House of Commons
Monday 13 March 2017
The House met at half-past Two o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
Service Family Accommodation
The provision of quality accommodation is at the heart of the armed forces covenant. Around 94% of UK service family accommodation is at decent homes standard or above. Only service family accommodation at those standards will be allocated to new occupants. Since April 2016, around 14,500 kitchens, bathrooms, roofs, doors and windows, and some 10,000 new boilers, have been installed.
I thank the Minister for that response, but the armed forces continuous attitude survey in 2016 showed a significant drop in satisfaction among those living in service family accommodation—there was a decrease of seven percentage points, to just 50%. Can he assure the House that a further drop in satisfaction will lead to urgent action by the Department?
I can, but equally I am confident that, after the Secretary of State’s intervention last year with CarillionAmey and the introduction of the get well plan, we have seen a significant improvement in satisfaction. That might not yet have filtered down into the survey, but recent stats show that the satisfaction rate on the service from CarillionAmey has risen from 40% to 61%. We take this matter very seriously, which is why I am keeping a close eye on it and am determined that the services standard should continue to improve.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on the progress that has been made on the CarillionAmey contract. However, does he agree that continuing to have service family accommodation—the patch, as it is affectionately called—is critical in providing a supportive arrangement for families when their loved ones are away on operations or indeed extended exercises?
What our families really want is choice and support, but I can say to my hon. Friend that only recently I visited Salisbury plain and saw in Tidworth, Larkhill and elsewhere some 1,000 brand- new service family accommodation homes being built, so we take the matter very seriously. I am confident that SFA, as it is referred to, will continue to be provided, and some of those homes really are of an absolute first-rate standard. However, this is about trying to support the modern lifestyle of our service families and the way in which they work.
As I say, it is all about choice. If the hon. Gentleman looks at that survey, he will see that the overwhelming number of young soldiers, sailors and airmen who are yet to be married support the model that we are proposing. We are yet to make any firm decisions. We have reduced the number of options to about seven, on which we are running a business case, but I will keep the House fully informed as we progress.
I welcome the Minister’s comments, but 40,000 members of the armed forces have still not been consulted on the future accommodation model. Among those who have, anxieties remain about whether SFA is still a real option for their families.
I refer back to my earlier comments. Only recently I visited Salisbury plain, where we are building 1,000 new SFA units of an excellent standard. SFA will remain an option, but it is clear that one size does not fit all and that, depending on where one is serving in the United Kingdom, various options will have to be available.
Last November, the National Audit Office reported:
“Poor accommodation for service families is also affecting the morale as well as the recruitment and retention of service personnel.”
In other words, the situation is deplorable. My concern is that only lip service is paid to those real worries. Surely to goodness, warm words and tinkering are not enough. Real action is needed. Why will not the Minister acknowledge that and introduce real improvements quickly?
I am really disappointed to hear the hon. Gentleman’s comments. Only last year, some £64 million was invested in service family accommodation. Next year, we will invest some £80 million in service family accommodation. Perhaps, rather than sitting on the green Benches in the Chamber, he would like to take up my offer to come to see some of the new build we are providing for our families on Salisbury plain.
I am waiting for the invitation.
Then here it is—so come rather than sitting on the green Benches and constantly carping.
When service personnel are on active service abroad, the last thing they need is problems with their domestic arrangements and accommodation at home, so will the Minister ensure that, when service personnel are on active deployment, the accommodation helpline works absolutely perfectly for their partners at home?
My hon. Friend makes a valuable point. The point at which spouses are overseas on deployment is absolutely the time when we must focus on offering support to their families. I will look very carefully at what he says.
Does the Minister agree that quality accommodation is central to satisfaction and retention rates, and does he therefore also agree that, having invested a large amount in service accommodation at Dale barracks in Chester, it would be a false economy to now close those barracks?
The driver, of course, for the better defence estate strategy is military capability, but it is important that we have good-quality accommodation. As the hon. Gentleman knows, units will be relocated in his part of the world, and we will look carefully at that.
I regularly discuss the need to reform NATO with my counterparts, including the new US Secretary of Defence, James Mattis, whom I met at the NATO defence ministerial meeting last month. We want NATO to become a genuinely adaptable alliance that is less bureaucratic, faster and better at making decisions, and able to respond more effectively to a wide range of threats, including cyber, hybrid, and international terrorism.
I thank the Secretary of State for his response. With NATO’s operation in Afghanistan still its most significant, will my right hon. Friend join me in paying tribute to all those who have served? Does he agree that this underlines that NATO has the capability to combat terror and that it will need to do that more?
We remember the service and sacrifice of those who fought terrorism in Afghanistan. Our long-term commitment as part of NATO’s Resolute Support mission remains crucial in helping to build the capacity of the Afghan security forces to defend their country. As my hon. Friend implies, it is NATO that has the mandate, the operational experience and the tools to help the fight against international terrorism, and we will continue to push NATO to do more in the middle east and north Africa.
When the Secretary of State had discussions with his US counterparts, did he talk about NATO’s capability to deal with any threat from Russia in the Baltics and elsewhere?
This is the year in which NATO is deploying its enhanced forward presence. I am proud that Britain is leading that deployment in Estonia. The first wave of our troops will leave for Estonia this week, and we will also be deploying in Poland and Romania. The best way to reassure our NATO allies and to deter any Russian aggression is for NATO to stand up.
It was made clear to us in a recent meeting of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly that NATO still has a lot of allies on the hill—on both sides of Congress. Does my right hon. Friend agree that we need to help them to continue to make their case by Europe stepping up to its commitment to spend at least 2% of GDP on defence?
Absolutely. We all made that commitment—the United States, ourselves and the rest of NATO—back at the Wales summit two and a half years ago. We meet the NATO spending target, and we continue to press our other allies to step up to the plate and do so, too.
May I push the Secretary of State to tell the House what the Americans are saying about what size NATO should be? That is about not just the percentage of GDP, but how big NATO should be, how that compares with the strength of the Russians, and what we would do if the Russians invaded across some of the countries of Europe.
There were three questions, to be responded to with the legendary pithiness of the Secretary of State.
The purpose of the alliance is defensive. Of course, the Americans want all its members to make a fairer contribution to its overall standing. The collective nature of our defence has been underlined by the fact that article 5 has been invoked only once before, in favour of the United States.
Armed Forces Covenant
The 2016 covenant annual report clearly demonstrates the progress that has been made since the covenant was enshrined in law. Today, I am pleased to announce a new initiative by the main broadband providers: personnel posted to a location not covered by their current provider can now cancel their broadband without incurring any additional fees. I thank BT, EE, Plusnet, TalkTalk, Sky and Virgin Media for their support.
Councillor McCarthy and Rochdale Council go above and beyond when it comes to delivering the armed forces covenant. This includes having a dedicated council officer—Caen Matthews, a former veteran himself—to ensure that those who fought for our country are properly looked after in our town. Will the Minister congratulate Rochdale Council on its success, and will he encourage other councils to follow suit?
I heartily congratulate all those at Rochdale Borough Council—and, indeed, the hon. Gentleman—and thank them for their efforts. They have introduced measures that make a real difference to the armed forces community, ranging from providing practical support to members of our ex-services community seeking social housing to the naming of streets in recognition of local armed forces heroes. I commend the council’s good example to colleagues across the country and wish it well with its continuing work in support of the covenant.
Some amazing work is undertaken by the British Legion and other charities in my constituency and across the UK, but the head of SSAFA, the Armed Forces Charity, has recently warned that the
“Armed Forces Covenant lacks bite”.
Many local authorities seem to feel that complying with the covenant is an option rather than an obligation. Will the Minister tell us what the Government are doing to reinforce the message of just how essential the covenant is?
I think that there is an acceptance across the House of just how important the covenant is, and I am delighted that every local authority in Great Britain and four in Northern Ireland—has now signed it. Last year, we sent out a survey to try to establish best practice, and we are now moving on to the next stage, in which we will look carefully at those local authorities and other organisations that are not doing what they said they would do, and encourage them to remedy that. Ultimately we could revoke the agreement with them, but I would like to think that we would never get to that stage.
Will the Minister say a bit more about the corporate covenant—the business element of the covenant through which many companies make contributions to help service families and personnel? There has been quite a lot of success in that area.
There has. As my right hon. Friend knows, we have now combined the community covenant and the corporate covenant into the armed forces covenant. I hope that some 1,500 businesses will have signed the covenant by later this week, and that is a testament to British business. It also illustrates the fact that this is a two-way deal, in that the skill sets that we give to our armed forces personnel will ultimately help our businesses as well.
Will the Minister please tell the House how the Department will spend the savings made through the cancellation of the e-bluey contract to improve communications for serving personnel?
Since its peak, the use of e-blueys has reduced by some 98%, meaning that an e-bluey can sometimes cost £17. The service will cease from 1 April, but all the money saved will be reinvested, and there is now nowhere overseas that does not have access to the internet. However, we are looking carefully at this to ensure that nobody will be disadvantaged when the new service is introduced.
During a recent sitting of the Defence Committee, I shared with the Minister correspondence from the then Health Minister for Northern Ireland, now the leader of Sinn Féin, who pointedly said:
“the Armed Forces Covenant is not in place here”.
What advice and guidance can the Minister give in the face of such intransigence?
We all understand that the armed forces covenant applies throughout the United Kingdom. I appreciate that there are specific challenges in Northern Ireland, and I have already said that I intend to make that a priority for this year. To that end, I shall be visiting Northern Ireland shortly.
In this year of the Royal Navy, the service is deployed at home and around the globe 365 days a year, protecting national interests and promoting our prosperity. Whether maintaining our continuous at-sea deterrent, providing reassurance to British overseas territories or conducting counter-piracy and counter-narcotics patrols, we will be there when we are needed.
Given that the Ministry of Defence has confirmed that Plymouth will be the centre for the Royal Marines, has my right hon. Friend considered base-porting all the Type 23s in Devonport?
We will look carefully at this as the new ships come on stream and as we spend £63 billion on the Royal Navy in the next few years. We will ensure that Devonport gets a very good look-in.
I am not sure whether the Minister mentioned this, but one of the Royal Navy’s key roles is to meet NATO commitments to protect not just this country but our allies. In that context, will he say whether the new Type 31 frigate will actually be able to meet those NATO commitments?
I am sure that, when the Type 23 frigate comes in, it certainly will—[Interruption.] Type 31; I apologise. We have extensive NATO commitments around the world: HMS Ocean is just returning from six months in the Gulf and will be in Gibraltar soon; and HMS Daring is down off the strait of Hormuz. As for HMS Dragon, I was woken in the early hours because one of our civilian yachts was in distress with a crew of 14, some of whom were injured, and that Type 45 sailed 500 miles to rescue them. That is exactly what our Navy is for.
We will have new frigates, new submarines, new aircraft carriers, new patrol vessels, and new aircraft to support them—£63 billion of expenditure in the year of the Navy and going forward.
The Royal Navy is at the forefront of tackling the migration crisis in the Mediterranean by training the Libyan coastguard. Is it now allowed to enter Libyan waters, as opposed to remaining in international waters, because that is the way to stop the people traffickers sending boats in the first place?
The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. That is exactly what we have been pressing for along with our coalition colleagues for some time. We have been training the coastguard, and we want to do more, but we cannot enter that area at the moment.
For some two decades, NATO’s focus has been largely land-based, particularly in Afghanistan, Iraq and other such hot and dusty places. However, we now acknowledge that the threat will increasingly come in the north Atlantic and Arctic, particularly with the reinvention of the Russian “Bastion” concept, and the Royal Navy and NATO will increasingly have to turn their attention back to that area of threat.
We would all agree that the Royal Navy is capable of doing exactly what we ask it to do. As we are now turning back to eastern Europe, which we thought we had turned away from, with our land and air defences, that is exactly what the Royal Navy will be doing elsewhere.
We have Royal Navy Astute-class submarines that are too slow to keep up with US carriers. We have no maritime patrol aircraft and await a contract to be signed. We are waiting for the Type 26 contract to be signed and there is also still no sign of the shipbuilding strategy. At a time when Russian incursions into our waters are at cold war levels, does the Minister agree that it is time for the Scottish people to take decisions on how to defend their country?
