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House of Commons Hansard
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Commons Chamber
05 December 2017
Volume 632

House of Commons

Tuesday 5 December 2017

The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock

Prayers

[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Business before Questions

Report of the Macur review

Resolved,

That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, That she will be graciously pleased to give directions that there be laid before this House a Return of parts of a Paper, entitled The Report of the Macur Review (Revised Redacted Version): An independent review of the Tribunal of Inquiry into the abuse of children in care in the former county council areas of Gwynedd and Clwyd in North Wales since 1974, dated 5 December 2017.—(Mike Freer.)

Oral Answers to Questions

Justice

The Secretary of State was asked—

Leaving the EU: UK Legal System

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1. What steps the Government plan to take to ensure the effective operation of the UK legal system after the UK leaves the EU. [902740]

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17. What steps the Government plan to take to ensure the effective operation of the UK legal system after the UK leaves the EU. [902756]

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The Government have made it a top priority to ensure that there is a smooth legal transition, both in our negotiations with the EU and as a matter for our domestic implementing legislation.

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What steps will the Department take once we have left the EU to secure a review and possible reversal of European Court of Justice rulings that are affecting British companies and citizens?

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We are taking back control over our laws—that is what the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill does—so that hon. Members in this House are properly accountable to the voters and the UK Supreme Court has the last word on the law of the land. From that point on, we can retain, revise or repeal any piece of retained law as we see fit for the British national interest.

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The Minister may have seen the recent TheCityUK report, which underlined the importance of the legal sector to the United Kingdom’s economy and the City. Will the Minister update the House on the negotiations in respect of the report’s principal concern, which is whether contracts will continue to be enforceable and respected across the European Union after we leave?

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In our negotiations with the EU, we have made it clear—for example, in our position paper on civil and judicial co-operation—that we want to maintain that win-win co-operation in areas such as recognition of contractual judgments, but also on decisions in family law disputes that support businesses and individuals on all sides.

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Will the Minister get out and meet more people in the justice system? I have been talking to judges, barristers and campaigners who are all terrified about what will happen to our justice system if we leave the European Union. Who is he talking to, and why does he not broaden his circle?

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May I gently suggest that the hon. Gentleman does not engage in such scaremongering? I have been talking to practitioners, legal groups and the judiciary. We have set out our plans in our position paper, and I would have thought that he would welcome that. Through the EU (Withdrawal) Bill, which I hope he will support, we will make sure that we have a smooth legal transition.

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Will the Minister confirm to the House that it is his policy that the European Court of Human Rights will still have jurisdiction over Britain after we leave the EU?

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The right hon. Gentleman will know, because it was in our manifesto and it has been repeated since, that we have no plans to withdraw from the European convention on human rights or the Strasbourg Court.

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Does the Minister agree that we had a very effective legal system before we joined the EU, and we will have a very effective one for many years after we leave?

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My hon. Friend is right. Of course, I take very seriously the concerns of those who think we need to mitigate the risks, and that is what our negotiations and the EU (Withdrawal) Bill will do. We also have a huge opportunity to promote UK legal services on a global level through trade liberalisation and by promoting the UK as a hub for international dispute settlement. We should grasp the opportunities as well as managing the risks.

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Last month—just two weeks ago—while the House debated the EU (Withdrawal) Bill, the Prime Minister’s spokesman told journalists that the Government expect the role of the European Court of Justice to remain unchanged during an implementation period of two years after the Brexit date in March 2019. Will the Minister confirm to the House that that means that it will not be possible to bring into force large parts of the EU (Withdrawal Bill), including the repeal of the European Communities Act 1972, until the end of the implementation period?

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The position is set out in the EU (Withdrawal) Bill, and the hon. and learned Lady will know from Committee debates that we have made it very clear that we are not going to pre-empt or prejudge the outcome of the negotiations on either the withdrawal agreement or the implementation period.

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Last week “Sky News” reported that the Government wish to stay in the European Aviation Safety Agency after Brexit and accept that that will mean remaining under the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice, because it is the ultimate arbiter of EASA rulings. Will the Minister now confirm that this means the Prime Minister’s red line of no ECJ jurisdiction after Brexit has been shown to be utterly and completely untenable?

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I am afraid that the hon. and learned Lady is relying yet again on second-hand reports via the media. We will not pre-empt or prejudice the outcome of negotiations on the partnership deal, and I hope that she will support us in getting the very best deal for that sector and for the UK as a whole.

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Order. The hon. Member for Clacton (Giles Watling) has an exactly similar question. I would have called him if he were standing, but he was not, so I did not, but if he does, I will. No? The hon. Gentleman does not wish to do so. So be it; it is his choice.

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Can the Minister confirm that elements of our civil and criminal law go back to Magna Carta in 1215 and earlier, that our legal system is far more long established than any EU legal system, that we have one of the most respected legal systems in the world and that, as far as future laws in this country are concerned, Brexit holds no fears for us?

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My hon. Friend makes a powerful point. We have a rather different legal system, through our common law, and we have variations across the UK, but I think that we should have the courage of our convictions and confidence in our democracy. When it comes to the judiciary, of course, we want the UK Supreme Court to have the last word on the laws of the land.

Legal Aid

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2. What assessment his Department has made of the cost-effectiveness of legal aid for early legal help. [902741]

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The Government have published a post-legislative memorandum on the legal aid reforms introduced by the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012. We have launched a review of the operation of that Act, which will be thorough and will report by the summer recess.

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I recently visited Hull chamber of commerce, where a solicitor explained to me that the cuts in legal aid are actually costing the courts so much more money, because so many people in Hull are trying to represent themselves, and the President of the Supreme Court has said that the legal aid reforms are actually a false economy. Does the Minister agree that restoring early legal advice would not only help solve some legal problems, but save taxpayers’ money?

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I understand the point that the hon. Lady is trying to make, and she has done so in a constructive way, but I am not sure that the evidence is there to back up her assertion. We provide a wide range of legal help, for example in civil and family cases. Last year we spent £100 million on legal help, including practical support and telephone helplines that provided advice on 20,000 occasions last year. There are also online tools to make it clear to people when legal aid is available, but other sources of legal advice are also available.

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When changes were made to legal aid in family matters, it was anticipated that there would be considerable growth in the use of mediation. In fact, the numbers using mediation have dropped massively, and all the evidence indicates that that is because early legal advice is a gateway to mediation for assisted parties and reduces the burden of litigants in person in the courts. Is it not time that the Minister looked again at the issue?

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My hon. Friend is absolutely right that we need to be encouraging more alternative dispute resolution, and I think that there is agreement on both sides of the House that we should incentivise cases being settled and not going through the courts, because of the cost and the trauma for those involved. The LASPO review provides an opportunity to look at all of this in the round, but I do not think that the answer will be exclusively about money; it will also be about the positive incentives that we put in place.

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It is estimated that providing early legal help in family court cases would cost less than £14 million because, as the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) has just said, many cases would be resolved before getting to court. Why does the Minister continue to insist that this is not a cost-effective way of dealing with cases? Does he actually know how many cases are proceeding with litigants in person, and how much that is costing the courts system?

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There is a range of support for early legal help, as I have already detailed—£100 million of support—and that can be online or telephone support, but also representation. Since 2015 we have invested £5 million in the litigants in person strategy. There is a range of support available, but of course we can review this in the round through the review.

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We are a nation of laws, but we must be one nation too, with access to justice for people from all backgrounds. Does my hon. Friend agree that, post the LASPO review, the most careful thought should be given to bolstering legal aid resources so that we can have early advice and assistance for all?

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My hon. Friend, as usual, makes a powerful point. We will be able to look at this in the round, but we do still spend £1.6 billion on legal aid, which is a quarter of my Department’s budget. If we want to put more resources in, the money has to be found elsewhere. We will also be looking carefully at making sure we have the right allocation to support those in the greatest need.

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Was not the founding principle of legal aid full and free access to justice regardless of ability to pay? Has not that principle been eviscerated and ripped up by the Government, with the able assistance of Nick Clegg and his little Liberals?

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The hon. Gentleman makes his point in his usual punchy way, but I have already detailed the support for early legal help and set out some of the support for litigants in person. The fact is that we provide £1.6 billion in legal aid. If we look at Council of Europe comparisons—I know that we cannot compare like with like exactly—we see that we are providing more legal aid per capita than any other Council of Europe country.

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We have heard from the Law Society and the president of the Supreme Court on early legal help, which Labour’s manifesto also backs. My hon. Friends have asked questions about this and the Minister has said that the evidence is not there. I want to help the Minister, so will he show today that he is not driven purely by ideology and agree to a simple thing: to commission independent research into the savings that can come from early legal help to inform the Government’s legal aid review before it reports back next summer? Will he do it?

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We have got the review in place. We will take a wide range of advice and set up expert panels to ensure that we get the proper and best advice. The hon. Gentleman should feel free to contribute. However, his proposals would add £400 million to the cost, and he needs to explain where the money would come from because it does not just grow on trees.

Victims and Witnesses: Court Experience

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3. What steps he is taking to improve the court experience for victims and witnesses. [902742]

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13. What steps he is taking to improve the court experience for victims and witnesses. [902752]

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We are investing more than £1 billion in our court reform programme to make our justice system more sensitive to victims and witnesses and more accessible to the average citizen.

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It is almost a year since I met Jill Saward, who sadly passed away at the beginning of this year. Jill was a tireless campaigner for victims of rape and sexual assault and she led the campaign that brought an end to accused rapists cross-examining victims. Will my hon. Friend outline what progress is being made to extend the law to protect victims of domestic violence during trials in family courts?

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I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for the way in which she has championed this issue and to Jill Saward for her campaigning work. As part of our reform programme, we are rolling out section 28 pre-recorded cross-examination for vulnerable witnesses in the Crown courts. That will be rolled out initially in Leeds, Liverpool and Kingston upon Thames from next year, but the plan is for a national roll-out. We are also committed to extending section 28 to family law cases and we have announced legislation for that purpose in the Queen’s Speech.

