House of Commons
Wednesday 31 January 2018
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
Cross-border Economic Opportunities
Last week, I hosted the first cross-border Severn growth summit in Newport. More than 350 people attended the event, all looking to strengthen the economic links between south Wales and the south-west. Through our industrial strategy, we want to build on this cross-border collaboration and help create prosperous communities throughout the whole of Wales.
Shrewsbury, the county town of Shropshire, relies very heavily on trade with our friends and neighbours across the border in Wales. What discussions has my right hon. Friend had with his counterparts in the Welsh Assembly about dualling the A5, which crosses the border between England and Wales? Will he join me in paying tribute to my neighbour, my right hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire (Mr Paterson), who has campaigned assiduously, but who has been very badly injured in a riding accident and is recuperating at home?
We wish the right hon. Member for North Shropshire (Mr Paterson) a full and speedy recovery, but the fullness of the recovery is more important than its speed.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend and to my right hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire (Mr Paterson). Both are assiduous and relentless in their pursuit of the dualling of the A5. I would point them to the second road investment strategy for England. I liaise with the Welsh Government Minister Ken Skates regularly to pursue the issue, because it works for much better co-operation if we bring together investment priorities. My hon. Friend’s efforts are paying significant dividends in the negotiations.
Every “Gavin and Stacey” fan knows that the journey from Essex to Wales involves the most expensive toll bridge charges in the country, so I am delighted that this Conservative Government have removed the burden of crossing the border for tourists, businesses and commuters generally. Will my right hon. Friend tell the House how he intends to capitalise on that wonderful news?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for reminding us of that iconic “Gavin and Stacey” scene where Smithy is struggling to get into Wales because he has to pay the £6.70 toll charge to cross the bridge. I would point out to my hon. Friend that tolls have been reduced by 20% in the interim, and by the end of the year they will be abolished. That will be one of the biggest stimuluses for the Welsh economy in decades. It will provide the opportunity for more and better-paid jobs, and a £100 million boost to the Welsh economy. This is an opportunity for the south-west of England and south Wales to come together as an economic powerhouse to provide better opportunities in the western side of the UK.
My constituents who work in Bristol and beyond have to put up with chronically overcrowded rail services as fares increase. Will the Secretary of State talk to UK Government Transport Ministers—rail services are not devolved—to sort this out?
The hon. Lady makes an important point about public transport in general. The Great Western franchise is out for consultation as we speak, and I encourage her, her constituents and south Wales Members to make representations about the improvements they would like. She talked about overcrowding, but one of the most overcrowded roads in the UK is around the Brynglas tunnels in Newport. I hope the Welsh Government get on with building that road sooner rather than later. After all, the UK Government made money available more than three years ago, and we are frustrated by the lack of response and reaction in building it.
Since assuming office, the Secretary of State has broken a promise to electrify the main line to Swansea; vetoed devolving airport taxes to Wales because he does not want to upset Bristol airport; and not delivered on the Swansea bay tidal lagoon. Is not the reality that his record on the economy is failure, failure, failure?
I am disappointed with the hon. Gentleman’s tone. I would point to significant wins for Wales over recent years, the most important of which is the fair funding settlement, which provided a 5% uplift—it will be a £67 million uplift in the next financial year and similar sums in subsequent years. Thirteen years of underfunding by the Labour party have been corrected in the first year of a Conservative Administration.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State for inviting my district council and my tourism industry to his Severn growth summit. I am also grateful that the tolls will be removed, given that the old Severn bridge is half in my constituency and the gateway to Gloucestershire, not just Wales. May I urge him, as he continues these cross-border opportunities, fully to involve business and industry in my constituency so that we can take full advantage of growth in the western part of our country?
I am grateful for my right hon. Friend’s support for the call to abolish the Severn tolls, because that really will be a major boost to his constituency and constituencies across the whole of south Wales. After all, can he imagine a £6.70 charge to do any business between Cardiff and Newport and the impact that that would have? Well, that is really what has been in place between his constituency and the south Wales economy for more than 50 years. Abolishing the tolls is a commitment on which I am pleased to be able to deliver.
I welcome the new Under-Secretary of State for Wales, the hon. Member for Pudsey (Stuart Andrew), to his place. They say the first time is always the worst. I understand that he was born on Ynys Môn and that he was a member of the Labour party. We would like to welcome him back, but we might be full.
With your indulgence, Mr Speaker, I would like to congratulate the Welsh Assembly: there was an announcement by Stonewall this morning that it is the No. 1 lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender employer in the UK. I will not mention that Swansea City beat Arsenal 3-1 last night.
Manufacturers across the UK consider the world-leading tidal lagoon industry a lifeline for their businesses. Thousands of skilled jobs in cross-border factories are earmarked to supply the lagoons, and they are at risk because the UK Government cannot make a decision. The Secretary of State has said many times that he would love it to happen. The Welsh Labour Government have pledged millions to the Swansea bay tidal lagoon. Hendry says, “It’s a no regrets decision.” Has the Secretary of State anything constructive to report? In the words of Gavin and Stacey, “What’s occurring?”
I join the hon. Lady in recognising the Welsh Assembly for its recognition by Stonewall; that is something to be accepted, underlined and recognised. I also recognise, as a City supporter, the success that Swansea had last night. She raises an important point about the Swansea bay tidal lagoon. As I have said previously, I really would like this to happen, as would the whole of the UK Government. After all, we gave planning permission for it after the 2015 general election. We would like to see progress on it, but, clearly, it must be value for money. The Welsh Government have communicated with the UK Government about something that they call “an offer”. Last week, officials from my office, the Welsh Government, and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy met to establish what this offer amounts to. We will continue discussions. I point out to her that she needs to look at the jobs that will be created in the long term, and not those thousands of jobs that she talked about, because the project itself will deliver 40 or more jobs.
I am glad that the right hon. Gentleman mentioned the jobs, because these cross-border jobs include local government apprenticeships for 16 and 17-year-olds. They are now at risk because of the UK Government’s dithering. Now that the Welsh Labour Government are introducing votes for 16 and 17-year-olds in local government elections in Wales, are the UK Government worried that Welsh young people will be able to vote on their future, vote for apprenticeships and vote for tidal lagoons?
Apprenticeships are part of the UK Government’s manifesto, and we are grateful to the Welsh Government and recognise that they have followed the ambition that we set out for apprenticeships. I also point out and pay tribute to the Welsh Government for their action over changing the voting structures, but remind the hon. Lady about who gave them the power to do that in the first place, after it was refused for 13 years by Labour.
Is the Minister aware that the Welsh Affairs Committee has invited the First Minister of Wales to come before us and spell out exactly what the offer is and that, so far, he has refused to do so? If there is a serious offer from Welsh Labour to support tidal lagoons, does he agree that the Welsh First Minister should reconsider, come before the Committee and tell us exactly what it is that he is offering us?
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend as Chair of the Select Committee on Welsh Affairs—a position in which he has been vociferous in pursuing these sorts of issues and the case for value for money. He has invited the First Minister to give evidence to his Committee. I would have thought that the First Minister would want to respond positively to that invitation, if he wants to be seen to be doing everything—and, indeed, to do everything—to make this project come about and to prove the value-for-money case that we seek.
Diolch yn fawr, Mr Llefarydd. Rwy’n ddiolchgar i’m cydweithwyr am y croeso cynnes.
At the Budget, the Chancellor announced that all claimants will be eligible for universal credit from the first day that they claim it, removing the seven waiting days.
Och aye the noo!
The Opposition welcomed the U-turn by the Chancellor, increasing the waiting time for universal credit from six weeks to five weeks, but this does not go far enough. Household claimants in Wales and across the country are still suffering from rising debts, housing arrears and evictions. Will the Minister stand up for universal credit claimants in Wales by asking his Cabinet colleagues to reduce the waiting time further?
I loved the hon. Gentleman’s introduction.
The need for reform was absolutely clear. Under the old system, people had to go to the Department for Work and Pensions, Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, the local housing authority and, potentially, more organisations. We are now simplifying the process so that we have a system that encourages people into work. Surely, we should all welcome that. We are rolling the scheme out slowly to ensure that we are learning lessons, and that is exactly what we have done. The Chancellor made the announcement in the Budget so that we improve the system to ensure that people have the money they need when they apply.
The DWP’s own analysis shows that half those with rent arrears under universal credit said that they had gone into arrears after making a claim. Is the Minister content with the fact that more Welsh families who were not previously in arrears have begun 2018 in debt following their claim for universal credit?
That is exactly why we made the announcements in the Budget. Now, households who already claim housing benefit will automatically receive an additional two weeks of housing benefit when they claim universal credit. We are responding to the lessons that we are learning, and we will continue to do so as we roll out the project.
I warmly welcome my hon. Friend to the Dispatch Box. May I urge him, in looking at the administrative changes to universal credit, not to lose sight of the overarching goal, which is to have a simpler welfare system that actually encourages people into work—a far cry from the old system that it is replacing?
I am delighted to take a question from my hon. Friend, and I mean that in the sincerest sense. He is absolutely right. Unemployment in Wales is currently 73,000, which represents a decrease of 52,000 since 2010. People are going back into work because universal credit is encouraging that. Under the old system, people who worked a minute over 16 hours would lose their whole jobseeker’s allowance. There was no incentive to get into work, which is why we have introduced this new system.
I too offer my congratulations to the Minister on his elevation to his new position—llongyfarchiadau.
Waiting times are important to all claimants, but none more so than the terminally ill—those who the DWP expects to live for less than six months. The DWP’s own data shows that personal independence payment claimants who are terminally ill have their claims reassessed at the rate of seven in 100 in the south-east and 17 in 100 in Wales, which is the highest rate in the country. Why is there such a huge variance, and will the Minister join me in requesting a meeting with the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions to discuss these issues?
First, I thank the hon. Gentleman for the warm welcome, which I much appreciate. It is important to recognise that, with PIP, we are bringing in a system to try to help people live with the conditions they have. If we compare the systems, 29% of PIP claimants are receiving the highest possible support, compared with just 15% for disability living allowance. I have only been in this job a few weeks, but I will be taking this up with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and will report back.
We need to speed up a bit, because we have a lot of questions to get through. What we need now is pithy questions without excessively demonstrative behaviour.
Broadband: Rural Areas
Superfast broadband is now available to more than 19 out of 20 UK homes and businesses, including 95% of premises in Wales. That underlines the progress made in recent years thanks to our investment of £69 million in Wales, plus an additional £56 million gainshare to be reinvested.
That investment is working. In Gwynedd, for example, it was previously only possible to get a download speed of 0.9 megabits per second. In Merionethshire, Openreach has now given fibre to the home that delivers at least 75 megabits per second. That is great, but what can the Government do to provide a legal obligation for everyone to have a right to broadband?
My hon. Friend is quite right to highlight the importance of good connectivity through broadband, particularly in our rural areas, if we are to maximise the economic benefits. We have decided that regulation is the best way to ensure that everyone in the UK has a decent broadband connection. A regulatory universal service obligation will give everyone in the UK access to speeds of at least 10 megabits per second by 2020.
May I genuinely welcome the Anglesey-born Under-Secretary to his place? The last Anglesey-born Tory Minister was Sir Wyn Roberts, so he has very big shoes to fill. The success of the broadband roll-out in Wales is due to the partnership between the European Union, Government here in Westminster and Government in Wales, working with BT. Will the Minister assure us that in 2020 there will not be a cliff edge and that we will have transitional money from Europe, so that we can roll out to 100%?
I am grateful to have such a welcome from someone I have known for many years. I am very grateful. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right.
You were a young socialist then!
No, actually I was a member of the Young Conservatives then. We are determined to roll out broadband and to achieve the 2020 target. It will be incumbent on us, as the UK Government, to work with the Welsh Government to ensure that broadband is rolled out to every part.
Ceredigion has among the slowest broadband speeds in the UK. Despite that, Ceredigion, and indeed the whole of Wales, was left out of the UK Government programme to provide full fibre broadband to six areas across England and Scotland. Will the Minister confirm that representations were made to his Government to ensure that Wales was included in that programme? What explanation was he given for its omission?
Let us not forget that the roll-out of broadband is the responsibility of the Welsh Government. As the hon. Gentleman will know, because we have already had a conversation about this, this could form an important part of the mid-Wales growth deal. That will be incredibly important in making a successful growth deal for the area.
For the households in Pembrokeshire in my constituency that have been told they cannot get broadband, the roll-out coverage is not 95%; it is zero. Will the Minister provide assurance that he will keep working with colleagues in the UK Government and Welsh Government to see that we connect up the whole of Wales?
I absolutely accept that we have to ensure that broadband is rolled out to every part of Wales. Pembrokeshire is equally important, and my right hon. Friend is a big champion of his constituency and area. I am a little bit disappointed in the Welsh Government’s roll-out priorities, but we will continue to work to ensure that we deliver the roll-out that we have promised and envisaged.
I hold regular discussions with Cabinet colleagues and the Welsh Government on modernising cross-border transport connectivity. With 50% of the Welsh population living within 25 miles of the border, improving connectivity is central to delivering economic growth on both sides.
If providing funding to remove the tolls from the Severn bridge is good enough for the people of Wales, why not extend such a generous Government offer to the people of Cheshire and Merseyside and do away with the tolls on the Mersey Gateway?
The tolls on the Severn crossing have been there for more than 50 years, and the Mersey Gateway bridge has very different levels of tolls from those that were levied on the Severn crossing. Locals will not have to pay on the Mersey Gateway bridge, other than the £10 administration fee; locals around the Severn tolls have had to pay the full charge for 50 years.
My constituents were pleased to see a commitment to fund a business case to improve the Wrexham to Bidston line in the autumn Budget, but we have not actually had any progress since then. We would really like to see some improvements in both efficiency and frequency on that line, so can the Secretary of State update us on what progress has been made with respect to that?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman and to the hon. Member for Wrexham (Ian C. Lucas), who has highlighted the importance of the Wrexham to Bidston line. It forms part of our cross-border growth strategy and is reflected in the UK’s industrial strategy. I spoke with the Welsh Government’s Transport Minister on Monday to discuss the project and we will be updating the hon. Gentlemen and the House in due course.
The industrial areas around my constituency, which include Airbus in Broughton and Deeside Industrial Park, absolutely depend on the M56 running smoothly. Has the Secretary of State had any conversations with Highways England, or his counterparts in the Transport Department, about when we shall get that motorway unclogged and running smoothly?
Again, the hon. Gentleman highlights the importance of cross-border connectivity. I would point him to the second road investment strategy for England, which will provide an opportunity to highlight the priority. A million people a week cross that border between north Wales and the north-west of England; 2,000 go to Airbus alone.
Does the Secretary of State agree that the UK Government’s investment in the Halton curve significantly improves rail services between my constituency and north Wales, and that there was a missed opportunity with the Welsh Labour Government in the failure to include that train line in the TEN-T network in the last round of European funding?
