House of Commons
Tuesday 18 April 2017
The House met at half-past Two o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Business before Questions
New Southgate Cemetery Bill [Lords]
Third Reading opposed and deferred until Tuesday 25 April (Standing Order No. 20).
Oral Answers to Questions
The Chancellor of the Exchequer was asked—
The Government are protecting the core schools budget in real terms, reaching almost £41 billion this year. The Department for Education has consulted on a national funding formula to address the current postcode lottery in schools funding. The consultation lasted for 14 weeks, and received over 25,000 responses. The Government are considering the responses carefully, and will publish a response in the summer. For the St Ives constituency, the proposals would mean an increase in schools funding of 0.4%.
The majority of schools in my constituency are rated good or outstanding, due to the hard work and determination of teaching staff and their heads. However, Government funding for schools has not kept up with costs, which, according to the House of Commons Library, increased by 3.4% in 2016-17 and will increase by 8.7% by 2020. What message can I take back to my schools, which tell me they cannot maintain those standards if school funding does not keep up with these increased costs?
The Government do recognise that schools, like other organisations, face additional costs, such as salary increases. That is why the Department for Education is supporting schools to become more efficient, including with over £1 billion of savings from better procurement by 2019-20. It is also worth pointing out that, by protecting the total schools budget in real terms, as pupil numbers increase, so will the amount of money in our schools.
If the Government are protecting the budget, why is the average cut in my constituency 8%, rising in some village schools, including to 22% in Butterknowle?
As I have said, the reality is that the total core schools budget is increasing, and it can increase only if we have a strong economy that can pay for it. It is also right that we have a fairer funding formula to ensure that that money is distributed fairly.
The Government are taking action to give the UK the world-beating digital infrastructure that it needs. Broadband across the country has been transformed by the Government-led £1.7 billion superfast programme, extending coverage at 24-plus megabits per second to 95% of UK premises by the end of this year. At autumn statement 2016, we committed over £1 billion more to support the market to deliver full-fibre broadband networks, to enable 5G mobile and to keep Britain at the forefront of the development of the internet of things.
The reduction in business rates on new fibre roll-out is hugely welcome, but will the Chancellor assure me that we will incentivise the roll-out of more fibre in such a way that no tax is paid until the fibre is first used, rather than from when it is first installed?
The Government’s clear intention is to incentivise investment in fibre broadband networks. The Department for Communities and Local Government will shortly publish a consultation on the implementation of this relief, which will set out more detail on how new fibre will be defined, and we look forward to the responses to that consultation.
Why does the Chancellor not shake up some of his colleagues, and start investing in the digital infrastructure in the north of England, in Yorkshire in particular? Will he also look at other infrastructure, such as railways? When are we going to get the electrification of the TransPennine Express route?
At autumn statement, we announced £23 billion of additional investment in our infrastructure, and key priority areas such as research and development, specifically designed to address the UK’s productivity problem. This investment has to be spread across the whole of the UK economy to make sure that we deliver improved productivity and improved economic growth across the economy as a whole. Such investment is going in: public capital investment will be at a higher level in this Parliament following the announcement of this decision than it was before the financial crisis.
While the Government boast about the speed of fibre broadband across the United Kingdom, there are many areas—especially in parts of my constituency—where sending mail by pigeon would almost be quicker than sending it through the fibre network. What action does the Chancellor intend to take to ensure that farmers, small businesses and others relying on digital means of communication in rural areas have a greater ability to deliver such messages?
I cannot speculate on how fast the pigeons are in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, but I can tell him that all consumers now have a right to 10 megabits broadband. By the end of this year, 95% of properties will have access to 24 megabits broadband. The Government are investing more money to reach the last 5%, the hard-to-reach that are often in rural areas.
In Scotland, the original plan was as for the UK: 95% coverage by this year, additional funding for rural areas, money for wi-fi in public buildings and a superfast broadband target of 100% property coverage by 2021. Given that this should be a common endeavour, will the Chancellor welcome the steps taken in Scotland to deliver on those performance targets?
We have a UK-wide target. We of course welcome any other actions taken on top of that to achieve yet higher levels of broadband penetration. That is a very positive move for the economies of the regions and nations they affect.
I thank the Chancellor for that. However, the issue is not simply about the provision of infrastructure, but paying for digital usage. Will he give a guarantee to the House that when the UK Government enter the Brexit negotiations there will be no return to the super-expensive roaming digital phone charges for UK citizens working and living in the EU, and for EU citizens living and working in the UK?
I hear the hon. Gentleman’s concern and I am absolutely sure that the vast majority of our constituents would agree with his suggestion that we seek to maintain cost-effective access for UK phone users whenever they are roaming within the EU. I think that will be an issue for this Parliament post-Brexit unless we choose, in the course of the exit negotiations, to reach a reciprocal agreement with the European Union.
The Government are protecting the total core schools budget in real terms. That is possible only through careful management of the economy. As a result, school funding is at its highest ever level, at almost £41 billion in 2017-18. Spending will increase to £42 billion in 2019-20 as pupils numbers rise. We are also delivering our manifesto commitment to implement fairer schools funding. The recent national funding formula consultation includes generous transitional protections for schools that would see a reduction in their funding. The Government are carefully considering replies to the consultation and will respond in the summer.
The 2015 Conservative manifesto promised that
“the amount of money following your child into school will be protected”.
However, the National Audit Office found that schools face a real-terms cut of 8% per pupil by 2019-20, even before the cuts the new national funding formula will bring to more than 9,000 schools in England. Will the Government therefore confirm that the Tory manifesto pledge on per pupil funding is now in tatters?
Not at all. We are protecting the total schools budget in real terms and implementing our manifesto commitment to introduce fairer funding. It is right that we do so.
The Government are clearly not protecting pupil per capita funding in York, which is currently the seventh-worst funded local authority and will experience a £288 per child cut in funding. How is that protecting the formula?
I would expect the hon. Lady to share my view that it is not right that we fund schools on the basis of what has happened historically. Every pupil in England should be assessed on the same basis. It cannot be right, for example, that pupils in Hackney receive 50% more than pupils in Barnsley. That does not seem to me to be fair and it is right that the Government address that.
Economic Growth Outside London/South-East
The Government are supporting economic growth across the whole country as a key part of our productivity agenda by investing in infrastructure and skills, and by developing our industrial strategy. At the autumn statement, I launched our northern powerhouse strategy and earlier this year set out our midlands engine strategy. We recently allocated a further £1.8 billion from the local growth fund and an initial tranche of £185 million of local transport funding across the English regions.
From Merseyside to Teesside, ports are a great northern success story. Will my right hon. Friend look into the potential for the creation of free ports throughout the United Kingdom? Free trade zones would increase trade, create manufacturing jobs and boost regional growth, which are all key ingredients of our future economic prosperity.
My hon. Friend has made the case for free ports, and the Government have heard that case very clearly. We will consider all options that have the potential to support our ambition to see Britain as a great global trading nation, but before making any decisions we shall need to consider carefully not only the advantages that free ports can deliver, but the costs and potential risks associated with them.
If towns and cities in our economy—including those in the north of England —are to flourish, we need banks and building societies that support them. Does the Chancellor agree that those banks and building societies should keep their branches open? Leeds Building Society has just announced that it will close its branch in Armley Town Street, which is in my constituency, following the closure of branches of HSBC and Yorkshire Bank in the last two years.
Of course we want there to be a viable branch banking network across the country, but we must recognise that the nature of banking is changing. More and more of us are using online digital banking, and that is bound to be reflected in the configuration of the branch networks that the banks operate.
As the entrepreneurial heart of England, Buckinghamshire provides an excellent bridge to the east midlands and beyond. Will my right hon. Friend look into how investment in Buckinghamshire can help to stimulate growth throughout the country, not just in London and the south-east?
I am sure you are delighted, Mr Speaker, that my hon. Friend has lighted on the key role of Buckinghamshire as a bridge between the north, the south, the east, the west and every other part of the country. I should be happy to receive, and I confidently predict that I will receive, my hon. Friend’s detailed submission on the case for greater infrastructure investment in Buckinghamshire.
Be careful what you wish for, sir.
As the article 50 notice letter set out very clearly, the Government are seeking to negotiate a deep and special partnership with the European Union, at the heart of which will be a comprehensive free trade agreement covering goods, services and networks. That will allow us to continue to work closely with the European Union after leaving the organisation.
The Government do carry out detailed analysis to inform their negotiating strategy, but I am sure the hon. Gentleman would not want me to reveal the outcome of that analysis, which would be of great use to our negotiating partners on the other side. That is not the way to get the best deal for Britain in these negotiations.
In Corby, there is a huge appetite for a new enterprise zone to help to boost jobs and growth further. What consideration has my right hon. Friend given to the introduction of a new round of opportunities?
My hon. Friend has made an important suggestion, and I will undertake to look at it carefully. No doubt an exercise will take place over the next few weeks that will involve our thinking about what commitments we want to make for the future, and I will take his question as a representation.
An important driver of economic growth, both inside and outside London and the south-east, is productivity. Notwithstanding the rosy picture painted by the Chancellor, the Financial Times’s chief economist says that our productivity performance is “calamitous” and that the disparity in performance has widened regionally. Who do we believe, a respected economist or a backtracking Chancellor?
I do not recognise the picture that the hon. Gentleman paints of my position. I have stood at this Dispatch Box on countless occasions and lamented the fact that Britain has a poor productivity record—worse than Germany’s, and worse than those of the United States, France and Italy—but simply lamenting that fact is not enough. What we must do is put together a plan for tackling it, and it will be a long—
If the right hon. Gentleman checks the records, he will discover that this problem has existed for 40 years. It would be better if we tried to tackle this challenge in a spirit of bipartisan recognition and if we both recognised that there is a real problem that we have to tackle by investment in infrastructure, by investment in skills and by actions to spread growth and prosperity across the country.
Yes, seven years.
Although the £6 billion investment for a new two-mile lower Thames crossing is welcome, how does such imbalanced infrastructure spending help to close the economic gap of regions outside London and the south-east? Does not that simply reaffirm the Government’s pathological incapacity to see much beyond the M25? I will be happy to buy the Chancellor a satnav if he wants to take the opportunity to use it.
I am not going to take any lectures from the hon. Gentleman on regional awareness, but perhaps he should speak to the Mayor of London, who has a view on infrastructure investment and what should drive it. The Government are clear that we need to spread infrastructure investment around the country in a way that will tackle the productivity challenge. One of the ways we will tackle it is by harvesting the benefits of our city regions in the west midlands, in the northern powerhouse and elsewhere, which evidence across the developed world has shown can be major drivers of productivity improvement. That is what we have to focus on.
Probate Registry Fees
As the hon. Gentleman may be aware, the Ministry of Justice recently ran a consultation on this issue and received 853 responses in total. The Government response to the consultation was published on 17 March and is on gov.uk. They have since laid the statutory instrument to implement the changes set out in that response.
The majority of the responses to the consultation were against the proposals because, in a civilised democracy, access to justice should not depend on being rich. Unfortunately, this Government do not agree; they are intent on lessening access to justice by greatly increasing court fees. The increase in probate fees is another stealth tax and one that will affect almost half the estates in England and Wales. It is an attempt by the Government to hide the massive cut in inheritance tax for their rich friends. Will this dying, cut-and-run Government abandon their tax on access to justice?
I certainly do not recognise that characterisation of the fee structure. These fees are about helping to sustain an effective justice system that supports some of the country’s most vulnerable people and victims. It is fair to ask those who can afford to do so to support it. In fact, more than half the estates in England and Wales will pay no probate fees at all.
I reassure the hon. Gentleman that the Treasury and the Department for Exiting the European Union are working closely on that issue. As we exit the EU, we will look to negotiate the best deal possible so that we can continue to work together to maintain justice and security both in the UK and across Europe.
The Panama papers showed that thousands of UK-based banks, accountants, lawyers and other intermediaries have helped to set up shady and opaque corporate structures to handle illicit cash flows after registering in the Crown dependencies and overseas territories. Almost a year on from the anti-corruption summit, will the Minister commit to a public register of beneficial ownership covering the Crown dependencies and overseas territories?
