House of Commons
Thursday 15 March 2018
The House met at half-past Nine o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
Exiting the European Union
The Secretary of State was asked—
Support for Farmers
We continue to work closely with the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs on support for farmers. The Government will provide the same cash total in funds for farm support until the end of the Parliament to maintain stability for farmers as we seek to grow our world-leading food and farming industry in a sustainable way. Furthermore, the Government are currently consulting on future farming policy, seeking views on a range of possible paths to a brighter future for farming.
I welcome the pledge from the Government to provide financial support for farmers in Wales, and of course in the rest of the UK, after Brexit. Does the Minister agree that this commitment will provide the stability to allow farmers to continue providing high- quality produce, without having a negative effect on the environment?
I agree. British food enjoys a reputation for quality that has been built on high animal welfare standards and strong environmental protections. The Government’s proposals will support farmers to grow more, sell more and export more great British food, and ensure that we are the first generation to leave the environment in a better state than we inherited it.
Recently I met local National Farmers Union farmers in my constituency who are frustrated by the complexity of and frequent delays in the EU’s basic payment scheme. When working with the Environment Secretary, will the Minister encourage a simpler system that will see farmers paid on time once we leave the EU?
Yes, we will give such encouragement. I know that my colleague the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has listened to concerns and is consulting on arrangements to simplify and improve the delivery of the common agricultural policy while we continue to participate in it. Outside the CAP, with a system based on simpler and more effective rules, we will be able to support farmers to grow more, sell more and export more great British food.
Why will the Minister not respect the desire of NFU Scotland to have the powers on agriculture devolved in full and then for a UK framework to be developed?
Yesterday I attended the Joint Ministerial Committee plenary session, and I have to say that the First Minister’s tone was very constructive. I feel sure we will work with her to take forward the framework discussions—and, I hope, satisfactorily.
Farmers need to know what a transitional deal is going to look like, what a trade deal is going to look like and about labour constraints. To go back to the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Neil Gray), why will the Minister not listen to NFU Scotland and ensure that all agriculture powers are assigned to Scotland so that the Scottish Government can design a policy to suit Scottish farmers?
Of course we are listening, and in the run-up to the March European Council we very much have the concerns of the devolved Governments in mind, but we must ensure that the internal market of the United Kingdom continues to function. We will go forward with those two tensions in mind.
Stafford constituency has one of the largest areas for growing soft fruit, and indeed lettuces, in the country, meaning that we have less reliance on imports. However, those involved are very concerned about the great workers who come to harvest those crops. What assurances will the Minister give me that he is working together with his counterparts in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to make sure that the supply of people to harvest those crops is still available after we leave? [Interruption.]
We have commissioned the Migration Advisory Committee to give us advice on migration policy. As we have always said, this vote was not a vote to pull up the drawbridge, and we will ensure that policy reflects the needs of the United Kingdom’s economy, particularly the sector my hon. Friend mentioned.
The hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) was wittering about strawberries in December, or something of that sort. Anyway, we look forward to hearing his views with force and eloquence later in our exchanges.
Before I answer, may I take this opportunity to express my condolences to the family of Warren Hawksley, an erstwhile colleague of ours? He was a Maastricht rebel and a great friend of mine; he was very highly principled and very energetic—sometimes too energetic—in pursuit of his views, but, as I say, I express my condolences to his family.
Our immediate goal is to agree a strictly time-limited implementation period by the March European Council next week. This is crucial to helping us build a bridge from where we are to where we want to be on our exit. We have also been working hard to codify the joint report into legal text. We are confident that both of these aims are within reach. Finally, the March European Council is expected to issue the negotiating guidelines to the Commission to negotiate the future partnership. We are seeking to ensure that those guidelines are as broad and open as possible to allow the most constructive negotiation to deliver the close relationship we are aiming for.
It could be the making of us, couldn’t it?
I could be just as pithy as my right hon. Friend and say yes.
Does the right hon. Gentleman foresee a scenario in which the deal negotiated is so mind-bogglingly positive that all the other European Union states want that kind of relationship as well, and the European Union itself implodes? Or does he accept that membership is the best possible relationship we can have with the European Union, so any new settlement will be disadvantageous compared with what we have now?
Those who made a decision on the last part of the hon. Gentleman’s question were the British people—17.5 million of them—and they decided that that was not the case. Let me respond to the first part of his question, however, because he does have a serious point. Certainly in the institutions of the European Union, and in some member states, there are concerns that if we are too successful that will be tempting to others. I do not believe that that is a real fear, because we have unique circumstances—the English language, our historic traditions, our world network, our island status, our law—that other countries do not have. That is no fault of their own; they just do not have those advantages. That is what will allow us to make the best of this situation.
I am aware that some in the right hon. Gentleman’s party have accused others in that party of fantasy politics. Does he believe that any transition period can be based on World Trade Organisation principles?
It is fascinating to have a lecture from the SNP on fantasy politics. We are proposing a transition period based on existing arrangements and rules, so that the British people and companies—and, indeed, European people and companies—have only one transition to make.
It was disappointing to see the aggressive line in last week’s EU document on maintaining full access to our fishing waters. Will the Secretary of State assure me that the Department is being robust on behalf of my Northumbrian fishermen in any negotiations, to ensure that we regain control of our fishing waters before deciding whom to allow to fish in them?
My hon. Friend is right, and it was a very odd linkage to make. The simple truth is that when we leave the European Union we will be an independent coastal state, and as a result we will control our own waters. As stated in DEFRA questions last week, we will continue negotiations with neighbouring states about catch—because fish move—quotas, and all the rest of it. However, we will control our own destiny.
The UK is party to around 40 trade agreements negotiated by the EU, but at least two of those countries have indicated that they will seek concessions from the United Kingdom in return for rolling over those agreements during the transition period. Will the Secretary of State assure UK exporters that they will be able to continue to trade with those countries on the same basis as now and with the exact same benefits, and that we will not end up in a situation where those countries will have preferential access to our market, while UK businesses lose the same access to their markets?
The right hon. Gentleman’s stance is fascinating, because the customs union proposal that the Labour party recently came up with induces exactly the risk that people will have access to our markets without our necessarily having complementary access to theirs. Indeed, that was the view espoused by the shadow Secretary of State for International Trade not long ago.
I wish my right hon. Friend every success in the negotiations which, as he said, will reach an important stage next week. Will he confirm that it remains the Government’s position that no deal is better than a bad deal, and that all necessary resources—financial and otherwise—will continue to be deployed with an eye to such an eventuality?
Yes, and interestingly my right hon. Friend’s question links to that asked by the hon. Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady) about whether some people on the continent think that letting us get a good deal would be a bad thing for the future of the European Union. Were people to turn that into a punishment deal, plainly no deal would be better than that. We are, of course, allocating the necessary resources, as the Chancellor has said.
The Secretary of State backs a 21-month transition period. Given that the Government’s own impact assessment points to every sector and region of the UK being damaged by Brexit, what discussions has he had with different sectors about the extra damage that a short, 21-month transition period could inflict on jobs here? Which sectors or companies have told him that a 21-month transition period is acceptable—the CBI, for example, which called for a three-year transition period, or the EEF, which called for at least two years?
The first thing I would say is that there is no official Government document that makes that forecast. There is work in progress, but that is not an official Government forecast—indeed, we do not believe it. The simple truth is that, first off, the most important priority is to establish an implementation period as soon as possible, so that companies can have certainty. That is the view of the CBI, the British Chambers of Commerce, the Institute of Directors and pretty much every other business group there is.
Northern Ireland/Republic of Ireland Border
The Prime Minister reaffirmed her commitment to the Northern Ireland-Ireland border in her Mansion House speech, recognising the unique circumstances of Northern Ireland and our shared commitment to avoiding a hard border. The joint report, agreed in December, also made clear our intention to avoid a hard border and physical infrastructure, or related checks and controls, between Northern Ireland and Ireland. We have always been clear that we will not agree anything that threatens the constitutional or economic integrity of the United Kingdom.
Given that the Government have said the border will remain friction free or frictionless, and that there will be no border in the Irish sea, the question many of us continue to ask is how can this happen?
The Government have made clear their unwavering commitment to three guiding principles in relation to Northern Ireland and the Republic: there should be no hard border between north and south; the Belfast agreement must be honoured; and the constitutional and economic integrity of the United Kingdom must remain unimpaired. The Prime Minister set out, most recently in her Mansion House speech, how that might be achieved. We are also building on the options set out in the August position papers, which set out practical options for how we might take this forward.
How do the Government expect to avoid a hard border if they are ruling out any form of customs union?
It is the unwavering commitment of the Government that the economic integrity of the United Kingdom remains intact. If the United Kingdom is leaving the customs union, so is Northern Ireland.
I am certain my hon. Friend has seen the paper “Smart Border 2.0”, which was prepared for the European Parliament’s constitutional affairs committee. It does not provide the whole solution, but it does show how technology will help to solve this problem. Does she agree that this will solve it and ensure the integrity of the United Kingdom?
I thank my hon. Friend for his question. The report to which he refers is an interesting document, but it does not go as far as the commitment made by the United Kingdom. Our unwavering commitment is to not introduce any physical infrastructure at the border. We have explicitly ruled that out. The report is interesting, but it does not go all the way.
May I make a plea to the Minister to recognise that this is about much more than just the movement of goods or services? This is about a cultural issue and the movement of people—it is about all of that. The symbolism is enormous and the Minister needs to ensure that that is recognised, time after time in all the talks she has, to reassure the people of both parts of Ireland.
The common travel agreement is absolutely fundamental to any future arrangement, ensuring and enabling the free flow of people across the border. It is vital that that forms part of any future arrangement.
I do not think that Ministers quite appreciate the level of concern across the House on this issue. Whenever I have visited the Irish border, I have come face to face with the reality of what the installation of any cameras or any infrastructure would mean. It would not last a day, Minister; it would not last a day. Why will the Secretary of State not even visit the border, so that he can appreciate why people are so concerned? I do not know whether she has been, but will she encourage the Secretary of State to do so?
We do not underestimate the importance of this issue. My fellow Minister, the Under-Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr Walker), has been to the border and engaged regularly with Members from Northern Ireland and those involved in this issue. The Secretary of State has also been to the border, prior to his appointment to this position, and is very much apprised of the sensitivities and importance of this critical issue.
I think that says all we need to hear. What we want to know is how can we ensure an open border without a customs union? We have looked everywhere we can think of to identify a border anywhere on earth that is open and has no customs union. The Prime Minister referred to the border between the United States and Canada. Can the Minister confirm that the Prime Minister has ruled that out as an option, and can she tell us where on earth there is a border that is open with no customs union?
The hon. Lady really needs to go back and listen to what the Prime Minister said at Mansion House. She spent a lot of time looking at this issue and is very much interested in finding solutions. There are many proposals on the table that would be viable and workable, and the Government are in the process of considering them. A trusted trader scheme, exemptions, authorised economic operator arrangements —all these options are on the table and are subject to the negotiations.
Support for Manufacturers
This is, of course, a topic of frequent interest. Leaving the EU allows us to consider how our economy is shaped and presents an opportunity to deliver a pro-competitive, pro-innovation industrial strategy that builds on our strengths, provides certainty and stands the test of time, so that we have a resilient economy, ready for the future.
To ensure that trade is fair as well as free, there are over 40 defence instruments in place regarding steel at the European level. The behaviour of the US Administration at the moment may well mean that increases. Can the Minister give confidence to the steel industry that these trade defence instruments will remain in place at the point of moving out of the European Union?
This Government are very disappointed by the President’s intention to place tariffs on steel and aluminium. The UK fully supports open and free trade and measures to tackle unfair trade practices. As part of the preparations for the UK’s exit from the EU, we are committed to creating a trade remedies framework that is able to react efficiently and effectively. When the UK leaves the EU, we will remain a member of the World Trade Organisation. We will play a full part in promoting compliance with the rules-based trading system and, if necessary, make use of the WTO’s dispute resolution procedures in defence of our national interest—[Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman is barracking me from a sedentary position. I say to him that if we adopted Labour’s position, all our trade remedies would be the policies of the European Union and not of the United Kingdom.
The chief executive of ADS— Mr Paul Everitt—which represents companies in the aerospace, defence, security and space sectors, has said:
“A customs union with the EU is a practical solution that would put businesses in the best possible position to compete after Brexit.”
If the Government care about manufacturing, will they reconsider their position on the customs union?
Of course we are concerned about aerospace; it is one of our greatest industries. I remind the hon. Gentleman of what was said by his hon. Friend, the hon. Member for Brent North (Barry Gardiner). He said that retaining membership of a customs union would be “deeply unattractive”, because it would stop us negotiating our own trade deals:
“As a transitional phase, a customs union agreement might be thought to have some merit. However, as an end point it is deeply unattractive. It would preclude us from making our own independent trade agreements with our five largest export markets outside the EU”.
For all the hon. Member for Hyndburn (Graham P. Jones) says, his party is at sixes and sevens.
If China is illegally dumping steel in the United Kingdom, will the excellent Minister agree that it is better that the British Government decide what the remedy is, rather than the European Union?
I certainly agree that we should have our own trade policies in place and that we should not be standing against free trade. We should be unequivocally embracing free trade, but we must stand against unfair, anti-competitive practices, and that is what we will do.
If the Secretary of State and the Government will not consider the customs union, what specific support will they give to the aerospace sector, which employs so many people in Bristol?
I have good news for the hon. Lady. Both sides have agreed in principle that we should have a free trade agreement covering all sectors with zero tariffs. We believe that with a good-quality customs agreement we can achieve near-frictionless trade, and I believe that, taken together, those arrangements will ensure that our manufacturing industries, including aerospace, will have an ever brighter future.
The EEF—the voice of UK manufacturing and engineering—as well as ADS Group Limited, the CBI, the Institute of Directors and trade unions welcome Labour’s call for the negotiation of a comprehensive new UK-EU customs union post Brexit. Can the Minister name any significant manufacturing organisation or association that is on record as stating that either of the Government’s two customs propositions, set out in their future partnership paper in August last year, is remotely credible or workable?
I remind the hon. Gentleman that his hon. Friend the Member for Brent North said that remaining in a customs union would be a “disaster”. What we need to do is stand up for the consumer interest, and that means taking control of our tariff policies while ensuring free and frictionless trade.
Erasmus plus Programme
We have committed ourselves to continued UK participation in the Erasmus+ programme until 2020, and we welcome the opportunity to give clarity to young people as well as the youth and education sectors. While no decisions have yet been made about the post-2020 participation, since the scope of that programme has not been agreed, the Prime Minister said in her recent speech that the Government would seek an ongoing relationship in respect of
“educational and cultural programmes, to promote our shared values and enhance our intellectual strength in the world”.
Is the Department liaising with the European Parliament’s Committee on Culture and Education and its Chair, Petra Kammerevert, and the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Education, Youth, Sport and Culture to discuss how Erasmus+ applications that are submitted before the Brexit date will be implemented?
I recognise my hon. Friend’s considerable expertise when it comes to the European Parliament. Ministers from our Department regularly engage with Members of the European Parliament. We have also met members of the Committee on Culture and Education to discuss a range of EU exit issues, and we will continue to seek opportunities to meet them. The Department for Education is the lead Department for Erasmus+ policy, and its officials are in regular touch with the Directorate-General for Education, Youth, Sport and Culture.
