House of Commons
Wednesday 3 February 2016
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
UN World Humanitarian Summit
Our country has bold ambitions for the world humanitarian summit, which comes at a critical time given that there are currently more displaced people globally than at any time since the second world war. We are working with a range of partners, including UN agencies, Governments, non-governmental organisations and the private sector, to ensure that the summit delivers transformative change to crisis response.
Child protection has been desperately underfunded in global humanitarian efforts. One in 10 children now lives in conflict-affected areas, and UNICEF warns that at least 3 million children are caught up in emergencies and need psychosocial help. Will the Prime Minister be part of the UK delegation, and will he commit to making child protection one of the UK’s key priorities at the summit?
We have not finalised the UK delegation yet, but I can assure the hon. Gentleman that the issue of child protection has been very much at the core of all our humanitarian responses, not least, most recently, in Syria. The UK worked with UNICEF to put in place so-called safe zones in many of the refugee camps to enable children to be reunited with their families if they had got lost.
What discussions does the Secretary of State expect to take place at the summit on support for those fleeing violence and persecution? Will she support efforts at the summit to ensure that lower and middle-income countries hosting refugees and displaced people have long-term, predictable financing, and that refugees themselves have the right to work and contribute to the society and economy to which they move?
The hon. Gentleman asks a very pertinent question. The Syria conference in London tomorrow will look at this very issue of respecting the fact that refugees are, on average, a refugee for 17 years. We need to go beyond providing traditional lifesaving support to meet such broader needs—not just jobs, as he says, but getting children into schools. The Syria conference tomorrow is a key moment not just to respond to that crisis, but, more broadly, to show a new model of responding to protracted humanitarian crises around the world. I hope we can then take that forward at the world humanitarian summit.
Given that many humanitarian crises are caused by conflict, will my right hon. Friend make sure that the UK delegation presses the United Nations at the humanitarian summit to be more effective in conflict resolution and prevention, thus solving a lot of the problems that many women and children in our world are facing?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. In fact, when I had the privilege of chairing the UN Security Council last October, the issue we talked about was the need for the international community and the Security Council itself to look at fragile countries before conflict hits and perhaps to have better early warning systems, whether on human rights or any other area, to highlight where we need to do work in advance to keep peace and stability, rather than having the costly after-effects of responding to war.
What work is my right hon. Friend doing to ensure that humanitarian aid is joined up with longer-term development aid?
The world humanitarian summit is a key opportunity for us to knit these agendas together clearly. At the moment, I would describe the humanitarian system as a hospital that only has an accident and emergency department. From the start of such crises, we need not only to think ahead about how we can deal with the day-to-day challenges that refugees and people affected face, but to begin to build in long-term solutions so that they can get their lives back on track. That is why the issues of jobs in particular, getting children into schools and helping host communities—the communities that host the refugees—to cope are so important.
Where is Mr Hendry? The fella has just asked a question and has beetled out of the Chamber. We are still having exchanges on that question. I know the hon. Gentleman is a new Member, but he must learn that a Member must not ask a question and then leave. There are continuing exchanges on the matter, and I am sure the hon. Gentleman is at least as interested in the opinions of others as he is in his own. It is quite extraordinary behaviour.
May I press the Secretary of State to advocate a presumption of denial of arms exports to countries of concern as a UK innovation that could help to save lives around the world?
As the right hon. Gentleman knows, we have one of the strictest arms control regimes in the world. We should make sure that those processes are working effectively. My Department provides leadership in ensuring that when crises hit, the UK plays a leading role in making sure that the affected people have the adequate, long-term support they need. That is important because, as the humanitarian high-level panel said, 125 million people in the world now live through humanitarian support. That is the equivalent of a country, but they do not have a Head of State at the UN speaking up for them. That is why the rest of us need to work as hard as we can to make sure not only that they are listened to but that their needs are met.
The Secretary of State will be aware that the biggest humanitarian crisis we face is the refugee crisis. The House respects the work that the Government have done on the Syria conference and investing in the camps, but what about the refugees, particularly child refugees, who are not in the camps? We heard this week that for the first time since the crisis began women and children make up the majority of the refugees who are travelling to Greece. How many child refugees who are not in the camps do the Government propose to take?
On the broader issue, the hon. Lady will know that the UK and UNICEF set up the “No Lost Generation” initiative, which has enabled half the children affected by the Syrian crisis to be in school. More broadly, on the relocation scheme we have put in place, this is the right way to help vulnerable refugees to relocate out of the region if they need to. We are working with UN agencies to identify the most vulnerable people and are talking to them about how that can be extended to unaccompanied children. The good news is that because of the hard work of agencies such as UNICEF, which are funded by the UK, the overwhelming number of children—more than 85%—who arrive in countries such as Jordan and Lebanon unaccompanied are reunited with their families.
Energy Access: Africa
Two-thirds of Africa does not have access to electricity. The Department for International Development wants to play a leading role in changing that, including through the Energy Africa campaign, which will accelerate the market for transformative household solar systems and so contribute to the global goal of universal access by 2030.
Will the Minister outline for the House what opportunity he sees for British entrepreneurs and companies to help the Department achieve its ambition of ending fuel poverty in Africa?
One of the things we are most excited about in the Energy Africa campaign is that some of the most effective leadership on the continent is coming from companies that are British, that were set up by British people or that are backed by British people, such as Azuri Technologies and M-KOPA. DFID’s commitment to ongoing research through the Mission Innovation initiative, which is worth about £100 million, will create opportunities for many British companies to be involved in that important research.
Will the Minister confirm whether discussions are taking place with African nation states to ensure that solar energy becomes a high priority in those states, so that we can assist them in providing the much-needed energy supplies to their residents?
I certainly can confirm that. I have had a number of bilateral meetings with African Ministers and have signed up seven countries to the Energy Africa campaign, which is all about accelerating their citizens’ access to household solar systems. In my experience—I have seen this in Ethiopia—such systems can transform the prospects of a family. It is a high priority for those countries and for us.
Will the Minister broaden his horizons? This country has so much expertise in our universities and our big energy and waste companies. There are also a lot of social enterprises that know about this stuff. Will he bring them together and give us the opportunity to help people in Africa to set up these things for themselves?
I am absolutely with the hon. Gentleman on this, as on so many things. There is a huge amount of expertise in this country that we can, should and want to connect to leaders in African countries. Those leaders know that making it easier for their citizens and businesses to access energy is fundamental to development. It is a top priority for us.
DFID’s inclusive growth diagnostic identifies energy access as a major blockage to inclusive growth, and the research by the Catholic Agency for Overseas Development on small businesses in developing countries identifies a lack of access to reliable electricity as one of the top 10 barriers to development. I welcome DFID’s support for household solar power, but how does it plan to expand that—for example, through clean cooking technology—and what steps is it taking to prioritise clean energy across the board in developing countries, rather than carbon-intensive and fossil fuel generation, to ensure that we do not undermine the climate change targets?
Yes, I mentioned the Energy Africa campaign, and that and the household solar system is just one piece of DFID’s offer to Africa, which totals more than £1.5 billion of investment. A contribution to the African renewable energy partnership of around 2GW will connect about 20 million people through that initiative alone. The DFID offer is broader than just the household solar system, and it encompasses a wide range of renewable technologies.
Eighty per cent. of Yemen’s population are in need of humanitarian aid, and 7.6 million people face severe food shortages. Some 320,000 children under the age of five are severely malnourished, there are 2.5 million displaced people, and there were 8,000 civilian casualties last year. Yemen must be one of the least eligible places to be.
I thank the Minister for setting out the worrying situation in Yemen. There are other problem areas of the world, such as Syria, but Yemen is one of the world’s hidden problems. What can the Government do to enable NGOs to at least get food aid and clean water into Yemen to those who are so desperately in need?
We started by doubling our aid last year, and last week the Secretary of State announced that that aid would increase by a further £10 million to £85 million. In September, she led a side event at the UN General Assembly, at which she secured from other donors a further £85 million. We are working on the UN verification and inspection mechanism to ensure that more food and shipping get into Yemen.
That additional aid is welcome, but at the same time we are supplying arms to one side in the conflict. Is it time that this country supported an international, independent inquiry into concerns about the abuses of international humanitarian law, and in the meantime suspended all arms sales to Saudi Arabia?
We have supported the UN Human Rights Council resolution that requires the Government of Yemen to investigate those matters, with the support of the UN.
Is DFID’s good work in Yemen being undermined by UK arms sales to Saudi Arabia?
What undermines UK aid, and what makes that aid ever more necessary yet harder to deliver, is the violent and unlawful removal of the Government of Yemen. Only a peace process to restore that will end the suffering.
If we are concerned about arms exports to Saudi Arabia, which fuel the conflict in Yemen, why are the Government not pressing ahead with setting up the cross-party quadripartite committee on arms exports, so that Parliament can control that better?
As the Prime Minister pointed out, we have the most stringent and robust arms export regulations in the world. We have supported the UN Human Rights Council resolution, and we are committed to the investigation of every abuse or abrogation of international law.
The Minister will be aware that Saferworld, Oxfam, UNICEF, and Save the Children take the position that DFID’s work in Yemen is being undermined by UK arms sales. How can the Minister continue to insist that a UK-replenished Saudi arsenal being dropped on Yemen is not an impediment to development?
As I said to my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Mrs Grant), the undermining of our ability to deliver aid is a consequence of warfare. That warfare arises because of the violent removal of the lawful Government of Yemen, not because we have sold arms to the Saudis.
Female Economic Empowerment: Poorest Countries
No country can develop while half its population is locked out of that process, which is why I have placed improving the prospects for girls and women around the world at the heart of DFID’s work. I am honoured to have been appointed recently by the UN Secretary General to the new UN high-level panel on women’s economic empowerment, joining leaders of the World Bank, the IMF, the private sector and civil society to drive that agenda forward.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that there needs to be a particular focus in the poorest countries on rural development and agriculture? It is women who produce most of the food and who are responsible for its security. Does she agree that if we can improve the productivity of women and empower them, we can reduce poverty and see growth in the countries that need it?
My hon. and learned Friend is absolutely right. Agriculture is a key economic sector of most of those countries. A recent McKinsey report states that the achievement of gender parity at a regional level, so that each country matches the best progress of the best country in its region, would add 11% of global GDP by 2025—a huge economic lever for all of us to pull.
The Zika virus crossed the Pacific and went from French Polynesia to Brazil in May last year. Since then, 4,000 children have been born with microcephaly. What analysis has the Secretary of State made of the risks to the poorest women and girls in the world if the virus crosses the Atlantic from Brazil to sub-Saharan Africa? Will she promise to keep a very close eye on that and use all British scientific knowledge to ensure that it does not happen?
The hon. Lady is absolutely right. We had an urgent question earlier this week and the Under-Secretary of State for International Development, my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner (Mr Hurd), set out the research that we are now kicking off. She will also be pleased to hear that Chris Whitty, the DFID chief scientist who led our work on Ebola and helped us to shape our response to it, is currently in Brazil talking to the authorities there to ensure we manage the various risks she sets out.
Will the Secretary of State commend the work of Tearfund in Bangladesh among women in rural areas, which helps them with business start-ups and works with the Bangladesh Government to provide mobile phone banking to cut out the middle man?
My right hon. Friend mentions a number of very innovative pieces of work. I commend Tearfund for its work. Healthy economies need everybody to be able to be a part of them. That is why women’s economic empowerment matters so much.
What efforts is the Secretary of State making to ensure that other donor countries, the EU, the UN and the World Bank integrate gender into their humanitarian efforts?
The fact that we now have global goal 5 on gender equality means that, for the very first time, this is formally on the world’s to-do list. The world humanitarian summit is a key moment where we can make sure the vulnerabilities of girls and women in particular are properly pulled into the humanitarian system in terms of a response on the ground. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that two years ago the UK held a conference on this very topic to drive that forward.
DFID funds a number of organisations in Yemen to deliver aid, some of which have reported alleged breaches of human rights and international law.
The Government have so far approved £5,600 million of arms sales to Saudi Arabia, which several independent reports have connected to the bombing of civilian targets in Yemen. Given that figure and the independent reports, does the Minister believe that £75 million of aid delivered by the UK Government to Yemen represents a balanced approach to the conflict?
Actually, it is £85 million—£85 million of life-saving aid. Warfare makes it more difficult to deliver that aid and that warfare is a consequence of the violent removal of the lawful Government of Yemen—not anything the United Kingdom has done.
May I invite the Minister to reiterate that point? The greatest breach of international law in Yemen has been the removal of a legitimate Government by force. Although it is very, very easy to focus only on the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and blame it, it is that initial use of force which has caused this problem and must be seen in the context of the solutions we now want to see around the negotiating table.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. I pay tribute to his work as the Prime Minister’s special representative, and to the enormous amount he has done to bring peace and prosperity to Yemen.
Two weeks ago at the World Economic Forum, alongside the UN Secretary-General and the president of the World Bank, we launched the UN’s high-level panel on women’s economic empowerment. Last week, I joined my right hon. Friend the Chancellor and Bill Gates to set out our new commitments on malaria, which will save lives and build a safer, healthier world. Finally, tomorrow, the UK will co-host the Syria conference, bringing together world leaders to resource the life-saving humanitarian support, create jobs and provide an education for millions of people and children whose lives have been torn apart by this devastating civil war. All this—women’s economic empowerment, the steady eradication of malaria, supporting Syrian refugees to stay where they want to in their home region—is firmly in the UK’s national interest.
If the refugee crisis in Syria is not to become a permanent exodus, its people must be given hope of a better future. Can my right hon. Friend say what hope she is giving for greater job opportunities in the region?
We hope that we will be able to take a big step forward by announcing agreements with both Jordan and Lebanon that, in return for their taking political steps forward on enabling Syrian refugees to work legally, we will be able to mobilise international finance to create jobs in those countries—not just for Syrian refugees, but for host communities, too. That will be in everyone’s interest.
Malawi is the poorest country on the planet, yet our 1955 tax treaty between the UK and Malawi severely limits the country’s ability to raise taxes on UK companies based there. Will the Secretary of State commit to looking at this issue of the treaty and to making it fit for the 21st century?
This issue of domestic resource mobilisation and taxes is something that we have very much ramped up in DFID’s work over the last few years. I set up a joint unit with Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs that sees HMRC officials working with countries to help drive their tax revenues up. We will continue that support, particularly in Africa, over the coming months.
We would be delighted to have this group coming to visit us at DFID. As my hon. Friend sets out, we have a big programme with Pakistan, which is steadily enabling that country to make sure that its people are educated and healthy—two of the strongest foundations for aid independence in the longer term.
The right hon. Lady will be pleased to hear that we work directly with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees on improving registration, so that we do not lose people, including children, who have arrived. Then, of course, we have done a huge amount of work with the Red Cross to make sure that people have access to some of the basics they need when they make it over to Europe. She can be proud of the work the UK is doing, but the bulk of it is, of course, in the region itself, which is overwhelmingly where people and refugees want to stay—close to home.
The elections are an important step towards greater democracy and provide a chance to support inclusive growth in Burma. We are supporting improvements in the business climate, including in the financial sector, and we are helping to increase agricultural productivity, to diversify livelihoods and encourage more private sector investment in infrastructure.
The hon. Gentleman raises an important point. Having a viable economy in Gaza is one of the best ways to enable people living there to face many of their challenges effectively. In the meantime, the UK provides key support to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency and more directly with the Palestinian Authority. It is critical for those blockades to be removed in the end, so that we can restore a normal situation that would enable the Gaza strip to get back on its feet.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. People deserve the dignity of work wherever they are, and that goes for refugees. I have met people who were in the middle of studying for economics degrees and then suddenly found themselves living in camps in Lebanon or Jordan. Those people want to support themselves. If we can take a big step forward tomorrow in enabling them to work legally, we shall not only be helping countries such as Jordan and Lebanon, but helping the refugees who are currently in those countries.
