House of Commons
Wednesday 15 November 2017
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
Republic of Ireland Border
Our clear intention is to avoid any physical infrastructure on the land border, and we welcome the European Commission’s commitment to that as an important step forward. The success of the land border comes from the fact that it is seamless and invisible, and we are resolute in ensuring that that remains the case.
Will the Government incorporate safeguards to protect the peace process and ensure compliance with the Good Friday agreement, including through the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill?
We are resolutely committed to upholding all parts of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement, and to finding a solution that works for the people of Northern Ireland and Ireland. We have had continued engagement with the Commission and have, in our judgment, made good progress in that regard. Various principles have been agreed that may well need to be incorporated in the final agreement.
To what extent does my right hon. Friend think that the European Commission has considered articles 8 and 21 of the Lisbon treaty, which require the European Union to develop a special relationship with its neighbours, and to preserve peace and prevent conflict? To what extent will that be achieved by driving a border between Northern Ireland and its biggest trading partner by far—the United Kingdom of Great Britain?
Obviously we respect the European Union’s desire to protect the legal order of the single market and the customs union, but that cannot come about at the expense of the constitutional and economic integrity of the United Kingdom. As we have said, we recognise the need for solutions that are specific to the unique circumstances of Northern Ireland, and we all have a responsibility to be thoughtful and creative, but that cannot amount to the appearance of a new border within the United Kingdom.
Has the Northern Ireland Office produced an analysis of the impact of Brexit on Northern Ireland, or contributed to the rumoured “58 articles”—the sectoral analyses that we know have been produced? Will the Secretary of State commit himself to publishing all such material, as his colleagues in the Department for Exiting the European Union have already so nobly done?[Official Report, 12 December 2017, Vol. 633, c. 2MC.]
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for highlighting the sectoral work relating to 58 areas of activity, which deals with how trade is currently conducted with the EU and what the alternatives might be. I can say that Northern Ireland has contributed to the cross-Government work at an official level, and the hon. Gentleman will be well aware of the commitments that DExEU has made in relation to the publication of that ongoing work.
Is it not the case that no one can decide what arrangements are needed on the Irish border—if, indeed, any will be needed—until such time as trade negotiations have been concluded, and is it not the case that the EU should get on with those negotiations now?
We firmly want to see progress on the second phase of the talks. I gave that message to Michel Barnier when I was in Brussels last week, and I also said that we believed significant progress had been made in relation to the first phase. We continue to focus on not only demonstrating our commitments in respect of those first three items, but getting on with the second phase, which is absolutely about the enduring relationship, and part of that is very much about solving the issues relating to Northern Ireland and Ireland, which we remain firmly committed to do.
I warmly welcome what the Secretary of State has said about there being no creation of new borders between parts of the United Kingdom. As he pointed out, it would of course be economically catastrophic and politically disastrous for Northern Ireland to be separated in any way from its biggest market, and his stance on that will have our full support.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his comments. The solutions that we are determined to find will create no barriers, north-south or east-west, in relation to the trading and constitutional issues that he rightly highlights: that remains our firm intent. I believe that some of the commitments that the Commission has already made underline our position, but clearly we need to secure firm agreement in that regard.
In the context of the issues of the hard border, the EU and the Brexit negotiations, the Secretary of State will know that today members of Sinn Féin—instead of coming to the House; instead of taking their place in the Assembly; instead of being in the Executive—are down in Dublin pleading with their political opponents for relevance, and asking for more Dublin influence in the internal affairs of Northern Ireland. Will he take this opportunity to reiterate the clear position of the UK and Irish Governments on the Belfast agreement, namely that the strand 1 internal issues of Northern Ireland are a matter for the UK Government and this House alone?
The right hon. Gentleman firmly sets out the constitutional framework for Northern Ireland: the Belfast/Good Friday agreement, the principle of consent, and, very firmly, the three-stranded approach. To be clear, it is ultimately for the UK Government to provide certainty over the delivery of public services and those strand 1 issues in relation to Northern Ireland.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that regardless of the border that is set up, which we hope will be invisible, the security services and police services of the north and the south must work together in the closest possible way—that is part of Brexit as well?
I totally agree with my hon. Friend about the strength of co-operation between the Police Service of Northern Ireland and the Garda Siochana, and at all levels, in relation to fighting the threat from terrorism and organised crime. We must remain resolute against this severe continuing threat, and we are strengthened by that co-operation, which needs to deepen and flourish further in the years ahead.
I welcome those words from the Secretary of State. Of course, crimes of dishonesty as well as violence marked the troubles. What provisions is the Secretary of State making to secure any possible future hard border against smuggling and organised crime, and what assessment has he made of how many more Border Force officers will be needed to secure any hard border?
On the last point, we are firmly working on the basis that a hard border will not happen, and support for the common travel area and the principles that have been worked through jointly as part of negotiations underpin that. I would point to positive joint work between revenue and customs agencies in Northern Ireland and the Republic to confront organised crime and smuggling, and the way in which work with the National Crime Agency is being strengthened even further.
The Secretary of State knows perfectly well that his Cabinet colleague the Brexit Secretary is preparing for a no-deal Brexit. If we have no deal, that will inevitably mean a hard border for Northern Ireland, which would be a catastrophe for Northern Ireland. Just for once, will the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland set aside his diplomatic spiel and explain to the people of Northern Ireland how the Government will take back control of the Northern Ireland border if the UK crashes out of the EU?
It is right that we focus on getting that deal. We support the common travel area—it is equally supported by the Irish Government—and principles have already been agreed as part of the progress on the first phase of the negotiations. That is where our focus rightly remains, and I believe that doing that remains firmly achievable—it is where all our attention lies.
Foreign Direct Investment
The economy in Northern Ireland continues to grow, with 42,000 more people in work now than in 2010, and with inward investment playing an important part in that success. As we develop our new trade relationships and expand our global trade networks, we will continue to promote Northern Ireland as a place to invest and do business.
I thank my hon. Friend for her reply. Will she confirm that the Government remain committed to devolving corporation tax powers to the Executive in order to help Northern Ireland to better compete with Ireland for investment and jobs, but if that is to happen, we need a fully functioning Executive with sustainable finances?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Our imperative is to see a restored and fully functioning Executive so that they can take such steps to support the economy, along with the many other important things on their to-do list.
Will my hon. Friend confirm that Northern Ireland remains one of the most attractive parts of the UK in which to invest, and that the key to that continuing will be working with a restored Executive to ensure that Northern Ireland benefits from our modern industrial strategy?
Again, this is precisely the point in front of us. Northern Ireland has already proved itself to be a top destination for inward investment. In the last year alone, it welcomed 22 new investors, who have brought in 34 new foreign direct investment projects and more than 1,600 new jobs, but to take that further, we need an Executive in place.
On devolution, the political parties collectively agreed in 2007 to throw their weight behind the important work of growing Northern Ireland’s economy, achieving particular success in foreign direct investment. In the absence of devolved Ministers due to Sinn Féin’s continued refusal to get back into government and deliver for the people of Northern Ireland, will the Minister outline how she will assist Invest NI?
The hon. Lady draws us into some of the themes that we went over at some length on Monday night. This Government are prepared to do everything necessary to support the good governance of Northern Ireland, but our first priority is to see the Executive restored, so that they can play their part in the economic development that we all want for her city, for the rest of Northern Ireland, and for the good of the entire United Kingdom as we face the large task of exiting the EU.
Will the Minister ensure that the Government’s efforts to bring about inward investment are focused on the whole of Northern Ireland, including great places such as Newry, Omagh and Derry/Londonderry?
Yes. I was in Newry last week, speaking to an audience of teenagers about the future that they want for Northern Ireland, which is extremely important. We need to look across the whole area and to be sure that we are working for all people of Northern Ireland, as we do for all people of the United Kingdom.
This Government are committed to building an economy that works for everyone. The Government’s industrial strategy is a vital part of the plan to drive growth across the country. It will offer opportunities that strengthen productivity, support innovation and create jobs in Northern Ireland. Ultimately, though, the requirement for strong growth is political stability, so I say again that we seek a restored Executive.
The UK Government have pledged to fund the EU’s PEACE IV and Interreg programmes up to 2020. Interreg already has strong third-party country participation, including with Norway, Greenland, Iceland and the Faroes in the Northern Periphery and Arctic programme. Will the UK seek third-country status after Brexit, or after 2020, given Northern Ireland’s strong involvement in Interreg, or are the Government working on a new programme to replace it after 2020?
My hon. Friend raises an important point. I am more than happy to write to him with the detail but, in brief, the Government will guarantee funding for structural and investment fund projects until the point when we leave the EU. We have spoken specifically about the European Territorial Co-operation fund, of which PEACE and Interreg are a part. We have put more detail in our position paper on Ireland and Northern Ireland, and it is important to endeavour to see those funds continue.
Does the Minister agree that too many people are concentrating on the potential threats that may emerge post-Brexit? What is she doing to try to promote businesses in Northern Ireland, which have a fantastic opportunity to take advantage of getting business in GB as well as the EU, strategically placed as they are in Northern Ireland?
There are a few things to say about the hon. Gentleman’s important point. First, we ought to pay tribute to the businesses in Northern Ireland that have created so many thousands of jobs. More than 10,000 new jobs have been created in the past year alone, which is important progress. Secondly, this Government will never be neutral on the subject of the Union, and people will see our support for the trade that needs to go between Northern Ireland and Great Britain. Thirdly, our exit from the European Union provides an additional opportunity for firms in Northern Ireland to trade around the globe, which is something to be seized.
Yes, I certainly can. We are convinced of the need to go out and seek opportunities around the globe that will bring more jobs to Northern Ireland, and greater prosperity to both Northern Ireland and the whole United Kingdom, because we are stronger together.
The Government have a clear manifesto commitment to work towards a comprehensive and ambitious set of city deals across Northern Ireland to boost investment and help to unlock Northern Ireland’s full potential. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government and I have already had some early discussions with partners in the Belfast city region.
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s commitment to developing city deals in Northern Ireland. Can he confirm that the city deals that have been developed by this Government have been a success across Great Britain and that Northern Ireland stands to benefit immensely from their development over there?
I can. The fact is that Northern Ireland has had no city deals, whereas England, Scotland and Wales have made 33 deals worth up to £4.9 billion. This is about the change that city deals bring and the other finance that city deals are able to unlock. That is why we strongly believe there is a firm place for city deals in Northern Ireland, and we are committed to advancing them.
Will my right hon. Friend assure us that, as in England, it is important that provincial towns benefit from city deals? Will he ensure that not just Belfast but the whole of Northern Ireland benefits from the growth that city deals can bring?
Absolutely. We want the benefit of city deals to be felt across Northern Ireland. Although, yes, the Belfast city region has been advancing its own proposals, it is right that we look across Northern Ireland—to the north-west and to all parts of Northern Ireland—to see that the benefit and the transformative effect of city deals is firmly felt.
The Secretary of State should be encouraged that discussions continue apace at a local level in the Belfast city region, as well as with officials at a regional and national level. But with no Assembly sitting and a democratic participative deficit in this arrangement, how will he encourage the involvement of representatives of the Belfast region—and indeed of representatives in this House—so that the project comes to fruition?
As the hon. Gentleman knows, I had discussions with hon. and right hon. Members, as well as with Belfast City Council, during the initial phase. We are looking carefully at how that work can move forward practically through officials and by other means. I am determined to see city deals taking effect, with their benefit being felt. This engagement will continue to ensure that that happens.
The fundamentals of the Northern Ireland economy remain strong, with growth last year at 1.6%. Economic activity is up, exports have risen, unemployment has fallen to levels not seen since before Labour’s recession of 2008, and 42,000 more people are in work compared with 2010.
Will the Minister confirm that the unemployment rate in Northern Ireland today is 4.7%—down from 7% under the Labour party—and that any return to the high-tax, out-of-control spending and record deficit of the Labour years would have a disastrous impact on Northern Ireland’s economy?
I certainly can. Under this Conservative Government, unemployment is at its lowest level in four decades. Labour would put all that at risk. We want to continue seeing the creation of more than 1,000 jobs a day. [Interruption.]
Order. There is excessive noise in the Chamber. We are discussing matters of very great importance to the people of Northern Ireland, and they should be treated with respect, as should the hon. Member for Chelmsford (Vicky Ford), who is about to ask her question.
Thank you, Mr Speaker.
Does the Minister agree that although the recent performance of the Northern Ireland economy is strong—thanks, in large part, to the policies of this Conservative Government—the sparkling gem of our country that is Northern Ireland still has the potential to do better? Does he agree that that would be boosted by the restoration of an Executive with local Ministers taking local decisions?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. She knows the region well and she will be aware that tourism numbers for the first six months of 2017 hit a record high, and that Belfast and the causeway coast is rated by Lonely Planet as the best region in the world to visit in the coming year. To continue that progress, we need to add political stability to the mix so that economic development can continue to be supported.
The Minister will know that some good results for the Northern Ireland economy have come out this morning. Does she agree that the Democratic Unionist party has negotiated a fantastic deal with the Tory party that will help to create jobs in Northern Ireland and strengthen the economy in the future?
Everybody in this House ought to celebrate the further economic progress in Northern Ireland and there being a strong Government who can deliver that and support economic progress for the whole United Kingdom.
Extraordinary behaviour! The right hon. Gentleman is a distinguished former Northern Ireland Minister; he is entitled to be heard with courtesy, at the very least by Members on his own Benches.
The right hon. Gentleman raises important points that were debated at length in the Chamber on Monday night. The point is that we wish for political progress to be seen through the formation of an Executive, in which case accountability would be extremely clear. In the interim period, the House put in place measures on Monday to allow the Northern Ireland civil service to continue to spend as is required by the population of Northern Ireland, and it is under a duty to do so fairly and equally between communities.
Leaving the EU: Ireland Act 1949
Maintaining our strong, historic ties with Ireland is an important priority, including the rights of Irish citizens in the UK as provided for in domestic legislation, including the Ireland Act 1949. These reciprocal arrangements reflect the long-standing social and economic ties between the UK and Ireland.
Along with the 1949 Act, the Good Friday agreement has been a pillar of progress, and it has also meant that the political funding rules in Northern Ireland were different from those in the rest of the United Kingdom. At the weekend, an openDemocracy investigation revealed that the Constitutional Research Council, an organisation with close ties to the Scottish Conservative party, has been given a record fine after failing to disclose the origin of a £425,000 donation to the DUP. Will the Secretary of State enlighten the House as to why the Constitutional Research Council was given that fine in the first place?
