House of Commons
Thursday 1 February 2018
The House met at half-past Nine o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
Exiting the European Union
The Secretary of State was asked—
We are fully focused on making the UK’s exit from the EU and our new trading relationship with the world a success. We have set out proposals for an ambitious future relationship with the EU that minimises regulatory barriers for goods and services. Our partnership should be underpinned by high standards, a practical approach to regulation, trust in one another’s institutions and a shared spirit of co-operation.
Regulatory equivalence is about pursuing the same objectives, and as the Prime Minister outlined in her Florence speech, that could mean achieving the same goals by the same means or achieving the same goals by different means. It does not mean that we have to harmonise our rules with those of the EU. It is not a binary choice; we are proposing a bespoke, bold and ambitious free trade agreement between the UK and the EU, and we want to secure trade with Europe and with the wider world.
By more than 2:1, members of the Institute of Directors would prefer the UK to maintain regulatory alignment with the single market rules for goods and services, rather than actively seeking to diverge after Brexit. Is that the Government’s aim as well?
The Government have been talking to a wide range of industry groups and representative bodies of business, and we recognise that there are benefits in some areas of maintaining regulatory alignment and ensuring that we have the most frictionless access to European markets. Of course we are entering the negotiations on the future partnership, and we want to take the best opportunities to trade with Europe and the wider world.
The European Union has clearly and firmly set out its views on the options for these negotiations. Ministers so far have signally failed to provide any coherent response because they cannot agree among one another, and the Minister’s answers today underline that—whether the answer is regulatory equivalence or something different, we just do not know. How long will it be before the British Government have a coherent position to set out in these negotiations?
The Prime Minister has repeatedly set out a coherent position with regard to the future partnership we seek with the European Union. There was the Florence speech. My Secretary of State has been making speeches and the Chancellor has been making speeches, clearly setting out the UK’s objectives for these negotiations, and we look forward to achieving those objectives in the months to come.
The Minister will know that legal text has now been looked at in terms of the progress report in December and that the issue of regulatory alignment came up with that document. Can we be assured that nothing will be put into legal text that prejudices our interpretation—the Government’s interpretation—in relation to regulatory alignment?
The Government conduct an extremely broad range of work on EU exit issues and will continue to do so, which means that all decisions, including those on the EU customs union, are supported by many analyses. Leaving the customs union liberates the UK to establish new and fruitful trade deals with the rest of the world, as well as pursuing a new trading relationship with the EU that retains as frictionless a trade as possible in goods.
From that answer, it is clear that no assessment has been made. We have had it confirmed again this week that the north-east retail and manufacturing sector will be hardest hit in all scenarios. It is clear—is it not?—that nearly 200,000 workers in my region who work in these sectors are facing grim futures because of this Government’s inability to get their act together.
One advantage—although there are many—of leaving the customs union is that Britain can be a champion for global free trade again for the first time in 40 years. Free trade through mutually beneficial partnerships has historically ushered in productivity, innovation, consumer choice, growth and prosperity—something I hope that the hon. Lady will encourage.
I very warmly welcome my hon. Friend to her place. It is great to see a ray of sunshine, optimism and positivity from the Front Bench. What a shame that we do not see the same from the Opposition Benches. Is she surprised, as I am, that we are still discussing the customs union? The EU has ruled it out. The Prime Minister has ruled it out. The Leader of the Opposition—if not quite the shadow Secretary of State—has ruled it out. Why are we still talking about it?
My hon. Friend raises a very prescient point. The British people voted to leave the EU in their historic decision in 2016. In doing so, they instructed this Parliament to take us out of the EU customs union. That is exactly what the Prime Minister and this Government are doing.
The UK is the second largest market for cars in Europe, so it is clearly in both our interests to continue this partnership between our industries. Is it not encouraging that companies such as Jaguar Land Rover, Nissan, Toyota and McLaren have made significant investment decisions in the UK since the referendum? I am committed, with this Government, to ensuring as frictionless trade as possible, so that we can continue this fruitful arrangement and support this vital sector of our economy.
It may be that the Minister is not aware that, in fact, car production went down for the first time since 2009 and that investment in the industry has also gone down by £500 million. When will the Government confirm exactly what their plans are in relation to the customs union, so that companies that manufacture here know that their components can get safely into the United Kingdom and not get stuck in a traffic jam at Calais?
We are seeing a rise in manufacturing and in exports, and UK foreign direct investment is at a record high. The economy is doing very well, and there have been encouraging signs and votes of confidence in the UK economy since Brexit. As we enter the next phase of the negotiations, we want to ensure that the automotive sector benefits from any arrangement. That will be a priority for the Government.
We now know—no thanks to the Government—that all the analysis that the Government have done to date shows that Brexit is bad news. We know that the Prime Minister was shown that analysis a few days ago, and we know that the first thing she did was to jump on a plane to China. Will the Minister confirm the accuracy of the reports yesterday that the Government’s analysis also shows that their obsession with cutting EU migration will be seriously bad for the British economy?
We are in the middle of the negotiations, but when it comes to migration, it is clear that the UK will be committed to designing its own immigration policy, which is determined by skills, talent and brains. That is what will drive our economy forward, and that is what will create jobs and growth.
My question was whether yesterday’s report was correct. I take it from the Minister’s attempt to dodge the question that that report, like the previous ones, was entirely accurate. Given that the Government’s own analysis shows that leaving the European Union is bad news, leaving the customs union is bad news and leaving the single market is bad news—and now that we know that cutting immigration from the European Union is bad news—do the Government have any plans, at any time before Brexit day, to adopt a strategy that is based on facts and evidence, rather than on blind ideology?
The document to which the hon. Gentleman refers is not Government policy. It comes with significant caveats and is limited in nature. It is clear that there are significant benefits from our departure from the EU and the customs union. First, we have the chance to pursue our independent global trade policy and foster growing economic ties with fast-growing economies for the first time in 40 years. Secondly, we will be free from the common external tariff, which could lead to a drop in consumer prices for British citizens. Lastly, we have the golden opportunity to build a new customs arrangement with the EU that is world-leading and enables prosperity, jobs and growth.
Across the Government, we are planning for all outcomes, including the unlikely scenario in which no mutually satisfactory agreement can be reached. Given the success that we have had in securing an agreement in the first phase of negotiations, we are confident that we will go on to reach a swift agreement on an implementation period and a mutually beneficial future partnership with the EU. We approach the negotiations anticipating success and a good deal for both the UK and the EU.
Given DExEU’s propensity to rubbish the Government’s own research, will the Minister commission the independent Office for Budget Responsibility to model the budgetary and economic impacts of the four departure options—World Trade Organisation rules, a Canada-style deal, the Government’s free trade agreement proposal and joining the European Free Trade Association—and then release this modelling to Parliament?
As my hon. Friend knows, the OBR’s responsibilities are set out in legislation, and we do not have any plans to change them. I am glad that she mentions EFTA. A number of colleagues have raised EFTA with me. It would be important to have a further debate on EFTA if she would like to table one, because I would like to hear from colleagues what problems they believe that EFTA would solve in relation to our relations with the European Union, given that Swiss bilaterals have been ruled out and we are looking for our own bilateral relationships. We do not propose to join the European Economic Area, which would be a bad deal for the UK.