Scotland has benefited from €64.8 million of funding for 658 projects since 2014. Coming out of Erasmus+ will mean not only a loss of money, but a loss of opportunity for young people in Scotland. How does the Minister intend to replace that?
In her Mansion House speech, the Prime Minister said:
“There are many…areas where the UK and EU economies are closely linked—including…education and culture.”
It is clear that we have an ambition to discuss potential future participation in those areas; and, of course, the UK has a wide range of international programmes, which we can consider how to extend in the years to come.
As I said in my speech in Teesport, an implementation period will benefit both the European Union and the United Kingdom. It is in no one’s interest on either side for businesses to rush through contingency plans based on guesses about a future deal. That would cause delayed investment, a slowing of job creation and a stifling of the hard-won economic growth on which our continent depends.
Businesses have been clear about the importance of an implementation period, which will give them time to build new infrastructure and set up new systems to support our future partnership and allow for as free and frictionless trade as possible. The implementation period will allow them to make their decisions on the basis of knowledge about what the future deal will look like. It will ensure that our businesses are ready, because they will have to adjust to only one set of changes, and, importantly, it will allow European Governments to do the same.
I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer and for his visit to Teesport earlier this year, which was much appreciated. Two thirds of people in my constituency voted for Brexit. Can my right hon. Friend reassure them that any implementation period will indeed be time-limited and handled in a way that will provide for a smooth exit for business?
Yes. A time-limited implementation period will ensure a smooth and orderly exit from the European Union. During the period, the United Kingdom and the European Union will continue to have access to each other’s markets on current terms by replicating the effects of the customs union and the single market, and businesses will be able to continue to operate on the same terms as now. That will provide vital certainty and stability as we move towards our future partnership.
Let us be clear: we are leaving the European Union on 29 March 2019, and only when the United Kingdom is no longer a member state will we be able to take advantage of our status as an independent trading nation.
The manufacturing sector is of course a frequent topic of discussion among Cabinet members and colleagues across the Government. As the Prime Minister set out in her Mansion House speech, the UK will seek the broadest and deepest possible agreement with the EU, covering more sectors and co-operating more fully than in any free trade agreement anywhere in the world today. I am especially encouraged by the Chancellor’s spring statement, which confirmed that the manufacturing sector is enjoying its longest unbroken run of growth for 50 years.
Why, every time there is a manufacturing question, does the Secretary of State hide behind his junior team? That is the fact of the matter: he does not want to confront manufacturing. Is it not the truth that there is a secret document in the Business Department that shows that, post Brexit, London will survive and thrive but the rest of the country—the north of England, manufacturing—will be in dire straits? That is the truth. Why does the Secretary of State not stand at the Dispatch Box and defend manufacturing?
I lament the hon. Gentleman’s continual determination to talk down this country. I am happy to tell him that Unilever has today shown its long-term commitment to the UK by choosing to locate its two fastest-growing global business divisions in this country, safeguarding 7,300 jobs and £1 billion a year of investment. As the company has made clear, its decision to transfer a small number of jobs to a corporate headquarters in the Netherlands is part of its long-term restructuring and is not connected to the UK’s departure from the EU.
On the basis that it is subject to negotiation, the Government have refused to implement the agreed replacement to the regime for the inadequate 2004 clinical trial directive. This is essential for our pharmaceutical trade, because we face going off a cliff edge and not being able to participate in collaborative clinical trials with EU research institutions, so when is the Minister going to implement that replacement directive?
As part of exit negotiations, the Government will discuss with the EU and member states how best to continue co-operation in the field of clinical trials. The UK has been working towards implementation of the new European clinical trials regulation since it was agreed in 2014. The application date of the CTR across the EU will be set by the European Commission, and if it is after our exit from the EU, it will not be part of the withdrawal Bill.
Customs Union and Free Trade Agreements
If the UK were to remain in the customs union, we would be unable to implement our own trade deals or set our own tariffs. The EU would be able to offer other countries access to our market, but we would not necessarily get access to other countries’ markets in return. This would not give us control over our trade policy and it would not respect the referendum result. We have a great chance for the first time in decades to develop a new trade policy by leaving the EU customs union.
Will the Minister ensure that the final deal allows the UK to agree new trade deals around the world on day one after we leave the EU?
That is one of the big prizes of Brexit: the freedom and chance to develop and sign new free trade deals around the world outside the EU, and it is our commitment that once we leave the EU we will be able to enjoy that freedom to the fullest.
Is the Minister aware that there are a large number of small and medium-sized enterprises in Norfolk that are absolutely determined to increase their exports to new markets? These are dynamic, forward-thinking companies. Further to the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries and Galloway (Mr Jack), what progress is being made with the EU to ensure that we are actually able to negotiate bilateral treaties with third countries during the transition?
It has been the clear commitment of this Government that during the implementation period we will be able to take concrete steps forward in negotiating and signing new free trade agreements with countries outside the EU, although of course they would not come into force until after the end of the implementation period. My hon. Friend is right that leaving the customs union and forging a new trade policy is a chance to open up to British businesses new markets that they have not previously had access to. That will help consumers, increase investment and only lead to prosperity.
I thank my hon. Friend for her answers. India currently enjoys a growth rate of 7.5% and is on course to be the fifth biggest economy in the world. Given our cultural links and shared history with our friends in India, does my right hon. Friend—my hon. Friend; I am getting ahead of myself—agree that we have an opportunity to forge a trade deal with India, which will be excellent news for the UK and India?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. India represents a great opportunity in trade for Britain and British consumers and for our Indian counterparts. It is no coincidence that the Prime Minister made a point of visiting India early on in her premiership. The Department for International Trade has recently completed a trade audit with India to look at the particular barriers, and the joint economic and trade committee has decided to look at four sectors—food, life sciences, IT and services—to see where opportunities can be explored.
At a recent meeting in this place, the director general of the CBI highlighted that Germany sells 4.7 times more to China than the UK does. Therefore, being in a customs union does not prevent countries from extending trade with global partners. Does the Minister agree with her?
Well, being in the customs union also puts up prices for consumers in food, footwear and clothes. I am often surprised that the Opposition do not champion the benefits of leaving the customs union, which this Government are doing.
I do not often cite the International Trade Secretary favourably, but he was right when he was in China with the Prime Minister in February and accepted that a customs union with the EU “self-evidently” does not prevent us from increasing bilateral trade with countries such as China. What assessment have the Government made of the comparative benefits for the UK of being in a customs union and not being in a customs union when it comes to trade with non-EU countries?
As we have a trade deficit with the EU that is increasing—it is currently £70 billion—and a trade surplus with the rest of the world that is growing, our prospects for increased demand clearly come from the rest of the world, where some of the fastest-growing economies lie. Our future prosperity lies with trade both with the EU but, very importantly, with countries outside the EU.
Common Policy Frameworks: Devolved Administrations
The UK, Scottish and Welsh Governments have agreed a set of principles for how we approach the creation of common frameworks. We have made significant progress together over the past few months in our intensive discussions and analysis of what future frameworks should look like. The discussions have been guided by the principles agreed in October and report to the Joint Ministerial Committee on EU negotiations, which the Northern Ireland civil service also attends. I am sure that my hon. Friend will welcome the substantial amendment that we have tabled to clause 11 of the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill, under which the vast majority of powers returning from Brussels will flow directly to the devolved Administrations by default.
I do indeed welcome the amendment to the clause 11 that has appeared in the other place, and I am grateful for this opportunity to agree with my hon. Friend. Will he assure the House that Brexit, far from undermining the devolution settlement, will in fact lead to a significant increase in decision-making powers in Holyrood and the other devolved Administrations?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. He has pressed us hard on this issue already. The analysis that we published last Friday shows that we are looking at legislative frameworks only in a small minority of areas, and legislation may be required only in relation to a few specific elements. In Scotland, our current analysis indicates that 83 out of 107 powers returning from Brussels will pass directly to Edinburgh on exit. Similarly, the majority of powers for Wales and Northern Ireland will flow directly to Cardiff and Belfast.
It is interesting that it took the Government six months to come up with a single amendment to a Bill that threatens to destroy the devolution settlement, but their colleagues in the Scottish Tory party took less than a week to come up with 100 wrecking amendments to a Bill designed to protect the settlement.
Given that the question was about the mechanisms to agree common policy frameworks, will the Minister clarify what the procedure will be if the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill goes through with the Government’s amendment to clause 11? Does the amendment guarantee that common policy frameworks must be agreed by all four nations working as a partnership of equals, or does it still give the UK Government the power to impose the frameworks against the will of the devolved nations?
I am glad that the hon. Gentleman congratulates our Scottish colleagues on their work rate. We are, of course, still seeking consent for the Bill, and discussions to achieve that continue. The UK Government have responsibility for protecting the UK’s common market. We cannot have our ability to take action restricted, so we do not think it right for any devolved Administration effectively to have a veto on common frameworks. The UK and the devolved Administrations have always been clear that we will need common frameworks once we leave the EU to make it simple for businesses from different parts of the UK to trade with each other and to help the UK to fulfil its international obligations. The conversation is ongoing, and we will continue to work with the devolved Administrations to secure an outcome that is in the best interests of every part of the UK.
I note the criticism of the Scottish National party, the Scottish Labour party, the Scottish Liberal Democrats, the Scottish Greens, the Scottish Government, the Welsh Government and the Government of Northern Ireland—and the Government of the Republic of Ireland, for that matter—for all failing to fall into step with the United Kingdom Government. Is it not a fact that, despite promises of a partnership of equals, the Government’s preferred legislation will still allow a power grab by Westminster against the devolved nations? It looks like a power grab; it reads like a power grab; and it certainly smells like a power grab. Why will the Government not admit that it is a power grab?
It is absolutely clear that not a single power that the devolved Administrations currently have would be taken away or in any way affected by this Bill. We are talking about a significant increase in the powers, as they return from Brussels, for each of the devolved Administrations. I think that is something that all parties should welcome.
Yesterday, following the JMCEN, the First Minister of Scotland said of the Scottish Government:
“We can’t have our powers restricted or reduced”.
Does my hon. Friend recognise the irony in that, given that the only people who are willing to reduce the powers of the Scottish Parliament are those in the SNP, whose policy continues to be that those powers should remain in Brussels instead of coming back to the United Kingdom?
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. I continue to hope that we will all be able to come together to ensure that the powers of each of the devolved Administrations are increased through this process and that we will all be able to work together to secure the prosperity of the UK—Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and England.
As the Secretary of State explained in December, we want to ensure that UK producers have the maximum freedom to trade with and operate in European markets and to let European producers do the same in the UK. At the same time, we have a unique opportunity to support a thriving and self-reliant farming sector that is more competitive, productive and profitable, to protect our precious natural environment for future generations and to deliver on our manifesto commitment to provide stability for farmers as we leave the EU.
One third of British-grown lamb is exported, 90% of it to EU markets and much of it from my constituency. Can my hon. Friend reassure the House that access to these markets will continue to be friction-free and tariff-free post Brexit?
I will seek to provide that reassurance. As the Prime Minister outlined in her Mansion House speech, we want a deep and special partnership with the EU that allows the freest and most frictionless possible trade in goods, so we do not want the introduction of any tariffs or quotas, and we will want to ensure open markets for each other’s products, including agricultural products. We are confident that it is in our mutual interests to agree such an FTA.
Health and Social Care Services
We continue to work closely with the Department of Health and Social Care on delivering a smooth exit that works for the health and adult social care sectors. We value the huge contribution that EU nationals make to our public services. The agreement reached in principle in December and set out in our joint report will provide EU nationals with certainty about their rights.
With the likely effects on the workforce, data sharing, health research and drug access, does the Minister not agree that there should be a formal impact assessment of the effect on the health and social care sector of leaving the EU?
I remind the hon. Lady that the latest figures from NHS Digital show that there were over 3,200 more EU nationals working in the NHS in September 2017 than before the referendum result. Formal impact assessments will, of course, be produced in the normal way in connection with legislation.
UK Fishing Waters
We have been working closely with our colleagues. In England, the Marine Management Organisation is working with the Ministry of Defence and the Royal Navy, as well as the Border Force, the inshore fisheries and conservation authorities and other organisations to deliver fisheries protection and regulation, irrespective of whether an agreement has been reached when we leave the common fisheries policy.
Remainers and leavers are united in the opinion that the very worst aspect of our EU membership is the common fisheries policy. When we leave the European Union, we leave the common fisheries policy. On that day, the armada of EU trawlers that have been plundering Britain’s historic fishing grounds since 1973 are not going to be happy that their best years are behind them. Will the Minister ensure that the Royal Navy has the resources it needs to protect our sovereign waters and ensure the rebirth and renaissance of the British fishing industry?
My hon. Friend makes a serious point, with his usual force. We hope to reach an agreement in our mutual interests but, as the Prime Minister made clear in her Mansion House speech, we are leaving the common fisheries policy, and the UK will regain control over our domestic fisheries management rules and access to our waters. On enforcement, we will strengthen our surveillance capability and make sure that the appropriate capacity is in place to patrol our waters and enforce regulations, as required. This will be underpinned by a robust approach to risk-based assessments.
Thanks to the succinctness of colleagues, we got through every question.
In recent weeks, the Prime Minister has set out in more detail the two key pillars of our future partnership with the European Union. In Munich, she set out our clear desire to continue to work closely with our European partners on all aspects of our security policy, both internal and external. At Mansion House, she set out a clear path towards a comprehensive future economic partnership that recognises our unique starting point, our shared history and our common values, but that also respects the result of the referendum and ensures that as we leave the EU, we return control over our money, laws and borders to this House. In the coming months, we will be using the negotiations with the EU to deliver that.
Is my right hon. Friend able to reassure the House that, following next week’s EU Council meeting, the negotiations will be able to move beyond the transition arrangements?
On the implementation period, we have made significant progress in a number of areas, and although negotiations are still ongoing, we are confident that we can reach an agreement on that at next week’s EU Council. As my hon. Friend will be aware, article 50 is clear that the withdrawal agreement shall be agreed in line with the framework for the future relationship. We expect new European Union guidelines covering the negotiation of the terms of our future relationship to be agreed at the March Council, as set out by the EU in December. The Prime Minister has set out a vision of the breadth and depth of the future relationship in a number of speeches, and we hope that the EU guidelines will be sufficiently flexible to allow the EU to think creatively and imaginatively about our future partnership. Indeed, I say to him that at least half the effort in the past three months has been aimed at ensuring that we get those flexible, open and broad guidelines by addressing that very issue with the 27 that make up the Council, as well as the Commission.
In January last year, the Secretary of State stood at the Dispatch Box and assured the House:
“What we have come up with…is the idea of a comprehensive free trade agreement and a comprehensive customs agreement that will deliver the exact same benefits as we have”.——[Official Report, 24 January 2017; Vol. 620, c. 169.]
The Government stood by that assurance for 14 months, but then the Prime Minister’s Mansion House speech downgraded the Government’s ambitions to reduced access to European markets. What does the Secretary of State have to say for himself now?
I would say two things to the right hon. and learned Gentleman. Of course, in a negotiation, we go in with the highest possible aspirations, and that is what we intended. Incidentally, he should read his own policy, which I recall has the same aspirations—not very effectively. What we are about is getting the best possible outcome for this country and that is what we will do.
