith in UK steel?
The Small Business Minister has absolutely nothing to apologise for, and she was accurate in her statement. As I did the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr Wright), I encourage the hon. Gentleman to speak to Forgemasters himself. As I am sure he agrees, whenever we can use British steel for defence purposes, it is important that we do.
Overall funding for adult learners will increase by 30% in real terms between 2016 and 2020. As a result, we expect to see many more adults taking advantage of the opportunities presented by apprenticeships and further education courses.
I am delighted to be able to reassure the hon. Gentleman that, while concerns were indeed expressed to us in a debate in this House about the possible threat of such cuts, the Chancellor did not cut funding for adult learners in the spending review. In fact, he increased it. As I said, by the end of this Parliament, it will be 30% higher in real terms and at its highest level in cash terms ever in our history.
Does the Minister agree that we need to understand local needs, particularly industry needs such as photonics and tourism in my constituency, to ensure that adult learners have the best opportunities to get the skills they need for employment in them?
I do. I had an excellent meeting with my hon. Friend and the leaders of his local college. Their plans are very exciting. We very much want to make a move towards greater local involvement in the commissioning of adult skills provision, so that local industries can be supported.
Is the Minister planning any particular response to the Government-commissioned Foresight report of 2014 on lifelong learning and continuous training by Dr Martin Hyde and Professor Chris Phillipson? If so, when are we likely to see that response?
All our policies are a response to that report and many other reports that have rightly highlighted the need for continuing investment in adult education through people’s long and ever-changing working lives. One of the most significant measures we are taking is the introduction of an apprenticeship levy to double the level of funding for apprenticeships—apprenticeships that are available to adults in their 30s, 40s and 50s, not just to young people.
The 30% increase the Minister refers to covers quite a lot of apprenticeships, but the position for non-apprenticeships in higher education and further education is not looking good. He has not been able to give any detail for those estimates over the next four years. In the past four years, however, very large numbers of adult learners in HE—part-timers—are down 42%. The equality impact assessment shows that scrapping maintenance grants will impact badly on them. Research from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills shows that adult learners are often highly debt-averse, which my own experience as an Open University tutor confirms. We welcome the measures for part-time student loans for 2018-19, but why has nothing concrete been done to address the decline in the meantime? May I ask the Universities Minister, through the Skills Minister, about the “Higher Education” Green Paper, which is currently a blank canvas on adult learners’ needs? Please make it good by addressing them and the economic benefits they will bring.
That was a strange question, because the hon. Gentleman had to admit that there were a lot of things he welcomed to try to sneak in a question. It was a little puzzling that he seemed to dismiss our investment in apprenticeships as if it did not provide opportunities for adult learners. The truth is that apprenticeships provide the best opportunity for adult learners, better than any alternative, and we are also extending the possibility of student finance to part-time learners. I hope he welcomes that.
Higher Education: STEM Subjects
6. What steps he is taking to increase the participation rate in STEM subjects in higher education. (903374)
Record numbers of students secured places on science, technology, engineering and maths courses this year at our universities, and thanks to the decision we have taken to end student number controls, there is no longer any cap on the number of people wishing to study STEM subjects. The number of full-time students accepted to study STEM subjects in England is up 17% since 2010.
Will my hon. Friend join me in celebrating the work and role science and discovery centres play in inspiring young scientists and engineers? Will he tell the House what plans he has to improve their reach, raise awareness of their existence and support their important work?
I certainly will. Our science centres do a fantastic job engaging with over 20 million people each year. That complements the work we are doing to boost STEM subjects in schools. Last week I was delighted to announce a £30 million Inspiring Science capital fund in partnership with the Wellcome Trust. It will allow science centres to make big investments in cutting edge exhibitions and education spaces, and reach all sorts of people who think science is not for them.
The Government’s productivity plan set out their agenda for even greater collaboration between universities and business, and we are supporting degree apprenticeships, the first of which were in STEM occupations, such as aerospace and automotive engineering. Small businesses are essential to this agenda. In 2015, the National Centre for Universities and Business reported that 60% of work placements for students on STEM courses were in small businesses.
Not content with cutting social security support for disabled people, including those in work, the Government have moved on to cuts to the disabled student’s allowance. What is the estimate of the reduction in the number of disabled students doing STEM subjects and the impact on the disability employment gap as a result of that?
The disabled student’s allowance continues to exist, and is available to all students who need it. Universities must step up to their obligations under the Equality Act 2010 to make their learning environments fit for disabled students, and that will continue to be the case.
The Migration Advisory Committee recently proposed that employers pay an annual charge of £1,000 for every skilled worker brought into the UK from outside Europe. Given that recent figures show a 40,000 annual shortfall in STEM skilled workers, has the Minister considered what effect the proposal would have on the science community and high-tech businesses?
We are, of course, considering the Migration Advisory Council’s recommendations, and will come forward shortly with our response, but through our tier 1 exceptional talent visa, we provide many opportunities to highly talented scientists to work in the UK and contribute to our economy.
Last October, my right hon. Friend the Chief Secretary to the Treasury set up a working group with Scottish Finance Ministers to plan the implementation of the apprenticeship levy, and I am going to Edinburgh this Thursday to meet Roseanna Cunningham and Ministers from the other devolved Administrations.
That is, of course, a matter for the Treasury, but the hon. Lady will be aware that the system of Barnett consequentials will ensure that Scotland, as well as the other devolved Administrations, receives a share of the tax raised across the UK to support apprenticeships—I hope—and any other policy the Scottish Government want.
The Minister has underlined the advantages of apprenticeships for older people, but it is striking that the number of younger people taking them up was less last year than three years previously. What is he doing to draw young people’s attention to the attractions of apprenticeships?
The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that apprenticeships offer a fantastic opportunity to young people, but we should not get hung up on whether people are doing one at 16 or 17, or at 18, 19 or 20. We want them to do one when it is best for them, in terms of the impact on their skills and future earnings, and also best for their employer—remember that apprenticeships are jobs, and not all employers feel comfortable taking on a 16-year-old to do some jobs. We want to ensure that young people get an education in college that enables them to make the best of an apprenticeship whenever they do one.
The all-party group on the visitor economy is currently taking evidence on apprenticeships in the catering industry. We have discovered a dearth of apprenticeships in that area. How will the apprenticeship levy assist the recruitment of chefs and others in the catering industry and help to pump-prime apprenticeships and training?