If the Scottish people want their armed forces to be run down and demoralised, they should listen to what the hon. Gentleman just said.
The Royal Navy has run EUNAVFOR Operation Atalanta successfully for many years. Does my right hon. Friend agree that we should continue to usefully co-operate with our European neighbours on such things after we leave the European Union?
We are leaving the European Union; we are not leaving Europe. We will continue to consider all the work that we can do with our European friends.
Last week, there were reports of increased activity in the number of ships moving unchecked through UK waters having deliberately deactivated their tracking system. On one occasion, a Cypriot ship called in at Algeria and then moored off the coast of Islay in my constituency. With that increased level of suspicious activity and Scotland’s proximity to the high north and Arctic, does the Minister believe that a sufficient number of large surface ships are based in Scotland to meet that threat?
The ships do not have to be based in Scotland—even though an extensive number of ships are based in Scotland—to protect Scotland and the United Kingdom. They are at sea, where they are doing exactly what they should be doing.
How can the Minister say that ships do not need to be based in Scotland to protect Scotland when the world’s hotspot is the high north and Arctic? Let me ask this again: does the Minister think that having no large Royal Navy surface ships based in Scotland is the best way to protect Scotland, and to meet our obligations to our Nordic neighbours and allies in the high north?
All our submarines, including those with the nuclear deterrent, which the Scottish National party wants to get rid of, are based in Scotland. Ships at sea is what we need, not ships hiding in ports.
Veterans: Civilian Workforce
The Department’s career transition partnership provides a robust and effective system to support service personnel entering the civilian workforce. The CTP provides one-to-one advice and guidance, and training and employment opportunities to about 15,000 service personnel each year.
It is entirely unacceptable that the unemployment rate for veterans should be a third higher than that for non-veterans. Service personnel have told me that they might find it difficult to translate their important experience on the battlefield into the softer skills that industry requires today, such as teamwork, management and communication skills. What is the Minister specifically doing to address that point?
I have no idea where the hon. Lady gets her facts from and I am slightly worried that we seem to be talking veterans down again. As a result of the CTP, some 85% of our service personnel find employment within six months—some 10% higher than the figure for the UK population as a whole.
Service leavers have been highly trained and possess highly transferable skills which add value to any company in the civilian world. What more can be done to ensure that civilian employers understand the value of former service personnel?
This is exactly where the armed forces covenant comes in and it shows why we must be so careful in this House when we seem determined sometimes to talk our veterans down. The sorts of skill sets that they can bring to civilian companies are very valuable, and this is something we absolutely enforce now that some 95% of our recruits join an apprenticeship scheme.
Our veterans are some of the most hard-working, dedicated and experienced men and women any employer could ask for, yet many of us have heard troubling stories of discrimination against former servicemen and women in the jobs market. Does the Minister agree with the Labour party that we should act to make discrimination against the forces community illegal, in order to protect our veterans and service personnel from any prejudice they may face?
I welcome the hon. Gentleman to the Dispatch Box, and could not agree more with his opening comments—perhaps he needs to educate some of his colleagues about that. This is precisely why we have the armed forces covenant. At this early stage, we are trying through that mechanism to ensure that the value of our veterans is fully understood by wider society.
NATO Spending Target
Ministers have regular discussions with international counterparts on NATO’s 2% of GDP spending target. It is important that all NATO allies meet the 2% commitment they made at the Wales summit in 2014.
Will the Minister name which NATO allies do not currently spend 2% of GDP on defence? What reasons or excuses have they given for that?
Subject to the constraints of brevity, Minister.
Listing the 23 that do not spend 2% would take too long, but I reassure my hon. Friend that the five that do meet the target are the United States, the UK, Poland, Greece and Estonia. I am sure he can deduce from that the absentees.
With the greatest respect, we think it is incredibly important that all NATO members, who share joint responsibility for the defence of the alliance, committed at the NATO conference in Wales in 2014 to spend 2% of GDP. We welcome the fact that eight further countries are now on a clear trajectory to meet that target, and Ministers from across all Departments continue to have discussions to encourage them to reach it.
I reassure my hon. Friend that there has been progress. Five countries now meet the 2% target, up from three in 2014; 10 countries now meet the 20% pledge on major equipment and research; and the cuts to defence spending overall have been halted. I am sure, though, that everyone would agree with the sentiment he expressed: we cannot reiterate too often that we hope everyone will reach the 2% pledge soon.
Last month, the International Institute for Strategic Studies concluded that the Government have in fact missed the 2% NATO defence spending target, and that they would have missed it by even more had they not included budgetary headings such as pensions, which do not contribute to our defence capabilities and were not included when Labour was in government. Is it not time that we went back to the criteria used for defence spending when the Labour party was in power so that we may give our armed forces the resources they need?
Well, honestly, I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman has read the Defence Committee’s report, which
“commends the UK Government’s commitment to UK defence and finds that its accounting criteria fall firmly within existing NATO guidelines”—
as does NATO itself. It would be worrying if we were to follow his party leader, who wants to see cuts to defence spending, the abandonment of our NATO allies and the scrapping of the nuclear deterrent.
May I helpfully suggest to the Minister that one way she could avoid these arguments about whether we have or have not scraped over the 2% line is to recognise that the last time we faced threats like those we face today was the 1980s, when we used to spend between 4.5% and 5% of GDP on defence? Let us settle for 3% so that we can avoid this sort of argument.
I appreciate my right hon. Friend’s campaign. We are proud of the fact that we are spending substantially more than the 2% target; that we have a growing defence budget for the first time in many years; and that we are on track to have a £178 billion equipment plan over the next decade.
Iraqi forces continue to make good progress against Daesh. East Mosul was freed in January; west Mosul operations are on track. Yesterday, RAF Typhoons supported the Iraqi forces in Mosul by demolishing a Daesh base. Syrian Democratic Forces are less than 10 km from Daesh’s stronghold in Raqqa, backed by RAF strikes, including one yesterday on a large Daesh headquarters.
Given the growing success in Iraq, will my right hon. Friend confirm that British forces and the coalition will continue to maintain pressure on Daesh in Syria and develop plans to liberate its other HQ in Raqqa?
Yes, we need to keep up the pressure on both. With coalition help, Syrian Democratic Forces are making good progress in operations to isolate Raqqa. Senior coalition officers, including some from the UK, are now working on how the coalition might best support the liberation of Raqqa. They are visiting coalition sites in northern Syria as needed to co-ordinate coalition support and to engage partner forces.
There have been recent reports from Iraq of mass graves being uncovered in territory formerly held by Daesh, including the discovery of 4,000 bodies at al-Khasfa, near Mosul. What support is the Ministry of Defence offering the Iraqi Government to ensure that the foul perpetrators are brought to justice swiftly?
Yes, in the counter-Daesh coalition we are working to see how we can accumulate the evidence so that those from Daesh who may have committed the most heinous of crimes can properly be brought to justice, either in Iraq or, indeed, elsewhere.
Will my right hon. Friend update the House on how the coalition is monitoring the dispersal of Daesh fighters from Iraq who may be moving to other theatres?
We work with other countries in the region to co-ordinate efforts to manage the threat posed by the dispersal of foreign fighters from Iraq and Syria. Around 30,000 to 40,000 extremists from around the world have travelled to Syria and Iraq since 2011. Many will be killed in combat or will relocate to other Daesh-held areas. Our current assessment is that a large-scale dispersal is unlikely.
Let me make it very clear that the Royal Air Force, in its precision air strikes, makes every effort to minimise the risk of civilian casualties. We work very closely with organisations such as Airwars. Where there are allegations that civilians have died as a result of coalition air strikes, we want those allegations fully investigated.
Will my right hon. Friend reassure the House that we are doing everything possible to help local indigenous forces on the ground with the liberation of Mosul and the defeat of Daesh, not only in relation to equipment and ammunition, but with regard to access to medical care, protective equipment such as helmets and body armour, and getting the right supplies and expertise for their wounded?
Let me give my hon. Friend that assurance. I am proud that British forces have trained nearly 40,000 Iraqi and Kurdish troops over the past couple of years. Much of that training has been devoted to reducing the number of casualties that those troops are likely to have to face in operations in the Euphrates river valley and operations to liberate Mosul, and is exactly along the lines that he suggests.
We have obviously seen significant success in Mosul in recent months, and I am sure that the whole House joins me in sending our prayers and gratitude to those serving in our forces, but can you tell us what lessons we are learning from our success in Mosul, so that we can apply them effectively to the battle in Raqqa?
I cannot, but hopefully the Secretary of State can.
I shall do my best, Mr Speaker. The campaign in Mosul is particularly complicated. West Mosul, in particular, is a very densely urban area—it is twice the density of east Mosul—so precision strikes in support of ground forces are all the more difficult for coalition aircraft, but as the campaign goes on, the use of precision air power and the training that the Iraqi forces have received make it more and more likely that they will, in the end, be successful, both in Iraq and, later on, in Syria.
What can be done to ensure that liberated Sunni communities can be embraced by the political economy of Iraq?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right that we need to stabilise these areas as quickly as possible—again, not simply by giving them access to essential services, but by encouraging a process of political reconciliation that ensures that in the Sunni areas, particularly in the Nineveh and Anbar provinces, the Sunnis feel that they have a sufficient stake in the future development of Iraq. I have made that point to the Prime Minister of Iraq and its President, and to the coalition commanders.
Have the UK Government received any requests from their allies in the fight against Daesh to deploy ground troops in and around Raqqa? Can the Secretary of State confirm that, if that request came in, Parliament would have an opportunity to vote on the matter?
I have been clear with the House that we are not committing combat troops to Syria. I referred to the presence there of some coalition commanders, who have been assessing the situation on the ground, but we are not committing combat troops to the fight in Syria, and if we were to do so, of course we would come back to Parliament.
Will my right hon. Friend confirm the importance that we place on our defence co-operation with the Egyptian Government, and pledge further support to Egypt as it seeks to contain the Daesh threat in north Africa and Sinai?
Yes, I can confirm that. I met General Hegazy, the chief of the defence staff of Egypt, on his recent visit to this country. Of course, Egypt has a big part to play in ensuring that the different factions and loyalties in Libya can be brought together for a political settlement in that country.
On my recent visit to Cyprus, I was privileged to meet the dedicated RAF crews who work night and day to keep up the fight against Daesh in Iraq and Syria. I am concerned that there is currently no specific medal to recognise the dedication and bravery of the servicemen and women on Operation Shader. In doing their duty, these men and women are protecting UK citizens from the threat posed by Daesh as well as defending civilians in the region. Will the Secretary of State now commit to recognising their service with a specific Operation Shader medal?
I am glad that the hon. Lady had a successful visit to our forces in Cyprus. I am sure that the whole House will join her in recognising and thanking our brave servicemen and women, who have contributed tirelessly to this campaign for more than two and a half years. The operational recognition board at our permanent joint headquarters is keeping the issue of the medal under review. As soon as a decision is made on the appropriate medallic recognition for Operation Shader, an announcement will be made to this House.
I thank the Secretary of State for his answer. It is heartening to see the real progress that is being made to liberate Mosul and the role that our forces are playing in that, and yet we know that it is only part of a wider campaign to eradicate Daesh in the region. As the focus will soon turn to Syria, where there are considerably greater challenges, will he tell us in greater detail what role he expects the RAF to play in the battle for Raqqa and other Daesh strongholds?
It is important to recognise that Daesh has lost a considerable amount of territory in Syria as well as in Iraq, not least due to the efforts of the coalition air operation in which the RAF is playing a major part in gathering intelligence and carrying out precision strikes, as recently as yesterday in the area immediately surrounding Raqqa. We will continue to play that part, providing precision air strikes, gathering intelligence from the air and doing what we can to ensure that Daesh is driven out of Syria, as I hope it will shortly be driven out of Iraq.
Royal Navy: UK Economic Interests
The 2015 national security strategy strengthens the historic role of the Royal Navy in promoting our national prosperity. Royal Navy ships are deployed today around the globe, from the Falklands to the Gulf and the Caribbean, supporting the UK’s economic interests.
