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Commons Chamber

Volume 636: debated on Wednesday 28 February 2018

House of Commons

Wednesday 28 February 2018

The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock

Prayers

[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Business Before Questions

Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority

The Vice Chamberlain of the Household reported to the House, That the Address of 23 January, praying that Her Majesty will appoint Jacqui Smith to the office of ordinary member of the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority for a period of five years with effect from 19 February 2018, was presented to Her Majesty, who was graciously pleased to comply with this request.

Oral Answers to Questions

International Development

The Secretary of State was asked—

LGBT People

The UK Government directly challenge other Governments who criminalise homosexuality. We support LGBT people through tackling exclusion and violence against them and through increasing their access to services. LGBT inclusion is one of the eight priority areas in DFID’s new UK Aid Connect programme.

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for that answer. Does she agree, given that the Government have led on LGBT rights in the UK, that our international aid programme now has a significant part to play in taking leadership on this issue on the international stage?

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. People having the freedom to be who they are and to reach their full potential is vital if nations are to reach their full potential.

Thirty-six of the 53 Commonwealth countries continue to criminalise homosexuality. What conversations has the Secretary of State had with her Cabinet colleagues about using the UK’s role as host of the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting to champion LGBT rights?

We will take that opportunity, and others, to raise all those issues in the sessions with civil society and in the bilateral conversations that will take place throughout that week and in the run-up to it. We have set a standard, and we can encourage people to follow. Through DFID’s work, and through the incentives that we can provide, we can also provide other reasons for countries to do the right thing.

My right hon. Friend is right to identify those countries that criminalise people who are gay, but what about those countries that tolerate prejudice against gay people? What can we do in those cases?

There are several things that we can do to address those issues, one of which is to strengthen the voice of those organisations that highlight abuse and discrimination. The UK Aid Connect programme will do that. It will provide funding to civil society groups to help us to understand what is happening in particular locations and what is needed to address the issues.

During the February recess, I spent some time in Uganda, which has an appalling record on the treatment of LGBT people. What is the Secretary of State’s Department doing to address that issue in Uganda?

The Minister for Africa, my hon. Friend the Member for West Worcestershire (Harriett Baldwin) is looking at these issues. We have particular requirements in funding agreements when working in particular locations, and where we see abuses taking place, we will not hesitate to raise them with the Government in question.

Today is the final day of UK LGBT history month. One of our nation’s lasting legacies has been the exporting of anti-gay laws around the world, and 36 of the 53 Commonwealth countries still criminalise homosexuality. The upcoming Commonwealth summit in April, hosted by the UK, is a golden opportunity for us to champion LGBT rights. However, reports in the Canadian press last week suggest that the Heads of Government communiqué is unlikely to mention LGBT rights. Will the Secretary of State consider what extra development assistance and funding she can now provide to LGBT activists and civil society across the Commonwealth, to ensure that we do not give up on change in the Commonwealth?

The hon. Gentleman should not be disheartened: we will still raise the issue. It is a strand of work that is going on. In addition to the UK Aid Connect programme that I have just outlined, I relaunched the DFID LGBT network at the start of the history week. Strengthening the support that our staff have to raise these issues—including staff who are LGBT themselves and who are required to work in-country—is vital to furthering this agenda.

I should advise the House that parliamentarians from, if memory serves, at least 28 Commonwealth countries are present in Westminster today, and possibly tomorrow, for a conference. That would be a heaven-sent opportunity for Members to seek to lobby those colleagues.

Internally Displaced People

The UK is committed to meeting the needs of displaced populations, including internally displaced people. We are providing multi-year funding to support IDPs and the communities that host them through both humanitarian and longer term development programmes.

I thank the Secretary of State for her answer. The number of IDPs has risen by 10 million over the past four years to 40 million worldwide. What representations has the Secretary of State made to ensure that the UN negotiations on the global compacts for migration and for refugees do not sideline the needs of IDPs?

I thank the hon. Lady for raising this matter. IDPs due to conflict and violence outnumber refugees by two to one, but they have not received the focus or been given the profile that they need. In addition to the compacts that the hon. Lady mentioned, there are moves to set up a new panel looking at the particular and unique needs of IDPs, and the Department for International Development will support that.

Internally displaced people are some of the most vulnerable people in the world, and we have heard a lot recently about charities that are abusing those people. Has my right hon. Friend seen The Daily Telegraph today? It talks about the BBC World Service’s charitable arm, where sexual harassment and inappropriate behaviour, which is totally wrong in this field, has happened under the watch of the director of news.

My hon. Friend is right to point out that one reason why we must be good on safeguarding and not dismiss such issues is to protect those individuals. The BBC did not report those incidents to us at the time, but my letter of two weeks ago prompted it to come forward with that information. That is a good thing, and we need to grip the problem and deliver for vulnerable people around the world.

Many thousands of people have been displaced from their homes in Syria. What is the Secretary of State doing to demonstrate to those people, and to every other civilian in Syria, that the British Government have not given up on them?

We have not given up on them, and we are working with the Governments of Jordan and Lebanon to provide people with support over both the short term and the long term. DFID recently moved its priorities towards longer term support for such individuals, and we remain the third largest donor to support them.

In Burma, hundreds of thousands of Rohingya have been internally displaced and some have fled across the border. What dialogue is my right hon. Friend having with the Burmese Government about the constant persecution of the Rohingya within Burma and the fact that they are being driven out by genocide?

With your indulgence, Mr Speaker, I want to share my concern that the International Development Committee has not been given access to Burma, which is disgraceful. However, I can assure my hon. Friend that I have regular discussions with all parts of Government in Bangladesh and Burma about support for these individuals. It is vital that we get the Bangladesh Government to consider the medium term and breaking down the camp at Cox’s Bazar, and we are looking at our programme in both countries to ensure that displaced people are our priority.

On behalf of Parliament, I concur with the Secretary of State. The situation is absolutely disgraceful, and this matter will be raised by the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg) later on in our proceedings.

The UN estimates that 6.1 million Syrians are internally displaced. With fresh fighting in eastern Ghouta despite the ceasefire, that number will continue to rise. What is the Department doing specifically to support displaced Syrian families in that particular region? Their needs and challenges are increasing with every passing day.

We have a huge number of programmes that are supporting those people in particular—not just the short-term needs of shelter, food and so forth, but education, jobs and livelihoods. Those individuals have some unique needs that have not been addressed to date with as much focus by the international community, and the setting up of a panel to consider those needs and what more we can do to help in similar situations will be a big step forward.

UN Relief and Works Agency: US Funding

3. What representations she has made to the US Administration on their withholding funding from the United Nations Relief and Works Agency. (904080)

We are concerned about the impact on UNRWA’s activities whenever unexpected reductions or delays in predicted donor disbursements occur, and I raised that with a senior US official last week. Our officials are collaborating with the US and other donors to maintain UNRWA’s vital services across the region.

The Minister will be aware that half a million Palestinian children attend schools funded by the UN Relief and Works Agency—schools that should really be funded by Israel as the occupying force. Has that been explained to the US Administration, as well as the impact of the loss of $65 million of funding? Is it not time that Palestine was independent and controlled the resources?

It has been clearly explained to US officials what the impact of the funding decision may be, particularly in Jordan, Lebanon and other places where Palestinian refugees are supported. We have provided £50 million to UNRWA in this financial year, which assists in the provision of education and other needs, and we will continue to provide funding.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that while the agreement between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas about resuming electricity supplies to the people of Gaza is to be welcomed, the key to resolving the infighting and improving the lives of all Gazans is the disarmament of Hamas and the renunciation of terror and violence?

Yes. One cannot take the situation in Gaza away from the administration of Hamas and their failure to resolve issues in relation to Israel and to meet the Quartet principles. The people of Gaza have suffered from a number of different things and we continue to believe that only an overall settlement will assist their needs. We will continue to work for that.

In 2016, the International Development Committee saw the brilliant work of UNRWA on education in Jordan. Will the Government work with other countries to make up the funding shortfall as a result of this outrageous cut by the Trump Administration?

We are working very keenly with other donors to get them to step up. I saw Commissioner-General Krähenbühl just last week in the UK and again at a recent conference. We know how much good work UNRWA does in the area. The education project the hon. Gentleman mentioned is particularly valuable. Other donors need to step up as well, and we will continue to be generous in our support for the needs of UNRWA.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his answers. What representations has he made to UNRWA to make sure that it conforms to what the US Government wish to see, so that the funding can be restored?