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The Minister is right that the victims should be central to Government policy. What support is available for both adult and child rape victims after the verdict, and will he outline the process whereby support is offered, regardless of the verdict?

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In 2017-18, the Ministry of Justice allocated around £7 million as a contribution to 97 rape support centres across England and Wales to provide independent specialist support. In the same year, we allocated £68 million to police and crime commissioners. The hon. Gentleman raised an important aspect of the support, which remains available to victims after as well as before the conclusion of a trial, regardless of the verdict.

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The Minister just said that legislation relating to this matter was outlined in the Queen’s Speech. We are particularly concerned about domestic violence victims in the family courts. When will that legislation be introduced on the Floor of the House?

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The announcement was made in the Queen’s Speech. We are looking at the parliamentary timetable and we will be able to say something about that shortly.

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Perpetrators of domestic violence can currently commit abuse of process by bringing vexatious court actions against their victims, often cross-examining them in person in civil and family courts. Will the Minister consider introducing legislation on that? When will he do it?

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As I have just said, the legislation was announced in the Queen’s Speech. Obviously, we have a packed parliamentary timetable at the moment, with the EU measure and other aspects of that, but we are committed to introducing legislation and we will announce details soon.

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Earlier this year, the Secretary of State generously agreed to amend the Courts legislation and introduce primary legislation to outlaw the cross-examination of victims by domestic abuse perpetrators. The principle of using primary legislation to tackle the matter has been agreed. When will he introduce primary legislation to tackle the issue?

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As I have already made clear in two answers, we are committed to not only the courts Bill, but that specific reform. I look forward to the full-throated support of the hon. Gentleman and other Opposition Members.

Reoffending Rates: Custom House Building

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4. What recent assessment he has made of the potential effect of self-build and custom house building on reducing prisoner reoffending rates. [902743]

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Accommodation is the foundation of preventing reoffending. Currently around 30% of people leave prison without a stable home to go to, and that is why my right hon. Friend the Justice Secretary has made employment on release and accommodation for offenders a key priority of our prison reform programme.

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Given that the Self-build and Custom Housebuilding Act 2015 is now on the statute book, is the Minister aware that probation officers and ex-offenders can now register as associations of individuals under the Act? Will he meet me and the National Custom & Self Build Association’s right to build expert taskforce, so we can brief him on how people building their own dwellings can transform lives and reduce reoffending rates?

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I would be delighted to meet my hon. Friend to listen to whatever creative solutions he can bring to the long-standing problem of accommodation for offenders.

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The joint report of the chief inspectors of prisons and probation looked at through-the-gate services and revealed that 10% of prisoners were homeless on their first night out of prison. Having a home is key to reducing reoffending, so what assessment has the Minister made of reoffending rates?

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The hon. Lady makes a very important point. As I said in response to the previous question, this is a priority for us. We are looking at expanding bail accommodation and support services to include lower risk offenders, utilising spare MOJ capacity, expanding our approved premises programme, and working very closely with other Government Departments, such as the Department for Communities and Local Government, to solve this serious problem.

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While strongly supporting the initiative of my hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk (Mr Bacon), will the prisons Minister tell the House which construction companies get this and actually offer fair opportunities to ex-offenders in the construction sector? Will he perhaps also tell us which companies need a bit of a nudge in this area?

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My hon. Friend is pre-empting our employment strategy, which we will announce very soon. He will be aware of the New Futures Network, which the Justice Secretary announced at party conference. This will bring together employers and ex-offenders to help to create employment on release. The construction sector is a key sector and he will be hearing more from us in due course.

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A 2015 Ministry of Justice study found that community orders have a substantially lower rate of reoffending than short prison sentences. What is the Minister doing to reverse the sharp fall in community sentences that has taken place under his Government?

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Of course we want to reduce reoffending. The presumption in this country is against prison. It is up to the judiciary to sentence how they see fit. We want to make sure that there are appropriate interventions in the community and we are looking at that.

Litigants in Person

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5. What steps his Department is taking in response to recent trends in the number of people who represent themselves in court. [902744]

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The Government’s litigants in person support strategy provides a range of practical support and information to those without legal representation before the courts.

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Senior judges are warning that the growing number of litigants in person is creating a huge burden on judges, lawyers and the litigants themselves. Will the Minister commit to restoring legal aid to the family courts, where this problem is most serious, as Labour has promised to do?

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We have the LASPO review, which I have described. If I may, I will take this opportunity to point out that since 2015 we have invested £5 million in the litigant in person support strategy, which includes practical support such as: online and self-help resources, access to free or affordable legal advice, and, where possible, legal representation.

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Representing themselves in court has been a real issue for domestic violence victims. Restoring legal aid is welcome, but that will not happen until January. I note the Justice Secretary is advertising for a second speechwriter at a rate of £70,000. As there is cash to spare, will he commit to ensuring that domestic violence victims who seek legal aid, as of yesterday’s announcement, will be able to claim retrospectively under the new criteria?

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We will be laying the statutory instrument shortly and I think, beneath the political point-scoring, the hon. Lady welcomed it. It will make it easier to apply for legal aid in family cases where there has been a victim of domestic abuse. More broadly, wider personal support units provide trained volunteers who give free independent assistance to people facing proceedings in the family sphere and beyond. There are 20 centres in 16 cities. I hope she would welcome that.

Prison Officers

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6. What assessment he has made of the effect of the recent pay award on the recruitment and retention of prison officers. [902745]

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The Prison Service pay review body recommendations, which I accepted in full, were implemented in the October and November pay of officers. It is therefore too early to assess the effect of this particular award, but I can report to the House that at the end of September this year total prison officer numbers were up by more than 1,200 full-time equivalent staff compared with the previous 12-month period.

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Given that the leave rate among key prison officers in bands 3 to 5 is still running at 10%, does the Secretary of State not think it time to offer prison officers more than the 1.7% they have been offered in order to retain experienced prison staff and keep our prisons safe?

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For those prisons, mostly in London and south-east England, experiencing particular challenges over both recruitment and retention, we are offering additional support and resources. I would have hoped, however, that the hon. Lady would have welcomed the significant increase in prison officer numbers over the last year. The prison officer pay recommendations were implemented in full, and prison officers received a pay rise of 1.7%. In terms of the total bill, that is more than was awarded to other public sector workers.

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What assessment has the Secretary of State made of the impact of prison officers’ terms and conditions and pay scales on their morale now compared with five years ago?

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Prison officers certainly are working under very challenging conditions, not least because of how organised crime is promoting traffic in new psychoactive substances across prison walls, but we believe that not just the increase in numbers but the shift, in forthcoming months, to the new offender management model, under which each officer will take responsibility for about half a dozen named offenders, will contribute to increased morale.

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One in four prisons have seen a reduction in the number of prison officers over the past year, including a quarter of prisons the Government label as being of concern, so given their so-called recruitment drive, will the Secretary of State guarantee today that no prison, apart from those planned for closure, will have fewer staff at the end of the year than they did at the beginning?

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As I said in response to the last question, the new offender management model, which we are implementing throughout the system, will reduce the pressure on individual prison officers. Where a particular prison has greater than average difficulties in recruiting and retaining staff, we will continue to put in extra resource and support to help them.

Prisoner Rehabilitation: Sporting Activities

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7. What assessment he has made of the effect of prisoners participating in sporting activities on improving rehabilitation rates. [902746]

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14. What assessment he has made of the effect of prisoners participating in sporting activities on improving rehabilitation rates. [902753]

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There is strong evidence that physical education and sport improve the wellbeing and motivation of those in custody and ex-offenders in the community. Both improve their prospects of successful resettlement.

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Team sports promote the values of hard work, accountability and team work. Does the Minister agree that these are exactly the values we should seek to instil in offenders, particularly young offenders, to cut the risk of reoffending and give them a better chance in life after release?

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Yes, I do. I hope that every Member would agree. I have commissioned Professor Rosie Meek of Royal Holloway to compile a report on the impact of sport on offenders in custody and in the community so that I can get a complete picture of what I think are the positive benefits. I look forward to her report being published in the new year.

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What is the purpose of prison? Is it punishment or rehabilitation?

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The purpose of prison is to play its part in reducing crime. That is the fundamental challenge that our Department and the Home Office face, and I believe that sports clubs can play a part. For example, the Saracens project with Feltham young offenders institution has a recidivism rate in its small pilot of about 10%, which compares very favourably to the overall rate.

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As well as sport, does the Minister agree that arts and crafts could also play a part in the rehabilitation of offenders? Prisoners in Hull Prison were involved in creating a replica of Jason, Amy Johnson’s plane, for city of culture year. It is now in Hull Paragon train station. Unfortunately, the Ministry of Justice seems to want to move it to York. Will he look at that again and keep it in Hull to recognise what the prisoners have done?

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rose—

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Order. The hon. Lady has raised an ingenious point, which is at best tangentially related to the question on the Order Paper—rather as one might say that Hull is tangentially related to York, both of them being in the north of England. Given that she has been so ingenious, however, let us hear the Minister and find out whether he is comparably dexterous.

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Thank you for the opportunity, Mr Speaker.

I agree with the hon. Lady that it is not exclusively sport that can make an impact on the lives of young offenders in particular. I remember visiting Cookham Wood Prison and being overwhelmed by the quality of the artwork that was being undertaken there.

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Prisoner wellbeing and rehabilitation at HMP Nottingham continues to be of major concern after five people died there in four weeks. When I raised the issue at the last justice questions, the Prisons Minister, the hon. Member for East Surrey (Mr Gyimah), echoed my concern and undertook to write to me. May I ask whether Ministers are still concerned about HMP Nottingham, and when I will receive that letter?

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If the hon. Gentleman would like to write to me about the matter, it would be very helpful.

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Write another letter?

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The matter is not specifically in my brief, because HMP Nottingham is not a young offender institution.