Obviously, larger employers in the catering industry will be paying the levy, and will therefore have a direct incentive to spend the money in their digital accounts on apprenticeships. Issues with seasonal work in this and other industries mean that employers cannot always commit to an apprentice for a full 12 months, so we are considering piloting an apprenticeship that could last 12 months out of, say, 15 or 16 months to make it more accessible to the seasonal industries.
In December I asked the Secretary of State about the concerns of the oil and gas industry about the apprenticeship levy and the fact that it might mean that there is a double charge, given that some are already paying levies to training bodies. I am grateful that the Minister will meet me and representatives in March, but in the meantime what research has he done and what meetings has he had with industry bodies about this, and will he commit to a date to produce that information?
I am constantly having meetings with all sorts of business groups, large and small. I know that representatives from major oil and gas companies have been in those meetings. I would be happy to meet the hon. Lady and the industry, and to carry on meeting any industry, to reassure them that the apprenticeship levy is an opportunity not a threat.
Regional Growth: Midlands Engine
I was delighted to help launch the midlands engine prospectus in December, setting out our programme of action to deliver our long-term economic plan, which aims to add an extra £34 billion to the midlands economy by 2030.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his commitment. Excellent universities, a history of manufacturing and some world-class businesses make the midlands a great place to set up a business, but those businesses need to export more. Will he say what he is doing to help businesses—particularly manufacturing businesses, such as Invotec in my constituency—to do better business abroad?
In my hon. Friend’s constituency, UK Trade & Investment has provided support for some 250 businesses in the past years, including for companies such as Invotec, which have been given support to help export to India, Russia, Japan and other places. He will know that my noble Fried Lord Maude made a statement in the other place last week, which talked about the new whole-of-government approach to exports. My hon. Friend may also be interested to know that, later this year, I will lead the first-ever midlands business trade delegation overseas.
A key driver of any midlands engine will be Goodwin Engineering in my constituency. This is a world-class steel foundry business hit hard by the Government’s massive incompetence over steel policy. It is very keen for a swift decision to be made on the Swansea bay tidal lagoon. Can we have news on that decision and, more broadly, something approaching an industrial policy?
The hon. Gentleman can have news—but not today. These are the sort of decisions that we need to consider carefully. When it comes to major infrastructure, he will be pleased to know that the Government’s infrastructure plan involves over £90 billion and that we are going ahead with it.
One of the key drivers of regional growth in the midlands has been the success of new small businesses, which rely on getting access to telecommunications as swiftly as possible. Does my right hon. Friend share my concern about the potential impact on midlands growth due to the length of time some businesses have to wait for telecoms companies to connect them? Will he press those companies to sharpen up and speed up their act?
I agree wholeheartedly with my hon. Friend. As a midlands MP myself, I have met many businesses from my own constituency that have experienced the same problem. It is something that both BIS and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport have discussed with BT and others. Although there are examples of improvement, a lot more needs to be done.
The hon. Lady is right to raise the issue of skills in that industry. The first thing is to do everything we can to help it. Of course, the crisis has inevitably led to job losses, but the measures I referred to earlier will help to protect some of those jobs. We are also talking to a number of companies in the supply chain to see what we can do with skills training to ensure that those skills are transferable.
I can assure the House that the midlands engine is firing on all cylinders, but it does need fuel in the tank. Will the Secretary of State confirm that more than £2 billion was raised in venture capital in the UK last year, which was up 50% on the year before?
My hon. Friend talks about venture capital and the importance of attracting more and more investment across the nation, and of course in the midlands, too. I am sure he would be interested to know that over the last four years, the gross value added of the midlands region has increased by 15% or £27 billion, while the number of jobs has increased by almost 300,000.
The hon. Member for Tamworth (Christopher Pincher) asked about the creation of a midlands engine. I can assure the Minister that thousands of such engines are being built by Jaguar Land Rover in Wolverhampton, just outside my constituency.
The apprenticeship levy is very welcome, although there are still some kinks to be ironed out. Will the Secretary of State say a little more about how the Government will encourage the establishment of proper apprenticeships in the manufacturing industry?
Yes, Mr Speaker, in the west midlands the levy will lead to significant new investment in apprenticeships. Companies such as Jaguar Land Rover have welcomed that initiative, and intend to pursue it with gusto. We are also setting up a new standards board, which will be led by the industry. I think that is important, because it will ensure that everyone takes part and we secure the right skills outcome.
Start-up Manufacturing Businesses
As my right hon. Friend the Chancellor has made clear, the Government continue to turn around the historic decline in manufacturing that took place under the last Labour Government. In the autumn statement and in the speech that my right hon. Friend is making today, we are setting out our commitment to manufacturing. There will be £300 million for the high- value manufacturing catapult centre—[Interruption.] Perhaps Labour Members would listen. That £300 million programme will benefit the seven catapult centres in the United Kingdom.
We have doubled capital allowances for manufacturing companies, and we have put £1 billion into the aerospace and automotive industries at the Advanced Propulsion Centre, which includes a range of measures for small businesses. That is probably why the all-party parliamentary manufacturing group, which is chaired by the hon. and distinguished Gentleman, has said:
“British manufacturing is currently enjoying a resurgence, together with a reinvigorated interest in industrial policy.”
That report was published before the last Budget. In fact, the manufacturing sector is astonished at the way in which this Secretary of State has waved the white flag at the Chancellor of the Exchequer. He has sneaked out the abolition of the Business Growth Service, sneaked out the abolition of the Manufacturing Advisory Service, and sneaked out the end of the GrowthAccelerator programme. Where is the industrial policy of this country, and what happened to the march of the makers?
I can tell the hon. Gentleman that the march of the makers is working. That is why we are leading the fastest-growing economy in Europe; it is why, interestingly, unemployment in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency is down by 60% and youth unemployment is down by 10%; it is why we continue to finance small businesses, which have received £2.5 billion through the British Business Bank and £35,000 in loans; and it is why we have doubled small business rate relief. From now on, 405,000 businesses will pay no rates at all. It is for those reasons that our economy is growing fastest—and that comes after 13 years during which manufacturing, under a Labour Government, fell to an historic low.
