House of Commons
Monday 13 November 2017
The House met at half-past Two o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
Work and Pensions
The Secretary of State was asked—
The Department for Work and Pensions has regular discussions with colleagues across Government about the treatment of Gurkhas in the benefit system and its responsibilities under the armed forces covenant. Additional support is already in place for members of the armed forces community, to take account of their needs and circumstances.
Gurkhas put themselves on the line for our country. I recently met members of the Gurkha community in Eastleigh. They have travelled a long distance from home and they are phenomenal soldiers. Will my hon. Friend continue to ensure that their unique circumstances are recognised in both our pensions and benefits systems?
As you will be aware, Mr Speaker, I am married to a former Gurkha, so I fully understand and share my hon. Friend’s gratitude for their bravery and service. No member of our armed forces should be disadvantaged by their service to our country. I would like to reassure her that the DWP takes very seriously our commitment to the armed forces covenant. We will do everything we can, and work as hard as we can, to help them get the best possible support.
Universal Credit: Advance Payments
Advances are interest free and repayable over six months for those making a new claim, or 12 months for those who were on benefits before claiming universal credit. Our objective is to strike the right balance between supporting claimants with their living expenses and ensuring they have the ability to repay the advance.
The Secretary of State knows that the guidance states that 40% of the standard allowance can be used to repay an advanced payment, and that 40% can be deducted to pay back creditors. It is not clear from the guidance whether a claimant might end up paying both, meaning that they will have more than 40% deducted from their award. Will the Secretary of State clarify the maximum amount repayable? Does he recognise that, as it stands, this is a charter for loan sharks?
The deduction from subsequent payments that take into account an advance does not apply to the 40%. We have to remember that it is an advance. An advance gives people greater flexibility to access universal credit early, so they are able to cope during the initial assessment period.
We hear a lot from Opposition Members about universal credit, but we have to remember that it is a much more effective system at getting people into work. Nationally, 113 people move into work under universal credit for every 100 under the previous system. My constituency, which was a pathfinder for universal credit, is seeing very substantial falls in the number of people claiming. Is it not a better system all together?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Universal credit is helping people to get into work and to progress in work. It is also clear that people on universal credit are spending more time looking for work than those on legacy benefits. It is really important that we all work to ensure the success of universal credit. We believe it will result in 250,000 more jobs—something worth achieving.
What the Secretary of State has repeated again this afternoon falls into the trap of treating everyone on universal credit as if they were out of work. Surely one big issue is the problem of applying conditionality to people who already have jobs?
The point about universal credit is that it operates when people are out of work and when they are in work. What we will not get is what happens with the legacy system: people worrying about working extra hours in case they find that their claim is closed. That holds people back from progressing. I believe that in-work conditionality has a role to play within our system to ensure that people progress. There is an issue in terms of people who are in work but are none the less receiving substantial support from the taxpayer. We want them to be able to progress to be less dependent on the state. That is what universal credit will deliver.
What steps has the Secretary of State taken to increase awareness of advance payments?
We have changed the guidance that applies in jobcentres on advanced payments and increased publicity in jobcentres. I visited a jobcentre in Bedford and saw myself how the operation of advances is working. We believe there will be an increase in take-up, which will ensure that people receive the support they need. The suggestion that people under universal credit will face weeks and weeks and weeks without any financial support whatever is, I am afraid, scaremongering. That is what is happening under the system as it is operating now.
Yesterday, the Scottish Finance Secretary, Derek Mackay, wrote to the Chancellor ahead of his Budget appealing for universal credit to be fixed, and today 114 academics published an open letter in The Daily Telegraph criticising the advanced payments system and echoing Derek Mackay’s call to reduce the first payment wait time, move to a twice-monthly payment system and reverse cuts to work allowances. Does the Secretary of State agree that the Chancellor should act?
On universal credit and early payments, of course the Scottish Government have flexibility, which they are exercising, but that means that at the end of the second assessment period people get only 50% of what they are entitled to, the rest being deferred and paid in the third assessment period, which strikes me as making the situation more difficult, not easier, for claimants, although it is for Scotland to decide how it wants to do it.
If the Secretary of State is looking for the Scottish Government to show him how it is done, he should devolve universal credit in full, and we will get on with it. Has he seen the report from the Child Poverty Action Group and the Institute for Public Policy Research saying that cuts to universal credit will leave an extra 1 million children in poverty? Is 1 million more children in poverty not evidence enough for the UK Government to reverse their cuts to work allowances and make work pay?
My point was that the Scottish Government are delivering universal credit differently and in a way that I think is worse than the situation in England and Wales. The point about universal credit is that it will help people into work. I will give one brief example: I heard of an account last week of a single mother on income support not previously able to claim for her childcare costs but now able to do so under universal credit. She is taking up a job, working eight or nine hours a week, which she could not do previously—a first step on the ladder. That is an example of what universal credit is delivering.
A recent report by the Resolution Foundation using new data based on bank transactions shows that 58%—the majority—of new claimants moving on to universal credit as a result of leaving employment in the last year were paid either fortnightly or weekly in their previous job, which is a far higher percentage than in the economy on average, where about one in four of all jobs is paid fortnightly or weekly. The Government should ensure that no claimant has to wait more than 10 days, so will they end the six-week wait and ensure that universal credit mirrors the world of work for those who claim it?
Universal credit is replacing tax credits, and under tax credits 57% of claimants are paid monthly and 12% four-weekly—nearly 70%—so if we are to have a system that works for everybody, it has to be a monthly system.
Contracted-out Health Assessments
We are committed to ensuring that claimants receive high-quality, fair and accurate assessments. The DWP monitors assessment quality closely through independent audit. Assessment reports deemed unacceptable are returned for reworking. A range of measures, including provider improvement plans, address performance falling below expected standards. The DWP continually looks to improve the assessment process.
My constituency office is inundated with people dissatisfied and distressed after their personal independence payment assessment. In the light of statistics showing an almost ninefold increase in complaints to the Department, what analysis has been made of the assessment process?
We are of course constantly striving to improve the assessment process. It is worth pointing out that the total number of complaints is about 1% of the total number of PIP assessments, but we continue to work closely with the assessors to ensure that this can be delivered as effectively as possible.
The vast majority of successful appeals are successful because of late additional evidence. What further consideration has been given to sharing data between the two different assessments and to providing for automatic access to health records—where the claimant is willing—in advance of an assessment?
My hon. Friend raises an important point and is absolutely right about the reason for the majority of overturned decisions. We continually look at how to increase co-ordination between the PIP and employment and support allowance assessment processes, and that is certainly something we are considering.
My constituent has a life-limiting illness, and her medical consultant has confirmed that it affects even the most basic daily activities. Without a transplant, she has approximately two to three years left to live. She has just been turned down for a personal independence payment. Will the Secretary of State please undertake to look into the position as a matter of urgency? Will he also confirm that compassionate Conservatism is officially dead?
My answer to the hon. Lady’s first question is that I will, of course, happily look into that case if she will provide me with the details.
For our constituents a health assessment is an incredibly important moment, and it can be very distressing. I have been calling for routine recording of assessments, to provide evidence if they go wrong and also because recording in itself should sometimes change behaviour for the better. Will my right hon. Friend give me an update on the recording pilots?
We are indeed looking into that. My hon. Friend has made an important point about the need for independent auditing of assessments to ensure that the advice provided by the decision-makers is of suitable quality, fully explained and justified, and recording is one of various options that we are considering to bring about those improvements.
Let me start by welcoming the Minister for Disabled People, Health and Work, the hon. Member for Truro and Falmouth (Sarah Newton), to her place.
There has been a 900% increase in the number of complaints about personal independence payment assessments. Statistics from HM Courts & Tribunals Service show that both the number of appeals lodged and the proportion of DWP decisions overturned have increased. There was a 67% increase in the number of appeals in the first quarter of 2017 in comparison with the same period last year. Just last week, Britain’s most senior tribunal judge said that most of the benefit cases that reach the courts are based on bad decisions when the DWP has no case at all. The quality of evidence—
Order. We need a question mark very soon. Forgive me, but the hon. Lady’s text does seem extensive. I know that she is new to the Front Bench, and I am listening to her with interest and respect, but we must proceed speedily, because otherwise Back Benchers lose out. I know that she is coming to a question in her next sentence.
I certainly am, Mr Speaker. What action is the Secretary of State taking to improve the PIP assessment framework, the accuracy of decision-making and the standards of mandatory reconsiderations, and will he stop wasting taxpayers’ money on unnecessary and lengthy tribunal appeals?
Let me put the position in context. Since personal independence payments were introduced in 2013, the DWP has carried out more than 2.6 million assessments. As I said earlier, the total number of complaints received equates to fewer than 1% of all assessments. Our latest research shows that 76% of PIP claimants are satisfied with their overall experience. Of those 2.6 million decisions, 8% have been appealed against, 4% successfully. Of course, we constantly strive to improve the PIP system, but, as I have said, it should be seen in context.
Last week I was able to spend a day at the Alloa jobcentre in my constituency and observe what is going well and what is going not so well with some of our welfare reforms, including universal credit and PIP. One issue that arose was the length of time that people are waiting for health and work capability assessments. What penalties are being levied against some of the third-party companies that are involved in the assessments, and what could be done to close the gap for our constituents?
The timing of both ESA or PIP assessments has improved in recent months: the waiting time has been reduced. I welcome that, but we continue to work closely with the providers of the assessments to ensure that their performance is adequate.
In 2012, overall participation of female eligible employees in a workplace pension was 58%, but since the introduction of automatic enrolment this had increased to 80% in 2016. For males, this has increased from 52% to 76% in the same period.
Two former Pensions Ministers have criticised the Government for the policy, all Opposition parties recognise that the Government are wrong, the continuously growing number of cross-party MPs who have joined the all-party parliamentary group say it is wrong, and hundreds of thousands of disadvantaged 1950s-born women know it is wrong. When will the Pensions Minister and the Government admit their mistake and take action to rectify this grave injustice?
The Government will not be revisiting the state pension age arrangements for women born in the 1950s who are affected by the Pensions Acts of 1995, 2007 and 2011. This would require people of working age, and more specifically younger people, to bear an even greater share of the cost of the pension system.
The Government’s former Pensions Minister, Baroness Altmann, has said that she regrets the Government’s failure to properly communicate state pension age equalisation, an approach she described as
“a massive failure in public policy.”
Does the Minister appreciate how much this failure has affected the ability of the 1950s-born women to plan for a happy and secure retirement, and their sense of outrage about this issue?
Since 1995 successive Governments, including Labour Governments, have gone to significant lengths to communicate the changes, including through targeted communications, hundreds of press reports, parliamentary debates, advertising and millions of letters, and in the past 17 years the Department has also provided over 18 million personalised state pension estimates.
Can my hon. Friend confirm that if changes are made to the women’s pension arrangements, it will create discrimination against men, and that would be unfair?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his question. The proposal whereby women would receive early pensions would create a new inequality between men and women, the legality of which is highly questionable.
The Government seem to be under the misapprehension that the campaign by the wronged ’50s-born women will eventually go away if they just keep ignoring it. They even told the Table Office that they would not answer a question on the subject from my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton South (Dr Williams). It will not go away, however, so why does the Minister not engage with the campaigners to find a solution, and in the meantime support our proposals to extend pension credit to the most financially vulnerable and give them all the opportunity to retire up to two years earlier?
The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the Government have already introduced transitional arrangements costing £1.1 billion in 2011, which mean that no woman will see her pension age change by more than 18 months relative to the 1995 Act timetable.
