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Commons Chamber

Volume 637: debated on Wednesday 7 March 2018

House of Commons

Wednesday 7 March 2018

The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock


[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—

Brexit: Devolution

1. What discussions he has had with (a) Cabinet colleagues and (b) the Scottish Government on the devolution of powers to the Scottish Parliament upon the UK leaving the EU. (904136)

The Government have intensified their discussions with the Scottish and Welsh Governments on both the significant increase in powers that we expect to see for the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly and some common UK frameworks following the UK’s EU exit. We are making good progress in those discussions and will meet again tomorrow for the next Joint Ministerial Committee on EU Negotiations, at which I hope further progress can be made.

The Secretary of State and fellow Scottish Conservatives say that clause 11 of the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill is deficient. He gave an undertaking to this House that he would table amendments, which he failed to do. He now says that he will deliver amendments in the other place, which he still has not done. Will he set out what happens if he runs out of time to deliver his much-promised amendments?

I am confident that we will be able to bring forward such amendments. We are in significant discussions with the Welsh Assembly Government and the Scottish Government, which both acknowledge that we have tabled to them a significant proposal for changing the Bill. I hope to hear their detailed response to that tomorrow.

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that it is the Government’s wish that as powers are returned from Brussels to the UK they will be devolved, not only to Scotland but to Wales and Northern Ireland?

Yes, indeed; that is the Government’s wish, although we acknowledge that to make the common market within the UK function effectively, some powers and responsibilities will have to be conducted at a UK-wide level.

Will the Secretary of State set out for the House the mechanism he will use to amend clause 11 of the EU withdrawal Bill, should no agreement be in place by the time the Bill completes its passage in the other place?

I do not share the hon. Gentleman’s pessimism that there will not be agreement before the Bill completes its passage in the other place. I remain positive about being able to reach an agreement with both the Welsh and Scottish Governments. I believe that they are sincere in their expressed view that they wish to reach such an agreement, and we will take every step to ensure that we negotiate to a position at which we can reach an agreement.

Leaving the EU means taking back control of our waters, which is a huge opportunity for Scotland’s fishermen. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Scottish Government’s EU continuity Bill and stated position of remaining in the single market and customs union would simply sell out Scotland’s fishermen by handing all those new powers straight back to Brussels?

It is incredible that that is indeed the position of the Scottish National party and the Scottish Government. Although at one point SNP Members came to this House and talked about a power grab, they are now willing and want to hand back powers over fishing to the EU right away and to go back into the common fisheries policy.

Will the Secretary of State explain why, if he believes that Brexit is going to have a profound effect on the devolution settlement, he was excluded from the recent meeting of his Cabinet colleagues at Chequers to formulate the UK’s Brexit strategy?

I know that the hon. Gentleman does not recognise the result of the 2014 referendum and therefore that the UK Government Cabinet is a Cabinet for the whole United Kingdom, as are all its sub-committees. The decisions on the Prime Minister’s approach to the EU negotiations were agreed by the whole Cabinet.

There was no indication that the hon. Gentleman was seeking two. In an hour-long session, yes, but not otherwise. I do not know why the hon. Gentleman’s brow is furrowed; he has got what was his entitlement and has nothing about which to complain, so he can sit down and we are most grateful to him for doing so.

The Secretary of State stood at the Dispatch Box and promised the House that the devolution settlement would be protected. Three months on, we are facing a constitutional crisis. What exactly is the Secretary of State doing to fix the mess he has made of the EU withdrawal Bill?

I will not take any lessons from the hon. Lady whose party was quite prepared to play the SNP game in the Scottish Parliament and vote for a piece of legislation that was quite clearly ruled as not competent by the Presiding Officer of the Scottish Parliament.

Good communication is very important in these matters. My office was notified of the intention of the hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard) to ask a question, which he has asked. If he wants to ask a second, so be it, but he should not be flailing and gesticulating as though he has been the subject of some sort of adverse treatment, because he has not. If he wants to get up and blurt out a second question, he is most welcome to do so. Let’s hear from the fellow. Come on!

Thank you, Mr Speaker—I did want to ask the Secretary of State a second question. He has previously said that the most important thing about changes to the withdrawal Bill is that they should command the support of all sides. May I ask him: is that still his policy, and does he believe that any framework arrangements should require the consent of the Scottish Parliament if it changes its operations?

I have set out clearly that, in the process of leaving the EU, I want to ensure that the Scottish Parliament has more powers and responsibilities than it does today. I also want to ensure that we have an arrangement in place to allow us to agree frameworks as we move forward, and that frameworks, as I have previously said, should not be imposed.

These exchanges are far too slow. We need short questions and short answers. I want to make progress. Lesley Laird, a couple of brief inquiries, please.

My party is the party of devolution, and we will continue to protect that. We are 20 months on from the EU referendum, and a year away from leaving the EU, and yet Scotland’s invisible man in the Cabinet cannot even blag himself an invite to the awayday at Chequers to discuss Brexit. Does the Secretary of State have a plan to fix this mess, or will he continue to front up a Government who are trampling all over the devolution settlement for Scotland?

The Scottish Labour party will be judged on its actions, and I do not see it standing up for the devolution settlement in the Scottish Parliament. Instead, I see it kowtowing to the SNP. In relation to devolution and commitment to the United Kingdom, the hon. Lady, above all people, should know that we have a United Kingdom Cabinet, a United Kingdom Chancellor, and a United Kingdom Prime Minister. Again, she should not kowtow to SNP arguments about separatism—

RBS Branch Closures

2. What discussions he has had with the Royal Bank of Scotland on the potential effect on local communities of the proposed closure of its branches in Scotland. (904137)

I have met senior RBS management in Scotland to discuss the decision. I made it clear that its plans were disappointing for customers and communities across Scotland, and I urged it to mitigate the impact of closures as comprehensively as possible.

Small businesses have already reported in Wales and across the United Kingdom that they are being refused if they try to pay in large sums of cash at the post office, as it presents a security risk and post office workers do not have the time to count such large sums of money. What will the Secretary of State do to ensure that there is no disruption to small businesses or the public as a result of these ill-thought-out closures?

I certainly share the hon. Lady’s view that these are ill-thought-out closures, and I am very happy to take the specific point forward. I am sure that colleagues who serve on the Scottish Affairs Committee will also be prepared to put that view to the chief executive of the Royal Bank, who, I am pleased to say, has finally agreed to appear before that Committee.

The big issue for many rural communities, such as those in my constituency in the borders, will be the access to cash given that RBS is shutting so many branches on the back of previous bank closures. Can the Government do more to ensure that rural communities are getting access to the cash to support the local economies?

My hon. Friend raises a very good point. I would be very happy to meet him to discuss that issue further.

The decline in the centres of our Scottish towns is there to be seen. The closure of the branch of the Royal Bank will be a further nail in the coffin. What proposals does the Secretary of State have to try to arrest the decline of our vital little towns in Scotland?

The hon. Gentleman raises a very pertinent point; the vast majority of these proposed closures, for example, are related to rural communities. We must focus on ensuring that people in rural areas can continue to receive services. There is the issue of cash, which my hon. Friend the Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (John Lamont) has just raised, and also things such as broadband, which, as the hon. Gentleman knows, we want the Scottish Government to roll out more quickly.

It has been the custom since 2015 that the SNP lead spokesperson gets two questions at Scottish questions.

The Scottish Secretary is obviously very much aware of the Scottish Affairs Committee’s ongoing inquiry into RBS closures. CEO Ross McEwan has now agreed to appear before the Committee. Bizarrely, the only people who will not go in front of the Committee are UK Government Treasury Ministers, even though they have a 70% share in our interest in that bank. Can he therefore join me in—

Order. Let me say to the hon. Gentleman that I need no advice on procedure from him or any of his colleagues. I work on the basis of that of which the office has been notified—one question, and that was why I granted it. I am well familiar with the precedents; I know what I am doing, but I do require effective communication, which was lacking in this case. It is not appropriate for the hon. Gentleman to use his position to try to score some procedural point, which he has spectacularly failed to do.

On 6 February, RBS announced that it would give 10 branches in Scotland a stay of execution, on the basis that they were the last bank in town. However, one branch, in the Secretary of State’s constituency, was given a special reprieve but was not the last bank in town. Why should the Secretary of State’s constituents be given preferential treatment while the last banks in some of the poorest communities across Scotland are closed down?

I know that this is a hostage to fortune, but I would like the hon. Gentleman to name that branch, because the three branches in my constituency that were to be the subject of this so-called reprieve—which I agree with him is just a stay of execution—are all the last bank in town. I think he should do his research a little better.