Many barriers, including energy costs and regulatory burdens, prevent manufacturing businesses from starting up. What discussions has the Minister had with the Chancellor about his policy of requiring businesses to return information about taxes to HMRC four times a year? Does he share my fear that that will increase the costs of businesses, impose extra work on them, and divert them from their job of actually manufacturing things?
I assure the hon. Gentleman that my right hon. Friends the Chancellor and the Business Secretary, and this ministerial team, take the need to reduce small business regulation very seriously. Indeed, my right hon. Friend the Business Secretary is giving a speech to the Federation of Small Businesses today on precisely that subject.
The Government’s track record in this regard is incredibly strong. We have increased small business rate relief, we have taken £10 billion-worth of red tape from small businesses through the Enterprise Bill, and we are raising the rates of finance for small businesses. That is why we had a record 5.4 million new businesses in 2015, which means that 25% more businesses have been created since we came to power.
We are giving employers the opportunity to design high-quality apprenticeships that meet their needs, and more than 1,300 employers are already involved. We are also establishing the employer-led Institute for Apprenticeships to improve standards and safeguard quality.
Businesses have, on the whole, welcomed the apprenticeship levy, but many are worried about how it will be implemented. Is my hon. Friend considering any sort of pilot scheme, involving a small number of businesses of all sizes, to ensure that when it is rolled out, it is rolled out smoothly and efficiently?
I thank my hon. Friend for organising one of the best attended and most interesting meetings of the all-party parliamentary group on this subject. I am doing many meetings of that kind both privately and, like that one, publicly to discuss the implementation of the levy. We will be publishing later in the spring the details of how the levy will work. There are all sorts of thorny questions, but we are talking to business about all of them.
14. Thank you, Mr Speaker. Does my hon. Friend the Minister welcome the 2,580 apprentices that have been started in my constituency since 2015, and will he join me in welcoming the “100 in 100” campaign of my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Nadhim Zahawi), which encourages MPs to go out to their employers in their constituencies and get them to take on apprentices? (903384)
I do welcome that; all the work of my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Nadhim Zahawi) is marvellous, but this is a particularly marvellous aspect of his work. I say to all Members on both sides of the House that it is a simple scheme about going out and encouraging employers in their constituencies to create 100 apprenticeships in 100 days. I urge all Members of all parties to take it up, and we will do everything we can to help.
15. Thank you, Mr Speaker. The six Cornish MPs are also leading on this and my hon. Friend the Member for Truro and Falmouth (Sarah Newton) will be launching the “100 in 100” campaign in Cornwall. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Nadhim Zahawi) for establishing that, and may I ask the Minister to pledge his support to Cornish campaigning for apprenticeships? (903385)
I certainly will, and I look forward to visiting Cornwall during national apprenticeship week to celebrate that. In my hon. Friend’s constituency there were 82.5% more apprenticeship starts in 2014-15 than in 2009-10, and I am sure he will be able to go on and double that.
In my constituency I am working with UCAS to launch a “UCAS for apprenticeships” pilot. This new portal will make it easy for local small and medium-sized businesses to take on a school-leaver, and end the divide between those applying to university and those looking for an apprenticeship. Will my hon. Friend join me in supporting this exciting local initiative backing the aspirations of north Yorkshire’s young people?
Many of the best policies are designed by Back-Bench Members and piloted in their constituencies, and I want to salute my hon. Friend for creating this scheme so soon after arriving in this place. We will watch it very carefully and look to see whether we can roll it out across the country.
Sunday Trading Laws
Officials met USDAW, the TUC and the GMB back in August, and I am very much in favour of the policy of devolving down to local authorities the powers to extend Sunday trading laws if they wish, and if it suits their local area. We may hear more about this from the Secretary of State later when introducing the Enterprise Bill; I hope so.
I take it from that that we can expect an announcement on Sunday trading very soon, but with small traders worried that their only advantage over the supermarkets is the ability to have convenient store Sunday hours and over 91% of USDAW shop-floor workers saying they do not want to work longer hours on a Sunday, just who is going to benefit from these changes?
What has been really interesting in the consultation that was carried out was the large number of local authorities who welcomed the ability for them to have powers to see what would suit their area. So if a local authority took the view that an extension of Sunday trading hours was not right for it for whatever reason, it would not have to do it. That is the beauty of this policy. It devolves the powers down to local authorities so they decide what is best for them in their areas, and I can assure the hon. Lady that a number of Labour councils welcome such a devolution of powers.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. Given that the Sunday trading laws were relaxed in the run-up to the Olympics, and given that the sky has not fallen in in Scotland where there are no restrictions, will the Government please crack on and relax the Sunday trading laws as quickly as possible?
I have made my position clear, but the ideal is that this is not about the Government imposing this on anybody. It is about giving local authorities the power to decide what is best in their area for all their shops, of whatever size, and of course for their shoppers and their consumers. If they do not want to do it, it would not be mandatory, but they have the choice because we take the view that they know best.
Britain’s high-end manufacturing continues to lead the world, and 2015 was the most successful year ever for our aircraft industry, with delivery numbers up 44% since 2010. Jaguar Land Rover is now Britain’s biggest car maker; it produced nearly 500,000 cars last year, which was three times as many as in 2009. And just yesterday, the latest figures showed that manufacturing output grew once again in January. Britain’s high-end factories are working, more Britons are working than ever before and this Government’s long-term economic plan is working too.
It is absolutely right that we look at all options to generate more employment in that area, and that is exactly what Lord Heseltine has been working on. He has been working with businesses and local business leaders, and I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would welcome that. I notice that his own constituency has seen a sharp fall in unemployment of more than 40% in the past five years under this Government, and it is those kinds of policies that we will continue.
T2. Despite progress having been made, many small businesses, particularly those in rural areas, are struggling because of poor broadband speeds. Does my right hon. Friend think that the time has come for Ofcom to consider splitting BT and Openreach or, if it feels that it cannot do that, refer the matter to the Competition and Markets Authority? (903395)
Many individuals and businesses share my hon. Friend’s frustrations and the concerns that he has raised about BT’s perceived lack of investment and that perceived conflict of interest. I take these issues very seriously indeed. It is of course right that independent regulators should look at this issue, but let me assure him that I have discussed this directly with the head of Ofcom. I will be looking very carefully at the findings of its review and if we need to take action, we will.
