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.
Given that the threat level in Northern Ireland is still severe, is the Secretary of State satisfied with the level of intelligence sharing in the Province?
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?
I know of no external contracts being issued.
Will my hon. Friend update the House on what action his Department is taking to promote business and community engagement ahead of Brexit?
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?
I do not recognise the comments that have just been made. We have an extremely good relationship with the Irish Government. We will continue that dialogue and work with them.
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 thank my hon. Friend for that answer. What impact will the Government’s industrial strategy have in revamping the private sector in Northern Ireland, and what discussions is he having with the Executive on this topic?
It is important to recognise the huge contribution—some £23 billion—that is incorporated in the industrial strategy, and also to recognise the movement and growth in private sector business, with some 14,410 jobs created in the last year alone.
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?
I am very happy to give that assurance. Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom, and the UK Government will continue to speak on its behalf in their negotiations with the EU.
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?
I can give the hon. Gentleman that assurance about the significance and importance of the border issue. A critical aspect of our approach is that we do not see a return to the borders of the past.
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.
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.
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.
Order. I want to hear about these activities.
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.
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 inform the House that I have selected amendment (a) in the name of the Prime Minister.
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.
However, if the Government fail at the Supreme Court, there will have to be a legislative process. This is not a legislative process today, is it?
I am grateful for that intervention and I am coming precisely to that point, so I will press on.
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?
I understand the hon. Gentleman’s concern, but that is not the case, and I will make that point in a moment.
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.
The answer to the question is no.
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.
Order. I recognise that the hon. Gentleman is an illustrious Member of the House as Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, but even so the intervention was too long.
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.
Will the hon. and learned Gentleman give way?
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.”
Will the Secretary of State give way?
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.
Will my right hon. Friend give way?
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.
The right hon. Gentleman is exactly right. I agree with him entirely.
To balance up affairs, I will give way to the Father of the House.
Quite apart from the legalities of the situation, we have to address the political question of the Government’s accountability to this House for their important policies. This word “plan” is being used in an extremely vague way, and could cover some of the vague assertions that Ministers have been making for the last few weeks. Will the Secretary of State accept that the House requires a description—published in a White Paper, preferably—of the strategic objectives that the Government will pursue and that the Government should submit that strategy to a vote of the House? Once it has the House’s approval, they can move to invoke article 50.
My right hon. and learned Friend is at least straightforward in what he says; he does not really agree with the outcome of the referendum. My view on this—I agree with him to some extent—is very clear. He has said that the word “plan” is vague; I think that what I have said already to this House, in terms of giving all possible information, subject to it not undermining negotiations, is actually more comprehensive. But it is not that we are not going to allow the House votes. First, we cannot do that as a Government, even if we wanted to. Secondly, as I have said, there will be a considerable amount of legislation during the negotiation, which will, in some respects, confine us.
I will make some more progress, if I may. [Interruption.] I will not give in to my normal temptations today. [Hon. Members: “Go on!”] No, no.
Mr Speaker, I am going to make about five minutes’ progress. I hope the hon. Gentleman does not mind. [Interruption.]
Order. The Secretary of State is clearly not giving way at present—a point that is so blindingly obvious that only an extraordinarily clever person could fail to grasp it.
You make my point, Mr Speaker.
It is widely accepted that the negotiation of our departure from the European Union is the most important and most complex negotiation in modern times, and it is overwhelmingly important that we get it right; I think that is common ground. It is normal even for basic trade negotiations to be carried out with a degree of secrecy. Indeed, the European Commission recognises this in its own approach to transparency in such negotiations, in which it says:
“A certain level of confidentiality is necessary to protect EU interests and to keep chances for a satisfactory outcome high. When entering into a game, no-one starts by revealing his entire strategy to his counterpart from the outset: this is also the case for the EU.”
The reason for this is to retain room for manoeuvre, including the ability to give and take, to trade off different interests, to maximise the value of concessions, and to do so without always giving the other side advance notice. We must retain the ability to negotiate with a high degree of agility and speed; the more complex the negotiation, the more parties to it, and the more time-pressured it is, the more important that is.
Any trade negotiation—and this is more than a trade negotiation—is difficult and complex. This negotiation will be another step up beyond that, for a number of reasons. First, it is about more than just trade. While that is an incredibly important part of it, our new relationship with the EU will also encompass our continued co-operation in areas such as security, justice and home affairs. Secondly, it is not merely a bilateral negotiation, but one involving about 30 different parties with a number of different interests. Thirdly, while considering our exit, Europe must also consider its own future. We have been clear that we want a stable and secure European Union—a vital partner for the UK at a time of very serious global challenges. Finally, the political scene in Europe is not set, but is changing—the point I was making. During the period of our negotiations, there are at least 15 elections and other political events that could change the backdrop to our exit process. The combination of these factors and their interplay will mean a changing climate for what are already complicated talks.
Will my right hon. Friend allow me to intervene?
In a moment.
We will need to find a way through a vast number of competing interests to manage our exit from the Union, so that our people benefit from it—that is the aim of this exercise: for our people to benefit from it.
To do that, the Government must have the flexibility to adjust during negotiations. It is like threading the eye of a needle: if you have a good eye and a steady hand, it is easy enough, but if somebody jogs your elbow, it is harder. If 650 people jog your elbow, it is very much harder.
The Secretary of State has just read out a list of reasons not to disclose the Government’s plan and negotiating objectives, but the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke) called—rightly in my view—for a White Paper on the Government’s intentions. If the Secretary of State does not agree with him, will he at least agree with himself, because he called for the same thing before he was appointed to the job? Why was a White Paper the right thing to do in July, but not now?
I really ought to make the people who raise this point, which has been made about five times in this House, read out what I actually said, which was that this is one negotiating option among several. The right hon. Gentleman says that I have just been giving reasons for not outlining negotiating objectives, but that is not true—I will come back to why in a minute. There is a reason not to lay out in detail some of the trade-offs and some of the options that we do have to keep to ourselves until we are in the negotiating chamber. I make this point more generally to the House. During the course of the Amsterdam treaty, we had difficult negotiations to carry out, and I kept the House up to date with every bit of that, but that was done at the right time—the appropriate time—and not when it undermined the national interest, which is the problem here.
Does my right hon. Friend accept that one can be an honest Brexiteer who wants to get this through, while still wanting to proclaim parliamentary sovereignty? That is a perfectly logical point of view. I happen to agree that we want to get article 50 through without any wrecking amendments that unduly tie the Government’s hands, but can he give a commitment that in addition to votes on the great repeal Bill, when we have a final deal, the matter will come to this House for ratification?