The Halton curve, which is approaching £18 million in terms of the spending cap, is an exciting project because it is a relatively simple, straightforward investment that will bring direct services to Liverpool again, improving cross-border connectivity, and releasing new opportunities for economic growth and development. We want to integrate it into both the north-west of England and the Wales and borders franchises.
Welsh EU Continuity Bill
We continue to have constructive discussions with the Welsh Government on the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill, with a view to securing the National Assembly’s support for the legislation. The Welsh Government have not discussed with us their proposals for an EU continuity Bill, but we do believe that such legislation will be unnecessary.
So bad has the Westminster power grab become that on 17 January the National Assembly unanimously, including the Conservatives, supported a motion on Plaid Cymru’s continuity Bill. Both sitting devolved Administrations have now rejected this constitutional embezzlement. Can the Minister confirm that Ministers will not meddle any further in respect of devolved Administrations?
First, I do not believe that the continuity Bill is actually needed. We are engaging heavily, at every level of government, with the devolved Administrations to ensure that we go through the EU (Withdrawal) Bill to ensure that the clauses that we want to amend in the other place will be effective. Then will get the support of those Assemblies.
Order. We are very short of time. I will call the hon. Gentleman if it is a single short sentence; otherwise, we won’t bother. Blurt it out, man.
When will the Government publish their framework analysis and their proposed wording for the amendment to clause 11 of the EU (Withdrawal) Bill?
We are continually engaging. My right hon. Friends the Secretary of State for Wales and the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster are going to Wales tomorrow to meet the First Minister of the Welsh Assembly, so that we can get the further detail of those discussions and bring forward the amendments as soon as possible.
Hoffwn gymryd y cyfle i groesawu’r Gweinidog i’w barchus, arswydus swydd. The Minister will recall the Scottish Secretary claiming there to be a Scotland-specific economic impact assessment, only to contradict himself a week later. [Interruption.]
Order. The hon. Lady should not be disquieted in any way. I think the robin is keenly attending to her words.
It appears now that regional assessments do exist. Which road will the Minister take? Will he confirm that a Welsh assessment has been produced, or will he concede that the Government are so heedless of Wales’s future that there is no such assessment?
I know that Bristol City’s emblem is a robin, so maybe it is trying to interfere with Welsh questions.
We have many assessments as we go through this process. We will look at all of them in great detail and ensure that we come up with an effective resolution that suits every single part of the United Kingdom, because having a statute book that is fit for purpose is incredibly important once we leave the European Union.
Will the Minister in that case ensure that he shares those assessments, not by Twitter, but also with all Members and all members of the Welsh public?
Obviously, we will make things available at the appropriate time, but I can assure the hon. Lady that I will not be sharing things like that on Twitter.
I am going to allow a little injury time, because I do not want the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Bambos Charalambous) to feel left out.
Leaving the EU: Welsh Economy
I have regular discussions with Cabinet colleagues on new opportunities that leaving the European Union brings to Wales and the UK. Wales was the fastest-growing nation in the UK in 2016 and is well placed to seize the opportunities presented.
Will the Minister reassure the House and businesses across Wales by confirming that arrangements will be put in place to ensure that new trade deals negotiated after leaving the European Union do not undermine devolved policies?
The hon. Gentleman points to the opportunities for new trade deals, which are exciting for every part of the United Kingdom. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Trade has re-established the UK’s Board of Trade. We have the privilege of having Lord Rowe-Beddoe, a former chairman of the Welsh Development Agency, as well as Heather Stevens, a very successful business lady, who is part of the Board of Trade and will be looking after Welsh interests on all occasions.
How will the Secretary of State guarantee that integrated supply chains with the EU will be preserved when Britain leaves the European Union?
The hon. Gentleman knows that we are working to deliver a trade agreement that leads to frictionless trade between the UK and the European Union, but I would also point out that, as 80% of Welsh exports go to the rest of the UK, maintaining the integrity of the UK market should be our first priority.
The Prime Minister was asked—
I have been asked to reply. Mr right hon. Friend the Prime Minister is in China, building on the existing strong ties between our two countries, and she is accompanied by the largest business delegation that this Government have yet led.
A number of Carillion employees and former employees live in my constituency; indeed, the company has an apprenticeship training centre in Gateshead. They all still face an uncertain future. Will the Government act now to prevent similar corporate theft, whereby pirate directors have syphoned off what should have been hundreds of millions of pounds in pension contributions to pay bogus dividends and unearned corporate bonuses to themselves? Exactly what action do the Government propose to take?
I completely understand the anxiety that must be affecting the apprentices and their families in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency. He probably heard me say during last week’s debates that the Construction Industry Training Board has taken responsibility for finding alternative employers to enable all those apprentices who were with Carillion to continue and complete their qualifications. It is making good progress in that work, but I shall ensure that the particular concern that he has expressed about Gateshead is brought to its attention.
On the broader question, the House will understand that it would be wrong for me to pre-empt findings by an independent inquiry by the official receiver, but we have already made it clear that we will be publishing proposals later this year to stop directors being able to siphon off pension funds in the way the hon. Gentleman described.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely correct and I am happy to give him that assurance on behalf of the Government. The sad truth is that, in this country, we face a growing threat of cyber-attacks from states, from serious crime gangs and from hacking groups. We do have a robust national cyber-security strategy to protect critical services, including our democratic processes, and that is underpinned by nearly £2 billion of Government investment.
Let me start by welcoming the Minister back to his role deputising for the Prime Minister. The last time he did so was in December 2016, when the Conservative party was 17 points ahead in the polls, and he told the House that the Labour party was “quarrelling like” in the film
“‘Mutiny on the Bounty’ as re-shot by the ‘Carry On’ team.”—[Official Report, 7 December 2016; Vol. 618, c. 208.]
Well, what a difference a year makes.
But I am not going to intrude further on the Government’s public grief, because I genuinely hope that we can reach consensus across this House today on a very important issue. Next Tuesday will be the centenary of women gaining the right to vote in Britain; that was followed later in 1918 by a second right, to stand for Parliament. I am sure that the Minister will agree that we have a long way to go with regard to the second right; after all, I am the only Emily elected since 1918, and he is one of 155 Davids. The women behind me on the Labour Benches represent one quarter of all the women elected in the last 100 years, but it is still not good enough. Will the Minister tell us how we can best increase female representation in this House?
May I first thank the right hon. Lady for her words of welcome? Clearly, my previous remarks struck a chord with her, to have been treasured in the way that they have. It is a delight to me to see the right hon. Lady still in her place, when no fewer than 97 members of her Front Bench have either been sacked or have resigned since the Leader of the Opposition took office. I pay credit to her sticking power, although she must sometimes whisper to herself, “Surely, I’m a celebrity. Please get me out of here!”
The point that the right hon. Lady raised is a serious one. I think that all political parties represented here—she is right to seek to make this consensual—want to encourage more women candidates to come forward. I am pleased that the Conservative party, since I was first elected 25 years ago, has made very considerable progress, but I also accept that there is more to be done. I hope that she, for her part, will accept that we have now had two women leaders and Prime Ministers, so the Labour party has a bit of catching up to do.
If the Conservative party is so proud of having a female leader, why are so many of them trying to get rid of her and why has she had to run away to China to get away from them? However, I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that answer and I totally agree with his sentiments. Let me ask him about the first right that I mentioned, a right that millions of women received 100 years ago this week: the basic right to vote. It was originally restricted to women with property over the age of 30. Then 90 years ago, it was extended to all women over 21. Almost 50 years ago, it was extended to all men and women over the age of 18. I ask the right hon. Gentleman a simple question: how many more years do we have to wait until the vote is extended to everyone over 16?
The age of 18, rather than 16, is widely recognised as the age at which one becomes an adult and that is when full citizenship rights are attained. Only a handful of countries have a nationwide voting age below 18 and we believe that it is right that the age of majority—18—should continue to be the age at which people become eligible to vote.
The right hon. Gentleman makes international comparisons, but I have to say to him that it was this country and a Labour Government that led the way in Europe and the English-speaking world in reducing the voting age to 18 in 1969. Where we led, others followed, and it will be the same here.
Let me move on to a second question that I would like to ask the right hon. Gentleman. I have listened carefully to his answer, but I did not hear any logical explanation for the different rights that we give to 16-year-olds in this country. At 16, we are free from parental control, we can leave home, we can start a family, we can get married, we can start work, we can pay taxes and we can join the forces, so can he give us a logical explanation of why a 16-year-old should not have the right to vote?
I am slightly baffled by the right hon. Lady’s comments when compared with what her party did in office, because it was the last Labour Government who raised the legal age for buying cigarettes to 18, raised the age for sales of knives to 18, raised the age for buying fireworks to 18 and raised the age for using a sunbed to 18. If she wants a lesson in inconsistency, she might like to examine the mirror.
The right hon. Gentleman mentions a range of restrictions that we have until the age of 18, but those are for the most part to do with public health, public safety and the prevention of crime. They are not the same as the basic right to vote on issues that affect your life once you are considered old enough to make other independent decisions about your life, such as leaving school, leaving home and getting married. Let me give him a specific example—[Interruption.]
Order. I am sure that it will not have escaped public notice, and it is rather a sad irony, that when a woman is addressing the House, quite a lot of noisy, boorish and, in one case rather stupid, individuals are trying to shout the right hon. Lady down. Cut it out!
Thank you very much, Mr Speaker.
I want to give the right hon. Gentleman a specific example to illustrate what I am talking about. According to the Government’s own figures, the number of 16 and 17-year-olds receiving carer’s allowance for looking after disabled relatives at home has risen by more than 50% over the past four years, so last year, over 2,000 16 and 17-year-olds gave up their youth and often their schooling to care for relatives at home. How can it be fair and how can it be logical to expect them to take on that responsibility because of failures of the state and then to deny them a say on how that very state is run?
The logic of the right hon. Lady’s argument is that she wishes to lower the age of majority from 18 to 16. She listed a number of areas in which she supported the age at which activity should be allowed to 18, on the grounds that only then could people be expected to have sufficient maturity and responsibility to have those rights. My argument to her is that the age of majority should be set matching both rights and responsibilities. I think that it is perfectly reasonable to say that, from the age of 18, we entrust young men and women to exercise those rights and responsibilities in full. On the final point she made, it is right that sensible local authorities have particular care for the role of young carers. In my experience, local authorities, whichever party runs them, make every effort to do that.
I am genuinely surprised at the Minister’s response. This is what he said two years ago, speaking to the Youth Parliament:
“When the voice and the vote of young people is absent, decisions are taken that affect young people’s lives that they have not always chosen”.
Not for the first time in these exchanges, I have to say that I agree with him—all of us on the Labour Benches agree with him. Why does he no longer agree with himself?
If the right hon. Lady had been with me at the Youth Parliament, which was indeed both a memorable and an enjoyable occasion, she would have discovered that a significant number of the young men and women there were actually over the voting age. I fully support the role that the Youth Parliament plays, the role that its members play throughout the country and the role that organisations such as school councils play in getting young people used to the idea of exercising democratic responsibility. That seems to me to be excellent training for the full adult responsibilities they will inherit when they turn 18, and I hope that it will encourage more young people to go out and vote.
The Minister says that he was only talking about 18 year olds, but you were there, Mr Speaker; he was talking to 370 under-18s. These discussions have revealed that there is no logical principled objection to votes at 16. That is why the Welsh and Scottish Governments support it and why every single political party in the House supports it, except, of course, the Conservative party and the Democratic Unionist party—joined, once again, in opposition to change. They are not the coalition of chaos; they are the coalition of cavemen. [Interruption.] Does he not realise—
Order. One Member who thinks he knows what he is talking about is gesticulating at me. The answer is that it is a matter of taste, not of order. It is blindingly obvious and should not really escape somebody of great intelligence.
I was talking about cavemen, Mr Speaker. Why does the Minister not realise the lesson that we women taught his predecessors 100 years ago? When change is right it cannot be resisted forever, and this is a change whose time has come.
My advice to the right hon. Lady is to wean herself off the habit of watching old versions of “The Flintstones” on the relevant cartoon channel.
We ought to salute the fact that not just the Youth Parliament but many schools and other youth organisations throughout the country are working hard to get young people used to the idea that, as they grow up, they should take an interest in current affairs and then, when they reach the relevant age, exercise the full rights and responsibilities of an adult by participating in elections and political campaigning, The situation here, with the national voting age at 18, is one that is followed by 26 out of the 27 other members of the EU and by the United States, Canada, New Zealand and Australia. Unless she is going to denounce all of those countries as somehow inadequate by her own particular standards, she ought to grow up and treat this subject with greater seriousness.
I am very happy to agree with my hon. Friend. We devolved new powers from this House to Holyrood, and it is obviously for the Scottish Government to determine how to use them. It is a matter of great regret, however, that they have chosen to use those powers to break their promises and penalise aspiration in Scotland. In our Budget, we increased the Scottish Government’s spending power by £2 billion, so the SNP has no excuse for hiking the taxes of hard-working people, including public servants, and penalising businesses. The leader of the Scottish nationalists in Westminster used to champion wealth creation and free enterprise. I hope he will ask the First Minister of Scotland to think again.
I welcome the Minister to his place. If the reports are true, he may be auditioning for a new role. I wonder if he is sending a “round robin” letter.
The Minister has previously said that
“the Single Market is essential to this government’s agenda for trade and competitiveness.”
Since BuzzFeed published the leaked Brexit analysis, has the Minister recognised that the single market is essential to jobs and prosperity?
When we leave the European Union in March next year, we will, as a matter of legality, leave the single market and the EU customs union. The Prime Minister and the entire Government have also made it clear, in both the Lancaster House speech and the Florence speech, that we are seeking a new partnership with our neighbours in the European Union that will ensure that we continue to have frictionless trade, which is in the interest of not just our people but the people of every one of the 27 other EU countries.
I must say that I am surprised at the Minister, because it is not a question of legality. We are going to be in a transitional deal, so we will still be in the single market when we leave the EU.
This is a Government who are in crisis, and an international embarrassment. The Chancellor, the Secretary of State for Scotland, the Scottish Conservatives and the Home Secretary have all supported membership of the single market, but despite that, the Government are still prepared to make everyone poorer. Where is the leadership?
The leadership that the right hon. Gentleman wants was set out very clearly at Lancaster House and then again in Florence, and my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister will be making further speeches on these issues in the weeks and months to come. Let me point out to him, however, that the single market that is most important to the people of Scotland is the single market of the United Kingdom, which is worth nearly £50 billion every year to the Scottish economy—four times more than trade with the European Union. It is our deep and special partnership with the EU in the future, not the separatist policies pursued by the Scottish National party, that will help to deliver prosperity to Scotland.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The Government’s clear ambition and purpose is to ensure that our school system works for every child in every community in this country. Our reforms have already raised school standards. Nearly 2 million more children are attending good and outstanding schools, and since 2011 the attainment gap between disadvantaged pupils and their peers has shrunk by 10% at GCSE and by 10.5% at key stage 2. I know that Education Ministers will be happy to talk to my hon. Friend about their plans to further improve standards in schools.
