House of Commons
Monday 26 March 2018
The House met at half-past Two o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
Work and Pensions
The Secretary of State was asked—
Pension Protection Fund: Former Carillion Employees
There are 12 Carillion defined benefit schemes in a PPF assessment period. The PPF is working with scheme administrators to determine whether they can pay pensions at or above PPF benefits. Where a scheme cannot do this, the PPF will assume responsibility and pay compensation.
The workers in the Carillion defined contribution scheme should not have to suffer any detriment to their pension. Will the Government be looking to draw back bonuses paid to the Carillion executives to put back into the pension funds?
As I said, the Carillion schemes are at present in the assessment period for the funds, and we are looking at what happened in those instances. The hon. Lady will be pleased to know that we have brought forward our White Paper on defined benefits and increasing the regulator’s powers to support these schemes in the best way possible, to make sure pensioners get those pensions that they so rightly deserve. It is the Conservative party that will be strengthening that for workers, to make sure we look after such pensioners.
Will the Secretary of State pay particular attention to that group of public sector workers who transferred into Carillion and are now retired, and who were covered not so much by the PPF, because they were given ex gratia payments rather than pensions, at the time they transferred?
My hon. Friend raises an important question, and he is right: a number of Carillion employees were compulsorily transferred from the public sector, and we are looking at whether they can now rejoin the public sector service scheme. We are working hard to determine that.
Does the Secretary of State agree that the Carillion pension crisis, as well as the many pensions crises over the years, support the Scottish National party calls for the UK Government to urgently set up an independent savings and pension commission to take a robust look at the pensions landscape?
The regulator is independent, and that is what it does: look at pension schemes. We have, through the White Paper, strengthened the regulator’s powers and now for the first time brought forward criminal sanctions should any director or employer bring into harm wilfully and neglectfully the workers’ pension scheme.
The catastrophic collapse of Carillion saw thousands of workers pay the price, including with their pensions. It was a monumental failure of governance and by Government, who knew Carillion was sinking into difficulties and went on awarding contracts despite profit warnings. The Secretary of State has said before the Select Committee that the Pensions Regulator knew about the mounting problems in 2014; were the Government alerted and did they choose to ignore those warnings, or did the regulator chose to ignore them and fail to alert the Government?
The regulator and assessors are now looking into a whole series of issues. Fundamentally, one of them has to be how Carillion’s books went from being a healthy balance-sheet to, a year later, not being a healthy balance-sheet. The auditors and accountants who had signed those books are now being thoroughly examined to establish what happened there before the regulator would have had to look into things, so a lot of investigations are going on.
Universal Credit Roll-out
Universal credit is a modern flexible benefit which provides tailored support to claimants. Three separate research studies show that UC is having a positive impact on employer outcomes. The changes announced in the Budget are giving even more support for claimants.
Before Christmas, many on the Opposition Benches predicted disaster as more of our constituents claimed their benefits through universal credit. In fact—and I believe the changes made by the DWP have made a significant difference—the early anecdotal evidence in Gloucestershire, from the Jobcentre Plus and Gloucester City Homes, is that things are moving smoothly ahead. Does my right hon. Friend agree that this is broadly the case across the country, and that the introduction of trusted landlords is making a significant improvement to relationships with housing associations, and will she do more to roll that out?
My hon. Friend is correct. Three independent studies are saying that universal credit is getting people into work quicker, and that they are staying in work longer and also looking for more work. He is exactly right about the trusted partner status. The reason he has started to do extra work with his jobcentre, looking at tenants who might not have a roof over their head, was the false information cited in Prime Minister’s questions by Jeremy Corbyn, who said that one in eight would be evicted. That was not the case, and, as we are seeing, people are now getting into work and their homes are being protected.
I say gently to the Secretary of State that one must not refer to other Members by name. The right hon. Member for Islington North is the Leader of the Opposition, but he should not be referred to by name.
I ask the Secretary of State not to give an immediate reply to this question but to ponder it. The Secretary of State has told me that the 98 members of jobcentre staff on temporary contracts in Birkenhead are going to be laid off because they have come to the end of their contract period. Unlike Gloucester, we are having real problems with the roll-out of universal credit. I had five cases last week, including one involving a woman who had been reduced to living on 7p. Might not some, if not all, of those staff be redeployed to ensure a smooth transition from traditional benefits to the new one?
I appreciate the right hon. Gentleman saying that I could speak to and work with him to see what is happening in Birkenhead. What I know is that we on this side of the House brought forward up to 100% advances, so that anyone in need of money could have it. We have also stopped the waiting days, and from April we are providing the two-week housing payment. That is what we on this side of the House have done to protect the most vulnerable, but the Opposition voted against it.
My hon. Friend is correct, and I want to thank him for going to meet people at his Jobcentre Plus and for speaking to the dedicated work coaches who are working tirelessly to help people to get into work. These are the tales that I am hearing. Universal credit is an in-work and out-of-work benefit. We are about getting people into a job and then helping them with progression, so that they can get into a job and have a career and also have job progression. That is why we have over 3 million more people in work.
This question is not dissimilar to that tabled by the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah), and she should have her opportunity now, because we will probably not reach her question later.
We have had this debate before, and this has been corrected many times. Actually, 50,000 more children are going to have free school meals. These scaremongering stories are not true at all. Let us look at what is happening. We now have 1 million fewer people in absolute poverty—a record low. We now have 300,000 fewer children in absolute poverty—a new record low. There are also 500,000 fewer working-age adults in absolute poverty—a record low. This Government are about helping people to get into work, which is the first step they can take towards taking control of their life. From there, they can have career progression.
I commend my right hon. Friend for the roll-out of universal credit. How does that compare with the debacle that was the implementation of tax credits under a previous Government?
Order. No dilation is required. A pithy encapsulation of what the Secretary of State regards as her personal triumph is one thing, but a lengthy denigration of the policies of the previous Government would be another.
Universal credit is working, and it had to be put in place, in part because the Opposition’s tax credits were a failure.
Very fleet of foot.
Personal Independence Payments: Disability Assessment
Assessments are important, so that people who need support receive the right level. Where there is enough existing evidence to determine benefit entitlement, claimants do not need a face-to-face assessment. We are committed to continuously improving PIP, so that those with degenerative diseases get the support they need in a timely fashion.
People with degenerative neurological conditions, such as motor neurone disease, are still being called for PIP assessments, which is degrading and causes much distress. Will the Minister therefore ensure that the practice ends immediately, so that people’s dignity can be restored?
PIP is working, and it is working well for all people with disabilities, including those with degenerative conditions. The reality is that 89% of claimants with motor neurone disease are on the enhanced rate of daily living and 90% are on the enhanced rate of mobility. That compares with 52% on the higher rate of care and 89% on higher rate mobility under the disability living allowance, the predecessor benefit.
Last week, I hosted a pensioner and senior citizens’ fair in Morley and Wrenthorpe. At the event, a gentleman with Parkinson’s disease told me that he had to reapply for PIP every two to three years, which caused him great distress. What are the Government doing to ensure that claimants with degenerative conditions such as that do not have to go through any unnecessary stress?
It is absolutely right that we would like to make decisions without face-to-face assessments where possible. Where there is medical information, we do not ask people for such assessments. Of course, how often we ask people for reassessments is down to the healthcare professional, so sometimes people are not asked for a long period of time.
Several constituents who are claiming both employment and support allowance and PIP have told me that the application forms are difficult to complete. The forms ask for a lot of the same information and are completed exclusively by some of the most vulnerable in our society. Anyone would think that the Government wanted to make the process and the forms unnecessarily complicated and difficult. Why not make the forms easier to understand and allow applicants to be considered for both benefits with one form?
We work very hard with stakeholders. Our forms are co-designed by disabled people and those who support disabled people, and I am grateful for the efforts to which they go to work with us. It is well worth noting the relatively high levels of satisfaction with the application process, but we are of course always looking for ways to improve things.
I welcome the Department using a collaborative approach with stakeholders and healthcare professionals to ensure that reassessments for severe conditions are as simple as possible. Will my hon. Friend continue to work with those stakeholders, who are often experts in their field, to improve the assessment process, particularly for conditions such as MS?
My hon. Friend makes a good point about how closely we work with disabled people and stakeholders. He makes particular reference to the severe conditions work that we have implemented for ESA claimants, where we have worked with stakeholders to design a new process, so that the most poorly and vulnerable people have a personal, tailor-made process.
Child Poverty: Family Indicators
Good morning, Mr Speaker. [Interruption.] The Government are committed to action that improves children’s long-term outcomes by tackling the root causes of poverty and disadvantage. In April 2017, we published nine indicators that track progress in tackling the disadvantages that can affect families and children, and we aim to update them annually. The next publication is due shortly.
Order. Members should not chortle; the Minister is a courteous fellow and should be respected.
Given the huge costs financially and socially of family breakdown to people both in and out of work, what is the Minister doing to improve the family indices across society and to reduce family instability?
I congratulate my hon. Friend on his constant and vigorous campaigning on the issue, and particularly on the importance he attaches to fatherhood and family stability. The Government agree with him about that, and a number of programmes are designed to move the dial on the nine indicators that we have published. For example, alongside the fight against worklessness and the troubled families programme, we are specifically investing £39 million in a programme to reduce parental conflict and increase family stability.
The Minister may be in a bit of a time warp this morning, but is the Secretary of State on a different planet from the Children’s Commissioner for England? Will she talk to the Children’s Commissioner about child poverty in our country and look at this morning’s report, which links child poverty and low educational expectations? Get on with it, man!
As the hon. Gentleman will know, all hon. Members should be engaged in the battle against poverty. We in particular have chosen to take a different approach. Pleasingly, the Children’s Commissioner has identified that low educational attainment is critical to the future employment and economic prospects of all children. That is why we are focused on it as one of the two planks of Government policy on the matter, why we have concentrated so hard and why we are so pleased that so many more children are going to good and excellent schools.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and is a renowned champion of those in poverty in his constituency. It is interesting to note that nearly three quarters of children in poverty move out of poverty when their parents move into full-time work. We must capture and use that in our constant fight against poverty.
I have seen reports of the new analysis this morning and, obviously, we are more than willing to have a look. However, such reports—there have been several in the past few weeks—tend to accept in the small print that forecasting poverty in the future is a very inexact science and often leads to odd results, not least because they often do not take behavioural change into account. The whole thrust of the Government’s welfare reforms has been not just to ensure that we get assistance and money to people efficaciously, but to effect behavioural change because we know that accessing work is by far and away our most potent tool in the fight against poverty.
School breakfast clubs play a key role in tackling child poverty, including helping parents get to work. Will my hon. Friend join me in welcoming the announcement last week of £26 million investment in school breakfast clubs and commit the Department to supporting them across the country?
Absolutely. My hon. Friend is a doughty champion of school breakfast clubs and has established one in his constituency. He is on the right lines and we support him in his efforts.
There is no question of unfreezing the benefit cap because it is encapsulated in primary legislation. It might be interesting for the hon. Lady to know that, in the year after the benefit cap was imposed, 100,000 children moved out of poverty altogether. I am surprised that she has not welcomed the news that was announced last week that, as the Secretary of State said, more than 1 million people have moved out of absolute poverty. That shows the greater usefulness of the absolute poverty indicator compared with those for relative poverty, which the EHRC used in its report.
Today, we have learned from independent analysis from the Scottish Government the full impact of the UK Government’s cuts on levels of child poverty. Later this week, the Scottish Government will be publishing their plans to do what they can, using the limited powers of the Parliament up the road, to address this looming crisis, but what are this Government doing to address child poverty?