Referendum on Independence

3. What recent discussions he has had with the Scottish Government on holding a further independence referendum. (904138)

Scotland held a referendum on Scottish independence in 2014—a “once in a generation” event, we were told—and the result was decisive. Now is not the time for a second independence referendum. Our entire focus should be on pulling together during negotiations with the European Union, making sure we get the best deal for the whole of the UK.

I entirely agree, but if by some chance the Scottish Government do manage to have another referendum, on leaving the single market and the customs union which they share with the rest of the United Kingdom, will my right hon. Friend show it more respect than they are currently showing to the 17.6 million people across the UK who voted for Brexit?

Not surprisingly, I agree with my hon. Friend. He will be particularly aware that 1 million people in Scotland—most of them SNP voters—who voted to leave the EU have been airbrushed out of history; they do not exist. If one listens to the our First Minister, apparently everybody in Scotland voted to remain in the EU.

Does the Secretary of State not think that, once we have clarity on what Brexit will really mean for the people of Scotland, it is right for them to decide their future, and that it is not for Westminster politicians to stop people making a decision?

We had an independence referendum in 2014. The outcome was decisive. We were told ahead of that referendum that it was to be a “once in a generation”—indeed, once in a lifetime—event, and that is what it should be.

City Deals

7. What progress the Government have made on their plans to deliver a city deal for every city in Scotland. (904142)

The UK Government are either negotiating or implementing a city region deal for all of Scotland’s seven great cities and the regions around them. So far we have committed over £1 billion to this landmark programme, and there is more to come. We are currently negotiating with local partners for both the Stirling and Clackmannanshire and Tay cities deals, and we hope to conclude the heads of agreements in the coming months.

The Secretary of State will be aware that a number of the projects associated with the Glasgow region city deal, including two taking place in East Renfrewshire, are over budget and behind schedule. Does he agree that it is vital that we get to work on these projects as soon as possible, so that local communities can benefit?

I do agree with my hon. Friend about raising those issues with the Glasgow city deal. It is not enough just to sign these deals and to promote them; what we need is delivery, and I will look at the specific issues he has raised.

Will my right hon. Friend help to break the deadlock with the devolved Administration and commit to the amount of money that Westminster is willing to put forward in the Stirling and Clackmannanshire deal, so that Clackmannanshire can realise its true ambition?

My hon. Friend has certainly been a strong advocate for Clackmannanshire in this process. I hope to meet the Scottish Government shortly to discuss both this deal and the Tay cities deal, in the hope that the Scottish Government and the UK Government can go forward with local partners in a collaborative way.

Does the Secretary of State share my frustration at the lack of progress on the Ayrshire growth deal? Does he agree that it is time to get on and kick-start the deal for all the people of Ayrshire?

Further to that question, will the Secretary of State give us a timeline for when the UK Government will agree the Ayrshire growth deal?

The hon. Gentleman’s constant flow of negativity is in marked contrast to the three local authorities that I met recently in Ayrshire, which are very keen to work with the Scottish Government and the UK Government to make the Ayrshire growth deal a reality.

Leaving the EU

5. What recent discussions he has had with the Prime Minister on the effect on Scotland of the UK leaving the EU. (904140)

10. What recent discussions he has had with the Prime Minister on the effect on Scotland of the UK leaving the EU. (904146)

13. What recent discussions he has had with the Prime Minister on the effect on Scotland of the UK leaving the EU. (904149)

As Members would expect, I have very regular discussions with the Prime Minister and the Cabinet regarding UK Government policy and how it affects Scotland. The UK Government are committed to securing a deal that works for all parts of the UK, including Scotland.

Has the Secretary of State just given up on getting the consent of the Scottish Parliament for any changes to its powers on the devolved settlement that this Tory Government plan to make, or is he so out of the loop that he no longer gets invited to Cabinet meetings and has quite simply become an irrelevance?

I do not know who briefs the hon. Lady, but the Joint Ministerial Committee on EU Negotiations is meeting tomorrow. We are meeting with Mike Russell and Mark Drakeford, and we hope to take forward the solid progress that we have achieved over the course of these meetings.

One area where the Scottish and UK Governments appear to agree is that plans to take us out of the single market will be devastating for Scotland’s GDP, so can he tell us what plans he has to protect public services in Scotland from that?

The hon. Gentleman usually takes his brief with great seriousness, and therefore I am sure that he will have read the Prime Minister’s speech, if not watched it last week, which set out how the UK Government will approach the negotiations.

We have seen the Secretary of State go back on his words about the single market and have his authority undermined by not being invited to the PM’s Brexit meeting, and we are still waiting for his amendments to the withdrawal Bill. Given that the deadline is next Thursday, will this be just another catalogue of failures for the Secretary of State?

I would be very pleased if, after tomorrow’s meeting of the JMCEN, we are able to bring forward an agreed amendment that can be tabled in the House of Lords. That is certainly the aspiration of the UK Government.

Last week, the Prime Minister met me and colleagues from our fishing constituencies around the UK, including Scotland. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the meeting highlighted how this Government are serious about realising the opportunity presented by Brexit, and reminded us that only this Government will take us out of the common fisheries policy?

Absolutely. Since his election to this place last year, my hon. Friend has been a powerful advocate for the fishing industry and the expressed wish of the fishing industry to leave the common fisheries policy, and that is what this Government will deliver for the fishing industry in Scotland.

11. My right hon. Friend is no doubt aware of the enormous benefits that Brexit potentially provides for the Scottish economy, as part of one United Kingdom, but does he also agree with Corby Scots—Scots in my constituency—that the talk of an unwanted second independence referendum far outweighs any risk that Brexit might present? (904147)

I certainly agree with my hon. Friend that talk of a second independence referendum is unwelcome and unnecessary. We have reached the point in the negotiations where we all need to come together and work with the Prime Minister to get the best possible deal for Scotland and the whole of the United Kingdom.

What progress is being made on ensuring that Scotland’s food producers will still have the protection that they need for important geographic brands such as Orkney beef or Shetland lamb after we have left the European Union?

I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that, despite scare stories to the contrary that have appeared in some parts of the media, there will be no change to the protection of those brands or an allowing in of false brands purporting to be them.

Non-UK nationals are essential to the agricultural industry in East Lothian. Can the Secretary of State guarantee that they will still have the same access after we leave the EU?

I very much welcomed the debate in this Parliament on that issue, led by my hon. Friend the Member for Angus (Kirstene Hair) who has been a strong advocate of the need for seasonal workers in Scotland, particularly in the soft fruit industry. The points raised in that debate and in the meetings of the Scottish Affairs Committee have all been recognised by the Government and will be looked at as we move forward.

Stirling and Clackmannanshire City Region Deal

6. What recent discussions he has had with the Scottish Government on the Stirling and Clackmannanshire city region deal. (904141)

My colleague the noble Lord Duncan met with partners recently at the Forth Valley College, and I have met Cabinet Secretary Keith Brown to discuss the Scottish contribution to the deal. I hope to meet Mr Brown again shortly.

It sometimes feels that the Stirling and Clackmannanshire city deal is taking longer to deliver than a baby elephant at Blair Drummond safari park. When does the Secretary of State expect to sign a heads of agreement with the Scottish Government and the local authorities? What discussions has he had with the Secretary of State for Defence on the future use of the Ministry of Defence site at Forthside in the city deal? [Interruption.]

Order. I want to hear the answer, to hear whether the Secretary of State is widening it beyond Stirling and Clackmannanshire or not.

We hope to sign that deal soon. The Ministry of Defence intends to dispose of Forthside by 2020, under the better defence estate strategy. We are working with the MOD to look at how the site can be part of that city deal.

I will give the hon. Gentleman the benefit of the doubt, but he must not shoehorn his own constituency into the matter. Let’s hear it.

The Stirling and Clackmannanshire city region deal does indeed include the transfer of MOD land at Forthside, and the decontamination of that land, to Stirling Council. I understand that that is no longer going to happen. Can the Secretary of State tell us whether it will happen and when will it happen, or is it yet another broken Tory promise?

How disappointing to allow that negative note into proceedings on city deals. City deals have worked because they have been a positive collaboration between the UK Government, Scottish Government, local authorities and partners, and it is exactly that sort of negativity and politicking that undermines the whole process.

Scottish Economy

The latest official figures show that the Scottish economy is growing, but at a slower pace than we would like and continuing to lag behind the UK. The UK Government are delivering for Scotland, including with our UK-wide industrial strategy, and of course with £2 billion of extra spending for Scotland, but the Scottish Government hold many of the levers that could drive growth, and they should be using those to make sure Scotland becomes a competitive place to do business. [Interruption.]