Prison Governors

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8. What steps he is taking to empower prison governors. [902747]

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In April this year, governors were given authority to devise the daily routine in prisons—the way in which they organise staff—and to have a greater say in the health services received by prisoners. In October, governors gained control of the new family services budget, and next year we will devolve the prison education, careers advice and libraries budget to governors in England.

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That is enormously helpful. Does my right hon. Friend agree that governors know their prisons and their prisoners best, and that many of the day-to-day operational decisions about such matters as the core regime, education and training are best devolved down from Governments into their local hands?

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Yes, I do agree. I think it important for Ministers and officials in the Prison Service to trust the professionalism of governors who are in charge of individual establishments, which is why, as national contracts for particular services expire—for example, maintenance, repairs and food procurement contracts—we will seek opportunities to devolve them to establishment level.

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The Secretary of State will have noted that comments made by chief inspector of prisons about one of his reform prisons are quoted in today’s Times under the headline “‘Trailblazing’ jail is swamped with drugs”. The prison is said to have deteriorated over the last 12 months. I am genuinely interested to know whether the Lord Chancellor can tell us who is responsible for that—the governor, the head of the prison and probation service, Michael Spurr, or the Lord Chancellor himself.

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Ultimately, I am responsible for the Department and the services that it provides. As is the case with every inspection report, the Prison Service will take action to remedy the problems identified by the chief inspector, and a new scanner to detect drugs has already been installed at Holme House.

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Order. There are plenty of other questions on prisons, to one of which we now come.

Prisons: Drones

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9. What steps he is taking to prevent the use of drones over prisons. [902748]

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The organised criminals who use drones to smuggle drugs and phones are a major threat to the stability and safety of our prisons. We are taking decisive steps to tackle that threat through joint intelligence-led operations with law enforcement agencies to identify and disrupt the individuals involved.

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What more can be done to harness the power of intelligence-led work to track drones, not just to stop them coming into prisons but to find the criminals who are seeking to use them to disrupt our prison system?

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My hon. Friend is right to highlight the importance of not just stopping contraband coming into prisons, but stopping the organised crime networks that are behind that. The specialist staff in our regional and national intelligence teams are transforming the way in which we work with the police to that end. We have launched Operation Trenton, in which a specialist team of police and Prison Service investigators will work together to intercept drones and track down the criminals behind them. So far there have been at least 17 convictions related to drone activity, and those convicted are serving about 50 years in prison.

Prisons: Mobile Telephones

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10. What steps he is taking to prevent the use of mobile telephones in prisons. [902749]

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Illicit phones erode the barrier that prison walls used to place between prisoners and the community. They can be used to harass victims and to support the trade in contraband that, as we know, drives violence and self-harm. We are working with law enforcement partners to identify and disrupt the organised crime networks that supply phones and other illicit items to prisons. For example, our recent joint operation at HMP Hewell recovered 323 items, including 79 mobiles and a large quantity of drugs.

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Does my hon. Friend agree that we must be constantly alert to the potential for new technology to deter, detect and disrupt the illicit use of mobile phones in prisons? Does he therefore welcome the potential offered by the private Member’s Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Maria Caulfield), which received its Second Reading last week and which will help to block mobile phone signals around prisons?

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My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The consequence of illicit items in prisons is violence and instability for the regime, and the way to counter that technological threat is through technology. The private Member’s Bill promoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes, which the Government are backing, would give us more power to switch off mobile phones in prisons and therefore deal with the scourge that they present.

Prison Officers: Safety

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12. What progress he has made on improving safety for prison officers. [902751]

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In addition to strengthening the frontline by boosting prison officer numbers, we are using intelligence-led searches and joint operations with law enforcement agencies to disrupt the supply of drugs, phones and other illicit items that drive violence in prisons. We have invested in 5,600 body-worn cameras to help to protect prison staff, and we are working with the police and the Crown Prosecution Service to prosecute prisoners who assault officers.

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On a visit to Rochester prison last Thursday, I heard that perceptions of prison officer safety were affecting recruitment. Can the Secretary of State tell us what the Department is doing to support the recruitment of prison officers?

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We are meeting with considerable success in filling the 2,500 additional prison officer places that my predecessor, the right hon. Member for South West Norfolk (Elizabeth Truss), successfully negotiated a year ago. We are also developing a graduate entry scheme for prison officers, and working with the armed forces to ensure that the service leavers scheme takes proper account of the opportunities in the prison service.

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The hon. Member for Saffron Walden (Mrs Badenoch) makes an important point about how the perception of safety can affect recruitment and retention in the prison service. Will the Secretary of State give me an update on the Government’s workforce strategy for all justice sector staff—safety issues affect everyone in the sector—and commit today to involving all trade union stakeholders in the development of that workforce strategy?

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The right hon. Lady makes a good point. Within Government, we continue to discuss how we might look at changes and reforms to the way in which the prison and probation workforces are structured, but irrespective of those discussions, we are proceeding with measures to give additional support to prison governors and prison officers by boosting regional management teams and trying to ensure that professional development is taken seriously at all ranks of the prison service.

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The reality of life in our prisons is one of inexperienced prison officers dealing with more violent and dangerous situations on a daily basis, and that is a direct result of this Government’s cutting 7,000 prison officers. They have now slammed that into reverse to recruit 2,500 officers, as has been announced today. There are prison officers in the Gallery today who are visiting on a lobby with the Prison Officers Association. Will he agree to meet them to discuss prison officer safety?

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My hon. Friend the Prisons Minister and I meet representatives of the Prison Officers Association both at national level and whenever we go to visit prisons, where we make a point of talking directly to staff and listening to their concerns. I believe that, as well as recruiting additional officers as promised, we need to ensure that anybody who attacks a prison officer is properly prosecuted, where there is good evidence available. That is what ought to happen, and I hope that the police and the Crown Prosecution Service will work with us to ensure that we get those outcomes.

Female Offender Management

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15. What steps he is taking to improve the management of female offenders in the criminal justice system. [902754]

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We are investing over £1 million between 2016 and 2020 support local areas in developing multi-agency approaches to female offenders. We also developing a strategy for female offenders to improve outcomes for women in the community and in custody.

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East Sutton Park Prison in my constituency does a fantastic job in helping women offenders prepare for life after prison, and I look forward to welcoming my hon. Friend to the prison in the new year. What are he and the Government doing to help women across the country prepare to make a fresh start on leaving prison?

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I look forward to visiting East Sutton Park with my hon. Friend in the new year. It has an excellent record of building strong links with both national and local employers such as Timpson, Sainsbury’s and Specsavers. We want to develop and spread such relationships across the country, because people who have a job on leaving prison are less likely to reoffend.

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It is 10 years since the Corston report. Can the Minister update us on the progress the Government are making in meeting all 43 of Baroness Corston’s recommendations, in particular funding for specialist units such as Eden House in Bristol?

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The Corston report was the very first document I read on being made the relevant Minister in July 2016, and it is a very good document. Since then I have worked tirelessly, along with my officials, to develop a women’s strategy that goes some way to meeting the challenges set by Baroness Corston. I recently met the Corston funding group to discuss the proposals that we will bring forward when the strategy is published.

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As female offenders are more likely than male offenders to have caring responsibilities for children, what role does the Minister think prison governors should play in maintaining and strengthening family ties?

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In my travels around the country, every governor of a women’s prison I have met knows the importance of maintaining good family links. In the strategy, we have this in our minds in developing an infrastructure for the future, whereby women are held as close a possible to their families, if they have to be locked up.

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What action are the Government taking to reduce the incidence of breach and recall, which is leading to an increase in the women’s prison population?

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We are aware of the challenges around recall, and some of this is to do with the fact that women go back out into the community and into exactly the same situation they were in before going into prison. This is being considered in depth, and our approach to it will be part of the women’s strategy.

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The Minister will know that a disproportionate number of women are sentenced to very short prison terms, and judging by his previous statement he probably shares the view that they are generally ineffective in breaking the cycle of reoffending. Will the Government think seriously about adopting the Scottish system, under which short sentences have to be actively justified by the court before they are passed?

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We already have a presumption against custody in our system in England. I acknowledge, however, that Scotland is embarking upon an exciting path in managing its women offenders, which is why I am going there on Thursday.

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Given that half of all women in prison are there just for a few weeks, does the Minister agree that we can achieve a better outcome for the women themselves, and reduce the number of victims of crime, if we invest in women’s centres, rather than sending non-violent women to prison?

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When visiting prisons and meeting prisoners, what is striking is that many of them have been victims themselves. I am very conscious of that, and the strategy will try to deal with it through the way in which we handle and manage women who have committed offences.

Exceptional Case Funding Scheme

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16. What plans he has to review the criteria for the exceptional case funding scheme for coroners’ inquests involving multiple deaths to ensure that close family members have legal representation. [902755]

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We are looking at ways to make inquests more sensitive to the needs of bereaved families. The Lord Chancellor will update the guidance on exceptional case funding by the end of the year, and we will also look at this issue as part of the wider LASPO—Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012—review.

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My hon. Friend will be aware that I raised the case of the Shoreham air show crash with the Prime Minister at questions a month ago. The Legal Aid Agency has refused exceptional case funding to the families of the victims. Can it be right that the families of the victims of an event that at the time resulted in the largest civilian loss of life since 7/7 might be the only ones not to have legal representation at the coroners’ inquest next year, not least when there is a wider public interest for the over 2 million people who attend 300-plus civilian air shows each year?

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My deepest sympathies go to the victims of the Shoreham airshow disaster. My hon. Friend knows that I cannot comment on individual decisions, but I can say that we have protected early legal advice for inquests within the scope of legal aid, and there is an opportunity to look at the issue more broadly as part of the LASPO review. Legal aid is decided independently, but it was granted in over half of cases where inquest applications were made last year.

Youth Custody: Physical Restraint

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18. What recent assessment he has made of the suitability of physical restraint techniques used on children in youth custody. [902757]

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We are clear that restraint should be used only when it is absolutely necessary and when no other form of intervention is possible or appropriate. The number of incidents in which restraint was used reduced by 11% between the year ending March 2015 and the year ending March 2016.

