House of Commons
Wednesday 29 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—
Yemen is the world’s largest humanitarian crisis, with 21 million people in need of aid. The crisis will lead to famine unless all sides allow immediate commercial and humanitarian access throughout the country. The UK is playing a leading role in the current humanitarian and diplomatic response.
I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. I also welcome them to their position and wish them all the very best.
At the Select Committee on Defence two weeks ago, General Sir Richard Barrons stated that
“intelligent, thoughtful officials like the National Security Adviser are looking at the £62 billion we spend on aid, diplomacy and defence and wondering if they can get a mix out of that.”
Is the Secretary of State satisfied that the balance is being struck between the United Kingdom’s tax receipts for sales to Saudi Arabia for it to flatten Yemen and the money that we are spending on development aid to rebuild Yemen?
We have been very clear that although we understand the coalition’s security concerns, they are not incompatible with allowing food and other supplies into the country. A huge diplomatic effort is being made, led by the Prime Minister, and she is using her visit this week to press further still. There has been movement in getting some aid and commercial supplies through, but that will not be enough. We need to keep pressing, and that is what this Government will do.
The Foreign Secretary met a range of international partners yesterday. Unfortunately, the communiqué from that meeting seemed to talk a lot more about weapons than about getting aid and commercial goods into Yemen. Will the Secretary of State tell me a bit more about what the UK Government are doing to get aid and commercial goods into the country? Aid agencies know that the country needs not just aid but commercial goods. Each day, 130 children are dying in Yemen. We cannot wait any longer.
The communiqué did speak about what we are doing. In addition to the diplomatic efforts, a large part of my time since I have been in post has been spent looking at the other possible options in order logistically to get what is needed to the people who need it. There are immense problems, but we are looking at plan B—what else we can do. The key thing, and the only way to get the full supplies in, is to open up those two ports, and that is what we are pressing for.
I welcome my right hon. Friend to her place and am delighted to see her there. Given the vital need to get humanitarian aid into Yemen, will she confirm what work the UK Government are doing via the United Nations to secure this access, particularly given our role in the Security Council?
I have been in close contact with both the UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, and the Secretary-General himself. We are all working together to impress upon the coalition the importance of getting in not just aid but, critically, commercial supplies. That has been the main thrust of our argument. Clearly, a political settlement is needed in the long term, and we are pushing for all partners to engage.
The situation for Yemen’s remaining Jews is harrowing, particularly for those outside the capital. What work is her Department doing to support the work of other Government Departments in helping to provide safe passage to other countries for these individuals?
We are extremely conscious of this matter. My right hon. Friend the Minister for the Middle East has been doing an enormous amount of work, looking at particular communities. There are enormous numbers of people—21 million—who are in an absolutely dire situation. As well as trying to get the immediate issues resolved, we must keep pressing for a political process and for all parties to engage with efforts of the UN’s Special Envoy.
It does not look as though the Prime Minister is being any more successful on this issue than she is on so many others. It really is a disgrace that although the Secretary of State’s Department is working on the humanitarian aspects by providing food and other aid to Yemen, we continue to sell arms to Saudi Arabia, which fuels the conflict. Where is the sense in that?
I understand the right hon. Lady’s concerns, but as I have said, while we do accept there are legitimate security concerns, that is entirely separate from, and should not be conflated with, preventing aid and commercial supplies from getting to a population. We are extremely concerned about the situation; we are extremely concerned that the coalition may be in breach of international humanitarian law, and I would refer her to the statement my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Middle East gave on 7 November.
I, too, welcome the Secretary of State to her new role. I heard what she just said, but on Sunday it emerged that the UK had been providing military assistance to Saudi Arabia to carry out military training as part of Operation Crossways. With the Foreign Secretary hosting Foreign Ministers from the region yesterday for talks, does the Secretary of State think that the UK’s military support and arms sales to Saudi Arabia are helping or hindering a political solution to the simply appalling and worsening humanitarian situation in Yemen?
I thank the hon. Lady and other Members who have welcomed me to my post.
Although the UK military has provided training on targeting, to try to reduce civilian casualties, that has been entirely separate from the Saudi coalition’s actual campaign. We are trying to utilise the military-to-military contacts that we do have, which are deep, as part of our diplomatic process to try and get the coalition to realise that it must let aid into the two ports. We are also providing £1.3 million to help the UN’s verification and inspection mechanisms. If we can supply any practical support to give the coalition confidence that weapons are not coming in with aid, we will do that.
Since 1988, the Global Polio Eradication Initiative has been highly effective in leading international efforts that have reduced polio cases by more than 99%. Only 15 cases have been reported in 2017—in two countries, Afghanistan and Pakistan—and we hope the last case will come through at the end of this year or early next year.
I thank the Minister for that answer. May I also take the opportunity to welcome the leadership the Government have shown in the battle to eradicate polio from the face of this earth? Does my right hon. Friend agree that that is exactly the sort of thing the great British public can get behind, support and welcome our aid being used for?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, and he is absolutely right. Eradicating polio will be one of the great global public health success stories. United Kingdom taxpayer support since 1988 has helped prevent 1.5 million childhood deaths, and 16 million people are walking today who would otherwise be paralysed. People across the UK can be proud—not least those who support the Rotary movement, because the Rotary movement worldwide has played an important part, and I thank my colleagues in the Sandy Rotary club for their efforts in this regard.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. The use of United Kingdom funds to support things such as the Global Fund, which take part in international activity, and to strengthen global health systems is important. We have to work in partnership with others. The Commonwealth summit will provide a good opportunity to emphasise more of what we can do together.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend and the Department on the work that is being done to help eradicate polio. However, there is a risk that it can return if inoculations do not take place. Will he use the opportunity of the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting next year to press the case for further inoculations across the Commonwealth?
We are working with those who are putting together the Commonwealth summit to make sure there is an ambitious agenda devoted to all aspects of life in the Commonwealth, including global health. My hon. Friend is right on immunisation: through the GPEI, the UK will immunise 45 million children against polio and save more than 65,000 children from paralysis each year, so there will be no let-up in immunisation and the fight to make sure polio is eradicated.
Will the Minister show the same level of commitment he has shown on the international level to the prevention and eradication of animal and livestock diseases—something that poses a grave threat to very rural constituencies such as mine?
Order. That is scarcely even tangentially related to the matter on the paper. What the hon. Gentleman is implicitly saying is, “I don’t really like this question, and therefore I’d like to propose the insertion of another in its stead.” It is ingenious to the point of being cheeky. A one-sentence reply of no more than 20 words from the Minister.
Value for Money
We work continuously to improve the way we design, implement and monitor programmes. Spending money well, wisely and efficiently makes sense both because it is British taxpayers’ money and because it allows us to deliver better education, better healthcare and better nutrition for some of the world’s poorest people.
My hon. Friend’s question on the Palestinian Authority is for my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Middle East, but the basic principle is clear. This is not just about transparency. Transparency is not an end in itself, but a means to achieving accountability. It is not just about getting the data out there; it is about making sure that people in the developing world can access the data, understand the data and use the data. We can improve only if we are challenged.