I thank my hon. Friend for her answer. I believe that she was waving the flag for Britain and our exports with HMS Penzance in Abu Dhabi recently. Does she agree that it is about not just protecting our seaways, but waving the flag and promoting Britain and our exports, particularly those from the west midlands?
Indeed, I was delighted to be welcomed on board HMS Penzance in Abu Dhabi and to thank the crew for the valuable contribution they are making in mine counter-measures. The Royal Navy will deploy ships to various ports throughout 2017. Only last week, HMS Ocean visited Beirut where the ship acted as a showcase for British industry—indeed midlands industry—including Jaguar Land Rover and Aston Martin.
When the United Kingdom leaves the EU in two years’ time, our military commitments are likely to increase. Will my hon. Friend assure me that we will have enough Royal Navy ships to ensure that our commitments on our shores, on our trade routes, to our dependants and to NATO are met?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to highlight the importance of the Royal Navy. Of course, 2017 is the year of the Royal Navy as it prepares to welcome the new aircraft carriers, submarines, frigates, offshore patrol vessels and the aircrafts from which to fly.
Defence Estate Strategy
The Ministry of Defence is conducting a series of detailed assessments at affected sites, which is expected to take 12 to 18 months to complete. The assessments will more precisely define the exact moves, but good progress is being made.
When launching the reviews, Ministers said that they would release land for housing and boost local economies. What weight is the Minister giving to projects for affordable housing and other community projects in determining the price that is asked?
The disposal of land has to follow Treasury guidelines, but I am delighted that Angus Council has expressed an interest in purchasing the land at RM Condor in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency. I am equally delighted that progress will continue on Thursday, when Defence Infrastructure Organisation officials will meet council officials.
What consideration has been given to the use of the Ballykinler site in Northern Ireland for social housing or housing for veterans?
There have recently been discussions about the potential use of the accommodation at that site, and those discussions will continue.
The hon. Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham is, of course, also a doctor. That fact was erroneously not reflected on the Order Paper. I hope that will not happen again. I call Dr Caroline Johnson.
Cadet Units: State Schools
In 2015, the Government committed £50 million to increase the number of cadet units in the UK state school sector under the cadet expansion programme. This joint Ministry of Defence and Department for Education project targets areas of social and economic deprivation, and is on target to hit 500 cadet units in schools by 2020.
The Lincolnshire Army Cadet Force does valuable work with young people, particularly the Two Squadron detachment based in Sleaford. I am delighted that so many people in the county have the chance to become a cadet, but that is not the case everywhere. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that he will prioritise the approval of new units in areas where young people do not have the opportunity to become a cadet?
I declare an interest in that I was an air cadet and an Army cadet before I joined the armed forces many, many years ago. St George’s Academy—a comprehensive school—in my hon. Friend’s constituency has expressed an interest, and we hope to give the school an indication of whether that has been approved in the autumn.
Closure of MOD Sites
“A Better Defence Estate” is a military-led review. This estate optimisation strategy was developed in consultation with senior military officers to optimise defence infrastructure to better support military capability. The MOD has engaged with, and will continue to engage with, local authorities in order to maximise and enhance local economic development as well as value for money for defence.
“A Better Defence Estate” will result in more than 500 civilian and contractor jobs lost in York, where the local economy is already struggling with low wages and job losses. Why is the Minister not following joint service publication 507, which determines that an economic and social impact assessment has to take place first? Will he work across Government to ensure that we can secure jobs in York?
Let us be clear that the site the hon. Lady mentions is due for disposal in some 14 years’ time in 2031. We will be following all due process. The economic impact assessment is as much a useful document for the local authority to see what gaps there may be as a result of the estate being closed, so that we can work closely with the local authority to see how we can move forward.
Further to my meeting with the Minister last week regarding housing at Ballykinler Army camp, and further to the question of the hon. Member for South Antrim (Danny Kinahan), will the Minister detail the nature of the further discussions he mentioned? What detail will be provided to ensure that those houses are released to meet unmet housing need?
With respect to the hon. Lady, we discussed this in detail last week, so I will simply do as I said I would in that meeting and write to her in due course.
I have regular discussions with the Chancellor. The 2015 spending review set out spending plans for the remainder of this Parliament. The Chancellor confirmed last Wednesday that the Government are committed to growing the defence budget at 0.5% above inflation each year until 2020-21. We also have access to the joint security fund. With these commitments, the defence budget will rise from £35 billion this year to almost £40 billion by the end of this Parliament.
Why does the Government’s defence spending return to NATO include more than £1 billion of war and civilian pensions? These do not contribute to our defence and were not included under a Labour Government. Concern over these accounting tricks undermines confidence in our defence spending targets.
The return we make to NATO captures all the spending that falls to the defence budget, and it is for NATO to decide whether that return is properly completed. Indeed, a Committee of this House found that the
“accounting criteria fall firmly within existing NATO guidelines.”
As part of an ongoing programme, all land that is surplus to defence requirements is sold in accordance with the guidelines set by the Treasury. This release of sites supports the Department’s contribution to the Government’s public sector land release target to reduce the housing deficit or contribute to economic development.
I appreciate that some people will be concerned about the release of some MOD land, but does my hon. Friend agree that, for anyone who is anxious to have a home of their own or who needs new business premises, it often cannot come quickly enough?
Indeed. I would point the House to the recent sale of the Hullavington site, which I was delighted was bought by Sir James Dyson. While it may not be going directly to housing, it will become the Dyson global research and development hub, which will bring much-needed economic development to the area.
My priorities remain operations against Daesh and implementing our strategic defence review.
Last Thursday, Her Majesty the Queen unveiled a monument to the service and sacrifice of our armed forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. For too long, those troops faced false allegations made by Mr Phil Shiner, and my Department supplied evidence that finally saw him struck off last month. I am therefore now pleased to confirm that the Iraq Historic Allegations Team will close by the summer.
Does Sweden’s announcing that it plans on reintroducing conscription signal an awareness in countries such as Sweden that there is an increasing problem from Russia and elsewhere, and should that be translated into an argument for spending 2% of GDP on defence?
Well, yes. Europe faces a wide range of threats, including those from Russian aggression and international terrorism. European nations need the capabilities to respond and the funding to provide those capabilities. I reminded a meeting of EU Foreign and Defence Ministers last week of the importance of all of us who are members of NATO meeting that NATO spending target.
The outsourcing of public services frequently results in lower levels of staffing, less continuity, less training and less vetting. Given that the MOD Guard Service was set up in the wake of the 1989 bombing of the Royal Marines building at Deal, when 11 marines died, and that failures by a private security firm were identified, will the Government recognise the sensitivity of the work done by the MOD guards and abandon plans to privatise the service?
Let me make it clear to the hon. Lady that we are currently considering the options for the future provision of an effective unarmed guarding service throughout the United Kingdom, which, at the moment, is being provided by a multiplicity of different services. The aim is to achieve maximum value for money to ensure that we can focus resources on military capability, but security remains a priority, and no decisions will be made that would compromise the security of our personnel, our information or our physical assets.
This House has a long history of supporting our armed forces as they serve and protect our country and our allies. I am obviously disappointed that the Leader of the Opposition has described this week’s defensive deployments to Estonia and Poland as escalatory, and I hope the shadow Defence Secretary will take this opportunity to condemn those remarks today.
The best message we can send to that unit—I know the hon. Gentleman will do this with me—is that it is one of the best units in the British Army. I have visited it on operations literally around the world. We will support it all the way through. At the same time, we must get the best estates for the best parts of the Army.
Thirty-five years on, we not only continue but will enhance the protection of the Falkland Islands. I know that many colleagues from the House have visited the Falklands recently and seen the excellent work that our armed forces do far away from home. We will continue to support that with the Typhoons, the Rapier, and the other battalions that are there now.[Official Report, 14 March 2017, Vol. 623, c. 4MC.]
Of course we want UK steel to be used wherever possible. That is why last year we published the full pipeline of steel that we will need across the whole of Government. We work with our suppliers to encourage them to use British steel producers, where available, in that pipeline.
At Defence questions on 30 January, I asked the Minister how many people were currently working in defence procurement and what plans the Government have to reduce that number. She subsequently wrote to me to say that 11,500 people are currently working in procurement. Given that this equates to 149 people per ship in the Royal Navy, 14 people per aircraft in the Royal Air Force and one person per seven soldiers, will she now say what steps the Government are going to take to reduce this extremely large number?
I would like to emphasise to my hon. Friend that a lot of those people will in fact be uniformed. What often happens is that they rotate through the teams that are involved in procurement because there is no one better than our uniformed personnel to decide on the requirements that are needed. However, he is absolutely right that they are not immune to the need, across the whole of defence, to continue to find ways to spend more efficiently.
Yet again Scottish National party Members want to run down the Royal Navy and the fantastic work it is doing. What is important is whether the Navy is there and whether our submarines are there. They are, and this is exactly what the Navy will be expected to do.
HMS Queen Elizabeth and HMS Prince of Wales, the two largest warships ever procured for the Royal Navy, are currently being built and fitted out in Scotland. As Scotland is much in the news today, will the Secretary of State take this opportunity to remind the House of the great defence benefits there are in Scotland remaining part of our United Kingdom?
Yes. I visited both carriers last week. This will be a huge asset for the Royal Navy and for this country. Let us be very clear: Scotland is getting all the Royal Navy’s submarines, a major Army base is growing at Leuchars, and there is huge investment at Lossiemouth with an additional Typhoon squadron and the deployment of our new maritime patrol aircraft. Scotland plays a huge part in the defence of the United Kingdom.
I am pleased to say that we remain ahead of target in recruiting our reserves. The key to retention—I declare my hand as a serving reservist—is to make sure that we continue to offer interesting and exciting opportunities and training in the reserves, and we aim to do that.
The Saudi-led Islamic military alliance to defeat Daesh has grown from 34 to 40 members. The role of Islamic countries in defeating Daesh, especially its poisonous ideology, is absolutely key. What update does my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State have from the Saudis on the progress made by the Saudi coalition?
We welcome the role that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has taken in leading the effort to discredit the so-called ideology of Daesh. We, too, are leading work on strategic communications, and we recently hosted the very latest coalition conference, which brings together all our international efforts. I am particularly pleased that this campaign is being strengthened by the commitment of Saudi Arabia to rid this religion of its appalling extremism.
We are committed to building Type 26 frigates, and that forms part of the pipeline of defence procurement where we are going to need steel. Our main supplier is running a competition in which I believe five UK firms are participating.
Did Ministers see the evidence given to the Select Committee on Defence last Tuesday by four eminent professors of law, indicating that there is no legal reason why a statute of limitations cannot be brought forward to prevent the hounding of our service personnel for pre-Belfast-agreement-related matters? Will Ministers work with the Committee by giving evidence to us that might enable such a statute to be brought forward?
We have indeed been following the proceedings of my right hon. Friend’s Committee with close interest. We want any legacy investigations in Northern Ireland to be fair, balanced and proportionate, given that 90% of the deaths there were caused by terrorists, not by members of the security forces. We would also not want to see cases reopened unless there is new and credible evidence to do so.
No, which is precisely why we invested £60 million last year and will invest £84 million this year to ensure that our service personnel’s accommodation is very good. It is also why service personnel are not allowed to go into any new service family accommodation home that does not meet the decent homes standard.
Carterton in my constituency has a large amount of Royal Air Force housing and land that will be available for much-needed housing. Will the Minister agree to meet me to discuss ways in which the land can be released for that urgently needed housing?
I would be delighted to do so.
What discussions has the Defence Secretary had with the US Government about the announcement over the weekend of the deployment of hundreds of US marines to northern Syria, what their purpose is and what co-operation will take place between us and the Americans with respect to that deployment?
I reviewed the campaign in Syria with the United States Defence Secretary at our meeting in Brussels a couple of weeks ago. We are not deploying combat troops to this particular campaign in Syria, but the United States is committing more support forces and working as part of the international coalition to ensure that the Syrian Democratic Forces have all the assistance and advice they need.
Will the Secretary of State confirm that the deep maintenance and repair of the engines of all British F-35 fighters will be done in Turkey, and what, if any, security issues arise from this rather strange decision?