We have had a lot of non-answers this morning, if I may say so, Mr Speaker. In addition to downgrading the ambition for the final deal, the Government are also delaying vital legislation in this House. We were expecting to consider the trade and customs Bill this week on Report and Third Reading but, apparently, they have been parked until May because the Government fear losing key votes. There is no sign of other vital legislation coming down the track. This should have been a busy period in Parliament. General debates on the EU are always interesting, but meaningful votes are better. What is going on?
I thought that business questions came after this session, not now. However, if Opposition Members continue to try to thwart the will of the British people by blocking votes at every turn, that is their responsibility, not ours.
My hon. Friend is exactly right. As the Under-Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, my hon. Friend the Member for Fareham (Suella Fernandes), said earlier, that is one of the great prizes that will come out of our departure from the Union. Indeed, I am rather sorry that the right hon. and learned Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer) did not raise the issue of a customs union explicitly. I know that he has difficulties with his own leadership on these matters, so I thought I should find a leader of whom he did approve, Mr Tony Blair, who said:
“So the way I look at it is that the Labour party position is: it’s pulled up its anchor and it’s left the kind of, what looks like a safe port, but actually isn’t, of being in the same position as the Government…but they’d be very unwise to drop anchor at the customs union, because the truth is that doesn’t really resolve your problems. By the way, it doesn’t really resolve your problems in Northern Ireland, either.”
I have had extensive discussions with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government about the shared prosperity fund. I have heard the hon. Lady’s point and will take it up with him.
My hon. Friend has become a relentless champion of the fisheries cause, as exemplified by his speech in the Chamber yesterday. He is a doughty champion of his constituents and of the fishing cause more widely. The Government share his impatience to leave the common fisheries policy. The view of the House has been made clear in questions on fisheries today. We will take that impatience to leave the CFP forward to our negotiations. As an independent coastal state, we will have control of our exclusive economic zone, be responsible for the management of natural marine resources in that area, and be able to control and manage access to UK waters, including fisheries.
We are not and we never have been. We have been clear from the start that we will protect all our workers’ rights.
The Government recognise the importance of supporting smaller farms, including family farms, as we leave the common agricultural policy. Our consultation paper sets out our detailed proposals for a gradual transition during which we continue direct payments while applying reductions—for example, starting with those in receipt of the highest payments. The Government are seeking views on the proposals and inviting all those affected to contribute to the discussion. I hope that my hon. Friend will ask his constituents to play their part.
While talking about Northern Ireland, the Under-Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, the hon. Member for Fareham (Suella Fernandes), made the significant statement that the report by Mr Lars Karlsson did not meet the Government’s test of there being no physical border infrastructure. Will the Secretary of State repeat that statement and say that, in his view, the report does not meet that test?
That is an important question. I will certainly say to the right hon. Gentleman that it does not meet all our criteria. We want to maintain no physical structures at the border and no visible border—a very light-touch border. I remind him, however, that the border does exist as a financial border. There are different fiscal and excise policies north and south of the border, and we have to manage that now. We do so without the border being visible, and we will do that in the future.
If we leave the single market, we will also leave the passporting regime, as the Prime Minister has made clear. What steps is the Department taking to negotiate successor arrangements for UK financial services firms that access EU markets?
We are working closely with the Treasury to prepare for a comprehensive and ambitious arrangement on financial services. The Prime Minister gave an indication of that in her Mansion House speech, and we are very clear that it should be in the interests of both the UK and the EU to reach agreement in this area, not least to protect the financial stability of Europe.
I very much welcomed the Secretary of State’s most recent answer, but it would be helpful to understand whether all the Government’s requirements can be met without any infrastructure whatsoever. Last night, my hon. Friend the Member for Darlington (Jenny Chapman) made a generous offer when she said that she and I would take him to the Irish border so that he could see for himself how it works now. I absolutely support her in that offer, so will he join us on a visit to see how the border works?
I will not take the offer, I am afraid. The Under-Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, my hon. Friend the Member for Fareham, referred to my previous look at the border. The purpose then—it was around the time of or just before the Belfast agreement—was to look at the issue of smuggling. [Interruption.] That was one occasion. This is an important issue—indeed, the very last conversation I had with Martin McGuinness was about exactly this—and I will do so when the time arises. The simple truth is that this border issue is resolvable if we have a free trade agreement and, if we have a customs agreement, it is resolvable by technical means as well.
May I applaud the Government’s practical and sensible decision regarding their intention to remain part of the European Aviation Safety Agency after Brexit? Can we expect similar sensible and practical discussions around open skies?
My hon. Friend can expect similar sensible discussions around open skies. I was reassured that President Tusk mentioned that aviation was one of the key things that he wishes to address.
There are several Airbus Beluga flights every day between manufacturing sites at Hamburg and Toulouse, and Chester. That complicated manufacturing and supply chain will be put at risk unless we get regulatory certainty soon. When will we get detailed regulatory certainty on manufacturing?
This is why we wish to move quickly to agree an implementation period and to discuss our future economic partnership. As we have said, we hope to be in a position to give certainty on our future relationship by the time we get to October.
I have to confess that Broxtowe does not have many fishing men or women in the constituency. Well, it has some, but their activities tend to be confined to the Beeston canal. The fisheries and agricultural policies of the European Union are important. Will the Secretary of State confirm that Norway has complete control over its agriculture and fisheries policy as a member of the European Free Trade Association and the European economic area, and a successful member of the single market?
Well, yes, but, of course, it is a rule taker. Its economy is substantially different from our own and it is outside the customs union. We just need to make sure that we follow a path that suits our economy, and that is the path set out by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister.
On what date were officials first instructed to begin drafting amendments to clause 11 of the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill?
We have been working on clause 11 of the Bill for some weeks and months; we have, of course, been discussing our approach with the devolved Administrations. It was always our ambition to achieve agreement on those amendments with the devolved Administrations.
Last week, I met the chief executive of the Hull and Humber chamber of commerce, Ian Kelly, who expressed support for the concept of exploring free port status for the Humber ports. Is this yet another opportunity that the Government will have after Brexit?
With my fellow Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Mr Baker), I was pleased to meet my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers) to discuss the issue with the local port authority from his constituency. Although this is a very interesting opportunity that flows from taking control of our trade policy, it is one of many options that the Government are considering.
May I ask the Secretary of State directly whether he has seen the investigation from the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy that apparently shows the disastrous effect that Brexit will have on manufacturing all over the country, but particularly in the north and the regions? Has he seen it, and, if he has, is he colluding to keep it private?
I do not recognise the document that the hon. Gentleman is talking about.
Will the Minister confirm that when we leave the European Union, it will be our policy to control our fishing waters, not to give free and unfettered access, as is currently demanded by the European Union?
As the Secretary of State and I have both said, we will be leaving the common fisheries policy and taking control of our waters. My experience of fishermen is that they do wish to access European markets. We need to approach the fisheries negotiation in the same constructive spirit as other aspects of our negotiations but, yes, we will be taking control of our waters.
Will the Government make it their policy to fully implement the international code of marketing of breastmilk substitutes following Brexit to protect our most vulnerable consumers from the predatory grasp of formula companies?
I did not quite hear the full detail of the hon. Lady’s question, but I can say that our focus on consumer protection is absolute. I spoke at the Which? conference earlier this week to show how we will put consumer rights at the heart of our approach to Brexit.
Ah! I have a choice between Bone and Hollobone. I call Mr Philip Hollobone.
Does the promotion of leaker-in-chief and Brexit-phobic Martin Selmayr to the EU’s top civil service post help or hinder our stance, or make no difference at all?
As a matter of diplomatic policy, we never comment on internal operations in other Governments.
We have had the Hollo; let’s have the Bone.
Thank you for saving me up, Mr Speaker.
Hon. Members know that we will leave this dreadful European Union superstate in 379 days, but they might not know that that will also mark the end of the Secretary of State’s grand tour of Europe. He is in a unique position to advise the British people about which countries like us and which do not so that we will know which countries to go to after we leave. Will the Secretary of State tell us the answer?
I am very tempted to give my hon. Friend the list from the last three weeks, which would take about five minutes. Two things have struck me while talking to all my European opposite numbers: all of them are sad that we are going; and they all want a strong future relationship. They all want to stay our friends and allies, and that is what we will deliver.
I have to notify the House, in accordance with the Royal Assent Act 1967, that the Queen has signified her Royal Assent to the following Acts:
Finance Act 2018
Supply and Appropriation (Anticipation and Adjustments) Act 2018
Space Industry Act 2018
City of London Corporation (Open Spaces) Act 2018.
Business of the House
Will the Leader of the House please update the House on the forthcoming business?
The business for the week commencing 19 March will be:
Monday 19 March—Second Reading of the Secure Tenancies (Victims of Domestic Abuse) Bill [Lords] followed by general debate on Welsh affairs.
Tuesday 20 March—Consideration of a business of the House motion followed by proceedings on the Northern Ireland Budget (Anticipation and Adjustments) Bill.
Wednesday 21 March—Consideration of a business of the House motion followed by proceedings on the Northern Ireland (Assembly Members, Regional Rates and Energy) Bill.
Thursday 22 March—A general debate on the economy.
Friday 23 March—The House will not be sitting.
The business for the week commencing 26 March will include:
Monday 26 March—Second Reading of the Laser Misuse (Vehicles) Bill [Lords].
As part of this year’s celebration of the centenary of women’s suffrage, on Wednesday the Cabinet Office will be launching a campaign pack for parliamentarians to use as we visit schools in our constituencies to talk about the amazing achievements in the fight for equality.
This week is Shakespeare Week, and he has a solemn message for us in this House as we seek to stamp out bullying and harassment:
“Think’st thou that duty shall have dread to speak
When power to flattery bows?”
Let us hope that all’s well that ends well.
You might be aware, Mr Speaker, that I am a huge fan of England rugby, and we face a great challenge against Ireland on St Patrick’s Day this Saturday. I am proud of our strong United Kingdom. I would like to wish both teams a superb match, and also to wish everyone a very happy St Patrick’s Day.
I thank the Leader of the House for giving us next week’s business. It is an interesting programme.
I am sure that the Leader of the House will know that the Bill to be debated next Monday consists of only one clause—actually, two clauses: the long title and the main clause. May we have the list of ministerial responsibilities, which has not yet been published? When will the debate on restoration and renewal finally be scheduled, as the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill is still in the other place and is not due to come back until, possibly, May?
The shadow Secretary of State for Education, my hon. Friend the Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Angela Rayner), raised a point of order after the debate on Tuesday about the Government not pressing ahead with plans to phase out childcare vouchers for the next six months. I know that the Leader of the House has said that we have to wait 12 weeks before a Minister responds. However, we now have two time limits— 12 weeks and six months. Could we have a bit of clarity on this for our constituents?
Given that there is nothing scheduled after 26 March, could the Leader of the House please schedule an Opposition-day debate? Or perhaps we could have a debate on early-day motion 937, which deals with the statutory instrument abolishing nursing bursaries for postgraduate nursing students.
[That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that the Education (Student Support) (Amendment) Regulations 2018 (S.I., 2018, No. 136), dated 5 February 2018, a copy of which was laid before this House on 6 February, be annulled.]
I have asked for this before. We thought that the Chancellor would make an announcement in the spring statement, but obviously as it was a spring statement he could not do that.
The Chancellor now describes himself as “Tiggerish”. If he has read the tweets of some of his Back Benchers, he will know that they are asking him to bounce out of the Cabinet. He may be Tiggerish about the growth forecast, but the OECD says that the UK’s economy is the slowest growing of all the G20 countries, so when he goes to Buenos Aires he will be last in the queue—and this is even before we leave the EU.
I want to share this really interesting point that the Prime Minister of Luxembourg made on the EU:
“We had a special relationship with the UK, before they were in with a lot of opt-outs and now they are out, they want a lot of opt-ins.”
I think that kind of sums up exactly where we are. I did not quite glean from the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union whether he has actually visited Brussels. Will the Leader of the House place in the Library information on whether he has, or on when he last visited? He did not say that he had visited the Northern Ireland border within this millennium. Will the Leader of the House urge him to do so? Has the Prime Minister visited the Northern Ireland border?
In yesterday’s statement on the Green Paper on the integration strategy, Walsall was mentioned. I was a bit upset that the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government did not alert me to the fact that he was going to mention Walsall as one of the key areas. People in my constituency have already contacted me about this because they resent the fact that Walsall is seen as a place that is not integrated. I heard at 10 o’clock this morning that the Secretary of State was visiting my constituency. It would have been helpful if he had spoken to me and I could have shown him some decent areas.
In July 2015, I raised at business questions, from the Back Benches, the ESOL—English for speakers of other languages—mandation funding from Walsall adult community college. We had to fight to get it back. My constituent, Ray Simmonds, is now offering training courses to women in childcare and in levels 1, 2 and 3 numeracy and literacy. He struggled to get a place to hold those training courses. He tried to get Pleck library, but that has been closed, as have over 500 other libraries, 300 children’s centres, and 500 playgrounds. My Sure Start Palfrey children’s centre, which was twice rated “outstanding” by Ofsted, has been outsourced to a private company. These are the places for social cohesion.
May we have a debate on the National Audit Office report which found that councils are spending less on services and more on social care, and that Government funding has fallen by 49.1% in real terms? The report also suggests that about 15 councils will be at risk of following Northamptonshire County Council in imposing emergency controls. It is the funding of the infrastructure of local government that helps with social cohesion. It is austerity that fuels division as people think there are not enough resources to go round and blame other people who seem to be taking them. May we, then, have a debate on the National Union of Teachers and Runnymede Trust report on visible and invisible barriers to black, Asian and minority ethnic teachers, or an urgent statement on the young black boy who was tied to a tree in Bath and hit by white boys as he was called names? There is no Government strategy to tackle that.
Finally, I do not want to end on a sad note, but I am afraid I have to, in acknowledging the passing of some very eminent people who have made a major contribution to our country. Brenda Dean, from the other place, was the first female general secretary of a British trade union, having joined a trade union as a teenager. Professor Stephen Hawking was 52 years a fellow of Gonville & Caius College, Cambridge. I have read “A Brief History of Time”—I will have to read it again—and I have visited the large hadron collider at CERN and seen how scientists from all the different countries collaborate. He was also part of the litigation to stop the accountable care organisations, which recently won a cost-capping case on judicial review. In his memory, we must ensure that the UK continues the fantastic collaboration in science with the rest of Europe. He said that a publicly provided NHS was the most efficient system, and so those who say we cannot afford the NHS are wrong; we cannot afford not to have an NHS. Finally, Sir Ken Dodd. I actually saw him at the Palladium when I was younger—a long, long time ago. We hope to see his like again. We will miss not only his jokes and songs, but the image of a man wielding a feather duster.
I join the hon. Lady in her tributes to Brenda Dean, Professor Stephen Hawking and, of course, Sir Ken Dodd—what a fantastic and humorous man he was. I also join her in paying tribute to Stephen Hawking’s commitment to an NHS free at the point of delivery. That is vital. There is consensus right across the House that the NHS should be free at the point of delivery, and that will always be the case under this Government.
The hon. Lady and I have had this discussion about ministerial responsibilities a number of times. I have chased the matter, and I am told that the list will be published with the next quarterly transparency round, next Friday—so let’s hope, hey? I am on her side on this. I shall also be updating the House Commission on Monday on when we will bring forward the restoration and renewal debate, and I have been speaking with parliamentary counsel about the drafting of the Bill. We need to get it ready and bring it forward as soon as possible. Again, she and I agree on that.