Absolutely, and the challenge of accountability in the developing world is great. Here in Britain, where there is a free media and a lot of civil society, it is very easy, as we all know, for people to challenge a rail project or what is happening in a hospital. In the developing world, we need to invest in ensuring that we have the right kind of beneficiary feedback, because it is the people on the ground who know more, and we will improve only if we listen.
Last week, the Select Committee on International Development published our first report of the Parliament on global education. I urge the Government to respond soon to our recommendation that we should fully fund replenishment of the Global Partnership for Education and to make that announcement as early as possible.
We will be announcing the refresh of our education policy early next year. The key thing, on which we agree absolutely with the Select Committee, is to drive up the quality of education. Attendance is right up, but far too many children are coming out entirely illiterate.
Ninety five per cent. of all our education spending goes to public education. However, there is a place, particularly in some of the poorest and most remote parts of the world, for recognising that the private sector is filling with low-cost education a hole that the public sector sometimes cannot fill.
What assessment has the Department made of the value for money of its spending in Bangladesh to help the Rohingya people, particularly given the Secretary of State’s recent visit to the area?
Our assessment is that our humanitarian assistance in Bangladesh, which at the moment amounts to more than £40 million, is carefully monitored and well spent. It is focused, above all, on providing shelter and protection, particularly protection against sexual violence in conflict.
May I first welcome the Secretary of State to her new post? May I also welcome the Moderator of the Church of Scotland to the Gallery?
There is no greater value for money in aid spending than protecting the future of our natural world for generations to come. Following the UN COP23 talks earlier this month, which I attended, it is undeniable that we are reaching the tipping point of no return on climate change, and all nations agreed that we must go “further, faster, together”. Given that the Department for International Development is a major shareholder in the World Bank, which still spends much more on oil, gas and coal than on clean energy, will the Secretary of State give me her personal commitment that she will use all her powers of persuasion with the World Bank to ensure that it invests more in clean, safe renewables than in fossil fuels?
The hon. Gentleman and I have discussed this in the past, and I pay tribute to the work that he does on the environment. We are pressing the World Bank to do that, and that is one of the functions of the new financing facilities that we have established, but there is still a place for non-renewable energy generation, particularly to meet the desperate needs in Africa.
One of the best ways to spend money is on malaria, as I have seen as chair of the all-party group on malaria. The “World Malaria Report” is released today, and it shows a worrying stalling in progress on malaria. Could my hon. Friend commit the UK Government to ensuring that as much as possible is done to make further progress?
That is a very important issue, in which the UK Government are proud to have invested heavily, along with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the US Government, who have done a lot on this. There is, I believe, an event in Speaker’s House immediately after this to commemorate some of the progress that is being made on malaria, but my hon. Friend is absolutely correct that this is an issue on which we need to do much more, and the fact is that progress is stalling.
I welcome the Secretary of State to her new role, and I look forward to our exchanges across the Dispatch Box. The Secretary of State’s predecessor resigned because she was caught trying to give aid money to the Israeli defence forces. Securitisation and militarisation of the aid budget, which is supposed to go to the world’s poorest, seem to be the new normal under this Government. What are the Secretary of State’s plans on spending aid money on military and the police, and will the spending go up or down?
It is absolutely central to remember that we must address the root causes of poverty, and a lot of those lie in fragile and conflict-affected states. If we try to separate off the work we do on education, health and humanitarian assistance from the political and military drivers of conflict, we will never resolve these problems. But we absolutely take on board the fact that our prime responsibility is towards the poorest in the world. Our programmes on conflict are a means to an end, not an end in themselves. I would like to ask the hon. Lady: who made the 0.7% target? It is absolutely central that we do these things together.
I thank the Minister for his response, but new figures show that in 2016 aid spending on the £1 billion conflict stability and security fund increased by £27 million. That was spent mainly through the Foreign and Commonwealth Office on propping up the military and police in places such as Bahrain, Ethiopia and Syria. With no scrutiny from DFID or Parliament’s Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy, how can we measure the impact? Does the Minister believe that this is value for money?
I absolutely believe it is value for money. There are currently 23 million people at risk of starvation in north-east Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan and Yemen. The reason why they are at risk of starvation is conflict. These are not natural disasters; they are driven by conflict. Unless we find political solutions to these conflicts, we will have 23 million people continuing to die throughout the world. We will not apologise for our approach, because it is a central part of our development policy.
The Department is playing a leading role in the cross-government effort to tackle the scourge of modern slavery, and expanding our work in developing countries to tackle this barbaric crime. Our “work in freedom” programme has already reached over 380,000 women and girls in south Asia and the middle east.
I thank the Secretary of State for that answer and I welcome her to her position. Saturday was International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women. Given that around 75% of victims of modern slavery are women, will she join me in paying tribute to campaigners and organisations across the country, including the Women’s Aid refuge in Barrhead in my constituency, for what they do to tackle this crime?
I would be very happy to congratulate my hon. Friend’s constituents for the work that they are doing. Modern slavery is something that many people across the country are concerned about. We should be proud that our country and our Prime Minister are leading the way, most recently in convening leaders at the UN to launch the call for action to end modern slavery, which now has 40 signatories.
I have just returned from Bangladesh, where I saw for myself the Rohingya camp and heard from refugees of the horrific atrocities that they have endured. I applaud the generosity of the Bangladeshi Government and the people of Bangladesh, as well as British taxpayers and all who have donated to the Disasters Emergency Committee’s appeal. Although every refugee has expressed the desire to return home, I have made it clear to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina that any returns must be voluntary, safe and sustainable. Those conditions are far from being met.
As in Bangladesh and Burma, the humanitarian crisis unfolding in Yemen is a man-made one. The Secretary of State talked about having influence on the perpetrators of that conflict. With the tax take from arms sales now outstripping the level of aid, does she not think the time has come to stop arms sales to the combatants in that conflict?
I will say it for the third time: there are genuine security concerns on the part of the Saudi-led coalition, but that is entirely separate from the issue of allowing aid and commercial supplies into ports. We think that they can address their security concerns, and we are prepared to assist them in some measure to do that, but there is no excuse, legitimate though their concerns are, for stopping food and supplies getting to the individuals who need them.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right: our NGOs are second to none. If we are going to continue to make our funds deliver, provide value for money and have the impact required, British NGOs still need to be delivering that aid. All this will be part of the negotiations, but I concur exactly with my right hon. Friend’s sentiments.
Support to protect women and girls, whether in relation to education, sanitation or refugees, has been a significant part of the work DFID is doing. We are constantly in contact with UN agencies about what more can be done both for women in conflict and for women in developing countries, and that is a major part of DFID’s programme.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. Reducing the transmission of infection is an effective way of decreasing the need for antibiotics. Our approach is to strengthen national health systems to address infection prevention and control, and this includes hygiene and sanitation in health facilities.
I am pleased to join the hon. Gentleman, and I am sure the whole House, in commemorating World AIDS Day. We have been a long-term supporter of the international AIDS vaccine initiative, and we are the largest international funder of HIV prevention, care and treatment. From the £1.1 billion going into the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, 1.3 million retroviral drugs will be provided through the UK this year. There will be no let-up in the fight, and we are united on that. [Official Report, 4 December 2017, Vol. 632, c. 3-4MC.]