I know that the Secretary of State is an early riser, but did any of the other Ministers listen to the former Chancellor, George Osborne, on Radio 4 this morning? What are they going to say about what he says about the fact that this country, especially the manufacturing sector, is doomed outside the European Union?
I do not accept the premise of the hon. Gentleman’s question. Unfortunately, I did not have the opportunity to listen to the former Chancellor on Radio 4 this morning. [Interruption.] The Secretary of State says that he did. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for reminding me fondly of the time that I did listen to the former Chancellor on Radio 4, before I went on after him at the height of the campaign.
Does the Minister agree that it is important that we keep our skies as open as possible post Brexit? Can he provide any reassurance that he is engaging with the aviation sector to make sure that this industry can continue to thrive under any and all post-Brexit scenarios?
The BuzzFeed papers tell us that the regions most damaged by a no-deal Brexit would be the west midlands, Northern Ireland, and the north-east. The people of these regions deserve better. Will the Minister take the opportunity to make it clear to certain colleagues sitting behind him that they are wrong and irresponsible to be talking up or wishing for a no-deal outcome?
To answer the hon. Lady very directly on her last point, as I said earlier, it is our policy to seek a mutually beneficial, deep and special partnership with the European Union, embracing an economic partnership, among other things, and we are optimistic about achieving that outcome.
The Minister will not say it, but I will: they are wrong and they are irresponsible to be doing so.
As well as certain regions being hit hardest, certain sectors are threatened severely by a no-deal Brexit. For example, the food and drink industry exported £9.8 billion-worth of goods to the EU last year. Once and for all, will the Minister rule out a no-deal outcome, commit to a transition on current terms and give industry the certainty it needs?
I find the hon. Lady’s question peculiar. She seems to be suggesting that I would adopt something other than Government policy. It is the Government’s policy to secure an implementation period on current terms; it is the Government’s policy to secure an economic partnership; and of course it is the Government’s policy to be responsible and prepare to exit the European Union under whatever circumstances may prove necessary.
Non-UK EU Nationals
As the Prime Minister made clear in her open letter to EU citizens, we highly value the contributions they make to the UK’s economic, social and cultural fabric. Safeguarding the rights of EU citizens living in the UK and UK nationals living in the EU was a first priority for negotiations. This is a commitment we have delivered on. The agreement reached in December in the joint report gives those covered certainty not only about residency but healthcare, pensions and other benefits.
The 2011 census stated that 20% of Kensington and Chelsea’s population were EU nationals. In Kensington, we have three schools for Spanish and for French students. Families are living in fear of the uncertainty. With the discussions on EU citizens’ rights opening next week, will the Minister reassure my existing EU constituents that they will retain all their rights once we leave the European Union?
The hon. Lady should welcome the fact that we reached in the joint report agreement on the wide range of rights that I just described, and that does provide certainty. We want to work with colleagues at the Home Office to ensure there is a streamlined process for the new settled status that will come in under UK law, to secure those rights in the long term.
Is the Minister not concerned that the Prime Minister’s reported comments about the more limited access to rights that those arriving during transition will have may have a chilling effect on drawing the skills and talent to the UK that his colleague spoke of a minute ago, to meet the labour market gaps that we urgently need to fill in many sectors?
We have been clear that during the implementation period, EU citizens should be able to continue to visit, live and work in the UK as they do now, and we will use that period to prepare for the future partnership. There will be a new registration scheme for EU nationals in preparation for our future immigration system. The citizens’ rights agreement reached in December, set out in the joint report, gives certainty about the rights of EU citizens already here going forward, but the agreement does not cover those arriving after we leave the EU.
We will remain an open and tolerant country that recognises the valuable contribution of those with the skills and expertise to make our society better, but we will also control the overall number of migrants who come to the UK. As we leave the EU, we are seeking to form new ambitious trade deals around the world with trading partners anew. We will have control of our borders, and free movement as it has worked during our EU membership will end when we leave the EU.
European Court of Justice
In Florence five months ago, the Prime Minister set out a proposal for the implementation period under current terms, utilising the existing structure of European Union rules and regulations, including the European Court, for that time-limited period. That is necessary so that there is only one set of changes for businesses and people and minimum disruption. We are also clear that our priority will be getting the right arrangements for Britain’s relationship with the EU in the long term, out of the single market, out of the customs union and without direct jurisdiction of the European Court.
So the European Court will be deciding on issues in this country, and if British businesses want to continue doing trade with the rest of Europe, they will have to abide by all the rules of the single market, and British citizens will have fewer rights in the rest of Europe than they have now. In essence, the Government are turning us from being a proud partner with European colleagues into a vassal state. Will the Secretary of State propose that we hand them over some Danegeld as well?
As my right hon. Friend well knows, we are going into negotiation on this matter almost as we speak. During that period, my primary concern is any new laws coming into effect over which we have had no say, and we will aim to set up arrangements to ensure that they do not harm the United Kingdom.
After the Prime Minister’s Florence speech, the Under-Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, the hon. Member for Fareham (Suella Fernandes), who I welcome to the Front Bench, co-ordinated a letter from the European Research Group describing the Government’s policy on the transitional period as staying in the EU “by stealth”. She has not yet replied to my letter of 14 January, offering her the opportunity to retract that view. Does the Secretary of State agree that it is these divisions at the heart of the Government that jeopardise our negotiations? Will he confirm that all his Ministers support Government policy on the transition?
International Business Community
Ministers from across the Government have carried out extensive engagement on EU exit, in both the UK and the EU, with businesses and industry bodies from all sectors of the economy. Those include international businesses with a footprint in the UK and British businesses with interests in the EU. The Prime Minister chairs a quarterly business advisory council to hear directly from senior business leaders on the key issues across EU exit and the wider economy.
Coming from Coventry, which is the home of the UK motor industry, I have been delighted by the industry’s resurgence in recent years. Last year, however, it did see a fall in output of 3%, which was attributed by the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders to the need for clarity on Brexit transition. Given the importance of car manufacturing and its supply chain to the west midlands economy, what reassurance has the Minister been able to give the industry about the future relationship with our European partners?
I, too, am delighted about the resurgence to which my hon. Friend refers. It is precisely because of such requests and the result of such engagement with businesses that the Government’s proposals for an implementation period—promising the clarity needed to plan ahead—have been welcomed by various sectors of our economy. We and the EU want to agree the detail of the implementation by the end of March, making good as swiftly as possible on our promise of certainty. We are seeking a bold and ambitious economic partnership with the EU, with the greatest possible tariff and barrier-free trade arrangement with our European neighbours.
Businesses that I speak to in the north-east tell me of international investments that have been put on hold while companies try to work out what kind of Brexit this Government are actually going for. They do not want to make that public, so will the Minister tell me how she is engaging with international business to assess the impact of that on our economy, and indeed—because I forget what the story is today—whether such an assessment is going on?
I hope the hon. Lady listened to the Secretary of State’s very detailed presentation and speech on Friday in which he set out the terms of an implementation period and addressed exactly the issues that she raises now. The implementation period will provide a bridge and a platform for businesses to enable them to plan for the future, to give them the time that they need, and to enable them to plan on that basis for a prosperous future outside.