On Opposition-day debates, I hope that the hon. Lady will be pleased, as I was, that we had the day’s debate on some of the statutory instruments that the Opposition had prayed against. I was delighted, as no doubt she was not, that the Government managed to win, with decent majorities, each of the votes on the statutory instruments, one of which is very important for young people in expanding the number of young people receiving free school lunches by more than 50,000 by the time universal credit is rolled out. We had an Opposition day last week, for Plaid and the Democratic Unionist party, and others will be brought forward through the usual channels.
The hon. Lady talks about our new Tiggerish Chancellor. I was delighted to see this new Disney reference, and long may it last. She says that it is misplaced, but manufacturing output has now grown for nine consecutive months for the first time since records began in 1968; we have had the best two quarters of productivity growth since the financial crisis; we have the lowest year to date net borrowing since 2008; the number of first-time buyers is at an 11-year high; and employment is at a near record high. These are reasons to be optimistic and to believe in our fantastic economy.
I am delighted that the hon. Lady has such faith in my ability to determine where the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union and the Prime Minister should go. It is very flattering of her to suggest that I can determine their travel arrangements, but I am not sure I can quite do that. She mentions the excellent work on the racial disparity audit and this Government’s determination to ensure that where there is inequality, we take strong measures to try to remove any barriers to the success of people of all races, all ethnic backgrounds and all religions in this country, so that they can progress. She mentions that her own area, Walsall, will be part of the initial pilot scheme. I welcome that, and I hope she does.
The hon. Lady also mentioned the horrifying story of a young black boy being tied to a tree. I think we all feel disgust and horror at that inappropriate and utterly awful experience, and I hope that we in this House are at all times united in stamping out any behaviour of that sort wherever we see it.
It is the 346th anniversary of the declaration of indulgence by His Majesty King Charles II, which was the first attempt at allowing freedom of religion in this country—something we should all cherish. I crave your indulgence, Mr Speaker, in reporting back from the Backbench Business Committee. The Chair of the Committee, the hon. Member for Gateshead (Ian Mearns), is unfortunately not able to be with us; he is detained with urgent business.
The Backbench Business Committee now has eight unallocated debates that need time in the Chamber. Now that the Government have taken today and next Thursday, we will lose the opportunity to debate autism and victims of surgical mesh, which are subjects that Members across the House are very keen to debate. Could the Leader of the House ensure that we get Backbench Business time for those debates as soon as possible?
On my behalf, may I ask for a debate on child sex abuse and grooming of young children, particularly those in care? I have sat on the Select Committee on Communities and Local Government for seven years. We went through the Rotherham case in great detail and are now hearing about cases across the country. It is time we had a debate in Government time on that very important issue, so that all Members can voice their views and we can hear what the Government are going to do about it.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for standing in for the Chairman of the Backbench Business Committee. I absolutely hear his request for Backbench Business days. I hope he will welcome the Government’s determination to provide Government time for a debate on International Women’s Day in such an important year, which in previous years has fallen to the Backbench Business Committee to table, and a debate on Welsh affairs, which unfortunately was a Backbench Business day that was cancelled due to the appalling weather. We also have a Government debate on the economy, which I know the Committee was keen to have. We are not ignoring the interests of Back-Bench Members in any way. Yesterday and today, we have general debates on the EU, which were strong requests from Back-Bench Members right across the House.
However, I hear my hon. Friend’s specific call for debates on autism and surgical mesh. I have constituents who have suffered profoundly from health issues relating to surgical mesh, and of course, I and all hon. Members will want to do everything we can to support people who suffer from autism. We will be bringing forward Backbench Business days as soon as business allows.
My hon. Friend also raises the issue of child sex abuse, which is beyond appalling. We heard this week about the appalling situation in Telford. I share his concern about that and will make representations on his behalf.
I thank the Leader of the House for announcing the business for next week. Can I also pay my tributes to the three people mentioned—Brenda Dean, Professor Stephen Hawking and Ken Dodd? I think the best thing we could do in Ken Dodd’s memory would be to progress the cause of independence for Knotty Ash.
I also welcome national Shakespeare Week. We are all very much looking forward to our Shakespeare suppers. I was trying to think of the most appropriate thing for this Government—surely it can only be “A Comedy of Errors”, or “Is that a power grab I see before me?”
I am really surprised that the Leader of the House has not announced any debate on Russian relations. We have had two statements that have been heavily subscribed this week. There is a great deal of interest across the House, and this issue is only going to develop and get more critical. Before we rise for Easter, can she ensure that we have a debate on Russia?
Tomorrow will be a first, with two consecutive Scottish National party MPs’ private Members’ Bills being promoted by my hon. Friends the Members for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Angus Brendan MacNeil) and for Glasgow South (Stewart Malcolm McDonald). These particularly good and worthy Bills are on reuniting refugee families and on ending the practice of unpaid internships. Will the Leader of the House do all she can to ensure that there is none of the usual awful, disruptive parliamentary practices that characterise so much of private Members’ days? Our constituents absolutely loathe such stuff, and they want those Bills to progress.
Can we have a proper debate about English votes for English laws? I think that everybody in this House knows that this is an appalling, divisive measure that socially balkanises this place on the basis of nationality. However, I think there are people in this House who are still confused about how it applies to them. For example, my Scottish Conservative friends, determined to exercise their prime function as unquestioning Lobby fodder, rushed through the Lobby on Tuesday to vote to take free meals out of the mouths of 1 million English bairns, only to discover that the votes did not count because of the English veto in the double-majority vote. The Scottish Tory dafties turned up to have their votes discounted in person. The Scottish Tories do nothing other than ask questions of a Parliament 400 miles away that cannot answer them, which is infuriating their constituents and is primarily responsible for plummeting relations. Given the glaikit looks on their coupons the other evening, we now know why they do that.
I am struggling to find something on which to agree with the hon. Gentleman—perhaps the independence of Knotty Ash would be the safest option.
The hon. Gentleman calls for a debate on Russia. The Government were extremely grateful yesterday for the very calm and supportive response of his party leader. The Government very much appreciated that sensible and measured response. I will certainly make representations and I am sure there will be opportunities for further discussion on this very serious subject.
Private Members’ Bills are, by definition, for private Members, and the Government certainly do not seek to interfere in the passage of and debates on such Bills. The hon. Gentleman mentions two very important Bills promoted by Scottish Members, one on the reunion of refugee families and the other on banning unpaid internships. Both proposals have a good deal of merit. The Government have very strong policies in each area. There was an interesting discussion on the radio this morning about the abuse of people applying for a job versus the merits of small businesses being able to check out in practical reality the skills that individuals claim to have. That debate will be useful for tomorrow’s proceedings on the Floor of the House.
The hon. Gentleman talked about English votes for English laws. I want to put on the record that it is absolutely not the case that free school dinners are being taken away from children. I deeply regret that Opposition Members, in their misrepresentation of the policy, have deliberately sought to mislead and to make vulnerable people feel yet more vulnerable. It is clear that 50,000 more children will be eligible for free school meals by the time universal credit is rolled out. It is of great regret to the Government that anyone should seek to misrepresent that.
I very gently say, on advice, to the Leader of the House that I know that she would not accuse Members of seeking deliberately to mislead the House, because that would be an accusation that touched on somebody’s integrity. That is not orderly, so I am sure she will want to withdraw that.
It is not negotiable; it just has to be withdrawn.
I withdraw it.
Will my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House find time for a debate on food labelling? I have been contacted by Diabetes UK and Compassion in World Farming, which feel very strongly that food labelling should be much clearer so that when customers buy food and drink, they can understand the effects it will have on their health and how farm animals are treated.
My hon. Friend raises an issue that is very important not just, as he says, for those with health problems, but for people who care about animal welfare to be able to see precisely how the food they are eating has been treated during its lifetime and, of course, the way it has been slaughtered. When we leave the European Union, we will no longer be subject to EU food-labelling regulations and we will be able to look at the issue as an independent United Kingdom.
Last Friday, I stayed out all night—sleeping rough at Huddersfield Town football stadium to raise money for local homelessness charities. We raised over £40,000 that night. Does the Leader of the House agree that we should encourage other football clubs to raise money locally in that way—perhaps, Mr Speaker, you could influence the mighty Gunners to do the same—and may we have a statement on how the Government’s plans to eradicate homelessness are going?
I congratulate the hon. Lady: that is an amazing thing to do. In my home town of Northampton, a fantastic homelessness centre does a sleep-out every year, and I am fully determined to do that myself one year. [Interruption.] Yes, exactly: I shall wrap up warm. I congratulate her and everybody involved on that amazing fundraising effort, which is excellent news.
As the hon. Lady will know, it is an absolute priority of the Government to make sure that we tackle the huge problem of homelessness and rough sleeping. We pledged in our manifesto to eliminate it by 2027, and to halve it by 2022. These are very difficult issues, and we have committed £1 billion to tackling rough sleeping and homelessness. It is not, however, just about money. We are also changing how councils approach the issue. We are implementing the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017, a private Member’s Bill that my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) introduced. We are also working very closely with councils to look at what more can be done in targeted ways to tackle the problems that result in homelessness and rough sleeping.
I join the Leader of the House in congratulating the hon. Member for Dewsbury (Paula Sherriff), whose message to colleagues will have been heard and digested.
Will my right hon. Friend seek to install a sense of urgency into Departments, perhaps starting with the Department for Transport? Once again, following heavy rainfall, the line from London to Plymouth has been cut—I hope, temporarily—due to flooding in the Exeter region. There is a plan to fix it, but it is taking far too long, and my constituents are fed up about it—and so am I. Will she please help?
My hon. Friend is a huge champion for his constituency, and he is quite right to raise this matter. I absolutely understand his frustration and that of his constituents. If he writes to me, I will be happy to fire a very small rocket towards the Department for Transport on his behalf.
Constituents of mine bought a new biomass boiler, hoping to offset some of the cost by using the renewable heat incentive. The boiler was faultily installed, but after legal action, they got the boiler removed and their money back, and they have a new boiler installed. However, now that they have a replacement boiler, they have been told that they are no longer allowed to access the RHI, and to rub salt in the wounds, they have received a demand to pay back the £7,000 of RHI payments they had already received. May we have a debate on the RHI rules and the fact that customers trying to do the right thing by using green energy are being penalised through no fault of their own?
The hon. Gentleman has raised a very important point. We want to encourage everybody to take every opportunity to reduce carbon emissions and to turn our economy green. I am delighted that the UK enjoyed the greenest year ever for electricity in 2017. I urge him to raise his very specific constituency point at Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy questions.
Since Tuesday’s debate on free school meals, I have received numerous emails attacking me for taking food out of the mouths of the poorest children in my constituency. I came into politics to improve the lives of my constituents, so I find this abhorrent, and having to create rebuttals is a waste of taxpayers’ money. Hon. Members will know that no child will lose free school meals as a result of these policies. May we have a debate about the way in which statements made in the Chamber can, unfortunately, when lifted out of context by the Labour party, be used on social media to manipulate public opinion, which ends up harming our most vulnerable constituents and achieving the opposite effect?
I completely agree with my hon. Friend, and she is right to raise that matter in the Chamber. No children will lose their free school dinners, and in fact there will be an increase of 50,000 in those who are eligible by the time universal credit is rolled out. You have said, Mr Speaker, that although the use of social media is broadly to be welcomed, Members should take care to ensure that the usage of selected clips of debates does not create a misleading impression about what has taken place. Unfortunately, however, your words were not heeded, and a misleading impression has been created. That is greatly to be regretted, and it does not help the integrity of this place when hon. Members deliberately seek to put out information that is incorrect—is that okay?
Yes, and I will not get drawn into arguments about policy. I stand by that statement in its entirety; it is entirely compatible and consistent with saying that people cannot accuse other Members of misleading the House. That first statement is absolutely correct: people should not use selective clips to give an incorrect, inaccurate, or erroneous account of proceedings.
“All’s well that ends well” might not be the case for Northern Ireland—it is more a case of “Beware the Ides of March”. Will the Leader of the House make time available for a debate on the Foreign Secretary’s proposals for minimal border controls, and the impact of that on jobs and security in Northern Ireland?
The right hon. Gentleman will be aware that Government policy is to ensure that there is no hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, and that when we leave the European Union we have a deal that works for all parts of the United Kingdom and does not seek to undermine or divide any part from any other part. When I read out next week’s business, he might have heard that there will be two days of debates pertaining to Northern Ireland, and he may wish to take the opportunity to speak in those.
May I refer back to the use of statistics? There is nothing wrong with a good, robust argument in this place, but if the Leader of the House, or any Minister, makes an assertion about facts, they can quite properly be challenged and brought back to this place, and made to account for any inaccuracy in the use of statistics as facts. That is not the same for right hon. and hon. Members, particularly on the Opposition Benches, and it does not enhance political debate for people to assert facts, week after week, almost day after day—this is a growing problem—without any accountability in the House. Is there anything that the Leader of the House can do? On Tuesday we had to rely on Channel 4’s FactCheck. The Library is an excellent source of information, but it is imperative that we all act with veracity and integrity, and are held accountable when we make assertions.
My right hon. Friend is right. You will recall, Mr Speaker, that I raised in the Chamber the issue of a private response that I gave to a Labour Member following a question that they asked me privately, but that they then tweeted, implying that I had somehow answered something else. I personally was extremely offended by that. My right hon. Friend is right: social media clips that are deliberately misleading and ignore facts to make political points undermine our Parliament and democracy, and it simply must not happen.
You might like to know, Mr Speaker, that I fully intended to spend the night with my hon. Friend the Member for Dewsbury (Paula Sherriff) at Huddersfield’s Premier League club’s stadium. However, while out walking on a cancer fundraiser the week before I got a terrible cold and had to withdraw from that wonderful night.
I have a serious request for the Leader of the House. Can a group of Members from all parties discuss ways that Members could be made more accountable and transparent? When someone stands up, on any side of the House, I have become rather tired of hearing them mumble, “I refer to my entry in the Register of Interests”. That is all they say, but if one looks at the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, some people have amazing business connections, large amounts of investment, and some own half a county and we are discussing agriculture during DEFRA questions. All we get is a little aside. I think the House is not transparent enough, and that when someone makes a speech they should fully declare their interests.
Mr Speaker, I am looking at you and wondering whether this is more a matter for the Chair than it is for the Leader of the House. I understand what the hon. Gentleman is saying very clearly. If he would like to write to me I would certainly be happy to take it up with the Procedure Committee to see whether this is an area we need to review.
The position is pretty clear. In a speech, a Member should declare an interest so that Members of the House are aware of it. There is no requirement to do so when asking a question. Each Member must take responsibility for his or her decision to declare. I would not want it to be thought that there is huge ambiguity about this. It may be that it takes time for some to be fully conversant with the required procedure, although that is not a problem that will afflict the hon. Gentleman as he approaches his 39th year of consecutive service in the House of Commons, but I hope people will appreciate how to go about this matter. It is certainly very important.
This evening, I have the great pleasure of attending the 90th birthday celebrations of the Coldstream branch of the Women’s Institute. I am sure my right hon. Friend would be very welcome to join me. May we have a debate to pay tribute to the great work the Women’s Institute does, not just in Scotland but across the United Kingdom, to support women and local charities?