I have spoken with US officials recently and other officials in relation to this matter. It is important that UNRWA’s work continues. It needs to be done and it does deliver good quality services. We will continue to provide as much as we can to meet those needs.

Palestinian Authority

4. What steps she is taking to ensure that aid to the Palestinian Authority is not used to fund radicalisation. (904081)

United Kingdom aid to the Palestinian Authority goes only to the salaries of vetted health and education workers in the west bank. Our memorandum of understanding with the PA includes a commitment to tackling incitement. I recently urged Palestinian Ministers to remain focused on that. President Abbas recently reconfirmed his commitment to peace and rejecting violence.

I welcome the Minister’s reassurance and the Government’s commitment to peaceful co-existence projects that bring Israelis and Palestinians together. However, last year the Palestinian Authority reportedly paid more than £250 million in monthly salaries to terrorists in Israeli prisons, which is worth 7% of their budget and an astonishing 50% of their foreign aid receipts. Those salaries directly reward terrorism. Does the Minister agree that those payments are abhorrent and must cease?

We have made constant representations to Palestinian authorities about the impact of any incitement to terror and payments to terror. The Palestinian authorities are well aware of our views and opinions on this matter. That is why no UK aid money goes to support terrorism or the families.

Is the Minister aware of the 2014 initiative in which a tripartite committee was recommended, involving the Palestinians and the Israelis and chaired by the United States, to identify incitement from whichever quarter it comes and to tackle it? That was accepted by the Palestinians and the United States, but rejected by the Government of Israel. Does the Minister agree that that rejection was not in the interests of peace?

I am aware of the proposal and the possible initiative. In the region there is much need to do whatever is possible to bring people together to examine these areas. States have their own reasons why they may or may not agree to do so, but making sure there is more work on co-existence will help on this. We will therefore continue our work to make sure all parties know how important it is to resolve their issues, so that many of the things that have occupied this House over a lengthy period can be brought to a conclusion, in the interests of peace and justice.

Aid Spending

It is vital that aid spending delivers rigorous value for money and is well spent. Indeed, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has said that we must ensure it “cannot be better spent”. All projects are measured against a robust monitoring framework to ensure they remain cost-effective.

I thank the Minister for that answer. I am sure she will agree that she constantly has to justify to the electorate the amount of money that is spent overseas. With that in mind, what steps are being taken to ensure that more of the equipment utilised is British, that more of the non-governmental organisations employed to carry out the work are British and that the armed forces, where appropriate, are also involved in helping these projects?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to highlight the important role that our armed forces have played, not only in tackling Ebola in Sierra Leone, but in tackling the hurricane in the Caribbean last year. As he will know, the Secretary of State and I are both former Ministers in the Ministry of Defence and we are keen to ensure we work closely with our colleagues there.

I was concerned to read that £160,000 of the £5.8 million of UK aid spent with Venezuela was being used for training its repressive security services. I understand this was under review last summer, so will the Minister update us with the latest on that?

My understanding is that the small amount of spending that happens in Venezuela is to support human rights organisations and the British Council’s work on education. I shall certainly take back the hon. Lady’s representations to ensure that what she says is not the case.

I thank the Minister for her answer. How can we win back public support for what aid does if she believes that the best way of spending aid money is through the armed forces, and with more on outsourcing to the private sector and less on actual poverty reduction? Does she not see that that approach will only add a misperception to the growing doubt on who is best placed to deliver aid?

I am sorry that the hon. Lady did not welcome the amazing work we are doing through the delivery of international aid, through so many different organisations, be it in partnership, such as she seems to resent, with our colleagues in the conflict, stability and security fund or by working with colleagues in the health service on their amazing response to the outbreak of disease in camps in the Rohingya crisis.

Refugee Families

6. What recent discussions she has had with the Home Secretary on enabling refugee families to reunify in the UK. (904083)

14. What recent discussions she has had with the Home Secretary on enabling refugee families to reunify in the UK. (904091)

I regularly discuss refugee issues with Cabinet colleagues, including the Home Secretary, and with Home Office officials. We have committed to resettling 20,000 refugees fleeing the Syria conflict, and 3,000 vulnerable children and their families by 2020 from the middle east and north Africa, and we provide lifesaving aid, education and jobs to millions of refugees globally.

Will the Secretary of State urge the Government to back next month’s private Member’s Bill and put the humanity of migrants and the importance of family life at the heart of the Government’s immigration policy?

Obviously, the mandate resettlement scheme allows for that to happen, and there is no quota or cap on that. If we can improve things, I am always open to that on any issue, but I hope we can manage to do these things without primary legislation.

I suspect that most people would agree with the Home Affairs Committee when it said that it is

“perverse that children who have been granted refugee status…are not then allowed to bring their close family to join them”.

Does the Secretary of State agree?

It is loud in the Chamber, but I think the hon. Gentleman asked why children are not allowed to be joined by their parents. There are some solid technical reasons why we think that would be a bad idea, but I am looking into ways for us to get good things to happen. For example, the current Rohingya crisis has some barriers to good things happening in terms of identifying people and so forth, and we are working with the Home Office to address those issues. If the hon. Gentleman has suggestions, I would be happy to hear them.

Will my right hon. Friend join me in welcoming Refugee Action’s new Stand Up For Asylum campaign, which is launched today? It reminds us of the importance of providing a safe haven for those in genuine need.

I thank my right hon. Friend for drawing attention to that campaign, which I welcome and look forward to reading about. We should be proud of the asylum system that we have, which protects individuals from around the world.

The UK simply cannot speak with any authority on tackling the global refugee crisis until we get our own house in order. Time and again, the Government’s international development policy is held back by what other Departments are doing, including arms sales in Yemen, tax and trade deals that hurt developing countries, and a foreign policy that has forgotten human rights. Will the Secretary of State urge her Government to get behind the private Member’s Bill that is due to be debated in March and at least help to put an end to that particular contradiction and get refugee children reunited with their families?

In addition to the answer I gave to the hon. Member for Battersea (Marsha De Cordova) a moment ago, the speech I gave at the Bond conference on Monday highlighted that we cannot do international development well unless we also do it in accordance with British values. I think we have a good track record as a nation and as a Government. I am always keen to see how we can make improvements, but I hope we can make them without primary legislation.

Topical Questions

On 20 February, I informed the House that I had asked all UK charities that receive UK aid to give me assurances on the safeguarding and reporting of historical cases by Monday last. I have received 161 responses, which my officials are now analysing, with independent oversight, and we have shared returns with the Charity Commission.

Unbelievably, a number of organisations have not replied. We are following up, but without compelling justification they will have lost our confidence and we will consider whether it is right to continue their funding. I will share my key findings, trends and themes in response to the safeguarding summit that will be held with the Charity Commission on 5 March, and I will keep the House informed.

Is the Secretary of State confident that Britain will remain a world leader in humanitarian aid following our departure from the European Union?

Yes, I am. Although we will undoubtedly still work with European partners and ECHO, when we have further control over the money that we are spending, that will be a very good thing indeed.

T2. It is Rare Disease Day and we have been singing outside Westminster tube station to raise awareness. What is the Department doing to make sure that those who suffer rare diseases in developing countries are not left behind? (904094)

We spend around £1 billion through our own health service and Public Health England, and into the Fleming fund and other research funds. Not only is the pioneering research that UK aid is funding saving lives overseas and developing ways to combat rare diseases, but the results are helping British citizens, too.

T8. Some 90% of the plastic that enters our oceans is carried by just 10 rivers in Africa and Asia. What are the Government doing to help some of the poorest countries in the world to tackle this global problem? (904100)

My Department is assisting developing countries to improve waste management, which helps to avoid plastic ending up in the ocean, through multilateral funds such as the Global Environment Facility. We are also working closely with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs on some new projects to identify what more we can do in line with the 25-year environment plan.

T3. I do not usually get that reception. The South Sudanese Government are preventing effective non-governmental organisations such as Christian Aid from providing aid to those who desperately need it in South Sudan. What more can be done to put pressure on that Government to allow such charities the access that they need? (904095)

The hon. Lady is absolutely right: it is a scandal that the South Sudanese Government are charging non-governmental organisations to deliver aid. The aid is getting through, and we should pay tribute to the people who are delivering it, but we are putting pressure on the Government to allow easier access for humanitarian aid.