Universal Credit: Food Poverty
The availability of advances at the start of a universal credit claim ensures that those who need money immediately can access it. Our data shows that around half of claimants are receiving advances, and we have recently undertaken an exercise to improve awareness and access to this support.
The manager of a food bank in Lincoln has said that there is evidence of a clear correlation locally between the introduction of universal credit—in Lincoln, we have only had it partially so far; we are getting full roll-out in March—and an increase in the use of food banks. I ask for your comments on that, and do Government Members, including yourself, think it is acceptable that people in Lincoln and across this country are starving but for food banks because of waiting for universal credit payments.
I would not presume to say what is acceptable for the people of Lincoln—that is way above my pay grade—but the Secretary of State might wish to proffer an opinion on the matter, and we look forward to it with interest and anticipation.
This is why I repeatedly make the point that nobody needs to wait a long period of time for cash support under the universal credit system, and to suggest otherwise is causing unnecessary anxiety for those who are not on universal credit—and I think we should all discuss this in a slightly more responsible manner.
When I visited Newark’s jobcentre a week or so ago, I found that 80% of the jobs on offer were paid either four-weekly or monthly. Does the Secretary of State agree that we have to be careful not to patronise working people and not to prevent them from entering the workplace with as much ease as possible? The vast majority of jobs in my constituency are paid monthly.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Part of the purpose of universal credit is to close the gap between being out of work and being in work. Most jobs are paid monthly, and getting people used to that monthly system is a sensible approach. I also very much welcome the fact that my hon. Friend has visited a jobcentre, and I recommend that other hon. Members do so, to hear how universal credit is operating on the ground. I know that many hon. Members have found the experience to be extremely positive.
I will not ask Government Front Benchers for a fifth time whether I should believe the Secretary of State’s statement that the roll-out of universal credit in Birkenhead will be hunky-dory, or the opinion of the food bank, which says that it will need an extra 10 tonnes of food to prevent people from going hungry—if he cannot abide the word “starving”. We will have a debate on this on Thursday, which Members across the House have signed up to. This will be the first time that Conservative Members will have an opportunity to vote on whether they want to reform universal credit. Will the Secretary of State open that debate, hear it and take the message directly back to Cabinet, please?
The position that we have made clear for a long time is that we want to ensure that universal credit works. This is a test-and-learn system, and we are always looking at ways in which we can improve it, particularly for that first period. I would say to the right hon. Gentleman and to the House as a whole that universal credit is helping us to address the best way to deal with poverty, which is to ensure that people can get into work. That is the argument that I and my right hon. and hon. Friends will continue to make.
I, too, have visited jobcentres, and I know that work coaches are an integral part of the universal credit system. Will my right hon. Friend tell me how the new work coaches will assist jobseekers in my constituency in their eager quest to find employment?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. This is why we are recruiting work coaches up and down the United Kingdom to provide the personalised support that people need to help them get into work. I come back to my experience of meeting work coaches in jobcentres up and down the country. They believe that they have a system in place that is helping them to do more to transform lives, and that is hugely important.
One of the original objectives of universal credit was to reduce child poverty. In 2010, the Government said that UC would reduce child poverty by 350,000. That figure was revised to 150,000 in 2013, but last year, Ministers failed to produce a figure in answer to a question from my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown). What is the Government’s current estimate of how many children will be lifted out of poverty as a result of universal credit?
Universal credit gives people a better opportunity to work, and it gives parents, including single parents, greater support with childcare. I come back to the example I gave the House a moment ago. Someone who had previously been on income support and unable to get help with childcare can now get that help and get on to the employment ladder, thanks to universal credit. That is what universal credit is delivering.
That was a really disappointing answer. As we have already heard, the Child Poverty Action Group published data last week predicting that 1 million more children will be pushed into poverty as a result of universal credit cuts, 300,000 of whom will be under the age of five. Another objective of universal credit was always to make work pay. Given that four out of 10 people on UC are in work and will be on average £2,600 a year worse off, when will the Government admit that UC is not fit for purpose or fit to meet the challenges of a new labour market and stop its roll-out?
May I just point out that child poverty is down since 2010? I think the hon. Lady has rather given the game away: she does not want to pause and fix universal credit; she wants to scrap it. She wants to rewind to a system under which claimants faced marginal deduction rates of over 90% and had to cope with a multitude of benefits. We had a benefits system that was not an aid but an impediment to working people and that trapped people in poverty and dependency. That is what universal credit will bring an end to.
Employment and Support Allowance: Claimant Poverty
There are no cash losers among those in receipt of employment and support allowance and the universal credit equivalent prior to April 2017, including those who temporarily leave ESA to try out work and then return. Since April, new claimants who are capable of preparing for work receive a rate of benefits on a par with jobseeker’s allowance.
I welcome the Minister to her place. Changes to benefits are actually resulting in huge cuts to the money that people with disabilities have to live on. The ESA cut was touted by the Government as a way to remove perverse incentives and encourage people into work. However, does the Minister agree that starvation does not encourage anyone into work and that cutting off funding to people in need does not help to end that need? Will she commit to reversing these invidious cuts?
There are no cuts for people on those benefits. Let me be absolutely clear about that. Since April 2017, people who are able to work receive a personal support package. We have already recruited 300 new disability employment advisers, and we have allocated £15 million to the flexible support fund. We are doing absolutely everything that we can to ensure that people who are able to make the journey back to work have the support that they need.
I might have a place a bit more faith in the Minister’s comments if one of her colleagues had not recently stood in exactly the same place and said, “There is no austerity.” Is the Minister aware that the Scottish Government estimate that between 7,000 and 10,000 people in my constituency and elsewhere in Scotland stand to lose the work-related activity component of the allowances? That is a cut in income that people cannot afford. Will she undertake to speak to the Chancellor ahead of his Budget as a matter of urgency and ask him to reverse the cuts and stop punishing the poor and the disabled for this Government’s economic failures?
Let me be absolutely clear about what we are trying to achieve here. Many people in Scotland and across our country who are recovering from health conditions or who have disabilities really want to work. We are doing everything that we can to provide them with tailored support, so that they can work and that they can play the full part in society that they want to play and that we want to enable them to do.
Despite record employment, only one in every 100 people in the ESA work-related activity group leaves the benefit system each month. Will the Minister tell us what more she and the Department are doing to help those people into work?
My hon. Friend is quite right to point out the unfair discrimination against people with disabilities in this country who really want to make a contribution to society and who really do want to work. We are doing everything we can, including working with employers through the Disability Confident campaign and providing people seeking employment with the tailor-made support that they need to play their full part in society.
UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities
The UK continues to be a global leader in disability rights, and we are committed to further improving and progressively implementing the convention. We are considering the committee’s recommendations and will provide an update on the progress that we are making in the next year, as requested by the UN.
The UN found that UK cuts disproportionately hit people with disabilities and fundamentally, systematically and gravely undermine their human rights, so will the Minister ensure today that personal independence payment, employment and support allowance and universal credit are all brought into line with the UN conventions on fundamental human rights, so that people are treated fairly and with dignity, instead of with discrimination and cruelty?
This country has a proud record of treating people fairly, and we will continue to uphold those proud principles. Of course we are considering the report, and as I have said, we will publish our findings. To put this in context, of the G7 only Germany spends more money supporting people with disabilities and long-term conditions. We spend 2.5% of GDP, which is 6% of all Government spending. That is £50 billion a year.
Will the Minister confirm that anyone in receipt of disability benefits, such as PIP or disability living allowance, is exempt from the benefits cap?
I can give my hon. Friend a very simple answer: yes.
Parkinson’s Disease: Personal Independence Payment
Up to October 2016, 7% had been disallowed personal independence payment, but 45% of claimants with Parkinson’s disease actually receive a higher award under PIP than they did previously.
Would it not save a lot of time, money and distress if all those on the higher rate of disability living allowance with degenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s were transferred automatically on to personal independence payment? How many people with Parkinson’s are currently in the “no review” category?
It is absolutely right that we get PIP right for everybody with a disability, including those with degenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s. It is absolutely right to notice, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State did earlier, that considering that more than 2.6 million PIP assessments have been made, less than 1% have resulted in a complaint. Most of the time, this benefit is got right the first time. Of course, we work tirelessly, including with our stakeholders and voluntary sector organisations, to make improvements.
Advances are available at the start of a universal credit claim to ensure that those who need it have money to tide them over until their first payment. Our data shows that around half of claimants are receiving advances, and we have recently undertaken an exercise to improve awareness and access to this support.
I thank the Secretary of State for his very reassuring answer. In Banbury, we are fortunate to have very low unemployment rates. Can he tell me what will be the likely impact on jobs of universal credit roll-out in my constituency?
In total, it is estimated that universal credit will help around 250,000 more people into employment. On average, that works out at around 400 extra people in work in each parliamentary constituency, but universal credit will, of course, have larger impacts in areas with a higher proportion of benefit claimants or a higher prevalence of single-parent and out-of-work families.
The Trussell Trust says that food bank use has increased in areas where universal credit has been rolled out. Universal credit has not been rolled out yet in my constituency, but this weekend the Heywood food bank ran out of food. What safeguards will the Secretary of State put in place to ensure that universal credit claimants do not have to rely on the charity of their neighbours, a system that sometimes fails?
We are improving the advances system, and we are improving awareness of it. Importantly, support is available, and that is a message that we can all take to our constituents. Nobody needs to wait six weeks because advances are available within jobcentres, and they are being taken up. The majority of new claimants are taking up those advances.
Last week, I heard from one of my constituents who was having difficulty getting an advance payment and who had to resort to a food bank. When the error was corrected and he got his advance payment, he took the food back to the food bank. First, does that not show that, when mistakes are made, every effort is made to correct them? Secondly, does it not show the basic human decency of those claiming universal credit?
I entirely agree with the point my hon. Friend makes. It is worth pointing out that, in the normal course of events, someone’s advance takes about three days to go through the banking system and for the money to be paid, but that, if need be, people can get support on the same day.
AEA Technology Pension Scheme
The Government’s position has been out in a parliamentary debate in October 2016, as it was previously in March 2015 by the hon. Lady’s Liberal Democrat colleague Sir Steve Webb. I have great sympathy for those affected, but they are now covered by Pension Protection Fund compensation scheme.
In 1996, the Government Actuary’s Department, in a note sent to AEA Technology staff, failed to clearly outline the risks of transferring their pensions to the new private sector scheme. We regulate financial advice in this country, yet when it is the Government giving the advice not even the parliamentary ombudsman can review it. Surely this is grossly unjust? Why does the Minister not pursue this mis-selling scandal, as the Financial Conduct Authority did with the payment protection insurance one? Is it because the Government would be to blame this time?
The hon. Lady suggests one thing. I can only refer her to the two parliamentary debates that dealt specifically with this matter; this was set out by her own Lib Dem colleague Sir Steve Webb in March 2015, when he was part of the coalition.
The PPF is a vital lifeboat for individuals whose employers become insolvent. Will the Minister update us on when his White Paper looking at the affordability of defined benefit pension schemes will be available?
I thank my hon. Friend for his question. As he knows, the Green Paper was published in February 2017, and extensive consultation and much consideration of the matters put forward has taken place thereafter. We are in the process of analysing those responses and intend to publish a White Paper in the new year.
Since 2010, more than 3 million more people have found employment. The employment rate is close to the record high, while the unemployment rate is the lowest it has been since 1975.
In addition to those almost record employment levels, 11% of people in Cheadle are self-employed. My constituent Alexandra Singer is a self-employed wheelchair user who finds that valuable opportunities to attend networking events are lost because they are not always accessible for disabled people. Does the Minister agree that to unlock the talent and energy of disabled entrepreneurs, organisers must make provision for successful businessmen and women, such as Alexandra Singer, to attend their events?