I, like every other Member of this House, have nothing but the most heartfelt sympathy for Reece and his family and friends for the most appalling experience that they have endured and are still living through. The right hon. Gentleman rightly says that there are complex causes of the knife crime we are seeing. I agree that there is no doubt that organised crime is contributing to this, and is exploiting young people; organised criminals try to groom young people and attract them into criminal gangs. The Government will publish later this year a violent crime strategy looking not just at the criminal justice system, but at how we can work effectively with all other agencies to ensure that young people are diverted away from that sort of activity in the first place. But it is also true that those carrying a knife can now expect to end up in jail; we have toughened the sentences. And despite what the right hon. Gentleman said, we have also protected police budgets; a quarter of all police are in London.
Either I or my right hon. Friend the Education Secretary will be happy to talk to my hon. Friend. The purpose of the ESFA, formed at the start of this financial year, is to provide a more joined-up approach to funding, covering both schools and colleges and other providers. I note that Bromley has increased both primary and secondary school capacity by more than 6,300 places since 2010, and the ESFA is delivering nine schools in Bromley, but there is clearly more work to be done, and Ministers will gladly talk to my hon. Friend about that.
The facts say that we are the second most popular destination in the world for students and university-sponsored visa applications are up by nearly one fifth since 2010, so I would argue that, contrary to what the hon. Gentleman alleges, we are doing a good job in attracting international students.
As my hon. Friend will know, the Chancellor last year set aside very considerable sums of money—more than £20 billion—to finance infrastructure improvements in rail, road and broadband, in order to generate growth around the country and facilitate housing developments; my hon. Friend’s constituency has seen considerable new housing development in recent years. I will ensure that Transport Ministers talk to him about the particular concerns he has expressed.
The hon. Gentleman will have to forgive me, but my memory for statements that were given in 1985 is a little bit rusty. That was seven years before even I was first elected to this House. I will look into the point that he has raised and write to him to set out the position.
I join my hon. Friend in congratulating the Open University on securing that lead role in the Institute of Coding, which is an important new initiative to get universities to work closely with business to develop specialist coding skills. The Government are investing £84 million to deliver a comprehensive programme to improve the teaching of the computing curriculum, and we look forward to working closely with the university and the institute.
Obviously I know no more details of the case than those that the hon. Gentleman has just described, but, like many Members, I have immigration casework in my constituency, so I am familiar with the type of problem that he describes. If he would like to write to me after these exchanges to set out the details, I will discuss the matter with my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, and the relevant Minister will certainly meet him.
My hon. Friend raises an important point. I know about the important role that Culdrose plays in the life of Cornwall, but he has highlighted the fact that its work deserves to be in the national spotlight as well. We want and need to build the science, technology, engineering and mathematics skills that we will need in a growing and rapidly changing economy, as we highlighted in the Government’s industrial strategy, and the initiative at Culdrose will contribute to the success of those objectives.
I am not sure whether that was meant as an attack on the right hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) or the right hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry), but I can say to the hon. Gentleman that if there is a particular bid that he feels has been unfairly treated, he is welcome to take that up with the new arts Minister, who I know will want to examine the case carefully. In general terms, however, more than half the arts funding in England is awarded to arts activities outside Greater London.
My hon. Friend raises a valid point, and it is right that holiday home owners should pay the correct tax. Obviously, individual decisions on whether a property should pay council tax or business rates rests with the Valuation Office Agency, which rightly operates independently of Ministers. However, if a property is available for rent for 140 days or a more a year, it will be subject to business rates. If it does not meet that test, council tax will be due. If an individual provides false information in order to seek business rates relief, that person is liable to summary conviction or a fine or both.
A Government consultation on this matter is imminent, and I urge the hon. Lady to make her representations to that consultation and also directly to the relevant Minister.
Following last year’s terrorist attack in Manchester, the Government committed £24 million to the city. With the effects still being felt across the area, including in my constituency, will the Government provide an assurance that they will continue to support Manchester?
We will certainly continue to support Manchester right across Government through the various agencies and spending programmes that the Government have available. Manchester demonstrated its resilience and its strong sense of community identity and purpose last year, and they will serve it well both economically and socially in the years to come.
The whole House will warmly welcome the fantastic news that has saved thousands of jobs at Bombardier in Northern Ireland. We should pay tribute to Bombardier’s management, both in Belfast and in Canada, the workforce and the unions, which worked well together, hon. Members on the Democratic Unionist party Bench, including my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast East (Gavin Robinson), and the Government, which rode in strongly to support the company. I urge the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster to get behind improving manufacturing in Northern Ireland, because vital decisions are outstanding. I also gently urge the Government, who always listen very carefully, to get on with it.
May I first thank the right hon. Gentleman for his words? Although it is now a few years since I had the opportunity to visit Bombardier in Belfast, I still remember how important that enterprise is for the provision of high-quality, well-paid skilled work both in the city and more widely in Northern Ireland. He is right to say that the Government worked closely with Northern Ireland leaders and politicians. The Prime Minister raised the matter personally more than once with President Trump and with Prime Minister Trudeau, and my right hon. Friend the Business Secretary has also been active on Bombardier’s behalf. We are pleased by the outcome. The right hon. Gentleman can rest assured that the Government will remain a strong supporter of business in Northern Ireland, but the sooner that we can get back to devolved government in Northern Ireland, the easier it will be to ensure that practical benefits flow back to Northern Ireland.
A vibrant high street is critical in traditional market towns such as Knaresborough, which has had a market since 1310. In this age of internet shopping, will my right hon. Friend confirm the Government’s support for traditional markets and for policies that will boost our high streets?
My hon. Friend is right to speak up on behalf of his constituents, and I know he is a tireless campaigner for Harrogate and Knaresborough. Markets like the one in Knaresborough are part of the local fabric and tradition of towns right across this country. The Government want to help those markets and town centres to prosper in a rapidly changing retail environment. I am sure my right hon. Friend the Communities Secretary will be happy to write to him with further details.
Lincoln’s walk-in centre will close in a few weeks, despite there being inconsistent and insufficient service provision in place to mitigate the closure. Will the Minister pass on to the Prime Minister my request for her to meet me both to discuss and review that closure?
If the hon. Lady would like to provide a bit more detail than she has had the time to set out today, I will ensure that a Minister sees her about this.
Next Wednesday we will be assessing and voting on the local government finance settlement. A group of us from the shire counties are very concerned that there is not enough money for rural counties like ours, where adult social care costs are spiralling out of control. My own county is facing a black hole of £10 million because of adult social care costs. What message should I take back to the leader of my council?
One message is that the Government have made an extra £2 billion of funding available to local authorities for social care. Obviously, local authorities are currently deciding whether to use the more flexible precepting powers they have in respect of social care. My hon. Friend met my right hon. Friend the Communities Secretary a few days ago, and I would encourage him to continue talking to the Communities Secretary and other Ministers in the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government about the particular circumstances in Shropshire.
The current edition of The Economist carries an article that says the hostile takeover bid for GKN by Melrose
“casts doubt not only on the survival of GKN, Britain’s third-largest independent aerospace and defence firm, but on much of the rest of the industry, too.”
The right hon. Gentleman knows that, where national security issues are involved, Ministers have the power to intervene to protect the public interest. Will they do so in this case?
As I understand it, the bid for GKN is being examined by the relevant independent authorities. Clearly this is also something that the appropriate Ministers in the Ministry of Defence and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy will be monitoring very closely. For now, it would be wrong of me to speculate about this case in more detail.
My constituency of Chelmsford is a very popular place to live, and this week we have had the very good news that more first-time buyers are getting on the housing ladder than at any time in the past decade. Will my right hon. Friend update us on the Government’s progress on helping people to buy a house?
I am pleased to be able to say that the number of first-time buyers is now at the highest level for about 10 years, which is a tribute to the various initiatives that both the Communities Secretary and the Chancellor of the Exchequer have put in place to encourage first-time buyers—the cut in stamp duty, for example, will benefit about 95% of first-time buyers—but we also need to improve housing supply. Constituencies like hers and mine are showing the way to much of the rest of the country on the need to build houses to meet the legitimate demands and expectations of young people who are working incredibly hard and want to get a foot on the housing ladder.
Point of Order
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Yesterday, in the National Assembly for Wales, when my constituency colleague Adam Price asked for a vote on the Labour Welsh Government’s plans to potentially close hospitals in Carmarthenshire, the First Minister misled the Assembly and Assembly Members, and in doing so provided details of correspondence between the local health board and my constituency office. He claimed that our office has made no effort to engage with the health board over this issue.
I first became aware of the proposed closure plans on 18 January this year, following a panic email from Mr Steve Moore, chief executive of the Hywel Dda University Health Board, in which he explained that the closure plans had been leaked and were due to appear in the local press imminently. Our office replied on 19 January, asking for an urgent meeting. Although I do not expect you to comment on health policy in Wales, Mr Speaker, or indeed the manner in which the Labour Government of my country harvest information from public bodies in order to smear opponents, I would be grateful if you could say what advice you would give MPs who may find their data protection rights breached by a public body and how I could put on the record a correction of the comments by the First Minister.
I thank the hon. Member for his characteristic courtesy in giving me advance notice of his intention to raise this point of order. It is not my role, I am very pleased to say, to pass judgment on matters before the National Assembly for Wales. That said—the hon. Gentleman in in pursuit of advice—if he believes that there has been a breach of data protection requirements, he should most certainly raise the matter with the Information Commissioner. We will leave that matter there for now.
Freedom of Information (Amendment)
Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)
I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make provision for the disclosure of information held by public authorities or by persons contracted to provide services for them or on their behalf; to amend the Freedom of Information Act 2000; and for connected purposes.
Nearly 20 years on from the revolution of the Freedom of Information Act, this Bill would extend its parameters into the unaccountable outsourced state. It would also enhance the existing powers available to private citizens, investigative journalists and concerned communities so that they are not forced to wade through a swamp of bureaucracy before getting answers about the decisions that are made in their name.
I would first like to pay tribute to the many other Members who have campaigned on this issue for many years, particularly my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter), who has a very similar Bill in this Session and has focused particularly on housing associations, which I will come to shortly. Those in power have had a long and difficult relationship with freedom of information, and, like much that challenges government, it has met resistance every step of the way. The Thatcher Government were so concerned in the 1980s that they warned that FOI would reduce the sovereignty of Parliament itself.
In that context, it was remarkable that the last Labour Government, who had been out of power for 18 years, committed themselves to shining a light on the shadows cast by decisions made behind closed doors. Tony Blair said at the time that the Act
“is fundamental to changing the way we do politics in this country…there is still far too much an addiction to secrecy and wish to conduct Government business behind closed doors”.
Tony Blair, of course, came to regret the revolution that followed, but it was nothing short of revolutionary. Literally thousands of cases, on every topic imaginable, saw information drawn into the public domain—expenses, bonuses, stop-and-search figures and child sexual exploitation were all exposed and brought to light because of this Act. That was a Labour achievement and it is one we should be proud of.
That is why the last two Labour manifestos pledged to extend FOI to private contractors performing public services. We propose extending this Act because we recognise the climate in which FOI operates has changed, as the Government’s addiction to outsourcing has exploded.
The collapse of Carillion is just one recent example of an ever-growing shadow state in which some of the Government’s more dubious policy priorities are outsourced for private profit, leaving citizens in the dark about what is happening in their name. Under the coalition, outsourcing almost doubled to £120 billion. Never before has shareholder interest over the public interest had such a large stake in the functioning of our state. Transparency and accountability have diminished in consequence, and the limited scope of the Freedom of Information Act allows too many of those who are performing public functions with public money none the less to hide behind a cloak of secrecy.
Bad decisions, targets missed, warnings ignored—the result time and again is similar to the scandal exposed in the past fortnight, which should have been predictable. Carillion was not an isolated example of incompetence and indifference from one individual contractor; it was a symptom of a much broader problem—private contractors providing public services that should never be driven by profit. In the welfare system, we see contracts structured by Government farmed out to the private sector, and the consequences only truly exposed when things fall apart.
We saw that in the last Parliament, when we were pursuing Concentrix, the firm contracted to identify fraud in the tax credit system. That multinational corporation was ruthlessly pursuing single parents and families, on the instruction of the Treasury, and treating them as guilty until proven innocent. It accused them of living with people they had never met, or told them they were to have their tax credits arbitrarily cut because they did not respond to a letter they had never received. One single mum, who worked two jobs for little pay, said to me, “I feel as if I am being treated as a criminal.”
The scandal was not just the treatment of these parents, or the pursuit of profit at their expense. The scandal was the Government’s absolute failure to manage the contract effectively, and then the denial of information to Members of this House who were demanding to know what went wrong. A similar case is that of Cygnet, a private provider of mental health services. Its hospital in my constituency was judged unsafe owing to some very severe shortcomings, but even something as basic as the action plan agreed by the regulator, the NHS and the provider has been withheld from public scrutiny as it is deemed to be the property of the private provider.
It should not take public exposure for decent people to be treated with dignity, or for information to be put into the public domain as a matter of course. The current situation is allowing private contractors to withhold information that is very clearly in the public interest. Maurice Frankel and Katherine Gundersen, from the fantastic Campaign for Freedom of Information, have pulled together examples of the type of request private contractors have refused. They include: the number of prison staff at HMP Birmingham and the number of attacks at the prison—information currently held only by G4S—whistleblowing policies applying to Virgin Care staff providing NHS services, and the number of employees providing outsourced services for a local council employed on zero-hours contracts.
Extending the Act into areas that used to be overseen by the state and were therefore subject to FOI is not only the right thing to do; it is the smart thing to do. When institutions or private providers are permitted to withhold information, bad decisions are made and mistrust builds among communities. The Grenfell Tower fire has highlighted the desperate need for public access to information held by the providers of social housing. Housing associations, which own or run many former council estates, are completely outside the scope of the Act, and residents are denied information that they have a right to know. In one instance, a housing association refused to reveal information to residents about the cause of a fire in one of their flats, and whether potentially toxic lead pipes were used for the water supply to a property. Making contractors accountable to the public they serve for the decisions they make will lead to better, safer, clearer decisions.
The original Act still gives too much power to authorities to delay and obstruct an individual’s right to information. In 2015, the Government commissioned an independent review of FOI, which made several recommendations to improve the functioning of the Act. This Bill takes up those recommendations. It includes strictures on the delaying tactics available to authorities and a statutory time limit for internal reviews, and provides that an offence under the Act should be triable either way rather than being summary only. There has never been a prosecution under section 77 of the FOI Act, in large part because there is a six-month deadline for bringing prosecutions, which is long gone by the time the public authority has made a decision and the commissioner has received and investigated a complaint. Extending the offence to be triable either way gives authorities a chance to bring prosecutions and ensure that the Act is enforced.
Sunshine is the best disinfectant—advice from their former leader that the Government may wish to remember. Ultimately, few could disagree with the need for parity for public and private providers when they are delivering public services. Whether it is Concentrix, Carillion or Cygnet, why would we hold private providers to a lower standard of transparency and accountability than their public competitors? If sunlight really is the best disinfectant, here today is the chance to clean up the murky world of our outsourced state, to drive up standards, to improve trust and to ensure that it is always citizens, not shareholders, who are the ultimate authority for our public services.