As I outlined in my earlier answers, this Government believe that the two routes out of poverty are education and work. We have seen, in essence, a jobs miracle in this country over the past few years, with millions of people moving into work since 2010. It is absolutely the case that children in workless households achieve less, have less good welfare and have more mental health problems, so moving people into work is critical. I have seen reports in the media of the evidence the Scottish Government have brought forward this morning, and we will look at it carefully. I am always aware that one foundation of nationalism is to blame everyone else for problems, and I look forward to seeing the Scottish National party’s proposals in Scotland and whether they will actually work.
Of course we know that 68% of children living in poverty do so in working households, so the Minister’s rhetoric simply does not match the reality. We also know from the research today that the root cause of child poverty and its predicted rise comes directly from the cuts to the reserved benefits in respect of the benefit freeze and the two-child limit. So when will his Government face up to reality and act to stop children being hungry, because everyone knows that it is this Government’s responsibility?
This Government have moved heaven and earth to help those on lower incomes: with the introduction of the national living wage, they have had the fastest pay rise in 20 years; we have taken millions out of paying tax altogether with the rise in the personal allowance; and we have given parents up to £5,000 of assistance by increasing their access to free childcare up to 30 hours a week. There is an enormous amount done, but an awful lot still to do. As I say, we have yet to see any concrete proposals from the SNP on its much-vaunted plans to deal with poverty in its own patch, and we look forward to seeing them.
Jobcentres in Glasgow
There are no current plans to revisit the announced jobcentre provision in Glasgow. Doubtless the hon. Gentleman will welcome the 1,000 jobs a day created in this country since 2010 and the fact that the claimant count in his constituency has gone down by 50% since then.
Let me bring the Minister back to the nature of the question by asking whether he can answer something else. On 5 February, I asked the Minister for Employment for all the impact assessments done on the closure programme. I did so through a freedom of information request, as he suggested on 12 February. On 23 February, he told me that it would take too much time and cost too much money to provide me with all those things. So will today’s Minister drop the diplomatic and bureaucratic flannel, publish every impact assessment and get them in the post to Glasgow Members of Parliament?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question, and I will take it up with him after this debate; I will be delighted to sit down with him and be clear on that matter. The Minister for Employment is at the G7 in Canada, so he cannot answer that point, but we will take it up.
Child Maintenance: Parents’ Income Increases
Such an obligation already exists.
If that is the case, can the Minister explain what the lead time is in respect of someone having to declare that change in income? What would be recommended—for example, would it be one month or two months?
Paying parents who are in the Child Maintenance Service must declare changes in income immediately if they vary by more than 25% of the previously declared level. Of course every paying parent is subject to an annual review, where adjustments are made to the payments if required.
My hon. Friend raises an extremely important point. As he may know, we have just finished a consultation on what greater powers we can take to ensure proper and efficient recovery for those in receipt of support. We are looking at a series of measures, not least integrating our information systems much more closely with those of Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, so that we have a fuller picture of people’s income. We will be looking at proposals to make estimates of unearned income and, indeed, imputing income from asset values for those who attempt to conceal their income but still hold very significant assets. In the final analysis, we may well take powers, depending on the results of the consultation, to deny people a passport—and remove their passport—if they refuse to pay.
In-work Households Living in Poverty
As Members would expect, we make constant assessments of the level of poverty in the UK, given that our primary purpose as a Department is to stimulate and support social mobility and give people the tools and assistance to build a better life. There are 1 million fewer people living in absolute poverty since 2010, and working families are around four times less likely to be in relative poverty than working-age adults in workless families.
Even though they are in work, many families in my constituency of Crewe and Nantwich are struggling to feed their children. That suggests that work is no longer an escape route out of poverty. The Institute for Fiscal Studies predicts that child poverty will increase from the 4.1 million recorded in the Government’s latest figures to 5.2 million by 2022. The Government originally claimed that universal credit could lift 350,000 children out of poverty. How many children do they now expect to lift out of poverty, and by when?
I hope that no one in the House is complacent about poverty, particularly child poverty. As I said in answer to earlier questions, and as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has said, we are entirely focused as a Department on doing what we can to try to deal with these issues, but they are complex and deep-seated, so the solutions will be, too. Having said that, we believe that there are two primary causes and two primary solutions, the first of which is work and the second education. We are throwing everything we have at that to try to improve things. If we look back at the results thus far, we see 1 million fewer people in absolute poverty, 300,000 fewer children in absolute poverty since 2010, and half a million fewer working-age adults and 100,000 fewer working-age lone parents in absolute poverty since 2010.
The copious character of the briefing is in one sense very impressive, but unfortunately exceeds the time available for its delivery.
With your permission, Mr Speaker, I wish to pay tribute to a stalwart in Coventry who for many years helped the homeless. Mike Parker started the Coventry Open Christmas shelter in 1992 to provide warmth, food and shelter. His funeral was today. The shelter started as a one-night one-off and developed into a long-running campaign. It helps hundreds of homeless people in Coventry every year. Mike Parker helped to ensure that those who were lonely and hungry had somewhere warm and friendly to go. He will be sorely missed in Coventry.
Now for my question: will the Government look into ending the freeze on children’s benefits, lift the two-child limit on tax credit and fix universal credit to help to lift in-work households out of poverty?
May I, too, salute the hon. Gentleman’s constituent? I did not know him, but he sounds like a remarkable man. I am sure he will be missed by those who loved and knew him.
The hon. Gentleman asked about the two-child limit. In our welfare reforms, we have tried to establish for those who require assistance through the welfare system the same choices that are made by those who do not have that kind of assistance. Having said that, we have ensured that nobody who currently has more than one child will suffer, and of course all children will continue to receive child benefit, irrespective of their status.
As we have already heard, the majority of children living in poverty live in households in which at least one person works, so why does the Minister refuse to end the freeze on the majority of in-work social security support and to provide the support that working families so desperately need?
We believe that the solution for working families is universal credit and that people should take control of their own lives and work hard so that they can build a life for themselves and their families. That is exactly what we are trying to achieve through our welfare reforms.
New Forest West brevity now, to be copied by others afterwards.
Is there evidence that in-work benefits depress wages?
My right hon. Friend raises an interesting point. A fair amount of analysis of that idea is currently going on. As soon as we have a conclusion, we will let him know.
Will the Minister confirm what he and the Government think is the most useful measure of poverty? Is it absolute or relative poverty, and can he tell us why?
My hon. Friend displays her normal mental acuity in putting her finger on the point here. She is completely right: relative poverty is a poor indicator of how people are faring. For example, if everybody’s wages were to double overnight tonight, absolute poverty would plummet, but relative poverty would stay exactly the same.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right: using relative poverty produces perverse results. What is he doing about it and what is a better measure?
My hon. Friend made a remarkably good speech about this just a week or so ago, and I congratulate him on his foresight. He is absolutely right: relative poverty as currently measured suggests that there are quite a lot of poor people in Monte Carlo, which, of course, is not an intuitive picture that people would have. As a Department, we are looking at other measures. We believe that absolute poverty, which currently stands at an all-time low, is a better indicator. Of course material deprivation, which asks specific questions about how people live, holds some promise as an indicator that the public might appreciate.
I am disappointed to hear the Minister be so facetious about a subject as important as child poverty. At the last count, 72% of households whose benefits were capped were those of lone parents and 77% of those lone parents had a child under five. They can escape the cap by working at least 16 hours a week, but are then hit by the cuts to work allowances in universal credit, which trap many in poverty. According to Government figures released last week, more than half a million children are currently in poverty in lone-parent families where their parent—usually the mother—is either in full or part-time work. If the Government really believe in making work pay, will they reverse the cuts to work allowances?
I know that the hon. Lady likes to present herself as some kind of latter-day mahatma and as the only person in this House who cares about poverty, but, of course, that is not true. Many of us—as councillors, voluntary workers, social workers and so on—have spent many years fighting poverty, so it would be helpful to the general tone of debate in this House if she were not quite so accusatory. Our view, and the Office for National Statistics points this out, is that 100,000 fewer work-age lone parents are now in poverty and that their biggest problem—the biggest thing that assails them—is childcare. The 85% payment for childcare under universal credit and the increase in availability to 30 hours will give the greatest assistance to lone parents.
Personal Independence Payment Claims Review
The exercise to identify claimants affected by the MH judgment will start as soon as we have made the changes to the guidance needed to implement the judgment. We are currently engaging with stakeholders to design these changes. Of course, I will continue to regularly update the House.
Earlier on, the Minister said that the personal independence payment was working. Well, of course, if it was working, the Government would not have lost the High Court case in the first place. These delays are simply unacceptable. Why are so many of my constituents still telling me that they are being biased against when they have mental conditions or the degenerative conditions mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell)? Why are veterans coming to me to express serious concerns about their own employment and support allowance and PIP assessments, and what will she do about that?
We will implement the judgment in full, but it is really important that we continue our work with stakeholders to get this right. We are working at pace to make those changes. On the general points that the hon. Gentleman makes, we are utterly committed to making sure that, with PIP and ESA, people have a good claimant experience, and we are regularly implementing changes.
I recently visited the local centre at Cofa Court in Coventry where PIP assessments take place and saw the process. Will the Minister confirm that assessments are always based on what claimants are able to do and that they are always carried out by a medical practitioner?
I thank my hon. Friend for his question and for taking the time and trouble actually to visit the centre where the assessments are taking place. If more Members in this House were to do that, they would be better informed about the reality of the process. It is absolutely right that the assessments are undertaken by properly qualified medical professionals.
As well as the gross failings of the personal independence payment, we see another Government failure with the employment and support allowance underpayments where an estimated 70,000 sick and disabled people were incorrectly assessed and denied vital social security support. Will the Minister update the House on the progress that she is making in arranging to identify and to backdate awards to those former incapacity benefit and severe disablement allowance claimants?
I am delighted to be able to update the House on this important exercise. Back in August last year, the first payments went out to people who had been identified as underpaid. We are making really good progress with identifying other claimants who will benefit from the additional payments, and we have recruited up to 400 new members of staff, so that we can carry on our work delivering these payments.
How is the Department prioritising ESA claimants underpaid as a result of incorrect assessments, aside from those with terminal illnesses and conditions? Will the Minister confirm that claimants who were victims of underpayment will not be subject to reduced ESA eligibility due to lump sum payments being classed as savings?
On the first point, I assure the hon. Lady that we are working closely with our stakeholders. I am grateful to the disabled people and the organisations who are working with me and my colleagues in the Department to ensure that we are contacting the underpaid people who will most benefit from receiving these payments. On the second point, there are proper practices and procedures within the Department for Work and Pensions to ensure that lump-sum payments are not taken into consideration as people’s capital allowances. I have made a detailed statement to the House but if the hon. Lady would like to raise specific questions with me, I suggest that she bring them along to our meeting on 19 April.
Cold-Calling: Pension Fund Transfers
The Secretary of State, Treasury Ministers and I hold regular discussions on this topic as part of our work on the Financial Guidance and Claims Bill, which spans both Departments’ policy areas.
Given the importance of pensions and the many changes that have occurred under successive Governments, what proactive steps can the Department take now to ensure that my constituents and others are kept up to date and informed about their own pensions and the options available to them?
Pensions guidance is a vital part of the work that the Government are doing. We are committed to ensuring that people have access to the information and guidance that they need to make effective financial decisions. My hon. Friend will be aware that we are debating the Financial Guidance and Claims Bill in the House tomorrow. I urge him to come and listen to the positive developments in that Bill.
No time for preamble, I am afraid, as we have a lot to get through and we are running late. A short sentence—Jack Dromey.