I agree with my hon. Friend on that. It is right that service providers have a duty to anticipate these things and provide adjustments, where reasonable, for disabled people. In the case of her constituent, this may include arranging events at an accessible venue. It is also worth pointing out that one in five of those taking up the new enterprise allowance, which is designed to help people set up businesses, are disabled people.
Every new job is welcome, but we have a country where 55% of people new into work are in receipt of benefits and living in poverty and where the better-off are now disgustingly well-paid. What are the Government really going to do about this?
Of course the highest earning 1% pay a bigger proportion of income tax than they ever have done before. I am also pleased to say that our Government have substantially increased the personal allowance; we have introduced the national living wage; and the support that universal credit is going to provide will help more and more people progress in work.
Universal Credit: Advance Payments
The answer is about half. We are working to further improve awareness and access to this support.
I am keen to ensure that advance payments are made to my constituents in need, which is why I see the jobcentre and the citizens advice bureau, one after the other, every month. Does the Minister agree that the Labour party should start acting responsibly and join me in encouraging constituents to apply for this additional help, and tone down the political rhetoric, which could deter vulnerable people from applying in the first place?
I do. My hon. Friend knows, and the Labour party should acknowledge, that no one need go without money while they wait for their first regular payment. Labour should not try to put people off accessing the support that is there for them.
Today is exactly six weeks until Christmas day. Anyone who applies for universal credit today will have to make do on just two weeks of universal credit payments until after Christmas. What assessment has the Minister made of the impact on such families and their ability to let their children enjoy Christmas?
Our record on the timeliness of universal credit payments has improved markedly and, as the hon. Lady knows, advances are also available. I should also say that in the run-up to Christmas, when many temporary work opportunities are available, universal credit works much better for people, because they are able to access those opportunities, particularly on the verge of the festive season.
Very well: we have heard the right hon. Gentleman on Question 14, although he did not seek agreement to that proposition. He simply blurted it out, but we will accept that on this occasion.
We know that people on universal credit spend a great deal more time looking for work than others, and that they apply for a wider range of jobs and consider jobs that they may not have considered before. All that is part of why it involves significantly better labour market outcomes, and why people are more likely to be in work after six months than they were on the old benefits.
Benefits System: Working Hours
Universal credit is transforming and modernising the welfare state, ending complicated rules around employment hours and the cliff edges of the old system. Universal credit has a clear system of allowances and tapers to ensure that claimants know that they are always better off in work.
Does the Secretary of State agree that one of the fundamental flaws of the system that we inherited from Labour is that people who wanted to work more than 16 hours a week could lose 90p of every pound that they earned?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right, and it was about not only the high marginal deduction rates, which obviously we do not see with universal credit, but the fact that people who moved in and out of work, or whose hours fluctuated, could find themselves moving from one benefit system to another. That created additional hassle and uncertainty for claimants, and discouraged people from taking on additional hours.
Universal Credit: Rent Arrears
The Department for Work and Pensions is currently undertaking work to investigate the reality of rent arrears in universal credit. It aims to understand the true level of rent arrears for tenants, what is causing them, and any impacts universal credit may be having.
New findings say that 49% of landlords are less likely to rent to those in receipt of universal credit. In Kirklees, only 121 social homes are available for the 9,700 people on the waiting list. What steps will the Minister take to prevent those on universal credit from being discriminated against?
The hon. Lady is right to ask the question, but alternative payment arrangements are available. We have listened carefully to housing providers and we are seeing improvements all the time.
I listened carefully to the Minister’s answer, and I wonder whether it would be of any surprise to her that the chief executive of a large housing authority in the north-west of England recently told me that the authority had arrears of more than £2 million from universal credit alone. Claimants in one authority in Yorkshire and Humber have average arears of more than £1,100 each. Why is that happening and what is she going to do about it?
We have to be careful not to scaremonger on this issue. A National Federation of Arm’s Length Management Organisations report says that three quarters of tenants who started to claim universal credit were already in arrears, and research shows that after four months the number of claimants in arrears has fallen by a third.
The single biggest problem for some welfare recipients who move into universal credit is their high level of debt. Can my hon. Friend the Minister for Employment tell me what he can do to take forward his idea of an interest-free period to resolve outstanding debt, and to promote the use of credit unions in advising strongly against the use of loan sharks, particularly in the run-up to Christmas?
On behalf of the Minister for Employment, may I say that my hon. Friend makes a very important point? We do want people to address their levels of debt, and that is why we have this effective system of advance payments, which enables people to budget properly and to meet their debts.
Universal Credit: Lost Applications
We are rolling out universal credit full service in a very measured way. I am not aware of any recent cases of claims being lost, but if the right hon. Gentleman knows of such incidents, I of course very much welcome him bringing these to my attention.
There are serious concerns about glitches with universal credit apparently arising because the IT does not yet work properly in some areas. The Child Poverty Action Group has reported instances of claims being made and then vanishing into the ether without trace. Will the Minister assure the House that glitches of that kind will be addressed and resolved, not simply denied?
The CPAG report to which the right hon. Gentleman refers says in its summary that many claims seem to have disappeared, but the text refers to a small number, and then goes on to mention just one case. That is not to say that I ignore this matter or belittle it in any way—of course, I take what he says very seriously. He has my absolute assurance that I will pay attention to any glitches.
This Department’s mission is to support people through all stages of their lives. Universal credit is being introduced slowly, and it is steadily and positively transforming people’s prospects by bringing about the satisfaction and financial security of entering work and increasing earnings. We are also helping citizens to prepare for later life with our work on pensions, and we are committed to helping people from all walks of life at all stages of their lives. We will continue to build on that body of work to achieve our aims.
How does the Department plan to respond to its own research, which shows that universal credit is a driver of rent arrears among families who rely on it for support?
As my ministerial colleagues have already said, we must recognise that a number of the statistics that have been quoted show that rent arrears have arisen before people have entered into universal credit, and that after time the numbers in rent arrears starts to fall. We continue to improve the system to ensure that payment timeliness is improved, for example, and that people are able to access advances when they need to.
I thank my hon. Friend for that very important question. The length of an award is based on an individual’s circumstances: it can vary from an award of nine months to an ongoing award involving a light-touch review at the 10-year point. It is very unlikely that somebody he describes would have another face-to face assessment with a healthcare professional.
We all know that the Government are bogged down in all manner of ways and that they have been slow to develop secondary legislation for several new Acts, but will Ministers tell the House when they will bring forward regulations to enact defined contribution and give pension savers the opportunity of the vastly increased benefits of those schemes that was predicted this week by the Pensions Policy Institute and Schroders?
Those matters are being considered and will be addressed in the new year.
I am firmly committed to delivering the pensions dashboard. Its introduction will clearly transform how people think about retirement. I will make a statement in the spring that will tackle some of the delivery challenges, including the point that my hon. Friend raises. There is an ongoing feasibility study and there will be a stakeholders’ meeting on 11 December, which I urge him, as well as many interested stakeholders, to attend.
We have a comprehensive network of jobcentres across the United Kingdom. There are more in Scotland than in England, and more in Glasgow than in other cities. Universal credit is a system that works to help and support people to get into work—it is the right system.
I agree. May I give one example? Speaking from the Dispatch Box opposite recently, the Leader of the Opposition said:
“Gloucester City Homes has evicted one in eight of…its tenants because of universal credit.”—[Official Report, 11 October 2017; Vol. 629, c. 324.]
If that were true, it would amount to 650 tenants being evicted due to universal credit. Gloucester City Homes has described this as “not factually accurate”. In fact, a total of eight—not one in eight—tenants on universal credit have been evicted, all of whom had considerable rent arrears well before moving on to universal credit. I understand that one tenant had not been resident in their property for 18 months.
I will look at the facts of the case, but I cannot make a blanket commitment, because one obviously has to look at the particular circumstances. Of course, we recognise and support our veterans at every opportunity.
A constituent who recently contacted me is concerned about how long they are having to wait for a tribunal hearing. Will my right hon. Friend makes representations to the Ministry of Justice about the efficiency of Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service?
I am happy to convey my hon. Friend’s concerns.
I call James Frith. Not here—where is the feller? I call Gavin Newlands.
Universal credit will help to transform lives positively. It is already doing so by giving people the opportunity to work and to progress in work. The Scottish National party can join the Labour party in being on the wrong side of the argument, but history will not forgive it for that.
Since 2010, this Government have overseen remarkable levels of job creation. My predecessor, who used to sit on the SNP Benches, has just secured a very well-paid media position with Russia Today. Does the Minister agree that people must be flexible about their career choices to get on?
We sometimes hear enough fake news in this Chamber, but it is disappointing to see the former leader of the SNP employed by a purveyor of fake news, even if we welcome employment opportunities in the round.
On the contrary, universal credit specifically responds each month to what a person’s earnings have been in that month. That is at the heart of its design. We want to help people in self-employment to grow their earnings and to ensure that they have sustainable remunerative work, so we have introduced a programme within the new enterprise allowance to help people to do just that.
Great unhappiness continues to surround the issue of pensions and the WASPI women, many of whom have come to see us in our constituencies. I believe that there will be a debate next April on a private Member’s Bill on the matter. Given the continuing accusations and counter-accusations about whether people were told about the changes, does my right hon. Friend agree that such a debate will be worthwhile?
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his question, and I have no doubt there will continue to be debates on this matter. However, as the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman), has declared, we are not going deviate from the policy we have set out.
Again, I come back to this throwing around of accusations. We had the Leader of the Opposition claiming that 650 people had been evicted because of universal credit. We are not seeing evictions in the social rented sector and there are clear reasons why that does not happen. What we are getting for potential universal credit claimants from the Labour party is scaremongering, which is creating unnecessary anxiety.
Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating Broxtowe citizens advice bureau, which I met on Thursday? Universal credit is being rolled out for us next year, and the CAB is already putting together all the relevant agencies to make sure that we are ready. Will my right hon. Friend also have a look at whether, for a very small amount, my CAB could have one person to deal with all the cases so that we can make this system work as we all know it should?
I will take that as a spending bid from my right hon. Friend. She is right to highlight the role of citizens advice bureaux. I met citizens advice bureaux in St Albans and Bedford last week, and where a CAB works closely with jobcentres, it helps to deliver the support that people need, which I very much welcome.
My Tollcross constituent Margaret Laird was moved on to universal credit in January 2016. She has been given a 132-day sanction. She is being treated by psychiatric services and helped by the local food bank. Will the Secretary of State undertake to look into her case, because it is very sensitive?
I am happy to receive representations from the hon. Gentleman on that case. Obviously I cannot talk about the individual case, but I am happy to look at it.
What are Ministers doing to close loopholes used to avoid child maintenance payments?
When a non-resident parent fails to pay on time or in full, we endeavour to immediately establish compliance before enforcement action is needed. There is a range of strong powers that we can take, including the forced sale of property, disqualification from driving or, indeed, commitment to prison, but we are exploring options to expand those, and they will form part of our new compliance and arrears strategy, which will be published shortly.
Members of the British Steel pension scheme need to decide whether to go into British Steel pension scheme 2 or the Pension Protection Fund by 11 December, but there is still a lack of clarity around the position of high/low pensioners in the PPF and whether that might change after the point of decision making. Will the Secretary of State look at this so that the information is available to people before they make that decision?
I acknowledge the issue that the hon. Gentleman sets out. If he writes to me, I will sit down with him and go through it in more detail. Clearly it is a matter for the trustees on an ongoing basis as to what particular decisions are taken.