The services sector is of course the largest part of the British economy, and while the single market in services may not be complete, it is the deepest market in services anywhere on the globe. Will the Minister confirm that it is our intention that the full services sector will be included in our deep and special partnership?
My hon. Friend brings to the House her experience of the European Parliament, which we all value. As 80% of the UK economy is services-based, it is absolutely vital that we incorporate provisions relating to services in any new arrangement with the EU.
I was astonished to read in yesterday’s National Audit Office report on the equipment plan that the Ministry of Defence’s inability to hedge effectively against sterling fluctuations could cost up to £5 billion. Will the Minister advise us what DExEU is doing to support other Departments that are struggling with Brexit as they engage with the international community?
As I have said, there is considerable engagement with the international business community. The Prime Minister herself chairs a business advisory council to hear directly from senior business leaders on key issues. On cross-departmental engagement, there is considerable work and engagement across all Whitehall Departments to prepare for all outcomes from these negotiations.
We have been working closely with the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs on support for farmers. The Government will provide the same cash total in funds for farm support until the end of the Parliament. We of course continue to work closely with a range of stakeholders across the farming industry and beyond, as well as with the devolved Administrations.
Yes. Once we have left the EU, we will be able to redesign our agriculture policy so that farmers are competitive, productive and profitable, and our environment is protected for future generations. My right hon. Friend the Environment Secretary eloquently sets out the flaws in the common agricultural policy and how the UK Government can do so much better outside the EU.
The Minister referred to us leaving the common agricultural policy. Can he clarify when farmers will no longer be subject to it, and when our fishing industry will no longer be subject to the common fisheries policy? Will it be when we leave the EU next March, or is it more likely to be at the end of a transition period?
My hon. Friend raises an important point. I know from meeting fishermen and women that in some cases they are very impatient indeed to leave the common fisheries policy—rightly so. It is a matter for negotiations, and we hope and expect to achieve clarity very soon.
Securing favourable trading conditions will be just as important for the future of our farmers, including those who reflect distinct characteristics of the industry across the UK. Will the Minister confirm what role the devolved Administrations will play in formulating our position?
They will play an important role, and we will continue to engage with the hon. Gentleman. I am very conscious of agricultural tariffs—the common external tariff and tariffs around the world. It is in all our interests to ensure tariff-free access to and from European markets as we reach our deep and special partnership.
Customs Union: Free Trade Agreements
Remaining in the customs union would prevent the UK from striking new free trade deals and setting new tariffs on goods from countries outside the EU. By leaving the customs union and building a new customs arrangement with the EU, we will be able to forge new trade arrangements with our partners around the world while ensuring that trade in goods between the UK and the EU is as frictionless as possible.
One of the most exciting opportunities that will become available when we leave the customs union is that of establishing a free port at Teesport, as the Secretary of State and the Minister saw for themselves last week. Will the Minister confirm that the Government will give serious consideration to this excellent idea, which will put rocket boosters under my local economy?
I thank my hon. Friend and the Mayor of Tees Valley for welcoming the Secretary of State and me to Teesport last Friday. My hon. Friend has been an indefatigable voice for his constituents since his election to Parliament last year. It was a pleasure to meet some of the 100 business representatives who were present when the Secretary of State made his speech last Friday. Teesport is an opportunity for global Britain, and a gateway to the world—an example of our forward-thinking, independent trade policy. When we leave the EU customs union, we will have the opportunity to create our own trading policy to benefit Teesport and other areas. I sincerely hope that the free port proposal on the table will be one of the options explored.
As my hon. Friend will know well, in Harrow, we have a thriving Indian diaspora, whose members are desperate to encourage trade between the UK and India. Will she ensure that, during the negotiations, they will not be held back from improving trade between India and the UK by artificial trade barriers between those countries?
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for his lifelong advocacy for the British Asian community, not least in the 1990s when he encouraged my mother to stand as a local councillor—you could say, Mr Speaker, that my hon. Friend is to blame for my being here today.
Leaving the EU offers us the opportunity to forge a new role for ourselves in the world. The Prime Minister’s first bilateral visit outside Europe was to India, which is very telling. It was encouraging that the Indian Finance Minister visited the UK for the year of culture launch in February last year. I am optimistic about the opportunities that leaving the customs union and the EU presents for UK-India relations.
Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs is launching a new customs declaration service, which is due to go live in January 2019. Has it been designed to deal with the fourfold increase in customs declarations that will be required post Brexit?
The customs infrastructure is going through the upgrade that the hon. Gentleman mentions, and that is on track and on target. I am looking forward to the opportunity to build on our customs regimes so that we have a customs and excise framework that sets the standard for the world.
Phase 2 Negotiations
It is not for the UK to accept or reject the European Union’s directives. This is its mandate for negotiations, and we have our own set of objectives. In my speech last Friday, I set out our position on what we would like to see in the implementation period, and we look forward to continuing the discussion with our European Union counterparts. Let me be clear: that work has not stopped. Following the declaration of insufficient progress in December, officials have continued technical discussions on separation issues, Northern Ireland and governance arrangements. I will shortly meet Mr Barnier to continue to the process.
For workers who arrive during the transition period under existing freedom of movement rules, what arrangements will the Government make to ensure that workers who are crucial to industries in Scotland, such as fisheries, social care and hospitality, and who do not meet tier 2 visa requirements, are not simply sent home at the end of the transition period?
We will be discussing in some detail with the European Union the treatment of people after our actual departure from the Union. The hon. Gentleman must take it as read, as I have said several times, that they will be treated properly, that we will not do anything to undermine our economy, and that we will do everything possible to ensure that the industries he talked about are supported.
The Secretary of State and his junior Ministers keep saying that they want a bespoke deal. When are they going to set out what that actually means? When are they going to tell us what the elements of that bespoke deal will be, and when will they cost the bespoke deal’s implications for the economies of these islands? When?
There can be few policies that have been talked about more by Prime Ministers than this one. There have been two major speeches—Lancaster House and Florence—and two White Papers, and something like 15 Bills will be going through this House over the course of the Parliament, so the House will not be unaware of all aspects of the bespoke deal. We have also made very plain what we see as different in what we are seeking from other deals. For example, we are aiming for the free trade agreement to be comprehensive and tariff-free. On the customs agreement, we are aiming for the most frictionless one possible—we have a variety of proposals that we talked about in front of the Select Committee on that—and the House will be kept fully informed. On the costing, as we have said, I think on Monday, we will of course release all the information necessary once it is no longer sensitive to the negotiations, but before the House makes a decision.
“Scotland’s Place in Europe”
I have seen the report that the question refers to, and I know that the Secretary of State for Scotland discusses the Scottish Government’s priorities with them regularly at the Joint Ministerial Committee (EU Negotiations). There is considerable common ground between us on what we want to get out of the process, such as making sure that Scottish universities and business have access to the best of European talent, but it is disappointing that the report does not take the threat of a second independence referendum off the table, as doing so would be in the interests of Scotland.