I will follow this up with the hon. Gentleman, but I can confirm—I am sure he shares my delight—that north Wales has been selected for the global hub outside the US for all the maintenance and repair of the avionics.
The Secretary of State will have seen reports of armed drones operated from RAF Waddington with a kill list targeting UK citizens. If those reports are right, what happened to the commitment to come to the House at the earliest opportunity if lethal force was used in self-defence, and does the kill list extend beyond geographical areas where military action has been authorised by this House?
Let me just make it clear to the hon. Lady and to the House that those involved in supporting Daesh in Iraq and in Syria are certainly liable to be killed by coalition forces, and those who pose a very direct threat to this country are also likely, if there is no other way of forestalling that threat, to be targeted.
According to the National Audit Office, even if the defence estate strategy was implemented in full, we would still have an £8.5 billion budget shortfall caused by the deterioration of the estate. Is the strategy fit for purpose?
The strategy is absolutely fit for purpose, and it is based on delivering military capability. Reducing the estate by some 30% means that we have less estate to look after, and that we can reinvest some £4 billion over the next 20 years.[Official Report, 16 March 2017, Vol. 623, c. 8MC.]
Order. We must move on.
Before I take points of order, I am pleased to inform the House that we are being visited today by the Catholic Archbishop of Yangon in Burma, a country with which, as colleagues will know, we have a programme of parliamentary capacity building. It is a delight to see Cardinal Charles Bo viewing our proceedings today. It is the second time he has come in recent months—he clearly cannot get enough of us—and I am sure colleagues will want to impress the great man with the decency of their behaviour.
Points of Order
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I seek your guidance about the convention that Members should notify each other when they visit their constituencies. On the way to my surgery on Saturday morning, I came out of Hillhead subway station and met a bunch of very drookit-looking Labour supporters, and when I asked them whether they were waiting for someone special, they said no. However, at the end of my surgery, I read on social media that the right hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn), the leader of Her Majesty’s loyal Opposition, had in fact visited that street and undertaken a walkabout. I had received absolutely no notification of that. I understand that an email was sent to my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss), but he was not in Glasgow Central.
I am enormously grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his point of order. The details of the particular tribulations that afflicted him in the course of an obviously very busy and hectic weekend are of grave concern to the hon. Gentleman, but possibly not to every Member of the House in equal measure. There is a convention that Members should notify each other of their intention to visit their constituencies, and he is perfectly justified in drawing attention to it, although I am not entirely sure that his timing in doing so at this point was perfect.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. On 11 March, the UN declared that the world faces the largest humanitarian crisis since 1945. More than 20 million people in South Sudan, north-east Nigeria, Somalia and Yemen face famine and starvation. Without a collective global effort, people will simply starve to death. My question to you is: have you received notice from the Secretary of State for International Development of when a written or oral statement will be made in the House so that we can discuss this urgent matter?
The short answer is no. I have received no indication of any intention on the part of the Secretary of State for International Development or one of her Ministers that they wish to come to the House to communicate on this subject. However, I am sure the hon. Lady’s point will have been heard by those on the Treasury Bench on what, as she says, is an extremely important and very pressing matter. No doubt she will use her ingenuity in the coming days and weeks to find ways in which to ventilate the subject.
Reproductive Health (Access to Terminations)
Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)
I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to regulate the termination of pregnancies by medical practitioners and to repeal certain criminal offences relating to such terminations; and for connected purposes.
In England and Wales, women have a legal route to an abortion through the Abortion Act 1967, introduced by David Steel as a private Member’s Bill, but 50 years on it is right that the House has the chance to address one fundamental issue that the Act did not address. Abortion remains a criminal offence in this country, even if it is carried out early in the term, for the woman who has the abortion and anyone who assists her. Under sections 58 and 59 of the Offences Against the Persons Act 1861 and other legislation, termination of a pregnancy carries the maximum sentence of life imprisonment. That is the harshest criminal penalty of any country in Europe, underpinned by a Victorian criminal law passed before women even had the right to vote, let alone sit in this place.
The Abortion Act 1967 did not change the fundamental fact: it merely set out circumstances under which abortion could be legal—for example, the need for two doctors’ signatures that specified conditions have been met, including a time limit now set at 24 weeks and, in exceptional circumstances, the conditions for abortions post-24 weeks. Unlike in other countries, that means that abortion remains illegal except in the limited circumstances in the Act. No other medical procedure is governed by legislation that old or that out of step with clinical developments and changing attitudes.
I want the House to reflect on the following comments from women who have sought help from online organisations to buy abortion tablets—something that no one would have imagined in 1967, let alone 1861—as, in so doing, they are committing criminal offences under the 1861 Act. The first woman says:
“I live in rural England and have no friends and the relatives I have I am not close to. I was hoping to have a termination in the comfort of my own home without judgmental eyes and without worrying about my husband knowing. I fear what would happen if he did. I have 3 children and my 3rd is 11 months old. I considered an abortion when he was conceived and had a terrible pregnancy and am still suffering from post natal depression. I will try to seek help, anonymously if possible. I’m in great need of help.”
Another woman says:
“I have visited my GP last week and he referred me to my local NHS service. They can only offer me a medical abortion with three visits to the hospital on separate days. On the second visit I am expected to stay there all day. I work full time and have two young sons so getting all that time off and childcare is going to be very difficult, probably impossible.”
Dr Rebecca Gomperts, the director of Women on Web, said about English women seeking help online:
“Yes, we get them all the time. We had an Islamic girl forbidden from leaving the house without a chaperone. How is she going to get to an abortion clinic? She can’t. For her, her only option might be that she could get the medicine sent to her by post.”
Due to the accessibility of medication now available online, women are more than ever before at risk of breaking the law, and a few prosecutions have already happened. I wonder if any of us truly believe that those women, in such difficult circumstances, really should be seen as criminals. Let me be clear that decriminalisation will not mean deregulation. Parliament can decide to retain existing safeguards within a decriminalised environment, including the existing time limit of 24 weeks. Abortion would remain subject to the same complex mass of general, criminal, civil, administrative and other legal provisions that govern all medical procedures.
I ask that hon. Members also consider the fact that Poland, a traditionally Catholic country, does not criminalise women for having an abortion, and even the United States has not criminalised women for having an abortion since the Supreme Court judgment in 1973. When the current US President suggested last year that women should be punished for having abortions, he was forced to backtrack after the public outcry.
In proposing the Bill, I want to thank the many individuals and organisations that have helped me along the way, including the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, Abortion Rights and, particularly, Professor Sally Sheldon at the University of Kent law school.
I want to address specifically the concerns about decriminalisation. I want to be clear about what this Bill will and will not do. First, decriminalisation will not make it easier to access abortions post-24 weeks. Under the 1967 Act, abortions beyond 24 weeks are allowed only in exceptional circumstances—if, for example, the mother’s life is at risk. The decriminalisation can apply these exact same conditions, and we know from countries that have already decriminalised, such as Canada and parts of Australia, that there is no evidence of an increase in late-term abortions.
Secondly, decriminalisation will not lead to a free-for-all with unlicensed practitioners providing abortions; as now, there will be strict regulation and licensing of health professionals. For example, both of the pills most commonly used in medical abortions are prescription only. That means they are covered under the Human Medicines Regulations 2012, which make it illegal to supply such drugs without a prescription. So with decriminalisation, Parliament would need to have an evidence-based debate about what kind of abortion provision up to 24 weeks would be in the best interests of women and agree appropriate safeguards.
Finally, decriminalisation will not permit gender-selective or non-consensual abortions. Some opponents of decriminalisation argue that the only way we can restrict these practices is to apply criminal law to everyone. I hope that hon. Members will appreciate that it is well within the capacity of this House to find a better way forward that does not criminalise all women and all practitioners. Let me be clear that under current law, women cannot obtain an abortion on grounds of the gender of the child. With decriminalisation, professional bodies that are best placed to take action can continue to prohibit this as a ground for abortion. It is worth pointing out that the current law does nothing about those who try to coerce women in those circumstances. On the issue of non-consensual abortions, such as when a man assaults a pregnant woman, these would continue to be criminalised under other laws such as grievous bodily harm.
Now that all these potential objections are addressed, hon. Members can be left to ask themselves the fundamental question that gets to the heart of what my Bill is about: should abortion be an inherently criminal act, punishable by up to life imprisonment? In asking themselves this question, I hope hon. Members will bear in mind the vulnerable women who are ill served by our current laws and whether their care is now being compromised. There is also evidence that doctors are thinking twice about practising in this area of women’s healthcare because of the threat of criminalisation. We do not use these laws for any other medical practices, so why do we do it for abortion? This is one of the many reasons why a range of expert groups, including the Royal College of Midwives and the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, support decriminalisation.
I hope that hon. Members will, like me, conclude that the criminalisation of abortion suits nobody. Women are poorly served by laws that state that even early-term abortions are inherently criminal, and doctors are poorly served by a criminal framework that does not apply to other areas of healthcare. We should create an environment in which the stigma of the criminal law is removed and in which women can come forward for advice and high-quality, woman-centred healthcare as early as possible in a pregnancy. I hope that hon. Members will join me in saying that in England and Wales in the 21st century, abortion should no longer be considered a criminal offence, and that the 1861 Act is now obsolete and no longer fit for purpose in this century.
In closing, I would like to repeat an observation on decriminalisation, which has, as I stated earlier, taken place in some Australian states. The quotation is this: the decriminalisation has resulted in
“a profound shift in the relationship between the state and its female citizens. It changes both nothing and everything. Nothing, because the number, rate and incidence of abortion will not change. And everything, because for the first time women will be recognised as the authors of our own lives. With that comes our full citizenship.”
Ten minutes is too short a time to cover the many and serious issues surrounding the premise, content and implications of this Bill. In the time available, I will outline some of the central problems with it. Far from being progressive, the Bill would be a charter for unsafe abortion practices, not dissimilar to the back-street abortions that the Abortion Act 1967 was supposedly meant to end.
I thank the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson) for giving the House an opportunity to debate, briefly, an important area of policy. Too often today, debates about abortion—about the risks involved and the rights of the unborn child—are shut down; but I, and many colleagues who share my views, will not be silenced as we seek to be a voice for the voiceless, and as we argue for more modern and humane abortion law that upholds not only the dignity and rights of women but the dignity and rights of the unborn child.
I am against the Bill first because it is based on the false premise that women who seek ordinary abortions are living under the constant shadow of arrest. That is clearly not the case. The rhetoric surrounding the Bill may alarm Members, but let us look at the actual facts. Abortion is widely available under the terms of the Abortion Act. Prosecutions are exceptionally rare—in many years there have been none at all—and in the past two years there were just two convictions, both of them in extreme and disturbing scenarios. One involved a man who had attacked a pregnant woman and caused her to miscarry. That prosecution is an example of the current law seeking to stand up for a woman and punish someone who has committed a terrible crime against her and her unborn child. The Bill may make it harder to prosecute that man in the future. What an unjust and regressive change—[Interruption.]
Order. The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson) was heard with courtesy. The hon. Member for Lewes (Maria Caulfield) must also be heard, and with equal courtesy.
Thank you, Mr Speaker.
The hon. Lady cited the possibility of the growing availability of abortion pills as a reason to seek to liberalise the law, but if availability is increasing, that should motivate greater concern for women’s safety and health, and make us more wary of further liberalisation of the law. Abortion is still a major and often risky procedure for the woman involved. If abortion pills can be so easily bought over the internet—perhaps by an abusive boyfriend or husband—that should lead us to take steps to protect young and vulnerable women from those potentially dangerous products.
Take the young teenager, terrified to discover that she is pregnant, who googles “abortion pills” online. What she needs are not fewer legal safeguards but support and information, which the Bill would take away. By repealing sections 58 and 59 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861, on the basis of which the Abortion Act was constructed, it would make the Abortion Act, with its safeguards, obsolete and unenforceable. It would leave that young teenage girl less safe.
Take, for example, the requirement that two doctors must certify an abortion, which the Bill would remove. For a woman deciding what to do following an unplanned pregnancy, those conversations with a doctor can be important and safe opportunities to discuss the situation, and to make more informed decisions about the medical options and risks of a major and invasive procedure. What is more, they can give a woman in an abusive relationship what may be her only chance to speak to someone about the pressure that she has been put under to abort a child whom she may want to keep. Why should we take that opportunity away from women?