In fact there is a law that applies to this—the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010—so we are, in effect, bound by that.
This is important, so can the Secretary of State say in terms that there will be a vote on the final deal in this House? I understand what he says about the underpinning statutes, but can he say simply, for the record, that there will be a vote on the final deal in this House?
All I can say is what I have said before: that is what I expect. It is as simple as that.
I want to pick up on the point about parliamentary scrutiny in a little more depth, if I may—
The 2010 Act says that a Government cannot ratify a treaty until such time as they have laid the treaty before the House and 21 sitting days have passed. It does not guarantee a vote. In fact, since 2010 the Government have on several occasions refused to allow a vote on treaties even when they have been asked for by the Opposition. Is the Secretary of State now specifically saying that the Government will guarantee a vote at such a point?
As I was about to say—I was in the middle of a sentence—it is inconceivable to me that if the European Parliament has a vote, this House does not. It is as simple as that.
Will my right hon. Friend clarify the point that any vote in this House at the end of the process would merely be on the deal and could not reverse the fact that we had left the European Union.
That is entirely correct.
Will my right hon. Friend give way?
If my hon. Friend will forgive me, I will make a bit more progress for a few moments and keep him in mind.
All this does not mean that parliamentary scrutiny is not very important—of course it is. I, of all people, would be last to argue that. That is why I have already given three oral statements to this House and answered more than 350 parliamentary questions. It is why Ministers from my Department and I have already appeared before Select Committees on 10 occasions—I will be appearing in front of the Brexit Committee in a week. It is why the Government announced a series of themed debates, with workers’ rights and transport already discussed, and another debate coming up before Christmas. There have also been more than 15 debates about this in the other House.
However, there is no doubt that the way in which we handle and disclose information is important to the negotiating process. Needless to say, I have given a great deal of thought to how we achieve accountability at the same time as preserving the national interest. That was why at the first parliamentary Committee hearing I appeared before—I think it was the House of Lords Select Committee—I volunteered an undertaking that British parliamentarians would be at least as well served, in terms of information, as the European Parliament. As I said to the Opposition spokesman, I have said on several other occasions that we will provide as much information as possible—subject, again, to that not undermining the national interest. This is a substantive undertaking, but it must be done in a way that will not compromise the negotiation.
The Secretary of State repeats that what he is doing is—he thinks—in the national interest, but he must have heard from industrialists, as Labour Members have, that the uncertainty and lack of clarity from Ministers means that people are putting back projects and not investing. That is why the growth rate is down and the public finances are in such a mess.
We heard during the campaign about how the economy was going to collapse, but I seem to have noticed in the past few months that really it is doing very well indeed, thank you very much. This nay-saying—this talking down the country—is, frankly, the least desirable part of the Opposition’s behaviour.
Will my right hon. Friend give way?
Yes, as I promised to do so.
May I say how strongly I support my right hon. Friend? My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke), who is of course a very great national treasure, called for us to set out our strategic vision, but surely this Government have set out that strategic vision with great clarity: we want to recover control of our borders, make our own laws, keep our own money, engage in free trade, and leave the European Union. What could be more strategic than that?
My hon. Friend is, of course, exactly right, and that brings me rather neatly to the next thing I want to say.
Opposition Members have tried to pretend that we have told them nothing, but that simply demonstrates the old adage that none are so deaf as those who will not hear. We have also been clear that we will set out more as we approach the negotiations.
I will give way in a moment.
As the Prime Minister said in October, although we will not be giving a running commentary—Opposition Members love that phrase—we will give clarity whenever possible and as quickly as possible. As she told the House earlier this month,
“Our plan is to deliver control of the movement of people from the European Union into the United Kingdom.”—[Official Report, 16 November 2016; Vol. 617, c. 230.]
That was the first point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Sir Gerald Howarth). I have also been clear about what this involves. Free movement of people cannot continue as it is now, but this will not mean pulling up the drawbridge. We will operate the immigration system in our national interest, with a view to winning the global battle for talent. Labour Members do not like this, partly because they cannot agree on their own policy. In the past few weeks, we have heard at least three different positions on the future of free movement from shadow Front Benchers—[Interruption.] The Opposition spokesman probably thinks there are more, as he is challenging me. It is therefore no surprise that they do not want to talk about it, but this is an important, substantive decision that reflects the will of the British people.
Similarly, the Prime Minister has said that we intend to remove the UK from the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice. That is part of the promise to recover control of our own laws. Some Labour Members do not like this because they suggest that the ECJ is the principal guarantor of basic British rights and freedoms. I have to say that that shows an astonishing lack of knowledge of our own history, in which British people fought to create and preserve those freedoms. I suppose it is unsurprising that the party that attempted to impose on Britain the most draconian piece of law in modern times—90 days’ detention without charge—has little understanding of the proper origins of freedom and the rule of law.
As part of our determination to find out some knowledge from Ministers, it was asked several times at today’s Prime Minister’s questions whether the UK would want to be in the customs union or not. Can the Secretary of State for Brexit let us know what his policy is? Can he give us something substantive? Is it a case of in the customs union or not in the customs union, because this was not on the ballot paper? The people did not vote to leave the customs union.
What was on the ballot paper, and what I think a million Scots voted for, was leaving the European Union—[Interruption.] I will come back, do not worry. I am not going to sidestep the question; I never do.
The simple truth is that, as the Prime Minister said—I am a Minister of the Government, remember—this is not a binary option. There are about four different possibilities, and we are still assessing them. I have given an undertaking to the Opposition spokesman that I will notify the House in detail when we come to that decision.
I will make some progress and then I will give way again in a moment. There are some among the Labour party who think that leaving the jurisdiction of the ECJ will undermine employment law. Again, that shows a sorry ignorance—employment protection in the UK does not derive principally from the ECJ.
Will my right hon. Friend give way?
Nevertheless, to prevent any misrepresentation or misunderstanding, the Government have announced that they will not erode employment protections, so there can be no doubt about the situation. Labour talks about employment rights, but the Government have made clear guarantees and are bringing forward the great repeal Bill to ensure that the rights that are currently enjoyed are maintained.
Will my right hon. Friend give way?
Clearly somebody has the support of the Labour party for what she wants to say. I will get around to my right hon. Friend in a minute.