Following on from my recent question to the Prime Minister on the Open Doors World Watch List, will the Minister considering earmarking a fixed minimum percentage of international aid to tackle religious persecution?

My hon. Friend deserves tribute for the way in which she raises this issue. In the 70th year since the United Nations’ universal declaration of human rights, it is a scandal that almost three quarters of the world’s population live in countries that restrict religious freedom. We do a lot in this area. Although we do not fix the percentage, it is important to respond to that need.

T4. Many of the Rohingya refugees are unaccompanied children at constant threat from traffickers. Can the Minister update the House on the support that the UK is providing to these vulnerable children? (904096)

We are doing many things to provide support to those children, not just in the immediate aftermath of the situation they are facing, but in protecting them and ensuring that they do not fall victim to organised crime later on down the line. We are doing many things under the compact, and also in the new panel to which I have already alluded today.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that providing jobs and livelihoods for internally displaced people wherever they may be is equally as important as providing relief aid?

I do agree with my hon. Friend, which is why the Department has shifted its funding focus to those issues that are needed over the longer term, as well as to those in the immediate aftermath of a crisis.

T5. Stability is clearly key to delivering aid in Yemen. The Southern Transitional Council appears to be providing some stability. What discussions is the Secretary of State having with it to secure the delivery of aid to both North and South Yemen? (904097)

We have no direct contact with the Southern Transitional Council. We do work through coalition partners who are closely involved with the south of Yemen. Importantly, we hope that the appointment of the new UN special envoy, Martin Griffiths, with his contacts right through Yemen, will help the peace process, which is necessary to end the conflict in Yemen for both north and south.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—

Engagements

This morning, I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in this House, I shall have further such meetings later today.

Sheffield Young Carers is a group supporting inspirational young people who balance all the normal challenges of their young lives with the demands of caring for a parent or a sibling, often with acute needs—people such as John, who has been caring for his mother with fibromyalgia from the age of 10, or Phoebe, who has been supporting her father with mental health problems from the age of eight. They have some practical ideas about what the Government could do to make their lives easier. Will the Prime Minister agree to meet them and hear their proposals?

It is absolutely right for the hon. Gentleman to raise this issue. There are many young people who are caring for their parents and, sometimes, for their siblings as well. All too often they are going unseen and unheard. Certainly, one thing that we are trying to do as a Government is to ensure that we have more opportunities, and a greater ability, to identify and assess those young carers and their families, to support them and to make the rights of young carers clearer. I know that the Department of Health and Social Care is intending to publish a plan setting out our targeted cross-Government action on this area. I would be happy to meet a group of young carers and to hear from them directly.

Q3. I believe in a global Britain and I want us to trade freely with the world, so can my right hon. Friend explain the difference between a customs union and a customs arrangement, as there seems to be some confusion? (904065)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We want to be able to have good trading relationships with the European Union, but we also want to be able to negotiate trade deals around the rest of the world with an independent trade policy. I was rather confused to hear a speech on this subject earlier in the week that I believe was given by the Labour leader. He said that he wanted Labour to negotiate a “new comprehensive …customs union”. That would mean that we could not do our own trade deals and would actually betray the vote of the British people. But almost in the next sentence, he said that he wanted a “customs arrangement” meaning that we could negotiate our new trade deals. Well, that is the Government’s position. So what does he want to do—let down the country or agree with the Government?

Good afternoon. I hope that the whole House will join me in passing our deepest condolences to the families of the people who died and those who were injured in the explosion in Leicester, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester West (Liz Kendall). We thank all the emergency services and hospital staff who worked to save lives in that terrible situation.

The Prime Minister emerged from her Chequers awayday to promise a Brexit of “ambitious managed divergence”. Could she tell the country what on earth “ambitious managed divergence” will mean in practice?

May I first join the right hon. Gentleman and, I am sure, the whole House in expressing our condolences to the family and friends of those who lost their lives in the explosion in Leicester? I agree with him that we should commend the activities and work of the emergency services. They do so much for us all, day in and day out, but they really showed the great job that they do in dealing with those circumstances.

The right hon. Gentleman asked me about the Government’s position on the European Union. It is very simple. We want to deliver on the vote of the British people that means that we will bring back control of our laws, our borders and our money. Of course, that is in direct contrast with the position of the Labour party, which wants to be in a customs union, have free movement and pay whatever it takes to the EU. That would mean giving away control of our laws, our borders and our money, and that would be a betrayal of the British people.

I understand that the Prime Minister is going to make a speech about this on Friday, but I hope that she will address the concerns of 94% of small and medium-sized businesses that say that the Government are ignoring their concerns about how we leave the EU. Who does she think might be better at identifying the business opportunities of the future—the Confederation of British Industry, the Engineering Employers Federation, the Institute of Directors or the International Trade Secretary?

The right hon. Gentleman talks about the views of business, particularly of small business. I refer him to what the Federation of Small Businesses said about our position:

“The UK small business community sees the potential wins of an independent UK global trade policy…we want trade kept as easy as possible with the EU27”—

that is our position—

“small businesses are pushing to export to new growth areas—the US, English-speaking nations, emerging economies and the Commonwealth.”

We want a good trading relationship with the European Union and free trade deals around the rest of the world under an independent sovereign nation.

The International Trade Secretary says that business organisations and the TUC have got it all wrong, and that they do not know best how to prosper or grasp opportunities. I put it gently to the Prime Minister that they might have more of a clue than he has about the interests of business, jobs and living standards.

It is wonderful to see the Health Secretary here today. I assume that he was speaking on behalf of the Government last week, when he said:

“There will be areas and sectors of industry where we agree to align our regulations”.

He seems to know the answer. Will the Prime Minister enlighten the rest of us as to which sectors the Government want to remain aligned and which they plan to diverge?

First, the right hon. Gentleman said himself that I am going to be making a speech on these issues later this week. [Interruption.] Oh, just calm down. I have already set out in some detail the position that the Government are taking, and I will elaborate on that further this week. We want to ensure that across a variety of sectors—the goods sector, but also looking at issues like financial services which are such a crucial part of our economy—we get the relationship that means that we are able to ensure that we see that trade going across the borders between the United Kingdom and the remaining EU27 members, and that we have no hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland; we are absolutely committed to delivering on that.

The right hon. Gentleman talks about people not having a clue. I will tell him who has not got a clue about business and jobs: a Labour party that wants to borrow £500 billion and bankrupt Britain.

The endless round of after-dinner speeches by the Prime Minister on Europe does not really substitute for negotiations or for what is actually going to result from the negotiations.

One of the sectors already suffering very badly is that of health and social care. It is highly reliant on migrant workers. We depend on them for our health and the care of those who need it. Is the Prime Minister not just a little bit concerned that European Union workers with vital skills are leaving Britain in unprecedented numbers now?

As the right hon. Gentleman might have noticed from the last set of immigration figures, we actually still see more people coming into the UK from the European Union than are leaving the UK and going back to the European Union. We do have a care about the number of nurses and GPs that we have in the NHS. That is why we have set the highest levels of numbers of people in training for both nurses and GPs. It is why we have significantly increased the opportunities not just for people who are coming from the European Union to work in our national health service but for those people here in this country who want to work in our NHS to get those training places and do the excellent job that we know they will do for patients in our national health service.

From a Government who have cut the nurse training bursary, who do not seem to understand that it takes eight years to train a doctor, and who are completely oblivious, apparently, to the fact that there are 100,000 vacancies in the NHS now—[Interruption.] I suggest that some Members get a life and go and visit a hospital to see just how hard those people work in order to cover for the vacancies that are there. Surely we need to give immediate, real assurance to EU nationals that they have a future in this country.

Just three months ago, the Foreign Secretary told the House with regard to Northern Ireland:

“There can be no hard border. That would be unthinkable”.—[Official Report, 21 November 2017; Vol. 631, c. 848.]

That is what he said. Yet in a leaked letter to the Prime Minister, he wrote:

“even if a hard border is reintroduced, we would expect to see 95% + of goods pass”.

[Interruption.] He is shouting at the moment—he is obviously mixing up the border with the Camden-Islington border. Can the Prime Minister confirm that she will not renege on commitments made in phase 1 to keep an open border in Ireland?

