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Commons Chamber

Volume 620: debated on Thursday 26 January 2017

House of Commons

Thursday 26 January 2017

The House met at half-past Nine o’clock


[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Exiting the European Union

The Secretary of State was asked—

Farming Sector

1. What discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs on the priority that will be accorded to the farming sector during negotiations on the UK leaving the EU. (908389)

We fully recognise the importance of the farming sector. In leaving the EU, we have the opportunity to take the British farming sector forward and to ensure that it thrives. As highlighted recently by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, we will no longer be bound by EU rules and will consequently be able to design an agricultural system that works for us.

Although Brexit may create some uncertainties in the short term, it will open up exciting new markets and new opportunities in trade for British farmers and for food and drink manufacturers across the country. What steps are the Government taking to help the sector to seize those opportunities?

My hon. Friend is right. The food and drink sector is the largest manufacturing sector in the country, and there are huge opportunities to be seized. The Government have addressed that through the creation of the Department for International Trade, which is working closely with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs on a plan to boost our food and drink exports by almost £3 billion over five years.

UK farmers face a triple jeopardy from Brexit, with the loss of common agricultural policy subsidies, potential new tariffs on currently tariff-free trade with the EU, and the prospect of trade deals with bigger countries such as the US flooding the UK with cheaper imports that have lower food safety and animal welfare standards. The Secretary of State said that he would do everything necessary to protect the City of London. Can the Minister give the same assurances to UK farmers and farming businesses, which make up 25% of UK businesses?

The hon. Lady is right that the farming sector is extremely important. The Government have already put in place measures to ensure that the current level of EU funding is protected until 2020, the end of the multi-annual financial framework period. Furthermore, I think that she should have more confidence in the sector. British agriculture produces some of the finest products in the world, and I have no doubt that the arrangements that are put in place will ensure that they continue to thrive in the international market.

May I ask my right hon. Friend how the Government will approach the regulations and directives that will be created and implemented between now and the date we leave the European Union? We probably have no intention of keeping those regulations or directives, such as the ban on glyphosate. The National Farmers Union is very clear that that measure will be very damaging to British agriculture. Will we have to implement it before we leave?

The Government have made it absolutely clear that, until the date of our departure, we will continue to play a full part in the European Union, which does mean observing all the regulations that are implemented. The great repeal Bill will absorb the body of EU law into British law. Once we have left the European Union, we will be in a position to review all that legislation and take the decisions that are best for British agriculture.

At this moment in time, the UK Government are withholding nearly £200 million of convergence uplift money that is meant to go to Scottish farmers. Does the Minister agree that the Government should pass that on to Scottish farmers to ensure that they will not be left even more high and dry if there is a hard Tory Brexit?

I do not recognise that description. The British Government are engaging extremely closely not only with the Scottish Government, but with the Scottish farming unions. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that, whatever deal we do, it will be in the interest of Scotland as much as the rest of the United Kingdom.

Some studies on the future of agricultural policy, such as a recent one by the Centre for Policy Studies, rather downplay the importance of food security. Will my right hon. Friend reassure the House that food security remains at the top of the Government’s agenda? A shock to the system could completely destroy existing trading links and leave the country in a very vulnerable position.

My right hon. Friend makes an extremely important point. British agricultural standards are among the highest in the world, and I assure him that the Government will do nothing to jeopardise the reputation that British farming enjoys.

Almost 40% of EU funds are spent on the common agricultural policy, so it is clear that supporting farming is a central aim of the European Union. Will the Minister comment on the schemes that the Government are considering as replacements for the CAP to reflect the importance of farming to the UK?

The hon. Lady will know that the Government have already guaranteed the current level of CAP funding until 2020. I assure her that the Government will make sure that the interests of agriculture are at the very forefront of our calculations. British agriculture is a huge asset to this country, and we intend to protect it.

UK-EU Relationship

2. When he plans to publish the Government’s plan for the UK’s relationship with the EU after the UK has left the EU. (908390)

I ask the House to forgive my voice. It is just wear and tear, not emotion.

The Prime Minister’s speech set out a comprehensive plan that includes all our central negotiating objectives. She confirmed yesterday that we will publish the plan in a White Paper. It will answer key questions that have been asked on our approach to the single market, the customs union and the type of trading relationship we are seeking. It will be widely welcomed as a serious and ambitious vision of a new, positive and constructive partnership for Britain and the European Union that will be good for Britain and good for the rest of Europe.

I thank the Secretary of State for that answer, but will he please explain to the aerospace industry, the health service, the universities and other major employers in my constituency, which account for thousands of jobs, how they should have confidence in this country’s ability to negotiate beneficial trade deals when we have barely any specialist trade negotiators and we have had no experience of negotiating trade agreements for decades?

It does not help the hon. Lady’s own industries, which are very important, if she talks them down. Let me say to the Opposition that it is not only the Government who think this deal is eminently achievable. Just recently, a former EU Trade Commissioner said that the trade deal between the UK and EU can be done in a “very reasonable” period of time—[Interruption.] Let me get to the point. He said:

“I am reading everywhere that it takes five, six, seven…years to do a trade negotiation… Yes that’s true—but it’s not for technical reasons, it’s because you can’t get an agreement. Technically you could make an agreement within a very reasonable period of time because we know each other.”

The point he was making is that there is not a technical constraint, and there are quite enough negotiators in Whitehall to do the job we are talking about.

Will the White Paper highlight the words of article 50, which says that the Union must

“negotiate and conclude an agreement…taking account of the framework for its future relationship”

with the UK? It is therefore impossible to start negotiations unless one has an outline agreement on what that framework should be. Only two frameworks are possible— a continuation of free trade, or a move to trading on most favoured nation terms. Will we press our partners to clarify that right at the beginning of the negotiations?

We already have done. In my one meeting with Mr Barnier, he talked about a sequential approach, which does not seem practical to me. It really is not possible to reach an outcome on either of the negotiations without a clear idea of the trade aspect of the negotiations. My right hon. Friend’s description is pretty accurate. I have said in terms that we intend all of this to be concluded within the two years.

The Government say they want nothing further to do with the European Court of Justice but, as the Secretary of State well knows, in any new free trade agreement with the 27 member states there will have to be a legal arbitration mechanism whose rulings we will be obliged to implement. If the European Court of Justice is not acceptable, what court would be?

It would not necessarily be a court. The right hon. Gentleman is quite right that most international—[Interruption.] Listen to the answer. Most international trade agreements have an arbitration mechanism, and that mechanism is normally preceded by a mediation mechanism, which is used more often. In the case of the Canada arbitration mechanism, for example, three people—one from each side and one neutral—are appointed by agreement. It is a fall-back if agreement cannot be reached, and it is a simple arbitration mechanism. There is all the difference in the world between a simple arbitration mechanism and a Court that reaches into every nook and cranny of your society.

I very much thank the Secretary of State for the part that I know he played in securing the White Paper, which has been welcomed across the House and is good news. Will he now tell us when it might be published and how much time this place will have to debate it?

Of course, the decision to publish the White Paper was a decision solely of the Prime Minister, but it is nice to be able to agree with myself from six months ago. On the timing, the Prime Minister said yesterday that it would be published in due course. We will be as expeditious as we can, but it takes time. My right hon. Friend has been in government, and she knows that there is a procedure for these things and it takes time, but we will not waste time in producing it for the House.