(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs to make a statement on the case of British-Iranian national Ms Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe.
I should like to make a statement on the case of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, in response to the right hon. Lady.
The whole House will join me in expressing our deep concern about the ordeal of this young mother, who has spent the last 19 months in jail in Iran. Every hon. Member will join the Government in urging the Iranian authorities to release her on humanitarian grounds.
I spoke by phone to her husband, Richard Ratcliffe, yesterday, and we agreed to meet later this week. I told Mr Ratcliffe that the whole country is behind him and we all want to see his wife home safely.
In view of the understandable concern, I propose to describe the background to Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s case and the efforts the Government are making to secure her release. In April last year, she was visiting her relations in Iran, along with her daughter, Gabriella, who was then only 22 months old, when she was arrested at Imam Khomeini airport in Tehran while trying to board her flight back to the UK. The British Government have no doubt that Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe was in Iran on holiday and that that was the sole purpose of her visit. As I said in the House last week, my remarks on the subject before the Foreign Affairs Committee could and should have been clearer. I acknowledge that words I used were open to being misinterpreted, and I apologise to Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe and her family if I have inadvertently caused them any further anguish.
The House should bear in mind that Iran’s regime, and no one else, has chosen to separate this mother from her infant daughter for reasons that even it finds difficult to explain or describe. On 9 September 2016, Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe was brought to a secret trial and sentenced to five years in prison, supposedly for plotting to overthrow the Islamic Republic. The House will note that so far as we can tell, no further charges have been brought against her and no further sentence has been imposed since that occasion over a year ago.
Eleven days after Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe was sentenced, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister raised her case with President Hassan Rouhani of Iran in New York on 20 September 2016. Two days later, I raised her case with my Iranian counterpart, Mr Zarif. For the sake of completeness, the House should know that the previous Prime Minister, David Cameron, raised Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s imprisonment with President Rouhani on 9 August 2016, and my predecessor as Foreign Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr Hammond), wrote to the Iranian Foreign Minister about her plight, and other consular cases, on 29 August 2016. [Official Report, 14 November 2017, Vol. 631, c. 1MC.]
At every meeting with our Iranian counterparts, my colleagues and I have taken every opportunity to raise the cases of Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe and other nationals held in Iranian jails. We have expressed our concerns at every level—official, ministerial, and prime ministerial—on every possible occasion during the 19 months that she has been in jail. In addition, Mr Ratcliffe has held regular meetings with my right hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood), formerly the Minister for the Middle East, and with the current Minister for the Middle East, my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt).
A situation where a British mother is held in these circumstances is bound to cast a shadow over Britain’s relations with Iran at a moment when, in the aftermath of the agreement of the nuclear deal in July 2015 and the easing of sanctions, we had all hoped to witness a genuine improvement. So I shall travel to Iran myself later this year to review the full state of our bilateral relations and to drive home the strength of feeling in this House, and in the country at large, about the plight of Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe, and other consular cases. In order to maximise the chances of achieving progress, I would venture to say that hon. Members should place the focus of responsibility on those who are keeping Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe behind bars and who have the power to release her whenever they so choose. We should be united in our demand that the humanitarian reasons for releasing her are so overwhelming that if Iran cares about its reputation in this country, then its leaders will do now what is manifestly right. I commend this statement to the House.
Just for the avoidance of doubt, the Foreign Secretary has responded to an urgent question in the course of which he has very properly made remarks, but it is important, as others in the House can testify from past experience, to distinguish between a response to an urgent question, on the one hand, and the proffering by Government of a statement, on the other.
Thank you very much, Mr Speaker, for granting this urgent question. How unfortunate it is that we need to ask an urgent question as opposed to getting a statement.
Let me say at the outset that whatever strong feelings we have about Iran’s actions in this case, I am sure we are all joined in sending our thoughts to those affected by yesterday’s earthquake on the Iran-Iraq border. I am grateful to the Foreign Secretary for returning from Brussels to answer this urgent question. Perhaps he reflected that the last time a Minister of State was asked to answer an urgent question on behalf of a Cabinet Minister, the Cabinet Minister lasted only 24 hours.
I hope that we can make more progress today than we were able to make on the same issue last week. Let us start by clarifying the points on which there is absolutely no difference between us. First and foremost, we all want Nazanin to be brought home as soon as possible. No one who has listened over recent days to the heartbreaking testimony of Richard Ratcliffe can be in any doubt about how urgent it is, for Nazanin’s mental and physical health, that she is returned to her family immediately.
Secondly, if that can be done, as has been suggested, by conferring diplomatic status on Nazanin, that would obviously be welcome, although I would be grateful if the Foreign Secretary would clarify how that could be achieved—how we can free this innocent British mother without opening up a Grace Mugabe precedent, which might make it possible to use the same tactic in Britain to help a guilty foreign national to escape justice? Thirdly, we can all agree that the responsibility for Nazanin’s incarceration and mistreatment lies entirely with the Iranian authorities, and we all unite in urging for her freedom to be restored.
On those points, we are in full agreement, but let me turn to two key issues on which we have so far differed and, frankly, we continue to differ. First of all, the Foreign Secretary argued last week that his comments to the Select Committee did not have “any connection whatever” with the latest threats by the Iranian authorities to extend Nazanin’s sentence, and that it was simply untrue to suggest otherwise. That is entirely contradicted by what was said by the Iranian courts last weekend, and by what was said on the Iranian judiciary’s website and on Iranian state TV. All of them said explicitly that the Foreign Secretary’s remarks were the basis of their renewed action against Nazanin. We know from the evidence of Richard Ratcliffe that when Nazanin was told of the remarks and saw how the Iranian authorities would exploit them, she became hugely distressed and upset. So will the Foreign Secretary today accept the impact that his words have had and the distress that has been caused to Nazanin, and apologise properly for that—apologise not for upsetting people, but for getting it wrong?
Secondly, last week the Foreign Secretary was asked several times to do one very simple thing, and that was simply to admit that he had made a mistake—not that his remarks had been taken out of context or misconstrued, but that they were simply wrong. He has, so far, refused to make that clear, and that refusal was compounded yesterday by his good friend the Environment Secretary. Even after all the debate on this issue, the Environment Secretary still, incredibly, claimed that we “don’t know” why Nazanin is in Iran. We do.
It is not good enough. If it is a matter of pride that the Foreign Secretary is refusing to admit that he made a mistake, I feel bound to say to him that his pride matters not one ounce compared to Nazanin’s freedom. After a week of obfuscation and bluster, will he finally take the opportunity today to state simply and unequivocally, for the removal of any doubt either here or in Tehran, that he simply got it wrong?
I am more than happy to say again what I said to the right hon. Lady last week: yes, of course, I apologise for the distress and the suffering that have been caused by the impression that I gave that the Government believed—that I believed—that Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe was in Iran in a professional capacity. She was there on holiday, and that is the view of—[Hon. Members: “Say sorry!”] I do apologise, and of course I retract any suggestion that she was there in a professional capacity. Opposition Members must have heard that from me about a dozen times.
The right hon. Lady asked an important question about diplomatic protection and how that would work. She is absolutely right that that is a question that Richard Ratcliffe himself has raised with me. All I can say is that I will be answering Mr Ratcliffe. I cannot give her an answer today; I would rather answer Mr Ratcliffe in person. I am delighted to say that I am seeing him tomorrow, and I will be explaining the position on diplomatic protection. As I said last week, he has requested to come to Tehran. I do not know whether that will be possible, but we will see what we can do.
Regrettably, more than a faint whiff of opportunism hangs over this urgent question, and others will question the wisdom of having this discussion at all. Does my right hon. Friend not agree that it is incumbent on each and every one of us in this House to pay very close attention to what we may or may not be about to say, because the Iranians will be watching these deliberations and we do not want to exacerbate an already extremely difficult situation?
My right hon. Friend is, I am afraid, absolutely right. That is one of the reasons why it is so important that we remain very careful in what we say about the entire case.
I hope the right hon. Gentleman is reflecting very seriously on his position—the position that he holds not just in this Government, but in society—because, for Nazanin, it would have been reasonable to assume that when the Foreign Secretary got involved in her case, things might have been better. Unfortunately, it has made this situation very much worse. Why was another Cabinet Minister not briefed properly, and why did he say live on television that he did not know why she was there? What is going on at the heart of this Government?
As a direct result of these reckless comments, Nazanin is now in an increasingly perilous situation, which has given the Iranian authorities added cause to keep her locked up on false and arbitrary grounds. The Foreign Secretary’s apology is welcome, but he must reflect, as must the Government, on how they do their business and how they protect our citizens. What guarantee will he give that Nazanin will be granted diplomatic protection and be brought home? The Foreign Secretary and his colleagues must make it very clear that they are able to do their jobs and to protect our citizens.
Our priority is to secure the safe return of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, and all other political considerations are entirely secondary. The only other thing we have to bear in mind is the safety and wellbeing of the other consular cases in Iran, and that is very important.
I said to the right hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry) that I am seeing Mr Ratcliffe tomorrow. I am in fact seeing him on Wednesday.
As an ardent Churchillian, does my right hon. Friend accept that this has not been his finest hour? Before the Opposition make too much of that, however, may I urge them to avoid headlines such as that in The Independent online, which says, “Boris Johnson should resign if British mother stays in Iranian jail” for “even one more day”? The Iranian regime plays politics with hostages. Does my right hon. Friend agree that if they believe that they can get rid of a British Foreign Secretary by jailing a hostage for longer, they will jail that hostage for longer? That link needs to be broken, not reinforced, by the Opposition today.
I think the whole House would agree that there is nothing more important than the safe return of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and, as I say, the protection of all other consular cases in Iran, and that trumps all political considerations in this country.
My constituent Richard Ratcliffe wrote about his wife’s case in the Evening Standard:
“My complaint is not that her imprisonment has become a diplomatic incident this past week. It is that it wasn’t for the 19 months that came before.”
That shows the sheer dignity with which my constituent has been campaigning for his wife’s release for 19 months.
Richard has told me that their family’s lawyer, working together with the non-governmental organisation Redress, wrote to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office two months ago with a legal opinion about Nazanin’s right to diplomatic protection. I know that the Foreign Secretary has already said to my right hon. Friend the Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry) that he will consider diplomatic protection, but will he urge that a meeting takes place between the FCO and the lawyers, and will he give some indication of whether diplomatic protection will be given, as this could save my constituent’s life?
As I said in answer to the right hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury, I will be talking directly to Richard Ratcliffe about that issue on Wednesday.
Briefly, on consular protection, every day in some part of the world, a UK national or a dual national is detained, and I pay tribute to the consular work that the Foreign Office does across the world. A huge amount of work has been done on behalf of the constituent of the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq) by my right hon. Friends on the Front Bench, who have met members of her family repeatedly and will continue to do so until we solve the problem.
I am very glad that the Foreign Secretary has made his statement today. However, does he agree that this poor woman, who is separated from her child, is being used a political football, not only—sadly—here, but in Iran, where the Iranian revolutionary guard is effectively fighting with the Khomeinite authoritarian regime in its own way? Would he consider calling upon people in our system who may be able to talk to the mullahs, perhaps asking the Archbishop of Canterbury, or indeed the Holy Father, to speak on behalf of this woman and seek to broker her release?
My hon. Friend speaks with great insight about the situation in Iran, and I assure him that no stone will be left unturned in our efforts.