The right hon. Gentleman actually raised three different issues in that question, so I will address all of them. He raised the issue of rights for European Union nationals. Of course, a key part of the December agreement—the December joint report that we agreed with the European Union—was about the rights of EU citizens living here in the United Kingdom and the rights of United Kingdom citizens living in the EU27. That was an important thing to have agreed at an early stage in the negotiations. We said we would do it and we did just that.

The right hon. Gentleman talks about the number of nurses. Of course, there are now 13,900 more nurses on our wards than there were under Labour. He is talking about the number of years that it takes to train doctors. He said that it takes eight years to train a doctor. Well, if he is worried about the number of doctors there are now, eight years ago it was a Labour Government who were deciding the number of doctors that were going to be trained, so he can talk about that.

Finally, the right hon. Gentleman referred to the position on Northern Ireland. The Foreign Secretary and I are absolutely committed to ensuring that we deliver on no hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland. That is the position of the UK Government. It is the position of the parties in Northern Ireland. It is the position of the Irish Government, and it was what we agreed in the December agreement of that joint report. We are all committed to ensuring there is no hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland.

If that is the case, why is the Foreign Secretary in private correspondence with the Prime Minister about doing just the opposite of what was agreed in phase 1?

This is a Government in disarray. Every time the Cabinet meets, all we get are even more bizarre soundbites. Remember when we had “Brexit means Brexit”? Then we had “red, white and blue Brexit”, which presumably appealed to Conservative Members. Then we had “liberal Brexit”, and now we have “ambitious managed divergence.” The Government are so divided that the Prime Minister is incapable of delivering a coherent and decisive plan for Brexit. When is she going to put the country’s interests before the outsized egos of her own Cabinet?

My priorities are the priorities of the British people. Yes, we are going to get Brexit right and deliver a good Brexit deal for them, but we are also building the homes that the country needs, so that people can own their own home. We are raising standards in our schools, so that our kids all get a good education. We are protecting the environment for future generations. That is a Conservative Government delivering on people’s priorities and giving them optimism and hope for the future, as opposed to a Labour party that would bankrupt Britain, betray voters and drag this country down.

Order. Mr Clark, you are getting over-excited. I was calling Chris Davies, the hon. Gentleman behind you.

Q4. May I start by wishing you, Mr Speaker, the Prime Minister and the whole House a very happy St David’s day for tomorrow? I thank my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister for taking representatives of Riversimple, a leader in the field of hydrogen-powered automotives that is based in Brecon and Radnorshire, on her recent successful trade visit to China. What are the Government planning to do to help regional small and medium-sized enterprises to make the most of potential trade opportunities with emerging markets once we leave the EU? (904066)

I was very happy to take a large business delegation with me on the trip to China, including representatives of Riversimple. It was a very good trip and very positive in terms of the connections and the deals that were agreed as a result of it. I can assure my hon. Friend that the Department for International Trade is working hard to support SMEs across the UK and to help connect exporters with buyers around the world. Of course, companies in the UK can access our overseas network and our programme of international events.

I commend the work of colleagues around the House who are trade envoys, including my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham), who is our trade envoy for China and who also accompanied me on that trip. I am pleased to say that last year, UK Export Finance provided £3 billion in support, helping 221 UK companies selling to 63 countries, and 79% of those companies were SMEs.

In 2012, the Prime Minister talked about

“a future in which Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and England continue to flourish side-by-side as equal partners.”

Does she still stand by that?

Of course I continue to stand by wanting to ensure that all parts of the United Kingdom continue to flourish. I think the best way of doing that is ensuring all parts of the United Kingdom remain in the United Kingdom.

Of course, the emphasis was on “equal”. We are faced with a power grab by Westminster, and it is no surprise that the Scottish and Welsh Governments are putting forward continuity Bills to stop it. The Foreign Secretary’s leaked letter on the Irish border shows that he cannot get to grips with one of the most fundamental issues of Brexit. The Foreign Secretary compared crossing the Irish border to going between Camden and Westminster. Frankly, you could not make this stuff up, Mr Speaker. The UK Government are prepared to put in jeopardy the Good Friday agreement. Does the Prime Minister agree with her bumbling Foreign Secretary, who is making the United Kingdom a laughing stock?

First, this Government are absolutely committed to the Belfast agreement. Indeed, we made sure that that commitment was included in the joint report that we agreed with the European Union last December, so that commitment to the Belfast agreement stands. We are committed to the Belfast agreement and to the institutions under that agreement.

The right hon. Gentleman refers to devolved powers that are coming back from the European Union. We have also given an absolute commitment to amending clause 11, and that commitment remains unchanged. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster has recently met representatives of the devolved Administrations. He put forward a further proposal for them, which would ensure that more powers are directly devolved to the Scottish and Welsh Governments and, in due course, to the Northern Ireland Executive. It was acknowledged that that was a significant step forward.

The right hon. Gentleman talks about the continuity Bills. The proposals being put forward are unnecessary, and it would be rather more helpful if he concentrated on reaching an agreement in relation to the withdrawal agreement. We want to ensure that more powers are devolved to the devolved Administrations, and that is what we are going to deliver.

Q7. Back in the real world, last year Network Rail paid out £181 million in compensation to train operating companies for cancellations and delays, but only £74 million of that was passed on to passengers. Why should train operators benefit financially from failure to deliver a decent service, when it is the passengers who suffer the aggro, inconvenience and cost? What is the Prime Minister planning to do to make sure that the money goes to the right place—the passengers? (904069)

Yes, my hon. Friend is right that rail operators are compensated. They are compensated when there is disruption on the tracks run by Network Rail, so the compensation is for something that has happened not as a result of what the rail operators are doing, but as a result of something that Network Rail is doing. We do ensure that there is also compensation available to the passengers who suffer from the disruption. I am pleased to say that automatic payments are available from many rail operators, but not everybody can be automatically refunded. We are operating a delay repay scheme, which means that everyone, regardless of their ticket type, can have access to the compensation that they deserve. We want to ensure that passengers get the compensation that they deserve when their journeys are disrupted.

Q2. I ask the Prime Minister to reinforce her earlier comments, given the imminent publication by the EU of the draft legal text arising from December’s joint report. Will she confirm that she will never agree to any trade borders between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom? (904064)

We continue to stand behind all the commitments that we made in December, and my negotiating team will work with the Commission to agree how they should be translated into legal form in the withdrawal agreement. The hon. Gentleman is right: the draft legal text that the Commission has published would, if implemented, undermine the UK common market and threaten the constitutional integrity of the UK by creating a customs and regulatory border down the Irish sea, and no UK Prime Minister could ever agree to it. I will be making it crystal clear to President Juncker and others that we will never do so. We are committed to ensuring that we see no hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland, but the December text also made it clear that there should continue to be trade between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom, as there is today.

Q13. Unemployment has fallen faster in the north-east than anywhere else in our country, which is tremendous news. The next step to put rocket boosters under the economy on Teesside would be to create a free port at Teesport. Will my right hon. Friend look seriously at this idea, which has great support from the Tees Valley Mayor, Ben Houchen, and from local business leaders? (904075)

When I visited Ben Houchen and Teesport, this was one of the proposals that they did put to me. I am very happy to join my hon. Friend in welcoming the fall in unemployment that we have seen in the north-east, and there are a number of ways in which we are providing that economic growth and ensuring that we see it continuing in the north-east. That is why we are investing £126 million through the Tees Valley local growth deal. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor has confirmed recently that we do remain open to ideas that could drive growth and provide benefits to the UK and its people, so we will keep all these options under consideration.

Q5. Agents from the shale gas company INEOS recently posted a pre-named contract to my constituent Alison Davies, asking her to agree to a geological survey on her farm. Alison had already rejected this request when she was door-stepped a few days earlier. Does the Prime Minister know what it feels like to get an unsolicited letter from a group who will not take no for an answer, and will she join the Welsh and Scottish Governments by saying no to fracking in England? (904067)

Shale gas extraction could be a very important part of ensuring energy security in this country, and I am sure all the hon. Gentleman’s constituents and the constituents of others represented in this House will want to ensure the Government are doing everything they can to make sure we maintain our energy security and we do not see the lights being turned off.

