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Volume 618: debated on Wednesday 7 December 2016

I have been asked to reply. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister is visiting the Gulf Co-operation Council summit in Bahrain.

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.

Yesterday’s signing of a memorandum of understanding with Houston spaceport and the Rice Space Institute brings the reality of a Prestwick spaceport closer, with the huge boost that that could give to the UK aerospace industry. Will the UK Government join the Scottish Government in supporting an Ayrshire growth deal to literally get this off the ground?

I can certainly assure the hon. Lady that the Government are looking keenly at the opportunities for Scotland, and indeed the whole United Kingdom, arising from the possible future development of commercial space operations. The Ayrshire project that she has described will, I am sure, be examined closely by my ministerial colleagues who are particularly concerned about this area of policy. We definitely want to see the UK as a pioneer in seizing these new commercial opportunities.

Q2. Perhaps thinking of rail passengers trying to get to their jobs, the general secretary of the TUC has spoken about “shafted and abandoned” workers, while Unite’s Len McCluskey is doing a UKIP dance move by resigning before trying to return. Will my right hon. Friend encourage union and other political leaders to tell the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers that 250 people with guaranteed employment should not be putting the lives, jobs and safety of 600,000 Southern rail passengers at risk? (907701)

I am sure that my hon. Friend speaks on behalf of thousands of rail passengers in his constituency and many others in the south of England. It is deeply disappointing that some unions are threatening to strike over the Christmas period. The Government are now investing record amounts in improving our railways—up to £40 billion over the next five years—and we need everyone in industry, both management and unions, to work together to secure the best deal for passengers.

I have to say that the RMT’s action shows co-ordinated contempt for the travelling public, and it seems designed to do nothing except to bring about the maximum damage to people’s lives—[Interruption.] There is some heckling from Opposition Members. The Conservative party is on the side of rail passengers, and I hope that the Labour party will join me in saying to the rail union leaders, “Sort it out. Put the travelling public first. Stop the squabbling, and tell your members to get back to work.”

I am sure that the whole House will want to join me in commemorating the 75th anniversary of the Pearl Harbour attack, in which thousands of American service personnel and civilians died. The next day, Winston Churchill summoned Parliament to debate the British response and said:

“It is indispensable to our system of government that Parliament should play its full part in all the important acts of State”.—[Official Report, 8 December 1941; Vol. 376, c. 1358.]

These words are a vital reminder that even at a time of crisis—in fact, especially at a time of national crisis—the role of Parliament is central.

In the same spirit, we welcome the Government’s decision to accept our motion today; they will show Parliament their plan for Brexit before article 50 is triggered. May I ask the Leader of the House one central question about this plan: do the Government want the UK to remain part of the customs union?

I join the hon. Lady in marking the anniversary of Pearl Harbour and remembering all those who lost their lives at that time, and also in marking—with a sense of some celebration, even—the fact that Prime Minister Abe is joining President Obama in going to Pearl Harbour. He is the first Japanese Prime Minister so to do, and that sign of reconciliation and putting ancient conflicts behind them is welcome.

To turn to the hon. Lady’s point about Europe, the Government have always made it clear that we would seek to give additional clarity about our position at the earliest opportunity, but it has been the case, as my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has said many times, that one of our core objectives will be to secure the maximum freedom for British companies both to have access to and to operate within the single European market.

I thank the Leader of the House for that answer, but I respectfully say to him that surely on this issue the answer should be straightforward. We all know that it would be a disaster for British business if we did not remain part of the customs union. The Leader of the House said himself in February:

“Everything we take for granted…—trade…without customs checks or paperwork at national frontiers…—would all be up in the air... It is massive what is at risk.”

On this side of the House, we would agree with him—we could not agree with him more—so can he put it beyond doubt and tell us right now: do the Government want the UK to stay in the customs union?

The hon. Lady and I—she is right—both argued passionately for the remain cause during the referendum. What separates us now is that I am part of a Conservative Government who are working together to respect the democratic verdict of the British people and to secure the best possible outcome for the prosperity and security of the entire United Kingdom from the negotiations, whereas the hon. Lady, even just two months ago, was telling us that she wanted

“to go back to the British people in some way”.