Order. I understand the sense of anticipation in the House, but we are discussing the strength of the Scottish economy, in which colleagues should take a polite and respectful interest.

The Secretary of State will be aware of the proposed closure of the 2 Sisters chicken plant in my constituency, with 450 jobs at risk. Will he join me in calling on the Scottish Government to set up a taskforce to look at viable alternatives? Will he agree to meet me to set out any help the UK Government might be able to offer?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that question, and yes, absolutely; the Secretary of State and I were talking about this this morning. He is more than happy to meet the hon. Gentleman, and will raise the issue with the Scottish Government on his behalf.

The success of the economy of the south of Scotland is clearly linked to that of the economy of the north of England, particularly my constituency of Carlisle. Does the Minister agree that the borderlands initiative is an exciting opportunity for both sides of the border to boost economic growth?

I completely agree with my hon. Friend. We are of course bringing about growth deals all over the country, and we also need to look at those areas where we can have them across borders, so we completely welcome the project he talks about.

14. Will the Secretary of State agree to meet me to discuss the potentially disastrous consequences for workers in and the community of Cumbernauld if the proposed closure of the tax office there is allowed to proceed? (904150)

ATP Tennis Tournament

9. If he will make it his policy to work with the Scottish Government and the Lawn Tennis Association on hosting an ATP World Tour tennis tournament in Scotland. (904145)

We know your interest in tennis, Mr Speaker. The success of Andy Murray in the singles, Jamie Murray in the doubles and Gordon Reid in the wheelchair event has undoubtedly increased interest in tennis in Scotland. We would certainly support measures that encourage more people to engage with tennis and, indeed, any sport in Scotland.

I am very encouraged to hear that. As we look towards the legacy of Andy Murray, the greatest British tennis player ever, it would be great to see the UK Government, the Scottish Government and perhaps even Glasgow City Council working together with the Lawn Tennis Association to make a profitable tennis tournament at ATP elite level.

Indeed; Scotland has been a great venue for tennis. The Scottish Government actually lead on this. It would be welcome to hear anything from the Scottish Government, and we would be more than happy to meet them to discuss the situation.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—


I would like to begin by updating the House on the Government’s response to the incident that occurred in Salisbury on Sunday. I pay tribute to the work of all the emergency services who responded at the scene, and those who are now caring for the two critically ill individuals in hospital. As my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary told the House yesterday, the police investigation is ongoing. Yesterday afternoon, I chaired a meeting of the National Security Council, where we were updated on that investigation, which is now being led by counter-terrorism police. This morning, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary chaired a meeting of the Government’s emergency committee, Cobra, and she has asked the police to provide an update later today.

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.

Representing a south-west constituency, may I align my remarks with those of my right hon. Friend? The incident in Salisbury has clearly caused great concern across the south-west and, of course, the country.

North Dorset’s councils and I share the Prime Minister’s commitment to delivering new housing, such as the 1,800 new homes proposed for Gillingham in my constituency. We understand how housing transforms lives and supports local economic growth. May I welcome this week’s announcement from the Prime Minister? Let us get Britain building and deliver those quality homes of all tenures that our constituents now need.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right about the importance of housing. Earlier this week, I confirmed that the Government are rewriting the rules on planning to help restore the dream of home ownership. We want to see planning permissions going to people who are actually going to build houses, not just sit on land and watch its value rise. Our new rules will also make sure that the right infrastructure is in place to support housing developments, and planning changes will also allow more affordable homes to be prioritised for key workers. The Government have made it a priority to build the homes people need so that everyone can afford a safe and decent place to live.

I thank the Prime Minister for the short statement she made concerning the incident in Salisbury. I think we all thank the emergency and security services for their response, and we await updates on the progress of investigations into the cause of that incident.

Tomorrow is International Women’s Day—a chance both to celebrate how far we have come on equality for women but also to reflect on how far we have to go, not just in this country but around the world.

Later today, the Prime Minister is due to meet Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the ruler of Saudi Arabia. Despite much talk of reform, there has been a sharp increase in the arrest and detention of dissidents, torture of prisoners is common, human rights defenders are routinely sentenced to lengthy prison terms, and unfair trials and executions are widespread, as Amnesty International confirms. As she makes her arms sales pitch, will she also call on the Crown Prince to halt the shocking abuse of human rights in Saudi Arabia?

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for telling me that it is International Women’s Day tomorrow. I think that is what is called mansplaining.

I look forward to welcoming Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman from Saudi Arabia to this—[Hon. Members: “Shame on you!”] Labour Back Benchers are shouting “Shame” from a sedentary position. I say to those Back Benchers that the link we have with Saudi Arabia is historic and important, and has potentially saved the lives of hundreds of people in this country. The fact that it is an important link is not just a view that I hold. The shadow Foreign Secretary said this morning:

“Our relationship with Saudi Arabia is an important one”.

She went on to say:

“that doesn’t mean that we should be pulling our punches.”

I agree, which is why I will be raising concerns about human rights with the Crown Prince when I meet him.

As the right hon. Gentleman started on the issue of International Women’s Day, I welcome the fact that the Crown Prince will be sitting down with, as the guest of, a female Prime Minister.

A year on, the Government are still suppressing a report on the funding of extremism, which allegedly found evidence of Saudi funding going to terrorist groups here in the UK, thus threatening our security. When will that report come out?

A humanitarian disaster is now taking place in Yemen. Millions face starvation and 600,000 children have cholera because of the Saudi-led bombing campaign and the blockade—600,000 children with cholera is something that everyone in this House should take seriously. Germany has suspended arms sales to Saudi Arabia, but British arms sales have increased sharply and British military advisers are directing the war. It cannot be right that the right hon. Lady’s Government are colluding in what the United Nations says is evidence of war crimes. Will the Prime Minister use her meeting with the Crown Prince today to halt the arms supplies and demand an immediate ceasefire in Yemen?

The right hon. Gentleman raised two questions. On the first point about the Home Office’s internal review, the Government are committed to stamping out extremism in all its forms. When I was Home Secretary, I launched the counter-extremism strategy. My right hon. Friend the current Home Secretary has appointed our counter-extremism commissioner. The review gave us the best picture of how extremists operating in the UK sustain their activities and improved our understanding of that. Its most important finding was that, contrary to popular perception, Islamist extremists draw most of their financial support from domestic, rather than overseas, sources.

I understand that because of some of the personal content in the report, it has not been published. However, Privy Counsellors have been invited to go to the Home Office to read the report. That invitation was extended, I believe, to the shadow Home Secretary, so she and other Privy Council colleagues on the Labour Front Bench are free to go and read the report.

The second issue that the right hon. Gentleman raised was the humanitarian situation in Yemen. We are all concerned about the appalling humanitarian situation in Yemen and the effect that it is having on people, particularly women and children. That is why the Government have increased our funding for Yemen. For 2017-18, we increased it to over £200 million. We are the third largest humanitarian donor to Yemen. We are delivering life-saving aid that will provide nutrition support for 1.7 million people and clean water for 1.2 million people.

I was pleased that when I went to Saudi Arabia in December I met the Crown Prince, and raised with him the need to open the port of Hodeidah to humanitarian and commercial supplies. I am pleased to say that Saudi Arabia then did just that. This vindicates the engagement that we have with Saudi Arabia and the ability to sit down with them. Their involvement in Yemen came at the request of the legitimate Government of Yemen. It is backed by the United Nations Security Council, and as such we support it. On the humanitarian issue, it is for all parties in the conflict to ensure that they allow humanitarian aid to get through to those who need it.

Of course we all want all possible humanitarian aid to go to Yemen to help the people who are suffering, but I refer the right hon. Lady to the remarks made by the former International Development Secretary, the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell), who said:

“we must not be afraid to condemn the nightly attacks on Yemen by the Saudi air force that have killed and maimed innocent men, women and children.”

There has to be an urgent ceasefire to save lives in Yemen.

Why does the Prime Minister think that rough sleeping fell under Labour but has doubled under the Conservatives?

To respond to the first question raised by the right hon. Gentleman on the conflict taking place in Yemen, we have encouraged the Saudi Arabia Government to ensure that when there are allegations of activity taking place that is not in line with international humanitarian law, they investigate them and learn the lessons. I believe something like 55 reports have already been published as a result of that.

On arms exports to Saudi Arabia, the right hon. Gentleman seems to be at odds with his shadow Foreign Secretary once again. This morning she said the arms industry is not something she is seeking to undermine, as long as it is within international law. She went on to say that she thought the UK can sell arms to any country as long as they are used within the law. We agree. This country has a very tight arms export regime, and when there are allegations of arms not being used within the law we expect that to be investigated and lessons to be learned.