The Minister will be aware that the figures in “Scotland’s Place in Europe” very much mirror those that were leaked earlier this week. In Scotland, the difference is that the Scottish National party Government do proper analysis and publish it. The analysis says that there will be a hit to GDP of 8.5% and that £2,300 a year will be lost for each person in Scotland. How many jobs have to be lost or under threat before this Government realise that they must back membership of the single market and the customs union?
The Government are seeking a successful deal for the whole UK, including Scotland. Four times as much of Scotland’s business is with the UK as with the rest of Europe. The worst thing for Scottish jobs and businesses would be to split up our United Kingdom.
Last week, the Scotch Whisky Association expressed concerns at the SNP policy of keeping Scotland in the single market. What assurances can my hon. Friend give to companies and people in my constituency that we are trying to get access to the single market, but that we will also have the right to do deals elsewhere in the world so that we take forward Scotland’s economy, rather than holding it back like Opposition Members?
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point in speaking up for his constituents and the businesses within it. I have met the Scotch Whisky Association on a number of occasions to discuss the global opportunities for Scotch whisky. We must ensure that we have the flexibility to take them.
Customs Union: Automotive Sector
The Government have been conducting a broad overall programme of work on EU exit issues and will continue to do so. That means that all decisions, including those relating to the customs union and the automotive sector, are supported by a range of analytical work. We want our deep and special partnership with the EU to include the automotive industry. We want to ensure that trade is as free and frictionless as possible, with minimum disruption to the industry. The UK remains the second-largest market for cars in Europe, so it is in both our interests to continue the partnership between our industries. I know that the Vauxhall car plant in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency is extremely important, and I look forward to visiting it soon.
As the Minister knows, the Vauxhall plant in my constituency is fighting for its survival. Vauxhall’s parent company, PSA, has said that it is not prepared to make any long-term investment decisions until there is clarity about the final trading arrangements, and, having heard what Ministers have said this morning, I am not sure we will get that any time soon. Can the Minister at least guarantee that the trading arrangements for the automotive sector will be no less favourable than they are now?
The Government understand that Vauxhall’s decision was a commercial one, taken as a result of challenging European market conditions. Vauxhall has made it clear that the decision was made to safeguard the competitiveness of the plant. The Government maintain close ongoing dialogue with Vauxhall and its parent group, PSA, as they make their joint plans for the future, including potential investments. Ministers have met senior management representatives of PSA and Vauxhall regularly throughout the process, and will continue to do so.
I hope and expect that as we progress through our negotiations, agree on an implementation period and then move on to our economic partnership, the hon. Gentleman will find that an accelerating degree of certainty emerges.
The port of Immingham in my constituency is vital to the automotive sector. Further to the answer given by the Under-Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, the hon. Member for Fareham (Suella Fernandes), about Teesport and free ports, may I ask whether the Minister is prepared to meet me to discuss the possibility of Immingham’s becoming a free port post Brexit?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that suggestion. Of course I will meet him and other colleagues to discuss it, but I should add that as this conversation has proceeded, certain misgivings have been expressed about free ports. We must ensure that any free port proposal is capable of giving the country the security that it needs.
The “Right by Right” memorandum clarifies the way in which human rights will continue to be protected in domestic law after the UK has exited the EU. Under both the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill and existing domestic law, all substantive rights reaffirmed in the charter of fundamental rights will continue to be protected after exit. The Government’s assessment is that, in itself, not incorporating the charter in UK law should not affect the substantive rights from which people in the UK already benefit.
The Brexit Secretary has labelled employment regulations as “crippling”, the Foreign Secretary has described them as “back-breaking”, and the International Trade Secretary has said that rules on maximum working hours are a “burden”. Will the Minister tell us why the Government are so readily prepared to undermine the promise to enhance workers’ rights as we leave the EU?
During our consideration of the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill in Committee, concerns were repeatedly raised that critical environmental rights and protections could be cast aside as we exit the EU. If the Government are serious about raising, not lowering, those rights and protections after Brexit, why have they so far failed to introduce an ambitious new environment Bill, but are instead, as we now know from the leaked papers, commissioning analysis suggesting that Brexit could present an opportunity to deregulate in such areas?
The purpose of the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill is to preserve the effect of EU law on the day after exit day, so far as that is possible. Its purpose is to provide certainty, continuity and control rather than policy changes. The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has laid out his policy clearly, and I look forward to his presenting a Bill in due course.
As I have said before, the duration of the implementation period should be in the region of two years, and the Commission’s position indicates a period of similar length: so far it has talked about 21 months. The aim on both sides is to give individuals, businesses and Governments time to plan and initiate the changes that must be made to allow a smooth and orderly transition, and to secure the best possible outcome for the United Kingdom.
I will do my best, Mr Speaker.
The EU has made it clear that EU citizens coming to the UK during the transition period should be eligible for settled status; the Prime Minister says they will not be eligible. Is that a red line, or are the Government willing to compromise on that? I thought nothing was agreed until everything was agreed.
The hon. Gentleman is right that nothing is agreed until everything is agreed, but in the joint report that we concluded and got agreement on in December the EU agreed that the transition date, or end date for ongoing permanent residence rights—not possibilities, but rights—will be March 2019.
At the General Affairs Council on Monday the European Council agreed its negotiating directives on the implementation period. Now that the Commission has a clear negotiating mandate we hope to move quickly to begin detailed discussions on the implementation period. Given the alignment in our positions we are confident we can reach political agreement by March. There remain a number of areas that we now need to discuss with the EU to ensure the period operates smoothly. We look forward to progressing substantive discussions.
As to the right hon. Gentleman’s opening remark, as he is an intelligent and well-informed person it is amazing that he does not differentiate between a £100 billion demand and a £35 billion outcome; that seems to have been a somewhat useful exercise by the Government.
As for the next stage, there is a negotiation to be undertaken. There is a variety of important areas, but the primary area for me is the question of our right to sign trade deals during the implementation period so we can bring them into force immediately after we leave. That is a massive advantage for the United Kingdom to have.
Businesses in my constituency tell me that continued membership of the single market and customs union during the transition period will help them safeguard jobs, yet the Prime Minister on 18 December ruled this out. What have the Prime Minister and Secretary of State got against the employment of people in Bristol West?
With the greatest respect to the hon. Lady, the purpose of the implementation period, which was asked for by just about every business organisation, is to ensure they face stability in the couple of years in the run-up to the conclusion of the future relationship. That is what is going to happen, and that is why companies and the CBI and others welcomed it when we announced it.
As we accelerate the pace of our negotiations with the European Union, I gave a speech last Friday to lay out the terms of the implementation period for our new relationship. This period, a bridge to the future, will be strictly time-limited and see a continuation of existing structures and rules. We will no longer be a member of the EU, which is a legal requirement for signing a new trade treaty, while still ensuring the continuity of our businesses and their trading relationships. We will use this period to ensure we are best placed to grasp the opportunities of Brexit, and that will mean signing new free trade deals with countries around the world.
Given reports today of a huge gap between the UK and the EU on how financial services will be able to be traded freely in a post-Brexit environment, can the Secretary of State set out exactly how he sees this trade operating successfully in future, and exactly how he plans to protect the jobs of the 1.1 million people in the UK who work in this sector?