All I can say to the hon. Gentleman in respect of the constitutional arrangements is that yes, of course we uphold the Belfast Good Friday agreement, and we are determined that that will be reflected in the final deal. I cannot offer him any greater insight in relation to the other matter he has brought to the House.
Child Tax Credits: Non-Consensual Sex Exemption
I know from previous questions that the hon. Lady has asked that she is concerned about particular circumstances that could apply to claimants in Northern Ireland. The Department for Work and Pensions and Northern Ireland’s Department for Communities have worked closely together to enable the exemption for non-consensual conception to be applied sensitively. As I said to the hon. Lady in July, the guidance states that women who apply for this exception do not have to tell a third party the name of the other biological parent, and neither is there a requirement on the third party to seek any further evidence beyond confirming that the exception should apply.
I have been pursuing this issue for more than two years now and that answer is simply not good enough. When I visited Belfast recently, the Women’s Aid Federation Northern Ireland, doctors, nurses, midwives and social workers all expressed their serious concerns about the implications of this policy for women fleeing domestic violence, who could be prosecuted under the Criminal Law Act (Northern Ireland) 1967. Will the Minister act now, speak into the Prime Minister’s ear and ask for this policy to be scrapped once and for all?
No, I will not. The hon. Lady may think that the answer is not good enough, but it has the merit of being true.
Will the Minister simply confirm whether women rape victims in Northern Ireland will be at risk of potential prosecution as a result of these measures—yes or no?
The Minister and indeed the Prime Minister need to reflect on that answer, because I have a letter here from Barra McCrory, the Director of Public Prosecutions in Northern Ireland, who said, in answer to my question on this very issue:
“It is, however, a potential offence to withhold information regarding an act of rape. The legislation does not distinguish between a victim and third parties to whom a disclosure is made; each is potentially liable to prosecution.”
How on earth can the Government countenance making women in Northern Ireland who are subject to rape imprisonable under the law? How can she accept that?
The fact is that we are not doing so. As I said to the hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss), there is clear guidance on the form that makes the legal position very clear, and we have sensitively handled that as an exception for precisely those reasons.
The Prime Minister was asked—
I am sure that Members across the whole House will wish to join me in congratulating Her Majesty the Queen and Prince Philip on their upcoming platinum wedding anniversary this coming Monday. They have devoted their lives to the service of our country and I know that the whole House will wish to offer them our very best wishes on this special occasion.
This morning, I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in this House, I shall have further such meetings later today.
My right hon. Friend’s stewardship of the economy and her predecessor’s excellent work in making sure that this economy grows have seen confidence in our country grow despite the troubles and tribulations that have been set before us. Our deficit has now come down, and our debts are oversubscribed. Will she take this opportunity to invest in our economy even more than she is already, and perhaps take the chance to build more homes?
My hon. Friend makes a very important point about investing in infrastructure, particularly in housing. We are doing exactly that, which is why we have seen more than a quarter of a trillion pounds in infrastructure spending since 2010. We are putting in another £22 billion from central Government for economic infrastructure. We are seeing billions of pounds going on rail projects and the biggest road-building programme for a generation. That is this Government building a country fit for the future.
I join the Prime Minister in wishing Her Majesty and Prince Philip a very happy platinum wedding anniversary.
The thoughts of the whole House will be with the victims of the devastating earthquake that hit Iran and Iraq on Monday, leaving hundreds dead and thousands without shelter. I hope the Government are offering all necessary emergency help and support that can be used to save life.
I am sure that the House will join me in sending our deepest sympathies to the family and friends of the late Carl Sargeant, the Labour Assembly Member in Wales, who very tragically died last week.
Crime is up, violent crime is up and police numbers are down by 20,000. Will the Prime Minister urge her Chancellor—who I note is sitting absolutely next to her so it will be easy for her to make this demand on him—to provide the funding that our police need to make communities safe?
The right hon. Gentleman raised three points. On the earthquake that took place in Iraq and Iran, we are monitoring it closely. It was a devastating earthquake, and our thoughts are with all those who have been affected by it. We are looking at the situation and stand ready to provide assistance for urgent humanitarian needs if requested. The Government will do what is necessary and we will stand ready to help people.
I also join the right hon. Gentleman in offering condolences to the family and friends of Carl Sargeant, and I am sure that that goes for everybody across the House. He raised the issue of crime and policing. In fact, crime, which is traditionally measured by the independent crime survey, is down by well over a third since 2010. [Hon. Members: “Ah!”] We have protected police budgets, and we are putting more money into counter-terrorism policing. What matters is what the police do and how they deliver, and, as I say, the crime survey shows that crime is down by nearly a third since 2010.
I have been following some tweets from some of the Prime Minister’s friends on the Front Bench. One says:
“Very disappointed and mystified at closure of Uxbridge Police Station.”
For the want of any doubt, that came from the Foreign Secretary, who is also—[Interruption.]
Order. I want to hear about the Uxbridge police station.
I am very pleased that you do, Mr Speaker, because the Foreign Secretary is so excited that he will not even hear the answer. The real reason that the police station is closing is the £2.3 billion cut to police budgets in the last Parliament. And it gets worse—they will be cut by another £700 million by 2020. Under this Government, there are now 11,000 fewer firefighters in England than there were in 2010, and deaths in fires increased by 20% last year. In the wake of the terrible Grenfell Tower fire, the Prime Minister was very clear in saying that this could not be allowed to happen again and that money would be no object to fire safety. Will she therefore now back the campaign to provide local councils with £1 billion to retrofit sprinklers in all high-rise blocks?
On the first issue, the right hon. Gentleman might not have noticed, but the police and crime commissioner in London is the Mayor. Is he one of ours? No, he’s one of yours. The last time I looked, Sadiq Khan was a Labour Mayor of London, although perhaps the leader of the Labour party thinks that he is not Labour enough for him and his brand of Labour. Let us be very clear about funding for the Metropolitan police. There is more money and there are more officers for each Londoner than anywhere else in the country; that is the reality.
The right hon. Gentleman asked about the issue of fire. We absolutely take seriously the appalling tragedy at Grenfell Tower, which is why I set up the public inquiry and why the Communities Secretary has already set up the work that is taking place on the fire and building regulations to ensure that they are right. We continue to support Kensington and Chelsea Council in ensuring that we deliver for the victims of this awful tragedy.
The right hon. Gentleman asked about sprinklers. Of course, we want to ensure that homes are fit for those who live in them, and there is a responsibility on building owners in that regard. Some owners do retrofit sprinklers, but there are other safety measures that can be put in place. Perhaps he ought to look at what Labour councils have said on the matter. Haringey Council rejected calls to fit sprinklers, saying that what matters is introducing the “right safety measures”. Lewisham Council said that it needs to “weigh up” the issues, because fitting sprinklers can involve “cutting…through fire compartmentalisation”, which is another safety measure. Lambeth Council said that
“there were issues retrofitting sprinklers and questions about how effective they were”.
Even Islington Council said that it needs to look at “how effective” sprinklers would be.
After the Lakanal House fire, the coroner thought that fitting sprinklers would be the right thing to do. The chief fire officer thinks that it is the right thing to do. The local authorities that have asked central Government for support to retrofit sprinklers have all been refused by the Prime Minister’s Government. Surely, we need to think about the safety of the people living in socially rented high-rise blocks.
Yesterday, I was passed a letter from a lettings agency in Lincolnshire, where universal credit is about to be rolled out. The agency—and I have the letter here—is issuing all of its tenants with a pre-emptive notice of eviction, because universal credit has driven up arrears where it has been rolled out. The letter says:
“GAP Property cannot sustain arrears at the potential levels Universal Credit could create”.
Will the Prime Minister pause universal credit so it can be fixed, or does she think it is right to put thousands of families, through Christmas, in the trauma of knowing they are about to be evicted because they are in rent arrears because of universal credit?
There have been concerns raised—there have been concerns raised in this House previously—over the issue of people managing their budgets to pay rent, but we see that, after four months, the number of people on universal credit in arrears has fallen by a third. It is important that we do look at the issues on this particular case. The right hon. Gentleman might like to send the letter through. In an earlier Prime Minister’s questions, he raised a specific case of an individual who had written to him about her experience on universal credit—I think it was Georgina. As far as I am aware, he has so far not sent that letter to me, despite the fact that I asked for it.
I am very happy to give the Prime Minister a copy of this letter. I suspect this is not the only letting agency that is sending out that kind of letter.
The Prime Minister might be aware that food bank usage has increased by 30% in areas where universal credit has been rolled out. Three million families are losing an average of £2,500 a year through universal credit. The Child Poverty Action Group estimates more than 1 million will be in poverty due to cuts imposed by universal credit. If those are not reasons enough to pause the roll-out, I do not know what are.
There is no reason.
Order. Mr Morris, calm yourself—behave with restraint. You are seated in a prominent position. Quiet! It would be good for your wellbeing.
Thank you, Mr Speaker.
Last week, the chief executive of NHS England, Simon Stevens, wrote:
“the budget for the NHS next year is well short of what is currently needed”.
The A&E waiting time target has not been met for two years. The 62-day cancer waiting time target has not been met since 2015. So, again, can the Prime Minister spend the next week ensuring that the Budget does give sufficient funding to our NHS to meet our people’s needs?
On the first issue that the right hon. Gentleman raised, can I remind him yet again that universal credit is ensuring we are seeing more people in work and able to keep what they earn?
The right hon. Gentleman talks about what Simon Stevens says about the national health service. Yes, let us look at what Simon Stevens says about the national health service:
“The quality of NHS care is demonstrably improving…Outcomes of care for most major conditions are dramatically better than three or five or ten years ago.”
“What’s been achieved in England over the past three years? More convenient access to primary care services…First steps to expand the primary care workforce…Highest cancer survival rates ever…Big expansion in cancer check-ups”
“public satisfaction with hospital inpatients…at its highest for more than two decades.”
That is the good news of our national health service.
Well, it is very strange that the chief executive of NHS Providers says:
“We are in the middle of the longest and deepest financial squeeze in…history.”
I have a pretty good idea that they know what they are talking about. Let me give the Prime Minister another statistic. The number of people waiting more than four hours in A&E has gone up by 557% since 2010. Two weeks ago, the opposition to us—the Tories over there—were very noisy when I mentioned—[Interruption.] You are the Government, we are the Opposition: you are in opposition to us. It is not complicated.
Two weeks ago, I raised the question of cuts in school budgets—teachers and parents telling MPs what the reality of it was about. The Prime Minister was in denial; every Tory MP was in denial. This week, 5,000 headteachers from 25 counties wrote to the Chancellor, saying:
“we are simply asking for the money that is being taken out of the system to be returned”.
Will the Prime Minister listen to headteachers and give a commitment that the Budget next week will return the money to school budgets so that our schools are properly funded?
Actually, I think this is a major moment: the right hon. Gentleman has got something right today. We are the Government and he is the Opposition. On the NHS, there are 1,800 more patients seen within the four-hour A&E standard every single day compared with 2010. He talks about school funding. We are putting more money into our school budget. We are seeing record levels of funding going into our schools. This Government are the first Government in decades who have actually gripped the issue of a fairer national funding formula, and we are putting that into practice. But you can only put record levels of money into your NHS and your schools with a strong economy, and what do we see as a result of policies that this Conservative Government have put in place? Income inequality: down under the Conservatives, up under Labour. Unemployment: down under the Conservatives, up under Labour. Workless households: down under the Conservatives, up under Labour. Deficit: down under the Conservatives, up under Labour. The right hon. Gentleman is planning a run on the pound; we are building a Britain fit for the future.
I would have thought that 5,000 head teachers had a pretty good idea about the funding problems of their schools and a pretty good idea of the effect of Government cuts to school budgets on their staff and on their students. Indeed, the Institute for Fiscal Studies says that school funding will have fallen by 5% in real terms by 2019 as a result of Government policies.
With public services in crisis from police to the fire service, from the NHS to children’s schools, while a super-rich few dodge their taxes—[Interruption.] Ah, yes. The Government sit on their hands as billions are lost to vital public services. The Conservatives cut taxes for the few and vital services for the many. It is not just that there is one rule for the super-rich—
Order. I apologise for interrupting the right hon. Gentleman. Both sides of this House will be heard. The idea that when somebody is asking a question there should be a concerted attempt to shout that person down is totally undemocratic and completely unacceptable from whichever quarter it comes. I just ask colleagues to give some thought to how our behaviour is regarded by the people who put us here.
Quite simply, is not the truth that this is a Government who protect the super-rich, while the rest of us pick up the bill through cuts, austerity, poverty, homelessness, low wages and the slashing of local services all over the country? That is the reality of a Tory Government.
We have taken in £160 billion extra as a result of the action we have taken on tax avoidance and evasion. The tax gap is now at its lowest level ever. If the tax gap had stayed at the level it was under the Labour party, we would be losing the equivalent of the entire police budget for England and Wales. We in the Conservative party are building a Britain that is fit for the future, with the best Brexit deal, more high-paid jobs, better schools and the homes our country needs. Labour has backtracked on Brexit. It has gone back on its promise on student debt, and it would lose control of public finances. I say to the right hon. Gentleman that he may have given Momentum to his party, put he brings stagnation to the country.
My hon. Friend is right to raise this important issue for his constituents. I have been assured in this particular case that all the local health organisations remain fully committed to this project. They are confident that it will bring benefits to the local population in the long term. I fully understand my hon. Friend’s frustration at the delays that have taken place. I understand that he will be meeting representatives of NHS England and NHS Property Services later this month. Those two organisations are best placed to ensure that this project is progressed as quickly as possible, and I hope that some positive news will come out of that meeting.
As my hon. Friend has raised the issue of access to local health services, I would like to take this opportunity to say how important it is—[Interruption.] This is an important issue for people around this House and outside this House. I want to make sure that everybody who is entitled to a flu jab this year goes and gets one. I have had one, as a type 1 diabetic, and I hope that everyone in this House is encouraging their constituents who are entitled to those flu jabs to get them.
May I join the Prime Minister and the leader of the Labour party in congratulating the Queen and Prince Philip on the impending platinum anniversary of their wedding? I am sure the House would also want to join me in welcoming the Presiding Officer of the Scottish Parliament, who is in the Gallery today.