She needs to decide whether she accepts the democratic verdict or not.

Of course we accept the democratic decision of the British public—[Hon. Members: “Ah!”] Of course we do. The difference between our side of the House and the Government side is that we want to leave the European Union on behalf of 100%—on behalf of the whole of this nation.

We really need a straightforward answer to a straightforward question. Leaving the customs union would mean having to check every container coming in at Dover. It would mean UK firms having proof of origin tests whenever they export to Europe. It would mean chaos and it would mean gridlock for cross-border supply chains. As the Leader of the House said in May, I believe about lamb and beef exports,

“They go tariff free, they go without any extra…checks…you cannot guarantee any of that if we are outside.”

Again, Labour Members agree with what he said six months ago. The question is: does he still agree with himself?

I thought it had not escaped even the hon. Lady’s attention that there has been a rather significant referendum since February. That changes the context in which we are now having to operate. We face a deep, challenging and wide-ranging negotiation, and it would be harmful to the national interest for me or other Ministers to engage in the sort of detailed exposition of our negotiating position that she is now pressing upon me. None of the other 27 Governments are doing that; nor should we.

Dear oh dear. We are not asking for details; we are asking about a central plank of the negotiations. If the right hon. Gentleman cannot give us an answer on the customs union—[Interruption.]

Order. Both the questions and the answers will be heard. If the juvenile behaviour could stop, that would be really helpful to the scrutiny process.

We have not had an answer on the customs union as a whole, so may I ask the right hon. Gentleman a question about one specific point? Since 1993, there have been no customs checks on the land border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic. In May, when visiting Northern Ireland, he said that if the UK

“were not part of the customs union…there would have to be customs checks at the border.”

He also said that for anyone to pretend otherwise

“flies in the face of reality.”

Will he confirm that that remains the position? If that is right, he really must make it clear today that the Government are determined to avoid that situation.

The Prime Minister and the Northern Ireland Secretary have repeatedly made it clear that we want the very long-standing common travel and free trade arrangements across the Irish border to continue, as indeed do the Irish Government. We are actively engaged in talking both to the Northern Ireland Executive and to the Government of the Republic of Ireland about those matters. There is goodwill on all sides towards trying to reach a solution that works for people north and south of the border.

The Leader of the House has made the familiar arguments—he cannot give answers; it is all to be resolved through negotiations; Brexit means Brexit; Brexit means breakfast—but that was not what the Secretary of State for Brexit said when he was asked about the customs union in September. He said that he had looked at the matter carefully and that

“that is exactly the sort of decision that we will resolve before we trigger article 50.”—[Official Report, 5 September 2016; Vol. 614, c. 54.]

If the Government are going to decide their position on this issue before 31 March, will the Leader of the House confirm that the British people and the British Parliament will be told some answers to my questions before the Government tell the rest of Europe?

If the answers sound familiar, it might be because we need constant repetition before the hon. Lady understands and appreciates the principal argument. The Government are at the moment engaged in a consultation with more than 50 sectors of United Kingdom business to ascertain precisely which aspects of European Union membership work well for them, which they see as harmful and where the opportunities beyond EU membership lie. We will come to a decision and we will go into negotiations on behalf of the full 100% of the United Kingdom population and all four nations of the UK.

The fact is—the Leader of the House knows it, as do we all—that he can consult as much as he likes, but the answer will come back that we should be part of the customs union. It is hugely disappointing that on a day when the Government are committing to greater transparency on their intentions for Brexit, we are getting the usual stonewalling. We have a Government who are promising to tell us the plan, while refusing to give us answers to the most basic of questions, and who are promising to give Parliament a say, while spending we do not know how much taxpayers’ money across the road in the Supreme Court trying to stop Parliament from having a say on this. In short, we have a Government who cannot tell us the plan because they do not have a plan. In February, the Leader of the House said that what he was hearing from the leave campaign was “confusing, contradictory, nonsense”. My final question is this: are we hearing anything different from the Government today?

