House of Commons
Wednesday 7 December 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—
Yesterday, I laid before the House the 10th biannual statement to Parliament on the security situation in Northern Ireland. The terrorist threat level in Northern Ireland remains unchanged at severe, meaning that an attack is highly likely. The need for vigilance remains, and I pay tribute to the brave men and women who work tirelessly to keep communities safe.
I thank the Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Kris Hopkins), for meeting me recently, when I was able to tell him about my constituent. I understand that the Secretary of State is unable to discuss that individual case, but does he agree that any security review must take account of such legacy cases?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, and I know that she has met my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary to discuss the issue. The approach to individual cases is clearly the operational responsibility of the police, but I agree that we must find a better way to investigate legacy cases. The requirement for the Police Service of Northern Ireland to investigate the past puts pressure on its ability to police the present. That is why I remain committed to moving ahead with the Stormont House legacy bodies, which I believe will provide a much more proportionate response to the need to get to those issues.
The Secretary of State will be aware of recent footage that has emerged of dissident republicans, heavily armed and carrying rocket launchers, in Ardoyne, part of north Belfast, near where Michael McGibbon was murdered recently. It was a scandalous and appalling display. Does the Secretary of State agree that the police, who have been very quick to arrest and charge people for very minor breaches of parading legislation, really need to get a grip on those kinds of displays and arrest and pursue people, because the people in these communities absolutely do not want those kinds of displays of paramilitary activity?
I entirely agree with the right hon. Gentleman’s sentiments. The video is utterly repugnant. In my statement yesterday, I pointed out that support for such dissident groups
“remains limited, despite their attempts to seek legitimacy in a wider society which continues to reject their use of violence.”—[Official Report, 6 December 2016; Vol. 618, c. 12WS.]
That contemptible video was intended to be a show of strength, but I see it as a sign of weakness, and it is important that the PSNI continues its investigations.
I agree with the Secretary of State and commend the widow of Michael McGibbon, who has spoken so bravely against these people, and who has, unfortunately, been forced out of her home. Her words are a ringing endorsement of the peace process and the political process in Northern Ireland. On tackling dissidents, the cross-border joint agency taskforce, set up under the “Fresh Start” agreement, is doing great work. I would be grateful if the Secretary of State updated us on the work that it is doing to tackle dissident republicans and other criminal gangs.
The right hon. Gentleman is right to mention the very brave testimony of Joanne McGibbon. Our thoughts are with all those who have lost loved ones to terrorism. This House should continue to send out that strong and important message. The joint agency taskforce, which brings together different agencies to confront organised criminality and those linked to terrorism, is doing very good work, and we need to do more of it.
Some very good work is taking place among our agencies in Northern Ireland, as well as those in the Republic of Ireland. That is in a stronger position. Of course, there is still room for further improvement, but significant seizures of arms and weaponry have been made as a consequence of that work. It is important to underline that.
My constituent, Austin Hunter, was an outstanding journalist who covered the security situation in Northern Ireland for many years. He was not only a brilliant journalist and a great family man, but a remarkably fine man in his own right. Will the Secretary of State take this opportunity to join me—and colleagues from across the House who will have known Austin Hunter as a distinguished journalist in Northern Ireland—in sending condolences to his family, who are absolutely devastated by his death in a tragic traffic accident in Bahrain over the weekend?
I thank the hon. Lady for that. Although I did not have the privilege of meeting Austin Hunter, I know, from all the powerful testimony that I have heard, not only that he was an incredible journalist, but how warm and human he was. It was a tragic accident, and I join the hon. Lady in sending my condolences to his friends and family, and everyone who knew him. He clearly made a remarkable contribution, and he will be missed by so many.
People who give information to the police about terrorist activities have saved many lives in the past, and continue to do so today. Is it not entirely wrong to claim, as some groups do in Northern Ireland, that any case that involves an agent somehow also involves police misconduct?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely correct that we save lives as a consequence of the support of people in communities, often at great personal cost. That should be recognised, in terms of some of the really powerful intelligence that is provided and the impact that it has.
I congratulate the Police Service of Northern Ireland and other security agencies on stopping a number of terrorist attacks. Would the Secretary of State give us some information on whether dissident terrorists are still recruiting and increasing in numbers in Northern Ireland?
As the hon. Gentleman will have seen in my written statement yesterday, there is an enduring threat from terrorism, which is why I underlined the need for vigilance. Support for those terrorists remains limited, but we must continue to be aware and confront it in every way, which is why I pay tribute to the work of the Police Service of Northern Ireland and the successes that have been achieved. Equally, however, we must remain absolutely focused on security issues, which underlines the points that I made in yesterday’s statement.
I hope that my hon. Friend understands that I cannot comment on individual cases. I will be unswerving and unstinting in underlining the huge contribution of our armed forces in helping to bring about the peace that we enjoy today. Part of that is the rule of law. Where there is evidence of criminality, it is important that the rule of law is upheld, but I know very clearly the incredible contribution that many members of our armed forces have made.
Does the Secretary of State agree that the prospect of a hard border would provide opportunities for organised crime and would cause additional problems for the security services, including police services? Does he therefore agree that it is essential that Brexit does not result in a hard border?
The hon. Lady has heard me say on a number of occasions that I do not want a return to the borders of the past. Part of that, yes, is about the politics, but it is also about how we ensure that that continued good relationship between us and the Irish Government is maintained, and security is a key factor in that.
Security Service Personnel
The safety and security of all those serving in the PSNI, prisons and security forces in Northern Ireland is of the utmost importance to this Government. We keep under careful review arrangements and advice to support their protection.
I thank the Secretary of State for his answer. He will know from his previous role that any breach of the security data of a member of the security services poses an obvious threat and risk to them and their families. Will he undertake a desktop review of all data handling and the security of postal communications between the Northern Ireland Office and security personnel, both former and serving? Will he also undertake to press this matter with the Department of Justice, as it must join up with the NIO to tackle this?