From my experience of trying to get two British nationals out of jail in Laos in 2009, what is needed when dealing with a very difficult country is absolute commitment and persistence —to go to bed every night worrying about what is happening to that British national in another country; to be very disciplined; and to make sure that every single member of the Government is speaking with the same voice. The Foreign Secretary could not possibly argue that that has happened in this case. What I really do not understand, though, is that when he made a complete mess of appearing before the Foreign Affairs Committee, his office rang to correct other, completely incidental parts of the record, but still refuses to correct this part. Will he do so now? Otherwise, frankly, he will have learnt nothing from this.
I believe that I have corrected the record several times already and explained the position.
The Foreign Secretary has referred several times to the other cases in Iran. Is there not a real problem with dual nationals, specifically in Iran and countries that do not recognise dual national status? Is it not time for a broader review of the issue, alongside the urgency of dealing with this specific case?
It is one of the features of British consular protection that we give it to dual nationals, irrespective of whether their British nationality is recognised by the country in which they run into trouble. That is a mark of the dedication of our consular staff to their job. We will continue to work for Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and the other difficult consular cases in Iran for as long as those cases are outstanding.
The Foreign Secretary has rightly said that the priority for everyone should be the return of a wrongfully and inhumanely imprisoned mother, who has been separated from her child. That is welcome, but he also knows that words matter. Every time he says things such as, “My words were simply open to misinterpretation”, he provides a lack of clarity and sounds as if he is wriggling in a way that other people can exploit. For the sake of Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe, will he say unequivocally for the record, “I got it wrong”?
I hope that the House will understand with crystal clarity that Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe was there on holiday. She was not there in any professional capacity. In so far as people got a different impression from what I was saying at the FAC, that was my mistake. I should have been clearer—[Interruption.] With great respect, Members should listen to what I am saying. I should have been clearer. It was my mistake; I should have been clearer. I apologise for the distress and anguish that has been caused to Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe and her family. Our priority now is to do everything we can to get her out of Iran on humanitarian grounds.
My right hon. Friend should know that he has the support of everyone on the Government Benches in his efforts to secure the release of Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe, understanding how difficult this case is. It has already been raised twice at Head of Government level, so it is very difficult to see how the Government could have done more. Does he agree that the prospects for her release are not being assisted by the rather unedifying spectacle of the pursuit of his scalp?
I think the paramount concern of everybody in this House is not narrow party political concerns, is it? It is not. It is the safe, secure return of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and that is what we are working for.
While the right hon. Gentleman is in the business of correcting the record, will he correct his statement from last week that he had never met Joseph Mifsud, the UK-based so-called academic at the centre of the Trump-Putin collusion allegations, given the publication in the newspapers yesterday of a photograph of just such a meeting?
Order. There is all sorts of flailing and waving about. It is not statesmanlike and the source from which it emanates is a source from which I usually expect the most statesmanlike conduct. The right hon. Gentleman’s question suffers from the disadvantage that it is not even adjacent to—does not even hover over, does not buzz around—the urgent question that has been posed, so he will have to pursue other opportunities to favour the House with his thoughts, or to seek to extricate from the mind of the Foreign Secretary his own. On that point, we will leave it there for now.
Now, I am sure we can expect a wholly orderly question from the hon. Member for North East Somerset (Mr Rees-Mogg), very likely delivered in a sentence with no split infinitive. It might even be a series of sentences amounting to a lucid paragraph.
Thank you, Mr Speaker, for that generous introduction.
Will my right hon. Friend carry on his Palmerston-like approach to defending British subjects overseas, which is one of the first duties of Her Majesty’s Government? Does it concern him, as it concerns me, that the treatment of Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe in Iran, barbarous as it is, is being given succour by the socialists on the Opposition Benches?
I am afraid I think my hon. Friend underestimates the motives of the Labour party. I prefer to think that Labour Members are actuated solely by a concern for all our consular cases in Iran, in particular for the safe return of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe.
Every Member of this House recognises that the Iranian regime is responsible for Nazanin’s detention and that the priority is to bring her home. However, our purpose here is to hold this Government to account for their actions. Can the Foreign Secretary tell me if he is confident in the quality and comprehensiveness of Foreign Office briefings, and that they are properly made available to other Government Ministers in advance of media appearances? If not, will he sort it out? If so, does he accept there is simply no excuse for Ministers to continue to get it wrong?
FCO briefings are excellent. As the hon. Lady has heard repeatedly from me today, the Government are absolutely clear in their understanding of what Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe was doing in Iran and why it is absolutely unjustifiable that she be detained by that regime.
Any mother forcibly separated from her daughter will suffer from mental health problems, but it appears that Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe is now also suffering from a physical illness. She is a dual nation, which means she is British, so it possible for my right hon. Friend to appeal to the Government on humanitarian grounds for her release?
That is, of course, exactly what I did the week before last in the FAC. It is probably not right to go into too much detail about what we know of Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s medical condition. I will only say this: it is pretty obvious to anybody studying the case that she should be released on humanitarian grounds alone.
Following the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), who also sits on the FAC, will the Foreign Secretary now write to the Committee and all its members correcting the record? While he is doing that, will he also clarify and correct the wrong report in The Sunday Times that he was badly briefed before his remarks to our Committee?
Two points: I have written to the Committee and I really cannot be responsible for any inaccuracies that there might be in The Sunday Times.
I am delighted to hear the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) say that this is the fault of the Iranians, because it leaves us in no doubt about the politics being played here today. This is the worst possible situation. The fact that the right hon. Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw) tried to button in on the back of this shows how this sensitive situation is being held in contempt. I wish my right hon. Friend the very best in seeking to bring this honourable lady home, because she needs to be with her husband and family.
I am sure that my hon. Friend speaks for everybody in her constituency and the country, and I know that she speaks for Members on the other side of the House as well.
Over one year ago, the United Nations working group on arbitrary detention ruled that Nazanin’s detention was arbitrary and referred her case to the special rapporteur, and the UN called for her immediate release, yet it appears that our own Foreign and Commonwealth Office might not have done so. Will the Foreign Secretary please explain?
That is a very good question. The answer is that we do not normally call for the release of consular cases, because very often that exacerbates their position. In this case, as the House knows, a couple of weeks ago I did call for her release on humanitarian grounds.
How many other British subjects are jailed in Iran, and does my right hon. Friend have any idea what the Iranians want in return for this lady’s release?
We have dozens, if not hundreds, of cases around the world. I probably ought not to go into the exact number in Iran, but I can tell the House that we are working on behalf of all of them.
When the House passed the Iran nuclear deal, I, along with others across the Chamber, expressed concern and requested that human rights and equality issues be part of the deal. What influence do the Government have in respect of the human rights and equalities of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and the thousands of others held in jail there for the same reason?
The joint comprehensive plan of action does not cover the issues the hon. Gentleman raises, but common decency and humanitarian concern dictate that she should be released.
I remain a critic of the Iranian nuclear deal for many reasons, including the fact that human rights were not coupled with it. It was greatly disappointing that the Leader of the Opposition, who was paid to appear on Iranian Press TV, did not take the opportunity to criticise human rights in Iran, but instead agreed with and contributed to anti-Israel and anti-western bias. Does the Foreign Secretary agree with me, and indeed Richard Ratcliffe, that his battling for his job will not help Nazanin come home?
I will resist the temptation to agree with my hon. Friend about any points that might have been made by the Labour party for or against Iran, because our priority now is simple: it is not to score party political points but to get Nazanin home.
The right hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) several times called Nazanin a hostage. Does the Secretary of State consider her to be a hostage?
The case of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe is a very difficult consular case, and that is how we are treating it.
A number of my constituents have contacted me expressing concerns about the case. Can my right hon. Friend assure them that he and the Government are doing absolutely everything possible to exert influence to secure the release of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, and does he agree that that should be our one and only priority and our one and only focus, in the Government and in the House?
I can certainly give my hon. Friend that assurance, and I can also tell him that our ambassador —our excellent ambassador—in Tehran is working on the case daily.
The Foreign Secretary has said that he finally accepts that Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe was on holiday, and that the whole country is now behind her. Does he include the right hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove), who just yesterday said that he did not know why she was in Iran, and has he told the right hon. Gentleman that his loose-lipped comments were unacceptable and damaging in equal measure?
My right hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath actually made it very clear that he believed she was there on holiday—[Interruption.] He did say that: I watched the clip. He was very happy to accept that that was the case.
What action can my right hon. Friend or the British Government take if Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe is not released? I am assuming that if we are in a hostage situation and if we do not win this case, there is a danger that others will be taken on a similar basis.
My hon. Friend is right to ask that question. The answer is, I am afraid, that we must simply work diligently and flat out for her release.
Will the right hon. Gentleman reflect on this and the rest of his conduct as Foreign Secretary in order to realise that his brand of clownish incompetence is a joke that is so longer funny, and consider being replaced by a competent politician who will attract the respect of the world and not the ridicule that he attracts?
As I have said, I think that the best course for us all is to try to minimise the political point-scoring and concentrate on getting Nazanin home.
Like all other Members, I want to see this poor lady, Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe, back home as soon as possible. However, while reflecting on the proposal that she be given diplomatic protection, will my right hon. Friend reassure us that no steps will be taken that would jeopardise the safety of British diplomats around the world today, and indeed the diplomats of any other western country, who must be our main priority in this case?
I pay tribute to the work of the British diplomats who put themselves in harm’s way and in danger across the world all the time. We will, of course, bear that consideration in mind.
If the Government have been on top of this since day one, and if the briefings of the Foreign Secretary’s Department are so comprehensive, can he explain why the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, his fellow letter-writer, said on “The Andrew Marr Show” that he would “take…her husband’s assurance” that the British-Iranian citizen was on holiday? That was hardly a ringing endorsement, and it was hardly a comment from someone who was up to speed with the facts. What is the Foreign Secretary going to do to ensure that his Cabinet colleagues are fully briefed?
With great respect to the hon. Gentleman, I believe I answered that question a few moments ago.
Can my right hon. Friend assure the House that all the appropriate help and support is being given to Mr Ratcliffe and his family, given what a difficult period this is for them?
I pay tribute to Richard Ratcliffe and the indefatigable way in which he has campaigned for his wife’s release. I can tell my hon. Friend that the door of the Foreign Office has been continually open to him, and that he has had several meetings—many, I believe—with my fellow Ministers. He will continue to have full access until such time as we sort out the appalling case of his wife.
The furthest that the Foreign Secretary seemed prepared to go in his response was to say that his words last week were “open to being misinterpreted”. I do not think that they were misinterpreted. Earlier, he asked from a sedentary position, “What else could I say?” He could simply say, “I got it wrong.” That would be helpful, because it would give a clear signal that the Government were serious about saying that Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe was not there for the purposes that he suggested last week. Will he just say, “I got it wrong”?
As I have said many times both today and last week, it was wrong of me to say that she was there in a professional capacity; she was there on holiday, and I apologise again for the distress and anxiety that those words have caused. The most important thing we can do now is, I think, make sure that that point is clearly understood not just in this place but around the world, and work hard together—united, rather than divided, as a country—to get her home. That is what is in the best interests of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe.
In my experience as a diplomat, I believe there is no harder call than whether public or private diplomacy is more effective at helping Britons in jail abroad, and I say to the Opposition spokeswoman that there is a real danger today of conflating domestic political ambitions with a very sensitive situation of a British national in jail. Will my right hon. Friend therefore confirm that, as soon as today’s statement is over, he and our Foreign Office will work very closely with our friends in Iran to see how best this issue can be resolved to the satisfaction of everyone, in the quietest way possible?
My hon. Friend brings great experience and understanding of these issues and of difficult consular cases, and he is absolutely right that sometimes a quiet approach and quiet diplomacy can yield great results.