Well, I am not sure from that answer whether the Business Secretary thought it was fair and proportionate, but at the weekend he said that it “wasn’t a glorious moment”, even though the Chancellor had hailed it as a success. Which is it? It cannot be both. Does the Secretary of State not understand how unfair this cosy sweetheart deal with a company that seems to regard paying its fair share of taxes as a voluntary activity must seem to Britain’s millions of small businesses that are now expected to do their tax returns quarterly and have no opportunity to meet Ministers 24 times to negotiate their own private little tax deals?
When the hon. Lady’s party was last in office, some companies were regularly getting away with 0% tax rates, but Labour took no action whatever. Since the change in Government in 2010, we have closed 40 of Labour’s tax loopholes, which has helped to generate an additional £12 billion in taxation.
T6. I know that the Secretary of State and his Department are working hard to support our vital steel industry, but may I ask him what specific steps the Government are taking to ensure the future sustainability of the Tata Steel plant at Port Talbot and to ensure that Welsh steel is used in Government projects and procurement? (903399)
I pay tribute to the great work that my hon. Friend is doing to support the workers in his constituency who have been affected by last week’s unfortunate announcement of redundancies at Port Talbot. However, as the Secretary of State has already outlined, we have delivered on four of the five asks by the industry and we continue to work with Tata. When the consultants have finished their work at Port Talbot, Tata will come to us and we will continue our discussions. We will do all we can to ensure that steel continues to be produced not just at Scunthorpe but at Port Talbot.
T3. The Government have set a target of trebling exports by 2020. Can the Secretary of State explain how delaying a decision on UK airport capacity supports that aim? (903396)
It is absolutely right that we make a decision on aviation capacity in the south-east, and the Government were right to appoint an independent panel to look at this. It has come back with its findings. It is right that we look carefully at those and we recently made a statement on that. There is no doubt that when the decision is made, it will be one of the contributory factors that will help us to achieve that target.
My hon. Friend is right to talk about SMEs being the lifeblood of the economy in terms of the employment and growth that they produce. We have taken a number of measures, including cuts to tax and to regulation. Later on today, I will be opening the Second Reading debate on the Enterprise Bill, when we will announce a number of new measures.
T4. The welcome new procurement guidelines for steel are worthless unless they have an impact on procurement practice. What are the Government going to do to ensure that this is delivered properly? How will they ensure that all Departments and government contractors follow these guidelines? How will the Government assess their impact? (903397)
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point, and he will of course know that 98% of Network Rail’s tracks are made in his constituency. He can be assured that we will make sure there is real delivery on those procurement changes. May I just pay tribute to the councils of Corby, Sheffield, Powys, Cardiff, Rotherham and his own in North Lincolnshire, all of which have signed up to the new agreement to make sure that in their procurement they use sustainable and brilliant British steel?
T10. More than 4,000 people have started an apprenticeship since 2010 in Fareham, which is great news for people who want to learn new skills and for productivity. Will the Secretary of State join me in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Nadhim Zahawi) on his work in this area and in encouraging people from Fareham to attend my apprenticeships fair on 12 February at Fareham College? (903403)
If I could, I would spend every day at an apprenticeships fair in one of my hon. Friends’ constituencies—or, indeed, in an Opposition Member’s constituency. I was in Carlisle last week with my hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle (John Stevenson) at his fantastic skills show, and I urge everyone in Fareham to attend the one set up by my hon. Friend the Member for Fareham (Suella Fernandes).
T5. Tidal lagoons present a “crucial industrial opportunity for the Northern Powerhouse”,so writes Yorkshire’s Allerton Steel. Port Talbot’s Fairwood Fabrications Ltd says that “rare opportunities to redeploy skills should be seized with both hands before being lost to the region altogether”. Does the Minister agree that when the British steel industry identifies a new market around which it could build a recovery, it is time the Government sat up and listened? (903398)
As we said, we have been listening. Five asks were made and we have delivered on four of those, with the fifth being the subject of a review—I hope we will see delivery on that in due course. We are doing absolutely everything we can do to ensure that steel continues to be produced at both Scunthorpe and Port Talbot. I have to say that more jobs were lost under Labour Administrations than have been lost under Conservative Governments.
The proposed tube strike this weekend will add misery to the Monday morning commute of many of my constituents, yet the strike will be conducted on the basis of a mandate dating from June 2015. Does the Minister agree that such disruptive action should be undertaken only on the basis of a fresh mandate from union members?
Conservative Members are very clear that it should not be possible to call a strike on the basis of an out-of-date mandate, and we are legislating to stop that. We are clear and our candidate to be Mayor of London is clear on that, but Labour wants to oppose this measure and support tube strikes that will prevent people who are paid a lot less than tube drivers from getting to work over the weekend.
T8. Will Ministers confirm what recent meetings they have had with devolved Administrations, local authorities and other public bodies on their proposed anti-Trade Union Bill? Can they confirm that the proposals, particularly those on facility time and check-off, have no support across the public sector? Is it not time to dump those proposals? (903401)
No. I am simply sorry to see yet another party of opposition standing up for illegitimate strikes that cause huge disruption for people who are trying to work hard, trying to get their kids to school and trying to get to work on time. I am glad to say that the Conservatives will be standing up for working people, not trade union bosses.
Despite the Government’s excellent record on apprentices, disabled people still face significant barriers. The Alliance for Inclusive Education has raised specific concerns about the requirements for maths and English. Will my hon. Friend the Minister review those concerns and write to the alliance and me to assure us that he is taking all steps to ensure that disabled people can take advantage of apprenticeship opportunities?
This is such an important issue that I hope that I can go one better and invite my hon. Friend to come and meet me, along with the people who have such concerns. I have had other such meetings, not least with my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes South (Iain Stewart), on similar issues. It is very important that we get this right.
T9. Has the Secretary of State read the report from the Centre for Cities, which shows that a large number of Britain’s towns and cities are low-skill, low-wage economies? What is he doing to ensure that there is joined-up thinking across Government to ensure that we tackle not just education and skills but the transport links to access those new jobs? (903402)
I have not seen that particular report, but now that the hon. Gentleman mentions it I will be pleased to take a look. He is right to identify skills as a key issue in helping to create jobs and increase productivity. That is why, for example, we have introduced the apprenticeship levy and are putting forward plans for that. It will make just the kind of difference that he is looking for.