The hon. Gentleman has raised an individual case with me, and I shall write to him with my response. I do take the security of information relating to people who serve by guarding and protecting us very, very seriously. I meet the military, the PSNI and the Justice Minister; I undertake to raise the importance of ensuring the appropriate protection of the personal data of security force members at the next meeting and to consider the issue further.
Stormont House Agreement
I continue to meet victims groups, the Executive and others to establish the legacy bodies set out in the Stormont House agreement. When I am confident that there is sufficient political consensus, I intend to move to a public phase, to allow wider community consideration and to build confidence and momentum behind the creation of the new legacy bodies.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is vital that the legacy bodies in the Stormont House agreement operate in ways that are fair, balanced, impartial and proportionate if we are to counter the one-sided focus on cases involving the state, whereas over 90% of deaths in the troubles were caused by terrorists?
My hon. Friend makes a powerful and important point. I agree that the legacy bodies must be balanced and proportionate. That was at the heart of the phraseology in the Stormont House agreement and will be important in delivering that more balanced approach.
Part of addressing the legacy of the past is breaking down divisions that exist today. Will the Secretary of State therefore join me in expressing sympathy to the family of Danny Murphy, the secretary of the Ulster Gaelic Athletic Association, who died this morning and who worked tirelessly to build peace and reconciliation and to bring people together through sport? He is a loss to us all and to that vital work.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for drawing to the attention of the House the sad death of Danny Murphy. I am sure that we all extend our condolences to his friends and family. It is worth reflecting at this time on the powerful way in which sport can unite people and bring them together.
Does the Secretary of State recognise the sheer hypocrisy of republicans who seek 100% transparency on 10% of the deaths in the troubles, but offer none in return? Until they do, and until they offer the assurance that they will give information about the killings, deaths and murders that they were responsible for, it will be incredibly difficult to build the consensus that we need.
It is important for everyone to work together to move the process on. That is why I continue to commit significant efforts and work to doing just that. The hon. Gentleman is right: at present, the system is heavily focused on the 10% rather than the 90%, and the balanced, proportionate measures that I put forward will assist in changing that.
First, I associate myself with the tributes paid both to the fine journalist Austin Hunter and to the fíor Gael Danny Murphy, who was such a good servant of community relations and reconciliation. Would the Minister not do better in building consensus if he did not revisit pejorative remarks that give offence to victims of state violence? In relation to having a balanced approach, surely having a stronger provision in respect of thematics would be much better—one that was not restricted to killings, as other measures are, but would examine the patterns and practices of paramilitaries.
The hon. Gentleman will be well aware that the legacy bodies contemplated cover a range of issues. Yes, of course, part of this is about investigation, and part is about more information and consideration of the issues to come forward in a number of different ways. That is why it is a priority that we move forward with the Stormont House bodies, and why that remains a key focus for me.
One of the most serious omissions over the past years has been the failure to address the desperate plight of people who have been seriously injured as a result of the troubles and who have been unable to work and therefore unable to build up second pension provision. Notwithstanding what the Secretary of State said about the need for political consensus, will he meet me and representatives of the WAVE trauma centre to see how we can work together to try to resolve this tremendous anomaly as quickly as possible?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising this issue. I have met with the WAVE trauma centre previously, and look forward to continuing engagement with it. I am conscious of the issue of pension rights. Discussion is continuing with the Northern Ireland Executive, and I will continue to seek to gain the necessary consensus to make progress on this important issue.
Northern Ireland Office: Leaving the EU
Officials across the whole Department are working to ensure that the interests of Northern Ireland are protected and advanced as the UK prepares to leave the EU. We will continue to monitor what further support is required.
The Northern Ireland Office did little preparation for Brexit, and it appears from the response to a written question that I tabled that several private consultancy firms are profiting from this lack of preparation. How many contracts have been awarded to consultancy firms and external organisations?
There is constant dialogue between business, local government and the voluntary sector, and the NIO has been used as a conduit to make sure that Cabinet members and colleagues fully understand the implications for Northern Ireland and that we get the best possible deal for Northern Ireland.
The agricultural and fishing sector in Northern Ireland creates some 70,000 jobs. It also produces 3.25% of Northern Ireland’s gross value added, which equates to £1.1 billion at basic prices. Can the Minister confirm that civil service personnel will be in place in sufficient numbers to ensure a smooth transition for the UK out of the EU?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that question. We do recognise the importance of that sector in Northern Ireland. There is a good dialogue between the sector and the Department. Cabinet members have met leading food manufacturers and members of the agricultural sector, and that dialogue will continue.
Recent reports in the United States show that advice given by our civil servants to the US State Department prior to the referendum was that it need not do any preparatory work, because “Brexit can’t possibly happen, so don’t worry about it.” Was the same crass advice being given by the NIO to our partners, and especially to the Irish Government?
The Secretary of State has established a business advisory group to help understand the economic priorities of the Northern Ireland business community. A series of sectoral meetings have already been held with key industrial sectors, including the agricultural food sector, manufacturing and the creative industries.
I am sure the Minister will agree that the lowering of corporation tax in Northern Ireland will certainly help the economy and companies. However, will he also agree that one area we all need to concentrate on is productivity and the recruitment of new apprentices?
I do recognise the points the hon. Gentleman makes. We are working closely with the Executive to raise productivity. They have a really important budget coming up, and we have made a commitment of around £250 million of capital investment to assist in that process.
I completely agree with that statement. There has been huge growth in jobs in Northern Ireland—nearly 60,000 new jobs since 2010. We need to keep building on the great steps that have been made, and the Government working with the Executive is a key part of that.
May I, too, associate myself with the condolences offered in respect of Danny Murphy, who was my constituent for many years? He was a powerful force for reconciliation and mutual understanding, not only on the island of Ireland but between Ireland and Britain. May I also ask the Minister to consider the recent report on apprenticeships from the all-party group on the visitor economy, with particular reference to fiscal flexibilities?
May I offer my condolences to Danny Murphy’s family as well?
I recognise the impact that tourism has on the hon. Lady’s constituency. The Mourne mountains are a great attraction, and the Newcastle air show in the first week of August is really important for the local economy. I hope that I can also make a contribution to that in the near future.