The Port Talbot shift supervisor wept as he told the story of how he had been conned out of his pension, and that 20 people on his shift had followed his lead. The ban on pensions cold-calling is welcome, but will the Minister go further to ensure that it is for the Financial Conduct Authority, not just the Information Commissioner, to play a role in enforcement, so that those who act disreputably using information obtained through cold-calling are struck off and can never practise again?
I will answer this question in detail tomorrow, when I have more time. Anyone considering transferring their pension should speak to the Pensions Advisory Service.
The good doctor is a clever bloke; I am sure that he can blurt it out in a sentence.
Does the Minister agree that people who use cold-calling to cheat others out of their pensions are the lowest form of pond life, and will he arrange for criminal sanctions to be visited upon them?
Yes, yes and Project Bloom, a City of London police operation to ensure that we stop scammers, has brought many prosecutions—pending and future.
Disability Confident Scheme
I am pleased that there are 600,000 more disabled people in work than four years ago. Disability confident employers are contributing to the thousands more jobs that we have created every week since 2010. There are now just under 6,000 employers signed up to the disability confident scheme. I am delighted that all Departments have achieved disability confident leader status.
Seasalt is a fantastic, disability confident business in Cornwall. It is a great Cornish fashion and home hardware business that employs over 500 people. What more can be done to encourage more Cornish companies to take on this fantastic scheme?
My hon. Friend truly is a champion for his constituents. I am very proud of the terrific Falmouth-based company, Seasalt, which has a shop in his constituency and produces fantastic products. The Cornwall and Isles of Scilly local enterprise partnership is working with local businesses and agencies as part of the Government’s strategic work and health unit, so that we can ensure that more companies of all sizes become disability confident.
Funding has been agreed for local authorities to implement universal support to help claimants with transition to universal credit. That partnership working is fundamental to the successful implementation of universal credit, which is of course part of the 1,000 jobs a day that we have seen under this Government since 2010.
Will the Minister ensure that as universal support is rolled out, it helps people to overcome the two most pernicious barriers to work—addiction and mental health problems?
I agree that it is vital to ensure that people can overcome the barriers to work, including mental health problems and addiction. We are already investing in the skills and capability of the work coaches, but we have also trained 1,800 universal credit work coaches in how to support claimants with specific mental health issues.
Poverty: Welfare Reform and Work Act 2016
Impact assessments of policies in the Act were published in 2015. Evidence shows that work is the best route out of poverty. The welfare reforms are designed to incentivise people to make the choice to move into work and to give them the tools and assistance to progress.
Does the Minister agree with his colleagues in Westminster Hall last week who were still trying to blame the financial crash of 10 years ago in making it a justification for these reforms? Will he finally admit that the reforms are in fact an ideological smash and grab on the poorest in society by a Government obsessed with rolling back the size of the state?
One of the really disappointing things about the debate on welfare and benefit reform in this place has been the persistent defence of the old benefits system, which was effectively a fraud perpetrated on the poor designed to trap them into being so. I would have hoped that the hon. Gentleman would welcome the fact that in the three years to 2016-17 the number of children living in poverty in Scotland was down by 24% compared with the three years to 2009-10, with relative poverty down in the same period too.
With unemployment soaring at 9.3% in France and 11% in Italy but only at 4.3% in the UK, does my hon. Friend agree that one of the best ways of staying out of poverty is getting a good, educated job?
My hon. Friend is exactly right—[Interruption.]
Order. The Minister is treating us to a combination of his intellect and his eloquence, and his ministerial colleague, the hon. Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman), is engaging in a rather undignified finger-wagging exercise with the hon. Member for Blyth Valley (Mr Campbell). It is very unseemly and very unfair on the cerebral Minister at the Dispatch Box. Mr Opperman, Mr Campbell: calm yourselves. Take some sort of soothing medicament and you will feel better.
My hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant) is exactly right. Time and again when we visit Jobcentre Pluses—I would recommend that people do so—we hear heartwarming, encouraging and inspiring stories of people who have got themselves out of poverty by working and being educated and trying hard. Our entire objective is to give them the tools and assistance to do so.
Job Vacancy Trends
On average, more than 1,000 people have been employed every day since 2010. There are 816,000 vacancies—a rise of 10,000 since the last quarter and 56,000 since a year ago.
I thank my right hon. Friend for her excellent and informative answer. However, to make sure that the vacancies get filled, we need to link up jobseekers with those vacancies. What action is she taking to ensure that people know what opportunities are out there for them?
My hon. Friend is correct. This Government have brought forward new schemes like work experience, sector-based work academies and support for childcare to enable people who are job-seeking to go for those jobs. Universal credit, which is an in-work and out-of-work benefit, is giving that extra support. Let me just say this: BT Openreach, 3,500 new jobs across the country; UPS, 1,000 jobs in the east midlands; Siemens, 700 skilled jobs in Yorkshire; and Toyota, 3,000 jobs in Derby and Wales. That is what this Government are doing in supporting those people into those jobs.
Ministers have repeatedly said this afternoon that the best way out of poverty is through work and education, so why have they introduced the limit on free school meals under universal credit, which is a work disincentive and will prevent more than 1 million children in poverty from receiving free school meals and the educational achievement they deserve to get out of poverty?
The Opposition have been putting across fake news, or maybe it is clumsy research or just misinformation. Even “Channel 4 News” had to put up a factsheet correcting what the Opposition are saying. Some 50,000 more children will be getting free school meals. We are helping those who need support, with not only childcare but free school meals and progression in work. Please listen and learn.
Eligibility Threshold for Free School Meals
An estimated 50,000 more children will benefit from a taxpayer-funded free school meal by 2022 under universal credit. I will repeat that: 50,000 more children will get a free school meal. We are already ensuring that all existing children receiving free school meals will continue to receive them until roll-out or that phase of education is complete.
There clearly is a serious mismatch between the Secretary of State’s figures and those published by the highly respected Children’s Society, which tells me that 7,000 children will lose out in Sheffield alone. Will she undertake to publish the basis on which she has calculated those figures?
The Department for Education will be doing that. Sometimes charities are given the wrong information and therefore say the wrong information, having been led astray by Opposition Members. The Opposition voted against those free school meals. They voted against the removal of waiting days. They voted against advances of up to 100%, and they voted against two weeks of housing benefit support for the most vulnerable people in society. Shame on you.
We are pleased with the progress we have made on the roll-out of universal credit, which is now live in 250 jobcentres. Universal credit is a modern, flexible benefit that helps people move into work and, importantly, progress in work through tailored support from dedicated work coaches.
The Department is always quick to act in cases of overpayment and sanction claimants for any breach of rules, yet an investigation by the National Audit Office revealed that the Department has underpaid an estimated 70,000 people over the last seven years. What will the Department do to ensure that those who have been left out of pocket are repaid the money they are entitled to as soon as possible?
When we have, or if we have ever, underpaid people, we will support them, make sure that it is correct and pay them back.
My hon. Friend raises an important point, not least because we are approaching the deadline for the switchover of SMI from a benefit to a loan. He is absolutely right—this change is specifically designed to keep people in their homes. I urge people to ignore the scare stories being put around, look at the paperwork, take the phone call that has been made and ensure they make a good decision in time.
Had the Secretary of State read the full article that she refers to on Channel 4’s FactCheck, she would have seen that it said that our numbers were in fact correct.
Well, it did. I recommend that the Secretary of State rereads it.
In less than two weeks’ time, support for mortgage interest will change from a benefit to a loan. Government figures released on Friday show that, even at this late stage, the DWP has still not managed to contact 40% of claimants by phone to explain the change, and 30% of all claimants have already declined a loan. A large proportion of claimants are pensioners, and Age UK is warning that many may instead try to manage by cutting back on essentials such as heating. Why have the Government failed to give claimants adequate notice, and will they call a halt to this policy, which risks inflicting hardship on thousands?
We have been communicating the changeover with approaching 500,000 pieces of paper since last July, and well over 350,000 telephone calls have been made to the something like 90,000 people in receipt of this benefit. There are specific provisions, post the changeover, to deal with people who perhaps attempt to manage on their own and feel that they cannot do so in that, post the deadline, they can reapply for support and backdate it to 6 April if they so wish.
My hon. Friend is right: we now pay £1,000 more in the basic state pension than in 2010. For those in employment, 23,000 people in his constituency have a private pension due to auto-enrolment. Pensioner poverty of itself has fallen dramatically, but I am happy to take this up and to discuss it with him in more detail.
I wish the hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr Robertson) a happy birthday on Thursday, which will be an important day in the life of the hon. Gentleman and I am sure of the people of Tewkesbury.
The hon. Lady raises an important point. She will know—I was asked this question in a Westminster Hall debate last week—that we have attempted to deal with this issue with some sensitivity. The undertaking I have given to her hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow Central is that if she believes there are particular issues with the system in place for dealing with this, we are more than happy to look at them. I would be more than happy to meet the hon. Lady as well to discuss it.
Will my hon. Friend give an example of a policy that has been strengthened, or indeed dropped, as a result of being subject to the family test?
My hon. Friend raises a very important point, and one with which I have been grappling since I was appointed to this position. He will know that a number of programmes across the Government are aimed at strengthening families, not least the troubled families programme, which has seen an investment of something like £982 million. On new initiatives, he may have heard me mention in my answer to my hon. Friend the Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double) that we are investing—newly announced in the Budget last year—£39 million in a programme designed to reduce parental conflict. That has been done on the basis of looking for parenting programmes that will create more stability and therefore happier outcomes for families.
As the right hon. Gentleman knows, triggering cold weather payments is done on the basis of absolute temperature: it has to fall below 0 °C for a length of time. I must confess that, as someone who is married to a Canadian, I know only too well the effects of wind chill and the significant difference it makes. If he will allow me, I will take away that issue and have a look at it.
I welcome the comments from my hon. Friend the Minister for Disabled People, Health and Work about getting more people with disabilities into work. Given that there are 650 potential employers in this House, what more can be done to improve disability employment in the House and in our offices around the country?
I congratulate my hon. Friend on his work and his campaigning on this issue. He is himself a Disability Confident employer, as are all Work and Pensions Ministers. Some 70 Members of Parliament have now taken this step, and I really encourage all those who have not done so to come along to one of our excellent Disability Confident events so that they will have the confidence to employ people with disabilities and health conditions.
You can’t have it that we are not helping enough people and then, on the other hand, that we are. What we have said is that this has always been for people who were not in work or those on low incomes. What we have done is slightly raise the threshold, and now more children who need free school meals are getting them. That is something that this Conservative Government are doing. I would also like to welcome the rise in employment in the last quarter in the south-west area and the hon. Gentleman’s seat by another 48,000 people. That is more people in work who can help their children.
A short sentence of Walsall eloquence—Eddie Hughes.
Does my hon. Friend agree that young people with disabilities should have access to work experience while they are still at school? Will she join me in visiting Walsall College students on supported internships?
My colleague is a fantastic champion for his constituency, and he is absolutely right: every young person should have that opportunity of work experience. I will be delighted to visit Walsall College with him to see the excellent work on supported work experience.
In Scotland we have seen a rise of 207,000 people in employment. This is what universal credit is doing too: making sure people are in work, and making sure they are in work quickly. We are sorting them, and work coaches are supporting them. We have given Scotland the flexibility to do additional work on the ground.
Auto-enrolment has been a great success, but does my hon. Friend agree that we need to do more to encourage the self-employed into it? What steps is he considering in that regard?
Myself and my opposite number, the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Jack Dromey), were extraordinarily trendy: we were at a hackathon this morning, which is taking place over two days in Hoxton. The Government are working very hard to make sure that the self-employed have the benefits of auto-enrolment.
It sounds like a scintillating experience, I am sure.