We have been clear that the great repeal Bill will transpose all EU law into UK law, wherever practical.
I will not give way for a second, because this point is incredibly important. No law will be changed without the explicit approval of Parliament. That is the key point to understand in this debate.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for giving way. On the customs union matter, did I hear him correctly? Is he saying that the Government will decide whether we will seek to remain in it or out of it, and that then the House, or rather the Opposition, will be told what the Government’s decision is, but we in this place will have no say in it?
My right hon. Friend was not listening; she probably made up her question before she heard the last paragraph. I said that there would be no law changed in this country without the approval of the House of Commons.
Let me come back to the issue of customs union, since it is important. There are several options on customs union. One is shown by Norway, which is in the single market but not in the customs union. One is shown by Switzerland, which is neither in the customs union nor in the single market, but has a customs agreement. A whole series of options exists, and we will come back to the House about that when we are ready.
On my right hon. Friend’s other point, she intimated that because I gave the undertaking to the Opposition spokesman, it was somehow to the Opposition, not the House of Commons. Any undertaking made from this Dispatch Box is to the whole House of Commons, and she should understand that.
A further area in which our aims have been made very clear is justice and home affairs. As I said in the House last week, our aim is to preserve the current relationship as best we can, consistent with our broader aims. That clearly extends to areas such as security and law enforcement. Even after we leave the EU, the UK and the EU will face common threats, from terrorism to organised crime. As such, I believe that there is a clear mutual interest in continued co-operation in these areas. The security of Europe will remain of paramount importance to us, meaning that we will continue to co-operate as we do now with our European partners to help to maintain it.
As for the area that has dominated the debate so far—trade and the European market—the Government have been as clear as is sensible at this stage. We have said that we seek the freest possible trading arrangements, in respect of both tariffs and non-tariff barriers. The Government’s view is that the best deal is most likely to be achieved by a negotiated outcome.
One moment. There is a range of means of arriving at a deal and there is a range of outcomes, and it does not make sense to box ourselves in. I am a believer in free trade, and I want to see the freest trade possible with the European Union and also with the rest of the world. We will be a global and outward-looking nation and a leading advocate for free trade. We want to be able to embrace the opportunities of Brexit—I know that the shadow Chancellor agrees with that, although it apparently makes my opposite number “furious”—but we want to maintain the best relationship possible with the European Union.
Will the Secretary of State give way?
Not at the moment. We have made our aims clear on immigration, on the ECJ, on workers’ rights and, in fact, on European Union legislation more broadly. We have clear aims on justice and home affairs, on security and, finally, on trade. It is important that the House understands what we are aiming for, but it is also important that we do not close off options before we absolutely have to. Just this weekend the leader of the Opposition suggested that he would seek to tie the hands of the Government regarding certain outcomes, such as a particular status in terms of the European market. To do so would seriously undermine the national interest, because it would undermine our ability to negotiate freely.
As I said at my first appearance at the Dispatch Box in this role, Parliament will be regularly updated and engaged. Keeping in mind those strategic aims and the fact that to reveal our position in detail or prejudge the negotiations cannot be in the national interest, we will set out our strategic plans ahead of the triggering of article 50. It is well documented that when we have decided to trigger article 50, the Government will notify the European Council. As I have said on several occasions, the House was always going to be informed in advance of the process. We are happy to support the spirit of today’s motion, with the vital caveat that nothing we say should jeopardise our negotiating position.
The Government amendment underlines the timetable for our departure, affirming the Prime Minister’s intention to notify by 31 March. Many Opposition Members pay lip service to respecting the result of the referendum, while at the same time trying to find new ways to thwart and delay. The shadow Cabinet cannot even decide whether it respects the will of the people. We are well aware of the desire of my opposite number to keep his “options open” with regard to a second referendum—the most destructive thing we could do for our negotiating position at the moment.
Will the Secretary of State give way?
Today we will see whether the Opposition are prepared to back Britain and support our plan to follow the instruction of the British people and leave the European Union. The Government are absolutely determined to honour the decision made by the British people on 23 June.
I thank the shadow Secretary of State for his speech and for giving us the opportunity to debate this subject today. As we have said, we are keen to continue to work with him and his colleagues, and indeed with Members from across the House, where that is possible. We appreciate the remarks that he made about devolved Administrations, but, given where we are and given the Government’s comments, that is not enough for us, and neither is what has been set out.
It is 167 days—almost six months—since the referendum. We have 113 days to go until the 31 March deadline that the Government have set themselves, so we are almost two thirds of the way there. To talk about a glacial pace of progress might be something of an overstatement. So far, the Government have told us nothing. We have been told about soft Brexit, hard Brexit, grey Brexit, and, earlier today, a red, white and blue Brexit. Perhaps we will be getting a continental Brexit, to keep our European partners on side, or even a deep-fried Brexit. We are not entirely sure. Given the timetable, it will not be a Christmassy Brexit for whoever is trying to plug the gaps in the Government’s plans.
There has been an impact, and a significant number of questions remain unanswered. They are not just questions that float out there; they go to the very heart of the Government’s negotiating position. What exactly are the Government telling their negotiating partners, if anything? Are the Government telling them that the single market is important and that we need to maintain membership of it? Have the Government listened to their Scottish leader, who said of the single market that
“the over-riding priority is to retain access to it”?
Do the Government agree with her on that? What about the rights of EU nationals? European nationals call this country their home. They call Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland their home, and I hope that they will continue to do so. What a huge contribution they have made and continue to make. They deserve better than this continued uncertainty.
We all benefit from freedom of movement, and I hope that we will all continue to benefit from it. A large number of our industries also benefit from it, not least the food and drink industry. Scotland has suffered over the years from emigration; we have benefited more than most from freedom of movement, as I know the Secretary of State is well aware. We want to keep it. It benefits us and it will continue to benefit us. It benefits us not only financially but culturally, by enriching our communities and bringing in the people who enrich our society.
The hon. Gentleman and I do not differ on many of these points, but allowing people access to any part of the United Kingdom, and access to work in particular, is not achieved only by an absolute rule on freedom of movement. Control of our borders by our Government would presumably be operated in the UK national interest. Why does he expect that to punish Scotland? It would not do so.
The Secretary of State makes the point. Why not give Scotland—it needs the powers—some of the responsibility for immigration?
On that very point, the Vote Leave campaign, of which the Secretary of State was a member—a full and active member—did not promise much. It is good to see that the right hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) is in his place, for was it not he who said that Scotland could have control over immigration if we voted to leave the European Union? I would be delighted to hear about their plans when the Under-Secretary winds up.