On rough sleeping, nobody in this House wants to see anybody having to sleep rough on the streets. That is why this Government are putting in millions of pounds extra to deal with rough sleeping. It is why we are piloting the Housing First approach in three of our major cities. We want to ensure not just that we deal with the situation when somebody is found sleeping rough, but that we prevent people from sleeping rough in the first place.

In November, the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced a rough sleeping taskforce and £28 million for three pilot schemes to tackle homelessness. I understand that, four months on, the taskforce has not yet met and not a penny has been spent on that programme. There is a homelessness crisis in this country: rough sleeping has doubled since 2010. Does the Prime Minister not think it is a little unambitious to say that we are going to tackle rough sleeping by 2027?

We are going to eliminate it by 2027—that is our aim. Perhaps it would be helpful, Mr Speaker, if I was to update the right hon. Gentleman. The taskforce he referred to has in fact met. It met today. More importantly—the right hon. Gentleman has asked me this previously—it is not the only group of people we bring together to look at rough sleeping We have an expert advisory group that has been meeting over recent months, and whose reports, information and expertise are being in-put to that taskforce.

The right hon. Gentleman talks about homelessness. Statutory homelessness is less than half its peak in 2003, but we recognise that there is more to do. That is why we want more homes to be built. On rough sleeping, of course we want people to have a roof over their head, but about half of rough sleepers have a mental health problem. That is why we are putting more money into mental health. That is why it is not just a question of improving figures; it is a question of changing people’s lives around. If the right hon. Gentleman really cares, he will look at the complexity of this issue and recognise it is about more than giving people a roof over their head. It is about dealing with the underlying problems that lead to them rough sleeping in the first place.

I am glad that the Government showed such urgency in setting up this taskforce that it took four months to have a meeting of it, and it still has not achieved anything. Many people in this country are very upset and very embarrassed about the levels of rough sleeping in this country, and many volunteer. I got a letter this week from Barry:

“I volunteer in my hometown of Southampton to feed the homeless because the lack of care and help for these individuals is a disgrace.”

He goes on to point out the number of unoccupied buildings in his town and many others. Does the Prime Minister believe that her Government cutting homelessness services by 45% since 2010 has had some effect on the numbers of people who are rough sleeping?

If the right hon. Gentleman thinks that the only way issues are solved is by bringing people together at a meeting, I have to tell him that that is not the way to solve issues. The way to deal with these issues is actually to get out there on the ground and do something about it. That is why we are funding 48 projects to help rough sleepers into emergency accommodation and to overcome issues like mental ill health and substance abuse. It is why councils around the country, during the severe weather, have been ensuring that they provide accommodation for people who are sleeping on the streets, but also dealing with the underlying issues that lead to somebody sleeping on the streets. It is why we are ensuring that we are implementing Housing First in a number of regions, to put entrenched rough sleepers into accommodation as a first step to rebuilding their lives.

This is not about figures; it is about people. It is about ensuring that we take the action necessary to deal with the problems that people face that lead to them rough sleeping. It is also about ensuring that we build enough homes in this country for people, and that is why what we are doing to revise the planning laws, to ensure that people build houses when they have planning permission, should be welcomed by the right hon. Gentleman when he stands up.

I do not think any of that would come as much comfort to the rough sleepers I meet, who are begging every day just to find enough money to get into a night shelter. The Conservative chair of the Local Government Association, Lord Porter, warned that

“councils are now beyond the point where council tax”

can plug the gap. That is the result of the Government’s slashing of council budgets and passing on the buck.

After this deathly cold winter, we have more than twice as many people sleeping rough on our streets. Just one step away from that fate are 60,000 homeless households in temporary accommodation. We are the fifth richest country in the world. The growing number of people on our streets is a mark of national shame. With fewer social homes being built, less support for the homeless and a taskforce that has barely met, just how does the Prime Minister propose to tackle the homelessness crisis?

We propose to deal with homelessness and the issue of people who are not homeless but want to be able to have a home of their own by building more homes in this country. We propose to deal with it, as I said earlier this week, by ensuring that tenants get a fairer deal when they rent in this country. But I have to say that more council houses have been built under this Conservative Government than were built in 13 years under Labour. More social housing has been built in the last seven years than in the last seven years under the Labour Government. If the right hon. Gentleman wants to look at a record in relation to housing, he should look at the record of the last Labour Government.

Of course, the record of the last Labour Government was described as bringing—[Interruption.]

Order. Mr Perkins, I know you asked about tennis earlier, but you now appear to be attempting some imitation of crochet. You should not be making these curious gesticulations; they make you look even odder than—they make you look very odd. [Interruption.] Well, I thought your behaviour was a tad odd, and I am concerned about your wellbeing. I think the hon. Members for Wirral South (Alison McGovern) and for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Emma Hardy) will look after you.

The record of the last Labour Government on housing was described as a crisis, bringing misery and despair. Who said the last Labour Government’s record was bringing misery and despair? It was the Leader of the Opposition. The right hon. Gentleman said that Labour did not have a good record on housing, and I agree. It is the Conservatives who are delivering the homes the country needs.

Q2. Over the last three years, more than 2,000 new homes have been built in North West Leicestershire, including a record 731 in the last 12 months. Additionally, my local authority is building new council houses for the first time in decades. That is all in contrast with the 227 houses completed in the year to 2010, which was the last time Labour was in government. Will my right hon. Friend use North West Leicestershire as an example to other local authorities and show them our unemployment rate of 1% and the fact that we have no rough sleepers? (904222)

I am pleased that my hon. Friend has raised the example of North West Leicestershire, and we are very happy to join him in acknowledging the example it is setting. Of course, the figures he quoted contributed to the 217,000 new homes built across the country last year, which was the best year bar one in the last 30 years in terms of the number of new homes, but there is more to do. That is why we have rewritten the planning rules and had measures in the Budget to make money available and help people on to the housing ladder through the Help to Buy scheme. Once again, as he mentioned, it is the Conservatives in government who are delivering the homes that people need.

On 6 February, the Royal Bank of Scotland announced that 10 branches earmarked for closure were to be given a reprieve, subject to a review at the end of the year. Will the Prime Minister join me in calling on the Royal Bank of Scotland to do what it can to encourage people to open accounts and make sure these branches are sustainable?

As the right hon. Gentleman knows full well, the opening and closing of branches is a commercial matter for the Royal Bank of Scotland. He asks me to call on people to open accounts and use the branches, but of course one reason bank branches are closing is that more people are choosing not physically to go into them but to bank on the internet. It is up to customers to decide what banking arrangements suit them.

I remind the Prime Minister that we own the Royal Bank of Scotland and that she ought to be holding the company to account. I had a phone call from a constituent of mine, an Angus Sutherland, who phoned the Royal Bank of Scotland yesterday wanting to open accounts for himself and his family. Rather than opening them in the local branch in Kyle, which is one of those earmarked for reprieve, he was told to approach a branch elsewhere. It is outrageous that the Royal Bank of Scotland is undermining the ability of these branches to stay open. Will she finally call in the chief executive, Ross McEwan, and tell him that this behaviour must end?

The right hon. Gentleman has raised these questions before. I would have thought, given his background, that he would understand that these decisions are taken by commercial organisations and that it is not for the Government to tell people what sort of accounts to have or in which branches to open them. We take steps to ensure that where there are branch closures, other facilities are available; that is why we have the agreement with the Post Office to provide additional ability for people to use services through the Post Office. It is not right for him to suggest, that the Government should be telling people where to have their bank accounts and how to hold them. There are commercial decisions for banks on bank branches, and there are decisions for individual customers on their own banking arrangements.

Q5. Thanks to income tax hikes by the Scottish national party Government, thousands of UK armed forces personnel who are stationed in Scotland will pay more tax than their counterparts south of the border. Can my right hon. Friend confirm that this Conservative Government are reviewing the steps that they can take to clean up the SNP’s mess and mitigate the tax rise for our brave servicemen and women? (904225)

My hon. Friend raises an important point. As a result of decisions made by the Scottish nationalists in government in Scotland, many people there will be paying higher taxes. Those earning more than £26,000 will pay higher taxes in Scotland than in the rest of the United Kingdom. I was in the Chamber for the end of Defence questions the other day when my right hon. Friend the Defence Secretary said that he was looking into the point that my hon. Friend has raised about armed forces personnel in Scotland.