I am sure my hon. Friend will be very warmly received by the WI. He is a great champion for his constituency. I thank him for highlighting the incredible work of the WI, which has played a unique role as the largest voluntary women’s organisation in the country. In the century since its formation during the first world war, the WI has dedicated its time to a wealth of worthy causes. I hope all those celebrating the 90th anniversary of the Coldstream branch have a very enjoyable evening with him.
Antisocial behaviour is a growing concern across my constituency. People tell me that they feel intimidated and unsafe in their homes. Please may we have a debate in Government time on the need for increased funding for our police and for statutory youth provision to act as both a deterrent and a solution to the problem of antisocial behaviour?
The hon. Lady is right to raise the real problem of antisocial behaviour, which, while low level, can really wreck people’s lives, their enjoyment of their homes and so on. It is a very important subject. I am sure it would receive great support as a candidate for a Backbench Business debate in which Members from across the House could talk about their experiences.
Each and every week across England and Wales some 80 dogs are stolen from their owners, causing huge distress to both the owners and the animals. During this Pet Theft Awareness Week, may we have a debate on what is a growing and nasty problem?
My hon. Friend has done a great deal to raise awareness of dog theft. It is a terrible crime. Any theft of property can be very distressing for victims, but the suffering will be much greater when it is a family pet. I commend him for raising this issue. The Government are very clear that when such a crime happens it must be reported to the police, whenever it happens, so that it can be investigated and the perpetrators brought to justice. He will know that the theft of a dog is a criminal offence under section 1 of the Theft Act 1968. We are determined to see it enforced.
My constituents are frankly baffled at the way the Government keep pulling business and not replacing it with time to solve the pressing issues of the day: homelessness, lack of funding for schools and challenges in the NHS. Will the Leader of the House work with the Government to provide either Government time or further Opposition- day time for us to debate, and hopefully try to solve, some of these pressing issues?
As far as I am aware, the only business the Government have pulled was in response to a request from the Opposition on Monday evening. Due to the unprecedented number of urgent questions and very important statements, such as those on bullying and harassment, and a response to the Salisbury attack, the Opposition requested that the Government pull the business that night. That is the only business that has been pulled, so I am not entirely sure what the hon. Lady is talking about.
Last Saturday, I joined the Save Rothbury Cottage Hospital campaign group on a march to highlight the anxiety and frustration that the local community presently feels as we await the outcome of the Department of Health and Social Care independent review panel’s review. Our clinical commissioning group closed down the 12-bed ward in our community hospital 18 months ago, citing underuse. The challenge of rural funding for healthcare means that we are not investing fairly in the Coquet valley, England’s most sparsely populated community. We need to reinvest in these beds for palliative and convalescent care and to give consideration to the practical difficulties and costs of rural distance and poor transport links. Will the Leader of the House grant a debate in Government time to discuss rurality funding frameworks to enable CCGs to meet the needs of patients such as my constituents, who live in the most sparsely populated community?
Nobody can accuse the hon. Lady of excluding any consideration that might be thought relevant in any way, at any time and to any degree from her interrogation of the Leader of the House.
Mr Speaker, I think you have highlighted beautifully what a fabulous champion my hon. Friend is for her constituents. She is right to raise the challenge of sparsely populated areas and their need for healthcare to be as good as anywhere else in the country. I have some challenges with the local healthcare provision in a less populated area, and I appreciate fully what she is saying. I suggest that she might like to seek an Adjournment debate specifically to deal with the issues in Northumberland.
Last Friday, I was door-stepped by the entire primary 3 class at Hannover Street School, who wanted to tell me that Parliament’s use of plastic straws has doubled in three years. They are very concerned about that and would like to know what the Government and the Leader of the House are doing to tackle the issue.
Is it not fantastic to hear of year 3 students door-stepping the hon. Lady? I am sure she thoroughly enjoyed it. The Government are committed to tackling and reducing the use of plastics. All manner of efforts are being made, including the 5p charge for plastic bags, which has reduced the number of plastic bags in circulation by around 9 billion—an extraordinary number. There are the Government’s efforts on the blue belt around the overseas territories to try to protect those valuable marine locations from the impact of plastics. Closer to home, we know that litter very often ends up in our rivers and seas, and very much of it is plastic, so we have a new national litter strategy for England, which I was delighted to announce as the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.
Specifically on the hon. Lady’s point about plastic straws and their use in this place, the Administration Committee has taken this up. It is committed to reducing the use of single-use plastics, which includes plastic knives and forks as well as straws, and I can tell her that a number of hon. Members across this place have committed to a plastic-free Lent. I am sure she would be very welcome to join us, should she wish to do so.
I commend my right hon. Friend for the hard work and determination she has shown to deal with bullying and harassment of all kinds in Westminster. Can we please have a statement on the bullying inquiry that she has proposed this week? Can she confirm that the inquiry will not look at individual cases but will instead look at whether the Respect policy as a whole is working for staff in this place?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his question, and I can give him a specific reassurance: the inquiry into the bullying of House staff that I will propose to the House of Commons Commission on Monday 19 March will not be carrying out investigations into individual cases. That is exactly why I expect it to attract the Commission’s full support. There are existing avenues open to anyone wishing to raise specific grievances, and individuals coming forward will be advised to use those where they apply, but the inquiry will look at whether they are functioning properly. My ambition is to stamp out bullying and harassment of any kind in this place. That is something that I imagine every single person here will wish to support.
May we have a statement or a debate on the dispute at universities at the moment? I have two universities in my constituency. This dispute has been dragging on for weeks, particularly in relation to pay and conditions, but more importantly, to lecturers’ pensions. May we have an update on that? Before the Leader of the House gets up to answer me, I am aware that there are Education questions on Monday, but I would rather have a proper statement to show that the matter is being taken seriously by the House.
I am very personally aware of this issue. My eldest son is facing his finals and, because of the picket line, has been denied the opportunity to go to his university even to use the resources, let alone to have any of the face-to-face tuition that he was due to have and for which he has paid. I am therefore extremely cross about the way in which innocent students are being punished during this dispute. I urge all parties to get together and find a resolution, so that a generation of graduates do not have to pay the price.
Two weeks ago, I raised with my right hon. Friend the non-levy apprenticeship funding for Newcastle-under-Lyme, Stafford, Shrewsbury and other colleges. The situation is becoming serious, and I believe that our young people will be let down if we do not resolve it. May I urge the Leader of the House to ensure that we have a statement or a debate as soon as possible?
I know that my hon. Friend is very supportive of apprenticeships. I can tell him that the contracts for the delivery of non-levy apprenticeship training were awarded on the basis of an assessment by the Education and Skills Funding Agency of information that had been supplied and that the tenders were measured against clearly set criteria. Ofsted’s rating of providers was not considered to be part of the process, as new entrants do not have an Ofsted rating and would therefore have been disadvantaged. The Government have awarded more than 700 providers contracts worth a total of £490 million to deliver apprenticeship training for non-levy payers. However, as my hon. Friend will know, those that were not successful in the non-levy procurement process can still supply apprenticeship training to levy payers directly.
In the past week, three constituents have contacted me to express frustration about the fact that social security payments cannot be paid into their Post Office accounts. In the light of bank closures in my constituency and others, may we have a debate in Government time about the work and functions of the Post Office, so that we can resolve the issues and those payments from the Department for Work and Pensions can be paid into my constituents’ accounts?
When I was City Minister, I was delighted to sign the arrangement that allowed post offices to supply basic banking services for all UK banks to all personal account customers. The issue raised by the hon. Gentleman is news to me personally, but if he would like to write to me about it, I will certainly take it up with the Department.
I thought yesterday that the Prime Minister spoke not only for the Government but for the country over Russia, and I thought that the Leader of the Opposition was an apologist for Russia. The duty of every Member of Parliament is to put country first and party second. I congratulate the 18 Labour Members who supported the Government by signing early-day motion 1071, which states:
[That this House unequivocally accepts the Russian state’s culpability for the poisoning of Yulia and Sergei Skripal in Salisbury using the illegal novichok nerve agent; fully supports the statement made by the Prime Minister on 14 March 2018 in response to Russia’s illegal attack on the UK; further supports the Government’s sanctions against Russia resulting from this incident thus far, including the expulsion of 23 Russian diplomats; supports the decision not to send Government ministers or members of the Royal family to Russia until further notice; supports the Government’s call for a special meeting of the UN Security Council to discuss Russia’s use of chemical weapons on UK soil; and resolves to consider support for further proportionate actions to deter future acts of aggression by the Russian state.]
On this occasion, would it be possible for the Leader of the House to arrange for the early-day motion to be debated next week?
I entirely associate myself with my hon. Friend’s comments, and I will certainly refer them to the Government. There cannot be a debate, because the business for next week has already been arranged, but I encourage my hon. Friend to seek other means for the matter to be debated.
The deregulation of buses has been disastrous for many of our towns and villages. It has been confirmed that services 8 and 19, operated by Mc Gill’s, will cease in 11 days’ time, and as a result there will no longer be a direct bus route to Paisley from villages such as Bridge of Weir, Houston and Brookfield. I look forward to the Scottish Government’s transport Bill, which I hope will deal with many of these issues, but may we have a debate on the impact on communities throughout the United Kingdom of the erosion of lifeline bus services since deregulation?
That is clearly an important point. Bus services are vital to many rural communities, enabling people to travel to work and to education centres, or simply to go and do the weekly shop. I am a huge fan of the bus sector, and I appreciate the importance of maintaining services. However, the hon. Gentleman has raised what I believe is an entirely devolved matter, so it would not be appropriate for me to comment further on the specifics.
Following incidents at the Presidents Club dinner, there was significant media scrutiny and a related urgent question in the House to highlight justified concerns. Meanwhile minimal attention has been given to the events in Telford, where hundreds of children have been abused and raped. May we have a debate on the priorities and values of our broadcast media?
As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said yesterday, we have all been shocked by the horrific reports in Telford, where some of our most vulnerable citizens have been preyed upon by terrible criminals, and we should all be praising my hon. Friend the Member for Telford (Lucy Allan), who has been totally right to speak out as she has. I am very pleased that the authorities are now going to conduct an inquiry, and it is important that this work gets under way as quickly as possible, so we can get to the truth. My hon. Friend the Member for Bolton West (Chris Green) raises an important point about the relative lack of reporting on this subject versus other perhaps more gossipy types of scandal, and he is right to raise the concern about even-handed reporting.
The Leader of the House might have noticed that I have asked on several occasions for debates on youth violence and its root causes, and I have noted that we have not secured Government time for them. She often gives creative suggestions about how we might go about securing debates. One way we could do that is by having an Opposition day debate, and perhaps I could lobby our Front Benchers to discuss youth violence in an Opposition day debate, so please may we have time for Opposition day debates?
I pay tribute to the hon. Lady for her work in this area. She is supporting the Government in looking into such serious violence and will be aware that the Government’s new serious violence strategy is due to be published in the spring. It will look at ways to steer young people away from a life of crime, while putting in place measures to prevent and reduce the effect on victims of serious crime. She asked for an Opposition day and I can assure her, as I assured the hon. Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz), that Opposition days will be forthcoming in the usual way and in accordance with the Standing Orders of this House.
I am sure the whole House will be delighted to hear that Wales’s first zero-waste shop, “Natural Weigh”, opened its doors at the Corn Exchange on the high street of Crickhowell in my constituency earlier this month. May we have a debate on what more the Government can do to ensure more shops follow its example, and therefore help reduce the unnecessary amount of plastic packaging that is doing so much harm to our environment?
I congratulate my hon. Friend’s constituents on this great endeavour and wish them every success with it. The passion with which hon. Members across the House put forward ideas for reducing plastic waste shows that we as consumers as well as our constituents will be very keen to support such measures by retailers. He will be aware that the small retailers associations are now committed themselves to joining in the 5p charge for plastic bags, which will help, and I encourage all hon. Members to support their retailers who are doing so much to ensure we vote with our feet on this subject.
May we have a debate in Government time about the practices of housing developers such as Persimmon? On Monday, I did a walkabout with Councillor Elaine Ballantyne on the Lowlands estate in the Baillieston area. Residents of that new-build estate have been promised a railway bridge, bus routes, play parks, a motorway spur; all these things were promised in the sales centre, but have not been delivered. May we therefore have a debate to hold these developers to account?
The hon. Gentleman is right to raise those issues. We all have developments in our constituencies where there have been lots of promises, but then constituents are disappointed by the lack of action on them, and I am sure we all, as I do, write furious letters to developers asking them, “Where is this? Where is that? You promised the other.” So there is clearly an issue there. I encourage the hon. Gentleman to seek an Adjournment debate to deal with the specific issues in his constituency and commend him for raising this matter.
On Tuesday, amusement arcade operators in Cleethorpes expressed their anger at the possible withdrawal of 1p and 2p coins, and they were later joined by the local hospice, St Andrew’s, and other local charities that also expressed their concern. They are now confused about what the Government’s policy is. May we have a statement to clarify whether the consultation is ongoing, and whether or not it will indeed include the possible withdrawal of 1p and 2p coins?
The Prime Minister’s spokesman has said that there are no proposals to scrap 1p or 2p coins. The call for evidence was simply intended to help the Government better understand the role of cash and digital payments. One element of that was whether the denominational mix of coins meets the public need. From the early reaction, it looks as if it does. It is safe to say that the penny has dropped. We have considered change, but we know that we like change, so we think we will probably keep change and have no change.
Since raising the York housing crisis in the Chamber, my inbox has been flooded with horrific stories of damp and mouldy housing in York, where landlords, both council and private, have completely failed my constituents. May we have a debate about the condition of housing, with particular regard to damp and mouldy homes, so that we can stamp out damp once and for all?
The hon. Lady raises an incredibly important issue, and there is no doubt that the Government are determined to help to ensure that all homes meet the right standards and that we stamp out issues such as damp and the other problems that so many tenants have. The Government support the Homes (Fitness for Human Habitation and Liability for Housing Standards) Bill introduced by the hon. Member for Westminster North (Ms Buck), and we are committed to protecting tenants’ rights and to giving tenants more security through our tenant fees Bill, which will ban unfair letting fees and other ways in which tenants are mistreated. The hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) makes an important point, and I am sure that there will be many opportunities to raise it in the coming months.
When the results of the English votes for English laws Divisions were announced on Tuesday, the number of Members from English constituencies had been counted not by Tellers, but by the electronic devices in the Lobbies. Is it not time to drag this place into the late 20th century by introducing electronic voting for all Divisions?
Many of us find the Lobby a useful place to discuss matters pertaining to our constituents and to policy, and Divisions present a great opportunity to meet Ministers. I encourage the hon. Gentleman to hang around a bit to raise some of the issues that he often raises with me on a Thursday with the relevant Minister, which could not happen if he rushes through or votes electronically.
The hon. Gentleman will only be raising such matters with Ministers in the Lobby if he votes with them—[Laughter.] I cannot imagine that happening very often. Nevertheless, the Leader of the House has hope and has made her position and that of a great many Members very clear.
I am sure that I am not alone in being less than impressed with the answers given by the Foreign Secretary when he was quizzed on the “Today” programme this morning about what action the Government are taking to freeze the assets of people associated with the Putin regime as part of our response to what happened in Salisbury. I know that the Government cannot give us a running commentary on exactly what they are doing at the moment, but this House will want an account of what urgent action they took to freeze assets to prevent them from being moved. Will the Leader of the House convey that to the Government and make arrangements for such a statement in the near future?