I am glad that the right hon. Gentleman is nodding still, and I look forward to his joining us in the Lobby at some point. He can come home to his roots, and we will welcome him on this issue.
Let us not forget the impact this is having elsewhere in the United Kingdom. On jobs and the economy, Nissan has been given reassurances, but what about other industries? What about the food and drink industry? What about our fishermen and farmers, a lot of whose rules and regulations come from the European Union? What will happen to the common agricultural policy, or to the coastal communities fund, which is so important to our fishing communities? [Interruption.] What happens, as the hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr (Jonathan Edwards) points out from a sedentary position, about Horizon 2020? What will happen to universities, which particularly benefit from freedom of movement? What will happen to workers’ rights, which will come back to this House, which has not always been the best place to guarantee those rights in the past? What will happen to the environment, which has also benefited from Europe?
The hon. Gentleman mentions workers’ rights. First, the Government have already confirmed that we will maintain what exists; and secondly, in many areas UK law exceeds the EU minimum.
In many other areas, such as parental and other rights, we relied on European Union rulings. I tell the hon. Gentleman right now that I would trust the European Union a lot more than I trust this Government when it comes to workers’ rights and other rights.
We need more details. Mario Draghi, the president of the European Central Bank, has said:
“it is important to have clarity over the negotiation process as soon as possible in order to reduce uncertainty”.
The Secretary of State’s speech has not reduced that uncertainty in the slightest.
The Secretary of State made the point that no law will be changed without the say of Parliament, so let me ask him a question. He is in the Chamber, but not in his place, although his colleague the Under-Secretary is on the Front Bench. Will no law that is a responsibility of the Scottish Parliament be changed without the say-so and consent of that Parliament? That is critical, because the motion fails to take on board the impact of devolved Administrations, and a huge array of the questions lie unanswered about matters that are the direct responsibility of not just Edinburgh, but of Belfast and Cardiff.
My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech, which is well worthy of the award he won last night as an MP to watch. The Government talk about respect, but the people of Scotland voted to remain within the single market. Why do the UK Government not respect the wishes of the Scottish people and support our bid to make sure that we retain the benefits of European membership?
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point.
I have another point—I hope the Under-Secretary has his notepad ready so that he can respond to it. We were told by the Secretary of State for Scotland just on 27 November that Scotland would be gaining “significant powers”. Will the Under-Secretary outline what those significant powers are and, to come back to the point I made earlier, whether they will include powers over immigration among others?
Scotland is a European Nation, and we are proud to be a European nation. We benefit, as we see every day in our interactions with the food and drink industry, universities, businesses and the financial sector among many other sectors. The EU benefits us in many different ways—financially, socially and even politically, because there are so many areas, such as energy and climate change, on which we agree so much more with the European consensus than we do with the Westminster consensus.
The relationship with the European Union is important and will be important in the future, but for the record it is important for us to bear it in mind that Scotland has always been a European nation. In the town of St Andrews in my constituency, there stands a statue of General Sikorski, who led the free Polish troops. We remember the sacrifice that they made, and the contribution that the Polish community has made to Scotland and to other parts of the United Kingdom. I remember the interaction between universities in Scotland and those across Europe for hundreds of years, such as the interaction between Scottish universities and those in the Netherlands and elsewhere. I also remember the Lübeck letter: just after the battle of Stirling Bridge—we are going back a bit—the first thing that William Wallace did was to tell the Hanseatic League that Scotland was open for business again. This relationship goes back a long time, and the lack of preparations for Brexit is irresponsible.
There is the Court case across the road today. I do not want to go into it too much, but the Scottish Lord Advocate will be making the arguments for the Scottish Government, and he will do so much better than I possibly could. However, I do not understand why the Government are scared of parliamentary scrutiny. What concerns them about trying to undertake what is, as the Secretary of State himself conceded, an enormous undertaking? Is it not the case that the Government governs, or so the theory goes, and that the legislature scrutinises its work—never has that been more important—while, despite what some people have said, the judiciary does not decide the laws, but carries out the task of assessing whether the rules are being adhered to? All of us in the Chamber must respect that. Similarly, it is for the devolved Administrations to have a say over areas under their responsibility.
In the case currently going through the Supreme Court, the Lord Advocate for Scotland described the Sewell convention yesterday as
“a political restriction upon Parliament’s ability to act, no more and no less than that”.
However, has not that convention been put on a statutory footing as part of the Scotland Act 2016? Is my hon. Friend as concerned as I am about the lack of clarity from Brexit Ministers on that point?
The Minister makes—[Interruption.] My hon. Friend—he is not yet a Minister, but let’s give it time—makes an excellent point. There is chaos, pure and simple. The chaos is the fault not of the judges but of the Government who have carried on the irresponsibility of the Vote Leave campaign by continuing to give us no details.
We are well aware that the Secretary of State does not like the use of the prerogative, but this could all have been avoided. Let us give credit where it is due: I give credit to David Cameron—hon. Members will not hear this often from SNP Members, and, frankly, they will not hear it often from Conservative Members either—who sat down with the then First Minister of Scotland, my right hon. Friend the Member for Gordon (Alex Salmond), and hammered out the Edinburgh agreement to give the Scottish independence referendum a legal footing to remove any uncertainty. I will read a little of agreement, which was agreed by the Westminster Government and the Scottish Government—and full credit goes to everybody, particularly the officials who worked so hard on it. It states:
“The governments are agreed that the referendum should…have a clear legal base”—
just imagine if the Government had done that—
“be legislated for by the Scottish Parliament;…be conducted so as to command the confidence of parliaments, governments and people; and…deliver a fair test and a decisive expression of the views of people…and a result that everyone will respect.”
It went on:
“The two governments are committed to continue to work together constructively in the light of the outcome, whatever it is, in the best interests of the people of Scotland and of the rest of the United Kingdom.”
The question is: why was there so little preparation? Was it negligence, breath-taking complacency, or did they think that everyone would be okay regardless and they did not need to bother?
If my hon. Friend has been following the Supreme Court case as closely as I have, he will be aware that it was pointed out by senior counsel for the respondents yesterday that the Government had the opportunity to give legal force to this referendum, as a result of the amendment proposed by my right hon. Friend the Member for Gordon (Alex Salmond), but they specifically said that they did not want to do so. The now Leader of the House, who was then the Minister for Europe, said:
“The legislation is about holding a vote; it makes no provision for what follows. The referendum is advisory”.—[Official Report, 16 June 2015; Vol. 597, c. 231.]