We will publish, before article 50 is triggered, a statement about our negotiating strategy and objectives, as the Prime Minister said yesterday. The hon. Lady seems to be in a state of utter denial about the consequences that flow from the referendum decision. No other EU Government are seeking to reverse or question the legitimacy of that vote in the way that she and a number of her colleagues are still trying to do. I am afraid that that just indicates how distant the Labour party now is from any aspirations to be back in government again. We watch them in action, quarrelling like “Mutiny on the Bounty” as re-shot by the “Carry On” team. [Interruption.]

Order. There is far too much noise. I want to hear the words flowing. There is no reason why the Chair should be denied the hearing of these matters. It is very important.

They are rudderless. They are drifting on Europe, as on so many other aspects of policy. It is little wonder that so many decent working people, who for generations looked to Labour to be their champion, have given up in despair and are turning to the Conservative party as the authentic voice of working families.

Q3. In 1943, a 16-year-old girl was forcibly taken to Auschwitz-Birkenau, where she witnessed the horrors of the death camps. On liberation, she came to this country with her mother. She raised a family and became a nurse. She dedicated her life to making sure the people of this country and beyond know the horrors of the holocaust. Last week, that lady turned 90. Kitty Hart-Moxon is with us today at Prime Minister’s Question Time. [Applause.] Will my right hon. Friend join me, and I think the whole House, in wishing Kitty a very happy belated birthday, and thank her for her lifetime of dedication to raising this important issue? Will he also pay tribute to the Holocaust Educational Trust, which does everything possible to ensure we all remember and bear witness to the horrors of the worst part of the 20th century? (907702)

First, I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising this important issue. I would like to join him in marking the achievements of Kitty Hart-Moxon and the Holocaust Educational Trust. I can never forget the impact of discovering, as a schoolboy, that two of the boys in my class had fathers who survived Auschwitz. It is only a couple of generations ago that Europe was plunged into this unspeakable horror. It is important that not just the Holocaust Educational Trust but we all play our part in ensuring that the memory of the holocaust lives on, and that the wider lessons of that dark period in our history are learned. I would be grateful for the support of all Members, right across the House from all political parties, in working together to ensure that that vital work continues.

Some of the most deprived communities in the country are in Glasgow, yet today we learn that apparently the Government plan to close jobcentres in those very communities, in Parkhead, Bridgeton, Easterhouse, Castlemilk, Langside, Anniesland, Cambuslang and Maryhill. Is it true that the Government are planning to close these important offices and bring misery to the lives of the many tens of thousands of people in Glasgow who currently use these centres?

Clearly, the Department for Work and Pensions, like every Department, looks from time to time at its estate and the number of offices it has, but the right hon. Gentleman makes a perfectly reasonable point on behalf of people in Glasgow. I will ask my right hon. Friend the Work and Pensions Secretary to contact him with the details he is seeking.

I am sorry but that is not good enough. [Interruption.] I am being heckled while standing up for deprived communities. That will ill behove Tory Members in Scotland.

The Leader of the House is correct that the Department has plans to cut the estate by 20%, but it is planning to cut it by 50% in Glasgow. Why are the Government planning disproportionately to cut vital jobcentres in some of the most deprived communities in our country?

The key element in any such decision that a Department has to make is not the raw number of offices there should be but how accessible the offices and the services they provide continue to be for the people who need to use them. I am absolutely confident that that criterion is at the heart of my right hon. Friend’s thinking in planning for the future of offices in Scotland and everywhere else in the United Kingdom.

Q4. Passengers on the Chase line face chaos and utter misery every autumn, and this year it has been worse than ever. Delayed, cancelled and overcrowded trains are leaving passengers stranded at stations and making them late for work and school. Will my right hon. Friend outline what measures the Government are taking to penalise poor-performing train operators? (907703)

I sympathise with my hon. Friend and her constituent, and all passengers who come across these problems on the Chase line. It is clearly unacceptable, and it is important that the operator works hard to secure a rapid and sustained improvement. The Government have introduced new rules to ensure that rail passengers will soon be able to claim compensation if their train is more than 15 minutes late, but as the Transport Secretary said yesterday, more needs to be done, and we want to see much closer working right across the railway industry, so that this kind of problem can be resolved much more swiftly.