The Prime Minister was asked—
This morning I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in the House, I shall have further such meetings later today.
Is that it? Is that the best that the Prime Minister can do? There is nothing for British pensioners and nothing for British workers, and, as both the Office for Budget Responsibility and the Treasury have confirmed, the Prime Minister’s long-term economic plan relies on more than a million new migrants entering this country before 2020. Has he got the bottle to confirm that inconvenient truth?
I will tell the hon. Gentleman what we are doing for pensioners, and that is putting a triple lock on pensions. Never again will they get the 75p rise that they got from Labour; their pensions now rise either in relation to prices or wages, or by 2.5%. I will tell the hon. Gentleman what we are doing for people who want to work hard in Britain, and that is creating the 2.3 million more jobs that have been created since I became Prime Minister. But yes, of course I believe that we will succeed more as a country if we get a good deal in Europe and stay in a reformed Europe. That will be good for jobs, good for investment, and good for growth, and that is what I am fighting for.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Yeovil makes a huge contribution to the defence of our country, not least through AgustaWestland, which is a great British business. We are committed to spending £178 billion on defence equipment over the next decade, which we are only able to do because we have a strong economy. We have also committed ourselves to that 2%, and we will make sure that the money is well spent so that we have the right equipment for our brave armed forces.
Tomorrow is world cancer day. Cancer is a disease that almost every family in the country has been affected by in one way or another: 2.5 million people in the country have cancer, and Members on both sides of the House have received cancer treatment or are receiving it at the present time. A thousand people a day are diagnosed with cancer, and they go through a trauma as soon as they are diagnosed. In the last year, however, there has been a 36% increase in the number of people waiting more than six weeks for vital diagnostic tests. Can the Prime Minister do something to bring that down?
First, I completely agree with the right hon. Gentleman that the fight against cancer is one of the great fights of our time, and it is one that we are determined to win. On treating cancer in our country, we are putting an extra £19 billion into our NHS, and specifically—he is absolutely right to say that everyone in the House and every family in the country will know someone affected by cancer—we are treating more patients. I will give him the figures. Compared with 2010, over 645,000 more patients with suspected cancers have been seen, which is a 71% increase, and almost 40,000 more patients have been treated for cancer, which is an increase of 17%. We have more doctors, more nurses and more cancer specialists, but we need to continue with the fight against cancer.
Early diagnosis is absolutely essential to dealing with cancer, as we all know from personal experience. The Government’s independent cancer taskforce reported last year:
“We currently have a serious shortage of radiologists in England”.
We need more of them, so will the Prime Minister explain why we are cutting by 5% the number of training places available for therapeutic radiographers?
We need more radiologists, and we are getting them, because we are putting more money into the NHS. He is absolutely right, however, that waiting times—[Interruption.] A minute ago the hon. Member for Wallasey (Ms Eagle) was shouting about waiting times, so I will answer the question about waiting times. There are three key targets on waiting times. The first is that, on 93% of occasions, people should be seen by a specialist within two weeks of an urgent GP referral; the figure is currently 94.7%. We also need to make sure that the first treatment comes within 31 days of diagnosis—that is extremely important—and on that there is a 96% standard; we are meeting that by 97.7%. I accept, however, on the first treatment being within 62 days, the standard is 85%, but we are at 83.5%, so we need to improve our performance.
On training, we are increasing the number of training places in our NHS. We discussed nurses last week. We are opening up nurse training by training an extra 10,000 nurses, but the crucial point is that the money is in our NHS—£19 billion more—because we have a strong economy. That money would never be there if we followed the right hon. Gentleman’s crazy economic plans.
The Prime Minister did not answer my specific question about therapeutic radiographers. Without an improvement in the numbers available, there will be a problem over treatment. That must be obvious to absolutely everybody.
The cancer taskforce also asked for
“a radical upgrade in prevention and public health”.
Programmes such as on stopping smoking and anti-obesity are essential to stop the spread of cancer and to help people live better lives so they do not develop cancer at all. If we cut £200 million from the public health budget, as the Prime Minister proposes, surely it will lead to an increase in cancer, with all the trauma that goes with it and a greater cost to the rest of the community. Will he explain why he is making this cut?
First, there are actually 1,800 more diagnostic radiographers than when I became Prime Minister in 2010. That is a 15% increase. The reason for the increase is that we said we would put more money into the NHS—a real-terms increase—which we were told by the then shadow Health Secretary was irresponsible. We ignored Labour, and we put money into the health service, and as a result, there has been a 15% increase in the number of diagnostic radiographers.
On the rest of the cancer plan, the money is being invested, but there is a key difference between England and Wales—the right hon. Gentleman can help with this—which is that there is a Labour Government in Wales. Whereas we have a cancer drugs fund, Wales does not. He needs to sort that out with that Labour Administration. As for public health, under this Government, real advances have been made, including with smoking rules for the backs of cars and plain-paper packaging and ring-fencing public health budgets—all done under the Conservatives, not Labour.
The Prime Minister is responsible for the health service in England—Wales is a devolved matter—but he must be aware that cancer survival rates are improving better in Wales than in any other part of the UK.
My question was about the cuts in public health budgets and the effect on cancer care. Will the Prime Minister tell us the last time the NHS target for starting cancer treatment within the 62 days required was actually met?
As I have said to the right hon. Gentleman, of the three big targets, we are meeting the specialist within two weeks target and we are meeting the target for the first treatment within 31 days of diagnosis. We are currently falling short of the 62 days target, something I said in the answer to question two, but he has not got round to it until question five. I think the cogs need to turn a little faster.
The right hon. Gentleman cannot wash his hands of the situation in Wales. Labour runs Wales, and what has Labour done in Wales? Labour has cut the NHS in Wales. What Labour’s great plan is is now emerging: it wants to cut the NHS in Wales and put up income tax on hard-working people in Scotland. That is right. What are Labour going to do to radiographers in Scotland? Put up their taxes. What are they going to do nurses in Scotland? Put up their taxes. What are they going to do to dentists in Scotland? Put up their taxes. We now know Labour’s plan: higher taxes for more welfare. They have learned nothing in the last decade.
The last time the two-month target was met was 19 months ago. The Prime Minister must be aware of that, and I am pleased if he is taking action to make sure that does not continue or get any worse.
I want to turn to another issue that affects cancer patients: the recently deleted provisions in the Welfare Reform and Work Bill that would have taken £30 per week from employment and support allowance claimants in the work-related activity group. Martin contacted me this week. He says—[Interruption.] Okay, it is very funny for many Conservative Members, but it is not funny for Martin. Martin says he has a close friend who has breast cancer who
“is obviously too unwell to work and cuts will put her into hardship at a time when she is most vulnerable.”
There are 3,200 people with cancer hit by this cut to ESA. Will the Prime Minister now confirm that when that matter returns to the Commons, he will ensure the Lords position is upheld and people like her do not suffer the cut he wanted to make in the first place?
Let me explain the situation to the right hon. Gentleman and the House. As everybody knows, there are two sorts of employment and support allowance: there is the work-related activity group who are able to train for some work, and then there is the support group who go on getting employment and support allowance indefinitely. That is the situation, and what we have said is that in future the work-related activity group should be paid at the same rate as jobseekers allowance, but that is for future claimants, not existing claimants, who continue to be paid at the same rate. Of course if someone has cancer and cannot work they should be in the support group. We have had this issue looked at again and again, and if someone cannot work they go on getting the welfare payments they need. That is what a compassionate Conservative Government do.
But I have to come back to the right hon. Gentleman because he cannot wash his hands of the situation in Wales. Hip operations in England have 75 day waiting times on average; in Wales it is 197 days. Diagnosis of pneumonia takes two weeks longer, and treatment of cataracts and hernias and heart operations take two months longer than in England. Labour are running Wales; he is responsible for Labour. Pick up the phone, tell them to stop cutting our NHS.
It is very interesting that the Prime Minister did not answer the question I put, which is whether he will proceed with a cut in ESA to 3,200 people with cancer at the present time. I hope he thinks seriously about this and does not proceed with this proposal. He will find that Macmillan Cancer Support, Rethink Mental Illness and Parkinson’s UK are all united in opposing this cut because of the effect it will have on people with a range of serious conditions. The Prime Minister used to say that “those with the broadest shoulders should bear a greater load”. Can it be right that cancer patients and those with disabilities on £102 per week really are those with the broadest shoulders who should bear this cut? Please Prime Minister, think again and don’t try and reverse the decision of the House of Lords on this important matter.
The people with the broadest shoulders are the highest earners in this country, and they are paying a higher share of tax than they ever did under Labour. That money is paying for our NHS and for our welfare system. I answered the right hon. Gentleman’s question very directly: if you are an existing claimant on employment and support allowance, your welfare is not changing, but in future, we should help those people who are able to get back to work to do so. That is what a compassionate country does, but it is quite clear what Labour’s policy is: cut the NHS in Wales and put up taxes in Scotland to pay for more welfare. That is not the approach that this country needs.
I am certainly keen to support silicon gorge. For a moment, I thought my hon. Friend had said “silicon George”; I was a bit worried about that. It is absolutely essential that we have a balanced economy, and that means a strong economy in the west of our country as well as in the south and the north. We are investing in vital transport infrastructure, not least the vital roads to the west country, and improving rail links as well, as I saw for myself yesterday in Chippenham. We also need to ensure that broadband roll-out is really effective across the country, and there needs to be a big focus on getting to that last 10% of homes in so many rural areas. It is absolutely crucial to make sure that they are not left out.
The timing of the forthcoming European Union referendum is extremely important. Today, the First Ministers of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have jointly called for a commitment by the UK Government not to hold the EU referendum in June as it would clash with elections to the devolved legislatures. Will the Prime Minister give that commitment today?
First, there is no agreement and so no date has yet been fixed for the referendum. We have discussed this a lot in this House of Commons and we legislated to ensure that we would not hold the referendum at the same time as the Scottish or Welsh elections. The former First Minister of Scotland—the right hon. Member for Gordon (Alex Salmond), who is not in his place today—has said that it would be wrong to hold the referendum within six weeks of those elections, and I can guarantee that that will not happen.
The First Ministers of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have written today saying that they believe that holding a referendum in June
“risks confusing issues when clarity is required”
and they call on the Prime Minister to
“defer the EU referendum at least until later in the year”.
Why will the Prime Minister not respect the electorates and the Governments of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and give that commitment today?
First, I do respect the former First Minister of Scotland, who said that six weeks was what was necessary. I also respect the electorates of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland on the basis that I think people are perfectly capable of making up their minds in a local election, a Scottish parliamentary election or a Welsh Assembly election and then, a period of some weeks afterwards, making up their minds all over again on the vital question of the European Union. So, no date has been fixed, and there must be a six-week gap. Frankly, I think that the right hon. Gentleman is looking for something to complain about. This House has voted for a referendum, and it would be pretty odd if, having voted for a referendum, we then spent ages debating about not having one.
Order. There is excessive chuntering from a sedentary position from a number of Scottish National party Members, who wanted an orderly hearing for their leader. The hon. Member for Gillingham and Rainham (Rehman Chishti) is entitled to be heard, and I appeal to him to start his question again. Let’s hear it.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. The Prime Minister will be alarmed to hear that a shop in Gillingham selling illicit tobacco was making £25,000 a week, destroying the local economy and damaging people’s health. Nationally, this trade is costing the economy £2 billion a year. Will the Government look at increasing the statutory maximum penalty for this offence to bring it in line with that of supplying class C drugs?
I will certainly look at the issue my hon. Friend raises. As far as I can see, Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, working very closely with Border Force, has been highly effective at reducing this tax gap of people selling illegal tobacco and has closed off about £1.3 billion of the tax gap since 2000. They do have a wide range of sanctions to deal with illicit sales, including seizure, penalties and criminal prosecutions—they prosecuted almost 800 different people in the past two years. So I think the powers are there, but I will have a check to see whether more is needed.
What I say to the hon. Lady is that sanctions in a benefits system are important. We want a benefits system that is there for people who cannot find a job and need support, but it not should not be a lifestyle choice and if people can work, they should work. That is why we have a sanctions system, and I believe that the sanctions system is fairly applied.
I have great respect for my hon. Friend, but we do not agree on this one. We said in our manifesto that anyone coming to Britain from the EU searching for work should not get unemployment benefit, and we have fulfilled that promise. We said that if within six months they do not have a job, they should go home—we have fulfilled that promise. We said that people should not be able to come here and send British child benefit back to their families, and we have secured that they will only get child benefit at a local rate. And we said no more “something for nothing”; the idea that someone could come here and claim immediately from our in-work benefits system without paying in was not right. I said we would secure a four-year gap and we have. People said that would be impossible, but that is what we have put in place. It is a negotiation, but these are good proposals that I think will have the backing of the British people, because they mean no more something for nothing, and that is a vital value for Britain.
We want to support industry in the potteries, and that is why we are helping manufacturing with research and development tax credits and with apprenticeship schemes; we are helping with a whole range of measures, not least the energy-intensive industry measures, which are very important for the constituency the hon. Lady represents. That is what we want to see. The issue with market economy status is a separate one, as I have said before. Even if China gets that status, it cannot dump steel products or other things into European markets, and it can be fined. What we should be doing is making sure that we are driving open markets for us to sell to China. The Chinese are the ones with a massive growth in the middle class taking place—hundreds of millions of people are joining that—and there are many great products made in Stoke that should be sold in China.
We are very happy to work with the authorities on the Isle of Wight. I think that I am right in saying that the spending power will increase slightly in the next year. As it is a relatively flat cash settlement overall over the five-year period, this local government settlement allows councils to use their reserves and also to sell unwanted property and use the money directly to provide services to bridge that period. Although I am happy to look at the circumstances of the Isle of Wight, I do believe that it is a fair settlement.
Sometimes it takes a long time to unwind the damage done by a Labour Government. The hon. Lady is absolutely right. One of the first things that we did in Government was to launch a review of Labour’s PFI and begin an initiative to extract savings and give better value for money for all of the projects, including Barts. In her own health economy, there are more GPs in the NHS, and next year, because we are putting more money into the NHS, the NHS Waltham Forest clinical commissioning group will get a cash increase of 3.7%.
I am happy to help arrange that meeting. I know that many of us in our own constituency surgeries hear about the behaviour of the non-resident parent and how they give everyone the runaround and do not fulfil their duties by helping to pay for the children for whom they are responsible. As she knows, we introduced a new statutory child maintenance service for parents who are unable to make a family-based arrangement. It should be bringing speedier processing of applications, simpler calculations and faster enforcement action, but I will ensure that she has the meeting that she needs to straighten out that case.
Will the Prime Minister comment on recent events in Northern Ireland regarding the investigations into Stakeknife, the alleged informer? Will he ensure that there are equal investigations into the Enniskillen bomb, the Teebane bomb and other major atrocities by terrorist organisations?
I will look carefully at what the hon. Gentleman says. We must ensure that we look at all of these things in a fair and reasonable way, and perhaps I will write to him about the issue.
I know that my hon. Friend speaks on this issue with considerable expertise because of the career that he had before coming to this House, and that he brings a lot of knowledge about this sector. He is right that there are great costs related to pension tax relief, which is why the Chancellor published a consultation last summer to see whether the system should be reformed. As the saying goes, taxes are a matter for the Chancellor and his Budget.
I welcome the Government’s announcement last week, as far as it went, of further support for child refugees. A nine-year-old girl who lives in my constituency has recently asked me what we are doing to help refugee children. Of course what a child refugee needs the most is a home. When will we offer a home to 3,000 unaccompanied refugee children in Europe?
First of all, let me tell the hon. Lady what we have done so far. Obviously, she knows about the 20,000 relocation scheme, under which we got 1,000 people in by Christmas, including many vulnerable children. That is going well. Fewer people are aware of the fact that, through our normal asylum processes, we took around 2,500 unaccompanied children last year. Kent social services are looking after about 1,000 children and facing great pressures. Another point that people do not always recognise is that if unaccompanied children in Europe claim asylum in the country they are in, and if they have direct family in Britain, under the Dublin regulations they can come to Britain. We think that is the right approach—taking some more people from the region, but being very cautious because all the evidence shows that even an orphan child may well have some broader family that they are connected to and it is better to keep the child with them.