The campaign to give powers to the Assembly to reduce corporation tax united all political parties in Northern Ireland and pretty well the whole of business in Northern Ireland. A business in Craigavon told me that it would double its turnover and its workforce if the rates were down to those of the Republic. Will the Minister guarantee that he and the Secretary of State will use every opportunity to push the Assembly and the Executive to get this through?
I recognise the contribution that my right hon. Friend has made in trying to achieve this. It is right that we challenge the Executive, and fiscal responsibility is an important part of that process. There is an important budget coming up at the moment, and there is ongoing dialogue between the NIO and the Executive.
Stormont House and Fresh Start Agreements
Good progress has been made on implementing the agreements. This includes legislation on welfare reform, a joint agency taskforce to tackle crime, an Executive strategy to disband paramilitary groups and an independent reporting commission to report on progress towards ending paramilitary activity.
Both agreements contain important provisions to place the finances of the Northern Ireland Executive on a sustainable footing, which is vital to the continued economic success of Northern Ireland. Will the Secretary of State enlarge on progress in these specific areas?
I think that we have made significant progress. Considering the position this time last year, there have been important steps forward, but there are still additional steps to be taken, including the establishment of an independent fiscal council to publish an annual report on the Executive’s finances and to give further assurance on progress.
May I associate myself and my colleagues with the tributes paid to Austin Hunter and to Danny Murphy?
Will the Secretary of State give an assurance that he will not allow the Stormont House and “Fresh Start” agreements to be unpicked? Crucially, in relation to legacy issues, will he hold fast on national security and not allow those who want to rewrite the history of the past to do so?
I am very clear on the need to continue to make progress in relation to Stormont House and “Fresh Start”. There have been significant steps forward. Equally, though, I will not be party to a rewriting of the issues of the past, and that is why a proportionate approach is required.
Part of the Stormont House agreement involves the legacy issues. Almost weekly, news items prejudice up-and-coming cases by giving just one side of the story. Will the Secretary of State take action so that we do not have future cases prejudiced by stories in the newspapers, or will he pause the legacy issues?
It is important that the rule of law is clearly upheld and that appropriate investigations are undertaken. However, I make the point that I made earlier about the imbalance within the existing system: 90% of those who lost their lives lost them as a consequence of terrorism. That is why the new bodies are important to deliver a balanced, proportionate approach.
UK Decision to Leave the EU: Ireland
I have met and will continue to meet counterparts in the Irish Government as we prepare for the UK’s exit from the EU. The UK-Irish relationship has never been stronger. In the coming months, we will deepen co-operation and secure a deal that works in the interests of Northern Ireland and the best interests of the island of Ireland.
In recognising the closeness and importance of the relationship between the United Kingdom and Ireland, will my right hon. Friend assure the House that while there can be no question of Ireland negotiating with the EU on behalf of Northern Ireland, ultimately any process should serve to strengthen and enhance existing relationships with the Republic?
May I associate myself with the condolences to the families of Danny Murphy and Austin Hunter?
Does the Secretary of State recognise the real need for bespoke and in-depth protection for all aspects of the Good Friday agreement, or the Belfast agreement, and the need—[Interruption.]
Order. The hon. Gentleman is asking about protections for Northern Ireland in respect of the Good Friday agreement. I say to the hon. Member for North East Hampshire (Mr Jayawardena) that this is a very important matter that the hon. Member for Belfast South (Dr McDonnell) should be able to articulate for his constituents with a respectful audience.
Does the Secretary of State agree that there is a real need for bespoke and in-depth protection for all aspects of the Good Friday or Belfast agreement, and for the constitutional principles in annex A of the agreement to be given full recognition in any future UK-EU treaty? Northern Ireland’s unique interests will in no way be satisfied by a mere consultation with the First and Deputy First Ministers.
The Government stand by their commitments under the Belfast agreement and subsequent agreements. There are fundamental issues such as consent. I can say to the hon. Gentleman in terms that we will not do anything as part of the negotiations that unpicks or seeks to undermine those essential values contained in the agreements.
The democratic reverberations that have echoed around Europe since the end of June no doubt affect the Irish Republic as well. Will the Secretary of State ensure that the particular circumstances that exist in Northern Ireland regarding the border with the Irish Republic are at the forefront of his mind in negotiations as we go into 2018?
Last week, in response to a written question on the status and rights of UK state pensioners living in the Republic of Ireland post-Brexit, I was told by Department for Work and Pensions Ministers that that was a matter for negotiation. They simply do not know what the future of those people is. What will the Secretary of State do to get this issue resolved as a matter of urgency? Is this not yet another example of why he should be a permanent member of the Brexit team, not just an add-on?
I can say to the hon. Gentleman in terms that we are playing a key role in ensuring that there is a UK-wide negotiation and that the interests of Northern Ireland are heard loud and clear in those preparations. One of the aspects of that is the Ireland Act 1949—the rights of Irish citizens in the United Kingdom—and that is part of the work that we are doing.
The Prime Minister was asked—
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.
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.
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.]
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Electoral Reform (Local Elections and Miscellaneous Provisions)
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 applying to England to provide for the introduction of first past the post elections of mayors, the London Assembly and Police and Crime Commissioners; to require elections for mayors, the London Assembly, Police and Crime Commissioners and local authorities to take place on the same day; to abolish the election of councillors by halves or thirds to local authorities; to allow a person to be a Member of the House of Commons and to hold any elected local government office, including that of Police and Crime Commissioner, at the same time; and for connected purposes.
The word “Parliament” has a range of meanings. It can be a collective noun: a parliament of owls is the term used to describe those very wise birds. It can also describe the very wise Members of this House, an institution of our constitutional monarchy—a court or council summoned by the monarch. We sit in the mother of all Parliaments, a place where the democratically elected people of this country come together to govern for the country. This is a place where the people’s voice must be heard.