The hon. Lady raises what sounds like quite a complicated case in terms of entitlement. If she would like, I am more than happy to arrange for a meeting in the Department to make sure that her constituent is getting the help and support that she needs.
I am trying to help colleagues, but I would ask colleagues to help each other. A short sentence each would suffice, and then you are not denying somebody else the chance.
On Saturday, I was delighted to launch a new bus route from Ilkeston to East Midlands airport, through Long Eaton and Sandiacre, which will undoubtedly open up more opportunities in terms of the many vacancies in the logistics hubs at the airport. Does my right hon. Friend agree that transport providers and employers working together will really make sure that my constituents have every job opportunity?
It has always been about everybody working together. This Government, and this Department in particular, want to make sure that we step outside the silos and work across Departments and that work coaches stand outside what they need to do to make sure that they are reaching into people’s lives to help them progress.
What is the Minister going to do about employers such as the one in my constituency who sacked a lot of young people without paying them the wages they were owed, with the result that one of them—a pregnant woman—ate nothing but Smash for three weeks?
The best thing the hon. Lady could do is give us the name of that employer so that we can see what he has done and what he is doing, because this Government will not stand by any bad employer. We want to help workers and make employers do the right thing.
We often hear from Opposition Members that all the new jobs created are zero-hours contract jobs. Given their track record on accurate information, will the Secretary of State set out what proportion of workers are on zero-hours contracts and how many new jobs are actually full-time jobs?
Zero-hours contracts or flexible contracts—whichever way people want to see them—are at 2.8%. This year, over 90% of jobs are permanent. From 2010, there have been 75% permanent and full-time jobs. Most of those this year are professional.
A number of childminders in my constituency are reporting problems with late payment from their customers who are in receipt of universal credit, partly because of the waiting time for the first payment and partly because of bureaucratic requirements. Will the Secretary of State or one of her colleagues meet me to discuss this pressure on childminders?
We would be happy to meet the hon. Lady, who does so much in this area. What I will say, however, is that I do not understand why Opposition Members voted against advance payments up to 100%, why they voted against the two-week home payment and why they voted against the extra support we are giving.
On Friday, I met a number of Corby employers who were all raving about the apprenticeship route. What steps is the Department taking to promote apprenticeships to jobseekers?
Apprenticeships are a great opportunity for people of all ages. I am particularly keen to support the new measures the Government have brought in to make it much easier for people with disabilities to get an apprenticeship and make progress in work.
The abolition of support for mortgage interest has been characterised by the poor provision of information to vulnerable claimants with learning disabilities and a very low take-up of the new loan scheme. Will the Secretary of State cancel the abolition of SMIs, or at the very least delay it while these issues can be resolved?
We will not be cancelling or delaying, but we are of course sensitive to vulnerable claimants, in particular those who lack mental capacity and may need assistance or representation when dealing with their financial affairs. There is a separate process for enabling their transfer across and they will not be subject to the deadline. Indeed, our contractor, who is making contact with recipients thus far, has people who are specifically trained to identify those who may have become incapacitated or vulnerable during their receipt of the benefit to make sure they too are not subject to the current deadline.
Does the Minister agree that everyone should have the opportunity to travel? Is she as disgusted as I am by the recent case of Frank Gardner, who was left stuck on a plane at Heathrow for two hours because the airport had lost his wheelchair?
My hon. Friend is a fantastic champion for her constituency and she is absolutely right to raise this case. Today, I have already written to the managing director of Heathrow airport. I will be working with my wonderful sector champion, Michael Connolly from Birmingham airport, to bring the industry together with airports to make sure we deal with this issue in the strongest possible terms so that disabled people can absolutely have access to air travel.
Before we come to the urgent question I should advise the House that there is a prime ministerial statement to follow and a heavily subscribed debate. Exceptionally, therefore, I am not looking to run exchanges on the UQ very fully. There will be a brief opportunity to contribute. It will be an initial airing in the Chamber of this issue. Please do not be disappointed if you do not get in today. There are other pressing demands on parliamentary time.
UK Passport Contract
(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department if she will make a statement on why the contract for the new UK passport has been awarded to a French-owned company.
Her Majesty’s Passport Office is currently procuring services to design, manufacture and personalise UK passports from summer 2019, when the current contract ends. HM Passport Office has undertaken a rigorous, fair and open competition in accordance with UK law, and in line with EU and World Trade Organisation rules. This process began in March 2017, at which point HM Passport Office clearly set out the requirements under which potential suppliers should table their bids.
The security of the passport and passport holders’ personal data is paramount, and the tender requirements clearly set out the high standard of security that must be met to undertake the contract. For example, under the next contract, all passports will continue to be personalised with the holder’s personal details in the United Kingdom, which ensures that no personal data will leave the UK. However, the printing of blank passports in the UK is not a new requirement. Robust processes that have been established over a number of years have determined that manufacturing passports overseas presents no security concerns. Under the current contract, up to 20% of blank passports are produced in Europe. There is no reason why overseas production should not continue in the future and, as such, a national security waiver could not apply.
While there are no security or operational impediments to outsourcing the production of passports, there are significant benefits in terms of both value for money, and production innovation and development. This procurement has identified the supplier that best meets the needs of our passport service—keeping the UK passport at the forefront of travel document security, while offering the best value for money. I am unable to confirm any details of the bids while the process remains subject to commercial and legal sensitivities. However, a public announcement to confirm the winning bidder will be made once the contract is formally awarded.
Last week, I visited staff at the De La Rue factory in my constituency who currently work on the passport contract. They provide secure, quality-assured passports with great pride. Can the Minister tell the House and my constituents what assessment has been made of the security implications of the production of UK passports by a non-UK company, or their production outside the UK? What assessment has she made of the deliverability and reliability of Gemalto’s bid, which I understand was over £100 million less than other bids, in the light of the Government’s experience of Carillion’s failure? Why was it felt appropriate for the Prime Minister to open the new headquarters of Thales—the French security and defence company that has recently taken over Gemalto, one of the bidders for the passport contract—during the procurement process? The Government must provide clarity about whether the bid was discussed at all during the visit.
In responding to press inquiries about the contract, the Home Office has drip-fed information and referred consistently to price and best value. However, does the Minister agree that best value is about more than money? It is about having a secure and reliable passport system that works for the UK. There must be questions about how Gemalto can make a contract worth £390 million work. In fact, I understand that the bid from De La Rue was significantly less than the previous price, and that it operates a gain-share agreement whereby any excess profits are returned to the Home Office.
I thank the hon. Lady for her question; she is quite right to champion the excellent staff in her constituency. However, I reassure her that the winning bidder will of course comply with the UK’s security policy framework and international security standards to mitigate and prevent internal and external threats to the manufacture and onward transportation of blank books. It was very important to the Home Office to abide by international rules, and WTO, UK and EU law, regarding the fairness of the procurement process. A great deal of financial due diligence was done on all the bidding companies, and we are of course determined to have a UK passport that will contain the most up-to-date and innovative security features, making sure that our travel document is at the forefront of security globally.
There has been a slightly childlike, jingoistic element to the debate on this issue from the moment it started, as we could have had whatever colour passports we wanted while still remaining members of the European Union. However, given that we are embarked upon this, does my right hon. Friend agree that De La Rue is a very successful British company that wins fair, international tender contracts, and earns a great deal of money for this country by printing other people’s currencies and official documents? When we negotiate trade agreements in the future, we will be pressing other countries to open up their public procurement processes to genuine, fair, international competition. It would be totally ridiculous to abandon that principle now to give into not only constituency pressures, which I understand, but otherwise nationalist nonsense that ought to be ignored.
I very much appreciate my right hon. and learned Friend’s contribution—how could I not? He is absolutely right to point out that we wish to be a global, outward-looking trading nation. All the companies that participated in this tender process provide identity documents and bank notes, and other passport providers have bid. The reality is that in a fair procurement process, we had to look at quality, security and price, and this was the contract that provided the best value on all counts.
The Minister will be aware of the concern among supporters of every party in this House and none about the prospect of a British passport being printed by a Franco-Dutch company. The Government cannot be allowed to hide behind EU procurement rules. They must take responsibility for the potential fallout on workers, their families, the community and the Government’s wider industrial strategy. Does the Minister accept that it was wrong that the workers at De La Rue were not directly informed of the Government’s decision, but instead heard from the media that their jobs were at risk? Is this what senior Ministers in the leave campaign meant by “taking back control”?
Far from taking back control, it seems we cannot control where our passports are printed. We understand that passports may be manufactured partially in the UK, but it is telling that for security reasons—security reasons that the Minister does not appear concerned about—in countries such as France state-run companies make the passports. What is the total cost of the switch to blue passports? We read reports of savings of £120 million made in the allocation of the contract. Last December, the then Immigration Minister estimated the cost to be £500 million. We are now told that it is £490 million, so the original estimate seems to have been almost exactly correct.
Finally, the Minister must understand why the public see this whole episode as a farce. Labour Members call on Ministers to re-examine this decision and to meet De La Rue, the trade unions and others to ensure that this industry, the quality of the jobs that come with it and our security are protected. Ministers have to understand that the cheapest is not necessarily the best.
I gently point out to the right hon. Lady that it was in 2009 that the rules were changed to enable the British passport to be made overseas and that 20% of blank passports are already printed abroad—[Interruption.] She refers repeatedly from a sedentary position to taking back control. Yes, we are: we are taking back control by awarding a contract within procurement rules—WTO rules as well as EU rules, which are embedded in UK law—and it is imperative that we have the most secure and up to date passports at the best value for money.
I am concerned for the De La Rue plant in Bathford in my constituency, which produces the very high-quality security paper used in Chinese passports, among others. Would it be possible for the Franco-Dutch consortium to buy its secure paper from Somerset, which would of course be De La Rue paper and of very high quality?
My hon. Friend has done well to point out that De La Rue already prints documents for many different countries. Quite rightly, as with any British company, we wish it to be outward looking and global in its perspective. He makes an important point about paper milling in his constituency that I am sure the successful bidders will have heard.
I am sure that everything in North East Somerset is of the very highest quality, and often rather refined.
The Scottish National party sympathises with the workers whose jobs are threatened by this decision but, to be frank, the issue of where the new United Kingdom passport is printed as a result of the Government’s handling of Brexit is the least of our worries. Getting a dark blue passport—as the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke) said, we could have had one all along, had we wanted it—will be little consolation for the loss of our EU rights, including the right to travel freely for work, study or pleasure, the right to free healthcare, and the rights protected by EU law and the Court of Justice. What benefits will we get from the dark blue passport to outweigh these losses? How many British citizens lucky enough to have a parent from another EU member state are, like me and many of my constituents, applying for an Irish, French or German passport so that they can hang on to those EU rights?
The hon. and learned Lady appears to have focused on the colour of the passport and Brexit rather than the issue at hand: the need to obtain the best possible value for money in the new passport contract, and also to ensure that whatever the outcome of Brexit, we have one of the most secure travel documents in the world, with a range of innovative features.
The French Government own 26% of Gemalto, and De La Rue was not allowed to compete for the making of the French passport. Is my right hon. Friend aware of any soft loans or subsidies that have been supplied to Gemalto by the French Government, and will she make public the financial assessment of this £120 million so-called saving?
This procurement is still subject to the full legal process, and I have no intention of making public anything that might jeopardise that. My hon. Friend has pointed out that 26% of Gemalto is owned by the French Government. Having their own national provider enables the French to get around EU procurement rules and, indeed, World Trade Organisation rules. What matters to me is that Conservative Members believe in both fair competition and global trade. We should welcome the fact that we have in De La Rue a company that trades successfully around the globe and secures contracts for all sorts of identity documents and, of course, banknotes. We should welcome the fact that we are not going to nationalise that company.