If only we could do that; we do not have the ability to do so. What I can say is that in March 2017 we published the draft money laundering regulations and announced plans for a new watchdog to ensure supervisors and law enforcement work together more effectively. Since 2010, law enforcement have seized £1.4 billion in illegal funds.
The EU is to blame for many things, but it is not to blame for money laundering and, in fact, any solution that looks to the EU to solve money laundering is missing the point that it is an international problem. Therefore, will the Minister confirm that he will be engaging internationally and not through the parochial lens of the EU?
We are of course a founding member of the Financial Action Task Force, which sets international standards for anti-money laundering and counter-terrorism financing. After exiting the EU, the UK will continue to lead in FATF and around the world.
I call Toby Perkins.
Lucky No. 7, Mr Speaker.
Exiting the EU: Public Finances
We’ll see how lucky, Mr Speaker.
The Government have undertaken a significant amount of work to assess the economic and fiscal impacts of leaving the EU, and they continue to carry out that work. This is part of a continuing programme of analytical work covering a range of possible exit scenarios, including sectoral analysis, but I have to say to the House that we are seeking the best possible deal for the United Kingdom, recognising that there is a range of possible outcomes to the negotiations, and the work being done reflects this. The Government have also committed to keeping Parliament informed, but it would not be appropriate to publish analysis that risks undermining our negotiating position.
Throughout the last seven years, the needs of the British people have had to play second fiddle to the needs of the Conservative party. As a result, the Chancellor has been forced to disown the manifesto commitment to balance the Budget in this Parliament. Is it not the truth that today’s announcement about a general election is another example of this Government putting their party’s interest ahead of the country’s interests at a time when there is a desperate need for stability in this country?
The question is about the departure from the EU and the effect thereof on the public finances.
In terms of the effect on the public finances, the decision that the Prime Minister made today is very much in the national interest, to strengthen her hand as she goes into the negotiation with the European Union, to provide a clear mandate for the type of exit that she set out in the letter she wrote to President Tusk two and a half weeks ago, and to ensure that the UK can negotiate its exit from the European Union, execute that exit, and then transition to the new arrangements with a clear run before the next general election.
After that party political broadcast on behalf of the Conservative party, may I ask the Chancellor a very serious question? Many billions of pounds of EU structural funds are invested annually in the UK, particularly in our deprived areas and regions. Wales, and Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney, have benefited significantly from this funding. What steps will he take to replace this essential investment when we leave the EU?
As we have said on many previous occasions from this Dispatch Box, we recognise that alternative arrangements will have to be put in place. We will no longer be making large subscriptions—payments—into the European Union, but on the other side of the equation we will no longer be receiving some of the funding that we have been receiving for many years, including the structural funds. That places the opportunity back in the hands of this House—this Parliament—to decide how we should use our taxpayers’ funding to achieve the objectives of the UK Government and to achieve economic development in the way that is most appropriate for the UK.
Does my right hon. Friend look forward to getting net £10 billion a year into the Exchequer, and does he note that the claims for tens of billions of euros from our friends in Brussels merely illustrate the financial incontinence on the continent?
Any Chancellor would always welcome any net tens of billions of pounds, or even any net billions of pounds, from pretty much any source whatsoever. In terms of the numbers bandied around in Brussels relating to the so-called exit charge, we should recognise them for what they are: an opening gambit in what will be a long and complicated negotiation—nothing more, nothing less.
Does the Chancellor agree that, whether inside or outside the European Union, the best way of delivering strong public finances is a strong economy supported by low tax and low regulation, and is that the future we can look forward to?
The only way of delivering strong public finances is through a strong economy, with sensible and balanced regulation. We have a very large financial services sector in this country, which is a very important contributor to our fiscal balances, and its success depends on our getting that regulatory equation exactly right: too much regulation and we would drive away industry from London; too little regulation and we may lose our reputation as a safe and secure place to do business. We have to get it right.
The Chancellor recently said that Brussels had set out a very aggressive starting line on the UK’s bill for quitting the EU. What assessment has he made of the worst case scenario, reported to be in the region of €60 billion, and what impact would that have on public finances?
I am not sure what the worst case scenario that the hon. Lady is talking about relates to. We have heard various figures bandied around in Brussels in terms of an exit charge. The work that the Government have been doing—which I was asked about earlier—relates to the economic and fiscal impact of different possible exit scenarios. The numbers being bandied around in Brussels are simply a question of a potential demand which would be raised in the negotiating process, but they are simply that: a negotiating strategy.
I agree with the Chancellor that one of the biggest contributors to the UK’s public finances is the tax revenue that we receive from the financial services sector. Now that we have had the triggering of article 50 and the Government’s White Paper, will he tell us whether he is confident that that revenue will not be significantly reduced, either through the loss of jobs or the loss of any major areas of financial activity?
Yes; the negotiating strategy and the objectives that we have set out in the article 50 letter would create an environment in which the financial services industry in the UK would be able, by and large, to continue the levels of commercial activity that currently take place with the European Union 27. But of course that will depend on negotiating the right arrangements with the European Union, and it is essential that we go into these discussions in constructive mode, recognising that there are real issues on both sides and that the UK’s financial services industry is an asset not only of the UK but of the whole of the continent of Europe. European businesses depend on those financial services.
I share the Chancellor’s assessment that there is a mutually beneficial deal for us and the EU to agree on, if this Government have the ability to deliver it. Will he therefore state unequivocally that, as a result of the deal that the Government will seek to negotiate, there will be no significant loss of jobs in any major financial institutions, no removal of any major City-wide functions such as clearing, and no relocation of any EU-wide regulatory agencies such as the European Banking Authority?
On the hon. Gentleman’s last question, the location of the European Union’s agencies is clearly a matter for the European Union. We cannot credibly seek to leave the European Union and at the same time dictate to it where it should locate its agencies. On the initial items on his list, it will indeed be the UK Government’s objective, as we go into the negotiations, to protect our financial services sector.
Since the EU referendum, the substantial sterling depreciation has seen exports increase and the balance of trade deficit reduce from £13.7 billion in quarter 3 of last year to £5 billion in quarter 4. However, the Chancellor has repeatedly said that he is not concerned about the exchange rate. Is it not just plain wrong to dismiss the significance of the exchange rate?
I have never said that I was not concerned about the exchange rate. I have said that the Government do not take a view on what the appropriate exchange rate should be; that is very much a matter for the markets to determine. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will have been delighted to note that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister’s statement this morning has sent sterling up in the markets, demonstrating the confidence that the markets have in a future for this country under a Tory Government with a new mandate.
Tax Evasion and Avoidance
As the hon. Lady would expect, given the emphasis that we have placed on tackling avoidance and evasion during this Parliament and indeed since 2010, the subject is regularly discussed among Cabinet colleagues. With regard to Treasury Ministers’ discussions with their European counterparts, I can confirm that this is something that we discuss with them on a regular basis. Most recently, the Chancellor spoke at an informal ECOFIN in Valletta as part of his regular ongoing dialogue with EU colleagues.
I am glad that everyone seems to be having a nice time having conversations, but as my 2015 Conservative opponent discovered when he came up from Chelsea to fight the Clwyd South constituency, most people in our part of the world work hard and pay their taxes. Will the Minister try again and give us a proper answer as to what is being done about this on an international level?
The question was about what meetings had taken place, and I plead guilty to answering it as asked. If the hon. Lady wants details, she can look at the many measures that have been put through since 2010, and, indeed, already in this Parliament. In fact, if she sticks around for the Second Reading of the Finance Bill, she will hear about even more things that the Government have planned to crack down on avoidance and evasion across the spectrum.
Had the tax gap continued on the trajectory left by the last Labour Government, it would be £47 billion, and the public purse would be £11 billion poorer. Instead, as a result of the policies of this Government, the tax gap is at £6 billion, which is its lowest level ever. Does my hon. Friend agree that talk is the best that some parties can offer on tax evasion and avoidance, and that it takes a Conservative Government to get something done about those problems?
That is exactly right, and this is something that we have taken extremely seriously. The UK’s tax gap is one of the lowest in the world, and it is certainly one of the most transparent and best documented. Since 2010, Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs has secured £140 billion in additional tax revenue as a result of tackling avoidance, evasion and non-compliance. As I have said, the Government are ambitious to do more.
Economic Growth (South-east Coast of England)
Would you mind, Mr Speaker, if I started by sending my congratulations to Brighton & Hove Albion on their promotion to the premier league? They are an important part of the south-east economy.
At the autumn statement, we allocated £351 million to the south-east from the local growth fund, and the south-east will also benefit from more than £21 million from the coastal communities fund.
I thank the Minister for his response and I, too, congratulate Brighton & Hove Albion. We have just under six miles of motorway in Sussex, and the Brighton & Hove Albion stadium is on one of our motorway junctions. Does he agree that we need to dual the A27 to make the south coast more economically viable? Will he join me in meeting other Sussex MPs to discuss how we can take that forward?
I am fully aware of the problems on the A27 and their impact on the A259 in my constituency, and I look forward to doing all I can to work with my hon. Friend to reach a solution.
Regional Infrastructure Development
We recognise the importance of infrastructure provision in all regions of the United Kingdom. That is why at autumn statement 2016 we committed additional capital to fund high-value economic infrastructure through the national productivity investment fund. We are committed to putting local and regional needs at the heart of this fund. For example, we are spending £1.1 billion on local projects to improve our existing transport networks. That will deliver improvements to hundreds of roads across the country.
What further help can my right hon. Friend give to infrastructure projects in Southend West, including the A127 corridor improvement works?
My hon. Friend is a tireless advocate of the case for Southend. Indeed, we met in November to discuss some of these issues. It is worth pointing out that the Government have supported improvements to the A127, with more than £35 million of local growth funding. Furthermore, local authorities will have the opportunity to bid into the £490 million local transport pot as part of the national productivity investment fund.
I welcome the investment in the electrification of the rail line between Manchester and Preston, but what more can the Chancellor do to ensure that we have vital road links, such as the Westhoughton bypass?
The Government are investing more than £13 billion in transport projects in the north and supporting local road schemes such as the Manchester airport relief road and the Heysham M6 link road. The Government are also looking at options for the Highways England north-west quadrant that should ease congestion in places such as Westhoughton.
This Government cannot even begin to pretend that they are interested in boosting infrastructure outside London and the south-east. We need only look at transport spending for proof of that. In London, transport spending is £1,000 per head; in the north-east it is not even £300. Does that not tell us about the Government’s record and their priorities?
As I said a moment or so ago, we are investing more than £13 billion in transport projects in the north. HS2 will benefit the north of England. We make no apologies for also wanting to ensure that we invest in Crossrail to deliver for London, yes, but also for the economy of the whole United Kingdom.
Before the last general election, Conservative Ministers were committed to the electrification of the Leeds-Harrogate-York line, on which commuters still suffer from travelling on Pacer trains. Will we do any better after the next general election and finally see the electrification of this line?
As I said, we are investing in our infrastructure. We already had significant plans before the autumn statement, which involved further investment to give us scope to improve our transport infrastructure. It is worth pointing out, however, that aggregate investment in economic infrastructure will rise by almost 60% between 2016-17 and 2020-21.
My hon. Friend makes an important point about interconnection between northern towns. It is worth pointing out that we are putting local and regional needs at the heart of the national productivity investment fund. That is why we are spending £1.1 billion on local projects to improve our existing transport networks.
In the same vein, I congratulate the Economic Secretary to the Treasury’s local team on their success, and I hope that I will be joined in congratulating Livingston FC, who have also gained promotion.
On infrastructure spending, there is no doubt that Crossrail is an engineering feat, but it is costing nearly more than a third of Scotland’s national budget. When will we see more devolution of infrastructure funding—perhaps to fix some of the problems of the Minister’s colleagues?
Scotland benefits from the Barnett consequentials of investment in things such as HS2, which will provide a step change in rail connectivity along the east coast corridor, bringing significant benefits to the UK economy as a whole. However, we can afford to spend money on infrastructure only if we have a stable and strong economy to deliver it.
Tourism: VAT Reduction
The Government have carefully considered the evidence for applying a 5% reduced rate of VAT on accommodation and visitor attractions, which has come up several times in the House, but we believe, on balance, that the costs of doing so outweigh the benefits. We keep all such things under review, but there are no plans for a reduction in the rate of VAT on tourism activity.