I have recently returned from a visit to Zimbabwe. These are early days, and we need to watch very carefully what kinds of economic and political reforms are introduced by Mr Mnangagwa’s Government. However, if such reforms are forthcoming, there is a great deal that the British Government can do: first, in supporting governance reform; secondly, in supporting the business climate; and thirdly, in getting International Monetary Fund support for the Government of Zimbabwe.
If this answer is not satisfactory because I did not hear the hon. Lady’s question, please will she let me know? We are looking to refresh a number of schemes, including the International Citizen Service, and at what healthcare professionals and other professions can offer with regard to aid while enhancing their own personal professional development.
I recently visited young Send My Friend to School campaigners at Sydenham School in my constituency. They spoke with great passion about the need for global education and why greater financing for education matters to them. What action will the Secretary of State take to ensure that this Government listen to those young people and show leadership by increasing funding for education through the Global Partnership for Education?
We were and are the largest founder contributor to the Global Partnership for Education. With 387 million children expected to leave primary school unable to read, there is no doubt that the continuing efforts of the United Kingdom, along with others in the partnership, are important. As my hon. Friend the Minister of State said earlier, we will publish a refreshed education strategy early in the new year. The hon. Lady can be sure that strengthening education systems around the world, and supporting teachers and children who may be marginalised through missing out on education, will be key parts of that.
I recently visited some schools in Africa where, in classrooms of more than 100 pupils, those with special educational needs, right at the back, had very little chance of accessing education. How will my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State—I congratulate her on her new position—prioritise disability support in education in developing countries?
The Prime Minister was asked—
I have been asked to reply on behalf of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, who is abroad in the middle east furthering our interests in a region that is fundamental to our national security and prosperity.
I am sure that the whole House will wish to join me in offering our warmest congratulations to His Royal Highness Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, and in wishing them every happiness in the future.
Today also marks the 100th anniversary of the creation of the RAF. The whole House will want to express our thanks for a century of service to this country.
I add my congratulations to those of the First Secretary of State to Prince Harry on his engagement.
Thanks to the outstanding efforts of the Labour-run North East Lincolnshire Council, the Government have included the Greater Grimsby project in their industrial strategy document, but we need more than a byline in a glossy magazine to make its potential a reality. When can we expect the Government to put their money where their mouth is, so that we can get going?
I welcome the fact that the hon. Lady welcomes the industrial strategy, as she should do. It will be good for Grimsby and many other communities around this country, particularly those that may feel that they have been left behind in the past. I am happy to assure her that the industrial strategy will come with money attached, as she will have heard in my right hon. Friend the Chancellor’s Budget statement.
I can see that my hon. Friend is getting the hang of questions already. I am happy to assure him that we are committed to working with him, and indeed with the Tees Valley Mayor, Ben Houchen, who is doing so much to help develop the area. We want to support him and the South Tees Development Corporation on the work they are doing on the long-term regeneration of the south Tees area. As he said, the Chancellor announced £123 million of new funding in the Budget, because we recognise the significant economic opportunities in the area.
Let me join the First Secretary of State in congratulating the RAF on its anniversary, and in congratulating Prince Harry and Meghan Markle on their engagement—that is one Anglo-American couple that we in the Opposition will be delighted to see holding hands. I am sure that Prince Harry, as the patron of Rugby League, will be joining all of us in supporting the England team in the world cup final on Saturday—I, for one, will of course be waving my St George’s flag.
On a much sadder note, I am sure that the whole House will join me in sending our thoughts to all those killed and injured in Friday’s horrific attack on the mosque in north Sinai. It is a bitter reminder that the vast majority of the victims of jihadi terror are Muslims.
Before I get on with my questions, can I ask the First Secretary of State about a simple point of principle? Is he happy to be held to the same standards in government that he required of others while in opposition?
Yes, I am. I think that all Ministers should respect and obey the ministerial code, and I absolutely think that is a very important part of confidence in public life. I also echo the right hon. Lady’s thoughts about the terrible events in Sinai. She might find it difficult to wave the St George’s flag, but I will be doing so for the English rugby league team. [Interruption.] As a Welsh rugby fan, I might find it even more difficult than she does.
The First Secretary of State looked rather perturbed at my line of questioning, but he does not need to worry; I really am not going there. I was merely wondering whether he remembered the question he asked at Prime Minister’s questions almost 17 years ago, when John Prescott stood in for Tony Blair, and whether he could answer the same question today. The question was this:
“what percentage of the new nurses recruited in the past 12 months are now working full time?”—[Official Report, 13 December 2000; Vol. 359, c. 630.]
I cannot remember asking that question, but I would love to know what the then Deputy Prime Minister answered. I am happy to assure the right hon. Lady that we have more nurses, more midwives and more doctors working in the health service now. The health service is performing more operations now, and certainly more than it was 17 years ago. In particular, in the Budget last week my right hon. Friend the Chancellor was able to announce more than £6 billion extra on health spending, which will make the health service even stronger in future than it is now.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that response, but since he failed to answer my original question, I will do it for him. According to the Government’s latest figures, more than 40% of newly recruited nurses are leaving full-time employment within their first year. It is not just new recruits who are quitting; the overall number of NHS nurses and health visitors is down by 1,500 this year. The numbers are now lower than when this Government came to office. Why does he think that so many nurses are leaving?
There are, as I say, more operations being done, and more nurses, more doctors, more midwives. The health service is expanding. We have got 14,900 more doctors, 1,500 more medical school places each year and 10,000 more nurses on our wards, and we have announced an increase of more than 5,000 extra nurse training places every year. In addition, the Chancellor said in his Budget that we would commit to making sure that the nurses’ pay increase, the action for change—[Interruption.] The “Agenda for Change” staffing covered would not come out of other health spending. So nurses can be reassured that the Government will continue to support them both on pay and in terms of numbers. That is why our health service in England is getting better. If the right hon. Lady wants to look at a health service where things are getting worse, she can look to the Labour Government in Wales, and she does not need to take it from me; she can take it from the public, because public satisfaction with the NHS in Wales is lower than in England. That is the effect of a Labour Government on health services.
I hate to break it to the First Secretary, but there are more nurses in the NHS than just those working in emergency and acute wards, including district nurses, the number of whom has halved under the Tories. And guess who picks up the slack if those nurses are not there? It is nurses in emergency and acute care. I asked why so many nurses were leaving the vocation they loved. According to the Royal College of Nursing, the top four reasons are excess workload, staff shortages, low pay, and worries about patient care. According to the Government’s own figures, the number of nurses quitting because of worries about their finances or health has doubled since the Tories first froze their pay. So let us get on to the question—the question he asked John Prescott 17 years ago. The First Secretary said then that nurses at his local hospital were warning that
“staff shortages are putting patients’ lives at risk”—[Official Report, 13 December 2000; Vol. 359, c. 630.]
What are those same nurses telling him today?
Since 17 years ago—and it is interesting that 17 years ago many years of Labour Government still lay ahead, with all the pressures the right hon. Lady has just exposed—the number of nurses in post has risen significantly. I did not quite understand her point about wards—she seemed to go on and off the wards—but we know that we have 10,000 more nurses on our wards, which is where people want to see them. Also, if she is interested in nurses’ pay, I hope that she will find it in herself to welcome the tax cut announced in the Budget—the increase in the personal allowance—which will help nurses, just as it will help workers across the public and private sectors. This is good news for nurses. The Budget was good not just for the health service but specifically for the nursing profession. As I say, I hope that she can bring herself to welcome that.