The principle that all Members of this House are elected by their constituents is a fundamental principle in our United Kingdom. The link that binds a Member of Parliament to his or her constituency is one of the most important in politics. Every citizen of this country knows that they have one single consistent point of contact in this House to champion the issues that matter to them, to their families and to our country. But, unlike many things in our constitutional settlement, this link is not an accident. It is a product of our voting system to this House. It is the first-past-the-post system that gives our constituents the certainty of knowing who their representative in this House will be. That is widely understood by the people of this country.
In the 2011 referendum, first past the post was strongly supported by the British people by a margin of more than 2:1. Its greatest strength is that every person has one vote and the candidate who gets the most votes wins. It is quick and simple to count and does not unnecessarily burden the taxpayer with equipment and administration costs. The results are declared quickly, providing certainty during turbulent times. Most importantly, voters know that the candidate for whom they voted must be sure to deliver their objectives and stand by their manifesto and will face the test of the ballot box in five years’ time.
While many in this House appreciate the benefits of first past the post, that appreciation is sadly not replicated across our country. Some say that the effect of PR can be mitigated through, for example, the additional member system, but it does no such thing. While people may know their constituency Member, they are less likely, through no fault of their own, to contact their regional Members, so the latter have all the powers of their counterparts who were elected by first past the post but, having been appointed from a party list, have less accountability and connection to the people they represent. With systems such as alternative vote, one could even find that the person who wins actually ends up losing, which happens across the world from Irish presidential elections to elections to the Australian House of Representatives. Preferential voting means that people who should be elected are not.
As chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on Sri Lanka, I was surprised to find that a version of an electoral system invented by the Labour party is used for that country’s presidential elections. The supplementary vote system is also used for the election of police and crime commissioners and mayors across England. Once again, the candidate with less support in the first round can still end up winning. Take Lord Prescott, a candidate in the 2012 police and crime commissioner elections, he won the first round but was beaten in the second round. While I may be delighted that the Conservative candidate won, it was a day on which democracy was thwarted. The only purpose of that system is to give someone a second chance to steal votes from those who did not vote for them. In all, eight police and crime commissioners who should have been elected were not, including in Hampshire and the Isle of Wight.
Across England, we expect the very best. We want the best candidates, elected through the best system, to give us the best representation, but alternative systems of voting mean that some local areas have been stripped of their right to choose who is best. What is worse, the wishes of local people are being ignored, allowing candidates who lose to win. That will become ever more prevalent as more powers are devolved to local authorities and as more elected mayors are created through devolution. The public shall grow ever more dissatisfied with our political system. First past the post gives voters simplicity. It gives decisiveness. It gives voters constituency representation. Burke said:
“Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgement”.
Each and every citizen has a right to know what judgment will represent them. If that is true for this place, why should we expect the public to accept second best in public offices across our land?
Similarly, we elect every Member of this House on one day, so why is it not the same for our local authorities? In this House, the Government are able to plan for the long term, acting in the best interests of the people for the long term. Local authorities that elect by thirds are often in a constant state of electioneering. Every May, new councillors come on board and have to settle into a new committee structure by July, before breaking up for August, working over the autumn months, only to be back in election mode in the new year. The best interests of the people are not served by that short-termism. If all local elections were held on a “super Thursday”, voters would know that their vote would make a difference, leading to greater engagement and public interest. Such a change would also save money. The estimated saving in one of my local authorities is some £57,000 in three years out of four. If we scale that up to the 120 authorities that do not have all-out elections, that is over £20 million over a four-year term. That would be not only a boon for local taxpayers, but a commitment to strong, stable local government, which would then be free to plan for the long term.
Democracy means that the people should decide who represents them. The former Member for Manchester Central was forced to stand down in 2012, even though he had secured a strong mandate in 2010, to stand as a police and crime commissioner. Let us just think of the cost! By-elections can cost up to a quarter of a million pounds, so surely it should just be left up to the people to decide who is best placed to represent them at any level of government, at any given time. Surely we want the best mayors, the best PCCs, the best Assembly Members and the best councillors. The people should be able to have their say and their voice must be heard.
Question put and agreed to.
That Mr Ranil Jayawardena, Chris Evans, Jim Fitzpatrick, Robert Flello, David Mackintosh, Christian Matheson, Mr David Nuttall, Chris Philp, Robert Neill, John Penrose, Andrew Rosindell and John Stevenson present the Bill.
Mr Ranil Jayawardena accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 13 January 2017, and to be printed (Bill 110).
[15th Allotted Day]
The Government's Plan for Brexit
I beg to move,
That this House recognises that leaving the EU is the defining issue facing the UK; notes the resolution on parliamentary scrutiny of the UK leaving the EU agreed by the House on 12 October 2016; recognises that it is Parliament’s responsibility to properly scrutinise the Government while respecting the decision of the British people to leave the European Union; confirms that there should be no disclosure of material that could be reasonably judged to damage the UK in any negotiations to depart from the European Union after Article 50 has been triggered; and calls on the Prime Minister to commit to publishing the Government’s plan for leaving the EU before Article 50 is invoked.
For months, Labour has been pressing the Prime Minister and the Government to set out their plan for Brexit. For months, the Prime Minister and a succession of Ministers have refused to do so, either in writing or from the Dispatch Box. Facing defeat on today’s motion, the Government have now caved in—last-minute amendments tell their own story and everybody knows it. This is a victory for common sense. I thank those from various Opposition parties who backed putting pressure on the Government to disclose their plan, and I thank the Conservative Members who, rightly, want to see far more detail about the approach their Front Benchers are intending to take.
Does the hon. and learned Gentleman acknowledge that, by accepting the Government’s amendment to his otherwise very good motion, he is falling into a Tory trap of binding his party to supporting the invoking of article 50 by March, which is an unrealistic and increasingly arbitrary date?
Before the hon. and learned Gentleman responds, may I politely say that the intervention is absolutely legitimate but this is a helpful guide: if Members who are hoping to speak intervene more than once, in accordance with very long-standing practice they will be relegated on the list? That is only fair if I am to try to secure equal opportunities for all Members.
I am grateful for that intervention, and I assure the hon. Lady that I shall come to that important point in due course.
