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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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?
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?
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?
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?
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.
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.
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?
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 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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.]
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).
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.)
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.
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—
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.
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.”
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.