Does the Prime Minister agree with me that we should be incredibly proud of our emergency services, and that they do a heroic job, often putting themselves in danger to keep us all safe?
I join the right hon. Gentleman in welcoming the Presiding Officer of the Scottish Parliament to see our proceedings. As I have said previously in this Chamber, and as I am happy to confirm, our emergency services do an amazing job. I was very pleased at the Pride of Britain awards to present, posthumously, an award in the name of PC Keith Palmer who of course worked to keep this place safe. Other police officers, the Leader of the Opposition and the leader of the Liberal Democrats gave awards to other police officers who had also done what they and other emergency services do—they run towards danger when most of us would run away from it.
I associate myself with the remarks of the Prime Minister. However, Scottish fire and police are the only forces in the United Kingdom to be charged VAT, depriving frontline services of £140 million since 2013. The SNP has raised this issue 30 times in this Chamber. Will the UK Government now give Scotland’s emergency services our £140 million back and scrap the VAT? This has been a long-standing SNP campaign, and we will not give up.
The Chief Secretary has made it clear that officials in Her Majesty’s Treasury will look at this issue, and they will report on it in due course. I am pleased to say that very constructive representations have been made by my Scottish colleagues on the Conservative Benches on this particular issue. Let us just be clear—because the right hon. Gentleman knows this—that before the Scottish Government made the decision to make Scotland’s police and fire services national rather than regional bodies, they were told that this would mean that they would become ineligible for VAT refunds, and they pressed ahead despite knowing that.
Like my hon. Friend, I have seen grandparents in my constituency, through my constituency surgery, who have been concerned about decisions that have been taken in relation to their grandchildren when they themselves were willing to provide a home and support for them, so he has raised a very important issue. There is of course already a duty on local authorities in legislation to ensure that, wherever possible, children are raised within their family, and the statutory guidance does make particular reference to grandparents, but adoption agencies must also consider the needs of the child first and foremost. Each case will be different, but I think the message he is giving—of grandchildren being able to be brought up in their family, wherever possible—is a good one.
I made the point earlier about the importance of universal credit. We have made changes in the implementation of it and we are listening to concerns that are being raised—we are making more advance payments available—but the hon. Gentleman might also like to recognise that, thanks to the unprecedented devolution of powers to Scotland that we have given, including over welfare, the Scottish Government have the ability to take a different path if they wish to, so there might be action in Holyrood.
My hon. Friend is right. We will be leaving the European Union on 29 March 2019. There is of course a lively debate going on in this place—that is right and proper, and that is important—and strong views are held on different sides of the argument about the European Union on both sides of this House. What we are doing as a Government is listening to the contributions that are being made and listening carefully to those who wish to improve the Bill, and I hope that we can all come together to deliver on the decision that the country took that we should leave the European Union.
The hon. Lady has been a passionate campaigner on this issue, and has very thoughtfully shared her own personal experience with this House. We recognise what an incredibly painful experience it is to lose a child, and I know that the whole House is in sympathy with those who do experience such a tragedy each year; sadly, thousands of families do.
We have put in place a piece of cross-Government work to look at the whole question of how we can improve support for bereaved parents in a variety of ways. That work is being led by the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell (Dr Lee), who has responsibility for youth justice. We are already supporting the private Member’s Bill on parental bereavement promoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake). We are making it easier for parents to apply for financial support, and we are also ensuring that support from across Government is brought together so that it is easily accessible for bereaved parents at what we know is a very difficult time.
We strongly believe that community transport operators provide vital services connecting people and communities and reducing isolation. A number of weeks ago I was very pleased to visit and take a ride on one of the Wokingham Borough community buses that services part of my constituency. The Department for Transport remains committed to supporting community transport operators and has no intention of ending the permit system. To support that, DFT has recently written to all local authorities in Great Britain to explain how they can comply with the regulations without negatively impacting on operators and passengers.
Progress is excessively slow. Let us try to speed up.
I am happy to give the hon. Gentleman that assurance. I discussed the matter briefly with the First Minister of Scotland when I met her yesterday, and I am pleased to say that the Minister for Climate Change and Industry, my hon. Friend the Member for Devizes (Claire Perry), spoke on behalf of the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy to the relevant Scottish Government Minister, Paul Wheelhouse, about the issue yesterday. BEIS, Her Majesty’s Treasury and the Government stand ready to work with the Scottish Government and others to try to ensure that the best result can be achieved.
This is an important issue and my hon. Friend is right. We do need more GPs, which is why we are increasing the number of places at medical schools by 1,500, the first 500 of which will be available next September. On her specific point about committing people who have been trained to work in the NHS, the Department of Health has been looking at ways in which we can maximise our investment in medical education and it has asked Health Education England to look at the precise point she has raised and to report back early next year.
The hon. Lady is right to say that I spoke on Monday about the issue of Russian interference in elections, which has taken place in a number of countries in Europe—[Interruption.] It is all very well for Labour Members to point at the Foreign Secretary. He made a specific point about what was happening in the United Kingdom, and if they cared to look at the speech I gave on Monday they will see that the examples I gave of Russian interference were not in the United Kingdom. The hon. Lady raises the issue of the Intelligence and Security Committee, which is being established today.
I know that my hon. Friend takes a particular interest in this issue and in ensuring we are giving support, security and safety for young people on the internet, which is, as he says, so necessary. We are considering a range of options on this issue. Last month, we published our internet safety strategy. We are consulting on a number of measures, such as a social media code of practice, a social media levy and transparency reporting, but we need to take action to protect internet users, especially young people. That includes considering a sanctions regime to ensure compliance, as we set out in our party manifesto.
I am sure the sympathies and thoughts of the whole House are with those injured and stabbed. We are concerned about criminal acts of this sort. As I said earlier in other answers, we have been protecting police budgets and we are now actually seeing a higher percentage of police officers on the frontline.
My hon. Friend also raises an absolutely appalling and horrific crime. I know that the thoughts of Members across the House are with the victim and her family. I can assure him that in this specific case the Home Office will be pursuing deportation action against the individual. I understand that he met my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and she will be writing to him with further details shortly. He makes a wider point about the continued work, partnership and co-operation we will have with the EU27 once we have left the European Union. I am very clear, as I was in my Florence speech, that we want to maintain that co-operation on security, criminal justice and law enforcement matters. That is important to us all.
As I have said in answer to a number of questions on universal credit, I believe the introduction of universal credit is very important in helping more people to get into work and in ensuring they can keep more of what they earn. Of course we are looking at the impact of implementation. As I have said, we have made a number of changes to the way it is being implemented, but universal credit is the right thing to do because it is enabling more people to get into the workplace and helping them when they are in the workplace.
With recent events in Zimbabwe and total electoral chaos in Kenya, will the Prime Minister join me in celebrating the hugely successful elections this week in Somaliland? With direct help from this country and our Government, the National Election Commission in that country has conducted a template election described by the international observer mission as peaceful, transparent, fair and totally uncontested. What is more, the winning candidate has announced that one of his first acts will be to legislate against female genital mutilation, as a direct consequence of work by a British campaigner, Nimco Ali, who deserves the House’s respect.
My hon. Friend raises an important issue. The Government are pleased with the work we have done to support the Government in Somaliland to ensure that the elections could take place in the way he described, and we continue to provide support. I was pleased earlier this year to chair the Somalia conference here, and I am pleased to hear of the intention to deal with female genital mutilation, which is an important issue that has been raised by Members across the House. We want it dealt with not just in Somalia but here in the UK.
The hon. Lady will appreciate the importance of ensuring that only those entitled to these benefits receive them, but we continue to look at how we are implementing universal credit, and I am sure that if she cares to write to the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions about her case, he will look at it.
Businesses on the Dover frontline are now preparing to leave the EU. Will the Government consider earmarking at least £1 billion in the upcoming Budget to ensure that we are ready on day one—deal or no deal—and prepared for every eventuality?
I thank my hon. Friend for his question. Obviously, in his constituency the issue of preparations for leaving the EU is very tightly felt—there is a great focus on it—and I appreciate why that is the case. We have already made funds available for the preparations and necessary work across Government in advance of Brexit, and of course we will look at what further work is necessary to ensure that we are ready. We hope to get a good deal, and are working to get one, but either way there will need to be changes, from a Government point of view, and we are ensuring that the resources are there to do that.
Yesterday, the Brexit Secretary gave a pledge in the City that freedom of movement would be preserved for bankers and other members of the financial services industry. Why can the same pledge not be given to other key economic sectors, such as manufacturing and agriculture?
In looking to the immigration rules to be introduced once we leave the EU, we are clear about the need to take into account the needs of our economy. That is precisely why my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has asked the independent Migration Advisory Committee to look at this issue and make recommendations to the Government.
Given the recent events in Zimbabwe, what support can Her Majesty’s Government provide to Zimbabweans to help their country’s recovery, both economically and in terms of their democratic systems of government?
My hon. Friend raises an important point. We have all seen what has happened in Harare, and we are monitoring developments carefully. The situation is still fluid, and we would urge restraint on all sides, because we want to see—and would call for—an avoidance of violence. Of course, our primary concern is the safety of British nationals in Zimbabwe. It is an uncertain political situation, obviously, and we have heard reports of unusual military activity, so we recommend that British nationals in Harare remain safely at home until the situation becomes clearer. On his specific point, we are currently providing bilateral support to Zimbabwe of more than £80 million per year, partly to support economic reform and development, just as he says.
Next week will mark six months since the tragic attack at Manchester Arena. Will the Prime Minister join me in once again paying tribute to all those who responded so brilliantly in the aftermath? She will also be aware that the costs associated with this attack, now imposed on the city, are well in excess of £17 million—costs that the Government agreed to meet—yet as of today those moneys have yet to be reimbursed. Will she today give a clear and categoric commitment that those moneys will be reimbursed at the earliest opportunity?
Our thoughts continue to be with all those who were affected by the terrible attack that took place in Manchester. As well as meeting some of the victims immediately after the attack, I also met some of the victims and those involved a matter of weeks ago and talked to them about the long-lasting impact that this has on them.
The hon. Lady has raised an important issue. In relation to this funding issue, I can say to her that we will be responding in full by the end of next week, but I would expect that response to confirm that the majority of funds will be made available.
As I do in Barnet, the Prime Minister represents a constituency in the green belt, so will she assure the House that the Government she leads will never weaken protection for the green belt?
We have been very clear about our position in relation to the green belt, and indeed we confirmed that in the housing White Paper that we set out, where we were very clear about that too. We want more homes to be built in this country. It is important that we see more homes being built particularly in London, but there are many opportunities to do that that do not affect the green belt.
Earlier in the year, the Prime Minister told the country that she was the only person who could offer strong and stable leadership in the national interest. With her Cabinet crumbling before her eyes, can she tell us how it is going?
Let me tell the hon. Lady what we see this Government delivering. I spoke about some of these things earlier: deficit down, unemployment down, more record sums going to our health service and our schools, and a Government determined—with a clear plan, as set out in my Florence speech—to deliver the best Brexit deal for this country. She is a member of a party that cannot even decide what it wants from Brexit, let alone set a plan for it.
No serious negotiation would normally allow one side to try to dictate financial terms before the wider terms were known. In preparing to embrace the world when it comes to trade through World Trade Organisation rules, will the Prime Minister please ignore the siren voices and defeatist voices who got “Project Fear 1” wrong and our need to join the euro wrong?
What we want to do is negotiate a good, close partnership—a special partnership—with the remaining EU27 so that we can continue to see good trade, as far as possible tariff free and as frictionless as possible, between companies here in the United Kingdom and those in the EU27. We also want, as my hon. Friend indicates, trade deals around the rest of the world to ensure that we are taking advantage of the opportunities that those trade deals give, because that means more prosperity and more jobs here in the UK.
The Prime Minister and I represent Maidenhead and Slough so we are good neighbours, and I want first to place on record my immense gratitude to her, and indeed half her Cabinet, for having come to my aid recently to help increase our majority from 7,000 to 17,000. I could not have done it without them.
Constituents, businesses and unions in my constituency feel aggrieved that various Government-announced initiatives have seen little or no progress. The electrification of the train line between Slough and Windsor has now been deferred—
Order. I am trying to be accommodating to colleagues and I want to hear the hon. Gentleman, but the rest of the question must be just that: one sentence and a question mark at the end of it.
Will the Prime Minister please assuage the concerns of my constituents and reassure them that the western rail link to Heathrow will be treated as a priority matter so that it is dealt with immediately?
I am pleased to be able to say to the hon. Gentleman that we are putting significant sums of money into transport infrastructure and rail infrastructure. Crucially, we are electrifying the Great Western main line, which will be of benefit to Slough and Maidenhead.
Finally, I call Iain Stewart.
Will the Prime Minister join me in welcoming the decision by the people of Australia to vote in favour of same-sex marriage? Does she share my hope that the Government of Australia will quickly legislate to introduce it, following the lead set by this House?
I am very happy to join my hon. Friend in welcoming that vote in Australia. I was proud, as I know he and other colleagues were, when we passed the legislation here in this House to enable same-sex marriage in the United Kingdom, and I hope that the Australian Government will indeed act on that vote very soon.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker.
Order. Just before I call the hon. Member for Pontypridd (Owen Smith), may I just have it confirmed—as has just been intimated to me—that his point of order flows specifically out of exchanges at Northern Ireland questions? Otherwise, points of order come after urgent questions and statements, and we would not want to change that good practice, would we? Does his point of order relate to, flow out of and connect with Northern Ireland questions?
Oh—not just profoundly, but entirely! I am deeply obliged to the hon. Gentleman, as will be the House, I hope.
Thank you for granting this point of order, Mr Speaker, which relates to an incredibly important issue that was raised in Northern Ireland questions. When I asked the Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, the hon. Member for Norwich North (Chloe Smith) whether women in Northern Ireland who were appealing for exemption under the so-called rape clause that currently applies there might be liable to prosecution because of the way in which that measure intersects with the criminal law in Northern Ireland, I was astonished to hear the Minister say no. She gave a one-word answer saying clearly that such women would not be liable to prosecution, but I have a letter from the Director of Public Prosecutions in Northern Ireland that directly contradicts that. What can you do, Mr Speaker, to get Ministers back to the House to correct what I believe to have been a misleading statement?