Q15. It is obvious that there will be concern about the draft from the EU of the withdrawal agreement. Can the Prime Minister assure me that when she responds, she will have uppermost in her mind the importance of both preserving and strengthening the Union of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland? (904077)

My hon. Friend raises an important point. First, if I can reiterate the point that I made in response to an earlier question, we are very clear that we want to ensure that we are able to see that trading and that movement between all parts of the United Kingdom—that common single market within the United Kingdom that all parts of the United Kingdom benefit from. We are committed to protecting and enhancing our precious Union of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

The devolved Administrations should be fully engaged in preparations for the UK’s exit. They are—discussions have been taken from them—and as I said earlier, also in response to the Westminster leader of the Scottish National party, the right hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford), it is our intention that the vast majority of powers returning from Brussels will start off in Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast, not in Whitehall. We will continue to talk to the devolved Administrations, because we also need to ensure that we maintain the single market of the United Kingdom.

Q6. Last December’s joint report guaranteed continuing unfettered access for Northern Island businesses into the UK internal market. Does the Prime Minister agree that the EU appears now to be trying to cherry-pick that agreement by ignoring such critical issues for our economy? (904068)

It is absolutely clear—first, we do stand by the commitments we made in December, and the negotiating team will be working with the Commission to agree how we put that into legal text for a withdrawal agreement. Part of that agreement was, of course, that we will see no hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland. Another part was, as the hon. Gentleman said, that there would be guaranteed access for Northern Ireland business to the United Kingdom market. As I said earlier, and I am happy to repeat again, the draft legal text that the Commission has published, if implemented, would undermine the UK common market and threatens the constitutional integrity of the UK by creating a customs and regulatory border down the Irish sea. No UK Prime Minister could ever agree to it, and I will be making that absolutely clear.

May I welcome the Prime Minister’s very firm reaffirmation of her commitment to the Good Friday agreement and the open border and to the December agreement that she made on the withdrawal terms, which included, if necessary, full regulatory convergence on both sides of the border? Does she accept that that means that, if necessary, there will be full regulatory convergence between the United Kingdom and the European Union?

At this stage, prior to my speech on Friday, may I perhaps refer my right hon. and learned Friend to the speech I made in Florence last year, which set out very clearly that we recognise there will be some areas where we will have the same objectives as the European Union and we will want to achieve those objectives in the same way, there will be other areas where we have the same objectives but we want to achieve those objectives by different means and there will be other areas where our objectives will differ? What matters is that it is this United Kingdom that will be able to take the decisions about the rules that it applies.

Q8. The roads in my constituency are in a terrible state of repair. In all my life, I have never seen such a mess. Small potholes are being left by Lancashire County Council to become big potholes, and in several cases these are merging to become trenches. The situation is dangerous for elderly pedestrians. Cyclists take their life in their hands. Motorists either damage their cars or swerve to avoid them. Does the Prime Minister agree that this is an unacceptable state of affairs, not least because of the failure to—[Interruption.] (904070)

Order. This is very discourteous. The remainder of the hon. Lady’s question will be heard. It is as simple and unarguable as that. There is no point people ranting from a sedentary position. The hon. Lady will be heard on her feet and that is the end of the matter.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. Does the Prime Minister agree that this is an unacceptable state of affairs, not least because the failure to make one stitch in time is leading to far more expensive repairs?

We all recognise the importance of the issue of potholes, which is why my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton North (Michael Ellis) raised it a while back and the Government put more money in precisely to deal with it. The hon. Lady talks about a stitch in time, but I am afraid I will not take any of that from a Labour party that when in government failed to mend the roof when the sun was shining.

Next week, we celebrate International Women’s Day, celebrating the achievements of women globally. With a record of action on the gender pay gap, with more women in work and more childcare to help them, does the Prime Minister not agree that it is the Conservatives while in government, with two female Prime Ministers, who are really delivering for women?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I am happy to join her in celebrating International Women’s Day. I want girls who are growing up today to know that they can achieve anything they want and that how far they go is about them, their abilities and their willingness to work hard. Female employment is at a joint record high. There are now 1.2 million women-led businesses, which is the highest since records began, and the gender pay gap is at a record low for full-time employment. That is a Conservative party in government delivering for women.

Q10. If she will list her official engagements for Wednesday 28 February. Will the Prime Minister support the joint endeavours of 18 Conservative and Labour councils from Yorkshire, the Yorkshire CBI, the Yorkshire Institute of Directors, the Yorkshire TUC and His Grace the Archbishop of York in their efforts to get an all-Yorkshire devolution settlement by 2020, with the first directly elected mayor from God’s own county? (904072)

We are committed to devolving powers to local areas where it will deliver better local services, greater value for money and clearer accountability. I am pleased to say we have already agreed an ambitious devolution deal with Sheffield city region, which when completed will bring in about £1 billion of new investment to the area. I hear the hon. Gentleman’s enthusiasm for more devolution in Yorkshire, and I am pleased to say that my right hon. Friend the Housing Secretary met a group of councils from Yorkshire yesterday to discuss these very ideas.

It is excellent to see the right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (James Brokenshire) back in his place.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. It is very good to be back. Last year, I had the privilege to open the Guy’s Cancer Centre at Queen Mary’s Hospital in Sidcup in my constituency, not knowing then how relevant that might be to me. I pay tribute to the NHS and the outstanding people who work within it. My own treatment has been absolutely outstanding. I know that early diagnosis and early treatment is key. With that in mind, will my right hon. Friend see that the lung health check programme, announced by NHS England in November, is implemented as speedily and as widely as possible? Will she do all she can to challenge the stigma attached to lung cancer and some of the false judgments that are made, so that it receives the attention it deserves and those suffering with the disease receive the care they need?

I am absolutely delighted to see my right hon. Friend back in his place in this House. I also commend him for the interviews that he gave over the weekend and the way that he spoke about his own experience. He is absolutely right about early diagnosis. The message that he gave from his experience needs to be one that we all promote around the country—if there is the slightest doubt, if something happens that you think is potentially problematic and the sign of something, please go to the doctor and get it checked out. There are many men, particularly, who think, “Oh no, well, you know, it’s better not to. We won’t. We’ll just put up with it.” Actually, go and get it checked out, because crucially, in cancer and many other areas—but in cancers such as lung cancer, as my right hon. Friend said—if that early diagnosis and early action can be taken, it makes an enormous difference to the patient. I assure my right hon. Friend that we are looking very carefully at and monitoring the effectiveness, particularly, of the scanning of high-risk groups, and we will be looking carefully at the results of that. As he says, we need to ensure that we get rid of the stigma of lung cancer and that anybody who has the slightest suspicion of a problem goes to the doctor, gets themselves checked out and gets the treatment that they need.

Q11. For many young people in the north-east, employment is precarious and low-paid. Since the introduction of the apprenticeship levy, youth unemployment in Gateshead, my constituency, has remained stubbornly constant, while apprenticeship recruitment has declined by 35%. Having a plan to develop a plan is simply not good enough. What is the Prime Minister actually going to do to resolve the problem of youth unemployment in the north-east of England? (904073)

As we heard earlier from my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland (Mr Clarke), what we have seen overall in the north-east is unemployment—

Yes, but overall in the north-east, we have seen unemployment falling faster than in many other parts of the country, and that is to be welcomed. We do need to ensure that we are seeing the intended outcome of the apprenticeship levy—that is, more opportunities for young people—actually being put into practice. I am sure that my right hon. Friend who is responsible for the apprenticeship issue will take up the particular reference that the hon. Gentleman made to apprenticeships in the north-east.

Last Sunday, we celebrated the achievements of Chichester-born astronaut Tim Peake by honouring him with the freedom of the city. Will the Prime Minister join me in congratulating Tim and give assurances that our significant investment in the European Space Agency, EU space programmes and research will continue as we leave the European Union?

This is an important issue. I was very pleased that one of the first receptions that I hosted in No. 10 when I became Prime Minister was for Tim Peake and I saw the enormous enthusiasm that he generated among young people for space and science. The joint report that we agreed with the EU in December made it clear that through the multi-annual financial framework, we will continue to participate in programmes that are funded by that, and that includes space, but we will also be discussing with the EU how we can build on our successful co-operation on space as the negotiations proceed. My hon. Friend will have seen that there have been some important developments, including legislation in this House, that will enable us to take a real forward position in relation to space in the future.