It is hard to choose between the wrong or the bizarre. You can take your pick. Labour’s latest plan is to use Trident submarines to transport military personnel around the world. It is the most expensive Uber service that anyone has ever thought of. You do wonder what on earth they will think of next.
The Prime Minister may be aware of the case of my constituent, Lisa Brown, whose family were notified by Spanish police authorities on 10 November 2015 that she was being treated as a missing person, though she could have been missing since 6 November. Lisa’s mother Catherine, her sister Helen and brother Craig have visited Spain several times since and have met Spanish authorities and UK consular staff. Although the Spanish authorities state that they are actively working on this case, there have been various pieces of misinformation in the Spanish media which we know not to have been helpful. May I call upon the Prime Minister to seek assurances on behalf of Lisa’s family from the Spanish authorities here in London and in Madrid, as well as the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, that everything possible is being done to ensure that Lisa’s family can get the answers they so desperately need?
I will certainly look into this case and, after the hon. Gentleman has raised it so clearly, make sure that the Europe Minister meets him to try to make sure everything possible is done for Lisa’s family.
PFI contracts are extremely difficult to solve because, of course, they were entered into and signed. My understanding is that Monitor and the Care Quality Commission are clear that Sherwood needs a long-term partnership, and I understand that, as my hon. Friend says, the trust plans to announce its preferred partner in mid-February. That, hopefully, will help it to support the services we need, and but I will look carefully, and make sure the Health Secretary looks carefully, at the suggestion my hon. Friend makes.
Following the shocking official report into the murder here in London of Alexander Litvinenko, when will the Prime Minister and his Chancellor take some meaningful action to tackle the dirty Russian money and property here in London that helps to sustain the Putin regime?
The report was shocking, although as the Home Secretary said at the time, this confirmed what the Labour Government understood to have happened. None the less, when one reads the report all over again, what happened is deeply shocking. That is why we have taken action in the form of asset freezes and the other measures described by the Home Secretary. On the problem of so-called hot money coming into London, I made a speech recently explaining that we are doing more than other countries in respect of transparency and beneficial ownership—who owns what in terms of companies, and we are going to do the same with property. That is one of the best ways not just to make sure that we do not have illegal Russian money, but to make sure that corrupt money stolen from African taxpayers and other continents does not end up in London.
I am very happy to look at that specifically. On al-Sweady, I have been very clear about what went wrong and how unacceptable it was. Let me repeat that we will continue to provide our fullest support to those going through investigations, including by providing legal advice. Also, we will crack down on any legal firm that we find has abused the system. Because we now have the military covenant written into law, and a covenant group that meets under the excellent chairmanship of my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Mr Letwin), we have an opportunity not only to raise these issues, but to try properly to tackle them in a systematic way.
The dumping of Chinese steel is crippling the British steel industry. The granting of market economy status to China would dramatically reduce the scope for taking anti-dumping measures. Why, then, is the Prime Minister supporting market economy status for China? Is it because he puts cosying up to Beijing ahead of protecting British industry?
I put helping British industry first. That is why we have cut taxes for British industry. That is why we are cutting energy bills for British industry, helping with apprenticeships, busting open markets abroad so that British industries can succeed and, crucially for the steel industry, why we are investing in our infrastructure and trying to ensure that there is a real forward order book for British steel. I think that the hon. Gentleman is wrong and that we should take these two issues separately. If there is illegal dumping, we will support action in the European Union, and that can be done in spite of the status that a country has; we have actually put those sorts of burdens on America before today. I do not think it is right to connect the two issues in the way he does.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I see no reason why the devolution of resources to Greater Manchester under this landmark deal will disadvantage mental health. If anything, it will probably lead to even greater priority being given to mental health, as people can see the connections between mental health and holding back opportunity for so many people. We are investing more in children’s mental health and giving greater focus, particularly on eating disorders, as tragically we are seeing a real growth in this problem. The money is there and the devolution should help.
With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement on progress with our renegotiation. The House has now had the chance to study the documents published by the European Council yesterday. I believe that this is an important milestone in the process of reform, renegotiation and referendum that we set out in our manifesto, and which this Government are delivering. We have now legislated for that referendum and we are holding that renegotiation.
Let me set out the problems that we are trying to fix and the progress we have made. First, we do not want to have our country bound up in an ever closer political union in Europe. We are a proud and independent nation, with proud, independent, democratic institutions that have served us well over the centuries. For us, Europe is about working together to advance our shared prosperity and security; it is not about being sucked into some kind of European superstate—not now, not ever.
The draft texts set out in full the special status accorded to the UK and clearly carves us out of further political integration. They actually go further to make it clear that EU countries do not even have to aim for a common destination. This is a formal recognition of the flexible Europe that Britain has long been arguing for.
In keeping Britain out of ever closer union, I also wanted to strengthen the role of this House and all national Parliaments, so we now have a proposal in the texts that if Brussels comes up with legislation that we do not want, we can get together with other Parliaments and block it with a red card.
We have also proposed a new mechanism to finally enforce the principle of subsidiarity—a principle dear to this House—which states that, as far as possible, powers should sit here in this Parliament, not in Brussels. So every year the European Union has got to go through the powers they exercise and work out which are no longer needed and should be returned to nation states.
Secondly, I said that we wanted to make Europe more competitive and deal with the rule-making and the bureaucracy that can cost jobs here in Britain and, indeed, across the European Union. We asked for commitments on all the areas central to European competitiveness. We want international trade deals signed, the single market completed and regulation stripped back. All of these things are covered in the draft texts. There is a new proposal for specific targets to reduce the burdens on business in key sectors. This will particularly help small and medium-sized businesses. There is a new mechanism to drive these targets through and cut the level of red tape year on year.
Thirdly, we are absolutely clear that Britain is going to keep the pound—in my view, forever. But we need to be just as clear that we can keep the pound in a European Union that will be fair to our currency. Put simply, the EU must not become a euro-only club; if it does, it would not be a club for us. So we called for a series of principles to protect the single market for Britain. We said there must be no discrimination against the pound, no disadvantage for businesses that use our currency, wherever they are located in the EU, and no option for Britain ever again to be forced to bail out eurozone countries. All of these principles are reflected in the draft text, which is legally binding. And again there is a mechanism. Britain has the ability to act to uphold these principles and protect our interests.
We should be clear: British jobs depend on being able to trade on a level playing field within the European single market, whether in financial services or cars or anything else. So this plan, if agreed, will provide the strongest possible protection for Britain from discrimination and unfair rules and practices. For instance, never again could the EU try its so-called location policy—that the settling of complex trades in euros must only take place in eurozone countries. These principles would outlaw that sort of proposal. Now, these are protections we could not have if Britain were outside the European Union.
Fourthly, we want to deal with the pressures of immigration, which have become too great. Of course, we need to do more to control migration from outside the European Union. We are doing that, and we will be announcing more measures on that front, but we need to control migration from within the EU too. The draft texts represent the strongest package we have ever had on tackling the abuse of free movement and closing down the back-door routes to Britain. It includes greater freedoms for Britain to act against fraud and prevent those who pose a genuine and serious threat from coming to this country. It includes a new law to overturn a decision by the European Court which has allowed thousands of illegal migrants to marry other EU nationals and acquire the right to stay in our country. It has been a source of perpetual frustration that we cannot impose our own immigration rules on third-country nationals coming from the European Union, but now, after the hard work of the Home Secretary, we have a proposal to put that right.
There are also new proposals to reduce the pull factor that our benefits system exerts across Europe by allowing instant access to welfare from the day someone arrives. People said that Europe would not even recognise that we had this problem, but the text explicitly recognises that welfare systems can act as an unnatural draw to come to this country.
Our manifesto set out four objectives to solve this problem; I mentioned these at Prime Minister’s questions. We had already delivered on two of them within months of the general election. Already, EU migrants will no longer be able to claim universal credit—the new unemployment benefit—while looking for work. And if those coming from the EU have not found work within six months, they can now be required to leave.
In these texts, we have secured proposals for the other two areas. If someone comes from another country in Europe, leaving their family at home, they will have their child benefit paid at the local rate, not at the generous British rate. And crucially, we have made progress on reducing the draw of our generous in-work benefits. People said that it would be impossible to end the idea of something for nothing and that a four-year restriction on benefits was completely out of the question, but that is now what is in the text—an emergency brake that will mean people coming to Britain from within the EU will have to wait four years until they have full access to our benefits. The European Commission has said very clearly that Britain qualifies already to use this mechanism, so, with the necessary legislation, we would be able to implement it shortly after the referendum.
Finally, let me be absolutely clear about the legal status of these changes that are now on offer. People said we would never get something that was legally binding—but this plan, if agreed, will be exactly that. These changes will be binding in international law, and will be deposited at the UN. They cannot be changed without the unanimous agreement of every EU country—and that includes Britain. So when I said I wanted change that is legally binding and irreversible, that is what I have got. And, in key areas, treaty change is envisaged in these documents.
I believe we are making real progress in all four areas—but the process is far from over. There are details that are still to be pinned down and intense negotiations to try and agree the deal with 27 other countries. It will require hard work, determination and patience to see it through. But I do believe that with these draft texts, and with all the work that we have done with our European partners, Britain is getting closer to the decision point. It is, of course, right that this House should debate these issues in detail. So in addition to this statement, and of course a statement following the Council later this month, the Government will also make time for a full day’s debate on the Floor of the House.
As we approach this choice, let me be clear about two things. First, I am not arguing, and I will never argue, that Britain could not survive outside the European Union. We are the fifth largest economy in the world and the biggest defence player in Europe, with one of the most of extensive and influential diplomatic networks on the planet. The question is not could Britain succeed outside the European Union; it is how will we be most successful? How will Britain be most prosperous? How will we create the most jobs? How will we have the most influence on the rules that shape the global economy and affect us? How we will be most secure? I have always said that the best answers to those questions can be found within a reformed European Union. But let me say again that if we cannot secure these changes, I rule nothing out.
Secondly, even if we secured these changes, you will never hear me say that this organisation is now fixed—far from it. There will be many things that remain to be reformed, and Britain would continue to lead the way. We would continue to make sure that Europe works for the countries of Europe, for the businesses of Europe, for the peoples of Europe and, crucially, for the British people who want to work, have security, get on, and make the most of their lives.
So if we stay, Britain will be in there keeping a lid on the budget, protecting our rebate, stripping away unnecessary regulation and seeing through the commitments we have secured in this renegotiation, ensuring that Britain truly can have the best of both worlds: in the parts of Europe that work for us, and out of those that do not; in the single market; free to travel around Europe; and part of an organisation where co-operation on security and trade can make Britain and its partners safer and more prosperous, but with guarantees that we will never be part of the euro, never be part of Schengen, never be part of a European army, never be forced to bail out the eurozone with our taxpayers’ money, and never be part of a European superstate.
That is the prize on offer—a clear path that can lead to a fresh settlement for Britain in a reformed European Union: a settlement that will offer the best future for jobs, security and strength for our country; a settlement which, as our manifesto promised nearly a year ago, will offer families in our country security at every stage of their lives. That is what we are fighting for, and I commend this statement to the House.
I am grateful to the Prime Minister for sending me a copy of the statement 45 minutes ago—an hour ago; I am sorry—and I am pleased that he has now decided to finally update the House. However, it is a bit unfortunate that despite his trumpeting of the sovereignty of national Parliaments in his EU negotiations, the Prime Minister did not think to come and update our own Parliament first. I hope he had a good day in Chippenham yesterday, but I note that he spent a lot of time answering questions from journalists when it would surely have been more respectful to this House to come here first and answer questions from Members.
But in truth—in reality—this negotiation is a Tory party drama that is being played out in front of us, as we see at the moment. The Labour party is committed to keeping Britain in the European Union because we believe it is the best—[Interruption] Don’t get too excited; let me tell you the rest of it: because we believe it is the best framework for European trade and co-operation in the 21st century, and in the best interests of people in this country. We believe that the Prime Minister has been negotiating the wrong goals in the wrong way for the wrong reasons.
For all the sound and fury, the Prime Minister has ended up exactly where he knew he would be: making the case to remain in Europe, which was what he always intended, despite a renegotiation spectacle choreographed for television cameras over the whole continent. As his own Back Benchers keep telling us, the proposals from the European Council are simply tinkering around the edges. They have little impact on what the EU delivers for workers in Britain or British businesses.
We welcome the proposals for a majority of national Parliaments to have a veto over Commission legislation, even if it is heavily qualified. It seems the Prime Minister has finally moved towards the Labour party’s view on this issue, and we welcome that.
Protecting non-eurozone states is necessary, but we cannot let the proposals hamper efforts to regulate the financial sector, including bankers’ bonuses. The crucial detail of the emergency brake on workers’ benefits for EU migrants is entirely absent. When is that information going to be made available? In any case, what the Prime Minister calls the strongest package ever on the abuse of free movement does not actually begin to tackle the real problems around the impact of migration on jobs, wages and communities. Those demand action to support public services in areas of high population growth, and regulation to prevent the subsidising of low pay and the grotesque exploitation of migrant workers by some unscrupulous employers. It is the same with competitiveness. Is the Prime Minister really out to strengthen genuinely competitive markets, or is this proposal really a fig leaf for increasing pressure to privatise our public services and the reduction of consumer standards, environmental protections or workers’ rights?
That is why Labour will continue to oppose the threats to services and rights from the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership negotiations. We need reform to ensure all European Governments have the right to intervene to protect publicly owned industries and services. This side of the House is delighted that the Prime Minister has been forced to back down on his hopes to water down workers’ rights. However, we want to see workers’ rights further protected and extended within the European Union. We need a strengthening of workers’ rights in a really social Europe, and we want to see democratic reform to make the European Union’s decision making more accountable to its people. We must drive economic reform to put jobs and sustainable growth at the centre of European policy and work with partners in Europe to bring tax avoidance under control, so that we can get a far better deal than the Chancellor managed with Google last week.
However, to keep and extend these employment protections, we need to remain within the European Union, or leave the field for the Conservative party to make a bonfire of workers’ rights. The Prime Minister says that he has secured Britain’s exclusion from Schengen, a European army and a European superstate. The Prime Minister is living in never-never land. We have never argued for those things, and we do not intend to. We need to work with our allies in Europe to achieve the more progressive reforms that its people need—to build a more democratic Europe that delivers jobs, prosperity and security for all its people. We must do that together. That is why, when the referendum is finally held, we will be campaigning to remain a member.
I end by asking a question to the Prime Minister. Does he now agree that once this smoke-and-mirrors sideshow of a deal is done, we will get on with it and end the uncertainty, and the referendum will indeed be held on 23 June 2016?
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his questions. First of all, on the issue of making a statement today rather than yesterday, I felt that yesterday I was in possession of all the documents, but I did not think that every Member of the House would be, so I thought it better to give hon. Members a day to read the documents and have the debate today. It gave me the added advantage of being able to visit Chippenham, which, of course, is the town of the right hon. Gentleman’s birth. I was able to thank the people of Chippenham for putting him on earth and delivering him safely to this place.
The right hon. Gentleman criticises the issues that we put on the table: getting out of ever closer union, waiting times for welfare and guarantees for fairness between ins and outs. I know that he did not read the Labour manifesto, but I did, and actually all those things were in the Labour manifesto. Labour wanted a two-year welfare wait rather than a four-year welfare wait, but many of the other elements of our negotiation were supported by Labour, so Labour Members can feel they have a mandate for backing these measures.
The right hon. Gentleman asked about the detail on the emergency migration brake, because there are gaps in the text. He is absolutely right about that; we need to secure the best possible outcome at the February Council. He asked about the danger of the exploitation of migrant workers, and that is an area where I think he and I agree. That is why we have boosted the Gangmasters Licensing Authority, and we have put in place better co-ordination between it and the National Crime Agency. We are making sure that there are more investigations and more prosecutions.