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In September, I asked why the Ministry of Justice’s approved methods for restraining children in young offender institutions and secure training centres can actually kill children or leave them disabled. I have since received a letter from the Minister stating that pain-inducing restraint techniques may be necessary in limited circumstances. The Department of Health launched a consultation last week about children in the care of the state, on the premise that restraint should not be used to punish or with the intention of inflicting pain, suffering or humiliation. What exactly is the Government’s position on restraint?

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The restraint techniques that are used were developed in consultation with a medical panel and a medical adviser—[Interruption.] I must emphasise to the hon. Lady that we are dealing with sometimes quite violent individuals. Violence levels in the youth estate are 10 times that in the adult estate, and decisions are sometimes made, however difficult, to protect the individual concerned, other children in the unit and the staff. [Interruption.]

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Order. The hon. Lady continues to chunter from a sedentary position in evident disapproval of the thrust of the reply provided from the Treasury Bench, but the hon. Lady has a recourse: she can apply for an Adjournment debate and dilate on such matters at greater length, which I am sure will be of great satisfaction to her and, possibly, to others.

Court System: Modernisation

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19. What steps he is taking to modernise the court system. [902758]

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20. What steps he is taking to modernise the court system. [902759]

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24. What steps he is taking to modernise the court system. [902763]

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With permission, Mr Speaker, I will answer Question 19 together with Questions 20 and 24. We are investing £1 billion in the modernisation of Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service. This summer, we launched the first online courts pilots, covering divorce, social security and civil money claims. In October, I visited the Manchester civil justice centre and saw some of that work first hand.

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Order. The right hon. Gentleman had not asked in advance for my agreement to the grouping, but I am nevertheless happy to provide it. Presumably, the request was not made to my office on account of the expectation that we would not get this far, but Ministers ought to know better by now; we do tend to make quite quick progress. We will take supplementary questions from those who are here—I think at least one is not.

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Part of the problem with the courts system is that the lay person does not understand the jargon. Will my right hon. Friend examine how we can improve communication within the system so that the ordinary man on the street can understand what is going on in court proceedings?

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I apologise to you, Mr Speaker, if there was a mess-up in communications with your office.

In response to my hon. Friend, as we test and pilot the online court proposals it is important to ensure that the process is stripped of legal jargon so that our constituents—men and women who may have no particular knowledge or experience of the technicalities of law—are able easily to understand, follow and use the process.

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As co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on public legal education and pro bono, I was wondering whether my right hon. Friend had made any assessment of how the online process will save many people who go to small claims courts from unnecessary stress and hassle when all they are often trying to do is resolve a simple money claim.

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Having tried out the small money claims process, my view is that it provides a user-friendly way for a consumer to seek redress from somebody against whom they have a claim. So far, more than 3,000 people have used the pilots that I have described, and they have received straightforward digital access to our courts.

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Order. I would call Mr Courts to ask about courts if he were here and given the likely affinity that he would feel towards the subject, but he is not, so I cannot.

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I wrote to the Government in October to ask about the impact of the closure of Oldham magistrates court and county court, but they said they do not collect data on non-attendance. How on earth can the Government know about the impact of closures if they do not collect that data?

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When a proposal is made to close any court centre there is a public consultation, which enables representations to be made and evidence to be looked at seriously. Such a consultation is always accompanied by an analysis of the travel times, both by car and by public transport, for people who use the court centre scheduled for closure to attend the proposed alternative. These things are considered in detail.

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In the context of court modernisation, will the Secretary of State look at making the courts more transparent, particularly by allowing defendants and those who have been sentenced to get court transcripts and copies of the judge’s direction to the jury? Especially in cases of potential miscarriage of justice, it can be incredibly difficult to get that information.

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I would like to take away and reflect on the serious points made by the hon. Lady. Obviously the conduct of a trial in court is a matter for the trial judge, but I will look seriously at the issue and write to her when I have had the chance to take advice on the matter.

Topical Questions

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T1. If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities. [902765]

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Since the last Justice questions I have introduced a new urgent notification process, which allows the chief inspector of prisons formally and publicly to notify me, as Secretary of State, where he judges that urgent action is required to improve a prison with significant problems. This new procedure will require a joint response from Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service and my Department to ensure that decisive action is taken to address immediate concerns, and we will demonstrate our commitment to transparency by publishing both the chief inspector’s notification letter and my response within 28 days.

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I am sure the Secretary of State will join me in condemning the shocking and senseless attack on a police community support officer in my constituency. The PCSO was reportedly deliberately lured into some woods before being attacked with a knife. Will the Secretary of State agree to meet me and other relevant partners to discuss what more the Government can do to ensure that our justice system properly reflects the gravity of such serious crimes?

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I am sure the hon. Gentleman will appreciate that it would be wrong for me to comment in detail on an individual case when it is a matter of investigation and, conceivably, a trial. In general terms, the Government are committed to ensuring that the law protects those dedicated, professional public servants, including PCSOs, who do their utmost to keep us safe. That is why the Government are supporting the Assaults on Emergency Workers (Offences) Bill, introduced by the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), to give such greater protection.

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T2. What does my right hon. Friend think can be done to make sure that community sentences are not just robust and effective but are seen as such? [902766]

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My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We have a range of robust community sentence options, which can include the whole range from unpaid work and curfews to rehab programmes and treatment for mental health and substances misuse problems. We are working with the judges and magistrates, and with the national probation service, to make sure community sentences are as operationally strong as they can be and can command public confidence.

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I have repeatedly asked the Secretary of State how many staff have been axed since probation was privatised, and I have repeatedly been refused an answer. It is now being reported in the press that there was a 20% cut in the number of probation staff in the privatised community rehabilitation companies between 2015 and 2016. Can he confirm that CRC staff have been cut by a fifth?

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It is for individual community rehabilitation companies to take decisions about the staffing and what kind of staff they need to deliver on their contractual obligations to the Government. The Government’s responsibility is for staff in the national probation service, and we are recruiting additional staff to it.

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T6. Given that a rise in fraudulent claims can push up the cost of insurance for all, what assessment has the Minister made of the levels of holiday sickness insurance claims and the impact of false claims on the cost for honest holidaymakers? [902770]

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My hon. Friend raises a good point. The Association of British Travel Agents reported a sixfold increase in gastric illness claims against tour operators between 2013 and 2016, but reports in resorts of illness were declining. This cost operators about £240 million last year, which of course hikes the cost for holidaymakers. We are calling for evidence on our plan to fix the legal cost to make it easier to defend dishonest claims, which will mean that honest families pay less for their hard-earned holidays.

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T3. The current prison system is failing young people and women. Youth and female offending needs a different approach, based on the community and community services, rather than simply imprisonment. What will the Secretary of State do to help ensure education and rehabilitation, not punishment and not prisons? [902767]

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I was in Cardiff last Thursday, when I met the pathfinder team there who work with women offenders, both in the community and when they are in custody, and I was very impressed by the work they do. I went on to the youth offending establishment at Parc, where I was particularly impressed during the visit. On both youth and women, our strategy is that if we can keep people out of custody, we will, but if they need to be in custody, we will make that decision.

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T7. Will my right hon. Friend advise me as to what steps are being taken to reduce reoffending levels among young people in the west midlands, including in my constituency? [902771]

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The current rate of reoffending among the youth population is way too high, and I have taken measures to address it. Part of that has been investing £64 million in the youth custody reform programme, which includes better training for staff.

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T4. Does the Justice Secretary not share my concern that handing over powers on court fine collection to private bailiffs will place the safety and finances of vulnerable people at risk from rogue operators? [902768]

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No, we are making sure we have robust and rigorous regulation in place. The most important thing is to make sure that precious taxpayers’ money is put to the best use and that the debts are most effectively recovered.

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T8. Is the Secretary of State aware that there remains a serious illegal drugs problem in Norwich and Wayland prisons? Many Ministers talk about creating drugs-free prisons, but when is that going to become a reality in Norfolk? I would like the Secretary of State to answer, please. [902772]

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Norwich prison, like all prisons in the system, is being challenged by new psychoactive substances, which are causing behavioural problems that add to potential aggression on the part of prisoners. These are being actively promoted by organised crime. We are addressing that, both by the provision of improved health and detoxification methods in prisons, and by active intelligence work to disrupt the supply of drugs into prisons, because rolling up those supply chains is what gives us the real opportunity to crack down on drugs.

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It has to be said that normally hon. Members get the Minister they are given, but the hon. Member for North West Norfolk (Sir Henry Bellingham)—I say this for the benefit of new Members—is an old hand and a wily fellow, and he knows how to get what he wants.

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They bump off Prime Ministers.

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One of his ancestors might have bumped off a Prime Minister, but the hon. Gentleman cannot be held responsible for the behaviour of his distant ancestor.

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T5. We all know that too many women are being given short custodial sentences for minor crimes when rehabilitation through women’s centres would be far more productive. Will the Minister assure me that there are no plans for a women’s prison in Wales or, even worse, for a female offender unit annexed to a male prison, and that there are plans for women’s centres in Wales? [902769]

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I can confirm that no decision has been made to build a female prison in Wales. As I keep emphasising, the strategy is about what more we can do in the community to help women. I understand and recognise that short sentencing is not delivering the goods, and I also recognise that a number of women are victims themselves. Ultimately, the women’s justice estate is about security for the wider public—to keep people who have done things wrong away from the public—and reducing crime in the longer term by working better with the women concerned.

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Time at last to hear the voice of Clacton.

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Does the Secretary of State agree that it is as much in the interests of the EU 27 nations as it is in the interests of my constituents in Clacton and, indeed, people throughout the UK, for there to be a seamless continuation of civil co-operation between the EU 27 and the UK to provide companies, individuals and families with confidence that judgments can and will be enforced across borders? Will he update me on what is being done to secure that co-operation?

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I was going to suggest that the hon. Gentleman seek an Adjournment debate on the matter, until I realised that in fact he had just conducted one.