It was said quite clearly by the Government that it was their intention to make no provision for what would follow.
My hon. and learned Friend makes a very fine point, as always.
Let me make another comparison. We are here to scrutinise the work of the Government. They put forward manifestos before elections, and we scrutinise those. No one questions the idea that the Government should try to prepare a manifesto. Before elections, officials pore over the manifestos of the parties standing, including even the no-hopers—some poor soul in the civil service has to go through the Labour party manifesto!
Whatever happened, the Government got it wrong and need to change course. That is the responsibility of the Members who campaigned for out. It is not just us asking these questions: Manfred Weber, president of the European People’s party group in the European Parliament, has said:
“I haven’t really heard how the British government want to tackle Brexit or what Brexit really means.”
The Foreign Secretary has some responsibility, and has a job on his hands. I hope everyone on the Government Benches is taking him terribly seriously nowadays, as they have been told to do so. He is determined to make a “titanic success” of this process, but he has been telling everyone a different story. I wonder if that goes beyond the Brexit process. What about when he decides what Christmas card he should give his Foreign Secretary counterparts? Will it be a Christmas tree, or is that perhaps a bit too German? Will it be the flight into Egypt, or is that a bit too soft on refugees? Will he go for Santa on his way from Lapland with his elves, or does that give him freedom of movement problems? Perhaps everyone will just get two and be done with it.
Look at the chaos at the heart of this Government and compare and contrast it with the Scottish Government. Ireland is a hugely important partner and key nation—a partner nation and our sister nation. Charlie Flanagan told his Government’s Brexit Committee that he had no idea how the UK would approach Brexit. The Irish Minister for Jobs described the International Trade Secretary as like a husband
“who wants a divorce, but “
“keep all the assets and the family home.”
Compare that with the reception that the First Minister got in Dublin just last week. Compare it with the partnership that we are building. [Interruption.] Members call getting a positive response grandstanding! The Government wish they could get a positive response from a European partner. Even James Reilly, the deputy leader of Fine Gael, said:
“We are very much heartened by the fact that Scotland voted to stay in the EU. We would be very supportive of ensuring that Scotland’s voice is heard during the UK negotiations, as well as the voices of our fellow Celts north of the Border, who also voted to stay within the EU.”
The Government are in chaos, pure and simple. That chaos is affecting our day-to-day lives and will continue to do so. This is too important to let the Government off the hook about it. It is too important not to have full scrutiny, and it is too important to the powers of the devolved Administrations for it to be left purely to this place. That is why we cannot back the Secretary of State’s amendment today.
Order. On account of the number of would-be participants in the debate, it is necessary to impose a time limit. We will start with a time limit of eight minutes on Back-Bench speeches, but I give due notice that that is not likely to endure for very long. Members can help each other, however.
I will, I hope, be brief. I support the Government’s amendment, and wish to make it clear that I believe that making great pace in getting ourselves through the process and into the negotiations is the key for whatever the Government do now.
Most people, including the Opposition, fail to define what leaving the European Union actually means. They keep saying that they will not and do not want to frustrate the will of the British people and that that means they do not want to delay the triggering of article 50. But in the same breath—with respect to the hon. and learned Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer)—they go on to qualify what leaving actually means. When listening to him, the definition I heard was that he wants to be a member of everything that we are in as members of the EU now, with one or two small changes—so he does not actually want to leave. In that sense, the purpose behind what the Opposition are doing speaks more of their own problems than of the negotiations that the Government will embark on once we activate article 50. I will say more on that in a moment.
I make no bones about the fact that I voted and campaigned for the UK to leave the European Union. I believe that it is necessary for us to understand what we mean by that—to define it, and then to act on that, as some of my colleagues have already said. Leaving the European Union at its most basic will mean that we will no longer be subject to European law. From that flow the other elements that were debated during the campaign. The public most clearly want to take back control of their borders with the European Union and to take back control of the money raised from them in taxation. Those things cannot happen if we are subject to European law. This, then, is the key element: leaving the European Union means that we are no longer subject to the jurisprudence of European law. That is really quite important. The failure of the Opposition to accept that means that they are not really in favour of leaving, and have not even accepted that we are leaving; they are debating how we stay in with modifications.
On that principle, I remind the House that the Centre for Social Justice published a report about why people voted to leave, called “48:52”. That report made it very clear—even many remainers have said the same—that the public wanted control of migration and they wanted sovereignty returned. I was quite surprised by their using and agreeing with the word “sovereignty”. We are always being told in this House that no one out there cares about sovereignty and that it is an esoteric issue debated only here by obsessed politicians who cannot get away from the fact that no one talks about it out in the country. In fact, sovereignty was the key element that the people spoken to for the report all agreed that they wanted—to take back control, the phrase that we use endlessly when debating this matter.
We are therefore clear about what people wanted. When people say we do not know what the public wanted, that is simply not true. They do a disservice to the general public if they cannot understand what they meant when they voted to leave the European Union. The public were very clear on that. I have heard the Liberals go on about how people voted to leave but did not vote for a destination. Leaving is a destination. It means we are in control of ourselves. This country is not moving. It is staying where it is, but we will no longer be subject to European law. Playing silly games does not help anyone to believe that, fundamentally, politicians understand what they are going through.
Given all that, there is no point during any of the negotiations in our trying to ask the European Union for something that it simply cannot and will not give us. This is the main point. There is no point going to the EU and saying, as a point of special pleading, “We want to be out of the European Union and are going to be free to make our own laws, but will you let us stay in the single market, and can we stay in the customs union?” I fully understand the position of those of my colleagues who want to stay in those elements. That is a wholly reasonable position, but if we are leaving the European Union, staying in those two things does not stand. More importantly, I would not want to, because that would again bring us under the control of the acquis communautaire, and not being so is one of the main reasons for leaving. The Opposition asked for enough detail. The strategic aim is on those points—that is enough detail.
On the customs union, I come back to this simple point. Why would the United Kingdom want to stay in the customs union when one of the key elements behind making the important decision to leave the European Union was getting back the opportunity to make our own trade arrangements with other countries? I would rather we stayed in than stay in the customs union. It seems completely pointless to embroil ourselves in the customs union—to go through all the rigmarole, arguments, debates and rows, only to find that at the end of the day we do not have the jewel in the crown of our making free trade arrangements.