I have seen the overnight briefings, which will no doubt be repeated today from the Dispatch Box, that the Government always intended to publish their plan, but an eleventh-hour concession is an eleventh-hour concession. I have faced the Secretary of State on many occasions and asked for a plan, and he has refused on every occasion, so nobody is going to fall for that.
I am going to make some progress, if I may. The focus is now where it ought to be: on the substance, not the process. The terms upon which we leave the EU will define us and our country for many years, and this House and the public are entitled to know the approach the Government are intending to take.
I will make a bit of progress and get to dealing with the amendment.
Today’s victory is important, and so is the timing. As we debate this motion, the Government’s appeal is being heard in the Supreme Court. We need to remind ourselves that the Government are arguing that this House should have no say on the question of invoking article 50—that is the argument they are presenting in the Supreme Court; through that argument, they want to remove the prospect of a vote granted by the High Court a few weeks ago. That is the core of their argument and the purpose of their appeal: to remove that vote from us. That is what they are seeking to achieve, but that would be to avoid scrutiny and avoid accountability. If the Government succeed in that appeal, this motion will be very important, because it puts grip into a process that would otherwise have none. We will only have a plan to discuss because we will not be getting a vote.
I am going to get to the amendment, so that I can make my position clear on that, and then I will take interventions.
A plan will now have to be prepared, debated and subjected to scrutiny, whether or not we have a vote. That is a good thing for anybody who believes in parliamentary scrutiny. If, however, the Government lose their appeal, there will need to be article 50 legislation in the new year; a motion of this House will not suffice.
I pause here to deal with the Government amendment, on which I want to make this clear to all Members: today we are not voting to trigger article 50 or to give authority to the Prime Minister to do so. It is most certainly not a vote for article 50. Unless the Supreme Court overrules the High Court, only legislation can do that.
Nor does today’s motion preclude Labour or any other party tabling amendments to the article 50 legislation and having them voted on. The motion, as amended, would be an indication that the purpose of calling for a plan is not to frustrate the process or delay the Prime Minister’s timetable. That is what is made clear by the motion and the amendment taken together. Labour has repeatedly said it will not frustrate the process, and I stick by that. That is why the Government should prepare their plan and publish it in time for this House to consider it when it debates and votes on the article 50 legislation. The timetable in the amendment is in fact there to put pressure on the Government, because a late plan would clearly frustrate the purposes and intentions of this motion. I put the Government on notice that I will not be slow to call them out if they do not produce a timely plan.
I do not want the shadow Secretary of State to inadvertently mislead the House. We already have legislation before this House—the Withdrawal from the European Union (Article 50) Bill—which has had its First Reading and will get its Second Reading on 16 December, unless someone objects.
I am grateful for that intervention and understand the point, but let us see what happens on 16 December. The Secretary of State has made it clear on a number of occasions, understandably, that in addition to the main point of the appeal so far as the Government are concerned, which is to take away any right to vote on invoking article 50, there is a secondary intention, which is to get greater clarity on the type of legislation that may be needed in the new year. I anticipate that it is that Minister legislation that we will address before too long, but I do, of course, acknowledge the private Member’s Bill.
I am glad that my hon. and learned Friend has made it clear that it is not our intention to frustrate the article 50 process, because the Government and their supporters have been putting it around that we are somehow trying to sabotage any decision on it.
I am grateful for that intervention, because what we have seen is the characterising of anyone who questions the Government’s approach as frustration. That is the wrong characterisation and it is to be avoided. Having accepted today’s amendment, I hope that I will not be intervened on the whole time by Members saying that this is an attempt to frustrate. The plan needs to be produced in good time and with sufficient detail for us to debate it, but the purpose is not to frustrate the overall process or to delay the timetable that the Prime Minister set out some time ago.
If the hon. and learned Gentleman accepts the Government’s amendment, is he not effectively giving unilateral support to whatever plan they decide to present, which means that Opposition Members will not be able to perform their parliamentary role of scrutinising the Executive?
Does the shadow Secretary of State agree that, if the Opposition support, or at least do not oppose, the Government’s amendment, it would be completely unacceptable and totally inconsistent for them to do anything in the new year to delay the triggering of article 50 beyond 31 March?
I have made it absolutely clear that nothing in today’s motion precludes any party, including my own, from tabling an amendment to proposed legislation, if there is proposed legislation, and voting on it. I am astonished that some Members are willing to pass up the opportunity to have a vote in the first place and to restrict our ability to debate amendments.
I do not want to break the hon. and learned Gentleman’s flow, but I want to make a factual point. Will he please answer the question that has just been put to him? Given that he supports the amendment, does he think it reasonable that some want to frustrate and slow down the article 50 process?
I have made it absolutely clear—and I will make it absolutely clear again—that the purpose of the motion calling for a plan is not to frustrate or delay the process. That is not why we are calling for a plan. This presents a challenge for the Government, because they now need to produce a plan in good time to allow the proper formalities and processes to be gone through. The timetable is more of a challenge for the Government than it is for the Opposition.
I am going to make some progress. I have taken a lot of interventions.
The Government must now prepare their plan and publish it. I put the Government on notice that, if they fail to produce a plan by the time we debate proposed legislation on article 50—assuming that we do debate it and that the Government do not win their appeal—amendments will be tabled by the Opposition and, possibly, Government Members, setting out the minimum requirements of a plan. In other words, we are not going to have a situation where the Government seek a vote in a vacuum or produce a late, vague plan.
I congratulate the hon. and learned Gentleman, because he is playing on a very difficult wicket. The motion states
“that there should be no disclosure of material that could be reasonably judged to damage the UK”.
Does he therefore believe that this plan should be a series of hints, an explanation of principle or specific priorities? It would be helpful to know what he means by a plan.
I think it is pretty straightforward and I have said this on a number of occasions. I fully accept that the Government will enter into confidential negotiations for a number of months and that producing a plan should not undermine that process. This is not the first time that I have said that; I have said it repeatedly. Some argue that we should not produce a plan because saying anything might undermine the negotiations, but I do not accept that. I do, however, accept that there is a level of detail and of confidential issues and tactics that should not be disclosed, and I have never said otherwise.