I hope that the Secretary of State gets his voice back because he will need it over the next couple of weeks. Does he think that we should be able to see the White Paper before we consider legislation?

With respect to the hon. Gentleman, those are slightly separate issues. There will be lots of legislation. I assume—I will look at him to see whether he nods—that he is referring to the article 50 legislation.

He is. The article 50 legislation is about carrying out the will of the British people—the decision was taken on 23 June. There will be much more legislation after that, which will relate to policy and the maintenance of European law. There will be the great repeal Bill, but also other new primary legislation arising from all that. The White Paper will certainly be before all that and, as I said, I will be as expeditious as possible.

Mr Speaker, you will be aware of how helpful the House of Commons website is. It says:

“White Papers are policy documents produced by the Government that set out their proposals for future legislation.”

Given that article 50 is a significant piece of legislation and this House deserves to scrutinise it, will the Secretary of State commit to publishing the White Paper before the Committee stage—I will give him next week, but before the Committee stage?

As I said, we will be as expeditious as we can. However, I reiterate that article 50 legislation is about putting in place only the beginning of the procedure that was decided by the British people last year. That is not really conditional on the other policy aspects of this but, as I said, I will be as expeditious as I can.

In welcoming this decision, may I ask my right hon. Friend which, if any Select Committee Chairmen have expressed an interest in having the White Paper published with the intention of scrutinising it?

I am pretty sure that the Brexit Committee—I am looking at the Chairman, but he is not paying attention—expressed an interest, but I cannot think of any others.

I am concerned by some of the responses of the Secretary of State, who seemed to be bursting with enthusiasm for the White Paper. Now it seems that we may not get it as soon as we need it. Given the level of interest in the legislation and the amendments that will be tabled, we need the White Paper before the Committee stage of the Bill. Will he make sure that we get it?

How do you deal with an Opposition that will not take yes for an answer? I have said that we will deal with the White Paper and produce it as expeditiously—as quickly—as possible. What can you do faster than that?

Well, the Secretary of State can work as fast as he can I suppose, but we need the White Paper before the Committee stage. When we get it, will it be a cut-and-paste of the Prime Minister’s speech, or will we have assessments of the financial impact of different options on this country?

As I said at the beginning, the Prime Minister’s speech—one of the clearest expositions of national policy that I have heard in many years—answered all the questions that the Opposition and the Brexit Committee raised other than those that would actively undermine our negotiating position. The Opposition, of course, tabled a motion that said, “We will not undermine our negotiating position.” It is right that they expect us to obey the rules of the House, but they should do so, too.

Colleagues, may I point out that there are a lot of questions on the Order Paper that I am keen to reach, but exchanges at the moment are quite ponderous? We need to speed up a bit.

Support for Agriculture

4. What recent discussions he has had with farmers’ representatives on support for agriculture after the UK leaves the EU. (908394)

18. What recent discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues, as part of the preparations for the negotiations on the UK leaving the EU, on support for farmers. (908411)

We have an unprecedented opportunity to redesign our policies to ensure that our agricultural industry is competitive, productive and profitable and that our environment is protected for future generations. I regularly meet farmers’ representatives from all over the United Kingdom as well as my ministerial colleagues.

Does the Minister agree that, post-Brexit, there are two key priorities for agriculture? First, we need to devise a system of support for the rural economy that does not contain the current levels of EU bureaucracy, which is so expensive. If we achieve that, does he agree that we could then maintain the current levels of support for the rural economy?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. Once we have left the European Union, we will be able to redesign our policies to suit the needs of British agriculture. That should lead to a significant reduction in red tape and, as he rightly says, a significant reduction in costs.

In the Prime Minister’s speech last week, she failed to mention anything about the agricultural sector. When the Minister publishes the White Paper, will he guarantee that the farming, fisheries and agricultural sector is a key element of it, as the industry really needs assurances of support once we have left the EU?

I can assure the hon. Gentleman that the agricultural industry is indeed at the forefront of our calculations. As I said earlier, we consult regularly with the farming unions from all over the UK, including Wales, and indeed I will meet the Farmers Union of Wales on Saturday. Any suggestion that we are not listening to the farming industry is unfounded.

My right hon. Friend also makes an important point. The United Kingdom is noted throughout the world for its high standards of animal welfare and I have no doubt that the Government will wish to preserve that reputation in the forthcoming legislation.

Farmers are worried that crops will rot in the ground without a seasonal workers scheme. Will that be included in the promised White Paper?

The hon. Gentleman makes another important point. The farming industry is reliant, to a certain extent, on seasonal agricultural workers. As he knows, a seasonal agricultural workers scheme existed until fairly recently, and that is one of the models that the Government are considering.

Businesses: UK and EU

5. What assessment he has made of the potential effect of the UK leaving the EU on businesses in (a) the UK and (b) the EU. (908395)

Our Department, working with officials across government, continues to undertake a wide range of analysis, covering the entirety of the UK economy and our trading relationships with the EU. We are looking at more than 50 sectors, as well as cross-cutting regulatory issues. We want to ensure that British businesses have the maximum freedom to trade with and operate within European markets, and to let European businesses do the same in Britain. We believe a strong partnership and a good deal on market access are in the interests of both the UK and the EU.

While we will bring in more immigration controls, the ability for key sectors such as aerospace, health and financial services to bring in or relocate skills and talent from different countries is important to their success and our industrial and export strategy. What reassurances can my hon. Friend give such businesses?

I know that my hon. Friend is a champion for the aerospace businesses along the M5 corridor and helps them in his role as a global trade envoy for our Prime Minister. As she said, we want the UK

“to be a secure, prosperous and tolerant country—a magnet for international talent and home to the pioneers and innovators who will shape the world ahead.”

We will continue to attract the brightest and the best to work and study in Britain. Indeed, openness to international talent must remain one of this country’s most distinctive assets, but that has to be managed properly so that our immigration system serves the national interest.

14. What will the Minister do to ensure that research leaders from EU countries can continue to take positions at UK research institutions after we leave the EU? (908404)

The hon. Gentleman raises an important question and I have had a number of valuable meetings with the Minister for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation and the Higher Education Funding Council for England to address exactly that issue. We recognise the concerns of the sector and that we need to continue to focus on having an immigration system that attracts the brightest and the best.

I urge my hon. Friend to address the issue of incoming individuals and the controls as soon as possible because one of the big issues—which my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) has already touched on—is the concern about access to global talent. We need to reassure the City and others that the high added value, low volume numbers that come in are welcome: it is the low skilled who are using British benefits who are not very welcome.

My right hon. Friend is right about the importance of attracting global talent for key industries, such as our financial services sector and the FinTech industry, with which I met earlier this week.

Manufacturing companies in the aerospace and automotive sectors are worried about potential delays at the border and customs duties when we leave the EU. The Secretary of State, and the Prime Minister in her speech, suggested that associate membership of the customs union might be possible. Will the Minister confirm that, unless that associate membership covers most sectors of our economy, it will fall foul of World Trade Organisation rules?

The Prime Minister has talked about aiming for a frictionless system in which we can agree not to have tariffs or barriers, which is something we should all be aiming for in a new partnership between the UK and the EU.