The campaign behind the Bill claims “We Trust Women”, but polling in 2014 showed that 92% of women believed that a pregnant woman should always be seen in person by a qualified doctor. Far from trusting women, the campaign seeks to change a central aspect of abortion provision in the United Kingdom, in direct opposition to the vast majority of British women’s views. Proponents of the Bill claim to be pro-choice, but, as has been the case again and again in recent years, they seem to be firmly against helping women to make informed choices. Regardless of the issue and regardless of the facts, the only answer that they have is to liberalise the law.
This Bill would not protect women. Instead, it would embolden those men who pressurise women into abortions that they do not wish to have. Whether it is a controlling relationship or wider communal discrimination and pressure that tell a woman that she must abort a child because it is a girl, because it has Down’s syndrome or because it has a disability, the Bill would make such women more vulnerable. One professor of medical law and ethics wrote to MPs last week saying that
“if section 58 were to be repealed, it is far from obvious that even the surreptitious administration of abortion pills to women would necessarily continue to constitute an offence.”
Indeed, by undermining all the safeguards and regulations on abortion up to 24 weeks, the Bill would become a charter for extreme abortion practices such as sex-selective abortions. Polling among women shows that 88% favour an explicit ban on sex-selective abortion, yet many of the organisations behind the Bill oppose that ban and the hon. Lady herself voted against a ban in 2015. So much for trusting women. One of the models mentioned today points to a Canadian law that has, according to the Canadian Medical Association Journal, turned Canada into
“a haven for parents who would terminate female fetuses in favour of having sons”.
Another model was mentioned—the law in Victoria, Australia, which has led to a reported 600% increase in late-term abortions in one hospital in just a two-year period. Is that something to celebrate or copy? Many UK midwives have spoken out against the Bill, with thousands joining the Not In Our Name campaign to stop it becoming law.
That brings me to the current state of the abortion industry in the UK. I am amazed that the Bill’s backers, including private abortion providers, have the gall to propose these changes, which would remove regulations at a time when the UK abortion industry is knee-deep in revelations of unethical, unsafe and unprofessional practices. In recent years, we have seen doctors pre-signing bulk abortion forms and offering sex-selective abortions. We have seen live babies being left to die following abortions that have gone wrong. We have seen children aborted just for possessing minor disabilities such as a cleft palate or a club foot. Last year, the Care Quality Commission had to step in to protect women from potential harm at Marie Stopes abortion facilities. The CQC’s subsequent report showed that women were left at risk of infection, staff were not trained in how to respond to deteriorating patients and post-surgery checks were completed before surgery had even started. Only last week, another exposé of Marie Stopes International revealed that abortions were being approved on the basis of telephone calls as short as 22 seconds with medically untrained call centre workers. No wonder these abortion providers are calling for a Bill that would get rid of the regulations and safeguards in the Abortion Act.
The Bill is a response to a non-existent threat. It would exacerbate the dangers posed by increased availability of abortion pills and it would remove some of the few protections and regulations in abortion law, fuelling unethical and unsafe practices in many UK abortion clinics and leaving women less safe and less informed.
A 21st-century approach to this area must be based on a fuller and richer understanding of human dignity and equality which does not treat a woman as a victim of her own body, which does not treat children as commodities and which does not treat marginalised people such as young girls or children with Down’s syndrome as burdens or inconveniences. On that count, the Bill fails. It is not a serious or positive proposal. It helps neither women nor unborn children, and this House should firmly reject it.
Question put (Standing Order No. 23).
13 March 2017
The House divided:
Question accordingly agreed to.View Details
That Diana Johnson, Ms Harriet Harman, Barbara Keeley, Crispin Blunt, Norman Lamb, Caroline Lucas, Lyn Brown, Michael Fabricant, Andy Slaughter, Jo Stevens, Mrs Sharon Hodgson and Carolyn Harris present the Bill.
Diana Johnson accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 24 March, and to be printed (Bill 153).
European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill (Programme) (No. 2)
Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 83A(7)),
That the following provisions shall apply to the European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill for the purpose of supplementing the Order of 1 February 2017 (European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill (Programme)):
Consideration of Lords Amendments
(1) Proceedings on consideration of Lords Amendments shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion two hours after their commencement at today’s sitting.
(2) Any further Message from the Lords may be considered forthwith without any Question being put.
(3) The proceedings on any further Message from the Lords shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion one hour after their commencement.—(Steve Brine.)
13 March 2017
The House divided:
Question accordingly agreed to.View Details
European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill
Queen’s consent signified.
Power to notify withdrawal from the EU
I beg to move, That this House disagrees with Lords amendment 1.
With this it will be convenient to discuss Lords amendment 2, and Government motion to disagree.
We introduced the most straightforward possible Bill necessary to enact the referendum result and respect the Supreme Court’s judgment. This Bill has a simple purpose: to allow the Prime Minister to notify under article 50 and start the two-year negotiation process. The House of Commons has already accepted that, voting overwhelmingly to pass this Bill, unamended, last month. The House accepted that the majority of people, no matter which way they voted in June, want the Prime Minister to get on with the job at hand, and to do so without any strings attached. Despite the simple purpose of this Bill, it has generated many hours of debate in both Houses—quite properly, I say to those who debate whether it should have.
Over the past five weeks, we have seen Parliament at its best. Hon. and right hon. Members and peers have spoken on this subject with passion, sincerity and conviction. However, I was disappointed that the House of Lords voted to amend the Bill. The Bill is just the next step in the long, democratic process surrounding our exit from the European Union. That process will continue with future legislation, ranging from the great repeal Bill, which will convert EU law into UK law at the time we leave, to a range of specific Bills that we expect to introduce, such as on immigration or customs arrangements. Parliament will be closely involved in all those important discussions and decisions.
As we embark on the forthcoming negotiations, our guiding approach is simple: we will not do anything that will undermine the national interest, including the interest of British citizens living in the European Union, and we will not enter negotiations with our hands tied. That is not to say that I do not appreciate the concerns that lie behind these amendments. It is not the ends that we disagree on, but the means, and I will attempt to address these individually—
—after I have given way to the right hon. Gentleman.
The Secretary of State will have heard that many Members in this House, and a huge majority in the House of Lords, want a meaningful vote on the Government’s terms of negotiation, which he defined yesterday as meaning accepting either the Government’s terms or World Trade Organisation terms. When does he expect that vote to come to this place, and indeed to all the other Parliaments that it will come to? When roughly, within the two-year period, does he expect the House to get a vote, even on his terms?
If the right hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I will come to the detail of the answer to that later, but in broad terms, although it is impossible to predict the month, the form of words that I crafted earlier was this: we intend and expect it to be before the European Parliament votes on the same matter. It will fit in at the beginning of the ratification process, as soon as the negotiation is complete. It is too soon to know when that will be.
Lords amendment 1 seeks to require the Government to act unilaterally to bring forward plans within three months to secure the status of European Union and European economic area citizens and their family members living in the United Kingdom. On this matter, the Government have been consistently clear: we want to secure the status of EU citizens already living in Britain, and the status of British nationals living in other member states, as early as we can.
I will give way to my hon. Friend, but, as many Members wish to speak and time is tight, I will limit the number of interventions that I take.
As somebody who is married to an EU citizen without a British passport, may I say that I wholeheartedly support the Government’s approach to this matter? [Interruption.] It is absolutely right that we get reciprocity before we go ahead with any agreement with the rest of the EU.
I thank my hon. Friend both for his intervention and for warming up the House.
European citizens already resident in the United Kingdom make a vital contribution to our economy and our society, including working in crucial public services such as the national health service. Without them we would be poorer and our public services weaker.
I will give way in a moment.
However, the European Union has been clear that we cannot open these discussions until the Prime Minister has given formal notification that the UK wishes to withdraw from the EU. That is why we must pass this straightforward Bill without further delay, so that the Prime Minister can get to work on the negotiations, and we can secure a quick deal that secures the status both of EU citizens in the UK and of UK nationals living in the EU, of whom there are around 1 million.
We take very seriously—I take very seriously—our moral responsibility to all 4 million UK and EU citizens. The Prime Minister has been clear that this issue will be one of the top priorities for the immediate negotiations. I also welcome the encouraging words from across the channel, particularly from Poland and Sweden, which fill me with confidence that we will reach a swift agreement with our European partners. Indeed, as Beata Szydlo, the Polish Prime Minister, has said:
“Of course, these guarantees would need to be reciprocal. It’s also important what guarantees the British citizens living and working in other member states of the European Union will have.”
I did undertake to give way to the hon. Member for Swansea West (Geraint Davies), but then I will come back to my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley (Mr Evans).
Is the right hon. Gentleman aware of the survey by the General Medical Council that shows that two thirds of EU doctors are thinking of leaving the UK? In general, EU citizens tend to be younger and working compared with their counterparts abroad who are older and retired. Does he not accept that there is an immediate need unilaterally to act in good faith to set the agenda to get reciprocation, rather than holding out until the final moment?
I hear what the hon. Gentleman says. As I have said before, these issues are serious and important, and people hold their views passionately and with good reason, but the simple truth is that the Government have been very plain about what they intend. They intend to guarantee the rights of both British and European citizens and they will do so as quickly as possible.
I am delighted to hear what my right hon. Friend has had to say about prioritising the negotiations as far as EU and British citizens are concerned. He has said that the negotiations could take up to two years, but there is no reason at all why an agreement on those citizens should not come a lot earlier. Will he give a guarantee that, once an agreement is reached, it will be made public to put out of their misery all the people who are going through this trauma at this moment in time?
My hon. Friend makes a good point. It may well be that we need treaty change to put in law the guarantees that we want in place, but I aim to get all the member states, the Commission and the Council to commit—even if it is in an exchange of letters—so that everyone knows what their rights are and what their rights will be, which, therefore, deals with the issue that has quite properly been raised: people being afraid of things they should not be afraid of.
Please forgive me for a moment.
That is very dependent of course on the commitment not just of ourselves, but of other member states. As I said, Beata Szydlo, the Polish Prime Minister, has made that point publicly here. Every single Minister of every member state that I have spoken to, either on the continent in their own countries or here on a visit, have reinforced the point that they want this matter to be at the top of the agenda. They want this to be dealt with first, and that is what we intend to do to help to achieve what my hon. Friend wants.
Forgive me, but I do have to make some progress.
The proposed amendment may well force the UK to set out unilateral plans in any case. Such an approach would only serve to undermine the very attempts that I have just been talking about, and hamper a quick resolution for all those concerned.
Will the Secretary of State give way?
In a second.
I want to reassure people that Parliament will have a clear opportunity to debate and vote on this issue in the future, before anything else happens. The great repeal Bill will not change our immigration system. That will be done through a separate immigration Bill and subsequent secondary legislation. Nothing will change for any EU citizen in the UK without Parliament’s explicit approval beforehand.
I am very grateful to the Secretary of State for giving way. This Government’s track record on contingency planning is as bad as their handling of the Brexit process, so if it is the case that they are not going to protect the position of EU nationals and it therefore becomes the case that the position of EU nationals is not protected, has the Secretary of State given any consideration to a deportation process then?
The hon. Lady knows me very well, and I think—
I thought I knew you better.
That is the point. It is, frankly, incredible to me that anybody would imagine that I, of all people, would sign up to a deportation process. The answer here is simple, and I make the point again: I take as a moral responsibility the future guarantees of all 4 million citizens —European Union and UK together.
If I may move on, I will now address the issues created by Lords amendment 2. Let me be clear from the outset that this amendment does not seek to simply put what we have already promised on the face of the Bill, as was suggested by some. In fact, it seeks to go much further. But let me begin with proposed subsections (1) to (3), which do simply seek to put our commitment to a vote on the face of the Bill. I will repeat here our commitment: the Government will bring forward a motion on the final agreement to be approved by both Houses of Parliament before it is concluded. We expect and intend that this will happen before the European Parliament debates and votes on the final issue. This commitment could not be clearer, so proposed subsections (1) to (3) are wholly unnecessary. Our clear intention—an intention stated more than once at this Dispatch Box—and by far the most likely outcome, by the way, is that we will bring a deal back to the Houses of Parliament for them to approve.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State for giving way. If he is so confident about this, why can he not allow the rest of us to be confident by agreeing to Lords amendment 2?