Pursue. The hon. Gentleman is well familiar with the mechanisms available to Members in this House. He has effectively, through the device of a point of order, repeated a point that he made—I think probably in some consternation—to the Minister during Northern Ireland questions. If he is dissatisfied with the answer because he thinks that there is a clear conflict, and he wishes to pursue the matter, he can do so either by written questions or, if he judges the matter to be pressing, by the other device to bring the matter to the attention of the House, with which he will be well familiar—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) is not hailing a taxi. I can see her perfectly well, and we will come to her. She need not worry. We are saving her up. If the hon. Gentleman so wishes, he can use that device.
Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. This is perfectly clear on the form that the UK Government have provided to implement the rape clause in Northern Ireland. It is stated twice within the document:
“Please be aware that in Northern Ireland, if the third party knows or believes that a relevant offence (such as rape) has been committed, the third party will normally have a duty to inform the police of any information that is likely to secure, or to be of material assistance in securing the apprehension, prosecution or conviction of someone for that offence.”
That is there on the form—
Order. If the hon. Lady was seeking to prove to me that she is capable of effective recital, she has no need to offer any such proof to the Chair. I simply say to those attending our proceedings that we must not abuse points of order. If I did not know the hon. Lady as well as I do, I would think that she was seeking to continue—and perhaps effectively to conclude, as she sees it—a debate that took place earlier. However, because I know her to be a person of noble intent and undiminished public spirit who would not conceive of the idea of breaching the conventions of the House, I have to assume that that is not her plan. These matters will have to be pursued elsewhere through other devices, and I can almost envisage the hon. Lady and the shadow Secretary of State consuming a hot beverage together and making their plans. It is perfectly open to them to do so, but they must not further detain the House today. If there are no further points of order, we finally come to the urgent question, for which the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey) has been so patiently waiting.
(Urgent Question): Will the Foreign Secretary please make a statement on the situation in Zimbabwe?
In the early hours of this morning, soldiers from the Zimbabwean army deployed in central Harare, taking control of state television, surrounding Government ministries and sealing off Robert Mugabe’s official and private residences. At 1.26 am local time, a military officer appeared on state television and declared that the army was taking what he called “targeted action” against “criminals” around Mugabe. Several Government Ministers, all of them political allies of Grace Mugabe, are reported to have been arrested. At 2.30 am, gunfire was heard in the northern suburb of Harare where Mugabe has a private mansion. Areas of the central business district have been sealed off by armoured personnel carriers.
Our embassy in Harare has been monitoring the situation carefully throughout the night, supported by staff in the Foreign Office. About 20,000 Britons live in Zimbabwe, and I can reassure the House that so far we have received no reports of any British nationals being injured. We have updated our travel advice to recommend that any Britons in Harare should remain in their homes or other accommodation until the situation becomes clearer. All our Zimbabwean and UK-based embassy staff and their families are accounted for.
I will say frankly to the House that we cannot tell how developments in Zimbabwe will play out in the days ahead. We do not know whether this marks the downfall of Mugabe or not, and we call for calm and restraint. The events of the last 24 hours are the latest escalation of months of brutal infighting within the ruling ZANU-PF party, including the sacking of a vice-president and the purging of his followers, and the apparent positioning of Grace Mugabe as a contender to replace her 93-year-old husband.
Hon. Members on both sides of the House have taken a deep interest in Zimbabwe over many years, and I pay particular tribute to the courage and persistence of my hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey)—I will call her my hon. Friend—who has tirelessly exposed the crimes of the Mugabe regime and visited the country herself during some of its worst moments. The United Kingdom, under Governments of all parties, has followed the same unwavering principles in its approach to Zimbabwe. First and foremost, we will never forget the strong ties of history and friendship with that beautiful country, which has been accurately described as the jewel of Africa.
All that Britain has ever wanted for Zimbabweans is for them to be able to decide their own future in free and fair elections. Mugabe’s consuming ambition has always been to deny them that choice. The House will remember the brutal litany of his 37 years in office: the elections that he rigged and stole; the murder and torture of his opponents; and the illegal seizure of land, which led to the worst hyperinflation in recorded history—measured in billions of percentage points—and forced the abolition of the Zimbabwean dollar. All the while, his followers were looting and plundering that richly endowed country, so that Zimbabweans today are, per capita, poorer than they were in 1980. This has left many dependent on the healthcare, education and food aid provided by the Department for International Development.
Britain has always wanted the Zimbabwean people to be masters of their fate, and for any political change to be peaceful, lawful and constitutional. Authoritarian rule, whether in Zimbabwe or anywhere else, should have no place in Africa. There is only one rightful way for Zimbabwe to achieve a legitimate Government, and that is through free and fair elections held in accordance with the country’s constitution. Elections are due to be held in the first half of next year, and we will do all that we can, with our international partners, to ensure that they provide a genuine opportunity for all Zimbabweans to decide their future. That is what we urge on all parties. I shall be speaking to the deputy President of South Africa later today.
Every Member will follow the scenes in Harare with good will and sympathy for Zimbabwe’s long-suffering people, and I undertake to keep the House updated as events unfold.
I thank the Foreign Secretary for his deep and passionate response to what is a very fluid situation. This is clearly a significant tipping point for the power balance in Zimbabwe, and although it is not a coup in the sense that the military want to run the country, it is a coup to ensure that former Vice-President Emmerson Mnangagwa takes over.
Does the Foreign Secretary agree that changing from one ruthless leader to another ruthless leader will not help to create the conditions that can lead to genuinely free and fair elections in the coming year, and will not solve a dire economic situation in which thousands of people are destitute and food is scarce? Many people in Zimbabwe and the international community will welcome the removal of the Mugabes if that is the outcome, but does the Foreign Secretary recognise that the former vice-president is probably the one person in Zimbabwe who inspires even greater terror than Mugabe, and that he was responsible for the massacres of at least 20,000 people in Matabeleland shortly after Mugabe took power in 1980? Does he recognise that Mnangagwa, as head of Joint Operations Command, is widely viewed as having co-ordinated ZANU-PF’s campaign of torture, murder and repression in the lead-up to the rigged run-off in the 2008 election?
Will the Foreign Secretary make it clear that Her Majesty’s Government’s policy on Zimbabwe will not change overnight, and that we will not jump in to welcome Mnangagwa should he take over right away? What more will the Government do to help ensure that free and fair elections take place and to give warm support to those who are struggling inside Zimbabwe to raise the flag of true freedom? Will the Foreign Secretary make representations to the African Union, the Southern African Development Community and South Africa to press ZANU-PF to allow genuinely free elections, and not just to accept another strongman dictator?
Finally, will the Foreign Secretary recognise the importance of listening to the voices of the huge Zimbabwean diaspora here in the United Kingdom, many of whom sought political asylum, but want nothing more than to see their once prosperous country flourishing and free?
I renew my tribute to the campaigning of the hon. Lady. She has been tireless over many, many years and has spoken passionately, accurately and perceptively about this subject, as she has again today.
It is too early to comment on the outcome of these events, or to be sure exactly how things will unfold. The situation is fluid, and I think it would be wrong for us at this stage to comment specifically on any personalities that may be involved, save perhaps to say that this is obviously not a particularly promising development in the political career of Robert Mugabe. The important point is that we—including, I think, everyone in the House—want the people of Zimbabwe to have a choice about their future through free and fair elections. That is the consensus that we are building up with our friends and partners, and I shall be having a discussion with the vice-president of South Africa to that effect later today.
I welcome the Foreign Secretary’s statement. Has he by any chance asked our own military command to engage with the chief of the general staff of the Zimbabwean armed forces, and encourage him to put troops back into barracks and allow a democratic process to take place?
We are certainly encouraging restraint on all sides. In common with our international partners, we are urging all sides in Harare to refrain from violence of any kind.
Thank you for granting the urgent question, Mr Speaker, and I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey) for securing it.
Events in Zimbabwe have moved incredibly quickly over the last 48 hours. As recently as Monday, here in the Chamber, I referred to the abuse of power by Grace Mugabe; two days later, that power appears at the moment to have been taken away, although the situation seems highly volatile.
Will the Foreign Secretary assure me that the 20,000 British nationals in Zimbabwe will be given all the assistance that they need during this dangerous period? I understand that in the past, at times of great tension, there have been Cobra plans for British nationals to be evacuated if necessary; I wonder whether thought will be given to such a process on this occasion.
I hope the Foreign Secretary agrees with me that three key points of principle apply to these events. First, a descent into violence and reprisals from any direction in the dispute must be avoided at all costs. Secondly, if all that this represents in the long term is the replacement of authoritarian rule by one faction by authoritarian rule by another, that hardly constitutes progress. Thirdly, we know that the only way forward is for the Zimbabwean people to choose their own Government and shape their own future through elections that are free, fair, peaceful and democratic. Whatever happens in the coming few days and weeks, let us keep that ultimate goal in mind.
In September last year, Dr Alex Vines of Chatham House published an excellent study of the scope for a peaceful transition beyond Mugabe. He warned that western Governments were too complacent about the status quo, and had failed to create a dialogue with different factional leaders and the kingmakers in the military. I shared Dr Vines’s concerns with my parliamentary colleagues at the time, and I am sure that the Foreign Secretary himself was equally concerned. May I ask him what the Foreign Office has done over the past year to establish a dialogue with Mr Mnangagwa—or whichever of the factional leaders who will, along with the military, now be in charge? We must all hope for a more constructive relationship with them than we had with Mr Mugabe, and we must urge them to take the correct path towards democracy and peace.
I agree very much with what the right hon. Lady has said, and I thought that her earlier remarks on the subject were very commonsensical. She asked about British nationals in Zimbabwe. As I said in my response to the urgent question, there are about 20,000 of them. The FCO crisis centre has been working overnight to ensure their welfare, and, to the best of our knowledge, there have been no reports so far of any injuries or suffering. I talked earlier to our head of mission in Harare, who said that, as far as he understood, UK nationals were staying where they were and avoiding trouble, and I think that that is exactly the right thing to do.
The right hon. Lady asked about our representation in Harare, and about UK engagement with the political process in Zimbabwe. All I can tell her is that most observers would say that we have a more powerful representation in Harare than in any other country. We have an excellent ambassador and an excellent high commissioner, and we engage at all levels in Zimbabwean politics. I think that this is one of those occasions on which the right hon. Lady and I are absolutely at one about what we want UK representation to achieve: to encourage the people of Zimbabwe on their path towards free and fair elections next year.
I can confirm to the Foreign Secretary that we do indeed have excellent diplomatic and aid staff in Harare.
If this does indeed presage a move towards easier times—and I do, of course, accept the caution issued by the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey)—will the Foreign Secretary acknowledge, along with me, that the British Government have unfinished business in Zimbabwe? Will he assure me that they will offer further assistance, if they can, to help that wonderful country and its remarkable people, both black and white, in their transition to—we hope—a better Government and a more prosperous state?
I thank my right hon. Friend, notably for his recent mission to Zimbabwe. I was very interested to hear of his meetings there. I know that he personally, in a way, incarnates the historic ties between our two countries. He knows whereof he speaks. Zimbabwe has fantastic potential. It is a country with a very well-educated population, and it has a great future if it can secure the right political system. That is all it takes. They have fantastic natural resources, and my right hon. Friend can be absolutely reassured that the UK Government—who, as my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said just now, contribute about £80 million or £90 million in DFID spending—will be continuing to invest in Zimbabwe and its future.
Henceforth we shall all view the right hon. Member for Mid Sussex (Sir Nicholas Soames) as an incarnation.
I thank the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey) for raising this important issue.
Does the Foreign Secretary agree that democracy and respect for human rights and the rule of law are the best way to guarantee secure and sustainable development? Does he also agree with me about the importance of the role that the NGO sector will have to play in the future of Zimbabwe—and also organisations such as the British Council, which does an outstanding job across the world? What support does he believe can be provided to them in the future? Finally, what discussions has he had with his counterparts in the region on today’s events?
The British Council will certainly be involved in the life of Zimbabwe and giving its people the opportunities to which they are entitled. In the last few hours I have been concentrating mainly on liaising with our embassy in Harare, but in the course of this afternoon I will be talking to the South Africans, who play a crucial role in the future of Zimbabwe, and who can be indispensable in making sure it has free and fair elections next year.
Although we have great fondness for the Minister for Africa, may I congratulate the Foreign Secretary for deciding to come to the Dispatch Box to update the House on this important issue?
While it would be tempting to rush towards a Government of national coalition to provide stability, will the Foreign Secretary advise caution? We should see through the ZANU-PF conference planned for December. Elections have been planned for August, but there has already been talk about bringing them forward to February and March. It is important that those elections take place, that ZANU-PF goes through a proper process, and that they are multi-party elections, to make sure that there is the stability required to move forward.
My hon. Friend brings a wealth of experience to this subject, and he is absolutely right. The message I am trying to get over to the House this afternoon is that we should not jump the gun; we should not jump to conclusions about exactly how things are going to turn out in the course of the next few days, or even hours. My hon. Friend is extremely sensible to urge caution.
Thank you for granting this urgent question, Mr Speaker.
My constituent Petronella Mahachi, originally from Zimbabwe, came to see me only on Friday, and has asked me to ask the Foreign Secretary about the forthcoming elections. What practical steps will the UK be taking to ensure that they are free and fair, especially in respect of the participation of international bodies that can guarantee the security and democracy of those elections?
Clearly, there is a great opportunity here for the international community to come together, perhaps under United Nations auspices, to ensure there are free and fair elections. We will be making sure the UK Government are in the lead, as we would expect, in ensuring that the people of Zimbabwe have that opportunity.
Does the Foreign Secretary agree that this could be the beginning of the end of one of the most flawed regimes the world has ever seen? Does he also agree that the key priority, as my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend East (James Duddridge) has just pointed out, is having a pathway to free and fair elections? Also, what is going to be done to try to recover the many billions of dollars stolen by Mugabe and his cronies?
The first priority is free and fair elections, and then to get the Zimbabwean economy back on its feet so that the great natural potential of that country can be unleashed. That should, I am afraid, come before any attempt to take back huge sums from a country that is already in the throes of bankruptcy.
I thank the Secretary of State for his comments, and commend the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey) on her endeavours on behalf of the people of Zimbabwe in this House during the time that I have been a Member—and before then. Mugabe has expanded his bank accounts at the expense of the citizens of Zimbabwe. He has left a trail of bloody murder, broken hearts, empty bank accounts, stolen land, poverty and a denial of citizens’ democracy and liberty. What can be done to return the monies and the stolen lands to those they were taken from?