I want to put the contrary proposition, to see how comfortable Members really are with it. Absent of a plan and of our knowing the objectives and starting position, the Government would then negotiate for two years without telling us any of that detail. Are any Members of this House content not to know any of that between now and March 2019? Hands up who does not want to know that and is happy to say, “I don’t need to know. Whatever you are negotiating is fine by me.”
The hon. and learned Gentleman is an experienced lawyer, so I am sure that putting up Aunt Sallies is old hat to him. Given that he thinks that the alternative is telling the House nothing, I ask him what he thinks of these comments, which I have made eight times to this House:
“As I have said several times in debates that the hon. Gentleman has attended”—
this was in response to the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Alan Brown)—
“I will make as much information public as possible without prejudicing our negotiating position.”—[Official Report, 20 October 2016; Vol. 615, c. 952.]
I heard that point being made and I understand and respect the Secretary of State’s position on this issue and his history on issues of scrutiny and accountability. I also understand why he feels uncomfortable not disclosing the information that can be disclosed, but the motion moves the issue on and makes it clear that there will be a plan, while, of course, preserving that which needs to remain confidential.
I acknowledge that the Secretary of State made those comments and that he has said on more than one occasion that, when the Government have reached a judgment on the customs union—I assume that he also means when they have reached a judgment on the single market—they will make that position public. I therefore anticipate that the Secretary of State has no difficulty with a plan that sets out the position on the single market, the customs union, transitional measures and the like, because that is the direction of travel that I have understood him to be going in. The plan commits him to it and puts it in the framework of scrutiny and accountability that will come with proposed legislation on article 50, but I do acknowledge what he has said.
I thank the hon. and learned Gentleman for that acknowledgment, but let me pick up on the issues that he has raised. There may be circumstances in which the criteria and aims are clear, but the individual policy is not. There may be several options and it might be in our negotiating interests to keep more than one of them open. Surely that does not necessarily require that we specify in detail any individual line of pursuit.
I understand the Secretary of State’s point. To some extent, we will probably return to this debate as and when the plan materialises, but it is important there is no mischaracterisation. Asking for a plan setting out the objectives is not to seek to undermine the UK’s negotiating hand, nor is it to seek a running commentary. It is, in fact, to seek to have clarity, scrutiny and accountability.
I am going to make progress.
The minimum requirements of a plan are fivefold. The first—I have begun to touch on this—is the need for enough detail and clarity to end the circus of uncertainty that has been going on in recent weeks on issues such as the single market, paying for access to the single market, the customs union and transitional arrangements. The pattern and rhythm of those exchanges over the past few days and weeks is clear for all to see. One member of the Cabinet says one thing one day; another member of the Cabinet says something else on a different day; then a spokesperson says that no decision has been made. We have seen that pattern over and over in the past few weeks. That uncertainty causes anxiety across the UK, in businesses, among working people, and in our nations and regions. It has to end, as it causes more damage to the process than anything else at the moment. The House, the public, businesses, working people, the media and our communities are entitled to know the basis on which the Government intend to negotiate their future.
The hon. and learned Gentleman said that the alternative to having a plan was no information until 2019. Does he accept that in the debate on 12 October he asked the Secretary of State whether we would have the same information as the European Parliament, where there is a mandatory obligation to inform the European Parliament of the negotiations? My right hon. Friend said very clearly that the answer was yes.
Yes; good. We are working with our European colleagues on that issue, but that is after article 50 has been triggered. We are discussing what comes before. Of course, there are stages in the process. The plan is important because it is the start of the process: it sets the scene and the direction of travel. Once article 50 has been triggered, MEPs will be involved in the process, because they have a vote at the end of the exercise. I acknowledge that the Secretary of State has said on a number of occasions that whatever information they have, we will have. I should jolly well hope so. The idea that MEPs would be provided with more information about the negotiations than us would be wrong in the eyes of everyone in the House. The Secretary of State made that commitment early on, and it was the right commitment to make. He will not be surprised to learn that I intend to hold him to that every step of the way. I am sure that we will meet at the Dispatch Box to discuss precisely that.
I have not finished dealing with the intervention from the hon. and learned Member for South East Cambridgeshire (Lucy Frazer). This is about what happens before the negotiations in the run-up to article 50. There will then be a two-year tunnel of negotiations. Then there is what happens at the end. MEPs will have a vote, and if they vote down the deal there will be no deal. I have no doubt that the Secretary of State will concede that we will have a vote in the House, because the idea of MEPs voting, but not the House, on the final deal is wrong in principle. He might be able to indicate now that there will be a vote at the end of the process on the deal, in the same way that MEPs will have a vote, as that would be helpful for this side of the House.
I apologise for intervening again, but we have said that procedures under the Constitutional Reform Act 2005 will apply. That is straightforward. I have said that at least three times to the House.
The hon. and learned Gentleman has asserted that there is no vote between whatever happens as a result of the court case and the ratification process. The great repeal Bill will be presented to the House during that two-year period, and after that there will be a series of consequential legislative measures, some primary, some secondary, and on every measure the House will have a vote and say.
I acknowledge that, but my response is exactly the same as my previous response. The timetable for the great repeal Bill applies after article 50 has been invoked, so that does not help us with the plan and the starting position. That is why this part of the process has to be gripped now, because what happens between now and 31 March really matters to the starting position. I accept that after that the great repeal Bill will be introduced and debated, and no doubt there will be votes on its provisions, but essentially it is a Bill that indicates what will happen at the end of the process, rather than a Bill that deals with the plan—the starting position—or the process.
I understand why the shadow Minister is pressing the Government for their plans and I understand why he is setting out his red lines. I do not understand why he wants to enshrine that in legislation. The only reason for doing that is so that the Labour party can set up the Government to be sued later. Is that not the truth—will he come clean? It is wrecking tactics by any other name.
I am going to make progress—I have taken a lot of interventions.