On that point, I have something interesting to say to the House. I discovered the other day that there are now no fewer than five elements of legislation—three Bills, I think, and two amendments to Bills—going through both the House of Representatives and the Senate that pave the way for a free trade agreement between the US and the United Kingdom. So much for the current President’s view that we will be at the back of the queue. It appears that the legislators in Congress see us wholly at the front of it. They know the reason why: we are the great free trading nation of the world. We believe in free trade, and that is the direction in which we want to take ourselves, and, I hope, many others. For us, the rest of the debate, once we get through that and understand its relevance, is about process.
I listened very carefully to the hon. and learned Member for Holborn and St Pancras as he spoke for the Opposition, and I understand deeply the problem the Opposition have right now. The Conservatives were in opposition for a number of years and we were often divided. I was a Leader of the Opposition and I remember it very well. Leading the Opposition is like herding cats and there are a lot of cats sitting on the Benches behind him. They are divided about what they want. They are exposed in a simple position of not really wanting to leave, but recognising that 70% of them now sit in constituencies that voted overwhelmingly to leave. They are focusing on the fact that they run the risk, politically, of being in danger when the next election in called.
I understand fully Labour Members’ need to somehow try to confuse the issue with this particular agreement in relation to the amendment. However, the Government amendment is very clear. It sets a date by which article 50 has to be invoked. By not voting against the amendment, the Labour party will be giving the Government a blank cheque to go forward and invoke article 50 without any real caveats. I am wholly in favour of that, I have to say, because I support the Government, but I did not think Labour Members were supporting the Government. I welcome them to that position, although some of my hon. Friends absolutely deplore them for doing so. I see from the shaking of heads that many on their own Benches deplore the weakness they seem to have shown, but I congratulate them—
Order. I was momentarily distracted by another hon. Member speaking to me. The right hon. Gentleman was a beneficiary for a few seconds, but I am afraid his time has now elapsed.
I want to begin by expressing my concern about the continuing tone of some of the debate on the UK’s exit from the European Union. I also want to express the hope, which may be vain, that today will mark the end of the phony war.
The decision has been made. We all campaigned on one side or the other and we accept the result. Parliament will vote in favour of triggering article 50. The deal—this is the importance of the motion tabled by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer)—is that in return the Government will come forward with, and get on with producing, a plan. It is entirely reasonable that the House and the British public should expect the Government to publish a plan well in advance of that vote. I welcome the fact that belatedly—nearly six months on—the Government have finally done so today.
So please, can we have an end to talk about “democracy deniers” and “remoaners”? One headline yesterday read:
“Forty pro-EU Conservative MPs defy the will of the people to ‘side with Labour’”,
and the Prime Minister’s official spokesperson said:
“While others have seemingly made clear they want to frustrate the will of the British people, the Government is pressing on with it.”
May we have an end to that? It does a profound disservice to the scale of the task our country faces, to the seriousness of that task and the importance of the outcome to every single person who lives in the United Kingdom. I say to the Secretary of State that the Government and the Prime Minister should be trying to unite our country as they go about their task—we all agree that we should try to achieve the best possible deal—and to recognise their responsibilities to the 48% as well as the 52%. Maybe today will mark the day when they begin to do that.
Of course there are different views about the future of our relationship with the EU. Leaving the EU is not in doubt, but the nature of that new relationship—here I disagree with the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr Duncan Smith)—is up for debate.
We accept that Labour is going to vote for article 50 and we all want the plan, but does the right hon. Gentleman believe that Labour should not put forward an amendment on the article 50 vote that lays down a specific future, for instance, staying in the single market?
No, I do not. First, we have no idea what the legislation will look like. I would just make the point that, when I last checked, Norway is not a member of the European Union. Unless any hon. Members wish to contradict me, it is not a member. It is outside the EU and it is a member of the single market. What that demonstrates is that there are choices to be made about our future relationship with the EU.
All any unreasonable delay in bringing forward the plan will do is create further uncertainty. The hon. Member for Bedford (Richard Fuller) is no longer in his place, but he said that it might consist of hints. I merely remind the House that when Moses came down from the mountain bearing the tablets, they did not contain the 10 hints. He was pretty clear about what he was telling people to do. I remind the House that the Secretary of State has got up eight times to enlighten us not a great deal about the Government’s objectives, and I have never heard Parliament described as “elbow joggers” before, although I did like the analogy. We are not elbow joggers, but participants in the process and we intend to scrutinise the Government as they undertake it. Apart from anything else, it would have been quite unacceptable for the Government to have told the 27 member states what their objectives were before they told Parliament and the British people. It is therefore really important that we get the plan and that the Government publish one with substance.
To be fair to the Government, in some areas, we know what the plan is. That has been set out very clearly for the car industry. We know what the Government want: no tariffs and no bureaucratic impediments. Those were the words of the Business Secretary. They do not want anything to happen that would make it more difficult to trade. I am sure the rest of the manufacturing sector says, in all the meetings the Secretary of State is having, “Okay, that’s great for cars, but what about us?” Is it unreasonable for the Government then to say what their objectives are for the rest of manufacturing industry? I think that is perfectly reasonable.
There is then the curious case of the customs union, which got even curiouser during the Secretary of State’s speech. The Prime Minister has now told us twice that it is not a binary choice. Now we understand it is a four- way choice. The Secretary of State said there are four different models. The right hon. Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry), who unfortunately is no longer in her place, asked a perfectly reasonable question: whether he could at least tell us what the four different options are, so that we can all join in the conversation on which of the four the Government might eventually decide to choose.
Presumably, we are going to seek maximum access to the single market. For financial services, and the jobs and the tax revenue that depend on it, it is really important that we are able to keep access to the single market. I am sure that causes the Chancellor to lie awake at night, worrying about it. How will those controls on free movement, which the Secretary of State reminded us of, work in practice? How will they affect lecturers at universities, doctors and nurses, people picking and processing vegetables, chefs, care workers, highly skilled engineers, technicians and IT specialists? Will companies—this is a question we have heard a lot in the Select Committee—continue to be able to move their staff within their companies to another base elsewhere in Europe to repair a product, solve a problem or create a new business opportunity? When will we be able to offer clarity to EU citizens about their position here? We now know from the Home Secretary that they will all have to be documented. It is a fair question: how many civil servants will that take, how much will it cost and when will it be completed?