I notice that the First Secretary did not want to talk about patient care at his local hospital. Could the reason be that his local accident and emergency department, according to the board’s most recent minutes, has
“Severe staff shortages in medical and nursing staff”,
meaning that patient safety is being put at risk, and the only option to tackle those shortages is to cancel outpatient clinics? And it gets worse: there is to be a public meeting tomorrow to consider closing his local A&E for good—in other words, all the things he has been denying. What are you doing to our NHS? It is happening on your own doorstep. Is it not about time he got a grip?
I am happy to assure the right hon. Lady that I am entirely in favour of option 1 of that strategic transformation plan, which suggests not just leaving A&E services in the hospital in my constituency, but actually expanding specialist services there. I strongly suggest that she does not try to think she knows more about what is going on my constituency than I do.
I suspect that neither the nation nor the First Secretary’s own constituents will have taken any reassurances from that answer. We have an NHS in the grip of a chronic funding and staffing crisis: GPs are quitting in record numbers; junior doctors are running A&E departments without supervision; our nurses are at breaking point—and all this is before the winter crisis that is coming. So let me finally ask him: what does it say about the Government’s priorities that last week’s Budget could only find £350 million to help the cash-strapped, stretched-to-the-limit NHS cope with the winter fuel crisis? [Interruption.] [Hon. Members: “Keep going.”] Only £350 million to cope with the winter crisis, but it was able to find 11 times that amount to spend on a no-deal Brexit. Is that not the very definition of a Government who are fiddling away while the rest of the country burns?
The right hon. Lady is determined to talk the NHS down. It is a Conservative Government who are increasing NHS funding so that it remains the best health service in the world, as the independent Commonwealth Fund has described it for the second year in a row. It is this party that promised and delivered more money for the NHS in 2010 and 2015, and in last week’s Budget my right hon. Friend the Chancellor promised it an extra £6.3 billion. That means more patients being treated, it means more operations being carried out by more doctors, and it means more nurses.
The right hon. Lady ended her remarks by saying that the Government were wasting £3 billion on preparing for Brexit. We now know that Labour Members do not think it is worth preparing for Brexit, but they do think it is worth preparing for a run on the pound. That is all we need to know about the Labour party.
I am very happy to agree with my hon. Friend, and, indeed, with the wisdom of the Labour councillor who has joined the Conservative party. My hon. Friend is quite right. What we hear from Labour Members shows that a Labour Government would lose control of public finances and hike taxes to their highest ever peacetime level. I have discovered a new quotation—the shadow Chancellor called business “the enemy”. That is what the modern Labour party is about.
Let me also point out that the local councillor may just have moved in anticipation. I understand that moderate councillors are being deselected by the hard left of the Labour party.
May I join the First Secretary in congratulating Prince Harry and Meghan on their engagement, and wish them a long life and happiness together? May I also welcome the Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, the Right Reverend Derek Browning, who is with us in the Gallery today?
Will the First Secretary of State now tell the House how much money the UK Government have received from Saudi Arabia as a result of arms sales since the war in Yemen began?
I am afraid that I do not have the figure to hand. However, I urge the right hon. Gentleman to recognise that our defence industry is an extremely important creator of jobs and prosperity, in Scotland as well as in other parts of the country. Obviously I am aware of the current terrible situation in Yemen, but he should also recognise that this country has one of the most rigorous and robust defence sales regimes in the world, as was recognised in a court case last July—and we are absolutely determined to maintain the most rigorous and robust system because that is the right thing to do, both for our prosperity and to ensure that we keep proper control of arms sales.
That was a long time to be unable to answer the question. I can tell the First Secretary that the UK Government have received £4.6 billion from selling arms to Saudi Arabia since the war in Yemen began—a war that has created a devastating humanitarian crisis. Yemen is now on the brink of famine, and UNICEF has said that 150,000 children will die by the end of the year. Does the First Secretary not agree that the best thing the Prime Minister can do in her meetings today is follow the example of the Netherlands and suspend licences for arms sales to Saudi Arabia to stop killing children?
I should correct something the right hon. Gentleman said: that the Government receive the money. It will be the companies that receive the money, and therefore their workers. He can take that position if he wants, and it was the Labour party’s position as well, but that would certainly entail significant job losses.
It is very important not only that we have the robust regime I talked about, but that we continue the humanitarian efforts that we make to try to alleviate the terrible conditions in Yemen. We are the fourth largest humanitarian donor to Yemen, and the second largest to the UN appeal. I also remind the right hon. Gentleman that the involvement of the Saudis in this conflict came at the request of the legitimate Government of Yemen and has UN Security Council backing. That is why we support it. This is a conflict supported by the UN Security Council, and I would hope that the right hon. Gentleman will have some respect for the Security Council.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and I know what a stout champion she is of the people of Taunton Deane. She is right about the housing infrastructure fund as well. We need more homes, but we also need the infrastructure to back them up, and that is why the Chancellor doubled the housing infrastructure fund in the Budget.
I do not recognise the characterisation of Kent County Council’s position that my constituency neighbour has expressed. All local authorities, as all parts of the public sector, have to live within their means, because we have to continue paying down the deficit run up by the previous Labour Government. Kent County Council is an extremely good county council that does many good things in transport and other fields for the people of Kent, and will continue to do so.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that, for decades now, the richer member states in the European Union have made large contributions to the EU budget because the macroeconomic benefits of belonging to the large free trade area of the single market make it a bargain to pay that share of the costs? Should we not therefore welcome the rumours in today’s press of a possible imminent settlement of the method of calculating future contributions, which may now enable us to get on with the serious negotiations about how we retain the maximum future access to all those benefits of that free trade?
My right hon. and learned Friend has been around long enough to know not necessarily to believe everything he reads in the newspapers, and it would clearly be wrong for me to go into figures now, but he is absolutely right that what we are about, and what my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union is about, is making sure we get the best possible deal at this stage of the process, so we can move on to the trade talks. Britain, as a country that meets its international obligations, of course will, as it exits the EU, meet the obligations and have all the rights that we have in that process, so that we can maintain a deep and special partnership with the other 27 members of the EU, as we move forward in friendship and co-operation after we have left the EU.
I absolutely agree that this place as an institution and all the political parties need to improve complaints procedures and other aspects of the culture of politics to ensure that young men and young women who are interested in politics do not in any way feel deterred from playing an active role in it. There is a place for everyone in this House, on all sides and in all parties, and among the House authorities, to ensure that this is the best possible working environment for young people to come into.
Many mothers in this Chamber know how hard childbirth can be, but we would never use that knowledge in a veiled threat against a journalist, in the way that the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq) did when being questioned by a Channel 4 journalist recently. As I assume that the First Secretary is not pregnant, will he please complete the work that that journalist tried to do, by asking the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn to use her influence with her aunt, who is the Prime Minister of Bangladesh, whose regime is responsible for the kidnapping of Ahmad Bin Quasem, to ask for his release?