Given the policy of taking back control, will the UK have its own procurement policy for large contracts such as this one for passports separate from the Official Journal of the European Union process? Will that also mean that British firms will be less able to compete for public sector contracts in other EU countries in the many ways in which they can now?
The right hon. Gentleman is right to point out that there will be all sorts of opportunities post Brexit for the UK to determine its own rules, but I should gently point out to him that this is subject to WTO rules, by which I think we should look to be well guided.
My right hon. Friend can be reassured by the fact that in 2010, when I was doing her job, the Labour MP Michael Meacher complained bitterly about the awarding of the contract to De La Rue because it had been taken away from a firm in his constituency. What was interesting about that firm was that it was an American firm, which had been given the contract by the previous Labour Government. Does my right hon. Friend agree that there is a degree of chutzpah in the modern Labour party’s saying that the British passport contract needs to be given to a British firm, given that when Labour was in power, it gave that contract to an American firm?
As ever, I can rely on my right hon. Friend to get straight to the point. There is a long history of British passports not necessarily being printed by UK companies. What is important to me is that we award contracts within the rules, that the Government do not seek to circumvent those rules, and that the process is handled fairly.
When the Prime Minister said that we would have a red, white and blue Brexit, we did not think that she was referring to the Tricolour. Why is protecting British jobs not a priority for this Government?
Seeking to protect British jobs in the way in which the hon. Lady outlines would be protectionist. I want British companies to be able to bid on a global stage for all sorts of contracts, and to be able to compete fairly throughout the world.
My right hon. Friend is right to call for a fair and open competition on a level playing field, but is she confident that there will be a level playing field, given that 26% of Gemalto is owned by the French Government? Is she confident that Gemalto’s bid, which was significantly lower than others, is sustainable in the long term?
As my right hon. Friend might expect, there has been close scrutiny of all the bids received—that has included a significant amount of financial due diligence—to ensure that the bidders can deliver on this contract, and deliver in a way that provides a British passport with the most up-to-date and important security features to be found in any travel document anywhere in the world.
Order. If we had one-sentence questions, most colleagues would get in, but before I go further, I would be inclined to say, “Are those pigs that I see flying in front of my very eyes?”
I have a great deal of sympathy with my hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon (Liz Twist) as she stands up for her constituents, but does the Minister agree that a lot of young people in this country will look at this debate with absolute bafflement? They never had blue passports; I never had a blue passport. What this actually represents is taking away rights as European Union citizens, which we discussed at great length the other day. That is the real damage in this situation.
I reassure the hon. Gentleman that this is not about taking away rights; it is about awarding a contract within the rules.
The EU leadership group is in turmoil: it is worried about the British passport being made in France, because when the French people see this symbol of freedom and independence and realise that the British people are gaining control of their borders, money and laws, they will rise up and want to leave the EU. What does the Minister have to say to the French?
My hon. Friend tempts me to say something I am really not going to say. What I welcome as part of this whole process is that we have companies in this country and abroad that can take part in a fair bidding process, where the best quality, the best security features and the best value for money wins, regardless of nationality.
An awful lot of the De La Rue staff in Gateshead live in my constituency, although the plant is in the Blaydon constituency. Has the Home Office carried out any assessment of the loss of revenue from national insurance, corporation tax and income tax to the Exchequer when this contract goes to a French Government-owned company?
It is important to reflect upon the fact that the new bidder will be providing new facilities and new jobs in the UK. We will of course seek to work with any company that experiences issues regarding the redundancy of staff, as any responsible Government would, but it is also very important to us that we make sure that we get best value for money for the British taxpayer.
My constituents in Harlow will welcome a saving of £120 million to the taxpayer, but may I put in an early bid by asking my right hon. Friend to spend that £120 million on the NHS by putting it towards scrapping hospital car parking charges?
I never fail to be impressed by my right hon. Friend’s ability to raise the issues about which he rightly campaigns and cares a great deal. Of course we need to consider how we spend any saving to the taxpayer in the best possible way. It is worth reflecting on the fact that the Immigration Act 2016 enables us to use any income received from passport fees to contribute not just towards the costs of the passport, but to securing our borders and making sure that there is easy and safe passage for British citizens through the border.
How many jobs would have been secured had the contract been awarded to Gateshead?
It is important to reflect on the fact that we do not believe in a protectionist policy. I can tell the hon. Lady that we anticipate that 70 jobs will be created in the UK as a result of the award of this contract, but this is about making sure that we get the best deal for the taxpayer, that we have the most secure and up-to-date travel document and, of course, that we abide by the rules and do not seek to implement protectionist policies in this country.
I absolutely support what the Minister has said, but can we perhaps move forward? What plans does the Home Office have for having not a paper passport, but a piece of plastic rather like our driving licence?
The new passport will incorporate a polycarbonate page, which is the most up-to-date security feature, but there will still be paper pages, so the new passport will not look so radically different from what my right hon. Friend expects, although it is important that new security features are contained the whole way through it.
Many of my constituents who work in the Royal Mint in Llantrisant are proud of the fact that they produce not only British coinage, but coinage for 60 other countries around the world, so we do not want to throw the baby out with the bathwater here. However, it is extraordinary that the only argument the Minister has so far advanced for the French being allowed to protect their French-made passports for French-made people is that the company is state owned, because that is just an argument for nationalising De La Rue, is it not?
I have learned of a new category of person today: the French-made person.
Made by other French people.
Made by other French people; yes.
I do not think that I have at any point advanced an argument for state ownership. To be quite frank, we know that that produces poor value for money and higher prices in general. I am old enough—just—to remember the great British invention of British Leyland’s Allegro, and that was hardly a triumph.
At a time when President Trump is clearly looking to go down the road of protectionism, may I say how welcome it is to hear a Government Minister robustly defending free trade? She has our strong support in pursuing competitive tenders that are in the public interest and the taxpayer’s interest, rather than sentimental jingoism.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. There is no place for sentimentalism. I am as sorry as anybody that we do not have a British company at the top of this process, but the reality is that, as a Minister, I have to reflect on value for money, quality and security. Those were our main considerations when determining where this contract should be awarded.
May I bring the Minister back from the fantasy land of free trade to the real world, where countries look after their own industries and their own workers? It is interesting that she says she is unable to tell us any details, given that Government spokesmen are briefing the media on the exact financial details. Will she take the opportunity to do so when she makes the announcement? Will she make the announcement to the House, or is she hoping to do it during the parliamentary recess?
The right hon. Gentleman will be aware that we are at a standstill point in the process, and I intend to make no announcement until that is well and truly over. He paints a picture of protectionism and a little Britain that I do not recognise. I want us to be an outward-facing, global country in which our companies can have the confidence to bid on the world stage.
I am rather disappointed by the outcome of this process, because a company in my constituency known as Morpho was going to invest hundreds of millions of pounds and create hundreds of jobs. When the Minister finally winds up this process, will she let that company know exactly where it has fallen short, because I do not believe that it would have done?
As part of the procurement process, it was important that we scored issues such as quality, our confidence in the ability to supply, security features and value for money equally. When this is over, we will of course seek to inform all companies as much as we can within the law.
In Perth, there have already been spontaneous demonstrations, with placards abound, and there are even rumours that the Daily Mail has sold out. Does the Minister agree that the billions of pounds of Brexit pain and international isolation will be all for nothing if we cannot have this new symbol of British freedom—the blue passport—British made?
Well, if the Daily Mail has sold out in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, I have indeed done well, haven’t I? What matters in this process is that we have the best possible passport made at the best possible value to the taxpayer, and that we ensure that we award the contract fairly and, indeed, within the rules.
May I tell my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset (Mr Rees-Mogg) not only that they make excellent paper down there, but that they make very good plastic notes at De La Rue? May I tell the Minister that my constituents feel that passports are already too expensive and that the last thing we should be doing is choosing a contractor that is not competitive. She is doing the right thing.
I think that that question was rhetorical. No more than a single sentence is required in reply, and not even that, if the Minister does not want to respond.
I will just, as my hon. Friend entices me to do, say yes.
I have constituents whose jobs are at risk as a result of this decision. The Minister says that this is a question of value for money, but my understanding is that the new contract represents a considerable reduction compared with the present arrangements, and I believe that De La Rue has been aggressively undercut by what might turn out to be an unviable bid. Would it not be better to award the contract to De La Rue, secure the jobs in the north-east, and enter into a gain-share arrangement so that the taxpayer can benefit from any efficiencies?
We had to consider financial due diligence and ensure that all bidders were capable of delivering the contract within the quality standards set out and, indeed, with the new security innovations that will be included in the new passport. Ultimately, I believe in free and fair competition, and that is exactly what this result has shown.
Order. We have had over 20 inquiries on this matter, so we will now move on to the statement by the Prime Minister.
Before I turn to the European Council, I am sure the whole House will join me in sending our deepest condolences to the families and friends of those killed in the appalling terrorist attack in Trèbes on Friday. The House will also want to pay tribute to the extraordinary actions of Lieutenant Colonel Arnaud Beltrame who, unarmed, took the place of a hostage and gave his own life to save the lives of others—son sacrifice et son courage ne seront jamais oubliés. Just last week, we marked the first anniversary of the attack on Westminster and remembered the humbling bravery of PC Keith Palmer. It is through the actions of people such as PC Palmer and Lieutenant Colonel Beltrame that we confront the very worst of humanity with the very best. And through the actions of us all—together in this Parliament and in solidarity with our allies in France—we show that our democracy will never be silenced and that our way of life will always prevail.
Turning to the European Council, we discussed confronting Russia’s threat to the rules-based order. We agreed our response to America’s import tariffs on steel and aluminium, and we also discussed Turkey and the western Balkans, as well as economic issues including the appropriate means of taxing digital companies. All of those are issues on which the UK will continue to play a leading role in our future partnership with the EU after we have left, and this Council also took important steps towards building that future partnership.
First, on Russia, we are shortly to debate the threat that Russia poses to our national security—I will set that out in detail then—but at this Council I shared the basis for our assessment that Russia was responsible for the reckless and brazen attempted murder of Sergei and Yulia Skripal in Salisbury, and for the exposure of many others to potential harm. All EU leaders agreed and, as a result, the Council conclusions were changed to state that the Council
“agrees with the United Kingdom government’s assessment that it is highly likely that the Russian Federation is responsible and that there is no alternative plausible explanation.”
This was the first offensive use of a nerve agent on European soil since the foundation of the EU and NATO. It is a clear violation of the chemical weapons convention and, as an unlawful use of force, a clear breach of the UN charter. It is part of a pattern of increasingly aggressive Russian behaviour, but it also represents a new and dangerous phase in Russia’s hostile activity against Europe and our shared values and interests. So I argued that there should be a reappraisal of how our collective efforts can best tackle the challenge that Russia poses following President Putin’s re-election. In my discussions with President Macron and Chancellor Merkel, as well as with other leaders, we agreed on the importance of sending a strong European message in response to Russia’s actions not just out of solidarity with the UK, but recognising the threat posed to the national security of all EU countries.
The Council agreed immediate actions including withdrawing the EU’s ambassador from Moscow. Today, 18 countries have announced their intention to expel more than 100 Russian intelligence officers from their countries. That includes 15 EU member states, as well as the US, Canada, and the Ukraine. It is the largest collective expulsion of Russian intelligence officers in history. I have found great solidarity from our friends and partners in the EU, North America, NATO and beyond over the past three weeks as we have confronted the aftermath of the Salisbury incident, and together we have sent a message that we will not tolerate Russia’s continued attempts to flout international law and undermine our values. European nations will also act to strengthen their resilience to chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear-related risks, as well as to bolster their capabilities to deal with hybrid threats. We also agreed that we would review progress in June, with Foreign Ministers being tasked to report back ahead of the next Council.