In the light of the Prime Minister’s clear statement and the observations of my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr Duncan Smith), does the Minister believe that it might be sensible to set out, at an early date, the rules that will obtain for attracting high-quality and highly skilled talent into the UK?

In the light of the Prime Minister’s speech and her ambition to create stability and certainty through this process, the sooner we can come forward with those proposals, the better.

Far from being a clear exposition of policy, the Prime Minister’s appeal for a hybrid customs arrangement with Europe sadly raised far more questions than it answered. Will the forthcoming White Paper expand on her remarks and provide businesses across the country with the clarity that they need about how the alternative arrangements might affect them?

The Prime Minister’s statement has given welcome clarity to businesses and was welcomed by many business groups, but of course we expect the White Paper to set out more detail. We must also, however, protect our negotiating interests throughout the process, as the House has repeatedly instructed us to do.

Government Negotiations

6. What steps his Department is taking to ensure a flexible approach in the Government’s negotiations on the UK leaving the EU. (908396)

Flexibility is important in such complex negotiations, which will require imagination on both sides, and not everybody will be able to know everything at every stage. That is why we have to set out our strategic aim for a new partnership with the EU, encompassing a bold and ambitious trading relationship, and it is also why we will not get drawn into setting out every detail of our negotiating strategy or laying out red lines. Doing so would tie the Government’s hands and make it harder for us to achieve the right deal for the UK, which I presume is what everybody in the House wants.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr Lilley) reminded the House that article 50 requires the EU to take account of any future relationship that an independent Britain might have with it as we negotiate the declaration of our independence. Does my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State agree that as we negotiate our independence, we should also show generosity to the EU27 by continuing to offer them access to our market on a free trade basis?

My right hon. Friend is exactly right; we have made it clear that that is our intention. It is one of the reasons, I believe, why the Prime Minister’s speech has been received with such applause around the rest of Europe. I will quote, if I can find it—

In that case I will not quote it, Mr Speaker. The quote is rather long, so I will leave it. I simply say that I agree with my right hon. Friend.

The Secretary of State has repeatedly said that he can maintain flexibility and give the House a say through the great repeal Bill, but that only covers things in legislation. When will the House be able to consider the value of the EU agencies and the cost of setting up new UK ones?

That is precisely the sort of thing that might well come up in legislation. In dealing with these EU agencies, we will seek the best outcome in each case for the relevant sector. When doing so, we will of course talk to the House about the costs and benefits of various options, but we will do that when it is appropriate for the House to know, not while we are in the middle of the detailed negotiations.

In seeking a clean Brexit, we will want to be as flexible as possible in negotiating the continuation of our membership of a free trade area, but does the Secretary of State agree that such an agreement might not be forthcoming and that therefore we must be prepared for a situation in which some form of duties might be necessary? Does he also agree that it is perfectly possible in the modern era, with digital technology, to have the border as a part of the journey, rather than a hard border of old?

Given the constituency that my hon. Friend represents, he will know that better than most people. I understand exactly what he is getting at; he is absolutely right.

11. There will be a temptation for the Government to think that this is just about Government-to-Government conversations, but would it not be useful for them to look at this as a Parliament-to-Parliament negotiation as well, so that we might all start lobbying together to secure the best possible deal for this country? (908401)

I am not going to say definitely no to the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant); on the contrary. He knows my prejudices—I think that is probably the right word—but it is for Parliament to decide what Parliament wants to do. The essential responsibility for the negotiation is quite properly the Government’s, and the Opposition—indeed, everyone in the House—will hold us to account for that. Nevertheless, the hon. Gentleman is right that there is a role for Parliaments to talk to other Parliaments about the joint interests of their constituents, and in that respect he has my support.

Single Market Access

7. What his priorities are during negotiations on the UK leaving the EU on access to the EU single market. (908397)

As the Prime Minister said, an important part of the new strategic partnership that we seek with the European Union will be the pursuit of the greatest possible access to the single market on a fully reciprocal basis. Let there be no doubt that that will be a high priority in the negotiations. However, we believe that it is in the interests of both sides to secure it, and it is of course intended to benefit the people of Scotland. We want to get the right deal for the whole of the UK, including Scotland.

Exports to Norway from Aberdeen alone amounted to more than £750 million in 2015, and they are a vital part of anchoring the world-class supply chain in oil and gas. Will the Minister ensure that the oil and gas industry will be taken into account in this process, and that access will not be lost as a result of hard Tory Brexit?

The hon. Gentleman is right to raise the importance of the industry to his constituency, and indeed to the entire United Kingdom. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has held an energy roundtable with industry leaders who, of course, included oil and gas industry representatives. I look forward to visiting parts of the industry in Scotland in the coming weeks.

Does my hon. Friend agree that selling into the single market is far preferable to being a member of it, because it is a highly regulatory, bureaucratic mechanism on which 87% of British businesses—the British economy—are not reliant?

As ever, my hon. Friend makes his case very strongly. I believe that the best possible access to the single market for UK businesses, and to the UK market for European businesses, will be in all our interests.

I recently met representatives of a very important multinational manufacturing company that employs people in my constituency. They told me that they did not believe that the Government understood the concerns of industry about Brexit, and particularly about the customs union. Why does the Minister think that is?

The Government are engaging closely with businesses and industries throughout the whole country to ensure that we have taken on board their concerns, and to ensure that we know what opportunities they expect to gain from this process. Many of the business representatives whom I have been meeting are excited about the opportunities for the UK to go out and make trade deals, and trade around the world.

If my hon. Friend has not seen Professor Patrick Minford’s analysis of the liberating effect of escaping from the common external tariffs, I, as a former economics beak, am happy to give him 45 minutes on the subject.

The Secretary of State provided some clarity on his priorities for access to the single market in response to questions on Tuesday’s statement. He told the right hon. Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry) that he was seeking

“a comprehensive free trade agreement and a comprehensive customs agreement that will deliver the exact same benefits as we have”. —[Official Report, 24 January 2017; Vol. 620, c. 169.]

He meant the “exact same benefits” as those of being inside the single market. Will the Minister confirm that that is his Department’s negotiating position so that we can measure the Department’s success against it?

It is absolutely our position to secure the best possible market access, and, as we have repeatedly said, the ability for British businesses to trade with and within the single market.

Manufacturing Industry

8. What assessment he has made of the potential effect on the manufacturing industry of the UK leaving the EU single market. (908398)

The Department has been undertaking a thorough analysis of more than 50 business sectors. We have been speaking directly to manufacturers in, for instance, the automotive and chemical sectors in order to understand what they need from us so that they can continue to thrive after we have left the European Union.

I am glad to hear that that work is being done. Has the Minister established how many British manufacturing factories are in competition internally with other factories in France and Germany? Does he realise how catastrophic it would be for our manufacturing industry if there were tariffs on products made in the UK that factories in France and Germany did not have?

The hon. Gentleman is entirely right. Manufacturing industries are frequently highly integrated across the European Union, and the Prime Minister has made it clear that she seeks customs arrangements that will cater for that. We must bear in mind, however, that when we have left the European Union, the United Kingdom will be the biggest export market for the continuing EU, and it is therefore in our mutual interest to have proper customs arrangements.

Can my right hon. Friend confirm to manufacturers in Kettering that their prospects for future exports are far brighter outside the European Union because while we are a member, we are forbidden from entering international trade agreements of our own?