TTIP is an area where we profoundly disagree. Other socialist Governments in Europe take my view, which is that TTIP will be good for jobs, good for growth and good for businesses. I am not sure that I ought to advise the right hon. Gentleman to spend more time with trade unions, but if he spends time with trade unions in Sweden and some other countries in northern Europe, he may find that they, too, support TTIP, because they want jobs for their members.
In the end, I would say to the right hon. Gentleman and to all Members across the House that this is an important moment for our country. Yes, there will be areas of disagreement between the Conservatives and Labour, but we are involved in trying to get the very best negotiation for Britain. The European Parliament plays a part in that, and the Party of European Socialists plays a part in that. I urge all hon. Members, if you want to have no more something for nothing, if you want to get Britain out of ever closer union, if you want fairness between those in the euro and those out of the euro, and if you want a more competitive and successful Europe, let us fight this together. [Interruption.]
Feelings are obviously getting roused on this subject.
The Prime Minister has achieved more on the big issues in this negotiation than I ever expected—and, I suspect, more than the hard-line Eurosceptics ever expected, which is why they are denouncing it so fiercely—but, as he says, he still has to deliver it. Does he accept that he will have great difficulty in persuading Governments in central and eastern Europe, in particular, to accept that their citizens lawfully working here alongside English people in key sectors such as the health service and the construction industry should have lower take-home pay in the first few years than their English workmates?
If the Prime Minister has to offer something in exchange for that, could he perhaps consider underlining our NATO commitment to those countries, as their biggest concern is future military adventures by Putin’s Russia? To underline our role as one of the leading military contributors, if not the leading military contributor, through NATO to the European alliance would be a very good offer to make—by deploying more troops, perhaps—in order to get what is a difficult concession for our partners in those countries to make.
I am grateful to my right hon. and learned Friend, who has huge experience of European negotiations—both treaty negotiations and ongoing negotiations in the Council of Ministers—for what he says. He is absolutely right that these are difficult issues. My argument is that while we have the free movement of people that many British people take advantage of, we do not have harmonised welfare and benefit systems, and nor should we.
The second point I make to my colleagues in Europe is that when countries in Europe have problems that they believe affect their key national interests, we have got to be flexible enough to deal with them. I think that that is what this agreement is showing. The advantage of the proposals put forward is that they will have the support of the European Commission. I think that that will reassure some of the states in Europe that have misgivings.
My right hon. and learned Friend is absolutely right that we can also reassure those states about our investment in their security, because I think that is a very important issue. With, as it were, Putin to our east and ISIL to our south, this is a moment where we need to make sure we are working together.
We in the Scottish National party warmly welcome the opportunity to make the positive case for the European Union. It really matters that we are part of the world’s largest single market; it really matters that we can help to determine the rules and laws that apply to us; and it really matters that we have a social Europe with rights and protections for citizens and for workers. First off, will the Prime Minister therefore commit to a positive campaign to remain in the European Union, and not resort to the negative tactics of “Project Fear”?
On the Prime Minister’s negotiations, may I suggest that he stops pretending to have won some major victory? He has not even secured the treaty change he promised and much else besides. What is at stake is much bigger than his recent discussions; it is about whether or not we remain in the EU. That is what the debate across the UK will be about in the run-up to the referendum.
The timing of the referendum really matters to the electorates and the Governments of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, as well as of London, where there are elections in May. This morning, the First Minister of Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon, the Labour First Minister of Wales, Carwyn Jones, the First Minister of Northern Ireland, Arlene Foster—[Interruption.] I think the First Ministers of Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland deserve a little bit more respect than the baying from the Tory side of the House. They and the Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland, Martin McGuinness, have written to the Prime Minister today. I think that right hon. and hon. Members should listen to what they say:
“We believe that holding a referendum as early as June will mean that a significant part of the referendum campaign will necessarily run in parallel with those elections and risks confusing issues at a moment when clarity is required… We believe that the European Referendum is of vital importance to the future of the whole United Kingdom and the debate leading up to it should, therefore, be free of other campaigning distraction. We believe it would be better for you”—
the Prime Minister—
“to commit to deferring the EU referendum at least until later in the year.”
Will the Prime Minister take this opportunity to confirm that he will be respectful of the views of the Governments of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and defer the referendum beyond June?
Finally, may I take the opportunity yet again to ask the Prime Minister to answer this question, which he has singularly failed to do thus far? Will he confirm that there are still no safeguards in place that would stop Scotland being taken out of the EU against the will of the Scottish electorate?
First, let me say that, yes, when this campaign comes—of course, we will first need an agreement, a recommended position from the British Government and all the rest of it—it should of course be a positive campaign. In terms of what the right hon. Gentleman says about treaty change and whether this is legally binding, as I explained, it is legally binding and it does envisage treaty change.
In terms of timing, as I explained at Prime Minister’s questions, it is a matter for the House. The House debated it and the House ruled out coinciding with the Scottish, Welsh and London elections, but the House did not rule out holding a referendum at another time. Specifically, the former First Minister, the right hon. Member for Gordon (Alex Salmond), said that six weeks was the appropriate gap. Obviously, we have to wait to see whether an agreement is reached, but where I disagree with the right hon. Member for Moray (Angus Robertson) is that I do not believe that somehow this is confusing the issues: I think people are perfectly capable, six or more weeks after one set of elections, to consider another election. I note that the Leader of the Opposition, whose party is in control of Wales, was actually pressing me to hold the referendum on 23 June. There is obviously a range of opinions out there. I think the best thing to do is to get the deal done and then hold a referendum.
This is all about voters’ trust. Why has my right hon. Friend, in order to stay in, bypassed so many promises and principles? Our national Parliament is the root of our democracy, as he said at Bloomberg, not a majority of red cards in other Parliaments. He said that we would have full-on treaty change, not the arrangements that have been announced to us today. We were promised a fundamental change in our relationship with the EU. We were promised that we would deal with the excessive immigrant numbers, but that has been whittled down to an issue about in-work benefits controlled by the European Court of Justice. Above all, we were told and promised that this entire package would be both legally binding and irreversible, but now it will be stitched up by a political decision by the European Council, not by a guaranteed treaty change at the right time. I have to say to the Prime Minister that this is a wholly inappropriate way of dealing with this matter.
I have great respect for my hon. Friend, but I have to say that, on the issue of whether it is legally binding, I really do believe he is wrong. If this document is agreed, it would be an international law decision and, as an international law decision, the European Court of Justice has to take it into account. I would make the point to him, because he follows these things very closely, that Denmark negotiated the same sort of legal opt-outs and, 23 years on, they clearly stand and are legally binding. Those are the facts.
My hon. Friend asks whether we are meeting what we set out in the promises we made. We made very clear promises in our manifesto: get Britain out of ever closer union—that is a promise that we kept; make sure we restrict immigrants’ welfare benefits—that is a promise that we are keeping; real fairness between euro-ins and euro-outs—that is a promise that we are keeping. In every area—more competitiveness, making sure subsidiarity means something—we have met the promises that we have set out.
I understand that there will be those who say, “We didn’t ask for enough”, or, “We need more reform.” I believe these are the reforms that go to the heart of the concerns of the British people. People feel that this organisation is too much of a political union; it is too bureaucratic; it is not fair for non-euro countries; and we want more control of immigration. Those four things are largely delivered through this negotiation.
I would just say this to colleagues from all parts of the House. I have sat on the Benches on this side and that side and I have heard about the Maastricht treaty, about the Lisbon treaty, about the Nice treaty and about the Amsterdam treaty, but I have never seen a Prime Minister standing at this Dispatch Box with a unilaterally achieved declaration of bringing powers back to our country. That is what we have got. That is what is within our grasp.
Will the Prime Minister join me in welcoming the launch today of Environmentalists for Europe, which is co-chaired by Stanley Johnson, the father of the hon. Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Boris Johnson)? Will he also welcome the splendid article last week setting out the importance for science and technology of remaining in the European Union, which was penned by his Minister for Universities and Science, who is the brother of the hon. Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip? Will he have a word with his hon. Friend to tell him about the importance of family solidarity and of joining the swelling ranks of Johnsons for Europe?
Very good. The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that we cannot have too many Johnsons agreeing with each other. There is also Rachel Johnson, the columnist: we will have to go after her and make sure of that. He makes a very important point about grants for universities and schools. We all complain, rightly, about the European budget. That is why it is so important that we have got it under control: it has to fall every year. In the budget negotiations, we did safeguard the money that British universities actually benefit from on a disproportionate basis. As for completing the happy family pack of the Johnsons, we may have to wait a bit longer.
Order. I would call the hon. Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Boris Johnson) to ask a question if he were standing, but he isn’t, so I won’t. You cannot have it all. I call John Redwood.
As we are driven in the EU vehicle towards ever closer union and political union, how does it help to try to fit a couple of emergency brakes that lie within the control of the EU, not us? Is not the only way to get control of our borders, our tax revenues and our welfare system to leave, be a good European and let them get on with their political union?
I do not agree with that, because what we are actually doing is making sure that it is very clear that Britain is carved out of ever closer union. I think that is a real advance. Indeed, it is something that my right hon. Friend and other colleagues have been asking for, quite rightly, and which I have always believed is right. Our view about Europe is that we are not there for political union; we are there for co-operation, we are there for trade and we are there for working together on the things that matter.
Of course, these documents can change—this is all in draft—but one of the issues about ever closer union is that the European Union has actually gone further than I thought it would. I think colleagues will find it interesting that it has said
“the references to an ever closer union…do not offer a basis for extending the scope of any provision of the Treaties or of EU secondary legislation. They should not be used either to support an extensive interpretation of the competences of the Union or of the powers of its institutions as set out in the Treaties.”
That has never been said before in those ways. For those of us who care about ever closer union and about getting out of ever closer union, this actually goes a long way to achieving, in many ways, more than what we asked for.
The European continent is seeing the largest flows of people and refugees since the end of world war two. The Balkans are becoming ever more volatile and our NATO partner Turkey is not behaving as helpfully as it could. Have any of the negotiations that the Prime Minister has been involved in increased the security of the European continent or the security of the United Kingdom?
I would argue that they have done both. When it comes to the security of the continent, we recognise that Europe’s external border, although it is not our external border because we are not in Schengen, matters. That is why we have sent more representatives to help the European Asylum Support Office than any other country and why we are happy to do even more, working with the Greeks and the Turks.
There is an important change in this deal that will increase the security of Britain. First, because we are not in Schengen, we do not have to let foreign nationals who come to other European countries into Britain, and long may that be the case. The key changes that the Home Secretary and I have managed to secure about protecting our immigration system from fraudsters, sham marriages, criminals and people who get married to European nationals to try to get into our country have become even more important. We are going to secure those, if this goes ahead, from within the EU.
Since you have been so kind as to call me, Mr Speaker, perhaps I may ask the Prime Minister how the changes resulting from the negotiation will restrict the volume of legislation coming from Brussels and change the treaties so as to assert the sovereignty of this House of Commons and these Houses of Parliament.
Let me take those issues in turn, because my hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise them. First, asserting the sovereignty of this House is something that we did by introducing the European Union Act 2011. I am keen to do even more to put it beyond doubt that this House of Commons is sovereign. We will look to do that at the same time as concluding the negotiations.
On what we are doing to restrict the flow of legislation from Brussels, for the first time ever in this deal, there is a commitment that Europe has to examine all its competences every year and work out what should be returned to nation states—subsidiarity in action, rather than in words. There is also the proposal to cut Brussels regulation through the bureaucracy cutting targets. That has never been there before.
I would argue that, looking across this deal, one can see that we have welfare powers coming back, we have immigration powers coming back, which I have just spoken about, and we have bail-out powers coming back. Of course, on the massive return of power that we achieved in the last Parliament with the justice and home affairs opt-out—the biggest return of power from Brussels to Britain since we joined the EU—we have absolutely nailed that down in these discussions to make sure that they cannot get around it. Those were all key objectives. I am not saying that this deal is perfect. I am not saying that the European Union will be perfect after this deal—it certainly won’t be—but will the British position be better and stronger? Yes, it will.
Since assuming office in 2010, the Prime Minister has, to his credit, tried on occasion to limit the increases in the contributions made by the United Kingdom to the European Union budget, with varying degrees of success. Given that the UK pays £9 billion or more net into the EU every single year, will he tell us how much our contribution will go down in net terms each year as a result of this agreement?
We have already done the European budget agreement. For the first time, the seven-year financial perspective shows that the budget over the next seven years will be lower than over the last seven years, so there is a real-terms cut—something no one thought it would be possible to achieve. The exact amount of money we give depends on the growth and success of our economy. One consequence of our strong growth and the difficult times in the eurozone is that a little more has been contributed, but the overall financial perspective is coming down, which is good news for Britain.
My right hon. Friend has, I believe, achieved a quite remarkable result because of the legally binding nature of the document that he will bring back if it is accepted by the European Council. In that context, he will know that one of the principal problems that has bedevilled the United Kingdom’s relationship with the European Union has been the capricious interpretation of the treaties, sometimes to circumvent what the United Kingdom has believed to be its true treaty obligations. In view of the remarkable specificity of this document, does he agree that it will be a very powerful tool in preventing that from happening in future?
My right hon. and learned Friend makes a very important point. If we stand back for a moment and ask ourselves how it is that powers have been taken from this House to Brussels, we see that it has really happened in two ways. First, successive treaties have passed competences from Britain to Brussels. That cannot happen anymore because we legislated in the last Parliament for the referendum lock, so if any Prime Minister—me or any subsequent Prime Minister—tried to sign up to another treaty to pass powers to Brussels, they could not do so because there would be a referendum. The second way in which powers get passed is through the judgments of the European Court of Justice. That is why what has been secured on ever closer union is important. It says in terms, if we get the deal agreed, that that clause cannot be used to drive a ratchet of competences going from Britain to Brussels. The two routes to further integration, where Britain is concerned, have been effectively blocked off.
Will the Prime Minister confirm that nothing in the renegotiation waters down the important security co-operation at the EU level, such as intelligence sharing, joint investigations and the European arrest warrant? When a deal is done finally, will he join Opposition Members in making the strong case that our membership of the EU helps to bring criminals to justice and keep Britain safe?
I want the deal to be done and the security argument is an important one. When my right hon. Friend the Minister for Europe was answering questions yesterday, he was asked whether it is consistent to say, as we do in the document, that national security is a national competence and to argue that Europe is important for security. I believe that it is. It is very important that we are clear that the core competences such as policing and our intelligence services are for this House and our Government to decide on, but of course there are ways in which we can co-operate in Europe to make ourselves safer, such as making sure that we know when criminals are crossing borders and making sure that we exchange passenger name records and the rest to keep us safe. That is why, when we opted out of the justice and home affairs powers, repatriating about 100 powers to Britain, we stayed in the ones that really matter in respect of keeping us safe. It is important to demonstrate that we are both maintaining national security as a national competence and working with our partners to keep our people safe.
First, may I say through you, Mr Speaker, to the Leader of the Opposition that I would prefer what he describes as the “drama” of the Conservative party to the tragedy of his Labour party any day?
Whether or not an emergency brake kicks in is ultimately the decision of the European Union, not the UK. The level of immigration at which it kicks in is ultimately a decision for the EU, not the UK. Even the level of benefits sent abroad is ultimately a decision for the EU, not the UK. Is it not clear that we are not sovereign in those areas of policy and do not have independent control over them? Ultimately, is not the decision in the referendum whether we want our own laws and our own borders to be determined here by ourselves or overseas by someone else?
I have great respect for my right hon. Friend. He explained very clearly on the radio this morning that he would be for leaving the EU, even without the renegotiation. He was very honest and frank about that. In terms of dramas and tragedies, I am sure that he will join me in echoing the old insurance advert by saying that we should not turn a drama into a crisis.