I agree passionately with what the hon. Gentleman says about the larceny and despoliation of farmers—white, black, everybody—in that country. I saw it myself, as I am sure many other hon. Members have: some 17 years or so ago, I went to a place called Mazowe, not far from Harare, and saw the ZANU-PF thugs terrify an elderly couple in their homestead and then relentlessly seize their land. I am afraid that couple are now no longer with us; they passed away, as, sadly, is the case with many other farmers in that country. There is no easy way to make restitution for their loss and suffering. The important thing is to concentrate on the future of Zimbabwe, which has incredible economic potential. Get it back on its feet and invest in the country; that is the best way forward for Zimbabwe.
Has the Foreign Secretary had, or does he plan to have, talks with the Secretary of State for International Development about how we can stop the humanitarian crisis in Zimbabwe getting worse?
The UK, in the year to March I believe, supplied £80 million or £90 million and has helped educate possibly 80,000 children and supplied sanitation for 1.4 million people. We are in the lead in trying to help the Zimbabweans and in alleviating the humanitarian crisis they face as a result of the economic mismanagement in that country. The caution my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend East (James Duddridge) urges is absolutely right as it is too early to say whether there is an opportunity in this situation, but if there is, DFID and all the organs of UK foreign and overseas policy—of global Britain—will be there to serve.
This is clearly a developing and concerning situation in a country that is already beset by human rights abuses and economic turmoil as a result of Mugabe’s tyrannous reign, but Zimbabwe is approaching a crossroads, and it could continue down its disastrous path with new faces at the top. What steps does the Foreign Secretary think need to be taken for the pressure to transition to turn into an opportunity for Zimbabwe to embrace a positive democratic future?
The timetable has been well spelled out by my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend East (James Duddridge). We need to go forward now with the ZANU-PF conference and then the elections scheduled for next year. It is crucial that they should now go ahead and be free and fair. At this stage, it would not be right for us to speculate about personalities; what matters is that the people of Zimbabwe have a free and democratic choice.
I appreciate that events are very fast-moving, but will the British Government work closely with the African Union to try to get it to put pressure on Zimbabwe, both not to continue as an authoritarian state and to respect human rights, particularly of those from overseas, such as from Britain?
I thank my hon. Friend for that excellent point. The AU is an increasingly important and valuable interlocutor in Africa, and I have a good relationship with Mr Faki, president of the commission. I will be going to the AU summit in Abidjan in Côte d’Ivoire next week, and I have no doubt that Zimbabwe will be top of the AU agenda in Côte d’Ivoire.
Constituents have been in touch with me this morning regarding the worrying situation in Harare. What reassurances can the Foreign Secretary give that the Foreign Office will continue with its excellent start at communicating with residents in the UK who are terribly worried about what is happening in Zimbabwe?
I say to the 20,000 UK nationals in Zimbabwe and to the 200,000 Zimbabweans here in the UK that, as far as we know, no one is under any threat at the present time. The important advice that we continue to give to those in Zimbabwe is to stay in their homes wherever they are and not go out on to the street—do not get into any trouble. To the best of our knowledge, there have been no reports of any suffering or any violence against UK nationals in Zimbabwe.
I recall the 21 December 1979 Lancaster House conference and the British military and civilian involvement in setting up the regime in Zimbabwe. We actually established Mugabe in power. Will we consider using military and civilian assets to help any kind of election? Hopefully, this time, we will get it right.
I admire my hon. Friend’s spirit. I have no doubt that we could do such a thing if we needed to, but a better option would be to work with the Southern African Development Community and the African Union under a UN framework to ensure that we deliver free and fair elections. That is probably better at this stage.
There are reports that Grace Mugabe is out of the country—possibly in Namibia. Building on the important role that regional organisations such as SADC and the AU have to play and on the roles of the Foreign Office and DFID, what steps can the Foreign Secretary take to ensure that any possible instability in Zimbabwe does not spread to the wider region?
That is an acute question. As so often in matters of Zimbabwean politics, the answer lies very much with our friends in South Africa, and it is to them that we will be turning first.
Most of us would see the outcomes for Zimbabwe of Robert Mugabe’s disastrous rule as heartbreaking, and it is clear that future decisions about who governs the country must be taken by ballots, not bullets and military coups. What discussions will the Foreign Secretary have with the Secretary of State for International Development about building Zimbabwe into a democratic and prosperous country?
DFID will certainly want to support the transition, and I hope that it will be a transition to a free and democratic country. The people of Zimbabwe have suffered for too long, and it is fascinating to see quite how many Members want to ask questions on this subject, about which the British people really care. For many people, this is a moment of hope, but it is too early to be sure that that hope will be fulfilled, so we need to work hard now to ensure that there are free and democratic elections next year.
I thank the Foreign Secretary for taking this urgent question from my hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey). For far too long, the British Government have been unwilling to speak out against the political events in Zimbabwe, and I hope that that will change in the coming months and years. The Foreign Secretary has already mentioned the British people with families in Zimbabwe, and I have a member of staff who is from Zimbabwe and his family are rightly worried about what the future holds. Will the Foreign Secretary confirm that he will keep the House updated? There is no need to for him be dragged along here to tell us what is happening; just keep the House up to date and make sure that we play a proper role in ensuring a stable and democratic future for all the people of Zimbabwe.
I am more than happy to give that undertaking. If the hon. Gentleman will write to me with the details of that case, I will see what we can do to help.
The British military have long been a force for good in inculcating recognisable values, an ethos and the law of armed conflict in militaries throughout southern and east Africa, including Zimbabwe. What British military assets are currently engaged in security sector reform in Zimbabwe? What does the Foreign Secretary envisage for the future?
To the best of my knowledge, I do not think that we are engaged in that way in Zimbabwe for historical reasons that I am sure my hon. Friend will understand. If we can achieve the reform that we want and if Zimbabwe goes down the path that is now potentially open to it, that is not to say that the UK could not in the future be engaged in exactly that kind of assistance.
I am grateful to my colleague from the all-party parliamentary group on Zimbabwe for securing this urgent question. I share the view that Zimbabwe cannot move from having a despot in charge to having a bampot in charge, and I hope that we can see early free and fair elections.
What discussions has the Foreign Secretary had with the Home Secretary regarding Zimbabwean nationals who may be due for return to Zimbabwe? There is clearly a volatile environment in Zimbabwe at the moment, so it is important that he has that conversation with the Home Secretary.
As constituency MPs, I am sure that many of us have met Zimbabweans who are in exactly that situation. If the hon. Gentleman has any particular cases that he wants to raise, I would be happy to pass them on.
Many people in the UK and, indeed, in this House will have friends and family either currently living in or with close links to Zimbabwe, and the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey) referred to the diaspora. Will the Foreign Secretary assure me that the UK, working with our international partners, will be at the forefront of seeking a democratic and prosperous future for Zimbabwe? We should seize this opportunity as one that does not come around too often; it is a chance for us to make a difference.
Absolutely. That is the key point. This is potentially a moment of hope, and many people in this country will be looking at it in that way. We must ensure that we do not jump the gun and that we are not premature, which is why I have been cautious with the House today. However, my hon. Friend can be absolutely certain that if our hopes are fulfilled, the UK will be at the forefront of helping to turn Zimbabwe around.
If there is to be a transition, I share the Foreign Secretary’s hope that it will be peaceful. Does he know whether the opposition parties have had any involvement in recent hours, or if there is capacity for the opposition parties to be involved in any transitional arrangements? Or is it too early to say?
I am not aware of Morgan Tsvangirai or other opposition figures being involved in what is going on, but the opportunity is there in free and fair elections for them to put their case to the Zimbabwean people. That is what we want to see.
What can be done in practical terms at this point to encourage the restoration of democracy in Zimbabwe in the form of free and fair elections?
The answer is simple. We can work with our friends and partners, with the African Union and with SADC to get their agreement, which I am sure will be readily forthcoming, that the best future for the prosperity of the people of Zimbabwe is to have free and fair elections. That is the way to unlock the wealth and prosperity of the country.
What early discussions has my right hon. Friend had with African leaders on these latest developments?
I am grateful for that question. I am fixed to talk to the vice-president of South Africa at the earliest possible opportunity, but I must regretfully inform the House that I have not had much time to talk to any others. As I said to the hon. Member for North East Fife (Stephen Gethins), the South Africans will be crucial in this.
I was an election observer in Zimbabwe in 2000, when Mugabe stole the election from the Movement for Democratic Change through persecution and brutality, and for my sins I have been banned from Zimbabwe.
Not only have the farms of black and white farmers been destroyed in Zimbabwe, but corporate governance across the piece has been destroyed. There will be a stage when we need to re-engage to rebuild that country, because Zimbabwe should be feeding most of Africa; it cannot even feed itself now. There will be a time to engage, but it probably is not yet. We have to be ready to get in there and put the situation right, because Zimbabwe is a beautiful country with lovely people, and it has been absolutely destroyed by a madman.
I am delighted that my hon. Friend has been to Zimbabwe, and he is right in his analysis of what went wrong. I remember seeing how fantastic farms were ruined, with irrigation systems melted down to make saucepans, or whatever. It was an economic catastrophe, for which the people of Zimbabwe are now paying.
The best way forward is through free and fair elections. As my hon. Friend has experience as an election monitor in Zimbabwe, I wonder whether it is too much to hope that he might volunteer to go back next year to monitor the free and fair elections we hope to see.
I have read the Foreign Secretary’s excellent book on Winston Churchill, and he will be familiar with the great words of our great former Prime Minister:
“Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.”
The Foreign Secretary is committed to seeing Zimbabwe back as a democratic state. Zimbabwe was suspended from the Commonwealth in 2002, and it withdrew from the Commonwealth in 2003. As Zimbabwe goes back to being a democratic state, it would be great to see it become part of the Commonwealth again.
Would it not be wonderful to see Zimbabwe as part of the Commonwealth again? It would be an absolutely wonderful thing, and that is what we should work for. My hon. Friend sets an important and noble ambition for our country.
Will the Secretary of State confirm the UK’s commitment to the people of Zimbabwe and to ensuring that their future is strong and prosperous? Zimbabwe is a former member of the Commonwealth, so does he have any intention of speaking to other Commonwealth leaders about exerting their influence and support to help us to ensure that reality for Zimbabwe?
The Commonwealth, along with the other multinational, multilateral institutions I have mentioned, can play an important role in encouraging Zimbabwe on that path. We have a wonderful Commonwealth summit coming up in April 2018, as my hon. Friend will know. April might be too early to welcome Zimbabwe back into the Commonwealth, but the summit may be a useful moment to bring Commonwealth nations together to exhort Zimbabwe to set Commonwealth membership as a target.
Zimbabwe a National Emergency—ZANE—is a wonderful charity based in Witney that provides much needed care to the people of Zimbabwe. Will my right hon. Friend please confirm that he will have any discussions necessary with the charitable sector to ensure that, during this period of political instability, much needed aid still gets through?
The charity is run by Tom Benyon, a splendid fellow and a former constituent of mine. He is a very fine man.
And a former Member of Parliament.
Indeed, as the hon. Gentleman pertinently observes.
I have had the good fortune to meet representatives of ZANE over the years, as I am sure have many hon. Members on both sides of the House. ZANE does fantastic work, in common with other voluntary organisations that have kept the flame of hope alive for 37 years. Now is the moment when there really could be a new dawn. There is an opportunity and a moment of hope. We must not overdo it, but we must foster and sedulously protect what could be a real opportunity for the people of Zimbabwe.
As my right hon. Friend and others have said, events in Zimbabwe are very much in flux. Events are fast-moving, and we do not quite know how they will end. Will he confirm that the United Kingdom sees the future of Zimbabwe as a prosperous country playing an active role in the region? Does he agree that, if we are seeing the end of Mugabe’s rule, that is a much more realistic prospect and something about which we can be very hopeful?
I am worried that in my last answer I slightly overdid the note of hope, because hopes have been disappointed so many times, but there is hope. There is now a real chance that things will change in Zimbabwe, but it is by no means a foregone conclusion. Everybody will have to work hard together to achieve it, and there will have to be free and fair elections. Nobody on either side of the House wants to see simply the transition from one unelected tyrant to another. No one wants to see that; we want to see proper, free and fair elections next year, and that is what we will be working towards.
Points of Order
Order. I will come to the hon. Lady first and then I will come to the hon. Gentleman.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. It was reported in the media this morning, but not to this House, that the Government are to cut the controversial and damaging six-week wait for universal credit payments, as we have repeatedly called for. Given the clearly expressed will of the House to pause universal credit—the vote was carried by 299 votes to nil—and the subsequent emergency debate on the Government’s failure to respond to that decision, I seek your guidance on whether you have received any indication that the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions plans to make a statement in the House on this extremely important issue. Is it not an affront to both sides of the House and to the people we represent that these important policy issues are being announced in the media, not in a statement to the House?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her point of order, and for her characteristic courtesy in giving me advance notice of her intention to raise it.
There are two points. First, policy announcements, particularly when a change is involved, should first be made to the House. Secondly, my understanding is that there is a debate tomorrow in the Chamber that is being led by, or taking place under the auspices of, the Chair of the Select Committee on Work and Pensions. That debate will be an obvious and perfectly proper platform for an exchanges of ideas, and indeed for any announcement that the Government might have to make.
If there is an announcement to make, and I do not know whether there is, it should be made in the Chamber; it should not be briefed out to the media first. I very much hope that that has not happened, and it should not happen. I imagine that the hon. Lady or a member of her team will be present for tomorrow’s debate—in all likelihood she will be present—and I trust that she will make her views on that point and others with her characteristic force.
I think we should save up the hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire (Martin Docherty-Hughes).
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. A number of concerns have recently been raised with you about the situation when a political party has not voted on a non-binding motion of this House. The Government have said they will respond to any such motion within 12 weeks. Well, last night the Opposition failed to vote on a meaningful motion with real, historic significance. Have you received any indication that the Opposition intend to follow the Government’s positive progress?
I have not received any indication from representatives of the Opposition as to their planned voting intentions. I say in all candour to the hon. Gentleman that abstaining on motions or particular amendments is, of itself, by no means uncommon in the course of legislative proceedings. In fact, to put it more accurately, it is extremely common. The other circumstance that has recently featured prominently in public debate is of a slightly different character. Nevertheless, he asks me the very straightforward question of whether I have received any such intelligence, and the short answer is no.