The challenge of Russia is one that will endure for years to come. As I have made clear before, we have no disagreement with the Russian people who have achieved so much through their country’s great history. Indeed, our thoughts are with them today in the aftermath of the awful shopping centre fire in Kemerovo in Siberia.
But President Putin’s regime is carrying out acts of aggression against our shared values and interests within our continent and beyond, and as a sovereign European democracy, the United Kingdom will stand shoulder to shoulder with the EU and with NATO to face down these threats together.
Turning to the United States’s decision to impose import tariffs on steel and aluminium, the Council was clear that these measures cannot be justified on national security grounds, and that sector-wide protection in the US is an inappropriate remedy for the real problems of overcapacity. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Trade travelled to Washington last week to argue for an EU-wide exemption. So we welcome the temporary exemption that has now been given to the European Union, but we must work hard to ensure this becomes permanent. At the same time, we will continue to support preparations in the EU to defend our industry in a proportionate manner, in compliance with World Trade Organisation rules.
Turning to Brexit, last week the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union reached agreement with the European Commission negotiating team on large parts of the draft withdrawal agreement. That includes the reciprocal agreement on citizens’ rights, the financial settlement, aspects of issues relating to Northern Ireland, such as the common travel area, and crucially the detailed terms of a time-limited implementation period running to the end of December 2020. I am today placing copies of the draft agreement in the Libraries of both Houses, and I thank the Secretary of State and our negotiating team for all their work in getting us to this point.
The Council welcomed the agreement, including the time that the implementation period will provide for Governments, businesses and citizens on both sides to prepare for the new relationship we want to build. As I set out in my speech in Florence, it is not in our national interest to ask businesses to undertake two sets of changes, so it follows that during the implementation period, they should continue to trade on current terms. Although I recognise that not everyone will welcome the continuation of current trading terms for another 21 months, such an implementation period has been widely welcomed by British business because it is necessary if we are to minimise uncertainty and deliver a smooth and successful Brexit. For all of us, the most important issue must be focusing on negotiating the right future relationship that will endure for years to come.
We are determined to use the implementation period to prepare properly for that future relationship. That is why it is essential that we have clarity about the terms of that relationship when we ask the House to agree the implementation period and the rest of the withdrawal agreement in the autumn.
Of course, some key questions remain to be resolved on the withdrawal agreement, including the governance of the agreement, and how our commitments to avoid a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland should be turned into legal text. As I have made clear, we remain committed to the agreement we reached in December in its entirety. That includes a commitment to agree operational legal text for the “backstop option” set out in the joint report, although it remains my firm belief that we can and will find the best solutions for Northern Ireland as part of the overall future relationship between the UK and the EU.
I have explained that the specific European Commission proposals for that backstop were unacceptable because they were not in line with the Belfast agreement and threatened the break-up of the UK’s internal market. As such, they were not a fair reflection of the joint report. But there are many issues on which we can agree with the Commission and we are committed to working intensively to resolve those that remain outstanding. I welcome the fact that we are beginning a dedicated set of talks today with the European Commission and, where appropriate, the Irish Government so that we can work together to agree the best way to fulfil our commitments.
We have also been working closely with the Government of Gibraltar to ensure that Gibraltar is covered by our EU negotiations on withdrawal, the implementation period and future relationship. I am pleased that the draft agreement published jointly last week correctly applies to Gibraltar, but we will continue to engage closely with the Government of Gibraltar and our European partners to resolve the particular challenges our EU withdrawal poses for Gibraltar and for Spain.
Following my speeches in Munich and at the Mansion House setting out the future security and economic partnerships we want to develop, the Council also agreed guidelines for the next stage of the negotiations on this future relationship, which must rightly now be our focus. While there are of course some clear differences between our initial positions, the guidelines are a useful starting point for the negotiations that will now get under way.
I welcome the Council’s restating the EU’s determination to
“have as close as possible a partnership with the UK”
and its desire for a “balanced, ambitious and wide-ranging” free trade agreement. For I believe there is now an opportunity to create a new dynamic in these negotiations. The agreements our negotiators have reached on the withdrawal agreement and the implementation period are proof that, with political will, a spirit of co-operation and a spirit of opportunity for the future, we can find answers to difficult issues together. We must continue to do so. For whether people voted leave or remain, many are frankly tired of the old arguments and the attempts to refight the referendum over the past year. With a year to go, people are coming back together and looking forward. They want us to get on with it, and that is what we are going to do.
I commend this statement to the House.
I thank the Prime Minister for advance sight of the statement. I also join her in condemning the appalling terrorist attack in Trèbes, and in offering our solidarity with the French Government and the people of France, and our condolences to the family of Lieutenant Colonel Beltrame, the hero of the siege. She is right to commend the heroic action of police and security services, both here and in France, and to mark the one-year anniversary of the killing of PC Keith Palmer and others on Westminster Bridge, who were quite properly remembered last Thursday in Westminster Hall and in St Mary Undercroft.
On Russia, I welcome the international consensus that the Prime Minister has built; as I said two weeks ago, the most powerful response we can make is multilateral action. So I would like to place on record our thanks to the EU and other states for their co-operation with us. I know that we will discuss these issues further later this afternoon, but I would add my condolences to all those Russian families affected by the Kemerovo shopping centre fire at the weekend.
On US steel tariffs, we need a co-ordinated response to tackle the dumping of steel by some nations and to resist the retreat into protectionism by the United States. The temporary respite from tariffs is welcome, but we must make it permanent.
We are pleased that some progress seems to have been made on the transition period, especially given that the agreement is identical to what Labour was calling for last summer. The only real question is why it took the Government so long to realise that a transition on the same terms is vital to protect jobs and our economy. The Government wasted months and months, dithering and posturing, before accepting the inevitable. That is the consistent pattern of these Brexit talks: wild claims and red lines quickly become climbdowns and broken promises.
Our coastal and fishing communities were told by the Environment Secretary only this month:
“The Prime Minister has been clear: Britain will leave the CFP”—
common fisheries policy—
“as of March 2019.”
Just a few weeks later, we find out that that will not be the case. What happened when we were told by the Brexit Secretary that the Government would deliver “the exact same benefits” of the single market and the customs union? Well, now the Prime Minister is saying, “We won’t be able to have the benefits of the single market” and, after saying it was a viable option earlier this year, any form of customs union is now ruled out, too. In January, we were told by the Prime Minister that EU citizens arriving during the transition period would not get the same rights as those already in the UK. She said:
“I’m clear there is a difference between those people who came prior to us leaving and those who will come when they know the UK is no longer a member.”
Now she is clear that there is no difference.
The insecurity for families and businesses, and the confusion at the heart of Government, have dogged the first phase of negotiations. So can the Prime Minister today give some clarity and confirm that we will not withdraw from the European nuclear agreement—Euratom—until alternative international arrangements for nuclear co-operation are agreed? Will her Government back those pragmatic amendments to the Nuclear Safeguards Bill? The Prime Minister had previously signalled that there would be flexibility over the duration of the transition period, yet in the withdrawal agreement the Government have accepted a definitive withdrawal date of December 2020. Can the Prime Minister explain what happened to her request for flexibility? And what are the Government doing to ensure that this date could be extended if a deal has not been reached? It has been broken promise after broken promise, and I can only hope that the next broken promise does not involve their commitment to “no hard border” in Ireland. The Government have still offered no credible solution, and now, in order to move negotiations on, the Prime Minister has been forced into an agreement that could result in a hard border in the Irish sea. Will the Prime Minister outline how she will prevent a hard border in Ireland, or in the Irish sea, if she rules out any form of customs union?
Many UK nations and regions have benefited from the European Investment Bank. Given that we are still paying into the EU budget, will the Prime Minister explain why the UK will not be eligible for new funding during transition? Does that not leave us still paying in, but to get less?
Has the Prime Minister signed up to there being an Anglo-Spanish bilateral agreement on Gibraltar? Who will lead the negotiations for the Government?
Last week, the Government presided over a new fiasco over passports. In her last Brexit statement, the Prime Minister told the House:
“We are delivering for the British people, and we are going to make a success of it.”—[Official Report, 5 March 2018; Vol. 637, c. 31.]
Well, tell that to De La Rue workers in Gateshead. It seems that her red, white and blue Brexit has become the blue, white and red of the flag of France. Time after time, the Tories sell off British assets and jobs to the lowest bidder.
The Prime Minister says that last week was a significant breakthrough, but it is the same breakthrough that we were told had been signed off in December, and some of it is still fudged, four months on. Yet we know that the hardest decisions are yet to come. In the second phase of the talks, the Government must stop posturing, drop the impossible red lines, finally put jobs and our economy first and give workers and businesses the clarity that they need.
First, the right hon. Gentleman raised the issue of steel. As I said in my statement and at the European Council, we want to work with the EU in talking to the United States, to make the EU’s temporary exemption from those tariffs into a permanent exemption. I referenced, as did the right hon. Gentleman, that there is a need for us to deal with the question of overcapacity in the steel market. That is best dealt with in multilateral forums, which is why at the 2016 G20 a forum was set up that included China sitting around the table. The work of that forum should continue and we need to address that issue on that multilateral stage.
The right hon. Gentleman raised various other issues. He will know that membership of Euratom is legally linked to membership of the European Union. We are putting in place the arrangements necessary to ensure that we can continue to operate with others in that area.
The right hon. Gentleman talked about clarity on citizens’ rights. The December joint report and the report on the implementation period that was agreed last Friday do precisely that: they provide clarity for citizens as to what their rights are going to be.
The right hon. Gentleman referred once again to the Northern Ireland border. We are very clear and have set out proposals and ways in which we can ensure that there is no hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland. We were also very clear in the December joint report, to which both the United Kingdom and the European Union signed up, that there should be no hard border down the Irish sea—in effect, that the internal market of the United Kingdom should be retained—and that all aspects of the Belfast agreement should be respected. We continue to do that.
The right hon. Gentleman talked about the fact that the implementation period was a Labour party idea. May I remind him of two things? First, the concept of a smooth and orderly withdrawal from Brexit was first referenced in my Lancaster House speech in January 2017. Secondly, I seem to remember that the day after the referendum result in 2016, the right hon. Gentleman wanted to trigger article 50 immediately. There was no suggestion of an implementation period then, was there? So, there we go.
Finally, the right hon. Gentleman talked about changes of opinion. This is the Leader of the Opposition who says that he wants us to continue to be in a customs union, but at the same time refuses to accept the competition policy that is a necessary element of being in a customs union. It is the right hon. Gentleman who, when the shadow Home Secretary, the right hon. Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott), backed a rerun of the referendum, kept her in her job, but sacked the then shadow Northern Ireland Secretary, the hon. Member for Pontypridd (Owen Smith), when he backed a rerun of the referendum. I say to the right hon. Gentleman that it is the Conservative party in government that is getting on with delivering on the wishes of the British people and delivering a Brexit that works for everyone.
May I commend my right hon. Friend for her strong stance on the Russian attacks over the past couple of weeks? That strong stance has shown to the rest of the world that we take action and point the finger when there is evidence, but that we do not have a never-ending dialogue, as was recommended by the Leader of the Opposition, with those who would harm us the most. Did she take further steps in those Council meetings last week to recommend to the Germans that they look again at this pipeline directly to Russia?
Obviously, it is very important that we are clear-sighted when we deal with states such as Russia and recognise the threat that they pose. The subject of the pipeline, Nord Stream 2, was not raised in the European Union Council. On further measures that might be taken by the European Union, we have asked EU Foreign Ministers to look at issues that might need to be addressed in June, when the European Council will again be looking at the matter.