Q12. The Prime Minister will be aware that the huge new Midland Metropolitan Hospital in Smethwick is currently halted by the Carillion collapse. However, it is already two thirds finished and the longer the restart of work is delayed, the more the ultimate costs will rise. Yet only this week, more project management staff were laid off, so will the Prime Minister commit to getting this site back to work and instruct her Ministers, especially in the Department of Health and Social Care and the Treasury, to get a grip on this project, get the work rolling again next month and complete this much needed hospital? (904074)

I understand that more than 8,000 Carillion workers have had their jobs safeguarded, but, of course, that is no comfort to those made redundant and their families. The right hon. Gentleman raises a specific point about the Midland Metropolitan Hospital. The Department of Health and Social Care and NHS Improvement are working with the trust and the private finance initiative company so that work can recommence as soon as possible.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that behind the smiling beard of the Leader of the Opposition lies the real threat to this country’s economy—the shadow Chancellor and his reheated, hard-left Marxism? Can she reassure me and the businesses of this country that the Conservative party will put jobs, prosperity and growth before ideology?

We are not going to talk about beards; we are going to talk about policy. We do not want to talk about the hon. Gentleman’s beard either; we are going to talk about policy, which I know is what the Prime Minister will address.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right that if we want to build a strong economy with high-skilled, high-paid jobs for the future, the way to do it is not by borrowing hundreds of billions of pounds and bankrupting our economy. The Labour party would be a real threat to the economy of this country and—more than that—they would be a threat to the jobs of hard-working people up and down this country.

Q14. This week sees the seventh anniversary of the 2011 referendum in Wales, at which the people of my country overwhelmingly supported full legislative sovereignty over devolved policy areas. Despite the perceived concessions in this week’s speech by the de facto Deputy Prime Minister, the withdrawal Bill will drive a sledgehammer through the Welsh constitution. Is it not the reality that under her plans for Brexit Britannia, Wales will be a rule-taker—a vassal country? (904076)

The hon. Gentleman is wrong about our proposal for the devolved Administrations: we will be devolving far more powers to the devolved Administrations. Indeed, the Government did that only recently in the Wales Act 2017, which devolved more powers to the Welsh Government. We are absolutely clear that we want to see the vast majority of powers returning from Brussels starting off in Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast, not Whitehall, but we are also clear that where powers relate to the UK as a whole it makes sense for us to ensure that they continue to apply across the whole of the UK in the same way.

To celebrate World Book Day tomorrow, will the Prime Minister join me in backing the Share a Story child literacy campaign to make 10 minutes of daily reading with a child as much a national habit as eating five portions of fruit and veg?

I am very happy to join my hon. Friend in welcoming the Share a Story campaign and marking World Book Day, which is a day to enjoy and celebrate reading. As a child, I very much enjoyed reading, and the idea of making 10 minutes of daily reading with a child a natural habit for everybody is extremely important, and I would certainly support it.

Sunday’s explosion in Leicester has been a terrible shock to the local community, and I know that all our thoughts are with the families and friends of those who tragically lost their lives and those who were injured. I thank the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition for praising our incredible emergency services, who continue to work in extremely difficult circumstances. Will the Prime Minister also pay tribute to our local residents, who have pulled together to support one another, showing great strength and courage, and will she make sure we get all the support we need to get to the bottom of what happened and to help my constituents put their lives back together?

As the hon. Lady said, both I and the Leader of the Opposition express our condolences to the family and friends of those who were sadly killed in this tragedy, but we also recognise the impact it has had on the local community. I am very happy to pay tribute to local residents, who have shown the real value of community in the way they have come together, and I can assure her that everything will be done to get to the bottom of why this happened and to ensure, as far as possible—depending on the cause, of course—that it does not happen to anybody again.

Last year, I attended a meeting in the House of Lords organised by the wonderful Cross-Bench peer and human rights campaigner Baroness Cox, at which three very brave women told us their harrowing tales of how they had been treated and discriminated against by sharia councils. It is amazing how noisy feminists in this place are so quiet about this issue, given that women are being discriminated against so blatantly in this country. Is it not time that this alternative, discriminatory form of justice was no longer tolerated in this country?

Let me say to my hon. Friend that we are very clear that there is one rule of law in the United Kingdom, and that is British law. But he is right, and I too have heard stories from individual women who were discriminated against, or felt that they had been discriminated against, and treated badly as a result of decisions by sharia courts. That is why, when I was Home Secretary, I set up the review of those courts. I believe that it published its report recently, and my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary will respond to that shortly.

Organisations working with the victims of modern slavery report that tomorrow the Government will be cutting their miserable daily living allowance. Will the Prime Minister stop that cut?

I commend the right hon. Gentleman for his interest in the issue of modern slavery and human trafficking, and for the work that he has done to support all our efforts to stop this terrible and horrendous crime. Our benefits system is there to provide a safety net, and we have been introducing changes in order to give more help to the people who need it most. I am not aware of the details of the specific issue that the right hon. Gentleman has raised, but I know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions will want to look at it.

A free, independent press is vital to our country. Does my right hon. Friend share my concerns about the links that Max Mosley has with Impress, and his links with some of our leading politicians?

I think some people will have been surprised to learn of those links with some leading politicians. I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend that a free press is very important: it underpins our democracy. Whatever those in the press say about us and whatever they write about us, it is important that they are able to hold politicians and the powerful to account and shine a light in some of the darkest corners of our society, and while I am Prime Minister, that will never change.

Edinburgh airport recently launched a noise abatement consultation. Given that aviation is a reserved matter, will the Prime Minister agree that her Government undertake an investigation of whether the level of night flights at Edinburgh has reached the level that was reached at Stansted when it was regulated?

I was not aware of the work being done at Edinburgh airport, but I shall be happy to ask the Department for Transport to look into the issue that the hon. Lady has raised.

I am sure the whole House would agree that the value of peace is priceless. Will my right hon. Friend confirm her support for the Good Friday agreement, and will she confirm that it is safe in her hands?

My hon. Friend has raised an important point. This April will mark the 20th anniversary of the historic Belfast agreement, which, together with its successors, has been fundamental in helping Northern Ireland to move forward from its violent past to a brighter and more secure future. I can assure my hon. Friend that this Government remain absolutely committed to the Belfast agreement: our commitment to that agreement is steadfast.

Thank you. Order. [Interruption.] Calm! I have said this before, but let me say it again. I encourage Members to seek to emulate the Buddha-like calm of the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke). He is modestly affecting not to notice what I am saying, but he is well aware that I am invoking him as an example of the repose and statesmanlike demeanour that colleagues should seek to imitate.

Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland: Border Arrangements

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs—who seems to have run away—to make a statement on future border arrangements between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland following Britain’s exit from the European Union.

Mr Speaker, I have been asked to reply.

The Government have been consistent in their commitments to Northern Ireland as the United Kingdom leaves the European Union. First, we will never accept any solutions that threaten the economic or constitutional integrity of the United Kingdom. Secondly, we will not accept a hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland, which would reverse the considerable progress made through the political process over recent decades. That position has been consistent from the Prime Minister’s article 50 letter through to our position paper published last summer and the Prime Minister’s Florence speech last autumn.

Most recently, the Government enshrined both these commitments very clearly in the joint report we agreed with the European Union in December. That set out very clearly our

“commitment to preserving the integrity of”

our

“internal market and Northern Ireland’s place within it”.

It also included our

“guarantee of avoiding a hard border”

between Northern Ireland and Ireland, including any related checks and controls. These commitments were agreed collectively by the entire Cabinet, and I believe they have wide support across the House. Those commitments have not changed, nor will they.

Thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting this urgent question, and while I am always pleased to hear from the Minister of State, I have to say that it is an absolute disgrace, and a huge discourtesy to the House, that the Foreign Secretary is not here himself to answer questions on the contents of his memo, especially given that we saw him in London a few hours ago jogging in the snow and stopping to answer questions from the media: if he can answer their questions, he really should be prepared to answer ours. What is he afraid of?

Perhaps the Foreign Secretary is afraid that these questions go to the very heart of his credibility and the credibility of previous statements that he has made in this House. On 21 November, from the Dispatch Box, I asked the Foreign Secretary whether he stood by the statement he made in February 2016—that a vote for Brexit would leave the border arrangements in Northern Ireland “absolutely unchanged”. He told the House in response—just three months ago—that he

“repeated exactly the pledge…there can be no return to a hard border…That would be unthinkable, and it would be economic and political madness. I think everybody…understands the ramifications of allowing any such thing to happen.”—[Official Report, 21 November 2017; Vol. 631, c. 848.]