My hon. Friend is right to point that out. Once we have left the European Union, we will be in a position to strike free trade agreements around the world, which is precisely what the Department for International Trade is doing right now.

The agri-food manufacturing sector in Northern Ireland accounts for some 70,000 jobs and 3.25% of Northern Ireland’s gross value added, which equates to £1.1 billion at basic prices. Will the Minister outline what protection he intends to provide for this massive employer, and what support and advice has been offered in the interim?

The hon. Gentleman is right to point out the importance of the agri-food sector not only in Northern Ireland, but throughout the United Kingdom. We have engaged very closely with bodies such as the Food and Drink Federation. There are specific circumstances in Northern Ireland, and he will know that the Government are committed to ensuring that there is as little impact as possible on the sector in Northern Ireland.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that both Nissan and Jaguar Land Rover are planning for how their export market might well change if we have free trade agreements with India, China and the United States? Does he agree that they are right to say that this is an opportunity for manufacturing, not a disadvantage?

My hon. Friend is entirely right. Rather than talking down British manufacturing industry, we have a duty to point out the benefits that will flow from Brexit. There is a world out there and we should be seizing the opportunities.

My constituency was built on manufacturing and many Livingston companies rely on EU workers. What can the Minister do to assure me, the companies in my constituency and those workers that they will be able to stay and work in Livingston and Scotland?

The issue of EU residents in the UK—and, similarly, the issue of British residents in the continuing European Union—is one that we believe should be settled very early in the negotiations. I can tell the hon. Lady that I have already discussed this issue with ministerial counterparts, and they agree that it is a priority.

Higher Education Students and Staff

9. What discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Education on the implications of the UK leaving the EU for the free movement of higher education students and staff. (908399)

My Department is working closely with the Department for Education and engaging extensively with the higher education sector to understand its interests. A global Britain must also be a country that looks to the future. That means being one of the best places in the world for science and innovation. The UK will always welcome those with the skills and expertise to make our nation better still.

The universities sector is one of the largest contributors to our economy, so it needs to think very carefully about its post-Brexit position. Is there an appropriate point of contact for that sector, with significant staffing, so that it can feel confident that its issues will be dealt with?

Absolutely. Last week, my hon. Friend the Minister for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation and I joined with the universities sector to engage on precisely this issue. We were both delighted by the prominence that universities and science played in the Prime Minister’s speech.

I taught for many years in the universities sector before entering this House and saw at first hand the benefits that overseas students bring to our universities financially, culturally and socially. What assurances can the Minister give that overseas students will continue to come in the same numbers and more following Brexit?

I have been absolutely clear that we should continue to welcome the brightest and the best to the UK. The UK is, and will continue to be, a great place to study. UK universities are home to world-class teaching and innovative research, which are carried out in some of the most intellectually and culturally diverse academic environments in the world. We have four universities in the top 10 and 18 in the top 100.  I will be visiting the highest ranked university in the world tomorrow.

Given that migration and visa issues will be close to the heart of negotiations for any future trade deals with India, America, New Zealand and Australia, as well as the EU, can my hon. Friend give an assurance that a new British immigration policy will be sufficiently well developed and can command public support in time for those negotiations to begin in a meaningful way?

I absolutely agree with my right hon. Friend. This is a challenge for the whole of Government. We need to work across Whitehall with Departments such as the Home Office, the Treasury and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy to come up with the best possible immigration system for a global Britain.

Does the Minister have any plans to seek an accommodation with the Republic of Ireland to achieve reciprocal processes for staff and students who move backwards and forwards across the border?

We have made clear—not only during departmental questions, but in the Prime Minister’s speech—our absolute commitment to the common travel area with Ireland. It is vital that we continue to engage with Ireland on cross-border issues, including students and universities, and I am delighted that the Prime Minister will be meeting the Taoiseach next week.

EU Nationals: Residency Rights

10. If the Government will make it their policy to enable the Scottish Government to provide residency rights for EU nationals living in Scotland after the UK has left the EU. (908400)

We will make the status of EU nationals in the UK, and of UK nationals in the EU, a priority for the negotiations. I think that we can all agree that this is the right and fair thing to do. The Prime Minister has already set out that we tried to achieve an early agreement on this issue with our EU partners. We will continue to do so. We also want to ensure that our immigration framework operates in the best interests of all parts of the United Kingdom, and we are working closely with the devolved Administrations to achieve that. For example, the Joint Ministerial Committee, which I chair, carefully considered the Scottish Government’s paper “Scotland’s Place in Europe” last week. We have made it clear that we intend to protect the existing rights enjoyed by UK and Irish nationals when in the other state, and to maintain existing border arrangements provided by the common travel area. None the less, immigration is a reserved matter.

If the Government are not going to guarantee residency rights for EU nationals, may I ask what assessment have they made of the impact on the economy and public services of an exodus of EU nationals and the return of thousands of retired British immigrants?

We do not intend to pursue a policy that will lead to that. There is a real issue at the heart of this, but the process is not helped by the slightly holier than thou stance of the Scottish National party. Perhaps the House should be reminded of the words of Nicola Sturgeon during the independence referendum in 2014. She said:

“We have set down a robust and common sense position. There are 160,000 EU nationals from other states living in Scotland, including some in the Commonwealth Games city of Glasgow. If Scotland was outside Europe”—

after independence—

“they would lose the right to stay here.”

I will deal with the issue properly.

The Prime Minister will today meet an American President who champions torture and is proud to discriminate against Muslims. Does the Secretary of State agree that it is therefore even more important that this Government should send the strong moral message that goods and chattels are bargaining chips, but human beings are not? Will he confirm the residency rights of EU nationals?

The hon. Lady knows my stance on torture down the years—better than most, I suspect. The British Government’s stance on torture is very plain: we do not condone it and we do not agree with it in any circumstances whatever.

At a conference on Brexit in Berlin at the weekend, the uncertainty facing EU nationals who are resident in the UK was made very clear. The Prime Minister’s comments were immensely welcome. Would it be possible for this issue to be resolved as rapidly as possible in the negotiations?

The Prime Minister has made it plain that she has already tried to get agreement among all the member states. Most of them agree, but one or two of them do not, and we have to keep pressing, as we will, to resolve this as quickly as possible. I hope that EU nationals who are currently here will take heart from what we are saying. Our intention is to give them the guarantees that will also apply to British citizens abroad.

EU Clinical Trials Directives

12. If he will discuss with Cabinet colleagues the future of the provisions of the EU clinical trials directives after the UK leaves the EU. (908402)

The Prime Minister’s speech set out the negotiating priority to ensure that the UK is one of the best places in the world for science and innovation. As part of the negotiations, the Government will discuss with EU member states how best to continue co-operation in the field of clinical trials. In respect of the hon. Gentleman’s question, the UK successfully applied sustained pressure to reform the current directive in the best interests of patients and business. We will follow the EU rules until the point of exit, and those new rules will come into effect shortly. The great repeal Bill will convert EU law as it applies, including EU regulations, into domestic law on exit. If needs be, we can reform the regulations after that.

Given the harmful effect of EU directives on clinical trials and science in the UK, when the time comes to write our own rules will the Secretary of State undertake to listen to some of the clinical practitioners and scientists, not just the big corporate vested interests whose business model depends on having an army of lobbyists in Brussels?