This is a serious matter. This morning, the Foreign Secretary was making it clear that, unlike others, this country abides by the rule of law. It is not for Ministers simply to decide to freeze assets; we go by the law of the land. We are putting in place a review, within the law, of all those whom we suspect may have assets that we may wish to consider freezing, and Ministers will of course report exactly what is happening to the House as soon as they are able to do so.
As universal credit is rolled out across more of the country, will the Leader of the House ensure that we have more regular opportunities to question Ministers and to tell them what is happening on the ground? In Newport, where the roll-out started in November, we have seen a threefold increase in food parcels, mostly attributed to universal credit, and Ministers need to hear that.
I want to be clear that universal credit is designed to make work pay and to help people get into work, and there is evidence that that is working. It is encouraging more people to seek work and to get work, and the idea is to reduce the complexity of the previous benefit system. The hon. Lady speaks as though it is making people worse off, but it is not; it is making people better off. The Government have listened carefully to the many representations from right across the House and have improved the roll-out of universal credit, taking things slowly to ensure that we get it right and that universal credit continues to result in more people finding work and having the security of a pay packet.
Can we have a debate in Government time on the responsibilities of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office? Three weeks ago today, I raised the urgent case of Liam Colgan, the Inverness man who went missing in Hamburg. I took the advice of the Leader of the House and wrote to Ministers, but three weeks later I have not had a response, despite having chased and chased, because of clearance and awaiting signature. The family is in trauma. Should Ministers not come to the House and explain this lack of urgency?
I am sorry to hear that. I recall the hon. Gentleman raising that case with me, and I am happy to chase the Foreign and Commonwealth Office on his behalf.
Two years ago, my constituent Malorie Bantala was attacked by her ex-partner and an accomplice. She was eight months pregnant, and they deliberately targeted her stomach, stamping on her until they caused the loss of the child. Malorie launched a campaign this Mothers’ Day, with the support of Women’s Aid and the Mother of the House, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman), to get the Infant Life (Preservation) Act 1929 updated. Will the Government provide time to debate this issue, to ensure that men who commit violence that causes the loss of a child are adequately prosecuted and given more appropriate, lengthier sentences?
All hon. Members will be appalled to hear of that situation; it is just terrible, and I am very sorry to hear about it. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the Government have produced a draft Domestic Violence and Abuse Bill, and it would be very appropriate for him to submit this case to the consultation on the draft Bill, so that it can be considered along with all the other measures. Those measures show the Government’s determination to stamp out domestic violence, which is so often directed towards women and, I am afraid, towards pregnant women.
The Equality and Human Rights Commission yesterday released a damning report on the cumulative impact of tax and welfare reforms. The report highlighted the fact that three quarters of households with three children, and three quarters of Pakistani households, are losing out as a result of welfare reforms. That is a huge concern for my constituents in Glasgow Central. May we have a debate in Government time about the need for equality impact assessments to make sure that Government policy is not racist?
The hon. Lady should welcome the work of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister in the race disparity audit, which is the first attempt by any Government to try to measure whether there is disparity in the treatment of people according to their race, ethnicity or religion. That is absolutely vital. Almost 600,000 fewer children now live in workless households; there are now 200,000 fewer children in absolute poverty; and income inequality is lower than it was in any year of the last Labour Government. We are making progress, and we are committed to doing more. This Government are showing a determination to stamp out the kind of disparity that the hon. Lady talks about.
I am sure the Leader of the House will be interested to know that the Culture, Place and Policy Institute at Hull University is today releasing its preliminary evaluation of Hull city of culture, which brought to the city £300 million of tourism value and 800 new jobs. More than nine out of 10 residents engaged in at least one cultural activity, and 56,000 children and young people engaged with the arts. That is not to mention the acres of positive publicity for the city. May we have a debate in Parliament about the value of public investment in culture, the success of Hull city of culture and the lessons that Coventry can learn when it takes up the city of culture baton in 2021?
The hon. Lady is a huge champion of Hull city of culture, which is just coming to an end. The statistics that she gives us are extremely reassuring to Members across the House, because they demonstrate what a huge success the programme has been. She is exactly right about the need to debate the lessons for Coventry, so that it, too, can take advantage of an excellent experience such as she has had. May I suggest that she raise the matter at Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport questions next Thursday?
Last Friday, we held our constituency jobs fair and I am pleased to say that 956 local people came to it. Of course, we would hope that we would not need a jobs fair at all, but the number of people there is a sign of the impact of that event, and many people will get into work and training as a result. Will the Leader of the House give me guidance on finding an opportunity during House business for me to shower praise on Nottingham City Council, on the local Department for Work and Pensions team and the Rebalancing Nottingham North foundation, which I am proud to chair, for putting on the event and on the many people who made it such a success?
I am sure the hon. Gentleman was also seeking a debate.
I certainly congratulate the hon. Gentleman on the enormous turnout he had at his local jobs fair. All hon. Members who have held jobs fairs have found that same enthusiasm, both from employers and from people looking for a job, which has been heart-warming. Of course, we have seen an extraordinary increase in employment, so that now we are near record highs for employment across the UK. We have had well over 30% increases in employment right across the UK, rising to increases of 42% in the east midlands and 38% in the west midlands, and in the south-east unemployment is down by 47%. We have some amazing jobs statistics to look at as a result of the measures we have put in place to see a thriving economy, with lower taxes for people and more people with the security of a wage packet to take home.
Last but not least, and never forgotten, Mr Peter Grant.
I am eternally grateful to you, Mr Speaker. May we have a statement from the Work and Pensions Secretary on the operation of the cold weather payments system? Constituents in most of my constituency were astonished to discover that it was not cold enough to trigger the payments during a week in which they were under 2 feet to 3 feet of snow, travel of any kind was impossible and they were subject to Scotland’s first ever red alert due to the danger from snow and ice. The problem is that the DWP does not measure the temperature in Glenrothes; it measures it 20 miles away in a coastal location almost 600 feet in altitude lower than parts of Collydean in my constituency. May we have a review, so that at least the residents of Glenrothes and Levenmouth will know that, while they have to deal with the same weather as everyone else, they will be entitled to the same financial support as everyone else?
The hon. Gentleman will be aware of the severe weather payments that are made available and of payments made to people who struggle to meet their own energy bills. Department for Work and Pensions questions are on Monday 26 March, a week on Monday, and his question would be an ideal one to raise then.
With permission, Mr Speaker, I wish to make a statement on issues arising from the Metropolitan police investigation into the Grenfell tragedy.
The investigation has involved a thorough examination of every aspect of the tower, including front doors to flats within the property. Those doors include a glazed fire door manufactured around five years ago. Initial inspections indicate that the door is believed to have been designed to resist fire for up to 30 minutes, but when tested by the Metropolitan police, it failed after approximately 15 minutes. The Metropolitan police considered that this test result might have wider implications for public safety and alerted my Department.
The Government immediately sought advice from the independent expert panel on the test findings to see whether any action was required as a result. The expert panel is made up of a range of building and fire safety experts, and is chaired by Sir Ken Knight, the former London fire commissioner and former Government chief fire and rescue adviser.
The panel consulted representatives from the Metropolitan police, the Government’s chief scientific advisers and the National Fire Chiefs Council. Following that, the expert panel has advised that the risks to public safety remain low. There is no change to the fire safety advice that the public should follow. I, nevertheless, fully appreciate that this news will be troubling for many people, not least all those affected by the Grenfell tragedy. That is why, based on expert advice, we have begun the process of conducting further tests, and we will continue to consult the expert panel to identify the implications of those further tests. I have made it clear that the necessary tests and assessments must be carried out thoroughly, but at pace.
There is no evidence that this is a systemic issue. Data from between 2009 and 2017 shows that fire does not generally spread beyond the room of origin. I am also clear that my Department and the Metropolitan police will ensure that the bereaved and the survivors are kept informed of progress. I commit to updating the House when further information is available, and no later than the end of April.
I stress that, in carrying out the tests, conclusions should not be drawn about the nature or cause of the Grenfell tragedy. That is a matter for a separate police investigation that must be allowed to run its course. Members will be aware that Dame Judith Hackitt is undertaking an independent review of building regulations and fire safety to ensure that the regulatory system is sufficiently robust. Dame Judith has been made aware of these latest findings. Having accepted the initial recommendations that were set out in her interim report in December, we look forward to her final report, which is expected in the spring.
Nine months ago, we faced a loss of life and suffering on an unimaginable scale at Grenfell. Since then, the Government and others have made significant efforts to support survivors, find them new homes and help to keep people safe. However, I know that the matters I have raised today will prompt questions. I reiterate that on the basis of the expert advice that my Department has received, there is no evidence that risks to the public have changed.
I reassure hon. Members that all possible steps are being taken to properly investigate the issues and to take action where needed. Public safety is paramount and our position is clear: the events of 14 June 2017 must never be allowed to happen again. I commend the statement to the House.
I thank the Secretary of State for early sight of his statement.
Nine months on, we all still live with the human tragedy of Grenfell and the realisation that we saw the systemic failure of our system of building checks and controls. We must keep that in mind because, as the Secretary of State said—I will always endorse these words—public safety has to be paramount. That also means, however, that there has to be transparency, accountability and a driving sense of urgency.
I welcome the transparency of the Secretary of State’s making this statement at the earliest possible stage. It is right and proper that this information is in the public domain, so I thank him. I think he would agree that if the Opposition demand accountability and that the Government demonstrate a sense of urgency, that can never be open to the charge of political point scoring.
I add my thanks for the work of the Metropolitan police. The Secretary of State told us that the “Metropolitan police considered that this test result might have wider implications for public safety” and consequently alerted the Department. I was a little surprised when he said that there is “no evidence that this is a systemic issue.” I was astounded when he went on to say: “Data from between 2009 and 2017 shows that fire does not generally spread beyond the room of origin.” That may be true, but we know that that was exactly what did happen in Grenfell Tower—the fire spread and spread and spread. We cannot have any sense of complacency.
The Secretary of State says that this issue is not “systemic”, but what assessment has been made of how many buildings might be affected? How many individual flats—how many people—have fire doors that simply do not do the job? If he does not already know those numbers—I suspect it is too early to know—what steps is he taking to ascertain them? This is the point at which the words “this is not systemic” begin to sound a little incredible. There may be a systemic problem, and we have to begin to recognise that if this is a wide-scale issue, we have that systemic problem.
We need a real sense of urgency on this, as indeed we do regarding other aspects of building control. Tower block residents up and down the country are entitled to know—not simply post Grenfell—the scale of the issues. I must say to the Secretary of State that that sense of urgency has not always been apparent in all the Government’s actions. Earlier this week, he was a little embarrassed when he was not able to answer a question that was put to him at Question Time about how many tower blocks are unsafe post Grenfell. He was not able to say how many private tower blocks up and down the country have the same aluminium composite material cladding that was used on Grenfell. We now need some urgency in providing those answers and bringing the information before the House. I hope that he can tell us when he will have that information and when we can begin to give people a sense of reassurance.
In a recent written answer to my right hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey), the shadow Housing Minister, the Department confirmed that no funding had yet been provided to any of the 41 local authorities that had contacted it. We were told at Question Time that no funding requests had been refused, but that is not quite the full truth if the reality is that no funding request had actually been acceded to. Again, perhaps the Secretary of State can update us and tell us when the local authorities, which really do want to get on with this work, will see the assistance from central Government to which he committed nearly nine months ago.
The upshot of all of this is that, nine months on, only seven of more than 300 tower blocks that had been identified as having dangerous cladding have had that cladding removed and replaced with something more acceptable. I must say to the Secretary of State that, nine months on, that is simply not good enough.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments and I am very happy to answer all the points that he has made.
The hon. Gentleman rightly said—of course we all agree with this—that public safety is the No. 1 issue and is absolutely paramount in every way. He will know that ever since the tragedy, as well as through the police investigation and the work that is being done through the public inquiry, there have been lessons for public safety. He will remember that, right from the start, the expert panel was convened to provide the immediate emergency advice that was necessary, and that advice went out widely to the owners of both social and private sector buildings. The testing regime—the initial sample testing and then the large-scale testing—was set up, as was the independent review, which is now being carried out by Dame Judith Hackitt. I was quite deliberate in wanting to see an interim report so that we could act on some of the early lessons. I remind the hon. Gentleman that Dame Judith Hackitt’s interim report included a number of recommendations, which we have accepted, and we have now started to implement every single one of them. She is now working on her final report, which is due, as planned, in the spring. Again, that reflects our sense of urgency.
Once the expert panel and the police are comfortable that information can be publicly shared, it is right that we are transparent as quickly as possible. That is necessary to create public trust and to ensure that no one comes under any undue stress. Throughout the whole process, we have correctly been led by the experts—the expert panel and all the industry advisers who have been put in place—as well as by the work that has been done by the police.
Let me give the hon. Gentleman a bit more information about that. As well as the independent expert panel, the Government have consulted the National Fire Chiefs Council, the Government’s chief scientific advisers, the police, of course, and the London Fire Brigade. As a result, the expert panel has concluded that, so far, the risk to public safety remains low, that there is no change to fire safety advice, and that a programme of additional testing has to be commissioned to determine the root cause of the failed test. Such additional testing is required; it is going on now. As I said, it must be thorough and done at pace, but I am sure that the hon. Gentleman agrees that we should not rush it, meaning that we get either wrong or inappropriate results. It should be done properly. It should be led by the experts and only on their advice. That is exactly why I said in my statement that there is no evidence of a systemic problem—it is the advice of the experts so far. We are correctly taking their advice while we continue with further tests at pace.
The hon. Gentleman seemed to suggest that work was not being done at pace or urgently. I refute that. We have rightly worked as urgently as possible every step of the way, whether that is on today’s information or other information that has come to light since the fire. That includes work on the remediation of existing buildings with ACM cladding. So far, 301 buildings have been identified: 158 social buildings; 13 in the public sector; and 130 in the private sector. Almost 60% have begun the remediation work and, as the hon. Gentleman said, seven have completed that work. Public safety is paramount, so in every single case, interim steps were taken and measures were put in place immediately, with expert advice, often from the local fire brigade. Those measures remain in place. People can be comfortable that every measure is being taken to ensure that they remain safe.
I think that the House will support what my right hon. Friend said about waiting to get the determination of those investigating regarding the causes.
We know about the liabilities and the risks. The hon. Member for Rochdale (Tony Lloyd) mentioned private leaseholders in private blocks. This week saw the first proper tribunal decision, regarding Citiscape in Croydon, which is owned by the Tchenguiz interests. Ordinary taxpaying residents there are being asked to pay tens of thousands of pounds, and the same thing is happening at New Capital Quay in Greenwich, Heysmoor Heights in Liverpool, and in another 129 blocks that I could name.
May I put it to my right hon. Friend that he ought to get together the Tchenguiz interests, William Waldorf Astor’s Long Harbour and Abacus interests, the builders, the leaseholders and their representatives in order to have a roundtable in the open? Instead of waiting two years until an inquiry is done, it is time to get these people together and talk about a simple deal whereby, for example, the builders put up a third, the freeholders put up a third and the Government/tenants put up a third to get the cladding removed and replaced.