That is a disappointing answer. The campaign for a reduced rate of VAT for tourism estimates that a 5% rate would produce a higher tax take and could create 121,000 jobs across the country. That would be of particular benefit to many economically fragile coastal and island communities. Will the Minister meet campaigners to discuss things in more detail?
I am familiar with the right hon. Gentleman’s figures, and Treasury officials have met campaigners over several years to look at them. We will always look at the evidence, but we disagree with the campaign’s economic assessment. Together with HMRC, the Treasury assesses that such a cut would cost around £10 billion a year—approximately £7 billion for restaurants and bars, and about £3 billion for leisure and accommodation.
What further steps are being taken to support the tourism industry, particularly in places such as Cornwall, where tourism is so important to our local economy?
We look to support the tourism sector in a whole range of ways, and the sector is doing very well. We have seen great increases in the number of tourists, and my hon. Friend is a great advocate for his region. Tourism is one of the highest performing sectors in the economy. For example, the UK has one of the highest VAT registration thresholds in the EU— [Interruption.] The highest. That helps many small businesses that are providing goods and services to tourists without charging VAT at all.
We can now hear about tourism in South Down as well. I call Ms Margaret Ritchie.
With particular reference to that, does the Minister recognise the additional disadvantage faced by the tourism industry in Northern Ireland, particularly in border constituencies such as mine, given that the VAT rate on tourism in the Republic of Ireland sits at 9% and ours sits at 20%?
We explored those issues when I gave evidence to the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs, so I know what the hon. Lady is alluding to. One example is that the Government’s decision in last year’s autumn statement to focus on investment in infrastructure will result in an increase of more than £250 million to the Northern Ireland Executive’s capital budget, which gives them the means to boost productivity and promote regional growth in Northern Ireland.
In addition to the earlier answer to Question 4, in Scotland and Wales the Government are investing almost £1.3 billion in city deals for Glasgow, Aberdeen, Inverness, Cardiff and Swansea, and we are discussing further deals for Edinburgh, Stirling, the Tay cities and north Wales.
Will the Minister guarantee that the city deal specifically for Edinburgh and my East Lothian constituency will be neither aborted nor substantially delayed by the calling of the general election?
What I can guarantee is that it is about time the Scottish National party started delivering for the people of Scotland. The level of growth in Scotland is a quarter of that across the UK.
I absolutely agree that it would be an ideal place to be in the first stream.
When will the UK Government start to consider the Ayrshire growth deal seriously? The SNP Government back the growth deal and the local councils are all working together, so it is the UK Government who are holding back the delivery.
The Government are focused on delivering the existing deal. If the SNP Government want to do something in addition to that, it is within their power to do so.
The UK has spearheaded improvements in the transparency of beneficial ownership information. Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs is already building a register of trusts with tax consequences, which will improve transparency and assist law enforcement agencies.
We are now a year on from the anti-corruption summit. Will the UK now ensure that the overseas territories and Crown dependencies also have public registers of beneficial ownership?
We will carefully consider the commission’s proposals for a broader register. If those proposals go forward, the Government will consult on what the register should look like after the negotiations have concluded.
The Government recognise the challenge that Britain’s productivity performance represents, and we are resolved to tackle the issue. At last year’s autumn statement we launched the national productivity investment fund to provide £23 billion-worth of additional spending, focused on areas key to boosting productivity. We went further at the Budget by investing an additional £500 million in technical education to ensure that businesses can access the skills they need.
With the average worker spending 23% of their day on email, what assessment have the Government made of how the increasing reliance on email is stalling productivity?
Particularly in the context of the public sector, we have an ongoing efficiency review. Where we find areas in which we can improve efficiency and ensure that everyone becomes more productive, we will obviously look to take those opportunities.
There can be a link between productivity and recent trends in the level of employment, so if the hon. Member for Northampton South (David Mackintosh) wishes to come in on Question 17, he is welcome so to do.
At 84.4%, the employment rate in Northampton South is the 17th highest of all 632 constituencies across Great Britain. There were 3,000 more people in work in Northampton South over the past year alone, and 4,000 more than in 2010.
Exiting the EU: Alternative Trade Agreements
As the Chancellor mentioned, the Government have undertaken a significant amount of work to assess the economic impacts of leaving the EU. It is part of our continuing programme of rigorous and extensive analytical work, covering a range of scenarios, as the hon. Gentleman would expect, sector by sector.
Small businesses manufacturing car components in my constituency are hugely concerned that, post-Brexit, this country may have to revert to the World Trade Organisation agreements, which would mean increased tariff costs and further regulation, and could have an impact on the viability of the booming motor industry. What assessment has the Chancellor made of that impact?
Treasury Ministers, and indeed Ministers right across government, are speaking to individual businesses and sectors all the time to understand their concerns about issues of this sort. Obviously, we are seeking the best possible deal for the UK, and all the work being done reflects that, including in respect of understanding how we can respond to those concerns and get a great deal.
My priority is to ensure that the economy remains stable and resilient as we conduct our negotiations with the European Union. That means building upon this Government’s achievements in reducing the deficit by two thirds and getting unemployment down to the lowest rate since the 1970s, while tackling the long-term challenges of productivity enhancement and making steady progress towards our goal of a balanced budget. I am pleased to be able to tell the House that in the past few minutes the International Monetary Fund has upgraded its UK growth forecast for 2017 by 0.5%, to 2%.
Farms and other agricultural businesses are often deterred from making investments in new buildings and infrastructure because of a complex system of capital allowances, including agricultural buildings relief. Will my right hon. Friend examine this issue, particularly in respect of giving the agricultural sector a boost in the wake of Brexit?
Agricultural land and buildings are, of course, exempt from business rates, although I know my hon. Friend was talking in particular about some of the capital allowances. We are committed to a capital gains tax system that supports investment and growth right across the economy, which is why at Budget 2016 we reduced CGT rates from 28% to 20%, and from 18% to 10% for gains on most assets. Owners of agricultural businesses benefit from the same CGT rates and reliefs as other business owners.
As you know, Mr Speaker, this morning the Prime Minister called a general election. She is breaking her commitment not to hold an early election, which was made only weeks ago. She has blamed Brexit, she has blamed our European neighbours and she has blamed the Opposition parties, but the real truth is that after seven wasted years of failure the Tories have failed to close the deficit; they have added £700 billion to the national debt; pay has fallen behind prices; 4 million children are growing up in poverty; our schools are in crisis; more people than ever are on NHS waiting lists; more families are homeless; and more elderly people are not getting the care they need. Will the Chancellor use this last opportunity before the election to apologise to the British people for the utter failure of this Government’s economic policies and for the pain he has inflicted on this country?
The right hon. Gentleman has some brass neck to stand there and accuse us of having failed to eliminate the deficit, given that his policy is to add another £500 billion to it overnight. The British people understand very well what is going on here: we have a Conservative Government who are maintaining growth, and who have got unemployment down and record levels of employment, and a steadily closing deficit; and we have a Labour party which remains as fiscally incontinent as ever and which, if given a chance, would wreck this economy once again.
There we have it: not one word of apology—no contrition whatsoever—from a Chancellor who has broken his promises to the British people and is still failing to deliver on a manifesto on which he was elected only 23 months ago. The Government are entering this election having scheduled £70 billion-worth of tax giveaways—for whom? It is for the super-rich and for the corporations, and is over the next five years. The Government are entering an election with a £2 billion unfunded black hole in the Budget the Chancellor delivered only a few weeks ago. So will he now use this opportunity before the general election to put on the record that his party will rule out raising VAT and rule out raising income tax? Will he commit unequivocally to support legislation to protect the triple lock? If the Tories cannot be straight with the British people, Labour will be.
The truth is that promises made from the Opposition side of the House are not worth the paper they are written on. The voters, pensioners and workers of this country understand that very well, and they will give their verdict on Labour’s promises on 8 June.
Assuming the House votes for an election, will the Chancellor confirm that he will seek to truncate the Finance Bill, remove its controversial measures, such as making tax digital, and thereby enable everybody to focus on the economic issue that will matter most to the whole country over the next few months: which party can best be trusted to run the economy?
I certainly agree with my right hon. Friend on that last point. On the matter of process, assuming that the House votes in favour of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister’s motion tomorrow, there will then be the usual end-of-Parliament process of negotiation with the official Opposition on measures that are currently before the House, with a view to passing them in whatever form is appropriate before prorogation.
Brevity, please, because I am keen to get through as many colleagues as possible.
I can confidently predict for the hon. Gentleman that, after the general election on 8 June, there will be a Budget that will give him the answers he is seeking.
Improved rail resilience in the south-west is a priority, which is why we committed £5 million in Budget 2016 and £10 million in autumn statement 2016 to support that work. The Government will continue to work with Network Rail to develop options for future investment in the south-west in Network Rail’s control period 6.
We are very keen on employees having an opportunity to take a stake in the businesses for which they work. We will look carefully at any proposals that would tend to enhance productivity by incentivising and encouraging employees.
In most cases, the Ministry of Justice expects that banks will be able to release enough cash from the estate to pay the probate fee, and we know from HMRC that the average estate is 25% cash. The MOJ is working with the British Bankers Association and others to put arrangements in place.
The hon. Lady will know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education is considering responses to the consultation on the school funding formula. At the Budget, we announced a substantial increase in funding for 16-to-19 technical education, which will make an important contribution to improving the UK’s productivity.
I know that my hon. Friend regards the islands as particularly important, and I concur with him on that. The Government support continuing economic growth across the south-east, including all regions and islands. The Solent local enterprise partnership receives more than £180 million from the local growth fund, including funding for investment in local skills and business start-ups, with the Isle of Wight receiving about £15 million of investment in local infrastructure and skills.
Will the Chancellor give us an assurance that he will not surrender to the outrageous demands of Tusk, Juncker and Barnier that the UK must pay €60 billion before it leaves the EU?
As I have already said, this should be seen for what it is: an opening gambit in a long and complex negotiation.
As someone who also represents a coastal community, I am pleased to say that coastal areas will benefit from nearly £40 million of investment through the latest round of the coastal communities fund, and that we will do all we can to get the very best possible deal.
Will the Chancellor tell us which will be the first to go in the upcoming Tory manifesto: the pledge on international aid spending, the triple lock, or the promise not to raise any new taxes?
I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman will just have to contain himself and ready his money, because he will be able to buy a copy in due course.
We are making real progress in realising our holdings in the banking sector. We continue the programmed sale of our shareholding in Lloyds, which is now down from 43% to less than 2%. Just last month, we sold £12 billion of Bradford and Bingley mortgages in a highly competitive process. The Government are not at present actively marketing their stake in RBS. Our policy remains to return the bank to private hands as soon as we can achieve fair value for the shares, recognising that fair value could well be below what the previous Government paid for them. We must live in the real world and make decisions on the future of our holding in RBS in the best interest of taxpayers.
In the real world, seven years ago, a Tory Chancellor stood at the Dispatch Box and said that we had to cut the money to every single local authority in Britain by up to 40% because we needed to get rid of the deficit. Now, seven years later, that deficit is still more than £60 billion. Will the Chancellor apologise to the people of Britain for that lousy mistake?
That deficit is still £60 billion, but it was £200 billion when we started working on it.
Following the football theme of this afternoon, I am sure that everyone would wish to know that Cleethorpes Town has finished as champion of the Northern Counties East League, which means that even more people will want to travel to Cleethorpes. Infrastructure development was mentioned earlier. Will the right hon. Gentleman give an assurance that all roads will lead to Cleethorpes?
I will take that as a representation for all those many fans wanting to go to Cleethorpes to watch football.
Can the Chancellor confirm that HMRC takes eight months to fill a vacancy in the national minimum wage compliance unit? If that is so, what will he do properly to resource that service so that workers can get a decent day’s pay for a decent day’s work?
I will look into the specific issue that the hon. Gentleman raises, but I want to make it very clear that HMRC investigates absolutely every report of national minimum wage violations. We take the matter very seriously, and we do enforce it.
In my constituency I held a public consultation on creating an enterprise zone or a business park. The Labour county council has blocked it considerably and constantly. Would my right hon. Friend the Chancellor like to come to my constituency and listen to what my constituents are saying about having an enterprise zone?
As it happens, I was just planning my domestic travel arrangements for the next five weeks, and I will keep my hon. Friend’s request in mind when I do that.