What about our universities? Young people from the rest of Europe will be asking themselves whether they are still going to apply to come to Britain, and when will they stop being treated as a home student and become an overseas student? They need to know and the universities need to be able to plan. Will we continue to participate in the Erasmus programme that allows young people in Britain from low-income backgrounds to study elsewhere in Europe? Will we continue to be a part of Horizon 2020?
What about the whole range of agencies? I will pick one: the European Medicines Agency. Now, one could say that wanting to remain a member of the EMA is cherry-picking. However, working with our European neighbours to agree on how quickly and safely we can bring new medicines to market is good for patients in Britain as well as patients in Europe. I plead with the Government to be just a bit more enthusiastic—I do not say this so much about the Secretary of State—and clear that they are determined to find a way of continuing to co-operate on foreign policy, defence, security and the fight against terrorism, because that is so important to us all.
Finally, on transitional arrangements, the cliff edge and the negotiating plan, previous Governments, in respect of a whole host of treaties, including the Lisbon treaty, the constitutional treaty, the Nice treaty, and the Amsterdam treaty, and even when we sought to join the common market in 1967, all set out what they were trying to achieve. George Brown talked about the need for considerable adaptations and an adequate period. If it was sensible to admit the need for transitional arrangements when joining the common market, which was a much simpler organisation, is it not sensible for the Government to admit now that, if they cannot negotiate everything within 18 months—listen to what Michel Barnier said yesterday—they will be prepared, if necessary—
Will my right hon. Friend give way?
Will I get more injury time, Mr Speaker?
Then of course I give way.
My right hon. Friend is very generous. Does he agree that businesses have expressed concern about the uncertainty created by the cliff edge in March 2019, about how we might fall back on WTO rules and tariffs and about how bad that would be not only for businesses but for jobs, our constituents and the broader economy?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We have heard a lot of evidence before the Select Committee, of which she is a valued member, saying precisely that. As she said, we have heard much about bureaucracy, rules of origin, delays and so on. Whole businesses have been created on the basis of goods moving back and forth four, five, six times before finally being added to the product being sold. People need to understand that the way business works in the Europe of which we have been a part creates and sustains jobs. To say, “We will walk away. It doesn’t matter. We can cope,” really misses the point about why business is worried about the implications.
The last point I want to make to the Secretary of State concerns the question of a vote on the final deal. I heard him say today, “I expect there will be a vote”. Well, I expect that the District line will turn up within five minutes, but today there were longer delays. He said, as I understood it, that it was inconceivable that there would not be a vote. Well, some people would have said it was inconceivable that Donald Trump would be elected President of the United States. It does not fill me with a great deal of confidence. I gently say to him that the simple response to the question, “Will there be a vote when the deal comes before us after the negotiation?”, is to stand up, look the House direct in the eye, and say, “Yes, there will be a vote.”
It gives me pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn). It shows the odd situation we are in that I can say I agreed with every word he uttered. It might be a long time before either of us finds ourselves in that situation on any other subject, but then this is unlike any decision that has come to the House for many years.
We all know that when we leave the EU and begin the several-years process of deciding our future political and economic relationships with Europe and the rest of the world, we will be embarking on some of the most complicated and epoch-making decisions that the House will have faced for a century. Although those debates will come later—and I will not argue today my well-known views on the merits of EU membership—I think that the decisions we are taking today on the parliamentary procedure that should apply to a Government engaged in policy making and acting on behalf of the UK, including future citizens, not just present citizens, are equally important. If we carelessly agree to things today, we might create precedents that will be quoted in future to the detriment of both Houses of Parliament and of the system of checks, balances and accountability that is crucial to our constitution. Of course, today, I speak politically not legally—we all await the outcome of the serious issues before the Supreme Court.
I do not understand why the Government indicated that today’s Opposition day motion posed some sort of threat. With great respect to the hon. and learned Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer), who leads for the Opposition—he is working very subtly, and I have high regard for how he conducts himself—it is a harmless motion, a plain and simple motion, setting out what one would expect to happen in any similar circumstances and what one would certainly expect to have happened at any time in the past 100 to 150 years—certainly in every Parliament I have sat in.
Surely you haven’t been here 150 years!
No—only the last few decades can I recall directly. In any previous Parliament—certainly the ones I sat in—the process to be followed would have been regarded as self-evident: the Government would produce a policy statement, a White Paper, setting out their strategic objectives, their vision, for the role they were seeking for the United Kingdom; the House of Commons would be invited to vote on that strategy and to approve or deny it; then, with the approval of the House, the Government would go forward, again with the consent of the House, and invoke article 50; then they would start the negotiations. It is a quite unnecessary performance to try to modify that, but I am extremely worried that people are trying to do so.
I would echo the comments of the SNP spokesman, the hon. Member for North East Fife (Stephen Gethins). I do not think that scrutiny and debate are a threat to a Government or to the quality of decision making. It is my opinion that we should return to proper Cabinet government in this country. If a Minister comes forward with controversial proposals, it is useful to have them tested by colleagues and improved in discussion, before they are sent to the House. Every Minister has taken part in debates in the House of Commons, and of course they maintain their course, but every now and then they will have a sinking feeling that their opponent is actually making rather a strong point. In such cases, one goes away and makes improvements. In strengthening their negotiating position, the Government could benefit from such a fit and proper process, particularly given that at the moment it is sadly clear from the constant remarks to the newspapers and the occasional leaks that Ministers have no idea what the strategy is and do not agree with each other anyway.
The Government have two or three arguments against this. The point about the royal prerogative is a matter for the Supreme Court. The excellent Treasury Devil, James Eadie, for whom I have the highest respect, has apparently argued that the royal prerogative still applies to making war as well as to making treaties. I will wait for the legal judgment but, politically, had Tony Blair decided when invading Iraq to tell the House of Commons that it was not a matter for the House of Commons and that he was invoking the royal prerogative rather than seeking a vote, he would have had even more trouble than he had in any case as a result of the strange way he went about the vote.
We are told that the referendum somehow overrides the centuries-old tradition of parliamentary accountability. I will not comment on the pathetically low level of debate, as reported in the national media, on both sides during the referendum campaign. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Brexit no more adopted some of the dafter and dishonest arguments on his side than I think I did on mine, but serious arguments were not reported. More to the point, the public voted by a majority to leave the EU. They did not vote for anything on the subject of replacements for the EU; it was not even raised in debate. These choices that Ministers are now struggling with, and for which they should be accountable to us, would have been a mystery to 99% of the people who listened to the debate and voted in the referendum. The issue of whether we should be in the customs union, and the consequences one way or the other, was not decided by the referendum. Brexiteers in the Government do not even agree with each other on the path they should now follow. We should go back to parliamentary democracy and accountability to this House.