Well, it is a bit of a tussle, but I do not think it is fair to keep the hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire waiting any longer.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. On 4 November, my constituent Jagtar Singh Johal was arrested in the Punjab. Do you think it would be appropriate if a Foreign and Commonwealth Office Minister were to come to the Dispatch Box to make a statement on the fact that Jagtar has yet to receive consular support, even though he has so far appeared in court two times? Accusations of torture are now being made public, so there is an urgent requirement for the Foreign Secretary to make a statement on behalf of a British citizen who comes from Dumbarton in my constituency. This is a matter of urgency for our relationship with the Republic of India.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his point of order. That might be appropriate, although I would insert into my reply the caveat that sadly—but, as Members will appreciate, all too frequently—British citizens in various parts of the world are subject to deprivation of human rights and, in some cases, the most bestial torture. It is not necessarily feasible to expect that on every such occasion a Minister will come to the House to make an oral statement. However, it could happen and it might. If it does not, it is open to the hon. Gentleman to seek other means by which to ensure that he can register his concerns and elicit a ministerial response to them.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. On a slightly more ethereal note, I was slightly concerned that during proceedings on the urgent question, you said that my right hon. Friend the Member for Mid Sussex (Sir Nicholas Soames) would henceforth be regarded as an incarnation. I hope you will be able to reassure us that you regard all Members of this House as incarnate.
True. It might in fact be more appropriate to regard the right hon. Member for Mid Sussex as an institution. It would certainly be proper, and in no way disobliging, to regard the right hon. Gentleman as a very notable representative of a rare breed. The reason why I think I can say that with complete confidence is that the right hon. Gentleman was for some time either patron or president of the Rare Breeds Survival Trust—a patronage or presidency of which he was very proud.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. The hon. Member for Witney (Robert Courts), who has left the Chamber, reminded me of a very important point of order. I think it is two weeks since the House passed a motion to instruct the Government to publish the 58 Brexit sectoral impact assessments. Two weeks later, I am certainly not aware of when they will be forthcoming. I wonder whether you have any further information about a date on which we can expect them. As you will recall, there are serious issues, perhaps relating to contempt of the House, if that motion is not adhered to.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that point of order. That motion is effective and it is binding upon the Government. About that there can be no further argument—I was asked about it and I ruled on it. What I can say to the hon. Gentleman is that I know that the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union is in contact with the Chair of the Brexit Committee about publication and when that is likely to happen. They are also discussing the question of form of publication and the attitude that the Brexit Committee might take to that. Those discussions cannot long continue.
The hon. Gentleman asks me to put a date on the matter; I can say to him only that I was given to understand—if memory serves me, at the beginning of last week—that the material would be published no later than three weeks from that date. I think we are a little under halfway through that period. Thereafter, publication can, will and should be very widely expected. If it is any comfort to the hon. Gentleman and others, I can say that I am very focused on that matter, in the interests of the House as a whole, and I can tell him that the right hon. Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn), who chairs the Select Committee, is, too. It will not be let go.
Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. I welcome the fact that you are rightly focused on this issue. If those reports were in fact not forthcoming within the three-week period, what specific action would you be able to take to ensure that the Government delivered on their promise?
As I have occasionally had reason to observe to other people—being an experienced parliamentarian, the right hon. Gentleman will understand the relevance of this—I tend to think, as the late Lord Whitelaw used to say, that it is best to cross bridges only when you come to them. Indeed, to seek to do so before you have arrived at them could prove to be rather a hazardous enterprise, and I would not wish that ill fate to befall the right hon. Gentleman or any other Member of the House. In very simple terms, the procedure is well known. If the Government were not to comply, it would be open to the Chair to accede to a request for precedence to be given in relation to an allegation of contempt. But we have not got to that point, as yet.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. My apologies for not bringing this to your attention sooner, but it has only just been brought to my attention. Would it be in order for you to comment on the fact that my office has just reported to the police about five tweets, if not more, that have issued threats against me following the front-page article of today’s The Daily Telegraph? Would you make it very clear to everybody, in whatever capacity, that they have an absolute duty to report responsibly, to make sure that they use language that brings our country together, and to make sure that we have a democracy that welcomes free speech and an attitude of tolerance?
I welcome the opportunity to make that clear. First, may I say that I am extremely concerned to hear what the right hon. Lady has just told me? She should not be subject to threats, and neither should any other Member of this House—or, indeed, any person—for holding and expressing a political opinion. Thankfully, we do have a free press. They are imperfect and deeply flawed—like us all, although they do not always realise it; they realise everybody else’s flaws but very rarely their own—but nevertheless they are free, and that is a good thing. None of us would seek to deny the merit and, indeed, the indispensability in a free society of a free press.
Equally, Members of this House are free and duty-bound to do what they think is right. I hope the right hon. Lady will not take it amiss if I say that not only is any attempt to threaten or intimidate her or any colleague repugnant, but it is also doomed to fail. I know her and my colleagues well enough to know that even if there are people who think they can intimidate, or even if, hypothetically, there were someone in the media who thought that he or she could intimidate, that person would be grossly mistaken. Members will not be intimidated, and they never should be. I think that is the end of the subject.
Automatic Electoral Registration (No. 2)
Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)
I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to impose certain duties upon Her Majesty’s Government to ensure the accuracy, completeness and utility of electoral registers; to make provision for the sharing of data for the purposes of electoral registration; and for connected purposes.
Voting for our representatives is one of the fundamental rights of citizens in a democracy. We are fortunate in this country to be able to hold free and fair elections and to have millions of people participating in the democratic process, voting for representatives to this place, to the devolved national legislatures and in regional and local government. There is, however, a real problem with our current system. Millions of people are missing from the electoral register. They are being marginalised and excluded from the democratic process. Although it is an individual’s decision and responsibility to decide whether to vote, I and many others believe that the Government have a duty to make it as simple and as convenient as possible for citizens to have their say in elections.
Individual electoral registration has, unsurprisingly, not achieved what we were told it would achieve. Millions of people are still missing from the register. Even if people initially register, maintaining their registration is problematic and ineffective. Studies have shown that a large percentage of the missing people are young people or those from minority ethnic backgrounds. Those groups being excluded from the registration process are exactly the groups of people whom we should be prioritising, because this disenfranchisement is marginalising already marginalised groups.
The roll-out of individual electoral registration has been very costly—estimated at some £120 million—and yet it remains an ineffective and inefficient system. At the 2015 general election, 12,800 people were turned away from polling stations, unable to vote as they were not on the register. In June’s general election, the figure was more than 10,000. Taking into account the nature of the most marginal constituencies, that number of votes is enough to swing an election result. Can any of us in this place be satisfied that this situation is acceptable?
Many non-governmental organisations and charities, such as Bite The Ballot and HOPE not hate, regularly undertake voter registration drives, but voter registration should be the responsibility not of those organisations, but of the state, which should do everything it can to ensure as complete an electoral register as possible.
Not being on the electoral register has implications that extend beyond the inability to vote. Those not on the register will have their credit rating disadvantaged; they may not have access to mainstream borrowing; they may not be able to obtain a mortgage; and they cannot undertake jury service and play their part in our justice system. Most people are aware that registering to vote is compulsory, and that they risk being fined for not registering to vote, but still we see enormous gaps in the register. Putting the onus of a complex system on citizens, and leaving underfunded local authorities to chase them, is clearly not the most efficient or cost-effective way to ensure the completeness of the register. That is why a change is necessary and why the state can and should step in.
My Bill would make a change that would implement a common-sense, straight forward and cost-effective system. It places a responsibility on the state to do everything in its power to ensure that the electoral register is complete; imposes a duty on the Government and public bodies to work better together; and proposes to make electoral registration as simple and as convenient as possible for citizens. That is achieved by integrating existing trusted national and local data sets, such as national insurance, tax, pension and Department for Work and Pensions data that already contain individuals’ names and addresses, and by adding citizens to the electoral register at the age of 16, when they are issued with a national insurance number.
At each point a citizen interacts with the state, those trusted data sets would collate relevant information for the electoral register—for example, when tax was paid, a social security payment was received, a driving licence or passport was issued or updated, a pension was claimed or a TV licence was purchased. The Government are already prioritising anti-fraud and security measures and, in doing so, using data sets from different public bodies. In the age of big data and “digital by default”, it is time that the Government adopted those principles for electoral registration.
At this point, I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) who introduced a similar Bill to this House in February 2016, and to Baroness McDonagh who has recently introduced an Automatic Electoral Registration Bill in the other place.
It is clear that this is a pressing issue and that there is widespread support for modernising our electoral registration system, including from the Electoral Commission, the Association of Electoral Administrators and the Electoral Reform Society. The cross-party Political and Constitutional Reform Committee—predecessor to the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee—supported automatic electoral registration in its 2015 report on voter engagement in the UK.
There are examples in many countries across the world of the successful implementation of automatic voter registration systems. In Canada, for example, electoral information is continually updated with information from other Government sources, such as the Canada Revenue Agency, immigration and citizenship services and drivers’ licence agencies. It is also possible in Canada for electors to continue proactively to update their information with the electoral registration administrators.
In Chile, a move to automatic registration in 2013 has seen more than 4.5 million new voters added to the nation’s electoral register, most of them under the age of 30. Clearly, that was a significant improvement in enfranchising young people in that country. Closer to home, Denmark, Germany, Italy and Sweden also add to their electoral registers automatically using various different Government-held data sets.
A database that would hold the UK-wide register was proposed by the last Labour Government. The Co-ordinated On-line Record of Electors, or CORE system, would link up with existing information and keep the register up to date. The cost of building the CORE system was estimated to be £11.4 million, and then £2.7 million per year to run thereafter. In 2011, when it was scrapped, the coalition Government claimed that it was not cost-effective. Yet the switch to IER has cost £120 million and we still have an incomplete register. Building the CORE system and running it annually from 2011 to today would have cost just over £20 million, according to the estimated figures, and we would have had a much more complete register of electors.
The Welsh Labour Government are currently consulting on electoral reform in Wales following the devolution of powers in the Wales Act 2017. Their consultation includes options on data sharing and the possibility of moving to a more automated system. I hope that we will very shortly see voters in Wales automatically added to a national electoral register and being able to vote from the age of 16 onwards.
With recent general elections hanging on such tight margins, it is obvious why a full and complete register is essential. Mere handfuls of votes swing constituency results and did do so in the general elections of 2015 and 2017, so it is clear that every vote really does make a difference. Automatic registration would ensure that any boundary reviews carried out in the future would do so on the basis of the most accurate register possible.
Opponents of automatic registration will say that registering is a personal responsibility. I disagree. It is a personal responsibility to vote and the state should make it as simple and as convenient as possible for every citizen to discharge that responsibility and not put barriers and bureaucracy in their way. That is why it is imperative that automatic electoral registration is implemented as soon as possible so that everyone can have their say. I commend this motion to the House.
Question put and agreed to.
That Siobhain McDonagh, Cat Smith, Chris Elmore, Vicky Foxcroft, Rachael Maskell, Wes Streeting, Louise Haigh, Jim McMahon, Stephanie Peacock, Chris Ruane and Daniel Zeichner present the Bill.
Jo Stevens accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 19 January 2018, and to be printed. (Bill 127).
European Union (Withdrawal) Bill
[2nd Allocated Day]
Further considered in Committee
[Dame Rosie Winterton in the Chair]
On a point of order, Dame Rosie. On the yesterday’s selection list—and, in part, today’s—there are some extremely helpful references to the page numbers of this enormous wodge of amendments. Would it be possible for the Clerks to be good enough to put the page numbers on the selection list for easy reference, because it is sometimes quite difficult to find the amendments at short notice?
I will certainly bring that to the attention of the Public Bill Office and see what we can do to help.
New Clause 2
Retaining Enhanced Protection
“Regulations provided for by Acts of Parliament other than this Act may not be used by Ministers of the Crown to amend or modify retained EU law in the following areas—
(a) employment entitlement, rights and protections;
(b) equality entitlements, rights and protections;
(c) health and safety entitlement, rights and protections;
(d) fundamental rights as defined in the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights.”—(Matthew Pennycook.)
This new clause would prevent delegated powers from other Acts being used to alter workplace protections, equality provisions, health and safety regulations or fundamental rights.
Brought up, and read the First time.
I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
New clause 15—Provisions relating to the EU or the EEA in respect of EU-derived domestic legislation—
“HM Government shall make arrangements to report to both Houses of Parliament whenever circumstances arising in section 2(2)(d) would otherwise have amended provisions or definitions in UK law had the UK remained a member of the EU or EEA beyond exit day.”
This new clause would ensure that Parliament is informed of changes in EU and EEA provisions that might have amended UK law if the UK had remained a member of those institutions beyond exit day.
New clause 25—Treatment of retained law—
“(1) Following the commencement of this Act, no modification may be made to retained EU law save by primary legislation, or by subordinate legislation made under this Act.
(2) By regulation, the Minister may establish a Schedule listing technical provisions of retained EU law that may be amended by subordinate legislation.
(3) Regulations made under subsection (2) will be subject to an enhanced scrutiny procedure including consultation with the public and relevant stakeholders.
(4) Regulations may only be made under subsection (2) to the extent that they will have no detrimental impact on the UK environment.
(5) Delegated powers may only be used to modify provisions of retained EU law listed in any Schedule made under subsection (2) to the extent that such modification will not limit the scope or weaken standards of environmental protection.”
This new clause provides a mechanism for Ministers to establish a list of technical provisions of retained EU law that may be amended by subordinate legislation outside of the time restrictions of the Bill.
New clause 50—Continuing validity in the United Kingdom of European Union law—
“(1) The European Communities Act 1972 shall continue to have effect in the United Kingdom after the date on which the United Kingdom leaves the European Union as if the United Kingdom continued to be bound by the Treaties.
(2) Accordingly all such rights, powers, liabilities, obligations and restrictions created or arising by or under the Treaties, and all such remedies as provided for by or under the Treaties, as in accordance with the Treaties are without further enactment given legal effect or used in the United Kingdom shall continue to be recognised and available in law, and be enforced, allowed and followed accordingly.
(3) Subsections (1) and (2) do not apply to any primary legislation passed by Parliament coming into force after the date of exit from the European Union which includes a provision to the effect that that Act, or specified provisions of that Act, have effect notwithstanding the provisions of section (Continuing validity in the United Kingdom of European Union law)(1) and (2) of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2017.”