Question put and agreed to.
That Louise Haigh, Tommy Sheppard, Andy Slaughter, Paula Sherriff, Jo Stevens, Ian C. Lucas, Dr Roberta Blackman-Woods, Nic Dakin, Alex Sobel, Diana Johnson, Anna Turley and Clive Efford present the Bill.
Louise Haigh accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on 15 June 2018, and to be printed (Bill 159).
Business of the House (Opposition Day)
That at today’s sitting, paragraph (2) of Standing Order No. 31 (Questions on amendments) shall apply to the Motion in the name of Jeremy Corbyn as if the day were an Opposition Day; and proceedings on the Motion may continue, though opposed, for three hours after commencement of proceedings on the Motion for this Order and shall then lapse if not previously disposed of; and Standing Order No. 41A (Deferred divisions) shall not apply.—(Rebecca Harris.)
Un-allotted Half Day
Government’s EU Exit Analysis
I beg to move,
That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, That she will be graciously pleased to give directions that the EU exit analysis which was referred to in his response to an Urgent Question in the House on 30 January by the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union be provided to the Exiting the European Union Committee and made available to all Members on a confidential basis as a matter of urgency.
The saga of the Brexit impact assessment rolls on. This all started back in December 2016, when the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union first told the Brexit Committee that the Government were working on “sectoral impact analysis” in 57 areas—later, one was added to make it 58. In October last year, he got rather carried away with the idea and elaborated, saying that the analyses were “excruciating detail”, throwing in for good measure that the Prime Minister and the Cabinet had read the summaries. When various right hon. and hon. Members sought disclosure of the impact assessments, they were met with a flat refusal.
Things moved on. In November last year, we presented and won a Humble Address requiring the Government to disclose the impact assessments arising from the Government’s analysis—an important statement of principle. So far, so good. Some documents were made available, and I was one of those who went to the Treasury to see them. I was escorted to a room, where I had to pass over my phone and sign a document on confidentiality. I sat down, and two files were solemnly brought to me; I was allowed to read them and take some notes. We now know that those documents contained a description of the sector that could have been found in any House of Lords or Select Committee report, a summary of the EU law and policy—surprising that I had to give up my phone to read that—and then a very generalised view from the sector. I went through the footnotes to that third section and struggled to find one that did not relate to open-source material. Press releases and evidence given to Select Committees were there, all of which I solemnly noted before I handed the files back, got my phone back and left the premises. Those documents are now available online, minus the sector analysis and therefore the open-source material.
In September, when questioned by the Exiting the European Union Committee about the rest of the documents, the Secretary of State said that the Department had not done any impact assessments on any sector of the British economy. He made the point that the use of the word “impact” did not mean that an impact assessment had been done within the formal definition used by the civil service. As a former defence lawyer, I was struck by that defence. It was technically right that someone cannot be censured for contempt for failing to hand over impact assessments because they have not done any, but I was never sure which was worse: relying on that technical defence, or not doing the impact assessments in the first place.
Roll on one month, and in the past two days it was leaked that an assessment called the “EU Exit Analysis – Cross Whitehall Briefing” does in fact exist. It is reported that that document looks at three of the most plausible Brexit scenarios based on current EU arrangements with the range of predictions. Consistent with the principle established back in November 2017, the Opposition yesterday called on the Government to release that analysis. In true groundhog fashion, the Government said no, as they did last year.
The right hon. and learned Gentleman had a distinguished career in law before he came to this place. Does he condemn the leak of a Government document? To what extent are any Government documents to be regarded as confidential? Will he condemn the leak?
Before I was in this place, I held the post of Director of Public Prosecutions. We took leaks from our department or any other civil service department very seriously. I can only assume that an inquiry is in place in relation to this leak, and in the circumstances we should say nothing more about it.
I have repeatedly raised concerns that the north-east and other regions will be hard hit by the very obvious risks of Brexit. It seems from the leak that the Government share that view. Does my right hon. and learned Friend share my view that it is completely unacceptable that the Government think it is okay to keep businesses and people in regions such as mine in the dark?
My hon. Friend demonstrates that hon. Members have been trying on behalf of their constituencies and regions to get a proper analysis of the impact of Brexit on the individuals, businesses and communities they represent. That is why it is so important to have that information. It will mean that we can have an informed debate and hold the Government properly to account.
The right hon. and learned Gentleman described his experience of dealing with leaks. Does he accept that we have a curious cult of secrecy across Government today and have had for some years? A leak is a serious matter and I deplore leaks when documents are revealed whose contents compromise the national interest or are loaded with party political or other significance, but it is impossible to see how an objective analysis of the economic consequences of the various options that the Government are considering compromises the national interest. A properly open Government should make such information freely available to all those who have a legitimate interest in the subject, including MPs.
I agree. It is significant that the original documents that were requested last year were initially refused on freedom of information grounds, only then to be made available in the form I described, and then to be put in the public domain in any event, which demonstrates the point that many Governments—this Government are doing the same—put their arms around information that ought to be in the public domain to inform the debate. It is the wrong way of doing business.
I will give way one more time and then make progress.
If the Government are eventually forced to release the impact assessments, as I suspect they will be—I am sure the right hon. and learned Gentleman suspects the same—and if they confirm that any deal the Government strike will be worse than the one we have with the European Union, will he and the leader of the Labour party change their position and campaign much more vigorously to keep us in the European Union?
We will look at information when it is put into the public domain. We have been looking at analysis and data for months, and have been visiting businesses and communities for months, to inform our position.
I have taken a number of interventions and will make progress. I will allow interventions later, otherwise I will not get very far.
Yesterday, standing at the Dispatch Box, I asked the Government to release the documents referred to in the leak. As I have said, the Government said no. The Under-Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, the hon. Member for Wycombe (Mr Baker), who is in his place, advanced three defences for that position, none of which withstand scrutiny. His first defence—that the analysis is rubbish—was astonishing. He was asked whether he could name a single civil service forecast that was accurate. He glibly replied: “They are always wrong”. He may have forgotten that he is now part of the Government, and yesterday transposed himself back to being spokesperson for Vote Leave. Ministers and the Government commissioned those papers, and it is frankly ridiculous to attempt to rubbish them as an excuse for not publishing them.
I will complete this point and then give way.
There is a serious point. Is it seriously Government policy that impact assessments are so inherently unreliable that it is better to proceed without them? That is the logic of the position described yesterday. Is it not better to adopt the approach tweeted last night by the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, the hon. Member for Bracknell (Dr Lee), who said:
“The next phase of Brexit has to be all about the evidence. We can’t just dismiss this and move on. If there is evidence to the contrary, we need to see and consider that too”?
Before I give way, I will make one further point about the line of defence of rubbishing the analysis. It is deeply discourteous and disrespectful to the civil servants who have worked on those papers and are presumably continuing to work on them, often in difficult circumstances. In my experience, having been a civil servant, and having had civil servants as staff, they do a very good job whether or not they agree with the instructions given to them. To glibly answer that they are always wrong was deeply disrespectful to them. I hope the Under-Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, the hon. Member for Worcester (Mr Walker), who will speak for the Government today, will take the opportunity formally to apologise to the civil servants who prepared those papers in good faith, and assure them of the support we all have for the work they are trying to do.
I will give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral South (Alison McGovern) and then to the hon. Member for Chelmsford (Vicky Ford).
My right hon. and learned Friend makes the good point that, yesterday, we saw a pretty grim approach to economic forecasting, which was full of jokes and did not address the seriousness of the situation. Does he agree that an opportunity presents itself? The Conservative Government created the Office for Budget Responsibility—independent forecasters who could do the job of providing the public with the facts if only the Government would tell them what their policy is.
I do agree, and that is a very important point. Essentially, the OBR is saying that it cannot do its job because it does not have the information to do it. That is why it is far better to proceed on the basis of assessments of risk and impact, and to allow the OBR to do its job.
I will give way in one minute, but may I just finish this point?
Having been a civil servant for five years and having engaged in risk assessments, I can say that the purpose of the exercise is to identify the risk, the size of the risk, and the likelihood of the risk. The fourth column, which is always the really important one, is what the Government will do to mitigate the risk. That is why these risk assessments are so important.
I thank the shadow Secretary of State for giving way. I agree with him on the important work of the civil service. Many real stakeholders, including the digital industry, the banking industry and the legal services industry, have come to me this week to say what a good job our civil service is doing in preparing for the Brexit negotiations. My understanding of this paper is that it suggests that the no-deal scenario is not very attractive and that cutting and pasting the Canada or the Norway deal is also not very attractive, but that is not what the Government are proposing. Does he not agree that it would be better if our Ministers got out of this House and on with their work to deliver a better deal?
I am grateful for that intervention. The hon. Lady will remember that one question I asked of the Minister yesterday was whether the model that the Government are pursuing has also been subjected to an impact assessment. I did not actually get any of the questions that I asked—about six—answered or even addressed by the Minister yesterday. I hope that some of them might be addressed later on today.
I thank the right hon. and learned Gentleman for giving way. Can he help us with this: has he established the status of these documents? From what I gather, these were not some loosely put together drafts of a document. Has he been able to establish whether these are the documents that were to be made available to members of the Cabinet—next week, I think, if not this week—under lock and key and subject to them not making notes? This is really important. Are these documents the ones that were deemed to be of such importance that the Cabinet should see them?
I am grateful for that intervention. I will answer it, and make a second point as I do so. This is a really important point. The second line of defence that was deployed yesterday for not releasing these documents was that they are not complete, they are at an early stage, and they are just evolving. As I recall it, that was exactly what was said about the first set of documents that we were trying to have released last year. We have heard that one before. I have not yet ascertained the status of the documents, but, as I understand it, they were being shown to key Ministers ahead of an important Cabinet Brexit Sub-Committee meeting next week. No doubt, the Minister will be able to confirm that. If those documents are in such a form that they can be shown to Ministers to brief them for an important meeting next week, they are certainly way past the stage of an early script that has not been approved.
I promised that I would give way, and I will.
I am grateful to the right hon. and learned Gentleman. Is he aware that, this morning at Welsh questions, the Wales Office Minister, in response to a question from my hon. Friend the Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts), said “We have many assessments as we go through this process”, so it is not just the one, but many? Will it not be essential that the Government release those assessments when they become available as we go through the process?
I think that it is, because, otherwise, all that is available are the increasingly stale assessments that were put—eventually—into the public domain last December.
I will press on. [Interruption.] I will give way once, twice and then a third time to a Member on the Government Benches, just to be fair.
The hon. Member for Arfon (Hywel Williams) makes an important point on where the devolved Administrations have already done their work on the assessments. Therefore, is it what the Minister said yesterday at the Dispatch Box that the Government will not assist them with that work, because many of these areas are partly devolved and partly retained?
I am grateful for that intervention, because it is consistent with the point that was made earlier about the regions. Each of the regions and nations needs to understand the risk that it faces, so that it can then, if necessary, put the various mitigations in place. We need to press on these issues, so that is vital.
Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that if the Government had at their disposal any economic evidence or forecast that backed up their chosen approach, it would already be in the public domain; it would not be called a leak?
I am grateful for that intervention, and I agree that it would be highly likely that such material would be put into the public domain.
I come back to this serious point: the choice now to be made is how we leave the EU and what the future relationship might be. That is a profoundly important question. There are many different choices, and we absolutely need—and there should be—a robust impact assessment that we can all see and all discuss.
I will give way once more, and then I will get on to the third point.
I thank the right hon. and learned Gentleman for giving way. Is it his party’s policy to remain in the European Union’s customs union—yes or no?
Mr Speaker, I rather thought that the point of interventions was to engage in the debate that was going on, rather than to make a completely different point. Our position on the customs union has been made clear very, very many times, and I do not see that that is an intervention on the point that I am making, so I will press on.
The third line of defence that was advanced by the Minister, who now seeks instructions from the civil servants he disparaged yesterday, was that any disclosure might harm or undermine the negotiations. Again, we have heard that one before. We have always accepted that anything that genuinely undermines the negotiations should not be put into the public domain, but there is a difference between that and something that is simply embarrassing to the Government, a point made by the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke) yesterday afternoon. This motion provides for confidentiality. That defence was immediately undermined by the Minister himself yesterday. When there is a leak, Governments usually say that they will not comment on the leak, and that they do not rely on the information in the leak, because if it is not to be in the public domain, nobody should rely on it. But the Minister not only commented on it, but sought to rely on the leak to advance his own case. When challenged by my right hon. Friend the Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper) about the customs union, he prayed in aid the figures, saying that
“there is economic growth under all the scenarios in the economic assessment.”—[Official Report, 30 January 2018; Vol. 635, c. 683.]
One cannot simply say, “I will rely on the figures to advance my own case, but I won’t publish the full figures so that anyone can question me properly on what I am saying.” We now need to go back to first principles.
I will press on, but I will give way again in a minute.
As I have said, only question was asked on 23 June 2016, which was whether we should leave the EU—not how and not what the future relationship should be. These are incredibly important questions. We need an informed debate, including on the likely economic impact of different approaches. Publication is needed in the name of transparency; publication is needed in the name of scrutiny. There has been an indication that the Government will accept this motion, and I look forward to hearing from the Minister. When he does so, may I caution him, because his fellow Minister, the hon. Member for Wycombe, yesterday found himself saying, at the beginning of his answer that
“this economic analysis is not what is formally known as an impact assessment.”—[Official Report, 30 January 2018; Vol. 635, c. 680.]
Let us not go there again—where a motion is accepted only for later there to be a quibble as to whether the precise wording was sufficient to release the documents. If the motion is being accepted, it needs to be accepted in spirit, in form and in full. Secondly, let there be no confusion about editing or redacting. That is not provided for in this motion, just as it was not provided for last time.
Finally I ask the Minister, if the motion is to be accepted, when do the Government intend to release the documents? I remind the Minister that when this question arose at the end of our first Humble Address, Mr Speaker was asked what he considered to be a reasonable timeframe for the Government to respond. On that occasion, Mr Speaker said:
“One can take a view about this, one can consult “Erskine May” and one should reflect in a sober and considered fashion, but if the hon. Lady is asking me whether I envisage this being something that needs to be deliberated on over a period of several days, the answer is no.”—[Official Report, 1 November 2017; Vol. 630, c. 932.]
The Opposition anticipate and expect the same sort of timeframe to be kept to in this case.
The Government will not be opposing this motion. As the motion is therefore expected to pass, I will focus my remarks on three important points: first, how we plan to comply with the terms of the motion; secondly, an explanation of exactly what the analysis to which the motion refers is and the significant caveats to the status of the analysis, so that all Members fully understand the preliminary nature of the analysis and the challenges around this type of modelling more broadly; and, thirdly, the fact that there are parts of the analysis that remain negotiation-sensitive and should not be put into the public domain. The right hon. and learned Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer), who speaks for the Opposition, has recognised the latter point in his motion, which refers to confidentiality. A key part of this is about the importance for Government of being able to conduct internal thinking when it comes to preparing policy.