First, not only have we not yet engaged in the future relationship negotiation, but the EU has not yet decided its own negotiating guidelines. They will, we expect, be laid down by the March Council on 22 March, and to that end I am talking to every member state that I can in order to ensure that we are at the same place on this issue, rather than having, as the hon. Lady terms it, “a huge gap”. Indeed, at the end of these questions I am going to Luxembourg for specifically that issue.
The duration of the implementation period should be around two years. Only when the UK is no longer a member state can we take advantage of our status as an independent trading nation. As such, the UK will negotiate our own free trade agreements but not bring them into effect until after the implementation period has concluded. For this period, we will agree a process for discussing laws that might be brought in, on which we have not had our say. This will give us the means to remedy any issues through dialogue as soon as possible.
There have been lots of questions this week about the leaked EU exit analysis Whitehall briefings, but this is the first chance I have had to ask the Secretary of State about it directly, so I will choose my words carefully. Can the Secretary of State confirm when he first knew that economic modelling work on Brexit scenarios was being undertaken across Whitehall?
Actually, the right hon. and learned Gentleman does not have to ask me; he should read the book. In addressing the Select Committee on 6 December last year, I said in terms:
“We will at some stage—and some of this has been initiated—do the best we can to quantify the effect of different negotiating outcomes as we come up to them. Bear in mind that we have not started phase 2 yet. In particular, we will try to assess, in bigger categories, the effect of various outcomes in financial services and in terms of the overarching manufacturing industry, agriculture and so on. We will do that a little closer to the negotiating timetable.”
I say that because I read with great interest in Hansard and elsewhere this morning various reports about my being traduced, so I thought that I should tell the House that actually I told the Select Committee that this work was under way last December.
I think it follows that in December the Secretary of State knew that this modelling was going on. Can he confirm when he was first talked through the economic modelling of the Brexit scenarios by his Department—not when he told others, but when he was talked through it?
Let me say something on that as well. One of the things that the right hon. and learned Gentleman has been trying to pretend over the course of the last few days is that somehow my colleagues have been critical of the civil servants doing this job, because the outcome is as yet a work in progress—[Interruption.] That is what it is: a work in progress. I say that because we are trying to do something that is incredibly difficult. Every institution that has tried it has failed—[Hon. Members: “Answer the question!”] I am going to answer the question. Every forecast that has been made about the period post-referendum has been wrong. As I told the Select Committee, the Bank of England—the best forecasting organisation in the business—forecast for 2017 a reduction in exports, but there was growth of 8.3%. It also forecast a reduction of 2% in business investment, but it grew by 1.7%. It forecast a reduction in housing investment, flat employment growth, and growth of 0.5% versus 1.1% being the outcome. What has been going on is an attempt to find a way of getting a better outcome. In those terms, I talked to my own Department and the cross-departmental group in early January on this matter.
This is an important issue. We need to ensure that Europe continues to protect its security and diversity of supply, and that is something on which we will continue to work with colleagues at the Foreign Office and at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.
As a chartered aerospace engineer, this subject is close to my heart. Aviation is crucial to the UK’s economy, and we are committed to getting the best deal possible for the UK. We are focused on securing the right arrangements for the future, so that our aviation and aerospace industries can continue to thrive, that passengers can have opportunity and choice, and that businesses can be profitable. We will seek the right customs arrangements between the UK and the EU to ensure that trade is free and frictionless and that businesses can succeed.
I am happy to reassure my hon. Friend on that point. The British people voted to leave the EU—17.5 million of them—in the biggest mandate in our history, and we are committed to respecting the result of the referendum. The Government have undertaken a wide range of ongoing analysis to ensure that we get the best deal for the British people in our EU exit negotiations, but whichever outcome we choose to negotiate for—most of that has been chosen—it will involve leaving the EU and respecting that democratic mandate.
No, I do not. As I explained earlier, one of the great difficulties with such forecasts is that they have proved to be entirely wrong at every turn so far, and that is not just the view of a politician. The smartest and most innovative economist in the country is probably the deputy Governor of the Bank of England, Andrew Haldane, who referred to the forecasts as having faced a “Michael Fish” moment—in other words, they must find out why they did not work. A forecast is not evidence to be relied upon. It may be an opinion, but it is not evidence.
We have met representatives of the chemicals industry on several occasions. At the most recent meeting, we had constructive conversations that ended positively. We will ensure that we carry through the positions that we have set out, particularly in relation to goods on the market, and we hope to preserve continued registration of chemicals under REACH. We will of course seek to ensure that our deep and special partnership covers the chemicals industry, so that it can flourish after we leave the EU.
Will the Minister confirm that it is possible for non-EU countries to access only three of the single market’s four freedoms, specifically the free movement of goods, capital and services, without being required to accept freedom of movement, as can be seen with the association agreement countries? Is the Department currently looking at that type of arrangement?
My hon. Friend makes an extremely good point. Trade continues all around the world on a free and fair basis, particularly under free trade agreements. It is our expectation and intention to secure a free trade agreement of unprecedented scope and ambition, which should meet just the criteria that she sets out.
The Under-Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, the hon. Member for Worcester (Mr Walker), told the House yesterday that the document that I hope will shortly be handed over to the Exiting the European Union Committee
“does not yet reflect this Government’s policy approaches”—[Official Report, 31 January 2018; Vol. 635, c. 834.]
Given that the Secretary of State has just claimed from the Dispatch Box that everybody knows what the Government’s position is, will the Minister explain why lots of analysis has been done of the options that the Government do not want when apparently no analysis has yet been done of the option that the Government do want?
As I said when I answered the urgent question on Tuesday, the Government cannot control the timing of leaks. The preliminary analysis is a work in progress that does not yet reflect the Government’s policy. Once the analysis has been carried through, I am sure that it will do.
Order. I was about to say that the hon. Gentleman chunters from a sedentary position, but he almost yells from a sedentary position his expression of sympathy for the former Chancellor of the Exchequer. I am sure the former Chancellor of the Exchequer will bear with stoicism and fortitude not being directly referenced by the representatives of the Treasury Bench.
Will the Under-Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Mr Baker), confirm that he heard from Charles Grant of the Centre for European Research that officials in the Treasury have deliberately developed a model to show that all options other than staying in the customs union are bad, and that officials intend to use the model to influence policy? If that is correct, does he share my view that it goes against the spirit of the Northcote-Trevelyan reforms that underpin our independent civil service?
I am sorry to say that my hon. Friend’s account is essentially correct. At the time I considered it implausible because my direct experience is that civil servants are extraordinarily careful to uphold the impartiality of the civil service. We must proceed with great caution in this matter, but I have heard him raise the issue. We need to be very careful not to take this forward in an inappropriate way, but he has reminded me of something that I heard. It would be quite extraordinary if it turned out that such a thing had happened.
I did not say it was correct. I said that the account that it was put to me is correct. It was put to me, and I considered it an extraordinary allegation—I still consider it an extraordinary allegation. [Interruption.] To be absolutely clear, I said it was correct that the allegation was put to me. I did not in any way seek to confirm the truth of it. What I would say is that we need to proceed with great caution, because it is essential that we continue to uphold and support the impartiality of the civil service.