As I said last week, because it is unnecessary. When a Minister gives an undertaking at this Dispatch Box in this House, it is binding on the Government. Understand that point?
No, I will not give way.
On the more general point about votes—I say this with some personal interest—we should not underestimate the mechanisms at Parliament’s disposal to ensure that its voice is heard. To paraphrase the wise words of Lord Howard of Lympne during the debate on the amendment in the other place, this place “will have its say” and “will have its way.” We do not need to put this into legislation, and making legislation when none is required only benefits lawyers.
My right hon. Friend is a Member of long standing in this House, and he recognises—as, I think, other hon. Members do—that Parliament will find a way to have a say, whether a deal is reached or whether no deal is reached. If he recognises that, does he agree that it would be better for the Government officially to recognise that position from the Dispatch Box?
I reiterate the point: of course, Parliament can, if it wishes, have a vote and debate on any issue. That is a matter for Parliament. It is not for a Minister to try to constrain that, least of all this Minister, who has used those opportunities before this day. But let me get to the point behind this. I agree with my right hon. Friend, but what we cannot have—I am coming to the second aspect of this amendment—is any suggestion that the votes in either House will overturn the result of the referendum. That is the key point.
Is that not exactly the point? It would completely cripple the Government in trying to get a really good deal for the UK. This is the time for Parliament to get behind the country, which made a decision, and to get the best deal. We cannot do that if the EU thinks it can undermine us.
That point brings me to subsection (4), so let me deal with that in a little more detail. This new clause, effectively, seeks to prohibit the Prime Minister from walking away from negotiations, even if she thinks the European Union is offering her a bad or very bad deal. As I will get on to, the impact of this is unclear, but even the intent goes far beyond what we have offered or could accept. The Government will be undertaking these negotiations and must have the freedom to walk away from a deal that sets out to punish the UK for a decision to leave the EU, as some in Europe have suggested.
Of course, we are seeking a mutually beneficial new relationship, which we believe can and will work for everyone, but tying the Government’s hands in this way could be the worst way of trying to achieve that deal. And let us not forget: in December, this House passed a motion that nothing should be done to undermine the negotiating position of the Government.
The Minister is asking us to take him at his word—on trust. Given the record of the Conservative party recently on manifesto commitments, does the same principle of trust apply?
I said before, and I will say it again: I take statements at this Dispatch Box as binding.
The important point here is that the idea that Parliament could force the Government to accept a bad deal will only incentivise those on the other side of the negotiating table to deliver just such a deal. As the Lords European Union Select Committee—hardly a Tory front organisation —said:
“The Government will conduct the negotiations on behalf of the United Kingdom, and, like any negotiator, it will need room to manoeuvre if it is to secure a good outcome.”
No one in this House, as far as I am aware, wishes to fetter the Government’s hands in negotiations, or indeed the Government’s right to walk away from the negotiations; the issue in subsection (4) is whether the Government come back to this House to explain their plan and policy in the event of that happening. I would expect that to be inevitable, and yet, curiously, when we have sought an assurance from the Government—no more than that; not this amendment—that they would do that, which seems to me to be blindingly obvious, we keep being told that they will not give that assurance. I do find that, I have to say to my right hon. Friend, a bit odd, and I wonder whether he could clarify that.
My right hon. and learned—and old—Friend makes a good point. The simple truth here, however, as I have said before, is that nothing can constrain this House’s right to debate and vote on anything it sees fit, and that meets this.
What I am dealing with here is subsection (4), and there are even bigger problems with it. During the debate on this issue in the other House, the author of the amendment, Lord Pannick, himself admitted he did not know what would happen if Parliament voted against leaving the EU without a deal. This uncertainty is itself a strong argument against putting this amendment into statute.
However, a significant number of Lords supported this amendment—that may not be true in this House—such as Lord Wigley and Baroness Kennedy, and they made their intentions clear: if Parliament were to vote against leaving without a deal, the UK should seek to remain in the EU and reverse the result of the referendum. I should say to my hon. and right hon. Friends that the European Union member states and the European Union institutions read the proceedings of this House very closely; they will have read that, and it will have raised their interest, because that is precisely what they would like to happen. So while this has been badged as a meaningful vote, the reality is that there are some who would seek to use it to overturn the result of the referendum. [Interruption.] “Good idea” comes from across the Floor. That is exactly, I am afraid, what concerns us.
The Government and the Prime Minister have been crystal clear. The people of the United Kingdom have decided to leave the European Union. The Government will seek to implement this decision in the way that is most beneficial to both the United Kingdom and the European Union. What we will not do, however, is accept anything that will put the intention to leave the European Union in doubt.
Will hon. Members forgive me if I do not give way, because I am coming to the end of my comments?
Any prospect that we might actually decide to remain in the European Union would only serve to encourage those on the other side to give us the worst possible deal in the hope that we will do exactly that. This amendment would not only restrain the negotiating power of the Government but would create uncertainty and complications throughout the negotiating process while lessening the chances of the mutually beneficial deal we are seeking.
I reiterate the three key points. First, the Bill was brought forward to implement the referendum result, respect the Supreme Court judgment, and nothing else. Secondly, these amendments are unnecessary as the Government have already made firm commitments with regard to both of the two issues, and we will deliver on those commitments. Thirdly, these amendments would undermine the Government’s position in negotiations to get the best deal for Britain, and that cannot be in the national interest. Therefore, it is clear to the Government that we should send back to the House of Lords a clean Bill. This House has already expressed its support of this view in Committee, and I ask us all to repeat that support once more.
I rise to support both of the amendments that have been passed in the other place. They started life as Labour amendments at the Committee stage in this House, Labour peers led on them and voted for them in the other place, and they will be supported by Labour MPs here today.
The question is this: are Conservative Members willing to listen to the arguments in favour of the amendments, to which I know many are sympathetic and have concerns about, or will they go along with the Prime Minister’s increasing obsession to pass a clean Bill, unamended, even if that means ignoring amendments that would improve the Bill and provide much better protection?
Will my hon. and learned Friend give way?
I will make some progress because lots of Members want to speak, and the more I give way now, the more irritating it is for those who want to make their own contribution.
The Government are about to embark on the most complex and challenging undertaking of any British Government since the second world war. The decision the Government make and the deals they strike will have profound consequences for almost every aspect of British life. It is therefore essential that the Government do not fail or take the country down the wrong path. Starting negotiations by guaranteeing the rights of EU nationals and ending negotiations with a meaningful vote will help to guard against that fate.
Let me turn to the amendment on EU nationals. My question for the Secretary of State and for the Government is this: what is the problem? This is not about delay. The way to prevent delay is to accept the amendment and get on with it. The purpose of the amendment is to bring forward proposals
“Within three months of exercising the power”
to trigger article 50. The Secretary of State says that we want an early deal—well, if it is within three months, there is no problem with the amendment. The amendment only affects the Government’s approach if they do not get an early deal. That is why it is so important. To portray this as a delaying tactic is not to read the amendment and not to appreciate what it says: that the purpose is to bring forward proposals “Within three months”.
I have listened carefully to the argument the hon. and learned Gentleman is making. Four million people are affected by this. I put it to him that all 4 million should be dealt with fairly and on a level playing field, that we can only get that from reciprocity, and that this amendment would not achieve that.
I am grateful for that intervention: let me deal with it straight on. Of course there is a shared concern about UK citizens living in the EU, but this is a matter of principle. Are we prepared—
I have not even set out the principle yet. Are we prepared to use one set of people—those who are living here—as a bargaining chip to get the right settlement for people in the UK? [Interruption.] That is exactly what it is. The whole argument about reciprocal rights is about bargaining and saying, “We will not do what we should do by this group of people until we get something in return for it.” That is a bargaining chip.
The Secretary of State seeks to persuade us that, simply because he has stated from the Dispatch Box that this will all be fine and dandy, that is the end of the matter. He said several times, quite inaccurately, that a ministerial statement from the Dispatch Box is legally binding. Surely the truth is that saying that something said from the Dispatch Box is legally binding does not make it so.
The Secretary of State said that it was binding so far as he was concerned. That is not the same as a legal commitment, and Secretaries of State and Governments can change. That is why we need a commitment on the face of the Bill.
Let me fast forward to the second amendment. If there is really no problem with proposed subsections (1), (2) and (3), why not accept them along with proposed subsection (4) and put them on the face of the Bill? This is becoming an obsession with having a clean Bill: “Our Bill must not be amended, even when it is proper, right and decent to do so.”
How does my hon. and learned Friend answer the Brexit Secretary’s point that if and when we pass the Bill and it is given Royal Assent, the Government’s first priority will be to negotiate the rights both of people here who are from Europe and of our citizens abroad? Does my hon. and learned Friend not accept that if we pass this amendment and give those rights to European citizens here, there will be no incentive whatsoever for other European countries to concede those rights to our citizens?
I am grateful for that intervention, but it is important to focus on the words of the amendment, which asks Ministers to bring forward proposals within three months. That does not tie anybody’s hands or make anybody’s task more difficult. If the issue is resolved within three months—I hope that it is, for the sake of EU citizens living here and of UK citizens living abroad—the amendment represents no problem. It represents a problem only if the Government do not succeed in an early settlement of the issue.
The Labour party has been pushing the Government for many months to guarantee EU rights. My right hon. Friend the Member for Leigh (Andy Burnham) first tabled a Labour motion on the issue back in July 2016, just weeks after the referendum, but the Government have refused to take unilateral action. I remind the House that the International Trade Secretary, who is sitting on the Government Front Bench, said last year that to guarantee those rights to EU citizens
“would be to hand over one of our main cards in the negotiations”.
I am going to make progress. I have taken interventions on the issue and it would not be fair to take more.
We do not believe that EU nationals are bargaining chips, and I think many other hon. Members agree. There are 3.2 million EU nationals who have made their homes and careers in the United Kingdom. Thousands do vital jobs in the NHS and in our universities and public services. They are our friends, colleagues and neighbours—they are valued members of our communities. It is often said that they make a contribution to our society; they do. They are also our society. This is a matter of principle and decency.
I am going to make some progress. We should not bring unnecessary uncertainty and distress into those people’s lives, but that is exactly what is happening as a result of the Government’s approach.
The Brexit Select Committee’s report states that it has heard
“a wide range of concerns of EU nationals since the referendum, including stress, and anxiety and feelings of depression to practical concerns about pensions and healthcare, children being abused in the school playground and worries over the ability to work in the UK in the future.”
What have we come to, if we cannot deal with those levels of anxiety and stress? Many Members will have seen that in their own constituency surgeries. I certainly have: families have come to me in tears about the situation in which they find themselves. It is time for the Government to act; increasingly, it is only the Prime Minister and the Government who think otherwise. Trade unions and campaigns such as the3million and New Europeans have made a very powerful and compelling case for this issue to be dealt with, as of course has the Brexit Committee in its report’s conclusions.
Will the hon. and learned Gentleman give way?
I am going to make some progress.
Labour supports Lords amendment 1 not only because it is right in principle, but because it would help the negotiations by setting the right tone. We have to make it clear to our European partners that although we are leaving the EU, we are not severing our ties. We want a collaborative and co-operative future with our European partners. We want our closest and nearest allies to be strong, and for the European Union to succeed and prosper. We know that citizens will be richer and happier in the future if we work together with our EU partners to meet common challenges. That message is vital in securing our nation’s future.
Does my hon. and learned Friend agree that given our Foreign Secretary’s mixed record—both in committing to the £350 million a week for the NHS, and in failing to deliver on that—and the Government’s poor relations with EU partners, it is right that we should show leadership and commitment by standing up for EU migrants and supporting this amendment?
I agree. I have said in the House on a number of occasions that the tone that the Government set is very important as we come up to the beginning of the negotiations. From my direct discussions with representatives of other countries in Brussels, I can tell the House that some of the jokes that have been made about the reasons why our EU partners feel so strongly about the EU have not been well received. Agreeing to the amendment would help to set the right tone.