I am glad that my right hon. and learned Friend now agrees that this Parliament should be supreme. In fact, Mr Blair did take the country to war on the royal prerogative, because the vote in this House was not law, but purely advisory. Is it not rather odd that we now have a Supreme Court that sees itself as a constitutional court able to direct that this House shall have to do something, which has always previously been our right? We are a supreme Parliament; we can stop Brexit if we want to.
It is not going to direct us at all. The Supreme Court is the authority—I am not, and my hon. Friend is not—for saying what, strictly speaking, the legal constitutional position is. This House then has its own political role in deciding how, within that framework, it is going to operate. The political practice for decades has been that these kinds of decisions are not taken on the basis of telling Parliament that it has nothing to do with it and that Members will not have a vote. On the basis of that argument, the Cameron Government would have proceeded with their intervention in Syria, which we decided that we did not want; they would not even have offered the Commons a vote before they proceeded. In this particular instance, no Government that I can recall would have had the nerve to come along to Parliament and say, “Oh, we are exercising the royal prerogative; we are not going to ask you.”
Finally, let me deal with the nature of accountability. I am not sure that the Government have yet wholly picked up the point, apart from the fact that they have to get out of being defeated on a motion in a Labour Supply day. We are told, “Oh, the Government will make statements.” Well, the Government have been making statements, in which the rather vague language of “a plan” is used. We will probably be told that the plan is to have a red, white and blue Brexit and that we are believers in free trade, whilst we are giving up all the conditions that govern free trade in the single market. Apparently, not only are we going to give up the European Court of Justice, which we have always used very successfully to resolve disputes, but we are going to have trade agreements with everybody else and not abide by the rules of those either, if we feel like it. We need a White Paper, a strategy, votes in this House and clarity on policy.
It is a privilege to follow the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke).
This debate might appear just to be about this House, and the rights of this House and whether we get a plan. It is not. And it is not about whether we were for leave or for remain. It is about a deeply divided country. The truth is that we are divided between people who voted leave and fear being betrayed, and people who voted remain and fear a deep sense of loss.
In case we have forgotten, after all this is over—I suspect it will take more than two years—leavers and remainers will have to live in the same country. That is why I believe that the way we conduct this debate, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn) said, is absolutely crucial and all of us, however we voted in the referendum, should be seeking to unite the country and not divide it. What does that demand?
First, I believe we need to honour the result of the referendum. It was a referendum that, as the House knows, I did not seek, and it was close, but it was clear and it needs to be respected, in my view. We are leaving the European Union; I could not put it any plainer than that. That is my starting point. But unifying the country takes a lot more than simply saying “Brexit means Brexit” or even “red, white and blue Brexit”.
There are hugely significant and material choices to be made by the Government and our EU partners, which will have implications for our country for decades to come. That is why it is good that the Government have said that they are going to publish a plan. I looked up the “Chambers Dictionary” definition of a plan, and it is this:
“a thought-out arrangement or method for doing something”.
That seems to me to be more than a series of hints, to use the words of the hon. Member for Bedford (Richard Fuller). What the Government have committed to—there should be no doubt about this—is the thought-out arrangement that they favour for Brexit, and they have committed to produce that to the House before the negotiations begin.
We know the key questions that need to be answered. Do we remain in the single market or not? Do we remain in the customs union—that has been debated today—or not? If Brexit is outside the customs union, as seems to be the Government’s position—maybe, although there are four different options and we do not know what they are—what is the best estimate of the economic impact of that on our country and every one of our constituencies and constituents? The reason this matters is that these are not nit-picking or procedural questions; they are questions that will affect millions of people and businesses up and down the country. There are not simply matters of procedure.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that this is not nit-picking. A key issue in my constituency is the funding for the South Wales Metro, which was due to come from European funding. The First Minister is going to Europe to see what he can get for the next two years, but this is a huge area of uncertainty, and it will affect hundreds of thousands of people in south Wales.
My hon. Friend puts it very well.
What about the plan on immigration, including for citizens of this country who want to go and work or live abroad in the future? What is the vision? I think the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, who is no longer in his place, was nodding and saying that they would produce a plan on our approach to crime and terrorism, foreign policy, climate and energy policy, in respect of which Governments of both parties have taken a leadership role in Europe. What is the future for that? We do not know at the moment, so it must be in the plan.
Our motion is not a request for every dot and comma of the negotiations, to use the Prime Minister’s words, to be included. We are talking about basic and fundamental questions about the Government’s vision of our economy and place in the world, post-Brexit.
As my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer) said, the plan must be produced in January—soon enough for Parliament and, crucially, the British people to debate it properly. I had some time on my hands, so I looked up the consultations on which the Government have embarked since the 2015 general election. There were 1,200 in all, and they include everything from consultation on the code for small sea-going passenger ships to one on the regulation of traffic signs. The Government consult a lot. Are we seriously saying that the issue on which they are not going to consult the British people is the post-Brexit arrangements for our country? I would point out that this is less of a niche issue than the regulation of traffic signs—important though that issue is.
Here is the thing. The Government said that they want to bring the country with them. That is really important, and those words were echoed by the leader of the Scottish Conservative party, who said that we have got to listen to the voices of the 48%. But a Government cannot take the country with them if they do not tell the country where they are seeking to go before the negotiations begin.
I have no greater authority to cite on this than the current Prime Minister. In 2007, she wrote a very interesting pamphlet with somebody called Nicholas Timothy, who I believe is her chief of staff. It is called “Restoring Parliamentary Authority: EU Laws and British Scrutiny.” I am told that it has been taken off the relevant website, but fortunately the House of Commons Library has a copy. It says:
“Our feeble system of scrutiny undermines Parliament’s ability to check or restrain the Government’s action in Europe…We therefore need a system that gives Parliament real powers over ministers, enough time to scrutinise, and the transparency to restore public trust in the process.”
I could not have put it better myself.
I give way to the right hon. Gentleman, who might well have had a hand in the pamphlet or written many like it.
I am grateful. To clarify, for the benefit of the House, is the right hon. Gentleman arguing whether, after the scrutiny, Parliament or Government get to decide on how to proceed with the negotiations?