The short answer is absolutely. The hon. Gentleman is right that the original clinical trials directive was a very poorly drafted piece of EU regulation that has certainly increased the burden of undertaking such trials and, if I remember correctly from my own constituency, particularly small trials. [Interruption.] Yes, and those are exactly the sort of people he is talking about. Their views will be taken very seriously in the new regime after leaving.

Since the referendum both the US biotech company Alnylam and GlaxoSmithKline have announced that they are making very substantial investments in the UK. Does my right hon. Friend agree that this demonstrates that, even after we leave the European Union, we will still be a very competitive place for biotech companies to do business?

My hon. Friend is exactly right. I recently went to see some of those biotech companies in Cambridge, and one of the problems with people who talk the country down and talk these industries down is that they underestimate the extent to which pharmaceuticals, life sciences, finance and software are fantastically powerful British industries in which we already have a huge critical mass of talent, which will continue into the future.

EU Nationals in the UK

13. What priority he plans to accord to the future status of EU nationals in the UK during negotiations on the UK leaving the EU. (908403)

The Prime Minister was clear in her speech that she wants to guarantee the status of EU citizens who are already in Britain and our nationals in the EU as early as she can. As I have said, she has already tried to get mutual agreement, and we will continue to try to get it.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that that answer is extremely welcome because there is genuine and widespread concern on this issue? What problems is he encountering with a few member states that are stopping a reciprocal agreement being arrived at now?

Truth be told, I am not 100% sure of the actual problems. In the run-in to these negotiations, the Commission and some member states have taken a very stern stance on no negotiation before notification, and they may think that such an agreement is trying to pre-empt that. That is not the intention; the intention is to act in the interests of European citizens, which after all should be the principal aim of the European Union.

Those problems notwithstanding, there are many talented people from the European Union who have made an enormous contribution to the economy and the cultural life of our country. Surely the right hon. Gentleman agrees that he does not need an agreement with other EU member states. There is going to be an agreement, and he would get a lot of good will from the public and from our partners across the European Union if he unilaterally made that commitment today.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for the tone in which he put his question, but we have a dual responsibility. We have a responsibility within our own country to maintain a high moral stand in what we do—I see this as a moral question—and, on the other hand, we also have a responsibility to our citizens abroad, and it is a legal responsibility as well as a moral one. We will get this resolved, and I give him an undertaking that we will resolve it as fast as we possibly can.

Trade Dispute Mechanisms

15. What assessment he has made, as part of his Department’s plans for negotiations on the UK leaving the EU, of the potential merits of different forms of trade dispute mechanisms with the EU. (908406)

We recognise that the large majority of trade agreements involve some form of dispute resolution or enforcement mechanism, and there are a range of models for dispute resolution mechanisms in international trade agreements. We have been clear that we will bring an end to the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice in the United Kingdom. The dispute resolution mechanisms adopted as part of our future trading relationship with the EU and other international parties will be a matter for negotiation.

The Prime Minister has said that she wants a comprehensive free trade agreement with the EU and that, in future, our laws will be interpreted by British judges in British courts, but every comprehensive free trade agreement has some sort of independent trade dispute resolution mechanism. Does the Secretary of State agree that this sort of inconsistency needs to be ironed out by rigorous parliamentary scrutiny of the Prime Minister’s plan?

It is not an inconsistency but a lack of understanding on the part of the Opposition. As I have said, there are a range of models and a large number of international trade agreements with arbitration mechanisms, but they are just that. They are agreed arbitration mechanisms; they are not mechanisms that bring the influence of the European Court into all parts of British society—that is what is going to be resolved by leaving the European Union.

Security Policy

16. What discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on ensuring future co-operation with the EU on security policy after the UK has left the EU. (908408)

Britain has played a key role in protecting Europe’s security, and the Prime Minister has been clear that we will continue to co-operate with our European partners on foreign and defence policy as we leave the European Union.

As we are a global player in counter-terrorism and law enforcement, does my right hon. Friend agree that both we and our EU partners have much to benefit from a co-operation agreement?

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. I discussed the issue with several of my European counterparts earlier this week. They fully understand the intelligence strength that Britain brings to the table, and they understand the value that we will be able to bring to the table after we leave the EU.

Does the Minister understand that parliamentarians across Europe are deeply worried about the knock-on effect of our leaving the EU on NATO’s stability and future? That is the truth. Forget about what is happening in the United States with the new President; will the Minister assure the House that this country’s commitment to NATO will be redoubled, not diminished?

We are absolutely committed to NATO, and I assure the House that that commitment will continue after Brexit.

Consulting Parliament

17. What the Government’s policy is on consulting Parliament on the final agreement on the UK leaving the EU. (908410)

As the Prime Minister said, we will put the final deals agreed between the UK and the EU to a vote in both Houses of Parliament. We have always said that we will observe the constitutional and legal obligations that apply to the final deal. As I have said many times, we will keep the House informed throughout the process.

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that both Houses of Parliament will have several opportunities to vote on a wide range of legislation determining substantial policy decisions as we exit the EU?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The article 50 Bill will be introduced imminently. A great repeal Bill is to be introduced in the next Session—an important piece of legislation that will ensure that all EU law is converted into UK law, including on issues such as workers’ rights and environmental regulations, which I would have thought would matter to the Opposition. There will be subsequent legislation on those and other issues. But that is just the beginning. Exiting the European Union will give this Parliament control of its own laws again. Decisions on policy will be taken here, not in the European Union, and we will be back to being a free country again.

Topical Questions

The Government will shortly introduce a straightforward Bill to enable us to trigger the EU exit mechanism. The question is not about whether we should leave—that decision was taken on 23 June—but about respecting the referendum result and doing what the majority of people in the country want: to get on with the job of making a success of our new position in the world. The Prime Minister has been clear about what she seeks to achieve and has set out a bold, ambitious plan to build a global Britain that the whole UK can get behind.

In the Prime Minister’s speech at Lancaster House on 17 January, she promised to

“put the preservation of our precious Union at the heart of everything we do.”

Given that we are told that this is a Union of equals, what formal role will be given to the devolved Administrations when the UK negotiates its new relationship with the EU?

The formal role is already in place. We have a Joint Ministerial Committee at which the Scottish Government is represented, and representatives from the Northern Ireland Executive and the Welsh Government also attend. We have had three meetings so far and have another meeting on Monday in Cardiff and another in early February. We are taking formally the papers submitted by the Scottish and Welsh Governments, and we will take them on board. The point that we have made throughout the process is that the negotiation is sophisticated and complex and will be difficult. It must be done under a single banner, but it will be done in a way that reflects and protects the interests of all parts of the United Kingdom.

T5. With the UK being a net importer of agricultural goods from the EU and the EU being the UK’s biggest agricultural market, what assurances can my right hon. Friend give to farmers that a key part of our negotiations will involve removing agricultural tariffs on both the UK and EU sides, which is in both our interests? (908384)

My hon. Friend is entirely right that there is significant two-way trade in agricultural products, and in food and drink products. I would imagine that it is just as much in the interests of the continuing EU as it is in the interests of the UK that sensible arrangements continue.