Business of the House
With permission, I should like to make a short statement about the business for tomorrow.
Wednesday 19 April—The House will be asked to approve a motion that allows for my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister to seek an early parliamentary general election under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011. This will be followed by consideration of Lords amendments to the Technical and Further Education Bill, followed by a debate on a motion relating to section 5 of the European Communities (Amendment) Act 1993.
The business for Thursday 20 April remains Backbench Business Committee business, as I previously announced. I shall make a further announcement about future business in the usual way on Thursday.
I start by thanking the Leader of the House for his statement and for coming to the House to inform us of the change of business to a motion calling for a general election. I now understand why it was so difficult to get out of the Leader of the House a date for the forthcoming Queen’s Speech, despite consistently asking him for it. Obviously, the Prime Minister’s U-turn has been a long time in the planning.
I am concerned that the Prime Minister chose to make her statement outside No.10 rather than come to the House. This is a massive U-turn. At least seven times, most recently on 20 March, the Prime Minister has ruled out an early general election. She said:
“I’m not going to be calling a snap election. I’ve been very clear that I think we need that period of time, that stability to be able to deal with the issues that the country is facing and have that election in 2020.”
Clearly, this Government cannot be trusted.
Given that the general election is on 8 June and there are 25 working days until Parliament can be dissolved, can the Leader of the House let us know the exact date for the Dissolution of Parliament? May I repeat that a statement of such importance should have been made to the House of Commons, given the nature of this massive U-turn. Her Majesty’s Opposition will ensure that we will promote stability, and that there is an alternative fairer vision for this country.
The hon. Lady asked about the date for Dissolution. That is laid down in statute: it has to take place 25 days before the proposed date of polling day. Therefore, the date of dissolution will technically be at one minute past midnight on Wednesday 3 May, so in effect we are talking about Dissolution at midnight on the night of 2 to 3 May.
I do not recollect any previous Labour Prime Minister announcing a general election on the Floor of the House of Commons. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister went about things in the time-honoured fashion this morning. She is putting to the country the case for this Government to go forward on the basis of a clear mandate to provide the clarity and stability that the entire United Kingdom needs, as we approach the historic task of implementing the referendum decision taken by the British people and forging the new, deep and special partnership with our friends and allies in the European Union that we all want.
May I thank the Leader of the House for making a statement at the earliest possible opportunity, and the Prime Minister for making an announcement that was not leaked to the media in advance? Will my right hon. Friend confirm that it is not in the gift of the Prime Minister to decide whether there is a general election? It will be this House that decides, and if Her Majesty’s Opposition do not want a general election, cannot face it, or are worried about annihilation, they will not vote for it tomorrow.
I agree completely with my hon. Friend.
I thank the Leader of the House for his short but incendiary statement. Here we were believing that this was not the time for these types of big decisions, and that the core focus of this Government should really be on their hard Brexit. This is one of the most extraordinary U-turns in political history, and the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 has been about the biggest possible waste of this House’s time. The calling of a general election now returns to a Prime Minister, and the interests of party now come before the interests of country. In the coming election, we will ensure that Scotland continues to be fully protected from this Tory Government’s attempt to take our nation off the cliff edge of their hard Brexit and from their obsession with austerity. The Tories might play their petty party political games, knowing that they are up against a woeful and pitiful Labour party, but the Scottish National party will ensure that Scotland is fully protected from the worst of this Government’s clutches.
The Prime Minister and the party she leads will take to the people the case for the Union of the four nations of our United Kingdom, and our belief that those four nations are better off working together in that unique enduring partnership of the United Kingdom. I say to the hon. Gentleman that the Prime Minister took her decision—a decision that, as she said this morning, she took with considerable reluctance—because it is in the interests of the people of this country. It is in the interests of the entire nation that we have clarity, stability and constancy of purpose as we move forwards.
Does the Lord President agree that this is actually one of the rare occasions when it is absolutely right that the statement was first made to the British people—not to this House—because it is they who are being asked to use their sovereign power to determine the composition of a new House?
My hon. Friend makes a cogent point. It will, of course, be for this House in the first place to decide whether to approve the motion that we will debate tomorrow. If the Government’s motion is carried, we will then put our case to the people.
The Prime Minister was not for calling a snap general election, but now she is, perhaps sensing a political opportunity. The choice to go for an election now is hers and hers alone, as was the choice of a hard Brexit. Will the Leader of the House make time available before the general election campaign starts for this House to discuss the party of government’s failure on the NHS, tackling violent crime, and dealing with people with disabilities and their benefits?
I am astonished that the right hon. Gentleman, on behalf of the Liberal Democrats, was able to talk about political opportunism with a straight face. The Prime Minister alone has to take the decision to put forward the motion tomorrow, but it will be a decision for every Member of the House of Commons when we meet tomorrow to decide whether that motion is approved.
My right hon. Friend has confirmed that Parliament will be dissolved at midnight on 2 May. Will he please confirm on which date Parliament will be prorogued?
The usual discussions are under way between the usual channels about the handling of business that is currently before Parliament. On the assumption that the motion is carried by the House tomorrow, those discussions will intensify. I hope that I will be able to provide the clarity that my hon. Friend seeks as soon as possible.
The Leader of the House has given us an image of the Prime Minister being dragged, kicking and screaming, into calling a general election when she did not want one. Can we find time in what is left of this Parliament to have a debate about why she decided to trigger article 50 and then throw the entire planning into doubt by then calling a general election, which will waste at least three months of the precious, short time we have left to get the best deal for Britain?
Far from throwing things into doubt, the Prime Minister’s decision has, assuming that the people return this Government—it will be a choice for the people to take—ensured that there will be the clarity of a mandate behind her and her Government to deliver a successful negotiation, and to implement it over the course of a five-year term.
Some Members of this House are labouring under the impression that the next general election will be a rerun of the referendum. Will the Leader of the House confirm that article 50 having being triggered, regardless of who wins the next election there is no turning back?
The wording of article 50 is clear, and it is clear that any change to the two-year timetable can happen only if it is agreed unanimously by all member states, including the departing member state. As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has made clear, whatever side we took in the referendum campaign, we must respect the sovereign decision of the British people.
I thank the Leader of the House for his statement and assure him that the Democratic Unionist party will support the motion tomorrow. We say, “Bring it on: bring on the election and let people support the Union and the Unionist cause in Northern Ireland.” Will he clarify tomorrow the last date for people who wish to register to vote to do so, so that there is clarity and certainty about the registration process, especially in Northern Ireland?
Clearly, I do not want to pre-empt the decision that this House will take tomorrow, but, assuming that the motion is carried, I will try to provide that clarity as rapidly as possible.
The Leader of the House says that he does not want to pre-empt tomorrow’s decision by this House. Was not the Prime Minister attempting to do that in naming 8 June?
What the Prime Minister was doing this morning was making her ambition clear about the timeframe for the general election. I have to say to the hon. Lady that the specific date would have been the first question put to the Prime Minister, in the House and outside, had she not named one.
Mr Speaker, you may remember—as you took an active part in it—a debate in January 2000 that went on all night so that the next day’s business did not exist. Given that in debating the Finance Bill the House can sit until any hour tonight, what will the Government do in the event of tomorrow not existing?
Given that question, I suspect that the hon. Lady and her colleagues are a bunch of fearties as far as a general election is concerned.
The Leader of the House will agree, I am sure, that the prime responsibility of this House is to hold the Government to account. Does he not think that many, not just in this Chamber but outside across the country, will regard the Prime Minister’s rush to an early general election as a strategy to evade responsibility for the chaos we have had in this country since the previous Government arranged a referendum that they actually lost?
The Prime Minister’s decision is about inviting the British people, in the national interest, to return her to provide the leadership, the sense of direction and the clarity which this country needs and which those in the hon. Gentleman’s party are so clearly unable to provide themselves.
Will the Leader of the House confirm that should the motion pass tomorrow we are not voting for a new Prime Minister for just two years over the course of Brexit, but a new Prime Minister for the duration of a Parliament of five years? Many of us are expecting that either the current Prime Minister or the leader of the Labour party will walk through the door of No. 10 post 8 June. Will the Leader of the House encourage my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister to go head to head with the Leader of the Opposition in as many TV debates as possible before 8 June?
I suspect that the electorate would be fascinated to see the outcome of such a debate.
Will the Leader of the House confirm that in the event of a two-thirds majority not agreeing to tomorrow’s motion, the only way the Government could call a general election would be to table a vote of no confidence in themselves? When does he plan to do so?
We intend to go into tomorrow’s debate with the clear objective of persuading that two-thirds majority to support the Government’s motion.
The Prime Minister was inconsistent about Brexit, and now her iron determination not to call a general election transmutes into a leaden determination to have one. May I assure the Leader of the House that, with Labour in a writhing mess, we in Plaid Cymru relish the opportunity to provide a Welsh alternative to this ideologically driven, opportunist, right-wing Tory Government, and that we will be voting yes tomorrow?
I suppose I should express my appreciation for the hon. Gentleman’s final phrase, if not for the rest of his remarks.
For weeks constituents have been emailing me and telephoning my office because they are terrified of the changes to the personal independence payment regulations, which we were finally going to be allowed to debate and vote on tomorrow, but the Leader of the House has suspended that. Will he guarantee that this House, this Parliament, will have a chance to vote on and debate them before Dissolution?
As I have said, the usual channels will discuss the allocation of business between the debate concluding tomorrow and the date of Dissolution.
The Liberal Democrats welcome the opportunity to take on this divisive, destructive Tory Government and their hard Brexit, but how much will this general election cost; and if the Prime Minister wanted to do it, why did she not call it for 4 May? The decision not to do so is going to cost a lot of taxpayers’ money.
The timetable for any general election is laid down by the Fixed-term Parliaments Act and the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000. A general election on the same day as the local elections would not be possible, given what the laws require.
Inflation is rising, real living standards are potentially going to decline and we know that there will be very difficult negotiations with our European Union partners. Is not the real reason that the Prime Minister has called this election so that she can avoid having a general election in 2020, which would be very dangerous for her party? She thinks that she can win now in order to avoid dealing with the consequences of a hard Brexit.
The country I look at is one in which unemployment is falling, employment is at record levels, the deficit is down and there are record levels of spending on key public services, which is made possible because of the strong economy that my right hon. Friends the Prime Minister and the Chancellor have fostered. I look forward to a general election and to making the case to the people for that programme of political commitment and the leadership of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister to continue.
The Government’s ridiculous rape clause came into force on 6 April, with no parliamentary scrutiny. The usual channels had promised that a Delegated Legislation Committee would be held to provide some parliamentary scrutiny of that despicable policy. Will that now happen, given that Parliament is to be dissolved very soon?
Any change to the law has of course to go before Parliament. I will put the hon. Lady’s point to my colleagues among the business managers, but I cannot give her an immediate promise that she will get the time she seeks.
Will the Leader of the House confirm what will happen to the Manchester Gorton by-election, given that on 4 May there will potentially be no Parliament for any candidate to be elected to?
There is no statutory provision for the cancellation of a by-election when a general election is in progress. It is up to the judgment of the acting returning officer, whom one might expect to regard the by-election writ as having been superseded. That was the course of action taken by the acting returning officer in the one precedent that I have found, which dates back to November 1923.
Will the Leader of the House tells us whether the Prime Minister took soundings from the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland as to the impact of this announcement on the ongoing inter-party talks, and does the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland still intend to bring legislation through this House and the House of Lords in the wash-up in respect of rates and topping up the mandate for the current Assembly to appoint an Executive?
My right hon. Friend the Northern Ireland Secretary is of course considering what difference, if any, should be made to his announced plans as a result of the Prime Minister’s announcement this morning. I will try to provide the hon. Gentleman with absolute clarity as soon as possible, but my expectation is that there will continue to be a need for such legislation.
Will the Leader of the House acknowledge that we will none the less elect a metropolitan Mayor in Greater Manchester on 4 May, who will take up office and responsibility for transport in the city region? Will the Government confirm that the Bus Services Bill will complete its parliamentary passage before Dissolution?
The passage of any Bill currently before Parliament will depend on the talks between the Government and the official Opposition which always take place ahead of a general election.
In calling a snap election, do the British Government seriously take the view that a UK election will really change the EU 27 negotiating position? If so, are they not guilty of living in a land of fantasy?