Order. Before the First Secretary replies, I am sure that the—[Interruption.] Order. I am sure that the hon. Member for Mid Bedfordshire (Ms Dorries) notified the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq) of an intention to refer to her in this question—
Mr Speaker, you and the House will be aware that I can speak only on behalf of the Government. I can assure my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Bedfordshire (Ms Dorries) that Bangladesh remains an important human rights priority area for the Foreign Office and that we continue to raise allegations of enforced disappearances at all levels of the Government of Bangladesh. I think I should stop there.
The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the Government committed a sum of more than £1 billion to ensure that no one’s pension would be delayed more than 18 months from the original period. I am sure that he also, as a reasonable man, recognises that, with increasing longevity, it is inevitable that the pension age will rise. That is what this Government are doing, and by next year pension inequality will have been removed. We will hit 65 for both sexes next year, and that means that we will then have an equal pension system.
The Royal Air Force is unique among the three services in having been established by an Act of Parliament, which received Royal Assent 100 years ago today. Will my right hon. Friend find time in his busy diary to join me and Members of both Houses and staff from throughout the Palace in celebrating the magnificent service that the RAF has given to this nation over that 100 years, at a unique parade in the atrium of Portcullis House at 7.30 this evening by the Queen’s Colour Squadron?
I have already mentioned the centenary today, and my hon. Friend is right to bring it up again. We cannot pay high enough tribute to the men and women of the RAF for a century of service that will go on for a long time into the future as well. I am glad that he has managed to get an advert in for the parade this evening in Portcullis House.
It is not really surprising that EU institutions are not going to be in a state that is not a member of the EU. That cannot come as a surprise to the hon. Gentleman. As for the capitals of culture, I rather agree with him. After British cities, including some in Scotland, were invited to be part of the process, it is extremely disappointing that the Commission has decided that they cannot apply. We are in urgent talks with the Commission about that, and we are ensuring that all the cities that applied can continue with their cultural development, which has been shown to be an extremely good basis for the regeneration of cities and towns across the United Kingdom.
This Saturday, I will be announcing the winners of my annual local shop competition as part of Small Business Saturday. Will my right hon. Friend wish all Cannock Chase retailers the best of luck and will he congratulate the winners?
I am very happy to join my hon. Friend in congratulating her retailers. Like many Members, I will be celebrating Small Business Saturday this weekend. It has become an extremely important part of the calendar. Supporting small business is absolutely at the heart of this Government’s economic strategy, and we should take every opportunity to celebrate the hugely important work that small businesses do in innovation, in entrepreneurship and in serving the people.
I am sure that the hon. Lady is aware that this Government’s stance on knife crime is actually tougher than ever. We have made the punishment for repeat offenders stronger, and we have banned cautions for the most serious offences. There is now a very clear message: if you carry knives in public, you are more likely than ever to go to prison. The latest figures show that 42% of adult offenders were given an immediate custodial sentence—the highest rate in nearly a decade—so I hope that she can be reassured that this Government are actually being tougher on knife crime than any previous Government.
Does the First Secretary agree that we do not need to break into the computer or iPad of the right hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) to work out that the half a trillion pounds that he wants to borrow will attract £7.5 billion of interest payments every year?
I share my hon. Friend’s enthusiasm for the borderlands growth initiative. I have seen the many benefits of city deals and growth deals around all parts of the United Kingdom since I became First Secretary. The borderlands growth initiative is particularly important because it will show the mutual prosperity of his part of the north of England and the southern part of Scotland. All I can say is that, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland is the MP for a constituency in the southern part of Scotland, I know this deal will get particularly strict attention inside the Cabinet.
When the hon. Gentleman says that all Members of the House of Lords are begging for reform, he may not necessarily be representing the entire range of views in another place, but I am happy to assure him that the Government are looking very carefully at the proposal of the Burns committee. We will, of course, respond in due course.
Can my right hon. Friend and constituency neighbour say what action the Government propose to take against Russian-backed agencies that are spreading fake news and disinformation? We know they have been doing it in our political campaigns, but there are also worrying reports that disinformation may be being spread on important issues such as accessing vaccines and the flu jab.
My hon. Friend is right to raise cyber-security, which is an extremely important issue, and fake news and the dissemination of potentially dangerous information is one part of that. The National Cyber Security Centre is looking very hard at the issue, and it is taking a number of measures to combat it, some of which obviously have to remain private. I absolutely assure him that the issue is very high on the agenda of the National Cyber Security Centre, which is just over a year old and which is doing very good work in ensuring that the whole area of cyber-security is much better than it used to be.
I see the right hon. Lady has recovered her voice. I will tell her what we are doing. Last year we delivered more homes than were delivered in all but one of the last 30 years—217,000, which takes us to 1.1 million since 2010. Over the next five years we will invest £44 billion in home building, boosting the funding for council, social and low-cost housing to over £9 billion. We are building more social housing than the Labour Government did in their 13 years in office. We will build even more in the future. This is a Government who are addressing the problems of the constituents of the hon. Member for Ilford North (Wes Streeting); previous Labour Governments signally failed to do so.
At the recent extremely successful Cheltenham literature festival, Hillary Clinton talked about the importance of ensuring that the Russians are not allowed to meddle in British or, indeed, American elections. Does my right hon. Friend agree that we should be building an offensive cyber capability so that our opponents know we have the will and the wherewithal to strike back?
My hon. Friend is exactly right, as we would expect, given that he is the Member of Parliament who represents GCHQ; he is absolutely right about the offensive capacity we may well need in the cyber area, and I am happy to assure him and the House that we are indeed developing that.
I said this in reply to a previous question on this subject, but I hope the hon. Lady would recognise the principle, which is right: that as we live longer we need to move up the pension age. She knows as well as I do that the Scottish Government do have the capacity to top up welfare payments. Scottish National party Members like to sit here and deny that, but in Holyrood they know they could do this. So, as ever with the SNP, they should stop simply moaning in this Chamber; they should go back to their own Government in Scotland and say that if they want to do something, they should do it. They should get on with the day job of running Scotland.
I very much welcome the Government’s modern industrial strategy, which was launched this week. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is really going to be important, as this country moves forward and we seek a global Britain, in creating more and better-quality jobs?
My hon. Friend is exactly right; the point about the industrial strategy, which is a hugely important moment, is to create not just a stronger economy but a fairer economy for decades to come. That is why it is looking forward to 2030; it is a long-term attempt to make sure that we have not just a global, outward looking economy—I completely agree on that—but a modern economy where we can capitalise on our huge research strengths and our huge intellectual strengths to make sure that, unlike so often in the past, we benefit commercially from that for decades to come. That is the route to rising productivity and rising prosperity.
I am sure the hon. Lady, who has great expertise in this field, will know that this Government are spending £90 billion on disability benefits. More to the point, we are being more successful than ever before in giving disabled people a degree of independence. Hundreds of thousands more disabled people are in work than have ever been before. We have a plan to have an extra million in work over the next 10 years. That is an extremely important and practical way to improve the lives of hundreds of thousands of disabled people. That is what this Government are doing, and that is what we will continue to do.
Given that President Rouhani of Iran has said that his will not be the first country to breach the joint comprehensive plan of action, will the First Secretary assure us that British diplomats are working hard in Washington DC to persuade our American friends that it is in the interests of the west and of Iran to uphold the JCPOA as an essential prelude to solving other regional problems?