Every day hundreds of trucks criss-cross the channel carrying vital components for the British car industry’s highly integrated supply chain. What assessment has the Minister made of the impact on that travel of customs delays, tariffs and extra bureaucracy if we come out of the customs union?
Can the Minister reassure me that upcoming negotiations with the EU on future migration arrangements will prioritise the needs of UK science and research, allowing the two-way flow of talent that is vital for our top universities, such as York University in my constituency?
I am happy to give my hon. Friend that reassurance. We have been having some very useful meetings with the science and universities sector to talk about its needs in that respect. We want to ensure that the UK continues to be able to attract the brightest and the best from around Europe and around the world.
On 11 January Lord Callanan visited Bristol, and he made a promise to Hartcliffe residents in my constituency that there would be more jobs after Brexit. Had he been briefed by the Department on the true state of the modelling analysis when he made that promise to those people?
As I told the House earlier, every forecasting model of the post-referendum performance of the British economy by every major organisation—the banks, Government organisations and, indeed, international organisations—has proven wrong. One of the ways they have been proven wrong is because employment in this country has grown, despite all the forecasts, to record levels today. We will be seeking to do the best we can to ensure that that growth record is maintained.
We have had meetings. My Department alone has had meetings with 350 companies, not all in steel, but in all the user industries. We have a regular meeting between the Chancellor, the Business Secretary, myself and leading business representative organisations, and of course we talk directly to the individual companies.
(Urgent Question): To ask the Minister for the Cabinet Office and the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster to make a statement on the risk to public finances and public services as a result of the serious financial concerns at Capita, and on the Government’s contingency plans.
I have been asked to comment on the stock market update issued by Capita plc yesterday and its impact on the delivery of public services. I completely understand that this is a matter of significant interest to many in the House following the recent failure of Carillion, but I can assure Members that this company is in a very different situation. To be clear, this announcement was primarily a balance sheet strengthening exercise, not purely a profit warning. As has been widely reported, the company has significant cash reserves on its balance sheet. We do not believe that Capita is in any way in a comparable position to Carillion. Furthermore, Capita has a very different business model, and if the House will allow me, I will give an update on that.
The issues that led to the insolvency of Carillion will come out in due course, but our current assessment is that they primarily flowed from difficulties in construction contracts, including those overseas. By contrast, Capita is primarily a services business, and 92% of its revenues come from within the UK. As Members would expect, we regularly monitor the financial stability of all our strategic suppliers, including Capita. As I said, we do not believe any of them are in a comparable position to Carillion. The measures Capita has announced are designed to strengthen its balance sheet, reduce its pension deficit and invest in core elements of its business. Arguably, those are exactly the measures that could have prevented Carillion from getting into the difficulties it did. Of course, the impact of these measures has been to reduce dividends and shareholder returns in favour of others, so this is further evidence of shareholders and not the taxpayer taking the burden on this.
As I have said, my officials met senior Capita executives yesterday to discuss the impact of the announcement. We continue to work closely with the company to monitor the execution of its plan and to ensure the continued delivery of public services. We continue to engage with all our strategic suppliers and make continuing assessments of our contingency plans, where necessary. It would not be appropriate for me to comment in any further detail on the specifics of those contingency plans, given their commercial sensitivity. But let me reiterate that the priority of this Government, and the reason why we contract with these companies, is to deliver public services, and our priority is the continued delivery of those services. As Members will have seen in respect of the collapse of Carillion, whatever the shortcomings there public services continue to be delivered, and we are confident that public services will continue to be delivered as provided by Capita.
I thank the Minister for his response, but I cannot help but conclude that the Government’s thinking on this is both muddled and complacent. He has told us that the situations at Capita and Carillion are completely different, but let us look in more detail at the circumstances of both companies: both have debts of more than £1 billion and pensions deficits in the hundreds of millions; both paid out dividends of more than £1 billion in the past five years; both rely on the public purse for half of their contracts; both were audited by KPMG; and both grew through acquisition and not through organic growth. It seems there are more similarities than differences between these two companies.
I join the Minister in welcoming the decision by the new Capita chief executive officer to face up to some of these problems with a rights issue and the suspension of dividends. But can the Minister honestly say that Capita could not come to the same fate that Carillion did just two weeks ago, that people working for Capita have nothing to fear, and that those saving prudently for a pension with Capita can rely on that pension paying out fully on retirement? Can he say to people who rely on Capita to carry out basic public services, such as the electronic tagging of offenders or the billion-pound contract with the NHS, that they can count on it to fulfil its contractual obligations for the life of those contracts?
I have some specific questions about what happens now. What is the contingency planning? Do the Government have representatives in the business, including a Crown representative? How long have the Government been aware of the problems at Capita, and how many contracts have been issued to it since then? What specific risk assessment have the Government made of other large outsourcing firms? Capita is currently bidding for the Defence Fire Risk Management Organisation contract. Will the Government now review that process and reconsider the decision to outsource that and other services they are currently looking to offload?
Will the Government commit to urgently reviewing what looks like a cosy and complicit relationship between the big accountancy firms, the Financial Reporting Council and the corporates they are supposed to be auditing? Is it not now time to split up the big accountancy firms and stop auditors being paid for other consultancy work at the firms they are supposed to be auditing? Capita has announced a fire sale of assets. Will the Minister confirm that Capita is in consultation with the trade unions and its workforce about redundancies and TUPE arrangements in the event that services are sold off?
Jobs, pensions, small businesses and vital public services now depend on these outsourcing companies, but it is time we rethought the whole strategy for public service provision. How many more warning signs do the Government need?
I thank the hon. Lady for her questions. I know she takes a close interest in this important issue. She has raised a large number of questions, and I shall seek to address as many of them as I can. I am pleased that she has acknowledged that Capita is facing up to its problems. Indeed, that creates a contrast with Carillion. She talked about the financial situation of Carillion versus Capita. The chief executive of Capita has faced up to this and strengthened its balance sheet—it has been widely reported that Capita has more than £1 billion on its balance sheet—which shows that the situation is significantly different from that at Carillion and gives us confidence in its ability to continue to deliver services.
The hon. Lady talked about dividends. Again, as a result of this announcement, Capita will not be issuing dividends, which means that money can go back into the pension scheme, allowing £200 million extra to be spent on the company’s core services, rather than dividends. That is evidence that the chief executive has understood the position and is creating a different situation from that which pertained to Carillion. She raised an important point about the major accountancy firms, such as KPMG, involved in this market. The Financial Reporting Council is looking into this matter. We expect to hear from it in about six months, and we will, of course, respond as appropriate. On her question about a Crown representative, I can assure her that there is one in Capita.
I explained in my original answer the role of the Cabinet Office and the Government and the reason that we contract with private companies. The previous Labour Government and other Governments did the same. As has been reported many times, a third of Carillion’s live contracts were agreed by the last Labour Government, a third by the coalition and a third by the current Government. Governments do this to deliver public services. Our role, as a Government, is to ensure the continued delivery of those public services, and the test for me and my colleagues and officials in the Department is this: is the company capable of delivering those public services, and if there is a problem with the company, will those public services continue to be delivered? In respect of Carillion, Members will have seen that all those public services have continued to be delivered, and I am confident that they will continue to be delivered.