I am going to move on to the question of the meaningful vote in Lords amendment 2. I remind the House that as recently as December the Prime Minister was refusing to guarantee that Parliament would be able to vote on whatever agreement the Government reach with the European Commission. Under pressure, that position changed early this year, but it was only when Labour tabled an amendment to the Bill in Committee that the Government made a set of commitments on the Floor of the House.
Those commitments, which were set out by the Minister of State and have now been repeated by the Secretary of State, are: first, that Parliament would be able to vote on the final draft agreement; secondly, that Parliament would get a vote not just on the so-called divorce settlement—the article 50 agreement—but also on the agreement on the future relationship with the European Union; and, thirdly, that the votes in this Parliament would take place before any votes in the European Parliament. Lords amendment 2 will simply put those commitments into the Bill, which is why it is so wrong for the Government not to accept it in principle.
Is my hon. and learned Friend aware of the ICM poll for Avaaz, published in just the past two hours, showing that a clear majority of the British public supports a meaningful vote, with 52% supporting such a vote and only 27% saying the opposite?
I have seen that poll, which is of course important, but this is a matter of principle. This is a question of whether this House should be able to vote on the deal reached in two years’ time before the European Parliament votes and should be able to have a meaningful say, and that is what it has been, in principle, from start to finish.
The amendment does not simply give this House the right to vote on these matters; it also gives the other place the right to vote on these matters. Will the hon. and learned Gentleman explain what would happen if this House voted to accept what the Government want to do, but the other place dug in and rejected it? What would happen then?
There is a reason why the amendment spells that out in detail: it is precisely what the Minister said at the Dispatch Box should be the position last time this was debated. Lords amendment 2 carefully reflects what the Government say is their assurance, so such a question about the amendment should be put to the Secretary of State.
Does my hon. and learned Friend agree that, given the high level of uncertainty, the only sage and proper thing to do is to give us one more chance before the European Parliament has an opportunity to—[Interruption.]
I would not put it as “one last chance”. The negotiations will lead first—I hope—to an article 50 agreement; secondly, to transitional arrangements; and thirdly to a final agreement between ourselves and the EU. That will define the future of the UK for generations in Europe and beyond Europe, and it is imperative that this House has a vote on that at the end of the two-year exercise.
I am grateful to my hon. and learned Friend for giving way. The discussion so far has been about a parliamentary vote in the event of the Government reaching a deal. Is it his interpretation of the Secretary of State’s speech today that, in the event of no deal, the Government seek the authority to default to WTO rules—which are not used by any major economy alone to trade with the EU—without this House having a say?
I am grateful for that intervention. That is my interpretation and it causes me great concern. We need to be clear: reaching no deal is the worst of all possible outcomes for Britain. The president of the CBI has described it as the “worst case scenario” for which many firms cannot even prepare because
“the cost of change is simply too high to even consider it”.
Just yesterday, the director-general of the CBI, Carolyn Fairbairn, emphasised that no deal should not be “plan B”, but “plan Z”. I could not agree more.
Research published today by Open Britain warns that leaving the EU without a deal would leave Britain facing greater barriers to trade with the EU than any other G20 country. The cross-party Foreign Affairs Committee warned on Sunday that
“a complete breakdown in negotiations represents a very destructive outcome leading to mutually assured damage for the EU and the UK. Both sides would suffer economic losses and harm to their international reputations.”
That is why having a vote not only on a deal if there is one, but on no deal, is so important. It represents a check on the Prime Minister deciding to take the country down the most dangerous path. That is why I urge Members, including those on the Conservative Benches, to vote for the amendment.
Does the hon. and learned Gentleman accept, at least in principle, that this Parliament made a contract with the British people at the referendum to respect their wishes with or without a deal? Does he agree?
There was one question on the ballot paper, and that was whether we should stay in the EU or leave the EU. There was no second question about the terms of leaving. It is impossible to extrapolate, but I would be staggered if most people thought that this House should not have a proper grip of the available options in two years’ time and hopefully beyond. I expect that they would have said, “Of course we want Parliament to be fully involved. We would expect accountability and scrutiny, and we would expect votes.”
I shall conclude, because we only have two hours and other people wish to speak. These are simple amendments that would improve the article 50 process. They have obtained cross-party support and large majorities in the Lords, they are the right amendments on vitally important issues, and the obsession with the idea of a clean, unamended Bill should not triumph over decency and principle.
I agree with what my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said about amendment 1, but I wish to speak about amendment 2. The operative provision is subsection (4) which states—I want to remind the House as it is material to what I am about to say:
“The prior approval of…Parliament shall…be required in relation to any decision by the Prime Minister that the United Kingdom shall leave the European Union without an agreement”.
I have already argued in past debates exactly what my right hon. Friend argued today—namely, that if that subsection were to have its intended effect, it would be inimical to the interests of this country, because it would have the undoubted effect of providing a massive incentive for our EU counterparts to give us the worst possible agreement. I agree with him about that. However, I think that the situation is worse—far worse—than he described, because the operative subsection is deeply deficient as a matter of law. The reason for that is not just the one that Lord Pannick admitted, or half-admitted, in the House of Lords, but because under very plausible circumstances this subsection will not have anything like its intended effect. Let me briefly illustrate why that is the case.
Article 50 of the treaty on European Union is, for once in treaties, entirely clear. Paragraph 3 of the article states:
“The Treaties shall cease to apply to the State in question…two years after the notification…unless the European Council… unanimously decides to extend this period.”
Let us imagine that what the Secretary of State, the Government, all my hon. Friends and, I suspect, all Opposition Members hope will not be the case—namely, that the negotiations for a proper comprehensive free trade agreement break down—actually happens. We all hope that will not happen, but we cannot preclude the possibility that it will happen. If it does happen, I think all Members on both sides of the House must have the emotional intelligence to recognise that in all probability that would be under circumstances of some acrimony.
How likely is it that under such circumstances, with agreement having broken down in some acrimony, the European Council would be able to achieve a unanimous agreement to allow the UK to remain a member beyond the two-year period? I speculate that it is very unlikely. If we assume that that were to occur, we need to ask ourselves what would actually happen under those circumstances. One thing can be predicted with certainty: there would be litigation. The litigation would ask, ultimately, the Supreme Court to decide the question, “What has happened here? Has the Prime Minister made a decision, or has the Prime Minister not made a decision?” That could be decided in one of two ways. I rather think that Members on both sides of the House would agree with me that the Supreme Court must decide either that the Prime Minister has made the decision or that the Prime Minister has not made the decision.
Let us suppose for a moment that the Supreme Court decides that the Prime Minister has not made a decision, because it has been made instead by the European Council—a perfectly plausible outcome of the Court’s proceedings. In that case, subsection (4) is totally inoperable. It has no effect whatsoever, because what it does, purportedly, is to prevent the Prime Minister from making a decision without a vote. If the Prime Minister has, in the ruling of the Court, made no decision, it is impossible for her to have made a decision without a vote; therefore, the law has been conformed with, and Parliament is not given any ability to vote on the matter.
I entirely agree with my right hon. Friend, and there is a further point. When it comes to the competing legislation at that point, it would be for the courts to consider whether or not the provisions in the Lisbon treaty that dealt with the question of article 50 had somehow been qualified, amended or repealed by a subsequent enactment.
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend, but it seems to me that for this purpose we do not even need to raise that question, because there is only one other possibility in this Court action—that the Court decides that the Prime Minister has implicitly made the decision. I do not quite know how the Court would get to that answer, but we could speculate that if the Prime Minister had acted differently in the course of the negotiations, the European Council would have acted differently, so implicitly the Prime Minister has made the decision.
Under those circumstances, subsection (4) would, purportedly, come into effect. That is, I suppose, what its authors intended. However, if the European Council has not by the end of the two-year period made a unanimous decision and if the courts decided that the Prime Minister had thereby implicitly decided, the courts would be requiring Parliament to do something that it is impossible to do—namely, to get the Prime Minister to reverse a decision that, as a matter of ordinary language, the Prime Minister would not have made at a time when the Prime Minister could not undo a decision that, as a matter of ordinary language, the European Council had made.
I am perfectly aware that it is of the greatest importance for Members of this House to show due deference to the other place, and I also genuinely admire the skills of the authors of the amendment, but I put it to them that even the House of Lords in all its majesty cannot compel the Prime Minister to do something that is impossible. That is beyond the scope of any human agency.
Is that not evidenced by Lord Pannick himself arguing seriously in court that the letter is irreversible?
I agree with my right hon. Friend, although the Supreme Court went to great pains not to refer the matter to the European Court of Justice, for very good reasons, so we can leave even that argument aside.
My point is very simple. Either subsection (4) would have its intended effect or it would not. If it did, it would be inimical to the interests of this country, because it would induce the worst possible agreement to be offered—as a matter of fact, it will not have that effect in plausible circumstances—and if it did not, it would be bad law. I put it to you, Mr Speaker, that this House should not be passing legislation that either is inimical to the interests of this country or constitutes bad law, and that we should therefore reject the amendment.
This is a very timely debate about amendments that go to the heart of the situation in which we find ourselves. The Scottish National party has made it very clear that we want much more detailed reassurance—perhaps the odd detail or two from the Government—and that is where parliamentary scrutiny should have been involved. We should also be having a debate about the kind of country in which we want to live, and the kind of country that Scotland becomes and the United Kingdom becomes. That is where the amendment on EU nationals comes in.
The Secretary of State may have caught the First Minister’s statement earlier today, in which she made it very plain that this was not the situation in which we wanted to find ourselves. In fact, the Scottish Parliament voted by 92 votes to zero, across political parties, that we should look at ways of securing our relationship with Europe. It is a critical relationship that we have with our European partners, one that has an impact on, and benefits, each and every one of us; but, nearly nine months after the EU referendum, we still do not have that much in the way of detail from an increasingly clueless Government.
The most detailed response to the referendum so far came in the form of a compromise proposed by the Scottish Government just before Christmas. That compromise—let us not forget this—would have meant Scotland leaving the EU against its will to protect our place in the single market. It was a big compromise, and it took a lot from the Scottish National party to put it forward, especially given that Scotland had voted overwhelmingly to remain part of the European Union. We did it in order to protect jobs, the economy, and opportunities for young people and their environment in the face of a hard Tory Brexit.
The Fraser of Allander Institute has suggested that we could lose up to 80,000 jobs in Scotland alone as a result of the Government’s plans. We have a responsibility to protect those jobs, we have a responsibility to think about opportunities for young people, and we have a responsibility to think about the rights that we receive from our membership of the European Union. We have a responsibility not to just roll over in the face of a disastrous Tory plan.
Last Friday I met representatives of a major bus company in Scotland, who said that 17% of the company’s bus drivers were EU immigrants. They said that the only reason they were not experiencing the haemorrhaging of talent that their counterparts down south were experiencing was the First Minister’s reasonable, sensible and inclusive message that EU nationals were welcome. Does my hon. Friend agree that the UK Government could benefit by conveying such a message?
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. I want to come on to the point about EU nationals shortly. It is not just in Scotland that jobs are threatened.
Perhaps the hon. Gentleman could tell us, on the same analytical basis, how many jobs would be lost in Scotland if it left the UK?
That is the extraordinary basis on which this is debated. My honourable colleague from the Foreign Affairs Committee forgets that it is his own Government who have already told the people of Ireland that they need not choose between the European Union and the UK, just as Scotland need not choose between trading with the UK and the rest of the EU.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
No, I will make progress.
If we pass the Bill today, we will be passing this Government a blank cheque on one of the most crucial issues that this Parliament has ever discussed, an issue that will have an impact on each and every one of us and each and every one of our constituents. Let us not forget that we will be handing a blank cheque to a Government who are forced to deny their own tweets, who corrected a White Paper that had already been published and who are trying to defend yet another shambolic Budget. That is the Government this place would be handing over a blank cheque to. Frankly, I am not sure we could trust them to run a bath, or a bidet for that matter, never mind a complex set of negotiations.