Now that we have a commitment to a White Paper, the role of Parliament in the article 50 process needs to be determined, which is why Labour will seek to table an amendment to the proposed article 50 Bill to require the Secretary of State to lay before the House periodic reports, at intervals of no less than two months, on the progress of the negotiations under article 50. Will the Secretary of State commit now to the principle of periodic reports? [Interruption.]

From behind me I hear, “Like he’s not going to do that.” The hon. and learned Gentleman says two months. Since September, over five months, I have made five statements in front of this House, participated in 10 debates, and appeared in front of a number of Select Committees. That process will continue. I suspect that two months will be a rather unambitious aim.

The role of Parliament at the end of the exercise will also be important. The Prime Minister has said that MPs will have a vote on the final agreement. Will the Secretary of State today state categorically that MPs in this House will have no less involvement in the process and no less a say over the final article 50 agreement than MEPs in the European Parliament?

The role of the MEPs will be somewhat limited and peripheral, in many respects. Mr Verhofstadt will be allowed at the treaty negotiations, but I do not think he will be making the decisions.

T7. British citizens in the EU and EU citizens in the United Kingdom make valuable contributions to the countries they live in. When some of them gave evidence to the Exiting the European Union Committee last week, they expressed great concern about three particular areas: pensions, health and the rights of children. Has the Minister or his colleagues been working on those issues with their counterparts across the European Union? (908386)

My hon. Friend makes an extremely important point. The interests of British residents in the continuing European Union are at the top of our agenda. In fact, only on Monday I had a discussion with representatives of British residents in Malta. He can be assured that we will continue to reflect the interests of British residents as the EU negotiations commence.

T3. Will the Government publish an impact assessment on the effect of leaving the single market on jobs and, conversely, the effect of the resulting skills shortage on key industries and the NHS? (908380)

These are certainly important matters and we are addressing them, but the hon. Lady will understand that we will not be publishing impact assessments that might be useful to those with whom we will be negotiating.

The seafood processing sector is vital to the local economy in the Cleethorpes constituency. Will the Minister assure me that its interests will be at the forefront of considerations during the Brexit negotiations? Will he meet business leaders from the sector to pass on his assurances?

My hon. Friend is entirely right that this is an important sector of the economy. Indeed, it may well be that I have already met those representatives, as we have been having extensive engagement with the agri-food industry.

T4. This week, the Health Secretary told us that Brexit would mean Britain leaving the European Medicines Agency. This move is likely to send Britain to the back of the queue for innovative new drugs, make regulation more complex and threaten jobs in the UK’s thriving pharmaceutical sector. Will the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union tell us why his Government have so readily given up our membership of this vital body? Will he explain the measures he will introduce to ensure that people across Britain will enjoy the same access to medicines as our European neighbours? (908383)

That is all very well, but the complete premise of the question is wrong. That is not what the Health Secretary said; he was misreported and misinterpreted. What I will say to the hon. Lady is this: what we will be doing is, first, putting the clinical safety of the British people at the front of the priority list, and then looking after the interests of British industry, particularly biosystems and life sciences, in which we are a world leader now and will continue to be after we leave.

As chair of the all-party group on rare, genetic and undiagnosed conditions, I know that the issue of clinical trials is a big one for patients, as they are concerned that exiting the EU will mean that nothing will replace those trials. Will my right hon. Friend assure the House and those patients that the trials will be replicated as soon as we leave the EU?

I can assure my hon. Friend that we are in extensive discussions with the biopharma industry on that particular issue, and those discussions will continue.

This week, the Kingdom of Fife is pleased to welcome almost 200 students from around the world who join very nearly 4,000 students from 137 countries at the University of St Andrews. When will that university be given absolute guarantees that nothing about Brexit will jeopardise its reputation as the most international of universities?

We need to engage with the university sector and work with it on a vision for a global Britain that continues to make the UK one of the most attractive places in the world for key talent to come.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has rightly been very clear that this Government will do nothing to damage our industries. I believe that leaving the European Union will be a good thing for our steel industry. This week, the all-party parliamentary group on steel and metal-related industries published its “2020 Vision” report. Would he like me to send a copy to him so that he can look at its recommendations as part of the ongoing policy debate?

The Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders reported today that car production is at a high, but that investment in car manufacturing is falling because of uncertainty over Brexit. How long will the current uncertainty undermine investment in the British economy?

We should absolutely welcome the fact that we have seen the highest level this century of car production and car exports from the UK. We continue to see key investments by the automotive industry, such as Jaguar Land Rover’s expansion in Coventry. We want to work with the industry to make sure that it has the best access to European markets, and indeed global markets, as we move ahead.

About 9 million Brits will visit France this year, and 15 million will visit Spain. In return, about 4.5 million French will visit the UK and about 2.5 million Spaniards. Will the Government be seeking visa-free travel for tourists across Europe post-Brexit, and in those negotiations will they be making it clear that it is very much in our European friends’ interests to do so?

My hon. Friend is right to highlight the importance of the two-way tourism industry in Europe. These are issues that we are considering, but I can assure him that our aim is for frictionless arrangements.

What settlement have the Government made with the Crown dependencies in their relationship with the EU via protocol 3? When we exit the European Union, does it mean that the Crown dependencies will also exit the customs union?

I met the Chief Ministers of Crown dependencies only yesterday as part of a formal process of ongoing meetings that we are holding to take their views into account. Following the Prime Minister’s speech, I also spoke to each Chief Minister, and they are very pleased with our direction of travel.

Higher education is one of the UK’s greatest exports. As we seek to grow our export markets post-Brexit, does the Minister agree that we need an approach that plays to our strengths and builds on them?

In response to an earlier question, the Secretary of State said that we needed both flexibility and imagination in tackling these complex negotiations. My manufacturing sector and my university want competence, and they are worried about the competence of the team sitting on that Government Front Bench to carry out the negotiations thoroughly.

I had better deal with this one.

Interestingly, if we look at the response around Europe to the Prime Minister’s speech about competence, we see, for example, that the Spanish Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, whom I saw only a couple of weeks ago, welcomed it widely and said that we had an eminently achievable aim in everybody’s interests.

In my constituency, we are lucky to see the excellent Airbus A400M as it flies from RAF Brize Norton. Does my right hon. Friend agree that this is an excellent example of defence co-operation between Britain and her European allies, and that such defence co-operation will continue when this country leaves the European Union?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I visited the Airbus factory in Bristol just before Christmas and saw the wonderful work that it is doing there. He is right to say that integrated manufacturing across Europe is important and I have no doubt that we will be putting in place arrangements to ensure that it continues.

An RAF Typhoon flown from my constituency and HMS St Albans have man-marked a rusting Russian aircraft carrier as it makes its journey of shame through the English channel on its way back from raids on Aleppo. Does that not demonstrate the important role that the United Kingdom must play after our exit in ensuring the defence and security of Europe as a whole?

My hon. Friend is right. Britain is a leading power in NATO and will continue to be after we leave the European Union.

Will my hon. Friend visit Dorset to speak to our businesses and hear their concerns, and also to discuss the manifold and great opportunities that Brexit will provide?

I would be delighted to do so. We are getting out and talking to businesses across the country. I look forward to visiting businesses in my hon. Friend’s constituency.


(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs if he will make a statement on the situation in Yemen, from a humanitarian perspective and on diplomatic efforts to end the conflict.