New clause 51—Duty of review of European Union law—
“(1) The Prime Minister must lay before Parliament within six months of the date of the United Kingdom leaving the European Union, and at least once a year thereafter, a review of all European Union legislation and decisions still applicable to the United Kingdom, with proposals for re-enactment, replacement or repeal by the United Kingdom Parliament of any provisions of European Union law, with or without modification, as United Kingdom legislation.
(2) The House of Commons may appoint or designate one or more select committees to consider any report under subsection (1).”
New clause 55—Treatment of retained law (No. 2)—
“(1) Following the day on which this Act is passed, no modification may be made to retained EU law except by primary legislation, or by subordinate legislation made under this Act.
(2) The Secretary of State must by regulations establish a schedule listing technical provisions of retained EU law that may be amended by subordinate legislation.
(3) Subordinate legislation to which subsection (2) applies must be subject to an enhanced scrutiny procedure, to be established by regulations made by the Secretary of State after approval in draft by both Houses of Parliament, which must include consultation with the public and relevant stakeholders.
(4) Delegated powers may be used only to modify provisions of retained EU law listed in any Schedule made under subsection (2) to the extent that such modification will not limit the scope or weaken standards of equalities, environmental and employment protection, and consumer standards.”
This amendment would qualify the powers conferred to alter law by statutory instrument after exit day.
New clause 58—Retaining Enhanced Protection (No. 2)—
“Regulations provided for by Acts of Parliament other than this Act may not be used by Ministers of the Crown to amend, repeal or modify retained EU law in the following areas—
(a) employment entitlement, rights and protection;
(b) equality entitlements, rights and protection;
(c) health and safety entitlement, rights and protection;
(d) consumer standards; and
(e) environmental standards and protection.”
This new clause would ensure that after exit day, EU-derived employment rights, environmental protection, standards of equalities, health and safety standards and consumer standards can only be amended by primary legislation or subordinate legislation made under this Act.
Amendment 200, in clause 2, page 1, line 12, after “passed” insert “and commenced,”.
Amendment 87, page 1, line 19, at end insert
“or any enactment to which subsection (2A) applies.
‘(2A) This subsection applies to any enactment of the United Kingdom Parliament which—
(a) applies to Wales and does not relate to matters specified in Schedule 7A to the Government of Wales Act 2006,
(b) applies to Scotland and does not relate to matters specified in Schedule 5 to the Scotland Act 1998,
(c) applies to Northern Ireland and does not relate to matters specified in Schedules 2 or 3 to the Northern Ireland Act 1998.’”
This amendment would alter the definition of EU retained law so as only to include reserved areas of legislation. This will allow the National Assembly for Wales and the other devolved administrations to legislate on areas of EU derived law which fall under devolved competency for themselves.
Amendment 201, page 1, line 19, at end insert—
“(2A) For the purposes of this Act, any EU-derived domestic legislation has effect in domestic law immediately before exit day if—
(a) in the case of anything which shall apply or be operative from a particular date, applies or is operative before exit day, or
(b) in any other case, it has been commenced and is in force immediately before exit day.”
Clause 2 stand part.
Amendment 217, in clause 3, page 2, leave out lines 13 to 22.
This amendment, along with Amendment 64 to Schedule 8 would exclude the European Economic Area agreement from the Bill, allowing the UK to remain in the EEA.
Amendment 356, page 2, line 22, at end insert—
“(2A) A Minister of the Crown may by regulations provide for prospective EU legislation to form part of domestic law as it has effect in EU law, from the time at which it begins to apply or from some later time.
(2B) In subsection (2A) “prospective EU legislation” means—
(a) an EU regulation which is adopted, notified or in force immediately before exit day, or
(b) EU tertiary legislation made under retained EU law, so far as it is not operative immediately before exit day.
(2C) A statutory instrument containing regulations under subsection (2A) may not be made unless a draft of the instrument has been laid before, and approved by a resolution of, each House of Parliament.”
The amendment would allow Ministers, with parliamentary approval, to apply EU legislation which has been passed before exit day but does not take full effect until after that day, along with subordinate measures made for the purposes of EU legislation which is retained under the Bill and taking effect after exit day.
Clause 3 stand part.
New clause 29—Parliamentary vote on withdrawal from European Economic Area—
“The requirement of this section is that each House of Parliament has passed a resolution in the following terms—
That this House supports the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the European Economic Area.”
This new clause describes the requirement for each House of Parliament to agree to withdrawal from the European Economic Area and is linked to Amendment 128 which makes the exercise of the power to make regulations implementing the withdrawal agreement contingent on such agreement.
Amendment 128, in clause 9, page 7, line 8, at end insert—
“(3A) No regulations may be made under this section until the requirement of section (Parliamentary vote on withdrawal from European Economic Area) have been met.”
This amendment makes the exercise of the power to make regulations implementing the withdrawal agreement contingent on the requirement for separate agreement on withdrawal from the European Economic Area of NC29.
New clause 22—EEA Agreement—
“(1) No Minister may, under this Act, notify the withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the EEA Agreement, whether under Article 127 of that Agreement or otherwise.
(2) Regulations under this Act may not make any provision that would constitute a breach of the United Kingdom’s obligations under the EEA Agreement.
(3) Regulations under this Act may not amend or repeal subsection (1) or (2).”
New clause 9—European Economic Area—
“The United Kingdom shall, after exit day, remain a member of the European Economic Area as set out in the European Economic Area Act 1993, and the provisions in Part 2 of Schedule 8 relating to the United Kingdom‘s membership of the EEA shall not take effect until such time as Ministers have published a White Paper assessing the costs and benefits for the UK economy of remaining a member of the European Economic Area after exit day.”
This new Clause would ensure that the UK can remain a member of the European Economic Area until such time as Ministers publish a specific assessment in the form of a White Paper setting out the costs and benefits for the UK of remaining a member after exit day.
New clause 23—EFTA membership—
“The Secretary of State shall, no later than six months after this Act has gained Royal Assent, lay a report before Parliament setting out an assessment of whether it would be in the interests of the United Kingdom to join the European Free Trade Association (EFTA) and, if so, whether it should remain a party to the EEA Agreement as a member of EFTA.”
New clause 45—European Economic Area (No. 2)—
“Nothing in this Act authorises the Prime Minister to give notice under Article 127 of the EEA Agreement of the United Kingdom’s intention to opt out of the EEA.”
Amendment 64, page 54, in schedule 8, leave out paragraphs 12 to 17.
This amendment would retain the provisions of the European Economic Area Act 1993 as part of domestic legislation beyond exit day.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dame Rosie.
I will speak to new clause 58. Clauses 2 to 4 provide for the preservation of EU and EU-related law post-exit day in a new category of law, retained EU law, which itself comprises three principal sub-categories. Clause 2 provides that existing domestic legislation that implements EU law obligations remains on the domestic statute book after exit day. This will be known as EU-derived domestic legislation and includes, for example, secondary legislation enacted under section 2(2) of the European Communities Act 1972 for the purpose of implementing EU directives.
Clause 3 converts direct EU legislation into domestic legislation at the point of exit. This covers EU law, such as EU regulations and decisions that have direct effect in the UK because the UK is an EU member state, but which would fall once the UK is no longer bound by the treaties. Clause 4 provides that any remaining EU rights and obligations that do not fall within clauses 2 and 3 continue to be recognised and available in domestic law after exit. This includes, for example, directly effective rights contained within EU treaties that are sufficiently clear, precise and unconditional as to confer rights directly on individuals.
The purpose of new clause 58 is straightforward. It is to ensure that retained EU law, as preserved in clauses 2 to 4, in five key areas—employment, equality, health and safety, consumer and environment—is accorded a level of enhanced protection that it would otherwise not enjoy from delegated powers contained in Acts of Parliament other than the one before us today.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for allowing me to make an early intervention. For clarification for those of us who represent constituencies in Northern Ireland, is it intended by the Labour party that these amendments would extend to Northern Ireland? If so, what consultation has the Labour party had with any of the political parties in Northern Ireland about the content of the amendments?
With all due respect, that issue will be more prominently dealt with during the days of debate on devolution. I understand that EU retained law will apply across the United Kingdom.
In the respect that I set out, new clause 58 is broadly similar in its intent to new clauses 25 and 55, both of which have as their primary purpose the prevention of modification of retained EU law save by primary legislation or by subordinate legislation made under this Act. If pushed to a vote we would be minded to support either of those new clauses.
The array of rights, entitlements, protections and standards that we currently enjoy as a member of the European Union are underpinned by EU provisions. They either have direct effect as a result of the treaties or are protected in delegated legislation under the ECA. Either way, they currently enjoy a form of enhanced protection as a result of this underpinning. After the UK has left the EU, that enhanced protection will fall away. The Opposition have repeatedly emphasised that Brexit must not lead to any watering down or weakening of EU-derived rights, particularly rights and standards in the areas of employment, equality, health and safety, consumer and environment. Working in conjunction with our amendments relating to clauses 7, 8, 9 and 17 that seek to limit and constrain the sweeping Executive powers contained in this legislation, new clause 58 seeks to guarantee that rights, entitlements, protections and standards in these areas are not just transposed and maintained, but are effectively protected thereafter.
My hon. Friend is making some very important points. I, too, support new clause 58 and the provisions in new clauses 55 and 25. New clause 58 makes a clear point about the protection of equality rights. In the light of the wonderful news that came overnight from Australia about marriage equality, does he agree that it is crucial that we send out a signal to the LGBT+ community in the United Kingdom that we respect their rights and will retain them?
I could not agree more. That is exactly what new clause 58 would do; it would provide enhanced protection for equality, rights and protections after we have left the EU.
Taken at face value, clauses 2 to 4 appear relatively straightforward. But, as many hon. Members who spoke in yesterday’s debate made clear, the Bill as drafted creates a considerable degree of ambiguity and uncertainty as to the status of retained EU law. Currently the status of rights, protections and standards underpinned by EU law is distinct.
Treaty provisions and regulations that take effect through section 2(1) of the ECA are neither primary nor secondary legislation. The principle of the supremacy of EU law and the ECA means that, in practice, they have a particular constitutional status that enables them to take priority over primary legislation enacted by Parliament. Similarly, secondary legislation made under section 2(2) of the ECA is distinct from other secondary legislation in that it could take priority over primary legislation because of the fact that it is giving effect to an EU law obligation. Primary legislation that gives effect to an EU law obligation could be amended by Parliament, but any removal of an underlying EU law could be challenged in the courts.
Post-exit, it is unclear what status—primary, secondary or something else entirely—retained EU law will have. From schedule 1, one might draw the inference that retained EU law has the characteristics of secondary, rather than primary, legislation. Yet paragraph 19 of schedule 8 provides that, for the purposes of the Human Rights Act 1998, direct EU legislation
“is to be treated as primary legislation”,
although this schedule does not cover those rights recognised and made available in domestic law after exit by means of clause 4.
Clauses 5 and 6 provide guidance as to how the courts should interpret retained EU law in the event of a conflict with an enactment passed after exit day, but it is not yet clear—as we debated at length yesterday—whether the courts will treat particular retained EU laws as constitutional legislation that is not susceptible to implied repeal.
The uncertainty that surrounds the status and interpretation of retained EU law is a real weakness of the legislation and it is crucial that it is clarified and addressed on the face of the Bill. But, irrespective of what status particular retained EU laws are eventually accorded, this new category of law—detached from the enhanced protection enjoyed as a result of being underwritten by our membership of the EU—will be vulnerable to amendment not just from the delegated powers contained in this Bill, but from subordinate legislation contained in other Acts of Parliament.
The hon. Gentleman is making a powerful case. Does he agree that if we are to have the deep and special relationship that Ministers say they want with the rest of the EU, we have no choice but to continue to harmonise our standards on employment rights, equality, and health and safety? Even if they were not good things to do in their own right, which they are, it will be crucial to keep those standards at the same level as the EU or higher if we are to have that kind of trading relationship.
The hon. Lady makes a good point. Of course we will need to do that, and businesses will have to comply with those standards. That is why we need to ensure that the EU and EU-derived rights we have are underpinned by an enhanced status. We will then need to move on to the conversation—which we will have to have—about how to stay in some form of regulatory alignment, if we want the type of deep and comprehensive deal that I think both sides envisage.
I have been listening carefully to the hon. Gentleman’s speech. Does he accept that so many of these rights existed before we joined the EU and will still be there after we leave the EU? They are not, and need not be, dependent on the European Union. It is this place that will and can safeguard those rights.
The hon. Gentleman may have missed my point. I completely accept the fact that these rights will be brought into UK law, that they will not be underpinned by EU provisions and that many of them were there first and have been added to over the decades of our membership. What we are talking about here is ensuring that retained EU law cannot be chipped away at by secondary legislation—that it has an enhanced status and must be amended only by primary legislation debated in full in this Chamber.
The hon. Gentleman is right. It is the curiosity of this legislation that laws that the public, if we were to raise these issues with them, would regard for the most part as being of very considerable importance are being brought to the lowest possible status on their return here, and without there really being an opportunity, for obvious reasons, to revisit this issue domestically in a way that might lead us to enact fresh legislation.
I could not have put it better myself. That is precisely the problem, and that is precisely what new clause 58 seeks to address.
The uncertainty that surrounds the status and interpretation of retained EU law is a real weakness, but irrespective of what happens, retained EU law, as defined in the Bill, is vulnerable to secondary legislation contained in other Acts of Parliament, which will have been drafted in a very different context—in the context of a country whose long-term future appeared to reside unambiguously in the European Union.
Perhaps the most potent example is the Legislative and Regulatory Reform Act 2006. Part 1 provides for Ministers to introduce statutory instruments to remove burdens resulting from legislation, including primary legislation. A burden, for the purpose of that part of the Act, includes a financial cost or
“an obstacle to efficiency, productivity or profitability”.
That Act is a potent piece of legislation as it is, but it will be far more so as a result of this Bill if it can be used to alter a raft of EU rights and protections that are currently underpinned by EU provisions.
This is not just about the powers in the Legislative and Regulatory Reform Act. Other examples come to mind, such as section 5 of the Localism Act 2011 and section 11 of the Public Bodies Act 2011. All contain wide powers to alter regulations, and all were passed in the constitutional context of our rights and protections being underpinned by our EU membership. All will become more powerful after exit today.