Let me start with the terms of the motion. We will provide the analysis to the Exiting the European Union Committee and to all Members on a strictly confidential basis. This means that we will provide a hard copy of the analysis to the Chair of the Committee. A confidential reading room will be available to all Members and peers to see a copy of the analysis, once those arrangements can be made. This will be under the same terms as previous arrangements in similar circumstances, under this and previous Governments.
We have heard many requests and demands for this information to be published here today and in the press. Has the Minister had any similar requests from the devolved Government in Cardiff for Welsh-specific information from these assessments?
I personally have not yet seen such requests. We do intend to make this information available to the devolved Administrations, as we did with the previous reports that we made available to this House. It is then a matter for the devolved Administrations to ensure that such documents are handled with appropriate confidentiality; we have no objection in principle to their being shared with Members of the devolved legislatures on the same basis of confidentiality.
As the Minister is a former economist, can he persuade me that it will be worth my while to visit this reading room, given that every economic forecast that I have ever seen has been wildly inaccurate?
My right hon. Friend raises an interesting point. I would like to turn to the analysis itself, so he pre-empts some of the caveats that are important to mention.
I will give way in one moment.
The document is preliminary, unfinished and has only very recently been presented to Ministers in any form at all. It contains a large number of caveats, and sets out on every single page that this is
“draft analytical thinking with preliminary results”.
The analysis has not been led by my Department or, for that matter, by any single Department. This next stage of analysis has been a cross-Whitehall effort to support our negotiating priorities. It is not yet anywhere near being approved by Ministers, and it has only been brought together in a draft paper for them to review this month. Even the ministerial team in my Department have only just been consulted on this particular paper in recent days, and have made it clear that it requires significant further work. It does not yet reflect this Government’s policy approaches and does not represent an accurate reflection of the expected outcome of the negotiations.
It would not be right to describe the figures as Government numbers, as they have not had formal Government approval or sign-off as most analysis or policy would. The primary purpose of analysis at this stage was a preliminary attempt to improve on the much criticised analysis published around the time of the EU referendum. It is there to test ideas and to design a viable framework for the analysis of our exit from the European Union.
Since the Conservative party governs with the support of the 10 Democratic Unionist party Members—of whom I am not one—I am very curious to know whether any Member of the DUP will have advance notice of this economic analysis ahead of the Select Committee or, indeed, in addition to the Select Committee.
The simple answer is no. We would make this information available to the whole House on the same basis, while responding to the points on confidentiality that are covered in the Opposition motion.
Will the Minister give way?
If the hon. Lady will give me one moment, I will give way. I just want to complete my point about the caveats to the analysis.
At this very early stage, the analysis only considers the off-the-shelf arrangements that currently exist, and we have been clear these are not what we are seeking in the negotiations. It does not consider our desired outcome, which is the most ambitious relationship possible with the European Union, as set out by the Prime Minister in her Florence speech—such an agreement is in the interests of both the UK and the EU—and, to be crystal clear, it does not consider a comprehensive free trade agreement scenario as some reports have suggested, but simply an average FTA. We believe that we can do much better, given our unique starting point and shared history. Therefore, the scenarios in this analysis continue to suffer from the flaws that we have seen in previous analyses of this type.
Will the Minister give way?
I will give way to the hon. and learned Lady after I have given way to the hon. Member for Bristol West (Thangam Debbonaire).
Yesterday, a number of Members of this House spoke eloquently about the challenges of modelling uncertain outcomes over an extended period. The analysis presented by many organisations prior to the referendum is a clear example of those challenges. To date, we have seen outcomes that are quite different from some of those that were set out.
I find this conspiracy theory so absurd. The Treasury published very clear and totally wrong short-term forecasts for the referendum debate, and it published very clear and, I think, equally wrong long-term forecasts before the referendum debate, so that the whole nation could engage with these wrong forecasts. The latest lot of leaks looks very much like the wrong long-term forecasts that the Treasury previously published. I look forward to the Minister getting some more common sense into the thing, because there is absolutely no reason at all to suppose that leaving the EU will cause any hit to the long-term growth rate of the UK.
My right hon. Friend makes his point well. I think that the point on which we would all agree is that there have to be caveats to any form of modelling. As Members will see when they look at the analysis, it sets out the caveats very clearly.
I am so grateful to the Minister for being very patient and giving way to me, but I must press him on this point. It is curious to think that the Government are at this moment planning their negotiating strategy without having considered adequate impact assessments. I went to the so-called reading room in December. It was laughable that I had to sign a piece of paper, a copy of which I was not allowed to remove, in order to promise that I would not reveal what was in the documents. If there is going to be another reading room, I will do exactly what I did last time and reveal what is not in them, which is quite a lot. When will the Government work out that they need these impact assessments to have a decent negotiating strategy?
As we have said many times, the Government are informed by a wide range of analyses, but I am responding to the motion from the hon. Lady’s Front Benchers that respects the importance of confidentiality in this case.
I will give way to my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke) in a little while. I just want to finish my point about the nature of the analysis and the caveats that are contained in the document, as Members will see when they view it. Economies of all sorts face an uncertain future in the face of new technologies and the next phase of globalisation, which presents both challenges and opportunities.
Will the Minister give way?
Not right now.
Of course, there is a specific role for this sort of modelling, but it must be deployed carefully and appropriately alongside a full range of policy work in our EU exit plans. On its own, no model or analysis will be sufficient to provide us with the full picture of the various benefits and costs of different versions of Britain’s future relationship with the EU. Such models cannot predict the future. It is the Government’s job to use these sorts of models appropriately and to develop them as best they can. Despite this—and, in many cases, because of it—the analysis remains extremely sensitive.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. Surely the million dollar question is this: if the Government have not yet assessed the model agreement that they want, when are they going to tell the British people what it is that they want, cost it and publish the results?
The Prime Minister has set out a very clear strategy for developing an FTA between the UK and the EU that goes much further than previous models. As I am explaining, the analysis under discussion looks at the existing models and compares some of them, which is not the same as what the hon. and learned Lady sets out.
I thank my hon. Friend for announcing that the common-sense decision has been made overnight to stop trying to withhold these documents. I accept what he says about the caveats attached to all forecasts, although the idea that they are all rubbish is a new and sensational claim made by some of his colleagues.
Just to be clear about the status, is it not the case that the perfectly responsible Government Departments that produced these papers have reached the stage of briefing and informing Cabinet Ministers as they go to the next stage of discussions to try to create a policy for where we are going in the negotiations with the European Union? That status is the same as that for forecasts put to a Chancellor before making a Budget. Does my hon. Friend therefore accept that, although his words about caveats in economic forecasts are wise, we should not be tempted to drift into the rubbishing of the whole thing, which his colleague, the Under-Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Mr Baker), rather unwisely embarked on yesterday?
My right hon. and learned Friend knows a lot from his own experience as Chancellor about the confidential information presented to Ministers ahead of Budgets, but that process has to go through a number of stages. As I have said, this information, which is preliminary and not yet finished, was presented to Ministers for the first time in recent days. It is, therefore, not in a form that is approved to go forward in the way he describes.
Despite, and in many cases because of, the points I have made, the analysis remains sensitive. Let me stress that the only reason we do not oppose the Opposition motion is that it makes clear that the analysis is to be shared with the Select Committee and Members on a confidential basis. We are about to embark on exploratory talks with the European Union regarding our future relationship and will be in formal negotiations over the coming months. Having an incomplete analysis such as this in the public domain would not serve the national interest in the upcoming negotiations. I cannot imagine that any reasonable Member of this House genuinely believes that it is in the national interest for the Government to have to publish at the start of the negotiation unfinished, developing analysis of scenarios that we are clear we do not want.
There is, however, another equally important reason why this analysis should not be put in the public domain, and it is simple: the functioning of Government—by which I mean any Government—about which my right hon. and learned Friend knows a great deal. I ask hon. Members who have been Ministers, who aspire to be Ministers or who have ever held a position of responsibility how they would feel about having to publish their team’s work in progress partway through a project. I am sure they would agree that publishing unfinished initial findings can be extremely misleading, and I am confident that they would join me in ensuring that that does not happen on a routine basis.
There is another reason why this set of analyses is peculiar and quite different. I listened carefully to my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke), but he is wrong on this count. This is not like advice to a Chancellor. This analysis, as I understand it, comes out of the back of the reality that all the previous forecasts, heavily reliant as they were on a gravity model of economics, have proved so wildly wrong that a variety of ways are being looked at to try to rectify that. There is, therefore, an experimental nature even to the economics, not just to the straight analysis, and that is why it does not have a massive bearing on the Government’s negotiating strategy at this point—because they themselves are questioning whether it is feasible to make a serious analysis or forecast that may be even slightly correct.
My right hon. Friend makes an interesting point and I will leave it to Members to consider it when they see the actual information under discussion.
Throughout this process I have been impressed—and the Under-Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Mr Baker) has been clear repeatedly that he has been very impressed—by officials across Departments and the way in which they are rising to the challenge of delivery of our exit from the European Union. To do that, however, we need to have the space to undertake internal work and to challenge preconceptions.
I thank the Minister for giving way and for saying that the information will be made available to all Members in a confidential room. I remember making that suggestion when speaking about the sector-by-sector reports, which I have been to see and some of which are extremely useful. How many Members of this House have actually been to see them? I believe that the figure is probably fewer than one in 10, and I sometimes wonder whether Opposition Members are having a huge fight but not bothering to follow up on the real details that matter to real jobs in this country.
My hon. Friend makes her point very well. I do not have the answer to her question, but we can certainly look into it and perhaps write to her in response.
I want to complete my remarks and give other hon. Members a chance to speak, but of course I give way to the right hon. and learned Gentleman.
I assure the House that I and many of my colleagues have been to see the documents and discussed what I thought was not in them.
Returning to the hard work of our officials, if every time any element of their work leaked we were forced to present unfinished work for the scrutiny of Parliament, the public and the press, there would be a very real chance that the quality of that work would suffer. It is simply not conducive to an open, honest and iterative process of policy making in government. That is as true for all the Government’s work as it is for EU exit. I do not believe that a single Member of this House believes that that would be in the national interest, so I urge the Select Committee, whose Chairman is here, to provide some assurances, in good faith, that, for those reasons and reflecting on the words of the motion, which recognise the confidential nature of the document, this preliminary analysis will not be made public.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. I have to say that, of all the Ministers, I think he does an outstanding job in exceptionally difficult circumstances. I thank him for the work he does. However, with bucket loads of respect, the Government cannot have it both ways. Either these are rather meaningless analysis documents that have not been done on any proper modelling and cannot be relied on and all the rest of it—in which case, publish the wretched things, because they are not of any value to right hon. and hon. Members—or they are indeed of great value and must be kept secret and highly confidential. Which one is it, because at the moment we do not know?
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend, as always, for her kind praise, but I think I have already answered the challenge she sets as to the reasons why some of the information in the report should be kept confidential. That is something on which the two Front-Bench teams clearly agree, because it is in the Opposition motion. I also just want to emphasise that the misrepresentation in some of the press reporting of this leak makes this an exceptional request that the Government agree to on an exceptional basis. They do not accept a precedent for future action.
Finally, it is also for those reasons that I believe that forcing the release of partial and preliminary analysis risks undermining the functioning of Government at a vital moment.
Will the Minister give way?
Will the Minister give way?
Not now. The public have voted through a referendum to leave the European Union. We must deliver on that result, in the national interest. I agree with the right hon. and learned Member for Holborn and St Pancras that we should work together to ensure that, and that must include scrutiny.
Only yesterday the Under-Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe committed to ensuring that Parliament has the appropriate analysis on the terms of our exit from the European Union ahead of the vote on the final deal we agree with the European Union. That is entirely right and we will deliver on it. However, delivering on the referendum result, in the national interest, does mean being able to have a stable and secure policy-making process inside Government. It means Government taking seriously their obligation to preserve the security of our analysis and the work underpinning our negotiations, and receiving that analysis means Parliament sharing in that responsibility and obligation. As all Members of this House come together to deliver for the people the best possible outcome of the referendum result, it is with that sentiment that we will comply with the motion.
I am grateful for the chance to speak in this debate and I commend the main Opposition party for securing it.
I am wondering why we are here because, yesterday, the Minister’s colleague beside him on the Front Bench, the Under-Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, the hon. Member for Wycombe (Mr Baker), spent over an hour valiantly, loyally and completely unsuccessfully trying to persuade the House that the sky would fall down if this information were shared with anybody. Now we are being told that it can be shared at the very least with 650 people.
Incidentally, part of the reason why relatively few MPs—certainly those in the Scottish National party—went along to the “Kremlin” reading room to look at the sectoral analysis is that, having seen part of the papers, I told a lot of my colleagues not to bother. It simply was not worth their time to go through the security checks to read stuff that they could get by looking online.
Again, we are seeing a symptom of the fact that, despite all the assurances we get that Brexit will restore “sovereignty” to Parliament, this is really about trying to restore the alleged sovereignty of a minority Government over the will of Parliament. Parliament is supposed to tell Government what to do, but every time it looks as if Parliament is going to tell the Government to do something they do not want to do, it causes absolute panic on the Government Front Bench. It also causes a headache for civil servants, as one of their main responsibilities is supposed to be to prevent Ministers from doing anything that causes political embarrassment to the Government—good luck to them. If they can achieve that, they must be quite remarkable people.
May I ask the hon. Gentleman a very simple question? Does he condone or condemn the leaking of Government papers? It is an important question.
At this point, the answer is no: I neither condone nor condemn because I do not know what the circumstances were.
I walked away from a potentially successful career in NHS financial management. I wrestled for six months with my own conscience, seeing things that I knew had to be brought to public attention but knowing there was no way I could do that, and knowing that the public were being deliberately misled about what was going on in the health board that I worked in. The only way I could bring it to public attention was to resign and walk away from the job. So I will never, ever condemn anyone who believes they are acting in the public interest by doing something that they are not supposed to do.
I would be very surprised if there is a single Member in the Chamber today who is not at this very moment considering an important constituency case that has been brought to them by someone who technically was breaking the rules by raising it with a Member of Parliament. There are times when the public interest has to outweigh all other considerations, and until I have seen the full circumstances of why this information was disclosed, I am not going to condone or condemn, and I do not think anyone else should prejudice the case by commenting on it now.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that there is a distinction between a leak and whistleblowing? Whistleblowing is in the public interest. The provisional evaluation of the economic impacts, be it incomplete or imperfect, and given that good is not the enemy of perfect, should be in the public arena. This is a whistle blow, not a leak.
I am grateful for that intervention. We have to be careful about language. There is whistleblowing as defined in the Public Interest Disclosure Act 1998 and it is not clear whether this incident would comply with that.
As a council leader, I sometimes found myself having to respond to information that technically should not have been disclosed. I always took the view that, if the motivation was clearly public interest, we should seek to protect those who did that, even if they had not technically done it in the correct way. The question today should not be about the motivation or principles of whoever disclosed this information into the public domain. The question should be first about what the information tells us, and secondly about what the Government’s determination to hide this information from the people tells us about the Government’s handling of Brexit.