On the emergency brake, the European Commission has been absolutely clear in the documents that it
“considers that the kind of information provided to it by the United Kingdom shows the type of exceptional situation that the proposed safeguard mechanism is intended to cover exists in the United Kingdom today.”
Of course, I am all for maximising the sovereignty of this House and our Government, and our ability to do things, but we have said that we want there to be no more something for nothing, that we want a welfare brake and that we want to be able to deny benefits to people in full before they have been here for four years. This paper says that that can happen as soon as the legislation allows.
May I reassure the Prime Minister that, in my estimation, most of us in Northern Ireland agree with him that we would be much more successful in the European Union than out of it? I urge him to hold the referendum later than June, so that all the aspects can be fully discussed and debated. When all the negotiations are completed, if there is a positive “stay in” result in the referendum, can he see the UK taking a much more positive and engaged role in the structures and organs of the European Union?
Were there to be an agreement in February, I do not think that a four-month period before a referendum would be too short. I think four months is a good amount of time to get across the key arguments, facts and figures, and for both sides to make their points. That will be equally important in Northern Ireland, and I give the hon. Gentleman a guarantee that if there is an agreement, I will personally spend time in Northern Ireland, making the points that I think are most important. As for the role of the EU in helping to bring about the successful transformation of Northern Ireland, there have been positive moves in terms of grants, and structural and other funds, to help build the strong economy in Northern Ireland that we need.
As a former Secretary of State for Social Security, may I ask my right hon. Friend to clarify the status of the agreement on migrants’ benefits? The EU has no competence over benefits rules in member states, unless they conflict with the freedom of movement clause in the treaty. If the proposed changes do not conflict with the treaty, we could have introduced them immediately without using up our negotiating clout on this issue. If the changes do conflict with the treaty, they will be struck down by the EU Court, unless the treaty is changed first.
The view is that this emergency brake can be brought in under the existing treaties, but only with legislation through the European Parliament. On an accelerated timetable, the leader of one of the major parties said that that could take one, two or three months. That is what makes it clear that we can act in this way not just legally, but—crucially in my view and, I think, in that of the British public— quickly.
When the Prime Minister meets various EU leaders over the next few months, will he make it clear to them that the result of the referendum is to be decided by the British people, and that they should not try to interfere in any way with the British people’s views? Will he particularly say to the Irish Taoiseach that it was not at all helpful, and indeed it was very uncomplimentary to the people of Northern Ireland, for him to imply that if the people of the United Kingdom decide to leave the European Union, that would threaten the peace process?
I absolutely agree that this decision is for the British people, and the British people alone, and they certainly do not want to hear lectures from other people about that. It is because this affects Britain’s relations with the rest of the world, and other issues, that there may well be people who want to make a positive contribution, and that is a matter for them. I think that the peace process is secure and we must keep going with it, and I believe that the Taoiseach is a friend of the United Kingdom. He spoke up very strongly for Britain at the European Council, and I think he was quite influential in trying to build good will, and saying that we in the European Union should recognise that if a country has a national interest at stake and needs things fixed, we must be a flexible enough organisation, because otherwise we will not be able to sort those things out.
The Prime Minister has said that if we vote to leave the EU, he would want to continue as Prime Minister—a combination that I would fully support. He certainly fancies himself as a negotiator. Given that we have a net contribution each year to the European Union of £19 billion and a trade deficit with the EU of £62 billion, and that if we were to leave we would be the single biggest export market of the European Union, does he think he has the ability to negotiate a free trade agreement from outside the EU, without handing over £19 billion a year?
I have great respect for my hon. Friend, who I think wanted to leave the EU whatever came out of these negotiations, and I am sure he will make his arguments powerfully. Obviously, we must consider all the issues, and once the debate starts, people will want to look at all the alternatives. Would Britain be better off in a customs union arrangement such as that with Turkey? Would we be better off in a free trade agreement, such as that with Canada? Would we be better off in a situation such as the one the EU has with Norway and Iceland? I have started talking about some of those alternatives. I think the Norway example is not a strong one, because Norway contributes more per head to the EU than we do, and it has to take all the legislation passed in Brussels. I am sure that that will be an important part of the debate to come.
Does it surprise the Prime Minister that, so far at least, he does not seem to have persuaded any of the critics on the Conservative Benches about the virtues of his negotiations? He may have persuaded the Home Secretary, for reasons that we understand, but apparently he has not persuaded any of the other critics.
Maybe the hon. Gentleman can help me out—I don’t know. This is a very important issue for our country, but in the end it will not be decided in this Chamber. We will all have to reach our own conclusions, and if hon. Members passionately believe in their hearts that Britain is better off outside the EU, they should vote that way. If they think, even on balance, that Britain is better off in the EU, they should go with what they think. Members should not take a view because of what their constituency association might say or because they are worried about a boundary review, or because they think it might be advantageous this way or that way. People should do what is in their heart—if you think it is right for Britain, then do that.
Since no one else has done this so far after nearly an hour, and since my mum always said that I should say thank you, may I thank the Prime Minister for giving us a choice in the first place? One question to ask about the referendum is what is the point in having an emergency brake on our car if the backseat driver—namely the European Commission—has the power to tell us when and for how long we should put our foot on the brake pedal?
This is rather a different situation; we are being told in advance that because of the pressures we face, this is a brake we can use, and that we can do so relatively rapidly after a referendum, and I think it would make a difference. The facts are these: 40% of EU migrants coming to Britain access the in-work benefits system, and the average payment per family is £6,000. Don’t tell me that £6,000 is not quite a major financial inducement. I think that more than 10,000 people are getting over £10,000 a year, and because people get instant access to our benefits system, it is an unnatural pull and draw to our country. One thing that we should do to fix immigration into our country is change that system, and that is what we are going to agree.
Will the Prime Minister acknowledge that the referendum will be won or lost on bigger issues than this renegotiation, not least on a judgment that the greatest challenges facing us are better solved when countries work together? In that vein, may I invite him again to join me in welcoming the establishment of Environmentalists for Europe, which recognises that cross-border problems require cross-border solutions, and highlights the crucial role that the EU plays in protecting wildlife and nature in this country?
Where there are genuine cross-border problems we must work across borders to try to ensure a strong solution. I think that the key issues are prosperity and security, but within security comes environmental security, and at the Paris accord Britain was able to play a strong role. Through our example of getting carbon emissions down, and by having a strong plan for the future, we encouraged other countries in Europe to do the same. That leveraged in—sorry, terrible jargon: that brought about a better deal from the rest of the world.
Much has been said about the Conservative party manifesto that the Prime Minister and Conservative Members fought the election on, and I have an electronic copy of it in front of me now. Should the Prime Minister succeed in his negotiations, he will achieve not only the letter of what we promised, but also the spirit. Perhaps most importantly, he will give the British people a chance to vote for a reformed Europe, or to vote for the uncertainty of leaving.
I am very grateful to my right hon. Friend. We are delivering the manifesto in fact and in spirit, not least by doing something that many people thought we would never deliver on, which is to hold that referendum. I remember sitting on the Opposition Benches when Tony Blair stood here and said, “Let battle commence; let the referendum on the constitutional treaty begin”. The fact that that referendum was never held in many ways poisoned a lot of the debate in Britain. That is why the manifesto is so clear about the referendum and about the renegotiation aims.
Some people will say that a better approach is to go in, kick over the table, walk out the door and say, “I’m not gonna come back in unless you give me a list of impossible demands”, but that was never the plan we set out. The plan we set out was to address specifically the biggest concerns of the British people about competitiveness, an ever closer union, fairness, and migration, and if we can complete this negotiation, that is what I believe it will do.
I congratulate the Prime Minister on his progress in tackling what I think voters for all parties see as unfairness in the freedom of movement—not to work, but in some cases freedom of movement to claim benefits here in the UK. If we left the European Union, would it put at risk our co-operation with the French authorities in Calais to protect UK borders?
I am very grateful to the right hon. Lady for what she says. She raises an important point about Calais. There is no doubt in my mind that the agreement we have is incredibly beneficial. I think it works well for both countries. For Britain, being able to have our border controls in France and deal with people there is something we should be very proud of. We should do everything we can to sustain it. It is part of the European co-operation we have.
Given the difficulty of getting any change to our EU membership approved by the other 27 countries, what we have got is as good as anyone, I think, might have expected and more. I congratulate the Prime Minister on his achievement. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that once the European Council have made its decision, he will respect the views of those Ministers who might publicly express the opinion that the United Kingdom should now leave the EU, and that the careers of those Ministers in this Government will not be jeopardised or threatened as a consequence?
I can certainly give my hon. Friend that assurance. We are still in the process of negotiation. The manifesto we all stood on said that we wanted to get the best possible deal for Britain and that we would all work on that together. That is exactly what we are doing. If the deal is agreed—whether in February or perhaps later, if it takes more time—there will then be a meeting of the Cabinet to decide whether we can take a recommended position to the British people. If that position is to recommend we stay in a reformed European Union then, yes, at that point Ministers, who, as I have said, have long-standing views and want to campaign in another direction, will be able to do that. The Government will still have a position. This is not a free-for-all. It will be a clear Government position from which Ministers can depart. Yes, as I have said, they should not suffer disadvantage because they want to take that view.
The Prime Minister has now listened to the views of the EU President and the other 27 Heads of State in the European Union about his proposals. In the spirit of his very own one nation respect agenda, will he also now listen to the views of the Heads of Government in the devolved Parliaments of the United Kingdom, who are unilateral in their belief that his preferred referendum timetable, in scheduling a vote for the end of June, is disrespectful and wrong?
In terms of the respect agenda, my right hon. Friend the Europe Minister has had a number of conversations with the heads of the devolved Administrations and I think that is absolutely right. On the referendum date, I do not think we should get ahead of ourselves. We need an agreement first, but I really do not believe that a four-month period, and a good six weeks or more between one set of elections and another, is in any way disrespectful. I have great respect for the electorates of our countries. They are able to separate these issues and make a decision.
I commend my right hon. Friend for sticking to his commitment to offer the British people a choice on this matter. I also support very much what he has just said about maximising the sovereignty of this Parliament. Does he not agree that the proposals to require the United Kingdom to secure the support of many continental Parliaments to block any EU directive that this Parliament opposes do not constitute the fundamental reform he seeks?
I argue that the red card proposal for national Parliaments is something new—it did not previously exist. Of course, it will take a lot of co-ordination between Parliaments, but where I think it is so much more powerful than the previous proposals, of yellow cards and what have you, is that it would be an absolute block. If we could get the right number of Parliaments together over an issue, the Council and the Commission would not go ahead with it. I think it goes alongside the subsidiarity test that takes place every year, getting Britain out of ever closer union, and reaffirming the sovereignty of Parliament as we have done and will do again. It is one more measure that demonstrates we believe in national Parliaments.
There is a much broader case for continued UK membership of the EU beyond the four items in the Prime Minister’s negotiation based on jobs, our economic interest, our collective security and our place in the world. Does the Prime Minister accept that if we voted to leave the European Union but then found ourselves still having to accept all the rules of the single market, that would be to swap our position as a rule maker for that of being a rule taker? That is not control and that is not the right future for a great country such as the United Kingdom.
As ever, the right hon. Gentleman speaks very clearly and powerfully. Of course he is right. Much bigger arguments are going to take place over the coming months and I am not over-claiming about the four areas where we have made progress. I merely say that they relate to four of the things that most concern the British people about Europe and that we are some way down the road of fixing them. The point he makes about being a rule maker not a rule taker is absolutely vital. Britain is a major industrial economy with a huge car industry, a huge aerospace industry and a very important financial services industry. We need to make sure we are around the table making the rules, otherwise there is a danger that we are not just a rule taker but that the rules are made against us. That is what we need to avoid.
Among the other important measures successfully negotiated by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, I welcome in particular the recognition of the Union’s need to become more competitive and explore the untapped potential of the single market, and indeed to press on with vital trade negotiations with the United States and other key partners. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that when the negotiations are, I hope, happily concluded, our national debate must move on to the real questions of this referendum relating to the safety, economic security and prosperity of the United Kingdom, and the role we are to play in the world in the decades to come?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. We will be holding the debate at a time of great uncertainty and insecurity in our world. We have Russia, with its destabilisation of Ukraine to our east. We have the horrors of Daesh to our south. This is a time when we need to be working closely with our neighbours and friends to make sure we can deliver greater security for our people. It is, of course, true to say that a cornerstone of our security is NATO, our “Five Eyes” partnership and our special relationship with the United States. They are vital. In the modern world, however, border information, passenger name records, criminal record information systems, sharing information about terrorism and fighting together against Islamist extremists—not just in Syria and Iraq, but, tragically, in our own countries all across the European Union—are very important issues.
I wish the Prime Minister and the British negotiating team well for what remains of this process. Will he acknowledge that all the major threats and challenges Britain faces, from international terrorism to climate change, demand that we work closely and collaboratively with our close neighbours, and that we do not relegate ourselves to a position of isolation and impotence?
My judgment in all of this is that I want things that increase the power and the ability of Britain to fix problems and to deal with our own security, stability and prosperity. What matters is this: are we more able to deal with these things? One thing Europe needs to get right is to get rid of the pettifogging bureaucracy on the small things that infuriate people but do not actually make a difference, and to focus instead on security, prosperity and jobs—that is the focus.
Order. A very large number of right hon. and hon. Members are still seeking to catch my eye. Legendarily, the Prime Minister, on several occasions, has been here for long periods to respond to questions, but there is now a premium on brevity that will be demonstrated, I am sure, by the hon. Member for Harwich and North Essex (Mr Jenkin).
May I point out to my right hon. Friend that the former director general of the legal service of the Council of Ministers, Jean-Claude Piris, has said:
“There is no possibility to make a promise that would be legally binding to change the treaty later”?
In fact, he then used a word which one might describe as male bovine excrement. Can the Prime Minister give a single example of where the European Court of Justice has ruled against the treaties in favour of an international agreement, such as the one he is proposing?
As I said to my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Sir William Cash), Denmark negotiated the same sort of legal opt-outs—and, 23 years on, they still stand and are legally binding.
On 21 July 2005, two weeks after four suicide bombers had murdered 52 people on London’s transport network, Hussain Osman tried but failed to blow himself up on a Hammersmith and City tube line. He fled to Italy and was speedily extradited to face justice in this country—in a matter of weeks rather than the years that a bilateral extradition process would have taken. Can the Prime Minister reassure me and all hon. Members that nothing he does in the renegotiation process will put the functioning of the European arrest warrant at risk?
I certainly can give the hon. Lady that reassurance. The House debated this issue. We opted out of much of justice and home affairs but we specifically chose to opt back into the European arrest warrant because it has proved very valuable, not least in the case that the hon. Lady mentions and other cases, in ensuring that terrorist suspects and serious criminals can be returned straight away to Britain. If we stay in a reformed European Union, those arrangements will continue. It is more a question for those who want to leave to say how they will put back in place something as powerful as what we have.
I very much admire the tenacity, the courage and the skill with which my right hon. Friend is defending—nay, polishing—this deal, but what happened to our 2010 manifesto commitments on the charter of fundamental rights and social and employment law?
We have put in place, as I and my right hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Sir Eric Pickles), the former Communities and Local Government Secretary have said, all the things that we put in the manifesto—the manifesto on which my hon. Friend and I stood at the last election. The social chapter no longer exists; it is now merely part of the single market legislation. We have secured, for the first time, an annual reduction in legislation, which can of course include the sort of the legislation that my hon. Friend mentions.
In the words of John Kenneth Galbraith:
“All of the great leaders have had one characteristic in common: it was the willingness to confront unequivocally the major anxiety of their people in their time. This, and not much else, is the essence of leadership.”
Once the EU negotiations are complete, will the Prime Minister confront people’s anxiety, demonstrate strong leadership and unequivocally come out in favour of our EU membership?