It will be important that the newly elected leaders in France and Germany will meet a newly re-elected Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, all of them with the confidence that they have mandates from their voters as they approach those negotiations in a constructive spirit.
To date, the Chancellor has refused to share with Parliament any analysis of the impact of Brexit—in fact, he seems to have refused to share it with the Secretary of State for Exiting the EU, given his shambolic performance in front of the Select Committee—but this general election is all about clarity. In the interests of clarity, will the Government print analysis showing the impact of a hard Brexit versus Scotland staying in the single market, which is what my constituents voted for?
I could make the arguments that the hon. Gentleman has heard before about the vital importance to Scotland of the United Kingdom single market, but I would say to him in particular that the Prime Minister’s objective of delivering a new deep and special partnership with our friends and allies in the EU27 will serve the economic and security interests of Scotland well, as it will serve those of the whole of the United Kingdom well.
Following the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Alan Brown), is the Leader of the House in a position to confirm or deny that the 2017 Tory manifesto will say “yes” to a single market, or will it be “out”?
I will put the hon. Lady on the priority mailing list for a copy of the Conservative party manifesto.
The Scottish Parliament recently voted by a margin of 69 to 59 for us to have a referendum, yet the Prime Minister arrogantly and contemptuously told us that now is not the time. If it is now the time for this Parliament to make such a decision, should not this Parliament also empower the Scottish Parliament to allow the Scottish people to have a say on their future?
The hon. Gentleman and his parliamentary colleagues have been demanding, week after week, that the Prime Minister seek a new electoral mandate from the people of the United Kingdom in order to deliver our exit from the European Union. She is doing just that, and if the hon. Gentleman is to be consistent, he might welcome that, rather than complain.
Following the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Alan Brown), the Leader of the House is right to say the general election will be about clarity. Does he, like me, look forward to the clarity that the TV debates will give us, and does he agree that any attempt by any political leader, especially one from the Government Benches, to shirk from those invitations would be wholly unacceptable?
Ahead of tomorrow’s debate it is somewhat premature to speculate on what the broadcasters will decide to propose with regard to the allocation of time for general election coverage, but I will take the hon. Gentleman’s comments as a representation.
I was not going to speak, but like everybody else sat in this Chamber it may well be the last time I get the chance. [Interruption.] If hon. Members will let me finish. I came here to speak honestly and plainly, and to speak like the people outside this building. What I cannot understand from what the Leader of the House has said today is how any of this makes things clearer, or makes us feel more stable, more secure. All I ask is: how does this look to people outside? As somebody who came from outside, it looks to me like political opportunism.
I think and I hope that people outside this building will look at what the Prime Minister said on the steps of No. 10 this morning and believe that she is seeking an electoral mandate for herself as leader of a Government who will then be in a position to carry through the extremely challenging and ambitious European negotiations over the next two years. She would then implement the new partnership we are seeking with the EU 27, with confidence deriving from the fact that—I hope—the Government enjoy a secure, enduring parliamentary majority for those measures for an entire five-year term.
Syria and North Korea
With permission, Mr Speaker, I should like to begin by paying tribute to the Britons who were killed in tragic circumstances in Stockholm and Jerusalem. Chris Bevington was among four people who died in Sweden when a truck was driven into helpless pedestrians on 7 April. Hannah Bladon was stabbed to death in Jerusalem on Good Friday in a senseless attack. Our thoughts and prayers are with their families.
I wish to update the House on two of the most significant foreign policy events of the last fortnight, namely the situations in Syria and North Korea. These disparate challenges encompass one common theme. In each case, hereditary dictators presiding over cruel tyrannies have challenged the essential rules that underpin our world peace. The United States has responded with strength and resolve, and in accordance with its traditional role as the guarantor of the rules-based system. In both cases, the United States has acted with the full support of the British Government.
Turning first to Syria, at 6.39 am on 4 April there was a chemical weapons attack on the town of Khan Sheikhoun in rebel-held Idlib province. The House will recall the horrifying aftermath: men, women and children convulsed in agony, some foaming at the mouth, as their bodies were poisoned by nerve gas. Rescue workers tried desperately to decontaminate the casualties. We saw children with oxygen masks clamped to their faces. Even by the standards of a civil war that has claimed more than 400,000 lives, this was among the most shocking incidents.
I want to repeat for the benefit of the House exactly what we know about the attack on Khan Sheikhoun, because there has been a concerted attempt to obscure the facts. We know beyond doubt that two Sukhoi-22 aircraft took off from Shayrat airfield, where we know chemical weapons are stored. We know that they were overhead at 6.39 am when, according to all eyewitness accounts, the attack took place. We know from shell fragments in the crater that sarin had not only been used, but that it was sarin carrying the specific chemical signature of sarin used by the Assad regime. Given that samples from the victims show conclusively that they had been exposed to sarin gas, there is only one conclusion to be reached: that the Assad regime almost certainly gassed its own people, in breach of international law and the rules of war. That shows the emptiness of the agreement—reached in 2013 and guaranteed by Russia—that was supposed to rid Syria of chemical weapons once and for all, and, I am afraid, exposes the misjudgment of those who regarded that deal as a substitute for resolute action.
The attack on Khan Sheikhoun is already the subject of an international inquiry by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. Thanks in large measure to UK diplomacy, the United Nations now has a joint investigative mechanism with a mandate to identify any party responsible for chemical attacks in Syria, and I trust that it will report as soon as possible. The House should bear it in mind, however, that UN investigators have already found the Assad regime guilty of using poison gas on three separate occasions in 2014 and 2015.
Some Members have suggested that we arraign Assad before the International Criminal Court. I must say to them that the only way of bringing Syria before the ICC would be through a referral from the Security Council, and we tried that option in 2014, only to be thwarted by the vetoes of Russia and China. Sadly, Russia’s response to the attack on Khan Sheikhoun has been to try to protect Assad yet again. On 12 April, it cast its eighth veto on behalf of Assad in the Security Council, blocking a resolution that would have demanded the regime’s co-operation with the international investigation.
The day after the atrocity I spoke to Secretary of State Tillerson, and it became clear that the United States was considering a military response. In the early hours of 7 April, the US did indeed take action, firing 59 cruise missiles at the military air base from which the gas attack is believed to have been launched. We were given advance notice of the operation, but at no stage did the US Administration ask for our military help; they asked only for political support. Advance warning was given to Russian military personnel, who were co-located with the Syrian air force at the same base, to minimise the risk of casualties.
The Government believe that the US action was a necessary, appropriate and justified response to an awful crime. As many as 20 Syrian military aircraft are believed to have been destroyed, and, as the House will know, Assad’s air force has been bombing civilians day after day for most of the past six years. The destruction of some of those strike aircraft will in itself save some lives, but still more important, I think, is President Trump’s emphatic message that the era during which Assad’s barbarism met with passivity and inaction has finally come to an end. America’s determined response creates an opportunity to break the deadlock and pave the way for a political settlement of Syria’s tragedy, but that will happen only if Russia is prepared to bring Assad to the negotiating table and begin a transition to a new Government who will represent the sole chance of peace in Syria. After the chemical attack and the American strike, the priority was for Secretary Tillerson to convey that message to Russia with the backing of as many countries as possible. The combined weight of the G7, and like-minded countries in the region, unanimously supported the US military action as a “carefully calibrated” response to a “war crime”, and mandated Tillerson to go to Russia and urge the Russians to
“promote a real and genuine political process in Syria”.
I want to stress that we in the UK have no intention of dislodging Russian interests in Syria; on the contrary, we recognise Russia’s long connection with that country and the national interests at stake. But Russia’s position in Syria does not depend on Assad. The unmistakable lesson of six years of bloodshed is that Assad cannot deliver what his people—and the wider world—so desperately need, namely, a peaceful and united Syria. Therefore, I hope I have the support of everyone in this House when I call on the Russians to end their blind support for Assad, stop the gas attacks and the barrel bombs, allow the delivery of aid to those who need it, deliver a real ceasefire and begin the political process that will include a transition away from Assad.
That was the message that Secretary Tillerson conveyed to Putin and to Sergei Lavrov on 12 April. We will do our utmost in the UK to hold accountable anyone found responsible for that gas attack, and we will work with our American counterparts to create the conditions for Russia to work with us and to escape its entanglement with the toxic Assad regime, which poisons Russia’s international reputation just as surely as it poisons its own people.
I turn now to North Korea. Last weekend’s events provided further proof of the threat that that country poses to international peace and security. On Saturday, North Korea paraded an arsenal of ballistic missiles in front of carefully regimented crowds. Only 24 hours later, the regime tested another missile, although this time the launch failed. Last year alone, North Korea tested two nuclear bombs and 24 missiles. I remind Members that all those tests break a series of UN resolutions dating back to 2006, when resolution 1695 was passed unanimously by the Security Council, yet on Monday the Pyongyang regime threatened further missile tests on a
“weekly, monthly and yearly basis”.
The regime is now developing intercontinental ballistic missiles, which would be capable of delivering a nuclear strike on the mainland United States. These weapons have not yet been fully tested, but no one can be complacent about the potential threat they pose.
Yesterday, I spoke to my Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi, and I urged him to use Beijing’s unique influence to restrain North Korea and to allow a peaceful resolution of this crisis. By suspending its coal imports from North Korea, China has given a welcome signal of its willingness to exert pressure on the regime. Later this month, I shall attend a special meeting of the Security Council on North Korea.
All hopes for progress rest on international co-operation —especially between China and the US—and the verifiable disarmament of North Korea’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles. The crises in Syria and North Korea represent a challenge to the law-based liberal international order in which this country believes. Britain’s role is to stand alongside the United States and our allies as we confront those threats. In that effort, we will not tire. I commend this statement to the House.
I thank the Foreign Secretary for advance sight of his statement and join him in sending my condolences to the families of Chris Bevington and Hannah Bladon.
Obviously, the Foreign Secretary’s statement is somewhat overshadowed by another announcement today, but the issues at hand here are far more important for the future of our world than the Prime Minister’s cynical short-term manoeuvres. She talked about the need for leadership and stability, yet is happy to plunge the country into six weeks of uncertainty exactly at the time Britain needs to provide stable global leadership on issues such as Syria and North Korea. However, we should not be surprised, because on those and other global crises the Conservative party is abdicating any effective leadership role for Britain.
I turn to Syria. We were all appalled by the dreadful attacks on civilians witnessed during the Easter recess. Two weeks ago, there was the horrifying chemical attack on Khan Sheikhoun, killing dozens of ordinary villagers and injuring many hundreds more. Just two days ago—I was rather surprised that the Foreign Secretary did not see fit to mention this—there was the suicide bombing of so-called pro-regime evacuees in Rashidin, with dozens of children among those who were killed. They were lured to their deaths by the promise of free crisps—a tragic reminder that in this conflict Bashar al-Assad does not hold a monopoly when it comes to horrific atrocities against innocent civilians, including children.
We need a peaceful settlement in Syria now more than ever. Indeed, last week the Foreign Secretary said that his priority was to
“build co-ordinated international support for a ceasefire…and an intensified political process”,
and I agree with him. So why, rather than working for co-ordinated international action properly to investigate, punish and prevent the use of chemical weapons, is the Foreign Secretary instead threatening more unilateral airstrikes by the US against the Assad regime? Why, rather than engaging in that peace process, did he instead cancel his proposed talks in Moscow, and in the process so comprehensively alienate the Putin Government that they have refused to talk to Britain in future? And why, rather than ensuring that the G7 spoke with one strong voice on Syria last week, did he instead present it with a half-baked, quickly rebuffed proposal for sanctions, without doing any preparatory work to win the support that was needed?
The Foreign Secretary ended last week disowned by Downing Street, ignored by Russia, and humiliated by the G7. The only straw he can cling on to, we presume, is this: that the United States State Department is still telling him what to say and do, and which countries he is allowed to visit. To that end, may I ask a final question on Syria? Based on his close relationship with the Trump Administration, can he clarify exactly what their strategy now is?