I thank the Prime Minister for advance sight of her statement.
I start by wishing Detective Sergeant Nick Bailey and his family the very best following his discharge from hospital last week. I pay tribute to the NHS staff who cared for him in such difficult circumstances, and, of course, our thoughts remain with Yulia and Sergei Skripal. I want to associate myself with the Prime Minister’s remarks on the terrorist atrocity in Trèbes and on the selfless sacrifice of Lieutenant Colonel Arnaud Beltrame. I pay tribute, too, to those who have been caught up in the terrible fire in Kemerovo in Siberia.
Last week, the Prime Minister secured an important message in the European Council’s formal declaration that it is “highly likely” that Russia was behind the nerve agent attack in Salisbury earlier this month. I note that EU leaders also agreed to recall Markus Ederer, the bloc’s ambassador to Moscow, for consultations. That is a strong position that our friends have taken, and I welcome united efforts in responding to the reckless chemical attack in Salisbury. Can the Prime Minister tell the House what discussions she has had with European partners in ensuring that non-governmental organisations on the ground in Russia continue to have support from the United Kingdom and the EU?
Although the Scottish National party welcomed the Prime Minister’s statement on 14 March, we want to see firm action taken by the Government on Scottish limited partnerships, which are often used by criminals for money laundering. We also want action on Magnitsky amendments to the Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Bill. Will the Prime Minister confirm when we can expect to see her Government’s plans to clamp down on Scottish limited partnerships and, more generally, to deal with all forms of Russian money laundering?
Turning to the EU Council’s conclusions on the latest phase of Brexit negotiations, will the Prime Minister tell the House what representations she made to EU leaders to reverse the conclusions on the UK’s fishing rights post Brexit? Last week, fishing communities across Scotland were left in the dark as their industry was bargained away by this Government. Why were the Secretary of State for Scotland and Ruth Davidson permitted to issue a statement on 11 March that we would have control of our fishing grounds for this to be reversed only a week later? What changed? Did the Secretary of State know what was to happen? Had he been properly informed by the Government? It is incumbent on the Prime Minister to secure the rights of fishing communities and to reject any deal that leaves them hamstrung in a transition agreement.
SNP Members continue to hold concerns about the UK Government’s approach to the Good Friday agreement and the Irish border. Time is running out. The Prime Minister cannot play fast and loose with Northern Ireland any longer. Decisions are needed to give businesses and communities in Northern Ireland the certainty in their day-to-day lives that they deserve.
Finally, what discussions has the Prime Minister had with the Prime Minister of Spain on the ongoing situation between Spain and Catalonia and on the arrest warrants that have been issued for democratically elected politicians, including those who are living in Scotland? Surely, we need a political solution, not this situation in which Spain is trying to impose on directly elected politicians.
I join the right hon. Gentleman, as I am sure everybody in the House does, in wishing the very best to Nick Bailey and his family as he completes his recovery. I also thank the NHS staff who not only treated him, but continue to care for Sergei and Yulia Skripal. I was pleased to meet some of those staff and talk to them about their experience when I was in Salisbury just over a week ago; their dedication was very clear.
The right hon. Gentleman raises a number of issues. We have had discussions with the Scottish National party and others about what a Magnitsky amendment might look like. We have already taken some action, but we are looking to ensure that we take the strongest possible action. Of course, a number of my colleagues in the European Council mentioned their own Magnitsky legislation and that issue.
I will write to the right hon. Gentleman on SLPs, if I may. We have taken some action, but are looking further at what we might be able to do.
On Catalonia, we continue to wish to see the rule of law upheld and to ensure that the Spanish constitution is upheld. On Northern Ireland, talks are starting today with the European Commission on the details of the ways in which we will be able to ensure that there is no hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland. Where appropriate, those talks will also involve the Irish Government.
Finally, the right hon. Gentleman mentions the common fisheries policy. We will be leaving the common fisheries policy and taking back control of our waters. But it is a bit rich for him to make those comments, given that he belongs to a party that wants to stay in the CFP in perpetuity.
The European guidelines of 23 March and the EU proposed legal protocol both insist on the autonomy of the EU legal order and the jurisprudence of the European Court of Justice. Will my right hon. Friend give the House an absolute assurance that in these negotiations the Government will not accept exclusive or sole jurisdiction of the European Court over the UK from 29 March 2019, nor after 30 December 2020—at the end of the implementation period—and that the Government will not enter a treaty or introduce legislation that confers such jurisdiction, which a recently retired European Court judge said would be a “legal viper’s nest”?
As I have said before in this Chamber in response to a question from our hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset (Mr Rees-Mogg), during the implementation period, there will of course continue to be that role for the European Court of Justice, because we will be continuing to operate on largely the same basis as currently. Once we have ended the implementation period, it will be a very different story. We will then be absolutely in a position that I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Sir William Cash) wants: one of taking back control of our laws. As I said in my statement, there are some issues still to be addressed on the withdrawal agreement, including the governance of that agreement. A number of interesting ideas have been proposed that do not give sole authority to the European Court of Justice, which is not something that we would want.
The Prime Minister’s welcome remarks about European co-operation on Russia show the continued importance of co-operation with the EU after Brexit. She has rightly proposed a security treaty on extradition, Europol and data sharing to be in place by the end of the transition period. But she will also know that a new treaty could take 18 months for other countries to ratify, could yet be referred to the European Court of Justice and will have to deal with some tricky legal and constitutional issues—for example, on extradition, which Norway has taken over a decade to try to resolve. So why is there no fallback clause in the withdrawal agreement, why has the Prime Minister set a hard deadline of December 2020, and what will she do if the security treaty is not in place in time?
We are absolutely ready to start negotiations with the European Union on the security partnership and treaty for the future. It is in both sides’ interests to have that treaty in place. So far, that has been the very clear message from my European partners. I think that they will have every intention, as we do, of ensuring that those security arrangements are in place when we end the implementation period.
Given the very strong mood in the country to just get on with Brexit, will the Government now produce their draft legislation, so that we can have the new fishing policy, the new farming policy, the new spending policies and, above all, the new borders policies that will represent the Brexit bonus that we are all waiting for?
My right hon. Friend has covered a number of issues. He will know that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is indeed consulting on what would replace the common agricultural policy, and it will be consulting the fishing industry and others on what would replace the common fisheries policy. Of course, legislation will be coming forward as necessary to cover all the issues that we need to address before we see the end of the implementation period and have in place the future relationship.
I thank the Prime Minister for advance sight of her statement. I welcome the joint statement that she has secured from EU leaders on Russia and, indeed, the actions of the 18 countries today. It is exactly that kind of internationalist approach that we need.
The Prime Minister mentions the discussions on taxing digital companies whose behaviour as guardians of our data is of course a subject of increasing concern. Does she agree that Brexit or no Brexit, the UK’s only hope of tackling the massive and damaging monopoly power of the likes of Google, Facebook and Amazon is to work closely with our European partners on a co-ordinated approach not only on tax but on data protection and competition regulation?
We are looking at the issues around data as part of our negotiations with the European Union. We are bringing the general data protection regulation into UK legislation. This is another area where we want to ensure that we have a good arrangement for data exchange in the future.
Work is in hand at an international level—at the OECD level—on the taxation of digital companies. We believe that the best result is an international result, but we also think it right to look, as the European Union, at whether any interim steps need to be taken to ensure that we are properly taxing these companies.
Flowing from her opening remarks, will my right hon. Friend call on the Secretary General of the Council of Europe, the President of its Parliamentary Assembly—Michele Nicoletti—and the Assembly itself to join the British delegation in condemning utterly the Russian Federation’s actions, which are wholly unacceptable in a civilised society?
I thank my hon. Friend for that suggestion. I am very happy to join him and the British delegation in making that request.
May I congratulate the Prime Minister on getting unanimity on Russia?
Will the Prime Minister state categorically today that no matter what happens, the implementation period will end at the end of December 2020? Does she agree that to go into any negotiation saying that one will never walk away is not the way to get the best result?
I certainly agree with the hon. Lady on that point, which I have made in the Chamber in the past. Anybody going into a negotiation needs to be able to take that position.
On the end date of the implementation period, I have spoken about it being around two years. In the negotiations, the European Union wanted it to be at December 2020, and I felt it was appropriate that we had that firm date, so that everybody is clear about when the implementation period will end.
For understandable reasons, defence spending has more than halved as a proportion of GDP since the end of the cold war. Now that the threat from Russia is re-emerging, can we reassess the need to fill the holes in the defence budget identified by the National Audit Office, the Defence Committee, and, most recently, the Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy?
This is obviously an issue on which my right hon. Friend has campaigned, and continues to campaign, with great passion and dedication. As he will know, coming out of the national security capability review, we have set out the modernising defence programme. We are looking carefully at the question of our future defence against the background of the threats that we face. Of course, defence and national security covers more than simply what would traditionally be regarded as defence, but we are looking carefully at the capabilities required by the Ministry of Defence.
My apologies to the right hon. Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn), who has migrated backwards from his usual seat.
It is only a temporary move.
The United Kingdom is a world leader in aerospace defence and satellite systems. Can the Prime Minister clarify whether the attempts that the European Commission is apparently making to freeze British companies out of Galileo contracts that are due to be issued in June are consistent with the transitional arrangements? If not, what does she propose to do about it?
We have been very clear that as long as we are a member of the European Union, we will meet our obligations, but we should continue to be treated as a full member of the European Union. As the Business Secretary has said, the UK has a world-leading space sector that has contributed a significant amount of specialist expertise to the Galileo programme. We believe it is not just in the UK’s interests for us to continue to participate in that programme as we have done, but also in the interests of the European Union, because of the expertise the United Kingdom can provide.
I congratulate the Prime Minister on the implementation period agreed last week. It is something that businesses have been calling for, and it provided much needed certainty. Businesses are still saying that they want to know that there will be regulatory forbearance and understanding by regulators during the implementation period as they adjust to a new set of rules. Is that something Ministers are aware of and have been discussing?
I thank my right hon. Friend for that question. We are aware of the issue of the regulators’ stance and have been in discussion with certain regulators about how they can work with their European opposite numbers to ensure that there is a sound regulatory footing during the implementation period.
May I associate my party with the Prime Minister’s words on the courage and sacrifice of Lieutenant Colonel Beltrame and her very appropriate words on the Russian threat?
Does the Prime Minister share the bemusement of many in Northern Ireland that there is so much concentration on the so-called backstop provisions when we should be getting on with negotiating the overall agreement, which will take care of the Irish border issue? Does she share the concern of many in Northern Ireland that that is being used by some in the European Union, and indeed some in the Irish Government, to shape their version of Brexit or to thwart Brexit altogether, by inventing problems when there are none? Will she give a clear assurance to the people of Northern Ireland that there will be no backtracking on her firm resolve that no British Prime Minister could ever sign up to the sort of legal text that the EU put forward?
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his comments. I am absolutely clear, and I share his bemusement that so much focus is being put on plan C when all parties have clearly said that they want to achieve this through plan A in the joint report, which was the overall agreement between the United Kingdom and the European Union on their future partnership. I am happy to confirm that I could not—I do not think it would be possible for anybody standing at this Dispatch Box to do so—support something that destroyed the UK internal market. We are clear that we maintain our commitment to the whole December joint report. We will be working on those options, and we are fully confident that we can find a solution through plan A.
There were many positive aspects of the Council, for which my right hon. Friend deserves congratulations, including particularly the unanimous support from other European countries over Russia’s appalling behaviour, showing that our European friends are considerably more robust than the leadership of the Opposition. Does she agree that today’s welcome moves to expel Russian diplomats from a number of countries must not be a one-off, but must be seen as the start of a more robust strategy in resisting Putin’s provocation wherever it occurs?