Q3. Labour lifted a million children out of poverty, and this Government are on course to plunge a record 37% of children into poverty. Vulnerable people are being denied social care because of Government cuts in local authority budgets. Is this really a society that is working for everyone? (904223)

The number of people in absolute poverty has fallen under this Conservative Government. However, we want to ensure that families are helped to support themselves, which is why we have increased the national living wage, increased the personal allowance and so taken more people out of income tax, and revised the benefits system so that more people are encouraged and able to get into the workplace

Q9. I am sure my right hon. Friend will agree that good air quality will improve the lives of everyone in the country, and the lives of their children and grandchildren. We are launching a Joint Committee on the subject, because cross-Government work between the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the Department of Health and the Department for Transport is important. Will the Prime Minister appoint a member of the Cabinet to co-ordinate that work to ensure that our children and grandchildren benefit from better air quality? (904229)

This is an important issue. We are committed to being the first generation to leave the environment in a better state than we inherited. We are taking action on pollution, and I am pleased that emissions of toxic nitrogen oxides fell by almost 27% between 2010 and 2016, but there is of course more for us to do, which is why we have a £3.5 billion plan to tackle poor air quality and provide cleaner transport. Later this year, we will publish a strategy that will set out further steps.

I assure my hon. Friend that both my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, whose Department covers energy and air quality issues, and the Minister for Energy and Clean Growth, who attends Cabinet, are very well versed in putting together the arguments for better air quality.

Q4. As the Saudi Crown Prince sweeps across Westminster and Whitehall, will the Prime Minister pledge to raise the specific case of the jailed writer Raif Badawi? He has languished in a prison for six years, all because he wrote some things that his Government did not like. His wife and children have now claimed asylum in Canada. Will the Prime Minister pledge to raise his case, and will she also do something that her predecessor never did? Will she stand at the Dispatch Box and say that Raif Badawi is no criminal, and that he should be set free? (904224)

I will be raising a number of cases with the Crown Prince when I see him over the next couple of days, but we do not wait for a visit from the Crown Prince to raise the case of Raif Badawi. We monitor the situation regularly and raise the issue regularly with the Saudi Government, and we will continue to do so.

Q12. Will the Prime Minister support the work that the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and the Oil and Gas Authority are doing to facilitate the production of £1 trillion of oil and gas revenue from the continental shelf, supporting 300,000 jobs? Will she also join me in paying tribute to the men and women who work offshore to ensure that our homes stay warm? (904232)

I am happy to join my hon. Friend in paying tribute to those who work in our offshore oil and gas industry, and thanking them for the work that they do. Last week’s weather highlighted just how important that work is to us all. We remain committed to supporting the industry, building on the £2.3 billion package announced in recent Budgets. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and the oil and gas sector recently committed themselves to working together to ensure that the UK continues to enjoy the benefits of a world-leading offshore oil and gas industry.

Q6. Nottingham needs to find an extra £12 million this year to care for elderly and disabled people, but the Government’s answer—adding 3% to council tax bills—only raises just over £3 million, leaving a huge gap to be filled. No wonder Lord Porter, Conservative chair of the Local Government Association, warns that some councils will“be pushed perilously close to the financial edge.”Will the Prime Minister wake up to the social care crisis and urge the Chancellor to give local government the funding it needs in next week’s spring statement? (904226)

We have recognised the pressures that social care is under. That is why in successive fiscal events the Chancellor has given extra money to local authorities and the social care sector as a whole. Next week’s statement is not a Budget, but we have ensured that more money is going into local councils, not just through the precept that they are able to raise, but £2 billion extra has been put into social care in local authorities.

Q15. The UK internal market is by far the most important market for British goods and services today and post-Brexit. Does the Prime Minister agree that the people and businesses of my constituency and across Wales are best served by the four nations of the United Kingdom working together constructively and positively to make Brexit a success? (904235)

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend about the four nations working together to make a success of Brexit, but this Government are also committed to strengthening our precious Union of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. This is about providing continuity and certainty for people and businesses, and it is about making sure we do not create new barriers to doing business in what is, as my hon. Friend said, our most important market: the internal market of the UK.

Q7. York’s housing crisis is out of control: whole families crammed into tiny box bedrooms; hundreds of damp and mouldy council homes; and street homelessness up fifteenfold since 2010. My constituents do not want warm platitudes from the Prime Minister, they just want warm homes, so when can they have the social housing that they so desperately need and that York’s Tory-Lib Dem council has completely failed to deliver, as does the Prime Minister’s strategy? (904227)

As the hon. Lady will have heard earlier, the Government are making changes to ensure that we build more homes in this country. But I also say to the hon. Lady that one of the issues we have had to look at is making sure that local councils are producing local plans. I believe that York has not had a local plan for 50 years; I suggest the hon. Lady speaks to her council about it.

On Sunday evening it was not Meryl Streep winning an Oscar but my constituent Maisie Sly, just six years old and born profoundly deaf, after her amazing performance in the film “The Silent Child”. Will the Prime Minister join me in paying tribute to the inspirational Maisie Sly and her school Red Oaks Primary, which has helped her fulfil her true potential?

I think everybody was captivated by Maisie’s example and the film that won the Oscar, and I am very happy to join my hon. Friend in paying tribute to Maisie for her incredible achievement. This is important in highlighting the issue of disabled people, particularly deaf children, and it has captured the imagination of so many across the world.

Q8. On Friday next week the House will debate the private Member’s Bill on refugee family reunification being introduced by the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Angus Brendan MacNeil). It is a very simple Bill that will allow families torn apart by conflict to rebuild their lives here together. It is supported by a coalition of organisations including the Red Cross, Amnesty International and the Refugee Council. Will the Government add their support to this very important Bill? (904228)

This country has a good record of ensuring we are providing places for refugees and helping the most vulnerable, but I understand that, as the right hon. Gentleman will know, we are listening to the points being made in relation to this Bill; we recognise the concern about family reunification and there are already rules in existence, but we will look carefully at this.

This week is National Apprenticeship Week and, as a former apprentice, I can highly recommend this route into the workplace. The Government have a great record of delivering more apprenticeships, and higher-level apprenticeships are up 35% on last year. Will the Prime Minister ensure that all schools are promoting apprenticeships, particularly those at degree level, as a first-class, debt-free choice, not a second-class option?

It is very important that we promote apprenticeships not as a second-class option, but as an equally valid route through training and education for young people. It is about getting the right education for every young person, and we should encourage schools to talk about apprenticeships at an earlier stage. When I visited a school in Southall with my right hon. Friend the Education Secretary to make my announcement about the tertiary education review, the sixth-formers made the point that they had heard about university throughout their schooling, but they only heard about apprenticeships at the very last minute of sixth form. It is important that we open up all opportunities to young people.

We have introduced the apprenticeship levy, and we are looking at its application. We have a commitment over a period of years for the number of apprenticeships, and we are going to increase that number to 3 million over this Parliament. We will be doing that, and we will look very carefully at the operation of the apprenticeship levy and its impact.

On International Women’s Day tomorrow, we will be celebrating record numbers of women in work, including of course our second female Prime Minister, yet attitudes towards pregnancy mean that more than 50,000 women a year are forced out of their job just for having a baby. When will the Government be taking forward the review of existing protections for pregnant women that was promised following the Women and Equalities Committee’s inquiry into this important issue?

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise this issue. We have very clear laws in this country that say that discrimination in the workplace is unlawful, and there are clear regulations in place that employers must follow. In our response to the Taylor review, we committed to update the information about pregnancy and maternity discrimination, and we will review the legislation relating to protection against redundancy within the next 12 months.

Q11. The Prime Minister continues to sing the praises of universal credit while wilfully ignoring the devastation that it is still causing. How does she square her position with the fact that her Tory colleagues in Stirling Council have called for over half a million pounds- worth of funding in order to mitigate the enormous human suffering caused by universal credit? (904231)

Universal credit was introduced as a simpler benefit that enables and encourages people to get into the workplace. We have made a number of changes to the way in which universal credit is operated, including ensuring that it is now possible for somebody to get a 100% advance on their universal credit in very quick time at the start of their application where that is appropriate. Universal credit is a benefit that helps people get into the workplace, and work is the best route out of poverty.

Storm Emma left a trail of destruction along the south coast of Devon, including washing away large stretches of the A379 along the Slapton line. Will the Prime Minister please assure my constituents that they will not be left isolated and their communities separated, and will she pledge funds to help rebuild this vital link? Will she also join me in thanking the emergency services, both in my constituency and around the United Kingdom, for their extraordinary work in desperately difficult circumstances?