The UK supports the Saudi Arabian-led coalition military intervention, which came at the request of the legitimate President Hadi. We are clear, however, that military gains by the coalition and the Government of Yemen must be used to drive forward the political process. A political solution is the best way to bring long-term stability to Yemen and end the conflict.

The UK has played a leading role in diplomatic efforts, including bringing together key international actors to try to find a peaceful solution. This is known as the quad and involves the Foreign Ministers of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and the United States. Other Gulf Co-operation Council countries and the UN have also been involved. The first meeting was held in London in July 2016; it was one of the first acts of the Foreign Secretary. The last quad meeting was held in Riyadh on 18 December, and I attended. I last spoke to President Hadi on 15 January to discuss the importance of taking measures to prevent economic collapse.

We continue to strongly support the tireless efforts of the UN special envoy, Ismail Ahmed, to achieve a political settlement. We are providing over £1 million to his office to bolster the UN’s capacity to facilitate the peace process. He is due to brief the Security Council today in New York on the latest developments and the UN’s plan. Our ambassador to the UN, Matthew Rycroft, met him yesterday.

We share a deep concern for the humanitarian suffering of the people of Yemen, which we all have an obligation to alleviate. The UK is the fourth largest donor to Yemen, committing more than £100 million this year. Last year we helped more than 1.3 million Yemenis. Through the conflict, stability and security fund, we are funding: £700,000 for demining and clearing the explosive remnants of war; £400,000 for UN Women to support bringing women into the peace process and political dialogue; and £140,000 for other track II activities in support of the UN-led peace process.

Yemen is historically reliant on imports for more than 90% of its food and fuel needs. The Department for International Development is providing £1.4 million for the UN verification and inspection mechanism to speed up the clearance process for ships, so that food and fuel can get into the country more easily.

It is critical that all parties to the conflict renew their commitment to the cessation of hostilities, for the sake of the people of Yemen. All parties must engage constructively with the De-escalation and Co-ordination Committee, a mechanism created by the UN so that when incidents of concern are raised, they can be addressed effectively to reduce the likelihood of escalation.

I am grateful to the Minister for that statement. When the UN Security Council meets this afternoon, it will do so against a backdrop of heavy fighting in the Red sea ports of Mocha and Al Hudaydah and an increasingly dire humanitarian situation across the country. There are already 7 million people starving in Yemen. If those ports are destroyed or besieged, the delivery of vital aid that is required to avert famine in Yemen will become even more difficult.

The only way to prevent this unfolding humanitarian disaster from deteriorating even further is to agree an immediate ceasefire. Today’s meeting of the Security Council provides a key opportunity to bring that closer. The Scottish National party believes that the UK is in a unique position to be able to show positive international leadership in order to bring about a ceasefire. It is vital to the lives of millions of Yemenis that we do so.

I ask the Minister, therefore, will the UK Government commit to use today’s meeting of the Security Council to back a ceasefire and urge all conflict parties to protect women, boys, men and girls from all forms of conflict-related abuse and violence; to ensure that all conflict parties allow civilians safe and unhindered access to humanitarian assistance; to strongly condemn all violations of international humanitarian law and human rights law in Yemen; and to call for the establishment of an international, independent and impartial commission of inquiry to investigate them? Will the Government think once again on their own position and listen to Members across this House; and please consider halting all sales of arms to Saudi now, and in doing so, urge all Governments to follow suit?

Yet again, it is a tribute to this House that we discuss these important matters. There are so many challenges in the middle east and north Africa at the moment and Yemen sometimes tends to get buried or overshadowed by some of the other challenges that we face, so I am grateful to the hon. Lady for raising this matter, on which we also had a thorough debate last week.

The hon. Lady is right to draw attention to the work that is taking place at the United Nations Security Council today, where the UN envoy, Ismail Ahmed, will lay out his plans for what we expect and hope to achieve in 2017. We ended the year in a better place: the Houthis were minded to support the road map—although they have yet to come to the table—and President Hadi was looking more favourably on providing support in order to rejoin talks in Kuwait in the very near future. Key aspects of the road map still need to be ratified. Once that is done, we are in a process that will lead to that important cessation of hostilities.

I understand the hon. Lady’s desire to call for a ceasefire—a cessation of hostilities—immediately. We will see what comes out of today’s meeting and the United Nations, but I am absolutely in agreement with her that that is what we want to happen. Calling for it needs to work in conjunction with the art of the possible; otherwise it is just words. In order for us to ensure that any ceasefire will hold, we need to be able to say what happens if either side breaches the cessation of hostilities, which means there need to be some prior agreements in place. There need to be some confidence-building measures as the build-up to the call for a ceasefire.

I absolutely agree with the hon. Lady’s concerns about safe access. Humanitarian access to the country has been extremely limited, not least in respect of use of the ports, which we have discussed on many occasions. She yet again repeats her call for a UN independent commission of inquiry into some of the allegations on humanitarian and human rights law. In our previous debate on this matter, I stressed that it is the protocol for any country to conduct its own activities. I have said that if I feel that the reports that are due to come—and are slowly coming from a country that has never had to be pressed to write a report before—are deemed to be unworthy, unsuitable or miss the purpose for which they are being written, yes I will join with her and say that this should be moved to an independent examiner, possibly the United Nations, as well. But until we reach that point, I will continue to back Saudi Arabia conducting its own inquiries, in the same way as we do ourselves, and America does itself, not least when it hit the hospital in the north of Afghanistan.

The hon. Lady mentions arms sales. We have one of the most robust sales processes in the world. Each sale is conducted and scrutinised on its own basis. As we have said in the past, where we see ourselves at the moment is that we fully support the continued sales of arms to Saudi Arabia.

Order. Given the significant interest in the subject, I appeal for pithy questions and pithy replies. I call Bob Stewart.

Everyone in this House totally understands that a ceasefire is the only way ahead; and it is going to come. But it is only going to come when President Hadi and the Houthis agree it. I think the Minister will agree with me that when that happens, we will expect there to be breaches of it, but we must not break the ceasefire.

Order. Well, I suppose the Minister can invent a question mark at the end and then provide a sentence of reply—it was not a question but a statement. But can we have a brief sentence?

But he does make an important point, in that President Hadi is not the only stakeholder, nor are the Houthis: there are the Zaydis that do not support the Houthis, and there are the many tribes that do not support President Hadi. It is a complex country; we need to make sure that all the stakeholders are buying into the ceasefire, and that if there are breaches of the ceasefire, they can be reconciled without the whole ceasefire collapsing.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (Ms Ahmed-Sheikh) on securing this urgent question, and I agree with everything she said.

We need once again to ask the Government what they are doing to end the conflict in Yemen. The Minister talks about the need for a political solution. When is he going to present our resolution to the United Nations? When are we going to get proper investigations into alleged violations of international humanitarian law? Why are we continuing to sell Saudi Arabia the arms to wage this conflict? Ultimately, when are we going to bring the suffering of the people of Yemen to an end and then get to them the humanitarian aid that they need?

In every debate, every month, and now every year, we ask the same basic questions, and every time the Minister, whose name is now, I am afraid, synonymous with the Yemen conflict, stands there and gives us the same non-answers. We have had the same today, so let me simplify these things for him a little and ask him some plain, factual questions. First, did he read the excellent article on Tuesday for “Middle East Eye”, which was written by the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell)? If he did, can he tell us what in that analysis he disagrees with?