I thank the Minister for Skills for supporting the apprenticeship awards at Grosvenor House last week. We gave out awards to small and large businesses and to brilliant apprentices, as well. Would it not be great if next year we had awards for the public sector, with all the permanent secretaries at next year’s awards, after today’s Bill goes through the House, and if we saw the public sector really getting behind apprenticeships?
Mr Speaker, you will have noticed that my hon. Friend has a badge shaped like a capital A on his lapel. I am sure that we could all think of many things that that could stand for, but in his case it stands for apprenticeship ambassador. He is a fantastic ambassador for apprenticeships and I am sure that, during next year’s awards, the public sector will be able to show itself as a supporter of apprenticeships.
It was a great pleasure to take part in last week’s debate, in which the hon. Gentleman made some very important points. We are having a review, but it is a lengthy one, and he knows that I have undertaken to do everything I can to bring that forward and see that we ensure that we take a modern look at an outdated practice.
With the US presidential elections exciting audiences on both sides of the Atlantic, it is looking increasingly unlikely that the transatlantic free trade deal will be signed under the Obama Administration. This year, however, we might be able to sign a free trade deal between the EU and India. Will the Minister welcome the resumption of talks two weeks ago, after they were stalled for two years, and do everything he can to secure a deal this year?
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. The TTIP deal is worth £10 billion to this economy, and it is surprising that the Opposition are not supporting it more loudly. We are driving exports with India. As the Leader of the Opposition is in the Chamber, it might be interesting to ask whether the shadow Chancellor still actively campaigns for the overthrow of capitalism.
With Hartlepool Tata, Hartlepool Caparo, Air Products, Johnson Matthey, SSI Redcar, Boulby Potash and oil and gas industry job losses, Teesside is being hit hard. May I ask the Minister to meet me and other Tees MPs to discuss the future of the SSI site? May I also tell the Minister for Small Business, Industry and Enterprise that between 1987 and 1992, in Redcar alone, the Tory party sacked 20,000 steel workers?
I am more than happy to meet the hon. Gentleman and any colleagues, and I have met him before, to discuss this important issue. He will know of all the action we have taken, and are taking, to help the steel industry. However, he makes it sound as if, when Labour were last in office—over 13 years—they actually helped the industry. Production halved, and the number of employees fell by thousands—that is Labour’s record. It is left to this Government to actually support the steel industry.
Will the Secretary of State confirm that, in a briefing on Friday to Department for Business, Innovation and Skills workers whose jobs are at risk in Sheffield, one of the main reasons given for closing their office was:
“because phones and computers don’t work”?
Is the Secretary of State, who is responsible for innovation, seriously saying that the Department responsible for sending people to space cannot find a way to communicate properly with an office 150 miles up the road? Will he now reflect on the way this farcical announcement was made and on the lack of empathy shown to those workers?
No one takes these decisions lightly. Of course, a number of people and their families are affected, and we need to do everything we possibly can to help. However, we have an obligation to taxpayers to make sure that we spend their money wisely, and that means making sure that all Government Departments are run efficiently and effectively. Even after this change, my Department will have more people—the vast majority of people—outside London, and that is the right thing.
UK’s Relationship with the EU
(Urgent Question): To ask the Prime Minister if he will make a statement on the proposal for discussion of the United Kingdom’s relationship with the European Union, to be published later today by the President of the European Council, Donald Tusk.
At about 11.35 this morning, the President of the European Council, Mr Donald Tusk, published a set of draft texts about the United Kingdom’s renegotiation. He has now sent those to all European Union Governments for them to consider ahead of the February European Council. This is a complex and detailed set of documents, which right hon. and hon. Members will, understandably, wish to read and study in detail. With that in mind, and subject to your agreement, Mr Speaker, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister will offer an oral statement tomorrow, following Prime Minister’s questions, to allow Members of the House to question him, having first had a chance to digest the detail of the papers that have been issued within the last hour.
The Government have been clear that the European Union needs to be reformed if it is to meet the challenges of the 21st century. The British people have very reasonable concerns about the UK’s membership of the European Union, and the Prime Minister is determined to address those. He believes that the reforms that Britain is seeking will benefit not just Britain, but the European Union as a whole. Therefore, our approach in Government has been one of reform, renegotiation and then a referendum. We are working together with other countries to discuss and agree reforms, many of which will benefit the entire European Union, before holding a referendum to ensure that the British people have the final and decisive say about our membership.
The House will recall that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister made a statement after the December meeting of the European Council. At that meeting, leaders agreed to work together to find mutually satisfactory solutions in all the four areas at the European Council meeting on 18 and 19 February. My right hon. Friend’s meetings in Brussels on 29 January, and his dinner with President Tusk on 31 January, were steps in that negotiation process.
We are in the middle of a live negotiation and are now entering a particularly crucial phase. The Government have been clear throughout that they cannot provide a running commentary on the renegotiations. However, I am able to say that much progress has been made in recent days, and it appears that a deal is within sight. The publication of the texts by President Tusk this morning is another step in that process, but I would stress to the House that there is still a lot of work to be done.
If the texts tabled today are agreed by all member states, they will deliver significant reforms in each of the four areas of greatest concern to the British people: economic governance, competitiveness, sovereignty and immigration. On sovereignty, the texts show significant advances towards securing a United Kingdom carve-out from ever closer union.
On the relations between euro “ins” and “outs”, the documents offer steps towards significant safeguards for countries outside the eurozone as euro members integrate further. On competitiveness, we are seeing a greater commitment by the entire Union to completing the single market for trade and cutting job-destroying regulations on business.
On free movement, there are important ideas in President Tusk’s drafts on reducing the pull factor of our welfare system and on action to address the abuse of freedom of movement of persons.
We believe that real progress has been made, but I would stress that there is more work still to be done and more detail to be nailed down before we are able to say that a satisfactory deal has been secured.
First, Mr Speaker, may I thank you for allowing this urgent question to be placed before the House today?
It is rather strange that the Prime Minister is not here and that only two of his Cabinet colleagues appear to be in attendance. The Prime Minister—I should be pleased about this, I suppose—seems to think that he should be in Chippenham, paying homage to the town where I was born, making a speech about negotiations with the European Union, rather than first, as is his duty, reporting to this House, to which he is accountable as Prime Minister.