I, too, join in offering congratulations to Prince Harry and Meghan Markle on their engagement. One issue that Prince Harry has rightly highlighted and campaigned on is mental health. The Invest in Life campaign in Northern Ireland is doing a fantastic job in highlighting the need for extra resources on that issue. We join in that campaign and have secured extra resources. But at a time when issues such as mental health, education and all the rest of it need to be prioritised in Northern Ireland by a locally devolved Government working on these issues and representing the people of Northern Ireland, does the First Secretary agree that it is a gross dereliction of responsibility for Sinn Féin to announce this week that it is not going to engage in further discussions on the restoration of devolution? If that is the case, we now need to move quickly to restore accountability and Ministers to Northern Ireland to get on with the people’s business of responsible government in Northern Ireland.
The right hon. Gentleman will know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland is working as hard as possible to restore democratic control and to restore the Northern Ireland Executive. We all want to see proper devolved government restored in Northern Ireland. That would be by far the best thing for the people of Northern Ireland, and the Government will continue to work tirelessly to that end.
Points of Order
On a point of order, Mr Speaker.
Exceptionally, I will take the point of order now. [Interruption.] Will Members who are leaving the Chamber be good enough to do so quickly and quietly? It is quite unaccountable if they do not wish to hear the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty), but there is no accounting for taste.
Thank you, Mr Speaker, for exceptionally taking this point of order.
You and others in the House may not be aware of this, Mr Speaker, but it appears that the President of the United States has in recent moments been retweeting comments from a far-right organisation, Britain First. There are some highly inflammatory videos, including some posted by an individual who I believe has recently been arrested and charged in relation to certain serious offences. Have you had notice of any intended statement by the Home Secretary or the Foreign Secretary on this very serious matter?
I confess I have had no advance notice of this matter. I am not myself one who tends to follow what is said on Twitter, but the hon. Gentleman is almost invariably very well informed on these matters. The Home Secretary is in her place and if she wants to say anything, she is welcome to do so, but she is under absolutely no obligation whatsoever to do so.
Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. I understand that the woman in question has indeed already been convicted of hate crime in this country. On that basis, given the significance and seriousness of the President of the United States giving her such a huge platform, do you think it would be appropriate for us to hear some word of condemnation from the Home Secretary or the Foreign Secretary?
Well, it is a point of order for the Chair, and I can say only to the right hon. Lady that, at the moment, as will be obvious to her and to the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth, I have received no advance notice of any intention to make a statement. It would be wrong to expect a Government Minister immediately to respond and, to be fair, the Home Secretary is under no obligation to do so. What I would say is that I now know the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth very well and, if anything, I know the right hon. Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper) even better, because we came into the House together 20 years ago. Knowing them as well as I do, I know that when they have got their teeth into something, they are disinclined to let go. By the way, that is a compliment. We will leave it there for now, but I rather imagine that this matter will probably be mentioned again.
Exiting the EU: Costs
Our negotiating team is currently in Brussels discussing our exit from the European Union—in fact, our officials have been working on it for months. It would be completely wrong of me to cut across those discussions by commenting on speculation about the financial settlement, and it would not be in our national interest.
The Prime Minister made it clear in her Florence speech that EU member states would not need to pay more, or to receive less money, over the remainder of the current budget period as a result of our decision to leave. She also made it clear that, in the spirit of our future partnership, the UK will honour its commitments made during its period of membership. As we have said before, nothing is agreed until everything is agreed. Any settlement that we make is contingent on us securing a suitable outcome, as outlined by the Prime Minister in her Florence speech. We will meet our commitments and also get a good deal for the UK taxpayer.
We want to see progress towards our preferred option, which is an implementation period followed by an ambitious future economic partnership. In the Budget, we have set aside £3 billion, in addition to the £700 million that we have already allocated, to make sure that our country is fully prepared for all eventualities. What we have seen today is simply media speculation. We will update the House when there is more detail to give.
The British people were promised a dividend from Brexit. They were told that leaving the EU would save us a fortune. Those who campaigned for Brexit daubed their hubris across the side of a giant red bus, promising a windfall of £350 million every week for the NHS. That was not just a whopping lie, but the direct opposite of the truth.
Will the Chief Secretary confirm that if the divorce bill comes in at somewhere between £40 billion and £67 billion, as is speculated, that could be a payment of £1,000 from every man, woman and child in this country? Is this speculated divorce bill not just the tip of the iceberg? If we are being honest about the true costs of Brexit, should we not also add in the lost revenues to the Exchequer set out in the Red Book—something in the order of £20 billion by 2021—the £3.7 billion of Brexit preparations for all the duplicated agencies, new border arrangements, lorry parks in Dover and so forth, and of course the higher cost of living for all of our constituents as prices keep on rising?
How do the Chief Secretary’s constituents react to the idea that they will be lumbered with all these extra costs? Do they not ask her, “What exactly are we getting for this? What wondrous new advantages will we gain by shelling out these astronomical sums?” Will she not be straight with the House that we are paying for the privilege of putting the world’s most efficient free trade, tariff-free, frictionless agreement into the bin, and being told to pay for the privilege of downgrading to an inferior deal with our European neighbours? Why is she being so coy about the deal that is being done? The Government have gone from “go whistle” to “where do we sign?”
In a week when the Government will still not fully publish the Brexit impact assessment papers to this House, we are now hearing rumours that Parliament and the public may never be told the full amount. When will Parliament be told what is actually happening and will we get a vote on the sums of money involved? Will the Chief Secretary, right here and right now, scotch this nonsense that the true costs of Brexit will be hidden away in a convenient backroom deal in the negotiations? The British people need to know whether there is a deal and how much the Government have put on the table in the negotiations. If she will not tell us, why does she think that the only people who cannot be told are the British public and the British Parliament? This is not what the British public voted for in the referendum. It is not taking back control; it is losing control.
I can tell the hon. Gentleman what my constituents say: “The country has voted to leave the European Union.” What they want to see is us getting on with that and securing the best possible deal for Britain. If we look at the Opposition Benches, we can see Members who, like the hon. Gentleman, voted to stay in the single market and the customs union, and we also see Opposition Front Benchers who voted to leave the single market and the customs union. Today we read that the shadow Home Secretary wants a second referendum. That is not remotely helpful in securing the best possible deal.
The hon. Gentleman knows perfectly well that we are in negotiations as we speak. If we were to talk about numbers and aspects of the deal in this House, we would be cutting across our negotiating position. The people of Britain want us to get on with it, to take the advantages of leaving the European Union, to make the most of the opportunities and to secure the best possible deal. We are well on the way to doing that. I suggest that, rather than trying to refight the referendum battle, which is exactly what the hon. Gentleman seems to be doing, he needs to get with the programme and to start talking about how he can be helpful.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that no Government of any EU member state could possibly be expected to agree that we should have a good future trade and economic relationship with the European Union while, at the same time, we repudiate all our past financial obligations and somehow refuse to pay a fair share of the costs of agencies and so on that will be incurred in the future? Does she therefore agree that those who oppose paying any money presumably want a no-deal Brexit, which would be catastrophic for this country, and would stop the opportunity that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union has of negotiating a deal that retains as many benefits as possible for jobs, investment and the growth of this country’s economy?