I am very much aware of the legal judgment to which my hon. Friend refers, and we are carefully considering its implications. I have been clear all along—I have said this a number of times in the House and I will say it again—that whatever the legal situation might be, the private owners of buildings should take their lead from the public sector and take responsibility for the additional costs. They might want to look at insurance claims, warranties and legal action that they may be able to take. I also want to ensure that leaseholders get the advice that they need, which is why we have increased funding to the Leasehold Advisory Service.
Nine months after Grenfell and with new concerns emerging, it is no surprise that residents in high-rise buildings remain extremely concerned. A matter of possible reassurance for them was the retrofitting of sprinklers. My local authority of Westminster has advised that it is concerned about proceeding with retrofitting because it has no right of access to the one in three properties in private ownership in social housing blocks. This is a matter not of regulation, but of ensuring access. Will the Secretary of State advise how he can take this forward as a matter of urgency so that councils that wish to proceed with retrofitting are clearly able to do so?
I agree with the hon. Lady that, in the light of all the information that has come to light since the terrible tragedy, local authorities should quite rightly take whatever action is needed to keep residents safe in high-rise buildings. That is exactly what is expected of them and they have our full support. We have said that it is for the local authorities to make their own decisions on sprinklers, based on expert advice. If they decide to proceed, they will get the financial flexibility to support them. If other issues are getting in the way of doing that job, we will be happy to look at them. A number of local authorities have approached us, and we are working with them all and will help them all in every way.
The fact that a number of high-rise office blocks in Barnet are being converted to residential use under permitted development rights, without the need for planning permission, leads some to fear that design standards will be compromised because of the absence of a planning process. Will the Government take action to ensure that fire safety standards are not compromised in these kinds of conversions?
I can assure my right hon. Friend that even when building work is carried out under permitted development rights, it still needs to be subject to building regulations, including all those around safety. There is no way that any builder can avoid that. I hope that that gives some reassurance to her residents. The building regulations are still very much in place, even when work is done under permitted development rights.
The Grenfell Tower fire laid bare profound injustices at the heart of the UK housing system, and every revelation from the investigation makes that picture starker and clearer. So far, the Government have not made available a single penny of new Government money for essential works to respond to and mitigate the risks revealed as a consequence of Grenfell. Unless the Government do so, they are simply meting out further injustice to leaseholders, who will face very large bills, and tenants, who will see much-needed major works pushed back. Will the Secretary of State take the opportunity of this latest revelation to commit new Government resources to address the impact of Grenfell Tower on fire safety across the country, and to right the wrongs at the heart of the UK housing system?
I would say two things. With regard to local authorities, we have made it very clear that we will provide them with the financial flexibility, if they need it, to do any necessary fire safety work. That has been clear from the start. On wider issues of social housing and some of the wider lessons to learn from this terrible tragedy, that is exactly why we will have a Green Paper. We are going through the process that has been put in place, and we will publish the Green Paper in due course after proper consultation.
I commend my right hon. Friend not only for today’s statement, but for keeping the House updated on progress following this terrible tragedy.
Dame Judith Hackitt is looking at the review of building regulations. We, as the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee, have asked that she looks particularly at part P of those regulations in detail, because at the moment there seems to be a lack of clarity about the use of combustible materials within high-rise buildings. Will my right hon. Friend commit to thoroughly reviewing building regulations, particularly taking into account the evidence that has emerged today? The reality is that while fires may normally be retained within a room, these were not normal circumstances, because there was an explosion caused by an electrical fire, and that could be replicated once again.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise this. As he will know, Dame Judith Hackitt’s work is independent, but she takes this issue very seriously. He may know that in her interim report she recommended, as one of the immediate measures, a review of Approved Document B and work to clarify it. That work has already started within my Department and we hope to consult on this in the summer.
This is obviously another worrying development that reinforces Dame Judith Hackitt’s interim findings of the cultural change needed across the board, which the Secretary of State referred to. We look forward to her conclusions, including, I hope, on the updating of fire guidance in Approved Document B.
What assistance can the Secretary of State offer to leaseholders who face bills of thousands of pounds for fire marshals and replacement cladding, and now perhaps for new fire doors, given that they have no responsibility for the predicament in which they find themselves? I draw attention to the question asked by the hon. Member for Worthing West (Sir Peter Bottomley). The Secretary of State’s exhortations to property management companies and freeholders are falling on deaf ears, and leaseholders are having to pick up the tab.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for welcoming Dame Judith Hackitt’s work.
I and the Government very much understand the situation that leaseholders are in. It is obviously a very difficult and distressing situation for many people—we understand that. I do not accept that what I and others have said about owners’ moral duty is falling on deaf ears. There have actually been a number of instances in which we have got involved and some of the private owners have listened. They do not wish to be public about that—that is their choice—but at least they have listened and helped the leaseholders. I want more to do the same. I am keeping the issue under review and looking to see what more we can do.
We all in the House have been deeply moved by the dignity of the survivors of the Grenfell Tower disaster, the bereaved and the volunteers. Many of us have also had casework and individuals come to us with concerns about where they live. Will my right hon. Friend commit to continuing to do absolutely everything in his power to ensure they get the help, support and justice they deserve?
I am very happy, once again, to make that commitment. The work continues each day in my Department and across Government through the ministerial group set up to help the survivors of the Grenfell disaster. I am very happy to re-emphasise that commitment to my hon. Friend.
I have found the Secretary of State to be a very good communicator and very good at keeping the House informed, so any criticisms I now make should be heard with that in mind. I just do not understand the guidance he has given in response to a couple of questions I have asked. The fact is that many thousands of people in our country have a black cloud hanging over them. Be they leaseholders or freeholders, they cannot get it out of their minds, because they do not know how much they will be responsible for. I have begged him to get everyone together—the Government should put something in, too, because they changed the standard. Please can we get this sorted?
With respect to the hon. Gentleman, the issue of leaseholders and what can and cannot be done is fast changing. As he may know, a legal case was waiting to be heard and was only concluded a couple of days ago, and as I said earlier, we are studying the outcome. On his point about getting people together, we are in the process of setting up a roundtable with several interested parties, including representatives of leaseholders, which I think will help.
I commend my right hon. Friend for swiftly updating the House. Many of our citizens are deeply concerned about fire risk and—I am afraid—sceptical of statements made by Governments of any colour. Will he remind the House of the quality and strength of the panel advising him on these important issues?
Yes, I am very happy to do that. The expert panel is chaired by Sir Ken Knight, the former London fire commissioner and the Government’s former chief fire and rescue adviser. Also on the panel are Dr Peter Bonfield, chief executive of the Building Research Establishment, Mr Roy Wilsher, chair of the National Fire Chiefs Council, and Miss Ann Bentley, global director of a leading construction company and a member of the Construction Leadership Council.
The expert panel’s recommendation that no change in safety advice is necessary will come as a surprise to many people. Will the Government insist that Dame Judith Hackitt’s review of fire regulation assessments makes sure that every high-rise building assessment is published and made available in an accessible form to the public so that they can get the reassurance that I fear they will not have got from this report?
I hope that the public will be very reassured by the advice of the expert panel, not just because of the years of expertise represented on it, but—it is worth emphasising this—because it is working closely and consulting with the National Fire Chiefs Council, the Metropolitan police and the Government’s chief scientific officers. I hope that that gives more confidence to the public and the hon. Lady.
I thank the Secretary of State for his statement. I am sure the whole House will agree that it is vital that the victims of the Grenfell tragedy get justice. Does he agree that the only way to do this is to let the police investigation and the independent inquiry get on with their jobs?
We all in the House want to see justice for the victims of the Grenfell tragedy, which is why the live police investigation to which I referred earlier as well as the work of the public inquiry are so important. Both pieces of work have the Government’s full support.
I do not find the Secretary of State’s statement at all reassuring. Nine months on, he has come to the House to say that we have just discovered that the fire doors were defective and only lasted 15 minutes in the case of a fire, not 30 minutes. My constituents are told to stay put on the basis that those doors give the fire service time to come and rescue people in tower blocks. He says that this is not a systemic problem, but just what does that mean? Were these defective doors fitted in the knowledge that they only lasted 15 minutes? Is the manufacturer to blame? How widespread is this? Are the doors in the blocks in my constituency defective? I really find this statement defective. Can we have another statement from the Secretary of State to update us with the real facts of the situation?
There is a live police investigation going on. The hon. Gentleman should appreciate that it is an independent criminal investigation by the police, and it would not be appropriate for me to talk about certain things publicly, unless he is suggesting that we should jeopardise a live police investigation.
The hon. Gentleman rightly asks about the investigation —not the police investigation, but the work being led by the expert panel—and I am happy to give him more information. There is a documentary investigation into the fire doors, led by the police, to see whether it is a whole set of fire doors or a certain batch and where they might be in the country. There is a fire testing investigation taking place, led by my Department, to test a whole number of other doors to see how widespread this problem may be. There is also a visual inspection and declassification investigation going on into the materials. I hope the hon. Gentleman will appreciate that there is a lot of work to do, and it is right that we do this thoroughly and take the time to get it right.
I thank the Secretary of State for providing the assurances that he has, which will be gratefully received by my constituents. He will know, as my neighbouring MP in Bromsgrove, that the people of Worcestershire have been deeply touched by this tragedy. It has affected people up and down the country. Can he give assurance to Redditch Borough Council by telling it whether there are any actions it needs to take immediately, in the light of these latest findings?
Soon after this terrible tragedy, my Department got in touch with every council in the country, including Redditch Borough Council, to inform them of what we knew at the time and any immediate measures that they must take. Since then, councils have been kept updated as we learn more information, including the information that we have talked about today.
Leaseholders at Heysmoor Heights in Liverpool are already facing bills of £18,000 each for the replacement of cladding. Who knows what this new announcement might mean for them and other people around the country? The original development company was dissolved four years ago, and the current owner is Guernsey-based Abacus Land 4 Ltd. It is still not known whether an insurance policy apparently taken out by the original developers will raise any funds at all to meet those costs. Leaseholders keep being told that they will be given an answer, but they have not had one yet. The Secretary of State keeps expressing some kind of sympathy for leaseholders caught in this situation, but what else can he do to help leaseholders in general and my constituents at Heysmoor Heights in Liverpool?
What the hon. Lady highlights is the complexity of some of these situations, which I am sure she appreciates. Despite that, we must, as she suggests, do whatever we can to help the individuals in these very difficult circumstances. That is why we are looking closely at the recent legal judgment; I believe it is the first time that a tribunal has looked at that kind of case. That is why we have provided more funding for the Leasehold Advisory Service, so that leaseholders can get more instant support. We are looking at what more can be done and are keeping the situation under review.
I have had the privilege of completing the two-year fire service parliamentary scheme, which Sir Ken Knight helped to set up. Being placed in a live carbonaceous fire with breathing apparatus, I had a small introduction to the horrors of fire and the bravery displayed by our firefighters every day of the week. Fire doors are absolutely crucial. What puzzles me about this inquiry and the statement is: who certifies that these doors are meant to last 30 minutes, if it has been demonstrated that they last half that time? Fifteen minutes may not seem very long to us in this Chamber, but for the people who are trapped behind the doors and can see fire through the glass, it is crucial. Who certifies the 30 minutes?
My hon. Friend speaks with experience and is absolutely right to ask that question. The door in question should have had resistance for 30 minutes. It must be tested against and meet the British standard, BS 476-22. There is a testing centre for such products, and testing centres must be accredited by the United Kingdom Accreditation Service. I do not want to make any judgments on what happened in this case, because it is subject to a live police investigation. The police have said that they are getting full co-operation from the manufacturer. It would be wrong of me to get into that, but I reassure my hon. Friend that the police are doing their work with that particular door and doors of that type, and we are doing the much wider necessary testing.
Last night one of my parliamentary staff went on the Grenfell march, and afterwards he talked to somebody who has been living in a hotel room for the past nine months. Despite the Government’s promise to rehouse these people, the figures show that, nine months after the fire, only 60 of 208 households have permanent homes. I have heard the word “urgency” being used a lot this morning. When will the Government properly rehouse these people? Will the Secretary of State give a timescale? We hear reassuring noises, but these people are telling us that they are not seeing action on the ground. Will they be rehoused for the summer, for autumn or for Christmas?
I am very happy to update the hon. Lady. There were 151 homes lost to the fire, but new homes had to be found for 209 households. I think she knows why that number is higher. So far, 184 have moved out of emergency accommodation into either temporary or permanent accommodation. That leaves 25 households who have still not accepted temporary or permanent accommodation. I hope she will appreciate that, while it is absolutely right that we work at pace and help those families to move as quickly as possible into permanent or temporary accommodation, as they choose—by the way, more than 300 homes are now available on the letting system, which is more than enough—no family can be pushed or told that they must make a decision and that they have no choice. It must be done at their pace. I cannot go into the details, but there are complicating factors with a number of the 25 households who are yet to accept temporary accommodation. There are a number of issues and it would be inappropriate, from what I know, to force those families to make a decision if they are not ready.
I continue to deal with concerns regarding the construction of a tower block in my constituency. The concern is that, although the cladding meets the building regulations, it is not fire safe—in other words, when it has been tested, it has been deemed not to be fire safe. When are we going to get around to sorting out the building regulations to ensure that all of our tower blocks are safe and that everybody can feel safe in their homes?
I am not aware of the particular tower block mentioned by the hon. Lady, but if she wants to give me more information, I will happily take a closer look. If I understood her correctly, she said that the cladding has passed building regulation tests but the tower block is not deemed safe, but I am not aware of such a case. In every case to which I have referred, it is our view that none of the cladding on a number of buildings meets building regulations, which is exactly why it needs to be removed.
The Secretary of State is well aware of the messy and as yet unresolved situation of New Capital Quay in Greenwich and the plight of leaseholders. Last week the community found out about another development in Greenwich with dangerous cladding on some of the towers. I will not go into the details, but how on earth, nine months on, are we still finding out about additional private freehold developments with lethal material around some of their blocks?
Last August I wrote to every single local authority, asking them to carry out the work of finding all the private sector buildings in their area, and providing support for them. In fact, we have just given additional funding to help with that. All of them have acted with urgency and are working at pace. Some are still discovering buildings, because the work partly requires the co-operation of the private sector. We have spoken to many private sector institutions. It would be wrong to blame the local authorities; it is right that we work with them and give them all the support necessary to find these buildings.
Immediately after Grenfell, Southwark Council’s leader, chief exec and the three borough MPs wrote to the Secretary of State asking for help to retrofit sprinklers in more than 170 tower blocks in the borough. That was a clear request for financial support. It is simply disingenuous to claim that no request has been turned down. The Department dismissively said that it would assess the council’s means to do the work itself. Nine months on, how is that assessment coming along? Has it been designed, will it be published, and when will Southwark Council be given the resources to complete the works?
We have made it very clear that all local authorities, including Southwark Council, should determine for themselves the essential work required for fire safety—public safety is the No. 1 issue—and if they need financial flexibility to help them pay for it, that will not be turned down. We are in discussions with more than 40 local authorities, many in detail. We are working with them and I am not aware of us having turned down any discussions with a single local authority. We are happy to work with them all and make sure that they get the financial flexibility they need.
As west London near neighbours, residents in the London borough of Ealing can see Grenfell—the charred coffin in the sky—from bits of my constituency. I passed by it yesterday. My constituent John Metcalfe attended the silent march last night and says that there were massive numbers and the sense of injustice was overwhelming. The Minister has repeatedly said that public safety is paramount. What is he doing to instil public confidence—I will not say “regain”, because I do not think it was ever there—in the inquiry and the aftermath?