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These days, there are tens of thousands of families and businesses that live and operate across national borders within Europe. A comprehensive and ambitious civil justice co-operation agreement between the United Kingdom and the EU 27 will be very much in the interests of all parties.

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T9. Last week, I visited Medway secure training centre for 12 to 17-year-olds which, in 2016, was the subject of a “Panorama” report that exposed widespread abuse while it was run by G4S. The centre is now run by Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service and things are improving. Young people talk positively about rehabilitation and staff are motivated. Many STCs and secure children’s homes remain in private hands. Given the lessons of Medway STC, will the Government now commit to reversing the privatisation of the youth justice system? [902773]

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The hon. Lady is not to be outdone by the hon. Member for Clacton (Giles Watling). This Adjournment debate fetish is rather catching, I think.

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If one looks back at inspection reports over the years, one can see examples of good practice and poorer practice at both state-run and privately operated prisons and secure training centres. There are good reports on, for example, how G4S has operated HMP Parc for adult and young offenders. When there are problems with privately operated prisons, my hon. Friends and I take them up directly and firmly with the company concerned.

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I warmly support and welcome the Secretary of State’s and the prisons Minister’s support for and implementation of the Farmer review. How will the Minister ensure that the policy will be implemented across the board to ensure that reoffending is reduced? I would be very happy for the prisons Minister to answer.

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My pleasure. The Farmer review is absolutely key to highlighting the importance of family connections in not only preventing self-harm in prisons but turning around lives. We have accepted all its recommendations and are going through the process of implementing them. I would be happy to update my hon. Friend personally.

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T10. You will know, Mr Speaker, that girls and vulnerable women were subject to horrendous abuse and rape by a sexual exploitation gang in Newcastle. Some of the perpetrators were recently convicted as part of Operation Sanctuary, but there are victims who feel that they have not had justice. I know of at least one who has been denied compensation for horrific abuse, because of time spent in juvenile detention as a consequence of that abuse. Does the Minister think that is just? If not, will he amend the criminal injuries compensation scheme to ensure justice? [902774]

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I recently met the chief executive of the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority and was convinced that it has in place systems to deal appropriately with all cases. However, if there is a particular case that is of concern to the hon. Lady, would she please write to me? I will respond.

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Repeated failures in facilities management contracts are discovered every time the Justice Committee visits a prison. The latest example is the 22 showers left unrepaired for months at Rochester that we saw last week. Will my right hon. Friend conduct an urgent review of the operation of the contracts and the appropriateness of penalties, and will he speed up the work that is required to be done?

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My hon. Friend makes a good point. When an inspector or, for that matter, my hon. Friend’s Committee draws attention to problems of that kind, we certainly take that up firmly with the contractor concerned. I am also keen that we learn and apply lessons about how previous contracts were negotiated to ensure that we get better performance in future.

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It was confirmed in the Budget that the Ministry of Justice will be cut by 40% in the decade to 2020, which is more than any other Department. We have already seen a significant reduction in judges, lay members and accessible tribunal hearing services. Will the Minister confirm today that enough is enough and that there will be no more cuts in the south-east region?

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The figures that were issued at the same time as the Budget simply repeated those that featured in the current public expenditure round, so there was actually no change. Within our budget, we are investing £1 billion in the modernisation of the courts and recruiting 2,500 additional prison officers.

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I thought that we had signed up to the all-singing, all-dancing EU prisoner transfer directive, so why, still, are 42% of the 10,000 foreign nationals in our prisons from EU countries? Why do we not send them back to where they came from?

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I thank my hon. Friend for that question —again. I think he asked the same question at the previous justice Question Time. As he is aware, even with prisoner transfer agreements, it is down to the receiving country to take those prisoners. We cannot force them to do so even when we have an agreement in place. The majority of prisoners who we send back to their home countries are sent under the early removal scheme, and 40,000 prisoners have been sent back home since 2010.[Official Report, 21 December 2017, Vol. 633, c. 6MC.]

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Members regularly ask the same question again, as I am often wont to observe. Repetition is not a novel phenomenon in the House of Commons.

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I have been approached by a constituent whose vulnerable daughter was raped by a male under the age of 18 who was not given a custodial sentence. I am concerned that the lenient sentence sets a precedent for lesser sentences and does not give sufficient regard to the suffering of the victim. Will the Minister agree to meet me and the family of this rape victim to discuss the sentencing guidelines for those who commit rape when under 18?

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I thank the hon. Gentleman. I totally understand the anguish of the victim and the family in these kinds of cases. He will know that sentencing guidelines—not just the sentences—are set by the Sentencing Council and not the Ministry of Justice, but I can confirm that the new guidelines on sentencing under-18s for sexual offences came into effect in June, and he may wish to take a look at those.

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There are very few Scottish National party Members in the Chamber. I will take a couple more questions.

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In my constituency, we have a higher level of road traffic incidents, including fatalities, compared with the rest of Sussex. I have long campaigned for increased sentences for dangerous driving. What signal does my hon. Friend believe was sent by the Government’s recent announcement on proposed increases to dangerous driving sentences?

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We consulted extensively on that matter. Bearing in mind the seriousness of the worst offences and the anguish of the families, we have set out proposals to increase the maximum sentence for dangerous driving to life imprisonment. That is the reality for those engaged in such wilful acts.

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My constituents, Mr and Mrs Fleeting, lost their brave son, Robert, in a non-combat death when he was serving in our forces at an English base. There cannot be closure for them as there was no inquest by jury. After a positive initial meeting with the Minister, there has been no follow-up, and that is compounding Mr and Mrs Fleeting’s grief. Will the Minister today agree to meet my constituents to address this appalling issue?

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I or one of my ministerial team will be happy to discuss the case further. The hon. Lady will appreciate that we need to understand all the detail before we make any public comment.

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On a point of order, Mr Speaker.

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I believe that the point of order flows directly from questions. I will take it if it is dealt with very briefly.

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Mr Speaker, you will be aware of my campaign to introduce Helen’s law. On 14 September, I wrote to the Justice Secretary, asking him to meet Marie McCourt, Helen’s mother, and victims’ families about this issue. Having not received a reply two months later, I tabled a parliamentary question to ask when that meeting was likely to happen. That parliamentary question was answered on 1 December and said that the correspondence had been sent to my office on 16 November. After a trawl of my correspondence, I found that none such had been received. Having contacted the Ministry of Justice, it transpired that, in fact, none had been sent because it was still waiting on ministerial approval. What does that say about the Government’s attitude to the families of victims who have suffered so grievously? Can you advise me, Mr Speaker—

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Order. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I can certainly give him two pieces of advice. First, a very important matter though this is, it does not flow from this oral questions session, as I had, perhaps wrongly, understood it to do. Secondly, may I offer the hon. Gentleman a tip, which he could learn from many a senior hand in this place? If what the hon. Gentleman described happens again, he should table a question to the Minister—

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Let me finish. The hon. Gentleman should table a question to the Minister, demanding to know when that which was promised will be delivered. [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman is gesticulating from a sedentary position to give the impression that that is precisely what he did. If he still did not get a response, as he should have done, my advice is that persistence pays; he should just keep going until he gets there. Alternatively, he should approach the Minister’s office and seek a meeting. This is a very unsatisfactory state of affairs. However, knowing the Secretary of State for Justice as I do, I know that he is polite to a fault. Therefore, the error will have been inadvertent. It is extremely incompetent, but no further time of the House should be taken up today. I suggest that the hon. Gentleman and the Secretary of State meet, but I readily acknowledge to the hon. Gentleman that the situation is most unsatisfactory.

EU Exit Negotiations

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(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union if he will make a statement on progress of the Brexit negotiations between the UK and the European Union.

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I start by apologising for my voice. Once again, I have acquired the single European cough, but I hope that it will pass.

Negotiations regarding our exit from the European Union are ongoing as we speak. Indeed, we are in the middle of an ongoing round. As such, I have to be a bit more circumspect than usual. We held further talks in Brussels over the past few days and progress has been made, but we have not yet reached a final conclusion. However, I believe that we are now close to concluding the first phase of the negotiations and moving on to talk about our future trade relations. There is much common understanding, and both sides agree that we must move forward together.

Our aims in this negotiation remain as they have always been. In particular, on the issue of Northern Ireland and Ireland, we have been clear that we want to protect all elements of the Good Friday/Belfast agreement to maintain the common travel area and to protect associated rights. We want to ensure that there is no hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland. We recognise that, as we exit, we must respect the integrity of the EU single market and the customs union, but we are equally clear that we must respect the integrity of the United Kingdom.

There remain some final issues to resolve that require further negotiation and consultation over the coming days. Our officials are in continuous contact, and we expect to reconvene in Brussels later this week for further negotiations. I or the Prime Minister will formally update Parliament once this round of negotiations concludes, as I have done for every round so far. As was made clear by the comments from President Juncker and President Tusk yesterday, all parties remain confident of reaching a positive conclusion in the course of the week.

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What an embarrassment. The last 24 hours have given a new meaning to the phrase “coalition of chaos”. Yesterday morning, No. 10 was briefing that a deal would be signed. There was high expectation that the Prime Minister would make a triumphant statement to the House. By teatime, we had a 49-second press conference saying that the deal was off. It is one thing to go to Brussels and fall out with those on the other side of the negotiating table; it is quite another to go to Brussels and fall out with those who are supposedly on our own side of the negotiating table. If ever there was a day for the Prime Minister to come to this House to answer questions, it is today.

But let us not be fooled that yesterday was just about choreography. There are two underlying causes of this latest and most serious failure. The first can be traced back to the Prime Minister’s conference speech in October last year, when she recklessly swept options such as the customs union and the single market off the table, and ruled out any role for the European Court of Justice, yet maintained that she could avoid a hard border in Northern Ireland. Well, yesterday the rubber hit the road. Fantasy met brutal reality. Labour is clear that there needs to be a UK-wide response to Brexit, so the question for the Government today is this: will the Prime Minister now rethink her reckless red lines and put options such a customs union and single market back on the table for negotiations? If the price of the Prime Minister’s approach is the break-up of the Union and the reopening of bitter divides in Northern Ireland, that price is too high.