Turning briefly to North Korea, the Foreign Secretary rightly condemns the ongoing nuclear missile programmes being pursued by Kim Jong-un’s regime. I hope he will agree that, like Syria, this a crisis that can be resolved only through co-ordinated international action, through the de-escalation of tensions and, ultimately, through negotiations. So can he assure us that Britain will argue against any unilateral military action taken by the United States, and instead urgently back China’s call for a resumption of the six-party talks? When it comes to North Korea, the world needs statesmanship, not brinkmanship. We cannot afford blind loyalty to the Trump Administration if they are leading us down the path to war.
Peace in Syria and North Korea and our relationship with the Trump Administration are vital issues for the future of Britain and the world, and, as much as the Prime Minister would like the coming election simply to be about Brexit, we must ensure that these and other international concerns are not forgotten.
To that end, my final question for the Foreign Secretary is this: will he commit to join me in a televised debate between all the parties on foreign policy—no ifs, no buts? I am ready to say yes now, so will he commit today to do likewise: announce the first election debate and put his party’s promise of stable leadership on the line?
I am obviously disappointed that the shadow Foreign Secretary should choose to intrude into this very important consideration relatively separate issues of domestic political policy: we are trying to explain the position of the UK, and indeed the west, towards the Assad regime. And, by the way, we are having a televised debate now in case she had not noticed, and we should continue in that way.
To answer the right hon. Lady’s serious point, we are engaged in trying to use the opportunity provided by American action to drive forward the political process. It is not easy, and I think in all honesty that she should reflect on her approach, because what we are trying to do requires a great degree of cross-party support. We want the Russians to face up to the real option before them. If they continue to back Assad, they will be backing a regime that—I hope Members heard what I said about the use of chemical weapons—has been proved beyond a shadow of doubt to have used chemical weapons that are banned under international law. I would like the Russians to accept that there is a deal. That could be that they have an improvement in their relations with the Americans, and work together with the rest of us to tackle the scourge of Daesh. In return, the Russians need to understand that they need to make a serious commitment to a political process. At the moment, they are not doing that. They need to make a proper commitment to a ceasefire, and at the moment they are not making that commitment. They need to stop their client using chemical weapons. They said that they would do that in 2013. Rather than simply parroting the lines of the Kremlin, the right hon. Lady should support the collective action of the west, not just the G7 but the like-minded countries—
The right hon. Lady has said, for instance, that the west is divided in its attitude towards sanctions. Let us be absolutely clear that all we are trying to do is to follow where the evidential trail leads—[Interruption.] If the OPCW finds that members of the Syrian armed forces have been responsible for that attack, I hope she will agree that they should face sanctions. If she were to oppose that, I would find it absolutely extraordinary. The United States has moved to impose sanctions on a further 300 people, and there has been a large measure of support from all western countries for doing exactly that.
Furthermore, it seems unclear from the right hon. Lady’s account whether she supports the American action at all. I wonder whether she could enlighten the House as to whether she is in favour of what the Americans did. For the first time in five years, the Trump White House has shown that the west is not prepared to sit by and watch while people are gassed with weapons that should have been banned—
Order. We appreciate the Foreign Secretary’s inimitable rhetorical style, but I fear that the right hon. Lady, by moving as though to intervene, supposes that she is taking part in a debate. Let us await the televised debate, if it is to happen. At this point, the Foreign Secretary can content himself with responding to questions.
I am grateful, Mr Speaker.
It was far from clear to me, in listening to the right hon. Lady’s response, whether she actually supports what the United States has done. I would like some elucidation on that. As I have said, for the first time in five years, that action has shown that the west is willing to stand up to the use of these vile weapons. This has given us a political opportunity that we have hitherto not had, and I think that her best bet would be to support this Government and the efforts of western countries in trying to drive that forward and get the Russians to deliver a genuine political solution—[Interruption.]
Order. I say to the right hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry) that all sorts of things might be judged by some people to be intolerable, but I am afraid that what is above all intolerable is to depart from the normal process. She is a person of very considerable intellect and ingenuity. Doubtless, through her colleagues—and possibly subsequent to the statement—she can find ways of giving expression to her concern, but at this point if she could assume a Zen-like calm, the House would be the beneficiary of that.
It is obviously right that a diplomatic joint approach in Syria is more important than unilateral action. Will the Foreign Secretary therefore commit to continuing to work closely with our American allies and other partners and friends to bring an end to this barbaric slaughter in Syria?
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his question. That is exactly what we are engaged in doing. I do not pretend to the House that it will be easy. We have been here before; we have seen the whole Kerry-Lavrov rigmarole that went on for months and months. However, this is an opportunity for Russia to recognise that it is supporting a regime that deserves the odium of the entire world. That is costing Russia friends and support around the world, but it now has a chance to go for a different approach, and that is what we are collectively urging it to do.
I thank the Foreign Secretary for advance sight of his statement and I associate Scottish National party Members with his opening remarks, in which he paid tribute to those who lost their lives in Jerusalem and Stockholm. Our thoughts are with their families.
The international community must respond to what can only be described as the monstrous actions of the Assad regime. There should be an international investigation sponsored by the Security Council. If that is blocked, such an investigation should be ordered by the General Assembly of the United Nations. The mechanisms exist to enable that to happen, and the UK Government must lead the way. The findings should be taken to the International Criminal Court and those responsible should be arraigned and subjected to the force of international law.
The US air strikes on Shayrat airfield are a demonstration of the unpredictability of the Trump Administration, which many fear will only cause further escalation of the conflict. In their rush to congratulate that Administration on their recent strike, did the UK Government consider its repercussions? Until now, coalition aircraft have operated with relative freedom against Daesh in eastern Syria. Now, Russia has suspended the US-Russia air operations accord, and the Assad regime will likely activate its extensive air defences. The skies above Syria will therefore be much more dangerous for UK pilots, while Syrian civilians on the ground will suffer even more.
We in the SNP have questioned the UK Government’s policy on airstrikes from the very beginning, but now we must have answers. What changes will have to be made to adapt to the changing situation, and how will that affect the coalition aerial campaign against Daesh? UK jets and bombs will not bring peace in Syria. We call on the UK Government to reconsider their tactics and urgently present a revised military strategy in Parliament. Although dialogue aimed at ending the conflict is welcome, above all we want hostilities to cease and civilians to receive the basic food, shelter and medical care that they so badly need.
Finally, on North Korea, we urge all parties to lower tensions and use diplomatic means to work through disagreements. This is yet more evidence of the need to implement multilateral disarmament and put an end to the existence of weapons of mass destruction in general, and nuclear weapons in particular.
The hon. Lady will know that the UK is already the second biggest donor of humanitarian aid to the region, so we have a record that we can be proud of. I return to what she had to say about the American strike. I am looking at faces that are familiar from previous statements on Syria; month after month I have come here to update the House on how that tragedy is unfolding, and I see people who have taken a passionate interest in this subject and have called repeatedly for us to do more. Finally, the United States has taken what we believe to be condign action—action that I think is entirely appropriate—but somehow it fails to find favour with the hon. Lady.
I think that what has happened is a good thing, but we should not overstate its importance from a military point of view. We have to recognise that this is a political opportunity, and it is an opportunity for the Russians to recognise the manner of regime that they are propping up. That is the message that we need to get over loud and clear, and unanimously.
As for North Korea, the hon. Lady makes a good point about the need to get rid of nuclear weapons. I think it would be foolish—I hope that she agrees—for the United States even to begin to think of getting rid of its nuclear weapons before we have a denuclearised North Korea.
I thank the Foreign Secretary for the detailed evidence he has presented to the House about the responsibility for the nerve agent attack in Syria. I commend him for giving the House that detail and, in doing so, I invite him to depersonalise his assessment of the Syrian regime simply around the personality of its President. We already have in place a mechanism by which that President will be held to account in future by the Syrian people if he wishes to seek their views under the International Syria Support Group conclusions of November 2015. That process has already been agreed on by 20 nations, and we should be relying on that and not using rhetoric that might make it more difficult to get into that process.
Finally, if I may ask my right hon. Friend about North Korea, I invite him to put pressure on the United States to try to dial down the public rhetoric. In some ways, North Korea is like an attention-seeking child who happens to belong to someone else—in this case, China. While the United States has proper responsibilities to the other nations in the area about their security, ratcheting up the rhetoric with North Korea is probably the wrong way of publicly dealing with it.
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend that we should be clear that our quarrel is not only with Bashar al-Assad, but with others in his regime. It will be possible to sketch out a route map to show how we can keep the institutions of Syrian government and yet get rid of the most murderous elements of the regime. We need to be getting that idea across clearly in the next weeks and months.
On North Korea, I am sure that my hon. Friend’s words on the need to avoid ratcheting up the rhetoric are wise—he speaks from experience—but I believe that the key lies mainly with China in this arena. It is very much in the interests of the Chinese and the Russians, who share a border with North Korea, to rein in Kim Jong-un and persuade him to abandon what I think is a path of self-destruction.
In the light of the American Vice-President’s current visit to the region to consult, one hopes, South Korea and Japan, among others, on the most effective way of containing North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, and reflecting on the Foreign Secretary’s own experience at the recent G7 summit, does he think that there is the potential for further economic sanctions directed at Pyongyang? Does he think that China would fully support such a step?
The crucial thing is for the Chinese and others to implement the current sanctions and to allow them to have a full economic impact. As the right hon. Gentleman may know, there has been some doubt in recent months about the full application of those sanctions. The people of North Korea are living in absolute misery, penury and servitude. The trouble is that they can probably continue to live in that state for a long time to come, unless their Government see sense. We must work with the Chinese to persuade them.
Given the fact that the Chinese, in a most welcome manner but rather surprisingly, did support sanctions at the UN in 2013, the chances are that they will come to the UN Security Council meeting at the end of this month in a positive frame of mind. The Foreign Secretary is right that Russia shares a small border with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. It is also a permanent member of the UN Security Council and is party to the six-party talks. In addition to having good discussions with his opposite number Wang Yi in China, will my right hon. Friend commit to talk to Sergey Lavrov and point out that this is another chance for Russia to rehabilitate its international reputation, which is extremely tarnished at the moment?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. He has great expertise in this matter. It is perfectly true that the economic relationship is overwhelmingly between China and North Korea, but, as he says, Russia certainly has a role. Russia should not be permitted to hide endlessly behind China’s skirts, a point that Rex Tillerson made in Moscow on 12 April.
In 1988, I took a cross-party group from this House to see some of the survivors of the Halabja attack. There was lot of discussion about who was responsible, and people such as Professor Alastair Hay went out to Halabja and brought back soil samples and evidence. I wonder whether experts in the UK are again being used to find out who perpetrated this terrible carnage and suffering on the Syrian people. Has the Foreign Secretary talked to such people, who could be of help again due to their experience in dealing with chemical weapons?
I well remember the right hon. Lady’s efforts in respect of Halabja, and she played a big part in hardening my heart against Saddam Hussein many years ago. She campaigned on the matter with great effect, and rightly so.
What we are doing today is supporting the OPCW’s expert fact-finding mission, and I have sketched out all we know about what happened on the morning of 4 April—the best evidence that we have so far—and I hope the House will believe that the evidence is very persuasive indeed. The fact-finding mission will now draw on a variety of sources, including samples from the victims, environmental samples, munition fragments, footage of the incident and its aftermath, and interviews with survivors, people who were first on the scene, medics and eye witnesses. The mission will be able to draw on signals intelligence, flight tracking, data analysis, meteorological information and other information that will be shared by us and other countries concerned.
Our experience is that such fact-finding missions are able to reach conclusions in very difficult circumstances and, going back to the point I made to the right hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry), we need such information to create the evidential trail to the individuals responsible. There is good evidence already, and we will use what we have, when and where possible, not only to impose sanctions but to pursue prosecutions for war crimes.
My right hon. Friend says that Russia’s position in Syria does not depend on Assad but that the Assad regime’s position in Syria is wholly dependent on Russia, and that Russia must accept its responsibility for the attack. If Russia’s reputation is to be rehabilitated, the first important step will be to help ease the Assad regime out of Syria.
I absolutely agree with my right hon. Friend. It is crucial to understand that the Russians, as they have freely admitted in the past, do not have any deep spiritual affinity with Bashar al-Assad. They do not love him but are wedded to him for the time being. I believe that, in the long term, there can be no future for Syria with Bashar al-Assad in power, and we have to find a way forward. What we want to do now is to reach out to the Russians, to get them to understand that point and to commit to a serious political process, and we should not abandon that goal.