I have been very clear. If we can achieve this negotiation, I will work very hard to convince people that Britain should stay in a reformed European Union. That would be very much in our national interest. I am not an expert on JK Galbraith, but when people have serious concerns—as people in this country do about the levels of immigration—it is right to try to act to address them, which is part of what this is about.
I welcome the Prime Minister’s substantial progress towards an agreement that would allow us to stay in the EU, but does he agree that one of the most important aspects of such an agreement is that it is legally binding and provides a lot more clarity about Britain’s role within the EU—in terms of the new dispensation, and of existing treaties? That makes it extremely powerful from a legal point of view as it can be revoked only if we agree. It therefore has embedded force to it.
We have heard from the former Attorney General and the former Solicitor General, who have great legal expertise. The point that they make is right: this agreement will be legally binding on member states as a matter of international law. First, of course, it has to be agreed, but once it has been agreed, my hon. and learned Friend is absolutely right that it would be irreversible because it could be amended or revoked only if all member states, Britain included, decided to reverse it. Therein lies its irreversibility.
I want us to stay in the European Union, but the Prime Minister indicated that he would use the renegotiation to seek to address the unfairness in the European sugar market, which currently affects cane sugar refiners such as Tate & Lyle in my constituency. Has the right hon. Gentleman made any progress on that specific issue?
I will have to write to the right hon. Gentleman about that issue.
The Commission might agree that we meet the requirements to have a break, but that is its decision. It might not agree in a few years’ time. Every step of these negotiations relies, unfortunately, on somebody else giving us permission to make decisions for this country, as with the thousands of harmonised directives that we struggle with—day in, day out—in respect of which businesses have to ask the permission of other countries. This is not what the British public want, Prime Minister.
Let me deal first with the harmonised directives. We now have this test for subsidiarity—we had only fine words in previous treaties because there was never a mechanism to go with them—so the European Council and the European Commission are going to have to look at all these competences and return to member states those that are no longer necessary. That seems to represent important progress in the area my hon. Friend mentions. On migration, the European Commission has said that Britain qualifies now. Where my hon. Friend is right is that although we know that what is proposed is the ability to stop someone getting full access to benefits for four years, we need to fill in the detail on how long such a mechanism will last and how many times it can be renewed.
In the Welsh general election, how will the Prime Minister’s Conservative colleagues argue for the economic stability that Wales so sorely needs when it might be overthrown by his referendum just six weeks later?
British people, including people in Wales, voted for a Government who would deliver economic stability while putting this great question about Britain’s future in front of the British people. As I have said before, public opinion in Wales, England, Scotland and Northern Ireland is all, to a greater or lesser extent, in favour of holding a referendum. I think this is the right policy for the whole of the United Kingdom.
My right hon. Friend has talked about what is going to happen with the European Court of Justice. Does he recall that under the Lisbon treaty there is a requirement for the European Union to join the European convention on human rights. That has not been implemented because the European Court of Justice has said that it is incompatible with the EU treaties. Does this not show that, ultimately, although something might need to be taken into account, there is no need for compliance?
Let me say two things to my hon. Friend. First, I do not believe that the EU should join the European convention on human rights. I do not think that is the right step forward, and that has been the British Government’s position. Secondly, we are committed in our manifesto to change Britain’s position with respect to the European Court of Human Rights by having our own British Bill of Rights. We shall be coming up with proposals for that shortly.
British workers benefit from employment rights guaranteed at the EU level. Will the Prime Minister assure us that his renegotiation does not affect important employment rights, including rights to paid leave, equal rights for part-time workers and fair pay for agency workers?
All these rules are no longer in a social chapter, but are part of single market legislation. We now have the opportunity to make sure that single market legislation is proportionate and that it is on something that needs to be done at the European level rather than the national level. That is an ongoing conversation, as it should be under the rules set out here.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that of all the documents issued yesterday, the most significant words are in Donald Tusk’s letter to members of the Council, particularly where he says that
“in light of the United Kingdom’s special situation under the Treaties, it is not committed to further political integration.”
Is that not precisely what the majority of the British people have always wanted—to be in Europe, but not run by Europe, to revive an old phrase. Is that not precisely what my right hon. Friend has achieved?
I thought the letter was interesting in that regard. The truth is that Britain’s membership of this organisation is different from that of other countries. As the document sets out, we are not in the euro, we are not participating in Schengen, we keep our own border controls, we choose whether to participate in measures of freedom, security and justice. We opted out of the justice and home affairs area, and now we are opted out, as it were, of ever closer union. Our membership is different, and we need to make that case strongly as we go forward.
Given that the south of Ireland is by far Northern Ireland’s biggest export market, will the Prime Minister tell us what assessment he has made of the impact that leaving the European Union would have on the land border in Ireland? Can he tell us whether continued free movement in Ireland can be guaranteed, and has he assessed the damage that a customs border could cause to Northern Ireland’s economic security?
Those are important questions. I think I am right in saying that the amendments to the European Referendum Bill—now the 2015 Act—that were agreed in the House of Lords and were then, I think, accepted here require the Government to produce a series of documents concerning the reform proposals, the alternatives to membership, and the obligations and rights that attach to membership of the European Union. I think that, through a process involving those documents, we should address a very important question that clearly affects one part of the United Kingdom quite intensely.
In 2014-15, 183,000 economic migrants came from the European Union, none of whom would have been deterred by anything we have heard so far. Ever closer union may be taken out of the preamble, but it remains in the essential text of all the treaties. On protecting the “euro-outs”, all that will happen is that there will be a discussion—and there are plenty of discussions in the European Union—and, on competitiveness, that has been part of the European Union’s own ambition since the Lisbon agenda of 1999.
The thin gruel has been further watered down. My right hon. Friend has a fortnight, I think, in which to salvage his reputation as a negotiator.
My hon. Friend is extremely articulate and always speaks very powerfully, but let me take two of the points that he has made and explain why I think that, actually, he has got this wrong.
First, the principles that will be legally binding in terms of how currencies other than the euro are treated constitute a real advance. They mean, for instance, that never again can the European Union suggest that the clearance of euros is possible only in eurozone countries, which would have been disastrous for our financial services industry. I have secured that. The European Union cannot even promote that again, which is extremely important, because if we were not in the European Union, we would not have that protection at all. The EU could change the rule just like that. I do not think my hon. Friend understands the power of the principles of no discrimination, no disadvantage, and no cost, which mean that we cannot be forced to bail out eurozone countries as we nearly were last summer. Those are powerful principles.
On ever closer union, I encourage my hon. Friend to look at page 9 of section C of one of the documents, which states that
“the references to an ever closer union…do not offer a basis for extending the scope of any provision of the Treaties”.
As I have said, as far as I can remember—I was advising a Minister at the time of the Maastricht debates, and I sat through Lisbon and Nice and Amsterdam and the rest—the principle has never been set out in that way. This means that ever closer union cannot be used to drive a process of integration. If we in the House have the protection that we must have a referendum if any Minister ever suggests that we sign up to another treaty that passes power—protection one—and we have this too, we are well on our way to saying that our different sort of membership of the EU is not only safeguarded but is being extended, because not only are we out of the euro and out of Schengen, but we are out of ever closer union too.
Once the workshop of the world, Birmingham in the west midlands is now the industrial heartland of Britain. Key to that success is inward investment, including investment by Jaguar Land Rover in the 3,000-strong Jaguar factory in my constituency, and key to inward investment is continuing membership of the European Union. Does the Prime Minister agree that it is strongly in the best interests of midlands workers that we remain part of Europe?
Provided that we secure the agreement that we need, yes, of course I do. We are seeing an industrial renaissance in the west midlands, much of it involving the automotive industry. I have had a number of meetings with car manufacturers in recent days: I saw representatives of Toyota and Ford yesterday, I have had conversations with Jaguar Land Rover and others, and I was with BMW representatives in Germany recently. They have all made the point that Britain is a great centre for the manufacture of cars, and of engines in particular. That is relevant to the issue of the standards set in Europe and our being a rule maker and not a rule taker, which is very important for our auto industry.
Following the Prime Minister’s response to my recent parliamentary question, I have taken his advice and cleared the diary for a debate in the Chamber tomorrow on parliamentary sovereignty. Given the importance of sovereignty to the EU negotiations, will he join us for that debate, and, perhaps, respond to it on behalf of the Government?
I am very sorry, but I have not been able to clear my own diary. Tomorrow is the Syria conference. In fact, many people will arrive tonight—more than 30 Presidents and Prime Ministers, I believe. The aim is to raise twice as much for the Syria refugee appeal this year as we did last year. However, I know that my hon. Friend is keen to have a word, and I will make sure that we fix that up.
As 14,000 jobs in Oldham are dependent on Europe, I am very much in favour of staying in. However, although the Prime Minister said in his statement that the emergency brake would apply immediately after the EU referendum, it was reported yesterday that the process would take at least 18 months. Will the Prime Minister make clear which is the case, and tell us whether he will report on any other transitional arrangements relating to other measures?
What I said was that because this measure does not rely on changes in the treaty but will be in European legislation, it can enter into force relatively shortly after the referendum. It will require some legislation, but, as I said earlier, the leader of one of the biggest parties in the European Parliament said that it could be a matter of months, because the process can be accelerated. It just goes to show how much we need to bind everyone into the agreement that we hope to achieve in the coming weeks, so that the Parliament can pass the legislation as swiftly as possible.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that one of the biggest concerns about the direction of travel in the European Union is that countries within it, the eurozone members, wish to integrate more deeply in order to protect their currency? We have our own currency, but an incredibly important part of my right hon. Friend’s negotiation ambition was that we should be protected from any discriminatory measure that might result from those countries’ ability to integrate more closely. Is that not why this proposed package is indeed significant? Is it not the case that it does protect us, and that not only are there now two different speeds, but we have a different destination from our European partners, which puts us in a relatively advantageous position?
Let me make two points. First, I think that the reference to a different destination is significant. People have often talked about Europe moving at different speeds, but for the first time it is being said that we may not all be trying to achieve the same ends, and I think that that is very important.
The “euro ins-outs” section is probably the most technical and, in some ways the most impenetrable, but it contains some simple principles, such as the non-discrimination and no-cost principles that I mentioned to my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset (Mr Rees-Mogg). There is also the very important concept that, should we need to take action in the form of financial supervision to secure our own financial stability, nothing should get in the way of such action. That, I think, is a very important clarification for the good of our country.
More than 80% of businesses in my constituency want to stay in the EU. More than 50% of the jobs are linked to trade with the EU. Our membership is vital to jobs, prosperity and security, and that is why Labour Members are united in campaigning to stay in Europe. Do we not need to end the uncertainty, have the referendum as soon as possible, and campaign to stay in the EU?
Obviously I am keen to end the uncertainty, but I am not in any hurry if we cannot get the right deal. I think we have set out very clearly what needs to be done, and I think it is possible for that to be agreed in February, but if it takes longer we shall have to be patient, because getting this right really matters.
A week or so ago, 2,500 people turned up in Kettering for the first GO conference. GO—Grassroots Out—is an organisation whose aim is to get us out of the EU. We had cross-party speakers at the Kettering conference, and we shall be holding another in Manchester.
What has not been mentioned by commentators—I received an e-mail from the Prime Minister about this yesterday—is the fact that he rules nothing out. This is a process, and he may not get what he wants. I understand that he will not be able to come to Manchester because he is still involved in the negotiations, but if he does not get what he wants, could he come to our GO conference on 19 February, and would it be possible for me to drop off a tie for him at Downing Street?
My hon. Friend is always very generous with his time, with his advice, and now with his clothing as well. The tie has arrived, and I feel that the blazer is soon to follow.
I do not think that I shall be able to come on 19 February—I hope that I shall still be in the thick of negotiations—but I will of course report the results to the House.
It is a very garish item, I am bound to say, but who am I to object to that? [Hon. Members: “Would you like one?”] I have suddenly been afflicted by a loss of hearing.
I hope my tie is not too garish for you, Mr Speaker.
When the Prime Minister visits Northern Ireland, which I would welcome, will he visit the devastated fishing villages, the families angered by EU Court rulings on terrorists, the manufacturers smothered in red tape and the haulage companies whose employees run the gauntlet at Calais every week because of the EU’s chaotic immigration policy? Will he explain to them how his red card will prevent further destructive EU legislation, given that it requires him in 12 weeks to get 50% of Parliaments across the EU to oppose proposals backed by their own Governments?
I will want to address all those issues when I go to Northern Ireland. Already the reform of the common fisheries policy has led to some improvement, but there is more to be done. On the rules that manufacturers face, I have set out how we will cut bureaucracy. The documents also address directly the problem between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland of sham marriages and people trying to get round our immigration controls, but we now need to carry them into force.
The Prime Minister is trying his best to renegotiate our position, but would he not agree that the reforms, as they stand, do nothing to make the immigration system in this country fairer to people, regardless of where in the world they come from?
I think they do make it fairer. As I explained in the statement, it has for years been frustrating that we cannot apply some of the rules for British citizens marrying foreign nationals to EU citizens marrying foreign nationals. The agreement opens the way to ensuring that we can. All sorts of sham marriages, fraudsters, criminals and others who have been getting round our immigration controls will no longer be able to do so.
The Sunday Times has reported that, as part of the negotiations and his plan to restore the sovereignty of Parliament, the Prime Minister is seeking to deny UK citizens access to the fundamental rights guaranteed by the EU charter. Does he appreciate that, as stated in the well-known case of MacCormick v. Lord Advocate, the doctrine of the sovereignty of Parliament is a distinctively English principle? In Scotland, the people are sovereign, and they do not want their human rights protections reduced.
People in our country had fundamental rights long before the EU charter of fundamental rights was even thought of, so we do not need these documents in force in Britain. We have our own Parliament and our own rights, and soon we will have our own British Bill of Rights.
Constituents and families will be thinking about what the future holds. All four tranches of the agreement are important to all our constituents, but the most significant is the protection for non-euro countries. Will the Prime Minister assure the House that he will look at the detail—the devil is in the detail—to make sure that there are no loopholes and that, as the eurozone countries integrate, we are protected and not discriminated against?
I will certainly do that. It will be a complex negotiation. The eurozone counties want the ability to integrate further and to know that we are not trying to block the action they need to take, but clearly we want to make sure that we, as members of the single market, are not disadvantaged.
I am sure the Prime Minister will welcome today’s news that the largest offshore wind farm in the world is to be built off the east Yorkshire coast by DONG Energy and Siemens. This will create up to 2,000 jobs in the Humber estuary and result in £6 billion of investment. Does this not show that, whatever the debate and frustrations around the right terms, it is in our country’s economic interest to be part of, and engaged in, the EU as a leading player?
I am delighted with that news, because the Government have given great support to Siemens and DONG Energy. We have—I think—the biggest offshore wind market in the world, because we have provided the regulatory certainty the industry needed. In the east of England, that has achieved not just one big factory, but the industrial regeneration of all the related industries. Irrespective of the outcome of the referendum, we have to make Britain the best place in the world to invest and grow a business. When the arguments come, I am sure many of those who want us to stay in a reformed EU will argue it will make us even more attractive, but we should wait until the starting gun is fired.
The scope and scale of the reform package reflect the key interests of a wide range of people in the Chamber. Does the Prime Minister agree that the important thing now is to make sure the details are legally binding and absolutely right and, above all, to sketch out the economic case for staying in the EU—not least the fact that more than half of our foreign direct investment comes from the EU?
My hon. Friend is right. The next few weeks will be about trying to secure this deal and nail down the details. If that is successful, there will then be the bigger arguments he refers to.
I suspect there will always be issues that divide the Prime Minister and me, but, on this, is not what matters the national interest and what he described as the greater prize? Is not one of the benefits of a document that is legally binding and ratified by the British people in a referendum that it will be the British people who decide? Had he gone for treaty change, could it not have been scuppered by referendums in France, Netherlands, Ireland and other EU member states whose publics might come to a different view from that of the British public?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his comments. Clearly, if agreed, this will be a legally binding arrangement, for the reasons I have given, but we are aiming in it for treaty change—on those things that need to change—the next time the treaties are altered. He makes a good point though: the more we can bring this together in one place and explain what it is about, the better the British people will see the force of the arguments.