The second requirement of a plan is that it must have enough detail to allow the relevant parliamentary bodies and Committees, including the Exiting the European Union Committee, chaired by my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn), to scrutinise the plan effectively. The Committee’s terms of reference include examining the Government’s objectives, so the plan must have sufficient detail to allow parliamentary bodies to conduct scrutiny effectively.
I am going to press on. Thirdly, the plan must provide enough detail to enable the Office for Budget Responsibility to do its job properly. As Members across the House know, the Budget Responsibility and National Audit Act 2011 sets out the role of the OBR: it is the duty of the OBR to examine and report on the sustainability of the public finances. Its charter states:
“The OBR’s published forecasts shall be based on all government decisions and all other circumstances that may have a material impact on the fiscal outlook.”
The Government are responsible for all policy decisions and policy costings, but it is for the OBR to provide independent scrutiny and certification of the Government’s policy costings. It states whether it agrees or disagrees with the Government’s costings, or whether it has been given insufficient time or information to reach a judgment. It is an important check and balance in the system on the spending of public money and on costings.
In its response to the autumn statement this year, the OBR made the following comment on assumptions about the cost of Brexit. In the foreword to the response, it said that it asked the Government for
“a formal statement of Government policy as regards its desired trade regime and system of migration control, as a basis for our projections”
“The Government directed us to two public statements by the Prime Minister that it stated were relevant”.
The OBR was trying to do its job and obtain sufficient information to carry out its statutory functions, and has asked the Government for the relevant information. It has been directed to two public statements by the Prime Minister. In its report this year, the OBR said:
“Perhaps understandably, the Government’s response leaves us little the wiser as regards the choices and trade-offs that the Government might make during the negotiations”.
It is perhaps understandable in the early stages why that may be the case—I concede that, and this is not intended to be a cheap shot based on the OBR report—but it is important that the OBR should be able to do its job properly over the next two years or more. Unless it has sufficiently clear objectives, it cannot do so. It is wrong in principle for the OBR to be disabled from discharging its functions properly. There should be enough detail for that scrutiny to be carried out.
Fourthly, the plan must have enough detail to enable the relevant authorities in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to be assured that their particular and specific concerns are addressed. Other Members will speak about those concerns far more authoritatively than I can, but they include concerns about the single market and, in Northern Ireland, concerns about the border and related issues. The detail must be sufficient for those authorities to be assured that their concerns are understood and are being addressed. Over the past few weeks, I have visited Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland to speak to the devolved Governments as well as to businesses, trade unions and the public in meetings. I can assure the House that “Brexit means Brexit” does not come close to answering the concerns I heard or to addressing the huge, complex challenges that Brexit will pose across the UK.
Fifthly, the plan must have enough detail to build genuine consensus. That is an important point, because the future of this country is bound up with the negotiations, and it is wrong in principle for the Government to act solely for the 52%—to base its approach on the 52% or a group within the 52%. The vote on 23 June was not a vote to write those that voted to remain out of their own history. They have a right and an interest in these negotiations and they have a right to have a Government who give weight to their interests as well as the interests of the 52%. I have said this before and I will say it again: the Government must act not for the 52% or the 48% but for the 100%, acting in the national interest. That can be achieved only if we have a national consensus.
I am fascinated by the focus on the plan and the amount of work that the hon. and learned Gentleman will invite the OBR to do. He does understand, surely, that no plan survives engagement with the enemy. [Interruption.] That is a military metaphor from assaults. Our negotiating hand is clear, and it is clear that it is not compatible with the position taken by our 27 partners. This will all change in the course of the negotiations, and we will have to leave it to the Government to make those decisions.
On reflection, the hon. Gentleman may think that he did not use the right word in describing our partners as “the enemy”.
That brings me to a footnote, but an important footnote. Some of the language and tone that has been adopted by the Government and their Front Bench is not helping the prospects for a good outcome. [Interruption.] I hear the comment that that is disingenuous. I have been to Brussels. I have spoken on a number of occasions to those who will be involved in the exit, and they are not particularly amused by jokes about Prosecco; they are not particularly interested or amused by references to “cake and eat it”. They want a professional, constructive set of negotiations, and some of the comments that are being made about them and their real purposes are not helping the prospect. We have a shared interest across this House in getting these very difficult negotiations off to the best possible start, and comments along the way that are unhelpful or disparaging of our EU partners are simply not helping.
I will press on.
Until now, the Prime Minister’s two mantras that “Brexit means Brexit” and that there will be “no running commentary” on negotiations tell us nothing about the type of Brexit that the Government propose. I am not sure that the recently coined “red, white and blue” Brexit takes us any further forward. The question that everybody wants answered is, will it be the hard Brexit suggested in the Prime Minister’s party conference speech, or the vaguer form suggested by Cabinet Ministers when they speak of possible payments into the EU budget and provide welcome guarantees to Nissan about the prospect of arrangements that are free of tariffs or bureaucratic impediments? These are two different versions of our future that will be negotiated over the next few years, and we need to know which version we are running with, and we need a consensus.
My hon. and learned Friend is right to insist on a plan. It is important that we do not stand in the way of the will of the British people in the referendum, but does he accept that there are many people in all parts of the House who have some doubts and misgivings about the timing of the invoking of article 50? Many people think that 31 March is simply too soon—that we are rushing into it—and that as we will not start negotiations until after the German elections, we may get only a year of negotiations. Does my hon. and learned Friend accept that there is risk in that timetable?
I am grateful for that intervention. I do understand the concerns about the timetable and I think they are shared across the House. It is a tight timetable. I accept that the purpose of the plan, or the motion, is not to frustrate or delay the process. I know that the Secretary of State equally wants to keep to that timetable, but it is an exacting timetable and it is incumbent on the Government to make sure that the deadline is met by ensuring that the plan is available as soon as possible in January 2017.
I shall press on, if I may.