As the Prime Minister laid out in her Florence speech, we do want to abide by the commitments we made during our period of membership, and we also want to see progress on securing a deal. My right hon. and learned Friend is right that any settlement that we seek to achieve has to be contingent on getting a suitable outcome from the negotiations, as has been outlined by the Prime Minister, because we want to ensure that any money spent is value for money for the British taxpayer.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham East (Mr Leslie) for raising this critical question.
As we all know, settling this issue is vital to continuing to the next part of the negotiations. Given that progress has been so much slower than we would have hoped, the Opposition support efforts to resolve this part of the negotiations as soon as is feasible, so that we can start to make progress to end the uncertainty that is impacting on jobs and the economy.
The financial settlement with the EU must meet our international obligations while delivering a fair deal for British taxpayers. The UK is a responsible country and there is no mileage in our refusing to meet our obligations. If we are to negotiate a comprehensive new trade agreement with the European Union, which we will need for future jobs and prosperity, we must be seen as a country that can be trusted to comply with the deals that we reach.
Given our long-standing membership of the European Union, the calculation will understandably be complex. Given that this is a sensitive part of the negotiations, we appreciate that the Government cannot announce a figure publicly at this stage, but they must be transparent about the process, especially once an understanding has been reached with our EU partners. That is why we have tabled an amendment to the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill that calls for any financial settlement to be assessed by the Office for Budget Responsibility and the National Audit Office, and for Parliament to have the chance to scrutinise it. The Government’s handling of the presentation of the impact assessment studies to Parliament has left a lot to be desired, so may I ask the Chief Secretary to the Treasury to promise that, in the interests of transparency and clarity, the Government will support that amendment?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his supportive comments. I am glad that he agrees with the Government’s strategy. The next step will be making sure that his Back-Bench colleagues also agree with his strategy. He is absolutely right that we should not reveal the details of negotiations while they are ongoing. However, the Opposition’s approach of saying that any deal is better than no deal is not the best way of securing a deal. Although our preferred option is an implementation period followed by a strong agreement, we are preparing for all eventualities, which is why we are putting in £3 billion. I suggest that the Opposition should also support that very responsible approach.
I am not in favour of anything that is not legal, so I support my right hon. Friend completely. I am also in line with my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke), in that whatever the legal agreement is, bound against the contingency of a free trade arrangement, it is exactly what the Government will set out to do. Will the Chief Secretary please remind those who have raised this question that even if we agreed a figure of something in the order of £40 billion over 40 years, because we will not be paying contributions to the European Union, it means that the UK Exchequer will be better off by £360 million in the course of those 40 years—a net gain, with a free trade arrangement?
I thank the hon. Member for Nottingham East (Mr Leslie) for bringing this matter to the House.
There would be no newspaper rumours about the sum if the Government actually told us what the sum was. Nobody voted for this disastrous, disorganised EU exit. People voted for £350 million a week for the NHS, not to spend £40 billion or £50 billion just to be worse off. Our public services must not pay the price for this Brexit mess. It surprised us all when the Prime Minister found a magic money tree earlier this year, so surely the Government cannot have been lucky enough to find two. Given that last week’s Budget did not make provision for this £40 billion or £50 billion, will the Chancellor now bring forward an emergency Budget to explain where he is finding the money?
When the hon. Lady stood up, I thought that she was going to thank the Government for the £2 billion additional spending power that we gave to the Scottish Government in the Budget, which they will no doubt be able to use to improve their public services. As I have said before—and, indeed, as has been pointed out by the hon. Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Jonathan Reynolds)—talking about the money now would cut across the negotiations and prevent us from getting the best possible deal. That is not in anyone’s interests.
I am glad that the Government have confirmed today that they are carrying on with comprehensive preparations for no deal, because it is very important that we are not up against the clock at the end and forced into a bad deal because we have no alternative. Will the Chief Secretary confirm that no deal has the great advantage of no payments whatever under the divorce bill heading, meaning that when the Government recommend a deal, it has to be visibly better?
My right hon. Friend is correct. It is irresponsible for Opposition Front Benchers to suggest that any deal is better than no deal. That is the way that we will not get our preferred option, which is an implementation period plus our preferred economic partnership. We are allocating £3 billion to ensure that we are prepared for all eventualities.
The United Kingdom is currently a member of a large number of EU agencies, from that dealing with aviation safety to the European Medicines Agency. Have the Government made an assessment of the likely cost to the Exchequer of having to replicate all those functions and activities, if they eventually decide that we have to leave all of them because of their stated principled objection to the European Court of Justice having any jurisdiction over the United Kingdom?
As my right hon. Friend pointed out, the Prime Minister made a fair and generous offer to the European Union in her Florence speech. Given that article 50 provides that the negotiations that are under way should take account of the future relationship between the United Kingdom and the European Union, does my right hon. Friend agree that it is high time that the European Union reciprocated and started adhering to its obligations under the treaty?
The problem with the Chief Secretary’s answer is that all our constituents saw the slogan on the side of a bus. If the Government simply say nothing—if they keep radio silence for a long time—and then suddenly pluck a figure out of a hat at the end of the process, it will just be incomprehensible to everyone. Surely she can tell the House the kinds of things that the Government think they should be funding—pension contributions or whatever else—rather than just leaving everyone in the dark.
I refer the right hon. Lady to the Prime Minister’s Florence speech, in which she laid out the commitments that we want to continue to honour, in the spirit of our future partnership, after we have left the European Union. The right hon. Lady has to be aware that this is part of a discussion that is also about our future relationship, and all those elements are contingent on securing our future relationship, as the Prime Minister laid out in her Florence speech. It would be wrong at this stage—from the point of view of not only the negotiations, but transparency to the public—to lay out something before it is fully agreed. That would not be helpful.
To cheer up the miseries on the Opposition Benches, perhaps they would like to look at the prospective budget published by Economists for Free Trade in the week before the Budget. It is a really exciting prospectus that says that our economy will grow at 3% a year by 2025, providing an infrastructure surplus of £60 billion, which easily covers the £18.2 billion a year for the famous £350 million. But that is contingent on reciprocal free trade with zero tariffs, so will my right hon. Friend guarantee that there will be no legally binding commitment to spend money until our partners agree to a serious free trade deal that is based on reciprocal free trade and zero tariffs?
I fear that my right hon. Friend is over-optimistic if he thinks we can stop Opposition Members from being miserable. We tried that over four days of Budget debate, but we have been unsuccessful so far. He is absolutely right to talk about the benefits of free trade for the British economy—I completely agree with him. We are seeking a good deal that benefits the UK in the long term.
At least £45 billion, higher inflation and debt, an extra year of cuts, and less influence in the world are the price that the Government are willing to pay for a deluded vision of Great Britain post Brexit. Is there any level of damage that the economy, jobs and families in the UK would have to sustain that would cause the Government to rethink and give the people a vote on the deal? That would be supported by the Liberal Democrats and Sadiq Khan, the London Mayor—and, as I understand it now, the shadow Home Secretary.