I agree with the Government that the only thing that matters is that Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe is taken out of prison because she is wrongly incarcerated, but that does depend on the Foreign Secretary raising his game, as Amnesty International suggested earlier this year, so will he commit after having met Richard Ratcliffe to come back to this place and make a statement making it absolutely clear that he will now do everything in his power to get Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe home?
I am not certain that it would be right—or even if you would grant me permission, Mr Speaker—to make another statement after meeting Mr Ratcliffe, but I can tell the House that I believe it certainly would be appropriate to make a statement following any trip to Iran it might be possible to organise.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that Members of this House accepting huge amounts of money for appearing on the Iranian state broadcaster raises the danger of giving legitimacy to a regime that is holding UK citizens without grounds to do so?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, but again, if I may say so, that is for those on the Opposition Benches to answer, not me.
I spoke last week of the rollercoaster of emotions that the whole family are going through. From speaking to my constituents who are members of the family today, it is fair to say that over the weekend that has got worse, especially following reports of the deterioration in Nazanin’s health. Seeing her husband as soon as possible must be a high priority, too. I understand that in his phone call with the Foreign Secretary Richard Ratcliffe asked to accompany him on his forthcoming visit and also that he has full protection when he does. What progress has been made on that point?
I will be seeing Mr Ratcliffe in the next couple of days and we will explore all those issues in full.
Richard Ratcliffe’s representatives wrote to the Foreign Office requesting diplomatic protection for Mrs Ratcliffe over two months ago. What consideration was given to that request, and has the Foreign Secretary’s position on it changed since his appearance before the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs?
As I said in answer initially to the right hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry), on the question of diplomatic protection I will be talking to Mr Ratcliffe in person, and will then inform the House of how we intend to proceed.
Constituents of mine, including the Glasgow west end Amnesty group, have consistently called for Nazanin’s release. The Foreign Secretary commented on this earlier, but will he make it clear how often, in in all the times her issue has been raised with Iranian authorities, her release has specifically been called for? Has that been just over the past couple of weeks, or longer?
We have consistently asked for her release on humanitarian grounds, and I know that the whole House will want to echo that call today.
Contrary to what he keeps saying, the Foreign Secretary’s words to the Foreign Affairs Committee were not capable of misinterpretation. They were clear but wrong, and whether deliberately or through carelessness, he put a British citizen at risk from an arbitrary and authoritarian regime. May I now give him a further chance to apologise, not for anything else but for the words that he got wrong in that Committee? His high office demands that he take responsibility.
In fairness, I think the House will acknowledge that I have apologised repeatedly, not just for the mistake but for the way in which it was taken, and for any extra suffering or anguish that my words caused. But the most important thing, as I say, is that I think there is unanimity in the House today about our objective, and may I respectfully say that I think that that is where we should focus? That would be by far the most effective way of communicating the will of the British people to the people of Iran. We feel very strongly that, on humanitarian grounds, Nazanin should come home.
While it is of course right and proper for the House to discuss this important matter, is it not also the case that it would be detrimental for us to do so by megaphone diplomacy? Does my right hon. Friend not agree that it would be a sad irony if the Iranian Government were to get comfort and succour from some of the things that have been said in the House today?
That is an extremely good point. It is indeed the case that most of our consular successes, including in Iran, are done by quiet behind-the-scenes diplomacy.
Should a British Foreign Secretary be careful, accurate and diplomatic in the words they choose at all times?
The answer to that is: of course.
A constituent who is a family friend of Nazanin attended my surgery at the weekend to convey her fears over Nazanin’s mental wellbeing, as she has now been separated from her daughter for more than 500 days. The Foreign Secretary said that he would visit Iran sometime later this year. Can he guarantee that no stone will be left unturned to ensure that Gabriella will see her mum by the end of this year?
I can certainly say that no stone will be left unturned on behalf of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, and indeed on behalf of all the other consular cases in Iran. What I cannot, alas, guarantee is that we will have the result that the hon. Gentleman wants, but it will not be for want of trying.
If I were in jail in Iran for a crime that I had not committed, I could not hope to have a better Member of Parliament than my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq), and I hope that the Foreign Secretary will pay tribute to her. Mr Ratcliffe has close family in my constituency, including a well-respected former Lord Mayor of Chester. When the Foreign Secretary goes to Iran, will he undertake to take with him a delegation of Members of this House who have a constituency interest in this case? That delegation would surely include my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Kilburn.
I do not want to disappoint the hon. Gentleman, who is a close follower of these issues—I join him in paying tribute to the work of the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn, by the way; she has been assiduous, and I was glad to have a meeting with her the other day—and I cannot guarantee at this stage that we will have such a delegation. One thing at a time, if I may say that.
EU Exit Negotiations
With permission, Mr Speaker, I will update the House on negotiations between the UK and the European Union in November, reflecting our actions since the October European Council.
Both the UK and EU recognised the new dynamic instilled in the talks by the Prime Minister’s Florence speech. At the October Council, the 27 member states responded by agreeing to start their preparations for moving the negotiations on to trade and the future relationship that we want to see. The Council conclusions also called for work to continue, with a view to being able to move to the second phase of the negotiations as soon as possible. It is of course inevitable that discussions are now narrowing to the few outstanding, albeit important, issues that remain. Last week, our focus was concentrated on finding solutions to those few remaining issues. As we move forward towards the December Council, we have been clear with the EU that we are willing to engage in discussions in a flexible and constructive way in order to achieve the progress needed. To that end, our teams are in continuous contact—even between the formal rounds.
I will now turn to the three key ongoing areas of discussions and outline progress made last week on each of them. We have made solid progress in our ongoing discussions on Northern Ireland and Ireland. Key areas of achievement include continued progress in technical discussions on preserving north-south co-operation, agreed joint principles on the continuation of the common travel area and associated rights, and drafting further joint principles on how best we preserve north-south co-operation under the Belfast agreement to help guide the specific solutions to the unique circumstances in Northern Ireland. Both sides also remain firmly committed to avoiding a hard border, a point on which we have remained clear throughout. We also remain resolutely committed to upholding the Belfast or Good Friday agreement in all its parts and to finding a solution that works for the people of Northern Ireland and Ireland.
We have continued to hold frank discussions with our European Commission counterparts about all those issues, but we have also had to be clear with our counterparts that while we respect their desire to protect the legal order of the single market and customs union, that cannot come at the cost of the constitutional or economic integrity of the United Kingdom. As I have said, we cannot create a new border within the United Kingdom. This is an area where we believe we will only be able to conclude talks finally in the context of a future relationship. Until such time as we do so, we need to approach the issues that arise with a high degree of political sensitivity, with pragmatism and with creativity. Discussions on those areas will continue in the run-up to the December Council.
We have continued to make good progress on citizen’s rights, and both sides are working hard towards resolution of outstanding issues. Last week, to respond to the EU’s request for reassurances, we published a detailed description of our proposed administrative procedures for EU citizens seeking settled status in the UK. As our paper demonstrates, the new procedures will be as streamlined, straightforward and low-cost as possible. They will be based on simple, transparent criteria, which will be laid out in the withdrawal agreement. While there remain differences on the issues of family reunion and the export of benefits, we have been clear that we are willing to consider what further reassurance we can provide to existing families of EU residents here—even if they are not currently living together in the UK. I believe that that paves the way to resolving the remaining issues in this area, and that was acknowledged by the Commission on Friday.
There remain some areas where we are still seeking further movement from the EU, such as voting rights, mutual recognition of qualifications and onward movement for British citizens currently living in the EU27. In all three areas, the UK’s offer goes beyond that of the EU. Finally, the Commission has not yet matched the UK’s offer in relation to the right to stand and vote in local elections, which is a core citizen’s right that is nominally enshrined in the EU treaties. I have been disappointed that the EU has been unwilling to include voting rights in the withdrawal agreement so far. As a result, we will pursue the issue bilaterally with member states.
This week, we have also sought to give further clarity on our commitment to incorporate the agreement we reach on citizens’ rights into UK law. This will ensure that EU citizens in the UK can directly enforce their rights in UK courts, providing certainty and clarity for the long term. We have made it clear that, over time, our courts can take account of rulings of the European Court of Justice in this area to help to ensure consistent interpretation. However, as we leave the EU we remain clear that it is a key priority for the UK to preserve the sovereignty of our courts and, as such, in leaving the EU we will bring an end to direct jurisdiction of the ECJ.
It is not my intention to pre-empt the Committee stage of the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill, but what I say next has some relevance to it. It is clear that we need to take further steps to provide clarity and certainty—both in the negotiations and at home—regarding the implementation of any agreement into UK law. I can now confirm that, once we have reached an agreement, we will bring forward a specific piece of primary legislation to implement that agreement. It will be known as the withdrawal agreement and implementation Bill. This confirms that the major policies set out in the withdrawal agreement will be directly implemented into UK law by primary legislation, and not by secondary legislation under the withdrawal Bill. It also means that Parliament will be given time to debate, scrutinise and vote on the final agreement we strike with the European Union. The agreement will hold only if Parliament approves it.
We expect the proposed Bill to cover the contents of the withdrawal agreement, which will include issues such as an agreement on citizens’ rights, any financial settlement and the details of an implementation period agreed between both sides. Of course, we do not yet know the exact details of the Bill and are unlikely to do so until the negotiations are near completion. I should also tell the House that this will be over and above the undertaking we have already made to table a motion on the final deal as soon as possible after the deal is agreed, and that we still intend and expect such a vote on the final deal to happen before the European Parliament votes on it. There cannot be any doubt that Parliament will be intimately involved at every stage.
Finally, on the financial settlement—[Laughter.] I see laughter on the Opposition Benches, but actually this has been called for by Members on both sides of the House, so I hope that we get Labour party support for once.
Finally, on the financial settlement, the Prime Minister’s commitment in her Florence speech stands—our European partners will not need to pay more or receive less over the remainder of the current budget plan as a result of our decision to leave. The UK will honour the commitments we have made during the period of our membership, and this week we made substantial technical progress on the issues that underpin those commitments.
This has been a low-key but important technical set of negotiations, falling as it has between two European Councils. It is now about pinpointing the further technical discussions that need to take place and moving forward into the political discussions and political decisions. We must now also look ahead to moving our discussions on to our future relationship. For that to happen, both parties need to build confidence in both the process and, indeed, the shared outcome.
The United Kingdom will continue to engage and negotiate constructively, as we have since the start, but we need to see flexibility, imagination and willingness to make progress on both sides if these negotiations are to succeed and if we are to realise our new partnership.
I commend this statement to the House.
I thank the Secretary of State for advance notice of his statement.
This is clearly a statement of two halves. First, the usual “Groundhog Day” report back on the negotiations in Brussels: a round of negotiations; a press conference at the end that leaves us wondering whether the parties were in the same negotiations; then both sides briefing the press in the days immediately afterwards; and then a statement from the Dispatch Box that assures no one, underlining the profound lack of progress.
We want the next statement to be different. We want the Secretary of State to return and inform the House that real progress has been made—a breakthrough, even. Last time we were promised acceleration. What now? And what is the plan if the December deadline is missed?
I recognise some of the difficulties. As the Secretary of State knows, I have some sympathy with the position he has set out on Northern Ireland. As we see from the Northern Ireland Budget Bill, which is before the House today, the political situation in Northern Ireland is fragile. The peace process is too precious to be put at risk by rushing a Brexit deal that does not have the support of all communities. There must be no return to a hard border, and Northern Ireland should not be used by either side in the negotiations for political point scoring—that is an important point.
The second half of the statement is not a report back at all. It is a recognition by the Government that they are about to lose a series of votes on the withdrawal Bill. Labour has repeatedly argued since the Bill was published in July that the article 50 deal requires primary legislation, including a vote of this House—a point that was made forcefully on Second Reading.