The question on everybody’s lips is, is it the hard Brexit sketched out at the party conference, which was read by those in Brussels as meaning outside the single market, outside the customs union and an arm’s length relationship with our EU partners, or is it a more co-operative, collaborative approach with our partners? I understand, and I can hear from the statements, that there is disagreement on the other party Benches about this, but we cannot go into the negotiations with that disagreement still raging. We need to go in with consensus.
I will say this loud and clear: there is no mandate for hard Brexit; there is no consensus for hard Brexit.
No. I have given way a number of times.
In the past few months I have travelled across the UK to hold meetings with a wide range of interested parties, such as businesses large and small, different nations and regions, trade unions, working people and local communities on the question of the terms on which the UK should exit the EU. I know that the Secretary of State and his team have been engaged in the same exercise. We have been to some of the same places and regions and spoken to some of the same people. The overwhelming evidence is that they do not want hard Brexit. There is not a consensus out there for hard Brexit. If we are to reach a consensus, it must be genuine consensus that works for everybody.
The ball is now in the Government’s court to produce a timely plan that meets these requirements. That will be the start of scrutiny and accountability, not the end. If the Government fail to produce a timely and sufficiently detailed plan, they should expect further challenge from the Opposition, and I put the Secretary of State on notice that that is what we will do. Only legislation, not today’s motion, can allow the Prime Minister to trigger article 50. That will have to be debated and subject to the full and proper procedures in this House, as the Secretary of State accepts. The motion makes it clear that although Labour will not frustrate the article 50 process, it does intend to shape the debate and head off hard Brexit.
I beg to move an amendment, at end add:
“, consistently with the principles agreed without division by this House on 12 October; recognises that this House should respect the wishes of the United Kingdom as expressed in the referendum on 23 June; and further calls on the Government to invoke Article 50 by 31 March 2017.”
Before I speak to the amendment, let me make a few factual remarks to the Labour spokesman, the hon. and learned Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer). He ended by saying that there is no mandate for hard Brexit. To be honest, I do not know what hard Brexit means. The mandate was to leave the European Union. We should keep that in mind. He quite properly raised the issue of Northern Ireland. It is simply because I am standing at the Dispatch Box today that I am not chairing a joint ministerial committee of the devolved Administrations on exactly these issues. There has been considerable progress on that; I can brief him on that, if he does not know about it. Some of it, almost by definition, is confidential. He should take it as read that the process has been going on for some time and is quite well advanced.
The hon. and learned Gentleman raised the issue of the Budget Responsibility and National Audit Act 2011. He may remember that I was a Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, and I am reasonably familiar with National Audit Office and OBR operations. The condition that applies to any information that we put in the public domain—that it will not bias or undermine the negotiation—applies equally here; if we were to give information to the OBR, there would be the same telegraphing of what we are doing. It would be very inappropriate for another reason as well. This is a negotiation, not a policy statement, so where we are aiming for—I think we may be on the same page on this—may not be the exact place we end up, and I think he would understand that.
To be clear, I was not making the argument that the OBR required confidential information, the disclosure of which would undermine negotiations; my point was simply that the plan must be sufficiently detailed to let the OBR do its job in a way that lets it provide the scrutiny it is supposed to.
I take that point. As I make progress through what I have to say, I will explain why, in some respects, that is not practical.
This debate is very similar to the last Opposition day debate Labour chose to have on Brexit, and it really is the last clause of the motion that extends beyond that. The Government and I certainly can accept the motion with the amendment that whatever plan we set out is consistent
“with the principles agreed without division by this House on 12 October”,
and that the House
“recognises that this House should respect the wishes of the United Kingdom as expressed in the referendum on 23 June; and further calls on the Government to invoke Article 50 by 31 March 2017.”
No, I am going to make a bit of progress. I will give way later. I normally like the badinage with the Opposition, but I have to make some progress on quite an important argument.
Dance on a pin as the shadow spokesman may, that is what the Opposition are signing up to: the Government invoking article 50 by 31 March 2017. Let us be clear about that. It has always been our intention, as I said in my intervention on him, to lay out the strategy in more detail when possible, provided it does not undermine the UK’s negotiating position.
If my right hon. and learned Friend will wait a little while, I will, of course, give way to him.
In fact, I have said that categorically in front of this House and the other House on a number of occasions, including just last week, and I am happy to confirm it again today. Our amendment also lays out an important challenge to those on the Benches opposite who say that they respect the result of the referendum, but whose actions suggest that they are looking for every opportunity to thwart and delay this. We will see today if they are willing to back the Government in getting on with implementing the decision made by the people of the United Kingdom. However, before I address the motion in terms, I will give way to my right hon. and learned Friend.
May I emphasise to my right hon. Friend that the motion must require Parliament to support the triggering of article 50 by means known to the law? He will doubtless agree that, as the law stands, that requires primary legislation. While it is possible for private Members’ Bills to be introduced, in reality it will be the Government’s duty to introduce legislation if they wish to proceed, and to do that in a timely fashion that enables proper debate on it.
My right hon. and learned Friend, the ex-Attorney General, should know better than to tempt me to comment on a court case that is taking place as we stand here, so I will not do that, but as he well knows, we will obey the rule of law; we will obey what the Court finds. We will ensure that we do the right thing. As the spokesman for the Opposition said, one of the reasons we are waiting on the outcome is to get precisely right what it is this House has to do.
On the timing set out in the amendment, does the Secretary of State not accept that, given that the French election is in May and the German election is in October, nothing will be achieved in that timeframe? If we trigger in March, there will be negotiating time lost in the two-year window. Article 50 should therefore be triggered in the autumn, in November, with time for a referendum on the exit package, so that people can decide on the final deal.
No, I do not accept that. Between now and the possible end of the negotiating process, if it goes the full distance, there are 15 elections, and of course we have already had two events this weekend: a referendum and another election. There is no point in the period when there is no election under way, so it is simply not possible to meet the hon. Gentleman’s requirement.
Is the crucial issue here not that, whatever the caveats entered by the shadow Minister, anyone voting for this amendment tonight will find it impossible to justify to the public any reneging, any going back or any procrastination—anything after 31 March that seeks to delay the triggering of article 50? That is the reality of the situation.