Q6. Does the Leader of the House agree with the hon. Member for North East Somerset (Mr Rees-Mogg) that Brexit offers an opportunity to remove pesky emissions standards? In the red, white and blue of Brexit, will his Government still commit to continued tough targets to protect our environment, or will tackling global warming become just a load of hot air? (907705)

The Government remain utterly committed to both national and global ambitions and targets on climate change. Indeed, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, in her previous job, played a key role in brokering the Paris agreement last year—the first ever global agreement on climate change. I hope that the hon. Lady would welcome the fact that we are going to be ahead of our targets and ambitions in delivering on the proportion of electricity provided by renewables in this country and that we continue to work to get our carbon emissions down.

Q5. There has been much talk recently about paying for access to a tariff-free single market. I think that that is a very good idea. Given that the UK is the fifth-biggest economy in the world and we have a £70 billion trade deficit with the EU, would the excellent acting Prime Minister tell the House how much the EU should pay for tariff-free access to the UK’s single market? (907704)

I thank my hon. Friend for the upgrade, but I hope that that does not turn out to be a career-limiting compliment. He makes a good point in that a settlement at the end of our negotiations that maintains maximum access to and freedom to operate within the European market—for UK companies elsewhere in Europe and European companies here—is in our mutual interest. I hope that will inspire negotiators on both sides.

Q7. How does closing Maryhill jobcentre in my constituency, one of the most deprived parts of the country, help my constituents who want to find a job? Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that travelling further to other centres will mean increased costs for people already on the lowest incomes and an increased risk of sanctions? Why do the Government continue to target the poorest and most vulnerable in our society? (907706)

If the Government have been targeting the poorest and most vulnerable, it has been to get them back to work in record numbers and to provide a boost to the pay of people on low incomes through the introduction of and the increase in the national living wage. I wish the hon. Gentleman was prepared to welcome and celebrate those achievements.

Q8. As we are about to commence the most important negotiation for decades, does my right hon. Friend agree that forcing the Government to disclose their negotiating strategy at this stage is rather like showing one’s hand of cards to an opponent before a game of poker. I urge him to take no advice from the Labour party; it has only one card to play—and it is always the joker. (907707)

We have always said that we would come up with some more details about our strategic aims going into the negotiation, but it would harm our national interest if we were to go into the sort of detailed explanation of our negotiating position that the Opposition urge upon us. That is not how any of the other 27 Governments are either acting or thinking, and we should learn from that example.

Does the Leader of the House agree that tonight’s vote on the Prime Minister’s amendment, which we fully support, is a vote of the highest significance and greatest importance, because for the first time right hon. and hon. Members will have the opportunity to vote on whether they respect the will of the people of the United Kingdom and whether they will get on and implement it? People will be able to read in tomorrow’s Hansard who stands by respecting the will of the people of the United Kingdom. Does he also agree—I am sure he will—that the more red, white and blue he makes it, the better for us on the Unionist Benches?

As so often, the right hon. Gentleman makes a powerful and important point. The vote tonight will be the first opportunity for Members to decide whether or not they support the Government’s timetable for triggering article 50 by the end of March 2017. Any right hon. or hon. Member who votes against that motion will, in my view, be seeking to thwart the outcome of the referendum in the most profoundly undemocratic fashion.

Q9. This country’s nuclear deterrent is our ultimate defence, and it must be maintained at all costs, yet hundreds of my constituents who work at the Atomic Weapons Establishment are currently on strike or work to rule in a dispute over pensions. These are people who, more often than not, have devoted their entire working lives tending our nuclear defence and to whom promises were made during privatisation. Will the Leader of the House commit to sit down with the Prime Minister to review the situation to ensure that those promises are being kept? (907708)

I will certainly ensure that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister is informed about this matter. My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise these concerns on behalf of his constituents. My understanding is that the proposed changes to the Atomic Weapons Establishment pension scheme are a matter for the company as the employer, but I can assure my hon. Friend that my right hon. Friend the Defence Secretary has been in close contact with AWE throughout the process and has also met the trade unions. He is now carefully considering recent developments to see what else might be done.