I and, I am sure, everyone in the House will be happy to join my hon. Friend in praising the emergency services for the tireless work that they have been doing to help people during the severe winter weather that we have experienced. She is right to raise concerns about the A379 on the behalf of her constituents, and I am pleased to announce that my right hon. Friend the Transport Secretary will shortly confirm that we will provide financial assistance to ensure that repairs to the road are undertaken as quickly as possible.

Q13. Battersea power station is a £9 billion development pushed through by Tory Wandsworth Council with only 9% so-called affordable homes. Eighty-five per cent. of homes in the development have been snapped up by foreign investors, which is an insult to the thousands of people on the Wandsworth housing waiting list. Is the Prime Minister embarrassed that a Tory council is siding with developers’ profits over the residents of Wandsworth? (904233)

Order. This is very discourteous. There is far too much noise in the Chamber. The question was heard—it was very forcefully delivered and very fully heard —and the Prime Minister’s answer must also be heard.

This is a site that was derelict for 40 years. It is now a site that will be providing homes and jobs, and I would have thought that is something to welcome.

March is Brain Tumour Awareness Month, a month dedicated to supporting people affected by brain tumours and to raising funds and awareness. Brain tumours remain the biggest cancer killer of children and adults under 40, a fact that has to change. There has been great progress over the past month, with the Government turning their attention to this underfunded disease, but so much more can be done. Will the Prime Minister join me in commending all those helping to raise funds and awareness this month and in recognising the many thousands of people fighting this terrible disease by making a statement about how the Government will see the job through until we have the research, the care and the cure that many, many people need?

I join my hon. Friend in commending all those who are raising awareness of brain cancer and who are working hard and tirelessly both on research and to raise funding. It is a devastating disease, and I was pleased to meet the noble Baroness Jowell to hear her experience of the national health service. She and the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care then held a roundtable of brain cancer experts.

We have announced that an estimated £20 million will be invested through the National Institute for Health Research over the next five years in helping to fund essential brain cancer research. In addition, Cancer Research UK will be investing £25 million in research on brain tumours over the same period, helping to support two new specialised centres.

Q14. The increasing provision of healthcare within NHS England by private providers continues to cause the fragmentation and undermining of patient services. The Prime Minister has thus far refused to exclude such services from a US trade deal. Can she tell us how the Scottish Government will be included in the negotiations so that they can protect our Scottish NHS from being bartered away to get a deal? (904234)

The hon. Lady is a little late, because I was asked a question about a US trade deal and the national health service by the right hon. Member for Twickenham (Sir Vince Cable) in this House on Monday, and I made it very clear that we retain the principles of the national health service and that we are not going to allow the national health service to be undermined by any trade deals we do.

Representatives of the Greater Grimsby project board will be meeting a Business Minister later today to discuss the next stage of the town deal. The proposals will be a great boost for the economy of Grimsby and Cleethorpes. Will my right hon. Friend reaffirm her support for the proposals and similar initiatives?

My hon. Friend has raised this issue with me before, and I welcome the very strong public-private sector approach that is being pursued by the Greater Grimsby project board. He is playing an active role in the project, and I understand there have been a number of positive meetings with the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government. I encourage the board to continue engaging with officials on the details of the plan so that we can see that development, which is so important to the local area.

The House knows I am always concerned, whatever the time, to protect the rights of smaller parties, and today is no exception. I call Mr Nigel Dodds.

I am grateful for your protection, Mr Speaker.

Will the Prime Minister acknowledge, and indeed praise, the success of the EU negotiator, Michel Barnier, in bringing a measure of progress to the Brexit negotiations in that he has managed to unite the Government and the Opposition in utter defiance of the legal text he has brought forward from the December arrangements? Does she agree that now is the time for the EU to get on with examining the sensible, pragmatic arrangements on customs and the Northern Ireland border and to get on to the main trade negotiations?

The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. Now is the time for the European Union negotiators to get on with the job of discussing that trade and economic partnership for the future. I am pleased that we will also be able to discuss with the Irish Government and the Commission the practical details of delivering the solution for the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland, so that the free flow of trade can continue not just between Northern Ireland and Ireland but between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom.

Last month it was announced that the proposed merger between the British Transport police and Police Scotland was being put on hold in the wake of widespread criticism from a number of different parties. What discussions has my right hon. Friend had with devolved Ministers, and what next steps can be taken? Will she join in me in calling on the SNP to scrap this ill-fated proposed merger?

I recognise the concerns that have been expressed. Of course, we were committed to delivering on the Smith commission proposals, and as part of that we are devolving powers over the British Transport police in Scotland to the Scottish Government. As this is being looked at, the priority must remain the safety of the public, and we are committed to working with the Scottish Government to ensure a smooth transfer of the functions, should that be their decision. It is for the Scottish Government to decide, but I urge them to ensure that, as they take those decisions, they put the safety and security of the public first.

Is it Government policy that England should pull out of the World cup? If not, what on earth was the Foreign Secretary on about yesterday?

The point the Foreign Secretary was making yesterday was that, depending on what comes out of the investigation into the attack on the two individuals in Salisbury, it might be appropriate for the Government to look at whether Ministers and other dignitaries should attend the World cup in Russia.

In advance of the Prime Minister’s meeting this afternoon with the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, does she agree that the kingdom is in fact a force for tremendous stability in a very turbulent region? Will she offer reassurance to the Crown Prince that this country will stand with him in his efforts to bring modernity, development and reform to our very important middle eastern ally?

I agree with my hon. Friend. We have had a long-standing and historic relationship with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and that will continue. It has been important in our security and defence, and in the stability of the region. Moreover, under the Crown Prince and his Vision 2030, Saudi Arabia is reforming and changing and giving greater rights to women. We should encourage that and stand alongside and work with Saudi Arabia to help the Crown Prince deliver on his Vision 2030.

Today the Department for International Development launches the Jo Cox memorial grants, which will empower women in some of the most difficult parts of our world. Will the Prime Minister join me in thanking wholeheartedly everyone at DFID who made this happen? Does she also agree that, when it comes to preventing conflict, Jo’s legacy must teach us that women’s voices must be heard?

I thank the hon. Lady for raising this particular issue, and I am happy to welcome the UK aid contribution to the Jo Cox memorial grants, as announced today by my right hon. Friend the International Development Secretary. Up to £10 million is being allocated to support grassroots organisations in delivering on two causes close to Jo’s heart: protecting against identity-based violence and boosting the social and economic and political empowerment of women and girls, helping to predict, prevent and protect against identity-based violence. The hon. Lady is absolutely right. Jo was a dedicated humanitarian. She fought for gender equality at home and in developing countries, and it is right that we as a Government and as a country encourage women’s voices to be heard, wherever they are.

There are urgent questions that come first. If there is a point of order, it will come after that, so I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will be in his seat, eagerly expectant.

UK Relations: Saudi Arabia

(Urgent Question): To ask the Foreign Secretary to make a statement on diplomatic and economic relations with Saudi Arabia.

I have been asked to respond on behalf of the Foreign Secretary, as he is currently at an engagement at the palace. The Prime Minister has invited the Crown Prince of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, His Royal Highness Mohammed bin Salman, to visit the United Kingdom. We are delighted to welcome him and his delegation on his first official visit to the UK, which is taking place from today until Friday.

During the visit, the Prime Minister and the Crown Prince will launch a new and ambitious strategic partnership between our two countries, which will allow us to discuss a range of bilateral matters and foreign policy issues of mutual interest. The UK Government have a close and wide-ranging relationship with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia is the UK’s third fastest growing market for exports, and we continue to work together to address regional and international issues, including Yemen. The visit will allow for a substantive discussion between the Crown Prince and the Prime Minister on the need for a political resolution to the conflict in Yemen, and how to address the humanitarian crisis.

The UK fully supports the Crown Prince’s social and economic reform programme, Vision 2030. His visit is an opportunity for him to underline his vision of an outward-looking Saudi Arabia, one that embraces a moderate and tolerant form of Islam, and a more inclusive Saudi society. This includes greater freedom for women, in line with the recent statements and reforms made by the Crown Prince. We believe these reforms are the best course for Saudi Arabia’s future security, stability and prosperity, and it is right that the UK supports the Crown Prince in his Vision 2030 endeavours.