Does the Prime Minister accept that if the UK left the EU, we could regain our seat at the World Trade Organisation, thereby regaining our voice and influence on this crucial body for global trade, which we lost when we became a member of the EU?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right that, outside the EU, one option would be to take our seat at the WTO. The only problem is that the WTO has not signed many trade agreements in recent years. Those have tended to be bilateral agreements, such as the EU agreement with Canada, which we hope is about to come in, and that with Korea. Of course, Britain could, independently, sign trade agreements, but we have to weigh up how much influence Britain has as a member of the EU—a market of 500 million people—when negotiating the biggest and best trade deals with the fastest-growing countries in the world.
I call Brendan O’Hara. No. He was here.
The German Government and the European car lobby see the renegotiation as an opportunity to water down new proposals on emissions standards and type approval. Does the Prime Minister accept that that would be unacceptable to British drivers, and will he ensure that it will not be a bargaining chip in the renegotiation?
There is no connection between this renegotiation and those directives. The only one I can see is the one I made earlier: for the good of our car industry and our consumers, Britain needs to be in the room when these decisions are made.
The Prime Minister has set out the many things that remain to be reformed, but if this grudging and threadbare deal is the best the EU is prepared to concede, what serious hope is there of meaningful renegotiation if or when we are tied in long term under a referendum?
I would make two points to my hon. Friend. First, this is not coming at the time of a more general treaty change; it is a one-off. We are the first Government, and I am the first Prime Minister, I can think of who from a standing start have achieved a unilateral agreement for the good of their country inside the EU. I do not think it is threadbare; as others have said, it is very solid. I am sure that treaty changes will be coming down the track—the process of reform is never fully completed—but there is no danger, once the agreement is signed and, I hope, confirmed in a referendum, of Europe running away with a whole lot of other plans for Britain, because we have the referendum lock. Nothing can happen to Britain without a referendum in this country. That was such an important piece of legislation back in 2010, but I think sometimes we forget about it.
The Liberal Democrats believe in the UK being in Europe, but we also believe in the EU being reformed, so I congratulate the Prime Minister and his team and wish them well in the remaining negotiations. When he is leading the campaign to stay in, will he remind the British public of the mutual defence clause and that, frankly, in this unstable world now would be an absurd time to turn our backs on our nearest neighbours and allies?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his good wishes for the final stages of this renegotiation. This will be a big argument in the campaign. Like many on this side of the House, I have always seen NATO as the cornerstone of our defence, but as I said earlier, in the modern networked world the work we do, for instance in the Mediterranean to try and stop people leaving Libya and making the perilous journey to Italy, could be a NATO operation but right now it is a European operation in which Britain is playing a leading part. Being a member of networks where we can work together for our security is important.
Small and medium-sized enterprises are the absolute lifeblood of our economy and small business owners in Romsey and Southampton North are looking at the targets for regulation reduction with optimism, but what they are really seeking is a reassurance from my right hon. Friend that these are stretch targets and our real goal has to be to go beyond them and make sure there is a real-terms reduction in the amount of bureaucracy small businesses face.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. What has been achieved so far is something like an 80% reduction in the number of proposals coming forward, but of course what we want to achieve is a reduction in the existing base of regulation and legislation where it is unnecessary, and that, again for the first time, is what we have secured targets towards.
Can the Prime Minister confirm that British women’s rights at work specifically around paid maternity leave, equal pay and anti-discrimination laws will remain firmly in place and will not be affected by any deal? For the same British women, may I ask for an update on how far his negotiations have got on the tampon tax?
First, I can give the hon. Lady that reassurance in terms of those guarantees and also the action we have taken domestically on things like shared parental leave, which I am very proud of and makes Britain a more family-friendly country. The tampon tax issue is difficult because of the VAT rules in Europe so I have nothing to add to what I have said before about that, but I totally agree about the desirability of trying to get it fixed.
May I join other colleagues in thanking the Prime Minister for all his work in negotiating a better deal for Britain in the EU? I agree with him that these reforms are a substantial and fundamental change to our relationship with the EU, but what assessment has he made of the impact of these reforms on the car manufacturing worker or the student who is looking at their Erasmus placement next year, as well as those who share similar concerns to those of a pensioner constituent of mine who contacted me yesterday and said, “What is the impact on my grandchild if we leave the EU?”
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Inevitably these negotiations focus on important ideas and concepts of sovereignty and non-discrimination and deregulation and the rest, but we have to make sure this is a debate that is about consumers and how we are affected in terms of freedom to travel, freedom to study, the price of flights, the availability of roaming charges, and how we are affected, as my hon. Friend said, as pensioners and car workers and young people looking for university places. Hopefully, all the debate will engage with, and bring out, those issues.
The Prime Minister has outlined the action he has taken in UK-EU negotiations, but what is missing from his statement is any reference whatever to the fishing sectors, which are choked with bureaucracy and unable to fish fully the seas around the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Farmers have to wade through red tape just to farm. The fishing sectors and the farmers have a simple solution: have the referendum as soon as possible and let us rid ourselves of the outrageous and top-heavy EU and just say no to Europe. Can the Prime Minister tell us, and the fishermen and the farmers, today when the referendum will take place?
I cannot give a date for the referendum because we do not yet have an agreement in place. I would say that in recent years there have been quite significant improvements in the common fisheries policy, not least in dealing with the appalling situation of discards. As for farmers, let the debate begin; let’s hear from farmers and farmers’ representatives about what they think about the support they get, the actions we have taken to try to simplify the bureaucracy with fewer inspections and the rest. I look forward to hearing from all farmers and their representatives.
I thank the Prime Minister for a very good negotiation. This report is fantastic, but may I draw my right hon. Friend’s attention to section B? Does my right hon. Friend welcome Mr Tusk’s comments on competitiveness, which commit to
“lowering administrative burdens and compliance costs on economic operators, especially small and medium enterprises, and repealing unnecessary legislation”?
That is what so many companies complain about. This is very welcome to all businesses, particularly those in Portsmouth who want to invest in Europe, and it is exactly the reason why we should be staying in this market which has over 500 million people.
I thank my hon. Friend for her remarks. Of course section B is important, but it is also worth looking at the draft European Council declaration on competitiveness which adds to section B and brings out some more details.
Obviously any referendum debate will centre on the bigger picture, the longer-term challenge and deeper interests, but as well as the issues raised by my hon. Friend the Member for South Down (Ms Ritchie), will the right hon. Gentleman address whether the package he has come up with to do with the changes in relation to child benefit will automatically extend to cross-border workers in a constituency like mine, where EU precepts apply?
I will look very carefully at that issue, but I seem to recall from conversations I had with the Taoiseach that there are particular arrangements for the common travel area. But I will come back to the hon. Gentleman on this.
The legal certainty that the Prime Minister referred to and the protections in the economic governance section of the document are very important to maintain the status of London as an international business and financial centre, but does my right hon. Friend agree that one of the risks to that position that would remain if this agreement were not successful would be the uncertainty of leaving a market which we can grow, improve and strengthen, and having then to try to get back into the market from the outside with uncertain cost, time and terms?
My hon. Friend, with his constituency, is right to talk about the importance of financial services and the City of London. We have 40% of Europe’s financial services here in the UK. The current arrangements work quite well because people can passport their way through to establish themselves in any European country, so those arguing for alternatives will have to answer some quite difficult questions about how exactly we put those sorts of protections in place.
Can the Prime Minister confirm he is now in receipt of a letter from my right hon. Friend the Member for Gordon (Alex Salmond) that makes it clear he does not believe six weeks is a long enough gap between national elections and the EU referendum? Clearly the misrepresentation that has happened is not intentional—we all accept that—but in order to set the matter straight, may I suggest that the Prime Minister and his colleagues are equally enthusiastic about circulating the actual views of the former First Minister, in particular his suggestion that the real reason the Prime Minister wants a June referendum is that a short campaign is designed to minimise the extent of the obvious divisions within the Conservative party?
First, I do not think four months is a short period of time. I think by the end of four months people might be heartily sick of the whole subject. But I notice that the thumbscrews and the other instruments of torture available to the current First Minister have clearly been applied to the former First Minister as we have seen a miraculous conversion—once six weeks was enough; now six weeks is not enough. I wonder what she did to him.
May I, too, thank the Prime Minister for giving the country the chance of a referendum? Does he agree that he, I and this Government are nothing more than tenants whose duty while we serve is to protect our island inheritance—our democracy, sovereignty and freedom—and that we have no right whatsoever to sell it all, let alone cheaply, to a bureaucratic and unaccountable institution like the EU?
We are tenants; my hon. Friend is absolutely right. That is why I think after 40 years of the British people not having a say when Europe has changed so much, it is right to give the British people a say again, and what I wanted to do was give them the very best possible chance to have a say—not between the status quo today and leaving altogether, but with an improved settlement and plan for Britain by which they can choose to stay in or get out.
Order. [Interruption.] I call Mr Tom Elliott—and he should not be diverted by the hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson), who is sitting next to him.
Thank you very much, Mr Speaker. I will not be diverted, and I have no ties to offer either. One of the major drawbacks of the European Union for businesses is red tape and bureaucracy. I note that yesterday’s document stated that unnecessary legislation would be repealed. When will the public and our businesses be able to see which legislation is likely to be repealed?
As the document sets out, this will be an annual process. What is different about this is that, instead of just words about deregulation, two mechanisms are being put in place: one to enforce subsidiarity so that whole competences can be returned to member states, and one for burden-reduction targets. Those two things are new.
We on this side of the House want what is best for Britain when it comes to jobs and security. I have one vote, and I believe that there are aspects of the EU that need serious scrutiny and reform. My constituents share those thoughts. This party has provided this opportunity for a much-needed referendum and the reality of reform, and we can look at this and examine what is before us. Does the Prime Minister agree that voters want an open argument on this matter, rather than open warfare?
People want an open argument; they also want unbiased statistics and clear independent advice. So as well as there being an in campaign and an out campaign, once the deal is agreed—
Well, several out campaigns, as the hon. Gentleman says. Once the deal is agreed, we also need to ensure that independent organisations, businesses, non-governmental organisations and any others who think that they would be affected are encouraged to come forward and give their views.
The Prime Minister talks about strengthening all the national Parliaments. Will he tell us, in the spirit of seeing subsidiarity in action, what exactly that will mean for the Scottish Parliament?
We are currently giving the Scottish Parliament the immense responsibility of being able to raise its own taxes. We are still negotiating that, but it is probably the biggest act of British subsidiarity that we have had for many years, and I would urge the SNP to pick up the baton and run with it.
On the topic of in-work benefits, the Prime Minister has already said that the emergency brake is in the hands of the Commission. Does he agree that it would greatly help the “in” case if, over the next two or three weeks, he could get a slightly stronger commitment to apply that handbrake for a period into the future and not just initially? Secondly, on that topic, what would happen if we were to vote to stay in but the European Parliament did not subsequently ratify these measures?
On my hon. Friend’s latter point, the European Parliament is a party to these negotiations and I have had a number of meetings with it. If he looks at the draft declaration of the European Commission on the safeguard mechanism, it is very clear that we are justified in triggering the mechanism straight away. On his other point, he is absolutely right to say that we need to secure in the negotiations the best possible agreement on all the other aspects of the operation of this mechanism: how long it lasts for, how many times it can be renewed, and all the rest of it.
There were approximately 500 days between the announcement and the date of the Scottish independence referendum, which is roughly the same length of time between today and 23 June 2017. There are 30,000 British citizens living in European countries and claiming benefits, so how will this draft, permanent, still-to-be-negotiated, legally binding package affect them?
I can let the House into a little secret. The reason why there were 500 days between the announcement of the Scottish referendum and the referendum itself is that I was so determined that there was going to be one question and one question only that I granted the former First Minister, the right hon. Member for Gordon (Alex Salmond), the right to name the date. He wanted to make sure that the referendum took place after as long as possible, after the anniversary of Bannockburn, after everything—everything he could throw in. I have to say that, from my point of view, the result was still very clear.
Benefits as a pull factor for migration might have been blunted somewhat by these proposals but they have not been eliminated. Arguably the bigger pull factor for migration is our successful economy and job creation in the UK. Will the Prime Minister tell us what the draft proposals will do to enable the UK to control immigration from within the European Union in the long term, beyond the four years of the emergency brake?
On the long-term approach, we are dealing with the abuses of free movement with a more comprehensive package than ever before to deal with the fraudsters, the criminals and the sham marriages. We have the emergency brake which will deliver a four-year welfare brake, which I think is significant. Frankly, I am sure that the eurozone economies will start to recover over time; that has been one of the issues. In the long term, we need to do better at controlling immigration from outside the EU but we also need a welfare policy and a training policy inside our own country, which we increasingly have, to train up the people in this country to do the jobs that our strong economy is providing.
As one of the top five economies in the world, Britain has to have a world view, and we need friends and allies not just in one continent but in six. I agree with the Prime Minister that this should be a question not just about whether we could manage outside the European Union but about where we would be better off. With that in mind, what feedback has he had on his negotiations from our allies in the Commonwealth and from Britain’s wider networks around the world?
The advice has been pretty comprehensive from all of them: they value their individual relationship with Britain, but they think we are better off inside a reformed European Union. The Prime Ministers of New Zealand, Australia and Canada, the American President and others are all pretty clear about this—not simply because they think we are better off, but because they think the influence we bring to bear on the European Union is positive from their point of view.
The SNP, in rummaging for an argument, referred to a 1953 case, the case of MacCormick, and to obiter comments—that is, comments made in passing. May I remind the Prime Minister that he among EU leaders has unique up-to-date experience of tough negotiations that led to a referendum agreement, which in turn led to 55% of the Scottish electorate voting to keep the sovereign United Kingdom together? He should take comfort from that success, because those 55% will be voting, just like the English, the Welsh and the Northern Irish, to listen to the British Premier about what is in Britain’s best interests.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. What these two referendums have in common is that, as a country, we should be confronting and dealing with these big issues. Does Scotland want to stay within the United Kingdom? Does the United Kingdom want to stay within a reformed Europe?
Just as important as the result will be the legitimacy of that result, and a high turnout will be essential. What can the Prime Minister do to engage with trade, industry and businesses to encourage them to discuss with their employees the implications of the outcome, whichever way the debate goes?
I will certainly do everything I can, in the event of a successful negotiation, to encourage engagement at all levels. I would also encourage businesses, charities and other organisations to ensure that they feel they can come forward. There are some in the business community who feel that that they will have to go through all sorts of corporate governance concerns, but I would advise them to get on with that process so that if they think they have important arguments to put forward to their workforce, their customers or their shareholders, they are able to do so.
A key question for many is whether the UK will be able to say no to European migrants when we need to. This draft Council statement spells out clearly that we will be able to do so on the grounds of public policy, public health and public security, which include legitimate goals such as reducing unemployment or the suspicion of marriages of convenience. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that this is a considerable step forward for our own immigration and security interests?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. If we read section D of the main document, we see that it is quite refreshing about the number of instances in which the control of migration and the limitation of free movement will be possible. That document bears careful reading.
I welcome the Prime Minister’s statements so far. I particularly welcome the fact that, for the first time in my lifetime, a Prime Minister is doing a deal in Europe and coming back to this country to give all the British people a chance to have a say on it, rather than just Members of Parliament. Can he reassure me that, even if people do vote to remain in the European Union on the basis of this deal, we will still have a vision that Europe should be doing less and doing it better?
I absolutely agree with that; the idea of Europe only where necessary but nation states wherever possible is absolutely right. There will be people who say, “Maybe we have addressed some issues of concern to the British people but there is more to be done.” Let me say again that that is a perfectly acceptable view, but I would argue that the “more to be done” should be done from inside the EU, rather than by us slamming the door and trying to do it from outside.