The Minister says that the Prime Minister does not wish to give a running commentary on the negotiations, but that is exactly what he is doing. He has gone to a selected audience in Chippenham this morning to give a commentary on the negotiations but cannot come here to report to this House. He is trumpeting the sovereignty of national Parliaments as part of the renegotiations, but does not seem to respect the sovereignty of this Parliament in coming here today to make the statement he should have done. Also conspicuous by his absence is the Chancellor of the Exchequer. Where is he this morning? He is across the road making a speech there, but cannot come here to this House—to this Parliament.
Additionally, it appears that journalists were given a very heavy briefing and copies of the document earlier this morning, if not yesterday. No Member of this House received it before them; they were given the briefing. Once again: no process of coming to Parliament, and every process about engagement with the media rather than this House.
If the Prime Minister has an unbreakable commitment in Chippenham—it is a wonderful town and I hope he enjoys his visit there—he could get back to London in about an hour by train and give a statement here later on today. Why cannot he do that?
The truth of the matter is that this whole process conducted by the Prime Minister is not about engaging with Parliament and not about engaging with the necessary questioning by MPs—it is about managing the problems within the Conservative party. I believe, Mr Speaker, that this indicates a lack of respect for the democratic process and this House. I hope that the Minister will be able to assure us that the Prime Minister will come here tomorrow, will take questions, and will in future come to this House first rather than going to selected audiences to say what people want to hear.
What my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister is seeking through these negotiations is to secure a better deal for the United Kingdom in Europe and to secure agreement to measures that will make the whole of Europe better at creating jobs, growth and prosperity than it has been in recent years. The British people will then be given their say over our future in Europe, which they were denied for 13 years while the right hon. Gentleman’s party was in government, despite three different treaties being enacted in those years which transferred further powers from this House to the institutions of the European Union.
It has always been my right hon. Friend’s intention to make a statement, subject to permission, after Prime Minister’s questions tomorrow. The timing of the release of the documents was in the hands of the President of the European Council. The draft text of those documents has been changing over the weekend, and as recently as yesterday. Clearly, until President Tusk published, we could not come to the House to answer questions on them.
I have been at debates and in evidence sessions before Select Committees when I have listened to complaints from Members from all parts the House that they were being given insufficient time to look at the detail before they had the opportunity to question Ministers about it, so the Prime Minister’s approach has been deliberately to give that opportunity to right hon. and hon. Members and then make himself available to answer questions. The fact that the right hon. Gentleman focused entirely on the choreography of this morning and asked not one question on the substance makes that point for me.
My constituency office has been able to obtain a copy of a letter sent by President Donald Tusk to Members of the European Parliament, which the Leader of the Opposition does not seem to have been able to obtain. It sets out the broad description that my right hon. Friend the Minister for Europe has just given.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the encouraging progress on issues such as Britain’s possible opt-out in future from ever closer union, the relationship between eurozone members and non-eurozone members, and the ability of national Parliaments to veto proposals from the Commission to member states, are crucial questions that have a big bearing on Britain’s future changed relationship with the European Union? Does he accept that the big issue of how far the British tax and benefits system should be enabled to discriminate against foreigners working alongside British workers in this country—no doubt other member states would be entitled to discriminate against British workers working there—needs to be settled on a satisfactory basis, and then we can get back to the big issue of Britain’s full relationship with the Union and the role Britain wants to play in the modern world?
My right hon. and learned Friend is right to say that the issues addressed in the drafts and which are a response to the four issues raised by the Prime Minister in his letter to President Tusk last December do tackle the very important issues that challenge every country in Europe and which are of the greatest concern to the British people. The one area where I would differ from my right hon. and learned Friend is that in the eyes of the people whom we are sent here to represent, the question of the abuse of free movement and access to our welfare systems is a very important one, and it is right that that is part of the renegotiations.
We in the Scottish National party support remaining within the European Union and look forward to making the positive case for the EU. Yes, it is about the largest single market in the world. Yes, it is about being able to make and influence laws that affect us, but crucially, it is also about a social Europe with rights and freedoms for citizens and for workers. These questions are much, much bigger than the missed opportunities for genuine EU reform that the Prime Minister has been pursuing. He has palpably not delivered anything near Tory promises of treaty reform.
The big questions about remaining in the EU are far bigger than his negotiations and they need full consideration by the electorate. However, we know that there are important elections in May to the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh National Assembly and the Northern Ireland Assembly, and for the London Mayor and the London Assembly. It cannot be right for these elections and a referendum campaign to clash with a June polling day on remaining in the EU or Brexit. Will the Government now take the opportunity to confirm that they will respect the electorates in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and London by not announcing a June referendum date? Will the Government confirm that there are still no safeguards in place which would stop Scotland being taken out of the European Union against the will of the Scottish electorate?
As the right hon. Gentleman knows, the referendum Bill was amended in this House to make it impossible for the referendum to be held on the same day as the elections in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and English local authorities. His right hon. Friend and foreign affairs spokesman, the Member for Gordon (Alex Salmond), has been pressing in this House recently for a six-week quarantine period between the Scottish election date and a referendum being held. Clearly, we take seriously the right hon. Gentleman’s views as the SNP’s official spokesman on foreign affairs, but no decision has been taken about a referendum date, not least because we do not yet have a deal and we will not know whether we do have one until, at the earliest, the February European Council. At the end of the day, it will be a decision for the House, because the referendum date will be set by statutory instrument subject to affirmative resolution.
Of course, for all his fulminations, the Leader of the Opposition voted against the Maastricht treaty. Having said that, how can the Minister justify this pint-sized package as a fundamental change in the relationship between the United Kingdom and the European Union, with real democracy for this Parliament, which represents the voters to whom he has himself just referred? Given that there is no treaty change on offer, what guarantee can my right hon. Friend give that, before the votes are cast in the referendum, this package will be not only legally binding but irreversible, which a decision by Heads of State, as proposed by Mr Tusk in the letter to which my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke) has referred, cannot possibly achieve?