Will my hon. Friend look at the total contempt that the Labour party has for the private sector today? Will he take the time to publish, in due course, a full list of all the contracts with the private sector that were entered into between 1997 and 2010? That will provide a fine example of how the Labour party of today is nothing like the Labour party of that period when they were in government.
My right hon. Friend makes an important point. This Government, and the previous Government, have engaged with private sector companies for the delivery of public services. Gordon Brown, Labour’s last successful Prime Minister—[Interruption.] Well, he was the last Labour Member to hold the office. May I take the opportunity to correct the record on that, Mr Speaker? Gordon Brown said:
“It simply would not have been possible to build or refurbish such a number of schools and hospitals without using the PFI model.”—[Official Report, 14 November 2007; Vol. 467, c. 665.]
Why is it that we use these contractors? Because we know that they can deliver. Labour’s position is slightly confused. Is it honestly now Labour’s position that we should not use the private sector at all? Is the state going to start building roads again? Where does Labour draw the line? It is complete confusion.
Order. I am keen to accommodate the substantial interest in this matter, but may I remind the House that there is the business question to follow, and thereafter two debates to take place under the auspices of the Backbench Business Committee? I am anxious that time for those debates should not be artificially truncated, so pithy questions and pithy answers, please, and we will make progress.
I will take your advice, Mr Speaker.
Only two weeks ago, I warned that there was a danger that this whole outsourcing problem would become a set of dominoes, with one falling after another. I believe the House will conclude that the Government’s behaviour in response, and the Minister’s response today, has been marked by indifference to corporate mismanagement, incompetence in office and complacency in the face of a crisis.
The Minister will not tell the House, but I will: Capita was given 154 Government contracts last year. Only last week, Carillion contracts were being re-brokered to Capita, yet the company was clearly in trouble. Share values were plummeting and profit warnings were being issued. There was short selling on the stock market and allegations against Capita of fraud in the handling of public contracts. Yesterday, Capita’s total value on the exchange was barely much more than its total debt. The company is in serious trouble. It is a familiar tale of woe, with strong echoes of Carillion.
We want to know that the Government’s contingency plans in relation to Capita will assure jobs for current employees and protect the pensions of those employees and the pensions of the public sector workers that the company is managing. Will the Minister confirm that the public services that Capita manages will be protected in the event of a corporate disaster? Does the Government’s contingency plan allow for that? What will be the common impact of the problems at Carillion, and now Capita, on the spiralling costs of HS2? Does the Minister agree with the Opposition that not a single penny should be used to prop up badly managed outsourcing companies?
The Government are blind to the corporate greed of these outsourcing companies. Does the Minister agree that it is clear that, as the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, the hon. Member for Bracknell (Dr Lee), said only the other day, the Government should be driven by the “evidence, not dogma” on outsourcing?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his questions, the core of which was about support for outsourcing companies. He said we should not provide a penny more to prop up badly managed outsourcing companies. Indeed, that is exactly what we did in respect of Carillion. We took the decision that this was a private company and should bear the loss. That is why shareholders in Carillion are unlikely to get more than a few pennies in the pound back for their investment. The private sector has taken the risk, but the job of the Government is to ensure the continued delivery of those public services—to ensure that the dinner ladies get paid, that the hospitals get cleaned, and that the railways continue to be built. That is exactly what we did in respect of Carillion and it is exactly what our contingencies involve for all our strategic suppliers. That is the test for the Government: can we ensure the continued delivery of those public services, and can those public services continue to be delivered?
The hon. Gentleman made a point about pensions. The fact that Capita has embarked on this course of restructuring means that it is effectively choosing to switch resources away from the continued payment of dividends and towards pension funds. That should give pensioners confidence in respect of that pension fund. He also asked about jobs, and again, the restructuring can give confidence about the continuing delivery of those jobs.
I keep coming back to the same point. This is a private company and the interest of the Government is to ensure the continued delivery of those public services, and those public services continue to be delivered. That takes me back to Labour’s position. What Labour seems to be suggesting is that the private sector has no role in public life, and that the level of small and medium-sized businesses working for the Government should be zero. If that is not Labour Members’ position, are they going to tell us where they choose to draw the line? Labour has gone from pumping billions of pounds into private companies for the delivery of public services when Gordon Brown and Tony Blair were Prime Minister, to saying that they should not have a penny. Some clarity would be helpful, because otherwise people may draw the conclusion that there is more than an element of opportunism here.
I thank my hon. Friend for that question, and this is an important point about profit warnings. A profit warning does not mean that a company is imminently going to collapse. A profit warning is a warning to the markets that its results will not be in line with what it had previously thought. If every time that a company issued a profit warning, we as a Government said that we would cease to contract with them, there would be very few companies we could contract with. I will not name leading companies, because I do not want to influence their market value, but I could name a huge list of FTSE 100 companies that routinely issue profit warnings. That does not mean that they are about to disappear.
For the second time in two weeks, we are discussing a private firm, responsible for the delivery of vital services, that has caught us cold with a profit warning. Will the Minister now acknowledge that there is a role for a proper public sector? Will the Government now start to roll back on the privatisation agenda that they and the previous Labour Government obsessed about? Can we look forward to a proper plan for taking public services back into the public sector? And will he now acknowledge that public sector employees should deliver public services?
Of course we acknowledge that there is a proper role for the public sector. That is why, for example, this Government committed at the last election to providing £8 billion more for the NHS and a further £6 billion more for the NHS. To go to the core of the hon. Lady’s argument, the reason that successive Governments of all political persuasions have chosen to engage with the private sector for the delivery of services is that those companies have a speciality in it. They have a speciality in delivering such services, so they can deliver them more efficiently. That means there are savings for the taxpayer. If the Scottish National party position is seriously that we should not have any outsourcing, they need to explain to taxpayers why, instead of ploughing those efficiency savings back into our schools and hospitals, they are choosing to use them to pay for less efficient ways of delivering public services.
Does the Minister agree that the biggest risk to jobs, the biggest risk to pensions and the biggest risk to the delivery of public services would be to withdraw support for Capita on the basis of a reactionary announcement to this profit warning?
Yes, my hon. Friend is absolutely right. If we were to choose overnight, in the face of one profit warning, to stop contracting with that company, there would be a significant risk of the delivery of public services falling over. As I have said, the objective of the Government is the continued delivery of public services, and we have continued to pay the cleaners, continued to have the dinners served and continued to ensure that what the people out there in the country care about, which is that their public services are delivered, continues to be delivered.
Yesterday, the chief executive of Capita said that his organisation was “far too complex”. If the chief executive finds it difficult to understand how his own organisation works, how do the Government monitor the stability and performance of these very large, complex outsourcing companies, such as Capita, Serco, Atos and G4S?