It is now clear from the renegotiations that Britain can improve its position within Europe by continuing to benefit from influence over a market of 500 million people, while maintaining our borders and preventing abuse of free movement. Is the Prime Minister as encouraged as I am by the very positive support that has come from business across the piece?
It is important that business raises its voice, particularly as regards jobs and investment. We need to demonstrate that this negotiation and this outcome can actually lead to a strong and more secure economy, for the sake not just of business, but of people who want security.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his statement. Is he aware that 90% of FTSE 100 chairmen would vote to remain in the European Union? Does he think that that is because they are part of some so-called “project fear”? Alternatively, is it because they run our very largest companies in the real world and know that a vote to leave is a vote for huge economic uncertainty and that a vote to remain, with the protections we will have on the single market and our currency, is a vote for our economy to go from strength to strength?
It is important that we hear the voice of business, both large and small, and I encourage all businesses to speak out because they have an important contribution to make to the debate. The more that people can give concrete examples of how access to this market and to the rules of this market matter, the better.
I thank the Prime Minister for his efforts to secure the best deal available. Today’s newspaper reports suggest that the changes needed to introduce an emergency brake would require approval from the European Parliament. Has he had an opportunity to assess levels of support among MEPs for these changes?
My hon. Friend is right in what he says. Obviously, it is a great advance that the European Commission has said that Britain qualifies for this brake, and if it existed now it would be brought in straightaway. As for the advice I have about the position of the European Parliament, I mentioned earlier that the head of the largest group in the European Parliament thinks this could be sorted out in a matter of months and is supportive of the approach.
The German captain of the ship that is the European Union has deliberately steered it into a migration iceberg with all the watertight doors open. Rather than just rearranging the deckchairs, would it not be better to direct the British people to the available lifeboat while the band is still playing and before the inevitable happens?
The analogy was getting quite complicated, but I do not agree with that. If we were not outside Schengen, my hon. Friend would have a very fair point, but we are in a situation where we are able to have the best of both worlds. Let us keep our borders and let us not let in foreign nationals who do not have a right to be here—that is strengthened by this agreement—but let us keep the free movement, so that British people can live and work in other European countries. That is the best of both worlds.
I wish to press my right hon. Friend a little further about the emergency brake, which sounded so hopeful some weeks ago. My hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) talked about backseat drivers, but the concept of 28 feet reaching for the pedal, all wanting an influence, really means that when a hazard is seen, indecision will mean that an accident will surely happen. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is far better to have independent control of the brake, the clutch, the accelerator and, indeed, the steering wheel?
First, the European Commission’s statement is very clear, saying that it
“considers that the kind of information provided to it by the United Kingdom shows the…exceptional situation…exists in the United Kingdom today.”
That would enable us to pull this brake to make sure that people could not get instant access to our welfare benefits. But there is another consideration that those thinking that we would be better off outside the European Union have to think about: when most of those countries outside the EU that want a close relationship with it ask for free access to the single market, the first demand is that there should also be the free movement of people. That is the case with Norway, for example. This is a deal from within and in many ways, even on this issue, it would be better than a deal from without.
In his statement, the Prime Minister outlines the work we have done to tackle migration from outside the EU. What conversations has he had with other European leaders about what they are doing to tackle the migrant crisis? Many of my constituents are very worried about the future implications of migration, particularly given that we are seeing such unsustainable levels of people coming into the UK at the moment.
My hon. Friend asks a crucial question that needs to have a full and proper answer. The arrival of these people on to the European continent does concern people. What I say is that, first, we do not have to allow into our country foreign nationals resident in other states. That is why we keep our border controls.
Let us consider, for example, the situation in Germany. Getting German citizenship can take as long as 10 years and it is the product of a lot of work, tests and everything else. We must therefore, first, keep our Schengen no-borders agreement and, secondly, continue to exclude people if they are not European Union citizens and they do not have a visa. Thirdly, I should say that the changes here that mean that we can crack down on the fraudsters, criminals and sham marriages, and on those who are trying to get round our immigration controls, put us in a much better place to deal with the pressures of the future.
It has been a long wait, Mr Speaker, but the voice of the Humber will not be silenced, as the Prime Minister said last week. He rightly said in his opening remarks that the British people are proud of their democratic institutions. Let me suggest to him that when they see British Ministers having to go cap in hand to Brussels to determine who receive benefits or who is allowed into the country, that pride is somewhat diminished. May I urge him further, in his final negotiations, to remain robust and achieve even more? Although he will not persuade me, he may persuade a few doubting people in Cleethorpes to vote to stay.
I am sure the voice of the Humber could help me with that, if he really wanted to. Britain is a member of a number of international organisations, some of which involve our having obligations towards them. We have ceded some of our sovereignty and our obligations to NATO, yet we do not see that as a cap in hand issue; we see it as a cornerstone of our security. What I am trying to secure here with Europe is that we are in the things we want to be in and we are out of the things we do not want to be in. If that is the case, we are not weaker, less powerful or less sovereign as a result; we are more able to get things done for the people who put us here.
Order. No, no, I am always very keen to hear from the hon. Member for Gravesham (Mr Holloway), but he only toddled into the Chamber some considerable way into the statement, as his puckish grin testifies. We will hear from him on a subsequent occasion. Perhaps we can just thank the Prime Minister for his patience and his courtesy. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear!”] I would like to thank all colleagues for taking part. There will be many opportunities further to debate these important matters, but let us give thanks where they are due.
Automatic Electoral Registration
Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)
I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to impose certain duties upon Her Majesty’s Government to ensure the accuracy, completeness and utility of electoral registers; to make provision for the sharing of data for the purposes of electoral registration; and for connected purposes.
As I am sure all hon. Members will agree, it is our job in this House to make sure that the citizens we represent can truly exercise their democratic rights, but, as we speak, British citizens in this country are being marginalised and excluded from the democratic process.
The problem is less about getting people to sign up and more about maintaining people’s registration. The people who are being excluded from the process are exactly the people we need to be prioritising. According to recent trends, we are witnessing further marginalisation of already marginalised groups, including those from poorer backgrounds, those who are disabled and those from ethnic minorities. Research published just yesterday showed that pensioners in the shires who own their own home have a 90% chance of being on the electoral register, whereas a young man from an ethnic minority background in private rented accommodation in a city has less than a 10% chance of being registered. Meanwhile, the Prime Minister has launched an important drive against “overt, unconscious or institutional” racial discrimination, in university admissions, the justice system and the police. However, the fact that people from ethnic minorities are far less likely to be registered to exercise their democratic rights undermines the Government’s commitment.
When it comes to electoral registration, the picture across the country is bleak. I celebrate the work of my hon. Friend the Member for Ashfield (Gloria De Piero), who has raised the issue of voters dropping off the register. Since the introduction of individual electoral registration, a staggering 800,000 people—1.8% nationwide—have dropped off the register. To put those figures into context, Liverpool has seen a drop in its eligible register of 14,000, Birmingham 17,000 and Lewisham 6,000, and those are all areas that have seen an increase in population.
The situation is even worse in areas where the population is transient, such as in university towns. Canterbury has seen a huge drop of 13% in those registered to vote. Cambridge has seen a drop of 11%, which means that its electorate is now smaller than it was in 2011. Those drops are the result of the absurdities of the current system. I ask Members to imagine what it would feel like if, every time they started a new job, they needed to apply for a new national insurance number and to prove to Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs again and again that they were eligible to pay tax and NI. They would find the process cumbersome, costly and repetitive—just as the process of IER is.
In sum, these developments mean that British citizens, particularly those who are on the sidelines, are being disfranchised and denied their democratic rights. It also means that, as the pool of potential voters decreases, our political status quo becomes more limited. If the Government are serious about combating social exclusion, they urgently need to review that dire situation. Disfranchisement is marginalising the already marginalised.
Being on the electoral register is the closest thing that we have to a civic contract. Those who are not on the register will not have access to mainstream loans, and they might not be able to get a mortgage either. They also cannot serve on a jury and be part of our justice process. Most fundamentally of all, if a person is not on the electoral register, they cannot participate in the democratic process.
Our present system of electoral registration is fundamentally flawed, and it is not cheap, with IER roll-out costing at least £108 million, but it does not have to be that way. Automatic electoral registration provides the opportunity to reduce costs, improve administration, cut bureaucracy and enable everyone to access their right to enfranchisement.
The Bill is a statement of common sense, proposing a cheaper, simpler and more effective model. It places a responsibility on the state to do everything in its power to ensure that the electoral database is full and complete; imposes a duty on the Government and public bodies to work better together; and proposes to make the system truly convenient for the citizen by integrating national and local datasets, which will mean that an individual’s address details would be automatically updated according to trusted datasets. The trusted datasets would collate information at each point that a citizen interacts with the state—whether it is when they pay a tax, receive a benefit, use the NHS or claim a pension.
The walls between datasets used to be sacrosanct, but they are falling away more and more as the Government prioritise security and anti-fraud measures. For instance, the housing benefit Department already uses the electoral register to find households that are claiming the 25% single-persons council tax discount, but that have more than one voter registered there. That demonstrates the huge potential when Government Departments and public bodies communicate with one another.
These reforms would vastly improve registration, and have been tested elsewhere. A very similar model operates in Australia, with huge success. For instance, the state of Victoria has a population of 3.5 million people and a 95% accuracy in its registration process. It does that at extremely low cost, employing just five members of staff to maintain the rolling register. Rolling out this reform in the UK is timely for so many reasons.
Greater Manchester will submit to the Cabinet Office next week its plans to pioneer that system of automatic electoral registration, and its proposals for a pilot scheme. I sincerely hope that the Government will support those plans and introduce the primary legislation on data sharing that is needed to ensure that the pilot can go ahead.
I am sure that Members are aware that this is the week of Bite the Ballot’s national voter registration drive. Last year’s drive saw almost half a million people register to vote, making it the most successful voter registration campaign ever. I hope that the results this week will match that achievement. In the long run, though, voter registration should be the responsibility not of charities or non-governmental organisations, but of the state, which should do all it can to ensure that everyone, especially those who are most marginalised, can access their democratic rights.
I hope that Members will consider this a non-partisan issue and agree that it is in all our interests to get more people signed up. Then we can all get on with our job, as representatives of political parties, to try to persuade and enthuse voters that we are worthy of their vote. At a time when social exclusion is getting worse, voter turnout is declining and IER has caused registration to deplete, automatic voter registration has never been more important. Voting is the backbone of this House, and it is one of the most important interactions between the citizen and the democratic state. It is a fundamental symbol of engagement, as it signifies that you are not on the margins of society, but part of the majority. No longer can we accept a system that excludes and marginalises potential voters, not least because they are exactly the groups with which we need to engage to end social exclusion.
I do not think that it is controversial to argue that voting is not just for the elite; it is something that we should all be able to access. That is why, for the sake of our democracy and of social cohesion, I hope that the Government will support my suggestions, and make registering to vote more, not less, a way of life.
Question put and agreed to.
That Siobhain McDonagh, Ian Austin, Dawn Butler, Rosie Cooper, Jim Dowd, Jim Fitzpatrick, Mr George Howarth, Chris Leslie, Marie Rimmer, Joan Ryan, Mr Virendra Sharma and Ruth Smeeth present the Bill.
Siobhain McDonagh accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 5 February, and to be printed (Bill 127 ).
[18th Allotted Day]
Tax Avoidance and Multinational Companies
I beg to move,
That this House notes the agreement reached between HM Revenue and Customs and Google to pay £130 million in respect of taxes due over the period 2005 to 2015; and calls on the Government to publish the full details so that the British public can judge whether this is, as stated by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, a major success; and further calls for a swift international agreement to implement country-by-country reporting of company accounts.
I welcome the Minister who is responding to the debate. I truly sympathise with him as he has been placed in this situation by the Chancellor. I understand that the Chancellor is in Rome today. If it is true that he is associated with the current EU negotiations on the future of our relationship in Europe, may I say that it is unfortunate to say the least that securing a firm agreement on tax avoidance and evasion has not been a core issue in those negotiations so far. It could be a significant missed opportunity for this Government.
We have called this debate today because, over the past 12 days, we have witnessed the most supine capitulation to corporate interest by any British Government in the recent history of this country. Understandably, it has caused immense anger within our community among individual taxpayers, businesses small and large, independent commentators and people across the political spectrum. At a time when many of our constituents were filling in their tax returns and paying their taxes, they saw what the Government were allowing Google to get away with.
I will give way in due course, but may I remind Members that this is a time-limited debate and I wish to press on as quickly as I can? Of course Members will have the opportunity to engage.
On the Friday before last, Google announced late in the day by press release the company’s tax deal with HMRC. Google celebrated a deal comprising a payment of £130 million to HMRC in respect of taxes from 2005 to 2015. Astoundingly, in the early hours of the morning, the Chancellor was in an equally celebratory mood and tweeted that this was a “victory”—a major success.
I will give way in due course. Calm down.
The Google deal and the Chancellor’s exultation about it were immediately received with incredulity by independent tax analysts—understandably. The Chancellor and HMRC were all too keen to publicly parade the deal, but when challenged to release the detail of it, hid behind confidentiality conditions.
What assessment does the shadow Chancellor make of the Labour Government, who were in charge of taxation during part of that period?
I am grateful for the intervention. The hon. Gentleman probably knows that I was not the most enamoured of the Labour Government’s track record during that period, but it was a Labour Government who started this inquiry and the hon. Gentleman’s Government took six years to complete it. According to a recent estimate by the Financial Times, the measures introduced by the Labour Government will reap 10 times the amount of tax that this Government have secured.
Will not many of our constituents find it difficult to understand the fact that this information is largely in the public domain? We know the profits, assets and liabilities of Google in the United Kingdom because those finances are public. We also know how much tax is being paid. Does that not lead us to the conclusion that the tax rate is 2.77%, not 20%?
Let me come on to that point.
It did not take long for independent analysis to show what a derisory sum the Google tax payment was. The word “derisory” is not just my description, but the word used by the hon. Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Boris Johnson), the Mayor of London, as well as many others. Google had a UK turnover of approximately £4 billion in 2014-15. If profits here were similar to those across the whole group, about a 25% return, that implies £1 billion-worth of profits. If the standard 20% corporation tax is levied, that implies a £200 million tax bill for the one year, not the £200 million paid by Google for the decade. As my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne) said, independent assessors have estimated that the Google tax rate for the past decade was 3%.
Companies such as Simworx in my constituency are extremely successful at selling products around the world that are based on their intellectual property developed in the UK. Does the shadow Chancellor think the profits from that intellectual property should be taxed in the country where those products are sold, or here in Britain?
The economic activity definition has to be examined when profits are assessed. I will come on to that point because it is valid and reasonable.
Let me press on as we are time-limited.
It is no wonder that local small businesses and taxpayers in all our constituencies feel so strongly that the arrangement with Google is grotesquely unfair. They have not been allowed to ignore their tax demands for a decade, then negotiate a sweetheart deal at mates’ rates. It show who counts with this Government that, in the month when they let Google pay a paltry sum in back tax, they lose in court in their pursuit of disabled people over the issue of the bedroom tax, and then they decide to appeal the court decision so that they can persecute some of the most vulnerable and the poorest people in the land over a relatively insignificant sum. That demonstrates to us a bizarre, upside down and callous sense of justice and fairness.
Does the shadow Chancellor agree that what compounds the sense of unfairness that our constituents feel is that the tax gap has been estimated by many to be well over £100 billion, and at the same time this Government are cutting HMRC offices and at the weekend announced compulsory redundancies for tax collectors? How on earth can we narrow the tax gap when that is happening?
I will come to that in my recommendations for the future.
Under Labour, hedge fund managers were routinely paying a lower rate of tax than their cleaners because Labour was a soft touch on tax. Is not the hon. Gentleman’s argument just political opportunism on stilts?
I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman was listening. I just answered that