Further to the exchange in Prime Minister’s questions, may I say that there will be widespread concern across parties about the fact that the dictatorial head of a medieval, theocratic regime is being given the red carpet equivalent of a state visit? May I ask specifically whether the Foreign Secretary will be demanding the ending of the bombing of civilian targets in the Yemen civil war, which Prince Mohammed initiated? Can the Minister explain why the safeguards on the use of British weapons, which were introduced at the end of the coalition at my insistence and that of my Liberal Democrat colleagues, are, apparently, no longer being applied? Will the Foreign Secretary insist on the ending of the blockade of ports in Yemen, which is contributing to the devastating humanitarian crisis and famine, of which we have heard much in this House? Will he defend the nuclear agreement with Iran, to which we are a party and which Prime Mohammed is actively seeking to undermine? Will he condemn the attempt by Prince Mohammed to fan the flames of sectarian conflict in Lebanon, Syria, Qatar and elsewhere? Has the Minister consulted the Government Economic Service on the current economic position of Saudi Arabia, which is no longer a swing oil producer and is running out of money, and where the main potential long-term deal available to the UK is the Saudi Aramco flotation, which will be achieved only by substantially devaluing the standards applied in the City of London?

Finally, on the threshold of International Women’s Day, may I ask whether the Minister intends to endorse Prince Mohammed’s view of modernisation: that women should be allowed to go to football matches, but not be allowed to marry, divorce, travel, have a driving licence or have an operation without the approval of their male relatives?

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his questions. His starting point and opening view of Saudi Arabia represents one of the reasons why the Crown Prince is here. The right hon. Gentleman used the word “medieval”, and the Crown Prince has been conducting a series of reforms and has made clear statements about where he wants to take the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Everyone is aware of its history and its past, but it is really important to look at what is happening at present—good things as well as difficult things—and to point the way forward that he has with Vision 2030, both in economic and society terms. When he speaks about a modernising country supporting moderate Islam, that should be taken as seriously as any reference to the Kingdom in the past.

The right hon. Gentleman asked a series of questions. He referred to the war in Yemen as being “initiated” by Saudi Arabia, but that is not correct. What happened was that an insurgency overthrew a legitimate Government, which was backed by the United Nations, and then sought support from their neighbours in order to deal with the insurgency. The insurgency is cruel: the Houthi have executed a number of people, not least the former President of Yemen; they hold people to ransom in areas that they occupy; and they have been preventing people from getting humanitarian aid. We support the efforts of the Saudi-led coalition in order to defend Yemen against the insurgency and, more importantly, to bring the conflict to an end. That is the most important thing, but it will take both parties to do this, not just the Saudis. On weapons sales, these are as strict as any in the world, as the right hon. Gentleman is aware, and there was a court case last year. We keep this under strict check to ensure that international humanitarian law is abided by and to make sure we can provide the support to Saudi Arabia that it needs to protect itself, not least in relation to weapons directed from Yemen towards its capital city—that should also not be forgotten.

The right hon. Gentleman referred to a blockade. There is no blockade; there are now no restrictions on the ports—the ports are open. There was a restriction from 19 December, following a missile attack on the capital of Yemen by Houthi forces. There is a strong suspicion that weapons were being smuggled into the country. That is why the restrictions were in place. Since 20 December, a total of 50 ships have docked, and the ports are open.[Official Report, 12 March 2018, Vol. 637, c. 3MC.] The UK has played a substantial part in ensuring that those ports are open and that humanitarian aid comes in. We will strongly defend the joint comprehensive plan of action, which we believe is in the UK’s interests and those of the region.

On the economic prospects of Saudi Arabia, we know the area is changing, and that is what Vision 2030 is about; it is about moving, in time, from an oil-based economy to something different. This provides tremendous opportunities for the region, as well as for Saudi Arabia, and we strongly support that. We would like the Aramco share option to be issued in the UK and we will continue to suggest that the City would be the best place for it.

Lastly, the right hon. Gentleman mentioned International Women’s Day. It is of course obvious to us that some of the easing in things relating to women in Saudi Arabia seems incredibly mundane—the ability to attend a football match and for the cinemas to be open, the mixed space and the ability to drive—but in a Saudi context, and in the context of a conservative region, these changes have immense significance. We do not always appreciate that, but we need to make reference to it. That further progress seems likely is very much in everyone’s minds, so we should not judge the progress to date as a full stop. The engagement of women, not only in the areas we have mentioned, but increasingly in business and in government, makes a real difference to the area. International Women’s Day is enhanced, to a degree, by the sorts of changes we have seen in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and Members can be sure that our Prime Minister will make sure that that progress gets every support from the UK as we move forward.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his comprehensive answer to the right hon. Member for Twickenham (Sir Vince Cable). Is my right hon. Friend as surprised as I am that the question was shorn of the context of the scale of the reforms now taking place in Saudi Arabia? May I urge the Government to continue our assistance to the Government of Saudi Arabia in order to deliver the astonishing scale of ambition associated with Vision 2030?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who rightly sets this in context. No one denies that there are difficult aspects to a relationship with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, just as there are with a number of engagements the UK has with countries whose views and human rights issues we do not always share. But the important point he made is about having engagement to seek a common view of a future, one that, as he rightly says, is changing markedly and in a way that no one quite anticipated because of the arrival of the Crown Prince in his position. He could well have an influence on the region for the next 30 years, and our engagement and support for the moderate, modernising image he has for Saudi Arabia is important to all of us.

Thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting this urgent question. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Twickenham (Sir Vince Cable) on securing it, even if it was ahead of my own application.

Let me make it clear at the outset that the Opposition want to have a good diplomatic and economic relationship with Saudi Arabia. But, as in any good relationship, there must be honesty. Most importantly, we must tell Saudi Arabia that as long as it continues the indiscriminate bombing of residential areas, farms and markets in Yemen, and as long as it continues to restrict the flow of food, medical supplies and fuels to a population suffering mass epidemics of malnutrition and cholera, it should not expect our support for that war and its Crown Prince does not deserve to have the red carpet rolled out for him here in Britain.

Let us look at the man to whom the British Government are bowing and scraping today. He is the architect of the Saudi air strikes and the blockade in Yemen; he is funding jihadi groups in the Syrian civil war and ordered his guards to beat up the Prime Minister of Lebanon. In the eight months since he became Crown Prince, he has doubled the number of executions in Saudi Arabia. But we are supposed to ignore all that because of his proposal that Saudi women be allowed to drive, just as they can everywhere else in the world.

The UK Government pretend to care about human rights and war crimes, but when it comes to Saudi Arabia and Yemen, there is nothing but a shameful silence. We all know that that is because all that they ultimately care about is how to plug the hole in trade and growth that is coming because of their Brexit plans. If the Minister wants to dispute that, will he answer one simple question? When are the Government going to stop bowing down to Saudi Arabia and instead use our role as United Nations penholder on Yemen to demand an immediate ceasefire, an end to the blockade, proper peace talks and a permanent end to this dreadful, shameful war?

I thank the right hon. Lady for her words. She started well by talking about wanting to welcome a relationship with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Should she actually occupy my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary’s position, she might want to review some of the personal comments that she made after that and wonder how that would constitute a decent start to the relationship that she wants to see.

Let me get to the substance and deal with one or two of the right hon. Lady’s questions. First, there is not indiscriminate bombing of civilians, as has been alleged. It is vital that we make sure that, in dealing with the military aspects of the conflict, which was not started by Saudi Arabia, we are able to see that, in terms of international humanitarian law, there is only the targeting of legitimate military targets. The United Kingdom has been as helpful as possible in trying to make sure that the training for that is appropriate. When there have been allegations of civilian casualties, those cases have been dealt with, monitored and investigated in a manner completely different from that in respect of Houthi activity, which I noticed the right hon. Lady did not seek to condemn in any way at all.

On the humanitarian issues, as I indicated, there is not a blockade or restriction of goods coming in. It is important that commercial food and fuel gets in. It is equally important that those who have had missiles targeted at them after those missiles have been smuggled into Yemen are able to protect themselves. We have worked hard to try to ensure that there is protection for Saudi Arabia from missiles coming in and, in doing so, to give Saudi Arabia the confidence to allow more ships to come in to deal with the humanitarian issues. That seems to me to be a constructive way to deal with both sides of the issues, rather than the straightforward condemnation that we heard from the right hon. Lady.

In respect of the current reforms in Saudi Arabia and those going forward, the right hon. Lady reduces them to de minimis by saying that it is all about women driving. As I indicated to the right hon. Member for Twickenham (Sir Vince Cable), who I have to say asked a rather more serious set of questions, the issue of women’s progress is not simply about driving; it is about a whole series of other reforms. Driving has a totemic importance for many people in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia but should not be taken as the sole thing that is changing.

There has been no silence from the United Kingdom on Yemen. We have been very clear about the fact that there is no military solution, which is why we have been working so hard for a diplomatic solution, why we welcome the newly appointed UN envoy, whom the right hon. Lady did not mention, and why we are doing everything we can to try to make sure that there is a diplomatic base. All our evidence is that ceasefires work when there is some relationship on the ground that makes them plausible and feasible. Because of the activity of the Houthis, those who support them and those who direct weapons at Saudi Arabia, it is not possible for there to be a ceasefire with any sense of purpose or sense that it would actually work. What we must do—[Interruption.]