As I am sure my hon. Friend will be the first to accept, the central document in the set issued by President Tusk today is a draft international law decision by the Heads of State and Government meeting at the European Council. That, if it is agreed, will be binding in international law and it could be revoked or amended only with the agreement of all signatories, including the Government of the United Kingdom, so it is, indeed, legally binding. When my hon. Friend has had the chance to explore the documents in more detail, I hope he will accept that, although people have for years said that we could not get a carve-out from ever-closer union, a mechanism for addressing the issue of access to in-work benefits or safeguards for non-euro countries as the eurozone integrates, significant steps towards achieving those objectives are all in the documents. Just as my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister defeated expectations in securing a cut to the EU’s budget, I believe he will defeat some of the more pessimistic expectations of one or two of my hon. Friends.
May I, through the Minister, wish the British negotiating team very well in what he has rightly pointed out is an ongoing negotiation? Does he agree that the great challenges that Britain faces, whether from international terrorism, the refugee crisis, climate change or tax avoidance, can be tackled only by us working with our close neighbours, not relegating ourselves to a position of impotent isolation?
As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has consistently said, continued full membership of a reformed European Union is a win-win for the people of the United Kingdom, because when Europe works together effectively, it can, indeed, do more for the citizens of all countries than any one country acting on its own.
The documents do point to areas where very clear exemptions would be made. Clearly, the Court is there to ensure that the treaties are observed by all member states and by the institutions, but if the drafts we have received today are agreed by everybody, and if they take the form of international law decisions and European Council declarations, they will have not just political but legal significance, which the Court will take into account when it frames its response to any particular case brought to it.
When we first negotiated the concept of a red card back in 2003—it is hardly a new concept—one of the stumbling blocks was the mechanism by which national Parliaments would come together to form a collective opinion in order for it to be effective. Is the Minister now saying that he will advocate the creation of a new European institution to allow that to happen? If not, how does he think national Parliaments will co-ordinate without the presence of Members of the European Parliament?
I do not think that needs the creation of a new European institution. I think that national Parliaments—perhaps this would also involve the strengthening of the COSAC secretariat—need to get more adept at the habit of working closely together so that, as a matter of routine, they co-ordinate in a similar way to how Foreign Ministers across Europe co-ordinate, week by week, on foreign policy issues.
While noting Mr Tusk’s language about the United Kingdom, in the light of its
“special situation under the Treaties,”
not being committed to “further political integration” in the European Union, does not the Minister agree that, if we are going to stay in the EU, we need to commit to making its institutions work better, which means addressing the democratic deficit?
Yes, I agree. That is why we tabled proposals to strengthen the role of national Parliaments as part of the system of checks and balances within the European Union. The drafts include a red card measure, which has never existed before and which many people told us was impossible.
The Prime Minister’s commitment to the sovereignty of this Parliament does not seem to stretch to actually being in Parliament on the day this question is being raised. I welcome the publication of the draft proposals, but, given that Britain’s membership of the European Union is about our continued economic prosperity, about whether we are going to protect our security in these troubled times and about whether we are an outward-looking or insular country, is it not bizarre that the Prime Minister claims that this massive decision is down to such narrow and arbitrary demands? However, if he is successful in getting those demands met, will he politely ignore the calls from UKIP and the SNP to delay the referendum beyond the summer, given that that would further destabilise our economy?
The Prime Minister has rightly focused on those proposed reforms that will make the greatest difference to increased prosperity and job creation in Europe, and that also address the chief concerns of the British people about the current terms of membership. As I said a little while ago, the date of the referendum is ultimately in the hands of Parliament, because it is Parliament that must approve the regulations to set that date.
It is important to remember that the question on the ballot paper in the referendum will be the basic question of whether to leave or remain—with all that entails for jobs, trade and Britain’s place in the world—not the specific contents of this renegotiation, the terms of which could never satisfy the desperate-to-be-disappointed Members on the Conservative Benches.
On the specifics and the substance, the document released by the President of the European Council states that
“conditions may be imposed in relation to certain benefits to ensure that there is a real and effective degree of connection between the person concerned and the labour market of the host Member State.”
What exactly does that mean, and does the Minister agree that the vast majority of people who come here from elsewhere come to work hard, pay their taxes and make a positive contribution to our country?
I completely agree with the right hon. Gentleman’s last comment. It is very important that, when we talk about the public’s understandable concerns about levels of migration into this country, we do not get drawn into stigmatising those individuals, wherever they come from in the world, who are working hard, abiding by the law and doing their very best as residents in the United Kingdom.
As I said earlier, the texts received today are drafts. We do not yet know the response of the other 27 Governments, so we will have to see at the end of the negotiation what the final deal—if there is a deal—may be. I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that, when the referendum comes, people will be voting not only on the package that the Prime Minister has negotiated, but on the broad issues of the pros and cons of membership, over which hon. Members on both sides of the House have argued and disagreed in good faith over many years.
Speaking as a member of the European Scrutiny Committee, I welcome the proposal for a red card system that would give groups of national Parliaments the capacity to turn down Commission proposals. Does my right hon. Friend agree that those, on both sides of the European debate, who have called for many years for Parliaments to have more power to address the democratic deficit should particularly welcome that aspect of the proposals?
Labour Members are united in our desire to remain in a reformed European Union. Does the Minister agree that, were we to leave, we would put British jobs, investment, prosperity and security at risk? Does he also agree that, were we to leave and remain in the single market, we would still have to pay into the EU budget and accept the free of movement of people, but we would lose our ability to negotiate over the sorts of things that are on the table from the European Council President today?
I have to tell the hon. Lady that, in my experience of debates in the House and the European Scrutiny Committee, I have found members of her party who differ from her on the question of EU membership, as well as those who share her views. She makes an important point. Norway and Switzerland show us that it is not possible to have all the things we like about EU membership—free trade and open markets—but none of the things that we might rather do without. Those are among the issues that the British people will have to weigh up when they make their choice.
May I helpfully read a comment from the paper that the Government have distributed to Conservative Back Benchers, which states that
“this package could mark the high water-mark of EU integration for the UK”?
I remind my right hon. Friend that that is exactly what the then Conservative Government said about the Maastricht treaty. We did not believe them then, and we do not believe him now.
My hon. Friend has been consistent, at least, in his opposition to British membership of the European Union for many years, regardless of the terms that Ministers suggested for such membership. I believe that he is wrong, because the kinds of institutional and legal changes proposed in these texts indicate a very different approach to the European Union—an approach that is much more grown up and accepting of the diversity of the Union today than ever before.