I do not regret any of my votes opposing military intervention in Syria, because at various times we were asked to oppose one side or the other, but if there had been no military retaliation in response to the chemical attack, is there not a case that it would have encouraged Assad to do it again?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right, and it is why we should acknowledge that the United States has changed the terms of trade in Syria. It is now up to us to make the most of this opportunity to get political change.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his statement and for the tone with which he made it. One of the purposes of the American action the other day was, as it would have been in 2013, to demonstrate to President Assad that he cannot militarily subjugate all his people and, therefore, to give force to negotiations in which he will actually have to concede something. The difficult question is this: had the US Secretary of State asked my right hon. Friend for some sort of support that evening, what would have been his answer? Do he and the Government consider themselves bound by the decision of the House in August 2013 and David Cameron’s statement afterwards? If so, does he intend to return to the House to discuss the matter further? If not, what might the United Kingdom be able to do to demonstrate its force and resolve against such actions as those we saw from President Assad the other week?
As my right hon. Friend knows and as I said, we were not asked for specific support, but it is my belief—I stress that no such decision has yet been taken—that were such a request to be made in future and were it to be a reasonable request in pursuit of similar objectives, it would be very difficult for the United Kingdom to say no.
Hannah Bladon was a student at Birmingham University, and our thoughts and prayers are with her, her family and her friends. As a result of her having been stabbed to death in Jerusalem, has the Foreign Office changed any of its travel advice?
I repeat my condolences to the family of Miss Bladon. All I can say is that although we are offering consular assistance to her family, at the moment we are not changing our general advice about travel to Israel.
Given the vile propaganda role of Asma al-Assad in propping up a murderous and barbaric war criminal, will the Foreign Secretary update the House as to what discussions he has had with the Home Secretary so that we can send a very clear message that such a role is incompatible with British citizenship?
We do not discuss individual citizenship cases, as I am sure my hon. Friend knows, although I understand the feelings she is expressing. What I can tell her is that Asma al-Assad, in common with her husband, is certainly on the sanctions list.
The Foreign Secretary’s original statement was comprehensive and measured, but it had one significant omission—there was no mention of Turkey. There are 3 million Syrian refugees in Turkey and, as he knows, the Turkish Government and President Erdogan have called for a no-fly zone. Others, including myself, have called for a no-fly zone over Idlib. What discussions are ongoing about how to protect civilians in Syria, not just from chemical weapons, but from barrel bombs?
The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point and he is right to draw attention to the cardinal role of Turkey in this whole crisis. As he knows, Turkey has borne the brunt of the huge tide of refugees, and I agree very much with what he is saying about no-fly zones, which are strongly supported by Rex Tillerson and the US. However, they cannot be delivered without a ceasefire, which is why I return to this challenge we are making to the Russians: it is up to them not just to stop the barrel bombs that the hon. Gentleman mentions, but to deliver a real ceasefire.
The Foreign Secretary rightly dealt at length with the chemical attack, but I was surprised he did not take the opportunity to condemn also the appalling attack on Shi’a civilians in which 126 were killed, including 68 children, when fleeing from Foah and Kefraya. This highlights the problem faced by Alawites, Shi’a and Christians in Syria: however much they detest Assad, as we all do, they rely on him to protect them. For too long in this House, we have tried to engage in regime change—in removing Saddam, Gaddafi and now Assad. We should concentrate on humanitarian work and on protecting minorities in the middle east.
I fully appreciate the point my hon. Friend makes and he is perfectly right when he says that our thoughts should equally be with the 126 victims of that appalling attack, many of whom were children, as the right hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury said. There are many, many victims in this conflict, but the overwhelming majority of the 400,000 who have died in the past five or six years—I believe this war is now in its seventh year—have been victims of the Assad regime and its supporters. For that reason, I must say to my hon. Friend that I understand his hesitations, which are of course shared by many people, who think instinctively that perhaps it would be better to stay with the devil we know, but this is a very, very odious devil indeed, and as I look ahead I just cannot see how Bashar al-Assad can remain in power in Syria in the long term. We have to go back a long way in history to find somebody who has murdered quite so many of his population and retained office.
I thank the Foreign Secretary for his statement. Of course, it is not for any of us in this House to decide who runs Syria; that is a choice for the Syrian people.
We should judge recent events in Syria as being successful only if they form part of a comprehensive strategy to protect civilian life. What conversations has the Foreign Secretary had with the Secretary of State for International Development about getting the aid that we as a country have paid for to those who need it in Syria? Thanks to you, Mr Speaker, we were able to call for such action for Aleppo, but we failed. Now, people in Idlib are being targeted in a way that we have discussed in this House previously. What strategy do we have to save civilian lives, to get aid in, to get people out of Syria so that they can receive medical attention, and to help to save each and every life that we can?
I pay tribute to the hon. Lady’s consistent campaigning on this issue over the years. She is right to draw attention to the appalling humanitarian situation. Around 1.5 million people are still being besieged by Assad’s regime, which is using starvation as an instrument of warfare. On what we are trying to do, I go back to my earlier points: there must be a ceasefire and the Russians must make it possible for the humanitarian convoys to access the people who need help. That is what we are trying to promote, not only in Geneva but at the Astana talks. It is up to the Russians. We can build the exit for them, and I think it is an attractive exit: they have the chance to get long-term western support for the rebuilding of Syria; they would have their strategic interests in Syria—at Tartus and Latakia—protected in the long term; and they could have a political role in Syria’s future, but they have to ensure that there is a ceasefire, an end to the barrel bombs and a proper political process.
Will the Foreign Secretary tell us what the outcome of that proper political process would be, given that even commentators who absurdly used to claim that there were 70,000 moderate fighters against Assad in Syria now accept that the overwhelming majority of the armed opposition is run by Islamists? While accepting that Assad is a monster in the tradition of Gaddafi and Saddam Hussein, does the Foreign Secretary also accept that there is a distinction between punishing him for using chemical weapons and removing him to replace him with a virulent Islamist regime?
I strongly agree with the wisdom of that remark. It will be essential to have a political process that preserves the institutions of the Syrian state while decapitating the monster.
The international community has failed in Syria for too long, so I echo the Foreign Secretary’s comments: some action was indeed needed, and may be needed in future. His statement was quite rightly firm on Russia, but it did not give a sense of how the peace talks will move forward, which, as well as Russia changing its position, is clearly essential.
As several hon. Members have said, in the end, the new constitution and arrangements for Syria will be a matter for the Syrian people, but there are certainly people in Syria on either side of the debate who could come together to form a new federal Government for the country and take it forward to a much brighter future.
Russia has propped up the Assad regime for far too long. When I met the Russian ambassador a year ago, I urged him to request that his Government find a new home for Assad outside Syria to enable the political process to move forward and create peace in that country, but he declined. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is time for Russia to change its mind on that matter?
To the best of my knowledge, the Russian President suggested that Bashar al-Assad should find refuge in some Gulf country, which I shall not upset by naming.
In his statement, the Foreign Secretary said, “I stress that we have no intention of dislodging Russia from Syria.” Well, we would be fools to think that we could. He then went on to say, “But Russia’s position in Syria does not depend on Assad.” For the past seven years, Putin has supported Assad through thick and thin. He will not suddenly develop a conscience, as we can see from his actions over the years in Chechnya and elsewhere. We are left in a position in which Russia, as a member of the UN Security Council, will constantly block any military attempts, which leaves us with a scenario where Trump could take unilateral action, as he did on the Syrian airfield. Although I supported that particular action, how far are we supposed to support Trump in those actions without the backing of the Security Council? Clearly, he could take such action against Assad and against President Kim in North Korea.
I disagree very strongly with the hon. Gentleman. Of course, it is difficult. Of course the Russians have been backing Assad for many years, but this is an opportunity for them to have a new bargain in which there is a ceasefire, an end to the barrel bombs and an end to the chemical weapons—a real political solution—and in exchange they get a genuine relationship with the United States, join the rest of the world in the war against Daesh—[Interruption.] Yes, and they have an acknowledgment that they have a way out of the quagmire of Syria and that the west will step in, once it is possible, to pay for the reconstruction of that country.
Iran has committed hundreds of troops and billions of dollars to Syria. Furthermore, many Iranians in living memory have been victims of chemical attacks. Will my right hon. Friend reassure the House that his Department is taking advantage of the full diplomatic relations that we now have with Iran to put pressure on the Assad regime?
Yes, we certainly are. An important point to make to the Russians is that, in the end, it is the Iranians who are benefiting from any progress that the Assad regime makes. It is the Iranians who are the whip-holders in that relationship. In the end, the Russians need to detach themselves from the Iranians as well as from Assad.
I hear what the Secretary of State is saying, but a new report from Human Rights Watch suggests that US forces last month failed to properly confirm targets before launching a missile strike in Aleppo, killing dozens of civilians, including lots of children. They even destroyed a building that it has been established was a mosque. As the UK Government cheerlead yet more US airstrikes in Syria, what steps will he take to avoid yet more civilian deaths in Syria?
Obviously, we deplore any civilian deaths in Syria, but I also deplore any false equivalence between American actions and the dropping by the Assad regime of barbaric weapons, which were banned in 1925.
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s call for a peaceful and united Syria—who could disagree with that—and especially the need for the humanitarian protection of civilians, but does he agree that putting down shutters is never a productive way forward? In that light, will he confirm that he remains in regular contact with his Russian counterparts?
I appreciate the statement from the Foreign Secretary, and extend my sympathy and thoughts to the Bevington and Bladon families. He mentioned that his Government have to deal with odious devils. Of course some of those devils are home grown, and this Government have been able to deal with them in the past. It may seem attractive to remove one leader from power in terms of regime change, but does he accept that the real lynchpin in Syria is Russia? What is the true state of his relationship with Russian officials and of the relationship between Her Majesty’s Government and the Putin regime?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. In the end, it was the Russian intervention that saved Bashar al-Assad’s regime. The Russians have it in their hands to change the outcome in Syria for the benefit of not just the Syrian people, but Russia as well.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his statement, but, to echo the question of my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh), there are Members who are concerned about this phrase “regime change” and any policy that moves in that direction. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that if the US moves towards a more explicit regime-change policy with regard to Assad, we would support it only after a vote in this House endorsing such a policy?
The policy of the Government is spelt out very clearly in resolution 2254, which calls for a political process leading to a transition away from the Assad regime. I think my hon. Friend will agree that that is the right way forward.
The Foreign Secretary confirmed that the regime had been responsible for three previous chemical attacks on civilians. Given that, can he confirm whether there is international support for targeted sanctions against military commanders, despite the way the negotiations went earlier?
I am grateful for that question because there was never a proposition for general sanctions against Russia, for instance. That was a piece of media ectoplasm, if you like, Mr Speaker. We have strong support for the idea of taking the evidence that the fact-finding mission will accumulate, using it to isolate the individuals who may have been responsible—by the way, there may be Russian military advisers who are complicit—and not only imposing sanctions on them, which I know my hon. Friend agrees would be the right thing to do, but arraigning them for war crimes.
What role does the Foreign Secretary see the United Kingdom playing in confronting the bellicose actions of the North Korean regime?
The most important and useful thing we can do is to intercede with our Chinese friends to stress to them the huge influence that they have in this matter and get them to use their economic weight to get Pyongyang to see sense.
Points of Order
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Is it in order for the Secretary of State, while refusing to answer the challenge of a televised debate, to use the opportunity of a statement to make the most extraordinary claims? Perhaps the biggest was that he was unaware of Labour’s position on this matter. We have made it abundantly clear that the way we should have proceeded was for UN inspectors to establish beyond doubt who was responsible and challenge the international community, including the Russians, to take multilateral action against the perpetrator, who is presumably Mr Assad.
What I would say to the right hon. Lady off the top of my head is that unawareness, whether real or proclaimed, is not disorderly. Proceedings have been orderly. Some people may feel better informed, others may not, but the right hon. Lady, who has considerable experience, both of this place and of pleading her case in the courts, has made her own point with her own eloquence in her own way, and it is on the record.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. On Sunday 2 April and again on Sunday 9 April the former Deputy Prime Minister Lord Prescott claimed that my father, when Member of Parliament for North Antrim, had his phone tapped by the security services, contrary to the Wilson doctrine. This infringed the rights and liberties of all 650 Members of the House and, more importantly, the rights and liberties of our constituents. What steps can be taken to verify Lord Prescott’s claims and to hold to account those who failed to inform the Speaker at that time about the breaking of the Wilson doctrine? What course is now open to Parliament to uncover the truth in this affair?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman both for his point of order and for his characteristic courtesy in giving me notice of his intention to raise it. If he believes that the privileges of the House have been infringed, the proper course of action is for him to write to me, setting out the facts of the matter.