Retained EU law would also be vulnerable to recently proposed legislation and legislation currently making its way through this place. For example, the Nuclear Safeguards Bill, which is currently in Committee in this House, contains proposed new clause 76A(6) to the Energy Act 2013, which provides that the delegated power in section 113(7) of the Energy Act can be used to make changes to retained EU law. Similarly, clause 2(6) of the recently published Trade Bill provides for regulations that can be used to modify primary legislation, including retained EU law. The same, we can only assume, is likely to be the case for the immigration, agriculture and other Bills we expect in the coming months as part of the process of legislating for Brexit.
New clause 58 would ensure that regulations of the kind provided for by those Bills could not be used to amend or repeal retained EU law in the five areas I have set out, thereby according them a level of enhanced protection. That is important because any future Government could easily use secondary legislation contained in a variety of past and future Acts of Parliament to chip away at rights, entitlements, protections and standards that the public enjoy and wish to retain.
In the interests of brevity, let me illustrate the risks posed if we do not pass new clause 58 or a similar new clause, by focusing on employment entitlement, rights and protection. As hon. Members will know, a substantial part of UK employment rights is derived from EU law, and an even larger body is guaranteed by EU law. As such, key workers’ rights enjoy a form of enhanced protection. Those include protections against discrimination owing to sex, pregnancy, race, disability, religion and belief, age, and sexual orientation; equal pay between men and women for work of equal value; health and safety protection for pregnant women, and their rights to maternity leave; a degree of equal treatment, in broad terms, for the growing number of fixed-term, part-time and agency workers; rights to protected terms and conditions, and rights not to be dismissed on the transfer of an undertaking; and almost all the law on working time, including paid annual leave and limits on daily and weekly working time.
Whether it is the working time regulations guaranteeing rights to holiday pay and protections from excessive working hours, which will be preserved via clause 2 of this Bill, or the right to equal pay contained in article 157 of the treaty on the functioning of the European Union, which will presumably be preserved via clause 4, these rights will not enjoy enhanced protection after exit day and will be at risk of amendment from regulations set out in other Acts of Parliament if this new clause or a similar one is not passed.
Now, it is true the Government have promised to ensure that workers’ rights are fully protected and maintained after the UK’s departure from the EU, but in the absence of stronger legal safeguards, there are good reasons to be sceptical about that commitment.
Does my hon. Friend agree that, given the political events of this year, it has become ever more uncertain who the Government might be in the future? Therefore, all of us have the job of protecting the process and the institutions of our democracy, because we never know what might happen in the future.
I agree with that, and I agree—I think this was also my hon. Friend’s point—that the public will expect these rights to continue to have the protection they have enjoyed while being underpinned by EU law. These rights should not have a reduced level of protection in the future.
I will make a little more progress if that is all right.
Let me remind the House of the sentiments on the Government Benches when it comes to workers’ rights. Throughout the referendum, prominent leavers drew attention to what they claimed was the high cost of EU employment regulations, including those such as the working time directive and the temporary agency work directive. Prominent members of the Cabinet are on record as having called for workers’ rights to be removed. For example, the Foreign Secretary has written that we need
“to root out the nonsense of the social chapter—the working time directive and the atypical work directive and other job-destroying regulations.”
During the referendum, on 18 May 2016, the then Minister for Employment, the right hon. Member for Witham (Priti Patel), went so far as to call for the UK to
“halve the burdens of EU social and employment legislation”
in the event of Brexit. The newest member of the Brexit ministerial team—Lord Callanan—has openly called for the scrapping of the working time directive, the temporary agency work directive, the pregnant workers directive and
“all the other barriers to actually employing people.”
Just this week, the hon. Member for North East Somerset (Mr Rees-Mogg) made a speech in London calling for, among other things, deregulation. It was retweeted and then hastily deleted, as we heard yesterday, by the Department for International Trade.
I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman is about to quote Mr Dyson. When leave supporters wanted to quote a business, it was usually Mr Dyson’s or JCB. Now that Mr Dyson welcomes the fact that leaving the EU means he will be able to hire and fire people more easily, I wonder whether they will quote him quite so often.
I was not going to quote Sir James Dyson, but the right hon. Gentleman has, happily, added to my remarks.
I am flattered that the hon. Gentleman pays such close attention to my speeches. I was talking about regulation in the City of London, not employment regulation. I think there is now consensus across the political firmament that employment regulations will remain in place, which is one of the reasons why his new clause is not necessary.
I am happy to be corrected on that point, but I would say to the hon. Gentleman that it is a bit rich to suggest that the many public pronouncements that have been made on employment rights over many years by so many Conservative Members have been forgotten entirely and that Conservative Members are suddenly the champions of enhanced workers’ rights. We do not believe that, which is why we need legal safeguards in the Bill.
I am going to make some progress.
It may be the case that pragmatism and electoral appeal trump ideology, but there is no guarantee, and that is the point. We should not take risks with rights, standards and protections that have been underpinned by EU law. Hard-won employment entitlements, along with entitlements relating to the environment, health and safety, equalities and consumer rights, should not be vulnerable to steady erosion by means of secondary legislation outside of the powers contained in this Bill. In future, Ministers should be able to change the workers’ rights and other rights that came from the EU only through primary legislation, with a full debate in Parliament. On that basis, I urge hon. Members on both sides of the House to support new clause 58.
On a point of order, Dame Rosie. Yesterday’s selection list meant that it was not possible to debate the amendments on the customs union or on the European agencies. I do not say this as a criticism of the Chair—obviously, a selection has to be made—but these are extremely important areas of European law, which, as the current schedule stands, we will not now have an opportunity to debate. However, the Government did say that they were prepared, if need be, for extra time to be given to the Committee stage in the House. How might we facilitate securing more time to debate these extremely important issues?
Obviously I would not comment on the order of selection on the Floor of the House, but the Leader of the House is here and I am sure that she will have heard the hon. Lady’s comments.
It is a pleasure again to be able to participate in this debate.
The new clause in the name of the Leader of the Opposition raises a really important issue about the way in which the Government have approached the whole question of retained EU law. To be clear at the outset, and it is worth repeating, the Government’s aim—to bring EU law into our own law, retain it there to ensure continuity and then, over time, to take such steps as this Parliament wishes to take to replace it or change it—makes absolute sense. But as we discussed yesterday, the difficulty that arises is that the origins of EU law mean that it has come into the law of this country in ways that are totally different from our usual process of primary and secondary legislation. [Interruption.] Does my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Sir William Cash) wish me to give way? I thought that he said something from a sedentary position.
I said, “That’s why we are leaving”, in response to my right hon. and learned Friend’s comments.
I understand that that is why my hon. Friend thinks we should go. As he knows, I personally think that in the globalised world in which we operate, as we mentioned yesterday, the notion that the only source of law is likely to be the domestic Parliament of one’s country is rather fanciful, given that we are currently subordinate or have signed up cheerfully to all sorts of areas of international law without any difficulty at all. I accept, without wishing to go over old ground, that the way in which EU law operates in this country through its direct effect does pose some issues that have particularly exercised my hon. Friend the Member for Stone. Nevertheless, the idea that all sources of law in this country come from this House is wrong, full stop.
The question is how we make sure that in bringing this law into our own law, we preserve its essence—because that is what the Government say they want to do—until such time as we as a domestic Parliament decide that we want to do something about it. The problem that has arisen is that, as currently drafted, the importation of EU law means that standards in areas such as equalities and the environment will no longer enjoy the legal protection that EU membership gives them—indeed, they will, for the most part, be repealable by statutory instrument.
On the whole in this House, we would not think it appropriate to do that with our own primary legislation, and this legislation is undoubtedly important enough to have primary status. That is because clauses 2 to 4 on retaining most EU-derived law are worded in such a way as to turn it principally into secondary legislation in United Kingdom law.
There seems to be an inconsistency in what my right hon. and learned Friend is saying. He has been happy for law to come into this country and become our senior law having been approved by a qualified majority vote in which the British Government may have voted against, but he would object to its being repealed through a statutory instrument subject to a parliamentary process in this House and the other place.
I fully appreciate that my hon. Friend has a great distaste for the way in which this law has been imported into our country during the course of our membership of the EU. However, two wrongs do not make a right. He could profitably look at the prolonged period of time it is going to take to replace all this law—five years, 10 years, 20 years, 30 years? I would be prepared to have a small wager with him that some of this is still going to be around in three or four decades to come.
My right hon. and learned Friend concedes that two wrongs do not make a right. May I point out to him that the introduction of qualified majority voting was an achievement of the Thatcher Government? We persuaded the European Union to adopt the single market because we did not want small countries to be subjected to little pressure groups holding up very important standards that we needed to achieve in the new market we were creating. Mrs Thatcher sent as her commissioner Arthur Cockfield, who presided over several thousand of those being introduced so that the single market could get under way.
My right hon. and learned Friend is entirely correct. If I may explain, I was simply attempting—although I sometimes find it quite difficult—to put myself into the position of my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset (Mr Rees-Mogg), who had explained his distaste. Having done so, I was trying to explain why he should still be concerned. I could not agree more with my right hon. and learned Friend. I am not troubled by the way in which this law has come into our country. We have kept our sovereignty. We made a choice to do this, and we did so because of an awareness of how, as international relations develop, it was in our national interest. That may represent a philosophical difference, but as I pointed out, there is all sorts of international law out there that binds us that did not originate in this Chamber.
We should be concerned about the fact that these laws matter. I do not know whether they matter to my hon. Friend the Member for Stone or other hon. Members, but if we go out into the street and ask people whether equality law—
I accept that my right hon. and learned Friend has considerably greater knowledge of these matters than I do, so I wish to ask him about a more general point. I take on board his detailed points about how law is made in this place. However, does he accept that we have very good laws that were made outside the EU—for example, the health and safety legislation that was made domestically in our Parliament? With regard to Labour Members saying that we are not concerned with workers’ rights—
Order. Interventions should be short, not mini-speeches.
Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree with me on that point?
I do. I entirely accept that it is within the wit and ability of this House in future to replicate, if we so desire, many areas of law that currently come from the EU, but at the moment we do not have time to do that. We are taking in law that really matters to people out in the street. I suspect that the vast majority will have no idea where this law originates from; they will just say, “Actually, my employment rights are rather important.”
Will my right hon. and learned Friend give way?
No, I will carry on for the moment and then give way.
People will value that law, and yet we are bringing it in and giving it a status that I regard as very unsatisfactory. There are a number of ways in which that could be addressed, including new clause 2, which has been tabled by the Opposition. I have tabled new clause 55, which I will briefly explain. It looks at the nature of retained EU law, establishes a general presumption that retained EU law may be amended only by primary legislation or subordinate legislation made under the Bill that we are enacting, and provides a framework for the Government to stipulate specific provisions of retained EU law that are merely technical, and therefore appropriate to be amended by subordinate legislation. I do not have any objection to that happening, but the rest would have to be dealt with by primary legislation. The new clause would provide much greater legal certainty about powers for future amendment of retained EU laws, and it would give the Government flexibility to amend technical provisions quite freely.
New clause 55 would also safeguard standards of equalities, environmental and employment protection and consumer standards from amendment by subordinate legislation, precisely because in my experience as an MP, those are the areas that matter to people. I am aware that it has been suggested that some Conservative Members think that there are too many such rights around and that they in some way fetter economic activity. I regret to say that those are probably similar arguments, in some cases—no, I should withdraw that; I was about to say something that might have appeared improper. It is worth bearing in mind, however, that the history of this country since the middle of the 19th century has seen the development of protections for individuals. That started with little boys no longer being killed by being forced to go up chimneys and clean them. All those protections are part of a pattern that has radically contributed to the improvement of the quality of life of citizens in this country.
Given the concerns in the House, will my right hon. and learned Friend tell us which party introduced such legislation in the 19th century?
Yes, indeed: the Conservative party did precisely that. There is a proud record in the Conservative party—as, indeed, there is in the Opposition—of contribution to that process. I make it quite clear that I do not put the smallest imputation that those on the Treasury Bench, or on any of my colleagues in government, want to reduce those protections one bit.
I want to put on the record that I have a lot of sympathy with the idea of an enhanced sifting scrutiny process, as my right hon. and learned Friend knows. I am glad to note that he puts an emphasis, which I am sure we all agree with, on primary legislation. The only question that I want to raise with him about his earlier remarks concerns his enthusiasm for the manner in which the legislation was made in the first place. I make the point yet again that it was done, to an extraordinary extent, behind closed doors and by a process of consensus that cannot possibly be justified.
I understand where my hon. Friend comes from, in view of his long-held concerns about these issues. But I ask him to consider the fact that one consequence of our EU membership—I have to accept this—is that in some areas in which law might have developed domestically, it has not done so in the 45 years of our membership, because we did it in common with our European partners. That is just an historical fact. Because it is an historical fact, we have to grapple with how we make sure that we do not throw the baby out with the bathwater.
Does the right hon. and learned Gentleman feel, as I do, that from the Back Benches on both sides of the Committee is emerging an agreement, to which we wish the Government to respond? New clauses 50 and 51, tabled in my name and those of hon. Friends, are designed to make us look, first of all, not at laws from all over the world—we are, after all, debating the EU (Withdrawal) Bill—but at law from the EU. The new clauses would ensure that we put all EU law and regulations on to our statute book and allowed the House of Commons—we are not talking about a Henry VIII clause—to decide how we should review it.
My only slight worry with the new clause that the right hon. and learned Gentleman has tabled is that it will tie the hands of a future Government, as he accused me of doing yesterday. It might be that, on reflection, there are better ways of reviewing EU law than involving the whole House in primary legislation.
I read the right hon. Gentleman’s new clauses, and I can understand where he is coming from. If one looks at the totality of the amendments and new clauses in today’s debate, one sees that they are all trying to do, roughly speaking, much the same thing. The question is not the exact route that is adopted, but how the Government respond to that challenge. I do not want to take up more of the House’s time, but—
In case my right hon. and learned Friend is coming to a conclusion, I want to ask him this question. I think we all hope that the Government will propose some mechanism for sifting, but does he intend to make a binary distinction between delegated legislation, which could mean exclusively negative resolution, and primary legislation? Alternatively, is he willing to accept, as I think I would be, the possibility of a sift that involves allocating some tasks to the affirmative resolution procedure, and only some others to primary legislation?