On several occasions so far, the Minister has referred to the process being ongoing. He has talked about taking another step and said that we have not reached the end yet, that the negotiations continue and that there is hard work to be done. Can he outline the areas in which Her Majesty’s Government are pressing for more? Are they asking for any more, or is this it as far as the British Government are concerned, and we are just waiting for others to respond?
The scope for the renegotiation was set out in the Prime Minister’s letter to President Tusk last December, and the document that we have today is a working set of negotiating texts. When the right hon. Gentleman examines them in detail, he will see that various passages are square bracketed, where there is an indication that no agreement has yet been reached. There is work still to be done on those areas.
May I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and our negotiators for the tireless work that they have done in trying to go forward and create a reformed EU? Does the Minister agree that the issues that we are talking about—sovereignty, whether we have to have ever-closer union, competitiveness for our trade and protection for vast sectors such as the City of London—are major ones? The detail is vital, and I commend him for working so hard on it. We want effective agreements and effective mechanisms, and I think the work is going well.
I am grateful to my hon. and learned Friend for his comments. I agree with him about the importance of securing these improvements for the British people, and about the benefits to the British people that can be obtained through a successful renegotiation.
Those of us who believe that Britain’s future is better in Europe still want an ongoing process of reform beyond the referendum to tackle the democratic deficit. If democracy is a genuine priority for the Government, will the Minister join me in calling for more powers for the European Parliament, the Members of which are elected directly and proportionally, to ensure that the most democratic institution in the EU gets greater powers over the Commission, the Council and the European Central Bank?
The European Parliament plays an important role in European legislation, and I have met MEPs from pretty well all political families who take their responsibilities as legislators seriously. If the European Parliament were the answer to the democratic deficit, however, we would not see the depth of public discontent with, and mistrust of, European institutions that we see in many different member states. One of the problems, which can be measured in the low turnouts in European Parliament elections in pretty well every member state, is that people do not see the European Parliament as accountable or close to their concerns.
May I ask my right hon. Friend whether the draft texts incorporate the precise and clear manifesto promises on which Conservative MPs were elected last May to restrict the payment of in-work benefits and child benefit to foreigners? Yes or no?
We will have to see what deal emerges, if we get a deal at the February European Council. I think my hon. Friend would acknowledge that manifestos tend to be written in rather less technical language than do legal texts from the European Union. If he wants the language of any deal to effect changes in how the law is applied and how institutions work, we have to use technical language to describe those changes. I believe that the content and outcome of those reforms will, if we are successful, be significant, in line with what my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has sought.
What plans does the Minister have to meet the Scottish Government to discuss the proposals in advance of any discussion of a final deal at the EU summit at the end of the month?
I have already sent copies of the Tusk drafts to all three of the devolved Governments. I did so immediately after they were released in Brussels this morning. I am making myself available for an early conversation with the relevant Ministers in the Scottish Government, and in the Welsh and Northern Ireland Governments, and I am perfectly willing to discuss with them the possibility of a face-to-face meeting as well.
The Prime Minister and others who are campaigning for Britain to remain in the European Union have been trumpeting the myth that Britain’s security is dependent on our continued membership of the European Union. However, the handout circulated by the Government Whips Office to Conservative Members just before this urgent question states that the Tusk texts apparently clarify
“that national security is the responsibility of member states, and that the EU has no business in getting involved in this most basic of national issues.”
Who is correct, the Prime Minister or the Government Whips Office?
My hon. Friend is reading in contradictions where no such contradiction exists. The treaties are clear that, as a matter of policy and legal competence, national security remains the responsibility of national Governments in the member states. The Prime Minister, the Home Secretary and the Foreign Secretary have frequently spoken about how, through effective co-operation within Europe on selected justice and home affairs measures, and through effective co-operation in counter-terrorist work and foreign policy work to deal with organised crime, terrorism and people trafficking elsewhere in the world, we can amplify the efforts that we make on our own and do better at securing objectives that matter to the British people than we could if we acted on our own.
The deal laid out by Mr Tusk is a good deal better than many Conservative Members may have expected. It will not make a difference to me—I will support Britain staying within the EU—and I suppose it will not make any difference to many Members sitting behind the Minister, as they would not countenance Britain staying in the EU under any circumstances. Ultimately, however, I hope that the deal, however it is arrived at, will be enough to persuade people who were undecided to come on board and back the campaign to remain within the EU, and to put Britain’s jobs and best interests first.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for what he has said. I do not want to jump fences ahead of the European Council later in February. We are not yet at the stage when we can say that a deal has been achieved. If a deal is achieved, then I think we can deliver the win-win outcome for the British people that the Prime Minister has been seeking.
We are going to hear an awful lot about the proposed red card scheme in the coming weeks, but given that the so-called yellow card system, which required only one third of national Parliaments to agree, has only ever been used twice and only once successfully, how likely does my right hon. Friend think it is that the proposed red card system, which requires a much higher threshold of 55% of national Parliaments to agree, will ever be used? Is it not the case that the only way for this country to regain control of its own affairs is to vote to leave?
The red card, if one is finally agreed, would, for one thing, be quite an effective deterrent against measures being brought forward that the institutions thought did not command democratic support in the Parliaments of member states. One of the lessons national Parliaments should draw from the experience of the yellow card system so far is that they could be more energetic than they have been in bringing forward reasoned opinions under that procedure. I would be delighted if the House of Commons matched the record of the Swedish Parliament or the Polish Parliament in bringing forward reasoned opinions and deploying the yellow card.
Does the Minister agree that the central issue is that if, whether we are in or out, we want lasting influence over the social, environmental and economic future of Europe, we need to stay in? This candyfloss negotiation—it is not possible to ratify it legally in a treaty, but it is welcome—may be sweet to taste, but appears much bigger than it in fact is and will not have a lasting impact unless we stay in the Union to see it through.
I really do not think that the hon. Gentleman should be so dismissive of issues that the Prime Minister has put on the table and which matter a great deal to the people whom both he and I represent in this House. There are very significant advantages to our national interest in remaining part of a reformed European Union, but opinions in the House have differed on the subject, quite honourably and openly, for many years and it is right that the people have the final say.