There is a specific reason for my exhortation to write in this particular circumstance. He is essentially raising a matter of privilege. Traditionally, in such circumstances the Chair always advises a Member to write to the Speaker. If the hon. Gentleman does so, I will make a decision on whether this should be pursued as a matter of privilege. We will leave it there for now. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman.
Parish Council Governance (Principles of Public Life)
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 make provision for the governance and operation of parish councils in England; and for connected purposes.
I am bringing in this Bill to make a fundamental point— that, as we devolve power down to local communities, we should ensure that the councils to which we are giving more power are run in a good way. Throughout all of public life, we should ensure that elected representatives adhere to the Nolan principles of selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership. Those principles need to be at the heart of all governance and, indeed, of parish councils.
I declare my own involvement in local councils. I was a district councillor and twice a parish councillor before coming to this place. I have helped to produce a neighbourhood plan and sat on various parish council committees. As a councillor and now via feedback as a Member of Parliament I have seen how parishes should work. I am passionate about the principle that decisions should be made as locally and as properly as possible. Indeed, as Hamble-le-Rice Parish Council is showing—it is to agree the first stages of a neighbourhood plan—good parishes can make a real difference, with committed people coming together in the best interests of their area. I also fully support those calling for Eastleigh to have a town council to give it a separate voice in the face of hostile development through Eastleigh Borough Council’s missing local plan. I completely support the Government’s great devolution programme, which empowers communities.
I will speak today about the most local form of government: parish councils. There is a patchwork of 9,000 parish councils across England, each offering the closest form of representation in our democracy. Serving on these parishes are 80,000 councillors—some elected, some unopposed and some co-opted. However, a strong part of ensuring that localism and the devolution agenda really work for people is ensuring that councils and councillors are ready to receive these new powers.
We need to ensure that parish councils are truly representative. Representatives should come forward to offer a mix of talent and experience—they should have varied backgrounds. However, the party politicisation of parishes in many areas sadly and brutally undermines that situation. This Bill would seek to reverse that. Multi-hatting, whereby a councillor sits on a number of different councils, is not in itself a bad thing. Vertical multi-hatting, where a councillor is a parish and a district councillor, or a parish and a county councillor, helps to foster good communication between councils. However, I draw the attention of the House to the growing negative version of this, which I call horizontal multi-hatting. This is when an individual sits on multiple parish councils.
A borough councillor in my constituency sits on Bursledon Parish Council and West End Parish Council. The seat that this individual is taking up could have been filled by someone who genuinely wanted to contribute to their community, rather than purely to be a political placeholder—somebody who is not just seeking to qualify simply by being within three miles of one or two boundaries. In such instances, it really is a case of keeping seats cold, rather than keeping them warm. Or is it just a question of spying on the other camp? There should be a restriction on this kind of horizontal multi-hatting so that people can get involved with community representation and political parties cannot simply block others from taking part in the community.
The Bill also highlights the concerning weakness of safeguarding in parish councils. A parish council often has a single member of staff in the form of a part-time clerk. Parish councillors are often heavily involved in the local community and the many organisations they work within. They are the lifeblood of the parish council. Two problems can arise from that. First, a proper and effective safeguarding policy is difficult to maintain with limited staff time and an often rather informal approach to governance. Secondly, and very seriously, in instances brought to my attention in my constituency and elsewhere, parish councillors have used their position to bypass safeguarding policies. I have heard reports that parish councillors are using their position within their communities, and their status as a councillor, in order to get inappropriate access to community places such as local schools and community buildings.
When we discuss these matters it is important to balance the real need for good safeguarding with the right to stand in a local election. I believe that this balance can be rightly struck by requiring all council candidates to be DBS—Disclosure and Barring Service—checked as a first step to being nominated for an election. We also need to ensure that best practice for safeguarding is instilled right down to our parish councils and right across the country. That will include effective tracking and logging of potential interactions between councillors while performing their duties, such as surgeries, particularly where vulnerable members of society will be approaching people for assistance by virtue of their councillor status. This will of course mean more focus on training for parish councillors.
As we push power downwards to local communities, we must also provide those communities with access to outstanding training for their local representatives. During discussions with the area branch of the National Association of Local Councils it has given me wonderful examples of effective and comprehensive parish council training packages, which can and must be implemented. I was particularly pleased to see the example set by Hampshire NALC, under the brilliant Colin Mercer, a councillor in Botley, who is ensuring that exactly this kind of work is done for our new councillors. NALC has provided me with a copy of its handbook, which it says is the most requested publication that it writes. The handbook points the way towards a national training standard for our parish councillors. At a time when we are giving more power, more responsibility and more discretion to parish councils, we need to fully understand their new role in localism and the devolution agenda.
I am sure that colleagues will sympathise with the feeling of having been elected and then suddenly told to just get on with it. That is clearly not good enough. The people making the decisions on planning for finance, for project management, for procurement, for key contracts, and for the challenging and complex issues that keep a vibrant community alive must be in the best possible position to decide on the outcomes. We need to look at a more effective system of oversight for our parish councils to give them confidence in good decision making.
I want to make it absolutely clear that in my experience as a parish councillor and as an MP, the vast majority of parishes are doing a fantastic job of representing their community and working hard within it. However, in the tiny minority of cases where things go wrong, we need to make sure that someone is there to properly scrutinise and learn lessons. Whether it is through expanding the remit of the ombudsman, bringing in a clear and stronger code of conduct review, or, again, standards boards, we need to be able to tackle this issue.
Fundamentally, my experience and my political outlook mean that I firmly believe in giving more power to local communities. While we debate here in this grand Chamber and even grander building, it is worth remembering that people across the country, this evening and throughout the week, will be putting on their coats and walking up to their local village hall, sitting regularly in their community spaces wanting to make their communities and local areas a little bit better. I believe that these measures will assist those councillors and make our parishes work better so that they can continue to serve their residents fully and even more confidently.
Question put and agreed to.
That Mims Davies, Scott Mann, William Wragg, Mrs Anne-Marie Trevelyan, John Howell, Amanda Solloway, Antoinette Sandbach and Lucy Allan present the Bill.
Mims Davies accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 12 May and to be printed (Bill 168).
Finance (No. 2) Bill
The amendment has been selected.
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
This Government have long demonstrated that they can deliver a stronger, more secure economy. The economy is demonstrating robust growth, the employment rate is at a record high and the deficit has been brought down by almost two thirds since its pre-financial crisis peak.
We are in a much stronger position now than we were in 2010, but there is no room for complacency. Indeed, as we begin the formal process of exiting the European Union, we have an even greater incentive to provide a strong and stable platform for the future. Both the debt and the deficit are still too high, so we remain focused on getting the public finances in order, not continuing to endlessly borrow and jeopardise future generations, as some would have us do.
Will the Financial Secretary give way?
I will make a little more progress and then I will happily give way.
Before setting out the Bill’s contents in more detail, I should of course refer to the fact that the Prime Minister has today announced her intention to lay before this House a motion calling for an early general election.
Members should be paying more attention. Earlier today the Leader of the House updated right hon. and hon. Members on how that motion, if it is passed, will impact on the business of the House. We hope to hold constructive discussions with the Opposition, through the usual channels, on how this Bill will proceed.
We are always here to help.
It is good to hear that Opposition Front Benchers are here to help.
To return to the matter under discussion, I will lay out the themes of the Bill and then I will allow the hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr (Jonathan Edwards) to intervene. We are very clear that our taxes and the system underpinning them need to be fair and competitive and, critically, they must be paid. This Bill will take the next steps in helping to deliver a fairer and more sustainable tax system, one that can support our critical public services and get the country back to living within its means.
The Bill implements changes that respond to the challenges that our tax system and, indeed, our society face. It delivers on intergenerational fairness by tackling inequality of health outcomes across and within age groups, and it delivers changes that better reflect the different ways in which individuals choose to work, enabling people to earn money and create wealth, whatever their chosen business structure, but at the same time ensuring that those choices are not distorted. The Bill also delivers vital revenues to put our public finances on a sustainable footing, secure the future of public services that we all value and help to further bring down the deficit.
Will the Financial Secretary confirm that the Office for Budget Responsibility report that accompanied the most recent Budget downgrades growth forecasts for each year in the forecasting period, by comparison with that which accompanied last year’s Budget?
I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman was in the House earlier, but the International Monetary Fund has today upgraded its growth forecast. All the economic indicators are pointing to robust growth, despite the acknowledged challenges of the negotiating period ahead.
In the interests of this potentially more consensual period in the run-up to Prorogation, as we try to work out what will remain in the Bill, could the Financial Secretary tell the House where the £2 billion per annum to replace the non-raising of the national insurance contribution is going to come from, if she is so wedded to balancing the books?
The Chancellor was clear at the time and in our statements about the Budget and subsequent decisions that we are looking to balance the budget across the period. Clearly, if we are going into a general election campaign, we will have more to say about that in the manifesto. We will lay that out there; this is not the place for that.
This is the Finance Bill!
Well, there are measures in the Bill that are immediately and openly about revenue raising, and we will come to some of those. The Chancellor was very direct about that when he made his Budget statement and, indeed, at the time of the autumn statement.
Let me say a bit about what the Government have done to support fairness between the generations. An essential priority for this Government is that everyone should have access to our NHS when they need it, and that everyone should enjoy security and dignity in old age. That is why we announced in the spring Budget an additional £2 billion—that has just been referred to—in funding for adult social care. This means that councils in England will have access to, in total, £9.25 billion more dedicated funding for social care over the next three years as a result of changes introduced by this Government since 2015.
On top of that, in the last two fiscal events we have done much to help to build a better future for our younger generation by helping people to save more of the money they earn; by investing in education and skills, which was a key theme of the autumn statement and of the Budget; and by building more affordable homes. The Finance Bill will build on this work, particularly by helping to tackle childhood obesity and to deliver a healthier future for our children.
Recent studies have shown that the youngest people in our society who are working, those aged 22 to 29, are earning less than previous 22 to 29-year-olds have ever earned, or certainly less than they have earned in recent times. They are also less likely to own a home and are more likely to rent, and they are disadvantaged by comparison with previous generations. What is the Minister doing to ensure that that stops and is reversed now?
I have just talked about some of the things we are doing. Some of these long-term trends need to be addressed through things such as investing in people’s skill levels. Ultimately, if we want to have a low welfare, high wage, high skill economy, we need to invest in people right from the earliest days. The package on skills in particular, which was unveiled recently, is intended to make the generational step change to ensure that people can get high skill, well paid jobs. That is exactly what we are talking about in relation to things such as affordable housing: we acknowledge that there are challenges for younger people and, indeed, we are looking to address them.
Let me talk about the issue of childhood obesity—an issue close to my heart, as a former Minister for Public Health. The UK has one of the highest obesity rates among developed countries, with soft drinks still one of the biggest sources of sugar in children’s diets. That is a cost not only to the productivity of our economy but to the public purse; indeed, there is also a great cost to individuals. The direct cost to the NHS of treating ill health due to people being overweight and to obesity totals over £6 billion a year.
The Bill will legislate for a new soft drinks industry levy to encourage producers to reduce added sugar in their drinks. The levy is working already: there have been reformulation announcements by Tesco, by the makers of Lucozade and Ribena, and of course by A. G. Barr relatively recently. I have had discussions with several companies during recent months, and I understand the effort and investment they are putting into changing their product and portfolio mix.
Even though revenues from the levy will be lower as a result of the earlier than expected reformulations—unusually, we in that sense welcome the fact that predicted revenues will be lower, because the policy is working early—we will maintain the full £1 billion funding for the Department for Education during this Parliament that we pledged to make. That is further evidence that the Government are committed to tackling childhood obesity. It is part of a programme of work being carried on across Departments to deliver fairer outcomes for future generations.