But last night, despite that clear public statement from the Foreign Secretary, we discovered his private memo to the Prime Minister on the same subject. In it he wrote:

“It is wrong to see the task as maintaining ‘no border’”.

The Government’s task is, he said, to

“stop the border becoming significantly harder. ”

But, he wrote:

“Even if a hard border is reintroduced, we would expect to see 95 per cent plus of goods pass the border”

without checks.

Let us be clear what this memo reveals. Contrary to the Foreign Secretary’s previous statements, he accepts that there will have to be changes to the current border arrangements, and he accepts there will need to be border controls that do not exist at present; the only debate is their degree of hardness. Surely the Foreign Secretary has learned by now that you cannot just be a little bit pregnant: either there is a border or there is not.

My first question for the Minister is that the Foreign Secretary told the House that there would be no new border arrangements and no changes to the status quo, but this memo says the exact opposite, so which is the truth: what the Foreign Secretary said three months ago in public or what he said three weeks ago in private?

The Foreign Secretary has already said what we have heard so many times on this issue: that there is some magical technical solution which will allow goods to be checked, smuggling to be prevented, and points of origin proved as easily as paying the congestion charge and without—here is the truly magical part—even the installation of cameras. As I have pressed the Foreign Secretary repeatedly to tell us, how on earth is that possible, or is it just another addition to his ever-growing list of fantasies from ‘Boris island’ to the ‘channel bridge’?

I welcome the fact that the Foreign Secretary has already promised the media today to publish his leaked memo in full, and I hope that will provide some answers, but may I ask the Minister now—for the benefit of the House, and so that my colleagues can question him on his answer—to spell out in detail how this proposed invisible border will actually work in practice? If he cannot provide that detail, we are left with the conclusion that all of us on this side, and increasing numbers on his side, accept—that the only way to avoid a hard border in Northern Ireland is by staying in a customs union. The fact is that the Government know that—

Order. We are extremely grateful to the shadow Foreign Secretary, but she has now exceeded her time and we must leave it there.

Very well, but—[Interruption.] Order. I will be the judge of these matters; I require no assistance. The right hon. Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry) is always willing to help and I am grateful to her for that gratis voluntary offer of services, but I feel able to cope without them. The Minister will have a suitable period of time to respond, and the shadow Foreign Secretary can now add one brief sentence.

The truth of this memo is that the Government are saying one thing in public while preparing for the reality in private, and it is about time the deception was ended.

Order. Forgive me: I do not wish to be discourteous to the shadow Foreign Secretary, and certainly not to the Minister either, but, by the way, the Minister for the Cabinet Office is not a Minister of State; he is a member of the Cabinet.

It was confusing as to who was going to be responding to this urgent question, and I apologise for having drafted one script only to find that a different Minister was in the Chamber to respond.

That was a nice try, and it was very generous of me to allow the right hon. Lady to make it. I call the Minister for the Cabinet Office.

Anybody would have thought that the right hon. Lady was nervous about facing me across the Dispatch Box again.

The right hon. Lady started by questioning my credentials to be here. Since I have Cabinet responsibility for constitutional affairs, including the implementation of devolution throughout the United Kingdom, and since I also chair the Cabinet Committee on the domestic implementation of our Brexit arrangements, it seems to me to be perfectly reasonable that I should respond to the right hon. Lady’s urgent question.

The right hon. Lady asked about the position of my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary. Like every other member of the Cabinet, he stands four-square behind our support for the Belfast agreement and the December agreements reached between the United Kingdom and the European Union. We are now at the very start of a negotiating period during which we will discuss with our partners in the EU how to give practical effect to the commitments that were entered into then, both to ensure there is no hard north-south border between the Northern Ireland and Ireland and to ensure there is no kind of border, customs or otherwise, between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom. The Prime Minister and the Taoiseach have both said publicly that they believe the priority is to settle these issues in the context of the ambitious, deep and special partnership that we are seeking between the UK and the EU in the future, and my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister will set out more detail about her proposed approach to this in her speech on Friday.

We have just heard the Prime Minister reconfirm her commitment to full regulatory convergence if necessary to keep the Irish border open, but I did not wholly understand the second half of her reply to me. Does my right hon. Friend really believe it will be possible to negotiate a position whereby the British Government decide what regulatory convergence they are going to have, the British Government decide what regulatory convergence they are not going to have, and the British Government are free to change their mind and move those boundaries at any time? What does my right hon. Friend think the prospects are of agreeing that with 27 other sovereign Governments?

With respect to my right hon. and learned Friend, I do not think that there is a need for any misunderstanding about what my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister was saying. On the date when we leave the European Union, the treaties will, in the words of article 50, cease to apply to the United Kingdom. The effect of the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill, which is currently before the House of Lords, is that the direct effect and primacy of European Union law in the United Kingdom will be extinguished. We are now seeking an agreement, which will take the form of a treaty governed by international law, between the United Kingdom and the continuing entity of the European Union. That is what we are seeking to do, and the Prime Minister has said that she will talk about that in more detail on Friday.

We know from the Government’s leaked figures that they are prepared to play fast and loose with jobs and the economy in order to try to prevent another Tory civil war, and there is concern that they might do the same thing in relation to the Good Friday peace process to prevent a Tory civil war. Will the Minister tell us whether it is wrong to see the Foreign Secretary’s task as maintaining no border? Will he also tell us what the impact on the border will be if the implementation period is based on World Trade Organisation principles? Finally, it is always good to see the Minister here, but I have to tell him that, although I enjoy a game of “Where’s Wally” as much as the next person, it is frankly astonishing that the Foreign Secretary is not here.

The entire Government are committed to there being no border between Northern Ireland and Ireland, or between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom. Both those elements were central to the December joint report, and they are both firm commitments of the entire United Kingdom Cabinet and the Government. The hon. Gentleman’s strictures about the Government’s approach to jobs and employment stand somewhat in contrast to the reality, which is that employment is at a record high in the United Kingdom at the moment and unemployment is at a 40-year low.

Has my right hon. Friend seen the report prepared by the European Parliament’s policy department for citizens’ rights and constitutional affairs, which concludes that a technical solution allowing free movement of persons under a common travel arrangement and a low-friction border for the movement of goods will be possible, and that there is no reason why we should not start to implement that straight away?

I have not had the pleasure of reading that particular report from the European Parliament yet, but I shall certainly add it to my reading list. What my right hon. Friend has just said is evidence that there are people here, as well as in the Brussels institutions and the 27 national Governments of our EU partners, who are keen to work constructively together to find an outcome that brings benefits to us all.

Instead of complaining that the draft withdrawal agreement published this morning proposes to keep Northern Ireland in the customs union and subject to the single energy market and to EU rules on the environment and agriculture, is it not time that Ministers finally accepted that it is their continuing failure to explain how they are going to keep an open border while leaving the customs union and the single market that is the cause of this problem? When will they explain how they propose to achieve that?

I draw the right hon. Gentleman’s attention to the fact that last December’s joint report contains three options to ensure that there will be no hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland. The first—which the Government of Ireland and this Government are strongly committed to and want to see as the option that we are able to deliver—is the one that settles this matter in the context of the overall future economic partnership between the UK and the European Union. We are looking forward to beginning the negotiating process that I hope will start after the publication today.

We are coming up to the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday agreement—an agreement that allowed the people of this nation, wherever they live in these islands, to have their own identity and yet be citizens of the United Kingdom. That agreement also locked in three conditions. The first was that the agreement could change only with the agreement of the citizens of Northern Ireland. The second was that Dublin would have to agree to a change, and the third was that the United Kingdom would have to agree. Does my right hon. Friend agree that that agreement must not be undermined, and that those who voted against it in the past should hang their heads in shame, because it is an agreement that has kept the peace for 20 years?

I am certainly proud of what the Belfast agreement has achieved in making possible a period of peace and reconciliation in Northern Ireland. None of us would claim that that process was complete yet, but the Belfast agreement was an historic start that was attributed to the hard work of successive Governments under John Major and Tony Blair. I am happy to pay tribute to both of them for that. The Government are four-square behind the Belfast agreement, and my hon. Friend made an important point in talking about the principle of consent. The principle of consent, including over the constitutional status of Northern Ireland, was also written into the joint report and signed up to not just by the UK Government but by the European Union as well.