I hope that, when the Under-Secretary of State responds, he will do what the Minister did not do earlier, and tell us when the Government started to prepare this analysis. Is this the homework that the Secretary of State had to confess to a Select Committee he had not done yet when the House asked for it? It looks suspiciously like this is not only the Secretary of State’s late homework but that he copied it off his new pal Big Mike in the high school up the road in Scotland. The similarities between the Scottish Government’s analysis that the Government rubbished two weeks ago and the Government’s own analysis are so striking that it would be a remarkable coincidence if the people who prepared those analyses had not been copying from each other.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman that it is clearly important to get this information out into the public domain or in controlled circumstances. Is he as worried as I am that, despite having information out in the public domain that tells us that Brexit, whatever version we go for, is going to cause us huge damage, not only the Government but, it seems, those on the Labour Front Bench are still going to proceed none the less?
Again, this may not be the time for that debate. My position is perfectly clear. We have the results of four national votes and we have to seek to respect those as far as possible. We cannot respect them all because two of us want to leave and two of us want to stay, and the European Union does not allow bits of nation states to stay or go. However, on the Government Front Bench and, to a lesser extent, on the main Opposition Front Bench, there has been a failure to distinguish between leaving the European Union and leaving the single market, the customs union and various other European institutions, which is where the real damage exposed by these analyses lies. It is possible to leave the European Union, to comply with the referendum result, and not to bring down on ourselves, for example, the potential 8% reduction in Scottish GDP as a result. That can only be done if the Government admit that they got it wrong and step back from the red line on single market and customs union membership. There was no referendum about the single market or the customs union. At the moment, we only have unilateral political dogma from the Government, telling us that we have to leave.
The real reason why these analyses were never done and they were kept secret for as long as possible after they had been done is that they show that, in deciding to take us out of the customs union and the single market, the Government got it badly wrong. All we need is for the Government to admit they got it wrong and this whole debate then becomes an irrelevance.
The Government’s behaviour demonstrates again the fallacy of the argument that Parliament holds the Government to account. In effect, we do not have an electoral system that is designed to produce a proper Parliament. We have an electoral system for this place that is designed to produce one winner and one loser, and it does not like it if there is more than one party on the alleged losing side, because the system cannot cope with having more than one big Opposition party. It does not like it if it is unclear who the overall winner is. This place is always in turmoil if a coalition has to be formed and there is a minority Government. The whole procedure of Parliament—the way that Bills are produced, the way that time is allocated and so on—is based on the assumption that the Government decide and just every once in a while Parliament tries to tell the Government that they should have decided something different.
In the discussion we had about the first batch of Brexit papers before Christmas—there have been elements of it again today—we heard that it is disloyal to the country and to our constituents for any Member of Parliament to suggest that the Government have got it wrong and should be doing something different. Whether it is in relation to publishing or not publishing the papers, to handing them over in secret to a Committee or not, to the decision to take us out of the customs union in the first place or to any other decision that the Government take and announce without having the full mandate of the people, it must be open to any Member of Parliament to criticise and seek to change it.
When I keep hearing Members—not so much those on my Benches, because we have a clear mandate from our constituents—on either the Government Benches or other Opposition Benches being denounced as traitors and enemies of the people simply for standing up in this place for what they believe in, we have to ask ourselves what is going on with democracy in these four nations. In some ways, that is even more fundamental than our membership of the EU and its related institutions. We have to get a grip.
It was disappointing to hear comments yesterday from Government Back Benchers about London-based elite remoaners. No one on the Government Front Bench picked up on that and said that that kind of language is not acceptable. There should never be any need to question the integrity or motivation of anybody in the Chamber simply because we disagree, however passionately, with what they are saying.
I listened to what the hon. Gentleman said earlier about the sector-by-sector reports and I think I heard him say that he had told other colleagues not to bother to go and read them. My understanding is that we need a trade deal that works for all sectors of the economy and especially for areas such as food, agriculture and farming. My memory of those sector-by-sector reports is that that is an area that is enormously detailed, so perhaps he will think again about encouraging other Members to go and look at this detailed information.
Part of the Government’s response earlier today to the disclosure of these documents was that the quotation or citation was selective and incomplete. I am afraid that is what we have just heard from the hon. Lady.
Will my hon. Friend give way?
May I deal with the first intervention first, please?
What I said was that the reason I had told my colleagues that it was not really worth while for them to hand over their phones, make appointments and so on to go and see the documents, was that there was nothing in there that they could not have got quite easily on the internet. Is it really a good use of a Member’s time to go through a security check more severe than at an airport, in order to read in a classified document that Airbus and Boeing make aeroplanes? To read in a classified document that gambling legislation in Northern Ireland is devolved but not elsewhere? These are all things that were in the documents that the Government said they could not disclose. To read in the sectoral report on the electricity industry that lots of people in the United Kingdom rely on electricity for domestic and commercial purposes?
Come on, Madam Deputy Speaker: there may well be information in the latest batch of documents that there is good reason for wanting to keep classified and confidential, but the Government’s attitude is that they tell the people and Parliament as little as they can possibly get away with. We all know that the reason for the change of heart from yesterday to today is nothing to do with the Government’s having decided that, because part of the documents had been published, they might as well give Parliament everything. The Government are not opposing the motion today because they know they would go down badly if they forced it to a Division. They do not have the support of their own Back Benchers; I doubt if they even have the support of their own Front Benchers. Their culture of excessive secrecy no longer has the support of their own people. They are not forcing the matter to a vote today because they know they would not only lose, but lose so badly that it would call into question the continuation of the Government in its entirety.
I did say I would give way to my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry).
As usual, my hon. Friend is being modest. He is not explaining to the House that he is a member of the Exiting the European Union Committee and has been part of the project to produce detailed reports of sectoral analysis, so he knows, like anyone who has bothered to read the reports—I see the hon. Member for Chelmsford (Vicky Ford) is still sitting beside the hon. Member for Stirling (Stephen Kerr)—that all the information in these top-secret documents is already in the public domain.
I am grateful for that intervention. I am aware of the time, and I do not want to impinge too much on other people’s—
I will give way once more, but I hope the intervention is a bit more relevant than the earlier one.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his gracious approach to my intervention. It is just that he is contradicting himself. He says that the Government are not responsive to Parliament—that Parliament is some kind of constitutional eunuch—and in the next breath he says that the reason there will not be a vote today is that the Government cannot control their own side. He cannot have it both ways. This Parliament is very successfully holding the Government to account and is being very thorough in its scrutiny. In defence of the honour of this Parliament, I needed to intervene to say that.
The reason why Conservative Back Benchers will abstain in this debate is that the Government Whips have told them to abstain. The reason why the earlier motion on the main Brexit sectoral analysis was not opposed was that the Government told their Back Benchers not to oppose it. Since then a number of Back Benchers, sitting in this Chamber, have said that they would have been quite happy to lead a move against that Humble Address before Christmas but the Government Whips told them not to. The fact of the matter is that all too often the Government hold Parliament to account, not the other way around.
We shall not fix that today, but if we appreciate that that is the background against which this fiasco has developed, it is easier to understand how it is that, as soon as there is a Government who do not command a substantial majority in the House, there are problems. The British electoral system has a phobia against minority Governments or coalition Governments, despite the fact that in numerous other places—some of them not too far north of here—there are examples of Governments operating very successfully indeed, either in coalition or as a minority Government.
The Minister, as part of his argument to try to discredit his own Government’s analysis, points out that it is based on average free trade agreements, as opposed to the all-singing, all-dancing with bells and whistles free trade agreement that the Government keep telling us they will achieve within the next year or two. What is that assurance based on? What grounds does this Parliament have to believe that the Government have a snowball in hell’s chance of finding anyone to give the United Kingdom on its own a better trade agreement than they are willing to give to the 500 million people of the European Union single market? Have the Government done an analysis to tell them that they are going to get better trade deals? I hope not, because if they have done such an analysis, that analysis is quite clearly rubbish as well.
Given that analyses that come out of Her Majesty’s Treasury are no longer to be trusted, may we now take it as the Government’s official position that we can no longer believe what was said in the 16 analyses that were done by Government Departments in 2013-14, showing what a disaster a yes result in the Scottish referendum would be? And can we just cut to the chase, and save everybody a lot of time, by getting the Government to admit now that the bucketsful of analysis that they are going to produce next time around are also worthless and incomplete and selective, so they can just not bother producing them and save us all a lot of time?
Madam Deputy Speaker, when you get a Government who have to defend their own excessive secrecy by telling the people of these islands that they cannot rely on information that comes out from the Government, whether it was meant to come out or not—when the Government tell us we cannot rely on information that the Government themselves are producing—that is what undermines Britain’s negotiating position with the European Union. It is not the fact that information might be published that the EU could have put together itself quite easily; it is that the Government’s action in attempting to conceal that information and then seeking to discredit it demonstrates to our EU partners what they probably knew—that they are negotiating with a disorganised, disunited, shambolic and incompetent Government. That weakens Britain’s negotiating position more than any release of Brexit analysis papers could ever do.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Glenrothes (Peter Grant), although obviously I did not agree with much of what he said at the end of his speech.
I am delighted that the Government have had the good sense to agree to the motion. I am concerned about the circumstances in which these documents will now be made available, in some sort of secrecy, despite the fact that they can clearly be read on the internet. Why we are going through that farce, I do not know.
May I gently say to my Government, this madness has to stop. If we were in the middle of the summer, I might say that it was overexposure to a hot sun that seems to have caused a collective outbreak in the Government of a form of madness. Their inability to grasp Brexit and do the right thing, frankly, is now at a point where, as I say, it has got to stop. We have to start to do the right thing; and the right thing is to get this Brexit sorted out, to form a consensus in this place and within the country, and deliver—deliver not just on the referendum result, but on the hopes and aspirations of our people that we will have an economic future out of the European Union that will be safe and secure for generations to come.
Will the right hon. Lady give way?
In a moment.
The reality of these documents, of course, is that finally it seems that our Government have decided they are actually going to make some choices; they are actually going to form a view in Cabinet. It has only taken 19 months since the referendum to work out what they want from Brexit.
The Prime Minister told us, in her Lancaster House speech, what she did not want, but what nobody in the Government—in the Cabinet—has told us is what this Government do want by way of Brexit. And if I am agitated—and I am—I can assure the Front Bench that whilst I think most of the people of this country are just fed up to the back teeth, the people of this country are also agitated, because they are worried and they are nervous. And being blunt, there are millions and millions of people in this country who do not believe that either of the two political parties in this country represent their views, and indeed will forward their views.
I see it in these terms. I think there is a group of people—the hard Brexiteers—and you are not going to change them. In my party, my Government believe that somehow they can “manage” the 35 hard Brexiteers, who for decades have been banging on about Europe in a way that I think is not, at times, particularly good for their mental health—and they think they can “manage” them. They cannot be managed. Even if they were given what they wanted today, they would complain that it had not been done yesterday. For many of them it is a battle to the death, and they will not hesitate to destroy this party or our Prime Minister to get what they want. They can see the prize and they will be damned if anybody is going to get in their way. The Government need to wake up to that reality. So we have that problem to cope with, and that is the way to deal with it: see it off, build a consensus, and jump into the middle ground and put this country’s interests before anything else. As the CBI said, “Goodbye ideology; wake up to the interests of our country.”
Over on the other side is a group of people who still want to fight the battle of the referendum—they are remainers, they are angry and they cannot and will not accept that we are leaving the European Union—but here in the middle is the majority of people. They are like corks, bobbing around in a sea. They feel queasy and uneasy, and they are worried about their own futures and their children and grandchildren’s futures, yet there is nobody for them—no thing, no vehicle coming along upon which they can jump; a big, warm ship that says to them, “Come on board. You’ve got a great captain at the wheel and we can see the land of our destination over there.” It might be Norway; it could be the European Free Trade Association—actually, I would like it to be the single market and the customs union, but hell, I will compromise. I will take EFTA. Why? Because I want to form a consensus to get the best thing for our country.
That is there, but at the moment there is nothing for people to get into that will save them from what, unless this madness stops, will undoubtedly be a catastrophe. Call it what you will—“walking off a plank” is how I think a noble Lord quite properly described it yesterday. Others have described it as “sleepwalking to a Brexit disaster” or “jumping over the cliff”. Whatever metaphor one wants to use, if this Government—and it can only be this Government—do not get a grip on the situation at the top, we will indeed walk into a Brexit nightmare.
My right hon. Friend said that the Prime Minister had not set out what she wanted. I contend that she has done precisely that. Of course it is arguable whether she will get it, but as for the boat that my right hon. Friend wants to welcome everybody on to, the Prime Minister has set that out.
With great respect to my right hon. Friend, that is absolute nonsense, and the good people of this country now require honesty and transparency. Some of us have been over to Brussels. Many people—right hon. and hon. Members, some of whom I can see on the Opposition Benches—have spoken to people at all levels of the 27 nations and to ambassadors from other countries. They have been over to Brussels and spoken to all manner of people, and no, we are not pleased. Don’t patronise; we are not stupid; we know when we are getting a line. We have spoken to disparate people, and every single one of them says, “Wake up, Britain. You’re not going to get a bespoke deal. You’re probably going to get Canada.”
I do not want us to be like Canada. That is not what people in my constituency voted for. They did not vote to be poorer—and they would be poorer, God help us if we got a Canadian deal. People have a right to know what the consequences of the various options are. The problem with the Prime Minister’s position is that she has told us what she does not want—the customs union, the single market and the European Court of Justice—and that has seriously reduced the options available to our country. By drawing those red lines and refusing to move, she puts the EU in a position whereby it is limited in what it can offer us. I say to my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest West (Sir Desmond Swayne) that we are deluding people if we continue to peddle this nonsense.
The right hon. Lady is giving a passionate speech. The one thing that the Prime Minister has said she wants is to keep frictionless trade in Northern Ireland. The problem is that that is utterly irreconcilable with what she said she does not want, which is the single market and customs union. Therein lies the fundamental confusion that is causing so much difficulty in the country right now.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman—I nearly called him my Friend, although on this he is, because he is absolutely right. The agreement made in December between the European Union and ourselves is such a fudge that it is impossible to put it into a text that could become a treaty. It is a superb fudge, and it has delivered the political outcome, but the reality, which has been accepted by this Government, is that in order to solve the problem in Ireland we are staying in the—not “a”, but “the”—customs union and single market. That is what the Government basically agreed to do in December.
The right hon. Lady has hit on the heart of the problem, which is that the Government will not say what they want. However, turning to this issue, does she agree that the reason why the public are in the dark is that we have excellent independent economic forecasters in the Office for Budget Responsibility who say that they simply cannot do their job because we are all in the dark about what the Government actually want? Ought they not to rectify that?