I absolutely agree with my right hon. Friend. That is why, as I said earlier, EU Foreign Ministers and the European Council will be looking at that issue again. What happened in Salisbury was part of a pattern of aggressive Russian behaviour, and we need to ensure that we are working across all fronts to deal with that aggressive behaviour, whether it is disinformation, propaganda or cyber-attacks. We need to work together to deal with all those threats.
I congratulate the Prime Minister on the level of support and solidarity she secured from our European friends on Russia. But how is it remotely acceptable that when a young whistleblower exposes compelling evidence of lawbreaking by the leave campaign, implicating staff at No. 10, one of those named, instead of addressing the allegations made, issued an officially sanctioned statement outing the whistleblower as gay and thereby putting his family in Pakistan in danger? That is a disgrace, Prime Minister, and you need to do something about it.
I say to the right hon. Gentleman that any statements issued were personal statements—[Interruption.] They were personal statements that were issued. I of course accept the importance of ensuring that we recognise that, for some, being outed as gay is difficult because of their family and circumstances. I want to see a world in which everybody can be confident in their sexuality and does not have to worry about such things.
Russia respects strength, and one of the lessons of the 1930s is that it is dangerous to give commitments to eastern Europe unless we back up such commitments with military hardware. Our commitment to the Baltic states is relatively modest; I think we have 800 men in the Baltic states. Will the Prime Minister consider increasing our military commitment and our support for the Baltic states, so that we can build European solidarity on the basis of a coalition of peace through security?
We do look constantly at the contribution that we are making. My hon. Friend is right that we have several hundred troops in Estonia as part of the enhanced forward presence. We are also contributing in other parts of Europe—to the work that is being done, for example, in Poland. However, we will obviously continue to look at this.
Given that the Prime Minister’s political secretary, Stephen Parkinson, is the person responsible for outing the Vote Leave whistleblower, using No. 10 paper and documents, what is she going to do? Prime Minister, you should sack him!
No. I am sorry, but that is not what I should be doing. My political secretary does a very good job as my political secretary, and as I have said, any statements that have been made were personal statements.
Were we to adopt the Leader of the Opposition’s policy of domestic procurement preference, would that not be a passport to ruin?
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s way with words in his question, and I think he is absolutely right. As my right hon. Friend the Minister for Immigration said earlier this afternoon, we want to ensure we are providing a secure document and good value for the taxpayer, and show that we as a Government believe in competition and open markets.
It has been reassuring to see the other EU member states rally to the United Kingdom’s support on the issue of Russia. Does the Prime Minister agree that all member states, and indeed the UK, should be vigilant about human rights abuses wherever they occur, even when that is within an EU member state?
Of course, within the European Union we all stand up for certain values—European values—and human rights are among the values that we stand up for. Where any difference is shown by any individual country in relation to that, that is pointed out.
Does the Prime Minister share my incredulity at the crocodile tears of SNP Members over fishing, when they would have had us remain in the disastrous CFP in the first place? May I go on to ask her about the suggestion made last week by my hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mrs Trevelyan) of a mitigation scheme to protect our fishermen during the transition period? Has any thought been given to that in the Government, and might we see something about it in the forthcoming fisheries Bill?
I share my right hon. Friend’s incredulity in relation to the actions of the SNP, which would keep us in the common fisheries policy in perpetuity. We will of course be talking with the fishing industry about the arrangements that will pertain for the industry in the future. I want to see that industry enhanced, and I want to see us doing what we can to ensure—when we are negotiating as an independent coastal state, at the end of the implementation period, in relation to fishing, access to our waters and access for our fishermen to other waters—that the industry can be enhanced, be built on and grow, and that we provide even greater support here in the United Kingdom.
Why is the Prime Minister so attached to the reckless strategy of taking the UK past exit date without settling a treaty on the future relationship that we would have with the EU? She could call that 21-month period an additional negotiation period or a limbo period, but she really should not call it an implementation period, because there may be nothing to implement.
If the hon. Gentleman looks back at my statement, he will recall that I said that it is our intention that this House, when it comes to look at the withdrawal agreement and implementation Bill and to vote on that Bill, should have sufficient detail of what that future relationship is going to be, and that will take place before we leave the European Union.
Many of us are concerned that, in the transition period, most of the red lines have gone, but we can live with it on the basis that they will be restored when we finally leave. What reassurance can my right hon. Friend give me that when we leave, we will be out of the single market, out of the customs union and out of any jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice?
I am happy to reiterate what I have said before: we will be leaving the single market, we will be leaving the customs union, and we will be leaving the common fisheries policy—we will be ensuring that we take back control of our waters. My hon. Friend asks me about the European Court of Justice, and we are clear that we will take back control of our laws. However, with his attention to detail, my hon. Friend will know that, within the December joint report, in relation to citizens’ rights, there was, as part of that, for a period of time, for those EU citizens who are here, where cases are taken about those rights to UK courts, the possibility for the UK courts to have due regard to the views of the European Court of Justice.
The hon. Member for Ilford South (Mike Gapes) is rocking back and forth in a state of some perturbation, and it disquiets me to see him in that situation. Let us hear the fella.
It was reported that the Prime Minister actually stayed at the European Council meeting longer than had originally been intended. Is that a metaphor for our membership of the European Union? Given that she was there longer, did she have an opportunity to have bilateral discussions with other Heads of Government in the margins of the meeting? If so, could she tell us which ones?
I did indeed stay overnight, and the reason for this was, I believe, a very good one, which I think everybody in this House would support. We had expected to discuss the steel and aluminium tariffs imposed by the United States and the position of the European Union on Thursday night. It became clear that the decision of the President of the United States was not going to come through until the early hours of the morning, European time, and that trade would therefore be discussed on the next day, and in order to speak up for UK steelworkers, I stayed on.
May I commend the Prime Minister for her statement today? It was noticed by many people that our European Union colleagues and allies acted more quickly in support of the Prime Minister’s firm and fully proper actions against Russia than the President of the United States. What guarantees can she give us—what confidence can she give us—that we will continue to have that great relationship with our fellow members of the European Union once we have left the European Union?
The United States has, of course, today announced the expulsion of 60 Russian diplomats. As part of the implementation period agreement, as my right hon. Friend will be able to see, we have come to an agreement as to how we are going to operate on foreign policy issues during the implementation period. However, it is certainly the case that we continue to be part of Europe; as I said, we are leaving the EU—we are not leaving Europe. We will continue to work closely with our allies across Europe in a variety of forums, including—and this includes, not least, the United States as well—in NATO.
I warmly welcome the robust attitude Europe has adopted towards Russia. Indeed, I warmly commend the Prime Minister for securing that, because I do not think that that was a small feat. May I make a suggestion to her about dealing with Russia, which is that we should do more to tackle the dirty Russian money sloshing around in the City of London? One measure could be easily taken. The Government have, quite rightly, introduced a register of beneficial ownership of trusts, but they are refusing to make it public. Is now not the time to make sure everybody knows who owns what in this country, and to make sure Russian dirty money will not swill around this country because the City of London Corporation is clean and we will make everything public?
We do not want dirty money, whatever its source, in the City of London or the United Kingdom. That is why we have taken a number of steps to enhance our ability to deal with that issue. It is why the National Crime Agency will always act where there are issues around criminal activity or illicit finances. It is why we brought forward proposals in the Criminal Finances Act 2017, which gave us even greater strength, and it is why we will be dealing with the other issue that the hon. Gentleman always raises with me, the Magnitsky issue, in the sanctions Bill.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that we live in an increasingly dangerous world, and that our European allies and friends must be persuaded to spend more on defence?
My hon. Friend knows that we meet our NATO commitment to spend 2% of GDP on defence. We regularly encourage others to meet their commitment.
I welcome the steps taken on Russia and on steel, given the steel industry in my constituency. Does the Prime Minister not recognise, however, that there is a complete paradox here? At the very time she talks about the need for more co-operation on Russia, more co-operation on steel, more co-operation on data and more co-operation on counter-terrorism, her Government are pursuing a reckless hard Brexit. Does she not agree that as the facts change, and as people see these changing contexts, people have the right to change their minds?
Leaving the European Union does not mean we are leaving Europe. As I have just said, we are very clear that we will continue to work with our European allies on issues of mutual interest and mutual concern. Where we are dealing with threats posed to both those countries and the United Kingdom we will do so in a variety of ways, not least within NATO.
Those who doubted the Conservative party’s ability, under the leadership of the Prime Minister, to negotiate with the European Union will surely welcome today’s agreement both on the implementation phase and on the bulk of the future withdrawal agreement. Notwithstanding the mantra that nothing is agreed until everything is agreed, will my right hon. Friend do everything possible to share the details of the agreement on citizens’ rights to both European nationals here in the UK and British citizens in the European Union as soon as possible?
I thank my hon. Friend for that question. We have made efforts in the past to do exactly that, but we will be looking to ensure that we can provide the maximum information possible to EU citizens living here and UK citizens living in the European Union about their rights and their position so they can have certainty.
Our ability to sign our own trade agreements with third countries is hailed as one of the big prizes of Brexit. Delegations from European Free Trade Association countries that can agree their own free trade agreements, when asked what they make of their freedom, say they follow what the EU is doing. With which third countries does the Prime Minister expect the UK to make trade agreements that are different and better than current EU trade agreements during the transition period or indeed afterwards?
It is of course not the case that the EU has trade agreements with every country that we might wish to have trade agreements with, but a number of countries do have trade agreements with the EU. We have discussed being able to move those over into a bilateral relationship at the point of our leaving. When I talk with those countries, I see a desire to go further than that and to improve the agreements we have with those countries.
Does the Prime Minister agree that our fishing rights must not be hardwired into any future trade deal?
I recognise the concern there was at the time when we went into the common fisheries policy about the way in which our fishing rights were dealt with. I can assure my hon. Friend that we will be looking to deal with our fishing in a very different way in the future.
Does the Prime Minister agree that thanks to sessions such as this in the just over 20 months since the referendum, the British public are much better informed about the costs and benefits of leaving the European Union, and particularly about the dangers to our security and our economy? Given that they are much better educated about Europe and the threats, should we not have another vote, now that we know what the cost really is?
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the response to the Salisbury attack from our friends and allies in the European Union not only shows that she still has a huge degree of standing among our European friends, but bodes well for a pragmatic and mutually beneficial conclusion to the Brexit negotiations?
I think that not only the way in which other EU members have supported the United Kingdom and taken action in relation to Russia, but the fact that we achieved the December joint report and agreed considerable amounts of the withdrawal agreement and implementation period does indeed bode well for our future negotiations.
I welcome the Prime Minister’s commitment that the UK will remain in the European arrest warrant. Could she be clear, however, how the joint jurisdiction will take place and what the role for the European Court will be in the application of that arrest warrant?
As we have put in a number of proposals, we need to ensure that once we have left the European Union, we recognise the sovereign legal order of the United Kingdom. Obviously, we recognise the legal order that will pertain for the EU27. We will be negotiating the details of issues such as the European arrest warrant as part of the security partnership and treaty that we will negotiate for the future.
I commend my right hon. Friend for the progress that she made last week. She will know that the financial services industry particularly welcomes the implementation period and the commitment in the guidelines for a trade in services based on market access and allowing rights of establishment. Is the British Government’s ambition to achieve that under mutual recognition or standards regulatory alignment?
A number of proposals have been brought forward as the basis on which we could have the recognition of standards on both sides. Of course, there are some aspects of the financial services sector where standards are set internationally and not just at a European Union level. As part of the detailed negotiations we are going into, we will be looking at exactly what a dynamic equivalence of standards might look like in future.