The hon. Lady is right to raise the issue of building more public confidence in the local community—not just the former residents of Grenfell Tower, but the immediate community. Much work has been done by the council, as well as by residents themselves, with Government support. For example, we have worked with and given support to Grenfell United, the group set up by victims of the tragedy. We will continue to do that, but I hope the hon. Lady will appreciate that it will take a long time—perhaps years—to build the right level of confidence. Part of that process is making sure that the community is listened to every step of the way and that it is treated respectfully. For example, I determined that it was very important that the bereaved were told last night the news that I have shared with the House today, so that they heard it in advance and did not hear about it first in Parliament. That is the way in which we continue to work with the community and help in every way we can.
The Secretary of State’s comments on rehousing survivors do not equate with my experience: a great deal more than 25 households are still waiting for any kind of suitable offer. On the fire doors, I received a message just this morning from an elderly architect friend who worked as part of the team on the Grenfell Tower and estate. In his experience, the architects at the time specified fire doors that lasted one hour. Architects knew what they were doing in those days and they signed it off at the end. They were responsible from beginning to end. In those days, in the 1970s, fire doors were supposed to last for one hour. They are now down to 30 minutes. Can we please reconsider whether half an hour is enough in buildings of that size?
First, let me reiterate the latest figures I have. Of the 209 households originally from Grenfell Tower that need to be rehoused, 184 have accepted offers of temporary or permanent accommodation, which leaves 25 that have not accepted offers of either. There are now over 300 units available of different sizes and types, and in different locations, and family liaison officers and key workers are working with each family. As I said earlier, we will not rush this: it will be done at the pace that the survivors want. That is the correct process.
The hon. Lady asked me about the fire doors and whether one hour, versus half an hour, is correct. This is exactly one of the reasons why I have set up the independent building regulations and fire safety inquiry—the work being done by Dame Judith Hackitt—and I know that she will be looking at this issue.
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for the opportunity to update the House on the desperate plight of Burma’s Rohingya in the week that the UN fact-finding mission on Burma has reported to the Human Rights Council with its interim findings.
The international community has repeatedly called on the Burmese authorities to allow the fact-finding mission to enter Burma. Regrettably, Burma continues to refuse access. Despite this, through interviewing Rohingya refugees in both Bangladesh and Malaysia, the interim report has revealed credible evidence of the widespread and systematic abuse, rape and murder of Rohingya people, and the destruction of their homes and villages, primarily by the Burmese military. This is not only a human tragedy; it is a humanitarian catastrophe. Since August 2017, nearly 680,000 Rohingya refugees have sought shelter in Bangladesh.
There have been some suggestions, including by the Foreign Affairs Committee, that the UK failed to see this crisis coming. With respect, I disagree with such a conclusion. Let us be clear about what has led to this current situation. The Rohingya have suffered persecution in Rakhine for decades. Such rights as they had have been progressively diminished under successive military Governments. They have been victims of systematic violence before, most recently in 2012 and in late 2016. On these more recent occasions, the Rohingya fled their homes—some to internally displaced person camps elsewhere in Rakhine, and some to other nations over land or sea. The outbreak of vicious hostility during the past six months is therefore only the latest episode in a long-lasting cycle of violence. We have been urging the Burmese civilian Government to take action to stop the situation deteriorating since they came to power two years ago. What was unprecedented and unforeseen about this most recent violence was its scale and intensity.
A recent report by the International Crisis Group has rightly noted that there is and can be no military solution alone to this crisis. The 25 August attack by Arakan Rohingya Salvation army militants on Burmese security forces, which triggered the latest phase, was clearly an unacceptable and deliberate provocation, but the Burmese military’s relentless response since then has been utterly appalling and entirely inexcusable. Its operations only last week on Burma’s border with Bangladesh were supposedly directed against another wave of ARSA militants. Whether or not that explanation is to be believed, the actual impact of the Burmese military’s actions was to terrorise thousands of Rohingya living in the area and to encourage ever more civilians to cross over into Bangladesh.
I once again commend the generosity of the Government and people of Bangladesh for opening their doors to these desperate refugees. The UK remains one of the largest bilateral aid donors to the crisis. We have committed some £59 million in the past six months to help ensure the refugees’ immediate wellbeing. This includes £5 million of matched funding for the very generous public donations by British citizens to the Disasters Emergency Committee appeal.
My right hon. Friend the International Development Secretary visited Bangladesh last November and announced the latest UK package of support, including for survivors of sexual and other violence. We anticipate that the multi-agency plan for the next phase of humanitarian support, from March to the end of the year, will be published imminently. As the International Development Secretary confirmed during her Bangladesh visit, the UK is and will remain committed to the Rohingya now and, I suspect, for many years to come. At the end of last year, the UK Government deployed British doctors, nurses and firefighters from our emergency medical teams to Bangladesh to tackle an outbreak of deadly diphtheria in the refugee camps.
In northern Rakhine—within Burma’s borders—where humanitarian access remains severely restricted, the UK is providing £2 million of support via the World Food Programme and a further £1 million via the Red Cross, one of the few international organisations that has access to that part of Burma. We stand ready to do more as soon as we are permitted full access.
We continue to work tirelessly in co-operation with international partners to find a solution to this crisis, focusing international attention and pressure on the Burmese authorities and security forces. Since the final week of August, the UK has repeatedly raised the crisis as an issue for debate at the UN Security Council, most recently on 13 February. The existence of the UN fact-finding mission is in no small part due to British diplomacy, and I have engaged and will continue to engage with its members.
In November, the UK was instrumental in securing the first UN Security Council presidential statement on Burma for a decade, which delivered a very clear message that the Burmese authorities should protect all civilians within Burma, create the conditions for refugees to return and allow full humanitarian access in Rakhine state. Late last month, I was privileged to attend the EU Foreign Affairs Council in Brussels, where a programme of sanctions against senior Burmese military figures was outlined. I am glad to say that this was approved unanimously, and we hope to bring this work to the attention of the UN Security Council soon.
I know that many hon. Members remain very deeply committed to helping to resolve the appalling situation faced by the Rohingya community, and I welcome that continued engagement. I visited both countries in September, and I returned to Burma in November. During those visits, I met displaced Rohingya, but also Hindu and Buddhist communities in Rakhine, and heard harrowing accounts of human rights violations and abuses. It was clear that the communities remain very deeply divided, and there is still a palpable sense of mutual fear and mistrust. At that time, I met State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, the Minster for Defence and the deputy Foreign Minister to reiterate the urgent need to take action to end the violence and allow a path for the safe return of the refugees.
During his visit to Burma last month, my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary, in a meeting with Aung San Suu Kyi, pressed for the necessary steps to be taken to create the conditions conducive for the return of the refugees. He flew over Rakhine, and saw for himself the scale of the destruction—the ongoing destruction—of land and property there. He also visited Bangladesh, where he met Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and Foreign Minister Ali, and visited the camps in Cox’s Bazar, where he heard distressing accounts from survivors, as well as their heartfelt hopes for a better future and their desire to return safely to Burma. Our visits have reinforced our determination to help resolve this appalling crisis.
I recognise that the House remains deeply committed to ensuring that the human rights of refugees, but particularly of the Rohingya, are protected, and we welcome the House’s resolution to that effect as recently as 24 January. Let me outline, if I may, some of the next steps. We believe that there are four immediate priorities. First, we must continue to address the humanitarian needs, especially the needs of victims of sexual violence, in both northern Rakhine and in Bangladesh. This includes assisting, as a matter of urgency, the humanitarian agencies working in the vicinity of Cox’s Bazar to help prepare for the approaching monsoon and cyclone season, which commences in a matter of weeks. We shall continue to work with international humanitarian agencies delivering aid in Rakhine state, and to support Bangladesh in its efforts to help those fleeing the violence.
Secondly, we must continue the patient work towards achieving a safe, voluntary and dignified return of refugees. We shall press for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to oversee this process and ensure full verification of any returns on both sides of the border. As the globally mandated body, we believe the UNHCR remains the best equipped and most credible agency to oversee this very difficult process.
Thirdly, we must continue international progress towards bringing to justice the perpetrators of human rights violations, including sexual violence, in Rakhine. The international community has agreed to make the case to the Burmese authorities for a credible, transparent and independent inquiry. In my view, united international pressure will be essential in achieving that aim.
The UN fact-finding mission is a first and important step in what is likely to be a long road ahead. It produced its interim report on Monday, reflecting the violent, military-led, abhorrent actions against the Rohingya and other communities in Burma. We shall continue to support the mission’s important work, including urging Burma to allow it unrestricted access. We will also continue to provide support to build the capacity of the National Human Rights Commission of Bangladesh to investigate properly and document sexual violence among Rohingya refugees.
As Canada’s special envoy to Burma, Bob Rae—I saw him at the Foreign Office only a few weeks ago—said,
“those responsible for breaches of international law and crimes against humanity must be brought to justice”.
In my view, that applies to all involved: state and non-state actors, senior military personnel, and all individuals in authority. Yanghee Lee, the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in Burma, recently stated that the conflict had the “hallmarks of genocide”.
I must tell the House, however, that the only path to prosecution for genocide or crimes against humanity is via the International Criminal Court. It is a legal process. Burma is not a party to the Rome statute, and must therefore either refer itself to the Court, or be referred by the UN Security Council. I fear that neither eventuality is likely in the short term, but that should not stop us supporting those who continue to collate and collect evidence for use in any future prosecution.
Finally, to achieve a long-term resolution to the crisis in Burma, even in these desperate circumstances, the UK should play a leading role in trying to support a democratic transition and the promotion of freedom, tolerance and diversity. To do that, we will continue to engage, and support attempts peacefully to resolve many of Burma’s internal conflicts, and to bring all parts of state apparatus under democratic, civilian control. We stand ready to lead the international community in ensuring the implementation of Kofi Annan’s report from the Advisory Commission on Rakhine State. That crucial programme is designed to deliver development for the benefit of all the people of Rakhine state, including the Rohingya, and address the underlying causes of the current crisis. Above all, that includes reviewing the punitive 1982 citizenship law, and making progress on ensuring citizenship for the Rohingya, who are otherwise regarded by many as stateless. We must give them confidence that they have a future as fully-fledged citizens of Burma.
The situation in Burma serves as the clearest possible example of why our Government will continue to uphold their commitments to early warning and preventing the risk of atrocity crimes, in the context of broader conflict-prevention and peacebuilding work. It is vital that lessons from this human tragedy are used to prevent similar situations from developing in the future. I stand ready to work with Members from across the House, and with NGOs that have a real passion in this area, on getting a framework in place for the future.
The UK Government intend to remain in the vanguard of international action and to support a full range of humanitarian, political and diplomatic efforts to help resolve this appalling situation. We shall continue to press Burma to facilitate the safe, voluntary and dignified return of the Rohingya Muslims under UNHCR oversight, and also to address, properly and fully, the underlying causes of the violence. We shall not and must not lose sight of the fact that the Rohingya community have suffered for generations and will need our continued support to live the lives they choose. Neither will we fail to take account of the wider picture in Burma and the potential that sustained movement towards an open, democratic society offers to all its people. We shall push forward with persistence, focus and energy—it is our international and moral duty to do so. I commend the statement to the House.
I thank the Minister for that clear and comprehensive update on the situation of the Rohingya, and for giving me advance sight of his statement. No one can doubt the effort and commitment that he and his officials in the Foreign Office and on the ground are putting into resolving this issue.
I also welcome several specific aspects of the Minister’s update. First, the interim report of the UN fact-finding mission—both in its level of detail about the atrocities suffered by the Rohingya and in the unflinching language it uses to describe those genocidal acts—is a vital first step in building a case against the individuals responsible. Secondly, I welcome the public’s generosity, and the Government’s continued commitment to providing humanitarian relief to the Rohingya refugees trapped in Cox’s Bazar and elsewhere. I applaud the tireless work of British medical professionals seeking to stop the spread of disease in the camps.
Thirdly, I welcome the Minister’s words on the role of UNHCR in ensuring a safe, dignified and voluntary return, and a sustainable future for those refugees. The international community must continue to put pressure on the Government in Myanmar to allow UNHCR to dictate when and how it will be appropriate to begin that repatriation process. Fourthly, I welcome the Minister’s continued support for the Kofi Annan report, and the vital long-term reforms it sets out to give full rights and lasting protection to the Rohingya community in Myanmar. Democratic and civil society development did not improve as we hoped two years ago, and only this week I heard also about 100,000 displaced people in Kachin state.
I welcome the progress that the Minister mentioned on agreeing EU-wide sanctions against leading Myanmar generals. Only two weeks ago, Foreign Office Ministers were avoiding a debate and voting down Labour’s Magnitsky amendments. I was therefore pleased that the Prime Minister expressed a change of heart yesterday, not least because we noticed that the United States used Magnitsky provisions to sanction one of the generals, Maung Maung Soe.
The Minister spoke about the importance of providing support for the victims of sexual violence, and documenting the abuses that they have suffered, with a view to bringing prosecutions against those responsible at some future date. He will know the concern across the House that when we last received an update on Myanmar, it was confirmed that only two of the 70 sexual violence experts employed as part of the Government’s preventing sexual violence initiative in 2012 had been deployed to work on those cases. Have more of those staff now been deployed in the refugee camps? Are those two experts still there? How many people are now working to support victims and document their evidence? What percentage of the victims of sexual violence does he estimate have now received support and had their cases documented, whether by UK experts or other agencies working on this issue?
The Minister noted the impending monsoon season, and we are all aware of the risk that those heavy rains could turn the existing humanitarian crisis in the refugee camps into something even more catastrophic, including through the spread of waterborne disease. What assessment have the Minister’s officials, and their counterparts in the United Nations, made of the current shortfall in humanitarian funding to support the refugees, and of the expected shortfall if the monsoon season makes the crisis worse? If those numbers are as high as many of us fear, what emergency action will the Government take with our international partners to try to plug those gaps?
Finally, we must return to how we can best ensure the safe, voluntary and dignified repatriation of and a sustainable future for the Rohingya refugees, and how we can ensure that those responsible for the atrocities against them are brought to justice. I appreciate what the Minister has said about the pressure the United Kingdom has exerted behind the scenes at the United Nations in terms of setting up the fact-finding mission and obtaining the Security Council presidential statement. However, he will understand the long-standing view on the Labour Benches that it is time to go further and be more public in using the UK’s formal role as penholder on Myanmar on the United Nations Security Council to table resolutions on these vital issues: first, to table a resolution setting out the terms under which the repatriation process should proceed, and the future rights and protections that must be accorded to the Rohingya refugees, obliging the Myanmar authorities to accede to those terms. Secondly, at the appropriate time, a resolution should be tabled referring Myanmar to the International Criminal Court, so that the generals, who this week scandalously dismissed the UN’s claims of ethnic cleansing and genocide by saying the Rohingya had burned down their own houses, can be brought to account.
The Minister spoke with candour on that second point, admitting that such a resolution would be difficult to get past the Security Council. I ask him to expand on that. What steps have the Government taken to engage with Myanmar’s near neighbour China and did the Prime Minister raise this issue with the Chinese on her recent trip?
Many of us fear that, if we do not act quickly to break the stalemate, especially with the monsoon season coming, we will have these types of updates for too many months to come, and the humanitarian crisis the Minister described will only get worse.