The hon. Lady is quite right—she can be my Friend in this debate, because she makes an important point. What responsible Governments do, quite properly, is to say to impartial, objective officials, “Right, these are the options. Cost them out, or assess them, and so on and so forth,” and yet bizarrely the Government did not put forward their own preferred option. What on earth does that say about our Government’s position? What further evidence does anybody want that they have not worked out their position? They have got to do that, because at the end of March the European Union will publish what its position is going to be, and there is every chance that our Government will still be messing about, fighting off hard Brexiteers and not grasping the nettle and doing their duty by the country.
I have huge respect for the right hon. Lady on this issue. Does she agree that we would not be hearing any of this stuff about the reports being negotiation-sensitive if the Government could lay their hands on a single report that said there would be economic benefits to Brexit, rather than economic costs?
This is an astonishing idea. The right hon. Gentleman—he is definitely my Friend today—seems to be saying that if there was a report saying that going off the cliff or some other madness would be beneficial to our economy, the Government might publish it, because it would help in their dealings with the hard Brexiteers. Of course, the right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right.
What the Government have done, to their credit, is to ask the objective analysts to go away and look at the options, albeit apparently not their preferred option—although we have made that point, so I will move swiftly on—and they have come back, having no doubt done their job, as they always do, thoroughly, openly, honestly and exceptionally well. We now know that these reports were prepared, and apparently some Ministers have already seen them. According to reports, I think in The Times, Cabinet Ministers were to go and see them under lock and key. They were to read them, they were not to take in their phones and most certainly not to make any notes, and they were to inform themselves, so that finally our Cabinet could perhaps come to a conclusion about what we want from Brexit. Yet apparently these very same reports are so useless and flawed—they are based on weird modelling and cannot be trusted—that they have to remain top secret. They were not good enough—or were they?—to inform Cabinet members. It is nonsense.
The Minister said that these analyses are provisional, incomplete and not fit for purpose, so is the right hon. Lady as amazed as I am that the Prime Minister should conduct phase 1 of the negotiations with no economic analysis? No wonder we are the laughing stock of Europe.
Well, no, because I thought the conclusion to phase 1 was actually quite good, so I am certainly not going to undermine it, but the hon. Gentleman makes an important point.
Many hon. Members sat through the many hours of debate during the Committee stage of the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill and, at the end of it, one thing on which those of us who take a sensible approach to this all agreed was that we had had some terrific debates. The dreadful irony was this: if only we had had those bloomin’ debates before the European Union referendum. What is undoubtedly happening is that people are becoming better informed. They understand now the huge complexity that Brexit is. They realise that there are serious consequences to our decision to leave the European Union, and that is why they are darned worried, not just for themselves but for their children and their grandchildren. People have a right to know. My constituents who work at Boots have a right to know the consequences for them and the pharmaceutical sector, based on the different models and choices that are still available to our country. The people who own and run Freshcut Foods have a right to know about the consequences of, say, duties on imported fruit and vegetables from European countries and what those will mean to them, in the real world, doing the job that they do.
That is at the heart of all that is happening now. People want to know, because they are finding out about the promises they were made. The £350 million for the NHS is all gone; they were lied to—they were conned—on that. They were told this was going to be the quickest trade deal—I think I am right in saying they were told it would take a day and a half to do a trade deal.
We are nowhere near doing that trade deal, and we will be nowhere near doing it, because the other Brexit reality is this: we are not going to have a meaningful vote in this place—we are not—because there will not be anything meaningful to vote on. What is going to happen, unless the Government get into the right place, is that, yes, we will have an agreement on the divorce—that will be there in the withdrawal agreement—but in terms of the actual relationship we will have with the European Union once we have left, we will have a few woolly heads of agreement. That will mean pretty much nothing—not even to those of us who have spent what feels like a lifetime now looking at these options. We will have a series of heads of agreement. That is not meaningful; that does not give us the ability to decide whether this is in the interests of our constituents and our country. It will have no meaning whatever. Again, people—my Government and everybody else—have to wake up to the reality of what we are going to get in October.
I thank the right hon. Lady for giving way, and I am hoping that she might say that I can be her Friend as well, but maybe the question I am about to ask will not allow that to happen. Does she think that we can have a meaningful vote in this House if that does not include the option of voting to stay in the European Union?
The right hon. Gentleman and I used to be Friends, because we used to be in coalition, so he can be my Friend today. [Interruption.] Actually, I am very proud to have served in the coalition, because it was one of the best Governments we ever had, but in any event, we will move swiftly on.
The right hon. Gentleman makes a really good point, because the other danger is that we sleepwalk into some trap that will be set—that if we do not vote for this woolly agreement, the alternative will be “off the cliff”, and, of course, there are alternatives. It would be wrong to say to the European Union, “Can we come back and negotiate?”—the EU is amazing in the way it has put up with so much nonsense and with still not knowing what our country wants—but I do not think we will be in that position. However, the EU has already made it clear that if we want to remain in the European Union, that option is still open to this country; indeed, if we want to remain a member of the single market or the customs union, that option, too, is available to our country. So, in that sense, it should be a meaningful vote.
However, let me just say this. Such is my concern as events have developed that I have come round to the very firm view that it is not just in this place that we should have a meaningful vote; the people of this country, too, are entitled to a meaningful vote. We had a referendum, and I have always respected the result and will continue so to do. However, as this Brexit reality unwinds, and as people and even Members of this House—we know that some did not even know what the customs union was—[Interruption.] Oh, Mr Deputy Speaker. I am sure I speak on behalf of everybody when I say it is wonderful to have you back. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”] We know your pain, and we all love and have great affection for you and, indeed, your family. We wish you all well.
That is the view I have come to. It is not for us to undo this EU referendum result, and we cannot; it has to be the people, and this has to be led by the people. The people are entitled not just to know the facts about Brexit but to have a say. I am forming the view, based on conversations I have had with my constituents, that many of them are now saying, “I did not realise how complex this was. I did not realise and appreciate how many cons and tricks had been played on me and how many untruths had been told. As I think about my future and my children’s future, I now want a real, meaningful say in this.”
I will quickly give way before the bird lands.
I am grateful to the right hon. Lady for giving way. She is making a truly outstanding speech, and I really commend her for it. On the point she made earlier about the ability of the United Kingdom to change its mind, does she agree that the olive branch extended by Donald Tusk and Emmanuel Macron means that it is open to this country unilaterally to change its mind and revoke the article 50 notice?
The hon. and learned Lady is right—she, too, could become my Friend for the day. In all seriousness, she is absolutely right. I am sure that it was a pure coincidence that, the day after certain members of the all-party parliamentary group on EU relations went over to Brussels, Tusk and Juncker—I am not sure whether it was Juncker, but, anyway, Members know who I mean—tweeted in the way that they did. They made it very clear that if the people—and it has to come from the people—want to change their mind, we can stay in the European Union, and if the people want to retain membership of the single market and the customs union, that option, too, will be open to us in October.
We are starting to have that very important discussion about the fact that, as I put it, the people must finish what the people have started. That is by no means a disrespectful way of looking at the first decision; the two decisions are separate, and we are talking about a review and an update or a confirmation. This is by no means about talking down to people who voted one way or the other; it is about being very mature about the fact that we have all learned a great deal in the last 18 months.
I agree with most of what the hon. Lady says. The point in all of this is that this has to come from the people. Arguably, we—as politicians and Members of Parliament—are one of the reasons why the 52% who voted to leave voted in the way they did, because they feel so disconnected from us and feel that we do not represent them. Actually, they always think their own MP is rather good; it is just that all the others are not, which is always interesting. It does not quite make sense, does it?
It is really, really important that we get this right. This has to come from the people. As the hon. Member for Bath (Wera Hobhouse) said, they started this. We gave them the power, and we must let them still have that power and exercise it. However, as I say, my real message today is to my Government and my Prime Minister: get a grip, and let us start leading on this. They should see off those people who do not run this country and who do not represent Conservative voters or the people of this country. They should park them to one side and build a consensus, never forgetting that, if there was a free vote in this House tomorrow or next week, I believe that the majority of hon. and right hon. Members would vote certainly for EFTA, and also for the customs union. So let us now be big and brave and do the right thing by the people of this country and the generations to come.
It is a great pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry), and I echo what she said to you, Mr Deputy Speaker, on behalf of all of us in the Chamber about seeing you back in your place. We feel for you enormously.
Such is the interest in our debate today that we have been joined by a robin—[Interruption.] Not that Robin—I was thinking of the other one, which has been hopping around the Gallery.
Well, well, well, this is all rather familiar. However, as well as the despair expressed by the right hon. Lady, I feel a growing sense of puzzlement. Let me give Members just a little history. We were led to believe in the first instance that the Government had been carrying out assessments of the impact of Brexit on different sectors of the economy. Then we were assured by the Secretary of State that they had not. Now we discover that, in fact, they have, although clearly those are not the same assessments we had mistakenly been asking for before. If I understand it correctly, they are now the assessments that will be shown to Cabinet Ministers in the locked room over the next week or so.
I want to say something about what the Minister’s hon. Friend—the Under-Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, the hon. Member for Wycombe (Mr Baker)—said yesterday. We on the remain side need to be honest and acknowledge that forecasts have been made that have proved to be spectacularly wrong. The right hon. Member for Broxtowe just referred to a forecast by the International Trade Secretary, whose precise words were that a post-Brexit free trade deal with the EU should be the “easiest in human history”. In 2016, the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union forecast that by September this year, the UK
“can negotiate a free trade area massively larger than the EU.”
Well, that forecast was wrong too, and then there has been the repeated assertion by many Ministers, including the Prime Minister, that no deal is better than a bad deal. All of us know that is nonsense, because no deal is the worst possible deal of all, which merely proves that when it comes to talking about inaccurate forecasts, some Ministers live in very, very vulnerable greenhouses.
If Ministers in the Department do not trust any of the forecasts, it prompts the question: why did they bother to commission them in the first place? I see that the Under-Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, the hon. Member for Wycombe, has tried today to soothe the no doubt ruffled feathers of his civil servants with a tweet—I do not habitually follow his tweets, but they were drawn to my attention—saying that
“I still love them and my critique is of economic method, not individuals”.
I am sure that will be of great reassurance to hard-working and professional civil servants.
Then there is the very perplexing question that it would be good to hear an answer to. What confidence should we have when the Minister said yesterday from the Dispatch Box that we do not need to worry about the gloomy forecasts, because the very same analysis shows that under every one of them, the British economy would continue to grow? How do we know that that forecast is true if it is being produced by the same people whom the Minister said from the Dispatch Box always get their forecasts wrong? It is a farce—it is a Whitehall farce.
My right hon. Friend just pointed to the extraordinary circumstance whereby we see Ministers against civil servants, and I have never seen that situation in my lifetime. Does he not agree that at the heart of this is honesty and transparency for Parliament and the public in the most important debate that we will have for generations?
I agree absolutely. Indeed, I made the point yesterday about the importance of transparency and about a lack of transparency not being in the national interest. I gently say to Ministers that trying to have a go at people who are asking questions about what analysis has been done and what it shows, and attempting to suggest that all of them are trying to undo the referendum result, is an unwise approach. I think it reveals a great defensiveness and a lack of confidence on the part of Ministers about the position that they have put the Government in.
I bring the right hon. Gentleman back to the issue of growth. Yesterday, the Minister said that all the forecasts suggest there would be some growth. Does he remember, as I do, how keen the Government were to claim that the UK was until recently the fastest-growing economy? Now, Ministers are clearly saying that if there is some growth—however small that is—it is excellent news for the United Kingdom economy.
Indeed, that is the case. Ministers have made those arguments and, of course, when the growth is better than that in any other countries, they would. However, what the analysis appears to show cannot be avoided: in all the options that it looked at, the country would be less well off than we would otherwise be.
We are told that the analysis is preliminary. Nineteen months after the referendum, how on earth can it still be preliminary—really? We are told that the people who are meant to be in charge had not seen it until two nights ago, when it is about to be shown in a locked room to members of the Cabinet. We are told, as has been said, that it does not include modelling of the Government’s preferred option. Why on earth not? The answer is a simple one: the Government do not know what their preferred option consists of. Therefore, they cannot model it.
Apart from anything else, the Government said that they really hoped with the Florence speech last October to get the European Council to move on to phase 2 of the negotiations, but we clearly were not ready then, because we now know that they had not done the modelling, and we are still not ready now, in view of what we have been told. As any teacher would understand, there are only so many times that the family dog’s eating habits can be offered as an excuse for not producing homework.
Being told graciously, as we all were yesterday, “We will give it to you eventually, when the deal has been done,” was not on. I very much welcome—I say this to the Minister in all sincerity—the fact that overnight Ministers have had a rethink and will accept the resolution. I say on behalf of the Exiting the European Union Committee—because we are buying some more lever arch files—that we will handle the material when it is given to us in the same, I hope, professional way that we handled the last lot of information, in line with the commitments I gave to the Secretary of State.
This shambles—I use the word deliberately—is a symptom of a fundamental problem that the country faces. First, the Government took decisions early on, such as leaving the customs union, leaving the single market, having nothing to do with the European Court of Justice and no free movement, without having made any assessment of what impact that would have on the British economy—none. The decisions were taken for ideological reasons, without looking at any evidence.
May I take the right hon. Gentleman one step back? Does he now share the view of many right hon. and hon. Members on the Government side that the other mistake was to trigger article 50 too early as well, and that has not helped us in our negotiations either?
In retrospect, there is force in the right hon. Lady’s argument, but since the Government chose the date on which to trigger it, we would have expected them to plan how they would be in a position to be able to negotiate what was required.
The second thing that the Government have done is to demonstrate their complete inability thus far to set out what they would like in phase 2 negotiations—that deep and special partnership. Why? It is an open secret that the Cabinet is in disagreement about the right way forward—that is not just among 35 Government Back Benchers, but inside the Cabinet. Every day we open the newspapers to find the symptoms of that inability to reach agreement spread all over the pages. Heaven knows what the people we are supposed to be negotiating with make of all this. As a result, neither this House nor the 27 other member states are any the wiser about what we or they will be asked to consider when the Government finally reaches a decision.
What is the task now? The Government need to tell us what they will be seeking. Much more importantly, they need to indicate what trade-offs they are prepared to make to achieve the things they say they want, because the choices have consequences that cannot be avoided. It is clear that the Government face, apparently with equanimity, the prospect of going into a negotiation from which, whatever they achieve, we will come away with less than we currently enjoy. My hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton North East (Emma Reynolds) absolutely hit the nail on the head when she said that if there was any evidence to the contrary, boy, would we have read about it already.
The Government need to face up to the consequences of their own red lines for the border in Northern Ireland. I reinforce the point that has been made, including by my hon. Friend, because the Select Committee was in Dublin last week, and we went to look at the border in December. It is not just a fudge. We could describe it as an attempt at alchemy, because the Government are hoping that they can turn the base metal of full alignment into the gold of an open border, when nobody knows how that extraordinary achievement can be brought about, given the utter contradiction between the two positions that they have set out.