Order. The Minister of State is in full flow, and we are listening to the flow of his eloquence and the eloquence of his flow. I say very gently to the shadow Foreign Secretary, who is normally a most restrained individual, that I understand how incredibly passionate she is but feel sure that in a courtroom she would not chunter noisily from a sedentary position, because she would earn the wrath of the judge.

Thank you, Mr Speaker.

Let me be straightforward: calling for a ceasefire is not the same as having one. We all want to see an end to the conflict in Yemen, and we have said that very clearly to the Saudi coalition. We support the appointment of the new UN envoy and we are working for a ceasefire, but simply calling for one does not do it. We have to make sure that we have the facts on the ground so that we can make sure that a ceasefire actually works.

It is all very well for the right hon. Lady to shake her head, but she is not faced with some of the issues that face Government Ministers on this issue, and nor is she giving full credit to the efforts that are being made to try to bring this matter to an end. She is not the sole holder of conscience in this place as we deal with the difficulties of trying to address the humanitarian crisis in Yemen. That is what we are seeking to do and we will continue to bend all our efforts to that, with or without her support.

Order. I am happy to confirm that neither “Erskine May” nor any Standing Order of the House prohibits the shaking or, indeed, for that matter, the nodding of heads.

Ah, another person who has been noisily chuntering from a sedentary position. She can now speak from her feet. I call Anna Soubry.

I would never do such a thing, Mr Speaker.

As you know, Mr Speaker, I am a feminist. When I was a Health Minister—serving in the same Government as the right hon. Member for Twickenham (Sir Vince Cable), I might add—I had the honour to lead a delegation to Saudi Arabia, as a woman, obviously. At no time did I find any prejudice or disrespect, and I was quite surprised about that.

I commend all my right hon. Friend the Minister’s fine words. Does he agree that although we are obviously a long way from seeing in the Kingdom the sort of rights that we would expect of any modern civilised society, the best way to achieve those rights and to influence that country is to have firm conversations and a good relationship in private?

All I would say to the right hon. Lady, in the friendliest possible spirit, is that if in the course of her visit she met, for example, a prince, it might well be that that person thought that he was meeting a fellow royal.

I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry) for her regally dispensed question. I absolutely concur with her sentiments. We do talk very frankly and honestly to counterparts, even in the most difficult circumstances. It is right that we express our interest in how reforms are going. They will not lead to a society that we have developed after many hundreds of years, but the progress that is being made is significant in the context of where Saudi Arabia wants to go and how it wants to lead the region. To talk about moderate Islam in an area where those who promote moderate Islam are at risk and threatened by others takes a degree of bravery and courage from the Saudi Arabian leadership. That is what we recognise. There is more to go, more work to do and more concerns to be expressed, but as my right hon. Friend said, making sure that it is done with engagement is a key part of the process.

I thank the Minister for once again coming to the Chamber to answer this urgent question. He will be aware that Yemen has been described as the world’s worst man-made humanitarian disaster. Members have been quite right to highlight the issue of women’s rights in Saudi Arabia ahead of International Women’s Day tomorrow. Will he also be raising the plight of women in Yemen, who, it has been reported, often have to choose which child to save owing to the cholera and famine effected by that conflict? The UK has leverage. Since the start of the war, UK arms sales have outstripped aid to Yemen 18 times over. Will he use that leverage? Finally—this is a point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow South (Stewart Malcolm McDonald)—will he have discussions about the fact that Raif Badawi is not a criminal?

I will, if I may, address two issues. In relation to Yemen, no one denies the scale of the humanitarian crisis. I have met officials from the UN, the Red Cross and the World Health Organisation, and we are as confident as we can be that support to prevent the next round of cholera will be in place. Of course, none of it should be necessary. If the conflict were ended, these concerns would not be raised, and that, of course, is what we are bending all our efforts to. I genuinely wish it was as straightforward as saying to one of the parties to the conflict—to the party that did not start it—“if you stop doing anything, everything will be all right.” I honestly do not believe that that is the answer, which is why we work through other methods and other means. We have done all we can in relation to providing food, fuel and water and supporting those who deliver it, but the restrictions are caused by the conflict. They are caused by those who support the insurgents and what they have done, and we will do all we can to break that down. We do indeed raise the case of the blogger. We have followed that case very carefully and raised our concerns with Saudi Arabia.

Does my right hon. Friend welcome the Crown Prince’s statement that his goal is to build a country of moderate Islam that is open to all religions and to the world? Will this Government be encouraging and influencing them to follow through on this and build on their recent social reforms?

I thank my hon. Friend for her question. As I mentioned earlier, that statement about moderate Islam is something that we would all take for granted here, but we should set it in a context in which there are disputes about where Islam should go, what we have seen in relation to Daesh, and the propaganda that emerges from those who would see Islam taking quite a different course. The fact that the statement comes from someone who will, in time, be the custodian of the two holy mosques is really very significant, and she is right to draw attention to that.

We all want to see a modernised and moderate regime in Saudi Arabia, but according to the charity Reprieve, the Government have called for an additional eight executioners to be recruited. Meanwhile, 18 people, mostly young, some of whom were arrested on demonstrations while they were children, remain on death row. Can the Minister assure us that the Government will be raising their plight with the Saudi Prince while he is here?

The United Kingdom stands full square against the use of execution and against the use of the death penalty, and whether it is the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia or anywhere else, including the United States and China, we make that explicitly clear. We do take up cases. We have been concerned with those cases where minors might have been indicted, and we have received assurances in relation to them. There is no doubt that if reforms continue in relation to the changing of the nature of offences that attract the death penalty, which seems to be one way in which its use can be reduced, the United Kingdom will welcome that. None the less, we stand full square against the use of the death penalty in any circumstances.

Those of us who have been to Saudi recently have seen how quickly things are changing in such a deeply traditional country. With International Women’s Day tomorrow, does my right hon. Friend agree that, actually, this is a good opportunity to welcome the progress being made on rights and opportunities for women in Saudi Arabia?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that matter. The purpose of parliamentary visits, in which many Members engage, is to get an opportunity to see the context of a country. It is not about being given a grand tour of easy options, but about getting the chance to ask difficult questions. In my experience, Members of Parliament take that opportunity fully. To be able to observe, as my hon. Friend has, some of the palpable changes in where women are going and to speak to women now involved in culture, music and business, is to see where the country intends to take itself, and a woman’s voice in where it is going is an important one and increasingly heard.

My constituents, from Garnethill to Strathbungo and Dumbreck to Toryglen, have all been emailing me with deep concerns over the hospitality being afforded to the Saudi royalty against the backdrop of children regularly killed by the bombs that we are selling them. What more are the Government doing to ensure that the Saudis carry out the full implementation of the UN humanitarian response plan? Children in Yemen are dying far, far too frequently every single day and Yemen just cannot wait.

I agree with the hon. Lady—no, of course, Yemen cannot wait. As I said earlier, if I believed for a moment that asking one party to the conflict simply to stop its activities would bring an end to it, then we would all advocate that solution, but I do not believe that that is the case. There must be a negotiated end; it should come as quickly as possible, and we have been pressing for that for some considerable time. In the meantime, we are doing everything we can to ease the humanitarian situation, and we have seen an easing of restrictions, particularly since the visits of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development to Djibouti and to Riyadh in December, where she was able to explain to the coalition exactly what the international community was doing to seek to protect them. That led to an easing of the restrictions straight away, but nothing will truly help the people of Yemen until the conflict comes to an end. On that, she, her constituents and all the rest of us are absolutely right.

Order. I am very keen to accommodate remaining colleagues, but there is another urgent question to follow. We are immensely appreciative of the fund of knowledge and wisdom that is regularly on display from the right hon. Gentleman, but perhaps I may be permitted gently to observe that there is also no procedural or Standing Order bar, where appropriate in the mind of the Minister, on single-sentence answers to questions.

Does my right hon. Friend welcome the social reforms already undertaken by the Crown Prince, and can he confirm that the Government will be encouraging the Saudi authorities to go further in this regard, because the very best way to influence them is to keep the door open? Let me also say, out of interest, that 52% of all graduates in the Kingdom in 2017 were women. There are 30 women members of the Shura Council, which proportionately is more than in the Senate. Of particular interest to me is the fact that, in the transformation plan, there are some very, very positive moves on the environment, and these will have a far-reaching effect not just on the people of Saudi Arabia, but indeed globally.