I see, regrettably, that the misery has spread to the Liberal Democrats; there seems to be a contagion on the Opposition Benches. I invite the right hon. Gentleman to welcome the fact that this country has the lowest unemployment in 40 years. We also have the third highest number of start-ups in the world—a record number for this country—and the other positive benefits that we are seeing due to the actions of this Conservative Government.
Most of us—certainly those of us on the Conservative Benches—accept that a good trade deal is better than no deal, that there is always give and take in a negotiation, and that it is important that we meet our financial commitments. However, does the Minister accept that this issue is largely a storm in a teacup, because nothing is agreed until everything is agreed? It is important to make that point and not to listen to the few siren voices who still refuse to accept the result of the referendum.
The thing is that the Government are keeping their cards so close to their chest that I suspect they have not even looked at them themselves. For that matter, the left hand certainly does not know what the right hand is doing, because the Minister is obviously making it clear that we are going to pay lots of money for a no-deal outcome, yet the Foreign Secretary boldly and quite confidently told this House that our foreign counterparts could “go whistle”. What was he suggesting that they should whistle—“Stand and deliver your money or your life”?
The hon. Gentleman will be aware that considerable work is taking place across Government, but it would be wrong to cut across our negotiators in the deal they are seeking to strike. It is in our country’s interests to reach the point where we are talking about our long-term economic relationship with the European Union.
The Government are so intent on keeping information they have about Brexit secret that they are actually risking contempt of Parliament. As this even more secret financial settlement is negotiated, how can we be sure that it really represents the national interest?
Does my right hon. Friend agree that, following a good Budget, and given the need for good housekeeping and the pressures on public spending, if the impression is given that we have wads of cash when it comes to Europe, that undermines our arguments on the public sector and on the need for good housekeeping, especially since the House of Lords says that we have no legal financial obligations? Does she not also agree that this is not a divorce bill? We are leaving a club, and once someone leaves a club, they no longer have to pay subscriptions.
First, we were able to make sure that we stuck within our fiscal rules at the Budget, making sure that debt is falling as a proportion of GDP for the first time in 13 years, and keeping within our deficit targets. At the same time, we were able to freeze fuel duty to help ordinary working people, who need to keep their living costs down. We were able to do all those things. The reality is that, as we leave the European Union, we will no longer be paying those vast sums in, and that will represent a benefit to the taxpayer.
Is the Minister aware that 70% of the people who voted in Bolsover voted to leave? But let me also say this to her: those same people in Bolsover, I believe, would expect me to tell the right hon. Lady from the finance Department that if the Government have £60 billion to spare, it should go to the national health service and social care.
The hon. Gentleman will be well aware that, as part of last week’s Budget, we were able to put additional money into the national health service—into hospital capital and making sure we hit our A&E targets—and we are also allocating money to help with nurses’ pay. The hon. Gentleman will no doubt be pleased about that.
These negotiations remind me of the even more complex ones on arms reductions in the 1980s. Will the Minister bear it in mind that the lessons of those negotiations were, first, that too many one-sided concessions project an image of weakness and, secondly, that to get the very best deal, we often have to walk away first and wait for the other side to agree with us, come back, sit down and negotiate realistically?
It is because we need to make sure that the European Union is aware we have alternatives that we are preparing not only for our preferred option of a transition period plus a long-term economic agreement, but for a no-deal scenario. The Opposition want to give that option away, so we would not be able to have that discussion with the European Union.
There are two salient features about the news that is emerging. The first is that this is the opposite of what was promised during the referendum. We were promised £350 million a week more, and now the Government are set to pay up to £50 billion, when our constituents urgently need money for health, housing, policing and much more. But, secondly, what is it that we are paying for? Other countries pay significant sums to get into the single market; we are lining up to pay up to £50 billion to leave the single market. Is not the tragedy that these huge sums are going to pay for a worse deal than we have at present? That is hardly strategic genius.
It is absolutely right that the UK honours its commitments in the spirit of our future partnership, but as I have said before, nothing is agreed until everything is agreed. We will expect to make progress and secure that long-term economic partnership, which will be to the benefit of UK citizens.
Will my right hon. Friend note the growing concern at the fact that Her Majesty’s Government seem in these negotiations to be dancing to the tune of the European Commission? Further to the question from my right hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire (Mr Paterson), may I also ask whether she can be certain that, after 29 March 2019, we will make no payments to the European Union whatever in the absence of a full agreement covering trade?
I can assure my hon. Friend that we are not dancing to anyone’s tune. What we care about is the future of Britain’s economy, protecting the British taxpayer from excess payments and making sure we secure a good deal, which is why it is so important that we do not discuss these numbers while we are in the middle of a very important negotiation.
I have been informed by a former public finances auditor that international accounting standard 37, on provisions, contingent liabilities and contingent assets, requires the UK Government to account for the divorce payment as expenditure in their public finances—even if the exact amount cannot be calculated. Given that the Government accounts for 2016-17 did not adequately disclose the potential liability, as required by IAS 37, will the Minister give assurances that a liability of this magnitude will now be included in the supplementary estimates for 2017-18 and that that provision will be subject to a vote of this House?
That would be wrong according to accounting principles, because nothing has been agreed. The Office for Budget Responsibility followed the Prime Minister’s Florence speech in laying out its projections for the Budget. I suggest to the hon. Gentleman that he has misinterpreted those standards.
Will my right hon. Friend confirm that she agrees that the UK should pay the EU what we are legally obliged to pay—not a penny more and not a penny less? If so, will she make sure that, before this House votes on the final bill, we have an itemised account of exactly what we are paying for at the end, and also the legal basis on which we are making those payments? I have to say that the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr Skinner) is absolutely right: if there is any spare money going at a time of austerity, it should be directed to our priorities in the UK; we should not give it as a bung to the European Union, which we are not legally obliged to do.
I can assure my hon. Friend that we are determined to get the best possible deal for the British taxpayer, and we need to look at the deal in the round to see what represents value for money. Absolutely, the money should be spent on our public services and on keeping taxes low for our hard-working citizens.
Last week, the Treasury published the Red Book, which showed that there would be no more payments to EU institutions from 2019. It also said there was £15 billion of headroom and that debt would then fall. Does the news overnight not show that there is a £30 billion hole in the public finances and that there is no possibility of debt falling on that timescale?
Will the Chief Secretary please confirm that any payments that are offered will be itemised, so that Parliament can understand the constitution of the payment and put it into the context of any likely conditioning that may be required in any deal on the future relationship?
My hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham East (Mr Leslie) is right in his question to highlight the serious difficulties the country faces. I hope it is true that agreement has been reached on the costs of exit, so that the negotiations can move on to the next stage. Does the right hon. Lady agree that it is essential to the UK’s national interest that the European Council agrees at its meeting next month that enough progress has been made to move on to discussions about future trade?
We absolutely want to secure movement on to the next stage of the negotiations. That is very important. Ultimately, it takes the UK and the EU27 to agree on that. It would be wrong to take the approach of the Opposition and say that we would agree to any deal, regardless of what it was. We have to look at and prepare for all eventualities.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the message to the doom-mongers must be that the British public have given their verdict and expect Parliament to deliver? The doom-mongers should recognise that we are the fifth strongest economy in the world and that our population is significantly greater than that of 15 EU countries put together. It is high time that they started talking Britain up, rather than talking it down.