The Secretary of State said that he has seen the best of parliamentary debate in this place over the course of the Bill. It is nice to hear him say that because he spent millions of pounds trying to prevent us from having that debate in the first place. The basis of a parliamentary democracy is that we can scrutinise and do not roll over and acquiesce in the face of damaging plans. That is exactly what we would be doing by handing over a blank cheque.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
Not at the moment.
It is the House of Lords, of all places, that has given us another opportunity today to save the House of Commons’ blushes. We will be voting for a meaningful vote today, although of course we would also have wanted a greater role for the devolved Administrations.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
Not at the moment.
The lack of respect for the devolved Administrations, and the promises that were made and subsequently broken during the independence and EU referendums have led us to the situation we are in today. During the independence referendum, we were told that the only way Scotland could guarantee remaining part of the EU was to vote against independence. We were told that the only way to bring in powers over immigration was to vote to leave the EU—more costly and broken promises. That is why the First Minister is right to be looking at the electoral mandate that the SNP was given last year to hold another independence referendum.
The Government may not be big on manifesto commitments, but the SNP is. The SNP was returned to power with the largest number of votes since devolution was established, with 47% of the constituency vote, compared with a Tory Government who have brought us to this situation with 36% of the vote in the UK and less than 15% of the vote in Scotland.
Let me move on to EU nationals. This is critical. We must not forget the human element of this.
My hon. Friend is talking about the human element for EU nationals. On Friday afternoon, my constituent, Diemanta McDuff, a Lithuanian, attended my surgery in hysterical tears, saying that the uncertainty caused by this Government and this Parliament is making her feel worse about her personal situation in Britain than she did in Lithuania under the Soviets. [Interruption.] Those are the words of a constituent. Does my hon. Friend agree that this Parliament should be ashamed to be causing such uncertainty?
I thank my hon. and learned Friend for raising that point, which is important. Many of us have listened to EU nationals, who contribute so much financially and culturally and who would be a loss to this country—to the whole of the UK. Therefore, I am not sure why the Government cannot give us what we seek.
As the hon. Gentleman knows, I feel very passionate about the fact that EU citizens living in the United Kingdom should be allowed to continue doing so; they add so much to our economy and culture, and it would be a human tragedy if they were forced to leave. However, I suspect that hundreds of thousands of Scottish people are living in other EU countries. Does he not believe that they too ought to be given the same guarantee at exactly the same time?
The hon. Gentleman makes my point for me: the Scottish Government are looking to protect Scotland’s relationship with Europe, and, what is more, if EU nationals are as important to Conservative Members as they are to us, they will vote with us tonight, to give them the certainty they need and deserve. I look forward to the hon. Gentleman joining me in the Lobby.
EU nationals who have made Scotland and the rest of the UK their home contribute much: they make this a better place in which to live and work, and they make our communities better. These are people with families and jobs. If the Conservatives care so much about them —and to give these people certainty—there is something very simple they can do: they can join us in the Lobby tonight, for a change. The House of Lords has given them another opportunity.
This goes to the heart of the question of the kind of country—[Interruption.] Conservative Members would do well to listen to the point being made this time. This goes to the heart of the question of the kind of country in which we would like to live. Do we want to live in a country that is open and inclusive, working in co-operation and collaboration with our European partners, or in a UK that is increasingly isolated in Europe and abroad? It now seems like this is a choice that people in Scotland are going to get.
Today, we are sitting on the edge of the abyss with this vote; the question is whether or not Scotland is going to be taken into the abyss with this Tory Government. I am glad that SNP Members have an alternative, and the alternative is clear. It is one that respects the will of the people of Scotland, that seeks to work with our partners on these islands and across Europe, and that will allow us to prosper as an equal and normal partner in the international community of nations. Therefore, we will be opposing the Government tonight.
I am going to keep my comments as brief as possible so that as many Members as possible can speak. I spoke when we last considered, effectively, Lords amendment 2 in its new form, and I just say this: it is surely perverse that we are in a situation whereby if there is a deal it comes back to this place and we debate it and vote on it, but if there is the worst scenario—which is no deal—we are not entitled to that say that or vote. That simply cannot be right.
This is not a debate about Brexit. We have had that vote; I voted against my conscience in accordance with the promise I made to the people of Broxtowe that I would honour the referendum result, and I voted for us to leave the EU. So we have had that one; we are moving on.
This debate is actually all about parliamentary sovereignty, and there are some uncomfortable truths that need to be said. It took a few brave souls—and they were brave—to go to the High Court and then the Supreme Court to establish parliamentary sovereignty. That is why we now have this Bill—not because we did it in this place, and history will record all these things, but because of what they did. But to the credit of the Government, they accepted that.
I understand that there is a good argument to be made that this is a short and simple Bill, but the difficulty, and the reason why I found myself for the first time voting against my Government, is this intransigence—this inability to accept that in the worst-case scenario this place is not going to be allowed a say. And for this Secretary of State, of all Members of this place, with his fine track record of establishing, and fighting at every opportunity for the sovereignty of Parliament, to be standing up and denying us that on this particular issue is deeply ironic.
Will my right hon. Friend give way?
Because I am being generous, I will.
But does my right hon. Friend not accept the simple point that this place made a contract with the British people at that referendum—[Interruption.] The Scottish National party might not like it, but it is true. Therefore, if there is a good deal, we will take it, and if there is not, the Prime Minister has made it very clear that we will not accept a bad deal, so we move on, and we move out of the EU.
My hon. Friend forgets that there was just one question on the ballot paper—did we want to remain in or leave the EU—and 52% of the people who voted chose to leave. That is what we are doing. We—some of us—on this side have honoured that result and voted for us to leave. Now, however, we are talking about the sovereignty of this Parliament and about what would happen in the event that our Prime Minister does not strike a good deal. I trust our Prime Minister to do everything that she can, and I will support her in her efforts to get that good deal, but let us be under no illusion that if she does not do so, there will be no alternative but WTO tariffs, regulations and rules, and the people in my constituency certainly did not vote for that—
My hon. Friend says “So?” I can assure him that it is not only me but our Prime Minister who takes the view that falling off a cliff edge would be the worst possible outcome for the people of this country. That is the one thing that we must ensure does not happen. In the light of that, we in this place must assist the Government with what happens next.
There is going to be a remarkable set of negotiations to achieve three bespoke deals—on trade, customs and security—in what will actually be an 18-month timeframe. But let us say that that worst-case scenario happens and that there is no deal at the end of that. If I may, I should like to say to Opposition Members, especially those in the north of Ireland—
Northern Ireland. The right hon. Gentleman needs no lessons on my support for the efforts and work of Northern Ireland Members. The real danger that we face is the cliff edge and, as a result, the hard border in Ireland that none of us wants.
In two years’ time, things might well have changed remarkably in this country, not just politically but economically. Economically, having had the buoyancy of a devalued pound and people actually spending on the basis of their savings, inflation might then have kicked in and we could find that our economy was no longer in the fine fettle that it appears to be now. Politically, we could be facing great harm in every way possible through the break-up of the Union, with the Scots going their own way following a referendum and, tragically for Northern Ireland, with talk of a united Ireland or a breakdown of the peace that has lasted for some years. In the light of that, all the options must remain open for us to debate and decide upon. We could, for example, decide to restore the free movement of labour and consider the benefits of the single market, which would solve the problem for Northern Ireland and for Scotland.
Does the right hon. Lady agree that this is not only an issue of principle, in regard to parliamentary sovereignty and having a meaningful say, but an issue of good practice? We should not swallow the argument of an incentive to offer the worst possible deal. Lords amendment 2 would instil discipline and accountability in the Government as well as among our negotiating partners, because at any stage the Prime Minister would be able to say, “I can’t agree to that, because I have to sell it to Parliament.”
Order. Interventions must be brief. We have very little time.
I want to close by saying this, Mr Speaker. The idea that, by doing the right thing and allowing us to have a vote and a say in the event of no deal, we would somehow be weakening the Prime Minister’s negotiating hand is absolutely perverse. It is as though all these deliberations and all the divisions that still exist in our country are not being reported throughout the whole of Europe. It is as though all this is taking place in some kind of silence. Everyone in Europe knows how divided our nation is. They know about the deliberations in this place and in the other place. They also know that, of those who voted, only 52% voted for us to leave the European Union. I urge the Government, for the sake of bringing unity not only to our party but to the country at large, to allow Parliament’s sovereignty to reign and, in the event of no deal, to allow us to have a vote and a say.
I must declare an interest, because the political is personal for me on the issue of EU citizens in the United Kingdom, as I suspect it is for many other Members in this House. The two most important women in my life—my mother, who is Dutch, and my wife, who is Spanish—are directly affected by this. While they are of course special to me, I none the less think that their fate, and the uncertainty that they have endured, is typical of the constituents of many across the House. My mother has lived here for more than 50 years. She has raised four children. She has worked as a teacher. She has paid her taxes. My wife loves this country—most of the time. She does not love the weather, but she loves this country. She is raising children, paying taxes, and working as a lawyer. It simply beggars belief that people like them and millions of others have had a question mark placed over their status, their piece of mind, and their wellbeing in our great country because of the action, or rather the shameful inaction, of this Government.
The question mark has been placed there by the EU, not by this Government. If the EU said today that our citizens abroad are safe, all EU citizens here would be safe.
The right hon. Gentleman would start blaming bad traffic on the EU if he could. It is absurd. We picked the fight, not the EU. His party picked the fight; the EU did not.
I have one observation that I want to press the Secretary of State on. Even if he gets the deal on the issue of EU citizens here and UK citizens there, which I sincerely believe he wishes to seek, and even if that goes as smoothly and quickly as he has suggested today, there is no earthly way that this Government can separate the 3 million EU citizens who are already here from the millions who may, after a certain cut-off date, want to live, study, and work here without creating a mountainous volume of red tape.
Remind me, was freeing ourselves from red tape not one of the principal reasons why the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr Duncan Smith) and so many others told us that we should leave the European Union? Yet this Government are going to create a tsunami of red tape, which EU citizens, including my mum and my wife, will rightly resent just as much as this Government have always resented red tape in Brussels. The particular irony is that the Secretary of State and I worked closely together in this Chamber as Opposition party spokespeople 12 years against the then Government’s attempts to impose ID cards, yet I predict that he and his Government will have to introduce something not identical but strikingly similar to the paper trail behind ID cards.
I must make progress; there is very little time.
Turning to the other, perhaps more meaningful amendment, the double standards that we have just heard about red tape are duplicated several times over by the double standards of Brexiteers saying, “We should free ourselves”—at any cost—“from the lack of democratic accountability in Brussels,” when the first thing they do is undermine and weaken the principle of democratic accountability in this House. I have listened closely to the Government’s case for rejecting that amendment, including today, and there is no first principle argument against it, because they concede to the principle of a vote; they just do not like us having the freedom to decide what that vote should be on.
The Government have come up with laughable arguments, which we have heard repeated here today, including that if we have just the bog-standard, plain vanilla accountability exerted by the House of Commons and the other place on any announcement made by the Prime Minister in two years, that will serve as an incentive for the EU to give us a bad deal. By that logic, the only Governments who can successfully negotiate good international agreements are dictatorships. They are not; they are democracies. Democracy can co-exist with good international agreements.
I have come to the conclusion that the reason the Government are digging their heels in as stubbornly as they are is that they somehow think that they will strut their stuff and impress our soon-to-be EU negotiating partners by indulging in parliamentary and procedural machismo here. Who do they think they are kidding? Do they think that Angela Merkel has put everything aside to look at this debate this afternoon? Do they think that she has said, “Oh, look at the way that No. 10 unceremoniously evicted Lord Heseltine and other venerable parliamentarians from their jobs. We had better give them a good deal”?
Does the Secretary of State think that Michel Barnier, whom I know well and know the Secretary of State knows well—a hardened EU negotiator if ever there was one—is saying, “Oh well, we’d better lower the price tag because they are being so tough with their own people”? It is a ludicrous assertion. So I simply say to Government Members, at this last, 59th second of the eleventh hour of this debate on these amendments: stubbornness can be a sign of suspicion and weakness, not strength; rejecting the rightful, conventional role of the House of Commons and the other place t