I know that the whole House will join me in sending heartfelt sympathies and condolences to the family of David Brown, from Eston, who, aged just 18, took his own life. The inquest into his death has heard that he did so on the day he was due to sign on at the jobcentre, after saying that he felt “belittled” by staff despite actively looking for work and seeking an apprenticeship. Shortly before taking his own life, he told his mum:

“The way the Jobcentre treat people, it is no surprise people commit suicide.”

Will the Leader of the House undertake to review that individual case? Will he also undertake to take stock of six years of brutal welfare reform, and look into the way the Department for Work and Pensions treats its most vulnerable constituents, particularly young people?

Let me first express my own unreserved sympathy for the family of David Brown. No parent, no family, should have to go through that kind of shocking experience.

Clearly, human beings in any organisation sometimes make decisions that get things wrong, and I will ask the Department for Work and Pensions to have a look at the particular case that the hon. Lady has described. However, I have to say to her that I think the principle remains right that, while staff should always behave with courtesy towards people seeking to claim benefits, it is also right for us to expect people who are receiving benefits to be subject to the kind of disciplines that apply to people in work even if they are on low pay. There is a principle of fairness here, which is what lies behind the approach that the DWP takes.

Q10. I applaud the Prime Minister’s vision of a Government for all, but, as chair of the all-party parliamentary group for communities engagement, I can tell the House that fewer than 4% of those on the boards of the companies in the FTSE 150 are from ethnic minorities. Will the Government support a vision of helping to increase that proportion to 10% by 2021? (907709)

It is clear that boardrooms should do more to reflect the reality of modern Britain. The Government certainly support the principle of increasing the diversity of boards, which is why we are supporting the business-led ethnic diversity initiative chaired by Sir John Parker. We strongly encourage businesses to act on Sir John’s recommendations.

The response to a recent freedom of information request shows that Pinderfields hospital has diverted ambulances destined for its accident and emergency department to Dewsbury hospital, in my constituency, 61 times in the past 12 months. Dewsbury is scheduled for a downgrade next year. In the light of evidence showing that Pinderfields cannot currently cope, will the Leader of the House pledge urgent Government support to keep Dewsbury A&E open?

The NHS is certainly busier than it has ever been in its history, which is why it should be a matter of thanks and tribute to hard-working NHS staff that 90% of people going to A&E are still being seen within the four-hour target. The point about the configuration of local services in any part of the country is that they need to be driven by local clinicians through trusts working together with the clinical commissioning groups, who manage and understand what is needed in each locality. Local authorities, through their health committees, have the right to call in proposed changes in services and refer them to the Secretary of State if they are uncomfortable with them.

Q11. I know that my right hon. Friend will agree with me about the importance of the creative sector to our economy. That, in conjunction with the Welsh language, makes S4C, or Sianel Pedwar Cymru—which is currently based in my constituency—hugely important to the Welsh and British culture and economy. Will my right hon. Friend reaffirm the Government’s commitment to protecting the S4C budget while we review the future of the Welsh language broadcaster? (907710)

We are fully committed to the future of Welsh language broadcasting, and to S4C. I am pleased to say that the licence fee settlement that we have agreed has provided financial certainty, protecting S4C’s funding at more than £74 million a year for the next five years. We are absolutely committed to ensuring that the channel continues to make first-class shows and serve Welsh-speaking audiences in my hon. Friend’s constituency, and, for that matter, throughout the United Kingdom.

Is the Leader of the House aware of reports of Rohingyan children being massacred and thrown into fires, of Rohingyan women being raped and of houses being razed to the ground? What representations have the Government made to the Burmese authorities or the military in that regard?

Those reports from Rohingya are extremely concerning. As the hon. Lady knows, there is a long history of discrimination against the Rohingya people in Burma. British Ministers and the British embassy and officials in London make our concern very clear at regular intervals to the Burmese authorities.