The Government also continue to insist—I hope at some point they will stop, because it does not add to their credibility—that between now and the end of October this year, we can negotiate and reach agreement on all these things: trade in goods and services; security and foreign policy co-operation; policing; information sharing to fight terrorism; the regulation of medicines, aircraft and food safety; the transfer of data; the mutual recognition of qualifications; and our future role in the 30 trade agreements that the EU has negotiated on our behalf—and everything else—the Minister sitting there knows better anyone what a long list it is—and that we are going to get a final agreement by October, and by the way, even if things go well, the negotiations will not even start until March! That is why we do not know—the right hon. Member for Broxtowe was right—what will be on offer by the time we get to the end of the article 50 negotiations.
I conclude with the issue that the House is going to have to confront—and we had better start thinking now about how we are going to deal with it, because the House is going to have the final say: we are going to vote on the draft agreement. Before it does so, however, the House needs to make it clear that we will expect to know what our future relationship, when it comes to trade in goods and services, is going to be. The vague offer, come October, of a possible post-dated cheque for an unspecified agreement simply will not do. Ministers should not rely—I say this with all the force I can offer—on the House of Commons just accepting whatever they come up with, on the grounds that the alternative is no deal at all; it is not the only alternative, and if Ministers do not start exploring those alternatives pretty quickly and doing the analysis to support what the implications of those alternatives will be, they may well find that Parliament ultimately decides it will have to do it for them.
I call Rachel Maclean.
Oops. I call Mr Kenneth Clarke. You were not on my list, but you have just been added.
The Speaker got an ambiguous reply from me, and I will explain why in a moment, but first may I add my sympathies to those already expressed in the House, Mr Deputy Speaker, and say how delighted I am to see you back in the Chair?
I will explain why I hesitated when the Speaker asked me if I wanted to speak. First, I think—I will have to check—I agreed with every word that the right hon. Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn) just said. I was also hugely impressed by the speech made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry). I was not at all sure, therefore, if I would try to catch your eye, Mr Deputy Speaker, because I did not wish to detain the House by simply repeating the arguments they gave, as other people want to speak. By my standards, therefore, I hope I shall make what might be described as a long intervention—I usually intervene for longer than other people anyway.
I want to comment on the status of these economic analyses and how one should use economic analyses, and what has been presented here. Brexiteers make a great deal in their arguments, when they try to dismiss the documents we are all going to see, of the inaccuracy of some of the documents put out at the time of the referendum. There is no doubt that the authorities then put out forecasts, in good faith, in which they overestimated the short-term consequences of the vote. It has to be said that some of those campaigning on the remain side—David Cameron and George Osborne, I am afraid, who are both friends of mine—grossly exaggerated the material they had, such that the arguments on the remain side in the national media, at times, were almost as silly as those on the leave side—on the question of money for the health service or Turks coming to this country. It was a wholly unsatisfactory campaign.
We should not exaggerate how wrong those forecasts were. The vote to leave has already made this country poorer than it would have been. The living standards of many people in this country are lower now than they would have been had we voted to remain. The vote produced an unfortunate devaluation in the pound and a surge in inflation at a time when very many people’s wages could not follow it, and that has had consequences. On the lack of any policy, I would defend my Government’s not having a policy yet on what they are trying to negotiate by pointing out that the Opposition party does not either. The right hon. and learned Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer) wisely declined to answer the question of whether the Labour party was in favour of staying in the customs union because he has not a clue what the Labour party’s view will be once it has settled its internal arguments—but that is a diversion.
The fact remains that we have already damaged ourselves. We are experiencing some economic growth, although it is not benefiting every section of the population, but that is because the global economy is, to everybody’s surprise, doing rather better than was expected six months ago. There is global growth. No one is quite certain why. I am certainly not, but it is beginning to look quite strong—it is strong in the United States and the European Union, and it is not too bad out in China—and as always we are benefiting from that. It was unforeseeable when the forecasts were made last summer, but now we have this strong surge, and we do not know how sustained it will be. It all looks a little fragile—there are one or two uncertainties about—but it is lifting the British economy a little, and I am glad that it is. But, because of the impact of the referendum, growth in this country is pretty feeble compared with the rest. We are the laggard in the G7. We are the laggard among the European economies against which we normally match our performance. That is the damaging consequence of the vote cast in the referendum in 2016.
Does the Father of the House agree that the extraordinary actions taken by the Governor of the Bank of England in response to the vote are very poorly understood, which creates an even worse impression of the forecasts made beforehand?
Order. I must inform the House that there will be a six-minute limit after the current speech, and if people intervene I will have to bring it down further. I do not want to stop debate; I just want to warn everybody.
I agree entirely with the hon. Lady. The Governor actually lessened the impact that the Bank forecast by taking very prompt action to minimise the consequences. He would still agree with me, however, and has done publicly, that there has still be damage to the economy already, and he has tried to quantify the effect on GDP as a whole.
I will conclude with one last point—I said I would be short—about these forecasts. I hope we get more full information from the Government as events unfold and some impact assessments of their policy, once they have decided what it is, but it is almost inevitable that the impact will be detrimental to some extent. I know of very few economists who believe in market economics at all who would say that leaving the largest, richest multinational trading agreement in the world can be anything other than, to some degree, detrimental. I look forward to someone such as my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (John Redwood), with whom I often agree on economic policy, trying to explain to me how leaving the single market and customs union can have anything but a negative impact on the economy. How on earth can tariffs and customs barriers between us and our major market on the continent—the planning permission for those lorry parks, the recruiting of those thousands of staff—have a positive effect? How can regulatory divergence, which will damage trade, particularly in goods and services, have a positive effect? Whatever the best efforts of economists in these and future papers, they will be trying to measure the detrimental effects on the British economy that this step is bound to have. The country will be poorer if it pulls out of its present economic and trading relationships with the EU. It is our duty in this House, on a cross-party basis, to do what we can to minimise the damage.
Order. There is now a six-minute speaking limit. I call Emma Reynolds.
As ever, Mr Deputy Speaker, it is a pleasure and a privilege to serve under your chairmanship. It is also a pleasure to follow the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke).
In the referendum, people were asked to decide whether or not we should leave the European Union. They were not asked about the form that Brexit should take; that was not on the ballot paper. However, as was pointed out by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer), the choice now is about how we are to leave the European Union. There are many different options and models. We need to secure the best possible deal to protect people’s jobs and livelihoods, and we therefore need to pursue policies based on evidence, not ideology.
Let me say gently to Ministers that the debate which took place in our country about the EU referendum was one of the most divisive that I can remember. It divided the country pretty much straight down the middle. It divided cities, regions, rural areas and towns. It divided generations, and in some cases it divided families. I will admit that it divided my family: close family members voted to leave the EU, and we had many robust debates about it, although thankfully we did not fall out over it in the end.
Surely the role of the Government in the 19 months since the referendum should have been to try to unite the country again, to bring the country together, and to stand above the fray and do the right thing, rather than getting their hands dirty in the fray and levelling accusations at Members. I say to Ministers—not the thoughtful Minister from whom we heard today, but perhaps the Minister who spoke yesterday, the hon. Member for Wycombe (Mr Baker)—that they should not question the integrity of Members of this House. I see it as my duty, in representing the people of Wolverhampton North East, to ensure that leaving the European Union does not make them poorer. I will hold to that very firmly, and I will not be cowed by Ministers or any other Members who tell me that I am not acting in the national interest.
Some of the extremists—or Brextremists—on the Conservative Benches advance the same arguments day after day, week after week. If any of us dares to question the mess that the Government are in, we are told that we are acting against the national interest. If we ask what impact a certain model or option for Brexit will have on our constituents, we are told that we are betraying the will of the people. Ah—the other Minister, the hon. Member for Wycombe, has entered the Chamber at a very appropriate time.
If economists, or any other trade experts, warn about the consequences of leaving the customs union or the single market, they are told that they are always wrong and it is rubbish. I am afraid that we are descending into a position in which a Government are making decisions solely on the basis of ideology, and not on the basis of evidence.
My hon. Friend is making a very powerful and passionate speech. The report appears to highlight the fact that the biggest negative impact comes from the UK’s decision both to leave the customs union and to leave the single market, neither of which we have to do if we leave the European Union, and the fact is that both decisions were made without proper debate, scrutiny and the presenting of evidence in the House. Is that not interesting?
I agree with my hon. Friend. As the right hon. Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry) said earlier, those options were taken off the table soon after the referendum result. They were not debated very much in the House. There were no impact assessments, or economic analyses, whatever the difference between those may be. There was no discussion about the impact of leaving the customs union and leaving the single market. What will be the impact on the car industry in our country? What will be the impact on Jaguar Land Rover, which employs thousands of people in my constituency, and on Honda, whose representatives gave evidence to the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee? They said that if we left the customs union, the delays at the border would cost hundreds of thousands of pounds, and could lead to job losses. Why are we not listening to those people?
When the Secretary of State appeared before the Exiting the European Union Committee, we asked him about the automotive sector, and about the evidence presented to us by businesses. He said that
“existing trade associations tend to reflect the existing interests of existing factories, businesses and so on. They tend to be small-c conservative. In other words, they support the existing trade and do not think too much about future trade.”
Wow. Gosh. So we should not even bother to listen to the existing factories and existing businesses that employ tens of thousands of people throughout the country. Ideology will see the position in its own way. That is what we have been reduced to. If we follow the argument to its logical conclusion—my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral South (Alison McGovern) made this point—why should we bother to have the Treasury? Why should we bother to have a Budget? Why should we bother to set up the independent Office for Budget Responsibility? If we are going to rubbish all the experts all the time, we do not need to listen to anyone; we can simply follow our own ideology to its logical conclusion. I cannot believe that we have come to this, but we have.
Let me say this to the Government. We need a better analysis from them—a proper analysis—of the impact on the car industry of leaving the customs union. I am also very concerned to read in the leaked reports about the impact on my own constituency and my own region, the west midlands. This is a serious point. I want to know what more is behind the analysis that suggests that the midlands, Northern Ireland and parts of the north will be hardest hit, and I also want to know what exactly is the solution to keeping the border invisible between Northern Ireland and the Republic. When the Select Committee was in Dublin last week, we were told that the Government proposed that regulatory alignment, as agreed in December, would apply to 142 areas, not six, as the Secretary of State told the Committee.
I am afraid that the Government need to take this issue much more seriously. I am sick of the blunder. I am sick of the arrogance that tells us that everything will be okay. Where is the evidence that the trade agreements that the Government want to forge with other countries around the world will replace the jobs and the other benefits of the trade that we already have with our nearest neighbours in the European Union?
Let me begin, Mr Deputy Speaker, by associating myself with what has been said by Members in all parts of the House. We are so glad to see you back in your place.
I thank the Minister for coming to the House and agreeing to publish the statements. I think that, on the whole, transparency is a good thing. I also join in the praise that has been given to the civil servants. In my experience, they are fantastic. My daughter is a civil servant and I know how hard they work.
It is a shame that the right hon. and learned Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer), who has just left the Chamber, was unable to say, when pressed: whatever the results of those statements were, what would be the position of the official Opposition? I think we all accept that forecasts vary: they have a range of outcomes and a considerable degree of uncertainty is built into them. However, the official Opposition have been unable to say today what their position would be on the basis of the figures that appeared in any statement, whether the implications for the country were negative or positive. They are unable to tell the millions of people who voted for their party, including those in their constituencies, whether they would change their position. Would they, as a Liberal Democrat asked earlier, call for a second referendum? Would they call for us to go back into the European Union? They have been unable to say. I think that they are letting down their voters and I think that that is a shame.
I am a member of the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee. We have spent considerable time looking in detail at economic analysis covering a range of sectors. Let me say at the outset that I am not an ideologue. Indeed, I do not think that there is a label that describes me. I am definitely not a Brexiteer. I did not campaign on either side of the referendum and I was not in the House then. I ran a small business for more than 20 years before I came here. I spent my entire career working with other small businesses in Birmingham and the west midlands. I can say to Members in all parts of the House that, when running a business, there is no such thing as certainty. Certainty in business is an illusory concept. We are trying to get certainty from economic forecasts for the Government to set out a negotiating position. That is an inherently impossible position. There is no such thing as certainty—as any entrepreneur or small businessperson will say, if asked.
When my business went bust and we had to start it all over again, I did not expect the Government to give me certainty to start my business again. I just got on and did it because I had to pay the mortgage and feed my children. That is what businesses up and down this country do. They deal with ambiguity and make contingency plans.
Businesses always look at forecasts, do modelling, look at outcomes and then make investments accordingly and choose which option to take. What we are seeing from the Government is a lot of muddling and not much modelling.
The hon. Gentleman is right that businesses create forecasts, but they also understand and accept that in any forecast and in any market there is uncertainty and they have to develop contingency plans—alternative plans in order to make their business successful. If he were doing business with the United States under Donald Trump and wanted to export, does the hon. Gentleman think there would be certainty in that? I would argue that there is not, but many successful businesses trade with the United States.
The one thing businesses want—this is the message I and others have received for a very long time now—is certainty. Of course they know that things can change. Does my hon. Friend not accept that we are in a situation at the moment where British business is going to want to know absolutely that the transition arrangements are firm and will be met to give them that certainty by March? It is in March that they start to make their plans.
I thank my right hon. Friend for that intervention. Absolutely: when we have spoken to businesses in the Select Committee hearings, of course they want certainty, but the point I am making is that it cannot be provided, whether it is Brexit or not, in any economic situation to the extent that some people seem to want.
Does the hon. Lady not agree, however, that there is a difference between uncertainty in a macroeconomic climate and legal certainty about how we may be trading with our neighbours?
I agree that there are various areas where uncertainty can exist, but there is legal uncertainty when a business enters any new market or develops any new product. That always exists and businesses need to take that into account. The debate today seems to be about the need to provide certainty for businesses. It would be very desirable to provide certainty, but it cannot ever be done in quite the way suggested by forecasts and economic analysis.
I think it is agreed across the Chamber that we cannot create absolute certainty for absolutely every situation. This is why we have modelling, where uncertainties are already built in, and that is what we are talking about: different scenarios with different built-in possibilities and uncertainties. But that at least needs to be done, with the work published.
The hon. Lady is absolutely right, and I think the Government and the Minister have agreed to publish this, so businesses can look at it and form their own view. However, I am certain that every single business I know—small growing businesses—will look at that but not take it as being handed down on tablets of stone. They will seek a range of outcomes and make their plans based on that.
We clearly have a difficult task in these negotiations. It is a negotiation—it depends on both sides. There are calls in this House for the Government to set out exactly what is going to be achieved. Again, that cannot be done because so much depends on what the other side will do. It is a negotiation that involves two parties—two sides.
I started by saying that there is no label that comfortably sits on me. I am not driven by ideology. What I am driven by is, genuinely, the wisdom of our voters and constituents—the wisdom of crowds and the wisdom of democracy. We might not like it. It might make it very difficult for our Prime Minister and Government. They definitely have a difficult and extremely challenging task to deliver in the best interests of this country. My personal view is that I would like to back them to get on with it and deliver in the best interests of our constituents.