The second major reason for yesterday’s failure is that we have a Prime Minister who is so weak that the Democratic Unionist party has a veto over any proposal she makes. What precedent does it set when the Prime Minister is called out of negotiations at the 11th hour to be told by the DUP that the deal is off? What signal does that send to the EU about the Prime Minister’s ability to deliver Brexit?

Yesterday confirmed what we already knew: the DUP tail is wagging the Tory dog. This is now deeply serious, so what assurance can the Secretary of State give to the House that a deal will be agreed by the end of the week? Will he now drop the proposal for a fixed deadline in law for exit day of 29 March 2019? If ever there was an example of why that would be absurd, yesterday was it.

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The right hon. and learned Gentleman’s speeches in such proceedings are becoming rather repetitive—they are always crowing and carping. [Interruption.]

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Given my voice, I will wait it out, Mr Speaker.

Let us start with this issue of the single market and customs union. I am glad to see the shadow Chancellor in the Chamber, because he said earlier this year that remaining in the single market would be interpreted as “not respecting” the referendum result. The shadow International Trade Secretary—I cannot see him here—said that a permanent customs union is “deeply unattractive”. He said that as a “transitional phase”, it

“might be thought to have some merit. However, as an end point it is deeply unattractive.”

In fact, he described it rather later as “a disaster”. So much for Labour policy on this matter; we can see why it has changed 10 times in the course of the last year.

On the question with respect to the United Kingdom, I said in my response to the urgent question that I would be circumspect, and I intend to be. I am not going to go in for tit-for-tat comments—that would be very bad for our negotiations—but I will take the opportunity to rebut one falsehood I saw being stirred up by various of our political opponents yesterday: the suggestion that we might depart the European Union but leave one part of the United Kingdom behind, still inside the single market and customs union. That is emphatically not something that the UK Government are considering. So when the First Minister of Wales complains about it, the First Minister of Scotland says it is a reason to start banging the tattered drum of independence, or the Mayor of London says it justifies a hard border around the M25, I say they are making a foolish mistake. No UK Government would allow such a thing, let alone a Conservative and Unionist one.

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Does my right hon. Friend appreciate that, whether it is in relation to regulatory alignment in Northern Ireland, or in relation to citizens’ rights in respect of these negotiations, there is a serious danger that the European Court of Justice will get itself into every nook and cranny? There is no way in which it can be contained under article 344 of the treaty or, for that matter, in relation to the interpretation of all the matters I have just referred to.

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My hon. Friend, who has a long history of wisdom in this subject—[Interruption.] Wisdom—he saw it before most Opposition Members did. He has a long history with this subject, and he explains better than I could why we said that no divergence is a bad option.

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On reflection, I think I prefer the phrase “the rubber has hit the road” to the one that I was going to use to describe yesterday’s fiasco.

It is no surprise that leadership contenders are now circling the Prime Minister. I can reveal that there is a vacancy coming up, because the Prime Minister is today being interviewed for the job of Scotland football manager, where her fantastic ability to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory could be put to very good use.

A Government who said they would bring sovereignty back to Parliament are now being controlled by someone who is not even a Member of this Parliament. A Government that refuse to give Parliament any say in the development of our negotiating position are now allowing that negotiating position to be dictated by the leader of a minority Parliament in the smallest of the four nations of this Union. I could not put it better than the shadow Minister: what a shambles; what a complete mess.

Will the Secretary of State now go back to “Scotland’s Place in Europe”, the document published by the Scottish Government that his Government rejected out of hand a year ago, and use that as a basis to produce a solution to an otherwise intractable problem? The fact is that the Government’s red lines are not compatible with each other, as the Brexit Committee concluded only last week. We were therefore unable to see how it is possible to reconcile leaving the customs union with avoiding a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic. Will the Secretary of State go back to that paper and use it as a basis for reopening negotiations?

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Order. I think the hon. Gentleman has concluded his remarks. [Interruption.] The problem is that he has taken one and half minutes plus, and there is huge pressure on time, so I think we must now proceed.

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Shall I reply?

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Yes, that is only fair, as I allowed the hon. Gentleman to blurt out his question to allow the Secretary of State briefly to answer.

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I will answer very briefly. First, I am very surprised by the hon. Gentleman, of all people, being so dismissive of small nations. Secondly, the Scottish Government document to which he refers was read carefully, and many of its elements are consistent with our negotiating strategy, not least the aim of protecting employment rights. I really think he should recognise that.

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The Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency states that only 5% of Northern Ireland’s sales cross the border south and only 1.6% of the Republic’s exports go north. The Government paper, confirmed by the head of Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, says that that is easily surmountable without a hard border. The Belfast agreement confirmed Northern Ireland as an integral part of the United Kingdom with standard regulation throughout. We are going to leave the single market and the customs union. Will the Secretary of State confirm that this week the integrity of the United Kingdom comes first, and that, if necessary, no deal is better than a bad deal?

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My right hon. Friend makes his point well. I have already confirmed that the integrity of the United Kingdom comes first. That is why we have adopted the strategy of saying that the issue of maintaining a free border—an open border; a frictionless border—is best dealt with in the next phase: phase 2. Indeed, that is not just my view, but the view of the Taoiseach, who said on 20 August:

“I think the suggestion that”

has been made

“to a certain extent, is common sense. If we are able to have a trade agreement between the EU and UK then of course it will be much easier to sort out issues around any border between Ireland and Northern Ireland.”

I have suddenly realised that the right hon. and learned Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer) has also said the same thing: “To be fair to David Davis, he is right on issues like Northern Ireland. There is only so far you can get before you move to the next phase.”

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Order. If I am to accommodate a significant number of colleagues, there will be a premium on brevity, which is always brilliantly exemplified by the right hon. Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn).

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We all hope that the Government find a form of words that enables the negotiations to move on to phase 2, but do they not have to realise that the reason why there is this problem is because of their decision to leave the customs union and the single market? Given that the leader of the Scottish Conservatives and the Mayor of London have both suggested that whether it is convergence or no divergence, it should be applied to the whole of the United Kingdom, is it not time for the Government finally to recognise that they need to make a different decision if they are to avoid the imposition of a hard border in Northern Ireland?

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I am afraid that, uncharacteristically, the right hon. Gentleman is just wrong about that. I just read out the comment from the Taoiseach in August and a comment from his own Front-Bench spokesman about this subject, and I have set out the views of other Labour Front Benchers who are completely dismissive of being in the customs union in the long run. They are right, I am afraid, in this respect.

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The British people are fed up to the back teeth with all this. They want a solution. It might be that regulatory alignment is the solution, but if it is good enough for Northern Ireland, it is good enough for the rest of the country. We are a Union, and we will not allow a deal for one part of our great Union and not for the other. May I gently say to the Secretary of State that there is a consensus in this place? Even though, when we had a debate on a motion, Labour Front Benchers, including the shadow Chancellor, voted against the customs union, we are—over here, over there and down there—as one. There is a solution. I do not care how we wrap it up in whatever fancy words, but if it conveys the effect on British business of the single market and the customs union, let us grab it, seize it, rub out the red lines, move on, work together, build a consensus, and get a deal for our nation.

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My right hon. Friend makes her case with her characteristic tenacity. She can have this as a guarantee from me: we will not be treating any part of the United Kingdom differently from any other part.

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The way to solve the border issue, to protect the Good Friday agreement and to hold our United Kingdom together is to stay in the customs union and single market. Is it not the case that the Government only have themselves to blame for choosing—choosing—to rule this option out when they do not have to, which is putting the future of our country at risk?

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I think that the hon. Lady was elected on a manifesto pledge to respect the result of the referendum, and her own shadow Chancellor said that staying in would not respect that result.

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Does my right hon. Friend share my sense of gratitude to our friends in the Democratic Unionist party who have helped Her Majesty’s Government to stick to their own policy in these negotiations? Is it not essential that the red lines on maintaining the United Kingdom, and on regulatory divergence whence the benefits of leaving come, are indelible red lines?

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The red line, for me, is delivering the best Brexit for Britain, and that is what we will do.

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Actually, there is not a consensus in this House about what should happen. The Government are making a choice. They are choosing a majority that is based on the DUP and trying to keep the Conservative party together, whereas in actual fact there is a vast majority in this House, in the country and in the House of Lords in favour of us staying in the customs union so that we keep the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland together and do not harm our trade. Why will not the Secretary of State just see that?

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As ever, the hon. Gentleman asks an intelligent question, and I will answer it as clearly as I can. He said that we are making a choice. We are, and it is based not on any one party, but on 17.5 million votes that were cast to leave the European Union.

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May I point out to my right hon. Friend what I know he will agree with: the consensus that we must deliver is the consensus that was delivered in the referendum vote last year; and that was not for some half-in, half-out solution now being advocated by Her Majesty’s official Opposition?

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My hon. Friend is of course right. The other thing we can say is that 85% of the Members of this House were elected on manifestos that said they would respect that referendum. [Interruption.]

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Order. I just make two points. First, there is a lot of noise in the Chamber. Members must be heard. Secondly, may I say very gently to the Secretary of State that I appreciate that he has trouble with his voice, but that accentuates the importance of his facing the House so that we can all hear him?

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In the chaos that was yesterday, it did at least seem to be clear at 9 o’clock in the morning that the Government believed in the idea of regulatory alignment for Northern Ireland and for the Republic, but what is their position now? Have they now ditched any idea of regulatory alignment for Northern Ireland, or do they recognise that actually regulatory alignment is really important not just for the Good Friday agreement, but for businesses right across the United Kingdom? That is what the Secretary of State should be trying to achieve for all of us.