Now, on the eve of crucial amendments being debated, we have this statement under the cloak of a report back from Brussels—I do not think it fools anyone. The devil will no doubt be in the detail, but can the Secretary of State now confirm that the Government accept Labour’s argument that clause 9 should be struck from the withdrawal Bill altogether?
Then there is the question of transitional arrangements. It is blindingly obvious to anybody following these negotiations that a final deal with the EU, including a trade agreement, will not be completed by March 2019 and that transitional agreements on the same terms as now are in the public interest. That is what businesses want, it is what communities want and it is what Labour has been calling for, for many, many months. So can the Secretary of State confirm, on the back of the statement he has just made, that the Government will not stand in the way of sensible transitional arrangements on the same basic terms as we have now with the EU? Can he also confirm that the Government will not now be pushing amendments inconsistent with transitional arrangements? And can he confirm to this House that it will get a vote in the event that there is no deal? These questions have been pressing for months. This last-minute attempt to climb down brings them into very sharp focus, and we are entitled to clear answers.
Yet more carping from the right hon. and learned Gentleman. He complains that the negotiations are not making as much progress as he would like, yet he allowed his Labour MEPs to vote against progress this time around. The question he needs to ask himself is, what would he be prepared to sacrifice in order to buy the good will of the European Commission? We are standing up for UK citizens being able to move around Europe, to use their professional qualifications, to vote in municipal elections. Is he seriously proposing that we let them down in the interests of suddenly rushing ahead? We are standing up for British taxpayers and not wasting their money, with a clear position that we will meet our financial commitments but only once we know more about our future relationship. Would he sell them out? We are using Brexit to restore the sovereignty of the British courts—would he let that go, too? Yes, he would, because he would give the European Court of Justice the right to dictate our laws in perpetuity.
Let me come back to the right hon. and learned Gentleman’s description; he says the second half of the statement does not arise from the negotiations. Well, yes it does, because one of the reasons for the Bill I have announced today is to provide European citizens with primary legislation that will put into British law the withdrawal agreement in toto. So this is as near as we can come to direct effect; it comes directly out of the negotiation. I hope that the next time I come to report to this House, we will get a little more support from the Labour party.
We will be debating tomorrow, I believe, a rather unhelpful new clause, first announced in The Daily Telegraph, which bears on the timing of all these processes. May I get my right hon. Friend to set out the Government’s intentions on these final processes and the role of Parliament? Can he give me a reassurance that Parliament will have a legally binding, meaningful vote, in which it will approve or disapprove of any final agreement, or lack of agreement, before we leave the European Union? Will he assure me that there will be time, in whatever circumstances, for the necessary legislation to be introduced, debated and passed, to implement in law, smoothly and properly, whatever it is Parliament has approved once the Government have made their proposals?
I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for that question. First, yes, we will have a meaningful vote, as has been said from this Dispatch Box any number of times. What I have been saying today is that we are going to add to that, over and above the meaningful vote on the outcome—on the deal—legislation which puts it into effect. In other words, the House will be able to go through it line by line and agree it line by line.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State for advance sight of his statement. First, does he not appreciate that it is becoming increasingly clear that the only sensible solution in Northern Ireland is for Northern Ireland to remain in the customs union, and if that means the rest of us remain in the customs union as well, that must be what we do? He has already said that there cannot be a border between the two parts of Ireland, between Northern Ireland and the mainland UK, and between the Republic of Ireland and the European Union, so there cannot be a customs border anywhere between the UK and the European mainland without breaching important international treaties.
On citizens’ rights, I welcome the Secretary of State’s update on progress, but does he not accept that we are now well past the time when our constituents are entitled to absolute legal guarantees and that progress reports are not enough? People are still leaving our businesses, our health service and our social care services because they do not have confidence that there will be a deal in time for them to make their future here.
On the update on the financial settlement, would it be cynical to suggest that things will become a lot simpler when the Chancellor has got his Budget out of the way? Will the Secretary of State tell us what discussions he has had with the Chancellor about what measures might need to be in next week’s Budget to pave the way for a financial settlement in the weeks to come? Or is it the case that there will be no financial settlement in the Budget because the Government know that they could not get a Budget past their own Back Benchers if there was an admission that it included any contribution to the European Union?
Finally, on the announcement of new legislation, the withdrawal agreement Bill, I give credit where it is due: the Secretary of State has done the right thing by announcing this to the House. Some of his Cabinet colleagues could well learn from his example. Will he give us more clarity as to what the Bill will be about? I know that he cannot give us the detail, but when can we expect it to be published? Will it still simply be a question of take it or leave it—their deal or no deal? Will the House be given the opportunity to amend the Bill, as it must have the opportunity to amend any Bill, and thereby have the opportunity to attempt to amend the agreement?
Given that the Prime Minister is now only eight disgruntled Conservative MPs away from facing a vote of no confidence, why should anyone else have confidence in this Government to extricate us from the mess they have created when they are rapidly losing the confidence of their own Back Benchers?
On the question about Northern Ireland, what I have said in terms, which is what I have said here in the House, is that there will be no internal border within the United Kingdom. That is an absolute fundamental because, apart from anything else, the Good Friday agreement—the Belfast agreement—requires the Government of Northern Ireland to operate on behalf of all communities, and at least one community in Northern Ireland would not accept a border in the Irish sea.
As for the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland, everybody has accepted that there must be no return to a hard border. Some of that is dealt with by the continuation of the common travel area, which has been around since 1923—in that respect, it is not new. In terms of the customs border, there is of course already a difference between levy and tax rates and excise rates north and south of the border, and we manage without a hard border. That is what we will continue to do.
With respect to the Budget, the hon. Gentleman is optimistic if thinks the Chancellor gives any of us more than a week of advance warning of his Budget. Of course, I have discussed with him the financial aspects of our relationship with the European Union at many meetings.
As for the new legislation, I do not think it is in the gift of the Government to put before the House primary legislation that is incapable of amendment. The nature of primary legislation is that it is always capable of amendment. Of course, we will have the practical limitations of having signed a deal and there may be implications because of that, but the whole thing will be put in front of the House.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend in being clear in his statement that, come 29 March 2019, as we leave the European Union, the European Court of Justice will no longer have direct authority here in the United Kingdom, thus dispelling the games being played out by the Opposition, as we heard this morning.
May I take my right hon. Friend back to what he said in his statement about the Bill and the motion? As I understand it, if we had a motion that was voted on but not passed, that would negate the idea of a Bill that could be amended. If there was a Bill and it was amended—as we were always told throughout the Maastricht negotiations and beyond—an amendment could not be accepted at the end of the day because the agreement would already have been made and thus an amendment would alter the agreement. Does not that potentially lead us into a situation in which we have a Bill that changes the agreement, but the other side does not wish to make those changes?
With respect to the first half of my right hon. Friend’s question, if the original motion is put but not passed, the deal falls—full stop; in toto. He is quite right about the second part, but he will remember the Maastricht Bill and, as I remember it, there were quite a lot of amendments and quite a lot of votes on it. The House was able to express its view, but it did so in the light of the consequences.
I welcome the Secretary of State’s announcement that there will be primary legislation to implement the EU withdrawal agreement. That is another recognition by the Government that they need to listen to the House of Commons. The question that I want to ask is about Northern Ireland. It is becoming increasingly clear that there is a contradiction between the Government’s clearly stated desire that there should be no return to a hard border—no customs border—and their determination to leave the customs union and the single market. As their proposals to try to square that circle have so far failed to persuade the Government of the Republic of Ireland about that hard border, what do the Government now propose to do about what is, after all, one of their central negotiating objectives?
May I start by thanking the right hon. Gentleman for his opening comments? At the time we published the White Paper on what was then the great repeal Bill and now the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill, I said that we would listen to the House of Commons. Indeed, I said to the shadow Front-Bench team that if any rights were removed, we would endeavour to replace them, and any other changes similarly. On Northern Ireland, the circumstance that we face at the moment is that there is a range of permutations or possibilities depending on what the outcome is with respect to a free trade and customs agreement. If the Government achieve their primary policy of having a tariff-free, barrier-free free trade agreement, then a customs agreement following on from that would be very light touch, in which case it would be relatively straightforward to maintain a relatively invisible border. If that is not the case, I suspect that the alternatives would be expensive but not impossible.
If the House of Commons votes down the new withdrawal Bill, will the consequence be that we will still leave on 29 March 2019, but without an agreement?
What was that?
The Secretary of State said yes.
I welcome the Secretary of State’s firm rebuttal of the ridiculous idea that Northern Ireland would be taken out of the rest of the United Kingdom and made to stay in a customs union. Does he also recognise that the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee recently met the head of customs in Switzerland, which is not in the EU, and the one thing that he said over and again was that there was nothing that could stop this from working if there was full co-operation on all sides? Is that not what this is really all about—if the Republic of Ireland do not want to have a hard border, that can happen?
The hon. Lady is exactly right. That is true across the board. We were told that a free trade agreement was impossible to achieve, but the former EU Trade Commissioner, Karel De Gucht, said that, no, it was not impossible if the political will was there. The same is true in this case. If the political will is there, this can be done. I am quite sure that the political will is there both north and south of the border.
Will the Secretary of State confirm that any such withdrawal Bill will take place after the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill has been enacted—in other words after 29 March 2019?
No, I cannot quite confirm that. It will depend on when the withdrawal treaty is negotiated. It is the intention of the Union to try to negotiate that by October next year. Ideally, it will be before the conclusion.
I welcome the Government coming forward with a separate Bill for the withdrawal agreement. That is something on which I and the right hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield (Mr Grieve) have tabled amendments. Can the Secretary of State clarify the timing? He just said that it was only in an ideal world that this withdrawal agreement Bill would come before Brexit day. There is a real problem if the Government think that they can simply use clause 9 provisionally to implement a withdrawal agreement through secondary legislation, while not having the withdrawal agreement Bill until after Brexit day. Will he confirm that the Government will bring the withdrawal agreement Bill to the House before Brexit day, not after?
The right hon. Lady quite rightly corrects me for misspeaking slightly. “Ideal” was perhaps the wrong word. The right words are that it is our principal policy aim—that is what we are trying to do—but there is something that I cannot guarantee: if the Union does not come to a conclusion in negotiations, we cannot actually bring the withdrawal Bill before the House before we have a withdrawal agreement. That is the sequence that I am pointing to.
Well, it is all very interesting. As we know, the Government have now decided to table an amendment to put the Brexit leaving date into law, even though that has not been to the Cabinet and has not been subject to the usual write-around. Will the Secretary of State help us with this? He has told us about this new piece of legislation that will come forward and that we will all be able vote on and amend, and so on and so forth, in the normal way, but only if there is an agreement. Will he confirm that in the event of no agreement—no deal—this place will have no say and we will leave on the date that is in the Bill, without any say from this supposedly sovereign Parliament that voted to take back control?
What I can say to my right hon. Friend is that if we do not have a withdrawal agreement, we cannot have a withdrawal agreement Bill—full stop.
Has not the Secretary of State just given the game away on what a sham this offer is? It is totally worthless to Parliament and essentially tries to buy people off by saying, “Look, we’re going to give you an Act to shape things.” In fact, it is a post hoc, after-the-horse-has-bolted piece of legislation. We might have left the European Union—the treaty and the deal would have been done—and Parliament could do nothing at all to shape the nature of the withdrawal agreement. The Secretary of State has to do much better than this. Parliament must have a say on the withdrawal agreement before we are thrown over the cliff edge.