Q12. Following the revelations in the BBC “Panorama” programme, Clinton House in my constituency is now closed. Three further care homes run by the Morleigh Group have now been rated as inadequate by the Care Quality Commission and two others are under inspection. Concerns have been raised about these care homes for many years, and it cannot be acceptable that it took the BBC to provoke the action that was desperately needed. Does the Leader of the House agree that it is now time to urgently review the role of the CQC to ensure that in future concerns raised by residents, families and staff are properly and promptly addressed? (907711)

Older and vulnerable people deserve the highest quality care possible. There is no excuse for services that fall short of expectations in the way my hon. Friend has described. The CQC has extensive powers in law to ensure that nobody in the chain of responsibility is immune to legal accountability, and I would expect the CQC to exercise those powers in full in this case. But my hon. Friend has made some criticisms of the CQC and the Government have been looking into ways to improve its processes and increase its efficiency. The Under-Secretary of State for Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington South (David Mowat), is the Minister responsible for community health and care, and he discussed this very issue with the CQC earlier today.

US satellite data show that 6% of methane from fracking is leaked through fugitive emissions. Given that methane is 86 times worse than CO2 for global warming over a 20-year timeframe, will the right hon. Gentleman support the Council of Europe’s call for the banning of fracking, or at least for a maximum of 0.1% fugitive emissions at the wellhead?

No, Mr Speaker. The Government took their decision to give a go-ahead to fracking after extensive consideration of both the economic and the environmental risks and opportunities involved. We are confident that fracking can be carried out in a way that is safe and does not harm the environment, but which also provides job opportunities for this country and makes us less dependent on the import of energy.

Q13. I expect my right hon. Friend will be astonished, if not aghast, to learn that a succession of journalists from the BBC have contacted me seeking to create—to manufacture—stories of Back-Bench rebellion on the issue of the EU. [Interruption.] Will he—[Interruption.] (907712)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that on these controversial issues the BBC should stick to its charter obligations on accuracy and impartiality, instead of seeking to create problems for the Government?

I am sure that my hon. Friend is shocked at the thought that anybody should look to him as a source of information about rebellions against the Government. I hope he will be able to find some comfort in the fact that the new royal charter and agreement require the BBC to deliver impartial news—the very first time impartiality has been enshrined in the BBC’s mission.

Having now received a response from the Prime Minister to my request for a children’s funeral fund, I was disturbed to be told that the social fund could provide a “simple and respectful funeral.” This answer is both insensitive and totally lacks any understanding of my original request. Has the Leader of the House the authority to facilitate a meeting with me and other bereaved mothers, so that we can explain to the Prime Minister exactly what we are asking for? This request is important to us as parents, many in this House and, judging from my postbag, many people and organisations across the country.

Burying a child must be an incredibly painful experience for any family, and I think we all pay respect to, and have enormous sympathy with, the hon. Lady. She says she speaks on behalf of thousands of parents who have had to go through that anguish. As the Prime Minister has said, there are mechanisms in place for making financial support available from central Government, and local authorities are of course free to waive funeral fees for child burials, and many of them do so. I will talk to my ministerial colleagues about the hon. Lady’s request for a meeting, and I am sure that she will receive a response to that.

Q14. Good train links are vital in enabling our constituents to get to work. It is therefore incredibly frustrating for my constituents that, of the 63 services a day that CrossCountry operates between Birmingham and Bristol, only three stop at the city of Gloucester on the way. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that when Ministers extend the train operator’s franchise, they do not allow CrossCountry to go on treating Gloucester like a leper to be avoided at all costs, and that they instead oblige the company to deliver the kind of service that every city deserves? (907713)

My hon. Friend is as always speaking up strongly on behalf of his constituents. Any of us who have been to Gloucester will know that it is a place we want to be able to visit frequently and easily. The Government are investing record amounts in improving our railways and, in his particular case, Transport Ministers are working with CrossCountry and Great Western to see how the Gloucester service can be improved.

Order. We come now to the 10-minute rule motion, and I want to point out very gently—and, I hope, with proper courtesy—to the hon. Member for North East Hampshire (Mr Jayawardena) that 10 minutes is the maximum speaking time. There is another matter for debate today that is somewhat preoccupying the House, and there is no obligation on the hon. Gentleman to speak for the full 10 minutes if he does not feel inclined to do so. The House would be very sympathetic and understanding if he refrained. We will see.