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I refer the right hon. Lady to the speech that the Prime Minister made in Florence, because in it she dealt with—[Interruption.] Clearly, if Opposition Members cannot read, that is not a problem. I refer the right hon. Lady to that speech, because in it the Prime Minister made a very plain case for the sorts of divergence that we would see after we left. She said that there are areas in which we want to achieve the same outcomes, but by different regulatory methods. We want to maintain safety, food standards, animal welfare and employment rights, but we do not have to do that by exactly the same mechanism as everybody else. That is what regulatory alignment means.

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The Secretary of State is absolutely right to remind the House that the only way of respecting the result of the referendum is by leaving the customs union and single market, which are part and parcel of the EU. Does he accept that in any negotiation there will be ups and downs, and that we should remember that both sides in this negotiation have agreed to the principle that nothing is agreed until everything is agreed?

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My hon. Friend is right, and that was part of the text that we discussed yesterday. Of course there will be ups and downs and pressure points—that is what negotiations are like. I have to tell the House that yesterday it was not London but Brussels that forecast an instant outcome. We had said that Monday’s discussion was a “staging post”, and we want to get to the outcome by 15 December—full stop.

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I am sure that millions of members of the public think that our Government are not being tough enough with the European Union, and that in these negotiations, we should say clearly that the EU is stopping the continued co-operation—[Interruption.]

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Order. I am very keen to accommodate colleagues, and please rest assured that I will do everything I can to do so, but the hon. Lady must be heard.

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The EU is stopping the co-operation, which has been very good, between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. That could continue, but the EU is stopping it. Is it not time that the Government said so?

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The hon. Lady makes a point that is, I am sure, supported by many members of the public. I said at the beginning of the process more than a year ago that I would be unusually courteous and polite to the other side in this negotiation. I will continue to be so, because that is the best way to advance the British cause.

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Yesterday’s difficulties demonstrate how hard it will be to get an overall agreement. If there is no trade agreement, there will be no transition period beyond 2019. Will the Secretary of State ensure that the necessary contingency planning takes place in case that happens, and that that planning includes identifying the best way of making sure that the border between the north and south of Ireland is as soft as possible?

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I think I said to my hon. Friend when he was Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee that we had a great deal of contingency planning under way to deal with all options, from the option we are seeking—the free trade agreement—right down to the option we are not seeking, which is no agreement. That is the whole range, and we are looking at and planning for all those outcomes. More than 150 projects are already under way, and there will be more.

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It should come as no surprise that Dublin and the Irish Government wish to advance their interests. The aggressive and anti-Unionist way in which they have gone about doing so is disgraceful. It has set back Anglo-Irish relations and damaged the relationships built up within Northern Ireland in relation to the devolution settlement. That damage will take a long time to repair.

It should also come as no surprise that the Democratic Unionist party stands strong for the Union and stands strong for Northern Ireland’s place in the Union under the terms of the devolved settlement. We will not allow any settlement to be agreed that causes the political or economic divergence of Northern Ireland from the rest of the United Kingdom. To do so would be not only politically damaging, but economically catastrophic for everyone in Northern Ireland—Unionist, nationalist, remainer or Brexiteer.

The reality is that one of the good things that came out of yesterday was an agreement from Members on both sides of the House—from Labour and Conservative Back Benchers—as well as from Ruth Davidson, Carwyn Jones and everybody else, that the United Kingdom stands together and that nothing will happen that will cause the breakup of this great United Kingdom.

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The right hon. Gentleman is dead right. It is no surprise that the Democratic Unionist party stands for the United Kingdom. So, equally, does the Conservative and Unionist party.

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Tens of thousands of jobs in my constituency are in sectors that are urging the Government to adopt regulatory alignment. May I therefore support the Prime Minister in making that offer to the European Union, on the condition that it applies, as others have said, to the whole United Kingdom?

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The presumption of the discussion was that everything we talked about applied to the whole United Kingdom. I reiterate that alignment is not harmonisation. It is not having exactly the same rules; it is sometimes having mutually recognised rules, mutually recognised inspection and all that sort of thing. That is what we are aiming at.

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In his response to my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester West (Liz Kendall), the Brexit Secretary intimated that staying in the customs union and single market would betray the referendum result. No one told my constituents or the country before the referendum that Brexit would entail leaving the customs union and the single market. In the light of yesterday’s shambles, will the Brexit Secretary look again at the Government’s decision and move towards staying in the customs union and the single market?

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If the hon. Lady will forgive a factual correction, people certainly did. The Prime Minister at the time did so, as did the Chancellor at the time and, I think, the leaders of the leave and remain campaigns. I suggest that the hon. Lady looks at the records of “The Andrew Marr Show”, on which they all said that.

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May we return to the Prime Minister’s original intention that there would be no running commentary? This discussion is driving the Opposition into a state of apoplexy when strategic patience is required.

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I thank my right hon. Friend for his inducement to my patience.

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If the Secretary of State is serious about wanting a solution in the national interest that commands majority support in Northern Ireland, the rest of the United Kingdom and this House—I am delighted to say that that would seem to include my own Front Benchers—why does he not bring to this House a motion, on a free vote, on staying in the customs union and the single market?

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We were elected on a manifesto that said that we would leave the customs union and single market—full stop.

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Does the Secretary of State believe that it is possible to leave the single market and the customs union, yet have UK regulatory alignment?

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As I said to my hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury (Antoinette Sandbach), yes, but using things such as the mutual recognition and alignment of standards. That does not mean having the same standards; it means having ones that give similar results.

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I understand that yesterday the Prime Minister had to withdraw her agreement to her own agreed text as a result of the DUP’s intervention. Does the Minister really think that it is acceptable for a British Prime Minister to have to conduct herself in such a way in international negotiations?

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I refer the hon. Lady to the short speech given at the press conference by Jean-Claude Juncker, who clearly thought that the Prime Minister had carried herself off with great dignity and effectiveness.

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Does my right hon. Friend agree that this discussion demonstrates that no workable solution to the border conundrum will satisfy the purists, wherever they stand in the debate? Does he therefore agree with the point made by Bertie Ahern and William Hague in recent days that the way through this is to show a much greater appetite for using technology-based solutions—[Interruption.] Does he agree that on the problems that technology cannot overcome, all sides will just have to show flexibility and adaptability about how rigidly they enforce and interpret their own principles and border rules?

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My right hon. Friend is absolutely on the nail, although what he said clearly did not go down very well with the luddite tendency in the Opposition. The other thing that is required is for us to get on to the second phase and talk about a free trade agreement, which will do more than anything else to facilitate this.

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Perhaps the Secretary of State could accept the constructive offer made by many hon. Members on both sides of the House. The right hon. Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry) and the hon. Member for Eddisbury (Antoinette Sandbach), as well as Opposition Members, have said that there is a majority in favour of the regulatory alignment that the Prime Minister proposed for Northern Ireland, the Republic and the rest of the United Kingdom. With a few exceptions, the Secretary of State would get a lot of votes from Opposition Members if he put that question. Why does he not just do so?

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We have talked at great length about what we mean by regulatory alignment—I have just done so today. It is not harmonisation, being in the single market, or having exactly the same rules; it is this House exercising its democratic right to choose our own laws in such a way as to maximise our ability to sell abroad. That is how it will work.

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Is it worth gently reminding the Taoiseach and the Government in Dublin how we behaved when they were in financial trouble and we helped bail them out? Is it also worth gently reminding them that, post Brexit, Irish nationals will continue to have the right to live and work in the UK? Finally, is it not worth gently reminding them that the UK is the most important economy to the Republic of Ireland? We wish to be good and productive neighbours, and they should enter into these negotiations with that long-term view in mind.

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I am sure that the Irish Government are conscious of all those things, but let me pick one point that my right hon. Friend made. When I last reported to this House—on 17 November, I think—I reiterated that the common travel area, which allows absolute freedom of movement between the two countries and absolute equality of treatment between our citizens, will remain in place, as will the constitutional protections allowing people from Northern Ireland to choose which nationality they wish to adhere to. We are protecting those rights very carefully.

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I put it to the Secretary of State that his Government’s dogmatic insistence on pulling us out of the single market and the customs union threatens not only our future jobs, rights and prosperity, but the future territorial integrity of our country. When he looks back in a few years’ time and reflects on his role in creating this mess, how does he think he will feel?

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I say to the hon. Lady what I said at the beginning of this urgent question: all these stories put about by her Labour party co-members yesterday were just nonsense. The Conservative and Unionist party puts the integrity of the United Kingdom at the forefront of its aims.

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Does my right hon. Friend agree that, as with the Ashes test match, the week is not yet over? It is in the interests of Ireland as well as the UK to avoid a no-deal Brexit and find the long-term strategic partnership, and therefore all parties need to keep talking.

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My hon. Friend, who has a long and distinguished record in the European Parliament and knows the institutions there as well as anybody, brings great wisdom and insight to this discussion, and she is of course absolutely right.

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The Government’s sheer incompetence is turning the Brexit negotiations into a national humiliation. Is it not time that the Secretary of State agreed that staying in the single market and the customs union is the only way to solve the Northern Ireland border, and indeed by staying in permanently—I say that as much for the benefit of Labour Front Benchers as for his—and that he should give the people a vote on the deal, to secure popular support for that stance?

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I will break the habit of a lifetime and pay the right hon. Gentleman a compliment: he is at least standing by the manifesto on which he stood at the general election. Of course, being a Liberal Democrat manifesto, it was completely wrong.

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Will the Minister reassure me that when it comes to negotiations with the EU, the Government will pursue a flexible policy that includes the possibility of establishing a model similar to that of Norway or Switzerland, which would undoubtedly benefit the Irish issue?

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No, the Prime Minister has made it clear that we are not going to take any off-the-shelf model. We are a very large country in European terms, and we have very great trade reach—and very great reach in other respects—so we will choose a model that is appropriate to us.

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The Prime Minister’s humiliation yesterday, when she was forced to disagree with herself, shows that this is less a negotiation and more a set of decisions, and those decisions are being framed by the contradictory red lines that the Government have thrown out, without regard to the consequences, on a hard border, the single market and the customs union. The Secretary of State’s colleague Ruth Davidson said this morning:

“If regulatory alignment in a number of specific areas is the requirement for a frictionless border, then the Prime Minister should conclude this must be on a UK-wide basis.”