Let me repeat the probable sequence of events. If Mr Barnier hits his target and I hit mine, we will conclude the withdrawal agreement and associated agreements in the latter part of next year. He is aiming for October next year; that is his stated aim. If we do that, the withdrawal and treaty vote—the simple, in-principle vote—will first come to the House. As soon as possible thereafter, the withdrawal agreement Bill will come before the House. That is the sequence. It will be in plenty of time and we will be able to amend it at the time.
Imagine the outrage there would be in Europe if the European Union decided to try to detach Catalonia from Spain. But what is the EU doing today? It is saying that it will have to detach Northern Ireland from the single market and customs union of the United Kingdom. Will my right hon. Friend say that the Conservative party is nothing if it is not the Unionist party and that there will be no amendment, no truck, no surrender and no appeasement regarding keeping Northern Ireland in the single market of the United Kingdom?
I say to my hon. Friend and constituency neighbour that I have made it plain that we will have no new borders within the United Kingdom.
This is not quite clear: is the Secretary of State accepting the amendment in the name of the right hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield (Mr Grieve) or is he asking the House to take it on assurance from the Dispatch Box?
I am stating Government policy from the Dispatch Box.
I greatly welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement in respect of there being a statute for us to implement the final deal, but if that is the case—unless my amendment were to be now accepted—it must be right that clause 9 becomes redundant. I do not see how it is acceptable that we should implement Brexit by means of clause 9 to have a statute after the date of our departure. My anxieties are greatly heightened by the extraordinary amendment tabled by the Government on Friday. If we run out of time, surely the answer is none of the suggestions that have been put forward; in fact, the answer is that the time has to be extended under article 50, so that all parties are able to deal with it. That is the mechanism provided, and surely that is the mechanism that the House and the Government should be following.
I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for his welcome of the Bill, but the extension of article 50 can be done only by unanimity, and that is its weakness.
This does not make any sense. The Secretary of State has said on any number of occasions that a deal could be done right at the last moment. For the reasons just explained, will he be clear? He cannot hold that position—that a deal could be done right at the last moment—and support this amendment from the Government to nail down the specific date.
If I may say so, “any number of occasions” was one occasion—in front of the Select Committee, when I was asked the explicit question what could happen to the negotiation in extremis. Since I was pointing to previous examples, it is hardly a statement of either intent or expectation—it certainly is not. As for the rest of the hon. Lady’s question, this is pretty straightforward. We are aiming to hit October. Mr Barnier is aiming to hit October. I hope that we both do. I certainly hope that we hit the target of being well before the departure date. The reason for the amendment to the Bill is that it reflects what European law tells us.
Is there any prospect of the excellent Sir James Dyson being invited to join our splendid team of negotiators?
I have spoken to Sir James Dyson. I do not necessarily agree with his tactical advice, but he is a brilliant exponent of what a great success this country can be when its engineers get stuck into the job.
Will the Secretary of State clarify the Government thinking around an adjudication court, as mentioned this morning on Radio 4 by the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr Duncan Smith)?
I am afraid I did not hear—
It was very good—very good.
I am sure it was a brilliant exposition, but I did not hear it.
No, but the Secretary of State has the confirmation from the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr Duncan Smith), wittering from a sedentary position, that it was very good. He said it not once, but twice—that should satisfy the Secretary of State, I feel sure.
May I invite my right hon. Friend to remind the House that 498 right hon. and hon. Members voted for the withdrawal Bill, in the full knowledge that, two years after notification had been served, we would be leaving the European Union? Is it not a little disappointing that they seem to be backtracking on their commitment to honour their promises to the British people?
My hon. Friend makes his point clearly. The simple fact is that everybody has known March 2019 is departure date ever since the article 50 Bill was passed.
I welcome the Secretary of State’s retreat today in the face of impending votes on the withdrawal Bill, but why is he intent on holding a gun to this House’s head by presenting us with a choice only between the deal he negotiates and no deal at all? Surely, a meaningful vote and meaningful legislation would give this House the possibility of asking the Government to go back and amend the deal, including, as the right hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield (Mr Grieve) said, by extending the timetable, if that is what is required?
Nobody is holding a gun to the House’s head. What I will say to the right hon. Gentleman is that the decision being put before the House was put there by 17.5 million voters.
Will my right hon. Friend reassure those of us who increasingly believe that our strongest chance of ever achieving a deal is to be able to demonstrate to our EU counterparts that we are capable of managing exit without a deal that he will shortly publish a comprehensive and convincing account of how this country will manage affairs in the absence of any deal whatever?
What I have said to the House many times over is that what my right hon. Friend alludes to is not the primary policy of this Government—the policy of this Government is to obtain a free trade deal—but he is quite right: in the event that such a thing did not happen, we would be able to make a good future for Britain. It is not the best future, though; it is not the best choice in front of us.
In Brussels last week, senior EU officials were very clear with members of the Select Committee that a transitional deal under article 50 means remaining in the single market, remaining in the customs union and remaining subject to the jurisdiction of the Court of Justice. Is it not about time that the Secretary of State explained that to his Back Benchers, so that Members such as the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr Duncan Smith) can avoid embarrassing themselves on legal matters on the radio? Will he also clarify that parts of the Bill, such as clause 6, will have to go if there is to be a transitional deal?
The hon. and learned Lady makes the mistake that, I am afraid, many metropolitan media commentators make, which is to assume that everything they are told in Brussels is the whole truth and nothing but the truth.
If the Secretary of State were trying to sell me a car and I assured him that I was determined not to leave the showroom without buying one, does he imagine that that would strengthen my negotiating hand?
My right hon. Friend is quite right. It is a foolish proposition that is only deployed by the Opposition.
I am sure that the Secretary of State will wish to join me in congratulating his friends the Foreign Secretary and the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs on the rekindling of their bromance. I wonder, though, whether they understand that the European Parliament has stated clearly that a transition deal
“can only happen on the basis of the existing European Union regulatory, budgetary, supervisory, judiciary and enforcement instruments and structures”.
Does the Secretary of State believe that Conservative Members understand that that will be the basis of the transitional arrangements?
First, let me say to the hon. Gentleman a milder version of what I said to our Scottish nationalist colleague, the hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry): he should not take just what the European Parliament says as the end of the exercise. However, he is of course right in one respect: a transitional arrangement will look very like what we have now, but it will not be membership, and it will allow us freedoms that we do not have now. It is critical to remember that as well.
We have always known that the EU is desperate for the UK’s money, but it has now become so strapped for cash, it seems, that over the past few days it has resorted to the diplomacy version of aggressive begging. Will my right hon. Friend assure the House that the Government will not be intimidated by the threats and blackmail of the European negotiating team, because the Government will not be forgiven in a time of austerity if they pay more than is legally due for leaving the EU? Does he agree on that basis that we do not need to pay £10 billion a year net for a £90 billion trade deficit, because we can have one of those for nothing?
I made my hon. Friend’s last point to one of the member states only last week.
When I recently met residents in Forkhill in south Armagh who were very badly affected during the troubles, they had no solution to the question of the Ireland-Northern Ireland border, and nor has anyone else who I have met since. Can the Secretary of State set out how it is possible for us to leave the customs union and for there still to be a frictionless, no-touch, no-control border between Ireland and Northern Ireland?
We have published a whole paper on the subject. There is a whole range of options available for the country, including using trusted trader schemes, using electronic pre-notification and using exemptions for small businesses. There is a whole series of them that we have talked about at length—the right hon. Gentleman just has to read them.
I congratulate the Secretary of State on the progress made in the past couple of weeks, but may I emphasise how important it is that we move on to the next stage in December? Businesses are really concerned that we have that moving on within the next two or three weeks. Can he reassure us on that?
Yes, of course that is what we are aiming to do. One point that has become very clear in the negotiations is that matters such as the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland are soluble once we get on to the next stage, but really cannot be advanced as we stand. For many reasons, both economic and political, we want to make that advance as soon as possible.
May I ask the Secretary of State about arrangements during the implementation period of two years or so after March 2019? The Prime Minister has already told us that the writ of the European Court of Justice will continue to run. The Secretary of State told the Select Committee that he hoped that, subject to a positive Council conclusion in December, the arrangements for the implementation period would be agreed by March 2018. Michel Barnier said the same to the Select Committee last week. Does that not put huge pressure on everybody involved to achieve a successful outcome to the December Council?
I hope so. The right hon. Gentleman refers to “everybody involved”, and one of the major successes of the October Council was the fact that the Commission team—the so-called taskforce 50—was told to prepare for that. A moderately complex policy has to be put in place. It has a number of mildly contentious areas, so the team needs to be ready for it. The process is under way, and if we get the decision in December, we will deliver, I hope, on what I said to the Select Committee.
Did my right hon. Friend understand, as I did, that the Opposition spokesman expressed sympathy for the Government’s position on the question of the Irish border, and identified that the Irish Republic’s success in getting the 27 members of the European Union to line up with its position on the customs union has placed the talks in an impossible position that, if this is not resolved over the next two weeks, may very well mean that they do not go forward? As my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Sir Oliver Letwin) made clear, we therefore need to prepare.
To be fair to the Labour spokesman, I think he was agreeing with the position laid out by the Government and that the issue is incredibly sensitive. I think he is being very responsible in that regard. My hon. Friend is right in one respect: if this process does not start early, and does not deliver a free trade area and a customs agreement, it will be much more difficult to resolve the border issue. We will still do so, but it will be much more expensive, much more difficult and politically more problematic. The best way to proceed is with fast progress in the next few weeks.
Tens of thousands of businesses in this country, including supermarkets, and importers and exporters who work across the whole European Union, rely on their ability, under EU law, to have one certificate of insurance for their lorries that will enable a lorry to go from Aberystwyth to Krakow or anywhere else in the European Union. Those businesses will soon be securing new insurance certificates, which will last for a further year. In other words, by the end of March, they need to know what the situation will be so that they can take out certificates of insurance for after Brexit, as the Secretary of State suggests. When will they have that certainty?
The hon. Gentleman sets out very clearly why we are trying to get the implementation period agreed by March.
I welcome the Secretary of State’s statement and, in particular, the fact that there will be a Bill in this House. Will he confirm that that will be based on a treaty that we have signed with 27 other countries, and that although we could amend it here, the reality is that we cannot force 27 other countries to offer something that they are not prepared to offer?
Of course it would be quite difficult to do that. As with any treaty, when this treaty is carried into British law, the House will be able to amend it, but it will have to take account of the consequences of so doing.
The Secretary of State said here today that Brexit “cannot come at the cost of the constitutional or economic integrity of the United Kingdom.” We know already that Brexit is indeed costing the economic integrity of the United Kingdom, but it now seems that the de facto policy of the United Kingdom Government is to partition Ireland, as they cannot leave the single market, and especially the customs union, without doing so. Does he have any idea when the EU27 might agree to the two-year extension period begged for by the Prime Minister in Florence to delay that position from arising? Perversely, framing the argument like that might strengthen the pleading for two more years.
First, it is very strange to talk about harm to the integrity of the United Kingdom when we have the highest employment we have ever had in our history and the lowest unemployment in my adult lifetime. As for the transition period, it is not for negotiation, but to allow countries, Governments—our Government and EU Governments—and, most importantly, companies to accommodate changes in knowledge of what the deal is.
How much detail does my right hon. Friend expect the deal to include on our future trading relationships with the EU? Does he share the view communicated to the Select Committee several times last week in Brussels that this deal is actually separate from the free trade agreement that will come later, and which will take longer and be more difficult to agree than the interim deal we are talking about this afternoon?