The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right about what the chief executive said, and that is the reason why that chief executive has embarked on this restructuring; it is precisely because of that complexity. I well remember working with the right hon. Gentleman when I was an adviser in Downing Street and he was Business Secretary in the coalition, so he will have knowledge of that. In fact, a third of the contracts from Carillion were agreed by the coalition. The process that we had then, and that we have continued to strengthen, is twofold. First, we look at the published results of these companies and use third parties to understand them properly and verify them. Secondly, we continue to engage on a one-on-one basis with each of those companies through the Cabinet Office, to understand their financial position in order to ensure that we deliver on what the public expect—the continued delivery of public services.
The hon. Member for Leeds West (Rachel Reeves), in the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee, has rightly raised concerns about the failure of regulation from the Financial Reporting Council and KPMG. Does the Minister agree that the answer to this dilemma is not to nationalise those companies, but to make sure that those bodies do their job for the taxpayer and the public service user?
Yes, my hon. Friend is absolutely correct. That is why I, and we as a Government, welcome the fact that the FRC is looking into the four major accountancy firms and seeing what lessons we need to learn. Of course we will respond to that and act appropriately.
May I bring the Minister back to the core issue, which is that there are two separate but linked problems: the business model and the performance of these companies? Like Carillion, Capita seems to be part of the over-concentrated, over-leveraged, dividend-and-bonus-exploiting culture that relies on the state to bail out failure. Capita incompetence is only too clear from its lamentable performance on the recruitment contract for the armed services. When will this Government finally get a grip?
Behind the right hon. Gentleman’s question is an important point about the diversity of suppliers in this market. We do need to look to diversify further. That is why, for example, we have set a target that 33% of all our Government contracting should be with small and medium-sized enterprises—precisely to ensure that we have that greater diversity. On his point about state bail-out, we have done precisely the opposite of a state bail-out. Carillion went into liquidation, so its shareholders paid the price; because Capita has decided to stop paying dividends, its shareholders are paying the price. Therefore, it is not correct to say that the state is bailing them out in this situation.
Is not the Government’s role to continue to act as a prudent customer and to continue to monitor their suppliers and the services provided? Right now, the best thing that the Government can do is to allow the company to get on with its plans to restructure its business.
Yes, my hon. Friend is absolutely right. Capita and its executive and shareholders are responsible for Capita. Our responsibility as a Government is for the continued delivery of public services—to make sure that the services on which the public rely continue to be delivered. That is exactly what we did in respect of Carillion, and that is exactly what we are ensuring in relation to contingency plans for all our strategic suppliers, including Capita.
The Minister said that Capita has a positive record of delivery, but it has been responsible for the £1 billion contract for the delivery of NHS England’s primary care support services since 2015. From the outset, both GPs and local medical committees identified serious issues with the service, including patient safety, GP workload and an effect on GP finances. Although some progress has been made, two and a half years on the service falls far short of what is acceptable, and there is still an urgent need to resolve these issues to give practices and GPs across the country confidence in it. What are the Minister and the Government doing to improve the quality of services provided by Capita?
The Government contract with a company to deliver the individual services, and that is done through each Department. In respect of health services, that is done by the Department of Health, which has to ensure that Capita or any other contractor delivers on what it has promised. The function of the Cabinet Office in this respect is to ensure that overall public services continue to be delivered if there is a failure of the company.
If I understand the Minister correctly, this company is raising funds from its shareholders in order to strengthen its balance sheet, enhance its pension fund and invest money in its core business. These corporate actions should be welcomed on both sides of the House. Does he share my frustration that the attitude of the Opposition towards the private sector seems to be, “You’re damned if you do and you’re damned if you don’t”?
Yes, my hon. Friend is precisely right. As I said, it would have been helpful if Carillion had considered these actions; perhaps then it would not have got into this position. Members cannot say that somehow the Government are bankrolling these companies, while simultaneously saying that we are allowing the companies to go bust if things go wrong with them and shareholders pay the price. They cannot make those two propositions at once.
The Government have not bailed out a single supplier. It is the shareholders who have paid the price. It is the shareholders of Carillion who will not receive back the money they invested—or, at least, they will receive a very small proportion of the money, depending on the outcome of the liquidation. The hon. Lady’s characterisation of the situation is simply not correct.
Will the Minister assure the House that the combatant steps that the Government have taken to date regarding Carillion have protected services and ensured that there is minimal disruption to citizens? Will he also assure us that they are taking a similar combatant approach to the Capita situation so that we can protect services such as the NHS admin that is so important to us all?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Our focus has been to ensure the continued delivery of public services. In respect of all the key strategic suppliers, we ensure that we are confident that public services will continue to be delivered if there is an interruption to those companies. That is what the House saw in respect of Carillion, and it is exactly what we prepare for all the time with regards to all our strategic suppliers.
This is a very worrying time for Carillion employees in Wales, including the hundreds employed at the call centre in Bangor in my constituency. It is also a very worrying time for disabled people, as all personal independence payment assessments in Wales are carried out by the company. Will the Minister give these people a cast-iron guarantee that their jobs are safe, and that their benefits assessments will be carried out properly and accurately?
I assure the hon. Gentleman that it is the priority of the Government—this is what we are working on—to ensure that there will be no interruption to the very important public services that he outlined, no matter what happens to their delivery. That is what happened with Carillion. On the very day it was announced that Carillion was going into liquidation— the announcement was made at 7 o’clock in the morning—we ensured that the people delivering public services could continue to turn up to work and to be paid, and that the public services they delivered could continue to be delivered.
I can assure my hon. Friend that in fact officials from my Department met Capita only yesterday. This is an ongoing process of engagement with all the strategic suppliers, asking exactly those sorts of questions to ensure that we have public services delivered. Of course, we are very cognisant of things like the pension fund as well.
One of the real issues that comes through with both Carillion and Capita is that the enormous growth of the conglomerate structure means that these corporations are vulnerable when any part begins to fail, and that of course puts at risk the whole. Where is the risk assessment that the Minister and his team have done that guarantees that we will not see failure in Capita and in other public service providers?
As I said, there is a continuing process of engagement. Over the years, the Government Commercial Function has been beefed up. We have brought in people with expertise who understand these companies and are engaging with them on a day-to-day basis to understand their business models. The purpose of doing that is to understand those business models to ensure that we are confident that we can continue to deliver these public services.
Will my hon. Friend confirm that what matters to this Government is what delivers the best public service outcomes to our constituents in terms of quality and value for money—exactly the same considerations that motivated Labour when, in government, it let so many public service delivery contracts to private companies?
Yes, Labour let lots of contracts to private companies, because it believed that they had the expertise to deliver them, and that is exactly what we are doing. Interestingly, since the surge in the use of PFIs that took place under the Labour Chancellor before last, Mr Gordon Brown, we have tightened up the terms of PFI. We are learning the lessons from some of the excessive PFI contracts that we saw, which had underneath them ludicrous service fees for some of the services provided.
Capita is a significant employer in Huddersfield in its shared transport business. It has a very important role in gas safety for the Health and Safety Executive. It is a very important company. Nobody on the Labour Benches wants to see it fail; like all businesses, we want to it to succeed. There is nothing wrong with a public-private partnership: what is important is getting the contract and the relationship right. What went wrong in many PFIs was rotten contracts that still bedevil local hospitals and local schools.