I welcome what the Secretary of State has said in his statement and also what the Prime Minister said at Prime Minister’s questions. It is ironic that some of the people who complain the hardest about creating a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic have today welcomed proposals from the EU that would actually create a hard border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom. The fact is that there is a border between north and south: a currency border. There are different currencies, different fiscal regimes, different tax regimes and different economic policies, but this is managed in a sensible and pragmatic way. The same can be done in relation to the future relationship. This has already been spelled out in the Government’s paper last August. To use the Belfast agreement—or, more despicably, the peace process—as an excuse either to thwart Brexit or to shape it in the way that some people want is quite frankly outrageous and disgraceful. Let us back the arrangements that are in place, but let us go forward in a pragmatic, sensible way and not create shibboleths that are not there.

I welcome what the right hon. Gentleman has said. Yes, there is of course a jurisdictional border that gives rise to tax and other differences, but they are currently managed in a way that allows people to go about their lives on either side of that jurisdictional border without any hindrance or delay whatever. This Government and the Irish Government are determined to try to ensure that that state of affairs continues, while also respecting the constitutional and economic integrity of the United Kingdom.

Of all the areas of the Brexit negotiations that give rise to high emotion, perhaps the one that most needs to be treated calmly, rationally and unemotionally is the question of the Irish border. Can my right hon. Friend assure me that the UK Government and their negotiators will continue to deal with this issue in that calm, rational way? In doing that, could they perhaps persuade the Commission’s negotiating side to concentrate not just on one area of the December joint report but on all three areas that were originally put forward by the British Government?

I agree wholeheartedly with what my right hon. Friend says. His emphasis on all three strands is correct. It is important that there should be no cherry-picking between the different elements of the December joint report, and it is important that we should try to approach these matters in the calm, pragmatic way that he urges.

The Foreign Secretary claimed that congestion charge technology is the answer to border checks outside a customs union. However, he will know that the congestion charge checks vehicles, not what is in them, and that it includes 197 camera sites around London that no one notices, because they are in built-up areas, and that no one cares about because the last time I looked there had been a long history of peace between inner and outer London. In Northern Ireland last year, there were four attacks on the lives of police officers, 58 shooting incidents and 33 bombing incidents, and the Police Service of Northern Ireland has warned that any infrastructure at the border is a threat. Will the Minister for the Cabinet Office confirm that Ministers rule out any physical infrastructure at the border and that cameras are physical? Do they rule out new cameras at the border—yes or no?

We stand by the words to which we committed ourselves in December, which include no physical infrastructure at the border.

I support everything that has been said by my right hon. Friend and the comments of my right hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Damian Green). The country has to wake up and realise that we are not going to tear our nation further apart. We need an approach to Brexit that is not only pragmatic but honest. The only solution to a hard border is membership of the customs union and the single market, and we will get there in the end.

Does my right hon. Friend share my concern about a democratic deficit? We know that 56% of people in Northern Ireland voted remain—I wonder why. In the absence of an Executive, and given the composition of the right hon. and hon. Members who sit in this place to represent Northern Ireland, where is the voice of the 56% in all this?

It is the Government’s hope that the political parties in Northern Ireland can agree to reconstitute the Executive and the Assembly as soon as possible. I think there is agreement across the political parties in Northern Ireland that that is what they would want to do, and I hope that the remaining differences can be overcome.

Why does the Minister for the Cabinet Office think that the Foreign Secretary wrote this letter? Was it because he did not know that the Government had committed in paragraph 49 of the December agreement to

“its guarantee of avoiding a hard border”

or was it because any commitment can be set aside in the service of the cause that the Foreign Secretary really cares about: the furtherance of his own career? Or was it something more sinister than Boris’s self-love, which is that faced with the incompatibility of red lines around the customs union and the single market and the commitment to no hard border, there is a concerted ideological attack on that commitment and, indeed, on the Good Friday agreement itself?

I do not think that I could be clearer than I have been so far. The Government are absolutely resolved to stand by both the Belfast agreement and all parts of the joint report of last December.

I am encouraged that everybody seems to want to avoid a hard border in Northern Ireland. The only people who seem to be threatening such a border are those who are trying to leverage their political advantage in domestic politics in the Republic of Ireland or trying somehow to blackmail the whole of the United Kingdom into substantially reversing the substance of the referendum result. Far more constituencies voted leave than remain, and it would be as politically unsustainable for issues around Northern Ireland to leverage the whole of the United Kingdom back into some kind of customs unions as it would be to erect any wholly unnecessary infrastructure at the border in Northern Ireland.

We are at the very start of the negotiations about the detail of the withdrawal agreement and then of the creation of the future deep and special partnership that we are seeking with our European Union friends and neighbours. The depth and comprehensive nature of the economic partnership that we are seeking is something that the Prime Minister will talk about on Friday.

Order. This exchange is eliding into a debate, which it should not be. It is supposed to be a question and answer session, and I am getting enthusiastic nods of assent from the Minister for the Cabinet Office. I exhort colleagues to resist the temptation to orate. What is required is not oration, but inquiry, which will now be brilliantly and pithily exemplified by Lady Hermon.

What a task—I will keep to it. Will the Minister take a few moments just to confirm to the House that the Irish Government have accepted that there will be no hard border on the island of Ireland and, just as importantly, that they have accepted that there will no border down the Irish sea?

The Irish Government, like the rest of the EU, signed up to and support the joint report of last December in its entirety, and paragraph 42 of the report commits both parties—the UK and the EU—to uphold the “totality” of the relationships embodied in and expressed by the Belfast agreement. That totality embraces east-west every bit as much as north-south.

I am afraid that that is not a question that I can readily answer. However, it is important that the Commission recognises, as the Prime Minister said earlier, that as far as the Government are concerned, whichever side those of us around the Cabinet table voted or campaigned for during the EU referendum, our commitment to the Union of the United Kingdom is absolute. There is no division whatsoever on that matter, and I hope that our negotiating partners understand that.

I understand the clear frustration of the Minister and many Government Members at the Foreign Secretary saying that it is not his task to try to defend the border, but the Foreign Secretary said this morning—after his jog—that he would publish the memo. When?

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on not being provoked by the ridiculous statements coming from the European Union on this subject. I commend to my right hon. Friend the wise words of the right hon. Member for Belfast North (Nigel Dodds), because they show that we can have a border with regulatory divergence, as there is at the moment. Why can that not continue into the future?

We are certainly seeking no hard border and, helpfully, the Government of Ireland are also committed to that objective. Having served six years as Minister for Europe, I am used to trying to resist provocation, wherever it comes from.

The Foreign Secretary’s absence tells us all that we need to know about how accountable he feels he should be to this House. I must therefore ask the Minister instead why the Foreign Secretary was speculating about the Northern Ireland-Ireland border becoming “significantly harder”. What measures was he considering that might be necessary on the border?

The right hon. Gentleman served in the coalition Government, so he knows that Government business involves Ministers writing and conversing with each other all the time. The Government’s policy is the policy that has been collectively agreed by the Cabinet, and that is what the Prime Minister and I have set out this afternoon.

I welcome the Minister’s commitment to the joint report. Will he confirm that it is Her Majesty’s Government’s intention to stick by the agreements that were outlined in paragraphs 49 and 50 of the report and that there is no intention to renege on any part of them?

Will the Minister for the Cabinet Office confirm for the benefit of his Back Benchers, and perhaps the Democratic Unionist party, that the Northern Irish border backstop provision embodied in today’s draft EU withdrawal agreement is exactly what the Prime Minister agreed to as a backstop in December 2017? If he disagrees, will his Government produce an alternative text explaining what she did agree to?

What we have today is something that Monsieur Barnier has described as not necessarily the final version, because this is a draft that the Commission is tabling not for negotiation, but for discussion among the EU27 member states and the European Parliament. When the text comes to the table for negotiation, we will obviously consider that option. As the Prime Minister said earlier, it is important that there is not cherry-picking, and that the text of the withdrawal agreement, when it is eventually concluded, reflects all the paragraphs of the joint report equally. My feeling, from the brief reading I have had so far, is that the current draft does not do that.