Secondly, and even more straightforwardly, questions on which we must get answers today: how many civilian deaths in total are involved in the 252 alleged violations of humanitarian law by the Saudi-led coalition, which the Ministry of Defence admitted today that it is tracking? Have any of them been the subject of one of the 13 reports that the coalition’s joint incidents assessment team has produced over the past nine months? If so, which ones? If not, why not?

Thirdly, does the Minister really think that Yemeni mothers who are today desperately scavenging for food for their children would agree with him that we ended 2016 in a better position than we started it in?

I think I answered many of those questions in my opening replies, but on the UN resolution, which the hon. Lady raises again, the UN special envoy is in New York today, so we will hear when it is appropriate for him to promote the resolution. It is likely, once we have confirmation from the parties that agree that, that they can confirm that the UN resolution is there to consolidate and legalise the process. So we will wait to hear an announcement today; I am sure that, by the end of the day, we will have a statement by the UN envoy himself.

Regarding the sales, I repeat what I said earlier: we have one of the most vigorous arms export licence schemes in the world. Export sales are subject to our consolidated EU and national arms export licensing criteria.

We are getting humanitarian aid into the country. The process is slow and cumbersome, but we are making a significant contribution to providing support to the people who are caught up in this awful conflict. The sooner the people of Yemen recognise that there is no military end to this, but that there must be a political solution, the sooner we can get even more aid into the country.

The Houthi rebels in Yemen enjoy the support and patronage of the Islamic Republic of Iran, which is the world’s most prominent state sponsor of terror, responsible for genocidal violence in Syria. What pressure is being brought to bear on the regime in Tehran to advance the cause of peace rather than to continue to glory in slaughter?

I visited Iran last week, and I was in Tehran. I raised a whole range of issues, including some of the regional matters. I made it very clear that not just Yemen but the wider region will benefit if this cold war that almost exists between Saudi Arabia and Iran were to thaw. If we can get the security right and have an understanding of where things should go in the future, the prosperity for the region will be huge, and not least the benefits for Yemen, because we will then see an end to this war.

Before the war, up to 70% of Yemen’s food supply came through Al Hudaydah port. What representations are the Government making to the Saudi-led coalition, urging them not to pursue a sea and air attack and instead to pursue a ceasefire?

I pay tribute to the work that the hon. Gentleman does on these matters, in which he takes a huge interest. He is right to highlight the importance of that port in gaining aid access to the country from the Red sea, further up, because the port of Aden cannot cope. The port is currently in Houthi hands, although the UN has access to part of it. The problem is that the cranes are not working. I have been in discussions with Oman, which has similar cranes that could perhaps be put there, and that would speed up the process of getting aid into the country.

Does the existence of the rebel Iranian-backed regime pose an existential threat to the stability of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the entire region?

If I understand my right hon. Friend’s question correctly, we have an indigenous stakeholder in the north of the country that is part of Yemen—they are part of the future of the country themselves—but they have attacked Saudi Arabia in the north. They have killed people and struck villages and so on, so the war has spilled beyond the borders of Yemen. That is all the more reason why we need to work towards a ceasefire and a political agreement.

Has the Minister seen and examined the reports of UK military personnel in Saudi Arabia? Do these reports justify his continuing support for the Saudis’ own investigation into breaches of humanitarian law? Can he give any explanation or succour as to why the Government are refusing to back the international and independent examination? Given that the Foreign Secretary himself has described this conflict as being in the nature of a proxy war, why do the Government persist in giving such unfailing support to Saudi Arabia?

We have a long historical, and close, relationship with Saudi Arabia, but I have been the first on many occasions to make it very clear that this is a country where the establishment are on the liberal wing of a conservative society. They are not used to having the limelight shone on them in this way. A sustained war, which, again, they do not have experience of, has exposed a number of absences of skills, which they have had to learn the hard way, one of which is going through proper investigations to show what happens when mistakes and errors are made. I agree with the right hon. Gentleman; I do not refuse to say that I will call for independent investigations. I am first asking Saudi Arabia to provide those reports itself, and if they are found wanting, then yes, I will stand with the right hon. Gentleman and ask for the United Nations to take on that role.

The Iranian Foreign Minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, said last week in Davos that he could see no reason why Iran and Saudi Arabia should have hostile policies towards each other. He went on to say that they should work together to end the miserable conditions of the people in Syria and Yemen. Does the Minister have any indication that this is a new initiative, because it would be very good news for the peace process?

My hon. Friend makes a very important wider point as to where the relationship between these two important countries in the region will go. I hope that we will endeavour to see a thawing of that cold war. Other countries such as Kuwait and Oman are looking at this to see what they can do to help—to see whether there is an ability to develop the communications that we need, to allow for a greater understanding so that mistakes cannot be made, and to improve security and prosperity for the region.

Can the Minister confirm that the Saudi-led coalition is operating in pursuance of a UN resolution, and that the conflict is fuelled particularly by the ambitions of Iran? Will he stress the UK’s very important security and defence relationship with Saudi Arabia and its importance to security, not only in the region but in our own country? Finally, can he confirm the enormous importance of Saudi Arabia to our world-beating aerospace industry and its skilled workforce?

The right hon. Gentleman raises some important points. The UN resolution gives legitimacy to Mr Hadi’s call for support by any means—I think those are the words that were used—which is why it was possible to put together the Saudi-led coalition to thwart the advance of the Houthis from the north of the country.

The right hon. Gentleman is also right to underline our important relationship with Saudi Arabia, which it values and we value. Saudi Arabia is learning the hard way, and making those steps has been difficult. It is better that we do as we are doing and take Saudi Arabia through the process than for it to join other countries that would not exert the same pressure concerning humanitarian issues, women’s rights and all the other aspects that we want it to move towards.

What discussions have my hon. Friend and his colleagues had with the UN Under-Secretary-General for humanitarian affairs, Stephen O’Brien? Have the United Kingdom Government agreed to meet any request that the United Nations has made in that respect?

The Minister of State for International Development, my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart) met Stephen O’Brien only a couple of weeks ago, and I meet our former colleague regularly. At the UN General Assembly in September last year, he co-chaired a meeting with the Secretary of State for International Development to raise funds, to ensure that other countries joined us in providing the finances necessary to give humanitarian support to Yemen. I pay a huge tribute to him and the work that he is doing in the United Nations.

Does the Minister agree that repeated violations of international humanitarian law would feed the humanitarian crisis in Yemen? The UK Government’s assurances that no such violations have been committed by the Saudi-led coalition are worthless when, in the Minister’s own words,

“neither the MOD nor the FCO reaches a conclusion as to whether or not an IHL violation has taken place in relation to each and every incident of potential concern that comes to its attention.”

I have mentioned that we had the Foreign Minister of Saudi Arabia come here and answer that question directly. Saudi Arabia has no interest in somehow bombing Yemen back into the past, and the storyline that some are trying to perpetuate is simply wrong. We are talking about an ally and a neighbour, and the two countries have a long combined history. It is in Saudi Arabia’s interest for Yemen to thrive and prosper, so the idea that Saudi Arabia would continue to want to bomb agricultural areas, schools or other such things for the sake of it is simply misleading.