She is right, is she not?

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What I will say to the right hon. Gentleman, given that he is a Labour party member, is that he must have much greater experience than I have of disagreeing with himself. Look at his own Front Benchers and the 11 different positions they have taken.

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Did you notice, Mr Speaker, that the shadow Minister, just at the end of his question, committed the Labour party to dropping 29 March 2019 as the date on which we come out of the European Union? Will the Secretary of State confirm that it is the Government’s policy that we are definitely coming out by 29 March 2019?

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It is not just the Government’s policy; it is the law of the European Union.

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Will the Secretary of State confirm when the Cabinet took the decision that our country would leave the single market and the customs union?

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Effectively—[Interruption.] As someone behind me says from a sedentary position, it was 24 June 2016. I cannot remember the exact date when that specific decision was taken, but it reflects the judgment of the British people.

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Does my right hon. Friend agree that maintaining the integrity of our country requires that there should never be any internal borders, economic or otherwise, within the territory of the United Kingdom?

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Yes, my right hon. Friend is absolutely right.

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The Secretary of State will know that the Democratic Unionist party and businesses in Northern Ireland have advocated a sensible Brexit deal with Northern Ireland, but does he also agree that the Republic of Ireland, through its intransigence, could risk everything and lose the most out of this?

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The hon. Gentleman is asking me to break my vow of courtesy, so I say, “Get thee behind me, Satan”—this time anyway.

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Does my right hon. Friend agree that if regulatory alignment in certain specific areas is a requirement to solve the Northern Ireland border issue, then protecting the constitutional integrity of the United Kingdom requires that solution to be adopted UK wide?

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Every approach we take will treat the whole United Kingdom as a single constitutional entity and a single economic entity.

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Yesterday, our Prime Minister was humiliated by having the rug pulled from under her by the DUP. Was she not naive even to attempt to do a deal of the sort she tried to do, knowing that the DUP would inevitably veto it? With the negotiations in such fantastic hands, will the Secretary of State now admit that the only way to move forward without a hard border in Northern Ireland, to protect the jobs of my constituents, is for us to stay in the customs union and the single market?

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This urgent question is spectacularly badly timed, in the middle of talks to move to the next phase—[Interruption.] The truth is—

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Order. The hon. Gentleman will resume his seat. [Interruption.] Order. I will deal with this. The hon. Gentleman is unfailingly courteous. He is entitled to criticise a Member for submitting an urgent question, but it is not for him to question the judgment of the Chair. I took the view that this matter warranted the attention of the House of Commons today. If the hon. Gentleman wishes to depart from that view, he should not express it on the Floor of the House. If he has a serious question to ask, I am happy to hear it, but I seek his assurance that he is not arguing the toss with the Chair.

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I would never dream of it, Mr Speaker. My point was that many negotiations, if not most, come good towards the end. Therefore, rather than sledging the Government, I urge the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister to maintain their resilience and patience and see this through, which will require compromises on all sides to reach a good solution.

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My hon. Friend makes a very good point.

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The Secretary of State talks about the will of the people, but of course the Government put leaving the customs union and the single market to the electorate at the general election and lost their majority. Can I ask him a very specific question? Clearly, there is no consensus on having an arrangement whereby only Northern Ireland is part of the single market and the customs union, and no business or Government I have spoken to think that technology is the answer. He has said that he does not think that keeping the UK overall in the customs union and the single market is the answer, so what does he believe is?

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A comprehensive free trade agreement, a customs agreement and all the associated regulatory alignment. While I am on my feet, let me pick the hon. Gentleman up on his comment about the result of the general election. I remind him that 85% of Members of this House were elected on manifestos that said we should leave the European Union.

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My right hon. Friend will of course know that the UK has a large surplus in services with the EU. Does he agree that, for the continued success of legal, professional and financial services post Brexit, not only mutual recognition, but UK-wide regulatory alignment with the EU will be necessary?

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If by alignment my hon. Friend means mechanisms such as mutual recognition, yes, I agree entirely.

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I am slightly confused now. Yesterday, the Government seemed to accept the principle that the only way to achieve no border or a soft border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland was through regulatory alignment. Does that principle still stand today? Do the Government accept that that is the only way to deliver the frictionless border?

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I can understand the hon. Lady’s confusion if she has not been listening for the past half hour. The simple truth is that we will need to establish arrangements whereby we get the same or similar outcomes for some areas of industry and service—no more, no less.

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What can be done to help our good friends, the Irish Government, to climb down from the position that they were unwittingly misled into adopting yesterday?

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The aim of the negotiation is together to get to an outcome that serves our interests, the EU27’s interests and particularly Ireland’s interests because, as my hon. Friend says, they are our good friends and the people who, in some ways, are closest to us.

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If the Secretary of State is so confident that we in this place, the media and the general public are misinterpreting what may or may not have been in the draft agreement, will he publish it to clear things up?

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I cannot imagine that the hon. Gentleman thinks that that would advance the negotiations one jot.

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The EU Trade Commissioner, Cecilia Malmström, has today tweeted that when we leave, our existing free trade agreements will not be rolled over. That is obviously a significant point, so further to the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle (John Stevenson), does that not add weight at least to considering those trade models whereby we can negotiate our own trade deals globally, but remain part of those that the European Free Trade Association currently has?

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There is more than one benefit to departing from the European Union. One is trade arrangements, and we are well advanced in our plans for dealing with those ongoing trade arrangements and ensuring that we do roll them over.

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Yesterday, for the first time, the Secretary of State realised that the importance of the Irish border issue extends beyond the island of Ireland. To unite the United Kingdom, will he meet the Scottish and Welsh First Ministers to discuss regulatory alignment because it impacts on everyone? If he wants to unite the United Kingdom, he must do better.

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In response to the first half of the hon. Gentleman’s question, I recommend that he read Hansard for my statements here, which will prove that he is absolutely wrong. It is really quite a calumny.

As for the First Ministers, there is a body called the Joint Ministerial Committee, which includes representatives of all the devolved Administrations and meets regularly. Sadly, the Northern Ireland Executive is not there at the moment, which is one of the difficulties we have to deal with.

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We leave the EU in 16 months. Will my right hon. Friend assure the House and the country that the EU delegates are well aware that we are preparing to fall back on World Trade Organisation rules if negotiations fail?

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I think that that has been apparent for some time.

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Does the Secretary of State think that it furthers the cause of the Union to refer to the actions of the First Ministers of Wales and of Scotland as “foolish”, as he did a moment ago? They are not foolish. When it comes to the single market and the customs union, they are absolutely right.

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Perhaps the hon. Gentleman wants to give advice to them about how they describe other people.

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One of the big prizes to be gained from being free of the European Union is enabling us, as a United Kingdom, to negotiate our own free trade deals across the world. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that nothing in these agreements will fetter our ability to do that?

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Will the Secretary of State accept that leaving the customs union was not on the ballot paper on 23 June 2016?

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It was said earlier that nobody voted for that; nobody knew that that was a consequence. In fact, both sides in the referendum campaign made it plain that departure from the European Union meant departure from the customs union.

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Given that in European negotiations nothing is agreed until everything is agreed, does the Secretary of State agree that any concessions that we may now make are contingent on reaching a satisfactory end state free trade deal in future?

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Yes, my hon. Friend is right that in every European negotiation, that phrase, “nothing is agreed till everything is agreed” is a mantra, and it matters.

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Will the Secretary of State tell us the difference between regulatory convergence and regulatory alignment?

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One is about harmonisation, one is not.

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The Secretary of State said that one is about harmonisation and the other is not. Somebody suggested that he or she could not hear.

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Will the Secretary of State confirm that, in the negotiations, the Government still aim to conclude an agreement on an implementation phase as early as possible in the new year and that that agreement would similarly benefit the European Union?

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Yes, my hon. Friend is exactly right on both counts.

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Despite trying to cave in on every EU ask so far, the Government have not been able to conclude the preliminary negotiations in 18 months, yet we are to believe that they will conclude the substantive negotiations in 15 months. They have not been able to agree a good deal with the DUP, yet we are to believe that they will get a good deal from the 27 member states. It is obvious that they do not know a good deal from a bad deal and we are heading towards a no-deal scenario, so when will they start planning and present transparent information on the implications?

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The hon. Gentleman seems to be having an argument with himself in that question. It is seven months of negotiation so far and it will be concluded.

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Where are the Government, in terms of our post-club membership, on handing over a bill to the European Union? What is the amount that has been decided: £40 billion, £50 billion, more, or less?

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I am afraid that I will not be drawn on numbers at the moment, but we are pretty close to alignment on that.

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The Irish issue has never been about wandering cows or static cameras. It is about what is written behind me: we have “more in common”. The Irish are our closest neighbours and that is the basis of the Good Friday agreement, which I am disappointed that the Secretary of State did not mention in his opening remarks.

I repeat the same question that I have asked the Secretary of State, the Prime Minister and other Ministers six times since January. When will the Prime Minister show courtesy to the people of Northern Ireland and put a date in her diary at least to visit? If she had been there and listened and talked to people, she might not have ended up in the farce that was yesterday.

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Let us start with the hon. Lady’s opening comments. She said that I did not mention the Northern Ireland agreement. I will read the paragraph from my opening statement: “In particular, on the issue of Northern Ireland and Ireland, we have been clear that we want to protect all elements of the Good Friday/Belfast agreement to maintain the common travel area and the protected associated rights.” So much for that. [Interruption.]

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Despite the noise from many Opposition Members, is not it right that, at this stage of the talks, we are closer to an agreement than we have ever been, that that is a good thing—progress has been made—and that we should want to move on to talks about trade, which will be in our national interest and also in the EU’s interest?

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Yes, my hon. Friend is exactly right. That is pretty much what Jean-Claude Juncker said yesterday.

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Although I readily accept that there